Sunday, May 31, 2009

Wrapping Things Up

Well, that's the theory anyway. I tried to get important things done today -- when not running off to see Robert's new cottage and have lunch at Mexican Radio. I had papers and posts to grade, email to which to respond, reviews and short essays to write, blog posts to keep up with (eep -- not exactly doing that now), but my flight's not until 6pm (why was I thinking 4pm?), so I have a bit of time tomorrow. Anon -- too tired at the moment (and no, not packed yet).

I'm supposed to be guest blogger at Sia McKye's blog, but I haven't heard confirmation from her that she received my post, so we'll see.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Signing: Eastline Books TODAY!

Yes, it all begins at noon: East Line Books, Old Village Plaza, 1714 Route 9, Clifton Park, NY 12065 (Just north of Rt. 146 on Rt. 9 across from Snyder's Restaurant, between Clifton Park Pizza and Captain's Treasures).

I will be playing my kantele off and on -- and if that's not enough of a draw, Robyn is having a BIG SALE all weekend, so there are deals to be had!

So much to do before Monday -- I don't know how it will all get done, but it will have to be done. Nonetheless, this will be a welcome change from sitting in front of my computer or in the classroom (going to try to wrap up the story of the summer immersion tomorrow).

Friday, May 29, 2009

BitchBuzz: Guardians of the Planet

My latest column for BB is all about our fave superheroes of information: Librarians! Here's a taste:

Go ahead, laugh. But think about it; what is the most crucial commodity in the world today? Information. Even if you're not quizzing Number Six, you are still bound to be wading through tons of information every day even if you don't wear a cable modem as an IV like I do. Estimates vary, but one study has suggested that by next year "the amount of digital information in the world will double every 11 hours."

Even if the real numbers don't end up that high (although it certainly feels well within reason), most folks will admit that we're swimming our way inexpertly through a barrage of information with insufficient help. When you consider the annual output of a just single bon vivant with a blog, a Facebook page, a couple of Twitter accounts and a web page to be prodigious when toted up at the end of the year, try imagining all the billions of internet users creating similar content of wildly divergent qualities.

It ain't all good stuff and it's often seems easier to stumble across the cretinous because everyone's passing it along the usual social media networks.

What do you do to find the stuff you need?

Read the rest at BitchBuzz HQ!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Death on the Internet

Dietmar Trommeshauser was the first person that I knew only from the internet who died.

We make a lot of noise about virtual communities being every bit as real as fleshly ones, but it's very easy to offer help and support with a quick email message or even a Paypal donation to a worthy cause. You don't have to get off your ass for it, but you get to feel good. Often people disappear from your virtual world and you have no idea why.

When Dietmar died, though, he was part of our community. Our community is the Horror in Film and Literature discussion list, a venerable institution by 'net standards, having been around since 1987 (hands up if you remember the gopher days). I'm a relative newbie compared to some, having joined up in 1994. Membership fluctuates, of course, but there's a core of people who have stuck together through thick and thin (or in our case major blow-ups over Stephen King and Men Women and Chainsaws).

You can cruise the archives to see Dietmar's posts and our posts upon learning of his death. Not so much shock -- he was a quadriplegic with many health problems -- but dismay that we had no tangible way to grieve except in our words sent pinging out across the globe into the ether.

It seems somewhat appropriate that Dietmar still exits as a ghost in the wires. He was a writer who patiently tapped out his stories with a mouth stick (every time someone tells me they "don't have time to write" I want to tell them about Dietmar). His stories, his poems and remembrances of him are still out there almost eleven years after his death. For a long time, his family kept his own website up.

I don't think anyone predicted that death would be one of the things the internet did well. We're already used to the instantaneous transmissions of celebrity deaths hurled around the world via email and Twitter as Natasha Richardson's was recently. But the lingering aspects of shuffling off the mortal coil also seep into the wires and give a semi-permanence to our transitory lives -- at least as long as the server stays up.

You can consult the Death Clock or explore the last taboo. Grieving families are encouraged to "create a FREE internet memorial for your Loved One" or become part of the trademarked Internet Memorial Register. In the wake of tragedies, it's now habit to go on line and create virtual memorials every bit as compelling as those roadside memorials. There's something about public grief that seems very necessary in American culture at present (well, for many anyway).

But the glory of the web also serves well a more intimate acquaintance with death. Terrific sites record American's uneasy history with death in all its manifestations, so well exposed in books like Mitford's The American Way of Death and Waugh's The Loved One. While the uphill road to accepting death as the natural bookend of life may never be scaled, we can at least find the process fascinating.

One good site that welcomes the curious is A Repository for Bottled Monsters, an unofficial blog for folks who work at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Having been lucky enough to get the behind the scenes tour from pal, Mike Rhode, I can sing the praises of this site with enthusiasm, because I got to see the room of pickled punks, viewed photographs taken during the Civil War and even had my picture snapped holding the skull of one of the unfortunate—and rat gnawed—victims. Their blog and companion Flickr site approach death with professionalism and an historical curiosity that even the most squeamish will find fascinating.

I also recommend highly Morbid Anatomy, whose tag line "Surveying the Interstices of Art and Medicine, Death and Culture" tells you everything you need to know. They find beauty in the human form even in the stillness of death and have a wide selection of links to some of the must-see museums around the globe including the Mütter. You could make a world tour of death.

Wouldn't it be funny if the internet is the only after-life we can look forward to enjoying?

Image via Vault of Evil

[N.B. This was originally a column for BitchBuzz that the editor found too far outside the editorial purview]

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Thing about Vampires

Teaching is all about planning + improvisation. You have to plan well and provide a structure, but it's also important to roll with the vagaries of the unexpected. Today was a case for this kind of flexibility. After talking about the ambiguity that signaled the 1980s shift in horror films, we were all primed to see John Carpenter's 1982 movie The Thing. It's a heady mix of gender politics and claustrophobic masculinity and rather good monster effects for its time.

However, the disc refused to play in the dvd player or in the computer. We even tried one of the students' laptops. No go. Argh. So much for my carefully orchestrated preamble. Fortunately, I do bring a handful of other films to show brief clips from to illustrate various points (we had already watched the opening minutes of the stylish vamp classic The Hunger with Bauhaus, Deneuve, Bowie and Ann Magnuson). The students suggested watching that film instead (in part because of our now running joke about David Bowie) but it's a video transfer and stutters a lot, so I decided to go with Near Dark, which is an entertaining film with some interesting developments, but not quite on track with our trajectory.

I suppose it's just as well as we were giving short shrift to vamps over all (on the whole I'm not a big fan of vampire films) but it irks, of course. But that's the teaching life. We had a good discussion and they'll surely have more to post on-line tonight, so I ought to be sanguine.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Branding: Medievalist

Yes, the third prong of my branding identity, such as it is, has to be me the medievalist. I realise that all of my many attempts at branding only make it clearer that I have weird and esoteric tastes that resist any attempt to brand me for a potential audience. At least "medieval" is surely a more recognizable quantity than "Finnish mythology" I suppose. I do write about popular culture appropriations of the medieval, too, which helps connect this very challenging academic field into the realm of "normal" people (i.e. those who don't find it necessary to study half a dozen or so [okay, ten] dead languages -- although I do find it helpful to intimidate other scholars by listing all of them ;-).

Before I became a medievalist, I thought the same things about the period that most people do: it's all damsels in pointy hats, knights miladying and a lot of plague. Of course, most of what I thought I knew about the Middle Ages was wrong. I wouldn't have discovered that but for taking Stephen Mitchell's class at Harvard where I read Beowulf and Njál's Saga and discovered Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature and culture.

It changed everything! I was in love with the languages and had to read more, more, more -- and then I found myself in a PhD program in Medieval Studies and on my way to being an academic.

But it's a hard sell: folks seldom know much of anything about Old Norse and not that much about Anglo-Saxon, apart from Beowulf (and seldom much accurate about that terrific monster story). There's so much fun stuff! Last night at the medieval reading group that the friendly folks at Siena College invited me along for, we were reading riddles. Here's one to give you a taste of this puzzle poetry.

Exeter Book Riddle #9

Mec on þissum dagum deadne ofgeafum
fæder ond modor; ne wæs me feorh þa gen,
ealdor in innan. Þa mec [an] ongon,
welhold mege, wedum þeccan,
heold ond freoþode, hleosceorpe wrah
swa arlice swa hire agen bearn,
oþþæt ic under sceate, swa min gesceapu wæron
ungesibbum wearð eacen gæste.
Mec seo friþemæg fedde siþþan,
oþþæt ic aweox, widdor meahte
siþas asettan. Heo hæfde swæsra þy læs
suna ond dohtra, þy heo swa dyde.

Translation by Craig Williamson:

I was an orphan before I was born--
Cast without breath by both parents
Into a world of brittle death, I found
The comfort of kin in a mother not mine.
She wrapped and robed my subtle skin,
Brooding warm in her guardian gown,
Cherished a changeling as if close kin
In a nest of strange siblings. This
Mother-care quickened my spirit, my natural
Fate to feed, fatten and grow great,
Gorged on love. Bating a fledgeling
Brood, I cast off mother-kin, lifting
Windward wings for the wide road.

Do you know the solution?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Connecticut Jaunt

Despite the tight schedule I have this month, I decided to take the opportunity to run down to Connecticut and see my pals before I take off for Britain for a month on June 1. I headed out with the sun shining and the windows down while I blasted music through the lovely Berkshires. First stop was the Punk Rock Jukebox, where I proceeded to annoy Marko while he was trying to do his show. The Queen showed up to help me -- we achieved a new record time for raising the pulsating vein on his temple! Thanks for the Death CD, Marko!

Afterward we ran off to the pub to try Marko's new drink suggestion, the Green Tea Breeze. Very tasty! We were joined by Johnny 10X after he got off work, and then it was time to head over to Miss Wendy's where I was going to be staying. I refueled with some Earl Grey and then we headed to the Aloha Alcohula* where we proceeded to have Stoli-Bollis, a very dangerous thing to do. Not least of which because it led to a sudden decision to lacquer every one's nails with black polish (N.B. Friday had been intended to be a girls night, but the boys crashed it), so Marko and I ran to the store (me without shoes, so I had to stay in the car anyway) to get the polish. He got the once-over from the check-out guy, but he was undeterred in his mission: brave man.

So we painted fingers and toes and giggled like a bunch of teenagers. It was fun. Yes, that's my feet and hands above. Polish since removed.

After such lethal cocktails Wendy and I knew it would be wise to take a cab home, which is when we discovered that this was a seemingly impossible thing to do in Willimantic. Really? Really?! So, thank you Ken for coming to the rescue.

Saturday we woke up bleary eyed and settled for watching a very bad SciFi channel film (is there any other kind?) Kaw, about ravens on the rampage (yes, really -- it had Mennonites, too!), then headed out to Elena's to meet her new puppy Maya -- and play with the other pups, Shaq and Bodie. Eventually we wandered into West Hartford Center and after several misfires (everything was closed for good or for lunch or for renovation) had some lunch, then went over to the Cheesecake Factory to have dessert, but the wait was too long, so we went to the B&N instead, which oddly enough had Cheesecake Factory cheesecake in their café, so all was well.

Wendy and I relaxed Saturday night with the Three and Four Musketeers (Ollie, Ollie!). Sunday was breakfast at Nita's with the Boojums, where we got to hear about The joey Zone's birthday jaunt to Worcester and natter on about this and that. Then it was back to Miss Wendy's, where she had time to introduce me to a new anime series, Mushi-shi, before I headed back out on the road to NY.

A good trip! Thanks, everybody, for a great time!

*Best damn tiki bar in Connecticut!

Friday, May 22, 2009

BitchBuzz: Harried in 140 Characters

My latest column for BitchBuzz is up. Here's a taste:

With the mainstream blossoming of social media sites on the web, a lot of writers I know are tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, linking and commenting everywhere they possibly can in order to get the word out on their books. A book launch is no longer a quiet affair at a single comfy bookstore, but a cross-the-globe blitz that scorches everyone in its path with your project's brilliance and timeliness.

There are more outlets for information now than there ever were and to get noticed you have to be out there. You're not just releasing a book; you're launching a media campaign for the hearts, minds and most importantly, wallets of the general public...

[read the rest]

Off to Connecticut for the weekend. More as I have time (or check Twitter or Facebook).

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Jaws of Suspiria

I already wrote a bit about Jaws and my long connection to it, but I don't think I've yet got around to the student reactions. It's hard to keep track of things in the midst of the mad swirl of the summer intensive. I've made things even tighter by planning to run down to Connecticut this weekend to see folks before I go off to the UK June 1. The quick Connecticut dash is meant to include a quick hello to Marko at the Punk Rock Jukebox, girlie night with Miss Wendy and the Queen of Everything, Saturday lunch or something with Miss Wendy and Elena, then Sunday brunch with the Boojums.

It will be more relaxing than it sounds.

Okay, Jaws: the students were not accustomed to thinking of this as a horror film, since most of them saw it as kids. The music has become so iconic, it's hard to imagine hearing it the first time or the impact it had (all kinds of impacts). The two halves of the movie complement each other so well, yet are completely different: we go from the crowded beaches of Amity to the endless ocean, from a whole town of people to just the three men and yet you don't feel that transition as a jarring change. It's a well-constructed film. Good thing they had so much trouble with Bruce the shark and had to keep him out sight for longer than they planned. It works.

Suspiria, on the other hand, is a spectacle but a far less coherent narrative on the whole. I expected to have a bit of trouble getting the students to appreciate it, so I was pleasantly surprised to have spontaneous expressions of appreciation for it. It's a Technicolor feast, it's an expressionist blood bath, where the glory of the gory explodes all over the screen -- often at the cost of logic or reason (not to mention the often utilitarian dialogue) and of course, the true crime of dubbing Udo's voice with some bland American's. Nonetheless, the students appreciated it. I think they're getting to be real connoisseurs, which is very cool.

Today it's body/queer horror with Clive Barker and a little bit o' Cronenberg.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope..."

[read more]

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Horror Class: Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Yesterday we delved into the weird world of 70s horror with the classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Some of the students were familiar with the remake and had thoughtful comments about the ways the two differed. The film purports to be based on a "true story" although it's only very loosely inspired by Wisconsin's own Ed Gein, with whom some of the students were familiar.

We read Linda Williams' essay "When the Woman Looks" which links the female gaze to the monstrous, which (among other things) led to an interesting discussion about the "dinner table" scene where the all-male "family" sits Sally down opposite the patriarch of the family, almost as if she were filling in the position of "mother". Though tied to the [literal! ewww!] arms of the chair, she's also given a plate of food (though who'd eat in that house...). We're given another opportunity to empathize with the "monster" Leatherface when his father berates him and the camera's extreme close-up of Sally's sweaty, terrified face make her grotesque, particularly when we get right up to her eyeball. Fascinating stuff!

Today is Jaws, the film that gave us the summer blockbuster and the increasingly maudlin career of Steven Spielberg (oh, yes, I am exaggerating... a little). Miss Wendy, I assume you'll be watching at home: weird thing, but we always seem to always find Jaws playing at the same time even when we're a long way apart.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Branding: Popular Culture and New Media

I'll blog later about today's class (featuring Texas Chainsaw Massacre and feminist film critique), but for the moment (and that's about all I have) I want to get back to the difficult task of "branding" as we have come to call it. While I'm still resisting the labeling, I am trying to be more conscious of where I might have readers who don't know me yet but might like to do so.

One of my other areas of interest is popular culture; I've been a member of the Popular Culture Association since 1995 and national area chair for Medieval Popular Culture for about five years now. In particular I have an interest in "medievalism" or how popular culture adapts, adopts and re-imagines the medieval, which includes everything from film and television to video games, websites and of course, re-enactments and medieval/renaissance faires.

But I'm also increasingly preoccupied with New Media, particularly its impact on my teaching life. I worry about the lack of engagement with New Media in our curriculum, and with my colleagues Kim Middleton, Catherine Cavanaugh and Fred Antico, helped derive a new minor in Film and New Media Studies. It's a start, but there's so much more to be done. While Twitter, Facebook and so on occupy an important part of the popular media, the impact on our working lives hasn't yet been well articulated -- and I think it needs to be.

But now I have to get back to my class prep, so I'll leave you with a question: what's the impact of New Media on your life?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Signing: Eastline Books May 30

Just a reminder for local people that I will be signing copies of Unikirja at Eastline Books in Clifton Park, NY on Saturday May 30th, beginning at noon. I will bring one of my kanteles to play and if there's any interest, maybe read a little. Author Lyn Miller-Lachmann will also be there signing her book, Gringolandia and the store will be having a big sale, too. All kinds of reasons to show up! Robyn's store is terrific and she really has a great selection.

Support your local independent bookstores!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A New Blog: Red Sox Box

My pal Adrean has a new blog which closely follows the Red Sox season. A long time fan and Boston native, Adrean has a great head for statistics and an unrivaled enthusiasm for the game -- perhaps even more so now that she's located in Los Angeles again, which is where we met -- gasp! -- sixteen years ago. Drop by and check out her blow by blow coverage! Support a fan.

I've been working on a conference paper and getting used to the new travel computer, an ASUS Eee. Tiny and sleek -- yes, Stephen Fry had one first, but hey, we don't have his budget for gadgets.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Kazoo Round-up

Just back from my meeting with the VP and the Dean, where I formally accepted the position of Coordinator of Women's Studies. What was that I said about only suckers taking up administrative positions? ;-) Let's consider it the first step in my plan for World Domination or perhaps as a new hat (we all know how I love hats).

Kalamazoo: In lieu of a long digressive recap, let me give you a short surreal one. Fly to Detroit, Amy forgot her license so I drove the Prius (nice!), late the first night, busy the first day, meet ups at the wine hour, dinner with Steve derailed by his flat tire, but conveniently invited along to another dinner, conversations into the night in the quads at Valley III, Friday meetings and panels with Societas Magica, my roundtable (went well!), dinner with Pearl, conversation until 2!, Saturday more panels including the bloggers, mead with Frankie, dinner with Steve at Bilbo's, the DANCE! Sunday driving back to Detroit, counting the dead deer and bloated raccoons along 94, flying back to Albany, sudden realisation that the summer class starts in the morning...

Still feeling like Alice running with the Red Queen: unlikely to change before the end of the month. Then I can catch my breath!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Haunting the Night of the Living Dead

I am relieved to have the teaching week over. The real week isn't over yet, but the part of it in which I have to teach is over. It's been a bear of a week, what with a four day a week class, four hours a day. Although I have to say I've have a great group of students -- who require little in the way of nudging to get conversations going -- and a fun topic.

Yesterday we watched the Robert Wise-directed The Haunting with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom (in her fabulous Mary Quant wardrobe). It's a beautiful, subtle and incredibly effective film. I am always amazed at the way the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I hear the sounds of the haunting begin. Wonderful!

And Night of the Living Dead! What a well crafted film -- it draws on so many of the late 60s anxieties: race tensions, generational rifts, gender anxieties, class difference. It's all there and subtly presented in the film. We had a great time reviewing all the scenes -- and contrasting their views of the 60s from the media with what the "reality" was (the 70s were FAR MORE UGLY than you think, no really far more ugly!). Funny to see huge old phones, giant radios and ice boxes. A very different time!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Curse of the Demon

Day two of the horror class consisted of a full-on run through the 40s and 50s. While I talked about a lot of things, I concentrated on showing two films -- not something I plan to do everyday, but as I was giving short shrift to the time period anyway, it only seemed fair. For me, this meant Val Lewton and his protégé, Jacques Tourneur.

First up was Cat People, the Lewton-produced/Tourneur-directed classic starring Simone Simon as a Serbian woman haunted by her people's past. Because we start out with a reading focusing on the psychological development of "the Other" it's a good one. Well, it's a good film anyway, with Lewton's classic eye for light and shadow. At the center of it Simon's Irena represses her sexuality out of fear that it will unleash a beast in her, foretold by her homeland's folktales. The students had plenty to say about the subtle workings of Lewton's film and picked up on the skillful uses of sound particularly in the stalking scenes.

After a lunch break (which I forgot yesterday, no wonder they looked so wan by the end), I talked about the 50s SF horror films for a bit then started up Night of the Demon (AKA Curse of the Demon). Based on M. R. James' "Casting the Runes" it tells the tale of a Crowley-esque occultist sparring with scientific sceptics via supernatural means.

You may know it as the source of the line, "It's in the trees! It's coming!" in Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love". My students, I fear, will always know it as the dvd that suddenly stopped playing ONE MINUTE before the end of the film. Howls of disappointment. I did find a link to a YouTube video that shows the very end, so I emailed that to them, but --

Ah, teaching!

Monday, May 11, 2009


No, not just for the number of emails in my inbox (although that is horrifyingly substantial!) but because I begin the summer intensive course on horror film. First feature today: "Bride of Frankenstein"! Isn't this a lovely photo of Lanchester?!

Along with a lot of the Universals I'll have a few other things to show the early era, but with only twelve class periods altogether to convey the whole of horror film history, there are going to be holes. Massive holes! There it is.

More later -- Kalamazoo wrap-up, upcoming events, but at present haste precludes verbosity!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Taste of Unikirja: Palakainen

Here's another taste from Unikirja, "Palakainen". This one's quite a bit different from the comic tale "Vipunen" because it's based on a murder ballad from The Kanteletar. When I began to compose this story, I found it developed a peculiar rhythm to capture the feel of a ballad narrative, including the repetitions of phrases peculiar to that style. It was quite complicated and taxing to maintain that feeling and took more than the usual amount of revision to keep the rhythm consistent. Here's a taste:

He came with raven feathers. He came to woo our daughter. Had the wind whispered her secrets into his ear? For she would not have become the wife of any ordinary man, Kommi stubbornness made sure of that. Swanlike she was born, swanlike did she grow, with white hands and a graceful neck and eyes that looked unblinking at you. The servants, who all grumbled day and night about their work, would give her the best of the cream, the finest weaving, the sweetest olut brewed for her. Her brothers and sisters too, who should be jealous of the attention our little star received, instead protected her, coddled her. Her sisters did the mending rather than let her prick her fingers. Her brothers gathered kindling, which should be her job, carried hay to the cows in winter, rather than let her chap her hands. Swanlike they stayed, white.

Palakainen she was named, our little tidbit, our little treat.

The wind must have carried her sighs to the ears of Kojo's son. For all her gentle ways, for all her pampering, she dreamed as any child would — of growing up, of going away. None of the suitors would be good enough. Kommi, proud father, had sworn at her birth, when the white shock of hair made us all gasp, sworn that she would be protected, cosseted, loved. No fumbling farmboy would wed this child, no simple smithy get her hand. She was the sweet light of our hearth. And so it has always been, until now...

[Read more]

Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Taste of Unikirja: Vipunen

In order to give people a little sample of my collection, Unikirja, today I want to offer one of the stories that previously appeared in print. "Vipunen" is based -- oh, so loosely -- on Runo 17 of the Kalevala. That runo has been interpreted in various ways, including musically by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. My version is a comic one; a hiker falls into the mythic realm (i.e. into Vipunen's belly with Väinämöinen, the ancient rune singer) and is unprepared to deal with what transpires:

"Well, quite a way to meet!" the old man said warmly, as if for the first time, but I could only glare at him. How long had we been down here? How long had I been down here — he could have been here for centuries for all I knew. It felt like days but looking at my watch — if the time was still right — who knew with all these strange things going on; it appeared as if it were only half past four. But was that day or night? And why did that pool smell like something gangrenous had recently choked out its life in the black waters?

In the cavern my exhalation of disgust and annoyance echoed on for long after I had shut my mouth, the quiet susurrations crawling away from me like escaping mice. It was a very creepy moment. I looked over at the old man who seemed, at first, to have nodded off. I studied his clothes. They were not from this decade. To be charitable, they were not from this century, unless he was one of those re-enactor types or perhaps a folk-dancer. Well, that seemed more likely an explanation for the red skull cap, the wooly tunic and the cross-tied leggings. Was he actually wearing birch bark shoes?! Heavens! Well, that would have to be folk dancing. I don't think anyone's re-enacting the Kalevala, unless the folk movement here in Finland has taken a new and horrifying turn...
[read more]

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Kalevala and Kanteletar

One of the difficulties involved in introducing my story collection Unikirja has to do with most people's unfamiliarity with The Kalevala and The Kanteletar, the twin tomes of Finnish myth and folklore. The stories and songs that make up these collections are very old, but were gathered together in the nineteenth century as a surging sense of national pride grew. The tiny nation straddles the dividing line between the Baltic and Scandinavia, and had been dominated alternately by its two larger neighbours Sweden and Russia.

A doctor with a fascination for folklore, Elias Lönnrot set out to collect examples of the old tunes and stories that people told to try to capture what he saw as a vanishing way of life. In The Kalevala, he arranged these stories in runos to link together story arcs. You can read an English version online, but let me acquaint you with some of the recurring characters who show up in my stories.

Väinämöinen is the eternal sage. After Ilmatar the goddess gives birth to the world, he is the first human born. He knows all manner of magic. I've always found it fascinating that much of Finnish magic comes from know the true names of things and being able to sing them. At one point, Väinämöinen faces a young challenger who thinks he can take on the old man, but he gets sung right into a swamp. The panicky Joukahainen offers his sister's hand in marriage, which starts another theme for the old magician: he never gets the girl.

Aino is the sister offered to Väinämöinen. Her parents think it's an advantageous marriage, but the beautiful young maiden finds little appeal in being joined to the ancient sage and finally drowns herself to escape. She comes back, however, as a salmon to taunt Väinämöinen, so she lives again. Väinämöinen's mother suggests he should go north to find a bride instead.

Louhi is the witch of the northern lands. There's a great split in the Kalevala between the people of the south in Kaleva and those in the north, so they're always portrayed as adversaries. Louhi, while seemingly as powerful as Väinämöinen, inevitably the stories depict her as "evil" which just sat wrong with me. As you might guess from our name, Louhi's Daughters, my friends Minna and Kasha shared the opinion that we were getting a rather one-sided view of Louhi and in our performances we tried to give a more balanced picture of this amazing woman. Our very first performance together was a retelling of the Aino story, which also proved a resonant touchstone for Unikirja.

While The Kalevala has a series of narrative threads, The Kanteletar is a looser collection of songs grouped by who sings them, i.e. men, women or children. There are also a number of ballads that would be sung by everyone. Not surprisingly, one of the songs is all about the kantele. The name of the collection is kantele plus the feminine ending, so you might think of "Kanteletar" meaning the spirit of the kantele, the source of all the songs.

Tomorrow and Sunday, I'll offer a taste of these stories.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

BitchBuzz: When (Obsessive) Online Tribes Go Bad

My latest piece for BitchBuzz manages to fit in a little information about the Middle Ages (correctives to common misconceptions) as well as some well-earned hand-wringing about the easy tendency toward flame wars on-line. It's irritating to realise that so many of these virtual brawls could be avoided by the use of good reading skills -- and better writing skills. Willingness to take offense, intended or not, seems to be at an all-time high lately. Give the benefit of the doubt.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Playing Kantele

A rather utilitarian video of my playing, Little My, one of my five string kanteles. The instrument shows up many times in my short story collection, Unikirja.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

My Kantele

What is the kantele? The short answer is the national instrument of Finland, a lap harp traditionally with five strings. Of course, that has changed much over the centuries: 5, 10 and 15-string kanteles are common (and often electric!) and there are even grand concert kanteles. Above is a picture of my very first kantele, Louhi, a 10-string made by the wonderful craftsman Gerry Henkel. That's our cat Kipper sitting in the case my dad made with just an outline of the instrument. It fits perfectly! I now have six kanteles, including one I built myself (with a lot of help).

You can hear and see a kantele in this Kantele-TV video by Outi Sané (I helped edit the English subtitles). She explains a little more of the history, too.

In The Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot's collection of Finnish folklore (more about that very soon), we learn that the first kantele was made from the jawbone of a pike, with a maiden's hair for strings. When the ancient sage, Väinämöinen played it for the first time, not only did all the people stop and listen, but even all the forest creatures gathered, too, unable to tear themselves away from the magic in its strings.

Here's Gerry's kantele that captures the look of the jawbone kantele. He sent it to me while I was at a writer's colony working on some of these stories. It was one of the most wonderful gifts I have received.

I have learned over the years, partly with the help of my first teacher, Kasha Breau, with whom I later played in a group called Louhi's Daughters with our friend Minna Popkin; then as a part of the Maine Kantele Workshop, where I learned an awful lot in a very short and intense time -- and made a lot of new friends as well as that kantele.

But as my pal Lani has noted, the kantele itself is an amazing teacher. With the five string it is not possible to play a wrong note, and you can learn much from just noodling on it. I'm no professional, but I love to play and will be doing so at my signing later this month.

One of the stories in Unikirja, simply entitled "The Kantele," demonstrates this magic. But when a little girl seems to develop a preternatural skill at playing the instrument, her mother begins to worry -- particularly as she seems to have also developed an invisible playmate...

Monday, May 04, 2009

Signing: Eastline Books

Just a quick note to let you know that I will be doing a signing for Unikirja May 30th at Eastline Books in Clifton Park, NY. The fabulous Robyn Ringler hosts many events at her independent book store and it's a great place to browse -- in fact, she'll be having a big sale that day. I expect there will be a lot of walk-ins and will be playing my kantele to intrigue them.

What's a kantele? That's tomorrow's topic (yes, it includes magic). In the meantime, off to the post office and then back to grading.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Branding Myself: Finnish

I'm trying to think about several angles for the "branding" idea, which I must admit still makes me a tad uncomfortable. I revile the forces of capitalist consumption in its may destructive forms, so I rebel at the idea of turning myself or my book into a product. However, I am well aware of the monumental task of finding the readers that are out there for any book, so I steel myself for the task and dive into this project with all the enthusiasm I can muster -- which for this book is a lot.

I'm very proud of my Finnish heritage and the reconnection with my roots that gave birth to this book. The problem, of course, as folks have pointed out, is that most people don't know much about Finland or the people who came from there in the 19th and 20th to settle the northern Midwest. What's the likely thing people think of?


Yes, that's why I chose this picture, which I found hilarious. Saunas are healthy. They're great ways to keep yourself clean. Before modern hospitals, they were the usual place for women to give birth. All kinds of traditions rose up around the sauna, from proper etiquette to magic.

What's that? Magic? Yep -- one of my stories in Unikirja, "Raising Lempi" a group of women practice an old ritual one learned from her grandmother for increasing their sexual attractiveness. I learned about this from my research and was quite intrigued with all the old magic connected with the sauna.

What else do you associate with Finland? Nokia? Lordi? President Halonen looking like Conan O'Brien? (My pal Ulla Suokko was in one of his fake ads!)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Blog Tour

In an attempt to beef up my poor PR skills, I have joined a group that helps you develop a blog tour to promote your book. Of course, I want to promote Unikirja, but I'm a little uncertain about ways to do that well.

What's a blog tour? Instead of going out to various book stores or what not, you simply travel virtually from one blog to another. Like any kind of travel, it takes planning and coordination to go smoothly. Once it's set up, you try to get people to stop by -- offering them incentives of useful information and of course, free stuff. So, I'm adding a link on the side to all the folks who are doing the blog tour class together. Please drop by and check out their blogs.

One of the difficulties of this PR thing, is turning your work into a product. Given my book, it's a bit difficult because it's not a niche book. Finnish folklore? Myth? Legend? Magic? Spec Fic? A little bit of everything. In marketing, they talk a lot lately about "branding" (our new college website is all about the branding, hence the lack of flexibility).

So, what's my brand? Hell if I know. My first thought, "An acquired taste." Perhaps not as compelling as "It's The Real Thing" or "Finger-Lickin' Good." Guess I've got some work ahead of me. Suggestions welcome.