Small Press Shout-Out: Valancourt Books!

Here’s what I love about small presses: they’re quirky, they look for (and fill) niches that the big guys have missed, and they often appear to be as governed by personal passions as market research.

Today’s shout-out, Valancourt Books, is no exception. Their catalog sports many overlooked and forgotten gothic books. Because they’ve identified a missed opportunity? Maybe. Because they think there’s a readership out there who would love to see these books dusted off and brought out in new editions? Maybe.

Because they just plain love these books? Definitely.

Publisher and general editor James D. Jenkins has the story:

Continue reading

Advertisements

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #7 – The Keyboard

 

Every kid in school was afraid of the music teacher.

The grownups didn’t understand this. Miss Steiner had been teaching forever – she had taught the grandparents of some of my classmates – and when she had been young she had apparently been kind and patient and not yet disillusioned. To us, though, she was impossibly old.

And worse than being old, she had gotten mean.

At least it seemed mean at the time. Now I think it was probably a vast internal cauldron of frustration, simmering for years, now boiling over. Decades of teaching music to elementary school children had taught her one thing: children are terrible at music no matter what you do. And the corollary statement: if you are someone who loves music, then observing this phenomenon up close, day after day, year after year, will destroy you.

By the time our generation came along, Miss Steiner was desperate to save Music from the butchering hands of grade school kids with no talent. She would accompany soloists at recitals, pounding the keys of her piano in an attempt to drown out some poor clarinetist murdering a rendition of “I Love You Truly.” She played with desperation, as loud as she could, sweating and clenching her teeth and gasping for breath at the end of each song. It was as if she had no choice – as if Music itself had demanded it of her.

Music class was taught on the school’s stage, a dark, cavernous area separated from the gymnasium by a heavy curtain. Someone said Miss Steiner lived back there, like a troll, which I doubted but could never quite disprove. Sightings of her outside the school were rare and unconfirmed. Someone said they saw her at a restaurant once, where she was eating pancakes, and someone else said they saw her walking on a sidewalk with a man during Cheese Days. Both of these were impossible to imagine.

Another rumor informed us that Miss Steiner’s gray, wiry, bouffant hairdo was actually a wig. A girl reported that she’d seen Miss Steiner with her hands on her scalp, adjusting her hair as you might a poorly fitting helmet. I don’t know why the idea of a wig terrified us so much, but it did, as if Miss Steiner were not a music teacher at all but secretly some kind of space alien or bald monster.

Now that I’m an adult, my guess is that she was not adjusting her false hair. I would bet she was trying to press out a migraine headache. She was anxious and angry and had pretty much lost control of both her classroom and herself. If you told me she drilled holes in her skull to release the pressure, I would not be all that surprised.

During small group sessions she was usually fine. She could even demonstrate patience, now and then. But when conducting the entire band, she had completely given up any hope of sanity or rational behavior. Wearing a blue pantsuit and nurse’s shoes, she stood on a raised wooden platform, whipping a baton that had long ago splintered from the abuse it had endured at her hands. The way she whipped that thing around, slicing the air and battering the music stand in front of her, was simply incredible. More than once I had seen her hit herself in the eye with her own baton, an obviously painful event, but she only blinked and muttered and resumed screaming.

Yes, screaming. It was the hallmark of her performance: in both recitals and concerts, she screamed through every single song.

Kevin, no! Kevin! Kevin Schlotzky!—NO NO NO NO NO!… Not yet, drums. DRUMS! DRUMS!! NOT YET!!!! You—you with the flute! Like this! Like this! Da-DA-da. Da-DA-da! [whipping baton against music stand] KEVIN SCHLOTZKY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU ARE PLAYING THE WRONG SONG! PUT YOUR INSTRUMENT DOWN, KEVIN, PUT IT DOWN AND DON’T PICK IT UP AGAIN!

I would say Miss Steiner was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but that can’t be right. Surely the breakdown had happened long ago. By the time I reached fourth grade we had to be at least a full decade in.

You might think that all this had soured me on music, but here was the thing: somehow I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to learn to play the piano.

And as everyone knew, Miss Steiner was the only piano teacher in town.

Continue reading

Review of The Race: “Warm and Full of Life…”

“[A] delightful novella about politics, scandal, reputation and above all, the importance of love…” – mylittlebookblog

Readers, it’s a very good day here on the Jacke Blog. My novella The Race has been reviewed by mylittlebookblog, and the results have had me smiling all day.

I’m not sure which is my favorite snippet. Maybe the one at the top. But this is good too:

Although the book is short, Wilson also manages to make the characters warm and full of life whilst being well structured with evocative personalities.

Thank you! And there’s more:

Wilson manages to exert meaning and feeling from the characters’ personalities onto the reader, in a candid style but with humour.

I won’t disagree! The rest is too good to interrupt…

  • The writing style is also a real credit to the writer and it not only gives the whole book a certain manner but it also makes the reader feel wholly consumed by the novel…
  • I (honestly) read this is one go; I could not help but keep reading in which to know what was going to happen next…
  • I fell in love with this humorous and clever story because overall it is an extremely realistic tale of tragedy…
  • …beautiful prose, well-defined characters and a real understanding of pace and writing style…

Really wonderful praise; I’m very grateful to Lizzy at mylittlebookblog for giving this such a good read and for writing such a positive and enthusiastic review. I’ll close with what’s my favorite quote (at least today – tomorrow I’ll probably savor a different one):

[W]e follow this campaign right through the end, to see whether the outraged public will forgive this disreputable politician or whether he will go down like a sack of bricks.

A sack of bricks! I might have to redo the cover to add that line.

What a thoughtful, generous review – a true delight to read. Thank you again, Lizzy!

You can read the full review at mylittlebookblog (and really that site should be a regular visit for you if it isn’t already).

And of course, you can find The Race at Amazon.com (in Kindle and paperback versions) and other formats and locations.

Are you a reviewer? Leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll ship you a free review copy. Or you can just read a free story about a football coach desperate to find some meaning in a winless season

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #6: The Mugs

As lawyers we sold our time. We made no other product, we had no other purpose. My day was carved up into tiny slices—tenths of an hour. Want a piece of me? You can have it in six-minute increments, rounded up.

And at the end of each day, I tallied it up. Client number 1: three point eight hours. Client number two: four point one. Client number three: zero point two. And so on. It all added up to one thing: me. My job. My day. My life.

Dehumanizing? I tried not to think about it. If I had, I might have felt like this guy:

Continue reading

Dreaming the Impossible Dream: Weirdness and the University of Chicago

Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate, takes a look at kids these days. “The helicopter generation has gone to college,” she wails, “and the results might be tragic for us all.”

I confess I started skimming at this point. But this certainly caught my eye:

I do not want to live in a world where the University of Chicago is considered “weird,” and nobody else should either.

I hear you, Rebecca Schuman!

Except, well… this.

And this.

And of course this.

So maybe we just wallow in the weirdness for a while?

Onward. Weirdly upward.

Stephen King, Great Guy

First things first: I’ve never finished a Stephen King novel. I’ve started a few, but in the end I’ve never really enjoyed the genre enough to submerge myself for hundreds of pages. I’m not trying to be hoity-toity about it (I’ll leave that to Harold Bloom), I”m just letting you know: I’m more or less a neutral observer when it comes to Stephen King. I’m not a fanboy.

But I can see why he’s sold a zillion books! I find his prose compelling, and when I’ve encountered the odd essay or short story, I’ve gotten pulled in. I like reading his introductions to his books, and I like reading his accounts of things that have happened to him. I’ve read his book On Writing twice. I didn’t take too many writerly lessons from it, but for sheer enthusiasm about sitting down and the typewriter and opening a vein, it’s hard to beat.

You learn along the way, even through this cursory reading, that King has deep blue-collar roots and a real decency toward the people around him. He’s wrestled with some demons. But he also seems like a genuinely nice guy. I wouldn’t mind having him as a neighbor, which is not something I’d have thought before reading the book.

And then there’s this gem from the recent Vanity Fair article on the Rushdie fatwa: Continue reading

H.G. Wells and the Bumbling Interview


God bless H.G. Wells. He seems like kind of a decent guy, and as a kid I loved his books (The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, etc.). My parents had a set of a History of the World he’d written, which I tried to read about a million times but could never get beyond five pages. I don’t think they had either; it had the classic feel of “Oh, that was that year that everyone bought that one book that nobody actually read.”

Something about him always made me think he was kind of a bumbler. Why? Because I realized that other respected writers didn’t take him seriously? I’m not sure. It may have been the cover of my copy of The Time Machine, which had a desperate looking man on it. I always thought that was him. Earnest. Forthright. A Serious Person in capital letters. And…sort of buffoonish. Maybe this is unfair. But it stuck with me.

And then yesterday I ran across an interview he did…of Joseph Stalin.
Continue reading