Friday, June 13, 2014

LitHop PDX 2014

The LitHop's clever banner, with Loretta Stinson reading.
 Last night, Erica and I had the pleasure of getting to do something both literary and extremely local, wandering up to Alberta Street in Northeast Portland to wander about the second LitHop PDX.

Created in 2013, the goal of the LitHop is to gather a large grouping of readers, loosely organized by publisher, and give them a chance to share with an audience for about 10-15 minutes. Listeners can then stay at one station for the entire night or, if they so choose, "hop" around from station to station, sampling everything from zines to memoir to experimental fiction. Basically, it's a wordsmith version of a pub crawl, except this is even better, because not only do you get the beer, you get readings, too, instead of a shitty cover band.

Amberson reads while friend Rachel draws.
Erica and I started at the IPRC's section, which featured three zine readers: Zach Auburn, Joshua James Amberson, and Moe Bowstern. Bowstern quipped that she's been in zines so long that none of the folks at the Portland Zine Symposium have even heard of her these days. She also discussed being an aging radical and the perception folks have of her.

Though I'm a bit biased because he's a friend, I thought Josh's reading was the best, both due to having a friend "improv draw" while he read from his zines and because the quality of his writing is very strong. Josh also has a good reading voice, which helps. Auburn's work, with its Colbert Report satirical bent, didn't work as well in a live reading, and the audience nearly turned on him before he explained it was all a joke.

Justin Hawking reads to a packed house.
Of the locations I visited, the IPRC's was by far the busiest. It was a packed house by the time we left, after Justin Hawking discussed his love for Moby Dick and those who have a love/hate relationship for it.

After that, Erica and I moved on to see what the other publishers has to offer. I stayed briefly at the Eraserhead Press station, but being honest, weird fiction just isn't my thing. Erica remained, telling me later about the story of a haunted wheelchair. I'm almost sorry I missed that one.

The Eraserhead Press crowd.
While Erica was at Eraserhead, I moved on to Hawthorne Books, where I really enjoyed Loretta Stinson's reading from her upcoming memoir. She kept her voice strong while recounting an extremely difficult point in her life, living from place to place across Portland with an addict who wasn't willing to give up. When she talked about desperation moves--like taking sugar out of his diet based on something she'd read--it was very powerful. One of the best readings I heard that night.

I ended my time at the Hop by going over to Publication Studio, which has a mission to bring books they admire to the world via the on-demand system. I didn't get much of a chance to check out their stuff, but I did hear Ashby Collinson read from something she said she's created earlier that day. It was very free-form, which doesn't always work when read aloud, but the crowd was extremely appreciative.

Loretta Stinson reads by firelight at evening comes on.
One of the things that was fascinating to me was looking at the different crowds who gathered for each station/publisher. The IPRC was a mix of young, zine types and a smattering of older, well-dressed folks. Eraserhead featured people with crafted beards, dyed hair, and patches all over jean jackets. Hawthorne was the upper-middle class crowd, clapping politely while eating overpriced food and sipping cocktails and import beers. Publication Studio had the preppy twenty-somethings, unsure of whether they'd fall into the outsider group or move to being young professionals.

It was, in short, a look at some of the different kinds of people in Portland, separated by literary styles. It also marked the only limitation of the Hop itself. Because the readers are all related to each other, folks tended to flock to that which most interested them. I did not see a lot of people moving from one station to the other, even when there were designated break times. It might be interesting for the 2015 edition to mix things up a little bit, combining publishers and alternating readers. That way the listeners could be exposed to something new.

But if that's the worst thing you can say about an event--people only heard the things they wanted to hear--then it's a pretty damned good one. And LitHop PDX 2014 definitely was a damned good one. Everything was organized, stayed mostly on time, had the proper mikes and amps, and the readings I saw all did a great job of telling a complete story, even in their limited amount of time.

I'm not the biggest fan of going to readings, because listening to the same person for a lengthy period of time isn't my cup of tea. A setting like this, however, where the readers rotate and the variety is strong, is just about the perfect way to experience one. I'm very much looking forward to LitHop 2015, and I hope that we are able to attend. If you missed out this year, keep your eyes open for next year. This is a reading series that's highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Outsider Baseball by Scott Simkus

Before a combination of World War II, television, and integration forged the giant monolith known as Major League Baseball into the country-spanning organization we know today, thousands of players across hundreds of teams played America's pastime in various leagues that had no official standing, but were often more popular--if not higher quality--than those preserved in the record books of history.

From the obvious (Negro Leagues) to the lesser-known (a series of barnstorming, bearded men called the House of David) to the strong semi-pro teams in baseball hot spots like Brooklyn and Chicago, there's a lot of baseball history that's been unaccounted for--until now.

Men and women like Scott Simkus, who have a love of the game that dwarfs mine and the desire to research everything from box scores to census records, are putting together an admittedly incomplete (so far) look at these players and their role in baseball history.

You see, these players and teams don't just exist at the fringe of the established clubs. For decades, they interacted, both directly and indirectly. Some players, like Babe Ruth, made tons of money taking his baseball friends around the country, playing minor league teams (which were not bound in an unfair agreement to the majors at this time), Negro League teams, and going off to countries such as Cuba and Japan. Others, like Rogers Hornsby, began their professional careers in these places, and then moved to the majors. Hornsby's first paid baseball work found him in drag, playing for an "all-girls" team, which often used 2-3 men to balance out the team.

This is absolutely fascinating stuff if you love old baseball. Some of these I already knew about, but Simkus leaves no stone unturned, and unearths many little slices of baseball history of which I was previously unaware, such as the attempts to get black players onto the field well before Jackie Robinson. (In one case, they looked to pass off a talented African American as an American Indian, because that was okay. Gotta love the varying degrees of racism in the early 20th Century. No wait, gotta hate them.)

When speaking of the Negro Leagues, Simkus grows a bit apologetic. Because so many are so horrified by the separation of baseball talent for so many years, there's a reverence placed on the games played in the Negro National League and elsewhere. Unfortunately, when you get the actual box scores from these games, it's a bit more sobering. Like modern Japanese baseball, the Negro Leagues, while featuring players who were unquestionably as good or better than their white counterparts, did not have enough overall talent to be a major league. Using a measurement system and head to head records, Simkus shows that while certain teams (say, the Pittsburgh Crawfords) would have been world beaters, about half the Negro League teams were minor-league quality of varying range, ranking more closely to the Pacific Coast League at best or a modern A-ball team at worst.

But before you get too far on his case, understand that using the same guidelines, Simkus shows the Union Association was in no way, shape, or form a Major League, despite its current designation. For that matter, he's of the opinion that the case for the Federal League is sparse as well. Statistics and increased information, while anathema to some long-time baseball fans (Do you know there are people who still think "wins" is the best way to judge a pitcher?), serve to help give us context.

Now stats can do a lot of things, but they do give us ways to discuss things from logic rather than emotion, such as Josh Gibson's probable home run total or whether the "woman who struck out Babe Ruth" really was any good as a pitcher (Spoiler Alert: Nope!). You can argue a bit with the methodology, but seeing how certain minor league teams could dismantle a National League line-up or how the NL's quicker embrace of integration gave it an edge in competition are part of the joy of this book.

But the best parts, without a doubt, are when Semkis takes us into Rube Waddell's marital problems or the crazy schemes of a religious nut who managed to con his way into a financial empire and a baseball franchise that wasn't quite as good as advertised. When you read about how certain players stayed in semi-pro ball because *it payed better* the reality of what life was like before Free Agency, no matter how much trouble it causes now, hits home like a player sliding spikes-up.

This book is a total joy to read, and is breezy in tone despite the focus on stats. Simkus clearly loves his subject and it shows. If you have any interest in old-time baseball at all, run, don't walk to get this book, and start reading about the time John McGraw flipped out because his team was losing to Cubans. This one gets my highest possible recommendation.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski

A young boy caught up in the complex political and religious turmoil of Spain in the late 15th Century discovers that nearly everything he once knew was a lie, and that his own past is tied into a great warrior turned traitor against the Crown. Soon Baltasar is meeting with the mysterious Baba Yaga and sailing across the ocean with none other than Christopher Columbus himself, adding to the dangers of the sea by dark magics that can conjure anything up from the world of legends and story. With a new world to explore and the shadow of a prophecy that readers may understand better than Bal himself, he must find his way among strangers, friends, foes, and family in this solid debut novel from Mlawski.

Alternative history stories are a tricky thing to get right. Spend too much time in the minutia of the world and you lose sight of telling an actual story. Too little, and it's like, "Why bother doing this, other than to include Queen Elizabeth/Mark Twain/Tesla/Einstein/Etc.?" If you can get that right, then there's the matter of making the characters feel modern without losing the historical sense of place. And if you get past THAT hurdle, there's the small matter of just what happens when you tweak the nose of history in the first place.

It's one thing to be sitting over beers going, "What if there was a magician aboard Columbus' ship?" It's another to turn that into a quality story that feels plausible, yet actually doesn't significantly alter the history we already know.

But that's exactly what Ms. Mlawski does, and it works perfectly. Instead of trying to craft a radically different plan for things, as others might ("Hey look, the indigenous people all have magic, so they kick that asshole slave-monger's ass!"), this story hews pretty close to the actual events, taking some liberties by adding magical explanations for ordinary events--exactly the type of thing that countless generations have done, right down to those who still see ghosts upon the fields of Gettysburg and elsewhere.* Thus as this story unfolds, the ideas that put the speculative elements together, namely that some people are blessed with a gift not only to be a storyteller, but one who can make their stories come to life, fits into the reality of the historical setting far more easily than, say, suddenly being able to conjure fireballs from your fists.

There's also the idea that to some degree, the comparison between writing good fiction and being able to perform magic to bring those stories to life. If you think about it, that's what a good storyteller does metaphorically. I love that Ms. Mlawski takes that idea and makes it literal here.

Because she has such a good conceptual set-up, the execution is strong. We immediately come to like and sympathize with Bal, because his situation is complete unenviable. Here he is, a converted Jew trying to make it in a land where the rulers have made it clear they want to be a "pure" Christian nation. Anyone with just a bit of familiarity with the politics of Spain around the time of Columbus (whose own family history is muddy) will immediately understand the difficulties he faces. When a secret branch of the Inquisition shows up and he learns just how different he is--even from the others in his station--it add another layer.

Once we have the main story started and a twist that finds Bal learning how to perform his new magic even as his world collapses around him, the story holds because it's based not on solving the riddles presented by the Baba Yaga or the discovery of the New World--it's about Bal trying to figure out his place, his role, and his identity. The rest is great fleshing out of the story and setting, but that's the key to making this one work.

Bal is our narrator, which makes the self-discovery all the more interesting. While we as the reader may figure out certain things right away (like how trusting Columbus is a generally bad idea), Bal takes far longer. But because we're inside his head instead of a third person narration, it's okay when he struggles along the way. It also helps that Mlawski gives Bal two strong supporting characters in Jini and Catalina. The latter is a young woman who refuses to be defined by the Patriarchy around her, and has a few things to learn of her own. She's a great addition to the story, keeping Bal humbler than he might otherwise be since she is the superior witch. I really appreciate that Catalina is around to show that women, too, have power in this world (since all the other spell casters we see are male), but it doesn't feel inserted, either. After all, there's a long history of women sneaking off to sea to find a better life for themselves disguised as a man.

The book has a few rough spots, mostly in relation to the islanders. Mlawski wants to treat them with as much respect as possible, but struggles because her narrator certainly wouldn't have extended them the same kindness. She even takes pains to state in the afterword that his views aren't hers. I think it would have been a bit better to have him be just a bit more racist in this regard, for accuracy. That's really the only slip up in terms of modernity creeping in. I also think she downplays the internal struggles of the indigenous people, too. It's okay for them to hate each other just as much as Europeans did from country to country.

Generally speaking, because this is a YA book, it can't get quite as rough as it probably should. Columbus is given a much lighter touch than he deserves, and it seems like the theme of "we're all good and bad" sometimes gets in the way of allowing someone to be the absolute bad guy, until we get to a certain scene that's historically accurate but feels like it's a bit too heavy compared to everything else. This book doesn't really have a bad guy, and while I love me some shades of grey,** this is a narrative that needed a bad guy and even the Inquisition is given a chance to explain itself.

Overall, though, the description is lush, the plot is extremely tight, and we even wrap up nicely, with room to expand should the book do well enough to get a sequel. The dialogue is very natural and I really felt like I was in Bal's head, not a book. His interactions with the others, particularly Catalina, are perfect for his age and time period. You can see him struggle and grow, and combined with an amazingly seamless alternative history, this is a book I'd happily recommend to anyone. I am seriously looking forward to Ms. Mlawski's next work.

*I'm not saying that seeing a ghost is as unlikely as a half-genie, mind you, but the general point holds.

**No, not THAT Shades of Grey.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Love is the Law by Nick Mamatas

Crowley and Communism combine in this fast-paced mystery set in the shadow of a changing political dynamic. Dawn Seliger is an aimless late ‘80s punk dabbling in Marxism and magick on Long Island. When her mentor is killed, she’s the main suspect, and must test the concepts she’s learned to bend others to her Will and balance the scales.

Mamatas brings his signature style of wry dialogue to this cynical look at life in suburban America, using Dawn’s quest as a way to comment from a radical perspective. I was really impressed with Nick's knowledge of Crowley and his accurate portrayal of his philosophy, rather than the gross exaggeration a lesser writer might have used to goose the plot. Instead, Mamatas takes in the ideas whole-cloth, using their positive and negative aspects to drive the story, without passing judgment on Crowley's magickal manipulations, leaving up to the reader to decide if Dawn's usage of them is valid, real, or ethical.

Another thing that really stood out to me was just how well Mamatas creates the world of Long Island and the feeling of living in America in the late 1980s in general. I felt like I could see the places Dawn visited in my mind, and that's extremely rare when I'm reading a book. As a person who grew up in the 1980s and was painfully aware of the anxiety and transitions it required, Nick's look at how it might drive a socialist mad and push others to desperate measures to keep even a sliver of power are completely accurate. I've no doubt some of the people who were $20 an hour miners who became $4 an hour baggers at the grocery store would easily give into the idea of dark magick to restore their status.

But I mostly read fiction for the characters, and the ones in Love is the Law are as engaging as they come. They include William Selger, Dawn’s crack-addled father and Crowley wanna-be, Robert Riley, a businessman with secrets to hide, and Dawn herself, who is just rotten enough to be likable as she tries to figure out the truth.

This tightly-plotted neo-noir shows Mamatas knows his history and the occult, mixing them together to form a successful mystery with a satisfying, if downbeat, ending. This might be the best fiction book I've read in years, freely blending between genres to tell the story the author wants, not what a reader might expect.