Monday, January 31, 2011

Peoria BBQ & The King's Speech

Had some pretty excellent BBQ in Peoria Saturday night. The restaurant, Hickory River, lies on the west side of Peoria, across the street from the Shops at Grand Prairie. Too bad this is a chain restaurant - which we didn't know at the time - because it seemed like a well-kept secret of Peoria BBQ. The decor didn't look chain-like either.  Upon walking in, there was a plaque dedicated to soldier who'd been killed in Iraq in 2008; the dining room smelled like a smokehouse and long tables were set up in the middle of the room with short, two-person tables lining the walls. Seating was limited to 40 patrons.  It was cafeteria style ordering: from the counter, pick up a tray and some silverware.

I ordered the 'Cue Shoe, which is pulled pork and french fries on a piece of big bread smothered in cheese sauce and bbq, potato salad on the side.  Justin ordered the same thing.  Needless to say, we were not disappointed.  The bbq sauce was tangy and spicy (we both ordered it "hot"); the pork pretty much melted in your mouth so you didn't even need to chew; the fries, however, were a little crispy, but I didn't mind; and the cheese sauce was cheese sauce and that equals yum.  My girlfriend ordered the beef brisket sandwich and it looked pretty good too.  My father, however, ordered the prize: bbq ribs.  Lathered in mild bbq, the meat just kind of fell off the bones. (SIDENOTE: Even though I knew my picture was being taken, apparently, I also did not know my picture was being taken.)

After dinner, my parents treated us to The King's Speech. If you haven't seen this yet, you should.  I hear it's getting some Oscar buzz too, but that's beside the point. 

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW (though I try to keep it to a minimum)

The film is about King George VI of England and his struggle to overcome his stammer. It's also about the relationship between Berty (as George was known to his friends) and the doctor who treated him, Lionel Logue. Colin Firth turns in an excellent performance as Berty.  Geoffrey Rush and Helen Bonham Carter are also fantastic.  The film leads up to World War II and the transformation of Berty from the Duke of York who had a hard time speaking in public to the King of England who rallied a nation in a time of war.  Yet, this story was often overlooked in part because, I think, World War II had such larger-than-life villains and heroes already: would the stammering of a king really warrant a hard look? As a small detail in the broad canvas of events leading up to the war that would cost millions of people's lives, I'm not sure it's all that interesting; but as a defining moment in a person's life and the strength summoned to overcome, it definitely is.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Music to My Hands

For a long time I wrote in silence.  I needed silence.  No music, no TV, no whistling tea kettles, nothing.  If my phone buzzed, I let it go.  If someone walked into my room and asked me a question, I would get visibly upset and answer them in a rather annoyed tone.  Most of this is still true today. Except the part about music.

One of the many things Clarion taught me was to write with headphones on.  I don't know if it's a good idea or not, but I do it now...sometimes.  I've been asked numerous times what I listen to while I write and, before Clarion, my response was a blank stare, which occasioned a reciprocal blank stare from the questioner.  Well, now, host of hosts, I have an answer, or: answers!

There are still things I cannot listen to as I write.  Music with an upfront lead singer - that is, a voice loud and clear and "on top" of the music - nope, can't do it.  I reverbed-to-hell voice though? Yesh.  Perhaps that's why I've been digging so much "new" music lately, i.e. bands with reverby vocals and no discernible lyrics.  This is music I don't really have to listen to.  I can zone out, let the mood of the song take me if it fits whatever I'm writing.

Some of these bands are as follows: Smith Westerns, Fresh & Onlys, Tame Impala, Woods, Deerhunter, Avi Buffalo, Sigur Ros (in Sigur Ros' case, I have no idea what Jonsi, the lead singer is singing about because it's in Icelandic or his made-up langauge, "Hopelandic," most of the time; therefore, the melodies of the singer blend with the melodies of the music), etc. I still like these bands' music even when I'm not writing, but when I am, there is no greater power "getting me going."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Impressions of The Bookman

After having read several short stories by Lavie Tidhar from various online sources (Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Futurismic, and Clarkesworld, to name a few) I was impressed with, not only his ideas, but the way in which he employed them - that is to say: Lavie does not balk at playing with structure.  The stories I've read by him tend to take place in Asian locales - an area I'm particularly interested in right now.

When I heard he had a novel out, The Bookman, naturally, I was enthusiastic. Though The Bookman was a worthy attempt with some pretty wild alternate history, the book suffered from First Novel Syndrome. The main character, Orphan, goes through the book without so much as an inkling of understanding as to why anything is happening to him; he is a pawn in a game of chess (which is part-&-parcel to the story, yet the concept here felt contrived and cliched).  Part of the problem is that everyone - and when I say everyone, I mean everyone - had machinations on this kid: from the blind homeless man at the beginning to the Prime Minister of England to an Indian ship captain to Jules Verne. Everyone in the book new Orphan's past - where he came from, who is parents were - except Orphan and when he finds out on page 330, well, the reader has known from about page 4. Let alone that Orphan is almost always in a dire situation at the end of each chapter that miraculously leads to more answers about his past and who the Bookman is and what he wants.

Not there aren't good qualities here.  Tidhar plays against some writerly tropes.  The plot changes at least three times in the book, which is unsettling in its way, but also makes for an interesting read. I did not expect the story to end where it did - even if that ending was a little disappointing.  There is a great moment, however, when Orphan makes an unexpected choice that changes how events play out through the rest of the book.  The prose, as usual, is remarkable with only a few hackneyed and awkwardly worded sentences.

I haven't mentioned the world yet, have I? It's a colorful world.  Giant lizards rule England.  Automatons want equal rights.  The mysterious Bookman puts bombs in books.  Historical figures like Jules Verne, Lord Byron, and Karl Marx, make appearances. It's alternate history, it's steampunk, it's weird, it's absurd, it's whimsical, it's adventurous.

Tidhar has said The Bookman is the first of three books in a series; maybe more answers are forthcoming, though I believe each book is meant to be standalone. Either way, The Bookman, despite its flaws, was a fun read - though I must say, I'm more interested in what Tidhar has cooking up in the short form.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Music Yum

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure to listen to two new records I think are worthy of mentioning here.

The Hit Back - Who Are Those Weird Old Kids


Pet Lions

Both bands are two of my favorite Chicago locals.  Jesse Hanabarger, lead singer and songwriter for The Hit Back, used to play in several bands together, chiefly The Pedals, Root Shoot Leaf, and The Scribblers.  I've known Jesse for some time and he's a pretty upstanding guy and his songwriting is simply outstanding.  It's been awhile since he's had anything available to the public, but it was worth the wait.  Check out The Hit Back at the link above.

Pet Lions has one-time multi-instrumentalist/the seedier side of Nashville cohort Tom Owens on guitar.  Tom's other band, Distractions, is also fantastic and Tin Tin Can will be playing with them at the Viaduct on February 4th.  Pet Lions is the other band and, though I'd heard these guys before and thought it pretty good, I didn't expect this wonderful sonic record.  Blew me away.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Oh My! That's a Really Thick Book You Have!

2011 is shaping up to be the year where I read nothing but tomes, apparently. It means I'll probably read less, as I read bigger books obviously slower, though I'd like to get through at least 2 books a month.  However, I won't sacrifice the reading/understanding for time/number of books read.  Sometimes, you know, you just get in the zone and your brain craves big ass books.  Here's a list of those I'm planning to read in the next couple of months.

1. The Bone People by Keri Hulme (nearly finished with this one)

2. John Adams by David McCullough

3. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

4. The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

5. 2666 by Robert Bolano

I hope to supplement the tomes with these somewhat leaner books inbetween:

1. The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

2. The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glenn Cook

3. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

4. The Fixed Stars by Bill Conn

5. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (this one looks big, but it's got large print)

I'm also looking forward to reading The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, which comes highly recommended from author Jeff Vandermeer, as well as my once-a-decade re-reading of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto, the first book in the Dagger & Coin series by Daniel Abraham, Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, the short story collection by Gene Wolfe, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Love in the Time of Cholera - the one book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that I haven't read yet for one reason or another, and about forty-odd other books sitting on my shelf vying for attention. I'll get to you all, I promise.

In other totally unimportant and frivolous news, I just smelled Country Apple and Cucumber Melon lotions.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Bone People

The Bone People by Keri Hulme is difficult; this isn't a bad thing, but it does make for a long reading.  It has some very beautiful, lyrical prose, the kind of language that, if you're a reader, you just fall in love with and, if you're a writer, you're quite envious of.  And Hulme writes without a care in the world for plot but with characters so interesting it doesn't matter.  And anyway, plot is so overrated.

So what's the problem? Well. Nothing, exactly, but I wasn't prepared for this.  The language, so lovely at times, is also somewhat foreign - the story uses a lot of Maori words and, though the words are found in the appendix in the back of the book, it can get tedious looking up ten words every other page and it is a surefire way to throw me out of the story.  I'm not actually complaining about languages I don't know or locales that are exotic to my Midwestern eyes (the story is set in New Zealand) because what I love about fiction, and books in general, is learning something new about the world. There are times too when, regardless of the language used, the meaning is conveyed.  Even when it isn't, sometimes I don't look up the words until later because I don't want to be taken out of the story, not even for a second.

The language isn't the only difficult thing about The Bone People though.  The style Hulme's chose actually reminds me a lot of Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren and, anybody can tell you, that's a difficult book to get through.  And it's one of my favorites.  Though TBP doesn't experiment as far as Dhalgren did, there are numerous breaks and asides and centered text-thoughts from one of the three main characters: Kerewin, Joe, or Simon. 

As I remember Dhalgren didn't shift points-of-view, except from first to third occasionally, but TBP shifts between the aforementioned three main characters and does so in the span of a sentence without any break and there are other times when the book is third person omniscient.  This makes it difficult to grasp who's telling the story and, with the difficulty of the language, I sometimes find myself rereading pages a couple of times or more.

Before you start thinking I'm getting down on the book, I want you to know I'm not.  Again, this is an extremely compelling novel about a mysterious non-speaking child washing up to shore and the two people who end up caring for him. Kerewin is a tough, wild woman living in a tower and Joe is well-meaning, if incredibly flawed, drunkard. It's just that I didn't expect a difficult reading: as I said, I was completely unprepared.  TBP is decently sized too, about 600 pages, and I'm a little over halfway through. I'm fairly certain I'll be finished by the end of next week, but if I'm not, that's okay too.  These are characters worth caring about and worth taking the time to figure it out. A difficult read is sometimes the most rewarding.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Stories, the Civil War, Music

Apologies, first and foremost if you find this post lacking in the letter "E."  The keyboard is being difficult; however, I'm doing my best to make sure you do not go without.  Any other letters missing are from pure wantonness.

Well, if you've noticed a slight absence of myself from this here bloggery, it is because I've been hunkering down in my stalactite-infested apartment, writing, reading, and watching as many documentaries as I can on the Civil War.

First, the writing.  I've been working on two short stories, a flash fiction piece, and a novella.  The first short story is a revision of a story I submitted for critique the first week of Clarion.  It follows a gangstery goon by the name of Johnny Gorgeous and the trouble he gets himself into after mucking up a job.  The other short story is about "silent film's silent auteur," Jarvis St. George, who between 1929-1934 made 41 silent films of absurdist nature.  There is a slight discourse on the unremarkable life of Jarvis, followed by the script of his final film, titled "Dr. Whizgig's Displacement of the Universe Rag." The script is about a pianist with a Gila monster for a head and his lover, a broken automaton.  The flash fiction piece is about the limitations of having no limitations - that is to say: outer space gets lonely only being consciousness.  And the novella is/was part of the world I was working in during NaNoWriMo in November.  It tells the life of the revolutionary, Sharon Dover, as she rises against the Ministers of Poro.  The novella is told in vignette form and the style is blatantly ripping off Eduardo Galleano's Memory of Fire historical texts, which I positively loved, albeit with a few touches of my own and a much narrower approach.

I've also been working on a couple of songs for the new Tin Tin Can record.  I think we're going to performing one or two new songs at our upcoming shows in February and March; though by the end of March, I think Justin and I will be done writing and we can focus on learning and recording this batch for the upcoming record.

I've been listening to the Smith Westerns record, Dye It Blonde, pretty much nonstop for the past two weeks.  I love it.  Certainly, it isn't a record that will change music or the way you think about music or such pretentions as that.  However, it is really fun to listen to and to work out to - the melodies are fantastic, the guitar and bass sounds are phenomenal.  The record just hits my sweet spot - it's like a mix up of Beatles, T. Rex, cool 90s music, and cathedral chamber reverbed vocals.  Well, erm, the vocals, maybe, could be a little better.  But who cares with catchy songs like these?  They're just words, people.

And I'm in the midst of watching Ken Burns' The Civil War on Netflix.  One helluva documentary.  This is probably going to distract me from doing all the above in any kind of timely and responsible manner.  I keep telling myself: this is research for the ever-looming novel.  And it is, of course, as the novel is about an uprising in the city/state of Poro; though, after that, the similarities stop.

So, this is where I've been the past few weeks and where I'm likely to stay for awhile.  I certainly be updating this blog every now and again, probably once or twice a week or as I see fit or as interesting things happen.  Where have YOU been?

And how many E's did I leave out?

Monday, January 10, 2011

News of the Day: Tin Tin Can

Over the weekend, Tin Tin Can learned two new songs.  "Michael" is a fast rocker that Justin sings; and "Any Stone" is a Harry Nillson-twangy piece that I sing.  Both of the titles are, of course, working.  We're hoping to play these songs at the next few shows, however, Mike was unable to attend the practices this weekend.  We'll be working him into the songs over the next couple of weeks.

In recording news, we've got a batch of songs - 13 or 14 of 'em - ready to lay down basic tracks.  We're looking for a long weekend in Detroit; though if that doesn't happen, we'll be setting our sights for Carbondale, IL.  No matter what, we're pretty certain this record should be finished by spring or early summer and we seriously cannot wait to get out to you!

Last Saturday night, I was priveleged to see one of the best Chicago bands perform at the Beak Kitchen. The Hit Back are an electro-acoustic duo.  They're making some of the catchiest, coolest music I've heard of late and suggest everyong check it out (they'll have an album out soon, I'm told).  Also, if you haven't heard the MIA mixtape, Vicki Leekx, I also recommend that.  What is everybody looking forward to musically in 2011?  I've got Fleet Foxes and Radiohead (fingers crossed) and Panda Bear on my list.

And, although I don't always agree with Pitchfork, their best new track'd Smith Westerns song, "All Die Young," is right on the money.  I've always enjoyed the Smith Westerns brand of pop, but never felt it quite hit the way it should the way this one does.  It's like a weird hybrid baby of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and T. Rex, and for shits and giggles, Gary Glitter.

End Transmission.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reading Ketchup: Half World by Hiromi Goto

In this new section, Reading Ketchup, I'll give quick reviews to books I am reading in 2011.  Every book, regardless of publication date, will get a review.  These reviews are intended to be a little breezier, a little less wordy; mainly, they are to give the casual blogreader and my Fauxyalists a quick overview of the book, the bits I did and didn't like, and a link to purchase it.  I'm always looking for recommendations as well.  The first book I finished in 2011 is here:

Half World by Hiromi Goto is about a girl searching for her mother in a world between the Realm of Flesh and the Realm of Spirit.  The story is somewhere between Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA).

The Rundown: After 14 years in the Realm of Flesh, Melanie's mother, Fumiko, is called back to Half World by the monstrous and wonderfully imagined Mr. Glueskin.  Melanie, possibly the girl who returns balance to the Three Realms, sets off to rescue her mother with a jade rat and a magic 8 ball.

Subtext: There is some great interplay between mother and daughter in the book, a kind of depth that is sorely lacking in MG, YA and adult fiction. Melanie's doubts about her mother's love are some of the most moving moments in the story.

What I Particularly Liked: Beautiful prose; some extremely wild imagery (women with eel arms, a starfish kid, Mr. Glueskin, the illustrations).

What I Didn't Like: All of the men in the story are evil or scoundrels.  Melanie's father is about as good as it gets and he is a raging alcoholic.

Worth the Ketchup?: Yes. I'll be giving this as a gift to my daughter next year for her birthday.

Verdict: Though there are some fine grotesque moments, I don't think it's too much to handle for a 10 or 12-year old.  A delight to read and bittersweet at the end. Recommended.

UP NEXT: The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Calling You Out: Quirky Indie Films

You know that quirky indie movie? The one that's a semi-love story? Where the girl or the guy has some sort of affliction that makes them awkward around "regular" folks (whether this affliction be something physical or mental doesn't really matter) and he or she finds someone as quirky or "messed-up" as they are? And these two strange people fall in love until one of them screws it up by being their "weird" self, or some misunderstanding is propagated by one of the lovers' not-so-strange or sometimes even-more-strange family members? And Zach Galifianakis is probably somehwere in it as somebody's offbeat friend? Yeah, that indie movie.  I'm calling you out: I'm tired of watching you.

Here's the problem.  Independent film was, at least on paper, supposed to be a place where cinema could talk about non-mainstream ideas - whether thos ideas were about art, love, life, the soulless TV generation, grunge, a girl and a whale, etc.  It was a place to go rogue, to swim in dangerous waters: essentially, independent films didn't play it safe.  In the past 10-12 years, however, there have been a number of films claiming the "indie" title - and, let's face it, "indie" is a misnomer if I've ever heard one - that fall short of the punk rock vibe of true independent film.  These films' purpose, it seems, are simply to entertain us and pull our heartstrings (rather over-sentimentally, at times) without getting into anything very deeply, without any larger meaning or subtext; it's just nice cinematography and some memorable/wordy/nobody-talks-like-that-so-it's-funny lines.  I'm not saying that is always a bad thing, except that these films seem to be saying the same thing over and over again.  The new face of indie is playing it safe.

This particular problem probably started before Wes Anderson, but I'm going to pinpoint him as the downfall.  Let's get one thing straight: I'm not blaming Wes Anderson.  Some of his films are some my favorites, though he even seems trapped in his own formula.  Once upon a time a film like "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" looked new and fresh (if stylized like "Harold and Maude"), but now it is these films' cinematography and aforementioned memorable lines and quirky, off-kilter characters that many of this new crop of indie films idolizes and copies - movies like "Gigantic" or "Juno" or "It's Kind of a Funny Story," or "Napoleon Dynamite."

"Gigantic" is a quirky love story about a mattress salesman and this girl he likes and the mattress salesman's dream of adopting a Chinese baby.  "Juno" is about a teenage girl's unexpected pregnancy and subsequent decision to give her baby up for adoption (some of the themes in "Juno," at least, do not reflect current "indie" trends; however the film is populated with one-liners and goofy indie music and the ever-monotonous Michael Cera).  "It's Kind of a Funny Story" follows a kid in a mental hospital where he meets a host of weird people (including regular quirky guy Zack Galifianakis) and he kinda/sorta falls for a girl.  "Napoleon Dynamite" is about a nerdy kid and his nerdy family in Utah and, of course, a love story with the nerdy girl in school.

These are just a few of the films I could choose from with this sense of sameness running through them - and I tried to pick films that, on the outside, didn't look like they had much in common.  All of them are one-liners.  All of them are filled with goofy characters. I mean, are there really any mattress salesmen anymore? Really?  I'm sure, somewhere, yes, it's possible.  Everybody has quirky jobs, quirky friends, quirky love interests, quirky clothes, quirky personalities.  They're uniqueness is what makes them exactly the same.  Because, at the end of the day, it could've been the kids in "Napoleon Dynamite" who wanted to adopt a Chinese baby or it could've been Juno Richie Tenenbaum was secretly in love with. Honestly, though, who wouldn't want to see Mr. Galifianakis as Napoleon's deranged older brother from New Jersey?  Am I right?

The problem isn't that these movies, by themselves, are bad or unwatchable.  It's the trend of making the same thing over and over again that I'm tired of seeing.  The idea of playing it safe, of doing the same thing someone else has done - whether or not you could do it better - is grating because it doesn't foster creativity: it kills it.

There are, of course, some excellent independent films, films that do not take the safe route (sometimes known as the "quirky road").  There are independent films that defy storytelling structure and stereotypical characters.  Some of these films rise to a level of art with a capital A and some, of course, fall flat.  Some of these movies only a handful of us will hear of and some we will only see in small arthouse cinemas in major cities.  But it's these films - the ones who take chances and don't rely on formulaic indie gold - that imbibe the true punk rock spirit of independent film.

Monday, January 3, 2011

What's New in 2011: Things to Come

I hope everyone that had sufficiently gluttoned themselves during the holidays are on the mend, now that they're over.  I know I am.  During the two week absence from this blog, I managed eat far too much good food, take a trip to Terre Haute to watch a basketball game, watch Black Swan and True Grit (both of which I recommend; though neither are particularly great movies), see some old friends, search high and low for a toothbrush, work a couple of days at Woodford County Sheriff's Department, eat too much again, receive some great gifts, work on a world-building a new fantasy world with two friends and business partners, drink lots of alcohol (including finishing off a bottle of Seagram's and Jim Beam in approximately 2 nights), and write first drafts of a weird science fiction story and a flash fiction dark fantasy.

Now, however, 2011 is upon us and it's that time of year when we make those, gulp, "resolutions" to make it a better year than the previous.  This is going to hard for me.  Last year was pretty great.  Including the aforementioned activities of the last two weeks, in 2010 I also went from full-time to part-time at the Sheriff's Department.  My band, Tin Tin Can, toured the southwest, playing in Dallas and Little Rock and Carbondale, among other places and many of these shows were some of the best I've ever had the privelege to perform, with some of the finest, most enthusiastic audiences I've ever played to.

The biggest event that happened last year was, of course, getting accepted to and attending Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop in San Diego.  I still haven't quite found the right words to sum up this experience.  There are days still where I don't feel I've fully returned from San Diego.  Clarion was six weeks of intensive storywriting and storyreading. I was instructed by seven of the finest writers of any genre and have made wonderful friendships with all of my Clarion classmates (all of whom are also fantastic writers and, no, I'm not just saying that: ask Asimov's or Fantasy or F&SF or Weird Tales or the Boston Review: they'll say the same thing).  At any rate, Clarion clicked on something in my head and I haven't been the same since - and that's a good thing.

Because of Clarion, last year I wrote 10 stories - 6 at Clarion and 4 post-Clarion, began working on a novel, and a serial for this blog (more on this in a moment), received 19 rejections with 1 publication in a non-paying market, Aphelion Magazine Online.

So.  What's in store for 2011?  I don't like the word "resolution" so instead I'm using "goals."  These are the personal goals I hope to achieve in 2011:

1. Write 700 words of fiction/day
2. Edit/Revise 1 story/month
3. Submit at least 1 story on even-numbered months
4. Have completed a very rough draft of the novel by July
5. Compose 1 song a month

Here are some personal goals I hope to achieve, but do not have any real say-so in the matter (as these goals also depend on others to achieve them and, in some cases, unlikely odds):

1. Finish recording Tin Tin Can LP
2. 7" with Distractions and/or Kissing Club
3. Publication in semipro to pro market
4. Tour, tour, tour

In reference to the serial, Hot Town, I will be returning to work on that in a few weeks' time.  I'm working on getting the first Volume finished (there will be 6 volumes total, each with 10 episodes; Vol. 1, Episodes 1 & 2 are up for perusal now).  I should resume posting each Friday with a new episode by mid-January.  Your Monday Morning Mock Playlists will also be returning.  I also hope to have one essay on the nature of writing or music or, hell, anything I want once a month.  This ends the transmission.
What are your plans for this year?  What goals do you hope to achieve and how do you plan on achieving them? What are you looking forward to in 2011?