Archive for May 2016

Real-Life Dystopia Spawns Future Life Sci-fi   Leave a comment

Basma Abdel Aziz

Basma Abdel Aziz (Credit: aalbc.com)

An article in the New York Times caught my attention today: “Middle Eastern Writers Find Refuge in the Dystopian Novel.” In it, the above-pictured author, Basma Abdel Aziz, goes on to describe her inspiration for writing her novel, “The Queue.” A psychiatrist by trade, she gained inspiration for this novel by watching people waiting for hours in a long line at a closed government building. “The Queue” takes this real-life situation and uses it the foundation for its plot: people forced to wait in an interminable line to petition for basic services…and never receiving them.

Other authors to watch,  according to the New York Times article, include Yasmine el-Rashidi, author of “A Chronicle of Last Summer”; Ahmed Saadawi, author of “Frankenstein in Bagdad”; Shukri al-Mabkhout, author of “The Italian”; Salem Haddad, author of “Guapa” and Khaled Khalifa, author of “No Knives in the Kitchen of This City.”

Each of the above novels goes on to describe a situation that mirrors actual events in the Middle East, and incorporates the frustration and anger from both current and past events. Basra Abdel Aziz uses her writing to depict how much things have fallen after the promising Arab Spring and, in some instances, have gotten worse.

While the world has never truly known peace, we’ve had glimpses of it and know that life can be enjoyable if we show a bit more humanity towards everyone. For some reason, it seems that world leaders, as well as potential ones, believe we’re better off blowing each other off the face of the earth, kicking them out of a particular resident country, or engage in ethnic cleansing. While I’ve never quite understood how or why this philosophy makes any nation better, it certainly gives lots of authors something to write about.

We go on to fight our wars, exclude citizens from our nations because they look different or pray to a God we don’t quite understand, or what what the other country has, especially if they won’t share it. And with each episode of these international and domestic tragedies, there gives rise to authors whose means of protest is a science fiction novel that speaks the truth.

Perhaps on this Memorial Day weekend, as we munch on our burgers and shop for great savings, we should take a few moments not only to recognize that soldiers give up their lives to protect ideals, but the authors who take witness to these events and lightly shroud the truth in their writings. Buy their books, take them to the beach, and support their efforts. After all, they’re asking you to read between the lines and experience their real-life dystopia through sci-fi colored glasses.

Local Aliens   Leave a comment

Alien Fest - Sue & Gretche

Susan Crawford, Gretchen Weerheim and a Photobombing Alien

Pine Bush, NY Alien Festival is a local institution celebrating that town’s rather long legacy as the Hudson Valley’s premier UFO visitation site. And while it might not compare with, let’s say, ComicCon, it’s a small, charming, earnest festival that welcomes aliens and their friends from all over the universe. Sure, you have a crowd of abductees retelling their stories of horror aboard a ship of untraceable origin. Local authors hawk fiction and nonfiction stories of the weird and strange. And if you’re hungry, there’s always fried dough to munch on.

My sister Gwen and our friends Susan and Kate (actually, they’re sisters too) gathered together to check out the festival. Having never actually attended, none of us knew what to expect, which was a good thing. Yeah, sure, alien stereotypes abound.

Alien Fest - Porch Aliens

Porch Aliens

Oh, so what. Who cares? The whole town’s having a great time, a silly laugh and an excuse to dress up. What’s wrong with that?

Alien Fest - Mispelled sign

If things got too much, aliens can always esape…or escape…to a special hideaway created just for them.

Alien Fest - Star Trek Fans

 

To break of the monotony of green, we’ve got a little Star Trek thrown in. As Gwen and I wandered around, we came upon these two from the local chapter of the Star Trek Fan Club from Poughkeepsie, NY. These two reps from the club were about as enthusiastic as can be, offering me a chance to snuggle the tribble, offer me a piece of Double Bubble, and graciously giving me a copy of their newsletter. They’re open to new members and have MeetUps often. Visit their website for more details, if you’re interested.

 

Alien Fest - T-Shirts for SaleAlien Fest - Tom Q

Of course, any festival has great souvenirs of all kinds. Everyone seemed to be selling T-shirts and although I really thought they were cool, $20.00 is a bit steep. Thomas Quackenbush, a local sci-fi author, sold his books.
Alien Fest - Band

And what kind of festival is it if there isn’t some kind of ear-splitting music echoing down the streets? This particular band, First Round, actually was quite good. They played a good selection of covers extremely well. I liked them. Down the other end of the street, however, was a high school band with a horribly off-key wailer, accompanied by kids playing their instruments without any discernible rhythm.

I’m saving the best for last – the parade. The Parade.

Sure, it’s tiny and if you blink, it’s over. But man, those streets jam up and everyone cheers ’em on! Alien Fest - Saucer FloatAlien Fest - Green Aliens

Alien Fest - Green KiddiesAlien Fest - SW CarAlien Fest - ST CarAlien Fest - White AliensAlien Fest - UFO Patrol

As you can see by the above pictures, the parade was well attended.

Alas, the day came too quickly to a close, so we ran for the car, seven blocks away, and drove off before everyone else thought about leaving. On our way home, as we got diverted down a road none of us ever saw because of an accident, we recounted our adventure on a lovely Saturday afternoon. Already we’ve made plans for next year.

Oh, and it’s been decided: we’re going as Coneheads.

Local Authors, Local Lore   Leave a comment

Linda Z BookLinda Z StonesLinda Z UFO

It’s easy to get caught up in your own thing: doing research, checking facts and seeing how it all fits into your work. But with some writers, it’s obvious that the richness of their plot comes from local history that surrounds them.

I live in New York’s Hudson Valley, an area steeped in gorgeous landscapes, lush vineyards, tasty apples, dairy farms, trout fishing, skiing on mountains friendly to learner, and more. Lots of celebrities move here. David Bowie, for example, loved his peaceful spot on the map.

But the underside of all this natural beauty is, if you believe in such things, is haunted with mystery. We’ve got our share of ghosts, UFOs and ancient sites settled by pre-Columbian people only barely studied.

Such things spark the interest of residents, naturally, but even fewer seek to scratch around and dig through forgotten fields and thick forests in search of what once was might still lurk beneath…or above.

Many local historians take inspiration from the embarrassment of riches surrounding them and investigate the truth behind the legend. They painstakingly dig into dusty files, read brittle microfilm on aging equipment, visit graveyards and historical societies, all for the sake of getting to the bottom of a story. These writers spend hours crafting the research into readable copy, submit them to the publication process, hoping you’ll pick up their books and become just as intrigued as they were.

Linda Zimmermann is one such person. A noted local historian, she’s interested in everything: history, mystery and lore. She’s investigated ghosts, UFOs, stone sites and science. She’s the author of many books, and if you see one of hers, pick it up. Linda writes with humor and insight, and before you know it, you’ll be headed down that certain road in Pine Bush, NY, looking for that certain lake where UFOs have been spotted many a time.

Another such person is a friend of mine, a teacher, local historian, journalist and all around interesting fellow: A.J. Schenkman. His personal biography is enough to fill several volumes, but he’s also one of those sorts who can’t resist researching and documenting a good story.

AJ Schenkman BookWicked Ulster

A.J.’s found all sorts of things to write about in Ulster County, NY. Leaf through these pages and you’ll find plenty of stories that’ll curl your hair. When you’re next at a cocktail party and the guests bemoan how terrible times have become, you’ll be grateful you live in the relative security of suburbia and modern times. Things in the past were pretty gruesome, as the pages of these books will attest.

Lastly, I have to give a brief shout-out to the masters of documenting the weird and strange, Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman, better known as the Weird NJ guys. There’s not a story too strange or a site too abandoned they won’t check out. Their publication, “Weird NJ” has been running for something like twenty years. They’re also in the process of documenting as many weird tales across the nation with their “Weird” series. They’ve had a show on the History Channel, too.

weird_ny_cover

Perhaps the most important thing all of these writers are doing is documenting the past so it’s not forgotten, like the file cabinets from which they gather their research. If you’re thinking of writing a great novel of fiction, check these local authors out first. You’d be surprised what you’ll dig up.

Geek Love   Leave a comment

Geek Love

Since I usually write about books on Sunday, I’d thought I’d do a bit of a tribute to a book I absolutely loved, “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn.

For those of you who had heard, the author of this book died last week at the age of 70, of lung cancer. Katherine Dunn leaves behind a cadre of fans and an unfinished, unpublished book, called “Cut Man.” As a journalist who covered boxing, Ms. Dunn based this book on the sport, and an excerpt appearing in The Paris Review in 2010 was said to bear similarities to “Geek Love.”

I first found out about this quirky book during a stint in advertising when I was little more than half the age I am now. I noticed this book sat on the desk of several of my colleagues, so I asked about it. “Read it,” said a person whose name I remember as Beth. “I can’t explain it to you.”

My sister Gwen happened to purchase a copy of it and after she read it, she loaned it to me. I couldn’t put it down.

It told the tale of a very bizarre family that raised its own freaks for its traveling carnival. The parents managed to give birth to piano-playing conjoined twin girls, a boy with flippers instead of appendages, and an albino hunchbacked dwarf. Throughout the book it tells of other freaks created and met along the way, including women purposely mutilated in order to concentrate on their careers instead of love.

I must have read this book half a dozen times, and with each reading, I grew more horrified at the prospect of parents willfully screwing up their kids so they’d have a future – as carnival freaks.

Still, the book makes you think about what’s acceptable in both nature and the human mind. Having read last week that a group of distinguished Harvard scientists discussed creating a synthetic human genome, perhaps Ms. Dunn wasn’t far off the mark when she wrote this book.

So if you’re in the market for a good read, check out “Geek Love.” You’ll be glad you did.

Women and Science Fiction   Leave a comment

Astronaut Female

See, when I think of women in science fiction stories, the above picture represents how I’d portray a character. She’s perhaps a little idealized, but still, she’s clearly an astronaut representing America. She’s brave. Tough. Not gonna take it. And she’s about to figure it all out, get behind the situation and blow it to pieces.

But mostly, I see an awful lot of images that fall in line with this:

Planet Stories

Or this:

Women

Credit: Concept Central

Either they’re helpless, scantily clad women or bitches with cleavage or melons for breasts. Sure, these space women are tough, gonna fight you, gonna kill you dead, if some guy doesn’t bring ’em down first and/or tame ’em into submission.

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. The vast majority of sci-fi lovers are males. Aren’t these the kids who yank on those joysticks and bang into VR mode so they can get a piece of action where there’s no real hope for any?

Well, I’d hate to be the bearer of bad news, but just as many ladies are latching onto the genre and things are pretty much evening out. Both sexes are totally into gaming now, with females catching up to males. Any visit to ComicCon will show you that, too, although lots of the female attendees still dress up in Princess Leia costumes from “Return of the Jedi”, and similar.

I belong to this club:

Geek Girls

This is actually a calendar cover from 2013 (sorry, I couldn’t find an active link!)

We women are just a bunch of shameless, crazy geeks, not really beholden to any perfect idea except the one that says we have to be totally weird and strange. We might not be able to carry off the latest fashions with aplomb, but we can certainly tell you about SpaceX and Goddard and JPL. Why? Because that’s something that actually matters.

Though we might not agree with the sexist and doomed portrayal of women in Game of Thrones, we follow the story religiously. Anything from Star Trek (every series) to Star Wars (every episode, plus spinoffs), too.

And so on.

Here’s something most people either didn’t realize or forget: a woman invented science fiction. Do you know who that might be? Take a guess:

mshelley

Can’t figure it out? She created one of the most enduring stories and characters of all time:

frankenstein

The Monster

That’s right – Mary Shelley and “Frankenstein.” Published in 1818, the story of a doctor bent on creating life from death has been told in countless ways. Its most notorious character, The Monster, has become synonymous with the title of the book and Dr. Frankenstein.

How many of you saw this movie and felt your heart race nonstop? Or…read the book?

the-children-of-men

Raise your hand if you knew the author’s name…aka Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL – from the British House of Lords, a Peer. Yup!

I could continue on and talk about J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Margaret Atwood…but you get the idea.

So…if you’re looking for a great read by a female sci-fi writer, or a writer of any sex, please visit Best Sci-fi Books. It’s a great website to find a great read.

Unconventional Mothers   2 comments

alien-bursting-from-stomach

Surprise!

What mother doesn’t enjoy a wonderful surprise on Mother’s Day? And with today’s fluid definition of genders, mothers come in all shapes and sizes. So here’s my brief tribute to what motherhood might mean, in modernspeak.

 

trouble-with-tribbles

 

While our friend Captain James T. Kirk certainly wasn’t what I’d consider a motherly figure, he sure knew his way around reproduction, given the amount of female alien types he seemed to pick up and hit on. So it’s completely fitting that he’s burdened with a whole piles of lovable, adorable tribbles, who seemed to have taken a real shine to him. They kind of popped up all over the place in the space ship, giving rabbits a run for the money. Since Kirk was in charge of the ship, he fostered an environment for motherhood, since these things were determined to have been born pregnant.

 

 

Enemy Mine Baby

How about Lou Gosset, Jr. playing a reptilian Jeriba, of the Drac people, an asexual race. Jerboa gave birth and then died, leaving an alien (to Jeriba, at least) Willis Davidge (a.k.a Dennis Quaid) to raise him. It’s not the best way to parent a child, but that’s why Dennis/Willis showed up, so at least the kid had a role model of sorts.

 

body_snatchers

 

Here’s the completely parent-less delivery method called Body Snatching. It’s important to remember that these aren’t zombies, or the undead, or whatever. These life forms are a likeness, a substation, a stand in, much like margarine stands in for butter on occasion. Sure, it tastes all right, but it’s not butter, but it does what it’s supposed to do, so what difference does it make? And while anyone who’s fallen victim to the body snatchers can’t distinguish the difference between their original selves and the new-and-improved version, why should you, as a child, complain? After all, these new bodies just might believe all those half-baked lies you deliver when you want to stay out with your friends way past your bedtime on a Saturday night?

So folks, I surely hope you treated your moms right, bought flowers, dinner, cards, called, paid tribute, genuflected, thanked from the bottom of your heart and pledged to be the perfect child from today on forward. One day, Mom won’t be around to tell you what to do, and believe me, as one who knows, you’ll miss her like you can’t image.

Here’s to Mom…in whatever shape or form, on Mother’s Day.

 

 

Random House Open House   Leave a comment

Gretchen at RH 4-29-16

Yours truly, causing problems

Oh, what a day I had last Friday! I got to walk in the temple of literature amongst the gods. That’s right – I went to Penguin Random House.

So many distinguished authors have had the blessed fortune to be published by this institution, it’s mind-boggling. Seriously, one can’t take it all in. To wit: here’s a wall (and it’s only a partial view) of the Nobel Prize winners that have had their works published here.

Nobel Prize Wall

PRH’s distinguished and honored literary lineup

Why was I there to begin with? To ask/beg them to publish my work? Pssh. If only. No, I went with my sister and a bunch of our friends (also writers) to their quarterly open house. If you’re interested in books, writing, publishing, or just stretching your mind, it’s the best place in the whole world.

PRH presents a lineup of great writers of all genres, plus a little insider stuff. The day started off with Questlove, best known as the bandleader for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He wrote this wonderful book entitled SOMETHINGTOFOODABOUT, a collection of essays and interviews with chefs who raise their culinary talents to the artistic level. It’s a beautiful book, full of amazing photos of food worship. I longed for a snack after gazing through its pages. He kindly autographed it.

QuestloveGretchen & Questlove

Questlove chats with his cowriter, Ben Greenman;

Gretchen gets his autograph – very nice man indeed!

 

Later on in the morning, Justin Cronin and Pierce Brown held a discussion regarding their books. Both had such camaraderie, one might think they knew each other forever. They’d only met fifteen minutes before taking the stage. Still, their engaging conversation gave writers (like me) hope that even if you have 137 rejections (like Pierce Brown did), you still might get lucky. And boy, did he ever. Justin Cronin was a college professor whose daughter, quite young at the time, told him not to write boring books.

Justin CroninPierce & JustinPosing with Pierce Brown

Autographing it up with Justin Cronin, listening to their chat (I know, bad photo) and chatting with Pierce

After lunch, two in-house art directors, Greg Mollica and Joe Perez discussed the finer points of creating a cover. They used several books for examples, some going through several dozen attempts to reach the right look. It’s really true that a book is judged by its cover, because without reading a word, you’ve got to attract the reader’s attention. My favorite story was that of Mark Maron – he’s a favorite of mine and I love his podcast. Mark loves cats. Getting a cat to cooperate proved to be an exercise in patience, as the cat wrangler tried very hard, as well as Mark, to get the cat to pose. I think we all know what comes next:

Maron Covers

Some of the shots trying to get THE shot for the cover

PRH saved the best for last: Anna Quindlen. In case you didn’t know, a New York Times columnist and NYT bestselling author many times over. She was interviewed by no less than Lee Woodruff, an author whose husband, Bob Woodruff, was a correspondent for ABC news and suffered a serious head injury in the Middle East – a story in itself. She discussed her writing process and the fact that one of her sons thought it was entirely gross that she wrote sex scenes in her books (he was a kid at the time). Fortunately, she had the best snacks on the block and all the kids hung out at her place after school.

Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen and Lee Woodruff, a little on the dark side

The day went by like lightning and was over far too soon. As I sat on the train, staring out at the window on my way home, reading Questlove’s book and feeling hungry, I thought to myself how lucky I was to have been in Random House, thoroughly enjoying the day. Who knows? Maybe one day my books will grace their library walls for all to see. But for now, I’m glad I went and can’t wait for the next one.

Gwen, Me & Linda at RH

Me, my sister Gwen Jones and our friend Linda Parisi

GOT Coloring Book

My souvenir for the day

%d bloggers like this: