Archive for September, 2011

The Fall by del Toro and Hogan – a review

September 13, 2011

I owe a lot to the horror genre, and specifically Stephen King. Grades 1-5 took a lot of time and care to bludgeon out of me any joy that I got from reading. I was put into special reading groups, so I had to miss movies the rest of the grade got to see. I had to read books only two or three other people had to read. My spelling lists were different. My entire school experience was different from probably 95% of my classmates. My response was to say to hell with it and morph into one of the laziest (though still high grade attaining, which was quite the feat), most put off students you could find. I wasn’t put enough to quit doing the work, just enough to do it sloppily and as averagely as I could. Unfortunately, this was a lesson that I am still unable to entirely shake, as I still find myself wanting to default to “not give a shit mode.”

Thankfully, Stephen King (specifically, his Eyes of the Dragon novel) rescued my interests at some point in middle school and I took up reading again. Truth be told, I’ve never been overly interested in the horror genre outside of King. I tried Koontz, but couldn’t get into it. Lost interest in Lovecraft, and enjoyed the occasional zombie anthology. There was a brief time when I really dug Phil Rickman, but suddenly his books quit appearing on the bookshelves. Though intermittent reader, I’ve always kept at least half an eye turned towards the horror section, looking for something new and interesting.

I found it with the first book of what’s promised to be a trilogy, The Strain. It was original, returning vampires to the ugly, brutal cloth that I think they were originally meant to be before they were sanitized and made glittery.  It was a breath of fresh air for a subject that had simply lost me.

Reading The Fall, the newness of the approach is, as expected, gone. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does force the novel to stand on its own feet in a way the first novel didn’t have to bother itself with. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold up its own weight. The people you expect to die, do. Those you expect to live, do. And it clearly leaves off in preparation for a third act, so any great revelation isn’t to be expected.

Where the third book goes, is still up in the air. They seem to hint at a somewhat darker turn at points in this novel, specifically regarding Ephraim’s son and the biblical turn his story line appears to take towards the end of The Strain.

There are some larger themes at play in the book. There is certainly a question of obsessions becoming a blinding force, luring characters into actions they feel are necessary but are really foolish and destined for failure, often leading to the loss of loved ones. We see it with Ephraim. We come to see it with Setrakian. We see it with Palmer. We see it with the Ancients.  It’s repeatedly early and often in both books.

Also, there seems to be a lot going on with blood, not just in the sense of nourishment/poison, but in the sense of family, connections and responsibility and it often ties into the idea of obsessions. The vampires introduce their own idea of “blood” and family, and the obligations that go along with it. With the human characters we see varying definitions of what family means and entails, and the sacrifices that go with it. There might really be something here in regards to how the male and female characters treat the idea of familial responsibilities, and the success each gender has at fulfilling the roles they largely self-define.

This idea of family and blood, and the differences along these lines between the vampires (and specifically the ancients) and the humans gains a bit more depth considering the connection between the ancients and their “homes” and between humans and their homes.

Alright, my coffee cup is empty. I’ve been tempted to google some of the stuff from The Strain having to deal with The Master and things Satrakian said, but I actually don’t want to chance upon some part of the story the authors plan on revealing in their own good time. So while there might be more depths to plunge in that direction, they are going to have to be spelunked by someone else. Or if  I am to do it, it will be at a later time after having read the next book.

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Poetry is Underappreciated

September 10, 2011

I wandered across a discussion going on at No Tells and wanted to bring it here. What doesn’t interest me is the center of the argument that seemed to sprout up from HTML giant’s original post and which led to numerous comments on (apparently) several sites and blog posts. And, honestly, what these other sites (like No Tells) have said, already cover this specific issue more fully and more knowledgeably than I could. I’m not a publisher, I’m not even sure I would want to call myself a poet despite dabbling in the art from time to time. Instead, what stuck out to me was this chunk in the middle of No Tell’s post:

No Tell Books’ best selling title broke even after three years and is now earning a very modest profit. This is by an author whose work has appeared in places like Poetry and Best American Poetry. This title has been taught at universities. How many copies does one have to sell to be the best selling title at No Tell Books after four years? 228. That is not a typo. This number doesn’t include what the author has sold herself, probably around 200 copies on her own. But the press doesn’t earn money on those sales.

So if that’s a best seller, what’s a flop? 74 sales after five years (again, this number doesn’t include what the author sold on his own, which was maybe 50 or so). (UPDATE: Gatza states, “In general, books by new authors sell around 25 – 30 copies.” Shocking? Only if you don’t know the first thing about poetry publishing.)

This is the reality of poetry publishing. There are certainly presses that sell more copies. A poetry title reviewed in The New York Times can sell 2-4k copies, it is true. But small, independent presses, those small shops, usually run by one or a few people, rarely see those kinds of sales. University presses, for the most part, don’t see those kinds of numbers for poetry. I attended a panel by the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and he said his press’ poetry sales was around 800 per title. They publish “big-name” poets, their books are often shelved by chain bookstores, they have good distribution, a strong reputation . . . and that’s what they sell. Publishing poetry is their charity–their poetry titles are subsidized by their fiction and non-fiction sales.

I am somewhat shocked by this because I am new to poetry publishing. I had no idea what sales should be expected by a publisher putting out quality works (or crappy works, even). As I’ve seen elsewhere, part of the problem might be over-saturation with publishers and people wanting to be poets and make some sort of living or mark in the industry. Maybe there are just too damn many. But that’s awfully pessimistic and not an agenda or direction I would really want to push my way down. For one, I’m willing to bet that there has always been a bunch of people wanting to be poets, people who filled notebooks full of  verse and prose, and just didn’t have the numerous opportunities present to modern poets. Secondly, if there are that many people out there looking to be published, there certainly seems to be a market out there.

The problem that I see is that it appears to be a one-way market. A bunch of people wanting to be published but not overly enthusiastic about throwing their money down and seeing other people published. Part of me has to admit to being a part of this group, at least to the extent of really not being a poetry person. I will rarely buy literary mags because of the sheer volume of poetry in them and my lack of interest and chapbooks, well, pretty damn unlikely to get my money.  This is something I certainly didn’t bring up very often at AWP.

In glancing through some of the replies on the other sites, I see there have already been people pushing for better marketing, and poets re-thinking their ambitions, maybe not pursuing conventional publishing routes and instead just seeking to get their work viewed by as many people as possible. And the numbers pulled into the light by No Tells and BlazeVOX may support that. After all, if the best they can hope a new book does is 25-30 copies, it’s clearly not being exposed to a great number of people. And if you’re not being read, what does it matter who publishes you?

So maybe it’s time to go back to mimeographed pages stapled together and sold out of the back of the car or stacked in the public areas of universities? Or some sort of collection of websites that push poetry that can link to each other and push viewers from one site to the next? Or maybe it’s time to start buying up adspace in news papers and publishing poems in the ad space?

I don’t know. That’s why I’m putting this out there. Poetry seems under appreciated, at least by people with money to throw down on it. While many of us are closet Silvia Plath’s, we’re also not interested in reading what the uncloseted poet across the hall has published. And maybe the poetry scene is really dying a slow death, filled with people who continue to push the medium but who continue to have an ever quieter voice beyond the edges of their personal radiance.  We need to find aways of not just helping our small presses survive, but of pushing poetry back to the front and center, or at least onto the stage. Alright, back to work.

I’m an adjunct and it’s killing me

September 6, 2011

I’m not good at it. I think it’s fair to put that right out there. But, under fair circumstances, I do alright. This fall has been hellish so far. I’ve been teaching comp pretty much non-stop for the past year and ahalf. Maybe two years. Which really isn’t all that long. I know this, too. Except I teach online.

You don’t get to see the faces of your students. They don’t get to see you. The entire reward of working with people is fairly obliterated by the computer screen. Having two discussion threads and 25 papers littered with basic spelling and grammatical errors per class , per week, week after week, can be fairly dehumanizing. After awhile, all that you know is that this massive pile of incredibly tedious work descends on you every sunday night and you just wish it would stop. While your employer pushes for greater retention, you just want them to disappear, one by one, until you’re left with something a bit more manageable, or at least a bit less soul  crushing with its omnipresent weight of tedious repetition.

And that’s under the best circumstances, teaching online, at least for me, anyway. This fall has already fallen into the “worst circumstances” category.  The institution (business?) I’m working for decided they needed to revamp their email system for this fall. So, in August, I got instructions for setting up my new email account to use in the fall. Assuming I had a job, which hadn’t been confirmed when all of these emails were going out, but I assumed it was a promising sign. So I set up the account and then pretty much set it aside, believing it was for the fall.

Except for one of my bosses, and I mean “one of,” as in, I have several. And all of are able to simply nip into my class and observe me quietly from afar and all of my students have ready access to complain to them over any real or perceived slight. With a little imagination, you are probably beginning to grasp how nerve wracking this existence could be, with this idea that Big Brother could be omnipresent and that anyone can turn anyone else in and have it given weight, after all, because retention is key.

This one boss was using exclusively this new email address while the summer semester was still going on, while there was still three weeks left in the summer session. So I missed out on his email saying that the class I’m teaching was being revamped. I missed out on the email offering a workshop in all of the new stuff they’ve crammed into this thing. And I missed out on the email reminding me to get the new books for the new course, just in case I didn’t notice that the entire course has been altered for the fall.

Frankly, I was too burned out to care too much by Aug. 8, and I still 17 days in the summer semester. And when that Summer semester ended, I had to simply bottom out for a few days. So, I was pretty much fucked when I opened up my new classes the day or two before they were to begin and saw the whole damn thing changed. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. My students are miserable and bitchy because the campus bookstore can’t manage to send them any of their books on time, so they can’t access half the work. I’m in a horrible mood because I still haven’t gotten all of the books myself and my students are freaking out because of something I essentially have zero control over. But that hasn’t stopped them from bitching to me about it.

And the worst thing is that I sort of like the new class layout so far. It actually seems easier if Ihad my book or if mystudents had theirs or if any of these emails that I missed had been sent to the email account my other bosses and department secretaries were using.

And what does all of this have to do with writing or literature? I don’t have time for it right now. I’m trying to make time but it’s just not there and when I do find free time, I’m so stressed and angry and tired and just thoroughly unhappy with what I’m doing for a living that I can’t concentrate on anything I really care about. Instead, I continue to just need to crash. To bottom out. To push everything aside for a bit and engage in some mental.emotional candy like obsessively scouring ebay and craigslist for specific toys for the kid or trying to figure out what that song by the cranberries is that I have stuck in my head from 15 years ago (it was Zombie) or watching Ghost Hunters International on Hulu while also bitching about the regular Ghost Hunters no longer being on Hulu.

The thought of picking up pen and paper or opening an office document file and diving into serious editing and revisions is damn near impossible at this point.

Alright. Piss and moan over. Back to the world.

Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James – review

September 2, 2011

I’ve been having a hard time coming up with what I want to say about this collection. First, it’s a very fine collection of classic horror, and the stories do not really show their age. If you like horror, it’s a must read. At the same time, there’s also nothing that really stands out about the collection. James has a definite grasp of specifics and of his locations. Throughout all of the stories there seems to be a theme a learned or educated person running into something his education hasn’t prepared him to deal with. Also, there is an element of religion turned malignant in many of the stories. Someone conjures demons, someone reads apocryphal texts, etc.

I thought the best story was “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,”  about a guy who finds a whistle, blows in it, and then is bedeviled by a spirit that comes, uses the sheets of the spare bed in the guy’s room to form a body for itself, and tries to scare him to death. It sounds…kooky…when explained, but James’ grasp of language and attention to detail in constructing his setting pulls it off with aplomb.

The collection I had was the Penguins Classic edition.  If you’re really interested in James, I think this is the copy you should look for. Not only is it well done, as pretty much all of the Penguin Classics are, but it is heavily annotated. So, if you’re really curious what that bit of Latin means that James put into a story, you can flip to the back and see. While the annotations aren’t necessary, they can be helpful and they do bring a greater depth to the story and an appreciation for the amount of work James put into getting the details right. I plan on coming back and inserting reviews of a few of the stories but, for now, I’m just going to put this up for everyone.