Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Banned Books Week

We're mid-way through Banned Books Week, an initiative launched by librarians and others to celebrate the freedom to read.  Since its inception in 1982, thousands of books have been challenged in schools and libraries; religious views, sexuality, violence, racial slurs, and explicit language are among the most cited reasons for these challenges.  While I may not always agree with the content of a book or the characters' choices or actions, one thing I cannot stand is the censorship of books.  Can you imagine a world where your child didn't get to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  What Huck learns about himself and about Jim, about slavery, about freedom, is far too important in a young person's life (and an adult's too).  Censoring this type of book because it repeatedly uses a racial slur is just plain wrong.  The racial slur is there for a reason: a) it's how people spoke at the time and in that location and b) it's part of Huck's learning process.

This is but one example, and an old one at that, of books being challenged across the country in our schools and libraries.  Others include: The Harry Potter Series; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things; and more. Books that makes us think, that teach us something about ourselves and our place in the world--those are the kind of books that should endure.

Because of events like Banned Books Week and other organizations, a lot of these books do endure.  Still, on the website listed above is a map of all the challenged books in the United States since 2007 and it's incredible.  I encourage everyone to go read a book that was banned or has been challenged this week or the next and see what all the hubub is about.

(Sidenote: a real surprise for me is that How to Kill a Mockinbird is still on the list of most challenged books.  Poor Scout.  She's had such a rough time already.)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Artwork for Stories

Here are some pictures my sister, Mandy Monk, drew for some of the more absurd stories I've written lately. Mandy has also done most of the artwork for Tin Tin Can, my band, as well as all of the artwork for my old band, Root Shoot Leaf. She has also done some really surreal paintings. Have no doubt: I will be posting more of her wonderful artwork in the weeks and months to come. For now, tickle your fancy with this:

Monday, September 20, 2010

Time of the Season: Records & Weather

Every time the weather changes I get the urge to put on certain records. It's as if my body is telling me I need to listen to these sets of songs in this order to fully comprehend the rain, snow, heat, falling leaves. It's not the same record or artist every fall or summer, but, if it changes, I've found that there is a similar atmosphere to the records I listen to during the changing of the seasons.

Fall is at our doorstep, begging like a broken-hearted lover to be let in. Since 2007, when it came out, there's been one record every fall that I must listen to. It's Jens Lekman'sNight Falls Over Kortedala.

Immediately following the swells of the violin strings of album opener "And I Remember Every Kiss," I'm in the mood for jacket weather and cold rain. By the time Jens mentions apple cider in "Friday Night at the Drive-in Bingo," it's like he knew what I was thinking all along, and I'm off to the grocery store to get some unpasteurized cider myself. I have yet to find a better record to describe my late-twenties autumnal experience.

Nothing is better suited to the desolation of a Midwestern winter than The Walkmen's You & Me.

The jangling guitars, the stark lyrics, the rumbling drums: these boys make barrenness feel like a hallelujah. The record is a lonesome one, with heartbreak at its center, but it's one wildly hopeful heart. It'll get you through those days when the sky's the color of drywall and your car won't start because, hell, even it's too damn cold.

Springtime. It's Neutral Milk Hotel. It's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. With songs like "Oh, Comely" and "Two-Headed Boy, Part 1," this record is the perfect prelude to summer. There's heat there, but there's also lightness, a lot of air, a lot of breeze. It's a beautiful record.

Life works its magic in the stomachs of strangers, even as Jeff Mangum sings of death and stadiums and fetuses and drunken mothers. I can't say it enough: it's a beautiful record.

You know a summer record when you feel the sticky humidity coming off the songs. That record for me is Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen.

In "Factory," you feel that heat from the machines as the father works them. Or, how about "Racing in the Street?" You know the speaker of the song's "baby" is sitting on her Daddy's porch and her nightgown is clinging to her skin from the sweat.

I'm always looking for the record that gives a particular feeling or color(I see purple and yellow constantly when listening to The Beatles Abbey Road, for instance), so my seasonal records have changed over time. However, these four have been around for the past few years, and, in the case of NMH and the Boss, even longer.

What records do you have to listen to every time the weather changes? And, along those same lines, what records do you listen to for other reasons, such as childhood nostalgia, mend your broken heart, etc?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Few Lyrics from some Tin Tin Can Songs (More to Come)

"Bandwagon (Abducted by Aliens)"

You start talking to the moon and the belltower is ringing like careless ocean waves.  When you walk into the room I can hear you hit the walls: it's a clattering of plates - more like a Dixieland Jazz Band.  The stars cry through your window and the birds are sleeping silently in the trees and in the ground, and that big light shining above your bedroom, baby, is a burden in the clouds.  It's not a dream you're having, but maybe I am.  If you ever come back here, look me up again: I'll be waiting for you to return.

I don't mind if you jump onto the bandwagon and forget me like everyone else is doing, my dear.  I can't wait for you to get abducted by aliens.

"What Fireworks"

Oh, Sylvia, step out of the rain.  You don't have to get so soaked.  I'm just happy to see you at my front door.  I'll take the blame.  I'll walk on glass if you'll only come inside.  We can read our fortunes in tea leaves.  Was it you who said that's how we get to perfection?  You said that you made it to the black hills and the miners' lights were like stars; how you slept on a coal bank and watched fireworks.  What fireworks?  If you don't want my money, give it to somebody who gives a damn.


This picture just really creeps me out, makes me laugh, sort of disgusts me, and allows me to wonder about it all, in every way.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe - A Review

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the wondrous debut novel by Charles Yu asks many questions – about the past and our memories of the past, and who we are and who we are meant to be and who we turn out to be –but the fundamental question at the heart of this father-son time-travel story is: do we ever learn anything about ourselves?

The protagonist/antagonist is the author himself, or a representation of the author, just as you or I are representations of ourselves in our own memories and even in our own futures. Charles lives in Minor Universe 31, a half-completed universe that also leaves its inhabitants feeling incomplete themselves; in a sense, it isn’t so different from our own universe. In MU31, people use time machines not to change the past or anything like it (in fact, to do so is a pardoxical impossibility – “The universe just doesn’t put up that,” writes Yu), but instead use time machines to relive moments from their past they were unsatisfied with in some way, in the hopes of learning something from these memories. Yu is a time machine repair man, the kind of guy who helps people who’ve gotten themselves into trouble using their time machines (i.e. running into their former selves; trying to change an event from their past, which inevitably causes an alternate timeline for the user, one in which everything seems to be the same, but isn’t and never was). In his tiny box, where he’s spent the last 10 years, Charles has a nonexistent retcon dog named Ed and a mopey, depressed computer, TAMMY, whom Charles is in love with but won’t admit to himself.

We learn early on that Charles’ father, one of the early inventors of the time machine, has been lost in time for about 12 years. The story delves into Charles’ memories of his father and the invention of the time machine and the narrator’s attempt to locate his father in the past. In this way, Yu, the author, and Yu, the narrator, examine the ways in which our dreams of the future are rooted in the memories of the past and how those very same dreams have the potential to fail us; how sons have the ability to hurt their fathers and vice versa; how each of us can be utterly oblivious to the tower of neglect we have for the ones we love most.

The book will break your heart and give you a sense of the impact we have on each other (particularly fathers and sons, but also mothers and sons and husbands and wives), but, for all that, How to Live Safely isn’t a sad book. The easy, sometimes humorous, voice of the narrator saves it from over-sentimentalizing the heavy subject at the book’s heart; and the time machine conceit – a conceit most authors flub (read: plot-gaped holes, ridiculous inconsistencies in timelines, and general complete nonsense) – really works because of Yu’s simple, clear language.

If there’s one flaw in this magnificent story, it’s a minor stylistic one and it’s this: the narrator occasionally lets his voice run away from him. Every now and then, a sentence will run on for a page or two and, though this stylistic choice is most times used to humorous and heartaching effect, there are times when the point Yu was trying to make gets lost.

At its finest, and it usually is at its finest, How to Live Safely, is a book about what it means to be human, to be ourselves. Whether or not the narrator learns anything about himself – maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t – doesn’t matter. In the end, all that matters is that we do. Highly Recommended.

-Dustin J Monk