Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Last 2010 Reading

Hi friends and fans – 2010 is winding down and on both a personal and professional level it’s been a great year for me.

I’ve got a final 2010 reading coming up, Tuesday, December 14 at ACA Galleries, 529 West 20th St., 5th Floor, here in New York. I’m one of several readers representing Fractious Press, one of six presses being feted in the name of New York City Small Presses Night. Things get underway at 6pm, the readings will be brief and there will be wine and nibbles.

Though my short story collection, I Like to Keep My Troubles On the Windy Side of Things, has been out for a few months – old news in publishing terms – I’m happy to let some more folks know about it. In fact, I wrote a piece for The Millions (which was picked up by Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic) that touches on the promotional aspect of publishing.

The book hasn’t received any big reviews or anything, but I guess people are discovering it here and there. Andria Alefhi included the book on this list of small press recommendations, which is great. I was actually a guest on Andria’s WHFR radio show, Zine Therapy.

So come on out on December 14 and help support renegade independent presses!

See you there, or in 2011 . . .

Monday, October 25, 2010

Friday, October 29, Reading at Saki in Chicago

Dear readers, how many of you live in Chicago? How many of you want to hear me read from my short story collection, I Like to Keep My Troubles on the Windy Side of Things? For the rare breed of reader that both lives in Chicago and wants to listen to me say words I have written, you are in luck. I will be at Saki in Logan Park Friday, October 29. The event starts at 6:30 so we won’t take up too much of your night. I’ll be there with my pal Veronica Liu, the mastermind behind Fractious Press. There will also be local talent, including John Paul Davis, an old friend. Tell all of your Chicago friends!

And just so no one thinks that Madonna of the Toast stories don't happen if I don't keep up with them, here's one from last week. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, Bill Johnson found this fallen branch in his yard and discovered "what appears to be a robed image of Jesus with an outstretched hand." Johnson has sprayed the wood with polyurethane and plans on keeping this fallen treasure. I have to say, he looks good holding it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Is Something Burning?

The world just can’t get enough of foodstuffs infused with iconography. After mucking about in these Madonna of the Toast waters for as long as I have, this doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me, however, is how commercial interests make headway into the mainstream with outlandish products. Burnt Impressions out of Vermont is the latest on the scene with its Jesus Toaster. Company owner Galen Dively, III, asks: "Why buy one ‘miraculous’ Jesus toast from some online auction site when you can be with The Lord every morning over coffee or tea?”

Of course, Dively is not the first one to try to cash in on DIY Jesus toast. The Jesus Pan has been around for a while, as have other similar types of molds and presses featuring God’s son and Mary. Aahh, the burnt smell of novelty commercialism!

Nationally syndicated cartoonist Ted Rall has also noticed the prevalence of these stories, in Afghanistan of all places, as a result of his “Afghan Notebook” series. This installment speaks for itself.

Lastly, I've been in Spain for a bit and, among other things, read a book that inspired this piece that went up on The Millions.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

It Must Be Summer

It’s been a hot, muggy summer here on the East Coast, with air conditioners humming nonstop and pools and beaches overrun with folks seeking respite. Even up in New England, the days have been unseasonably warm, which is good news for places like Liquid Planet Water Park. Located in Candia, New Hampshire, the past couple of summers had been rainy so business was slow. But, according to this Union Leader report, not too long after opening for the new season, Liquid Planet employees noticed the face of Jesus on the red cross of the lifeguard flag. According to Kevin Dumont, one of the park’s owners, this year’s weather has been perfect and business is up 200 percent.

Dumont’s sister, Kelly, thinks the form is more a likeness of a gladiator, or a rendering of the Beatles (minus Ringo, I presume). But lifeguard Sara Schlachter recognized Christ as soon as the flag was unfurled, though she is not religious. Either way, you can’t argue with hard numbers, so whether it’s weather (ha!) or divine intervention, it seems like this is one small family-owned business that will stay afloat for another year, which in this day and age is an impressive feat.

I know it’s been a while since I posted a Madonna of the Toast tale, but it’s not because the heat has sapped me. I’ve been busy elsewhere, and if you’re interested you can see what I’ve been up to.

The venerable magazine Print, which I have contributed to over the years, has recently started an online forum called Imprint, and I’m one of the regular contributors. If you have any interest in keeping up with visual trends, from typography to art, branding and packaging design, you’ll find something worthwhile.

I also wrote recently about the amazing Tara Books for The Living Principles. If you like the idea of book as object, you have to read about Tara.

Until next time . . .

Friday, June 18, 2010

Talking Books and Stuff

Greetings from London, where this time of year cool evenings and late sunsets make for a wonderful break from New York City humidity. Always fun to kick around here, highlights have been the opening of The Family and the Land, an amazing retrospective show of Sally Man’s photography, and the necessary visit to Borough Market where you can get your eat on with all sorts of local delicacies.

If you happen to be in Amsterdam on Saturday, June 26, be sure to check out the American Book Center’s Urban Arts Festival, where loads of artists and craftspeople will be doing what they do best. Yours truly will be talking about illustrated books with Kate Bingaman-Burt and Peter Giljam of Buzzworks (nice name, right?).

Should you show up because you have read this, be sure to let me know. I will be duly impressed!

Also, for all of you clamoring to buy I Like To Keep My Troubles On The Windy Side Of Things, copies are starting to pop up on Amazon and B&N – so now you have no excuse!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tree Falls, Story Ends

July 2007: I shared with you the story of a Virgin Mary Cottonwood tree in Brownsville, Texas, which had attracted the devout and curious for more than twenty years, besting weather and even an arsonist. But, according to this Brownsville Herald story, “when heavy rains swept through the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday, winds toppled the tree to the ground and left it resting in pieces outside of the now abandoned boarding house where it was located. Purple and red plastic flowers were crushed under the soft, wet wood.” (Great image!)

According to a local resident, people didn’t flock to the tree like they used to, which in my mind explains the plastic flowers (real flowers dry and decay). I’ve long been fascinated with the lasting power of Madonna of the Toast stories. This tree’s story spanned four US presidents, outrageous technological developments and plenty more. Sure, this Cottonwood was no Giant Sequoia, but these days it doesn’t seem like anything ever lasts that long. Here ends one tree’s unique tale.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Out and About

Greetings one and all. I've been busy with some non-Madonna of the Toast related projects of late. For the curious among you, here are some dates and links loosely related to said busyness:

This Saturday I'll be reading from I Like to Keep My Troubles On the Windy Side of Things as part of May Day at Ding Dong. I read around 2:30pm and I can say from experience that the Ding Dong Lounge is a fine venue for early afternoon drinking and literary revelry. There will be zines and indie presses a plenty - including the wonderful Fractious Press - plus some minstrels, including Ed Askew.

On May 12 I'll be on Washington Heights Free Radio, talking shop, reading various words and spinning some tunes. Why? Because I have a poem in the latest issue of We'll Never Have Paris.

For those of you who prefer reading over listening, you can check out an essay about "obsession" over at The Millions.

And for the hardcore readers amongst you that still like to hold paper in your hands as you read, the latest issue of Grafik includes my review of Cartographies of Time.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Be the Ad

Last year on April 20, I posted a little tidbit about this strange Kit Kat Jesus, and asked, A brilliant Nestle publicity stunt or a divine snack? Turns out it was the former and now the truth is ricocheting around the interweb, thanks to a website and several Youtube clips like this one:

One of my favorite blog entries, he typed modestly, is Thoughts About News Covering the News of the News. We live in an infotainment culture and Madonna of the Toast stories thrive in such an atmosphere.

According to a comment at Digital Buzz Blog, the ad agency behind this viral marketing is UbachsWisbrun/JWT (will look into this). No matter if that’s true or not, the creators tapped a cranial fold with this concept. In four days this story found its way onto 140,000 websites (including this one), ranging from personal blogs to bona fide media outlets. Because of the candy’s catchy slogan everyone, myself included, riffed on “break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar” – a no-brainer.

But you know what? The narrator of this case study video points out that everyone who posted and re-posted the story, everyone who read it and talked about it with others, we all became the advertising – ingenious and emblematic of our era to be sure. Because of technology's acceleration we have lost a sense of distance and separation and this funnels all of us into the same media environment and we become the media and the environment.

Marshall McLuhan was the first to say it, so I leave you with his words, from The Medium is the Massage:

Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. As soon as the information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information. Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience coexist in a state of active interplay.

That was written in 1967 – it’s all the same today, just faster . . .

Thanks to Tom Hamling for sending me the video!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Look: Some Thoughts On Look It's Jesus

Released in 2007, Madonna of the Toast was the first book of its kind. When I first started researching the project in 2006 international media had disseminated the tales of people seeing Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mickey Mouse, the Pope and Bob Hope in unusual places and on unexpected surfaces. Like everyone else, I’d heard about the $28,000 Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese, and I had some vague memory of an eccentric collection of potato chips spoofed on The Simpsons. As I’ve said many times, a friend presented the idea of a book about people seeing the Virgin Mary. I thought, What does that book look like? A bunch of photographs with regurgitated copy from local interest news items? I didn’t find that particularly interesting, but the idea stuck with me and I began poking around, and quickly became fascinated.

What hooked me was how when I began peeling back the layers on some of the stories, these objects – some of them uncanny, others difficult to discern, bizarre and/or questionable – served as fascinating points of entry into broader, richer ideas about contemporary culture. At lease that’s what I found. So I just kept looking.

Why am I telling you this? Because I have gotten my hands on the just released Look It’s Jesus, a book of “Amazing Holy Visions in Everyday Life” – a familiar theme in these parts, right? Compiled by Harry and Sandra Choron and published by Chronicle the book definitely relies on the same kinds of stories as Madonna of the Toast but the two books couldn’t be any more different.

Here’s the tale of the tape: both books are 96 pages; Madonna of the Toast is a larger book; Look It’s Jesus contains 60 examples of these visions (most of them Jesus), while Madonna of the Toast has 20; of the 60 examples, five of them can be found in my book, and 13 of them were reported on this blog.

There’s no doubt that with the passing of every year more of these stories surface and patterns emerge, like the oil stain faces, the wood grain forms and gnarled bark on trees. As those familiar with Madonna of the Toast know, I credit the increase in these sightings to technology’s hyper-accelerated ways, driving images and information around the world, fast enough to get everyone’s attention without remaining in many people’s memories. Something else will always come along.

This isn’t the sole idea I attach to these stories. You can’t ignore the psychological phenomenon pareidolia, the act of random visual stimuli being mistakenly perceived as recognizable. This is an intrinsic human trait that influences how we view the world. These stories have also claimed permanent spots in pop culture, especially American pop culture, and that’s interesting. In fact, these stories can be weaved into contemporary issues ranging from separation of church and state, immigration, politics, e-commerce, media studies – you get the point.

Here’s the thing, though: Look It’s Jesus doesn’t mention ANY of this. No mention of pareidolia, or anything other than a brief introduction that skims the phenomenon’s history, mentions cell phone cameras and then pairs a caption with each image.

So what’s the point of this book?

One thing is for sure: it has a great cover, a lenticular cover to be precise. But I’m not sure the point of hanging a book on a flashy cover (the Jesus image fades in and out as you move the book). A number of the photographs are of dubious quality (admittedly also an issue in Madonna of the Toast and a reason there are fewer examples), but what makes things worse is that the captions seem like for the most part they’ve been lifted from the original news item.

An example: On May 3, 2007, I posted this entry about Jesus, or Gandalf, appearing in a flash memory chip. I linked to this engadget.com article, in which one Dick James says: "We often get dark fringe lines in the silicon, and in this case it looks like there was some holy influence." Guess what? James “says” the same thing in Look It’s Jesus.

This is probably where I need to make clear that I’m not accusing, or suggesting, that the Chorons have done anything wrong. They haven’t. Many subjects have many books dedicated to them. And it’s no secret that book publishers try to cash in on trends – one or two successful graffiti books unleashed a torrent of them, and be sure that over the next year there will be ample titles that mash up classic public domain literary texts with zombies, werewolves, robots and vampires. Some such projects work, others don’t.

In their dedication, the Chorons thank those who served “as a constant source of inspiration during the creation of this book.” Look It’s Jesus is certainly their creation but their creation is a rickety raft of repurposed material. It fails to tell any sort of story. Person unexpectedly finds Jesus/Mary – everyone knows that story, even if you’ve never heard of Madonna of the Toast (and believe me, most people haven’t).

In researching Madonna of the Toast I interviewed most of people that made these discoveries, met some of them and was lucky to have Mark Batty Publisher (MBP) foot the bill for some great original photographs. This resulted in stories that became about much more than material objects and what they may or may not resemble.

Furthermore, because of how the Chorons approached the content, they don’t always get the facts straight, even when it comes to two of the most famous of these stories: the Nun Bun and Diana Duyser’s Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese.

The four sentences dedicated to the Nun Bun do not even bother to mention its creator, Ryan Finney. I interviewed him, and Bongo Java owner Bob Bernstein, over the phone, and when I went to Nashville to read at the cafe, Finney picked me up at the airport. Long story short, the Nun Bun was stolen on Christmas Day 2005 and was MIA for a couple of years until it turned up via a ransom note. In Look It’s Jesus the last sentence in the paragraph about the Nun Bun reads: “When it eventually turned up in a thrift shop, Bernstein was delighted to find it intact.” Bernstein didn’t “find” the Nun Bun, he received some bizarre photographs of it. The wording implies that the Nun Bun has returned to Bongo Java, but it hasn’t.

In the cursory overview of the Diana Duyser Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese saga, the book reports that she stored the sandwich half in a freezer. This is not what she told the BBC, or me when I interviewed her on the phone and in person during a great photo shoot at a Times Square hotel. One of the “miracles” of the sandwich is that it never rotted, even though it nested in cotton swabs and stored in a plastic case.

Now, Madonna of the Toast is not a perfect book (very few books are), but I had a goal: to examine these stories and their relationships to contemporary culture. Look It’s Jesus is a product of the gawk and forget about it culture that consumes those of us, myself included, who spend way too much time in front of screens that are gateways to limitless information and distractions.

Sitting here trying to figure a way to wrap this up I can’t help but think of the news stories that report these visual manifestations of religious and secular icons. Because of 24-hour news cycles and cell phone cameras much of the media has become a continuous distraction, with no shortage of content though most of it is totally without substance. In this way, maybe Look It’s Jesus is a suitable vehicle for transporting these tales to more people. But if all you want is a peek, might as well just keep surfing the web.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

All About the Light

In Mercedes, Texas, according to this KRGV report, Merced Mendoza spotted this image of Jesus on her pants and her husband was there to photograph it using his phone. As she drove, Mendoza spotted the image on her thigh. By virtue of the sun’s location, how it landed on her otherwise plain jeans and matters of physics beyond my ability to describe, the form took shape, just long enough for it to be digitized, and then submitted to the media. The Mendozas “lead a small church” and find the fleeting face a blessing that inspires them, and they hope it does the same for others.

Now to Puerto Rico and the pale winter skin of a New Yorker on vacation. Not just any New Yorker, this arm marked with a sunburn shaped like a hand belongs to my pal and the internationally acclaimed champion of charaben, Christopher D Salyers. Christopher missed out on last week’s snow, preferring to laze on a beach. He did get a little local culture in, however, including a stop in a store where he noticed a photograph of clouds shaped like hands folded in prayer. When Christopher inquired about the image (thinking of yours truly) he was told that these were believed to be the hands of God. And then, later that day this shape emerged on his arm. But, says Christopher, he neither napped nor drunkenly passed out in the sun, leaving in question the source of the unique marking.

Back in April I explored various interpretations of “hand of God” should any of you want to read up on the concept.

In both of these examples the sun was the cause. But what was the reason?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

It Ain’t Easy Being Ahead of the Curve

I wonder if Nicolas Baier ever feels this way. The image above is “Canada in the Marsh of a Golf Course in Laval 2007” from the artist’s series Pareidolias. Baier works with damaged mirrors to play with viewers’ ideas of perception. As this article from Artdaily.org says: “Our likeness cannot be seen in the scratches, cracks, holes and other markings of these damaged surfaces, but it is practically impossible not to continue to seek for whatever may constitute an image, be it a hand here, a bear’s head there, the surface of a pond or distant galaxies . . . There is always more to see; the gaze ceaselessly invests these marks with a meaning they do not intrinsically have.”

Ain’t that the truth! Way back in 2007 my book Madonna of the Toast was released, resulting in the start of its eponymous blog – the one you’re reading right now. Since then, I’ve read all over the country and had folks say some really nice things about both the book and blog. The time and effort I’ve devoted to this project have resulted in my thinking about these stories in terms of greater cultural significance. Nicolas Baier and I work in different mediums but mull over the same ideas. The regular readers amongst you know all of this. But, it has been brought to my attention that a new book, Look It’s Jesus, has been released recently.

I have yet to see the actual book but as soon as I read it I’ll be sure to post a response.

Have any of you seen this book? Thoughts?

Monday, January 25, 2010

New Book, Slightly New Direction

Hi Folks,

While this here blog will remain a source for Madonna of the Toast stories, I am going to change things up a bit. There are a few reasons for this, but the primary one is the pending release of my first collection of short stories, I Like To Keep My Troubles On The Windy Side Of Things.

In true indie spirit, we’re going to avoid Amazon for the time being, but you can learn more about the book, and order it, here. Starting next month the book should begin to appear in select independent bookstores.

For those of you in New York, I’ll be reading at Housing Works on Monday, February 1, joined by fellow Fractious Press author John Controna, with Rachel Levitsky and Kevin Varrone from Ugly Duckling Presse, plus the song stylings of Franklin Bruno.

The official release party for the book will take place on Saturday, February 27, at KGB, where Alex Rose will join me, along with others.

As more readings and events take shape, here in New York and elsewhere, I’ll post info.

For the past three years I’ve kept things pretty focused around here. My interest in Madonna of the Toast phenomena remains keen, though certain of the stories have begun to feel canned. As a result, and in light of this little book of fiction and other projects simmering away, I’m going to expand the subject matter. Sometimes I might just point you in the direction of something I find interesting, but if all goes as planned I will also share longer pieces about culture at large, which I honestly believe is echoed in all these happenings that I relay to you: religion, technology, media, pop culture, e-commerce – these are the filters through which most people understand the world, and that’s significant.

Happy Reading!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Potato Cross x 2

Everyone is talking about it. Or at least everyone that tracks homespun local interest reports that attract national and international media interest because they are about Jesus or Mary showing up in some unexpected place. So here we have one story that becomes a couple stories, which all end up being the same kind of story, the old Madonna of the Toast story.

According to The BIG One – WTAM 1100, Dennis Bort of Berea, Ohio, was peeling potatoes, on Christmas Day no less, when he found a cross in one of the spuds. Now it’s up for grabs on eBay. But guess what? It’s not the only potato cross available on eBay right now. On New Year’s Eve a woman in Iowa found one too, though this one is more rough hewn.

Who remembers this potato cross from my January 23, 2008, post? You don’t remember? It’s much better than this post, which is just more of the same when it comes to these stories. There is one bid on the Iowa potato, while the Ohio one has a minimum of $1,000. Guess what? That one won’t sell. But, if you check out the older story, you can also get a little dose of James Joyce and my secret ingredient for making the best potato salad.