27 October 2014

Migration day on the Oregon Coast

It must be a rule of aero/hydrodynamics that the bodies most ungainly on land be the sleekest in air and water. The same thought has probably struck every person who's ever seen a pelican fly. I spent an hour or so this morning watching a lot of them, and it's one of the most beautiful sights you can see. Big, silly beak always tucked into the chin, floppy feet, and yet when a pelican gets in the air, it's sleek, effortless gliding machine.

We had a rare day of sunshine here on the coast, after a week or so of our usual constant rain and drizzle. By "sunshine", I mean the occasional flash of blue sky behind the clouds, and generally dry. In the mid-morning, the tide was out, the beach was flat, and the water was calm. There was an occasional gull flying by. A nice day at the beach - a great day, for October.

I sat for a while in a lonely spot, just to enjoy the world, and watch for seals. At first, it seemed quiet, with just a few gulls around, but then a cormorant flew within a few meters, just at the edge of the water. Soon after, a flocklet of pelicans, skimming over the water, rising and falling effortlessly. Then more of the ubiquitous geese we get stopping by the wetlands. Some murres. Then a pod of six or seven glossy seals, gliding out of the water and back in a fleeting, all-natural, chain stitch of brown fur and muscle. All headed south. Pretty soon, in fact, it seemed like every wild creature on the coast was headed south. The longer I sat, the more I saw, realizing that in addition to the dozens of passing birds, there were literally hundreds in flocks resting out past the breakers. Everywhere I looked, there were birds. And every three or four minutes, another pod of seals would stitch past.

Ain't nature grand?



Armed only with analog binoculars and a cell phone, I didn't take much in the way of photos, so you'll just have to take my word for today's nature bonanza. As compensation, though, I offer a selection from a walk in the nature reserve on Cascade Head a while back. Trees, cool, and a startling headland meadow with across the water from a little islet covered with pelicans. I was too startled to do more than glow with pleasure at a brief close trail encounter with a coyote before he turned tail and ran, apparently just as startled as me.

Cascade head meadow panorama


The colors nature likes


Salt, water, rock



Pelicans in their awkward form




16 May 2014

Why Do E-book Re-issues Have Lousy Covers?

I've largely switched to e-books now, buying paper only to continue series I started on paper. I find e-books so convenient that I'm even re-purchasing some paper books as e-books, when the price is right. That usually means <$2 for books I really liked. (Amazon's pilot Matchbook program should have led to a lot of this, but it seems not many publishers signed up.)

Most recently, I bought a batch of Jonathan Carroll books, a batch of Sheri Tepper (still at $.99, by the way), and a couple of Robin Hobbs (one old, one new). The Carroll books were from a 'new' publisher (Open Road Media), and all had colorful covers that someone put time into. Both Hobb books had minimalist covers - title, author, monochrome background. That sounds fine, but in fact they're hard to tell apart at first glance. The Tepper books not only had near identical covers, they were bad covers - they look like something Harper Collins whipped up as a placeholder before making the initial re-issue pitch to a sub-sub-manager. I'm amazed they made it into the actual e-books. I've seen some similar poor choices from other publishers.

I understand that publishers may not own the electronic rights to the original art. They may not want to spend the money on new art. I read the books on a small grayscale Nook, which loses a lot of the beauty of large color covers. And I'm pleased that the books are re-issued at all. Nonetheless, I think the poor 'art' a serious mistake 

Covers, for good or evil, do sell books. More important, they contribute to the image we have of books. When I was younger, I formed an feeling about Del Rey Books that was inextricably linked with Darrell Sweet's colorful, friendly, very slightly cartoonish covers. When I picked one up, I knew immediately that a) the cover was a reasonably accurate representation of some part of the book, b) that the writing was going to be reasonably good, and c) how the publisher was trying to categorize the story. All without even reading the author or title. When I think about those Del Rey books, the covers come to mind first, and they're a key to my memory of the content.

Bad covers can have the opposite effect, but they usually don't. But I'm usually not put off by a bad cover. I ignore it and move on to the actual text, and the covers don't enter my memory much at all. (To give an example from music - Black Sabbath's horrible Born Again cover.)

What does stop me, however, is a cover that clearly doesn't care - one that's minimalist not for art's sake, but because no one could be bothered to take the time. (Again from music, Merle Haggard's 1994 and 1996 covers.) We all know that the cover can draw a reader in. If even the publisher doesn't make the effort, why should I as a reader?

Publishers seem to feel they can get away with this, and in some ways they can - when I buy a Sheri Tepper reissue from Amazon, it doesn't show the crappy e-book cover. Instead, it shows the original, attractive paperback artwork. It's only when I've downloaded the book and opened it that I find I've been cheated.

That's a serious error. First, of course, making your reader feel cheated is not a good way to bring him back for more. Much as I associated Del Rey with Darrell Sweet covers, I now associate Harper Collins e-books with 'We don't give a damn' covers. Second, though, is that I, and many others, rely on covers in sorting and managing our books, and in choosing something to read. No matter how much I like Sheri Tepper's books, when I'm choosing my next book, those high-school-intern e-covers hint "Not as good as you remember. Maybe later." That's hugely unfair to Tepper, whose books are in fact as good as I remember.

This is a problem that's not hard to overcome mentally, but I have over a thousand unread books on my Nook, several dozen of which are in the 'read me now' portion of my brain. Any little thing helps make that choice easier - even when I know it's unfair.I solve the problem by editing in the original cover and tossing the crappy ones, but I resent the time and effort.

So, with all that, this is my wake up call to publishers: Take your reissues seriously. Because if you don't, we won't.

What are some of your favorite and least-favorite e-book covers?

01 March 2014

Restart

After two years waiting for Google Sites to activate its built-in comments feature for site visitors, I've given up. I haven't gone far, however. I've shifted the site to a Blogger platform. I hope that will allow for a little more interaction with visitors without too many drawbacks.

So far, in fact, all looks good. There will be a little tweaking over the next few days that will no doubt affect the site's look, and the gadgets available. Mainly, though, I look forward to finally being able to hear from you!

24 February 2014

The Savage Breasts


William Congreve
William Congreve and his
Savage Breast
As Dave Barry might say, that would be a good name for a band. But I chose it simply because my last two posts happened to be about musicians, which caused me to reflect on the connection between music and writing.

A lot of my stories have a link to music. My first real story, as noted elsewhere, is closely based on the Deep Purple song, "Blind" (from their eponymous third album). It's been a long time - I can't recall what it is that drove me to write the story. I listen to music most of the time, at home, and, likely as not, this album just happened to be on when I decided to become a writer and needed an inspiration.

Most of my musical catalysts are a little less calculated. Sometimes I just hear a great phrase and steal it. "Drive Like Lightning ... Crash Like Thunder" is a straight out grab from Brian Setzer's Vavoom album. I'm not too sure he had had aliens and starships in mind, but I named a town and a bar after him, and a ship after the album. In fact, the name of the ship drove its design, which affected the storyline, so Mr. Setzer and I had something of an interactive writing session.

Sometimes, I mishear a phrase. A story still in production, "For This Rich Earth" is based on Peter, Paul, and Mary's version of Travis Edmonson's "If I Were Free". Except that where Edmondson wrote "Of how the flowers do bloom and fade; Of how we've fought and how we've paid", I, as a ten year old, heard "Of how the flowers to Blue Man came; Of how he fought, and how he failed." Frankly, that still sounds like what they're singing. I always wondered who blue man was, and what he failed at. Then last year, I started a story with nothing more than an image, and naturally got stuck after a few paragraphs. Then I remembered this lyric, and the whole story came to me.

I even started a series of stories based on a (knowingly) misheard lyric. Eliza Gilkyson has a song called "Bearing Witness", but the more I listened, the more it sounded like "Barren Witness". It took me some years, but eventually that was the genesis of a Donaldsonian anti-hero. The stories are about a galactic service that witnesses cultural births and deaths. My anti-hero specializes in death, and I wanted to write a total of four stories, all  with titles taken from a Roger Miller song ("Pardon this coffin, Please step aside, Pardon this coffin, My brother just died"). I thought most people would figure it out only on seeing a table of contents (if ever). I dropped the idea when it came to negotiating with Sony Music about copyright. I'm sure there's a fair, transformative use argument but the whole point is that I like these musicians - I'm not trying to literally steal anything. That is... you know what I mean.

There are others. "House of Hope" draws from Toni Childs. Some artists inspire more than once. I've already written about "Puff, the Magic Dragon" as the source for "Autumn Mist". Fred Eaglesmith suggested "The Girl Who Just Went Wrong" and the nascent "Seven Shells".

Except for "Blind", none of these stories has much to do with their source material - they're catalysts, not reagents. But the point of a catalyst is that it can allow a reaction that otherwise would not happen. So in almost every case, I usually to acknowledge my inspiration somewhere in the story. The hero in "For This Rich Earth" is named Edward Travis, and the title of the story is from another line in the song that happened to fit my story perfectly. Part of "The Girl Who Just Went Wrong" takes place in the Eaglesmith Hills. I haven't always followed through on the tributes, but I try. So, little hints for those in the know. And, of course, the stories work even if you don't know the music. My wife says my "Barren Witness" stories are her favorites, and she couldn't care less where the ideas came from - she just wants me to write more of them. ("Please Step Aside" due in an anthology some day soon, in theory.)

If you're a writer, what music has inspired you? As a reader, what do you listen to while you read? What are your favorite stories linked to music?

19 February 2014

Laziness


Now what
I'm not generally a big fan of live music. It's always seemed to me that you get half the quality at twice the price. Of course, you also get a sense of energy and community, and sometimes, a great performance (which you then wish you had as a recording...).

Somehow, though, I've managed to see a decent number of live acts, including some of my favorites: Cat Stevens (back when he was Cat Stevens), Gordon Lightfoot, Waylon Jennings, Carrie Newcomer*, Steve Forbert, John Gorka, Darden Smith, ДДТ. Also, for some reason, some non-favorites that are good (Nazareth - as invitees of the Prime Minister of Mongolia), and some ... others (Robert Plant?). Last night, however, I finally heard a band that's been at the top of my list for for 40 years.

Happily, Eastern Europe has never given up on the classic music of the '70s. Some might argue that they just haven't caught up, but ... Justin Bieber? ... what's to catch up with? In any case, I turned down (procrastinated away) my chance to see Whitesnake last summer. But then, Whitesnake has been inconsistent of late, by which I mean that their penultimate album, Good to be Badleaned heavily toward bad - in the form of the commercial sludge that made David Coverdale a lot of money - instead of good (the early albums).

When I heard that my town would be visited by the best rock group of all time, I procrastinated some more. But I was rescued by my office mates, who presented me with a ticket. And so, last night, after four decades of fandom, I went to see Deep Purple.

The sound was terrible . They opened with a song from the new album, which I don't yet own. I literally couldn't isolate any of the words. It was only when they shifted into older material** ("Into the Fire"), that I knew what Mr. Gillan was singing. Maybe Mr. Nikolic (President of Serbia, and an old fan) could hear better from his box seat.

Eventually, the sound improved, and the group settled into a smooth display of astonishing talent. Ian Paice on drums (the only constant member of the band), Ian Gillan (with a sly nod to Jesus Christ Superstar), Roger Glover on bass (a key driver of the band's musical direction), and Don Airey on keyboards (a surprisingly effective replacement for Jon Lord, whom I always saw as the heart of the group's sound). Steve Morse and his guitar were also present (with a host of technically able solos that underlined the many ways that his sound and the band's just do not fit).

So, what's the point? Just to review a concert that virtually all of you were not at, and that most wouldn't have wanted to go to anyway? Well, partly that - Deep Purple is the best band of all time, after all, and my personal favorite. If you don't like "Lazy" ... well, I like to keep the blog polite. These guys are and were great musicians. Sure, there were a few weak albums (House of Blue Light, Slaves and Masters [if you even count that one]), but overall, these guys, in all their incarnations, are the band to listen to.

All of which is a long lead-in to this point: the first story I ever wrote seriously was inspired by a Deep Purple song. The song, "Blind" is from one of Deep Purple's early albums (the last one with Rod Evans and Nic Simper, the year before In Rock, with Gillan and Glover). For years, I half-heartedly sent that story around every now and then. Finally in late 2011, I decided to try a little harder. As a start, I sent "Blind" out again to the first place on a list of venues I found on Wikipedia. Much to my surprise, "Blind" was immediately accepted by the (now defunct) Absent Willow Review. That acceptance encouraged me to get serious about writing. So "Blind" was the start of my writing career, and the catalyst, twenty years later, for my decision to write more than just the one story.

I'm happy to say that "Blind" is soon to be republished, in the Song Stories II anthology from Song Story Press. It's tentatively scheduled for release on 15 March 2014 - so just under one month after I first, and finally, saw Deep Purple live.

* Carrie Newcomer may not count, since (gratuitous name drop), she taught me to play guitar, so I saw her live at least once a week. But I also saw her perform in legitimate venues.

** For those interested, the set list is here

02 February 2014

PS - The Last Protest Singer


"I thought if you had an acoustic guitar then it meant that you were a protest singer."
Stephen Morrissey

"Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs."
Edwyn Collins

Pete Seeger didn't play much acoustic guitar, but he wrote a lot of protest songs. Seeger had the firm conviction that the purpose of music was to convey a message, and he stayed true to that conviction until his death last week at 94.


I came at Pete Seeger from the wrong end - I grew up listening not only to his friend Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads, but to Pete Seeger's Rainbow Race. I thought (and still think) it was a great album, and it was one of Seeger's most musical. At the time, I didn't think much about the fact that the songs held political or social meaning - some songs did and some didn't. I was just as happy listening to Gordon Lightfoot as I was to Pete Seeger. But that's not to say Seeger's lessons didn't affect me. The infectious whistling of "Uncle Ho" led me to learn more about Ho Chi Minh and to ponder whether "If a man will stand for his own land, he’s got the strength of ten." ("Hell no, we won't go!")

I liked Rainbow Race for the beauty of the music, but we also owned the abbreviated cassette of We Shall Overcome, and that really was a protest record. Not all of it - it included songs like "I'm gonna mail myself to you", but at heart it was music with a message, from the title track to "If you miss me at the back of the bus" to "Keep your eyes on the prize" to "I ain't scared of your jail". Pete Seeger made me wonder, at the age of 10, "What [I had learned] in school today", and why it wasn't quite what he was singing about. I may not have gone very deep with these thoughts, but they stuck with me.

In fact, it's possible that Pete Seeger misled me. He was 'old', so what he was singing about was obviously old too - it was history. I was genuinely shocked when we first moved to the US to live and I learned that racism was still alive and well. How could that be, when committed people like Pete Seeger had been protesting against it for so long? It was an unpleasant but valuable lesson in human fallibility, and in the fact that passion and reason don't win all arguments.

Pete Seeger knew that he didn't always win, but he didn't give up. Popular or unpopular, he plugged away at the causes he cared about. Maybe it was his unflagging optimism that kept him going; maybe it was deep faith that humanity would see reason after all - "And because I love you, I’ll give it one more try - to show my rainbow race it’s too soon to die."

If there was ever a man who meant what he said, and said what he meant, it was Pete Seeger. But not only was he committed and consistent, from his youth to his death, he seems to have been a genuinely nice man as well. It's rare to find someone so passionate and devoted, but still able to see beyond his own issues to the feelings of others. I'm distressed to see him gone. I'm disappointed there aren't more like him now.

My causes aren't all the same as Pete Seeger's were. But I'll take my cue from his life and believe that if we keep trying, change is not just possible, but happening - small, barely visible, but constant progress toward a better life for us all.




Words, words, words
by Pete Seeger

Words, words, words
In my old Bible
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
In Tom’s old Declaration
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
In my old songs and stories
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
On cracked old pages
How much of truth remains?
If my mind could understand them,
And if my life pronounced them,
Would not this world be changed?

01 January 2014

2013 in review

According to Goodreads (where I track much, but not all, of my reading), I read 25,298 pages in 2013. That doesn't count a number of books I didn't track, or that didn't quite fit the category, or, of course, various magazines.

I haven't counted, but 25,000 sounds like about the number of words I wrote during the year as well. So if I keep my reading/writing ratio at about 1 page/word, those novels are never going to get written. Obviously what I need to do is quit my job. They say it's hard to write without food, shelter, power, but what do 'they' know?

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to look back at what Goodreads says about the year. And since Blogger allows backdating, I'll pretend I posted this on 1 January 2014.

Here's a nifty graphic that shows what I thought of what I read. Unfortunately, Goodreads doesn't seem to offer this as a widget, but see next post.



Most of the books were relatively recent, but some were a bit older.

I can't get Blogger and Goodreads to play nicely together at all times, for some reason, but here are clickable cover links, ordered by preference (most-liked first).