Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Got Books?

Saturday Liz and I ventured into Lawrence looking for a used bookstore we had just found out about called Got Books? It's run by a non-profit org that donates the proceeds to various charities. Plus, everything in this place is a dollar.

Race ya.

That's hard to pass up. They also offer records, CDs, videos, and books-on-tape. All for a buck a piece. One potential drawback is that the books are unsorted. So you've got your Stephen King next to a Javascript textbook next to a Martha Stewart Living Christmas special from 1987. But that's actually part of the fun. We barely got through half the books. Another downside is that there are no public bathrooms. And this place is out in industrial park land, so no McDonald's or gas station next door for easy urinal access.

But here's what I bought:

The Stones of Summer, by Dow Mossman. I'd seen this writer featured in a documentary called Stone Reader. This book was originally published in 1972 to great reviews, then disappeared, as did Mossman. But Barnes and Noble republished the novel in 2003 after the documentary rediscovered its author. I don't know if anybody bought it the second time around because this copy I found (for a dollar, did I mention that already?) is in great shape. Anyway, I'm interested in lost treasures and forgotten authors, so I'll let you know how the book is.

Lit Life, by Kurt Wenzel. I've had my eye on this book since it was published in 2001. Every time I picked it up I thought, no no, I'll wait until it's half price. Years later I picked it up again I thought, nope, not yet, I'll just wait until it's a dollar. And wham, I finally hit the jackpot. I know, it wasn't free, but I decided it was time to act. The book concerns a young writer struggling through a bout of writer's block who is mentored by his literary hero, a "dyspeptic and obscure novelist." I'll let you know if I should have waited another couple years.

The Dain Curse, by Dashiell Hammett. A classic, but I've never read it.

Let The Kids Play, by Pax Paloscia. This one was a shrinkwrapped mystery. The cover didn't give much away, except intrigue. I couldn't thumb through the book because it was sealed, but I decided to take a chance. I've never heard of Pax, but when your cover is adorned with a kid pointing a gun, it's hard to pass up.

Turns out Pax is an artist who "conveys the fresh naivete of Drago's 36 Chambers series. Born in Rome in 1974, Pax travels the world searching for new input and inspiration. Moving between Paris and New York, she records her impressions, and her dreamy and nostalgic world is the key to this book." The book filled with photography of mostly kids and teenagers from different cities, graffiti, illustrations, and paintings. The art is evocative and vaguely disturbing. And with so many pictures, it's a quick read.

All in all a small but decent haul. And since we barely browsed half the stacks, we'll be headed back there again real soon.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Book Review: The Sound of Our Town, by Brett Milano

Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of Boston rock & roll summed up between two covers. Brett Milano, a man who’s been on the scene for decades, writes with you-are-there fanboy urgency about many of the Boston bands that passed through The Rat, The Channel, Cantone’s, The Middle East, TT the Bear’s Place, and other Boston clubs and bars. He covers various touchstone rock eras: r & b 50s, groovy 60s, laid back 70s, snotty, anything goes late 70s, new wave early 80s, hardcore mid-80s, major label feeding frenzy early 90s. Through it all he presents every band as just wanting to play in a wicked decent band and have people see them play live.

Rock has been vital to Boston and its neighboring burgs since the G-Cleffs harmonized on Roxbury street corners. The book is a good primer in early local legends and also-rans like Gene Maltais, the Remains, and the Lost, while covering the obvious success stories of Boston, J. Geils, The Cars, and Aerosmith. The book doles out nuggets of context (social, political, gender) so readers who weren’t around to see it first-hand can understand why homegrown bands ached to play either sock hops or the most scuzzy, beer-soaked Boston stages. Milano obviously loves these bands. All of them. He even writes with a fond humor and bewilderment about probably the most loathed, obscene, and dangerous of all punk performers, GG Allin.

I guess I wanted to pick up this book because I was never part of any music scene. I went to school in Worcester for a couple years, but I spent much of college and post-college years in Connecticut and on Cape Cod. So it was essential reading to discover how punk music influenced the Boston bands of the late 70s. How post-punk, hardcore, new wave, and alternative/college bands fought their way onto Boston college radio, into underground record stores and clubs like The Rat, and finally onto mainstream radio behemoth WBCN.

I came of musical age in the 80s, so this book covers vital history, including how Mission of Burma and The Pixies came to make some of the most influential rock music ever. There are plenty of anecdotes about bands that signed with major labels with varying degrees of success. Or burned out in a couple of years but were no less influential or singular. Regional heroes like The Lyres, Real Kids, Nervous Eaters, Dinosaur Jr., Dumptruck, Big Dipper, Classic Ruins, and on and on.

Maybe you saw some of these bands live. I wish I could say I did, at the time. I made up for lost time in the early ‘90s when I moved back to the area. I caught The Lyres at TT’s and Sebadoh at Avalon. Saw Morphine play Central Square’s World Fair in ’97, was shocked to find Peter Wolf standing behind me at some random TT’s show, caught Juliana Hatfield and John Doe sitting at TT’s bar, and I’m pretty sure that was Rivers Cuomo talking to some guys at my table back when TT’s had booths and Mr. Cuomo was attending Harvard. I’m happy to say I caught Mission of Burma opening for The Pixies in late 2004. Not in Boston, but down the street here in Lowell, at the Tsongas Arena.

If you’ll pardon me, I have to get back to some essential listening: my vinyl copy of Let’s Breed! Part two of the Throbbing Lobster saga, featuring Boston legends Dumptruck, The Outlets, Christmas, Blackjacks, Scruffy the Cat, and so much more...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Books in My Lobby 2

This guy was at the bottom of a disposed boxful of last year's textbooks. I almost grabbed him (because I can't get enough of high school biology) but the poor dude's expression was a turnoff. Hopefully he found a good home.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

First Draft Theater

First draft theater presents the first in a series of posts featuring a page or two of a first draft. The following is the first draft of what could be the beginning of a story, novel, or nothing depending on whether I continue with this idea. Give it a read. Let me know what you think. Is it worth continuing? What do you think's going to happen next?

And now...First Draft Theater

Reggie grabbed the snow shovel and pushed the handle into a mound of slushy, heavy snow. It was his job, one of many at the restaurant, to keep the front entrance clear. It was a slow night. Four parties since six. He wanted to make the task last.
He walked along the front of the building, out of the lights, scrapping the snow before him. He had smoked a joint a half hour ago. It was wrapping loosely around his limbs, dislocating his arms and legs. Giving him that dulling sensation that calmed him, softened his mind, allowed his thoughts to run along wire dangling in darkness between points of light.
The yellow t-shirt he wore said Fuller Liquors, faded. From a few years ago when his sister rang up customers and bagged there. Then she married her high school boyfriend and moved to Mashpee. Might as well have moved to Uranus for all the times he saw her anymore. If Mashpee was Uranus, Orleans was—whatever planet was beyond Uranus. Was there a planet farther out? Or was it further?
The reason he smoked tonight was Amber’s phone call. Jonathan had contacted her and wanted to meet with both of them tonight. Jonathan would pick up Amber at their apartment and then drive over and pick him up after his shift ended. When you called Jonathan, you left a voicemail that was never returned. When Jonathan called you, that meant something was starting up.
Reggie was halfway to the road before he realized he had left the restaurant’s portico behind him. He was shoveling the parking lot and he was almost positive his boss, Mr. Daniels, had told him not to do this. Plus he was getting wet. Wet snow. Snow always turned to rain on the Cape. And he was cold, freezing. When he was in high school—
“Reggie.” It was Mr. Daniels standing at the back door. “Reggie. Over here. Forget about the parking lot. Mike plows that. Just do back here.”
Reggie watched Mr. Daniels lift his arm. Like a zombie. The walking dead. Mr. Daniels—
“Reggie! Come over here.”
He trotted to the back door. Frozen snow caked the bottoms of his pant legs, clinging like loose teeth.
“Hi,” Reggie thought to say.
“Just make a path to the dumpster,” Mr. Daniels said, pointing across snow-covered pavement to the green dumpster back along the fence. In the summer that thing smelled horrible. One July night maggots formed all over and inside it. In minutes. Reggie couldn’t stop watching those things wriggle. An hour later they were gone. The mass of them living and dying in unison.
“And put a jacket on, it’s freezing out here. Did you hear me?”
“Sure. To the Dumpster.” Reggie had trouble paying attention sometimes.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Editing Blues

My first draft is almost done with me. It’s towed me around since January and now it’s cutting me loose. Which is strange, because now that I’m almost free I plan on turning around and kicking its ass.

The second draft will be unrecognizable to the first with new characters added, old characters cut, locations switched, backstory enhanced, tone tweaked and torqued, and tense changed. Hopefully the new third act will crackle with intensity and purpose, instead of shiver in disgust and turn over to snore louder. I’m crawling/getting dragged to the finish; I’m mere pages from typing The End for no other purpose than to ensure that I don’t keep working on it. All so that I can start planning for the second draft in earnest.

When I’m done with the second draft, what then? Then I’ll be ready to give it to my readers. Writers need good readers. All writing needs the careful eye of an interested second party. If you don’t have a reader, or if your readers blow smoke up your ass, then you need to devise ways of reading, or otherwise approaching your work, in new ways.

The weary eye of an uninterested reader:

One method is to read pages aloud. Better yet, have somebody else read them to you. Another’s cadence, reflecting their sensibility and injecting some subjectivity, will amaze and confound you. Your dialogue will sound flat. Your segues will make no sense. You’ll realize where you forgot character tags. You'll get lost in your own story, and not in a good way. You can see where the blemishes in the skin of your prose are breaking out. Phrases that you thought were adequate or passable become embarrassing pustules. You‘ll want to stop reading and make spot revisions. This is a good thing, a necessary procedure. One of many in the process of revising your pages.

I’m lazy when it comes to revision. But I’m learning to like it more. It’s all in the attitude. I used to get off on writing the first draft. But joining writing groups and taking workshops forced me to rewrite more. When I knew that I was writing for a particular audience, I’d revise the pages enough so that I wasn’t embarrassed to show them. I found myself writing for the readers, and cutting and adding sentences keeping in mind what these people would and would not cotton to. It's the immediate effect of an audience you never knew existed for your work. If you don’t have a writing group, reading pages aloud to yourself can achieve the same effect: you become your audience. You eventually train yourself be the hardest critic of all.

I took a workshop with Chris Offutt a few years ago at the Wesleyan Writers Conference. His M.O. for revising stories stuck with me. He leaves single pages of a story-in-progress around his house. So that when he’s doing something like preparing coffee or making dinner, he can read over a page here and there, coming at familiar work from another angle. He can test each word, each sentence, each paragraph on its own merits, not just within the construct of the story. (Like, I imagine, a surgeon approaches cutting a patient—with a lack of emotional contact.) Offutt’s idea is that all the parts need to be as strong as the whole.

I write on my PC and find that printing out my pages gives me an immediate shift in proximity to my work. My work becomes more than a scroll of text on an endless background, but a topographical region of words constructed to be experienced in a specific way. I get a better sense of how my work flows and can see structure flaws and organization problems earlier and from farther away. It’s another way of reading aloud my work.

A helpful book that’s all about editing your own work is The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell. She includes truckloads of tips about self editing, with examples and advice from other authors who outline methods, both strange and basic, that work for them. And that may work for you.

What are some of the self-editing methods that you use when revising your writing?

Define the Phrase

Kudos to those who took a stab at the definition of the latest phrase (well, word) Blunderbuss:

Cynthia said: An old fashioned gun or amunition of some sort?

Robin said: A blundering person (maybe me stumbling around my house in the wee hours!).

Muriel said: blunderbuss-ancient short gun with large bore firing many balls. (I looked it up in the dictionary).

Well, it's a three-way tie. Each of the entries had some variation of the answer I was looking for. Which is: A short gun, with a wide bore, for carrying slugs: also, a stupid, blundering fellow. Congratulations. You're all winners. How often does that happen? Never. Never never never. Enjoy your hard won win.

Coming soon: the most unusual, difficult phrase to guess. In the world. Ever.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Poets in Lowell

This past weekend Lowell, Massachusetts hosted the first Massachusetts Poetry Festival. When I received a flyer about the event in the mail, I was happy to see fellow Grub Street writer Ann Killough scheduled to appear. Ann and I have taken a few of Ms. X’s classes together where I found her writing incisive, inventive, and profoundly lyrical. She was an enthusiastic participant in the critique discussions and generous and honest in her written comments.

On Saturday I attended her event. She read poetry and participated in the panel discussion Poetry and Our Times, alongside Martin Espada and Richard Hoffman. Conducted at the Whistler House Museum of Art, the hour-long panel (moderated by poet Michael Ansara) was engaging and enlightening. All three poets write with a keen social conscience and moral perspective.

Readings covered the disparate but acquainted topics of apocalyptic visions of George W., social injustice in the courts of Chelsea, the growing migrant class in America, and the idea of country as a metaphor for its condition. Discussions and audience questions touched upon the global financial crisis, America through the eyes of other nations, and the realization that Sarah Palin could conceivably be president of the United States within a year. Literature of ideas and conscience risks crossing into propaganda or didactic rants. But these poets proved that social cause can be rewarding and personally emotional without striking righteous false notes.

It was great to see a festival of any literary pedigree in Lowell. Lowell is home to a vibrant poetry scene and carries its literary history with a fanatical, domineering pride. Who doesn’t know that Lowell is the birthplace of Jack Kerouac? Lucy Larcom met John Greenleaf Whittier in Lowell while he was an editor at a local newspaper. Last summer Lowell hosted Kerouac’s legendary On the Road scroll in an award-winning exhibition. There are parks in Lowell named after Kerouac and Larcom.

On the Road scroll under glass at the Kerouac exhibit:

Brew’d Awakening, a Lowell coffee shop, champions local poets with a monthly open mic and poetry slam night and sells chapbooks by local poets. Lowell is also home to small presses and literary journals that emphasize poetry including Bootstrap Press, Shakespeare’s Monkey Revue , and Loom Press.

From all accounts (so far, mine), the Massachusetts Poetry Festival was a success. It was good to reconnect with a fellow writer while seeing Lowell continue to nurture its creative class. Pick up a copy of Ann Killough’s latest chapbook, Beloved Idea. She’ll inscribe it for you if you ask real nice-like.

More Information

Lowell Poetry Network

Concord Festival of Authors, running from Wednesday, October 15th through November 2nd. Many highlights of this event are held in Lowell.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Books in My Lobby

No, you're not in the wrong blog: I just changed the name from General Ephemera to Unreliable Narrator. Liz came up with that when I included a fiction in my post about seeing The Wedding Present. You'll have to read her comment to figure out what piece of information I twisted for my own bloggy purposes.

People in my building leave books they don't want in the lobby. Here is the first in a series of photos and commentary about these books. What's wrong with these books? Why get rid of them? Who can say? Perhaps taking photos of them and posting them online will answer these and other timeless questions.

Why does this even exist? Why not just read the damn book? These are not short books either. This CliffsNotes was probably more than half the length of the novel. It didn't last long, somebody snagged it up about an hour after I took this. Must be in high demand

Define the Phrase

Well, since nobody's biting, I'm leaving the current phrase up and running until I get some results. Just leave me a comment if you think you have an inkling of what Blunderbuss means (see previous post). Look it up if you must and put this poor word out of its misery so I can post another fun phrase for you to parse.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Night with The Wedding Present

Monday night Liz and I braved the encroaching autumn chill to see a band. We don't venture out to the big city too often (in this case Cambridge), but any time The Wedding Present passes through it's pretty much a no-brainer. The band played The Middle East downstairs featuring fairly cheap 16oz cans of Pabst.

The Jealous Girlfriends opened, playing a set of contemporary alt rock tinged with a little Frank Zappa. (Liz disagreed. We didn't speak the rest of the night.) The singer's voice reminded me of Portishead. There were also nifty touches of Throwing Muses. Maybe I only think that because there were ladies in the band. Here I am watching the opening band over my shoulder:

Gedge and the current Wedding Present lineup of three young guns ripped through a set of about 20 songs reaching back through his catalog. High points included early stuff from his George Best, Bizarro, and Seamonsters days, nuggets from Hit Parade 1, the B-side Crawl, a random Cinerama tune, and a bunch of new stuff which was well served amped up live.

Here's Gedge and gang in a typical blur:

The guy's 48 and still moves like a dervish to keep up with his more youthful tunes that make ample use of the guitar-strum-on-crack velocity that equates to an aural sweet spot that no other band quite touches.

Gedge always writes about relationships. Usually the beginnings and endings. Somebody's always getting cheated on or left for somebody else. The often male protagonists are looking over their shoulders for the next chance, another choice, the next in line. Or they're anticipating getting broken up with. Sometimes they imagine throwing out the new guy's razor in a fresh ex's apartment.

Dell and Liz made up in time to give The Wedding Present two thumbs up (I did not get drunk, I was merely blinking in enthusiasm):

Define the Phrase

The phrase from the last post was Hog Grubber. The answer: A mean stingy fellow.

For this post, define Blunderbuss. Answer next post.

(From the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

First Post -- Here we go

Just finished another great writing class with Ms. X, an instructor at Grub Street in Boston. It’s the fourth ‘session’ I’ve taken with her and her revolving stable of novelists, all of whom are at a similar level with their writing. Well, I only hope I’m at their level. Regardless, we are all working on novels in various stages of done-ness.

For the first three sessions, I workshopped my second novel, A Little Disappeared. It was 80%-85% finished when I bucked up and showed it to Ms. X and her class. (Now it's finished and I'm trying to land an agent.)

For the latest session, I brought in the first 120 pages of a new novel I started earlier this year. This new thing, well, it’s still damp. It was harrowing to show it to a roomful of great writers, baring myself writing-wise, letting it all flap in those chilly, atmospheric Grub Street hallways. After I finally let go my ego and squelched my stage fright and fear of rejection, the class critiqued it.

They gave it a decent scrubbing; unfolding it for structure problems, refolding to show character development flaws, mulling over the controversial subject matter, then spinning out idea after idea for the second draft. For a story that I was struggling to find (its way and footing long lost) it was an invaluable undertaking.

Now, post-class, I’m still writing the first draft. A test really, because most of this initial draft will be pruned or pulled up, then replanted and cultivated. But my characters, the current version of them, want to keep breathing, moving, fucking up, changing, and etc.'ing for a little longer.

After I'm done, do I put it in a drawer and let it smolder for a few months, douse it, read over the class’s comments, and start the next draft? Do I let it simmer longer and start a new novel? Do I focus on short stories and novel excerpts in an attempt to get short pieces published and my name out there more?

Stick around. I'll let you know how it all goes down.

Define the Phrase

Hog Grubber.

I’ll give the answer in my next post.

(From the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.)

Current Listening

Bethany Curve, Biff Bang Pow, Big Black, Big Country (one after the next in my iTunes).