2011: The Building of Lists

So hey, the year 2011 is nearing its end, which tends to mean that it’s time to muse on the year’s artistic offerings in concise form. In other words: there will be year-end lists. And so: here are a few of mine, with more to come. (I’ll have a couple of pieces up at Vol.1 in the next week, along with some thoughts on noteworthy live music at Big Other. Links will be posted as the pieces appear.) For now, here are two:

My ten favorite albums, along with some thoughts on the year in music, are now listed at Dusted.

And I contributed to a list of literary gift ideas at The Contextual Life, along with a number of notably NY-area lit folks.

New Fiction at Joyland: “An Old Songwriter’s Trick”

At Joyland, I have a new short story up, titled “An Old Songwriter’s Trick.” This is how it begins:

The week Owen left New York was one of sweltering humidity reaching down to enrapture us, swaddle us, leave us all reaching for insufficient comfort. We assumed Owen was alone in the task of loading a truck, of carting boxes and disassembled furniture down flights of stairs and into a double-parked van. It was a week of sweat-stained shirts, of dodging brownouts, of foregone conclusions about the city and about what constituted comfort demolished. Owen was leaving us, and few among us were sad to see him go.

Keen-eyed readers may notice that it shares a character with another story of mine, “Dulcimers Played, Strings Played.” That is not coincidence; essentially, this story originally began its life as a sort of prelude to something much longer I’d like to write. As part of it, I needed to explain how one particular character ended up in a particular place; from there, this story arose. The longer work is as yet unwritten (as a couple of my favorite novels from this year may have rendered the concept moot); we’ll see, I suppose.

(Also: immense thanks to Brian at Joyland for running the story.)

On Jóhann Jóhannsson

I’ve been a fan of the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson since around the time I heard his 2004 album Virðulegu Forsetar, a magnificent work that slowly unfolds from burgeoning drone to expansive bliss. And more recently, I’ve been listening semi-obsessively to a piece called “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World,” which comes from his soundtrack to a film called The Miners’ Hymns.

All of this is preface to say that I chatted with Jóhannsson for The Rumpus via email over the course of a few months, and the end result is now online.

Running & such

While in New Jersey over the weekend, I ran a 5K. (I’m #225, which — oddly enough — is the number of the house I grew up in.) Here’s what I looked like before running it:

The upside: this was my first time running as part of a larger group, and I didn’t panic/lose my pace/etc. The downside: somewhere along the way, I seem to have stepped on a lumpy section of road and bruised the underside of my foot, which has prompted some fairly amusing-to-the-eye hobbling in the last 36-odd hours. (Thankfully, this has begun to subside.) On to the next one, wherever that might be…

The Weird.

Thinking out loud a bit here. A couple of weeks ago, a story of mine called “The Clutch” turned up on Vol.1. It’s a weird story, and the story of how it came to exist is (possibly) relevant: I wrote it for a reading that was part of a genre-themed series. My night’s theme was horror, and thus a horror story is what came up.

Except…it’s not really a proper horror story. It nurtures a particular image and setting that, by story’s end, eventually become horrific, but — this is more in the realm of things that unsettle me than things that will necessarily terrify audiences worldwide. It’s an image that I’ve had in my head for years now: seven or eight years ago, there was a particularly hot summer, and I’d walk to the subway after long nights at work and pass these clumps of trash bags that were just left there to fester, and I’d wonder; I’d start to see things emerging from them, and then I’d creep myself out and get onto the subway and try really hard to avoid thinking of the things now lurking around my subconscious.

(There’s an old story of mine somewhere with a similar payoff; a sinister buildup to an impossible image. Maybe I’ll post it somewhere; might make for interesting reading…)

I have a weird relationship with realism. A lot of the fiction I’ve done lately has been pretty straightforward. And yet: a lot of the writing that I first did when I was ushering myself into the process of writing fiction was much more surreal. Weird fiction or “slipstream” or something similar. Some of that’s just due to my reading habits: my bookshelves have a fair amount of realist fiction on them, but there’s a fair share of science fiction and horror and magic realism in there as well. But I also find it interesting that, after detouring around the weird for a while, I seem to find myself drawn back to it — the last story I finished opens in a fairly realistic vein and then takes a detour into the…if not the impossible, at least the unlikely.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m reminded that one can tweak things like realism on the page; that a story that opens in one mode doesn’t necessarily have to stay in that same mode for the duration. (Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm, which I just finished, is something of a master class in this — just when you think you know where it’s going, the narrator pulls things to a stop and resets the terms under which you hear his story.)

If nothing else, that renewed attraction to all things weird might help explain where parts of my head were when I wrote some of the dialogue in this story….

New (seasonally appropriate) fiction: “The Clutch”

A few months ago, I wrote a short horror story for a night of genre-inspired works at Blue Angel Wines in Williamsburg. That story, “The Clutch,” has wound up on Vol.1, as it seemed strange not to have a story that wasn’t somewhat creepy up around Halloween.

By the third morning, the air’s density had grown: sweat sprouted from Dalton’s chest and shoulders as soon as he rose to street level and began his westward walk. Ten steps down the block, he saw the bags again, grey plastic taut in places, slack and crumpled in others. Their shapes, he saw, had come to rest on one another; had come to compress and support themselves.

You can read the whole thing here. I’ll be back later in the week with some thoughts on this story and something else that’s in the works, and What It All Means. (Or something.)

New Orleans

Headed to New Orleans this morning to take in the engagement party of two fine people. It’ll be my first time in the city; very curious to see how the trip goes. Plans include the eating of beignet and my usual “I am in a new city; I must visit a bookstore” agenda. So hey.

Chances are good that some dispatches, and the occasional photo, will show up on Twitter.

Some reviews. Three, in fact.

Somewhat randomly: here are three reviews that appeared recently on Dusted. All are for albums that I would recommend.

Handsome Furs, Sound Kapital:

Sound Kapital never quite settles into a comfortable pattern of pop. The first 15 seconds of opener “When I Get Back” feature slightly distorted vocals over a skeletal beat. Though it eventually settles into a more established dancefloor configuration, those first moments are intentionally jarring, the lines “When I get back home / I won’t be the same no more” serving as the album’s thesis statement.

The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient:

These are songs designed to be played in an archetypal car with its windows down, engine floored as it heads down the interstate. On the other hand, there’s a blissful quality — less psychedelic and more coming from the ambient/drone side of things. It’s not dissimilar to the devastatingly subtle boundary-ebbings practiced by the likes of Marissa Nadler and Sharon Van Etten.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen, A Winged Victory for the Sullen:

Unlike The Dead Texan, which flirted very loosely (and effectively) with pop structures, the seven pieces here are more impressionistic; while there are structures in place, the overall effect is one of contrasts, of quieter sections giving way to the presence of a host of instruments.

Studying Case Studies

So: I reviewed the debut from Case Studies for Dusted. And I interviewed Jesse Lortz, the man behind the project, for Vol.1. Lortz was also half of The Dutchess and The Duke, who made two of my favorite albums of the past couple of years. I was excited to hear this new project; and, when it comes down to it, I’d recommend the Case Studies album highly.

What I do still find giving me pause, though, are Lortz’s feelings about his current work relative to his past work. On the one hand, I can’t think of many artists in any discipline who’d make the case that their latest work isn’t their best. But I also find myself conflicted about my love of his previous work and whether it can coexist with my admiration of his present work. For now, I’m still listening; still working it all out.

ALL HANDS ON (is an anthology I am in)

I arrived home to find this in my mailbox. (More specifically: it was on the floor below it. My mailbox is fairly small.) The book in question is All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10, and it’s a collection of work from the long-running Chicago-and-Nashville-based literary broadsheet (and website).

I’ve had some stories appear in both their print and online spaces, and they also appear here; there’s also work from smart folks like Joe Meno, Patrick Somerville, Al Burian, Anne Elizabeth Moore, Jonathan Messinger, Susannah Felts, Jamie Iredell, Kate Duva, and more.

(As always, giant thanks are due to editors Todd Dills and C.T. Ballentine, who are fine people to boot.)

If you’re so inclined, you can purchase the book here.

Scones

Most mornings, I stop in to Long Island City’s Sweetleaf before work for a cup of coffee and a scone. Sweetleaf does a fine job of baking scones that achieve a good sweet/savory balance; this weekend, I decided to give something similar a shot.

Scones

To make these, I followed the basic scone recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I added a tablespoon of chipotle pepper, half a cup of sliced almonds, about a cup of queso fresco, and a teaspoon and change of Mexican vanilla. The result was lighter than expected and just spicy enough, with the cheese fairly blended in but still tempering the chipotle.

 

Writing About Places Where I Write

Last week, I contributed an essay to the excellent “Write Place, Write Time” series of, well, short essays about where writers do their thing.

I’m going to need to sketch out a shared history for the three primary main characters — including former bandmates, families, classmates — as well as a small town near the Pennsylvania border in northwestern New Jersey. I keep a Moleskin notebook around, but more recently I picked up a half-dozen Field Notes notebooks so that I could keep things project-specific.

You can read the whole thing right here. The whole site is well worth your time as well…