A new favorite novel, a new favorite comic,
and some other stuff, mostly good


041) The Brothers K by David James Duncan, finished May 18

Shortly, this year's baseball book is one of the best novels I have ever read. This is no puffery, this is fact. I can't push it into your hands fast enough.

Here's the thing about reading books for me that is different than it was long ago: I read books for craft. I read something hilarious or something heartbreaking and I say to myself, hey! nice craft, that! I do not, however, laugh or cry.

Which is why I love this book so much. This book DID make me laugh. This book DID make me cry. And it did so through intensely well written prose and complicated storytelling.

Complicated's the wrong word. The book isn't hard to follow. But it doesn't have a simple "plot." It's the story of a family with all their starts and stops and loves and losses and discoveries and disasters. It's life, all packed into 716 pages. (That's another thing: when was the last time I read a book of 716 pages?)

Perhaps my favorite thing about the novel is that each character is fully drawn, and that that drawing is largely attained by showing them bouncing off each other---and the world around them.

This is the story of a ballplayer and his religious wife and their larger-than-life kids---and before you roll your eyes, let me remind you that we were all larger than life, at one time, at least according to our own perspective. "Amazing" kids do not, however, always grow up to become Wikipedia articles.

This is now my favorite baseball novel, my favorite Vietnam novel, my favorite Washington state novel...and it has the best explanation of Roger Maris I've ever read.

And more remarkable of all, Theric plans to reread it. And as we all know, Theric does not reread these days. But I'll be rereading this one some year soon when I'm considering my choices for annual baseball read.
since spring training


040) Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, finished May 18

The movie was a favorite of my wife's. I can't remember for sure, but I think when we watched it together, I was not as sold. But when this book fell into my possession (with ecstatic period blurbs), I started reading it in my free moments at work (eg, while the kids are taking tests) and wrapped it up surprisingly fast. It's not nearly as funny in 2015 as I guess it was in 1955, but I did laugh a time or two. What was most enjoyable about it was the look at the time period. Midcentury classism! Racism in transition! Fashion trends I can't begin to understand!

What fun.

a month or two


039) Skandalon by Julie Maron, finished May 1

Yeah, so, hm. Anyway, this look at fame and art and whatever started intriguing and just got dumber and dumber until it got dumbest and was done. This French artist is sorta a big deal (you may have heard of the movie based on her previous book Blue is the Warmest Color, but I'm not impressed by her follow up. It's draped in philosophy and psychology, but the fanciest curtains don't change the hole in the wall.
two nights


038) The Final Story by Jeff Shaara, finished April 29

I don't read a lot of historical fiction, and the only World War II fiction for adults I can remember reading is Dean Hughes's Children of the Promise series, and this novel shares a lot in common with those ones' scenes of the Pacific. I remember very clearly the scene of one point-of-view character getting killed on the beach of Iwo Jima or Midway or one of those rocks. This book is similar, though grimier and with a few more bad words. They're also similar stylistically---great storytellers, middling wordsmiths. That said, I enjoyed the book, I learned a lot, I'm glad I read it.

It was lent to me by a WWII vet who served in Okinawa (the primary setting of the book). He was on a ship rather than on the ground, but he let me borrow it because a) I had given him my Gallery book (which he had liked) and thought I would do well to understand what the war was like in his theater. I'm looking forward to returning the book to him and having a chat. He's one of my favorites.
four months or so


037) Shutter Volume 1: Wanderlost by Joe Keatinge and Leila Del Duca et al, finished April 29

These comics just keep getting better! Though The Motherless Oven is more to my taste, Shutter is probably just as good. (I say "probably" because, as a serial, it remains unfinished.) In a world part Jules Verne, part Oz, part Hellboy, part Blacksad, part Dreaming, all awesome, our young hero is thrust back into the world of danger and adventure she had thought she'd left behind. Only now, instead of it being the family business, hitherto unknown family secrets are rising up to kill her.

In the lousy six issues collected here, the world---in all its alien insanity---is fully formed and the necessary character arc has been sketched out. And we care about her. We really do. Because we see this is a world where people die horrible, violent, irrevocable deaths. Plus she suddenly has a kid brother to care for, so there's that as well.

Anyway, after the other collections I've read recently, I haven't usually been upset they ended. They're a nice taste and I'm done. Not so with Shutter. I want more. More more more. It's been a while since I've been so tempted to subscribe.

two or three days

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Why the Apple Watch is already a failure


Look. I'm not an early adopter and so no one really cares about what I think about new tech. And sure, I'll bet Apple sells a kajillion of the dumb things. But the product is still a failure at appling as Apple is supposed to do. The iPod, the iPhone---these truly disrupted the market and changed the nature of modern life. Especially---although it was a long time ago and hard to remember these days---the iPod.

The iPod got old people who had never really latched on to cds to skip a few generations of product and sign up for something new. Here in 2015, most people can't accept that I don't have a smartphone (or any cellphone for that matter), but I don't and I'm unlikely ever to get one. Why would I? They're expensive, intrusive, annoying, not something I want in my pocket, and an utter endless hassle. The Apple Watch is marketed to take away all the hassles of owning a phone. Except, of course, it only works if you carry an iPhone around with you.

So the Watch doesn't allow a willing leapfrogger like myself to leap some frogs. I'm trapped. Even though I recognize the world has passed me by and I'm getting anxious to rejoin it, even though I imagine it will be a wearable device that finally brings me back to the future, this wearable device that requires me to carry around a phone isn't merely redundant: It's backwards.

And that's a failure for any Brave New Device.

So try harder, tech companies.

Apple's leaving the door wide open on this one.

Svithe: Heavenly Mother on Mother's Day


This was my introduction to the talks last Sunday (molaq).


Some things are stupidly radical. Do you know what I mean? Radical because no one else is doing them; stupidly because WHY IS NO ONE ELSE DOING THEM???

One of Mormonism’s radical---if stupidly radical---doctrines is belief in our Heavenly Mother. According to a 2011 article in BYU Studies, Heavenly Mother has been spoken of dozens---maybe hundreds---of times in official settings by the Church’s general leadership. I’m aware of maybe a hundred poems by LDS poets about or mentioning our Heavenly Mother. And, as the Article of Faith says, we believe that many great and important things are yet to be revealed, so it’s reasonable to expect more insight regarding our Heavenly Mother going forward. But what apostasy led to this need for restoration?

It’s a more complicated question than the simplified answer I’m about to give, but almost three thousand years ago, much of what we call the Old Testament was molded by a group of scribes now called the Deuteronimist. Among other goals, they attempted to excise from the record any mention of the divine feminine. They were largely successful. Hence the Article of Faith stating we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. Hence the need for a Restoration.

Now we come to our stupidly radical plan for today: to rejoice in our Heavenly Mother. Yet, notwithstanding dozens---maybe hundreds---of mentions in General Conference and official statements, including the proclamation on the family, or the heartfelt statements of our poets (or of our own hearts), what do we really know?

Now, when knowledge of the Messiah was slight, we relied on types. Moses was a type for the coming Christ. He delivered his people. He raised a symbol of grace, that all who looked upon it might be saved. Adam is a type for Christ. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. Through similarity and contrast, through magnificence and plainness, the scriptures set up mere mortals to teach us of our Savior and of our Heavenly Parents. Today we will examine three great women and consider what we can learn of our Heavenly Mother through them.

[X] will speak of Eve, the mother of all living, and a type for our Heavenly Mother.

[Y] will speak of Deborah, a mother in Israel, and a type for our Heavenly Mother.

And [Z] will speak of Mary, the mother of our Lord, and a type for our Heavenly Mother.

previous svithe


So you're interested in why the Latter-day Saints
feel a [doctrinal] need to care about the planet....


I would start *here* with some "official" thoughts then read *this* that they link to. Then I would check out *this* set of links from some Mormons particularly vested, and then settle into *this* which might be the finest single publication on the topic.


I read some comics




036) The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis, finished April 27

Hands down the best comic I've read in this burst of comics reading. (Harder to say how it compares to, say, the other books nominated for the Best Graphic Album---New Eisner, two of which I have read [The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil and Seconds] and both of which were good. Maybe tied for first with Seconds?)

Anyway. This is a black-and-white and, like some of the books below, starts in the sort of schools where everyone wears a tie. But it's nothing like anything at all. I picked it off the new-shelf in the library. The back led with the line THE WEATHER CLOCK SAID KNIFE O'CLOCK. / SO I CHAINED DAD UP IN THE SHED. I assumed it was about some psychotic kid and thought why not, I've done well with such in the past.

But I misjudged the book. I should have taken it a bit more literally:

This is not the world as we know it, even if the kids wear ties and speak with British accents. This is a world where kids make their nonhuman parents, where household gods never shut up, where your death is scheduled from the very beginning, where seasons can be turned with a switch, and where lions may eat you if you try to skip school.

I admire how Davis presents us with a fully formed world, but doesn't force his characters to explain every detail. The book ends with only slightly fewer mysteries than it began. In fact, you might argue that the mysteries deepen. And I think that's why the end is so emotionally moving. We had a chance to arrive somewhere and instead we're left trapped in the mysteries. As confused as we started. And heartbroken.

about five days


035) Zero Volume 1: An Emergency by Ales Kot et al, finished April 22

If you scan down to #34 you'll note my somewhat disappointed look at a school for assassins. Only one chapter (formerly: issue) of this volume is about assassin school. And it packs more uncertainty and pain and disaster and humanity into those few pages than Deadly Class did in its entire collection.

The rest of the book is largely about this student's adult life as a superspy and skips about in time with chaotic elegance. I can't imagine picking up an issue once a month and being able to follow the story, but collected it works nicely. It does take occasional turns to the scifi that are hard to figure out and I'll probably never pick up further volumes to get it straight. Ah well. It was an ambitious book and fun to read, even if I never find out just what the heck was going on.
fourish days


034) Deadly Class Volume 1: Reagan Youth by Rick Remender, finished April 19

This dark look at high school takes an orphan off the streets and puts him in a high-school for assassins beneath the bedrock of San Francisco. Much of the comic is heightened, but this succeeds more in making the horror horrific than pulling off other intended effects, such as humor. While the satire, of which there is not much, generally hits the mark, the parody, or which there is much more, generally falls flat. As if the text is purposefully not funny, then daring you not to laugh. Lest the text then slips a blade between your ribs.

The book also has some problems with clarity of chronology. It's strengths are developing secondary characters and using words and art to specific effects such as the protag's bad acid trip.

The book's postword by writer Rick Remender tells stories showing that this is a very autobiographical tale of his own violent youth.

Anyway. The book is flawed nonetheless. For instance, it spends time setting up the various divided-by-race cliques at the school, then sets off on a road trip with a black kid, an asian kid, a couple hispanic kids, and a white kid. Because diversity! Even though that would seem to contradict the original . . . . I dunno. Props for intent, I suppose. Execution though. *rimshot*
one evening and past midnight


033) Animal Man Vol. 4: Splinter Species by Jeff Lemire et al, finished April 17

Animal Man, like Swamp Thing (see below), is engaged in one of those nuevo mythologies DC delights in creating. In this case of these two titles, we have the Red (animal life), the Green (plant life), and the Rot (aka the Black---I'm not sure if it represents fungal life and bacterial whatsit or just entropy). Each force chooses a human avatar to represent it on earth and is ultimately unassailable (or was until they started writing stories about 'em all, natch).

Animal Man has an interestingish sideplot where the hero moonlights (and is better known) as a movie star. And I liked the way it managed social media. Probably the best use of social media I've seen in a comic.

But ultimately, I feel like Jeff Lemire's talents are being wasted here. I like that he's making a living, but man, I liked Essex County so much more.
one evening and past midnight


032) Swamp Thing Vol. 4: Seeder by Charles Soule et al, finished April 15

This was sitting in the library's NEW FICTION section. I wasn't that enthralled by earlier collections, but hey! Why not?Anyway, it skipped the previous Big Villain and is on to a new one who I think I like better but whom we don't really meet here. Till the next one appears on the NEW FICTION shelf!
two days

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Changing weights of words


In 1955, it seems in this excerpt from Auntie Mame, black was a less acceptable term than colored.


Just some books I read


031) Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, finished April 6

This was my in-the-car book when Terry Pratchett died. I don't know if it was any more or less appropriate than any other Pratchett book to be reading at the time, but it certainly colored my reading. Not in an effable way, but I thought about the author more than I usually would.

Small Gods, I believe, takes place long, long, long before most of the Discworld books. The primary characters are Brutha, a young fellow none so smart, and the great god Om---whose religion we know from other books---reduced to one believer and life as a tortoise.

Although all the usual Pratchett gifts for satire and close observation are on display, in some respects, this novel feels more straightforward. Even when, at the end, unexpected, impossible things keep happening keep happening keep happening. I don't know how many times poeple turned to me as I was reading this book and said, "What?"

Anyway, it builds on the idea I think Pratchett popularized, but that we see often now in books starring gods as characters (one example from a Pratchett acolyte) that the strength of a god is commensurate to the amount of belief in that god.

The novel has much to say about faith and superstition and manipulation and government and philosophy and goodness and evil and a million other things (it is, after all, a Pratchett novel), but it is also immense fun and pure pleasure. It is, after all, a Pratchett novel.
i dunno maybe a month


030) The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith, finished April 2

First: Violet Kupersmith is a fabulous new talent and let's all of us be excited she's on the scene.

Second, this lovely cover is perfectly appropriate for the stories therein.

Third, this is a stupid cover for this book. Just stupid. This book has major crossover potential with genre readers and this cover will never draw them in. Plus, sadly, "literary" fiction is never released mass-market anymore and so this book will fade away instead of finding new life with another audience. Meanwhile the hibrows can enjoy reading something that tickles their fun organ while gloating that it's better than popular stuff.

What sort of stupid world is this?

And I have to say: the choice of story title to make the collection title is part of the conspiracy to keep this out of the hands of reg'lar folk. What a shame.

What we have here are stories set in Vietnam or among the Vietnamese community in Houston. We have stories with ghosts and monsters and memories and maybes, the supernatural collapsing casually upon the everyday world. And wow are they great. Surprising, unsettling, beautiful. So glad my wife randomly picked this up in the library. Because I doubt I would have.
about a month


029) The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin, finished March 29

At the boy's elementary-school's book fair, I was intrigued by a pair of books by one Steve Sheinkin (Bomb and Lincoln's Grave Robbers). I looked him up on the library website when I came home and besides putting those on hold, I also found this comic book about an Old West rabbi. So of course I had to have that as well.

The Rabbi is wise and simple and funny and I had no idea the West had so many Jews. Remarkable! Now I need to look up the good rebbe's continuing adventures.

In short, I found everything I love about old Jewish wisdom tales and Isaac Bashevis Singer and Asimov's Jewish jokes, all done in sepia with some cards on the side. What's not to like?

three days


028) Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits edited by John Maloof, finished March 23

When I watched the film (link to review), I was struck by Maier's peculiar life history (what had brought me to the film) but even more I was struck by her photography. And so I got this book.

I'm so glad I did. Some of the shots she got are nearly impossible to explain (at least with my knowledge)---layers of images upon images. This is startling and moving work. And to think this most anonymous of women will someday likely be one of the most recognized faces of the last century. . . . And one of the most recognizable shadows, sinister in other circumstances, her arms akimbo, gazing upon her own absence.

The introduction by Elizabeth Avedon gets to this problem for scholars. Here we have an artist who is clearly significant and of lasting importance, but her era has already been explained away---without her---and so we don't know what the right, accepted things to say about her are. Avedon knows the right vocabulary but not what she's supposed to say about a recently unearthed enigma. It's a curious thing to observe.

I only wish it had been three times as many pages.
two or three days

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


First batch of 2015 feature films seen


In theaters:

Annie (2014): Although the 1982 film is a big part of my childhood, I haven't seen it in over twenty years. The only moment of oh-yeah recognition I felt here was at the name "Pepper." Everything else was either remembered or changed beyond recognition. Bits of the movie work well (and I'll admit the emotional climax got me), but overall it's too flawed to recommend. The biggest issue is character development which the writers and director seems to think means characters doing things out of their established character. Which I suppose on some simplistic level is sort of true, but no. Jamie Foxx played two or three characters well. The only major character who survived the whiplash was Annie---they still happened, but Ms Wallis is so grounded you might miss it. The humor usually falling flat's another major issue. And the movie's confusion over whether it's a straight-up musical or an ironic musical's a third. Anyway. Guess I need to go back in time thirty years and see how Carol Burnett holds up.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014): What a glorious mess this movie is. Crammed so full of stuff that the story is nearly strangled. In their desperation to connect the Hobbit movies to the Lord of the Rings movies, Wingnut sacrificed making the best possible Hobbit movie. I hope someone with sense convinces them to release a Special Edition Hobbit that's a single movie under four hours in length. Wouldn't that be nice? Anyway, we caught it on its last Bay Area screen and now we are done with them. I didn't even find this one as interesting to look at as the last two, which is all I was expecting. So while I was entertained, I mostly learned that the more armor you have, the more likely you are to die. (Incidentally, Lady Steed has the compelling theory that the manner in which orcs are grown is why they break down and die more easily. That does solve a number of problems.)

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015): It was funny. And filled with surreal ridiculousness. Didn't really congeal as a movie, but I laughed.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014): First, if you haven't seen the trailer already, DON'T. It doesn't give away some of everything, but it gives away too much of a little. Not cool, trailer-makers. Second, although not as HILARIOUS HILARIOUS HILARIOUS HILARIOUS HILARIOUS HILARIOUS HILARIOUS as the marketing claims, it was very funny; I laughed more at this than any in-theater film in a while. Note to the squeamish: Lady Steed thought it contained a bit too much squirting blood. Which is to say it contained any squirting blood.

At home:

Her (2013): Nostalgic cinematography and an utterly believable near future and a plot unlike any other I've seen. I never knew what was coming, but not because of any gotcha gimmicks. And the acting! Phoenix is amazing. Adams is amazing. And . . . I just can't get over how believable the bulk of it all was. What a great movie. Mundane science fiction at its best.

Moneyball (2011): Such a good movie. And, working as I currently am on a screenplay, so exquisitely constructed. And the acting. And the direction. What a great movie. And it captures so much so true about baseball. Gah.

The Gold Rush (1925): I'm not sure about that "1925." We watched the Criterion version, first their 2007ish recreation of the lost 1925 version, then Chaplin's own reworked 1941 version---what, I suppose, should be called the authoritative version. (Because of introductions, I say the beginnings of both, the ending of one, the middle of neither. I'm counting it anyway.) But "1925" is as a good a year as any. The real point is that the movie is great. The kids? Rolling. I do think 1941's narration changes the purity of the slapstick on some way. As Lady Steed put it, the fight over the gun seems more serious when narrated, more cartoony when silent. Regardless! Classic stuff.

Jaws (1975): The beach parts were scary, but once they're on the boat, it's an action movie---not a horror movie. I didn't know! My memory of Jaws is of 2 or 3 (the one at an aquarium) and it being scary. I'm totally okay with my kids watching this film. Exciting stuff. I get why it's beloved. [UPDATE: The 5yrold was very sad I returned this to the library without his seeing it and asked and asked and asked and finally I got it again so he could watch it. We skipped the first scene (and I was in and out) but he was glued and loved it. His older brothers kept getting hooked as well---then running away.]

The One I Love (2014): Wow. I was expecting a romcom structured like a horror movie and instead I got one of the finest bits of Twilight-Zoney science fiction I can remember seeing it. I loved this movie. I want to watch it again. Then maybe again. Then maybe again.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014): Before I get into what I thought of the film, let me say what I thought of renting from Amazon Instant: I HATED IT. It hiccupped constantly which would be upsetting in the shakycammest of speedcutty films, but this was mostly one fluid long shot, so it was pretty much the worst thing ever. I want my five dollars back. As for the film, I think I liked it, but the experience of watching it on Amazon Instant got in the way. The acting is incredible. The story is fascinating. The look backstage was enjoyable. The characters are clearly drawn without thick crayon lines. The writing seemed pretty great. The editing was amazing. I'm not sure how they did it---the intricacy of planning goes way beyond the cameras-into-the-back Hitchcock used in Rope, and I would love to know more about it. In short, I think I really liked this movie, but it's hard to be sure. Thanks a lot, Amazon. Who I'm freaking advertizing all over this post..... [:::::UPDATE::::: SIX DAYS LATER WITHOUT ANY REQUEST OR INPUT FROM ME, AMAZON REFUNDED MY MONEY. Thanks a lot, Amazon!]

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967): This time, the California gold rush. This movie is one of the silly Disney liveactioners of the '60s, and every bit as much fun as that implies. I think my kids found it slowgoing at times, but at other times they were pounding walls with laughter. Me, I find the whole thing charming and clever. And I miss the bits of absurdity that films of that time felt free to incorporate. Realism has taken too strong a hold on comedy.

21 Jump Street (2012): So . . . that wasn't worth watching. I mean---it was what I expected, but it wasn't what many many many people with taste promised me. I laughed but I could've spent those 110 minutes better engaged. Ah well.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971): It's been a looooong time since I've seen this movie---probably over twenty years---but it's still familiar and, to my surprise, I really liked it. I can appreciate the tunnel scene better now (and the skills of the chicken lopper). And Gene Wilder's performance---add it to the short list of roles I admire in such a way that I'm jealous I didn't get to do it myself. So satisfying! So glad we made our kids watch this one first.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): So this film has a handful of moments, but overall it's just . . . artificial. Starting with the plastic animation and routing over and over again through the bizarre mistake that is Willy Wonka, it just rings false. Sure, it's wonderfully manufactured nonsense, but sometimes a sequence of careful perfection ends in a pile of suck. Even the kids could tell that was the case. They preferred the handmade honesty of the 1971 version, even though this one had a pink boat rowed by Oompa-Loompas and the original song lyrics and squirrels shelling the nuts---even though this one, on the surface, was closer to the book in other words. Of course, it's still not as awful or unwatchable as Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. So it has that going for it.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): I need to see this again so I can watch it without thinking about how it compares to the story (with which I am intimately familiar), but I think it was a very good movie. Certainly it had looked good and was well acted. Lady Steed really liked it and she's not familiar with the Thurber (and yet I married her). Ben Stiller's work is best when it has a serious undertone and is not just overthetop grossout silly. I need to watch it again, but I think it was good. Quite likely very good. And full of visual beauties. It was worth whatever they spent.

Finding Vivian Maier (2013): Fascinating movie. At times, I was too aware that the filmmaker's a bit of a hustler with a lot of money to make off this lost artist, but he addresses that and ultimately I forgive him because revealing Vivian Maier to the world is important and her work is beautiful and he's the one who revealed it. The film is structured such that it moves from mystery to her art to her story to her inner darkness to the redemption of art. This was a terrific movie and now I want to sit in a comfortable chair and move slowly through a 500-page volume of her self-portraits.***

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): Watching this movie makes my screenwriting efforts feel so amature. What a great, great movie. I know Kohl disowns me when I say it, but it's my favorite Wes Anderson.


Duck Soup (1933): Always one more joke to pick out of the mess. And boy oh boy but is it a glorious mess!

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007): I don't know if it's precisely fair to say I "watched" this movie. It was on and I was in the room most of the time, but I was talking to another adult and wrestling with three crazy kids at the time. So I "saw" a goodly amount of it and "heard" a similar amount (though not always the same parts). Based on that, I think it's true that Imelda Staunton's Umbridge was quite good and that it's the best Harry Potter movie I've ever seen. (For those keeping track, in Theric's opinion, 1 is a travesty against humanity; 3 and 4 are dull and not very good but watchable.)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): I really really really really really really really wish this movie had done beaucoup box office and changed the boldness of studio executives forever. #ha #haha #hahaha

Frank (2014): Not sold by the ending, but the film still had a certain something that compels a day later. Maybe it's the music (a cross between the Magnetic Fields and King Missile). Maybe it's Michael Fassbender's compelling voice. Maybe it's that head. I don't know. I wouldn't recommend going out of your way, but I wouldn't attempt to dissuade you either. I'm not sure where I stand on this one.

Romeo and Juliet (1968): Brightest moment was my TA nearly crying. Warms my heart to know that souls still live.

The Princess Bride (1987): Even the parts that don't seem to work are perfect. Such a well constructed comedy.

Previous films watched




Aldous Huxley on James Joyce

Ulysses is obviously a very extraordinary book. I mean---I don't know exactly why he wrote it because a great deal of Ulysses seems to me to be taken up with showing a large number of methods in which a novels [sic] cannot be written. I suppose it's a great book.... I mean, although there are splendid passages, I don't think it's a success as a whole.
Hear the whole thing yourself including discussion also of Proust and Hemingway.


Two astonishing novels you should imagine
me pressing into your open hands


So here's something I'm learning about myself. My favorite form of fiction is the short novel. Below I'll discuss two that are utterly excellent and are both about a woman coming into her own. Both are just stunning. Both have killing closings that left me literally short of breath.

027) Passing by Nella Larsen, finished March 18

Holy crap. What a book! So . . . wow. Why the heck hasn't this novel ever been given a decent cover?

Anyway, it's the 1920s. The two main characters are African-American women---culturally. Were you to pass them on the street and see their white skins dressed in finery, you would be unlikely to guess. They can pass as white whenever they like, and one has chosen to pass permanently. She has married a white man and abandoned her black past entirely until she happens to meet the other women at a fine hotel restaurant. Thus setting in place a certain tragedy.

Irene, the woman who stayed, seems more troubled by the risks the passer takes as she returns to Negro society than the passer does herself. And the difficulties and risks increase as time passes.

Until the tragic end. I thought I knew what was coming, having accidentally read half a sentence from the scholarly introduction, but boy oh boy was I wrong. It was in fact much more ambiguous and complicated and awful and wonderful and savory and disastrous than that half-sentences suggested.

The pain of these two women---so different yet so similar in origin---is one of the most emotionally evocative things I've read in some time.

And it gives me a new lens to think about the us of today. Where are these women? Do they still feel trapped?

In the film, do we have Amanda Seyfried play the passer, or do we hunt for someone with one drop of Plessy's blood?
maybe three weeks


026) Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson, finished March 17

Holy cow I love this book. My expectations were ill-defined but this book managed to exceed them anyway. Since all I've previously read of Shirley Jackson is The Lottery and One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts and Haunting of Hill House, I suppose I expected a thriller and mystery and murder and the supernatural and suchlike. The cover certainly encouraged that:

Or check out the back, especially that money quote from the Chronicle:

(Incidentally, for a look at other old covers of the book, see this post. Some of the newer covers are better. Like the current American Penguin or, my favorite although not the most accurate, the current British Penguin.)

Anyway. Utter nonsense. (Although the book was published in 1951 and so people may have had a true-life horror story in mind as they read it. Not so anymore.) But then, maybe that's just because I'm insane. Looking around a bit, it seems like people are reading protagonist Natalie as crazy whereas I recognize her thought processes as much like my own and therefore not strange or surprising in the least. Dangerous? Sure. But no more dangerous than crossing the street. She's refective and solipsistic and confused and constantly narrating. You know. Like George Orwell.

Anyway, you can view it as a suspense story if you like, but to me it's simply a terrific bildungsroman. And one from the underserved female pov. Seriously. This feels like a glimpse into the secret female mind, an inner sanctum to which I should not have been allowed*.

Natalie is 17 throughout the book. She moves from high-school senior to college freshman (and if you're wondering if I would teach this book the answer is YES). She experiences horrors slight and serious (very serious), but primarily she's stumbling through life trying to find out who Natalie is. Will she uncover the adult Natalie? Will she even survive?

And that's the suspense. I don't like the way the cover describes its suspense because it makes it sound like Silence of the Lambs when the story it's telling is much quieter, much more internal. And much more universal. Natalie is the 17yrold every[wo]man. I saw myself in her. I daresay you will too.

Press this book upon those who are young and lost.

Another marvelous aspect of this book is its depiction of 1951. This isn't the sockhop Fifties, but for a 17yrold, World War II is already ancient history. It's an era often skipped over when we imagine the 20th century, neither the distant past nor the burgeoning present. It's a foreign country easily mistaken for home. (Although it will, I think, to my students simply be ancient.)

One last thing: the novel ever explains the title. Here's the explanation. Good luck with it.


(comments after reading reviews online)

Although at first I was resistant to the is-Tony-real angle (and still am---aspects of it are tough to jive), I now find it rather compelling. Certainly something to consider closely on a reread.

I failed to mention that the trauma I hinted at seems to have largely defined the course of the novel. Should have done so.

I should probably read The Bell Jar to compare and contrast.

I agree that the final paragraph is utterly beautiful.

"Turning its pages, traces of Natalie stained my fingertips."

"it’s the kind of book that sends you searching immediately for other people’s ideas of what it is you’ve just read"

see also
under a month

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Books, books, the magical fruit


025) Ghost World by Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff, finished March 16

I'm going to start reading some screenplays of movies I admire that do some of the same things or dealw with some of the same themes and characters of my current screenproject. This is the first. Good stuff. I'm not sure I could have pictured it without having seen the movie first, though.
half a week


024) Hawkeye: L.A. Woman by Matt Fraction and some very talented artists, finished March 15

Okay. Moving with Kate to LA and forgetting about Barton entirely and letting Kate Kinsey Millhone it up (mostly unsuccessfully) made for one of the most human superhero stories I've ever read---even when it ended up being peopled by meat puppets.

A huge success. And the interplay of word and picture is a masterclass in what comics alone can do. Now I get why Scott McCloud wanted to include it in BMC.
one lying-in-bed


023) Hawkeye: Little Hits by Matt Fraction and a large number of artists, finished March 14

Okay. NOW I get it. The art is dynamic and simple and expressive and varied. The writing remains experimental but is getting more confident and, frankly, more successful. I appreciate this formal experimental bent, and Fraction's talents seem better applied here than they were in FF. I'm now a believer.
two days


022) Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction and David Aja and Javier Pulido, finished March 12

Did I enjoy this book? Yes. Certainly. I get why people like it. The writing's clever, the plotting and panelling is clever, the colors are fun but understated. What I don't get is what makes this the greatest comic since like ever as I've been hearing. That I don't get. Sorry.
two nights

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Is Santa real?


021) Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation by Eric Kaplan, finished March 11

First, regardless of what Matt Groening says, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar is a funnier book on philosophy.

Nice to get that off my chest.

As you may recall, I have at best an ambiguous relationship with Santa Claus. And so . . . and so I'm not sure why I even picked this book up. Maybe for therapy.

In brief, Kaplan starts by talking about how the Santa question drove a (parent-drive) wedge between his son and a friend. He then addresses the question of Santa's existence via logic, via mysticism, via comedy, via kabbalah.

Logic and mysticism get a thorough rundown (logic's is more thorough, but mysticism can get redundant, so we'll forgive this). His most intriguing argument is putting comedy on an equal philosophical footing with logic and mysticism, though I feel constrained to call the chapter a bit underdeveloped. For a couple reasons. First, he doesn't have as many experts to rely on to bolster his argument. Second, he bumps into a problem, sort of a corollary to Poe's law:
Kaplan's corollary: After establishing a humorous tone, it's impossible to tell if lesser humorous portions of a work are intended to be taken more or less seriously than the work as a whole.
For instance, he gives a long exegesis of the the Cheese Shop Sketch, claiming it "is obviously about the Holocaust and the destruction of European civilization in World War I and II" (143). Really? I mean, ha ha?
Anyway. I really did like the comedy section best. He makes a solid argument that laughter is how we resolve paradox. And he uses that solution to dig into the absurdity of the book's very existence.

As we're reading about comedy, I'm really loving this book and wishing there wasn't a three-page explication of a Sarah Silverman joke about licking a penis. I'm not sure I can fit that into a high-school curriculum.

He even manages to tie in the English-class definition of comedy:
Since ancient times, comedies have always ended in a wedding. This is because they are the formation of larger wholes---both between people and between warring subsystems within the self. (149)
(Maybe you have to read the book.)

Anyway. Kabbalah. As Kaplan will eventually explain, this is because these sorts of explanations are ultimately personal. And as an esoteric Jewish fellow, he's attracted to teachings from the Ari and friends. Stands to reason.

The problem is that the book was structured to make the comedy chapters the [philosophical] climax of the book, and so the next section on the unfamiliar, kabbalah, though it eventually (evehhhhhhntually) paid off, was at times a total drag.

Which is why I'm stopping here and not citing any other of my bent pages with Kaplan's explanation of what makes all this search for Santa ultimately personal:
I'm not really advocating that you take my mixture and swallow it. I'm just showing you how I did it so you can do it yourself. So my brain and my life have gotten to a place where I can more or less function by putting together these reflections oj logic, mysticism, comedy, and the kabbalah. If you're a half-Belgian, half-Pakistani lion-tamer atheist, I would expect your take on Santa Claus would include a mixture of Sufism, atheism, lion lore, and Luc Sante. I'm not saying I'm not trying to start a cult---of course I am. Cult leader is a great job, and anybody who had the chance to apply would be crazy not to. But you should start a cult too, and I'll let you be in my cult if I can be in yours.
That, I think, is the ultimate value of this volume. Not that it determines the existence of Santa (spoiler alert: he exists), but that it demonstrates the process of thinking (and feeling) (and laughing) through the process of deciding what Santa, or, rather, life, means.

And that's something high-school students would do well to grapple with. Jellied penises or no jellied penises.
two or three weeks


020) Babymouse #8: Puppy Love by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, finished March 11

Aren't the Babymouse books fun? Manic and fun. Fast and manic and fun. And jampacked with added-value jokery.
mere minutes

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Check yo'self


I decided to see where my gender breakdown is at the moment in books I'm reading (because):

Some of these colors are iffy (should Middlemarch be purple?) and this is limited to books I've read from in the last ten days but have not yet finished (I read way too many books at a time), but as a snapshot it feels accurate.

Oh. And I just realized I've forgotten a book I last read from eight days ago. (It's really good.)

Ah well. Close enough.


also a freaking awesome cowboy comic
a weird gamer novel
and stuff


019) The Book of Mormon, finished March 3

It took a long long long time, but we finally got the kids through the entire Book of Mormon. We used a mix of missionary free copies (including some from the 70s), triple combinations, and Grant Hardy's excellent reader's edition.

This time through took each kid from sounding out monosyllabic words to two of them reading just fine.

We made it through. We did it. We did it.


Time to start again!
literally years


018) Cow Boy: A Boy and His Horse by Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos, finished March 1

Of all the graphic novels I've seen aimed at kids in recent years, this is one of the simplest, smartest, purest, and most complex. A young boy out hunting for his family, out to collect the bounty on each lousy one of them.

It also has some of the most original and accurate onomatopoeia and dialect I've read. You only have 20 months before volume two comes out, so get on it!


017) Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, finished February 26

If I had read the author bio, I admit I would not have taken this home from the library. This does not say good things about me, that I'm skeptical of a novel because the author is a musician, but I suppose it's true. NY publishing is so hard to crack, so if you lead a critically acclaimed rock band, I have to wonder if that's how you got in. I mean---I would do the same thing, but still. I dunno. Maybe it's sour grapes.

Anyway, Darnielle proved competent. Good on him! And I found a lot to like in this book.

But ultimately, it's a bit of a groaner. I checked it out largely because the flapcopy made it sound curiously constructed:
Brilliantly constructed, Wolf in White Van unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax: the event that has shaped so much of Sean’s life. Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving, John Darnielle’s audacious and gripping debut novel is a marvel of storytelling brio and genuine literary delicacy.
Perhaps if I'd been sold the book by someone else, my final reaction would be more positive. Because yeah, it's sort of backward, and I suppose you could maybe call that moment at the end the climax, but I wouldn't. It's just the beginning. And we already knew what it was. And we already know why it is. It just hadn't been actually narrated yet. So, you know, whatever.

Other bits of puffery from that paragraph: BRILLIANTLY CONSTRUCTED (it was constructed, sure), BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN (I guess so), UNEXPECTEDLY MOVING (maybe I missed that page?), AUDACIOUS (I guess because it had a teenager and a gun?), GRIPPING (um, no), MARVEL OF STORYTELLING BRIO (don't know what that means), GENUINE LITERARY DELICACY (yeah. . . . I'm not going to pretend this has actual meaning either).

So. I feel lied to. But that's not the novel's fault.

In fact, the novel has a lot that makes it pretty great. It might not be BRILLIANTLY CONSTRUCTED, but it does have nice layers of storytelling with the past and the present and the within-the-game. And I do think ending at the beginning was the right choice, but not because I was So Amazed but because it was necessary and where we'd been headed all along. I read the book because I was fascinated by the idea ending at THE BEGINNING AND THE CLIMAX. I might not have read it without that line of ad copy. But that line of ad copy also made me like the book less.

Anyway. It's a nice book. Although it spends too much time being clever, it was not so clever as to alienate me from the narrator who is a rich and interesting and unique and deeply etched character. He's the real reason to read the book. Everything else the flap tried to sell me on was ancillary and confused my reading of the book.

Dang it, copywriters!
about two weeks


016) Drawings II by Jake Parker, finished February 19

Another predictably fun to look at collection of Jake's work. If you haven't noticed, everyone has noticed him now.

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


“More than a ‘Subspecies of American Literature’:
Obstacles toward a Transnational Mormon Novel”


Although there's not much in Scott Hales new essay (published in The Journal of Transnational American Studies) that's not also to be found in his dissertation, it's a lot shorter than his dissertation and much easier to find. And I appreciate its simpler focus---in this case on the need for the Mormon novel to move beyond the perception of being purely American. He again talks about On the Road to Heaven, Salvador, Redemption Road, and Elders---each of which have their pluses and minuses, but which average out by the criteria presented here as, respectively, -, +, -, +.

I recommend the essay to you if you're jonesing for some good MoLit criticism. Here's a lengthy excerpt from the conclusion to get your whistle wet:
The challenge of the transnational Mormon novel seems to be how to avoid constructing utopian spaces that function simply as another form of colonialist expression that promotes what it understands to be “change” and “social betterment” transnationally while remaining sadly unaware of its own cultural assumptions and prejudices.

How is such avoidance possible, though, when most Mormon novels are being written by white American authors whose transnational ties are decidedly limited? David A. Shuler’s thoughts on historical colonialism, international development efforts, and Mormon expansion into developing nations offer some possibilities with application to transnational Mormon novels. As Shuler notes, “implement[ing] change in a cross-cultural relationship is challenging and can even be dangerous,” particularly when “the environment and context within which we initiate change . . . is different from our own and is unfamiliar, or worse, unknown. . . . the best way for Mormons—or any people—to promote change in the lives of others is to “recognize and respect agency” and be “aware of [personal] motives, predispositions, and areas of ignorance.” As Shuler observes, “We must be aware of our impositions, meaning how our cultural values may differ from others we try to help, and how forceful we are, or can be, in influencing their ideas and actions and ultimately their lives. We should question our methods and our assumptions, including any change [to] orthodoxies that have not been humbly and thoughtfully challenged” (281–82). In their efforts to imagine transnational Mormonism and promote global betterment, therefore, Mormon novels must reflect constantly on their cultural work and the kind(s) of transnational Mormonism they construct and promote through utopian spaces. Furthermore, they must be mindful of the ways they depict and appeal to non-Western Mormons, whose “cultural values” and “Mormon” identities may be radically different from the values and identities of American Mormons. They must be aware also that giving voice to the Other—including the Mormon Other—is always a problematic endeavor. Utopian spaces, after all, are experimental constructs where ideas for social betterment are culturally determined and often ephemeral. What might function as a utopian space for one people might be dystopian for others.

To be sure, it is altogether likely that the next one hundred years of Mormon literature will better reflect the recent international growth of the LDS Church,particularly the experiences of those who have grown up in the Mormon faith in international settings and transnational situations and better understand the needs of their various regions and cultures. . . .

Accordingly, the Mormon novel will likely remain little more than a “subspecies of American literature” if it long resists or overlooks seeking after these “shared kernels of humanity” and continues to present transnational landscapes as America’s foil, a place where American missionaries go to be tried and tested before they return home with honor.
Of course, this just makes me more anxious for Scott's analysis of City of Brick and Shadow.

But it also makes me think about my short story "The Great Mormon Novel of the 21st Century" and wonder whether it's a step towards the transnational novel Scott's imagining or mired in the Americentricity we hope someday to grow out of. As the author, my opinion of the story is irrelevant. What matters is what the story actually does for readers.

So! To encourage that conversation, for the next month (until April 7), you can download "The Great Mormon Novel of the 21st Century" from Smashwords for free with the following coupon: TH84W.

I don't mind if you hate it. That's okay. (Of course, you're welcome to like it as well. That's perfectly fine.)

So while I may be sad to be a boring white male American Mormon writer. Where are all the Mormon writers who are different on at least three of those other four points? Why are they so hard to find?

In the meantime, I suppose you're thtuck with what you've got. . . .


Unfinished Books Bonanza


I'm giving up on a couple books I don't dislike but am willing to admit I will never finish. In the order of when I began them:

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (begun ~8 months ago)
Alternating points of view. All beautifully written. All artificial. I hate to say this, but if it would just get to the killing instead of all this avoidance---well, I would probably have kept reading it. I enjoyed it while it was in my hands and under my eyes, but never think of it if it's anywhere else. Atwood is a terrific stringer of words, but sometimes she forgets the soul.

So yes: the interior life of the convicted murderess was exquisitely drawn. On the other hand, so much of her thinking was hidden for plotting reasons that it was, frankly, cheaty.

And yes: the doctor was a fun character as well. But I didn't see a lot of proof he was much more than a plot device.

And the locations! and the time period! and the cultures! All wonderful.

All a bit soulless.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior (read during weeks with long interruptions)
I've heard Senior interviewed about this book(here for instance) and found a lot of meat and a lot to interest. Lady Steed read the book and absolutely loved it. I started it when she finished, but couldn't get it read before the library wanted it back. So I got in a 200-person line and waited, then checked it out again. I'd loved what I read in the first go. Not so much what came next. I'm afraid I'll never get to the joy part.

I think the problem is severalfold. But probably the big one is that although the book was sold as a digestion of the best new science available, like, say, NurtureShock, in fact science is more the color of the book than the content. It's largely anecdotal and citing who said it most interestingly. So while I don't mind all the quotations from essayists and memoirists and Margaret Mead, I thought this was supposed to be about, you know, the best new science available. It's not.

And now I have to return it again and I'm only halfway through and I don't think I'm going to get back in line. I enjoyed the book, sure, but it;s not nutritious enough to eat the whole thing. It's like . . . two liters of Reed's Ginger Beer. Closely related to real food, but still soda. Really great soda that I might well drink two liters of. But I really don't need to drink two liters of it. The interviews and the original NYTM articles be enough.