In Which the Prof Salutes the Grand Master

The Mystery Writers of America celebrated some of 2016’s best work last night at the Edgars banquet, and I’m pleased to report that Lawrence Block went home with the field’s most coveted ceramic figure in the category of Best Short Story, for his work “Autumn at the Automat.” The story (which you can find in In Sunlight or In Shadow, along with some works from other folks you may recognize) is classic Block, with a hook that is simultaneously roguish, endearing, and wickedly funny (or funnily wicked.) I read it for the first time while looking at galleys of ISoIS, and it let me close the book while I wore a satisfied smile. The story is well played, and the award richly deserved (although at this point, he probably has enough of them that he can use them as doorstops).


Pictured: Larry’s coffee table.

So congratulations, LB, and I’m glad you’re around to show middle-aged whippersnappers like me how it’s done!

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Mid-Gradeapalooza Potpourri

I have a stack of papers waiting for my attention this afternoon, but I thought I could procrastinate drop a line or two before then, so why not do that now?


The Spawn’s sorority formal was Friday night, and she reports that she had a really good time. A bonus is that a young woman who has been a friend of the Spawn’s since elementary school joined the sorority quite recently, and they’re both tickled to be sisters in this new way. In fact, after the formal was over, they hung out at a local fast-food place for a while, noshing on tater tots and chatting away. (And the evening also gave the Spawn the chance to audition for the cover of a 1960s Fawcett Gold Medal paperback. (The Eames chair and ottoman are an inheritance from my folks.)


Another bonus is that although the young woman who is the Spawn’s Big Sis is graduating in a couple of weeks, she plans to stay in town for the summer while she coaches volleyball in Real City. We’re happy to have her around a little longer — we feel like her family in Colorado has loaned her to us while she’s here — and we look forward to seeing her as the summer winds on.


On the scribbling front, I’m pleased to report that Amazon is accepting advance orders for Alive in Shape and Color: 16 Paintings by Great Artists and the Stories They Inspired. It’s Larry’s new anthology, and it follows up on the Hopper-themed antho where I had a story last year. Each of us were offered the opportunity to select our own artist/artwork and write a story, and while the medievalist in me wanted to go with Hieronymus Bosch, Michael Connelly has something of a proprietary interest there, so I went with Salvador Dali’s Pharmacist of Ampurdan in Search of Absolutely Nothing, a painting that has fascinated me since Dad brought home an Abrams edition of a book on Dali and his works when I was a kid. Other writers have chosen works ranging from the Lascaux cave paintings to a Rodin sculpture. The contributors include returners like Connelly, Joe Lansdale, Lee Child, and Joyce Carol Oates, and other ace writers like Thomas Pluck, David Morrell, and Sarah Weinman. The book comes out in December, but it’s going to make a wonderful Christmas gift, so why wait to chase down a copy?


And since the afternoon’s grading draws near like Time’s winged chariot in a Marvell poem, I’ll share a little music before I go. The world of progressive rock has taken a number of hits in recent months, with the latest coming in the death of British guitarist Allan Holdsworth. A few months ago, we also lost bassist/vocalist John Wetton. As it happens, Holdsworth and Wetton collaborated with Bill Bruford and Eddie Jobson in early prog supergroup U.K. That lineup only lasted for one album in 1978, but a fine album it was. This was the leadoff track.

Thanks for the music, guys. And for the rest of you, see you soon!


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A Somewhat Delayed Gig Report

… and the title works either way you read it.

It was time for observable Berries activity last night at Art Bar, as we were third on the bill for a rare Friday night show at the venue. (It was supposed to have been tonight, but an accidental double booking bumped us up a night, and fortunately, all four bands were flexible enough to make the show, so it worked out fine for everyone.) The Mad Dog came into town as well, and the two of us took the drum hauler down to Real City, arriving at 8, when the doors opened.

The show had run into one of the small controversies that one finds in local music scenes. A few miles away, 90s hitmakers Local H were playing a show at the New Brookland Tavern. That’s cool — there’s plenty of music for everyone, and those guys are a legit national act who have been doing this for more than 20 years. The problem (such as it was) was that a previewer for the local alternapaper decided to pitch the two shows as rivals in some sort of musical cage match, and in what amounted to a “tale of the tape” segment said that while our show offered more variety, it lacked the “visceral impact” of Local H. It’s not a previewer’s job to write puff pieces, but it seemed a little odd to promote some sort of throwdown between an established major act and four local outfits. It also seemed something less than accurate; no show including Pig Head Dog can be said to lack for impact, visceral or otherwise. (Full disclosure: The booker gave me the freedom to put our bill together, and the other three bands are all groups I like a lot, both artistically and personally. I think every band on the bill is a good group, and deserves positive attention from the local press — but I’m not in the alternapaper biz anymore, and the local apparently thinks this sort of “Pick ’em” featurette is a reader service. So be it, and as the saying goes, at least they spelled our names correctly.)

We ran into 3/4 of Pig Head Dog on the patio — Bubbles was inside. As the openers, they had loaded in earlier and waited for the sound guy. And waited. And waited. Apparently there had been a miscommunication of some sort, but eventually we reached stalwart soundman/band wrangler Alan, who told us he’d be there ASAP. And he was, but the show was running almost an entire set late by the time everything was ready to go. This put us in the position of having to buy back time during the setup for other bands, and by cutting some performance time. Alas, Pig Head Dog bore the brunt of that, and only got about half their set in before having to leave the stage.  However, in that time, they did nothing to shake my conviction that they are the sonic equivalent of being forced to dig your own shallow grave and then being beaten with the shovel. Visceral impact, indeed. They also got off the funniest line of the night, when drummer Festus confessed that recently his employers had found urine in his THC sample. This is the second time I’ve seen the guys with their new lineup, but new bassist Brian has claimed his space in the group quite nicely, and they perform with effortless brutality each time. Your weapons are useless against Pig Head Dog. Accept your fate.

Next up were Greenville’s Italo and the Passions, who brought their brand of soulful blues-rock to the Midlands. The band is aptly named, mixing 60s soul shouting with early 70s boogie intensity, never lapsing into gotta-gotta cliche. They’re charismatic and fun to watch, which audiences up the East Coast will learn later this year when the band does a tour. Those folks are in for a treat.

We were up next, and got in a 15-song set with two new tunes and one that was new to Columbia audiences. Although from my position on the back line I can’t see very far into the crowd, what I saw and heard indicated that folks were having a good time, and so were we, so that’s a success in my book.

After our set, we made way for the mighty New York Disco Villains. I love these guys for several reasons. Several members are about my age, and it’s always nice to see my demographic getting up there on the stage with original music — I know they’re committed and doing it because they love and believe in what they do; we’re all too old to harbor illusions at this point. It also helps that they’re smart, skilled players with songs that both rock and are genuinely funny, providing an affirmative answer to FZ’s question, “Does Humor Belong in Music?” They’re often compared to the B-52’s and They Might Be Giants, but I think a more apt comparison might be to the Bonzo Dog Band. NYDV has a cult following around here, but they deserve to grow at least to the level of a sect, and they’re worthy of your attention.

So after all that, it was about 1:45 when I picked up our pay envelope and the Mad Dog and I headed back to Mondoville, while I held forth on the history of the 13th Floor Elevators. (The fact that the Dog is willing to listen while I do this sort of thing may be why we’re best friends, but maybe you’d have to ask him.) We got home about 2:40, which means that between teaching, hanging with the Mad Dog, and the gig, I had completed about a 21-hour day. So we got up around 10:30 and hung out until a little past 3 p.m., when the Mad Dog headed back to Knoxville and the Mad Doc, and I… well, I took another nap, getting up at 5. But I had to get up eventually, so I did, and here we are, aren’t we?

See you soon, and in the words of a radio station back home in Cincinnati, I hope you’ll “Support local bands — even if they aren’t from around here.”

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A Basket of Easter Potpourri

I understand that, as Heinlein said, one man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh. So while I know that not everyone shares my confidence in the Resurrection, I wish my cobelievers a happy Easter, and rejoice in the promise that like Lazarus, one day the grave will no longer hold us. For those who disagree with me, I wish you a happy, loving Sunday.


The first wave of Gradeapalooza has arrived as well, with my film class having submitted their research papers — I’ll have a go at those today. I meant to do it yesterday, but Mrs. M suggested a run to Real City instead, and who was I to disagree. I picked up a couple of Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels at the used bookstore, and then we went to the nearby Sam’s Club and picked up a few things. Since it was a Saturday afternoon, this meant the sample stations were in full swing — and that meant some righteous snacking was in order. As I said on Twitter, this was as close as I get to a progressive dinner.

I ran into former students at both the bookstore and Sam’s; it always pleases me to see them “in the wild” and cheerful. I asked one of them what he was up to these days — he said he was a fire fighter. He lit up when I told him my grandfather had been a fire fighter for 38 years. I noticed a box of dog treats in his cart and asked him if he had a dog named Katrina. His eyes got big: “No, it’s Hugo, but I can’t believe you remembered the hurricane name!” He went on about how cool it was that remembered. I just smiled, and later told Mrs. M that I was actually thinking of another former student’s dog that was named Katrina, but that I’d cheerfully take credit for the near miss. Maybe when I get tired of the professing thing, I’ll take up doing “psychic” cold readings.


Recently, I mentioned that I was reading Red Planet Blues, a science-fiction private-eye novel by Robert J. Sawyer. I finished it later that evening, and my reactions were a little mixed. The premise — a private eye in a Martian colony — is the sort of adventure I think Robert Heinlein would have done well. Sawyer isn’t Heinlein, but neither are the rest of us, so there’s no shame in that. The plot coheres, and there are some pretty nifty twists, but something about the book just didn’t reach me.

I don’t think it’s a flaw in Sawyer’s writing as much as it is something that has led me away from SF in general in recent years. Harlan Ellison said in the 60s that John Campbell “used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and […] now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” And I think this is the trap into which Red Planet Blues falls. The extrapolation of some science ideas is clever, and he rings the changes on them quite well. But having finished it, I can remember those ideas — and struggle to recall the names of the characters. The cover flap describes the book as an example of the “literature of ideas” that lots of SF fans of my acquaintance like to cite as a big selling point. But I’ve reached a point in my life when the ideas usually aren’t enough — they have to affect characters (preferably characters I care about), and for me, that never quite happened in this book. That’s likely why I prefer a Peter Beagle to a Larry Niven. I like them both, but I don’t seek Niven out as I do Beagle.

None of this reflects on Sawyer’s skill in any way, of course — he approaches his work with clean hands and composure, and has good reason to be proud of his craftsmanship. As I said above, to say “It isn’t Heinlein” is to praise with faint damns. And he certainly seems to be doing quite well — better than I ever will, in all likelihood. But like Ellison, I think the “literature of ideas” needs to be the literature of people, as well. As my dad used to say, that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.


Also in the world of books, I’m pleased to note that my friend and former professor Patti White has a new collection of poems, Pink Motel, coming out quite soon from Anhinga Press. Keep your eyes peeled, huh?


On the music front, a friend of mine recently put me onto Progzilla, a site dealing with progressive rock in its various incarnations and eras. I’ve said before that prog and garage are the yin and yang of my musical tastes (sharing common DNA in psychedelia), and I’ve spent a lot of the last week listening to Progzilla’s musical stream. You might dig it as well.


The Berries will be hitting the familiar turf of Art Bar on Friday night, doing some of our newer stuff, as well as tunes folks will recognize, both ours and others. Also with us are our buddies in Pig Head Dog, Greenville’s Italo and the Passions, and our pals the New York Disco Villains. The show starts at about 8:45, and we’d love to see you there!


Well, I need to get to these papers, so I’ll wrap things up with a bit of music. Marillion is one of the bands that has continued to fly the colors for progressive rock for decades, and so it seems appropriate for me to pick a song from them to end today’s post. Happy Easter, all.

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So Long, Mr. Geils

Guitarist John “J.” Geils has joined the band invisible, dying at the age of 71. It’s odd that a guy can have a band named after him and still be an overlooked member of that group, but Geils somehow managed, as attention tended to focus on vocalist Peter Wolf and harpist/saxophonist Magic Dick. However, he was always a respected blues-rock player, and at one point, the J. Geils Band was seen as America’s version of the Stones (before fellow Bostonians Aerosmith got that tag.)

The albums Love Stinks and Freeze Frame provided a significant part of the soundtrack to my middle and high school years, but my favorite song of theirs comes from 1978’s Sanctuary.

They were also responsible for one of my favorite pieces of rock weirdness, one from which I occasionally quote to see if other people know it.

Goodbye, Mr. Geils. Thanks for the music.

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A Little Saturday Potpourri

We’re heading into the home stretch of the semester. Gradeapalooza hasn’t arrived quite yet, but I can see it in the middle distance — indeed, I have some grading to do this afternoon, as well as some work on the college’s lit’rary journal for tomorrow. Mrs. M, on the other hand, is now doing the Spring Break thing through next week, and has left me instructions not to wake her when I get up in the coming days. Oh, well — I get most of a month off in May.


Larry from the Berries gave me a copy of Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues, the adventures of a hard-boiled P.I. working the mean streets of New Klondike, Mars. As the town’s name implies, it’s an outpost in the midst of a great resource rush — the resources in this case being Martian fossils, which are zillion-dollar collector’s items back on Terra. But really, it’s just another sort of frontier town, so we get elements of P.I. fiction and the Western in an SF setting. I’m about a third of the way in, and while the pastiche is strong in this one, it also has a certain charm. Further reports as reading warrants.


One of my classes this fall will be a Special Topics course (aka “Prof’s choice”), and I’ve decided to take a look at theodicy in literature (and vice versa) for the term. Planned readings will include the Book of Job, MacLeish’s JB, and Wiesel’s Trial of God, as well as Paradise Lost, Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.,  and readings from folks like Boethius, Pope, Voltaire, Camus, Andrew DelBanco, and Jeffrey Burton Russell. If you nice folks out there have suggestions, give me a holler in the comments, or via my e-mail.


On the music front, The Berries have a show coming up on 21 April, hitting Art Bar for one of the venue’s rare Friday night shows. The scheduling is actually a fortuitous error — the usual Saturday night had been double booked, but all four bands on our bill were able to do the preceding night, so we moved over. So if you’re planning ahead, you’ll get a chance to see us along with our friends in Pig Head Dog, Italo & the Passions, nd the New York Disco Villains. And the Mad Dog may even make a special appearance as well.


And speaking of music, here’s a weird one that I’ve wanted to share for a while, but was unable to find on YouTube before last night. Their Eminence was a SoCal garage combo that as far as I know only released this single, back in 1967. It pulls a trick I’ve seen before, using the progression and tune from the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” as a basis for unexpected lyrics — “Amazing Grace” is occasionally done this way, for example. However, this particular group decided to take a well known nursery rhyme as their text, at least for the first two verses. It’s in verse three where the acid and juvenilia apparently kicked in. So you’ve been warned. Here it is — a bizarro version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

See you soon!

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Lenten Devotional — 7 April 17

Here is the second of my contributions to this year’s series of the college’s Lenten devotionals. As usual, there is a passage from Scripture, a reflection, and a prayer. I hope they prove useful.

John 11:38-44 King James Version (KJV)

38 Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.

39 Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.

40 Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?

41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.

42 And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.

43 And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.

44 And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.


Why do so many of us fear death, even Christians who believe that death takes us from the pains of life to a far more joyous eternity? I think a lot of it is our fear of being cut off, being separated from the world we know, from the familiarity of life, and from the people we love. It’s a separation that we may delay, but which we cannot undo.

And likewise, ever since the Garden of Eden, our sins have separated us from God and from the abundant life He promised us. When the Bible tells us that the wage of sin is death, it is meant literally, but it also refers, I think, to our self-separation from the ultimate real life in the presence of God. And that frightens us.

But with the story of Lazarus, we are offered hope that even this greatest barrier is surmountable by Christ. Lazarus has been dead for four days. Martha tells us that his body is surely corrupt by now, and we know he is bound – by graveclothes, by the stone at the mouth of the tomb, by death itself. But Jesus knows that when he speaks the word, Lazarus will come forth, and that having been loosed from that dark binding, it will be easy enough to “Loose him, and let him go.”

Later, Christ Himself will break the ties of death, and will make it possible for us to do the same one day. The graveclothes of sin will be loosed. Our faces will be uncovered. We will be rejoined with God and with Life, and there will be no more separation.

Heavenly Father, let us not forget that through Your Son, even the bondage of death is frail. Thank you for showing us the way, and for being the Way to the life eternal. In Christ’s name we pray, amen.


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