Th. &c.


115) Men, Women & Dogs by James Thurber, finished November 21

I probably could not overstate the influence Thurber's had on my own work. In large part because I likely do not know the full influence he's had on me. The shock I had a few years back! opening my own chemistry folder from high school and finding me practicing Thurber's occasional Th signature on his cartoons! I mean---my thet of theudonyms doesn't date back to high school. And yet. On some subconscious level. It appears they do.

This is a collection of cartoons.

This is the stuff little therics are made of.
two days


114) Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allen Crow by James How, finished November 21

The first four Bunnicula books are seminal bits of lit from my childhood. I am, however, now an adult, and so it is difficult to compare this volume to those---I'm far from the same person reading them. Certainly there were funny bits, but I have a hard time imagining hilarity ensuing were we to all read this together, as my mother read Bunnicula to us one road trip long ago. I believe I spent my own money buying books 2 and 3 and 4.

It's weird to me, the adult reader, that Harold is getting old and arthritic while Howie is still a puppy (for instance). But I also admire how kids lit can be both grounded in its own reality while loose with the concept of reality generally. Even adult fantasy doesn't quite have that freedom. Being a kid is rather postmodern---but kids have always been this way (cf the first book I started November 20). Adults can't own it the same way.

Anyway, new characters are introduced and things get nutty and never scary, but I enjoyed spending time with the crew. Probably would have enjoyed more a return to one of my old faves, though, Howliday Inn and The Celery Stalks at Midnight.
two days


113) Oh The Moon by Charlyne Yi, finished November 15

I've had this book for months and its back copy intrigued me, but it was thick and it seemed like to much to begin. Little did I realize it's mostly sketches and whitespace.

Geez. Open a book, why dontcha.

Anyway. Lady Steed was digging under the bed for some other book and pulled this out and in a moment of distraction I picked it up and a couple minutes later I was dozens of pages in. It's pretty quick reading.

Early on, I'm amazed at what a good agent can get published. Frankly, much of what's in this volume is the sort of absurdist silliness that passes for Big Ideaing that high-school students get into. I certainly did. And a lot of what I came up with then, I wouldn't be ashamed to let anyone read. I might, however, be ashamed to make anyone pay for it.

Really: much of this is extremely high-school in nature. Including the pages whose purpose is, in part, look! I can draw trees real good!

The other reference point for me is those text/linedrawing books from the 70s about love and stuff. You know, from Love Is... to Shel Silverstein's more adult works to a million points both beyond and inbetween. That stuff.

Another: It seems to me that part of the reason this may have been published is to bring the success of Wimpy Kid (and its million imitators) to the adult market.

Anyway. Enough with the speculation and the complaints (which is, let's be frank, hypocritical of me---have you seen my YouTube channel?---and I am fond of her aggressive style of antihumor). Although the book begins in absurdity and meanders through halfbaked surrealism, etc etc, Yi isn't just trading her B-grade celebrity for a brief shining moment on Barnes & Nobel's $3.99 table. In fact, she is attempting something rather ambitious, with interweaving and symbols and crap like that. That, in my opinion, it mostly doesn't come off matters less to me than that it was attempted and that it's interesting and it is, remember, ambitious. And the almost-last story "Strange Love" is actually very good. I hope BAC gives it a shot for their next goround.

one eventide


112) Beauty by Hubert and Kerascoët, finished November 14

This is probably the best modern fairy tale I've read since The Bloody Chamber.

The tale starts with young Coddie, a genuinely ugly girl who words as (and smells like) a professional fishscale-scraper. Treated cruelly by all those around her, when she does an accidental kindness to a fairy and is offered a gift in return, she wishes to be beautiful. And her wish is granted. Her actual person has not changed, but she appears as the perfect woman to all who see her. Almost immediately this seems to be a curse as her godfather attempts to rape her, followed by the men of the village attacking her and requiring her to flee her home.

She is renamed Beauty and Beauty's beauty swings wildly between blessing and curse. She begins to use it to abuse and corrupt and manipulate. She is torn many directions. By virtue of being Beauty, she is inoculated from her own ignorance and others' poverty. Destruction follows in her wake. It seems certain we are reading a tragedy.

And then---somehow---Beauty finds salvation.

It is a remarkable story. And the art is stunning. The swinging back and forth between seeing Coddie as she is and Beauty as others see her keeps us both complicit in others' evil and aware of their errors as they themselves often cannot be.

Just amazing.

two days


111) "E" Is for Evidence by Sue Grafton, finished November 13

This one had the most thrills-per-pound yet. And while there's always the question in a detective series whether book or tv if one detective can really see this much action, who cares? Kinsey is nice to hang out with and I like to see her win. Even if she has to weather a couple explosions in the process.
perhaps two weeks

Previously in 2015 . . . . :


Preparing for Hail, Caesar!


Like all sentient beings, I am looking forward to the Coens' new film, Hail Caesar!---and so I'm preparing a homework assignment for myself and all others who would like to join in.


Barton Fink is a wonderfully haunting film, bizarre and troubling and grounded in the history of Hollywood. It gets bits of everything the Coens do best---darkness and mystery and uncertain hilarity---and wraps it around John Turtorro before throwing him off a rather attractive cliff. I will watch this movie with you anytime. I have a hard time finding people to watch it with me for some reason....


The primary selection here is Intolerable Cruelty, a film unfairly knocked by many Coen fans as one of their weaker offerings. I suggest they just haven't watched it enough times. The film is a screwball marvel and Clooney's is just one of its brilliant performances. His fixation on his teeth is what makes this your primary assignment.

The secondary assignment (replacement if you can't see the second, or supplemental if you have time for both) is O Brother, Where Art Thou? The time period's a bit closer to Hail, Caesar, but its a bit short on glam. Still: great movie.


Here we get to films I'm less familiar with. I'm ashamed to admit I've seen both of these films only once each. Because of this, I'm less certain that the primary/secondary arrangement is correct. At any rate, the primary selection is The Great Lebowski (which I didn't really like after first viewing, but you don't hear me knocking it---in fact, I've been meaning to revisit it) and the secondary selection is Fargo (which I did like on first viewing and have always meant to revisit---though right now the tv show feels more urgent)


Svithe: "There was a young man who thought...."


On November 15, 2015, our sacrament meeting was centered around the question "Why is NO POOR AMONG THEM a requirement for Zion?"

This is my introduction to the speakers.


There was a young man who thought he had this religion stuff all figured out. He was checking boxes left and right. The letter of the law? He put the stamp on it and stuck it in the mailbox of righteousness. He was pretty amazing. I mean, obviously, right? Because he was rich too and what better sign is there of God's approval than dripping in dinero? Anyway, he heard about some hip new rabbi and went to check him out. The guy seemed legit, so the young man told the rabbi how on fleek his life was and asked if there was anything else someone this awesome could do to impress God.

The rabbi listened and nodded. Obviously he was crazy impressed. Then he said, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me."

And the young man, the scripture says, went away sorrowful.

This rabbi's brother taught that pure religion and undefiled is this: To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.

When faith gets sticky or confusing---when the details seem unclear, contradictory, uncertain---we can know that one of the teachings of Jesus is always plain and available:

Sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.

This is not an easy doctrine. I have certainly walked past the poor. I have certainly pulled off the freeway, the only prayer in my heart that I don't get caught at the stoplight right next to the guy who hasn't showered in a couple months, asking me for change. And he doesn't even mean that I should change my heart---that would be Jesus talking---he's just asking for a quarter.

Inasmuch as I have withheld a quarter from the least of these, Lord, I have withheld it from thee.

This is a hard doctrine. But it is essential to building Zion. And it's a good place to start.

Today, we'll be reasoning together on this notion of Zion.

previous svithe


Svithe: /baptism/


For reasons clear to anyone familiar with the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, late 2015, this is a difficult time to write a baptism talk to be given at a child's baptism. For those familiar with he Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at all, every time is a great time for a baptism.

Yesterday, Large S was baptized. It was beautiful and moving and important. It was clarifying. Baptisms are remarkable events and I'm so grateful.

The following is the talk I gave just before the ordinance.


Hey, Large S. I know you don't like things to be normal and so I'm going to start my talk with a scripture I've never heard at a baptism before. Ready?

This is D&C 68.25.
And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.
So according to Jesus, my job as your parent is to teach you to understand faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism by immersion, and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. No matter what else is right or wrong in my life---and I'm sure you can tell everyone I'm not perfect---you understanding faith, repentance, and baptism is still my responsibility. Jesus said so.

Look: We all make mistakes. I was baptized over thirty years ago and I'll bet I've made a mistake every day since then. Some mistakes, I'm sorry to say, come very easily to me. Some mistakes come pretty easily to you as well. And you know what? Baptism doesn't magically turn us into different people.

But it will make you a new person.

See, when we get baptized, we promise that we will remember Jesus and try to live as he taught us to: loving everyone and acting out of love. And Heavenly Father promises to send the Holy Ghost to be with us. And that is how you're a new person---you act in new ways and you have the Holy Ghost to help you. And that's why the Church has always taught baptism is so important for kids like you. All of us need all the help we can get.

Jesus called getting baptized being born again.

What does that mean, that baptism is being born again?

What does it mean that in ten minutes you'll be a new person, even though you're the same person?

What does that feel like?

Here I'm going to pause to let the Big O tell you about when he was baptized and what it felt like.

///here his brother spoke about baptism
///followed by my testimony
///in which I made certain to cite the importance of the sacrament

previous svithe


The Peanuts Movie


Look. I have issues with this film. Putting Peanuts in the title seems disrespectful for starters (Schulz hated the name and it's never appeared in any of the dozens of previous films---in fact, except for three that were named for Snoopy, they've all had Charlie Brown in the title). The Meghan Trainor song was as ill-advised as we'd all feared (not only is it a bad song, the movie already feels aged by it). I'm troubled by all the kids being at the same school (though I get it), I don't like Linus and Lucy being the same age (really?), including Fifi seems weird (SHE WILL BREAK SNOOPY'S HEART!!!!), and I would have loved to see a production brave enough to never show the little red-haired girl (though even Bill Melendez broke that rule), but over all I accept this film. Nice job, Blue Sky.

First, although the early images freaked me out, in fact this film might show more respect for the original art than anything else done so far. That's a big statement and I'm not prepared to stand by it, but the use of Schulzian lines and animated strips and use of motion lines and sound effects etc were noble. And I have to admit the animated signature of Schulz writing itself across the screen at the end about did me in.

In fact, I was emotional through much of this movie. Largely because as long as it wasn't doing dirt on the gang, no one is more primed than me to see and love and know what they gave (see this recent post for more of my reading and my thinking on this topic). So although I was freaked out to hear about Charlie Brown winning, it wasn't too much winning. So although I was terrified Snoopy would overrun the show, in fact, it was just the right amount. And speaking of Snoopy, can we give a huge round of applause to the filmmakers for bringing Bill Melendez out of the grave/vault to do the voices of Snoopy and Woodstock again? That was a hero move, in my opinion. And the moving truck was a nice little homage as well.

Another thing I like about this movie is that there's no plan for another. Partially I like this because the whole LRHG plot made a sequel a disastrous possibility, and entirely because good things should not be driven into the ground for money.

So no, it's not a perfect movie. But yes, it's pretty wonderful all the same.

What I really want to do next is watch it frame by frame to figure out when Charlie Brown's hair switched directions and how they got the walking right.


The important thing is Peanuts.
But Peanuts is always the important thing.


110) The Complete Peanuts: 1993 to 1994 by Charles M. Schulz, finished November 10

With The Peanuts Movie out now, it's easy to just bump into good articles about the strip. Here are a few I've liked that were easy to refind:
"The bleak world of Peanuts, one of the 20th century's greatest works of art, explained" by Todd VanDerWerff
"It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is a Christmas special wearing a Halloween costume" by Caroline Framke
"The Peanuts Movie is surprisingly good, but it gets one big thing wrong" by Todd VanDerWerff
"On ‘Krazy Kat’ and ‘Peanuts’" by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
"The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy" by Sarah Boxer
Only the first and last two in that list are focused on the comic, but the high points of the tv specials join the comic as high points of 20th-century American culture and the movie is what's happening now. So there you go.

The above is from the book I'm reviewing now (though I swiped it from the Internet---click that link and you can read the Complete Peanuts, legally, for free). It was originally published on my birthday, shortly after I graduated from high school. I'm sure I read it in the paper that day, though I have no memory of such. It's not, in fact, a particularly remarkable example of what makes Schulz's work great, but then again, to quote Eco,
...you could never grasp the poetic power of Schulz’s work by reading only one or two or ten episodes: you must thoroughly understand the characters and the situations, for the grace, tenderness, and laughter are born only from the infinitely shifting repetition of the patterns, and from fidelity to the fundamental inspirations. They demand from the reader a continuous act of empathy, a participation in the inner warmth that pervades the events.

(Incidentally, this is why I don't understand the genius of Krazy Kat---I've never immersed myself.)

Eco wrote this as Peanuts was midway through its second decade and if you read his analysis, that's easy to tell. The above strip appeared midway through the fifth and final decade of its run. Plenty had changed in those thirty years, but that core observation remains untouched. If that strip was your first or fifth or twentieth connection to Peanuts, it seems like a throwaway bit of laziness. In fact, as I read this volume, I often read strips that should have seemed as soulless as those that appear in generic, soulless, corporate strips like Garfield or Hagar the Horrible, but didn't. Even though the punchline might not have been very punchy, there remains a soul that's impossible to miss.

One thing many analyses suggest is that the growth of Snoopy's imaginary world (and the consequent addition of other animal characters) was the downfall of Peanuts. Indeed, many movie reviews make snide remarks to that effect. As someone currently reading strips well into that development, let me just say that those analysts are dead wrong.

For one thing, for all his battles with the Red Baron and weighty court cases and ability to type, Snoops never ceases to be an earthbound dog. He relies on the filling of his supper dish and loves sleeping indoors with Charlie Brown. He's an unusual, strange, remarkable dog to be sure, but he's just a dog. No character forgets that. Not Marcie who joins in his fantasies. Not Charlie Brown who has him type his homework. Certainly not Snoopy.

Not many years left for The Complete Peanuts. A small number of books left to add to my shelf.

Then I will start over. And I'll need to pick up some scholarly analysis of the strip. And I will agree or I will disagree, but I will know whereof I speak because these are the words of mortal life, drawn with an economy of line unmatched.
a few measured, treasured weeks


109) Ball Peen Hammer by Adam Rapp and George O'Connor, finished November 7

Bleakness upon bleakness. And you can tell Rapp is a playwright because it's bleakness is very much the sort one would expect from a son of Beckett (why are the killing children? because.). Limited settings (mostly two rooms in the same building), lots of dialogue with little action beyond mere business. All paths to redemption cut off.

I guess it was good. But I've read enough bleak stuff in my life that I'm not super stoked to add to my store.

O'Connor's art reminds me of Paul Pope's work.
one night


108) Magic Trixie Sleeps Over by Jill Thompson, finished November 6

Like the first book, this reads much like a picture book. The basic structure is the same, just with more iterations and more variety within the iterations and thus more room for Trixie to undergo meaningful change. The art is lovely and the writing is oxygenated and what better way to move from David Shannon to Adam Rex?


107) "D" Is for Deadbeat by Sue Grafton, finished November 5

If you read these posts regularly, you may have noticed that I don't really read series. I'll read the first one to get a taste, then I stop. And if a series---no matter how excellent---betrays me, I'll stop. And here I am, ready to move onto book five of Grafton's series. I don't quite understand what keeps me coming back. Part of it is the Favorite Brand of Potato Chips Theory, but I dunno. I don't really have potato-chip loyalty either.

More bulletins as events warrant.
a few weeks

Previously in 2015 . . . . :

Missing m'Moonps


It's been a while since I've written anything sustantive about one of my most favorite bands of all time, Moonpools & Caterpillars. At that time, most of the early WWW stuff had disappeared off the web and I felt the need to bring back a presence, which meant that post and a couple other little things here and there.

This past week I've been listening to 12 Songs in the car and I just can't get over how much I love their music. Even when it's about breakups or crummy cars, each song is just infused with a sense of joy. And it's a joy I've always felt like no one shares.

I'm wrong, of course, but more on that in a second.

A while ago---maybe two years?---Lady Steed discovered on one of those Utah girls' everything-is-wonderful blogs gorgeous photos of a wedding at which Moonpools lead singer (and friend of the bride) had performed. This led my back online discovering, for instance, previously unknown tracks on Myspace (insanely exciting, natch) and the gradual discovery that what I've got on my hands is a Mormon band.

I found the Moonps when I was 18, just a year before my mission. It was the soundtrack of that year and, when I returned home in '97, the first American music (along with Blondie) that I was able to listen to. I wonder how my experience would have been different, in those formative years, if I had had that Mormon detail on hand.

Now, I don't know hardly anything about their spiritual paths etc etc so don't look for that here. I had thought about approaching them for an interview but, frankly, I'm chicken. Rather like how I froze up when I had the chance to interview John Cleese, I'm just not sure I have this in me. The idea of talking with Kimi even through email is pretty intense. There's something about what you love with your whole soul as an adolescent that is Just Different from anything else you experience or consume at any other time in your life. It's foundational.

Anyway, that 2007 post gets more into the personal-history stuff if you're interested.

What kills me now is:

I just got online to make a throwaway tweet about my 12 Songs listens of late, but found this en route:

Needless to say, ?!?!?!?!?!??!?!

Honestly? Would absolutely have been worth a trip to LA just before school starts back up.

They followed that up with a trip to the Philippines where everyone knew every word:

So you see, I'm only alone because I live in San Francisco.

Anyway, although I bet they were insane in 1994, twenty years on, they still look pretty awesome. I'm glad they have more than me appreciating. I just rather wish they had me as well.


Pleasures of the mind


106) The Secret of the Stone Frog by David Nytra, finished October 18

This is a very intelligent comic for kids. With art a cross between Little Nemo and Cursed Pirate Girl, this version of Wonderland stars a brother and sister who wake up in a weird forest and have to trust their instincts regarding whom to trust and whom not to trust. Always, of course, trusting each other. Beautiful and kind.

off and on on an evening


105) The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, finished October 27

It's hard to know how to elevator-pitch this book. Towards the end, I was planning to tell you "It's Nineteen Eighty-four meets The Stepford Wives" but then the denouement made that feel too simplistic and almost silly.

One reason this novel is so hard to pin down in terms of comparisons to other dystopian/postapoc novels is that the female characters are both richly drawn and voluminous in number. The second primary reason is that although this novel seems rather dystopostapocish, it ain't either, in fact. This world is so close to 2015 as to be the uncanny-valley version of today's news. It's like the unpleasant version of the final season of Parks and Rec. Early on it seems further away, but the deeper into the book we read, the closer and closer the world comes to our own. That also is rather upsetting.

And who do the characters remind us of? Charmaine seems quite a bit like Lenina Crowne of Brave New World, but at the same time I've never seen a better depiction of the banality of evil. So banal, in fact, that we can forgive her. Because hey---we might have done it ourselves, given similar circumstances. We would want to be forgiven.

Part of what makes the book real is the casual evil those with money inflict upon those without. It's not such a leap to imagine those who bleed us financially going literal. Especially if they're confident no one will know.

Other than their fellow bluebloods of course.

The style of the book is light---almost flippant---which can make it harder to get into, because it's not acting like a thriller. That tone does, however, make it feel all the more likely and possible and maybe why not even know?

No one in this novel is blameless. In fact, it's hard to find anyone really worth cheering for. Even those who don't commit crimes are rather awful people. Take Stan. Not a bad fellow. Sure, he shouldn't have plotted to cheat on his wife, but largely the thoughts he has that make us like him less are thoughts we've all had to one degree or another, more or less often. And yet---we end up liking him less than his wife. Who, as I said, could reasonably be called evil.

This is a novel that doesn't let you rest comfortably knowing bad guys from good guys. And it doesn't even allow you to arrive at the end knowing what we have all learned today.

In that respect, it's almost more like a news story than a bit of fiction.

A really "funny" and painfully grotesque news story.
eight of ten days


104) Magic Trixie by Jill Thompson, finished October 18

Although I suspect that Jill Thompson is best known as a creator cutesy "girl" comics, I always think first of her connection to Sandman. The stuff she writes and draws herself is great though. Trixie is a, mm six-year-old witch? Eight? Anyway, she's young and her Monstersorri schoolmates are a mummy, a frankenstein cobbling, a couple vampires, a werewolf. Deftly laid out personal dynamics there and at home. Although this is almost a hundred pages of comics, sections feel like stand-alone picture books. Thompson's made a nice transitional text for littluns.

The message at the end is both expected and dangerous enough to make its sweetness earned.


103) Binky Under Pressure by Ashley Spires, finished October 17

This is technically too short to qualify for this list, but I found it too charming not to share and I write too many books posts as it is without writing extras. So there it is.

This isn't the first book in the series, but I take it that Binky---maybe all cats?---believes that he is an astronaut of sorts, that his house is a spaceship, that his job is to protect his people from aliens (insects). Anyway, another cat shows up and things get complicated. The jokes are adult funny and the gags are pure kid. In short, great stuff.
early afternoon


102) Humor, Horror, and the Supernatural by Saki, finished October 15

I love Saki. You love Saki. Everyone loves Saki.

This particular volume is a Scholastic Book Services edition from the '60s. Where it's been since some child got it until I got it, I can't say. What's certain is that everyone should read Saki in their childhood.

Saki's still enjoyable as an adult---I particularly enjoyed discovering "Sredni Vashtar"---but he can get a bit tiresome. And if this collection is any indication, his work's highlights aren't enough to fill a book on their own. Most of the better stories were ones I'd read before. And the final story was an is-it-or-is-it-not-surely-it-is-anti-suffragette curiosity.

Largely, Saki is clearly a product of his time and place. We all are of course, but I feel that his work is aging rapidly with its casual acceptance of empire and violence to animals and use of the word "toilet" and sexual politics and suchlike. That said, at the top of his game, no one provides a half-dozen pages of pure pleasure like Saki does.
about eleven days

Previously in 2015 . . . . :


Who's Scarier: Stephen King or Johnny Cash?


101) 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King, finished October 14

This is the Stephen King I've been looking for. He's a great writer finally getting the respect he deserves, but let's face it: part of the reason we read him is to taste fear. And this book set my heart to racing more than any previous read since Cell (which I discuss some in my review of Lisey's Story). More than Carrie or The Shining or Doctor Sleep, 'salem's Lot worked its way inside. I'm still a bit too hard these days to really lose my breath (which I'd taken a bite of Uncle Stevie back at the end of high school), but it works.

Which is impressive, really, because these are pretty traditional vampires. At times, 'salem's Lot deliberately followed in the footsteps of Dracula and made conscious nods to Nosferatu (and probably plenty other stories I'm less familiar with), but it did so as proof of force. It took tropes that seem tired and silly to the modern mind, and forces us to confront them anew. He even gives crosses force, and find a means to justify doing so. (The last time I halfway bought crosses hurting vampires was in Lee Allred's jingoistic Mormon horror story, "Where Nothing Lives But Crosses.")

Anyway, what I like most about reading Stephen King is his formal inventiveness within the constraints of popular fiction. One striking example from this book:

To introduce us to the town, he takes us through the residents, hour by hour, each doing their own thing---milking cows, driving a school bus, taking on a bully, etc. Each bit a story about a different person. Each brief. Each so evocative that when they next appear---whether in the next chapter and every chapter after that or not again for three hundred pages and then just briefly, we know them. We know them.

That's some fine writing.
five months or more although the bulk of the book in about two weeks


100) Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye by Tania del Rio and Will Staehle, finished October 5

Created by Staehle, written by del Rio, illustrated by Staehle.

I had a hard time with this book in its early pages. Del Rio is aiming for a nuevo-Victorian vibe, but sometimes that results in unwitty overexposition. Here's an example from late in the book:
Sketchy paused to stick out its tongue, making Rupert cringe. He was still terrified of the creature, and the sight of its purple tongue only increased his discomfort.
See what I mean? Lemony Snicket it ain't.

That said, it's a fun romp through a mysterious hotel and family history and witchcraft and steampunk and so forth. It is like a more fantabulous and richly illustrated Unfortunate Event. So that should be enough to decide whether you're interested.

At the very least, thumb through it some time and check out the illustrations. Sort of Wondermark meets Nickelodeon.

a couple weeks or so


099) Wonderland by Tommy Kovac and Sonny Liew, finished September 29

Ends up I've read this before, but I didn't realize it until the final ten pages. I guess that means it's just not that memorable.

Largely, I still agree with that review of four years ago, so you can read it for further details. Largely, I think making Mary Ann the main character was a brilliant move. And she is probably the best and most consistent character in the book. The rest often capture the zany nonsense of Wonderland, but occasionally don't.

Really, working within Wonderland ain't easy. Bully to any who attempt it.

This was a satisfactory effort.
a few days


098) Johnny Cash — I See a Darkness by Reinhard Kleist, finished September 26

This graphic biography begins with Johnny Cash killing a man in Reno just to watch him die, then has a page saying this section will be about 1935 - 1956 followed by a scene from late 1967 or early 1968. So let's just say I wasn't too impressed up front.

The Johnny-playing-characters-from-his-songs gag didn't really start working till near the end but it did start making sense before that point. The main conflict of this biography is Cash's drug problems, but the story builds toward a climax at Fulsom Prison where he and a prisoner meet. Everything following that point is largely epilogue, but the tragic downfall of that prisoner paralleled by the grand old statesman being recorded by Rick Rubin. This old man is still engaged in making great art (seriously: go listen to those albums), ending with one more JOhnny-as-character, a mashup of "Ghost Riders" and "The Man Comes Around," the beginning and end of his careers making a nice round.

Although I was not an easy sell on this book and although it turned me off up front, in the end I loved it. It's stark blackandwhite, the way he draws middle-aged Johnny, the excellent use of a foil, its close connection to the music, it's mix subtleties and exagerrations---it's just good stuff. Sure it had some missteps, but don't let that slow you down.

about a week

Previously in 2015 . . . . :


PULP Literature


When summer rolls around, I take the kids to the library and get them started on the summer reading program. While they're wandering, I wander too and end up with a lot of books I didn't plan on reading.

In other words, my planned summer reading gets hijacked by tempting books found on la biblioteca's shelves.

Among the victim's of this year's hijacking was my latest issue of Pulp Literature---in fact, a later latest arrived before I finally returned to the latest. I'll cover them both now.

Spring 2015: another pretty great issue.

But let me admit first that my story, "The Naked Woman," is awesome. Seriously. Some of my finest work. Even if, as I read it, I second guessed some of my prepositions. But I'm always reguessing my prepositions. It's congenital. So know this: "The Naked Woman." There's a reason I included it in my MFA apps back when I thought that was a good idea. I stand by this story. Come at me.

Some others:

"Super" by Laura Kostur
Yes, hypnosis as a device was kind of silly, but besides that detail, this was a powerhouse, over fifty pages of domesticity and parenting and bill collectors punctuated with startling violence. A mother's violence. This is a motivation we don't see much in fiction. I liked it. I'll talk about this more when we get to the next issue.
(three connected bits of flash fiction) by Kirsty Favell
Click on her name to read some. These tales are charmingly poetic bits of fantasy about a man and a woman and an aging angel of love.
As a general observation, one thing I like about this rag's contests are the judge's explanations of how they make their selections which---no surprise---are often intensely personal. The contest winner published in this issue was drowning in references to the stage at the expense of the story (imho). The judge had lived that life and was charmed by those elements. I get it. If I were judging a contest and one story involved, say, being a Mormon missionary in Korea or teaching high school in the Bay Area, and really captured the nuances of that experience, even if it were B work, I might still reward it. It's certainly imaginable. So I appreciate that transparency.

"The Naked Woman" by Theric Jepson
Or have I mentioned this one already? Golly gee whoops.
On to the next issue!

And having read this one, I am now caught up. Good for me. And now I need to renew my subscription....

"Fallen Angels" by Robert J. Sawyer
My one previous foray into Sawyer's oeuvre was ultimately disappointing, but this one was less moralistic and I found it rather enjoyable. Certainly its representation of a hell both genuinely hellish and satisfyingly comfortable was striking and a worthy destination.
"Stella Ryman and the Case of the Vanishing Resident" by Mel Anastasiou
As I mentioned regarding the last Stella Ryman story, I love how Anastasiou is taking pulp conventions and using them to tell the relatively "mundane" story of a woman's final years (months? days?) in a nursing home. Also, I bring it up now because I want you to remember it when I follow through on my promise to talk about "Super" again.
"Mermaid Hunt" by Holly Walrath
This was a curious mix---almost an experiment in how much background information you can hint at without ever actually explaining anything. So there are mermaids and I guess there was some great war between us and them and...well I can give you quite a few details but their exact connections are unclear. And that's okay. It's short and strange and uncomfortable and lovely.
"It Was Summer When He Left" by Marta Salek
This story is near-future Australia and a couple is split up when one is sent to space (rather as in this nice little short-film). The story particularly interests me for two reasons. First is its depiction of sex and pregnancy which strikes me as very . . . female (which might sound like I'm being dismissive, but not so---if anything, assume the opposite). Second is its point-of-view, which is simultaneously broad (never leaving the property, rarely leaving her bed) and multigalactic. This is possible because of the protag's relationship with her beloved (and a little alien tech, natch) which makes their mix of nearing and distancing all the more painful. I'm thinking also of an issue of One Story I'm now reading that finds feminism in the same place Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" did---in the lives women live rather than the lives their daughters wish they had. It's a bit more of a stretch for "It Was Summer" than these other two stories, but in all three cases we see a woman who is embodied as a woman and opens the door for us to find meaning in her experiences.

But I only know what I'm saying to a certain point. Which is why we need fiction.
Anyway, "It Was Summer"---like the Stella Ryman stories and "Super" (among others) are unusual in my sf/f/othergenre reading (probably because the genres have been traditionally dominated by men) in that they are at their core stories about women's experiences---experiences not-women can't really have. In other words, they are providing a perspective I haven't really bumped into much in my reading. I mean---I read a lot of books both by and about women, but the genres matter and in the genres my experiences are less when it comes to by-and-about-women. And stories like these in particular force me to confront questions that strike me as important in this moment of time.

Anyway, I've already written more than I intended to.

Can I mention without seeming creepy at this point that you should read "The Naked Woman"?


Feature films 2015: third quarter


In theaters:

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): I've never seen the original trilogy and the trailers didn't really interest me. Not until I read an article in WIRED telling me the film used minimal CG was my interest peaked. And then the reviews. People loved it! Not just fanboys but actual adults. And George Miller makes good movies. I love the Babe movies (he wrote both, directed the second), after all. Anyway, we went. And it lived up to the hype. That night as we were reading articles and interviews in bed, Lady Steed instantly and emphatically agreed with the word masterpiece in one article's title. At any rate, it reminds me that action movies, as a genre, don't have to be disposable. Maybe it will lead to some smart risk-taking by the studios? One can hope.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015): I'd picked up a free poster for this movie the night before at Mad Max. It's a cool poster and since it's a theatrical poster, it's mirror-image on the back. So you know I'm hanging it up in my classroom. In which case I ought to see it. So we did. I loved it. Twenty-four hours after viewing its weaknesses become more apparent, but it's still a smart, fun, honest movie. And the compositions! I kept thinking the phrase every-frame-a-painting. Plus the meta elements of the films Greg and Earl make, the stop motion. Basically the only real crime was it tapped into my current Great Pet Peeve which was having the bell ring on a high school class with neither the teacher nor the students apparently having any idea class was about over. Come on. That never happens.

The Third Man (1949): The theater had the volume up too loud so the dialogue (especially accents and Joseph Cotten) was hard to follow. But the cinematography was beautiful. And wow but does postwar Vienna here have its own pathos that really no other film I've seen can match. It's been so long since I've seen it that this was like the first time. I hope I don't wait so long again.

Ant-Man (2015): I mostly went to this movie with the expectation of constant reminders of how much better the Edgar Wright-directed version would have been. Then there was one great cut and I realized the film was doing okay. Not game-changing but smart and clever and genuinely funny. More than I'd been expecting. But I think Marvel's outperformed my expectation every time but one. Impressive, really. Although, of course, I have skipped a few installments.

At home:

Saving Mr. Banks (2013): The world will never have too many Emma Thompson-starring vehicles, and we all love Tom Hanks. And certainly this film, exploiting its intertextual relationship with Mary Poppins, is emotionally moving. And no doubt good history, at least as far as the 1960s goes. But the way it draws a pretty little line from childhood events to adulthood behavior is embarrassingly simple. The film can get away with it because Emma Thompson! Tom Hanks! and a quality supporting cast, but the interweaving of flashbacks was clunky and, frankly, at times, cheap. I did like it, but I was expecting much more.

St. Vincent (2014): Bill Murray's most impressive performance, I think. And not just because of the stroke. It's a beautiful film, though it overrelies a bit on music to get the feels at the end.

The Sandlot (1993): I haven't seen this since it was in theaters, but I know a plurality of fourteen-year-olds who count it as their favorite movie. And I have baseball-loving kids. Time to give it a spin. It went over pretty well. Will it become a favorite? Dunno. As for me, I liked it. Like A Christmas Story, it doesn't do as much for me as for other people, but I appreciate the nostalgia, even if it is not mine.

Once I Was a Beehive (2015): Notwithstanding some obvious flaws (the interminable voice over being one), this movie is honest and sweet and earns its emotions. See a fuller review here.

Song of the Sea (2014): You know how Walt Disney paid amazing people to make amazing concept art for his animated films, then only bits of that art made it into the final versions? This film is like that concept art come to life. Beautiful and vital and daring. Artists who understand the rules of perspective and form, and who break them brilliantly. As for story, the best comparison I can think of is Spirited Away, though that movie is more successful storywise (and just as generous artwise), I think because it dares to be small. It's entirely about one girl's journey. Song of the Sea is concerned about one family, yes, but also the fate of all the fae or whatever too. It's too big. More intimacy would have been better. Regardless: a beautiful film. So rich. You can get lost in here.

The Rocketeer (1991): I think I only saw this once, shortly after it came out on video. Yet Lady Steed says I talk about it all the time. So tonight she watched it. And although there's some boners left in the script, the third act in particular holds up marvelous. The moment where the gangsters and the feds join forces against the Nazis is too wonderful. It's pure pulp, but who doesn't enjoy some pulp now and then? Chips of wood are to be expected.

Once I Was a Beehive (2015): Rewatched it with Lady Steed. On second viewing, many of the little things that I didn't like still bothered me, but not as much. So the verdict is: rewatchable.

Paddington (2014): The plot works not because it's original (it's not) but because this movie means it. This movie has heart. The animation is incredible Plus, the flick is just dripping with style. This is, in short, a pretty great movie.

The Secret of Kells (2009): The kids liked The Song of the Sea enough we decided to watch this one as well. Even more visually ambitious than its younger brother, this film is stunningly beautiful and fascinating to watch, as rewarding of close attention as its namesake. Not as much fun, I grant you---"fun" doesn't seem the right word at all---but so so wonderful. I wish more animation took these kinds of chances. I mean, we do see it---"Samurai Jack" seems an obvious comparison---but features meant for large audiences just don't do this. Disney commissioned concept art this startling, but the final products were always much tamer.

My Man Godfrey (1936): I'm delighted Carole Lombard got an Oscar nomination for this role. It's an utterly daffy comic performance that would never get Oscar love today, but the fact she makes it believable is frankly amazing. The whole movie is nutty clear up to the final fade where Lady Steed and I were shouting, "Don't do it, Godfrey!" William Powell, of course, is good as always, and he plays a tough straight role surrounded as he is by a million nutjobs. We did a lot of laughing. Not a movie I can recommend and unqualifiably excellent, but darn it if I didn't enjoy the goldarns out of it.

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994): How does this movie work? It's largely people just telling each other stories, but somehow they come together to create a new, lives story. And in the meantime, the doubter is revealed to be the believer and vice versa--- We picked this up because the kids liked Song of the Sea and hey, why not another selkie movie? I only vaguely remember seeing it when new on VHS; Lady Steed has stronger memories. I wonder how it will settle into our children's memories?

The Double (2013): I can't remember the last feature-length film I've seen like this. This sort of heightened absurdity seems the purview of short films, at least so much as my viewing habits go. It's a doppelganger film (Jesse Eisenberg is awesome at keeping them separate) and it's a film that's aggressively subjective and manages to do nothing but ask questions yet still be satisfying as a whole work of art. It's like . . . the first act of Joe Versus the Volcano with no way out. If you like what I show my students and have ninety minutes available, this is the movie you're looking for.

Frances Ha (2012): I'm not very familiar with the New Wave but the references are so obvious---well, it made me want to spend more time with Truffaut. I didn't have expectations for this film, but I really enjoyed it. It's so intensely mundane. Every time it threatens to fall into movie cliches, it stumbles and returns to the everyday. It finds triumph in being unfinished. Which is kind of marvelous.

Boyhood (2014): Basically what people have said is true. It is both grandiose and intimate. It is stunning/moving/humbling to watch the actors age before our eyes. One strange thing though is that just the characters being American doesn't make them feel much like me. I didn't believe when I was a kid and don't believe now that, for instance, having a beer and getting laid are important milestones of boyhood and so the film feels like an observation of an alien culture even though it is clearly intended to be my own world. That doesn't change the value of the film generally, but it does limit the amount of nostalgia or identification I can engage in.

UHF (1989): Although some of the references are getting a bit dated, UHF holds up. You don't need to get many references for it to bust your gut. And hey---it's been almost 30 years and still no new Weird Al movie? Life is unjust. One last observation: from big sleeves to the similar phone calls to general voice use, Deb of Napoleon Dynamite is clearly influenced by UHF's Teri. How had I never noticed before?

Previous films watched





Go Set a Watchman


097) Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, finished finished September 24
five days

I didn't have particular expectations for this novel. I knew it was lost, and I assume lost usually happens for good reason. I knew it rejiggered some of the timelines and characters of To Kill a Mickingbird, but hey why not. But it is from Harper Lee who wrote, arguably, the most beloved novel of the 20th century.

First, I want to say that for the first hundred pages, I completely agreed with Lee's editor. It seemed obvious that there was a much better book about Scout as a kid buried under some boring stuff about her as a grownup. What was an insightful editor who could see that and talk her into writing that other novel instead! #weneededitors

As I read deeper, I started to wonder if maybe the editor wasn't just afraid to sell this particular book---that it was too topical to land well. At this stage, I tended to compare it to another novel I'm reading now that came out four years after TKAM and also deals with topical race issues. That book---and, I was thinking during this stretch, Go Set a Watchman---are interesting more as documents of their time than as works of literature. Fascinating in a charming/horrible way but without much to say about our current situation.

Then I kept reading. And the book began to move me, upset me, break my heart. Jean Louise (as Scout is almost always known by now) feels almost (almost) modern and her reactions to her hometown's reactions to the NAACP and Supreme Court decisions and other race-centered changes do seem applicable to 2015.

Then the book, without letting up on its emotional hold on me, began to feel topical. Very topical.

Much has been made of Atticus as racist in this novel. And much e-ink has been spilled over how he was such a different character in TKAM. That, my friends, smacks of wishful thinking.

Yes, TKAM sets Atticus up as a hero for equality in a rough time. But he had nothing to lose but his self-respect in the 1930s. What's terrifying about GSAW is not an "alternate" version of Atticus but the very real possibility that this is exactly what Atticus would have been like twenty years later at age 72 when he does have something to lose.

This Atticus is certainly a midcentury Southern man, but he doesn't sound that different from Dumbo hipsters or those shouting cuckservative. He sounds, in other words, like 2015. Less pretty than the words we take out in public, but a modern rational racist who shakes his head sadly beause you just can't see the truth of things right in front of you. He's not racist! He just sees things as they actually are!

In other words, TKAM Atticus is who we aspire to pretend to be. GSAW is who we are occasionally forced to confront is (even now) our true identity.

The fact is that America has a troubled racist past and magical, overnight, universal colorblindness won't solve our problems.

Suddenly, Go Set a Watchman feels like a very important book for 2015.

It's hard to say how effective this novel would be without it's ability to play off one of the most read and remembered novels of the last hundred years. We've had fifty years (more than!) to turn TKAM into mythology, into hopeful history, into a guidebook. And so when this novel comes tromping in and knocking down the stage dressing, it's particularly shocking.

Let's get to the mechanics of the novel. Lee does some interesting things with dialogue (her reliance on an ellipses-based effect to make crowd noise is interesting and mostly effective) and interior monologue (her slipping from the third-person to Jean Louise's actual thoughts are frequently awkward and too irregular at the beginning---rough draft stuff that would have been fixed had it been published then). Her use of flashback is, let's say, too voluminous (though, thanks to TKAM, we like seeing scenes of Scout and the now-deceased Jem back in high school, etc, even if they do take up more space than makes sense for this novel's purposes). And it's just difficult to judge the adequacy of Lee's character development when we come into this novel already knowing these characters intimately.

So no, it's probably not the best-written book to come out this year. But I don't know of any other work of fiction that might force us into important (if awkward) conversations.

For now, I'm just grateful for the moments it set me stunned, silent, thoughtful.

(Incidentally, I've been reading some of the Amazon reviews, many of which are quite insightful---including the obvious fact that the pain Watchman causes us is largely because Atticus is our hero just as he is Scout's---like Scout, we grew up with him and he was magnificent and perfect. And, just like Scout, now that we have seen the chinks, we, alas, can see they've been there all along.)

A few other comments:
This novel---even though it's in third person---is much more solipsistic than TKAM.

Uncle Jack is an example of a young writer showing off her education.

Jean Louise's epiphany/catharsis at the end is a fascinating study. I've never read anything quite comparable and I'm still not quite sure how to describe it.

Atticus and Jack smiling at Jean Louise at the end is almost redemptive. But only if you can still accept Atticus as God. If you can't, it's rather ambiguous. It's another curious moment. And hard to tell how "finished" it is.

The cover will have you think that "watchman" is symbolic of the conscience. While true, it doesn't mean much until you realize Jean Louise is the watchman.
Share your own in the comments.

Previously in 2015 . . . . :


You know, I hated book reports back in elementary school


096) North 40 (volume one) by Aaron Williams and Fiona Staples, finished September 23

I like the notion of Lovecraftian horror in a small Southern town via comics. And the ecstatic blurbs suggest this was muy successful. And I liked a lot of the characters and imagery and it started to get interesting now and then. But in the end, I never cared. It's a creative blending of cliches, but the bursts of true originality were too far between.

five days


095) That Smell and Notes from Prison by Sonallah Ibrahim (Robyn Creswell translation), finished September 18

This is two books. Plus some, if you think about it. So I'll deal with them in pieces.

Translator's introduction
This history of the author and of midcentury Egyptian communists and of other bits o' history I know nearly nothing of was fascinating. I found wonderful parallels to Nineteen Eighty-Four for instance. Plus I love anyone's discussion of how they made choices while translating. All fine stuff. In some ways, I must admit, my favorite part of this volume.

That Smell
This was kind of pedestrian, frankly. Long paragraphs, stream of consciousness....you know the type. I didn't really find anything that would make me recommend this section to you. What's most interesting is why it ended up getting censored. I'm fascinated that the thought police were most upset by the protagonist's failure to have sex with a prostitute. I mean---they were upset by the masturbation too (which, I thought, was more startling than the introduction had led me to believe)---but shouldn't they have been most upset by the constant, oppressive police present as displayed? Maybe they couldn't see anything wrong with that, thus, etc. Anyway. I get it as an important cultural document. I don't get it as a good novella.

Author's note
This erstwhile introduction is weird. Partly a talking of why the book was important. Some details of its censoring and banning. Some complaining about those who didn't get it. Some navelgazing. Some not really remembering what he wrote.

Notes from prison
Just that. Scraps written on cigarette papers. The sort of whiny twenty-year-old-writer musings we've all scratched down at some time. Part seeking for a tradition to align oneself with; part deep seated need to write something utterly new and unprecedented. While there are some interesting insights, for anyone who once was filled with artistic self-importance, it stinks of adolescent bloat. If anyone wants, I can edit a book of my self-important ramblings too. I'm sure there's some cogent moments of literary analysis and some well phrased nonthoughts on art buried in those notebooks to sweeten the horror.
four weeks


094) Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar, finished September 17

Look: Louis Sachar is a great writer. Holes is amazing. Dogs Don't Tell Jokes is amazing. Fuzzy Mud, thus, is a disappointment.

It's packaged to look like part of the current fun that is kids in dangerous adventures (Variant is a good example), and its bitesized chapters help propel the action along. And the danger seems real while its happening (though Sachar isn't willing to make it as real as I thought he would).

I can sum up the plot by saying this is a fearmongering anti-GMO tirade starring kids in the mutant woods. And, naturally, scientists. The scientists of Fuzzy Mud are broken into two categories: those who are nuts and those who are stupidly optimistic. Both sets are dangerously overconfident in their findings.

Oh: and one veterinarian who apparently has a Batcave-level lab in which he can instantly discover that turtle skin has exactly one enzyme no other animal has and can magically turn it into a medical treatment. This is 1960's Stan Lee b******t-level nonsense. The science here is TERRIBLE which is itself terrible because this book is only barely pretending to be anything other than a politicization of a science the author seems to have no knowledge of.

Which is a shame because the 2× thing was cool....

I'll give you one example of the nuttiness of Fuzzy Mud's science.

The genetically engineered frankengerm eats up the skin and cuts nerve connections yet as soon as someone's injected with turtle enzymes, not only does the skin grow back nearly perfectly, but apparently there's complete nerve regeneration. Even eyes make a near-full recovery. I'll tell you what: we should all be injecting turtle enzymes! Viva la immortality!

Which brings me back to Sachar's decision not to kill (or even deal longterm damage to) any named characters. Not only is it a bit cowardly, but it undercuts his desire to scare the pants off kids re GMOs. If you're going to use narrative to support bad science, why not use all to tools at your disposal? I don't get it.

Hhh. Maybe it's just the problem (discussed here) that talking about science gone wrong naturally leads to the moral argument Don't Do Science, even if that's not what you actually wish to say. Just because what else is there to say?

I just thought Sachar would try harder. He doesn't seem like the sort to leave things so muddy....
four days


093) Castle Waiting Volume 2 by Linda Medley, finished September 15

Like the last volume, I'm not sure I have the words to express how much I love this book. I love it. (How's that?)

Something interesting about this volume which I wasn't sure about at first, but certainly came around on, was the insertion of so many flashbacks. The first volume had flashbacks, but largely they were of characters telling their own stories. This time, they are actual flashbacks. Most of them of Jain's old life, leading us to realize that what we thought we knew of her past was pretty wrong. What's right? Well. We still don't know. WE NEED VOLUME THREE, LINDA MEDLEY. FANTAGRAPHICS! WIELD YOUR WHIP!

But this gets to one of the aspects of Castle Waiting I most like. Castle Waiting lets life unfold at its own casual pace. Its characters just get to live their lives.

The marketing of the books calls this "Fan-Favorite Feminist Fairy Tale" (or along those words) because its about everyday life. I guess it's feminist in the way Ulrich is feminist. Which is to say if real people living real lives is feminist, well gee whiz. No one should be opposed to that, no matter how blockheaded.

Anyway. I really like Castle Waiting is my point. Here are some images from this volume.

under a week

Previously in 2015 . . . . :