31 December, 2013

Touch and Go Records Make My Month

The Black Heart Procession are one of my favorite bands. I discovered them after a glowing review of their 1999 sophomore album, 2, was printed in an independent local paper, and fell in love with the recording’s haunting lo-fi sound, the band’s unique instrumentation (the third track on 2, “A Light So Dim,” lists drums, guitar, saw, SH-1000, waterphone, noises, piano, organ, and toy piano), and the sense of lovelorn desperation running through the lyrics:
There are no trains that leave from the maze
Your only chance was a ship to escape
You’ll be the lighthouse in the storm
I’ll be the ship with a thousand dead souls
But how long will they believe in a light so dim?
Down in the gallows the darkness glows
But it’s hard to see in the hearts of them
If you see a light, call down below
I’ll be moving and sorting out our fears
But how long will we believe in a light so dim?
Time is all we have, so take the time
Time is all we have, so take the time to make the time
Throw down the line, I’ll see to climb
If it’s held close it may just work
If you are the lighthouse in the storm
I’ll be the ship filled with a thousand dead souls
Time is all we have, so take the time
Time is all we have, so take the time
Time is all we have, so take the time to make the time
BHP released another album soon thereafter, which I relished at least as much. But that’s where my collecting stopped. When their fourth album dropped, I was locked away in a prison cell with no music but what came through a portable Panasonic tape player that got intermittent, fuzzy radio reception.

A friend hosted a weekly punk show on KKFI, an independent Kansas City public radio station, and sometimes she’d break up sets of Crass, the Misfits, and Nashville Pussy to dedicate a song to me, off one of the CDs from my at-home collection. Thanks to Madeline’s (now long gone) show and Sonic Spectrum, with Robert Moore, a much-respected local dejay, I got my occasional fix of Black Heart Procession music and was able to keep up with sporadic bits of their later work. Some I captured on cassette tapes, which I then played over and over and over again, heedless as always to the dangers of nostalgia, but genuinely happy.

The prison eventually allowed its inmate population to buy CD players and to mail order discs from approved vendors, which was nice, but by then I’d compiled a little bestiary of mix tapes I was loath to part with. A few things I’d recorded were irreplaceable — live in-studio or onstage sets — giving me at least one solid reason not to make the switch to digital. Quantity was another. The rules cap inmates’ collections at twenty cassettes or CDs, so switching meant ditching my ninety-minute recordings for a format that averaged just over half that playing time. However, new releases weren’t available on tape. As wave after wave of unfamiliar sounds washed over my bulwarks like the songs of sirens, my resolve crumbled. It was only a matter of time before I surrendered and dived in.

Compact discs were already on their way out by then, surpassed in popularity by compressed-bitrate convenience, and the few vendors that still did business with the incarcerated, via certified checks and postal delivery — Union Supply Direct, Music by Mail, Walkenhorst’s, Pack Central — carried only a smattering of CDs by the Billboard-uncharted bands and artists I most enjoy. My Deserted Island Collection is comprised of some great stuff today, all of it from the aforementioned companies, but there’s not much else they stock that I’m itching for. To get that, I had to change how I scratched.

“Dear Touch and Go Records,” I wrote a couple of months ago, explaining as concisely as I could, to whomever happened to check the company’s mailbox, how profoundly I love the Black Heart Procession’s music, how 2 was the band’s only album I’d been able to track down and order, and how my unfortunate circumstances made buying from an amply stocked online vendor, such as Amazon, impossible. “Can you help me?” I practically begged.

With an enclosed self-addressed, stamped envelope I suspected might never get used, I dropped my letter in the box. A reply came soon. It was handwritten on tan stationary with the Touch and Go logo in red at the top of the page. At the bottom, in the same red, was printed, “the nice label”:
Hi Byron,

Thanks for writing, and thanks for your interest in the Black Heart Procession! We haven’t had a mail order division in around five years, so we looked around for a store/vendor who could fulfill your request. Somewhat surprisingly, we couldn’t find one... The Internet has made ordering music by mail go the way of the dinosaur. So... we decided to make a one-time exception in this case and ship an order to you directly.
The writer went on to list all three albums I wanted that the Black Heart Procession put out through Touch and Go — Three, Amore del Tropico, and The Spell — with prices and shipping costs.

Here’s the thing: I realize that Touch and Go Records is a business, meaning their clear and obvious goal is to make money, and that, in the interest of money-making, collecting about forty dollars on the sale of some older merchandise that wasn’t moving makes good sense. But there were so many reasons for them to have ignored my letter — that its return address was a prison; that indulging my unorthodox request would be a hassle; that the payoff, even for a struggling indie label, would amount to chump change.... “The nice label,” indeed. It’s a gesture that makes me smile, just thinking about it.

My package of BHP CDs should be arriving any day now. A friend with his own copy of Three, when I mentioned this serendipitous tidbit to him, suggested we throw a listening party (“musically group our consciousness with a great album,” he elaborated) once my order gets here. At a prearranged date and time, we’ll cue it up simultaneously and revel in the melodies. Music like a talisman joining faraway friends. If it’s held close, it may just work.

25 December, 2013

Christmas Yet to Come

Today, after a morning of writing and coffee, after misleading reports of joy on earth by cable news, after a noontime serving of turkey, stuffing, gravy, and sub-par pie, after at least one phone call to a far-off place, after a mug of hot cocoa and some chocolate chocolate-chip cookies from my yearly treat bag when other prisoners ate all theirs last week, and after watching muted Yule Log footage for too long, I'll climb into my bunk with thoughts as heavy as chains but reminding myself, There's always next year.

13 December, 2013

Forty Favorite Fictions

Under the assumptions that everybody loves lists and that the holidays have set off a frenzy of gift-buying, I’m sharing this list of some of my favorite novels and short-story collections. Maybe it will help you pick a book or two for the fiction-lover in your life (although, I hope there’s more than just one). More likely, it will give you something to peruse at work, while you’re being paid to do other, presumably more important things.

* * * * *

 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, is easily the finest-ever blending of science fiction and humor. It’s also the first title in what became a galaxy-spanning five-, maybe six-part (depending on how you count) trilogy. Don’t bother with the math, just grab your towel and enjoy the ride.

Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness reads like a Kubrick plot as channeled by Kafka — haunting and beautiful in its uncertainty.

There are many reasons Jorge Luis Borges is revered in literary circles. As translated by Andrew Hurley, his Collected Fictions make them all evident.

Kevin Brockmeier treats the fantastic with a light touch in The Illumination, a novel-in-stories about pain and the human condition.

If anyone has written about this material more plausibly and affectingly, I want to read it. Forget the movie, just read Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, the standard-bearer for mainstream zombie fiction.

Anthony Burgess reportedly disavowed A Clockwork Orange in his later years; however, its depiction of crime and revenge, plus a bit of the old in-out and ultraviolence, is real horrorshow.

The way Michael Chabon handles the story of two brothers making their way in post-World War Two New York, in his critically acclaimed and multiply-awarded The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay assure it a place among the great twenty-first-century novels.

White Noise, by Don De Lillo, is an incandescent comedy of horrors — an absolute must-read.

I’ve heard that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was adapted into a graphic novel not long after its publication. This is fitting, given that Junot Díaz’s protagonist is a serious comic-book nerd, but the author’s vibrant language and literary verve are capable of bringing to life all the goings-on in this funny and heartbreaking work.

Philip K. Dick is the thinking man’s preferred sci-fi writer. His later books, in particular, grapple with big questions — about the subjectivity of reality, sanity, religion.... Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is regarded by some as the quintessential PKD novel; it deals with all of these themes at once, against a backdrop as bleak as that of the movie Blade Runner.

Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love offers a sympathetic and endearingly outlandish tale of one circus family’s rise and fall. I’m a sucker for a good freak show; how can something so ugly be so beautiful?

What happens to us after we die? Neurophysicist David Eagleman answers this question in forty marvelous ways, in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.

A lovely novel about the unlovely happenings in the lives of an Argentinian Jewish family, The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander, occupies a unique place in literature, somewhere between Kafka’s The Trial and Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

Mixing typographical tricks, video stills, and black-and-white photography with moving prose, Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a precocious little boy coming to terms with his father’s death in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, strikes a powerful emotional chord.

People, young boys in particular, are cruel, as William Golding knew. There is good reason that his Lord of the Flies appears on so many high school English classes’ reading lists.

An autistic boy witnesses the suspicious burial of a neighbor’s dog and is driven to solve the mystery of its death. His investigation, so vividly depicted, makes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time an impressive debut by Mark Haddon, whose work with autistic youth inspired this novel.

Khaled Hosseini’s tale of a reluctant Afghani homecoming is by turns brutal and beautiful, exploring the many ways that places and people we leave behind remain an ineluctable part of us. The Kite Runner is a book to steal your breath away.

A friend once told me that classics are books that everyone talks about but no one ever reads. Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, may be one such novel, known best as a Disney-fied musical and discussed as though it’s nothing more than the story of a deformed bell-ringer, when it is, if anything, an ecstatic love letter to the immortal city of Paris.

Love and friendship made bittersweet by the certainty of early death are at the heart of this lyrical Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go.

More know the film, starring Jack Nicholson as the incorrigible convict who enlivens life in Nurse Ratched’s mental ward, but the original, print version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, is more nuanced, more satisfying, for being told from within the mind of the mute observer, Big Chief.

I’ve often said that if there were a pill I could take to turn myself into an imbecile, unable to even remember my own name, I’d swallow it without a second thought. Being intelligent is vastly overrated; ignorance, true bliss. Daniel Keyes makes this point clear in Flowers for Algernon, a straightforward but compelling twentieth-century classic.

The eccentric doings of one Mr. Perkus Tooth, in Johnathan Lethem’s lightly surreal Chronic City, are as amusing as the rest of the book is affecting.

Zachary Mason retells portions of classic myth in The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, may be the finest piece of post-September eleventh literature — a paean to the city of New York and the everyday magic that takes place there.

China Miéville departs from his usual realm, contemporary fantasy, to tell a noirish detective procedural that unfolds in two distinct cities that just happen to overlap one another in physical space, in The City & The City.

Sumptuous imagery brings to life Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus — a lovely fantasy set in the nineteenth century.

Haruki Murakami is contemporary Japan’s answer to Franz Kafka. After the Quake, a collection of Murakami’s stories, puts the man’s uncanny brilliance on full display.

The New Yorker named Téa Obreht one of its favorite contemporary writers under forty years old. Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, spins two simultaneous yarns — one a travelogue, one a fable — and leaves no doubt of the young author’s talent.

The unforgettable dystopian novel that introduced the world to Big Brother, 1984. In it, George Orwell gave us the quote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

Ayn Rand may not have been an elegant writer, but the central idea of Anthem — that individualism must be cherished — makes it a work of speculative fiction that deserves a long future in circulation.

Salman Rushdie is best recognized for his incendiary Satanic Verses (or, since the release of a Midnight’s Children film, with that), but his deconstruction of the Orpheus-and-Eurydice myth, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is what I consider his best novel.

The one-time face of astronomy, Carl Sagan, dramatizes the conflict between scientific rigor and religious faith in Contact, a plausible sci-fi novel with sincere heart. (Do I even need to mention what an atrocity the film version is?)

Your life is missing something terribly important if you aren’t familiar with Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s gentle fable, The Little Prince.

Yet another classic of English literature, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, the meanings of which are largely ignored by later reimaginings.

Loneliness meets opportunistic verve in Super Sad True Love Story, a bleeding-edge quasi-romance by Gary Shteyngart. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll consider the social value of your credit rating. (And, according to Wired, Bill Gates regards it as a valuable cautionary tale about invasive technology.)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned for eight years in a Soviet gulag after criticizing Stalin in a letter. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich distills that harrowing experience into a slim, yet potent, novel.

A very good film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was released in the mid-’90s, but the novel is without compare.

What makes Ignatius such a likable protagonist, when he’s so gross, rude, and arrogant? Probably that there’s a little of him in each of us. John Kennedy Toole’s renowned A Confederacy of Dunces is grade-A satire.

Slaughterhouse-Five is the book that cemented Kurt Vonnegut’s reputation as a satirist par excellence. I reread it every five years or so.

10 December, 2013

Now Hear This: My Podcast Interview with Stephen House About the Pariah's Syntax Book, Why I Write, and, Maybe, the Meaning of Life

I'm pleased to let everyone know that I'll be appearing on Samuel House's podcast Thursday, 12 December 2013 — the first show of a three-part series he's doing on what I suppose can be described as the wider ramifications of injustice. You can listen to the show live, from 5:30 to 6:00 PM Central Standard Time, right here. If you miss it, Blog Talk Radio will have it ready to be played from the archives soon thereafter.

03 December, 2013

A Fable

The Wolf and the Mastiff
By Aesop

A Wolf, who was almost skin and bone — so well did the dogs of the neighborhood keep guard — met, one moonshiny night, a sleek Mastiff, who was, moreover, as strong as he was fat. Bidding the Dog good-night very humbly, he praised his good looks. “It would be easy for you,” replied the Mastiff, “to get as fat as I am if you liked.” “What shall I have to do?” asked the Wolf. “Almost nothing,” answered the Dog. They trotted off together, but, as they went along, the Wolf noticed a bare spot on the Dog’s neck. “What is that mark?” said he. “Oh, the merest trifle,” answered the Dog; “the collar which I wear when I am tied up is the cause of it.” “Tied up!” exclaimed the Wolf, with a sudden stop; “tied up? Can you not always then run where you please?” “Well, not quite always,” said the Mastiff; “but what can that matter?” “It matters much to me,” rejoined the Wolf, and, leaping away, he ran once more to his native forest.

Moral: Better to starve free, than be a fat slave.

* * * *

It’s been said more than once, by well-intentioned people, that my imprisonment may actually have some positive aspects: I don’t have to trouble myself with car repairs, utility bills, spam in my inbox, or anyone begging to stay the week on my couch. My basic needs for survival are met by the beneficent Department of Corrections, so that I never have to worry where my next meal is coming from, whether there will be a roof over my head tonight, or what to do if I get sick — all of which would be good and fine if I thought lazy contentment was the only thing that made a life worth living. The dogs don’t understand why this wolf paces in his cage.