Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Writers Recommend: Scott Abrahams and The Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael Martone



Last week we broke out our debut post for Writers Recommend, a new series where we'll be asking writers to, well, you know.. recommend things. Like the books that they've enjoyed. To you. Because who doesn't like being recommended new and interesting books, right?! Think of it as a PSA. Only it's more like a LSA -Literary Service Announcement. Your welcome. 





Scott Abrahams Recommends The Blue Guide to Indiana




“WARNING: It seems very likely that many times of opening for museums and sites given hopefully in the text, coupled with general remarks in the Practical Information section, will be found incorrect.”

            The opening disclaimer to Michael Martone’s The Blue Guide to Indiana is an understatement. And that itself is an understatement: the whole book is incorrect, from the opening letter by the Lieutenant Governor of the State of Indiana to the attraction-by-attraction overview of the forthcoming Eli Lilly Land amusement park.

            The book is a masterpiece of the oh-so-plausible untrue. It is a complete guide to the history, culture, attractions, and architecture of an Indiana that totally could be, but totally isn’t. Knowing that the World’s First Parking Lot, a “10-foot square of hard packed dirt,” is not a tourist site in Plato does nothing to temper the irresistible urge to google it. The same goes for the Federal Surface Materials Testbed on the northbound and southbound lanes of Highway US 31 between Rochester and Peru, “established by an act of Congress as part of the Defense Highway Bill of 1955.”

            Read on for helpful tips such as the advisement that, “as one might gather in the state where the automobile was invented, walking is frowned upon,” thus “shoe repair is a clandestine and shady black market enterprise.”

Did you know that in the southern counties of Indiana, where Abraham Lincoln lived as a boy, “the clocks must, by law, always read ten till ten, the moment of Lincoln’s assassination”? That’s why if you ask a resident for the time they will answer with, “The time is three hours and forty-seven minutes before ten till ten.”

The Blue Guide to Indiana is a book you’ll want for your coffee table to confuse your friends. Rumor has it that even though the front cover is stamped with a notice that the book “in no way factually depicts or accurately represents the State of Indiana, its destinations and attractions, its institutions or businesses, or any of its residents or former residents” and is a work of fiction, bookstores still mistakenly file it in the travel section.

Martone beautifully stays within the boundaries of subtle satire, such that you constantly catch yourself starting to believe the book. It doesn’t help that when you search for the architect Michael Graves, who is credited with designing every single building and landmark mentioned, there really does exist a person by that name, and he really is an architect, and wouldn’t you know it, he was born in the State of Indiana.

For me, that uncomfortably enjoyable constant confusion over where the mostly made up becomes the absolutely absurd is what makes the book a must-read example of what I’ve seen referred to as “fraudulent artifacts,” or pieces purporting to be a particular form of writing, such as fake interviews or emails or tables of contents (or travel guides), that turn out to be something else entirely.

The writing itself is as enjoyable as the content. It is clean and quirky, an authoritative voice that speaks as if unaware of the outrageousness of what it is saying. The First and Second Daylight Savings Wars of 1948 and 1955 are described as nonchalantly as the State Hair Dump, a highlight on the tour of Scenic Waste Disposal and Storage Sites.


For the foodies out there, Martone includes a selection of recipes from Cooking Plain by Helen Walker Linsenmeyer. I googled her, and guess what? She’s on Goodreads, and she really wrote a book by that name. But surely it doesn’t contain the recipe for snow ice cream cited in The Blue Guide, does it? The one that calls for 1 heaping china bowl of freshly fallen snow, maple syrup or warmed honey, and some more snow? I don’t know! And that’s what makes The Blue Guide to Indiana so delicious. Treat yourself and go pick up a copy at your local bookstore. It’s probably in the travel section.





Scott Abrahams is an analyst by day
 and novelist by slow day. 
He is the author of Turtle and Dam, 
a novel about contemporary China."

Monday, September 29, 2014

Drew Reviews: Galaga

Galaga by Michael Kimball
3 Stars
Pages: 136
Publisher: Book Fight Books
Released: July 2014



Guest review by Drew Broussard 



The Short Version: Everybody has a game that they love, that means something special to them.  For Michael Kimball, that game is Galaga - and he explains not only what makes the game marvelous but also what makes it so important to him in simple, honest terms.
The Review: I'm too young to have really ever encountered arcade culture.  Oh sure, I've been to arcades and played plenty of arcade games - but home systems were the norm by the time my friends and I were old enough, so we only know of things like Pac-Man and Galaga through a different lens: that of their being 'classics', respected but also a bit antiquated. 
But that doesn't make them any less potent than their successors.  For every memory I have of playing Myst or Heroes of Might & Magic III, I have to acknowledge the simple wonder that was these games.  These games that made our games possible.  And it's not like we're unfamiliar with Galaga, us millennials: we caught that reference in The Avengers, you know?
But this book is as much about Galaga as it is about one man's experience with the game and the way that it - not to put too fine a point on it - saved his life.  The confessional bits of this novel are, in fact, rather startling for their openness and simplicity.  Kimball endured a childhood of abuse at the hands of his father and older brother and he's really honest about it.  To the point that he says that he still, many many years later, flinches at unexpected contact.  That's pretty heavy stuff for a book about a video game.
But the thing about the game is, it was his lifeline.  It was something that he found that allowed him to escape - not unlike books, movies, music, etc do for countless others.  If anyone in the world still believes that video games rot people's brains, I'd direct them to this installment of Boss Fight Books.  I challenge you to hear this story and think ill of video games or video game culture.
And when I say that, I do mean the purest form of that culture, that artistic expression.  Example: the Grand Theft Auto games hold no redeeming quality, I'm sorry (except for maybe that horse video).  But the honest joy of playing a game and acquiring skill at said game - even if it's a skill that can't exactly be replicated in the world (e.g. shooting alien bugs from the sky)... there are a lot of good things that come out of it.  There's even a delightful list towards the end of the novel of "lessons" that can be learned from Galaga about life - and, you know what, they're good ones.  Simple ones, but they're good ones.  Sometimes, especially in light of tough times, it's good to be reminded of those simple, good life lessons.  
A word, in closing, about the book-as-concept.  Kimball uses the structure of Galaga to tell the story both of his life and of the game and its development - but there are, not surprisingly, moments here that might only appeal to the hardcore fan.  Or that feel a little like filler in order to flesh out the 255-stage concept.  This is the danger of a series like this (I think, too, of the 33 1/3 series - some of those are great, others... not so much).  I'm intrigued by Boss Fight Books, believing immensely that video games (especially classics) deserve the attention that music/movies/shows/books have received... but also, you have to know that they're for a limited audience no matter who writes it or what game they write about.  Still, if you're part of that audience, you'll enjoy this one, and even if you aren't, Kimball transcends the traps that a lesser writer could easily fall into with a book like this.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  Again, it's a question of your interest level.  If you're into classic games, this is ideal.  If you're into stories about how [insert artistic thing here] shaped the life of a young person, this is also ideal.  Kimball does a really great job at elevating what could've been a boring, dry fact-based thing about the game into a deeply personal look at life, at youth, and at love - of others and of an object.  Your mileage will vary, but the fact is: this book does what it sets out to do and more.  And for that, it is a success full-stop.

Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble.  He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Audiobook Review: Acceptance

Listened 9/7/14 - 9/20/14
4 Stars: Strongly Recommended to readers of books 1 & 2, for, you know, obvious reasons
Audio 9.6 hours
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Released: September 2014


WARNING: Do not read this review if you haven't read Annihilation and Authority. I can't be blamed if I end up spoiling a whole lotta shit if you do....


Read my review of Annihilation here

Read my review of Authority here

Jeff Vandermeer brings the creepy back in the third installment of the Southern Reach Trilogy. And he also brings a bit of a twist. Unlike its predecessors, the mysteries and history of Area X come to us through multiple narrators, spanning across three different points in time. Oh yeah, you heard me, we're back inside Area X people! And we're carried back in on the shoulders of Ghost Bird (read by Carolyn McCormick) and Control (read by Bronson Pinchot); Gloria, the original director (read by Xe Sands); and Saul, the Lighthouse Keeper (read by Bronson Pinchot). It's like an all-out Border reunion, yo!


And so we venture back into the land of mystery - after aching for it so badly - by way of another entry point, one found or made by Ghost Bird at the end of Authority. As she gives Control the grand tour, heading directly for the island and its dilapidated lighthouse in search of answers, we are treated to a second story line - that of Gloria and her time within The Southern Reach... including her first, unapproved, foray across the border with Whitby and how - or more importantly WHY - she secures herself a spot in the 12th expedition. And while THAT story unravels itself, we're introduced to Saul the lighthouse keeper (AKA the Crawler), pre-Area X. His story takes us back to the town before the Border came down, before shit got weird, and sheds some light - or possibly shadow - on the S&S Brigade, who strangely enough, are in some way, shape, or form, present at the time of the "change" that comes over what will soon become Area X.

Questions, questions. The trilogy is complete and I still have so many questions. And, believe it or not, I'm fairly at ease with that. Jeff Vandermeer said, in his panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, that he specifically and intentionally left portions of this story open to reader interpretation, stating that, as a reader himself, he never liked authors who took care to clean up all the loose ends. And you absolutely get a sense of that as the final book unfolds. Those subtle little nuances that nibbled at you throughout the entire series - why can't the expeditions bring electronics into Area X with them? why must everyone forgo their names and be reduced to their skill sets? what causes the catalyst that created Area X? is it a tower or a tunnel? what is the light at the bottom of its steps and where do those words that the Crawler is writing come from? what is howling in those reeds? what is up with that dead mouse and indestructible plant in the Director's drawer? why is Whitby so doggone strange? - each one of those questions are brought back into play and played with some more in the third installment. Are any of them actually answered? Well,  That, my friend, is between you and the book, isn't it?! 


What I found most interesting about these additional perspectives - the history of Area X before it was, well, Area X; the home-like tug it had on Gloria; the desire it created in Control to learn more; the uncertainty it created for Ghost Bird - is how they added just as many questions as they had answered. As any series worth its salt will. I marveled at the way Jeff Vandermeer slowly unraveled each mystery, at the time and care he took to allow our minds to wander where it would, without hindering or aiding us, giving us just enough information without giving it all away, making us as much a part of the story as his own characters. As we read, it was as if we watched over their shoulders, weighing out what they were observing, what they were thinking, and pulled together theories of our own. It was all very LOST-ish to me, towards the end, for whatever that's worth.  

A brilliant mind-fuck of series. One that worked incredibly well as an audiobook. For those of you who haven't read the series yet (for shame! Didn't I warn you not to read this review unless you've read Book 1 and 2?!) I highly encourage you to experience the entire thing in audio. Downpour.com has them for your immediate downloading pleasure! Go, listen, and prepare to have your mind blown.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Indie Spotlight: Adrian J Walker


I don't know about you, but I enjoy getting the story behind the story. It's always interesting to hear where the author found the inspiration, how much of it is actually based on true event (isn't the advice always "write what you know"?), and where they were hoping the story would take them in the end. 

Of course, in the case of The End of the World Running Club, we know Adrian didn't base it completely on true events, because, well, if he did... SPOILER: we wouldn't be posting this spotlight because we'd have no internet because the world would have ended and civilization as we know it would have come to an end with it. 

Baring that, that's have a look at where Adrian found the inspiration behind his book:


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~



I wrote The End of the World Running Club because I love the country where I grew up. I love it so much I wanted to smash it to bits with space rocks.

Allow me to explain.

My dad was born in a fishing village on the west coast of Scotland. My mum was born in a council estate in the north of England. My mum grew up and moved to Scotland. My dad took a boat to Australia. Then my mum moved to Australia. They got married and had my sister and lived in the bush suburbs of Sydney, where I was born. My dad was a postman and a bush fireman and my mum taught drama to local kids. Then they missed home and moved back to the UK. They tried Scotland first but it was the late 70s and there were no jobs, so my dad got in a van and drove off looking for one. He found one in the south of England. So that’s where we moved.

That’s the first memory I have of a landscape; a land where I lived.

The house he bought for us had no roof and no heating and was next to an ancient grave yard. We all slept in the front room by a wood fire. The village was what you imagine English villages to be. It had a haunted pub and a pond and a vicarage. Dad put a roof on the house and we stayed there for a while. Then, after a few years, we moved to a village nearby. I don’t know why.

On Saturday mornings I’d take my Raleigh Burner (a classic bike of the time, complete with yellow Mag wheels and blue Tuff II tyres) and ride off around the village calling on my friends. We’d spend the day looking for trouble - hard to find in a small, sleepy English village. We probably looked like the BMX Bandits after a run in with the Famous Five.

One Saturday in late Spring, I left a little earlier than usual. The village was still asleep and I took some time to enjoy riding around the empty streets before making my first call. I began to make up stories in my head. I pretended that everyone had disappeared; that I was the only human being left on earth after some mysterious cataclysm. It thrilled me. Like Ed, the main character in The End of the World Running Club, it quickly became my favourite childhood fantasy: a world emptied of people, a limitless playground with no rules.

Somewhere along the line, I grew up and started moving about the place. I lived in various places around the UK, did my stint in London trying to be responsible, spent summers trying to surf in Cornwall (still my favourite place in the British Isles, despite the graffiti scrawl across a road sign when you enter the county that reads YOU ARE NOT IN ENGLAND), moved to Spain for a while, travelled to Asia, spent a month on an empty beach in New Zealand trying to write a book about two Carthaginian soldiers who take to the sea because it has no borders, thought about moving to Australia but ended up moving to Edinburgh, the hop-reeking, smoky, haunted, medieval capital of Scotland. That’s where I wrote my first book, From the Storm, and it’s where I met my wife and had our children.

My family have moved about a bit. We live in Texas now. No breed of nationalism or patriotism exists within me; I feel no pride about being Scottish, nor English, nor British - I’m writing this on the day that Scotland voted NO to its independence from the UK, and I’m still unsure about how that makes me feel.

What I do have is a deep fondness for the time and the place in which I grew up.
I also have a bit of a thing for the apocalypse. I think it stems from the mind of an eight-year-old boy in an empty village on a quiet Saturday morning.

When I wrote The End of the World Running Club, I wanted to capture that same eery feeling of wonder I felt as I swerved back and forth across the road, splashing through puddles and enjoying the silence. I wanted Ed - now a grown up, struggling with life as a father and weary of the noise and clamour in the ever-more complicated, connected world sprawling around him - to face his challenges in a country that had suddenly gone quiet, stripped back to its bare landscape.

In order to do this, I had to throw some asteroids at it. Quite a few, as it happens. The aftermath leaves Ed stranded in Scotland, facing a grueling journey on foot to reach his family on the south coast of England before he loses them forever.

There are some people left on the road, of course. And like every post-apocalyptic story, some are friendly, some not so. The challenges Ed really faces, though, are the ones posed by his own limits. To reach his family on time, he ends up having to run - he has to run a lot. Running is a passion of mine, but I’ve only every run as far as a marathon, so I interviewed anumber of ultra-running friends about their experiences covering long distances. I wanted to be accurate in my descriptions of the trials Ed has to endure…and Ed is far from marathon material, as you’ll find out if you read the book.

If you do read The End of the World Running Club, then I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.  I’ve had some genuinely amazing responses from readers so far, and that instant connection I can make with fans has brought home just how incredible it is to be a self-published author right now. Drop me a line to say hello - I’ll always write back.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~




Adrian J Walker was born in the bush suburbs of Sydney, Australia in the mid-70's. He self published From the Storm back in 2012. The End of the World Running Club is his second novel and he is actively writing his third as we speak. He currently lives in Texas with his wonderful, supportive wife and two kids who amaze him more every day.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where Writers Write: Gerald Brennan

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!


Where Writers Write is a series that features authors as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 




This is Gerald Brennan. 

Gerald is the author of ResistanceZero Phase: Apollo 13 on the Moon, and, most recently, Public Loneliness: Yuri Gagarin’s Circumlunar Flight, which was largely composed on bitter winter morning commutes. Go ahead and tweet him @jerry_brennan






Where Gerald Brennan Writes

Train travel’s supposed to be inherently romantic, full of magic and wonder and old-time adventure—yet another thing (like, say, typewriters) that writers are expected to enthusiastically endorse. Amtrak, for instance, recently staged a social media campaign for a writer’s residency to be conducted on the nation’s railways. And I’ll admit, despite the well-worn seediness of their trains, I kinda wanted to be picked. I’ve already ridden many of their major routes out of Chicago—from Chicago to Portland, to Los Angeles, to New York, to Jackson and Grand Rapids and Milwaukee and St. Louis and Ann Arbor—and I’m pretty damn happy with a laptop and a power cord and one of their cafĂ©-car cans of Red Bull, writing and listening to music and watching the scenery. But I’m a husband and a father of two nowadays, with roles and responsibilities and a regular 9-to-5, so most of my writing’s done on a much less exciting train: the Purple Line.

It’s been a process-of-elimination pick. I used to favor coffee shops—Newcity once made a list of the five Chicago coffee shops whose regulars were most likely to form a doomsday cult, and I’d been frequenting three of them—but the aforementioned responsibilities now keep me home in my free time. Writing at night either leaves me too amped to go to bed (if it’s going well) or conking out pathetically at the keyboard (if it’s not), and as George Marshall once said, nobody’s ever had a good idea after 3:00 in the afternoon. (Plus there’s the whole being-emotionally-available-for-my-family thing to consider—when my daughter toddles over to the den, I can either pick her up, which of course makes her want to start typing her own disjointed manuscripts, or ignore her and feel like a complete ass, even more so than usual.) Sometimes the lunch hour works in a pinch, but it’s messy and you have to interrupt your meal, and meetings can crop up last-minute and pinch you out of your time anyway. (There’s also a famous Dorothy Parker quote: “I hate writing. I love having written.” And writing at lunch compresses the “having written” feeling into the second half of the day.) So I like to write early. But I also like to work out early, and I don’t like to get up insanely early, so home’s not always an option.

Enter the Purple Line.

train

“Now that she’s back in the atmosphere, with drops of Jupiter in her hair, hey hey…” Oh wait. Wrong Train. But now you’ve got that song in your head. Haha, sucker!

We moved from the South Loop to Rogers Park a year ago, and in addition to my other time constraints, I found myself stuck on the CTA for a good chunk of my waking hours. But once I realized it was my best shot at uninterrupted free time, I resolved to write there. At first, I stuck to pen-and-paper, fearful of electronics thieves, and of regular commuters who might find a laptop obnoxious. But soon I saw others with laptops, and I figured, “Fuck it.”

In the old coffee shop days, I had to develop a routine to maximize my chances at productivity. I’d get my seat first (close to the outlet if possible) and mark my territory by leaving something too substantial to ignore, but not so valuable that I’d mind having it stolen. (Usually a sweater.) THEN I’d go to the bathroom, and THEN I’d make a token purchase and sit down and start writing. (No WiFi codes, no nothing, and a set of headphones so people knew I was trying to tune them out.) On the Purple Line, too, I soon had to construct procedures to maximize my chances at productivity.

There’s always a chance the train’ll be full by the time it gets to Howard, so I started paying attention to where the doors normally open on an 8-car train, and standing there.

purple man

Usually right where this guy’s standing. Outta my way, punk!

This gives me a fighting chance at getting a prime seat without throwing too many elbows. I figure the other commuters jockeying for seats are motivated by reasons less altruistic than mine. They’re probably not writing for the greater benefit of society—they’re probably just trying to sit down for some selfish reason, like personal comfort. Still, I figure it’s better to jostle around and be an ass on the platform to get where I need to be. Then when the doors open, I win the seat fair and square.

What constitutes a prime seat, you ask?

On the old-style trains, it’s the little single outward seat at the end—secluded, but with space in front. This seat, right here:

perfect seat

Ahh, blessed solitude!

Failing that, I used to go for the cramped parallel seats at the end of the car. This way I could still conceal my laptop from any would-be thieves.

cramped seat

If you squeeze in here and wedge your laptop’s top edge under the seatback and look straight ahead at all times, nobody will know you’re holding something valuable.

But then I realized that this fear—that someone will steal your precious, precious words—is the hallmark of the amateur, the person who’s more obsessed with registering their work with the United States Copyright Office than they are with actually giving it to other human beings to read and respond. Better to sit in a more open seat and be comfortable. And I figure if someone steals my laptop, I’ll lessen the sting by telling myself they’re an enthusiastic advance reader. Heck, maybe I’ll even post a Craigslist “Missed Connections” post asking for feedback.

So on the old trains, if I can’t get the covert single seats, I’m looking for a spot near the door, or better yet, in the first parallel row. This way I can put my bag in front of me (OK, on the seat, until all other available seats are gone and standing people start giving me dirty looks) and whip out my laptop and write like a madman until I have to start putting my laptop away at Merchandise Mart in preparation for the transfer at Clark and Lake.

open seat


These anonymous commuters helpfully coordinated with one another and the train, chosing a muted color scheme that makes for a more pleasing shot.

Now on the newer trains, EVERY seat has ample space in front, and there are even a couple seats that are free from the annoying vertical poles.


free seat

If you’re headin’ for this seat, I’m throwin’ some elbows!

Plus, there’s the holy grail: a truly spacious handicapped spot.

holy grail

Outta my way, rolling people! This seat is MINE!

On snowy mornings, I sometimes look up long enough to catch a few beautiful glimpses of the city, so there’s still a bit of the old train romance. But usually I’m hunched down, focused. Unlike in the old coffee shop days, I know I only have a few dozen minutes to get something done, so there’s an odd mix of routine and urgency, like Groundhog Day crossed with a bad Denzel Washington movie. I have to ignore the jostling commuters and the annoying panhandlers (and, yes, the pleading eyes of the wheelchair-bound) so I can write something worthwhile while the commuter train hurtles unstoppably towards its destination. (Or stoppably, if they’re running too many Brown Line trains and it’s congested from Belmont on in.)

So if you see me writing frantically on the train, remember—I’m fighting the clock and the indifferent commuters so I can get something done—something worthwhile, people! Something that will benefit all of humanity!

Sorry about the elbows.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Writers Recommend: Caleb J Ross and The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel




Time to bring in a new series, freshen this blog up a bit, don't you think? Our latest is called Writers Recommend. And we'll be asking writers to, well, you know.. recommend things. Like the books that they've enjoyed. To you. Because who doesn't like being recommended new and interesting books, right?! Think of it as a PSA. Only it's more like a LSA -Literary Service Announcement. Your welcome. 





Caleb J Ross Recommends The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel




My first thought when tasked for recommendations was to wonder, does it have to be a book? Given those literally limitless limitations there are so, so many wonderful things I could recommend: Wondershowzen, The Video Game Years, peanut butter (nope, there’s no missing hyperlink there; I just can’t recommend peanut butter enough). But a book it is, so a book it shall be.

Every writer needs to read Amy Hempel. Why? Read this sentence, picked at random by flipping through the pages of The Collected Stories:


“Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.” (pg 4)


That sentence by itself sprouts so many possibilities. As a writer, it’s a seed like this that I live for. The juxtaposed imagery (playfulness vs. suicide), the rhythm of the syllables (…listen for the playfulness…), the implied relationships (what is causing this person to possibly kill herself?), the sentence packs in so much that I am satisfied as a reader, willing to accept this single line as an entire story while simultaneously eager to read the next sentence (in the case of this story, “Tub,” it’s the last sentence of the story). Of course this is not to denigrate the complete story that Hempel builds around this sentence—the story is as phenomenal as that one sentence implies—but rather my appreciation of her brevity is an appreciation of Hempel as a storyteller and an inspiration.

How could you not read this sentence and immediately be compelled to write?


“Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT.” (pg 153, from “And Lead us Not into Penn Station”)






Caleb J. Ross has a BA in English Literature and creative writing from Emporia State University. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared widely, both online and in print. He is the author of five books of fiction and is the creator of The Book Burning Channel, a YouTube channel featuring humorous book reviews, literary skits, writing advice, and rants. Visit his official page at http://www.calebjross.com. A group novel written with Caleb, Nik Korpon, Axel Taiari, and Richard Thomas will be published by Dzanc in 2015.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: The Mimic's Own Voice

Read 9/11/14 - 9/12/14
3 Stars - Recommended to folks who like faux-documentaries about fictional celebrities
Pages: 97
Publisher: Main Street Rag
Released: 2011


I landed myself a signed copy of The Mimic's Own Voice during the Cobalt Press Four Fathers Kickstarter campaign back in 2013, when I had partnered with Cobalt and organized a pretty cool four-way interview session with the contributors of the collection - Ben Tanzer, BL Pawelek, Dave Housely, and Tom Williams himself.

A meaty ninety-seven paged novella, The Mimic's Own Voice tells the story of  Douglas Myles, a fictional professional comedic mimic a la faux documentary style. It's ultimately a story of a story, in the sense that someone pens this completely unbiased, journalistic biography of this wildly talented but completely hermetic guy once his post-mortem, unpublished, autobiographical manuscript is uncovered. (You got all that?)

How incredibly meta of you, Williams!

Typically, I hear of books written in this style and my eyes start to glaze over and I begin to feel a nagging, almost uncontrollable urge to run, run faaaaaaarrrr away, to avoid coming into contact with said book. And I have to admit that, though I didn't request that a copy of this book come into my possession, I alone chose to pull it out from under the TBR pile and crack it open. The first few pages were a bit difficult for me, because I really wasn't sure where Williams was going, blathering on and on about the old-time mimics, "those artists who made their fame and fortune with stunning mimicry of the period's political leaders and actors, athletes and musicians, scholars, and men of science." We're not actually introduced to Myles until the bottom of page four. And by that point, I'm looking at the total page count of the book and thinking to myself, well hell, I'm already about 5% into the darn thing, might as well finish it, yeah?

Much of the book is focused on how Myles applied his savant-like talent for mimicry. How he initially cultivated an audience with his vocal trickery by mimicking the old-time mimics (how very meta of YOU, Myles), then turning his ear and voice towards his contemporary peers and rivals, to his final big ta-dah... mimicking the voices of his very own audience members, to their amazement and enjoyment.

So, I mentioned that The Mimic's Own Voice is meaty, and meaty it is. You're gonna need a fork and knife and some major jaw muscles to chew through this sucker. It's a sticker and a stayer. Kind of like a well-seasoned but overcooked cut of meat. There's no swallowing this one down quickly. You're gonna be working at it for a little while. But when it's all gone down, and the plate is clean, you'll definitely feel full and satisfied.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Melanie Review: Crocodile Smiles

Pages: 114 
Publisher: Black Scat Books
Released: 2014


Guest review by Melanie Page



“Are crocodiles capable of smiling,” we are asked, “if they can’t cry?” Yuriy Tarnawsky’s newest collection contains six short, absurdist stories--confessional in nature, of course--that that suggest the author borrowed from playwriting and well-known tales.

Each story is process-oriented. First a character does something, and then the next step, and then the next. Skipping one part of the process is unthinkable, which gives some of the stories their length. “Agamemnon (post mortem),” described to readers as taking place on a stage in front of an audience, begins with sounds: hacking, sawing, screaming, moaning, crushing. We are tuned into the audio portion of the event.

Next, characters bring out a large thing as part of a procession, including a dwarf man and woman whom we are told to guess are Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the murderers of Agamemnon. When all proceed off stage, they return again with another large piece of something. As the audience watches--and readers “watch” too--the pieces are stacked and come together as the body of the murdered. The description of leaving and returning are described again and again. Once the deed is done, everyone retreats. But the story/play doesn’t end there. Offstage we hear the couple talk, the squeaky springs of post-murder fornication, and some arguing.

What could be the problem? Why something as small as who left the light on after they stacked the dead man’s body. Aegisthus must come from offstage to cross in front of the audience in near dark, squishing through the bloody puddles to get to the light. With everything necessary completed, the story ends. Skipping one step wouldn’t make sense to the story. So, the procession in and out seems agonizingly long, but makes it easier to imagine the act truly happening.

Why this style of writing wasn’t my favorite of Tarnawsky’s, I appreciated the exploratory toying with form and content. I much prefer his collection Short Tales (Journal of Experimental Fiction Books, 2011), which takes on absurdist and cerebral narratives that stick closer to traditional storytelling. You’re asked to go deep into your mind, but you’re told to go there in a way that you recognize.

Crocodile Smiles was somewhat like you imagine to be descriptive services for the blind, but as the stories progress, the language takes on a rhythm, much like learning to dance to a new song with foreign steps. But, when you get the moves, you enjoy that it is a unique experience.




Melanie Page is a MFA graduate, adjunct instructor, and recent founder of Grab the Lapels, a site that only reviews books written by women (www.grabthelapels.weebly.com).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Audio Series: Erika Wurth




Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen."  was hatched in a NYC club during BEA back in 2012. This feature requires more time and patience of the author than any of the ones that have come before. And that makes it all the more sweeter when you see, or rather, hear them read excerpts from their own novels, in their own voices, the way their stories were meant to be heard.


Today, Erika T. Wurth reads an excerpy from her brand spankin' new novel, Crazyhorse’s Girlfriend,which has just been released by Curbside Splendor. Her collection of poetry, Indian Trains, was published by The University of New Mexico’s West End Press. A writer of both fiction and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Boulevard, Fiction, Pembroke, Florida Review, Stand, Cimarron Review, The Cape Rock, Southern California Review and Drunken Boat. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.








Click on the soundcloud link below to experience an excerpt of Crazy Horse's Girlfriend, as read by Erika. 







The word on Crazy Horse's Girlfriend

Margaritte is a sharp-tongued, drug-dealing, sixteen-year-old Native American floundering in a Colorado town crippled by poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse. She hates the burnout, futureless kids surrounding her and dreams that she and her unreliable new boyfriend can move far beyond the bright lights of Denver that float on the horizon before the daily suffocation of teen pregnancy eats her alive.
*lifted with love from goodreads


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tony McMillen Takes it to the Toilet


Oh yes! We are absolutely running a series on bathroom reading! So long as it's taking place behind the closed  (or open, if that's the way you swing) bathroom door, we want to know what it is. It can be a book, the back of the shampoo bottle, the newspaper, or Twitter on your cell phone - whatever helps you pass the time...




Today, author Tony McMillen takes it to the toilet. Tony's debut novel Nefarious Twit was published by Branch Hands Press December of last year. He lives near Boston but grew up mostly in Tucson, Arizona. Besides fiction he also writes the humor column “Touch The Wonder” where he performs droll vivisections on pop culture with equal parts vitriol and whimsy. The column is published by DigBoston.




What Tony McMillen is Reading in the Bathroom




I’m a man who loves sitting down to pee. Sure, I also love the freedom and ease of standing up and letting her rip too. I’d be a fool to squander this, one of the many biological gifts Mother Nature has granted my sex. But that being said, sometimes I just like to sit down and take my time.

But sometimes you want to take it easy but not so easy that you’re bored, you kow? This usually leads to reading.

My bathroom has always had a steady rotation of reading material. Much like a hotel for books or probably more accurately a flophouse. If my bathroom was bigger I could see the appeal of putting a coffee table in next to my can just to support the sloppy pyramid of books that’s always there. Because the truth is usually anything that’s on my coffee table eventually at some point makes its way to a near permanent residence on the floor of my bathroom anyway.  The books will sit there across from the toilet, usually nestled near or beneath a small forest of underwear, socks and the occasional shirt.

Never pants. Pants are only to be taken off in the bedroom. This is a house of order.

This current crop of toilet literature in my book hotel/water closet is a pretty good window into my reading habits.

1. Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, latest issue

Love this goddamn book. Brimper for life. Look it up, kids. (Unless you’re actually actual kids, then don’t look that up, play a violent, sexist video game instead?) Seriously, funniest book on the stands, also really sweet and realistic about relationships and sex despite being about time freezing orgasms.  I read it usually on the couch but go through the letter pages (which is titled “Letter Daddies”) while on the can in the morning to get a few laughs while I’m keeping regular.

2. Trilobites and Other Stories, Breece D’J Pancake

Just picked this up while I was in London. Vonnegut and Atwood both had blurbs on the book and that caught my eye after noticing the cool cover art. So far I’m really enjoying this collection of stories. Guy had a helluva voice. I can see some of this influencing dudes like Donald Ray Pollock the author of Knockemstiff.

3. Wes Anderson Collection, ginormous coffee table book

This thing lived on my bathroom floor for half a fucking year. It’s just a beautifully put together book exploring the director’s whole career. Lot of photos and some essays too. It’s good to just open it once and while and soak up the colors and patterns. My girlfriend got it for me for Christmas or my birthday (they’re only 5 days apart) she knew what she was doing.

4. Southern Reach Trilogy, Jeff VanderMeer

I know he doesn’t need any more press but he deserves it. I can’t wait to start the last installment of the trilogy. These books lived in my bathroom for a while but not so that I could pick them up and thumb through them again but because I needed to read them first thing in the morning after or during waking up and relieving myself. Unputdownable.

5. More Comic Books

Comics can be quick so for the last month or so you’ll find some of these titles and more piled up in the corner far away from the splash back factor of my shower:

Savage Dragon, Erik Larsen
Been reading this comic since I was 11. Unpredictable but dependable action and storytelling.

Supreme: Blue Rose, Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay
Really digging this so far. Story is solid and Lotay’s art is dreamy as hell.

Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Read it. Whoever you are. Read it.

The Wrenchies, Farel Dalrymple
Very strange and sort of fever dreamish. Personal but epic too. Weird book, probably not for every one but I just finished it and it’s still hanging out telling me to pick it up and check it out some more.


All in all I think it’s important to keep reading material in the bathroom because if you don’t inevitably you’ll be faced with the difficult chore of frantically searching your bookshelves for the perfect 6 minute read while simultaneous trying to exert Jedi control over your bladder or bowels in an effort to stall the beyond imminent evacuations. And nothing is worse than taking too long to finally settle on a read only to find that you’ve done your Jean Grey trick a little too well and now you no longer need to use the facilities.

So you’re left with a book and no reason to sit on the toilet. What are you supposed to do? Read in the living room?

Ridiculous.



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

From Here Blog Tour


Always flattered to be a part of the Grab the Lapels blog tours because Melanie Page is doing such wonderful things to get women writers the exposure and attention they deserve. In today's blog tour post, Jen shares an excerpt from her newest collection FROM HERE, then breaks down the excerpt, sharing some insights. 


Today is the second stop of Jen Michalski’s virtual book tour celebrating her new collection, From Here. The twelve stories in From Here explore the dislocations and intersections of people searching, running away, staying put. Their physical and emotional landscapes run the gamut, but in the end, they're all searching for a place to call home.

Read the excerpt from “Lillian in White,” a short story from the collection, and scroll down to see the footnotes to get into Jen’s brain and see what she was thinking!



EXCERPT:


Lillian [1] calls Roy [2] out of the blue. It had been so long since they’d dated, for him, anyway, that he doesn’t recognize the number in his cell phone. But he knows the voice that speaks and is instantly filled with the warm giddiness of promise, the delusional kind in which Lillian has made a terrible mistake and wants him back [3]. He doesn’t know if he wants her back, necessarily, but he swings his feet over his bed and pulls on yesterday’s socks.

“Roy, I know it’s been a long time, but I have a favor to ask you,” she says, her voice breaking up as Roy walks around the room, looking for a shirt [4].

Favor. Shit. He falls back on the bed, suddenly feeling the need for a few hours’ more sleep.

“How long has it been, Lillian?” He tries to remember Lillian’s specific features, recalls her perky tits.

“Eighteen months, almost. Look, I know this is probably a surprise to hear from me, but I’m not sure where else to turn...”

“Well, with that opening, how could I refuse?” Not promising in the least. He closes his eyes, rubs his temples, wondering what he could possibly offer her. Does she need a band for her wedding? Maybe his band, Fabric Softener [5], can play the song he wrote for her. Not a marriage proposal, exactly, but a tacit acknowledgment that two years together had been a long time. Maybe she needs some sort of underhanded loan, or, well, Roy is running out of ideas. He’s not the go-to guy for many things. But he agrees to meet her, anyway. He rolls over, trying to erase the suddenly perfect image of Lillian in white.

She is not wearing white when they meet, at one of those shitty trendy coffee places near his apartment. He spent twenty minutes going through the few clean shirts in the closet and is wearing a pinstripe v-neck sweater his mother bought him for Christmas last year. Respectable, somewhat. Or something. Perhaps it will distract her eyes from the mustard stain on his jeans.

It is certainly not his dumpster-diving wardrobe that attracted Lillian to him, however. It was his status as the lead singer of Fabric Softener, his creative genius and promise. Or maybe chicks just really dug guys in bands. Lillian was hot, a theater major [6] at one of the local college who was friends with a friend of Sam, the bassist. Lillian was hot. But she also was smart and funny like a friend who is a girl, like the fat chick with glasses who secretly has a crush on you and makes you laugh so hard all the time. And sometimes bitchy. But that’s girls for you.

But yeah, Lillian left him. It was hard to believe they’d been together two years, long enough for Roy to feel like it was for forever. Long enough to write a song for her [7], a song the band never got a chance to play, because Roy never shared it with them. It lived, in the closet of his heart and scrawled on the back of a grocery list, unbeknownst to anyone else.

Lillian has a cup of tea. Roy wonders if she quit drinking coffee. He orders a cup, black [8], and they take a table by the window. The round table is so small his knees brush against hers and he inhales her familiar scent.

“You look good, Roy.” She smiles that little smile of hers and Roy feels like something is squeezing meanly in his chest.

He cried—yes, he’ll admit it—cried when Lillian left [9]. It was in a coffee shop much like this one, when she dumped him, a Sunday morning after a party at somebody’s studio apartment with no place to sit. Why he has agreed to come here today, when his life was pretty good, manageable, he does not know.

“I quit smoking,” he answers although [10], in his opinion, that has made him look worse. Ten pounds worse.

“Congratulations,” she answers, and there is a hollow between them that is tepidly filled by the percolation of coffee and people.

“So,” he says after a drag of an imaginary Marlboro. “What’s up?”

      “I’m pregnant,” she says simply.




AUTHOR INSIGHTS:


[1]. I’ve got nothing on this name, except a girl named Lillian—or Vivian—sounds like a real prima donna, like wealth, a little bitchy, to me. She has raven black hair and dark eyes and arched eyebrows, like an actress in a movie adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel.

[2]. I love the name Roy—if I ever had a boy (although time is short for such things), I would name him Roy. Not after Rogers—although I did work in the drive-through at Roy Rogers when I was in high school—but after Roy Rossello, a member of the boy band Menudo whom I had a crush on when I was about 12 (yes, you’re getting all the deep secrets here). He was Puerto Rican, had a bit of a shag haircut, but warm pools of eyes, and I’m totally not embarrassed to say I think he’s still cute. On a general level, I associate the name Roy with a light-hearted, happy-go-lucky guy, a little slight and boyish, with dimples and a crazy-nice smile. The kind of guy I would date, if I were straight.

[3]. I think someone had just broken up with me a few months before I began working on this story, in 2007, so I was kind of half-waiting for the call or the text or even a visit from her ISP to my website so I’d know she still kept tabs on me or something—know you, delusional stuff.

[4]. I wish I could tell you how this story germinated, but I really can’t remember. It’s somewhat controversial or sensitive, as you find as you keep reading, but I’m pretty sure I had Roy and Lillian first, floating around in my head, broken up and wondering how to get them back together, at least for a day.

[5]. It’s always been an obsession of mine to think of imaginary names for the bands I would start, once I learned how to play the bass or take up the clarinet again (and before you laugh, when I saw Patti Smith in concert, she whipped out her clarinet and it was awesome). In college, my friends and I joked we would start a band called the Electric Dandelions (after those plasma balls you can buy at head shops). We wrote a bunch of song titles, several albums’ worth, all having to do with our own private drug references. We were too stoned most of the time to actually write the lyrics or any music. After college, around the time Weezer was big, unfortunately, I wanted to start a band called Wheezie (after George Jefferson’s wife, Louise Jefferson). I would probably name my band after some obscure lyric from another band I dug. I could go on, but I won’t. Fabric Softener is actually not a name I would choose for my own band.

[6]. I think girls named Lillian would also be totally hot and be theater majors in college.

[7]. When I was a freshman, a guy wrote a song for me. It was one of my most memorable gifts ever—a song! —second to the Zippo he bought me for Christmas with my name inscribed on it. (And we weren’t even dating!) Anyway, the problem with the song is that he was a bass player and when he played it for me, he could only play the bass line, so it was hard to envision the rest. He was a huge King Crimson fan, and I always am relieved to have heard only the bass line, because maybe it sounded like a King Crimson song.

[8]. I only developed a taste for coffee a few years ago, probably because of all the candy coffees out there now (thanks, Starbucks). But it’s more like I drink flavored creamer and put a little coffee in it to convince myself I’m not drinking flavored creamer.

[9]. I am terrible and pathetic at breakups. I’m not stalky, but I will cry totally out of proportion, like I’ve lost my entire family in a plane crash. It’s embarrassing and sad.

[10]. The longest I’ve gone without a cigarette since college is two years. It’s a terrible, addictive thing, and I think the government should bury all cigarettes in that landfill in New Mexico next to those ET games for the Atari 2600 that everyone preferred to light on fire and shoot into space instead. (God, did anyone ever win that game? I remember picking up those Reeses Pieces, which looked like 8-bit dog turds, and falling in the swamp (which looked like nothing, 8-bit or otherwise).



*Tomorrow, head over to [PANK] to read an interview with Jen about the content of the collection. If you missed yesterday’s post, go to the blog PhD in Creative Writing to learn about why Jen became an author!






Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize; the short story collection Close Encounters; and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, host of the Starts Here! reading series, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.