Archive for December, 2010

the new grimmoire

Years ago when I began to take my kidlit blogging seriously I decided to do something I doubted many people would voluntarily do: read every one of the collected Grimm fairy tales and comment on those of note, figuring maybe one in three would be interesting.  This was over at my review blog, the excelsior file, and I called these posts “grimmoire” as a play on the word grimoire which is a textbook of magic. I thought it fitting for a person going into the study of children’s literature to be truly familiar with one of its touchstones and it was fun going.

But I only got 58 stories into The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated by Jack Zipes before I stopped. It would be fun to say that in my unmasking of “Rumpelstiltskin” I was somehow bewitched and prevented from continuing but the reality is much more concrete.  In October of 2007, where I left off, I had just received word that I was accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  My gears shifted as I began to bone up on all the books I was expected to know; the New York Public Library’s “100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know” and “100 Books that Shaped a Century” from School Library Journal, as well as a handful of books on craft. I set the Grimmoire aside with the intention of coming back to them, someday.  Eventually.

Remembering this I picked up the original tales and wondered if and how I could pick up where I left off.  Would it make sense to do so, three years and an MFA later, to simply recount the tales with my own observations?  Perhaps instead of picking up where I left off as if nothing had happened I could start from the end and work my way backward.  With that in mind I opened the book, read the final story “The Silver Poplar,” and realized it would take more words to explain and analyze the story that it would to simply retype it.

Which started me thinking.

The original point of my reviewing the Grimm tales was to not only familiarize myself with them but to also work on honing my analytical skills, to work toward what I was later taught as “reading like a writer.”  It was helpful at the time, at times highly amusing, but it feels like a weak exercise to me now.  Reading “The Silver Poplar” I wasn’t struck with the desire to understand the story so much as I wanted to fill in the story’s gaps, to retell it with asides and a we bit-o-snark.  After all, every season it seems people reinterpret classic fairy tales for picture books, and it seems a better writers exercise for me to use the stories as a jumping off point for my continued development as a writer.

So that’s what I think I’m going to try next, to start reading and reinterpreting Grimm’s fairy tales.  And since they won’t be reviews in the traditional sense (or at all, really) I’ll be posting them here rather than at the other blog.

It seems a good goal for the coming year (as opposed to calling it a resolution, which breaks the minute you announce it to the world) but I do wonder a couple details.  Should I attempt to do as many as possible, as more of a free-write exercise, or would it be better to pick one day during the week as a showcase?  Thursdays?  I like Thursdays.  Do I need to even  set that rigid a goal or define what I’m doing so clearly in the beginning?  Well, yeah, maybe I do just to keep me honest, but I’m wondering what you, dear reader, would be willing to put up with.

That’s basically it. I want to revisit the Grimmoire and see where these brothers and their collected folk whimsy (and horror) lead me. You comments and messages of support would be greatly appreciated.  I know I don’t normally fish for comments but it’s the end of the year and I’m feeling this odd urge to reach out. Plus, I don’t really have a “best of the year” list or a “year in review” post for those same purposes, so this is my one year-end shot.

With that in mind, I do want to thank you, my faithful readership, for your kind indulgences and attention. Looking forward to our continued conversations, and wishing you the best for the coming year.

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serious reviewing in YA

My older daughter recently pulled a book from a literal suitcase-full that I gave her a year ago to read through at her leisure.  Every once in a while I find these books strewn about the house in various states of being read, this particular book I found in the bathroom.  A strange wave of nostalgia tickled my brain as I studied the cover illustration – it was the same one I would have seen when I was her age and it made me sort of snicker at how dated it now looked.

But it was lying back-cover-up with a collection of blurbs from reviews.  Normally I treat blurbs just as any self-respecting teen does – by ignoring them completely – but this time the wording caught my eye funny.

The action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful; complex ideas develop and unfold with clarity. ~ The New York Times.

First thing that snared me was the almost total condescension in suggesting that a book aimed at a teen audience was actually notable for its pacing, suspense, and complex themes, delivered with clarity.  It suggests a sort of pristine marble palazzo being erected in the deserts of the Wild West, the book as paragon of something greater than its surroundings.  The fact that this observation is delivered by the Paper of Record suggests that this is no namby-pamby hyperbole, this is the real deal, an anointment from the Intellectual East.

Mature young readers will respect the uncompromising ending. ~ Kirkus Review (starred)

It’s hard not to make a parallel with a classic Life cereal commercial here, the one with Mikey where the boys won’t eat the cereal because it’s supposed to be good for you. So they give it to Mikey noting “He won’t eat it. He hates everything. He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” Substitute Kirkus, the notoriously cranky journal, for Mikey.  Okay, so that doesn’t read like the most ringing endorsement, but what it says is illuminating.  Like a modern-day spoiler, the phrase “uncompromising ending” is the same as saying “no happy endings here, deal with it.”

This next one cracks me up.

Close enough to the reality of the tribal world of adolescence to make one squirm. ~ Best Sellers

I have no idea what Best Sellers is or was, but I love that they have an expert on staff reviewing YA literature so intimate with the world of adolescence to be both familiar with its tribal nature and to know it well enough to squirm with recognition. Does anyone know, did Rex Reed moonlight as a YA book reviewer?

A brilliant novel. ~ Children’s Book Review Service

These people don’t monkey around. They know what they’ve got and they aren’t afraid to tell the rest of the world what they should think about it.  Of course, if the book were anything less than brilliant there’d be no point in saying so, certainly not on the book’s back cover.  No, this blurb was placed in this spot for one reason alone: to underscore what the previous blurbs were trying to say, if they only could.

Unique in its uncompromising portrait of human cruelty and conformity. ~ School Library Journal (starred)

Sadly, the publishers went one review too far here.  They could have gone out on an up note, like a huge Broadway finale, but instead chose one last moritat from some Brechtian cabaret to end the blurb parade. The word “uncompromising” returns, suggesting this should be taken as a warning.  Literally without compromise, only this time not simply the ending of the book but more specifically its portrait of human cruelty and conformity.

I’m sure that if I read that when I was fifteen or sixteen I’d have gone “Huh?  What the heck does that even mean?”  And not in the way that would make me want to open the book and find out.

Here, then, we have perhaps the Urtext for all YA reviews and the blueprint for all that is wrong with blurbing books intended for younger audiences.  I know I’ve said this countless times before, and will do so until one day the magnetic polarity of the planet shifts and people in publishing finally get it:

Kids. Don’t. Care. About. Blurbs.

Granted, a large number of books are purchased by adults who might be swayed by blurbs, but those who do are either librarians who would have gotten this information from the source, or are parents who couldn’t be bothered to actually read a book for young people and are thus easy prey to hand-picked blurbs.  A kid picks up a book and they want to know what the story’s about and whether to dedicate their time to it.  They aren’t going to find that out by reading what some faceless, nameless reviewers said about the book from some review in some journal they have never even heard of before.

That said, look again at how seriously these reviewers took this book. Among the bestsellers of YA today would the NYT note how well it is crafted, or the complexity of its ideas, or the clarity of its storytelling?  Would a book be noted, positively I might add, for its portrait of human cruelty?  Is there a title out there right now ringing with such tribal verisimilitude that it would make a reviewer squirm?

Or have we just chucked it all and decided that what matters is whether its entertaining enough to retain the adult market that has become the lifeline to YA sales lately?

As pompous and back-handed as these blurbs seem in retrospect, I admire the fact that the reviewers held this book up to the same rigorous standards of adult fiction and literature, that they took the book seriously and gave it a fair shake. Though the book was never turned into a blockbuster motion picture, or spawned a national trend, the book remains in print thirty-six years later, a testament to its author’s craft.

Masterfully structured and rich in theme

says the New York Times again, this time in a blurb above the book’s title. Then, between the blurb and the title, a bit of marketing to make up for the staid illustration on the cover that conveys nothing about the book itself:

A compelling combination of Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace.

Finally comes the book’s title:

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier.

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Going into the holidays some are worse than others: family dynamics, general stress, you know, the usual. This year seemed relatively low-key but I had this strange lingering sense that something was just a little off, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

The day before Christmas I was out doing a last-minute gift run when I saw a friend’s book in the bookstore.  It wasn’t officially due out until next month so I was surprised and happy for him.  I proceeded to talk the book up with the store owner (who obviously had the good taste to order it in) and someone overheard me talking about the book and added it to their purchases.

That felt awesome.

In the course of small talk we caught up a bit on how my year was winding up and, no, I still haven’t found an agent yet.  But I’m still plugging along, writing something new, got myself a critique group. I left feeling a bit unsettled but I didn’t really connect it at first. Then, while sitting around having a family meal today it hit me: I graduated 11 months ago and am as unpublished as the day I was born.

And that felt horrible.

It felt horrible for about an hour until I realized that unless I actually had a newly released book in the stores it would always feel this way; that a writer is only a writer in other people’s eyes when there is a new book out.  Otherwise, “when is your next book coming out?” is no different that “when do you think you’ll find a new job?”  In Hollywood the old saying is that “You’re only as good as your last film” which means how well your film grossed and how long ago that was.  For writers, because their books are perceived as sitting on the shelves forever, you really are only as good as your next book, because without a deal in the works a writer is essentially unemployed.

That line of thinking not only felt horrible but also somewhat liberating, because it meant every writer, no matter how famous, was unemployed. Unless they are working off a multi-book deal or under deadline on a contract, all writers are essentially “at will” in the market.  The best any of us can do at the holiday table when asked about our work is speak about our future hopes in publishing.

New year coming, a new basket in which to gently place the eggs of future hopes. Let 2010 end on a note of comfort that at any given time most writers are in the same boat. I’m looking to paddle harder and faster and make 2011 be the year I prove myself employable.

As a writer.

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I’m backed up on all my reading.  I’ve got stacks of things all over that need to be read, want to be read, ought to be read, and, you know, maybe someday will get read.  It doesn’t help that I keep coming up with new things I want to learn more about, things to research, things I simply must check out of the library and delve into despite the half-dozen other half-read books all around.

I recent rekindled interest in jazz is the current research malady.  What was it Elvis Costello once said, Reading about jazz is like dancing about architecture?* It isn’t so much about understanding or a forced appreciation about modal intonations but looking to see how a uniquely American art form changed over the course of its first century.  I want to understand how within the space of a hundred years a new medium of expression came into being, reinvented itself nearly every decade, then got stuck in the mire of cultural irrelevance.

I’m looking for a couple of things in all this.  First, I’m trying to understand the thinking behind all those mutations and innovations from a creative perspective. Second, I’m sniffing out relevant clues about what’s about to happen to publishing.  I don’t think anyone doubts that we’re looking at a seismic shift in both what and how people read, but the question is what form will it take and how will we get there? Are we headed toward a scattershot free improv full of squonky text that mirrors our devolved attention spans, or some fusion that, as with jazz, attempts to bring together some combination of the old and the new? Or will fiction plug along as it always has, moving to the digital age the way music moved from wax cylinders to vinyl albums to magnetic tape to compact discs to mp3s, only to be eclipsed the rock and roll stood in front of jazz’s blue moon?

With jazz, the innovation comes from within.  Mostly.  Musicians learn to play, become masters on some level, then innovate.  Young turks who innovate while coming up still tend to do so within the jazz household.  Rock and roll was always more about energy and attitude than musicianship and in the end it was that emotional response that captured young hearts and minds. Jazz and its complex tonality cannot hold a candle, popularity-wise, to a catchy hook and an anthemic phrase. Those songs that people wake up humming and cannot get out of their head, they’re rarely jazz.

What jazz has become is almost a form of contemporary classical music.  It was cutting edge, defined it’s parameters, and now a safely-defined x/y axis where a listener can plot their preferences along the curve.

Yeah, I guess I’m still trying to second-guess what shape the rock and roll revolution of writing will take.  Because that’s where I think we are.

But I’m curious: how many other writers feel a wind of change?  I sometimes think that with so much involved in learning the craft of writing, and then the business of getting published, that I wonder how many authors just don’t want to deal with thinking about one more thing.

How about it?  Any writers out there sensing what I am?  Anyone else wondering about the next thing to come?  Anyone know the after-hours club where someone’s playing around with the form and content in a way?



* not quite.

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I’ve been stumped and sidetracked with my current WIP, and when that happens I turn to other projects.  Musicians sometimes take breaks and do “side projects” and I love the idea that there are side men, musicians who spend their time in the margins and not part of the main text, as it were.

A recent trip to New Orleans reawakened some thoughts I’ve been simmering for years about jazz and, like a bad musical television show, it seems to have me breaking out it poetry.  I began reading the collection Jazz Poems edited by Kevin Young and could hear the music behind every reference… because what drove poets to write about jazz were the sort of songs and people that defined the canon.

As with much popular culture, there’s a drop-off in our collective knowledge that begins in the middle of the last century and hits a rapid decline toward the end of it.  Depending on your generation, the most current jazz standard you know when you hear it is either Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack for Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown or Chuck Mangione’s Feels So Good.  Or if you’re really young you don’t even know that the Charlie Brown music is jazz.

So I’ve been thinking about new jazz, recent jazz, and how no one writes poetry about it (at least not that I’ve seen) and took that as a challenge.  This is my first attempt.

le mauvais plus

a swan drawn
through the eye of a needle
into the sinew of a bass line

the song is a frame outside which soundscapes are painted

drumskins frenzywhipped
drunken robot precise
tinkling cymbal gear clatter

broken signatures, ligatures, sonic fragmentation, artisanal shrapnel

hulking minnesota piano
hewing chords of winter
blocky castles of mood and temper

if there is a method to madness, there is also madness to method



There is formatting to the lines WordPress can’t seem to handle.  Alas.

Despite its pretentiousness, i went with the French translation of the band’s name – The Bad Plus – because their name always sounded to me like a bad English translation of a French movie title.  Aside from that, I tried to stay as close as I could to what the music inspired me to write.

And so.

It’s Poetry Friday around the world.  Head on over to Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup for the round-up.

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strange days, indeed

I was standing on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Durant on the southside of the UC Berkeley campus still a little groggy from an unplanned afternoon nap.  I was waiting for the 51 bus to take be the three miles down College avenue to my one evening class, a history of film class that, lecture and movie combined, would last a full five hours.  I remember thinking that after class I was planning to stop at Top Dog on the way home for my standing order, “a Top and an Bock:” an all-beef foot long and a bulging German Bochwurst.

But I don’t remember making it to College Avenue, or to Top Dog or even what was screening that night thirty years ago.

After I got on the bus, there was a stop at the next block, Dana Street.  Between those two stops was a Tower records and I remember how as we passed it seemed the Tower was unusually busy.  When the door opened college kids piled in with bags from the record store and announced that John Lennon had been shot in NYC.  The crackling urgency in their voices was exactly the tone and timber I would have expected the day (which we assumed as inevitable) that President Reagan initiated nuclear war with the USSR. The shockwave of disbelief that rocked the bus was an EMP that erased any thoughts we’d had prior to that moment.

Discordant surreality had, for the first time, presented me with a gut-level definition.

It had only been a few months prior that I became familiar with Lennon’s solo work.  Freshman year in a co-op dorm with 190 other people was a crash course in all sorts of pop culture, and everyone arrived with a stereo and their record collection as a major part of their luggage.  Personal influences were debated, gaps in collections borrowed and taped, acquisitions made to replace worn out borrowed copies.  I remember being turned on to Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light on the same day that Fall.

I don’t know why I’d dismissed Lennon’s solo work prior to college – I’d soaked up Beatles and clicked with John’s sardonic take on things – but aside from the known singles I hadn’t really thought he had anything to say to me. In retrospect I heard someone who had taken the artist’s path, learning the basics and then building a personal form of expression out of those nits and bolts. But few, if any, receive the international platform Lennon did and when he delved he straddled the worlds of conceptual art and political activism.  The same year he wrote and recorded the peace anthem “Imagine” Lennon landed on Nixon’s “enemies list.”  That alone should have sealed the deal for me right there.

But something got taken away from me that day on the bus, like a sucker punch that knocked the wind out of me.  Only months after nearly a decade of ignoring him he was taken away and the hope that his comeback album Double Fantasy was the beginning of a new phase instantly became a licorice tombstone.  In my lifetime JFL, RFK, and MLK were taken as well, and a whole slew of other cultural icons like Elvis and Jimi (and earlier that same year Hitchcock and Bonham) died from a variety of misadventures, but not of them hit me as hard.  The irony that Lennon wrote a song called “Happiness is a Warm Gun” was not lost on anyone.

I don’t remember much else.  I’m pretty sure I went to class but can’t say for sure.  I know at some point not long after I tried to write about the experience as a poem – which I later disposed of, partially because it wasn’t finished but mostly because it was horrible.  I remember the images of the impromptu memorial at the Dakota, and the national gun control arguments afterward. The dismay that a “fan” had shot him, to get the attention of Jodie Foster, made the entire enterprise more difficult to comprehend.  Reagan had been elected but these were the waning days of President James Earl Carter, another signal that we were on the cusp of a new era, a new decade.

Strange days, indeed, John had sung.
Most peculiar, mama.

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There’s just no getting around the fact that late November is always going to be a bumpy ride.

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that sort of hits like a percussion blast. It’s going to be full of relatives or major cooking, or both, and the performance anxiety around those elements is always high. Then, usually within ten days, I’ve got a birthday, but I also have my wife’s birthday just before mine, and so there’s that.  You don’t want to let either Thanksgiving or a birthday slip, but you also don’t want to let one cast a long shadow over the other.

This year I thought things would go smooth.  The girls would be off to see their stepfather and my sweetie and I would escape to New Orleans.  Even if we weren’t going to be home for our national food holiday that didn’t mean we wouldn’t eat in style.  And eat we did.  By last count I ate over a dozen different types of proteins in our short time on holiday, mammals and reptiles and crustaceans and bivalves.  It was all good.

We got home and I thought I had the birthday sitch pretty much under control.  We agreed to make our actual birthdays low-key and were very successful on that front.  There was still some last-minute gift errands to run, but we came out the other side happy and we each got some pretty cool swag. (I now want to retake my vacation with my new camera!)

But what I thought I could avoid, what I was certain I was avoiding this year as a result of taking precautions and not stressing out, was getting sick.  But I should know better by now.  My birthday is some kind of beacon for illness to visit me.  I am grateful it hasn’t been anything like in 2001 when I caught the full-on, thought-I-was-gonna-die, total-hallucinatory, where-did-the-last-three-days-go influenza, but like clockwork, come the 5th of December, something is on the illness horizon.

In the end, there’s this three-week period toward the end of the year where all my routines are thrown, where it takes just as much time to recover and get back in the swing of things… just in time for the end-of-year madness to mess with things.  These are the days when I wish Thanksgiving would return to October (when the actual harvest celebrations that begat Thanksgiving originated), when I long for the days when the season was less complicated (and less commercially crass, if that ever was true).

The classic definition of madness, right?  Expecting different results than reality will permit? Time to hitch up and regroup. Let’s see if I can turn this season into a pivot and make the next half-century not be a crazy backward mirror of the first.

Time to start plotting the revolution resolutions!

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