Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Rock On - Dan Kennedy

I was wrong again (it happens…let’s just say ‘occasionally’). I saw the title and cover of this book and thought ‘Please, not another ironic hipster penning a love letter to his childhood wrapped tightly in a faux enthusiasm blanket while burnishing his indie rock cred.’ (Okay, maybe my initial thought wasn’t quite that coherent and profanity-free, but we’re all great wits in retrospect. Also, ‘Faux Enthusiasm Blanket’ – possible post-emo/screamo band name.)

Turns out, Rock On is sans hipster irony, and less of a love letter than a debriefing from one of the smoking craters caused by the music wars. Dan Kennedy is (or should be) well-known for his frequent and varied contributions to numerous McSweeney’s publications. For those of you who don’t know McSweeney’s, rectify that posthaste.

As for Rock On; it’s a smart and funny look at the author’s disillusionment with an industry that poses as creative while seemingly ready to wring the necks of baby bunnies if it will get them another airplay for their ‘product’. It’s not a newsflash that when you have an industry controlling artistic expression the results seem less than genuine. It is, however, revelatory just how many decisions made in those ivory towers are driven by a combination of fear, laziness, and stupidity; and here I thought greed was the only boogeyman to aim for.

For eighteen soul-crushing months Kennedy fought the good fight in the marketing department of one of the biggest music companies in the world. His experiences would prove harrowing if they weren’t hilarious, and by all rights his observations should be dripping venom. As a former employee of the world’s largest purveyor of books (They Who Shall Not Be Named), I identified with Kennedy’s day-to-day dread and deer-in-the-headlights inability/unwillingness to play the game with his superiors.

Tales of conference room status wars waged by embittered ladder climbers, near-fisticuffs over baked goods, the mad dash of prospective personal assistants, the inanity of making a point about selling out by selling out, and a parade of yes men who never got music in the first place make Rock On the perfect encapsulation of the wrongheadedness of ‘big music’. Maybe Dan Kennedy’s book is the first fragment of an asteroid coming to usher the corporate dinosaurs into their ice age. It comes not a moment too soon.

My Gateway Book by Denise Dee

You've heard of gateway drugs? Marijuana leading to heroin? Well, let me introduce you to one of my most dangerous gateway books

Dreamland by Kevin Baker - This was my first experience with 'historical fiction'; the very term used to make me cringe. Cracking this book open, I walked into a time machine and found myself washed up on the shores of early 1900's Coney Island; host to Dreamland and Luna Park. Baker mixes in gangsters, Triangle Factory workers, midgets, Freud and Jung, Tammany Hall bosses, opium dens and Bowery bars with a glossary to the colorful terms used by the Irish, Jewish and other characters populating the book. I became obsessed with turn of the century New York while reading this book, and it led me to:

Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle - If you only read one book about the Triangle Factory fire, make it this one.

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante - Sante's pace and tone is perfection in conveying, yep, the lures and snares of Five Points and other 'unsavory' neighborhoods.

Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury - You've seen the movie? Even more reason to read the book. The movie glosses over the reality that is described in these pages.

Five Points by Tyler Anbinder - I believe this to be the definitive book on the neighborhood. Ponder how many people were crammed into each square foot. Relive the stench and the sounds and the sights. That might sound depressing; it's anything but. A classic in urban studies.

When you think about how one of the roughest neighborhoods ever produced so much culture (music, dancing, writing), it's truly astounding. This is where the freed slaves met the freed Irish, which disgusted Charles Dickens enough to write home to London about it.

Hopefully this has inspired you to think about the dangerous path books can lead you down.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

What's Next? Adventures In Sequential Art: The Workshed Studio Wrap-Up

The booksellers at Schwartz Bookshop on Downer know how to put on an event (and I’m not just saying that because I work there). From the beginning, Jay Johnson and Joe Lisberg were accommodating, enthusiastic, and committed to spreading the word about “What’s Next? Adventures In Sequential Art”. They put in their time networking with local businesses and schools to get the word out around town and pelted the interweb with announcements (the fantastic promo poster by Joe’s own Deep Sea Studios was spot-on and a great help). Store manager Doug James was supportive and willing to give up some of that all-important front-of-store floor space to make room for a cool display featuring the work of those speaking.

With our goals being to proselytize to folks the wonders of doing what you love and to foster a sense of community with our fellow indies, Alan, Randy and I all came away feeling great about the response. The audience was much bigger than I expected, but I’m an anticipatory pessimist. We took some great questions, and all involved had ample opportunity to speak to what we do and why we do it.

Max Estes and John Porcellino were both stand-up guys, willing to share their views and methods with the audience, us ‘Shed Heads included. I had a chance to speak with both of them, and can wholeheartedly endorse their sincerity and devotion. Max and I were flabbergasted in tandem that with Milwaukee being as small as it is (comparatively), we had yet to run into each other. John was an inspiration; I truly felt that comics were instinctual and necessary when he talked.

The only unfortunate aspect to the night was a technical glitch removing a podcast from the equation. It would have been nice to be able to share the sounds of the event (John Porcellino admitting that everyone in comics is “sad and bitter” being my personal highlight), but I also see the positive in no one knowing what a giant windbag I can be in person.

I’m working on some new stuff at the moment, and having a chance to rub elbows with fellow creators provided an added spark to my typing engine (way to stretch a metaphor).

Thank you to everyone who attended and to those of you who keep your minds open and your wallets at the ready for independence.

Justin Riley (Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop/Workshed Studio)

Slush Pile Update - Dan Wickett of Dzanc Books

This is part three in a series of dispatches from independent publishers, instigated by a banal and ignorant comment from an editor at Simon & Schuster about the dearth of unsolicited manuscripts being published today.

The previous two installments can be found below:

The Slush Pile Is Dead! Long Live the Slush Pile!

Slush Pile Update - Eli Horowitz, McSweeney's

I recently had a moment to send Dan Wickett, the Exectutive Director and co-founder of Dzanc Books, a Michigan-based nonprofit publisher, founder of the Emerging Writers Network and a member of the Litblog Co-op. Dzanc supports lit journals across the country; as the Editor-in-Chief of cream city review, a student of fiction, and a reader who is interested in finding fiction, poetry, and nonfiction that has more than simple commercial potential, I would suggest Dzanc Books deserves at least a peek from discerning readers.

They make it easy to get hooked: they have All Over an exciting new collection from Roy Kesey (published in great journals like The Iowa Review, McSweeney's, and The Kenyon Review) out now.

A new collection from Yannick Murphy, author of the fabulous Here They Come (buy the swanky McSweeney's hardcover, dammit), the upcoming Signed Mata Hari, and a new story in the upcoming cream city review (shameless?) is due in February 2008.

JJ: How deep is your slush pile of novel-length (or short story collection) manuscripts?

Dan Wickett: It's done via email, but if printed out, it would definitely be taller than I am.

JJ: How many unsolicited manuscripts do you receive monthly?

DW: Since the P&W article, we've been receiving over three per day.

JJ: How often do you read manuscripts out of the slush?

DW: Every day at least one or two are looked at by myself and our initial readers.

JJ: How many slush authors receive correspondence?

DW: Every single mss [manuscript] submitted will receive at least a 'No thank you' email from us. If something specific jumped out as to why we weren't interested, we'll try to include that. If something is close - a manuscript that maybe we asked to see the whole thing and then didn't take it - we'll try to explain a little further as to why not.

JJ: How many books have you published from slush?

DW: The fourth title we publish, a trio of novellas from Hesh Kestin, will be the first title that is truly from the slush pile - a manuscript not solicited by us, or brought to us by somebody we knew. Then the Suzanne Burns story collection to follow that was also from the slush pile. The Robert Lopez titles as well. It seems we're running about 50/50 so far.

JJ: Do you and your assistant editors eat pizza, salads, or both?

DW: Both but pizza much more often in my own case.

JJ: Would you rather read a slush pile MS or create a marketing sheet?

DW: Mss all the way.

For more on Dzanc Books, check their website and find the Sept/Oct Poets & Writers.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Try Not To Leave Your Fingerprints On The Cover - By Denise Dee

I know it's considered low-brow for a bookseller to confess to a love of true crime books but I've always been interested in the 'anti-hero'. People who were apparently so spellbinding they could get people to join gangs/cults, commit murder, or drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Or at least that's how the story goes. There's an attention to detail and to pacing in true crime books that any writer can learn something from.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi - This is a hefty book but it reads as if it's 50 pages long. Bugliosi zips us through the summer of love, hippies, the political climate in America, and the 'cast of characters', then puts us into the courtroom and smack in the locations where the crimes took place. I don't know that I will ever forget the image of the Manson girls and Charlie with Xs carved into their foreheads. The most haunting part of the book is when Manson says "I am only what you made me. I am a reflection of you". Someone is always going to act out our 'dark side'.

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer - Norman Mailer to my mind is usually way too heady. In The Executioner's Song Mailer brings us into the world of feelings. Mailer (who seemed to want to portray himself as an 'outlaw') meets up with a man who shows how deep 'outlaw' runs. Mailer stays put and listens and does a great job conveying Gary Gilmore's upbringing and the paths that led him to fighting to be killed for his crimes.

Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore - Mikal, a long time staff writer for Rolling Stone is, yes, Gary Gilmore's brother. Mikal takes an unflinching look at the Gilmores, Utah, and some of the doctrines and myths of both the Mormons (blood atonement, for one) and what it is to be a 'man' in the West.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote - I read this after seeing the film in high school. Even though Robert Blake is hard to get out of your head, Capote's writing had me forgetting there ever was a movie. Capote, simultaneously an 'outsider' and 'insider' in his own life, really seems to understand what it could take to get these men to the point of killing.

The Westies: Inside New York's Irish Mob by T.J. English - Hell's Kitchen Irish mobsters following in the footsteps of the Kerryonians, the Dead Rabbits and the rest of the Five Points gangs. This book is more brutal than the rest. It's fascinating to walk the streets of Hell's Kitchen with the writer as he reveals where the bodies are buried while showing the circuits in these men's brains that made them long to be 'important' and 'known'- even if it was for crime and murders. Not for the squeamish.

When Corruption Was King: How I Helped the Mob Rule Chicago, Then Brought the Outfit Down by Robert Cooley and Hillel Levin - And so I end my true crime list with 'crime' inside the Chicago justice system. I worked in a bookstore in Chicago blocks from where most of the action in this book takes place. Love Cooley or hate him (and I heard plenty on both sides) he's a compelling narrator to the goings-on of the system in Chicago. Mixes in a bit of history and a lot of colorful characters.

Who needs to invent characters when real life is chock full of them?

Monday, October 1, 2007

What's Next? Adventures in Sequential Art

What’s Next? Adventures in Sequential Art

Sponsored by Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops and cream city review

How many ways can you tell a story? John Porcellino (King-Kat Comics), Max Estes (Coffee and Donuts), and members of Milwaukee’s Workshed Studio (Sawdust) discuss their individual work, their varying creative processes, and the interplay of words and pictures in storytelling.

Monday, October 15, 7pm Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop, 2559 N. Downer Ave.

Can't make it? Leave a question for the panel in the comments below, then check back and listen to the podcast.

Workshed Studio (Justin Riley, Alan Evans, Randy Malave, Jr) is a Milwaukee-based comic book studio. They're the guys who read too many comics, watched too much television, snuck in to too many movies and even paid attention to those books without pictures. They hope to take equal parts pop culture, social relevance and homage to the history of comics and mash 'em together into a fully enjoyable storytelling paste. They recently published Sawdust, an anthology of their work.

John Porcellino (King-Kat Comics) was born in Chicago, in 1968. He began writing and drawing at an early age, compiling his work into small, handmade booklets. His first photocopied “zine” was produced in 1982, at the age of 14, and he began his current series, King-Cat Comics and Stories, in 1989. Since then, King-Cat has been his predominant means of expression. Drawn & Quarterly has published two of his books, King Kat Classix (2007) and Perfect Example (2005). Porcellino currently lives in Denver with his wife Misun, and a small black cat named Maisie Kukoc. (Check out a few samples from John Porcellino's work at the Drawn & Quarterly website.)

Max Estes (cream city review) is a Milwaukee-based graphic novelist and Comics Editor for cream city review. Top Shelf has published two of his books, Coffee and Donuts (2006) and Hello, Again (2005). Max's comics, artwork, and short stories have been published in Canada, England, Spain, and the United States in various art books and comic anthologies. He is also a part-time instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design where he teaches Illustration and Sequential Art courses.