Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sequel Harangue for the Literary Farang

1. Right now I'm halfway through reading John Burdett's The Godfather of Kathmandu, the fourth in his series of vivid Bangkok-set crime novels featuring Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep; I've already read the first three.

2. You know the whole thing about sequels, right? The conventional wisdom, whether it's regarding movies or books or whatever? How the sequel's never as good and possibly much worse? Well, check two cases in point:

(1) William Goldman's 1974 novel Marathon Man was made into a terrific movie in 1976, but, as if amazingly, the original book was even better.

Remember? What a richly textured, character-thick narrative for all that it was a popcult thriller, right? What an excellent read.

But then there was the sequel, Brothers. Which was like Goldman revisiting those characters while he's goofing around on vacation somewhere and visiting upon those characters the mere framework of a farfetched plot in a story containing barely any of the textures and depths of the original.

A disappointment, to be sure.

(2) Same thing, IMHO, same damnable progression, same devolution following from Erica Jong's excellent 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying.

Well, sure, I completely skipped FoF's immediate sequel, How To Save Your Own Life. But, by the time Parachutes and Kisses, the third in the series about Isadora Wing, was available and I'd given it a try ... all I could do was give it was a try.

Again: It was as if the author had decided, Well, okay, I put enough work into the first novel, and never mind reveling in the depths of character, let's just streamline this one so it requires less effort for me to write and for the average reader to consume.

Sad, y'know?

[ Listen: If we wanted to read Teflon-coated Lite fiction, we'd already be doing that (we already do do that, occasionally) with the wide variety of options available and constantly renewed everywhere else. We don't need, from deeply capable writers, Lite scribblings that so many others can crank out. We need the heavier stuff that only they can provide. Stuff, say, in the diverse Atwood/Mieville/Mantel/Lethem-inhabited range between Harry Potter and Ulysses. Yes? ]

3. And so, sweet suffering Buddha, how weird to discover
what seems to be the opposite of the lame progression noted above.

John Burdette's Bangkok series was a delight from the get-go, the briskly paced police procedurals made more flavorful and exotic by their Thai setting and the engaging, near snarky philosophical musings of the half-Anglo protagonist, Det. Jitpleecheep. The novels weren't the most strictly nutritious literary meals around, sure, to wrack a metaphor; but neither were they merely Asian-flavored paperback potato chips. But now here's the fourth one halfway down my reader's judgmental gullet ... and damned if Burdett isn't reversing the sequel curse.

The Godfather of Kathmandu is both spatially thicker than its precursors and more deeply written than them, regardless that the thrill & mystery of the story remains undiluted (and is, I'd insist, enhanced) by the more complex textures of character and philosophy woven therein. I have no idea how it's going to end, and I don't really care: I'm caught up in the story around the plot, and in Jitpleecheep's ongoing, conflicted, journey-of-self megillah; and when the book's over, okay, where's the next one, please.

About that: Burdett's fifth in the series, Vulture Peak, is due out from Knopf in January 2012. I've already bugged the Austin Chronicle's books editor about letting me review it when it's available, as soon as the advance copies are released. Hell, yes.

4. What I haven't mentioned in this extended harangue is the urge ... the faint but incessant urge ... to write some sort of fanfic wherein Det. Jitpleecheep teams up with Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander to solve an international series of murders stretching from Thailand to Sweden.

And I won't, goddamnit.

I won't mention that urge.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lend Them Your Fears

Authors Nate Southard and Lee Thomas are the co-chairs of this year's World Horror Convention ~ unveiling itself (in other than stygian darkness) over four days in the urban paradise of Austin, Texas. I recently interviewed them for the Austin Chronicle ~ you can see that much longer transcript right here – and these are some of the highlights of our palaver at Quack's Bakery on 43rd:

Brenner: Why does someone go to a horror convention, much less
the World Horror Convention, in the first place?

Thomas: People can’t always talk about this stuff at work or with their families. A lot of times people just don’t get it. But you go to the con and suddenly it’s like you’ve got four hundred of your best friends sitting around talking about horror, y’know?

Southard: For a lot of us, it’s the one weekend a year where we can sort of function as a society, where we’re not all the quiet people standing in the corner wondering how to start a conversation. We can actually figure that out in this circle.

Thomas: The wallflowers become a weed species.

[Brenner makes a note: This Thomas guy, he's fierce with the soundbites.]

Brenner: So both of you guys write?

Southard and Thomas: Yes.

Brenner: And when did you get started on that? How old were you
when you thought, “Oooh, I’m gonna write some fuckin’ horror.”
Although, ah, you might not have phrased it quite like that.

Thomas: I was in third grade, but I don’t think that counts. I was basically breaking copyright on the universal classics. And I just wrote as a hobby. That’s what I did when my friends were playing video games or going out to the movies and whatnot. I didn’t even try to start publishing until about ten years ago.

Southard: Pretty much the same story for me, but I’d gone about it from a different angle. In middle school and high school, I always wanted to write comic books for a living. And through high school and college, that morphed into wanting to be a screenwriter. And I came down here and went to RTF at UT. Very odd, getting a screenwriting degree from a documentary school. But, by the time I graduated, mostly by reading and picking up on some authors that I hadn’t really heard of before, I found this new fascination with prose. And I’ve really been trying to focus on prose for about seven years now.

Brenner: What drew you guys to horror as opposed to the literary-fiction genre or sword & sorcery or something like that?

Southard: It’s just what I’ve always liked to read. Some of the first prose I remember was Stephen King’s collection Night Shift. And for the longest time I couldn’t actually read his novels, because they just took so long to get going, but maybe that’s because I was just a smart-ass little kid. But his short stories always fascinated me.

Thomas: I read anything I could get my hands on when I was a kid, and when I was nine or ten I picked up a copy of The Exorcist, because my parents had it in the house. I picked it up and read it and I was just ...it was stuff I understood at that age. And I remember that I put down the book, and I was walking out of my bedroom, and my mother was standing at the end of the hall. And just the way the light hit, she was in silhouette, and I … I freaked. I mean, it was just this terrifying moment. And yet, on some level, I dug it. So I just kept reading, trying to find something like that again.

Brenner: Are there obscure horror writers – not new ones who are just starting out, but classic writers – who you would recommend to people who might not have heard of them?

Southard: I think the big one for me would be Jack Ketchum. In some circles, he’s pretty well known. But he hasn’t really had a huge break-out, he hasn’t really crossed over yet.

Thomas: And he’s our grandmaster for the convention. He’s a phenomenal writer. He’s very much from a literary background, but he deals with things that are so unpleasant, so difficult for people, that I think they take the warning seriously when someone says “You may not want to read this, because blah-blah-blah.” It’s difficult work for people to get their heads around, it’s extreme stuff. But with Ketchum it’s so well done.

Southard: He wrote my favorite book, but it’s a book I can’t read a second time.

Brenner: What book is that?

Southard: The Girl Next Door.

Thomas: They made a movie out of that about three years ago.
And it’s very disturbing stuff.

Brenner: Do y’all make a living solely from your writing these days?

Southard: I do not, no. [He sighs.] I’m still working a day job.

Thomas: I am. I can’t say it’s a terrific living, but, yeah.
I’ve been doing that for about six years now.

Brenner: Have you done that with just books, or have you had things optioned for movies as well?

Thomas: I’ve not made that jump yet. I’ve had producers who, well, they contact you every time you have a positive Publisher’s Weekly review, and then you never hear from them again. Or they want to talk to your film agent, so you send them to your film agent, and then you never hear from them again.

Brenner: Are there sub-genres of horror that y’all are particularly drawn to, like splatterpunk or ghost stories or true crime?

Southard: I find most of the best horror coming out right now to be marketed as more of the crime genre. Gillian Flynn’s two books, Ken Bruen’s American Skin, those are – you find them in the mystery section, but they’re horror.

Thomas: I prefer the supernatural work – except in the case of Jack Ketchum, which is all real-world based – it’s more fun for me when I’m writing, and when I’m reading it’s more enjoyable to see somebody bring something new to it.

Brenner: What do you guys think of the – not intentionally, necessarily, by any one organization – but the mass marketing of, the pop-culture force that is HP Lovecraft,
these days?

Thomas: I think it’s great, in a lot of ways. Because he was overlooked, but now people are starting to get it. And I think a lot of it has to do with where we’re at culturally, now. A lot of people are feeling pressed-in by these indifferent forces. Whether it's the government or their jobs or whatever, there’s a lot of that in our society right now. But I think people also realize, on some level, “It’s not just about me,” so they get into this idea that all of these forces that they can’t control are affecting them. And Lovecraft was all about that. The Elder Gods are wreaking havoc, but we don’t know it. We either don’t know it, or we come to realize that they don’t care about us: They’re not here to hurt us or do anything with us in particular, they’re just walking through, and we’re getting stomped on. And I think that’s coming out in fiction right now, a lot of great writers like Laird Barron and Wilum Pugmire.

Southard: Some John Langan stuff.

Thomas: There’s this whole undercurrent – many of them are British – none of the three we just mentioned are – but there’s this whole British movement, a very strong current of that, just waiting to break out. So maybe that’s what will follow the zombie trend, I don't know.

Southard: Just … no more mash-ups.

Brenner: Mash-ups?

Southard: Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Thomas: A classic novel, with some horror thing thrown on top of it.

Southard: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Thomas: Yeah, we really want all that to go away.

Brenner: Candide and Cthulhu.

Thomas: There you go, that’ll be the next one. Dibs on the title.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books

[Edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee
Soft Skull Press, 192 pp., $14.95 (paper)

So here's an anthology of writing about how long-form writing and reading, in the omni-connected, ever-distracting Internet age, is (possibly) threatened with extinction or is (more likely) changing to survive. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books is neatly summed by a back-cover blurb from John Wray: "I sat down to read it expecting a coroner's report and found a manifesto instead."

Fuck yeah, John Wray, you're not kidding: What a refreshing surprise in these days of lit-scene doom and gloom. Editors Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee have gathered essays and vignettes and such from a bright segment of modern scribes – a few of the names recognizable from The New Yorker's recent best "20 Under 40" issue, hey – who weigh in with author's-eye views in their engaging styles and do much to dispel the more funereal prognostication going on at the corporate level of booksmithery.

Rivka Galchen starts off the post-introduction considerations, her surreal "The Future of Paper" a palate-cleansing abstraction before the less fantastical responses are served. David Shields isn't among the lettered company in this volume, but his Reality Hunger: A Manifesto functions as a sort of welcome touchstone for several of the writers, especially for David Gates and Jonathan Lethem, whose back-and-forth emails (originally seen in PEN America 12: Correspondences) are as relevant to the subject at hand as they are cleverly revelatory in general. Treme writer Tom Piazza briefly interviews himself about the future of books. Reif Larsen, of T.S. Spivet fame, tackles the more hardware-oriented, structural side of things with his graphics-embellished "The Crying of Page 45." Kyle Beachy, aside from dissing the abovementioned Shields as "an asshole" who "doesn't believe in communion," offers a plaintive assertion along the lines of novels (that he finds important) being important because, c'mon, guys, you can feel how important they are. Emily St. John Mandel, on the other hand, thoughtfully welcomes our new e-book overlords: "The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable," says the staff writer for editor Magee's The Millions website.

Indeed: How did you access this very review, friend?
And how will it please you to encounter the contents of this recommended book?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

You Can Dance If You Want To

So, right, Duran Duran played SXSW this year,
and oh the nostalgia that burned like a quicksilver fever
through certain demographics that used to wear legwarmers.

Was there swooning?
Was there squealing?
Good bleeding Christ.

For me, though: Whatevs.

Partly because my memories (and appreciation of New Wave in general)
were tweaked by the sweeter knowledge that Men Without Hats
were also playing the festival, in preparation for their upcoming tour.

Men Without Hats!

I mean, "Safety Dance," right?
I mean, "Antarctica."

(And I don't mean much else, because Men Without Hats
are a bit too poppy for me after that, a bit too ... cute, maybe?
Or: The songs lack a certain something
that I'd rather they not lack? Yeah, clear as mud.)

(But: Oh, those two songs!)

I wound up not seeing them anyway ~ with or without hats.
Because I don't really do live music, almost spitefully,
unless it's part of a theatrical show or the players are friends of mine.

Hey, we all have our things.

But I jumped ~ literally sprang from my chair, anyway
as I'm sure R. Hernandez or A. Schroeder will corroborate ~
at the chance to interview MWH's creative epicenter Ivan Doroschuk.

And so I did interview him, via phone
~ an actual landline, goddam ~
before he & the newest bandmembers arrived in Austin.

And the Chronicle published an even more truncated version
of the already truncated version of the transcript I'd made
of our brief but pleasant conversation.

But never mind that.

Here's the ~ longer and (I reckon) better ~ version of the interview:

Brenner: Disregarding any idea of nostalgia, and even what a fucking terrific song “Safety Dance” is, what’s it like having created such a powerful cultural touchstone?

Doroschuk: I’m constantly amazed at what goes on with that song. My all-time favorite was the Beavis & Butt-Head thing. Check that one out, it’s really funny. The punchline was something like, “This guy keeps saying he can dance, but he can’t dance.”

[Maybe at this point Brenner attempted to mimic the Butt-Head laugh,
which attempt may have been met with polite silence.]

Brenner: So, uh ... why did you choose to set the song’s video where you did, with the Morris dancing and the maypole and all?

Doroschuk: Well, we were originally signed to an English label called Statik Records, and they had bands like The Slits and The Chameleons UK, bands like that. It was a really small label, and their people put the video together. It was Tim Pope who did that, who also did most of the Cure videos. 

Brenner: If you don’t mind me talking about all your old songs, which are the ones I know … although, actually, what about the new ones? Are they available anywhere yet?

Doroschuk:  No, we haven’t released anything yet. We’re going to be trying out new stuff on the tour. That’s the beauty of the industry today: You don’t even have to put together a whole CD. If you have a good song, you can put it out there, and people are used to it. It’s a lot more immediate, these days. It must be really fun to be a new band today, to be somebody just starting off? There’s just so much out there, so many possibilities, so many possible connections.

Brenner: Has the Internet helped your music sales in general?

Doroschuk: Oh yeah, I think it’s helped everything. I’ve discovered so much music myself, that I would’ve never known about. Even music from my generation – I’m constantly discovering bands from the Seventies that were just awesome bands but they went by unnoticed. The Internet’s an awesome, awesome tool for everybody, y’know?

Brenner: If one of the new songs really connects with an audience and it’s one that you guys like, too, is there a possibility you’d make a video for it?

Doroschuk: Oh, I’m sure.

Brenner: What can you tell me about “Treblinka,” which I’d guess is the darkest-sounding song you’ve written?

Doroschuk: I don’t think that was officially released. That was off a demo tape that never really saw the light of day.

Brenner: I heard it on The Silver Collection?

Doroschuk: Yeah, that’s an unofficial kind of thing. That whole album was put out by, ah, I had nothing to do with that, basically.

Brenner: Ha, how things can get away from you – Jesus!

Doroschuk: Yeah, I have a very unscrupulous ex-manager.

Brenner: Thank god for the “ex” part.  And, ah, hey, do you ~
do you read Metafilter online?

Doroschuk: Metafilter, yup.

Brenner: Because I followed a link from there last night, and wound up looking at these absolutely gorgeous photos of Antarctica, all these ice caves and stuff. And I was wondering what inspired you to write your song that references that place … ?

Doroschuk: Just the whole new wave movement, with the cold wave stuff, y’know? There was this sort of icy, robotic feel to the whole scene. That was basically the inspiration for it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


"We're living in science fiction," people like to say.

They wave a hand at the array of laptop computers crowding shaky tables in a downtown coffeehouse; they nod toward a passing citizen with some telephonish gizmo clamped along an ear's fungiform cartilage; their fingers stroke the sides of a tomato genetically modified with the DNA of distant jellyfish; their LASIK-enhanced eyes track, in the night sky, the glimmer of a private spaceship plying its tourist trade against the vault, the vault, the vault of heaven.

"The future's already here," people like to say.

Because we've been prepared for it for so many years. Because its coming has been heralded throughout our cultures since homo sapiens learned to bind time and gaze beyond the moment. And the times change, and with that change have always come new visions of the future. Only now, the problem is, our vigorous science and technologies have begun to advance at such a pace that what we're creating for ourselves is close to matching the most popular predictions of our recent history.

Oh shit: We're catching up.

This makes further extrapolation more difficult, for one thing. Who can properly conjure a tomorrow that innovation might render obsolete before the light, perhaps bioluminescent, can dawn on that new day? Who can focus a sense of wonder on a realm that relentless industry has shattered into a fractal clusterfuck of shifting possibilities? Also, isn't everything going to hell around us? Aren't we headed, after all, for some final disaster ~ military, environmental, planetary, celestial ~ that our machines and ingenuity can't save us from and which makes the idea of any future highly unlikely at best? What the hell do we do with a situation like this?

We go, as the Firesign Theatre asserted in another context, forward into the past.

Deep into the past: To a simpler, more elegant time before ubiquitous electricity and the internal combustion engine warped a wider vulgarity into the tapestries of our lives. To a time before, especially, plastic. Victorian, in a word. But ~ and here's the neat trick ~ in harking back (in fiction, in visual art, in fashion and other modes of expression), we bring our favorite modern technologies with us.

Ladies and gentlemen, madames et messrs, inhabitants of this brave new world ~ welcome to steampunk.

Gentleman-tinkerers of the late nineteenth century inventing clockwork-driven automatons that would put Honda's Asimo to shame; analytical engines, the bastard brainchildren of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, performing computation beyond human reckoning; the more personal bits of today's polyvinyl-chloride technology now reconfigured in brass and wood and leather. Nothing virtual here: It's all hardware: Machine culture you can pry apart and modify with elbow grease and scientific know-how. And, dash it all, don't those frock coats and goggles look simply smashing!

The writer K. W. Jeter suggested the term steampunk back in 1987, as a label for the sort of narrative created in his 1979 novel Morlock Night ~ a sort of twisted sequel to H. G. Wells' The Time Machine ~ and in the fiction of Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and others. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's 1990 novel The Difference Engine brought the nascent sub-genre to a higher resolution and a much wider audience. Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which debuted in 1999 and which please don't confuse with the abomination later desecrating neighborhood cinemas) gathered the creations of steampunk inspirators ~ the aforementioned Wells, Jules Verne, et al. ~ into one magnificent and vividly depicted amalgam of romance and adventure. Katsuhiro Otomo's 2004 feature-length anime Steamboy fueled the engines of cultural saturation with swashbuckling period details and astonishing visuals. And now here's the New York Times, the Old Gray Lady with the New Digital Gown, covering the burgeoning steampunk style of DIY fashion and industrial design undertaken by the fiction's more talented acolytes. And, hell, that was back in 2008.

If the future's already here and what may follow it is fraught with anxiety, of course we're retreating to the past. If the present seems uncertain and tawdry when compared with some abandoned Golden Age our forebears knew, why not take our favorite toys and go (if only metaphorically, via speculative fiction or material trappings) home again?

The steampunk abode in which we'll abide won't be bedecked by the likes of Ethan Allen or Karim Rashid but by ourselves, more likely, with a little tutelage from Sean Slattery or Richard Nagy; and it'll boast a library of books like Jay Lake's Mainspring and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and that themed anthology from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer; and we'll listen, while lounging in our taffeta gowns and riveted trousers and fingerless gloves, to Rasputina and the Decemberists and Abney Park and, oh, probably anything featuring a homemade theremin.

"The street finds it own uses for technology," as William Gibson famously put it, glossing his cyberpunk opus Neuromancer. In the case of steampunk, that street's likely paved with cobblestones and lined by brass-chased gaslamps; and those lamps glimmer in the dark, lighting the way toward a Temple of Exquisite Anachronism where the future's expertly retrofitted with the past and the best of all possible times can provide a bright refuge from the worst of this world's fleeting present.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Nethermind's Taco of Bliss

Here's an appropriate, I think, follow-up to the last (Valentine's Day) post,
from right here in the middle of the start of SXSW Interactive,
the city of Austin flooded with tech geeks & scenesters & celebrities
& media flacks of all kinds.

It's romantic as hell, this true slice of life.
It's about going from online friends to meatspace marriage.
It's pretty damned heartwarming, and I'll assume that anyone who has a heart
likes to have it warmed every now & then ... ?

“Neither of us joined Second Life looking to find love,” says Elle Waters from the home she shares with her husband Charles Callistro in Louisville, Kentucky. “Besides exploring a new virtual space, it was more about, as it is for a lot of people, seeking a connection with people you can have intelligent discourse with.”

And none of those people, during those first months in Linden Lab’s virtual world, was Charles Callistro.

“I was part of the Digital Cultures discussion group in SL,” says Waters. “We’d have these very philosophical conversations, about the impact of the Internet, about the communities that develop online and how they translate to real life.” This was a professional area of interest for the woman who works as Web accessibility coordinator for Humana, exploring issues of better online access for people with disabilities.

“We knew some of the same people in SL,” says Callistro, IT operations manager for a small California company. “We hung out in a couple of crowds that sometimes overlapped, so maybe we said hi to each other at a party or event, but we never really got together.”

“And then we met in real life in 2006,” says Waters.

“There was a Second Life meet-up in San Francisco, where Linden Lab is based,” says Callistro.

“I was involved in running that, and flew out for the weekend, and Charles and I got to know each other there,” says Waters. “And then, back in SL, there was his radio station.”

“I was running Phreak Radio,” says Callistro. “The station was broadcast through SL and the Net in general. And Nether [Nethermind Bliss: Waters’ avatar name] had been DJing for a while, doing private parties, so we brought her on board.”

“We had this ongoing joke of how Phreak Radio was a charmed environment,” says Waters, “with 12 of the 14 DJs eventually becoming couples with each other.”

“And then Elle came back to San Francisco,” says Callistro.

“I was invited by Linden Lab,” says Waters, “as an Influential SL Resident, to take part in discussions about how to improve the in-world experience. So they flew me out to San Francisco. And that was how Charles and I had our first actual date.”

“But I couldn’t attend the discussions – or the party afterward,” says Callistro.

“He was persona non grata at Linden Lab at the time,” explains Waters.
“Taco the troublemaker!”

Callistro [avatar name: Taco Rubio] laughs.

After that, the two went into World of Warcraft, they and some other SL friends, levelling up characters and going on raids and generally socializing in that MMORPG as Second Life devolved into more of a kludgy, virtual shopping mall. And Waters and Callistro dated elsewhere online, hanging out on Skype for hours, watching shows together on Hulu as they chatted. And every three or four months they’d get together offline, sometimes in San Francisco, sometimes in Louisville, sometimes at a halfway point. And – eventually –

“We decided to take the plunge,” says Waters. She couldn’t leave Louisville, having shared custody of a daughter with her ex-husband; so Callistro would be the one to budge; and he turned in his resignation at his job, but the company countered with a telecommuting offer, allowing the IT manager to work from Louisville. FTW, as they say online.

“We got an apartment for Charles a few blocks away, so we weren’t just throwing ourselves together,” says Waters. “I think it’s important to have a transitional period for this sort of thing, especially if there’s a child involved, for people to get used to each other, to the constancy of being in the same space and sharing the everyday life.”

“And that worked great,” says Callistro.

“So a year later, we found a house to move into together,” says Waters,
“and five months after that, we got married.”

And their time online now?

“Well, except for our jobs, not so much anymore,” says Waters. “I go into SL maybe once every couple of months, to attend a friend’s event or whatever, but that’s about it.

“We keep in touch with old friends via Skype,” says Callistro, “and various online forums.”

“We play so many games together as a family – video games, board games – and we have so many other things going on IRL,” says Waters. “My entertainment these days is our daughter, my husband, and our 80-pound puppy. We’re never lacking for amusement, or for intelligent discourse on any number of subjects.” She pauses, and her smile is almost audible over the phone lines.

“That’s what happens," she says, "when you marry your best friend."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wings for a Paper Saint: Valentine

Love is in the air like a brace of lepidoptera, iridescent membranes flapping like the beat of a thousand paper-thin hearts. What'd they morph from, these insects d'amour, and who's to disparage their larval stage in favor of the flighted form, to shun the worm yet woo the wings? 

All things change, of course, and love no less than others and more than most. A time of infatuation may be the only hour that never stretches, the emotions shifting swiftly along a course less straight than that of Cupid's drunkest arrow toward some far terminus of romance. And the day that celebrates this multihued passion, the day named in honor of St. Valentine? What are its origins? 

February 14, fast approaching here, was originally the feast day of Juno Februata, the Roman Goddess of the Fever of Love. In celebrating this goddess, whose day fell within the festival of Lupercus, a box was provided from which single men could draw a small piece of paper that was inscribed with a woman's name. The couple thus formed would participate in the erotic games that followed, would remain partners for the subsequent 12 months, and would sometimes even get married. This is what passed for reality programming in pagan times ... 

Jump ahead to the advent, so to speak, of Christianity, and to the repression of all things erotic. Juno's rantum-scantum lottery couldn't cut the ecclesiastical mustard, and something had to be done. One something was: replacing the women's names with the names of saints or with short sermons. Young men and women were expected to emulate the life of the saint whose name was on the billet they'd drawn; you can imagine what a box of chuckles that turned out to be. So, to assist those of the partying public who still preferred forming the two-person tortoise to sitting around in a hairshirt, the church decided a little revisionism would be just the thing: Out with the old gods and in with the new. Juno, man, she was yesterday's news, and quicker'n you could say Quod erat demonstrandum, all mention of her or of Lupercus was repressed. The happenin' kid on the block was a saint, went the official word. A saint, um, let's see now ... Valentine? Yeah, that's the ticket: St. Valentine! One of ours! And, listen, old Val is why all this celebrating started in the first place, capisce

His day was officially set as February 14 by Pope Gelasius I in 494 C.E. 

But ... wait just one fucking minute. Was this saint the Bishop of Interamna who was martyred circa 271 C.E.? Or was he the priest that Emperor Claudius had executed for marrying couples in secret? Or was he a different priest who'd been subjected to much chin music and a little beheading for having dissed Jupiter and Mercury in the still-mostly-pagan days? 

One source claims there were as many as seven different Valentines. 

It didn't really matter: The papal instrumentality simply threw together a fake bio and set their propaganda loose and their soldiers onward and extinguished the public spark of Juno for good. However, the human spirit being resilient and love conquering all & so on, people eventually returned to using women's names instead of saints. At least there was that. And soon thereafter ~ well, in the 14th century ~ the custom of sending love letters on St. Valentine's Day began in England and France. By the 17th century, it was handmade cards; followed, in the 18th century, by commercially made cards. 

Decades passed, and the celebration grew increasingly secular; 
the festival was finally dropped from the 1969 Roman Church Calendar. 

These days, it's a largely Hallmark time for many of us, and heart-bedecked cards lie in piles ~ for the lucky ones ~ like so many paper butterflies resting their polychrome wings. But you know that even the blue morpho's got a flightless past, and you know those cards began life as nothing more than points of affection worming their way deep into the hearts of your loved ones. And you know that the transformation's not complete, nor will it ever be, and that over time what we call love may move from the fragility of a swallowtail's wing to a strength beyond the history of insects on this world. 

Of course, yes, that sort of love does require a bit of work. 

It's just a little easier than flying.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Who is Merricat?

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

~ Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The Lover's Dictionary

by David Levithan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp., $18

There's a Venn diagram somewhere ~ just like there's a true love out there for you somewhere, sure, because abstractions are as ubiquitous as they are unattainable ~ and in one circle of this diagram are the sort of relationships experienced by people who aren't self-reflective, who are only mildly neurotic and also sort of boring, and in the other circle are the sort of relationships experienced by people who think perhaps too much about themselves and others and are also, on some emotional or psychological level or other, fucking apeshit crazy. And then, of course, there's the overlap. In this diagram, the overlap is where parts of pretty much anyone's relationships can be seen. This is the area covered by David Levithan – author, most famously, of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist – in his new book, The Lover's Dictionary.

Levithan's unnamed narrator uses a lens of words to reveal the particulars of his two-year (so far) relationship with his girlfriend: words, a few of them for each letter of the alphabet, which serve to mark the short passages he constructs after every one. This gambit's effective as a format for exploration by the author, and, for the reader, it renders the text into easily parsed pieces rarely longer than a Facebook update. It's effective as The Lover's Dictionary because Levithan has been through an emotional wringer or two, or has somehow grokked what it's like, and still dares (or is helpless) to hope that another journey through another wringer could end up elsewhere than in a sodden pile of regret on the cold, hard floor in some laundry room of love.

To some extent, you've been this narrator, I've been this narrator, we've all been this narrator. That's a compliment to Levithan's skill at making the personal work universally and vice versa; he's just telling one man's story ~ well, one-man-and-one-woman-together's story, from the man's point of view ~ and yet it's so damned familiar. What else it is, thankfully, is not overly or merely or more than occasionally clever or maudlin ~ a relief, as this Dictionary is clearly written by A Sensitive Guy. And of course here it is, in its fine and smallish hardcover package, just waiting to be the perfect Valentine's Day gift for, what's the term, that special someone? Or just for yourself. Because, c'mon, aren't you just as special?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Again with this one:

Yeah: The dottir & me.

Because maybe
you haven't read it before?

Because I desire an easy post
while other arenas command fierce attention?

Because sometimes the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It's this sort of thing

... makes me wanna put up one of those vinyl banners that say WELCOME VISITORS FROM MAGTASTIC BLOGSPLOSION, y'know? 

Or maybe have it spelled out in plastic letters on one of those trailer signs, a little food stand nearby selling, like, breakfast tacos and hot java, kind of monetize the whole situation?

Wait, what sort of thing?

This, from Andrew Losowsky of Magtastic Blogsplosion.


One feels a certain pride welling up.

One feels galvanized to better one's previous endeavors.

One had better fucking post to this blog more often, hadn't one?

Soon, m'darlings.