Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pic from the Collingswood Book Festival

Kit Grindstaff (THE FLAME IN THE MIST) and I enjoying ourselves on a panel at the Collingswood Book Festival. We discussed being debut authors with a wonderful audience. A great time!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Canary

Canary by Rachele Alpine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this back in August, but for some reason my review never materialized. Still, it's never to late to review a great book, and CANARY is certainly wonderful and fascinating.

While comparisons to SPEAK are certainly apt, Alpine easily carves her own path in a story about family as much as its about the fragile choices her protagonist makes in order to forge an identity in a new school. Further, the focus of this novel, despite what title and hook might suggest, is not sexual assault, though it certainly plays a huge role. The story focuses more successfully on the social realities of a high school and weaves in the broken family trauma so that the ultimately climax ends up being quite satisfying. Basically, this book does not rely on easy solutions to the problems offered.

Also worth noting are the poetry inter-chapters, some of which demand to be read multiple times and none of which feel forced. These are organic expressions from the narrator, not adornments added by the author.

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: Speak

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After meeting with a class of 7th and 8th graders who had been energetically debating Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, I decided I needed to try and find a way to read it sooner rather than later.

This novel seems like a standard recommendation for anyone who wishes to read YA or write it. I believe it's an important book not only for women (teens and adults alike), but also for boys and men as it shows the difficulty of being the object of sexual abuse and the damage that occurs over the long term. Considering the high-profile events of the past year involving rape and the battle for women's legal rights, a book like this can broaden a male reader's understanding of how male behavior and aggression, as well as female silence, need to be discussed rather than dismissed.

Anderson's style and thus Melinda's voice make this a great example of how one can pace a serious novel without losing the dramatic elements. Short paragraphs allow for a satisfying momentum but also frame a number of key emotions and scenes rather than allowing them to be lost in the shuffle. Melinda has moments to analyze her situation, her feelings, her disappointing friend Heather, her parents -- but none of these moments extends for pages on end, so the reader is never caught wondering if Melinda is a whiner, even if she can be excused for being one.

In fact, by the end of the novel I realized that many of her comments and thoughts about people around her -- her parents, for instance -- were not simply facts but thoughts from an embattled, depressed mind. Put simply, we can't take her comments at face value, because they are warped by her mental state. For instance, she refers to her father as Rambo, one who constantly berates her for her grades. This is factually true, but how aggressive was he "for real"? I believe that she felt he was uncaring, but when his caring side reappears one has to wonder if she's forgiven him or if she saw a version of him that was more angry than he truly was.

Her mother, perhaps unforgivably, says that people who commit suicide are cowards. By the end, I'm not sure whether to hate her mother (personally I find dismissal of suicidal thoughts and depression to be repugnant) or to wonder how the conversation between Melinda and her mother truly went.

The key here is not to doubt Melinda's honesty. If anything, readers are the only one she speaks to until the end, so we are clearly trusted enough to get information from her. But I believe Anderson has given a stellar example of how difficult it can be for a depressed person, also a victim of assault, to effectively process the world around them and effectively communicate facts when feelings, difficult feelings, have taken over.

While some might suggest the ending and the lack of exploration of the villain might devalue the impact or complexity of the novel's exploration of sexual assault, I suggest that not one text can encompass the variety of responses to such a serious issue. Further, the villain has been defined by his actions and unlike other villains, there's nothing about his behavior that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Consider that many villains can be called the hero of their own story, that he or she believes they are doing something right even if the actual hero and the audience know it to be wrong. (Easiest example: Darth Vader thinks he's doing something right by wiping out the rebels; because we root for Luke Skywalker, we don't believe it).

In this case, the villain can't be understood as anything other than a purely bad person. And I don't think that's a flaw in the narrative because Melinda would not see him as anything other than evil because of what he does. The key to the novel is who Melinda trusts, how people respond to her when she acts and speaks, and who supports her no matter what.

(I'd suggest A.S. King's novel on bullying EVERYONE SEES THE ANTS and Matthew Quick's forthcoming FORGIVE ME, LEONARD PEACOCK as complementary texts for readers wishing to understand the internal damage caused by abuse/assault involving male victims.)

The structure relies easily on the high school 4 marking period system, with holidays and the associated school events helping to carry the load of momentum. Basically, I love how Anderson allows for time to PASS in this novel without feeling the need to baste her character in day-after-day of silent misery. What ends up happening is that the weight of Melinda's silence, the very burden of her experience, is drawn out over the course of the entire school year so that, by the time we get to the climax, you truly feel her hopelessness. Plus, you really have no idea what she could do to combat her vocal paralysis.

The use of art in this text is also an excellent trope that many YA novels use (Anderson predating them all here). This is not a complaint or a criticism. In fact, I am never surprised when wounded characters use art to find some kind of strength (the more recent SYMPTOMS OF MY INSANITY shows how overwhelming art can be, not simply because it shakes loose mucky, difficult feelings, but because the labor of art is intense and can be just as difficult to deal with as the problems that cause one to flee to the art room).

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Review: Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tried to read this on my Nook last year and, well, my Nook and I didn't really like reading together. So, I picked up a paperback copy at an indie bookstore and read it over the course of 24 hours. What works here? For me: everything. A story about a sixteen year old kid named Cullen, Whaley boldly and successfully branches the narrative out, weaving it all back together in the final twenty-five pages or so.

To try and explain, I'd have to spoil everything, even some things that happen early enough. Let me try it this way: Cullen's town seems cursed and the parallel between a missing person and the potential return of a long-extinct woodpecker travel along a fascinating path until the conclusion begs you to make an interpretive choice that made me think of stories as random as Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and Tim O'Brien's best works. Basically, it's not that Whaley leaves you without an answer as to what everything meant and what Cullen's faced with going forward. In fact, it's more satisfying than a neatly tied up ending.

In some ways I'm sorry I waited so long to get back to this book, but maybe we read books at certain times for certain reasons. Who cares -- check this one out and prepare yourself for some excellent friendship between Cullen & Lucas, amazing exploration of loss and uncertainty, and the tricky nature of a small town groping for its big moment.

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Review: The Symptoms of My Insanity

The Symptoms of My Insanity
The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A strong story that manages to smartly tie together body image, parental illness, the power of art, and the frustration (and downright villainy of young men in a digital world), Mindy Raf's first novel offers plenty to both teen and adult readers. For teens, there's a funny narrator who's self-image issues don't snub out the personalities of those around her (ie, she's not self-absorbed to the point of isolation). For adults, we can see how overwhelming day-to-day life can be even without the perils of "real world" problems like sick parents and sexually aggressive teenage boys.

One sequence in particular that I loved because it felt so real was when Izzy ends up going to a college party (with great hesitation) only to end up at a diner with her friends because the party is lame. This, despite the fact that a party a year prior has caused Izzy's closest friend some serious issues.

A definite winner that can be easily recommended.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Video: Reading from DR. BIRD

Here's a video of me reading from Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dr. Bird's Advice for Debut Author Readings: QUESTIONS YOU COULD BE ASKED

Questions you'll likely be asked by your audience:
  1. Writers, (unpublished and/or teens) will often ask about how you got published, revision, outlining, rough drafts and whether you need to be "inspired" to write
    • You determine how much to reveal here, obviously. Cite one thing you do that's unique to your writing process, which will solidify your awesomeness and professionalism (this is not a joke -- your audience wants to celebrate you, so let them!). We all love to know that Hemingway wrote while riding bulls, for example. (This is not true, but you get the point.)
  2. What's your definition of success?
  3. Who reads your work first?
  4. How did you get an agent?
  5. How long did it take you to write this book?
  6. Two related examples: Do you write personal stuff about yourself? AND Do you ever worry about offending people, family, friends? 
  7. Are they going to make your book into a movie? / Are you going to get on Oprah's book club? 
  8. How many copies have you sold? / How much money do you make? / Can you just give me a ballpark?
  9. Are you on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/Tumblr?
  10. Can you read some of my work? / Why not? / Seriously? / Why are you walking away from me?
  11. What are you working on next? / When does your next book come out? / What is your next book about?
  12. At a talk I did recently, I got asked about my favorite music, favorite authors, authors that inspired my writing, authors I disliked, books I'd recommend (according to genre), if I think writers need to outline, if I ever get writers block and questions 1-11.
Lastly, some advice I've gathered from other writers, my time at an MFA, my own professional career in academic and corporate settings, and from other posts and twitter conversations. 
  1. Define success for yourself in a way that is authentically you. Tayari Jones once told our class that she had a moment of success for her first two novels. She did not cite prizes or reviews or blurbs, but readers who wrote to her or spoke to her. This always, always will stick with me because it was true and it was so much more healthy and under her control as a writer. When people ask you about your notion of success, be honest. If it's money, prizes, reviews then say so. Be authentic. Don't apologize. For me, I'll always consider the fact that Dr. Bird made it to the world as a success. My reviews are successes. But I also have emails from readers that are the successes I'll hold onto forever.
  2. The world is small, especially online, so don't badmouth publishing, booksellers, other authors (no matter how famous and abhorrent they are to you) when you answer questions or tweet. Seems obvious, but I see this all the time. I've seen people trash book reviewers, journals, other authors, editors, agents, their MFA programs. At readings, in interviews, or on social media. I've done it myself. People love to hear gossip, but you only risk your reputation if you give in to questions like "Do you hate Twilight?" by saying "Yes. It's ruined everything." While you might feel good being honest, you only insult Twilight fans in the audience and the people who like you for saying that are likely to go online and say "Evan Roskos said he hated Twilight!" Will anyone online care what I say about a massively successful author/series? Probably not. But you never know what other authors think of you, what they might have a chance to do for you, or what they might refuse to do for you because of that one tweet or interview response. 


Dr. Bird's Advice for Debut Author Readings: WHAT DO I READ?

3) WHAT DO I READ? Picking an excerpt shouldn't be hard, but it totally messes people up. For good reason, I think. As I've discussed with people on Twitter and at my MFA readings back before I knew what the heck I was doing, there are considerations of content, spoilers, length, dialogue, clarity, and more.
  • Basic ideas—What part of your book can you read that feels like a story, not just a chapter? The opening chapter is usually a good place to consider. It's what you, your agent, your editor, copyeditor, reviewers likely read first and agree is the best place to start. Some books are "bigger" and require more "warm up"—so the opening chapter might be too much of a "broad overview" for an engaging reading.
    • I find that SCENES work better than DENSE NARRATIVE PASSAGES. Great writing can draw attention, but if you have a chapter that's all in a character's mind, involves tons of setting description and orientating description, you might lose some people. On the page it works differently than out loud. 
      • Scenes are real time, involve dialogue, involve multiple characters, and can be very easy for the audience to imagine.
    • If you don't have a sequence that feels like a story, can you create an engaging reading with multiple sections that aren't sequential or juxtaposed in the book, but can be easily threaded together by you with some commentary?
      • Maybe the subplot is more accessible for a live audience if you read passages from chapters 2, 5, 8, & 10
      • Maybe you want to just talk about character descriptions and how you do something really cool with them that people might not notice.
      • Maybe you want to highlight your use of color in a particular group of scenes.
      • Think outside of "I have to read 1 solid chapter" and totally dismiss the idea that you can't stop and talk about your writing or thought process. Read a scene and then describe how that scene came about, changed positions in the book, caused you problems, etc.
  • Content—your audience and your own comfort level determine whether to read that passage where your characters curse while doing drugs and having sex in order to subvert the American government. Parents may object to language and content at a reading but, in my experience, parents who bring their teens to readings are actually more open minded than not.
    • Cursing or graphic descriptions of sex/violence can be tricky unless you know your audience is full of friends or people who already read the book. Skipping cursing/harsh language isn't lame, though teenagers do love to hear adults curse! 
    • Do you have a platform or larger goal outside of crafting great stories? If the answer is yes, and you also are worried simply about audience response not your own discomfort, then recognize the benefits of reading "tough" passages.
      • For instance, Dr. Bird is about a kid that suffers from depression & anxiety, considers suicide, and has a sister that also suffers mental health issues. It's a book about people who lack the vocabulary to talk about their problems. It's the kind of story that encourages readers to speak up about their own issues. I knew before the book came out that I would have the chance to show teen readers that I was an adult willing to listen and discuss these issues in public. I wanted to encourage people not to dump problems on me, but to gain courage to talk to people in their lives. If you read difficult passages from your book in person, you might inspire a teenager who needs to see a confident, successful adult being vulnerable and risky. I have proof that the book alone can do this; I also have proof that speaking in public can do this. 
      • I made the choice to open up to strangers about my issues. (I still control what I specifically say and don't say.) HOWEVER: No one else should command you to read what you think will make you or others uncomfortable.
    • If parents come without their kids and ask if your book is appropriate for a certain age, just go with what your publisher has said and suggest the parent read the book first. Don't put yourself in a position where a parent says, "You told me my 12 year old could read this book and there's bad language in it!" 
  • Spoilers—Even if you don't spoil your book, someone will do it in the Q&A session. ("When did you decide that the whole book was really the dream of a bored pigeon?" Note: That's not actually what happens in Dr. Bird.) Sometimes you have big reveals early on and you might not feel capable of reading around those plot point but you also don't want readers to experience the reveal at the reading. 
    • Consider reading towards that plot point without reading through it -- entice your reader with the moments that lead up to the reveal. This requires more prep before you do your reading, and you may need to tweak your passages before you get the right "flow" but it CAN be done.
    • Consider reading passages from after the reveal that aren't plot dependent. 
    • If you can't read an excerpt without a spoiler, consider the nature of the spoiler. 
      • Is your whole book ruined? (Doubtful. Books with reveals that early still have to be good for the rest of the way.)
      • Are people not going to buy the book if they know that your main character is a robot? 
        • If something is early enough in the book (first fifty pages) then it's not a true spoiler. You can read it aloud and the reader will still have 200+ pages to enjoy your masterpiece. 
      • If the spoiler is later, then there should be plenty of scenes for you to read without a major incident. 
    • Early in Dr. Bird, my main character is hit by a bus trying to save a bird in the street. This incident is not a huge spoiler, but it's one of the most overtly comedic moments in the story and one I am very proud of because it gives the story such energy (which I then take away with depression and sadness! muhuhuhahaha!). In fact, the funniest part about that scene is...well, that would be spoiling it. Honestly, at a reading I do the whole scene. It might be ruining the experience of reading it for the first time, but for me getting an audience to laugh at a point I want them to laugh is a great feeling when reading live. Plus, am I going to spoil the book for ten thousand readers if twenty of them hear that particular part?
  • Length—see above, but don't fret about ending mid chapter. You're a writer—you know what the end of a scene feels like. You know cliffhangers. Leave your audience wanting to buy the book!
  • Dialogue or "He do the police in different voices" (unnecessary Dickens-via-Eliot reference)—You have to choose how to differentiate the voices of dialogue when you read. It just makes for an easier listening experience but also shows energy from you. Don't get cartoonish unless that suits the tone of your book (even then, be careful). 
    • At least make a vocal differentiation so the reader—and you—know who is talking when. Doing slight appropriate accents or changes in pitch will also SLOW YOU DOWN, which is always good when you're nervous. 
      • I do this kind of stuff when I read to my son, who is three. Sometimes the voices are over-the-top, but sometimes I just want him to be able to know that 2 characters are talking so I just raise my vocal pitch for one character and lower it for another.
      • Consider these subtle pairings: 
        • high vs. low voice
        • loud vs. soft voice
        • fast vs. slow voice
  • Choose passages based on Clarity—Sometimes a prologue or opening chapter might seem perfect for a reading, but what if it makes more sense on the page than when read out loud?
    • For instance, do you have multiple, unnamed voices in the first chapter? That might be hard for the audience to follow. 
    • Is there a ton of description (more than a page from the very beginning?) or something that won't make sense until the middle/end of the book? At a reading you want to give something that's compact and feels whole in 15 minutes. You want the readers' attention immediately. 
    • If the first chapter or two doesn't provide something that feels like it stands alone, then find a chapter that stands alone. Of course, setup the context first! "This is after the main character James has been hit by a bus and now has a cast that no one is signing, so he's feeling lonely. He's already had a crappy week and now we're introduced to his best friend, Derek, who plays a key role in James becoming more self aware." 
Initially: WHERE TO BEGIN?

Dr. Bird's Advice for Debut Author Readings: HOW LONG DO I READ FOR?

Continuing my wordy advice for author's overwhelmed by the prospect of readings.

2) HOW LONG DO I READ FOR? For prose, I'm a big fan of readings where the author spends an equal amount of time talking and reading. This format doesn't please everyone (even I once complained about an author that read the last chapter of his book before talking for thirty minutes, but I didn't quite understand the point then).
But consider this: the attention span of your audience is tricky. If they're already your fan—i.e., they already bought the book—then reading to them for 20-30 minutes might be pleasing or they might prefer to hear the "Making of" story of the book. If you haven't won people over yet (the curious walk-in or walk-by audience member), then reading for 10-15 minutes gives them a chance to go get a copy while 30 minutes is not necessarily how they want to get to know your book.
  • Who is your audience?—in a new area or do you see a sea of friendly smiles? While your anxiety remains the same for these two audience types, your approach might change. Reading to your friends might seem tedious, but talking to them about the book you've possibly been ranting about for five years might seem just as unappealing. Total strangers have no idea whether to care about you or your work.

Dr. Bird's Advice for Debut Author Readings: WHERE TO BEGIN?

I recently began doing events to promote my novel, Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, and found that the process of preparing for readings felt very similar to teaching literature as a college adjunct. Basically: I arrange some introductory comments to set context, concoct some comments about the main character, pick a passage to read, practice some voices for dialogue, etc. It seems pretty natural, and yet it's not.
Not everyone is a teacher.
Not everyone is comfortable with reading, speaking, or performing in front of crowds.
Not everyone has written the same kind of book.
Not everyone has been going to poetry and fiction readings since they were twelve.
So, at the risk of increasing my tendancy towards know-it-all-ism, and even mansplaining some things, I have composed a few posts on promoting your book in public. I've broken this into 4 posts because I tend to be...wordy. Links to each topic are featured at the end of each post.
Also, please put suggestions or thoughts or experiences in the comments section. Ask follow up questions and I'll incorporate stuff into the main post if it's super-helpful!

1) WHERE TO BEGIN? A reading is a performance in many ways, but it's never successful if you get up, read, then sit down. Even if you're reading the opening pages of your novel, where all readers begin on equal footing, you should give the readers some sense of what they're about to hear. Consider it this way: in a store or online, people might read the jacket copy before page 1, so at a reading the very basic thing you can do to begin is:
  • Be your own jacket copy! 
    • Here's a simple example of what I might say: "Good evening! Thanks so much for coming out to celebrate reading and books and laughter and more serious things. For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, it's the story of a teenager who suffers from anxiety and depression and tries to manage his mental health by reciting Walt Whitman poems and talking to an imaginary pigeon." That plus a couple of lines to give a sense of the key characters is often enough for any audience. 
    • It's basically: Hi, here's my pitch. Wanna listen? Great!
  • In addition to being my own jacket copy, I like to discuss what precisely inspired the book. (Usually someone asks this question if you don't discuss it up front, so you should have an answer in mind anyway.) You don't have to rewind the story of your life to second grade and talk for 15 minutes. 
    • I often start with "I wanted to write a book about a depressed teenager that was funny but also respectful. In many ways, the book is emotionally autobiographical even though the plot isn't. I never liked Whitman as a teenager nor did I hug trees or talk to an imaginary pigeon. But the anxiety is what binds James and I together."
    • I also have a different origin story that involves another book I started to write with friend and author Matthew Quick. He's the reason I wrote this book in the first place, but he and I also openly discuss mental health issues in our work, so it's an authentic way to show 1) writers aren't totally isolated from each other, 2) I have a serious issue and personal investment with this book, and 3) I give a shout out to a guy who's been supportive to me since the day we met. 
      • You should always give shout outs at readings! People are going to ask you who you read anyway, why not support your friends?
    • If the inspiration of your book feels lame to you, don't fake it! Don't use it! Discuss what excites you! Discuss what inspired you! Discuss what expresses the YOU of YOU! 
      • Who do you hope to connect to with this book? 
      • How do you relate to other writers? To books? 
      • When did you know you were a writer? 
      • Is this the first book you wrote or, more likely, the second/third/fourth...? 
      • Why is this the book only you could have written?
      • Is some of this sounding familiar?
  • Matt Quick and I did an event for the Newburyport Literary Festival at the end of April. We spoke to about 200 people for an hour (including a long Q&A). We discussed our friendship, writing relationship, and our struggles with mental health. Neither of us read from our books. Both of us sold out of books. Not everyone can do this, or has the material to do this, but if you can give your audience a reason to care about you as a writer (not necessarily as a person, but as a writer-who-is-human), then you will connect and succeed. 
  • Maybe you don't want to share personal information—that's ok! I stress that your story, your persona, is what will energize people. Who are you? How do you create stories from thin air? It's a magical skill to non-writers. It doesn't have to be emotionally raw, it can be fun or serious & still authentically YOU. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Let's Discuss: The Great Gatsby as seen by two lit teachers who love movies.

I've been contemplating Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby since it was announced he was filming it. 
With Leo. 
In 3D. 
Gold Hatted Gatsby was one of Fitzgerald's original titles.
Third was "I'm Really Bad at Titles"

I knew it would be either a trainwreck or the equivalent of a fun train wreck (like getting stuck on a roller coaster for about 15 minutes; unique but not annoying). In the end, I actually liked the movie much more than I expected I would and feel some of the things Lurhmann did well -- dare I say got right -- are not things he's known for. 
But I also believe that simply spouting my love for the movie is not really all that intriguing. Plus, I have many friends with varying opinions on Fitzgerald and his novel, so I thought it would be fun to talk to one of my favorite deep-thinkers, Monica D'Antonio (click to read her excellent thoughts on the novel that aren't guided by my own questions).

Monica and I both received our MA in literature from Rutgers and while we share similar literary loves (Heart of Darkness!) we don't necessarily agree on things. Fortunately, I always learn something from her. So I asked Monica a few questions, and added my own thoughts right after hers. The following is the result.
[Note: MD is Monica, ER is me. We have a strange medical theme going on with our initials. Perfect for a book that climaxes with a woman being hit by a car!]
1) What were your expectations for a new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby? Have you seen the Robert Redford version?
MD: I was in a weird place about this movie. I was SUPER excited to see it, but my expectations were low. I really thought it was going to be a big-budget, superhero movie-esq (especially with its release date near Iron Man 3) travesty. It turned out I was only partly right about that. I saw the Robert Redford version in high school but can’t say I remember it well enough to comment on it.
ER: Oh, the Redford one! I saw it years ago, after high school but before grad school, and it was so dull to me. I think Redford is too sure of himself. Gatsby plays the role of millionaire well, but there's an anxiety in the book when he's with Daisy. I think the first scene where he makes Nick's house & yard all pretty, then runs outside -- that's the nervous, human Gatsby that Dicaprio did really well. Redford, I have no recollection of him as anything other than the artifice Gatsby portrayed. 
As for my expectations, they were low. I never minded the Romeo & Juliet adaptation and knew Lurhmann's cinematic somersaults would be intrusive in this book, but in the end I think he restrained himself as the movie progressed. 

2) What is your relationship with the novel? A torrid affair? Frustrating flirtation? Mixed signals? Longterm & still in love?
MD: So, you’re asking: do I “like” it or do I “like it, like it”?? Haha! I just reread the novel after not having read it in at least a decade, but, from now on, I plan to take a page out of Steve Almond's (a writer I admire) playbook and read it once a year, probably in the summer. I am deeply in love with this book, and I believe that this book loves me (and my personal beliefs, ideologies, fears, anxieties etc.) back. I don’t think I will ever change our relationship status to “it’s complicated.”

ER: Gatsby is one of my top 5 favorites. I've never taught it (and I think that makes a difference in my expectations of the film), but I've read it every 3 years or so since high school. For me, it's the sentences. The classic opening, the classic ending-- so many things. But I gained an ever stronger love in grad school when I learned about Fitzgerald's love of Joseph Conrad and how the whole "American Dream" interpretation really isn't what Fitzgerald was going for. (Funfact for readers: The American Dream philosophy is popularized in the early 1930s.) 
What I love is that Gatsby is a story about outsiders. It's certainly about New vs Old (money as much as mores). But Tom Buchannan's speech about how the superior race needs to defend itself is rooted in the late teens early 20s US Nativist movement. Gatsby can't be trusted because his origins are unknown. His business partner is Meyer Wolfshiem -- a wolf. But specifically a Jew. And if we know anything about the attitude towards the Jews in this part of the century, it's one of distrust, even amongst artists (T.S. Eliot famously wrote some anti-semitic poems as a young man). While I don't see Fitzgerald as sharing that attitude, he clearly needs Gatsby to be associated with the underworld and outsiders.
3) Did the film elicit a strong reaction from you? Was it a specific scene or the overall piece that did so?
MD: When I first walked out of the theater, my initial reaction was simply: “Well, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I was going to.” I let my opinion rest there for a bit, but throughout the remainder of the weekend, I found myself still thinking deeply about the movie. So, I guess the fact that I’m still thinking about it (I’m even contemplating a blog post about it right now, though I guess I’m showing a bit too much of my hand with this little project we’re doing) shows that it certainly elicited a strong reaction from me. What I’m still not sure about is whether the reaction is positive, negative, or a healthy mix of all of the above. I’m inclined to go with the latter.
It’s been said that this novel is un-filmable, and for the most part, I’d agree with that sentiment because I think, above all, that Gatsby is a book about language, which I gather is hard to film. But, there were some scenes that, while great in the book, really came alive in the movie (side note: I saw it in 2D not 3D). For example, the scene with Gatsby throwing his shirts on Daisy is stellar. It’s awesome because we seem him devolving in to complete MANIA. This is when we’re really seeing him start to fall apart. Second, he is literally drowning her in his expensive shirts. It’s like when someone tickles you, and at first it’s funny, but then it gets really aggressive, and you start to lose your breath. I felt her anxiety and suffocation as he continued to pile shirt after shirt on her. He was trying to show off and it wound up becoming super creepy. It was a great scene.
There were some scenes, however, that I viscerally hated. The apartment scene with Tom, Myrtle, Catherine and the neighbors is TERRIBLE, mainly because it’s there purely for the orgy of it all and is not in any way an accurate recounting of Nick’s POV of that scene in the book. Not only is the POV inaccurate, but the way the scene was shot (and scores of others like it with all the jump cuts and sweeping/zooming shots – I can’t speak film language, so pardon me if I’m using the wrong terminology here) made me physically nauseous. I often felt assaulted by all of the cinematic gymnastics that were going on. That, to me, is where the book and the movie diverge so greatly. Fitzgerald is just so clean, so tight, so beautiful without being fussy…you never feel beat over the head with any one trope, one theme, one character.
ER: I agree with you about the shirt scene. It could've so easily been done poorly. But it's one moment where I realized Daisy was going to get a more complex presentation. Her tears are earned for exactly the reason you describe. I also think her comment "They're such beautiful shirts" is almost made because Nick is watching them (from up high) not because she's shallow.
I think what film does is it creates a dual narrator no matter who the character-narrator is. The camera is a narrator which can show us things that Nick might not. And I think that's why the book feels so unfilmable. Nick famously considers himself an honest man and everyone in the book is labeled a liar (or duplicitous, at least) very specifically. So, Lurhmann constantly has to fight to not show us when Nick, too, is lying or "prettying-up" the truth. In some ways it succeeds, like in that sequence with the shirts and after where we're supposed to know that Gatsby & Daisy might be behaving a little differently because Nick is present. But other times, Nick looks too overwhelmed and the camera seems to be more cynical than him. Early on, that's okay, but I believe this novel is about Nick's cynicism, which is why he admires Gatsby, despite the fact he should probably be just as cynical of a man who thinks he can repeat the past.
4) How do you feel about the Daisy character in the book and in the film (if you see differences)?
MD: Funny you should ask this…when I read the book most recently, my immediate reaction to Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle’s characters was “Wow! Fitzgerald really hates women.” This may or may not be true, but upon further reflection of the novel itself, he throws the hate around pretty evenly across all characters. No one is above reproach. And no one comes out a hero. So, I guess there’s a certain gender equity in the fact that both sexes are portrayed in equally abhorrent ways.
As for the movie, in general, I like Carey Mulligan. I love her in An Education, and I thought she did a fine job with Daisy. I thought she handled that breathless, Marilyn Monroe-esq voice nicely, and that was certainly something Fitzgerald emphasized in the novel. Overall, though, she’s not one of the most memorable aspects of the movie.
ER: The women in the film are so negatively portrayed. The last shot of Daisy condemns her to ongoing satisfaction with Tom whereas we know she had the possibility with Gatsby. Fitzgerald was reportedly charming to women. He wasn't necessarily a serial cheater, though I wouldn't be surprised. I've read that he was always more comfortable with women than men. (I guess if you're friends with men like Hemingway, you'd prefer to hang out with women.) 
Alright, Hemingway's pretty awesome.

I think in the novel, the women really are condemned and that's why the movie does Daisy some justice—she's not as shallow. Or, she's not a cipher, which Fitzgerald believed (he was dissatisfied with how he rendered her in the final version). I think Mulligan's Daisy really sells the idea that she loved Gatsby, but then married Tom and loved him. She can't say whether one was true love and the other was the love of circumstance. To her, there's no need to decide because she looks ahead to time with Gatsby (though she's clearly not strong enough to stand up and make a choice for herself.)
What's such a huge huge bummer is that Jordan, while played very, very well by Elizabeth Debicki, is not labelled a liar in the film. One sentence. Maybe two would've done it. Jordan Baker was accused of cheating in a golf tournament. The fact that she's not indicted as a liar is a big, easily avoided mistake. I believe we have to accept Nick's belief that he's honest and everyone else is dishonest in order for Gatsby's mysterious allure to work. Jordan is not even clearly Nick's love interest in the film, so Nick never seems like he's totally slipping into the world before pulling back out. So, when Nick shuns her towards the end, it doesn't have the same meaning. Jordan, too, loses depth because I think she wants Nick to be with her, to share in this weird world. Maybe to corrupt him, but maybe because she senses that Nick isn't as annoying as everyone else.
5) Do you think the film will get people to read the book?
MD: I’m not sure, and I’m not sure that was the intent (which doesn’t really matter one way or the other). My gut wants to say NO, only because the movie—for a younger audience anyway – is more “exciting” than the book. So, once you see this version, why bother with the real deal? I think this movie is Lurhman’s homage to Fitzgerald, and, for some people, the homage is better than the thing itself.
ER: Ha! Very true. I have no idea. I want to believe more people will read it. I assume it will just get more people to want to ban the book because of that orgy scene (which was totally over the top though I thought that was kind of the point—to show Nick being seduced while also showing it's a temporary euphoria). 

Monday, May 13, 2013

All The Write Notes: Radiohead - An Interview with Author Evan Roskos

All The Write Notes: Radiohead - An Interview with Author Evan Roskos: Today at ATWN, author Evan Roskos stops by to talk about his love of everything Radiohead, his critically acclaimed book Dr. Bir...

Want to know some funfacts about my love for the band Radiohead? How about a chance to win a copy of Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets + some Radiohead swag, including a bootleg? Click the link!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Baseball Predictions + jokes = great lunchtime reading

I enjoy baseball. A lot. These predictions will likely be way off. But who cares? Baseball!

Dean meets the Phanatic 2012

Rays -- "Joe Maddon's new glasses day" lures in most fans ever.
Red Sox -- Despite the lowered expectations, Red Sox nation still upset at second place finish.
Blue Jays -- Toronto fans get excited for best third place finish in years.
Yankees -- Yankee Stadium scoreboard ceases to show scores, assures fans team is winning and will get another championship. A-Rod returns disguised as Billy Martin.
Orioles -- Baltimore fans set fire to Nationals park, believing it will help their team.

Detroit -- Entire team forced to start smoking. Closer is nervous b/c his healthy lungs seem to be only reason he was signed.
Indians -- City of Cleveland throws parade for greatest sports franchise in city on May 1st when team is one game above .500.
Royals -- Kansas City Royals fans threaten to move city.
White Sox -- MLB Network offers to make reality show of beer vendor in effort to distract from utterly boring team.
Twins -- Joe Mauer injures scalp after too many takes during Head & Shoulders commercial filming.

Angels -- Pujols appears on Fox News to criticize immigration policies, gun control, and the attention paid to Josh Hamilton's sobriety.
A's -- mid-season decision to move team to San Jose results in very quiet, empty stadium. Allowing team to really concentrate and go on thirty game winning streak.
Rangers -- two words: coke binge.
Mariners -- King Felix caught having sex in big pile of money. No one questions it.
Astros -- Local high school team keeps getting confused for Astros.


Nationals -- I hate this team with a joyous passion that the Mets once felt shoot from my eyes like lasers
Phillies -- gonna miss playoffs by 1 game, thanks to that loss on opening day.
Braves -- yes. third. because why the hell not.
Mets -- Mr. Met found dead in Phanatic's basement, but no police investigation follows.
Marlins -- Team stops showing up for games around mid-August, manages to win a few games because real teams forfeit to avoid flight to Miami.

Reds -- Cueto, Chapman, Votto, Phillips & Shin Shoo CHOOOOOOO
Cardinals -- Mark Macguire is a tool. Yadier Molina stubs toe, cries, begs Chris Carpenter to bean a hitter. Carpenter goes to Johnny Cueto's house and beans him. Gets arrested. Tony LaRussa represents Carpenter in court.
Brewers -- Braun indicted on July 4th. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Pirates -- finish at 80-82, McCutchen appears on MLB Network during playoffs simply to smack Mitch Williams for complaining about how that Pittsburgh traded its closer.
Cubs -- The fans storm the offices of Theo Epstein & Co. demanding answers, find him having sex with a robot that reads advanced statistics in a sexy deep voice.

Dodgers -- Team gets Giancarlo Stanton for Andre Ethier's shoes in Mid-May.
Giants -- Brian Wilson starts hanging out in dugout despite not having a contract. No one likes him.
Rockies -- Tulowitski lasts the whole season without injury, but rest of team hurt in August during massive locker room towel-snapping fight started by gleefully giggling CarGo.
Padres -- Moving fences in proves detrimental to left fielders in NL West who keep running into walls.
Diamondbacks -- end up in last place after Kirk Gibson benches team and decides to "Do it all his damn self."

WILD CARDS: Giants & A's
Wild Card: Dodgers over Braves; Reds over Giants; Detroit over Rays; Angels over A's
LCS: Reds over Dodgers; Detroit over Angels;
World Series: Reds over Detroit

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Courier Post sends out a YAWP for Dr. Bird!

A fantastic write-up by Kim Mulford of The Courier-Post, including quotes from WHYY's Dr. Dan Gottlieb.

Something magical must have been in the water at Collingswood’s Grooveground during the summer of 2010.
OK, not really. But two local men who spent hours writing in the coffeehouse turned out sensitive novels exploring mental illness. One was Matthew Quick, already the author of “The Silver Linings Playbook.”
The other was Evan Roskos, author of what was then still a work in progress, “Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets.”
Read more! 

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Philadelphia Inquirer writes about Dr. Bird, mental health, and friendship

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a great article by Kathy Boccella today. It focuses on what's truly important in terms of Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets. Check it out!


Before the enormous success of Silver Linings Playbook, both the book and the film, there was a young-adult novel called MonkeyShark.
Don't expect a movie adaptation starring Bradley Cooper.
But the poignant backstory of MonkeyShark and its protagonists - a redemptive tango of overcoming mental illness and miscommunication, surrendering old dreams and realizing new ones - would be a familiar plot to anyone who saw last year's Hollywood blockbuster starring Academy Award-winner Jennifer Lawrence.
The book was a collaboration between Silver Linings' author, Matthew Quick, and his friend Evan Roskos. Just four years ago, they were two struggling South Jersey writers who met every Friday morning at a Collingswood coffee shop, working on their hoped-for bestseller.
MonkeyShark would not be it.

Read more!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

One of a million thank yous

Hello all! It's a big day here at Chateau Roskos and I'm glad so many of you have the book or will have it soon.

DR BIRD'S ADVICE FOR SAD POETS is about tons of things, some small and funny, some big and serious. I've written elsewhere about what this book means to me and what it might mean to others. (Just yesterday, in fact, I got an email from a reader who felt a strong connection to some of James's familiar thoughts and emotions. The reader was thanking me, but I have to thank them just as much.)

I'll never be mad if what I write doesn't speak to you; still, I hope that even if you don't plan to read it, you share the book with someone who might find something important in the story.

Thanks to everyone!

Dr. Bird is full of big ideas about Walt Whitman.

it is time to explain myself: DR. BIRD'S ADVICE FOR SAD POETS

It is time to explain myself. . . .Let us stand up. [Leaves of Grass, 1855]


So, I wrote a funny book about serious things.

Maybe it's a book you want to read or need to read; maybe it's a book you want to share or need to share.

I hope you'll give it a shot. The opening lines are infectious, I promise.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Whitman: there is no imperfection in the present (1 day to DR. BIRD)

When I began the draft for Dr. Bird, I specifically tried to emulate Whitman's long, meandering lines. Maintaining such a pace for the whole novel was not the goal, as James's moods and situations would of course change how he formed the sentences of his narrative. But I am very proud of the voice of the novel and how much it makes me feel like I'm reading a alternative Leaves of Grass.

"And I will show that there is no imperfection in the present, and can be none in the future,
And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it may be turn'd to beautiful results,
And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death,
And I will thread a thread through my poems that time and events are compact,
And that all the things of the universe are pefect miracles, each as profound as any.

I will not make poems with reference to parts,
But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble,
And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days,
And I will not make a poem nor the least part of a poem but has reference to the soul,
Because having look'd at the objects of the universe, I find there is no one nor any particle of one but has reference to the soul."

"I will effuse egotism and show it underlying all, and I will be the bard of personality"

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Whitman: Does the daylight astonish? (2 days to DR. BIRD)

One of the key quotes from Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets can be found in this passage.

"Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?
Well I have, for the Fourth-month showers have, and the mica on the side of a rock has.

Do you take it I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?

This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you."

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Whitman: I know I am deathless (3 days to DR. BIRD)

Belief in immortality came easily to Whitman, who saw the biological processes of the natural world as carrying his remains forever onward.

"I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

I know I am deathless,
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter's compass,
i know I shall not pass like a child's carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.
I know I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never apologize,
(I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.)

I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content."

"I exist as I am, that is enough"

Friday, March 1, 2013

Whitman: Through me forbidden voices (4 days to DR. BIRD)

This passage contains lines that always get my students to giggle or act uncomfortable, but it's an essential concept in Whitman's writing. Basically, he sees nothing distasteful or vulgar in the human body, and what better way to express this than to suggest he treats both his face and his bowels with respect (the interpretation here is either that he eats well or that he is physically gentle and respectful to his body -- either way, it leads to his claim that his arm pits smell divine!).

"Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd.

I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

I believe in the flesh and appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds."

"If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it"

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Whitman: Speech is the twin of my vision (5 days to DR. BIRD)

With only five days until the release of Dr. Bird, I give you one of the passages James thinks about early on in the novel.

"Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.

We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own O my soul in the calm and cool of the day-break.

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.

Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself,
It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically,
Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?"

"Come now I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation"

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Whitman: This then is life (6 days to DR. BIRD)

One of my favorite quotations from Leaves of Grass was going to be the epigraph. But I decided to leave the quotation in the text only, since it comes to James at a powerful moment in the novel.

"Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
Eternal progress, the cosmos, and the modern reports.

This then is life,
Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions.

How curious! how real!"

"Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic history of the Seattle music scene labelled grunge. Yarm's strength is, aside from the wealth of material he culled from his interview subjects, is the fact that he knows the scene. The book begins back in the early 80s and successfully traces the rise of the huge bands as well as the ones (like TAD) that could've made it big but didn't for reasons random, sometimes cruel, sometimes understandable, but ultimately fascinating.

Working with the structure of an oral history still leaves Yarm room to create a narrative. Juxtaposing contradictory perspectives allows for a certain sense of tribulation -- who do we believe if there are only two presentations of an event? Well, Yarm's done us the service of staying out of the way. Put another text might make conclusions based on the comments/quotes, but Yarm emphasizes that the issue here isn't really the factual trajectory of the individuals, but the overall movement. For example, who knows if Courtney Love is telling the truth. Ever. And who knows if anyone talking about Courtney Love is telling the truth or has a grudge. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but ultimately how people talk about the scene tells you more than the facts. Maybe that's not what everyone expects but if you go in looking for a beautiful mix of insider gossip, facts, perceptions, and caricature (not one of those things but all).

A highly satisfying presentation that moves quickly and doesn't seem to lack anything essential (except maybe Chris Cornell's post-Soundgarden decent into drugs and alcohol, though I suspect the blind spot was intentional and not due to a lack of interest or work on Yarm's part).

View all my reviews

Whitman: Who degrades or defiles (7 days to DR. BIRD)

In my novel Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, the main character's name is James Whitman. He's not related to the poet, but it's one of those great things about life that sometimes the connections that seem obvious are the ones that will help the most. In fact, I didn't include James's discovery of the poet in the novel itself, but did write a short story that helps explain his initial reaction to Whitman's beautifully meandering poetry. Regardless, we don't need to know James's full experience of Whitman, just that he's decided to use Whitman as part of his self-therapy cocktail. The imaginary Dr. Bird, Whitman, photography, poem writing, and friends all contribute to keeping James afloat. But they are not enough.

Who degrades or defiles the living human body is cursed. 
Who degrades or defiles the body of the dead is not more cursed.

"the living human body"

Monday, February 25, 2013

Whitman: the writer of melodious verses (8 days to DR. BIRD)

At one point, James finds himself at odds with Whitman. It's bad enough he's a sixteen-year-old wrestling with depression, talking to an imaginary pigeon, and failing his sister -- but fighting with a long-dead poet? James might be hopeless!

"You think it would be good to be the writer of melodious verses,
Well it would be good to be the writer of melodious verses;
But what are verses beyond the flowing character you could have? . . . . or beyond beautiful manners and behavior?
Or beyond one manly or affectionate deed of an apprenticeboy? . . or old woman? . . or man that has been in prison or is likely to be in prison?"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Whitman: Great is the earth (9 days to DR. BIRD)

In Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, James finds himself challenged to be optimistic when he learns something grim about his sister Jorie. But no amount of Whitman seems to be able to give him guidance -- or keep him from succumbing to his own depression.

"Great is the earth, and the way it became what it is,
Do you imagine it is stopped at this? . . . . and the increase abandoned?
Understand then that it goes as far onward from this as this is from the times when it lay in covering waters and gases.

Great is the quality of truth in man,
The quality of truth in man supports itself through all changes,
It is inevitably in the man . . . . He and it are in love, and never leave each other." [1855]

"The quality of truth in man supports itself through all changes"

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Whitman: Great is youth (10 days to DR. BIRD)

Here's Whitman again helping to celebrate the imminent release of Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, which focuses on a boy named James who recites Leaves of Grass to cheer himself up. (The results are mixed.)

"Great is youth, and equally great is old age . . . . great are the day and night;
Great is wealth and great is poverty . . . . great is expression and great is silence.

Youth large lusty and loving . . . . youth full of grace and force and fascination,
Do you know that old age may come after you with equal grace and force and fascination?

Day fullblown and splendid . . . . day of the immense sun, and action and ambition and laughter,
The night follows close, with millions of suns, and sleep and restoring darkness." [1855]

"and equally great is old age...."

Friday, February 22, 2013

Whitman: A million suns left (11 days to DR. BIRD)

More wisdom from Whitman, this time from the 1892 version of "Song of Myself" section 2:

"Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much?
Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are a million suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self." [1892]

"You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me"

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Whitman: Commonest (12 days to DR. BIRD)

What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my good will,
Scattering it freely forever.

"Adorning myself to bestow myself"

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Whitman: Vivas! (13 to DR. BIRD'S ADVICE FOR SAD POETS

Our countdown continues today with a passage from "Song of Myself" section 18:

"With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer'd and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.

Vivas to those who have fail'd!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!" [1892]


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Whitman: 14 days to Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets

With fourteen days remaining until the release of Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, I give you a Walt Whitman gem from the "Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)":
Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body……..

"Men and women perceive the beauty enough, probably as well as [the Poet]...." 

Friday, February 8, 2013

On Alice in Chains

I've been listening to lots of Alice in Chains recently. One of my favorite bands from the 90s, their music had that nice blend of dirty guitar, dark lyrics, and amazing vocals that pleased this heavy metal and grunge music fan more than most bands. Jerry Cantrell, I should note, is a phenomenal songwriter and his backing vocals on much of AIC's work provides a texture that's unique, but also made the band's reunited effort, Black Gives Way to Blue, both a familiar and excellent album even if the original vocalist, Layne Staley, was nowhere to be found thanks to his drug overdose in 2002.

The Onion's non-satirical A/V Club has a great article about Layne Staley's life and death that I also came across recently. It's a fantastic and sad look at Staley's decline as well as a deep appreciation for Dirt, which is the band's masterpiece and a clear chronicle of the singer's struggle with (and sad unwillingness to overcome) heroin addiction. The album showcases a variety of attitudes about drug use, most of them more complex than simple regret or hope. Certainly titles like "Junkman," "Sickman," and "Hate to Feel" suggest Staley is already resigned to his fate as a user, likely an overdoser. Consider, also, the various lyrics:

"ah, what's the difference, i'll die / in this sick world of mine" -- Sickman

"Seem so sick to the hypocrite norm / Running their boring drills / But we are an elite race of our own/ The stoners, junkies and freaks" -- Junkman

"What in God's name have you done? / Stick your arm for some real fun!" -- Godsmack

Whether celebrating the status of the sick outsider, at least aware of his hypocrisies, or lamenting the pain he's causing himself, Staley's songs never find a true joy, only gritty rejection of what I'm sure were well-meaning pleas from his friends and family to get off of junk. ("Godsmack" itself seems to be a rejection of the Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous method of placing faith in a higher power in an effort to find strength to kick the habit. "And God's name is smack for some" is Staley's gruff response. Later followed by the more solemn declaration "Down in a hole and I don't know if I can be saved" underscored by the foggy questions of the entire song "Would?" which links Staley to another drug overdose story from the Seattle scene, Andrew Wood (who's sad death resulted in the founding of Pearl Jam.)

So, I've got the Alice In Chains Unplugged album on this morning as I write and after "Heaven Beside You" Staley says, "I would have to say that this is the best show we've done in about 3 years." In the background, one of the other bandmembers responds with "Layne, this is the ONLY one we've done in three years."

Layne's response: "It's still the best." Laughs. They then play "Would?"

I didn't know it at the time because I was not a major concert-going teen, but Layne's drug problem had limited Alice in Chain's ability to play shows in the mid-90s. Their last major tour with Staley was 1993, when I was 15. I saw them at Lollapalooza that year and bought two Alice in Chain shirts. They played "Godsmack," my favorite song at the time because of the guitars and chorus.

MTV recorded the Unplugged show in April 1996. The band would perform only 4 more concerts together, with the last performance coming in July 1996.

Handout from 2002 Memorial Service
Staley was found dead in April of 2002; "the tip-off that something was amiss came not from concerned family members or friends but from Staley’s accountants, who noticed that he hadn’t spent any money in several days." This, from a 2003 SeattleWeekly article on heroin's resurgence in Seattle, says more than anything about what is lost:
In addition to the singer's tracked-up and paraphernalia-littered bathroom and front room, detectives found a kitchen counter covered with more used needles, more narcotics pipes, and more spray-paint cans. Needles also were found beneath Staley when his 86-pound body was removed. He lived alone in the two-story, three-bedroom apartment (one bedroom contained toys and video games, another musical instruments; the master bedroom had a bed and TV). When police played back Staley's answering-machine tape, it was filled with two weeks' worth of calls asking where he was.

Donations to aid in addiction recovery services are best made locally to area communities where you can see the benefits; those in the Seattle, WA area can contribute directly to the Layne Staley Memorial Fund here.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On Radiohead's Water Obsession

People who know me, know I'm a bit of a Radiohead fan. In fact, the top hits for a Google search of my name once were song lyric interpretations on Radiohead sites.
I'm not embarrassed, though I am glad newer things have taken the top spot.
WATER! © Evan Roskos 2012

One of the great things about following Radiohead for so long is the magic of becoming familiar with lead singer Thom Yorke's various obsessions. My favorite is his constant anxiety about water, which now far surpasses his once famous obsession with car accidents.
Seriously, Yorke sees water hazards all over the place. If he's not asking us to "pull him out of the lake," he's going to "jump into river" or "jump off the end / into a clear lake" after he's "lost at sea" and "floats down the Liffey" or warns us that "The waters break, the waters run all over [him]", which isn't surprising since if he's not "in the deepest ocean / at the bottom of the sea" worried about a "house falling into the sea" or how "the sea would / electrocute us all" or especially about how "the rain drops" (even though he asked for it to "rain down on [him]"), then he's "standing on a beach with [his] guitar" "while the ocean blooms" wishing someone would "build an ark" because, aside from all menacing water, there's an "iceage coming."
Okay, that last one's a stretch, but you get the point.

[Songs quoted: Lucky, Pyramid Song, Codex, In Limbo, How to Disappear Completely, Vegetable, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, Where I End and You Begin, Nice Dream, Sit Down. Stand Up., Paranoid Android, Anyone Can Play Guitar, Bloom, Sail to the Moon, Idioteque]

Monday, January 21, 2013

On Being 35

Don DeLillo published his first novel in 1971. He was 34. His publisher was Houghton Mifflin.

Today I'm 35. In 43 days, Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets will be published by Houghton Mifflin.

Don DeLillo is my favorite author. I'm never good at explaining why without sounding pedantic and hyper. Maybe it's like people who love The Grateful Dead. Hard to explain because it's the concert experience as much as, or more than, the music. For me, DeLillo writes sentences that fit neatly into neat crevices of my brain.

I do not write like him, though I admire his scope, his sentences, his sensibility.

I think of him today to help remember that there is no need to obsess over the age at which I achieved success, but simply celebrate that I did achieve it. Writing is difficult. Getting published is too. Seeing a book enter the world deserves celebration. While I once thought I could publish a novel in college or in my twenties, I followed a different course of action.

I didn't know how to write a good novel back then anyway, though I could read and analyze great ones easily.

Here's hoping my career lasts as long as DeLillo's has and that I gather up a few superfans along the way.
New covers for DeLillo's novels for Picador