Friday, February 25, 2011

Review: The Fixed Stars: Thirty-Seven Emblems for the Perilous Season by Brian Conn

Like Grace Krilanovich's The Orange Eats Creeps (one of my favorite books of 2010), Brian Conn's debut, The Fixed Stars: Thirty-seven Emblems for the Perilous Season, is a story not so much read as experienced. It is a post-post-apocalyptic world Conn's characters inhabit. The blurb on the back from Brian Evensen calls it "the future of the future" and he isn't far wrong. However, where Krilanovich was stream-of-consciousness and wildly vulgar in content, Conn's prose is quiet and full of imagery that, if not given a slow read, passes by beautifully, though that imagery, if read carefully, is also full of vulgarity and barbarism rarely written with such precision and focus in fiction.

The story is centered around John's Day, a celebration of the perverse and the barberous. A community regularly quarantines itself from plagues and copulates with each other quite vigorously. Some get lost in the woods, others get lost in a bathhouse. There are mentions of post late-capitalists. There are sections in the book that neither seem to have any purpose within its own context or, to be more particular, to forward, in any way, the plot. Many readers might see this as a flaw in the action of a novel; however, Conn has something to say you: who cares, plots come and plots go, threads are threaded and then, just as quickly, unthreaded, or prove themselves to be false threads.

What I'm getting at is that The Fixed Stars is so alien to read it is hard to grasp. The characters and the world portrayed within are so utterly unlike anything we know that, if you aren't prepared, will throw you out and it won't give a damn, not in the slightest. But if you want to experience a place that hasn't been experience before, The Fixed Stars is the place to go. I don't believe there is any way to fully understand entirely what Conn is driving at because he refuses, on any level, to give the reader anything to hold on to.

And yet. And yet, despite the lack of an empathetic character or a plot to understand, Conn imbues this world with a kind of sympathy that is also rarely seen in fiction. This world is as real and as relevant as our own. The final section is particularly heartbreaking. Though it's early in the year and this book was published in 2010, so far this is my favorite of the year.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Post-Bookpocalypse

Today I was a witness to a sad thing: the closing of Borders in Merrillville, IN. With the lackluster economy and the popularity of ebooks and the kindle on the rise, bookstores - even the big chains - are finding it harder to stay in business. Already I've witnessed several local, independent bookstores fall by the wayside; Barnes & Noble closed its doors a few weeks ago; and now this: Borders is closing too. The good news? There is another Borders nearby (the only bookstore besides the Christian one left in town), but how long before this one closes too?

There's a lot to say about the economic situation in the US but that's a different post. This one is more concerned with the ereading and its effect on paper books.

One of the things I've always loved about reading is not the words (though, of course, they are a rather large part of the experience - one might argue 99.9% of it, still...), but the weight of it in your hands, the smell of its pages as you flip through them, the glossy or nonglossy cover. The cover art can tell you so much about the contents inside, or it can make what awaits within its bindings more mysterious. I don't have a kindle so I cannot speak to the experience of reading from it directly but I do not believe that it can be as wonderful or as immersive as having the book - all of that paper and glue - in your hands.

Yet I know that, when the time comes (read: when I have money) I too will purchase a kindle or an ereader or some such electronic device to read books with. It isn't that I'm abased to reading electronically - hell, I love online magazines, fiction and nonfiction, and I regularly submit stories to them. There are many reasons the kindle is useful; for one, it will make those harder to find books (i.e. books not sold in most stores unless you happen to have a totally awesome indie bookstore nearby and the owner knows her shit) easier to find, assuming they are available for ereading. Whether or not these writers sell any more on the kindle than they would have in paperback depends on the marketing campaign by themselves and their publishers, but the opportunity is greater because, instead of searching through the shelves where the book is not going to be anyway or having to wait several days as the book is shipped, a reader can search through online sources and download with the click of a button. Ebooks are cheaper, too, so the potential of greater readership because of the inexpensiveness of books is higher. It's ecologically aware. And for those of us with bad eyesight, you can manipulate the font size of a book.

Still, what I am afraid of is a world wherein the paperback has become a collectible item like vinyl records. I admit it is sort of fun to walk into a record store and find something like Blue Monk Time or Silver Apple on vinyl, knowing you've found something somewhat rare but can you imagine how easily pretentious that can get? (I already feel kind of pretentious for not holding out on itunes and the ipod, for god's sake!)

Anyway, this post was supposed to be a plea to keep reading books - real books, trees be damned, prices be damned, larger font sizes be damned! Once, fans went to records store and bought Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in mono and, if you were an aficiando, in stereo and there was something magical in this experience, in taking that record home and putting it on your player and listening to it. The same goes for books: is it not exhilarating to walk into a bookstore and peruse the shelves, pick out something you might not have picked out had you not gone in, the weight of it in your hands, daring you to read it?

Friday, February 18, 2011

This Week in Song: Brand New Blue Jeans

"Brand New Blue Jeans" is a song I wrote in 2007 and appeared on the self-titled Dustin Monk & the Dirty Priests record in November of that year. It's always been one of my favorite tunes. Tin Tin Can recently recorded it in our studio, but like last week's "Any Stone," whether or not it appears on the upcoming record is undecided as we work out the various themes of the songs and how they fit together.

I certainly hope you enjoy this tune regardless.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Not-Really-A-Review: The Bounty Hunters by Elmore Leonard

Rather than being blown out on westerns after watching the remake of True Grit and playing too much Red Dead Redemption, I have been thirsting for it like a lost cowboy in the desert looking for an oasis. Uhhh, bad analogies aside, I wanted to read a pulp western and who better a writer than pulp master Elmore Leonard?

Though Leonard's well-known for his crime capers in cities like Detroit and Miami, once upon a time he was a western writer - and a pretty good one, to boot. The Bounty Hunters is his first novel, published in 1953. And, for a first novel and a pulpy western, it's wonderfully entertaining. The plot is pretty simple: a contract guide, Dave Flynn, and a lieutenant in the army, Bowers, head south to Mexico on orders from the Adjutant to find a renegade Apache. Along the way they meet some pretty bad dudes scalping anybody they come across for the pesos and, after scalping some friends of Flynn's and running off with a woman, Flynn and Bowers set off after them. Eventually, everybody meets a shootout - rurales upset with their leader, the scalping bandits, the Apaches, and the US Army.

The characters are fleshed out and I didn't find the Apaches stereotyped at all, which can sometimes be the case with pulpy westerns. Leonard's attention to detail is magnificent, as usual; and, of course, his dialogue, even at this early stage in his career, sparkles.

If you're looking for something to read because you're bored or you want something light with a lot of action and some tough-as-nails cowboys, I recommend The Bounty Hunters. I had to spend two days - gasp! - without the internets and I wanted something cool and quick: Leonard always delivers.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, the debut novel by Jesse Bullington, is not for the faint of heart. The book follows antiprotagonists and twin brothers Hegel and Manfried Grossbart, graverobbing bastards and whoresons that they are, on their journey south from Germany to "Gyptland" for the riches of the Infidel tombs.  Along the way they battle witches and manticores, demons and sirens; the brothers believing themselves fighting on the side of the Virgin (though this line of thinking may not be wrong, exactly, twisted as it is).

It's sort of an anti-Odyssey with intermingling folktales, Nicolette's and the priest's tale as standouts. Sad Tale is written at times almost as an historical text (see the preface, specifically), but with closer points-of-view throughout so that the reader isn't too distanced from the pain and suffering and evil rampant throughout. Bullington wants you to feel this imagery and you do, you really do.

When it debuted, Sad Tale caused quite a ruckus because of its incredibly grotesque imagery and language and harsh depiction of Medieval Europe, and because it is difficult for readers to emphathize with its main characters, unless of course, you're an unsympathetic murdering bastard. Regardless, Sad Tale is a wonderfully readable and engrossing story. The Brothers Grossbard, for all their inane qualities, aren't stupid (or, rather, they're just smart enough). The bearded brothers are philosophers, debating theology with themselves and priests and laypersons throughout the novel; they are fierce fighters, unafraid of battle and death; they're crafty and remain cool under duress (for the most part); hell, they've got a sense of humor about things (I was laughing out loud as the brothers debated how many demons they killed and whether or not the pig was a demon; or Hegel's mistrusting of four-legged animals in general).

It is that playfulness, alongside the brothers' evil, that sets Bullington in a class all his own. In lesser hands, this book would've been too serious, too dark, too grotesque, too adrift without plot; but with Bullington it is all of those things and something more, something akin to perfection.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

This Week in Song: New Tin Tin Can "Any Stone"

This Week in Song showcases a new series wherein I perform a song a week (or thereabouts) in various locations around wherever I'm at at the moment. The first for your viewing pleasure is a new song I've written for Tin Tin Can called "Any Stone." The band has worked up a slightly different - and certainly less goofy version - of this song and we'll be performing it at the Friends of Spencer Bell concert and upcoming shows as well.

When we recorded this the temperature outside was around -4 with a windchill of who knows what. About halfway through the song I stopped being able to feel my fingers making the chords.

Exit Through the Giftshop


Last night I watched the documentary about street artists, Exit Through the Giftshop. The film was mostly compiled from video shot by entrepeneur Thierry Guetta who, through chance and luck and because he recorded everything - everything - got involved in the street art revolution. If the movie had been simply about the artists rather than what happened I would be fine with this movie. But what happened was a lash-out at Guetta from these same street artists he was filming after Guetta began making street art himself and, incidentally, became an overnight sensation.

Banksy, the most mysterious of all street artists, and Shephard Fairey, the artist that did the iconic picture of President Obama, are mostly to blame, but Guetta isn't faultless either. Guetta went about filming these street artists but he never meant to make a documentary about them: he just loved filming. After Banksy became an international street artist celebrity, he wanted to make a documentary about it and thought Guetta was the man for the job. It turned out Guetta wasn't so Banksy took over filmmaking duties, telling Guetta to do some street art himself.

Guetta sells the clothing store he owns to pay for the materials he'll need for his art (this includes a workshop with full-time employers and screen-printing press, etc.) Seeing many of his fellow street artists moving off the walls of buildings into gallery openings and a semblance of celebrity, Guetta, not to be outdone, wants to do the same. He calls himself MBW: Mr. Brainwash. Through some pretty serious luck, MBW is featured on the cover of LA Weekly, the premier art magazine of Los Angeles, and his show has 4000 guests the first night. He sells almost a million dollars worth of merchandise.

The street artists - those who cut their teeth on building facades and trains and towers, artists like Banksy and Fairey - turn on their friend Guetta. They are this close to calling him a hack. As a writer who is cutting his teeth in the publishing world (23 rejections and counting), I understand this reaction to some degree: it grates when I hear about a writer who I know hasn't had any rejections getting published. You need battle scars if you're going to survive the industry, or so we're told. At the same time, I'm also reasonable enough to recognize when someone has written something great and, whether or not they have a backlog of rejections, it should be published. Some people get lucky like that. Some of us come out of the woodwork fully ready; others of us take our time.

Guetta was excellent at incorporating aspects of Banksy and Fairey into his own strange brand of street art. The thing I think bothered these two "real" street artists the most, however, is that Guetta made art as good as they had and as well received without working for years on the streets. Even more ridiculous is the film Banksy made has been nominated for an Oscar. Should other documentarians feel threatened by or upset with Banksy for making an interesting film? Well, if they're like Banksy is about his art then they should be. If they're not assholes, then no. No one likes to be outdone in their field by an artist without the relative needed experience, but sometimes these things can't be helped.

Of course, there is speculation that the entire film is a hoax designed by Banksy. If this is the case then "ha ha, Banksy, ha ha." If not, then my argument stands: don't be an ass because someone has made art as good as or better than yours; and if you're going to be, don't put it on film.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Gods Be Sometimes Good: Signal Boost Wednesday

god destroy earth life human sacrifices mite appease godsThere are a great many things happening this month and next month (and for the rest of this year) with my writer comrades and, in general, upcoming books I can't wait to read. I'll try not to bog this down with too many links, but I make no promises.

Short Stories:

First, there is an excellent short story from my good buddy and Clarion kiwi, Tamsyn Muir, appearing in Fantasy Magazine this month. During the final week of Clarion, her story, "The House That Made The Sixteen Loops in Time," was less critiqued than remarked upon its absolute beauty.

You'll be able to find another Kali Wallace's story in the March/April issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Kali wrote "Botanical Exercies for Curious Girls" at Clarion and, to be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if she sold all six of the stories she wrote. Yeah, she's that good. In June, Kali also has a piece appearing in the Jeff & Ann Vandermeer-edited anthology, Dr. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities, which you can read more about here.

John Chu's story, "Thirty Seconds from Now," is out in the Boston Review for either its May/June or July/August issue (might as well buy both). At Clarion, John was one of those writers who labored over every word. I remember sitting in the common room listening to him typing. Occasionally, he'd look up and join in whatever conversation was going on. Then he'd disappear into his room for several hours to work it all out. Junot Diaz, guest editor for Boston Review and a Pulitzer-prize winning author, selected this story.

This month Weird Tales Issue 357 will have Karin Tidbeck's "Augusta Prima." Another story, "Jagannath," will be featured in an upcoming issue of the magazine. The first story is a Clarion submission story and the latter was Karin's last story critiqued at Clarion. Both are short, tense stories with a command of language veteran storytellers would kill for. Karin will also be working as a translator of foreign language stories for Leviathan 5, yet another anthology in the seemingly endless anthologies edited by the ever-busy Vandermeers (more on this in a moment).

Tom Underberg, who also labored over his words during Clarion, tending to each story as if it was one of his children, will also have a piece in the Dr. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities in June. His piece, concerning an African quilt, is gorgeous and strange.

Leah Thomas, Clarion cool kid, sold her first story a few days ago to Daily Science Fiction. It might be a bit before we see this on the website, but fear not, I will keep you updated. In the meantime, you should check out her online graphic novel, Lawn Order. Zombies v. Teenagers = Win.

Adam Israel will have a story featured in the upcoming ebook anthology, "Extinct." Adam is an all around gentleman and the first of the Clarionites to dye his hair purple.


The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington. March 24th, 2011. I'm about halfway through Jesse's first novel, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, and am thoroughly impressed. Expect a review later this week or early next on it. His second novel follows an apprentice of a necromancer during the Spanish Inquisition. Yes, please.

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine. April 25th, 2011. It's a circus story at the end of the world, sort of. I don't know much more than that but I don't think I really need to know more. That, in itself, is TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME!

The Dagger & the Coin: The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham. April 7th, 2011. I fell in love with Abraham's Long Price Quartet (if you haven't read them, I highly recommend you do) and cannot wait for this next big epic fantasy series.

The Expanse: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck). June 15th, 2011. Big space opera trilogy by, yep, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under a pen name. There's a great interview of the two of them talking about writing the book here.

Daniel Abraham, busy man that he is, also has a story on Podcastle (written under yet another pen name, MLN Hanover) and it is quite horrific - err, in the good way. He says it's the best story he's ever written. I'm not sure I agree with that but, regardless, it is quite excellent.


Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories edited by John Joseph Adams. Out now. Go. Buy it. Genevieve Valentine, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ursula K. Le Guin, Cory Doctorow, freakin' Ray Bradbury.

In case you missed it, Dr. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities edited by Jeff & Ann Vandermeer. June 2011. Two Clarionites, alongside powerhouses like Ted Chiang, Amal El-Mohtar, China Mieville, Charles Yu, Jay Lake, Tad Williams. Head. Explodes. From. Too. Much. Awesome.

Leviathan 5: The Next Wave edited by Jeff & Ann Vandermeer. 2012. Though this anthology isn't coming out for awhile, I thought I'd mention it because it's going to be fantastic. Jeff explains it best here. It's going to have some wonderfully weird writers from all around the world (apologies for the alliteration, but not really). Writers who don't often see their work translated into English will get that chance with this anthology. The Vandermeers are paying for the translations out-of-pocket and asking readers to donate via paypal. Go to the link above, if you haven't already, and check it out.

Naked City edited by Ellen Datlow. July 2011. Urban fantasy short stories from Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Lavie Tidhar, Naomi Novik, and more. I've never really gotten into urban fantasy, but with writers like these, you can't really go wrong.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Snow that Ate Itself

The blizzard of 2011 has come and gone and, as Jesse Hanabarger from The Hit Back sings, "you were the up-and-coming: fast you came and so fast you left," but I've finally gotten around to posting some pics taken during and post-blizzard. 
Tin Tin Can braved a band practice and Pierce's mighty beast of a vehicle nearly got stuck in the drifting snow taking Mike home. My poor Kia didn't stand a chance. Sadly, however, there are no pictures of Tuesday night, as the band decided it was best to drink White Russians after band practice (and, okay, a couple before) and watch The Parking Lot Movie - which, if you haven't seen it, follows some of the most pretentious anthropology majors as they bum their lives away as parking lot attendants.  Said one, and I quote, "The parking lot attendant is like the toll booth operator at the waystation on the highway to the american dream." Fractured poets, these guys.

Anyway, the pics:

My girlfriend's car in her apartment complex parking lot.
After several days trapped at my drummer's house, shoveling snow from the sidewalk and digging out my car, I returned to help my girlfriend dig her car out. Gloveless!

And then we made a snowman-ish thing. Look at that, he's got stars in his eyes. Poor fella!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Redemption in Indigo

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord is a loosely based off a Senegalese folktale and a mixture of Caribbean influences. It is also one hell of a powerful story. This is the kind of book you read quickly the first time because it's so good you can't put it down and then you read it again, slower, and let its words and insights envelope you.

I mean to say there's a lot going on in Redemption. I still don't think I've grasped everything Lord was trying to do, but I can't wait to reread the book many more times and figure it all out. The story itself follows Paama, a woman who leaves her gluttonous husband, and is given the gift of the Chaos Stick by a djombi - a powerful spirit. Humans cannot possibly understand how to wield the Chaos Stick, but Paama is a very clever, very strong human; when the indigo lord - the Chaos Stick's previous bearer and a djombi who has lost his patience with humanity - kidnaps Paama, she wants to show him the compassion and mercy humans are capable of.

The story is told by an anonymous narrator - the kind of storyteller you might find in the center of village, a small crowd gathered around her to listen. This narrator, while occasionally interrupting the story with musings and questions about each of the characters' motives, never gets in the way and is, in fact, by turns serious and playful, creating a world rich in detail. Every sentence in Redemption reads near-perfect. It's the kind of thing we writers strive for and that this is Lord's debut is, to say the least, wildly impressive. Even the plot - which should be quite predictable if you've read a fairytale or a folktale - feels new and fresh and exciting and unpredictable: really, anything could happen.

It's no surprise Redemption recently won the Crawford Award for best first fantasy novel; this book, though thin-spined, is thick with ideas poignantly expressed.