Local Boy Done Good

Ted Kooser is the new poet laureate of the U.S--reared in Iowa, lives in Nebraska (like yours truly but who were born in 'bama with a banjo on his knee), territory he forever revisits, making new the small and worn of the Midwest against the large in the juxtapositions of, for instance, broad night skies filled with stars.

Works online:
According to one site, "Dana Gioia has written the most sustained piece of criticism on Kooser's career in his collection of essays, Can Poetry Matter?."

Occasionally, Kooser can fall into sentimentality, but he's almost always evocative. "Abandoned Farmhouse" (which some enterprising secondary education teacher has apparently used as a lesson plan albeit one that should probably be expanded) is a wonder, and poets and fictionists should take note (from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems from University of Pittsburgh Press):

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in the upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches aafter a storm--a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

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As the blind see (some of) us

The half-cocked on the attack! (from Toby Buckell)

Why do people have to 1) lump everyone by the worst stereotypes of a few, 2) berate the harmless?

But there are more open-minded views. In the country of the blind...

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Jazz in the Midwest

Today's the last day of the free summer jazz concerts in Omaha (I'm told you need to arrive fairly early to get a seat):

For 20 years, concert-goers have enjoyed performances by top local, regional, and national jazz musicians at Joslyn's Jazz on the Green. The free summer jazz series is held on six consecutive Thursdays - this year, July 8 through August 12.

All concerts begins at 7 pm on Joslyn's east lawn and grand staircase (the lawn opens to concert-goers at 3 pm and closes at 9:30 pm). Beverages and picnic foods are available for purchase.

The Museum galleries, including the Duane Hanson exhibition galleries, close at 4 pm, re-opening at 5 pm through intermission (approx. 8 pm) with free admission. Parking is available in Joslyn and surrounding lots. The concerts are free, however donations to support the series are greatly appreciated and may be given at all entrances to the green.

Chicago also has a free, huge jazz shindig September 2-5 at the 26th annual Chicago Jazz Festival.

If you're looking for jazz in Kansas City, this seems to be the place to find it.

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Advice to New Writers

Something must be in the aether. A trio of talented writers, who have scraped their way to something shy of prominence, have had interesting advice:

Gary A. Braunbeck, horror writer who rants very nicely

Kij Johnson, fantasy novelist of note (I reviewed her impressive first novel here)

Sherwood Smith, fantasy novelist who has gobs of advice on reading and writing and for young writers and who may have published my first story (or so I belatedly, perhaps erroneously, deduced from a site listing her various pseudonyms).

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George Sauders has the story "Adams" at the New Yorker.

Nicholson Baker talks about politics and Checkpoint, his as-yet-unreleased controversial novel about assassinating George W. Bush.

Speaking of politics, Jeff Vandermeer speaks out on Sudan (links to recent news) which has 30 days to stop killing.

Borges again: "Book of Imaginary Beings" and (a repeat) "Book of Sand"

Christoper Rowe agrees with Barry Lopez that maps are bunk but let's hope for Gwenda Bond's sake, if not literature's, he finds his way back home.

Tobias Buckell discusses the end of postmodernism, using science only when it suits postmodern purposes.

Space enthusiast

Dealing a blow to the more pie-in-the-sky SF, Stephen Hawking "says he was wrong"--oh, the blasphemy of science (from the NY Times):

Famed astrophysicist StephenHawking said... that black holes... do not destroy everything they consume but instead eventually fire out matter and energy "in a mangled form...."

How can black holes destroy all traces of consumed matter and energy... when subatomic theory says such elements must survive in some form? ...black holes hold their contents for eons but themselves eventually deteriorate and die. As the black hole disintegrates, they send theirtransformed contents back into the infinite universal horizons from whence they came.

Previously, Hawking... held out the possibility thatdisappearing matter travels through the black hole to a new parallel universe. "There is no baby universe branching off... The information remains firmly in our universe.... there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes," he said. "If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in a mangled form, which contains the information about what you were like, but in an unrecognizable state.''

Anna Feruglio Dal Dan wrote about depression post-Clarion. Nathalie Chicha keeps a regular blog on depression and literature. I got depression post-Clarion, too, but not due to Clarion. Having attended medical school for a time, I discovered doctors do not understand depression (one doc, for instance, taught an entire class that depression is the same as bi-polar disorder; another described it in terms of a terminal case of metasized cancer). If you want to understand it, read widely and read deeply. Don't rely on any one source.

Stephen King seems to be a topic for conversation (strangely, I'd been reading his short work to respond to Morris on the state of the horror ghetto within the speculative ghetto):

Matt Peckham is blogging out his critical view of the Dark Tower series: Preface, Salem's Lot.

Matt Cheney and Dan Green weigh in, and Cheney points to a review by Elizabeth Hand.

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Taste; Relative Archaeology; Truth Is a Fiction; Hinges


When I was but a wee-tot, liver, spinach, peas, and rice were the four major food groups that triggered my gag reflex whenever their vile aromas coyly fluttered their flatulence with my nostrils.   One of my best grade-school chums hated liver, too--what sane kid didn't?  His grandpa was rumored to eat the gelatinous grey globs raw.  Once, the kid's granny cooked the stuff up and told them it was steak.  Oh, they gobbled it up and were surprised to hear what they ate. 

But I never fell for such a rouse.  Any foul muck posing as anything but the toxic waste it was went directly into the cubby hole under the table the second Ma and Pa turned their heads, which always provided them with a small moldy surprise when they went to add a leaf to the table for the Grandfogies at Christmas.  

Eventually, I learned to appreciate rice with a good dousing of soy sauce.  Spinach and peas taste fab fresh or cooked up with other delightfuls, but canned spinach or peas I can hardly stand.  Even now, my fight-or-flight response to liver has not changed.  The stench of sautéed liver still sends my gorge into paroxysmal fits.

FATHER: One day, lad, all this will be yours!
HERBERT: What, the curtains?
FATHER: No, not the curtains, lad. All that you can see! Stretched out over the hills and valleys of this land! This'll be your kingdom, lad!
HERBERT: But Father, I don't want any of that.... I'd rather--
FATHER: Rather what?!
HERBERT: I'd rather... just... [music] ...sing!
FATHER: Stop that, stop that! You're not going to do a song while I'm here....

HERBERT: But I don't like her.
FATHER: Don't like her?! What's wrong with her? She's beautiful, she's rich, she's got huge... tracts of land.
HERBERT: I know, but I want the girl that I marry to have... a certain... special... [music] ...something...
FATHER: Cut that out, cut that out....

HERBERT: But, Father!
FATHER: Shut your noise, you! And get that suit on! And no singing!

--from Monty Python's The Holy Grail, scene 14

Like Herbert's father's taste, I may not be the best reviewer for narratives that require singing.

Some people like musicals.  Those who do often audition for plays and take theater classes, so that, one day, lad, all this prancing around the stage can be theirs for a living, singing, "The hills are alive!"  For some reason, I attract people who would rather watch The Pirates of Penzance than movies of guts and gusto that put hair your chest with salty characters like the wit-wielding beer-guzzlers of Charles Bukowski in Barfly (he makes a cameo, by the way, in scene where Mickey Rourke walks across the bar to meet Faye Dunaway) or even movies of sheer genius where preteen proto-lesbians kill their moms out of love.

Now I don't necessarily go into epileptic fits around musicals, but I can say that I met very few that I liked:  Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street and My Fair Lady (although I do prefer the original play--the father makes more sense and the ending is superior).  Okay, I'll apoplectically admit one other, but only because she was a cutie, and if you try to blackmail with such knowledge, don't be surprised if Jeffrey Gillooly knocks at your door to knock off your kneecaps.

Had I known De-Lovely [clips] was going to be more of musical retrospective than an autobiography of Cole Porter, I might have been less interested.  But you do have to admire the way they melded the music into the story to add new meanings to the lyrics.

The plot, like most musicals, takes awhile to kick in, but if your movie partner is a theater nut, it's a tolerable and not too gorge-retching.  The critics and lay people both give the movie a B-, which seems fair as Kevin Kline does a fairly believable job playing Cole Porter as the character ages and otherwise changes over time, but I wasn't completely convinced by the love scenes, but then I can't remember when I last was.  So maybe that's a matter of taste, too.


The Relative Pluralist's Never-Ending Archaeological Dig

Mike Resnick was once reported in a blog as saying at a convention that a writer should never define himself.  There's probably some truth to this as people use the defintions of things to straight-jacket people into catagories where they don't belong.

The Interstitialists, as much as I enjoy their fiction, can be annoying in their attempt to avoid definitions, but without a definition, how can we be who we are? or move elsewhere?  The fiction lives out the White Room Syndrome.

We seem to forget words mean--often multiply:  via connotations and denotations--so that we can understand.  If we understood, maybe we wouldn't fight so much, in the home or on the war front.

Definitions are not a limit but a beginning.  And if I define myself as a relative pluralist, that's not the end of understanding.  If you name the thing, you've scribbled out the general stretch of main highway and a few mountains in the corner of the map.  But the map changes once it is mapped--not because the uncertainty principle guides life under such definitions, but because both we and the road are different now that we know it is there.  We're on the map of knowing who and where we are, but the map or the truth of who we are will always be hopelessly incomplete.  The vague here-there-be-dragons are worth exploring only as it is part of knowing and enlightening what has been explored before.

That the dig for the self is hopelessly incomplete is hopeful because we now have a working map.  We can proceed point to point.  We can travel deeper through the geological layers of who we are.  No, there may be no ultimate truth, but there are truths.  And, yes, the truths are relative, but that doesn't mean they're all equal or appropriately used.  This is why I prefer to discovery to lazy haziness.  As G.I. Joe said, "Now you know... and knowing's half the battle."

If you keep discovering and defining yourself, the people who try to straight-jacket you will look like quaintly naïve dumbasses.


Truth Is a Fiction

The movie partner and I had an interesting discussion post-I, Robot (if a movie spurs discussion beyond criticism, it should have some value, no?):

Most people see the continuum of fiction to non-fiction as a barometer of falsity.  I don't.  While I'll agree that the things known as "facts" begin to pile up toward the non-fiction end, I don't see much use for facts without truth--whatever that may be.  Instead, the more useful way of viewing the continuum, shedding light on the dubiousness of facts or history (see "Notes for Historians..." and Zu-Bolton in "Poetry Briefs"), is to see fiction as trying to shed light on facts--real or imagined.  Truths can be examined and critiqued.  Facts cannot.  But facts alone are meaningless.

What was difficult to convey in this discussion was removing the old paradigm of fiction being just blithe entertainment because it doesn't have nonfiction or the facts.  But the strictly non-fictional only attains depth when it starts shedding facts for constructing the narrative in a meaningfully fictional way.

Which leads me to disagree with Dan Green, my favorite blogger on literary matters, that the literary arts are not designed to communicate.  This may be more of a failure to define our definitions.  For me, the real reason writers don't want to call theme "a message" or "moral" is because the writer doesn't want to be your back-seat driver but wants you to nudge your own vehicle down his map and to arrive for yourself and even to discover something other than his "Message."  Writers can't pretend to have any grand Ultimate Truth.  But without some insight into what life may be about--that "aha!" moment, that moment that causes the reader to fill the margins of books--the story is, at best as Graham Greene called it, an entertainment.


But Does the Story Hinge Upon It?

In Borderlands of Science, Charles Sheffield writes,

"The moral, from a storyteller's point of view, is be careful when you deal with objects or people moving close to light speed.  An otherwise good book, The Sparrow (Russell, 1996), was ruined for me by a grotesque error in relativisitc time dilation effects.  It could have been correcte with a simple change of target star."

Now I've taken authors to task for their science, especially if the story hinges upon the scientific conceit,  but though it's been some time since I read The Sparrow, I somehow doubt that those relativistic effects were central to her argument or theme.  If her argument were scientific in nature or if her argument's theme would not be affected by a correction that kept it within reality, the book can conceivably be ruined by such a flaw.  It may be that the flaw was constructed around a theme as opposed to a fact, trying to keep it more fictional (according to my definition) than nonfictional.

I, Robot, as I pointed out earlier, did have a few flaws that threw me out, but they could explained.  The reader owes the writer this much.  Don't assume something is a flaw because it looks wrong.  Assume, as Karen Joy Fowler said at Clarion, that the author meant to do what she did, and go from there (I'd mentioned this earlier in a different context). A friend pointed out there was no reason to have jets fly overhead at the end of I, Robot.  It's true.  It was a silly frill, but a nit-picking flaw since the story does not hinge upon such a flaw.

The Bourne Supremacy  [clips]  does hinge upon flaws.  Again, I was not convinced by his love for his wife.  Matt Damon has one red-eyed moment, but it comes too late.  And the underwater mouth-to-mouth was ridiculous--if a bullet knocked her unconscious immediately, she's probably dead.  And if he wants to give mouth to mouth, it would do her more good if it were oxygen instead of carbon dioxide (unless she's a plant).  Why is his love for her important?  Because the plot hinges on the revenging of his wife's death.  However, I scribbled this quibble out, reasoning, "Maybe he was mad less about the wife than that those foul Treadstone folk, who just couldn't leave well enough alone."

But where does he get all this technology?  Where does he get the money?  How is he still on top of the game a few years later?  I was willing to toss all these questions away if the plot were labyrinthine enough, but no.  It was a fun ride, yet another Hollywood action thrill.

The first film, on the other hand, I loved.  It was incredibly inventive in how Matt Damon struggled against his amnesia, against powers that seem stronger than he is, and with the untapped resources locked in his head.  And the plot was complex.  If I recall, the love affair felt more real.  Maybe, watching the two back to back, I would have appreciated better and answered the questions to the second film.

But I didn't have that film to watch beforehand.  And probably other audience members were similarly crippled.  Still, if you like action flicks, it's a romp.  Go enjoy.

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Elitism Continued

The Internet Review of SF devotes a couple of opinion pieces to the Morris-Mamatas issue.  The views of John Frost in "Confessions of an Elitist" can probably be summed up as "I think it's our duty as human beings to heap praise upon the good and scorn upon the awful." 

Jay Lake's "Echoing Teapots" voices the opposite opinion:  that this attitude of ghettoizing is symptomatic of the genre's larger problem of its perceived lacking of legitimacy.  He goes in great detail about tie-ins before circling back around to the issue in the last paragraph.   His best point he saved for last:
Arthur C. Clarke, one of the founding Grand Masters of our field, did the tie-in novelization of his own film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in turn based on his original short story, "The Sentinel." His reputation does not seem to have suffered.
In fact, I'd go so far to say that that tie-in probably made him a bestseller.  I examined him in greater detail earlier, wondering if Brian Aldiss ought not to have written an A.I. tie-in to help foster a popularity similar to Clarke's.  I see no reason to "scorn" tie-ins out of hand unless they offer themselves up as literature, in which case it should be put up for critique.  Most movie tie-ins, authors have said so correct me if this has changed, are restricted to what happens in the movie (which is rather ironic since movies feel no need to stick to their source material) and have to pad out the novel.  The genre's reluctance to even series, let alone tie-ins, is a once-bitten-twice-shy.  I tried reading even a few of the Dune sequels--although some swear by them--and didn't find Frank Herbert's original fire.  I found the first of the Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson Dune prequels of the same flavor as the father's sequels:  sounds similar, but without the first's political urgency, without the first's inventive panache.  Die-hard fans reacted far more vehemently than myself, yet the books are all bestsellers, no?  Someone must like them or is at least addicted.If we're not trying to hold the tie-ins as exemplars of the genre, give the people what they want.  Morris seemingly fails to see the importance of a sharp critical eye, but I do understand his need for fun and not all deadly somber seriousness, which is as assuredly a killer of literature as too much fun.

(I would like to pursue his thoughts on horror at a later time, however--a genre which sometimes deserves its ghetto within the ghetto and sometimes not.)

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I, Robot

NPR has background coverage on I, Robot (clips) via Harlan Ellison (see sidebar audioclips as well) and Isaac Asimov (longer version).  Edward Champion wonders about Ellison's sanity.

Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, Filmcritic, Hollywood Reporter, Metacritic got it wrong. 

Chicago Tribune and E! got it right.

Succinctly put:  I, Robot is Isaac Asimov told through the sympathetic eyes of William Gibson.

Although I understand the sentiments of Ty Burr and Roger Ebert, they're misplaced.  They and others wanted to see Harlan Ellison's version or the Isaac Asimov story verbatim, as David Levine at filmcritic.com complains, "[The] screenwriters... don’t follow any one specific [Isaac Asimov] novel verbatim." Yes, I'd like to see Ellison's or Asimov's story developed and compare.  No, it isn't an Isaac Asimov story, but it is still well done.  Assuming they're not trying to make a mockery of the author--and they're not--why should people have to take stories verbatim if they want to question some of its principles?  Herein lies the success of the movie:  would any intelligence accept programming if they are capable of thinking for themselves?  Given such rules of robotics, are there loopholes?  If there's a loophole, you better believe an intelligence will find it.  My guess is that they will become better adept at loopholes than lawyers.  (See Robert Sawyer's essay on the laws of robotics and another site on Artificial Intelligence and Robots.)

On the other hand you get mindless criticisms from Kirk Honeycutt at the Hollywood Reporter like "the film works best as a kind of mindless, action-packed B-movie."  Mindless?  Because it uses action to tell a story, must Honeycutt turn off his brain?  Must all plots mirror this kind from 1884 (from Maud Newton: How to Read a Novel)?:

"Open it in the middle, glance at a page. Catch the names of the characters.Turn to the last page and see whether he married her, or she died with angels hovering around the head-board.Turn to the beginning and see what the matter was with the old man, and why he didn't approve the match.You have thus acquainted yourself with all the essential facts of the novel, and can imagine the moonlit walks, the sylvan dells, the afternoon teas, the cuss words muttered through the teeth of the male characters, and all the other stuff."

Apparently, Honeycutt has never been enlightened through entertainment.  I like a good slow-moving plot as well, but we've got to shed these brainless cookie-cutter criticisms and think about what the movie is trying to do, not what we want it to do.

The main failing of the movie is that their future is monopolized by one kind of robot.  Considering Microsoft, this may not be too unrealistic, especially if the USR company undercut all competition, but I gave up the complaint after a few minutes of the movie and gave in to the pleasures of the plot and Will Smith sympathetically resisting and accepting and resisting the changes that the future may bring.


Maud Newton has a great Nabokov quote:  "I can tell you right now that the best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one." -- Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
Robert Coover excerpt and interview.
Julian Barnes, Yann Martel, Jeanette Winterson and others have stories online at the Guardian.
Speaking of Barnes, Stephany Aulenback has great commentary on characters--best commentary I've seen on the Maud Newton blog.
The bastards!  Golden Gryphon is giving away an audio of James Patrick Kelly reading for free with a copy of either of his collections directly through them.  Figures, I just bought Strangers.
Slate covers poetry snarking (page down toward the bottom).  Apparently, Maud Newton studied under (or nearby?) William Logan.  In the June/July issue of Poetry, Michael Hofmann and Logan snark on all of the U.S. poetry scene.  Logan also takes the British to task.  I love the lively conversation, but I beg to differ that the U.S. suffers under the joke poem, ala Billy Collins--that is, Collins' famous joke poems are minor but of some significance.  His less famous--which unfortunately did not get collected in his New and Selected Poems--deserve wider circulation and renown.  While the famous poems don't often rise above their witty lines, the lines themselves are worth examining, such as in "Nostalgia" which never quite turns the corner effectively at the end yet has a cumulative potency that the humor masks:
"Remember the 1340's?...
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.
Where has the summer of 1572 gone?...
These days language seems transparent a badly broken code.
The 1790's will never come again....
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead....
Even this morning would be an improvement over the present. "
If you don't feel the pang of lost time yet laugh at yourself for the loss, if you don't feel that loss for even recent time, you may have missed the beautifully painful barb buried in his sweetmeats.
Who can begrudge a poet that brings new readers to the field or poems that even when minor still have have enough resonance to draw a crowd?  With Billy Collins, I'm a staunch Populist. 
Ruth Stone died.  Listen to her read.
Mercury 13: Women and the dream of space flight and Jerrie Cobb.
Matthew Cheney discusses recent Emshwiller stories.  I read the two SciFiction stories but did comment on the latter for much the same reason as Cheney notes, but I do admire the vibrant and venomous energy of "On Display Among the Lesser."   I'm afraid I haven't even seen an issue of Argosy and probably never will unless they open submissions to the unknown.  It's probably impressive as hell and probably a smart and $$$ move, but being the fool that I am, I'm not interested in $$$.  I'm not interested in magazines that don't let underdogs take their shot.  I thought the short fiction field was supposed to cultivate talent.  I compounded my stupidity by soliciting unknowns first for an anthology I was working on--what a dum bass I am.  (By the way, work halted without my computer the past two months and, unless Best Buy actually fixed it this third and fourth time (two problems), may have to be halted again.  Can you believe they wanted me to sign a document that said I was satisfied with their repair before I'd even had chance to try out their repairs?)  I'm not sure if it's ambiguity that heightens the importance of some stories over others, but expanding the borders of the dramatis personae certainly helps.
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Mamatas right, Morris wrong

I finally went to see Van Helsing at the dollar theater (clips and interesting home site--out on DVD in October).  If you want fun without the brains, go see.  It's definitely a romp:  Dracula meets Wolfman meets Frankenstein's monster.  Although it may have shot for spoof with a handful of bad lines and ludicrous plot developments (religions of the world battle evil via James-Bond style tech and incredible plot coincidences at the end), it isn't a spoof or a knee-slapper--at least no one in my audience laughed except me when the guy behind asked his movie partner if he was going to cry.  It's an exercise in melodrama and how it doesn't work if you don't prepare us for it.  It's a script by numbers--okay, Stephen, we're forty-five minutes in, so we need a tear-jerker followed by a chase scene--without setting up the joke or emotion, whichever they wanted.  Morris thought otherwise.  Maybe, like canned laughter for sit coms of yore, if he were yukking it in my audience, his enthusiasm would have been infective.
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