Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Maps and Legends

Michael Chabon's first collection of essays, appropriately titled Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands (McSweeney's 2008), charts the largely misunderstood, maligned, and unexplored territories of genre fiction and comic books, so it only stands to reason that this volume has itself been largely misunderstood, maligned, and (perhaps) not (completely) explored by those who have reviewed it in the mainstream media. As a longtime spectator of genre fictions, I was personally intrigued by Chabon's premise throughout the book: that while "mainstream literary" culture (whatever that means) has a tendency to frown upon such categories as the mystery, science fiction, and romance, works written within these genres tend to be the most adventurous and experimental. In other words, despite its bad reputation, genre fiction is what keeps literature alive. (Not to toot my own horn, of course, but I've been making the same observation about independent presses since day one of this blog...)

As the subtitle for this book suggests, invention happens in the "borderlands" between established genres. Thus, like e.e. cummings' Cambridge ladies with their comfortable minds who live in furnished souls, mainstream literary writers have a tendency to write safe literature that reproduces the status quo. By way of contrast, however, genre writers ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Cormac McCarthy manage to challenge the status quo in various ways. Conan Doyle, for example, blurred the line between reality and fiction by having characters like Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr.Watson, insist at almost every turn that they were not amused at the attention lavished upon them by the public as a result of the publication of the tales of their exploits. Along slightly different lines, McCarthy uses the form of the epic adventure (and, perhaps surprisingly, not the sci-fi epic, as many critics have asserted) to plumb the depths of humanity's will to survive in The Road.

Other "explorers" Chabon profiles throughout his book are comic book visionaries Will Eisner and Howard Chaykin, English writer Philip Pullman (of The Golden Compass fame, and himself. Indeed, Chabon's exploration of his own creative processes make for some of the most interesting passages in the book. From his childhood in Columbia, Maryland, where the maps of city planners always preceded reality, through to his ongoing efforts at creating his own worlds in novels like The Mysteries of Pittsiburgh, Wonder Boys, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon's love for the realms of imagination he has both created and inhabited shines like a beacon. Additionally, Chabon's exploration of the biographical details surrounding many of his works sheds light not only on the relationship between his own works and real life, but on the relationship between fact and fiction in general. The realm of fiction, it turns out, is a realm that complements our own, a world that adds depth and dimension to the already complex day-to-day universe we inhabit. More importantly, perhaps, it is a realm that has the potential to reshape what we consider reality.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Philadelphia Book Festival/Philadelphia Stories/Cider Press Review/The Ecstatic Exchange/McSweeney's

On Saturday, I had a chance to stop at the Philadelphia Book Festival, and I'm really glad that I did. Not only did I get a chance to meet (and embarrassingly fawn over) Charles Burns, the writer/illustrator of Black Hole, but I also got a chance to meet up with a lot of people involved with small presses from across the country.

Considering that the festival was a Philadelphia-based event, it was no surprise at all that the publishers of Philadelphia Stories were in attendance, and the good news from them is that they're branching out into book publishing. Long known throughout Philadelphia for purveying fine short-stories, essays, poetry and art on a quarterly basis, the folks at PS will be launching their new books division this fall with Christine Weiser's Broad Street, a novel that's already getting a lot of buzz for its realistic, fun and engaging portrayal of the Philadelphia rock scene circa 1994.

Another bit of exciting news that the folks at PS had to share was that they're sponsoring a writer's retreat at Rosemont College this June. Among the instructors who will be on hand to share their expertise are Tom Coyne, Charles Holdefer, and Elyse Juska. (When, I wonder, do these people find time to sleep?)

In the stall next door to the Philly Stories tent, I had the opportunity to meet Caron Andregg, one of the editor/publishers at Cider Press, a small press specializing in poetry. Friendly, generous, and gregarious (as any small press publisher must be!), Caron gave me a copy of the latest edition of Cider Press Review. I'm planning to do a full review of the issue in the near future, but for the time being, suffice to say that if this collection of poetry is any indication of what the press has to offer, then it's definitely a winner.

Also on hand at the festival was my old friend Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, whose poetry I've enjoyed since we worked together ages ago at a small publishing company that put out accounting textbooks. Now enjoying a slightly early retirement, Moore has been busy with his own press, The Ecstatic Exchange. In addition to publishing Moore's own work (which itself has been published and/or distributed by none other than City Lights Books and Syracuse University Press), The Ecstatic Exchange also publishes the work of other poets, most notably, Tiel Aisha Ansari, whose Knocking from Inside lovingly examines the relationship between the human soul and the Divine by way of sorrow, the natural world and the listening heart.

Last but certainly not least, the folks from McSweeney's were also on hand promoting their latest titles. What really impresses me about McSweeney's (aside from how friendly their sales reps are -- talking about everything from the joys of being a dog owner to the difference between Brooklyn and San Francisco) is how much care the publisher puts into designing their books. Take the Baby Be of Use series, for example; designed in such a way as to fit into the hands of any small child and, perhaps more importantly, illustrated so as to convey meaning even to the most pre-literate of toddlers, these books will have otherwise shiftless babies up and mixing drinks, fixing cars, and making breakfast in no time. And, on a slightly less whimsical note, the multiple dust-jackets of Michael Chabon's first collection of essays, Maps and Legends, hints at the many layers of meaning the author explores in the world at large. But more on this title in a future post...

In a word, my trip to the Philadelphia Book Festival was energizing. Seeing so many people who were so passionate about the art of publishing and the business of bringing interesting and otherwise marginalized voices into the public eye made me remember why I keep at it with this blog. Unlike the massive corporate publishing houses that evaluate potential writers the same way they evaluate stock portfolios, the small press publishers I met definitely weren't in the game for the money. They're in it for the sheer love of the written word. It's this love of the written word that keeps their presses going, and it's this same love of the written word that keeps literature alive.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

End Credits

Back when I was an undergrad at Saint Joseph's University, I had an English professor named Owen Gilman who defined an A paper as any paper that he wished he'd written himself. Reading A.F. Rutzy's latest novel, End Credits (Casperian, 2008), I couldn't help thinking of my former professor and how dead-on his definition was. Part mind-bending crash-course on the mysteries of the afterlife and part zany critique of the excesses of consumer culture, Rutzy's novel is, hands-down, the novel I wish I could have written. Combining Neil Gaiman's sense of magic, Kurt Vonnegut's wry wit and uncompromising moral compass, Thomas Pynchon's penchant for spiraling yet captivating narrative digressions and Don DeLillo's fascination with all things contemporary, Rutzy laughs wildly at the world at large while the rest of us avert our eyes in horror.

The fun begins when the novel's narrator, Raymond Kessel, dies while crashing the wrong funeral. The only problem is that the afterlife isn't remotely like anything his Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Simmons, promised. Instead of plucking a harp behind the pearly gates, he finds himself desperately trying to get a straight answer from a Grim Reaper named Cleo while inhabiting the body of a wealthy advertising executive. From here, the novel only grows curiouser and curiouser (to borrow a phrase) as Rutzy introduces us to a wide cast of memorable characters including (but not limited to) the previously mentioned angel of death, a desperate would-be rock star, a bumbling accountant, and a pair of wild hogs with an apparent fondness for sunglasses and shopping malls. Conjuring his vision of American excess with a careful balance of exuberance and aplomb, the Finnish author weaves an intricate web of characters and amusingly outlandish scenarios that had me hooked from the word "go."

Of course, that End Credits is such a good book comes as no surprise. It's the latest from Casperian Books, a press whose track record with such titles as Mouth of the Lion and The Tea House has made it one of my favorites. (And just to give a shout out to a favorite author of mine, Curtis Smith, I should also mention that his first novel, Sound and Noise, will be coming out as a Casperian title later this summer... I'm definitely looking forward to that one!)

Needless to say, End Credits earns an A in my book. And given the number of emails I've received from disgruntled students since the semester ended earlier this week, that's really saying something.

For a free sample of Rutzy's work, check out his short-short, Nolens, at Hecale: A Portal for Writers.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sticks of Fire: The Turning Point

Reading Sticks of Fire: The Turning Point (Tumi Publishing, 2007) by Ricardo Estrada, I am reminded of the concept of the well-wrought urn, an idea invoked by literary critic Cleanth Brooks to discuss his criteria for evaluating the merits of individual works of literature. Despite trends in academia that called for works of literature to be interpreted primarily in terms of their social and historical contexts, Brooks insisted that some works, in a sense, stood outside of history, that these works might universally be described as "good," regardless of the age or context in which they were written or in which they may be received. The literature of William Shakespeare and John Donne leap to mind as examples of such works, as does "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats. In short, the well-wrought urn is the work of art that is perfect in terms of both form and content, and, for what it is and what it does, Estrada's first novel fits the bill.

Before going on, I should point out that I'm not making an argument for placing Estrada alongside Shakespeare, Donne and Keats in the pantheon of English letters. (Of course, I'm not making an argument against it, either!) What I am saying, however, is that Sticks of Fire is the perfect specimen of books of its type. That is, it's an excellent addiction and recovery novel. Throughout the proceedings, Estrada advances his characters and settings like a master craftsman, providing his creatures with strong motives both for falling into and overcoming addiction, equally strong obstacles to defeat, and perhaps most importantly, a credible and complex depiction of the processes that go into recovering from addiction. It would be very easy for Estrada to give us a story of pure triumph over addiction, but because he explores the gray areas of recovery and the ambivalence inherent in living with addiction, Sticks of Fire transcends the typical after-school special tropes of addiction and recovery tales and, instead, rises to the level of art.

The basic plot of the novel revolves around a 27 year-old widower named Orlando, whose alcoholism stems largely from the loss of his wife and unborn child. Although he realizes on one level that his drinking is problematic, he is generally able to kid himself into believing that it isn't really a problem. Yet when various pressures related to a new job at a halfway house begin to mount, the tenuous control he has over his relationship with alcohol slips away, and he begins to recognize that he has more in common with the individuals he's been hired to help than he might initially like to admit. Once he recognizes this fact, however, Orlando can embrace not only his job but his life as well, and once he does, he helps the residents of his halfway house organize a basketball team, which both metaphorically and literally allows them to work together in order to find purpose in their lives.

Part Hoosiers and part Clean and Sober, Sticks of Fire is an engaging read, likely the best book ever written on addiction and basketball. The characters come to life, the settings are vividly depicted, and the story is told with enthusiasm. I can easily see this novel being made into a Hollywood film - or better yet, an indie. And, needless to say, I hope to hear more from Ricardo Estrada in the future.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Melissa Frederick has done the impossible: she's written a love poem that men will immediately understand. The poem is titled "If I Could Move Like Jackie Chan," and it's just one of the exceptional pieces in her first collection of poetry, She (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Of course, using Jackie Chan's kung-fu prowess as a metaphor for love is only the tip of the iceberg as far as Frederick's facility with language and imagery is concerned. Among other figures who show up in her poems are Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, and a thinly-veiled White House intern (or, more accurately, the ice cream in her freezer). Additionally, Frederick's use of images culled from a vocabulary of pop-culture references, which runs the gamut from the content of the evening news to the stuff of science-fiction and fantasy, allows even the most resistant reader of poetry to feel at home in her world. Arguing, among other things, that space-stations should be run by single mothers on welfare and that the best ways to make an exit frequently involve healthy doses of red-faced embarrassment, She is the collection that T.S. Eliot would have written had he been a woman living in a world of cable TV and comic books.

For a free sample of Frederick's work, check out her poem "Minor Distinctions," which appears both in She and in the e-journal Diagram. Alternately, check out "Earth at Night," which appears in Philadelphia Stories. Or, if you want the full Melissa Frederick experience, buy a copy of She directly from Finishing Line Press.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Just a quick note about Kaleidotrope, a great indie 'zine with a trippy underground sensibility. (Okay, so I may be biased since they published my comic strip "Eyes" late last year and just did a feature on the book I wrote with Tom Powers, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, but it really is a fine publication.) Featuring a diverse collection of short stories, comic strips, nonfiction and poetry, the latest issue runs the gamut in terms of style and subject matter. There is, of course, the interview with yours truly, handled deftly by radio telescope operator Betty Ragan (of Maximum Verbosity fame), and there's also a "Brief Introduction to Female Android Sexuality in Film" by film reviewer Eric Borer. Other highlights include poetry on the topic of house hunting on mars (in the appropriately titled "House Hunting on Mars"), a short story about a half-invisible girlfriend, and a comic strip on the dangers of cultivating a taste for H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu tales. Always a good read, Kaleidotrope is definitely worth checking out.