Archive for Current Events

“The Most Beautiful Work of All”: Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe

I’ve seen a lot of concerts over the years, but somehow one of my heroes, Patti Smith, always eluded me. But I recently saw her down in Knoxville at the Big Ears Music Festival. Twice, in fact. One show was a standard rock concert with a full band in the Tennessee Theater. The other show, titled “Words & Music,” took place in a slightly more intimate setting, the Mill & Mine. No drums, no bass. Patti on stage with only her son Jackson Smith on guitar and Tony Shanahan on keyboards and various other instruments. A cozier, chattier, more relaxed vibe. Patti performed songs, including covers of Bob Dylan (“One Too Many Mornings”) and Stevie Wonder (“Blame It On the Sun”); she gave brief readings and allowed herself the time to introduce songs at length. It was, as they say, a special night.

One of the things Patti read — maybe at the Tennessee Theater? — was the letter she wrote in 1989 to artist Robert Mapplethorpe who was in the hospital at the end of a long illness. Another bright soul taken by AIDS. Patti explained that she returned home after a hospital visit and composed a short letter to her friend, a relationship lovingly chronicled in her award-winning memoir, Just Kids.

He died the next day without ever having read it.

But you can. We can.

 

Dear Robert,

Often as I lie awake I wonder if you are also lying awake. Are you in pain, or feeling alone? You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together. Your work, coming from a fluid source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of holding hands with God. Remember, through everything, you have always held that hand. Grip it hard, Robert, and don’t let it go.

The other afternoon, when you fell asleep on my shoulder, I drifted off, too. But before I did, it occurred to me looking around at all of your things and your work and going through years of your work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all.

Patti

The Fire Hydrants of Knoxville: Joy in a Time of Heartbreak

In late March I traveled down to Knoxville, TN, for the Big Ears Music Festival. It’s one of the world’s great music festivals — “wonderfully weird,” according to Spin Magazine — famed for celebrating a wildly diverse array of music. Seriously, you can see and hear anything there, and sometimes, euphorically, for the first time in your ever-music-loving life.

For me, it was a beautiful experience, an expression of something we’ve missed during the pandemic: a sense of belonging, of togetherness. Most of us have managed to stay connected with our family and close friends, the inner circle, but it’s been those expansive concentric rings that I’ve missed, the outer spheres of our diminished community. In Knoxville, I talked to a lot of strangers, good conversations with people from all over. Across four days, I didn’t see one openly drunk person, didn’t witness a single example of bad behavior. The attendees came with ears and hearts and minds wide open. We listened, hard; we participated, gratefully.

One crucial feature of the festival is that music is going on simultaneously at a variety of venues. A Scottish bar, a cozy theater, a church, a dingy club, on and on. Attendees wander the streets of downtown Knoxville, seeking out a percussive string quartet in a church, a hot jazz band in a club, an exploration of ambient drone somewhere else, or, hey, Patti Smith in the Tennessee Theater. It’s all there. From the familiar to the experimental.

While I wandered from venue to venue, I kept noticing the blue-and-yellow fire hydrants of Knoxville. They made me think of Ukraine, each one a metal flag bringing to mind the unforgivable slaughter. The brutality of Putin’s attack, the senseless cruelty and inhumanity and suffering of our world.

A disturbing dissonance droned through my skull, plucked at the strings of my heart. I was happy, thrilled with a feeling of joy and discovery and community, encountering good people and magnificent art at every turn. Yet those fire hydrants of Knoxville kept reminding me of dropped bombs, toppled buildings & innocent blood, our sad & broken world.

And I guess that’s the challenge we face. Finding the joy, the deep pleasures and satisfactions, the reasons why life is so worth living — and yet not forgetting the heartbreak, the devastation, the important & necessary work that still needs to be done.

Oh sweet ravaged world, we need to do so much better if we hope to live, together.

Good People, Making a Difference: The Hudson Literacy Fund

My thanks go out to the good, kind people working with the Hudson Literacy Fund (HLF), in particular Wendy Schmalz, Lisa Dolan, Jennifer Clark, and, I’m sure, many others. Today I sat down and signed 120 book plates which will be attached to free books that go into the hands of young readers in the Hudson School District. Since 2013, the HLF has given each student in the district a coupon called a “Good For” that the students could redeem for ANY BOOK being offered at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival. But in 2020 and 2021 and 2022, the Festival was canceled — and they’ve sorely missed the chance to put those student-selected books into young readers’ hands. This year, the HLF would not be denied. They are offering each student one free book from a select group of books by authors who have previously participated in the Festival.
I want to thank these good folks, my friends, for supporting literacy, for supporting the arts. But that’s not really true. Those things are only secondary. Most important of all, they are supporting these young people, many of whom could use a little extra support. I’m honored & moved to play a very small part of this beautiful & generous effort.
Here’s to the return of the great festival in 2023 — and a postgame beer at the Spotty Dog. Maybe two!
=

The Legend of Talal Mirwani: How I Spoofed Jack Reacher in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

The character Jack Reacher has been having a moment on Amazon Prime. Good for the Big Lug! Until recently, he’s been best known as the main character in Lee Child’s popular book series (and the unfortunate Tom Cruise movie). Reacher is a lone wolf, a drifter, and a former military investigator who always manages to find trouble. Or, as the cliche goes, is it Trouble that finds him?! The books are action-packed and wildly entertaining. You don’t read so much as devour them.

However, I grew tired of Reacher after 3-4 titles. He was too perfect for my taste. Confession: As the author of 42 Jigsaw Jones mysteries for young readers (ages 6-9), I have a semi-professional interest in literary detectives. One of the amusing things that Reacher does — amusing to me, serious to him — is he’s a deft profiler. You might be familiar with this sort of fuzzy technique popularized in various crime dramas, where a detective makes intuitive inferences about a criminal’s personality. In other words, after examining a crime scene, the brainy detective will announce, “We’re looking for white male in his 40s. He has mother issues and probably drives a Prius. He buys his clothes on sale at JC Penney. Favors white shirts and narrow yellow ties. He has a taste for 80s Britrock — some of the lesser-known cuts from The Smiths’ “Meat is Murder” album — and still slices the crust off his grilled cheese sandwiches . . .”

And on and on and on it goes.

This mode of detective work has roots in Sherlock Holmes. “How did you know that?” Dr. Watson asks. “Elementary,” Holmes explains. The Power of Deductive Reasoning.

Jack Reacher performs this magic act time and again in the novels and, now, in the (pretty fabulous, if I must say) television show. There’s a scene, early on, when he offhandedly does it to Police Chief Oscar Finlay and stops Finlay cold with its uncanny accuracy.

How does Reacher know? It’s elementary!

Unfortunately, what makes good television does not always make for solid investigative practices. The work of profilers has been largely debunked these days, a strategy that’s mired in fallacy and too often morphs into half-dressed guesswork. At best, a profiler like Reacher can examine the nature of the crime — using objective observation — and use inferences to provide a broad indication of a type of individual who might likely have committed the crime. At worst, it can lead the investigation wildly astray. The proverbial wild goose chase. In the annals of FBI investigations, there are a few startling successes — but they are far outnumbered by the total misses.

I spoofed this a few years back in my 2017 middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead. As a contemporary example of “climate fiction,” the novel — set in the not-so-distant-future — touches on pandemics and face masks, a super flu, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, data farming, and more. My idea: stick my characters in a world gone wrong.

LET ME SET THE SCENE: our hero Adrian Lazarus is sitting in a middle school cafeteria with his best friend, Zander Donnelly. Adrian has problems, he’s a misfit, an outcast, and, not coincidentally, a reanimated corpse, i.e., zombie. That’s when, in chapter 21, our detective enters the scene and the novel shifts toward the main mystery . . .

A slight kid walked up, wearing a fedora and a long brown raincoat. He had black hair and light brown skin. The boy placed a hand on the back of an empty chair and asked, “You gents mind?”

“It’s all yours, no one’s sitting there,” I said, expecting him to drag the chair to another table. But to my surprise, he sat down with us.

Zander stopped talking and paused to stare at our uninvited guest. The look on Zander’s face was basically: What the what?

“The name’s Talal” — he pronounced it slowly, tah-LAHL, so we got it right — “but you can call me Tal. That’s easier for most people,” he said in a soothing voice. Talal rested an elbow on the back of the chair. He folded an ankle across a knee. “And you are the zombie guy,” he added, turning to address me.

“That’s me,” I said. “The zombie guy.”

“Why are you here?” Zander asked. “We’re not bothering anybody.”

“I’m a detective,” Talal replied. “You could say that I’m working on a case.”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“I prefer the term gumshoe,” Talal continued, “except nobody knows what it means anymore. So, sure, I’m a private eye.”

I decided to play along. “How can we help you, gumshoe?”

“Call me, Tal. It’s simpler.”

“Okay, detective,” I replied.

Zander glanced in my direction. He clearly didn’t trust this new kid at our table. But as far as I could tell, Talal seemed harmless. Besides, I was curious.

Talal lifted the fedora off his head and placed it, ever so gently, on the table. He clawed his hand through his hair, as if scratching the back of an appreciative Labrador retriever.

“What makes you a detective?” Zander asked.

“What do you mean?” Talal asked.

Zander looked annoyed. His voice rose a notch in volume. “I mean, big deal, you say you’re a detective. Anybody could say that. Saying so doesn’t make it true.”

Talal stared long and patiently. He slow-blinked once, twice, with all the urgency of a three-toed sloth. Then he fished in the depths of his trench coat pocket and produced a business card. He ran his thumb across the edge of it and, flicking two fingers, sent it spinning across the table and into my lap.

TALAL MIRWANI
Detective
NO CASE TOO LARGE OR SMALL

Talal turned to Zander. “Believe whatever you like. I’m what the card says I am.”

Zander smiled. “And I’m a horned toad. There, I said it. Does that make it true?”

Talal was amused. “No, big guy, the saying doesn’t make it so. It’s the believing that matters. You don’t really think you’re a toad, do you?”

Zander didn’t answer.

“It’s the believing in things that counts,” Talal repeated for emphasis, “as long as you’re asking.”

“Like in Santa Claus?” Zander teased.

“Like in anything,” Talal replied. “The tooth fairy, dinosaurs, zombies, kindness, whatever floats your boat.” Talal returned the hat to the top of his head and deftly zipped a pointed index finger across the front brim. “I didn’t come here to philosophize. You have my card.”

“We don’t need it,” Zander said.

“Maybe not you, but I think he might,” Talal said, jerking a thumb in my direction. “And I bet he knows it, too.”

“I’m not going to hire a detective,” I protested.

“It’s already been handled,” Talal replied. “Your friend paid for my services.”

“My friend?” I couldn’t think of anybody.

“A tall and angular girl,” he intoned, “the angel looking over your shoulder. Cash in advance. Consider yourself lucky.”

“Gia?”

Talal shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “She said trouble’s coming your way, and figured I might be able to steer you clear.”

I struggled to process the information. My unlife was getting weirder by the minute. It felt like Gia had some sort of plan for me, but I had no idea what it was. Still, there was something oddly reassuring about Talal. He was a character, for certain, but I guess I heard Dane’s voice in my ear: Everybody’s different and nobody’s perfect.

Who was I to say that Talal wasn’t good enough to sit at our table? There was plenty of room.

Zander, on the other hand, acted protective. “How are you going to help Adrian? All I see is a kid in a trench coat who talks tough, like you just stepped out of some old black-and-white movie. What do you know?”

[EDIT: Pay Attention, Folks! Here’s where Talal profiles Zander!]

Talal leaned back in his chair, calmly tented his fingers together. “What do I know? I’ll tell you what I know . . .”

He spoke the next part in rapid pitter-pat style: “I know you had a rough time this morning. You barely had a minute to wolf down a bowl of Rice Krispies. You missed the bus, but that’s no problem, because Mommy drives you anyway.”

“Hold on,” Zander said. “How did you know–?”

Talal explained. “There’s a trace of shampoo in your right ear, your socks don’t match, and there’s a dried Rice Krispie kernel stuck to your shirt. Judging by the mud splatter on the cuffs of your jeans, I’d bet ten balloons you tried to jump the puddle by the curb at the student drop-off. You didn’t quite make it. Don’t feel too bad, champ — it’s probably because of the extra twenty pounds of books you lug around in your backpack, because you are exactly the kind of kid who carries his books everywhere. I’d bet another ten balloons you make the honor roll every semester. You’re smart and you work hard. That’s a good thing, congratulations.” Talal flicked a finger. “I can also see the pink edge of a late pass poking out of your shirt pocket. What else do I know? You’re a little sloppy, but it doesn’t take a detective to figure that out. More importantly, you are not the kind of guy who spends time in front of a mirror. Either you don’t care how you look, or you care too much. So much that maybe it hurts. Hard for me to say, we’ve only just met, but I know this: Everybody cares, we just hide it in different ways.”

Zander didn’t need to hear any more. He squirmed in uncomfortable silence, like a living butterfly pinned to a wall. Talal turned out to be a pretty sharp detective after all.

SOME REVIEWS . . . 

“This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.” — School Library Journal.

Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale of a middle-schooler who craves normalcy, and environmental issues with some currency make the story even more relatable. Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers, and they’ll be glad of the hint at a follow-up. — Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books.

“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc. Having inexplicably survived a fatal hit-and-run accident over the summer, aptly named Adrian Lazarus is off to seventh grade, sporting a hoodie to hide his increasing facial disfigurement and lunching on formaldehyde smoothies to keep himself together. Simultaneously resenting and yet understanding the varied reactions of his schoolmates—which range from shunning to all-too-close attention from a particularly persistent bully—Adrian is also surprised and pleased to discover that he has allies, notably Gia Demeter, a new girl with a peculiar ability to foretell certain events. Preller might have played this as a light comedy (and there are some hilarious bits), but he goes instead for darker inflections. Even as Adrian sees himself becoming ominously aggressive (while developing tastes for roadkill and raw meat), his discovery that fabulously powerful data miners Kalvin and Kristoff Bork are ruthlessly scheming to put him under the knife in search of the secret to his longevity cranks the suspense up another notch. Nonetheless, in a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — Booklist, Starred Review

“Preller takes the physical and emotional awkwardness of middle school to grisly levels . . . [and] thoughtfully chronicles the anxieties of middle school, using a blend of comedy and horror, to send a message of empowerment and acceptance.” — Publishers Weekly.

NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND CHEAP!

 

A Simple Poem — Upon the Passing of Thich Nhat Hanh

I wrote this yesterday upon hearing of the passing of the Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, at the age of 95. 

 

 

Simple Poem

— after Thich Nhat Hanh

Nothing is bigger

than the wee chickadee

in her cup-shaped nest.

Not the tall mountain,

not the deep blue sea —

not you, and not me.