Friday, January 22, 2010

Five From Arisia

Last weekend saw Arisia – New England’s largest science fiction and fantasy convention – land like a magical UFO on the bank of the Charles. Amongst the trekkies, cat-girls, and steampunkers, was a wealth of writers, editors, and publishers. Some of who gathered together to produce their list of “scifi/fantasy books you must read”. I now pass that list along for your consideration:

First on this (randomly ordered) list is Sunshine by Robin McKinley. This beautifully written vampire novel is set in a “gently post-apocalyptic” world. With a light touch and a sparsely detailed setting, this stand-alone novel brings a welcome originality to its sad and lovely tale. Told in the first person by Sunshine -- an over-worked, under-paid, hard-working, much-loved baker – this book is haunting, witty, evocative, and refreshing.

Next up is the Hugo Award-winning Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Written in 1968, this amazing novel is set in the year 2010 and predicts a global population of 7 billion (eerily close to the real figure of 6.79 billion). This massive population, writes Brunner, changes everything. His plot-driven, idea-heavy book bombards the reader with a constantly shifting narrative and astounding predictions and details that eerily evoke our modern world (such as insidious media manipulation and the sudden, unexplained appearance of crazed killers called “muckers”). Out-of-print since 1999, this sprawling, multi-faceted book is being republished for 2010 in a special, illustrated edition for $200. Fortunately, used copies are still available. More fortunate still, other of John Brunner’s titles still in print including the harrowing The Sheep Look Up, which does for pollution what Stand on Zanzibar does for overpopulation.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle is a fairy tale for all ages, fun and terrifying. Written with beautiful and lyrical prose it explores simple lessons and the universal themes of love, humanity, and finding oneself. More complex than it first appears, this novel also tackles issues of despair, heroism, ecology, and the interaction between the magical and the prosaic world. And yet, for all this, the novel remains true to it’s fairy tale form with an ending that fulfills the reader’s expectations and leaves “all as it should be”.

Another vampire novel, and currently the most popular book on the list, Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris is a fun and memorable read. While part of a growing sub-genre of undead chick-lit, this novel and its many sequels sets itself apart by its immersive southern setting and its plucky, non-violent, and genuinely nice heroine. Humor, thrills, and continuing character growth, all combine to make this series sweet and addictive.

Last, but not least, is Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells. Lavishly detailed and intricately immersive, this novel is set in a faux 19th century, in a Vienna-like city and evokes a Victorian age where powerful locomotives meet subtle magics. With superb writing and mounting tension, this book is a complex puzzle box. Prequels and sequels explore more of the story’s chronology, including a World War II setting.

Share and Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Interview with G. C. Waldrep

Archicembalo is the latest work by the poet G. C. Waldrep and my favorite work of poetry to come out in 2009. It is one of those rare works that seems to be about everything but the actual words it contains. It is structured like a "gamut" or "musical self-instruction primer that often prefaced volumes of 19th-century American sheet music," with the titles of the poems all being questions like "What is a Zither" and "Who is Friedrich von Schiller." Mysterious and beautiful. Intellectual and enchanting. Musical and challenging. Archicembalo accumulates exploration and linguistically dazzles. Below is an interview with G. C. Waldrep.

How did you discover the word "archicembalo?"

It was a nickname of sorts, something my college choral conductor--Jameson Marvin, to whom the book is dedicated--used to cry when I sharped an eighth or a sixteenth of a pitch, as I tended to do in my higher registers when I sang tenor and countertenor in my teens and early 20s, there in Cambridge. "Archicembalo, archicembalo--36 notes to the octave--you're singing one of those notes--STOP!"

The question and answer format, whether in the catechism, a topical primer, or a gamut has fallen out of favor as too dogmatic to be educational. Do you believe there are opportunities for exploration beyond dogma in this format?

I grew up in the rural South, where call-and-response is still a basic element of some worship practices. The instructional "gamut" that prefaced so many compilations of 19th-century vernacular hymnody was meant for self-instruction: "distance learning" we might call it today. The results, in terms of musical composition and style, strike the modern ear as original, strange, and beautiful. You can hear bits of this strangeness, this rough, antiphonal beauty, in the various Smithsonian Folkways recordings of Sacred Harp singing, Primitive Baptist hymns, Sea Island singers on the South Carolina coast, etc.

The epigraph for the book asks "Accomplished students of happiness and experts in the full range of pleasure and joy--what leads us now to acknowledge another kind of learning in us, an understanding to which there remains deep inside us an indefinite number of witnesses?" Do you have an answer to that question? Or, if we are not led to "acknowledge another kind of learning in us," what is preventing us from doing so?

The quote is from the French writer Pascal Quignard, in translation, from his experimental novel disguised as the daybook of a wealthy Roman matron of the 4th century AD. I suppose one of the mysteries of music is that, in its wordlessness, it somehow does manage to draw forth affective responses. We listen, and we feel--something. As a poet, I wanted to try to explore this: only through language, rather than music itself.

As for that other kind of learning within us, that which witnesses, which responds: each has to answer for him- or herself, I think. The space between the poem and the reader remains one of the most mysterious spaces of all, to me. What happens there, by whose hand, and to what service?

Music and poetry have always had a close relationship. How would you describe that relationship and what is learned about each medium from that relationship?

Well, the language has a music--is possessed of a music. Twentieth-century standard written English has a particular music, which is different from French, or German, or Farsi. I wanted to write something that took my language's music seriously, on language's terms.

Music has a language of its own--sonics, harmonics--but it is not a human language. We can only get so close to it, I think.

And poetry--is somewhere in between, since the poet is always conscious of both the music and the meaning of the words he or she deploys. Poetry acts as a sort of busy messenger system between what we think and what we feel, what we do and what we see and what we know.

There are many words and names in the book most people wouldn't know (or at least, that I didn't know). Do you think literature has a responsibility to introduce people to new words and names? Is there a cumulative effect created by these unknowns, and if so, what should that effect feel like and what should a reader do with it?

I do think it is poetry's responsibility to keep the language fresh and supple. C.D. Wright has said "It is poetry that remarks on the barely perceptible disappearances from our world such as that of the sleeping porch or the root cellar. And poetry that notes the barely perceptible appearances." This is as true for language--for words--as for anything else. Poets live closest to language, at least on language's terms.

But that doesn't explain or excuse my penchant for obscure or difficult words. I just love them. Years ago some well-meaning friends performed an intervention wherein they demanded I not consult the OED for one whole year. I did it--for them--but it didn't help much. Discovering a new word is, for me, like what a painter might feel if he or she discovered a new color, a new pigment. I want to use it everywhere, immediately.

I would hope readers of Archicembalo would be able to let "meaning"--qua "meaning"--go, for just a little while, and enjoy the music. We tend to assume that the inherent music of our language must be subsidiary to its annotative meaning. In the instructions I was just reading on how to restart my oil furnace, which shut off for some reason earlier this evening this is just fine: preferable, even. But not always, and not in Archicembalo. I wrote these poems with the music of the language foremost in voice and mind. There is annotative meaning there, but it arrives by way of song.

One of my favorite lines in the book is "Some countries of the world exist now only in the form of obsolete postage, as angels or capitals. This is considered perfectly normal. We call a hole a grave if we value what goes into it, a mine if we value what comes out." What role, if any, does or should poetry play in the forgetting of nations and the categorizing of holes?

C.D. Wright's comment about poetry as a sensitive recording instrument--for the most minute appearances and disappearances in our language, our culture, our lives--seems apropos here also. You might think of a poem--any good poem--as a hole you can fall into, or climb out of: a quantum absence. That is somehow also a presence, on the page, in our lives.

Then again, as Wright says further, "It falls on the sweet neck of poetry to keep the rain-pitted face of love from leaving us once and for all."

Who is the most important poet not being read?

By whom? The saddest aspect of the various warring camps in contemporary American poetry is that even many poets are making a point not to read certain other poets, not to hear certain voices, certain songs. Years ago I was told, in all seriousness and with some heat, that I couldn't like both W.H. Auden and Gertrude Stein. It wasn't allowed. This is almost mind-bogglingly self-defeating, in terms of the possibilities that dwell in language.

I suppose if I had to name one Anglophone poet, it would be
Geoffrey Hill. He has his champions, but he is far too "difficult" for the disciples of Billy Collins or Sharon Olds, and far too "traditional" or "conservative" for most strands of what passes as the avant-garde. I am also drawn to John Taggart's work, which will finally be showcased in a New & Selected from the University of California Press later this year.

Alice Notley is quite well-known (and well-read) in certain circles, all but invisible in others. I thought her last big book, In the Pines, would earn her a larger audience as well as garner a few major poetry awards. But it seems to have disappeared more or less without a trace.

And then there is poetry in translation. Raul Zurita (Chile) is one of my favorite poets, but his masterwork, Anteparadise, has not gotten nearly the reception it deserves in the Anglophone world. His Purgatorio and INRI are also very good: formally challenging and deeply moving. I'm pleased that Mahmoud Darwish is finally getting more attention in the Anglophone world (albeit after his recent, untimely death). His work is essential to me.

What are you reading now?

Right now? Julie Carr's 100 Notes on Violence. I've been reading quite a bit of poetry in translation, including Heiligeanstalt and
Raving Language: New & Selected Poems by the Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, and also Concentric Circles and Riding Pisces, by the expatriate Chinese poet Yang Lian. I just finished a few excellent first and second books by younger American poets, including Barbara Claire Freeman's Incivilities, Lytton Smith's The All-Purpose Magical Tent, Matvei Yankelevich's Boris by the Sea, and Sherwin Bitsui's Flood Song.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Trailers

Recently I was pointed towards the following video. It is a "book trailer" for the YA novel Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.

I thought this such a capital idea that I went searching for more:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Stitches by David Small

And this humorous little piece:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wine tasting; Upstairs on the Square;Oenophile

For those of you who were shut out of last night's tasting here at the bookstore you have another chance to more than sample these sweet bordeaux. Aline Baly is hosting an event at Upstairs on the Square TONIGHT. See the link below. I am now going to spoil the "surprise" and the identity of the "guest star" so stop reading now and call Upstairs if you are into surprises. In Aline's words... "The special surprise is my family's reserve wine which we've only made 11 times since the 1920s...and only 1K bottles each time so the price of admission covers a glass of the golden nectar" alone not to mention the stunning menu and unique atmosphere!!! Spots are limited so call now and don't get shut out again!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Letters of Note.Com

Kurt Vonnegut's first letter after escaping from Dresden. An alternative origin story for Superman that involves time travel and Olympic Medals. Edgar Allen Poe apologizing for his conduct because his friend made him drink too many "juleps." Letters of Note is a great website that features fascinating letters, notes, faxes, and memos. The site updates daily and includes, in addition to the examples mentioned above, J.D. Salinger arguing that Holden Caulfield is "unactable" Hunter S. Thompson haranguing a producer over an adaptation of The Rum Diary (which was never completed) and animation advice from the creator of Ren and Stimpy. There are also letters by Allen Moore, Robert Heinlien, Philip K. Dick, Van Gogh, Dr. Seuss and many more. It's a fascinating way to lose an afternoon.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Great new mystery title from UK

I recently read a wonderful new mystery by Elly Griffiths called The Crossing Places. (see Staff Picks). I really enjoyed the characters, the setting and the plot and hope very much that it will become a successful series in the future. It is also an Indie Next Top 20 pick for January 2010. I managed to chat with the author recently and asked her a few questions about the book.

Q. The Crossing Places is set in a fictional place in the county of Norfolk on the east coast of England. It is a beautiful, wild but eerie character in the story. Why did you decide to create this setting for your first mystery and how did the setting shape the story?

A. Well, although the Saltmarsh itself is fictional, it's based on a very real place on the Norfolk coast, a bird sanctuary called Titchwell Marsh. My aunt lives in Norfolk and we go there on holiday every year. She has a boat and I have many happy memories of cruising along the Norfolk Broads (rivers) whilst my Aunt Marge (to whom the book is dedicated) told us wonderful ghost stories.

Q. Ruth Gallagher is a very likeable protagonist. What inspired you to make her an academic forensic archaeologist? How much have you had to learn about archaeology in order to make Ruth's knowledge credible?

A. I'm so glad you like her! I don't know where she came from, she really just appeared in my head fully formed, but I do feel that I know her well and I feel very protective towards her. My husband is an archaeologist so I have drawn on his knowledge for the book. He also introduced me to a wonderful female forensic archaeologist who was a great inspiration.

Q. You have taken the relationship between Ruth and the detective, Inspector Nelson, into new territory in the genre as far as I am aware. I can't help but think that this in itself is going to be interesting as events unfold. Without having to issue a "spoiler alert", what can you tell us about where this relationship is heading?

A. Well, it's complicated, as they say on Facebook. Nelson and Ruth will always be bound together but Nelson loves his wife and Ruth loves her life as a single woman. In The Janus Stone (the sequel to The Crossing Places) feelings run high as they investigate the discovery of a child's bones found buried under a Victorian manor house.

Q. Can we expect a whole series of Ruth Gallagher mysteries? If so, when can we expect the next one?

A. The Janus Stone will be out in the US next year. I'm already halfway through the third book, tentatively entitled The House At Sea's End. I don't think I will run out of plots - I've got so many archaeological periods to choose from: prehistoric, Roman, medieval, Victorian...The third book is about the Second World War.

Q. Elly Griffiths is a nom de plume. Why have you chosen to write these books under a different name and what made you turn your hand to writing a mystery?

A. My real name is Domenica de Rosa which, ironically, sounds exactly like a pseudonym. I had already written books under this name and my agent felt that, as this was a new genre, I needed a new name. Eleanor Griffiths is actually my grandmother's name. I'm half Welsh and half Italian - a heady mixture! I've always loved mysteries. My first book, written when I was 11, was a whodunit. I think it was called The Hair of the Dog and I think the vicar did it! Then, one day, when we were walking across Titchwell Marsh, my husband mentioned that prehistoric people thought that marshland was sacred because it is neither land nor sea. They saw it as a kind of bridge to the afterlife - neither land nor sea, neither life nor death. The idea for The Crossing Places came to me in that instant...

Q. Who are your favourite mystery writers/books?

A. I love Victorian novels and my favourite writer of all time is Wilkie Collins. For me, the best, and first, detective story is The Moonstone. However, like Ruth, I'm also a fan of Ian Rankin and I love CJ Sansom's books. He lives near me in Brighton but I've never met him...

I wish you and Ruth a long and successful career.

Thank you for your interest. Elly.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

eBooks Sale!

Did you get a Sony eReader, iPhone or other digital reading device for the holidays. Porter Square Books sells eBooks through our website so you can fill your reader and support your local indepedent book store. And we're having a sale on select eBooks. Indiebound has featured 20 eBooks and we're selling them for 20 percent off. Just go to our homepage and scroll down to the bottom to see a list of featured titles. Refresh the page to see more.

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