Night of the Living Book

April 23, 2014 marks the commemoration of World Book Night in the United States. It is also the International Day of the Book, which is commemorated in other countries by giving a loved one a book. This commemoration — known specifically as World Book Night U.S. — has been going on for at least a couple of years, unbeknownst to me. I love the idea of it. The particulars may be found herebut the gist of this celebration is that a number of authors and other good people in several cities across the United States will be hand-giving away copies of special editions of more than thirty books to those who for one reason or another don’t have access to the print books.  I literally just found out about this (on Thursday, March 27, 2014, to be exact) and am, uh, a little late to the party in terms of signing up to do something is concerned, but I have already taken steps to officially participate in 2015, if the Lord be willing and creek doesn’t rise. May I make so bold to say that we, authors and readers alike, should be strongly on board with this?

It is not bulletin news to any of us that there is a great deal of competition out there for that very limited thing known as leisure time. Television, movies, video games, the stage…curling up with a good book is not everyone’s leisure drug of choice. Just as we have a generation of people who have attained their majority without ever having heard a jazz album in its entirety (my younger daughter was ready to call Children’s Services when I made her spend thirty minutes of a road trip listening to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue) there is a large chunk of the population who haven’t read a book that wasn’t called “Cliff Notes” since eighth grade. Oh, the Humanity! Each of you reading these words knows someone like that, someone good and decent whom you call friend but who just doesn’t read. You know their interests, what types of television shows they watch or what movies they enjoy; with just a bit of thought you can put a book that matches their interests in their hands, for the price of a trip to Sonic or dinner out, depending if you buy them a hardback or paperback.

The music industry has been doing something like this for several years with “National Record Store Day,” supporting local music stores selling physical product (usually vinyl, believe it or not). In my city of residence, there are actually more stores selling vinyl records than compact discs. World Book Night U.S. isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s a similar sentiment: support the product.

Please: take ten minutes, pick one person out of your circle of acquaintances and lay a brand new book on them on April 23. I’m mentioning this three-plus weeks ahead of time to give you time to plan it and to pick up all that loose change on the floor of your car to pay for it. Trust me: whoever you pick will be delighted that you thought of them, and they might even read the book. And another.  And another.  And as a treat for yourself, visit the Book Night website and pick up a coffee mug or a tee-shirt or something while you’re signing up to be an official participant for next year. The toughest part will be handing away all of those special editions (“Huh? What box of special editions of PRESUMED INNOCENT by Scott Turow? Oops. I forget to pass those out.”) but somehow we’ll manage. And thank you.
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Music As Inspiration

                                                  


Those of you who are kind enough to grace The Kill Zone with your presence on a regular basis know that we often discuss inspiration, and what one can do to jump start the writing process. I use music as a backdrop when I’m writing, not only for enjoyment but also to tune up the cerebrum. Jazz works well with this — Miles Davis isn’t for everybody, but give “Spanish Key” a listen just one — but for some schooling as to how to use words to tell a story I listen to a gentleman named Robbie Fulks.

Fulks labors in the musical mine, digging a sub-vein which has come to be called “insurgent country.”  You will not hear ANY of his music on your local Country station — well maybe, if you listen to 650 AM WSM in Nashville — but he’s worth checking out on Spotify and proceeding accordingly. He can be blistering in lampooning contemporary country, and at one point released an album of Michael Jackson cover songs. But. When he gets serious, there is no one whose lyrics stay with you, in three to five minute movements, like Robbie Fulks.

I’ve had Fulks’ latest album, Gone Away Backward, on repeat in the office, in the car, even while raking my freaking yard leaves, and can’t get the songs out of my mind. “Where I Fell” captures in just a little over three minutes a story of contemporary hard luck: “Some guy in Bombay is runnin’ that press I used to hate/now I sling hash for what-all spills off the interstate/we sold the family store left the building standing/ you can see the outline/where I fell.” Love lost, and with regret? How about this: “When I left that Brooklyn girl, I never thought it through/she had silk brocade in her bedroom, and a job that paid for two” from “Long I Ride.” Love lost, in the seconds before it ends? Listen to “Guess I Got It Wrong.” “Why’s the feeling never strong as when/you can’t have her anymore?/Sad goodbyes, shattered dreams/ Darker skies, I don’t think I’ve seen/I thought love was one sweet song/I guess I got it wrong.” We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Oh, and in case you thought that  I mentioned Fulks in the context of  southern gothic…there’s a bit of that on Gone Away Backward, but if you would like your synapses crunched, listen to a song titled “Night Accident.” It’s on Fulks’ Let’s Kill Saturday Night release. I won’t give you any lyrics from that song, but it involves two friends involved in a single car accident who are trapped in their seats, hanging upside down, while a train approaches. One of them makes a deathbed confession, and…well you have to hear it. It’s a bit of a long song — six minutes and change — that feels like two. You can also go back a way in Fulks’ career to the South Mouth album and listen a song titled “South Richmond Girl.” You get love, birth, murder, justice, and heartbreak covering over twenty years in a little over four minutes, done sadly and well.
I don’t know if Elmore Leonard ever heard Robbie Fulks’ music, but if there was ever a songwriter who cut out everything that sounded like writing, it would be Fulks. Even if you can’t stand what you think of as country music, you should listen to a song or two. See if it sparks you.
One more thing, while we’re talking music and inspiration: if you haven’t seen the interactive video for “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan you can check it out here. If you share the house or your television with someone who channels flips to distraction send it to them; they’ll never get away from it. And with respect to inspiration…it’s just amazing. Set a timer before you try it out, however; it’s a real time bandit.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy listening, and Happy Thanksgiving!

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Left Behind

I will be the first to admit that I am not handy around the house. Oh, I can repair a PC and an iMac, but wiring, painting, serious plumbing, wallpapering, or anything else that doesn’t leave one much of a margin of error…nope. John Ramsey Miller, I’m not. So no one was more surprised than I when this week I purchased and actually operated a chainsaw.


We had a part of one of our larger fir trees at casa de Hartlaub detach in a wind storm a few days/weeks/months ago and my neighbors, who usually are all fine fellows (since the conjurer of the dark arts who lived next door moved) were becoming somewhat standoffish, no doubt due to the fact that scurries of rabid chipmunks were regularly taking residence in the boughs. The detached part was bigger than most normal trees so it wasn’t something that I could haul to the curb like a Christmas tree. Some cutting and separation was accordingly in order. I went to my local hardware superstore and purchased a Homelite electric chainsaw. The directions were wonderful, and it worked like a dream. I put on a set of headphones, potted up The Complete Bitches Brew to 11, and began cutting away.

I discovered something, however. Chainsaws are for right-handed people. I’m left-hand dominant. And I mean dominant. Not even the Sisters of Charity, circa 1957, could break me of my left hand use, notwithstanding the observation that such a proclivity indicated that I was doomed to be an instrument of the devil. I do almost everything (yeah, even that) with my left hand. As with most such things, I called the Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and a few other agencies and I’m going to get this discrimination redressed. Not really. Just kidding. I worked around it, used it properly — with my right hand on the trigger, left hand on the grip (or something like that) stood with the blade away from me and cut the heck out of that thing. I had that tree demolished before Miles, Chick Corea, et al. were halfway through “Spanish Key.”

Left-handed people have to adapt to a right-handed world. Does that make us special? Smarter? More creative? All or none of the foregoing? Consider this: I attended a legal seminar several years ago where the attendees sat at random, eleven seats to each long table. The lad next to me nudged me about two hours into the presentation and nodded down the table, where nine other people were busy taking notes. Every single person was left-handed. Maybe the Sisters of Charity were right.

I think it is a given that the people who are gracious enough to visit this blogspot on a regular basis are among the most creative and intelligent on the planet. And great folks of course, to boot. I accordingly am taking a totally unscientific survey: are you left- or right-handed? And do you have a good left-handed story, funny or not so much, that you would care to share with us?



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Soothing the Beast

I write this while listening to “Whipping Post” by The Allman Brothers Band, the live version that goes on for about three days from the At Fillmore East release. I need to hear music, in isolation, while I write. Such was not always the case. During the short time I lived in San Francisco, when I was less interested in writing and more interested in meeting new ladies, I used to carry a beat up spiral notebook down to Fisherman’sWharf, find an empty bench at Ghirardelli Square, and sit and write. Sooner or later, a winsome lass would approach and ask what I was doing, or, better yet, ask who I was (“Well, yes, actually, I amRichard Brautigan!”). This would no longer work, at least I don’t think so, and I don’t really want to upset the apple cart of my life to find out, so I eschew the coffee shops and the overpriced, trendy sandwich chain that offers free Wi-Fi in favor of the clutter of my basement office, where I blast my music as loud as I like.
I go on listening jags. It varies with my mood. The Allman Brothers Band disc a temporary swerve from Miles Davis. I’ve been listening to complete sessions of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, three to six hours of music at a stretch. If you think you’ve hit a wall with your writing, try listening to In a Silent Way, even if you don’t like jazz. I find that for some reason jazz music of a certain type opens up a corner of my mind that isn’t always accessible.  Before I got on the Miles jag, I listened to nothing but Guided by Voices for three weeks. In contrast to Davis’ extended pieces, GBV songs are anywhere from 35 seconds to three minutes long. In the last few months I’ve done this with Tom Waits, Black Keys, Fats Domino, Jimi Hendrix, and Kronos Quartet. I can’t write without it. On the other hand, if I’m disturbed by a phone call, a whiny cat, or news of a leaky or plugged up commode, my whole train of thought is derailed. Sometimes for the entire day. It’s not noise I seek, but noise of a certain type.
Some writers listen to music while they work. Others whistle. And others require a cone of absolute silence. Which are you? What works for you? And if it’s music that lures your muse into the room, what music?
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