Playing with toys that are not toys Monday, Mar 30 2009 


If you have the Carl P. Stirn Turn-of-the-Century Dolls, Toys and Games catalog, not only can you spend many pleasant moments wondering how exactly the frankly disturbing “Arab pattern mirrors” (page 119) could ever be a toy for anybody, you can also gorge on illustrated representations of the “Game of Stanley in Africa” (“lithographed in harmonious colors,” and would you accept it any other way?), or the “Game of Literary Women,” which is a “fine card game played on the Authors principle” (don’t get me started).  Or just go gaga over the metal kaleidoscopes, pasteboard bigotophones, McGinty Surprise Watch (“nickel, with chains,” but I’d buy it for the name alone), or the various wooden stables that are to die for.

Or, you could turn to page 86, and see there the “Mystic Wanderer” game, which looks pretty much like a Ouija set-up, with a square planchette. And then you could start thinking of all those times when you and your friends played Ouija – or when, daringly, you opened the box alone – and put your hands to that planchette while everyone always, always swore that It’s not me! I’m not moving it!

What else is a toy that isn’t a toy? Besides all those darling little tea sets, but that’s outside my purview.


Undead, except if you try to get one used Thursday, Mar 26 2009 

Try as I might – and I tried, believe me – I couldn’t find a nice used paperback edition of Dracula anywhere in this town. Finally I asked one of the used bookstore proprietors WTF, and she said, “Kids.  Kids are buying them.”  I was momentarily thrilled: wow, they all got tired of drinking that diet Twilight stuff?!  Nope – school assignment.

Which was actually still pretty thrilling.  I’d assign Dracula if I were a lit teacher, in a hot minute.  I’d also assign Flannery O’Connor’s serial killer story, the more stomach-turning Hans Christian Andersen fables (have you read “The Red Shoes” recently?), Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” and everything Arthur Rimbaud ever wrote.  Yes, even the letters.  Especially the fingernail-from-my-eye letter, oh yeah.

And I’d take requests, too.

But I still need a used paperback edition of Dracula.

This show must go on, yeah: UPDATED Sunday, Mar 22 2009 

This news story about a Michigan teen theatre group forced to cancel its production of the “school edition” version of Rent, made me decide I gotta buy tickets for one of the shows, to be presented at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, Ypsilanti’s Riverside Arts Center and the Trenton Village Theatre.  If you’re Detroit-metro local, and care about theatre, and theatre students, join me, won’t you?  Support group director Dione Carrico and her actors.  Talk was a great idea for a novel, but I’d rather not see it reenacted in real life.

UPDATE: Check out Rent at the Riverside Arts Center.  Details here.

Blue bikes, c’est moi Friday, Mar 20 2009 

This is not my personal blue bike, but you get the idea.bluebike

Music vs. words, the remix Wednesday, Mar 18 2009 

Not only did I learn the useless but charming term “she-jay” (= female DJ),  yesterday I discovered the Strange Boys and my new favorite song title: “For Lack of a Better Face.”  Take that, horseshoe and nail.

[See also PJ Harvey’s A Woman A Man Walked By, which is pretty much a novel right there (Stendhal?).]

I think it’s the distillation I admire so much, the reduction, in the best sense, to a pure shot: of idea, emotion, image. Like haiku. Not that “shorter” is ipso facto better. But when it works, wow.

Duct tape prom Monday, Mar 16 2009 

Like Dana, Avra, and Emil in Kissing the Bee, these ingenious kids got all duct tape fabulous for their prom.  No butterflies, though this peace sign pair rocks hardest, for my vote.duct-tape-prom

The war on oddballs? Wednesday, Mar 11 2009 

What gives with the New York Times lately? On Sunday, the Book Review briefly referenced, again, Brad Gooch’s Flannery O’Connor biography: “Witty, obsessed and almost inhumanly brave, O’Connor was peculiar, her work even more so.  But Gooch strives to make it all quite normal – under the circumstances, of course.”  What circumstances?

Then the style magazine pats William Burroughs on the head: “William S. Burroughs has always had a toehold in popular culture” – surely his major ambition – though “his debauched brand of intellectualism is eternally stylish[.]”  Gee, that’s a relief.

What’s next: Melville’s freakish delight in his scrimshaw collection?

So what makes it fiction? Sunday, Mar 8 2009 

Looking forward to my visit(s) tomorrow and Tuesday to Cranbrook: I’ll be talking fairy tales and literature and Headlong, and as both Cranbrook and Headlong are all about independent schooling, I’m anticipating a question or two about research and literary appropriation.

I’ve occasionally been met with the assumption that a book of mine is “really” about one actual place or another, or that this character “is” a real person, or thinly-fictionalized avatar of same. Or that the street kid skwatters of The Blue Mirror were so familiar, the book must have been “definitely set” in Seattle. Or Detroit. Or Chicago. {I’ve heard all three from different readers, and each was absolutely sure and had examples from the book to prove it.)

When this happens, first I thank the reader, for his/her close reading and passionate attention, and then we talk about it. And then I refer us both to that Anthony Lane quote. Because you can, and I do, use real life simply to make it all up.

[P.S. There’s also the whole question of what a book is (or is not) “about” in a personal sense of what it means to a particular reader. I remember having a book store conversation with a reader about my first novel, The Cipher: she began to tell me what certain events in the book symbolized, using examples from mythology. And I, like an idiot, interrupted her to say No, that couldn’t be what those things “meant,” because I had no knowledge of that branch of mythology. And so she went away, no doubt thinking I was a pompous asshole. Sadly, what I had done had not only robbed us both of an interesting discussion, it had prevented me from learning something very interesting about The Cipher, namely, not what it “meant” but what it meant to that reader. Which was an insight I could have gotten from no one but her; which could have enriched my understanding not only of that book but of why people read in the first place….I’m a little bit smarter, now.]

Real cool time Saturday, Mar 7 2009 


From the essential, fantastic, read-it-loud Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, here’s Alan Vega recounting the first time he saw Iggy and the Stooges live:

“It wasn’t theatrical, it was theater. Alice Cooper was theatrical, he had all the accoutrements, but with Iggy, this was not acting.  It was the real thing.

“Iggy’s set ended in twenty minutes, and someone had the fucking genius to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto through the speaker system.  The audience was throwing bottles and roses at him.  I swear it was beautiful.

“Do you know what I’m saying, man? It changed my life because it made me realize everything I was doing was bullshit.”


Playing it loud Friday, Mar 6 2009 

If a raven is in fact like a writing desk (though there are competing opinions on that theory), then a song is like a scent. Or a smell. Like Celine Dion is the drugstore perfume in the medical building’s elevator, so by the time you get to the dentist’s you’re half-gagging already. (If CD is actually playing in the elevator, you may require oxygen.)

Like Of Montreal is the smell of rain-wet pavement and complicated smoke outside the club you want most to enter.

Like certain Satie is the scent of the cloakroom at the zendo, incense and flesh-warm wool, when the afternoon sun is coming through the windows by the street.

Like ….

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