29 August 2007

"Freely Flows the Blood of Those Who Moralize"

Too much blood?! What planet do Warner Bros. execs come from? (Planet of the Apes, clearly.) The New York Post reports:
Tim Burton has been told to tone down the gore in the screen version of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," starring Johnny Depp. The suits at Warner Bros. "became a tad squeamish when they viewed grisly footage of blood splashing across the set as Depp slits the throats of his customers," London's Daily Mail reports. In another scene that has the studio on edge, a 10-year-old boy feeds human body parts into a meat grinder to make meat pies. The movie, co-starring Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, opens in December.
Sweeney Todd is all about the blood -- it's grand guignol operetta! Blood and music, baby!

I'm certainly not the only person curious to see how the various actors handle the singing, particularly Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli. In terms of acting, a lot of the casting seems perfect and brilliant, but ... I've seen badly-sung productions of Sweeney Todd and they're exquisitely painful in all the wrong ways. I adore Sondheim, and Sweeney Todd in particular, but it's tough stuff, and the show is almost entirely sung.

But I shall reserve judgment, because Tim Burton has often surprised me in good ways, and Sondheim has given it all his blessing (so far), making this the upcoming movie I most look forward to seeing.

The Day After Barzak Day

It's the day after Barzak Day, and we're still sweeping up all the confetti here at Mumpsimus Central, but I wanted to take a moment to say how much fun it was to see all the support for Chris and his book. I just updated the link post again, most notably with Liz Hand's very positive Village Voice review. Chris has plenty of good news he'll be able to share in the future, too, so keep an eye on him.

Things around here are likely to slow down for a while, because my new job starts tomorrow, and I have no idea what sort of free time I will have. I've got a couple assignments for reviews that I need to get done, reading to do for Best American Fantasy, and one big project I've been promising myself I would devote more time to, so we shall see. But this was a great way to end the summer, and I hope everybody who participated had as much fun as I did. Thanks all.

28 August 2007

Barzak Day in the Blogosphere

This post will be updated throughout the day with links to material about Christopher Barzak and his first novel One For Sorrow, released today. Thanks to everybody who is participating!

Juliet Ulman on Christopher Barzak

Bantam Senior Editor Juliet Ulman acquired Christopher Barzak's One for Sorrow and shepherded it into print.

I really have the wonderful Mumpsimus himself to thank for bringing us together. Matt and I met in person for the first time at the World Fantasy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin, and we were sitting around one night, probably resting from a bout of giggling, talking about short story authors we admired and who I'd been following. I was wishing aloud that some of my favorites had a book in them, and exclaimed in frustration, "Christopher Barzak! Now why hasn't he written a novel!?" To which Matt calmly replied, "But he has." A few minutes later, we'd established that Chris had written a novel, Matt had seen it, and Matt would pass on word that I wanted to take a look. When I got back from the convention, the manuscript was waiting for me.

Reading One for Sorrow for the first time is an experience I will never forget. I couldn't stop myself from describing the sensation to people for months afterwards, even as I realized that, at best, I was coming off as a bit odd. I remember turning page after page, a horrible storm of butterflies building in my stomach with each sentence. As I read, I felt a little lightheaded and sick. I can tell you exactly what it felt like. It felt like when you're in the throes of a tremendous crush, a crush so overwhelming that instead of feeling a little happy and silly in that person's presence, instead you feel so nervous and overtaken with that fluttery adrenalized crush feeling that it's debilitating. That is what it felt like.

As far as the book, I knew we were a match. But what about the author?

I had some editorial concerns, and I wanted to make sure that Chris and I were on the same page as far as what direction to take the book -- so we struck up a correspondence. Before we'd even negotiated the deal, we exchanged several (long!) emails back and forth while he was still in Japan, talking about the book and what we wanted for it, and also just getting to know each other and how our minds worked. We learned we both have a big love for Miyazaki, and especially My Neighbor Totoro; that we both come from very small, rural towns (his in the Midwest, mine in the Northeast) and carry them with us; and that we both believed in the same emotional heart of the book and wanted to travel on the same path. We brainstormed about how to get there, each of us tossing out ideas until typically, we'd figure out what the common core of all of our suggestions were, and find the right way to get to where we were going. It was immediate and exciting, this fizzing creative electricity. If the book and I were a match, it soon became clear to me that I'd gotten very lucky in that Chris and I had a real meeting of minds. No one but Chris could have written that book, and, for me at least, no working partnership but this one would have been quite as instinctive or fluid.

Revising One for Sorrow was a tremendously cooperative, collaborative process, and terrifically rich and rewarding for me as an editor. For some people, this kind of back-and-forth brainstorming and discussion would be done over the phone -- for us, it was the modern equivalent of letters flying back and forth, emails and emails and emails exploring our instinctive responses to the narrative, and our feelings about where it should go. This, truly, is why editors get out of bed in the morning. I really loved every minute of it, the debates, the burbling of ideas, the bright nova of light when someone hit upon something true. Chris is a thoughtful, intuitive writer, and through working on the book together, I think we learned more about each other than we could possibly have done any other way. In the end, I came to this with an electrifying crush on a beautiful, heartbreaking manuscript, and walked away with a rich, creative kinship that will stay with me even longer.

For which I will always, and happily, be in the debt of the Mumpsimus.

Barzak Day = LCRW Day

Yes, today is Barzak Day. Obviously. But it is also, and quite appropriately,The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet Day. Yes, that fine and marvelous book is being released on the same day as Mr. Barzak's One for Sorrow.

This is appropriate not just because it's appropriate for two wonderful books to be released on the same day. That is, indeed, a good thing.

But here are some facts to consider:
  1. Mr. Barzak's first published story was "A Mad Tea Party" in LCRW.
  2. One for Sorrow evolved from the story "Dead Boy Found", first published in Trampoline, an anthology edited by Kelly Link and published by Small Beer Press.
  3. Kelly Link is co-founder of Small Beer Press, which publishes LCRW, which she co-edits, which is how she got to be co-editor of The Best of LCRW. Oh, the tangled web she weaves!
  4. Kelly Link blurbed One for Sorrow, calling it, "An uncommonly good book with brains, heart, and bravery to spare. Readers who don't find themselves in sympathy with Barzak's characters were never adolescents themselves."
  5. Gavin Grant, co-editor of all things LCRW and co-founder of Small Beer Press, introduced karaoke, an ancient Scottish ritual, to Japan, which is the real reason Christopher Barzak moved to Japan for two years.
Thus, Barzak Day is also LCRW Day, making this a doubly great day.


Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer James Patrick Kelly was an important mentor for Chris Barzak when the young Mr. B. was just beginning to figure out what it meant to be a writer. I asked Jim to join us in celebrating his protege's success, and here is what he had to say:
I first met and worked with Chris Barzak when he was knee high to an adverb at the Imagination Writers Workshop in Cleveland, Ohio back in the summer of 1997, and I remember sitting out on a sunny patio and telling him that he needed to apply to Clarion and then go on to have a career as a writer. I also have a vague memory of him staring back at me like I was perhaps addled by the heat. The next year we did let him into Clarion and I worked with him again and informed him he was already a writer, just one who hadn't published yet. I'm pretty sure he was starting to believe by then. Over the years I have watched with pride as he has proved me so very right. I have recently derived a formula that calculates my contribution to the careers of the talented writers I have had the privilege of helping along and I believe I am 1/679th responsible for Chris's success thus far. Go Chris! And the rest of you: stop reading blogs and pick up One for Sorrow.

Bowes on Barzak

Rick Bowes doesn't have a blog, but he's been a huge supporter of Chris Barzak for years, and so it made no sense for Barzak Day to happen without some words from him.

When asked about Barzak, here is what Bowes said:
Chris Barzak is a better dancer than any other novelist in the world. And he’s a better novelist than any dancer in the world.
Chris Barzak’s car just broke down, which is a sin and a shame. I think it would be lovely if a rich patron who wished to keep his or her identity a secret would buy Chris a new car. Nothing too ostentatious or sporty (because he’ll be driving it in Youngstown, after all).Something Japanese would be good. He likes that.

Barzak Day: A Q&A with Mr. B.

To start off Barzak Day here at The Mumpsimus, I offer Chris's responses to a questionnaire I created (mostly from other questionnaires, including The Proust Questionnaire, Tom Disch's poem "Questions Your Children are Certain to Ask", a SFWA Fantasy Worldbuilding Questionnaire, a couple of Cosmo quizzes, the book Here Speeching American, and other sources).

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?
Permissiveness. I permit myself to indulge my other faults far too often. Dr. Spock didn't know what he was talking about.

Your favorite virtue?
There are too many! And from which category of virtue? Buddhist? That would be Right Mindfulness - Mental ability to see things for what they are with clear consciousness. Samurai virtues? That would be To manifest great compassion, and act for the sake of Man. Western virtues? Justice. Roman virtues? Veritas, honesty in dealing with others. Christian virtues? Love.

How do the different prohibitions grow

On fenceposts and the trunks of trees?

They don't grow. They are nailed there by busy busy prohibitionists.

How many chairs are a life?
Three? Twenty? Eighty-nine! Eighty-nine!

Do you have any favorite diseases?
The mumps. [Ed. note: not The Mumpsimus. An entirely different disease. Really. We swear.] It swells your face like a balloon. I got the mumps from a friend in Japan (Hey Katie!). Both our immunizations must have either worn off or weren't effective on the version over there. I spent a lot of time watching my jawline disappear. I thought this was kind of interesting, but only because I knew it was temporary.

What are the controversial subjects in this culture? What things will automatically start an unfriendly argument?
Controversial subjects: religion, political stance, sexuality, class.

Immediate unfriendly argument inspiring topics: Literature. I don't know how many times I've seen English majors and writers and critics brawling after that first beer. It's not a pretty thing to see.

Do you ever envy women who you think are prettier than you?

Do you run after your own nose?
Never. It knows better than to run off like that.

Are certain clothes customary for certain occupations -- e.g., military uniforms, judges robes/wigs, sports teams uniforms, etc.? How much variation is allowed -- could a scholar wear a day-glow green robe as long as the cut is right, or would that be too much? Is it color or style that is most important?
Well, of course certain clothes are customary for certain occupations, as you list examples. Variation should be permitted though. In both style and color. I would like to see police officers dressed in pink, bikers in crushed velvet rather than leather, strippers in wool suits, businessmen wearing sandals. Uniformity is death.

If you were a message t-shirt, you would read...

Are you haunted by the horribles?

Do the only real philosophical questions have to do with ontology? Are all others transcendental and therefore meaningless?

Where do you get your ideas?
Why buy someone else's troubles? (This is also what my father says about used cars).

You're a celeb who's going to be featured in the next issue of Cosmo! In your ideal photo shoot, you'd be wearing...
Nothing but piles and piles of money and issues of Cosmo that have me on the cover covered in money and issues of Cosmo that have me on the cover covered with money and Cosmos!!

If you were a (toy) stuffed animal, what stuffed animal would you want to be?
A Catbus from Miyazaki's anime film My Neighbor Totoro. Those smile really wide and long.

27 August 2007

Tomorrow is Barzak Day

Chris Barzak's first novel, One For Sorrow, is officially released tomorrow, and for that auspicious occasion, I have decided to do something I've not done before -- organize a multi-blog celebration of all things Barzak. I'm calling it Barzak Day in the Blogosphere, which seems to me like a perfectly humble and unassuming title.

The idea is this: various bloggers will write about Chris, about his writing, about the book -- and I will collect and link to as much of it as I know about from here, updating a post with links throughout the day. Also, there will be a couple of guest appearances here by people who have had encounters with Mr. B., and I will present a solemn and deeply meaningful exclusive Q&A with the man himself.

Colleen Lindsay
will be offering an interview with Chris as well as, I think, some free copies of the book. I actually owe the whole idea of this to Colleen, because when she announced she was doing an interview on the day of the book's release, I thought, "Wow, I wish I'd thought of that." And then I thought, "Why can't we all do something?" And so I asked around.

If you want to participate, feel free to join the fun by writing something at your blog about Chris and/or his work. Email me a link to your post and I'll add it to the collection here during the day. (This is supposed to be a day of celebration, so if you're intending to write about what a heartless creep he is for stealing your teddy bear when you were three and dressing it up like Tom of Finland, well, save that for another day.)

The reason I'm doing this is not just that Chris is a friend -- he is, and he's been a reader of this site almost since the beginning. Part of my desire to do something for Barzak Day comes from the fact that I couldn't possibly review One for Sorrow, because I got to offer feedback on early drafts and revision ideas, and I've been in contact with both Chris and his editor, Juliet Ulman, about it since before Juliet had even bought the book. I could only be more prejudiced in favor of it if I'd written it myself, and even then I might not be, since I tend to like other people's writing more than my own. Nonetheless, I think I can see through the haze of my subjectivity enough to know that this really is a good novel, one worthy of readers' time. In fact, I think the novel form fits Chris particularly well, because it allows him to delve more deeply into the emotional nuances of characters and situations than the short story form does, and I think readers who only know him through his stories will be pleasantly surprised at how well he can sustain a novel, and how much range this particular novel possesses.

Be sure to stop by tomorrow, then, and see the amazing adventures of Barzak conquering the blogosphere!

Kwani? and Binyavanga Get Blogs

Potash just let me know that there are two new blogs worth keeping an eye on.

First, the Kwani? literary magazine and organization now has its own blog (not to be confused with the Kwani? litfest blog). I was thrilled to see that Kwani? 4 has officially been published, and I hope copies find their way to the U.S. soon (the first three are available at various places, and are worth seeking out). I saw a preliminary edition of Kwani? 4 when I was in Kenya in December, and it's a big book rich with fiction, poetry, and nonfiction of all sorts.

Second, Binyavanga Wainaina has a blog. Actually, that should be Binyavanga Wainaina has a blog!!!, because it gives me great joy that one of the most astute writers I know is now going to be (at least occasionally) posting new material online. Binyavanga is presenting not only some of his own writing, but that of writers he knows and admires, including Jackie Lebo and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

26 August 2007

Horrifying Slapstick

I can’t control or predict how readers will respond to or understand what I’ve written, but I gather that some readers have found the violence in Jamestown quite horrifying, as I often did while writing it, while others have been inclined to read it as slapstick, as I often did while writing it. I think there are many passages in which characters are deeply disturbed by the violence done to and by themselves, while there are many others in which characters respond glibly and blithely to violence they’ve witnessed or perpetrated. Why write (or intend to write) violence that sometimes feels real and sometimes fake and stylized? I think as a way of representing both the experience of violence and the representation of violence: violence as violence and violence as spectacle. To put it another way, I meant to write a novel in which there is a lot of fluidity among various degrees of abstraction: sometimes it feels real, sometimes it feels fake, and I hope often both, for as the poet William Matthews used to say, "It’s always both."

--Matthew Sharpe
interviewed at Failbetter.com


Yes, more.


25 August 2007

Good Times

Since moving to Hoboken, lots of people have asked, "How are you doing? Are you settled? Are you euphoric? Are you crazy?" I tend to mumble an answer, trying to find a word that sounds simultaneously like yes and no. Even though this particular part of the Earth is one of my favorites, there's nothing easy about pulling up stakes after a decade of pretty stable living.

I tend to avoid blog posts about my life and all that, partly because there's not a whole lot of all that to it, but I do want to take this lazy Saturday to chronicle a few things and offer some public thank yous. I start work at a new school this coming week, and before I get all tangled up in that post-summer life, I want to preserve here a few great moments.

I owe thanks for sustenance and company to all sorts of people, including Gordon van Gelder, Liz Gorinsky, Juliet Ulman, and other friends new and old. Including one I'll mention at the end of this post.

Rick Bowes
is one of the great people of the universe. We had dinner together Thursday night, and finally got to compare notes on all sorts of old Broadway and Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway shows (every other chance we've had, we've been around people who, for reasons I cannot fathom, find such subjects less than enthralling. And you were right, Rick: it was Donald O'Connor in There's No Business Like Show Business. Interestingly, though, Jerry Orbach did appear with Ethel Merman in 1967's TV version of Annie Get Your Gun.) As any reader of Rick's books Minions of the Moon, From the Files of the Time Rangers, or Streetcar Dreams might suspect, he tells marvelous tales of New York, its history, its changes not just during the decades he's lived in Manhattan, but since the good ol' days of Peg-Leg Pete.

On Friday, I got to go to the Random House building to meet the great and glorious Colleen Lindsay. Colleen was, I think, the first person in the publishing world to pay attention to The Mumpsimus, and so we have been corresponding for more than three years now, but never had the opportunity to meet in person until now. She'd thought she would have an easy afternoon, so we'd have lots of time to grab lunch, but little did she know one of the books she's a publicist for was about to explode across the world's media. That she was able to carve out a couple hours to spend with me was miraculous, and the naive country boy side of myself that I try so hard, and so seldom successfully, to conceal came out as I sat listening to Colleen talk to ABC News, Time, etc. All the while I looked out her window at the steel stalagmites of Manhattan and felt like I was at the center of the world. We did get to go to lunch, though, and talk about all sorts of things that had nothing to do with the book that had so suddenly consumed her life, and thus perhaps in some small way I helped preserve her sanity.

And then last night I finished the first real story (as opposed to vignette) that I have finished in over a year. It's a clumsy first draft, but it's something. So yes, I think I'm finally settling in.

Lastly, but not leastly, I wanted to note here that after a summer of bliss and relaxation, Meghan McCarron is leaving Brooklyn to return to work in New Hampshire. A year ago, I was helping find her way around my home state and the school where I worked, where she had just been hired. I told her from the outset that I expect to leave, that I needed a change of life and pace, but that doesn't make it feel any less strange for me to be here right now and for her to be heading back to NH today. She's been the only person in my new world who knows many of the sign posts of my old world, and that's made the transition much easier. And she helped me empty a truck full of stuff into my apartment. We had far fewer opportunities to spend time together here in the NY/NJ area than we expected, but nonetheless, I've gained great comfort just knowing she was around, and I look forward to her return. In the meantime, she's keeping my old apartment in NH warm and cozy, and guarding the many boxes of books I had to leave in the barn... (I should also note that I have given Meghan permission to write about what happened at the burlesque show, because I'm certainly not going to. So don't ask me. Ask her.)

And now back to our regularly unscheduled programming.

A Golden Age

At The Valve, John Holbo just posted this cover from the June 1953 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries:
Yes, indeed -- Ayn Rand and Franz Kafka in one pulp magazine together! But it's better than that. Here's the entire table of contents:
Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard
Pendulum by Ray Bradbury and Henry Hasse
Bernie Goes to Hell by Arthur Dekker Savage
Find the Happy Children by Benjamin Ferris
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Haunted Hostel by Emma L'Hommedieu Frost
Dirge (Aztec) by Louis M. Hobbs
Anthem by Ayn Rand
Yes, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, Ayn Rand, and Franz Kafka all in one issue! (All reprints -- I would love to know what went through Mary Gnaedinger's mind as she put it together...) As noted at The Valve, this was the final issue of FFM, "after which the magazine evidently died of confusion."

This is apparently a particularly rare issue -- the least expensive copy I could find on the internet is going for $61, and it usually sells for around $100 or more. If anybody out there has bucks to burn and wants to send me a gift, though, I wouldn't complain... (It's the mix that's appealing; even in high school I thought Anthem was badly written, and I've never had much of a taste for Robert E. Howard, but that contents page is enough to cause the covetous consumerist impulses to stir in even the most mild mannered of us.)

23 August 2007

Sacco & Vanzetti

executed August 23, 1927

It's a day after the death of Grace Paley, who lived a great life, and who I was certain would live forever.

I'm sure Paley would be happy we have such respect for her, but I suspect she'd want us to think less about her death than about the eightieth anniversary of the deaths of Sacco & Vanzetti. Alright then. I'm still too stunned at the idea of a world without Grace Paley to offer any coherent thoughts on her or her work, but I can fire up some Woody Guthrie and reflect on the executed men.

The Sacco & Vanzetti case was, after all, a lightning rod for controversy and passion in the 1920s, eventually gaining attention from around the world. It inspired writers and artists and contributed to many people's radicalization, at least for a little while.

Here's what Time, in a curious journalistic prose-poem, said afterward:

Editor Waldo Cook of the much-venerated Springfield, (Mass.) Republican, was among those who called on Governor Fuller in person to beg clemency.

James K. Trimble of Philadelphia telegraphed: ". . . We are members of the New York Stock Exchange and deal in long investments. . . . For God's sake do not canonize two saints for future generations of Reds."

Professor Ellen Hays, 67, head of the English Department at Wellesley College, said: "I feel I must voice a protest." She joined picketers at the State House, was arrested.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a poem beginning, "Let us abandon then our garden and go home." She also picketed, was jailed.

Boston Common, for the first time in history, was closed to public orators. Order there and elsewhere was maintained by the full Boston police force on 24-hour duty. Riot squads were equipped with automatic rifles, hand grenades, tear bombs. Exciting looking characters were immediately boxed in by police and marched off "to protect them from mob violence."
Last night, I watched a recent documentary on the case. I've been aware of Sacco & Vanzetti at least since high school, but I didn't remember the date of their execution. I had noticed the film listed among the new releases at Netflix, and it was available sooner than some other recent movies on my queue, so it was what arrived. Coincidentally, my father had watched it the day before and emailed me to recommend it. He said my paternal grandfather, who grew up in the Dedham and Needham areas of Massachusetts, saw Sacco & Vanzetti going into the Dedham courthouse a few times, and he mentioned the men, who he suspected were innocent, on a number of occasions while my father was growing up. My grandfather was a civil engineer in Needham, where there is a Cheney Street (a dead end). My father worked for the family business for a little while, and during that time he got to spend some time at the old shoe factory where the robbery-murder that was pinned on Sacco & Vanzetti took place -- he was on the survey team for the shopping plaza that replaced the factory. He said he didn't remember going inside the building itself, but spent a couple weeks surveying the grounds.
Let us sit here, sit still,
Here in the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children's children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.

--Edna St. Vincent Millay,
"Justice Denied in Massachusetts"

21 August 2007

Jamestown Week Begins

This is the beginning of Jamestown week at the LBC, with much fun and excitement promised. I'm putting together at least one post about the book, but for now will offer some links of related, or even unrelated, interest:

20 August 2007

More Bests

Three new best-of-the-year anthology series have been created, and as a series editor of one such thing, I feel obliged to alert you to others.

First, Lawrence Schimel -- author of (among other things) the poetry collection Fairy Tales for Writers and editor of (among other things) The Future Is Queer -- alerted me a little while ago to a project he's associated with:
BEST GAY POETRY edited by Lawrence Schimel
BEST LESBIAN POETRY edited by Linda Alvarez

For the 2008 editions of this exciting new series celebrating the best in gay/lesbian poetry, A Midsummer Night's Press invites submissions of poems published during 2007.

More information available via this link.
And just a few minutes ago I learned of a new series being started by Dan Wickett and his pals at Dzanc Books:
The Best of the Web anthology will be the first comprehensive print anthology to represent the vast array of contemporary online literature on an annual basis, bringing the world of web journals to a greater audience. Nathan Leslie, Fiction Editor for The Pedestal Magazine, Editor-in-Chief of The Potomac, and the author of five short story collections, will serve as the series editor. In addition, each year a guest editor will be selected by Nathan and Dzanc's publishers, Dan Wickett and Steve Gillis.
As the world of fiction and poetry becomes ever more diverse, I'm pleased to have such books as these to serve as treasure chests and guide books, and look forward to seeing what the editors discover out there.

19 August 2007

Collaged, Reclaimed, Altered, Eroded, Revised, Invigorated

Via Giornale Nuovo, I just discovered the work of Brian Dettmer, an Atlanta-based artist. Dettmer specializes in the transformation of old objects, many of them books (dictionaries, medical and scientific texts, histories), which he meticulously digs into and carves up. In some of his most recent work, he has even cored the books to create an extraordinary effect -- they look to me like blocks of wood in which worlds of words and little pictures have ripened, entangled, and exploded.

Dettmer doesn't just create new worlds with old books; he also transforms other objects -- for instance, building a lovely rosebush from old videocassettes, or creating what looks like a rotted animal carcass from cassette tapes. In 2003, he moved from manipulating objects to manipulating sound, sculpting "ReAddress" from George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union Address: "A few minute minutes of recorded sound became hundreds of separate audio files that become recontextualized when played randomly through a computer media player. New word streams, phrases, and meanings emerge as the language continuously re-structures in real time."

Dettmer's creations remind me of a couple of other things -- first, Thomas Allen's photographs of pulp paperbacks carved so that their covers gain new dimensions. (I'd love to see the two artists collaborate.)

I was also reminded of Kenneth Goldsmith's ideas of conceptual poetics or uncreative writing, because much of what Goldsmith seems to advocate creates a kind of object from texts and textual processes, an object that includes the text but doesn't require reading so much as it requires noticing and perceiving, which makes such work less like writing than like sculture or construction.

In any case, I love this sort of art, the reconception and recontextualization of objects. Collage and reclamation; alteration and erosion; invigoration by revision.

18 August 2007

Four Years

Four years ago, I posted the first entry on this blog, a simple dictionary definition of the title. The next day, I said what I thought the whole thing was about. Then I posted a review of my friend Jim Kelly's story "Mother".

I had no idea what I was doing, in every sense of that phrase.

What most amazes me is how much has changed in four years. I feel like a grizzled old man, because way back then we didn't have all these fancy-shmancy interfaces -- we had to learn some HTML code! (I can just imagine what those of you who've been doing this for 10 years or more think of us whippersnappers...) Litblogs were few and far between. Not many people were blogging about science fiction in particular, which is what I started with, though soon I ended up throwing in whatever I happened to be reading or thinking about.

According to Blogger, there are 936 posts here so far (with this being the 937th). The wordcount must be in the hundreds of thousands. The archives are full of things that seem to me now to be wrongheaded ideas, stabs in the dark, ridiculous assertions, embarrassingly naive statements, pure nonsense, unjustifiable claims, unfortunate phrasings, numerous bits of unadulterated stupidity, and the occasional sentence or paragraph or even entire post that is a pleasant surprise. Blog posts are first drafts, and I don't know what ever possessed me to want to put my first drafts out there for the world to see, but despite some very awkward moments along the way (and more to come, I'm sure), I'm glad I did, for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's opened up a whole community in the real world for me, a community of people passionate about reading and writing, which is something I'd longed to find.

So thank you to everybody who occasionally stops by to read what crazy thing I've come up with today.

17 August 2007

GID and Transgender Links

Regarding my "Born to Choose" post, a friend gently suggested the whole discussion gets more complex, thorny, and controversial if you include discussion of transgender issues. This is very true, and though I had considered adding something about the controversy over Gender Identity Disorder (GID), my knowledge of that subject is superficial, and I figured I was going out on enough of a limb already that I probably shouldn't risk inadvertently simplifying a subject so vital to people's lives and livelihoods.

My friend made the useful distinction (which she says may have come from Julia Serano) between de-pathologization of transgenderism and de-medicalization of it, with the former being desirable and the latter not so much, given how much distress trans people can be in before they can get support or therapy, or before they are able to transition.

Though I can't offer an informed opinion on this topic, what I can do is provide some links to discussions of GID by people more knowledgeable than I. Please add others in the comments if you know of any.
Update: A couple new links that were emailed to me:

16 August 2007

Rupert Thomson in NYC

Tomorrow night, August 17, Maud Newton will be interviewing Rupert Thomson at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Manhattan at 7pm. I'm going to try to be there, but don't let that stop you from attending.

Thomson wrote one of my favorite novels of recent years, Divided Kingdom, many scenes of which still remain remarkably vivid in my mind. I also had great melancholic fun with it when it was a LitBlog Co-op nominee. (I haven't read any of Thomson's other books yet, but I will, I will...)

Born to Choose

While I was away, I lost some hours of my life by watching CNN, something I don't normally do, because I don't have a TV (not because I'm a TV-hater, though I do think TV news gets more awful every time I watch it, but because I would never get anything done if I had a TV -- I find it completely addictive, regardless of quality). There was a story in rotation about the HRC/Logo forum where the various Democrats in the presidential primary were invited to talk about same-sex marriage and occasional other topics. The CNN report made it seem that candidate Bill Richardson was a troglodyte for his response to a question posed by Melissa Etheridge: "Do you think homosexuality is a choice or is it biological?" Richardson responded, "It's a choice, it's, it's..." and then there was back and forth and eventually Richardson's campaign issued a statement and Barney Frank testified to Richardson's record.

I found the whole thing cringe-inducing, mostly because Etheridge asked, with complete moral certainty, an absurd question and then Richardson got beat up for it. Marriage has become, as the pundits at The Nation pointed out, the litmus-test, but the word "choice" has, strangely, come to be The Word That Shall Not Be Uttered.

What is going on here? Certainly, the HRC and Logo do not stand for all that is queer in America, but they do represent a certain visible and politically active segment of the queer community, and it looks like that segment is growing ever more narrowly defined, intolerant, and boring.

I could get all semantic on the question "Is it a choice?" and ask, "What is this it of which you speak?" because I hate the tendency some people have of defining the vast range of human pleasures and intimacies by a couple of labels. Or I could point out that the nature/nurture dichotomy is at best naive. But I'd rather just say, "What's so bad about choice?"

In The Nation's discussion of the forum, Lisa Duggan said what happened to Richardson next: "Margaret Carlson followed up and explained to him that saying you are born gay is the ground on which equality can be claimed." Why is equality about how you're born? It's never stopped biologically-minded traditionalists from saying that anything deviating from some narrowly-defined norm ought to be cured.

If there's an "it", choice is what's it's all about. It doesn't matter whether I'm choosing at the moment to live my life with a man or a woman or no-one; the freedom to choose any of those options and not be harrassed, marginalized, or attacked for it is the freedom I want. It's why I don't have much interest in the search for "gay genes" -- sure, there are genetic components, but so what? Let's be very speculative for a moment and say a definition of non-heterosexuality can be dreamed up, and a gene or two can be attributed to it, and a test can be created to see whether a person possesses such a gene -- if they don't, and still behave in a non-hetero way, should their citizenship in the queer nation be revoked so they are forced to live in the doldrums of the choiceless land where the "I'm-entirely-heterosexual" creatures trod through their dreary days?

"It's not a choice" sounds to my ears like the proclamation of somebody drowning in heterosexism and self-hatred. "I can't help myself! I was born this way! Waaaaaa!!!" Why are these gays so afraid of choice? I suspect it's because we're terrified of the idea of being "unnatural", but the terror has nothing to do with nature (all sorts of things happen in nature!) so much as an idea of normality. The norm-obsessed gays want to be "just like everybody else" and everybody else is, apparently, inherently hetero. It's like they really want to proclaim, "We're not 100% hetero only because we were born this way -- we didn't choose to be like this, honest!"

I'm all for people who choose to get married and have kids doing so, regardless of their gender or whatever, but I doubt it's anything I'll ever choose, and so I don't have a lot of patience for the idea that that is the ultimate sort of life to live, the sine qua non, the one true path to happiness, the normal thing, the thing we were all born to do. It's a position that replaces a compulsory heterosexuality with a compulsory homosexuality for those born to it, a Procrustean bed made up by people who think everybody should live and feel only the way they themselves do. I don't like their idea of normality, I don't like their fear of choice, and that bed looks damned uncomfortable to me.

15 August 2007

Stuff, with a Side of Nonsense

I've just returned from a bit of travelling, and having not had much internet time during my travels, I probably owe you an email. In fact, if you've tried to contact me at all for the past couple months, I probably owe you an email. Please forgive me. I hope to get caught up with all correspondence and correspondents sometime before the heat death of the universe.

Some odds and ends...
  • I inadvertently left a big box of Asimov's magazines back in New Hampshire, so I'm not sure how well my project of meditating on the archives will work out, as I've only got various scattered issues with me now, and don't expect to be able to get the others until sometime this fall, which is probably not causing anybody any great angst, but still...
  • While I was away, a new issue of Strange Horizons was posted, including a new column of mine and the news that the 2007 Fund Drive has been extended. (Please don't hold the continued publication of my columns against them.) Also that day, the World Fantasy Award nominations were announced, and editor-in-chief superbeing Susan Marie Groppi was nominated in the "Special Award, Non-professional" category (because she does great work and doesn't get paid for it, though the writers get paid professional rates). I don't want to pretend to have favorites for the awards, because many people I'm very fond of are nominated, and I want them all to win, but I do think it's particularly nice that Susan and the whole Strange Horizons crew are getting a lot of much-deserved good attention these days.
  • It's been a long road, but Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: The Movie is now live on the internet. I was involved with the project in its early days, but hadn't been able to continue, and it's great fun now to see what all those crazy nascent ideas metamorphosed into. It's also exciting to see the extraordinary and beautiful novel now in paperback.
  • Speaking of paperback and extraordinary books, Peter Turchi just let me know that he's got a new website and his marvelous book Maps of the Imagination will be released in paperback in a couple of weeks. The hardcover is beautifully designed and produced, and I look forward to seeing how the book translates to the new format.
  • Paul Witcover's post about the New Yorker's article on Philip K. Dick by Adam Gopnik garnered a lot of interesting comments, both from lovers and loathers of PKD. I'm definitely on the lovers side, but I try to keep myself from being too illusioned about Dick's weaknesses, and I'm wary of a lot of the claims made for his work over the past decade or so. Though I've tried at times to write about his works and legacy, I can't claim to have a sure understanding of my own attraction to Dick's writings, and so I usually just end up responding to somebody else's attempt to articulate (or criticize) such attraction, and saying, "Well, no..." or "Sort of, but...", which isn't really very helpful.
  • World Fantasy Award nominee John Klima has put Jeffrey Ford's World Fantasy Award-nominated story "The Way He Does It" online. I know a lot of people were all googly-eyed over Mr. Ford's "The Night Whiskey" (from the World Fantasy Award-nominated Salon Fantastique), but I, ever addicted to being in the minority, much preferred "The Way He Does It". Although now it's up for an award, maybe that means I'm no longer in the minority. No, that thought is too unsettling for me to continue contemplating it...

11 August 2007

"The Faithful Companion at Forty" by Karen Joy Fowler

I recently told someone that every thought I've ever had about science fiction and fantasy could probably in some way or another be blamed on Gardner Dozois's best of the year collection for 1985. Then I thought for a moment and said I'd have to add a few issues of Analog and Asimov's from the late 1980s as well, particularly the April 1986 and July 1987 issues of the latter, both of which were edited by Gardner Dozois.

Since it is the 30th anniversary of Asimov's this year, I thought I would delve into some back issues during the coming weeks to highlight certain stories and authors, to copy out some fun quotes, to indulge in nostalgia, to compare and contrast. No other magazine of any type has so influenced my taste, for better or worse, and I want to both admit to and examine some of that influence.

First, the story that most perplexed me when I began reading science fiction, Karen Joy Fowler's "The Faithful Companion at Forty". This tale appeared in the July '87 Asimov's along with such other stories as James Tiptree's "Yanqui Doodle" (which I've written about before) and Lawrence Watt-Evans's "Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers". Also in that issue appeared an essay-review by Norman Spinrad, "The Edge of the Envelope", about science fiction and "literature", in which he reviewed Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Steve Erickson's Rubicon Beach, and Lisa Goldstein's The Dream Years, among others.

I had read hardly any science fiction other than stories by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov when I read "The Faithful Companion at Forty" (which I suspect I read, along with "Why I Left Harry's..." before "Yanqui Doodle", given that I tended to read the shorter stories in magazines before the longer). As "Yanqui Doodle" would, it annoyed me. Why was this befuddling bit of whatzit in a science fiction magazine?!

I was young enough at the time to think the problem was my own and not the story's or the magazine editor's. Clearly, the author and editor knew more about what is and isn't science fiction than I. If they thought this story was SF, then it must be, and I set out to figure how such a thing could be. (Fowler's story was later reprinted in Dozois's 5th annual best of the year anthology and in Fowler's second story collection, Black Glass. It was also nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards.)

"The Faithful Companion at Forty" is narrated by the American Indian friend of a certain masked man. It begins:
His first reaction is that I just can't deal with the larger theoretical issues. He's got this new insight he wants to call the Displacement Theory and I can't grasp it. Your basic, quiet, practical minority sidekick. The limited edition. Kato. Spock. Me. But this is not true.

I still remember the two general theories we were taught on the reservation which purported to explain the movement of history. The first we named the Great Man Theory. Its thesis was that the critical decisions in human development were made by individuals, special people gifted in personality and circumstance. The second we named the Wave Theory. It argued that only the masses could effectively determine the course of history. Those very visible individuals who appeared as leaders of the great movements were, in fact, only those who happened to articulate the direction which had already been chosen. They were as much the victims of the process as any other single individual. Flotsam. Running Dog and I used to be able to debate this issue for hours.

It is true that this particular question has ceased to interest me much. But a correlative question has come to interest me more. I spent much of my fortieth birthday sitting by myself, listening to Pachelbel's Canon, over and over, and asking myself: Are some people special? Are some people more special than others? Have I spent my whole life backing the wrong horse?
No spaceships. No aliens. No whizbang geewhiz sensawunda. Of course, reading the story now it's obvious to me that it's some form of SF -- it takes place in a world where the faithful companion and the masked man actually existed and had various exploits together, and in the end there's some implied time travel. Reading the story now, I'm amazed I got through those first three paragraphs. They're masterful, but no matter how precocious I was, I was still just a kid, and I don't know how I made sense of most of those sentences.

Perhaps I noticed one of the letters in the front of the magazine, a letter where a reader thanks the magazine's editors for publishing "Elephant" by Susan Palwick, which is not obvious SF: "I'd like to think that you and the other editors sat down at a big table, each with a copy of 'Elephant' in front of you, and argued the merits of side-stepping the somewhat narrow definition of science fiction in order to publish Susan Palwick's story." To which Isaac Asimov replied, "We sometimes forget that psychology is one of the sciences, too. Even though my own penchant is for the physical sciences and if I were Gardner I might not have grasped 'Elephant' and might not have accepted it -- that just shows how much better off we are having me stay a figurehead while Gardner, with sweet Sheila's aid, does the real work."

If I read that letter and reply, perhaps I went back to "The Faithful Companion at Forty" and decided it was about psychology, and thus science fiction (I'm fairly certain I didn't pick up on the time travel at the end). Perhaps I decided any story containing psychology was science fiction. That would explain a lot of my later ideas, when for a while the term "science fiction" became a term of valuation for me, not a term of description. Any story could be science fiction, so long as it was a story I liked. If I didn't like it, it wasn't science fiction.

Because I could not fit it into the tiny box of my preconceptions, I really hated "The Faithful Companion at Forty" for a few years. Since it first appeared, though, the story has become a favorite of mine, not just because it's wonderfully written (with a sharp intelligence and a light touch), but because it and a handful of other stories kept the young me from adhering to a narrow definition of science fiction, and even perhaps contributed to my skepticism toward most labels and boundaries, a skepticism that has provided me with many hours of thought and conversation ever since. For that, I am more indebted to Gardner Dozois and Karen Joy Fowler than I could ever put into words.

07 August 2007

Spaceman Blues Day

Some of the most fun I've recently had when reading a book was when I read Brian Slattery's debut novel, Spaceman Blues. And then some of the most fun I've recently had reviewing a book was when I wrote a review of Spaceman Blues.

The only disappointment in writing the review was knowing that readers would have to wait a while for the day when Spaceman Blues would be generally available (at least in the U.S.).

Well, that day has now come. Today is the official release day. It may still take a few days for every bookstore and library to have a copy, but you should pester them. Tell them you want your Spaceman Blues. Make demands. Be aggressive. Be the customer everybody hates. Get the book. I can't promise you'll love it as much as I do (my taste is a little odd, after all), but I'm betting most readers who like off-kilter stories will find it a worthwhile read.

(I keep updating this post. Sorry to people whose RSS readers have multiple copies of it.)

I almost forgot -- it's also the official release day for Okkervil River's new album, The Stage Names. Wow. One of the great days of the year.

I should also note that there will be a book release party for Spaceman Blues on Friday, August 10 at 8:30 pm. There will be music by the Mud Brothers (including Brian Slattery). It's at 10 pm at Sunny’s, 253 Conover Street, between Read and Beard Streets, Red Hook, Brooklyn. (I'm making my last trip to New Hampshire for a while later today, and will be there through the weekend, so I won't be at the party, which means it's safe for you to go.)

05 August 2007

Miscellaneous Stuffage and Stuffing

Some random notes, observations, and links:
  • First, welcome to readers who are reading this blog via the Asimov's and Analog magazine websites, where we have been chosen as a blog of the month. (And no, we don't make it a habit of referring to ourselves in the first-person plural, except when we're being particularly ironic or feeling immensely self-important, but sometimes it slips out.) I'm particularly happy that this site was chosen this month, because it's the month Best American Fantasy hits the stores, and the book contains a story first published in Analog, Geoffrey Landis's marvelous robot fairy tale "Lazy Taekos". And as for Asimov's, well, unfortunately there aren't any Asimov's stories in the book, but I've been reading the magazine since the late 1980s, and hope to do some things here in honor of its current 30th anniversary, including write about at least a few of the stories included in the fine anniversary anthology Sheila Williams put together for Tachyon.

  • When I was in Kenya, a number of people sang the praises of Uganda's Femrite, the Uganda Women Writers' Association. Via the Literary Saloon I discovered a new article about Femrite by Glenna Gordon at Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper, titled, "Ugandan women writers shine but where are men?"

  • There's an inside view of Femrite available from one of those people who sang its praises to me, Beverley Nambozo, at the new African Writing Online. Beverley got married last month, so this gives me a fine opportunity to slip in a public congratulations to her!

  • African Writing Online deserves its own note, actually. If you're looking for contemporary African writers to read, you could do worse than to seek out the writers on their list of 50. Or just start reading some fiction. Or poetry. Or reviews. And lots more. Go see.

  • Lost cities! Via a blog I recently discovered and am already addicted to, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Sitting Here Listening to This Recording.

  • Okkervil River has a new album coming out in a couple days. This alone is enough to make the month of August one of the best of the year. In preparation, I have been listening to "The President's Dead" (mp3) pretty obsessively, because I missed it whenever the MP3 was posted from last year's EP. (Here at Mumpsimus Central, the entire staff, which is composed of me, agrees that 2005's Black Sheep Boy is second only to Bach's Mass in B Minor as a great musical accomplishment. Even more oddly, there are some weird, coincidental connections between me and the band, so much so that I'm convinced if I ever encounter any of the members, particularly Will Sheff, in person the entire universe will explode. Or contract. Or something. Yes, this is what I spend my time thinking about these days. No, I don't need to get out more. I don't. I like it inside. It's nice and peaceful and ... who'm I talking to? Huh? Why are you asking?)

  • If you're anywhere near southwestern New Hampshire this week, go to the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen's annual craft fair. Buy things from Rick and Beth Elkin, Paulette Werger, and Dan Dustin at the very least. What, you need to buy food? Don't. Buy beautiful hand-made objects -- they last longer.

  • Please know that I am trying to use fewer semi-colons in things I write. I am failing, but I am trying. Alas, when witty and politically astute writers such as James J. Kilpatrick call the semi-colon "sissified" and "girly", it not only makes me realize I am congenitally inclined to identify with the pretty little things, but also makes me want to use; semi-colons; again; and again; and; again!
  • Finally, at the LBC it's the beginning of a week of discussion of Nicola Griffith's Always. The week begins with part one of a roundtable discussion.