Wednesday, December 17, 2014

No Exit

No ExitNo Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a function of pure entertainment, Sartre's No Exit is brilliant. Ironically, Sartre uses almost-pure dialogue to "show not tell" the dilemma faced by Garcin, Inez, and Estelle, three "absentees" (a euphemism for "the dead") locked into a room, condemned to be together for eternity. Each has arrived here for different reasons, but all three possess qualities that bring out the worst in the others. Rather than the traditional hellish tropes of horned demons and hell-fire, this play evokes more special tortures - the ability to see into the world of the living only long enough to know what other living beings are saying about you since you've been "absent," the pressure of having three personalities who delight in interfering with each potential pairing (and the promise of solace that might mean), and the exquisite pains of honest self-doubt.

I had hoped to take this as a "primary source" of Sartre's philosophy, but perhaps I've got it all backwards. I am familiar with the tenets of existentialism that Sartre espoused, but the philosophical gloss that is given in No Exit seems to be as much a veneer as a core underpinning.

That said, one need not think too hard to realize that this is an excruciatingly uncomfortable examination of human nature in all its banality. The characters at once seem likable, or at least their character flaws seem excusable, initially. As the play goes on, though, we begin to see each person's flaws magnified, as with a glass, until the full impact of their crimes and selfishness are realized. Soon, the audience feels shame for having excused or even liked the absentees, with a full realization that any of them (the audience, that is) could be seen as Garcin, Inez, or Estelle, or possibly even a conglomeration of any two or all three.

Not for those who don't like looking in the mirror. Or even for those who do. Prepare to be discomfited!

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Here We Go Again!

My publisher is giving away 10 signed hardcover copies of my novel Heraclix and Pomp at Goodreads. Perhaps you'd like to enter? Of course you'd like to enter. Go enter! Now! Where?

Right here.

Good luck! And here's the cover image to whet your appetite:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Creativity Games at Mystery to Me Books

Joanne Berg, owner of Mystery to Me books in Madison, was so kind as to host an event with me as reader, game master, and general entertainer. After a very short introductory reading of three of the main characters in Heraclix and Pomp, we all took part in a series of creativity games including the surrealist game Exquisite Cadaver, the Oulipo game N+7, an Aguirre exclusive inspired by Michael Moorcock's outstanding book Death is No Obstacle, and a whodunit game with a super-secret source that I cannot reveal unless I immediately kill you. And no one wants that!

What people do want, however, is pictures. So here's a picture taken after the games were all through:

We had a great time and laughed the cold away. If you felt a pulse of warmth in Madison last Friday night, you're welcome. We hope to melt all the snow and drive Winter away for good next time, but we'll need your help! Thanks to Joanne and to our dedicated little crowd. I can't wait to do this again!

PS: For you author and bookstore owner types, yes, Joanne sold several books that night and a few more the next day. You see? Fun does pay!

Luxury Arts of the Renaissance

Luxury Arts of the RenaissanceLuxury Arts of the Renaissance by Marina Belozerskaya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the first discoveries I made as an undergraduate Bachelor of Humanities student is that there isn't enough time in the world to learn everything you would want to learn about art. So, for three years I soaked up as much as I could, studying painting technique, critiquing cinema, memorizing music pieces, learning a bit about dance and a lot about history and the philosophy of aesthetics.

One thing I did not learn was that, despite our modern focus on Renaissance painting and sculpture, those who lived at that time considered these "high arts" to be . . . well, not so high as we think of them. While no one can discount the marvel of innovation that Renaissance sculptors and painters brought into the world of art, Belozerskaya argues that, for those contemporary with the art that was being produced, painting and sculpture played second fiddle in the royal courts.

One could easily guess that precious metals and precious stones were valued highly by the nobility for their portability and their ability to maintain worth over time. What might not be so obvious is the high esteem in which tapestry, decorated armor, and music (written, sung, played, or even danced to) were held. Belozerskaya uses a series of contemporary sources to prove the thesis and does so convincingly. One of the more intriguing uses of evidence is the use of Charles Le Brun's tapestry Visit of Louis XIV to the Gobelins Workshope, 15 October 1667, which shows nothing other than Louis XIV shopping for tapestries at said workshop. A brilliant bit of meta-advertising on the part of the Gobelins workshop, no?

The book itself is a bit of luxury. It is illustrated throughout with beautiful color photos of tapestries, etched armor, automata, serving vessels, and even a bejeweled crystal marten head, which was ostensibly attached to a fur and worn to special occasions. PETA would not have survived long in the Renaissance.

And what is the point of all of this spectacle? It is to stun the senses of both subject and foreign dignitary alike, to impress upon the mind that whatever noble is enveloping you in this carnival of earthly delights is powerful enough to ensure stability and shelter from whatever vicissitudes might present themselves. "Don't worry," the possessor of these wonders seems to say, "you are in good hands. You're safe with me".

In perfect academic fashion, Belozerskaya leaves her thesis for the end, though it would have been nice to know at the very beginning of the book. So here you are:

"Single objects preserved in museums today, be they tapestries or gold statuettes, suits of armor or illustrated books, cannot bring back to life the richly textured procession of kings, courtiers, and citizens decked out in their finery, slowly moving through streets noisy with excited crowds, the sounds of trumpets, and the ringing voices of actors . . . The sensory overload brought on by overlapping layers of luxury creations was part of the alchemy that marked the realm of the great and distinguished momentous events from mundane routines.”

Ironically, this sumptuous feast for the eyes and mind can be yours for absolutely free as a google book. Google: building democracy one book at a time.

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Friday, November 28, 2014

There Is No Lovely End

There Is No Lovely EndThere Is No Lovely End by Patty Templeton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Though this is not true, I picture every scene, in my mind's eye, as taking place at night. Is it the dreamlike quality of the writing? The Gothic accouterments of dark lace and midnight-blue frock coats? The absence of a veil, for some, between the living and the dead? Or the morbid edge to the humor that threads through the dialogue and the plot itself? Like any great book, it is this and more. It is the fact that Templeton has set up clear guide posts that allow my brain (encased in my skull, away from the light) to fill in the interstices with shadow. I have been engulfed by this book.

Of course, when I mention gallows humor and the dead, you will immediately think of director Tim Burton's work. This is a fair beginning, but only a beginning. There is much more going on between the pages here. There is pathos.

In particular there are two of the main plot threads that delve down into a level of emotion - serious emotion - that lifts the work beyond mere Burton-esque fare: 1) Hester Garlan's quest to kill her son Nathan in order to wrench back from him the gift of seeing and speaking with the dead and, 2) the haunting of Sarah Winchester.

There is a great deal to laugh about in this book. But these two narratives cause the reader not frisson, but an discomfiture that twists the heart. The psychological and physical abuse that Sarah Winchester is subjected to makes one cringe and yearn for her release. And when the hope of release seemingly comes, it is all the more devastating to see that the abuse has not ended, but merely undergone a transformation. It is still there, and Sarah Winchester is haunted by it.

Take also Nathan Garlan's predicament: Hester tried, after the unwanted child's birth, to sell him off to a man who was not his father. After spending his youth in a hellish orphanage, the young man grows to become one of the most respected mediums in the country. Little does he know that the woman who gave him life wants to take it from him again. And let's not forget that the boy, now a man, has a father, as well, a ne'er-do-well haunted by the (rather stupid) ghost of his own brother.

I would spoil the fun and the wonder of this book if I were to reveal more. It is beautifully written, well-plotted, and meaningful. Templeton breaks Burton's boundaries and expands them. This is a dark and vivacious work that, ironically, breathes new life into some of the old, tired tropes of Gothic literature and dark cinema. It is absolutely worth your time and your hard-earned cash. There is no lovely end to the praise I can heap upon this book. Go buy this little ebony box of mysteries and make it your own.

PS: In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I know the author. No, she did not gift me a copy of this book - I bought it with my own cash. She did not ask for a review, nor did I promise such a thing. What you see in this review is all that it seems - high praise for a highly praiseworthy work of fiction.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Angry Candy

Angry CandyAngry Candy by Harlan Ellison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had a very interesting conversation with editor Dave Hartwell at the World Fantasy Convention. We both agree that Ellison is a completely venomous human being with low standards of behavior who thinks he is much smarter than he really is. We also agree that when his game is on, he hits home runs. This is the case with Angry Candy, the best collection of his more experimental work. I would definitely rank it among the top twenty short story collections I've ever read, maybe even in the top ten. One thing that is not in question: the story "The Paladin of the Last Hour" is one of the best pieces of short speculative fiction ever written. Ever.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

World Fantasy, How Do I Love You? Let Me Count the Ways

  1. Finishing the draft of Solistalgia the day before I left for DC.
  2. I don't live in Illinois, Indiana, or Ohio, I only have to drive through them to get to you.
  3. I used to live in Pennsylvania. It is still beautiful, especially this time of year. Hail, Pitt!
  4. NPR had a bit on a magicians' library that I listened to on part of my drive. It was fascinating and gave me grist for the next novel.
  5. The Educated Goldfish.
  6. I don't have to live with DC traffic.
  7. There was a biker-veteran convention (Rolling Thunder) at the same time. How cool is that?
  8. Lots of books in the book bag. One of which I actually wanted!
  9. The World Fantasy Convention passport, which shrunk down what is usually an excessively-oversized program booklet into something literally the size of a passport. Well-played, WFC committee, well-played. 
  10. Ghost Stories Without Ghosts panel with Patty Templeton, et al.
  11. Patty signed my copy of her book with a ghost!
  12. Scribe Agency authors going to dinner after flashing devil signs, a-like so: 
  13. Many good foods. Indian, Thai, Fillipino, Japanese. Thanks for the weight-gain, WFC.
  14. Jeffrey Ford's reading. Wow.
  15. Watching the Badgers beat Purdue with Jim Minz. Go Bucky!
  16. Having some stranger at the Thai restaurant see my Badgers sweatshirt and say (with a smile) "Your team just got lucky". My response: "Oh, you're a Purdon't fan?" It's all in good fun, but seriously, they let these people into our nation's capital?
  17. Author signing, where I sold a few copies of Heraclix and Pomp and learned (directly from the reviewer) about this very, very positive review.
  18. Reconnecting with old friends whom I haven't seen for years, such as: Jeffrey Ford, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, John Picacio, Jim Minz, Paula Guran, John Lawson, and a bevy of others. So many that I'm sure I've missed a dozen of you (for which I profusely apologize).
  19. Reconnecting with those I've seen not so long ago: John Klima, John O'Neill, Patty Templeton, Mark Teppo, Darin Bradley, Agent Kris, Jenn Brissett, Becky Johnson, etc.
  20. Meeting those with whom I've had virtual relationships, but only now met in person; mostly editors who have published my work but whom I hadn't had the pleasure to meet in person until now: Mike Allen, Matthew Kressel, Sheila Williams, and others.
  21. Meeting new-to-me and very talented people like Matt Wuertz, Russ Linton, Jeremy Zerfoss, and so on. Special props to dinner with Matt and regaling each other with old D&D stories, laughing our fool heads off the whole time. The waitresses didn't quite know what to do with us, I don't think.
  22. Selling some books.
  23. Drooling over more rare books than I will ever be able to afford in my lifetime, viz., everything Arkham House ever published and every hardcover put out by Tartarus Press.
  24. Very, very late nights where I was the only sober person within a three mile radius (I don't drink, but people I hang out with drink quite a bit).
  25. My sister-in-law and her husband, who let me crash at their place and come in at very odd hours of the morning.
  26. Everyone in attendance at WFC, except for that douchebag who thought it was okay to conduct a live interview in the freaking writer's retreat room that was reserved as a quiet space specifically to allow writers to WRITE. Some of us were actually in there to write, not to here your condescending drivel about how badly-behaved con-goers have become. Puke.
  27. Notre Dame, for losing their game. Jim and I high-fived each other more for that than for the Badgers' winning. I love WFC: I hate the golden domers. No, seriously, I do.
  28. Seeing Vincent Villafranca's amazing sculptures in person, along with the other amazing art on display at the art show. Lust, lust, lust.
  29. Hearing that Sofia Samatar's outstanding novel, A Stranger in Olondria won the World Fantasy Award.
  30. Heard another great story on NPR which will also feed into my next novel, at least thematically. Maybe I should just entitle this one "Thanks, NPR"!
  31. Seeing a billboard as I entered Indiana that said "Remember: Always Wear Your Life Vest" and thinking "Right now? While I'm driving?"
  32. Speeding, a lot, and not getting caught, which shaved about an hour off my travel time home.
  33. Listening to the radio as the Packers dismantled Da Bears.
  34. Avoiding Illinois drivers, who were on the other side of the road, coming back from pillaging my beloved Wisconsin one last time before winter sets in.
  35. Seeing home all safe and sound.
  36. Only one regret: Having missed the Demystifying Crowd Funding panel, because I had overslept that morning.
  37. Slowly remembering all the great things that I've forgotten that didn't make this list. Best World Fantasy Convention so far. Well done, WFC committee!