Maybe I’ll Build a Fort With My Books

Briefly – Top left is the latest issue of Jacobin magazine, the contents of which are more and more necessary every day as Trump-instigated and Trump-led fascism comes to increasingly dominate the national discourse. Next to it is Indigo by Ellen Bass, from a Kickstarter run by the extraordinary Copper Canyon Press. Third is the newest issues of Poetry magazine, which includes a poem by local poet and professor Todd Kaneko. And on the right is The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang, which I finished reading a little over a week ago. I ordered a copy of the paperback when I was about a third of the way through the e-book, as I wanted a physical copy should I ever attend a signing. It is just that good!

In writing news I am still gathering notes, research ans musings for the book I hope to begin when my hellish project at work ends in three weeks. In reading news I am a couple of chapters into Mike Shel’s self-published novel Aching God, which was a finalist for the 2018 SPFBO awards.

Some crazy shit went down here in Grand Rapids over the past couple of days, and seems set to continue for some time yet. The national guard has arrived and in addition to the quarantine/lockdown we are also under a 7 pm to 5 am curfew until Wednesday. I will create a separate post about everything so as to not mix and dilute narratives with my day-to-day life.

 

The Big Snooze, and Some Thoughts on Self-Publishing

And that’s really what this whole spring has been, hasn’t it? Just at the cusp of getting out of bed we hit the snooze button and suddenly two more weeks have gone by. Here in Michigan, Governor Whitmer has extended the stay-at-home order until June 12, though she is gradually allowing the opening of more and more businesses under specific instructions as regards social distancing and the gathering of crowds.

For me, it won’t change anything as I am on my hellish project until (at most recent notice) June 18. 10 hour days, 50 hours a week, Tuesday through Saturday, 2 pm to midnight, for three and a half more weeks. It mostly isn’t really a problem except when the weather is beautiful (as it has been for the past week) and I can hear the neighbors hanging out in their back yards, drinking beers and grilling various meats. Then it feels like something which is being done to me, even though I volunteered, to the extent that anyone volunteers for a project when the alternative is likely unemployment.

But the books do continue to trickle in, though that is not a reliable or accurate way to measure the passing of time. On the left and right of the above photo are the most recent deliveries from Two Lines Press, Echo on the Bay by Masatsugo Ono, and On Lighthouses, by Jazmina Barrera. In the middle is the new Girl Genius collection, Queens and Pirates, from Kaja and Phil Foglio, just delivered from their latest Kickstarter. World events caused many delays in the delivery of this beautiful graphic novel, but they persevered and it is now in my greedy little hands.

In reading news, I just finished M.L. Wang‘s superb The Sword of Kaigen, which recently won the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. This is some seriously quality work, and should remove any doubts as to the quality of self-published fiction available to read. I, fortunately, had already had those doubts removed thanks to meeting stellar writers like Dyrk Ashton, T.L. Greylock, Phil Tucker, D. Thourson Palmer, Mike Shel, and many others at the ConFusion science fiction convention over the past several years, as well as Jean Davis here in West Michigan, who we worked with extensively back in the heyday of Caffeinated Press.

At ConFusion 2020 earlier this year I attended a panel about self-publishing and everyone was talking about the SPFBO, so I finally looked it up and, well, it is magnificent! 300 entries whittled down to ten finalists and then one winner over the course of about ten months. All volunteer run, and coordinated by author Mark Lawrence. The sixth year of the SPFBO has just commenced and I find myself continually distracted by the commentary on social media. It even prompted me to (o god) reactivate my Reddit account so I could keep up with everything on r/Fantasy.

All of this is timely, as now that things are less chaotic (but by no means  normal) I have the brain-space to think about writing again. I dusted off my failed 2016 NaNoWriMo novel (ran out of steam after 13,000 words), and discovered that there are the bones of something I can turn into a good book. My partner has recently finished setting up her home office and has been burning the midnight oil putting her thoughts to paper so it feels like there is something in the air, and that if I don’t at least lay the groundwork of a book in the next few weeks the opportunity will pass me by and my life will be the poorer for it.

Writing a fantasy novel is also a good escape from the stresses of the mundane world right now, as real-world travel is difficult and problematic during a pandemic-induced quarantine.

My mind, at least, has freedom to roam.

Shifting From Third to Second

Poe in her perch

No new reading material this week, so here is a photo of Poe in her element.

In reading news, I just finished Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, and it was magnificent. I now feel compelled to seek out the rest of the books in the series, as well as the rest of her writing in general.

I have also found myself thoroughly sucked into a re-read of R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels, which I first read as they were released in the early 1990s through early 2000s. They are fun reads and definitely lighter than my usual fare, and I will probably skim through them much faster than I would through something opened for the first time. I enjoy seeing how much Salvatore’s writing improves as the series progresses. It’s also interesting to see how much the (viewed through the lens of a reader in 2020) cliches and tropes endemic to the genre thirty years ago change over time. I offer kudos to Salvatore for keeping his writing fresh over a long and productive career.

For my own writing, I am gathering notes to begin a novel and/or a series of stories based around a particular idea which can be explored in a wide variety of settings and genres. Or a setting which can be explored through a wide variety of ideas and genres. Like I said – gathering. Not organizing. When I begin my work in earnest I will post more specific comments.

In an effort to stay engaged in the book reader/writer/lover community I have started to regularly post to Instagram (@johnfromGR). I have never really engaged that platform in any meaningful way, though at first glance it seems much less toxic than Facebook and Twitter. Time will tell.

As the COVID-19 lockdown continues here in Michigan I can feel my life fraying at the edges. For the past month I have worked third shift, 12-hour days, four days a week, on a project at work. Starting tomorrow that will move to second shift, 10 hours a day, five days a week. This will last through the second week of June, at which point the project will end and I will rejoin the waking world, in whatever form that may be. As I said before, third shift was a whole lot easier when I was 21.

One of the unexpected benefits of my new schedule is a slow but steady loss of weight. I am not working out anywhere near as much as I usually do so I assume the change is from loss of muscle mass combined with only eating two meals a day, along with some healthy snacks. I don’t know if ongoing sleep deprivation also causes weight loss, but if so, I may have discovered a new diet regimen.

A Sudden Bump in Book Stocks

After several weeks of small or nonexistent book orders coming in to the Library at Winkelman Abbey, several appeared at the same time. This was due to various subscriptions, Kickstarters, bookstore orders, and one impulse purchase from an independent publisher.

On the top left is Wild Sun by Ehsan and Shakil Ahmad. This one arrived unexpectedly from Dreamforge as a thank you for supporting their Kickstarter. In the top center is Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott, the latest from my subscription to Apex Publications. On the right is Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie, which I ordered from our local indie bookstore Books and Mortar.

Middle row left is the latest issue of Poetry magazine. The next three are poetry books which I ordered from Books and Mortar – Without Protection by Gala Mukomolova, How to Dress a Fish by Abigail Chabitnoy, and Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews. I subscribe to several poem-a-day email services, of which the most prominent two are Tracy K. Smith’s The Slowdown and the Poem-a-Day from the Academy of American Poets. When a poem resonates, I will find a recent book by the poet and add it to one of my lists on Amazon. When I feel the need for more poetry in my life I will order a few of the books on that list from Books and Mortar. When they arrive, I remove them from the list on Amazon. It’s the opposite of the people who browse local bookstores then order the books they want from Amazon. Those people are jerks.

The bottom row contains the three books I ordered from the Literary Conversations series, published by University Press of MississippiConversations with William Gibson, Conversations with Gary Snyder, and Conversations with Samuel R. Delaney. At present count I have about a dozen of the Literary Conversations collections. They are extremely well done, quite enjoyable to read, and valuable resources for research.

In reading news, I recently burned through R.A. Salvatore‘s Dark Elf TrilogyHomeland, Exile and Sojourn. These were all re-reads of books which I have not revisited in at least fifteen years. Once upon a time I read everything I could get my hands on which was set in the Forgotten Realms. I think I burned myself out. But it felt good to dive back in. They are not great literature by any means, but they are good stories with engaging characters and quite complex worldbuilding. It was a complete comfort read, and now I will probably read a few more before I return to the world of LitFic.

Plus, I decided I want to write a fantasy novel, and Salvatore’s work is a great place to start putting my head in that particular space.

Poe Approves of Friday

Third shift is killing me. Fortunately we have a cuddly razor kitten. My twelve hour shift starts at 18:00. When it ends I won’t have to work again until Tuesday at 18:00. That’s less of a break than it sounds like, as about half of that time will be recovery from this week.

What I Read in April 2020

My plan to read a short story a day for the entire year has, thanks to existential uncertainty and the attendant disruption of my life, not happened. Four months in and I am only a fraction of the way to where I should be. But what I lack in quantity this past month I more than made up for in quality. Ted Chiang’s Exhalation is a wonder, and I cannot recommend highly enough the stories therein.

I had some unexpected down time so I read several novels in April. It felt good to let my mind travel to far realms away from and therefore better than the current timeline.

  1. “The Merchant an the Alchemist’s Gate” Chiang, Ted (Exhalation)
  2. “Exhalation” Chiang, Ted (Exhalation)
  3. “What’s Expected of Us” Chiang, Ted (Exhalation)

Liminal Kittens and the Decades of April

As far as months go, April 2020 wasn’t the absolute worst ever, but it was right up there. My third-shift project and the COVID-19 disruption of the world has left me in a mental and psychological space where the days are undifferentiated and blur together into an indefinite now and the hours disappear in a blink but the weeks last forever. Z continues to improve from her sprained ankle and with the warmer weather we are able to spend more time outside which, even if we almost never leave the property, is a huge improvement over being stuck in the house all day.

I’m still in something of a lull in book acquisitions, but the page of new reading material never fully stops. On the left is Tobias Buckell’s novella The Executioness, published by Subterranean Press. I picked it up after I read its companion volume, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Alchemist (also from Subterranean Press) and realized that I was missing half of the story.

On the right is a new anthology of short stories from Atthis Arts, Community of Magic Pens. This is from a Kickstarter campaign run by E.D.E. Bell, who I know through volunteering at ConFusion. She and her team have turned out quite an impressive collection of anthologies, and are doing a great service to the writing and reading communities.

A few days ago Z and I picked up a harness and leash for Poe. She took to it immediately and seems to love being outside, though she is quickly overwhelmed by all of the sensory input and so can’t stay outside for more than about twenty minutes at a time. Her favorite activity seems to be chasing all of the flies which the warmer weather has awakened.

Perhaps May will be a kinder month than April, though with the lockdown in Michigan extending through the end of the month, and the emasculated manbabies continued protesting of the quarantine, I suspect things will get worse before they get better. Stay safe, stay distanced, and if you see a heavily armed white man complaining that a woman told him to stay in his room, offer him sympathy for his toxic daddy issues but don’t approach. They are easily frightened and tend to lash out if cornered.

Seven Weeks In

No new books arrived this week, so here is a post about my life under quarantine.

It’s been approximately seven weeks  since Governor Whitmer issued the first of her executive orders to begin the Great Coronavirus Lockdown of 2020. And, it scarcely needs to be said, things are strange.

Two weeks after the lockdown began, my girlfriend sprained her ankle while we were working out. She has been in an air cast for the whole month so far, and due to her limited mobility all of the household chores have fallen in my lap. This wouldn’t be a problem, except I am in the second week of a new project at work which has me working third shift four days a week, 6:00 pm to 6:00 am. This project is projected to run to the end of May, by which time I suspect I will have regressed to being able to communicate only by grunts, gestures, and tactical odors.

I haven’t worked third shift since I was 22, and that nearly killed me. Of course that was assembly line work in a factory, and this is computer work sitting in my home office. But I am 50 now, and sleep, always in somewhat short supply, is suddenly an exceedingly rare commodity.

The Grand Rapids YWCA, where I teach and practice kung fu and tai chi, has been closed down since mid-March. Our senior instructor Rick has put together Zoom classes which are surprisingly well-attended, which is encouraging. I have not been able to attend these classes since (of course!) they take place during my new work hours. I do what I can to practice on my own, and my girlfriend is slowly adding the various exercises to her daily practice as she heals, but so much of class is person-to-person training that I can feel myself growing slower and weaker by the day.

I can feel myself…aging.

Another casualty of the stay-at-home order is our kitten Poe, who is tired of having humans around all the time, and is deeply confused by having at least one mobile and interactive person around 24 hours a day. Usually she has the nights to herself, but now she can come in and knock over plants in my office into the wee hours of the morning. Our preferred method of discipline is a spray bottle, so Poe spends a not insignificant portion of the day being slightly damp.

I expect that when the extended stay-at-home order expires in three weeks Poe will undergo similar confusion and trauma, except in reverse. She is already showing signs of separation anxiety when we close the bedroom door in order to save our toes from random attacks in the middle of the night. Once Z and I head back to remote work our poor Poe Kitten will be bouncing off the walls. So, a lot like now, but will different subtext. And no audience.

Z and I are cooking a lot more, which is wonderful since Z is a virtuoso and she is keeping us very well-fed. I pitch in when and were I can, mostly breakfast and various snacks. Z is using this as an opportunity to practice her recipes and I have been the eager tester and grateful recipient of the results of her work.

Surprisingly, I have more time to read since so many of the events and responsibilities which take me out of the house are currently on hold. And though the influx of new books has slowed to a trickle I am placing regular orders with our remarkable local independent bookstore Books and Mortar, the owners and employees of which are doing a stellar job of keeping West Michigan supplied with reading material in these uncertain times.

So here we are. Two more weeks of lockdown and five more weeks of third-shift insanity. Z is healing and growing stronger by the day as Poe and I slowly go feral.

The world will look much different in June than it did in March.

Publication Announcement: Portage Magazine

I am overjoyed to announce that Portage Magazine has just published two of my poems in their 2020 issue. You can read “Afternoon Traffic” and “Percussion” on their website, as well as the rest of the excellent collection published by this gem of a journal.

These are the first poems I have had published since 1999. This is also the first unsolicited work which I have had published since 1999, when I placed in the 1999 Dyer-Ives Poetry Competition and was subsequently published in that year’s issue of Voices.

I became aware of Portage Magazine when I was looking for possible venues for submission. There are of course thousands of outlets for poetry but that doesn’t mean a specific outlet is right for a specific poem. Since I am a Midwesterner, and therefore a Midwestern writer, I tried to use certain keywords to filter the lists from Poets & Writers, Duotrope, and other lists, but that still left several hundred possibilities. So I abandoned all of that and simply looked through the author bios of the 12 issues of The 3288 Review which Caffeinated Press published over the past five years, and wrote down the venues which had also published the poets which we had published. That left a much more manageable list, and Portage Magazine was right there in the middle of it all. And they do a very good job of publishing and promoting their authors.

Thank you for reading!

Municipal Existentialism and Ricochet Kittens

[I meant to post this yesterday, but kitten.]

The lockdown and associated overabundance of attention are beginning to wear on Poe who, in response, is beginning to wear on the humans here at the Library of Winkelman Abbey.

Fortunately for the non-felid cohort here, the books continue to accumulate. On the left is Stan’s Kitchen, a limited edition collection of short works from Kim Stanley Robinson, published by NESFA Press and distributed by Subterranean Press. I was lucky to get one of the very last ones, as after the run sold out (which, as far as I can tell, took about four hours) a few more were added and I was lucky enough to see the notice as soon as it was posted. Thus a new book!

On the right is N.K. Jemisin’s new novel The City We Became, which is about the souls or anthropomorphic personifications of the great cities of the world. I’m about 120 pages in, and this book is magnificent!

On a related note, I feel a sense of, I don’t know, call it kismet, or deja vu, or something of the kind, because during National Novel Writing Month in November 2017 I wrote the first draft of a novel I called Vicarious City, which was about the anthropomorphic personification, the genius loci, of Grand Rapids. And given when The City We Became was released, it is likely that Jemisin was writing her book when I was writing mine. I guess there was a particular energy in the air at the time.

I love coincidences like this!

My story was inspired by a few things – issue 51 of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic (“A Tale of Two Cities”) , Bruce Sterling’s novel Zeitgeist, Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities, the character Map from the Hellblazer comic, the spirit from Paul Bowles’ short story “The Circular Valley” and the various genii loci from Roger Zelazny and Megan Lindholm’s novel Donnerjack. And in a larger and more subtle sense, this idea as presented by Alan Watts:

Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.

Maybe my novel will see the light of day in some form, but in the meantime I am delighted to read Jemisin’s book. She has a presence, and an aesthetic, and a sense of empathy and justice which makes her work compelling and readable in the highest degree.

In other reading news, I finished Ferret Steinmetz’s wonderful The Sol Majestic, and it makes me want to spend the day wandering a food-centric city in his company, talking about cuisines and words and the synchronicities which can be found therein.

I will likely have another post sometime this week, regarding some writing news, but for now, time to prep for work.