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.


Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed


For reasons I am much too innocent to comprehend, the "Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed" section of Perky Erect Nipple's seems to be peopled with porn. The good news is that the porn peopling it is in constant flux. Which means that no one bit of pornography is clearly attached to PENny yet. Implication: what is in the "Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed" section is still manipulable.

May I enlist you in removing the pornography from my book's page? That's right folks: it's time to gentrify!

So here's what you do: First click HERE to see PENny on Amazon. If you're late to the party, the "Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed" section may already may already be filling with nonpornographic suggestions. If so, click them!

If not, please come back and click some of these links which I think make fitting replacements for pornography . . . and fine companions for my PENny:
Byuck (because byuck)

The Sun Also Rises (because wine)

Adverbs (because it was good and it's like other thbooks if not this one)

A Good Man Is Hard to Find (because a good man is hard to find)

The Great Mormon Novel of the 21st Century (because it's an even shorter thAmazon offering)

The Scholar of Moab (because manchild)

The Death of a Disco Dancer (because coming of age)

Lucky Dumpling (because brightly colored)

A Century of Holiness Theology: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: 1905 to 2004 (because the protag girl is a Nazarene)

Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips (because save the boobies)

Cats are Weird and More Observations (because PENny's about a cat---read the first paragraph)

Cat Versus Human (because it's not reeelly about a cat)

Romy And Michele's High School Reunion (because high-school reunion!)

Grosse Pointe Blank (because high-school reunion!)

The Fob Bible (because you might need a palate cleanser)


Oscar nominees: Best Live-Action Short


Ranked in my preference:

La Lampe au Beurre de Yak
I know making this my top choice will prove what everyone already thinks about my taste in short films: that I'm contrarian and intentionally weird. But I really did love this film. I loved that the camera never moved. I loved the simple series of teeny tiny family portraits. I loved the indirect sketching of a world far away, Tibet, and its collision with modernity. I loved how understated it was. I loved every detail of this film and I could go on and wax analytic about why these elements were good and how they combined into a wonderful whole. But it would all be nonsense, because I really believe what makes this film excellent is ineffable. It's wonderful simply because it is wonderful. That's it.

This Israeli woman is one of the most complex and inscrutable characters I've seen in film for a long time. But though I can't quite find my way inside her, somehow I understand her all the same. Understated writing and acting and direction---simplicity throughout---change a sitcom situation (a woman picks a random someone up at the airport by masquerading as his driver) into a character study with depth and breadth and earned pathos.

Boogaloo and Graham
This was Lady Steed's favorite and I loved it as well. This story to two boys' love for their chickens and their father's love for them is beautiful. Setting it against the chaos of the recent past's Northern Ireland made those moments more precious because more fragile. Lovely bit of family comedy.

The Phone Call
Sally Hawkins's performance is amazing, and as long as it's her on the phone, the film is strong strong strong. But then the phone call ends and the film has a LOTR3-like string of codas that convolute what had been pure. I understand the impulse to give both characters happy endings---and I'm all for that sort of counterprogramming against the theme of suicide---but it didn't work.

Well acted---especially by the title character---but ultimately confused as to what it's trying to be. It's a quest story, but it's hard to tell how better off our heroine is upon the completion of her adventure. Are we supposed to be happy, for instance, that she's stopped wearing her scarf? Is that a sign that she's gained something or lost something? I'm not sure the film knows. Ambiguity's fine. Having no idea what the crap you're on about ain't.

So what will win? Well, "Boogaloo and Graham" is the most crowdpleasing. "The Phone Call" has the most Oscar-clip acting (from an actress nominated for an Oscar last year). "Aya" and "Parvenah" both feature trendy Middle Eastern / Central Asian ethnicities but the latter is better developed. "Butter Lamp" is probably too darn weird---I'm just happy it was nominated. If I were a betting man . . . . "Aya"? Sure. Let's go with "Aya."


The Far Side of the Other Side of the World
(and some plays)


015) The PreHistory of The Far Side: A 10th Anniversary Exhibit by Gary Larson, finished February 18

This is a book I've been eyeing for over twenty, picked up in stores and read a bit and placed back on the shelf. And now I've finally read Larson's seemingly mostly accurate explanation of how The Far Side came to be. I mean---I don't buy the part about his mom having him play in the street, but I do believe the part about the San Francisco Chronicle. More or less. And the sections on, say, what offended people, were fun and, frankly, enlightening. This is not just a book for completists. I would particularly recommend it to anyone interested in the craft of cartooning.

Incidentally, anyone else's kids not appreciate The Far Side as much as they obviously should? Are mine just defective?
month and half


014) Nation by Terry Pratchett, finished February 16

Before we get into how much I liked this book (a lot), I want to talk about how we consumed it.

I wanted to get the latest Moist von Lipwig book on cd as we've enjoyed listening to his previous adventures during car trips so very much. But alas. Our library has not picked it up. I decided to see if they had it over the Internet instead and since Our library offers e- and audiobooks via Overdrive, I checked it out. It didn't have Moist, but it did have this one so we installed the app on Lady Steed's tablet and listened to it on our recent drive to and from Idaho. Overdrive was convenient and easy. The selection's not massive, but it had plenty of stuff I want to consume (though not much I would like to consume with my kids. Recommended!

One of the cruelest things a book can do to me is present a world so close to ours, but better. I wish Nation were a true story. Not because the horror of a tsunami killing so many people is charming to me, but because how it resulted in a changed modern world---how it offered a path to redemption from many of 19th-century Europe's imperial sins.

But that's a minor point. The important part of any work of fiction, for me, is its characters. And leads Mau and Daphne are strong and interesting and change so much.

Mau's entire society is wiped out by the tsunami that deposits lone survivor Daphne's ship on his island. Pratchett slides from one point-of-view to the other with fluidity as these children become adults.

And they do become adults. Lots of fiction is about adolescence, but these kids don't have that luxury. The time for adulthood arrives and they must accept that, no matter how poorly it may fit.

The extended coda's a curious choice I'm not sure I agree with, but the rest of the novel is a mix of disaster and humor and respect and growth and heroism and faith that will inspire anyone. Marketed as a YA novel, but don't let that limit its audience.

four days


013) Fences by August Wilson, finished February 10

I love how much my students love this play. Reading it with them will prove a highlight of this year.
under a week


012) Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, finished February 6


Previously in 2014 . . . . :




Today's the last day for voting in LDS.net's first poetry contest. You can vote for as many poems as you want, and none of them are "50 Shades of Jesus." One is from me though.



Vote your conscience


The LDS.net poetry-contest finalists are up. I quite liked some of them.



Mostly Adverbs (but also some chocolate)


011) Adverbs by Daniel Handler, finished February 4

I've bumped into Daniel Handler on a number of avenues including SoUE Street, Some Wrong Questions Stretch, Latke Lane, Orchestra Overpass, and Wholphin Way, and I am a great fan of his. Largely because I feel he is a fellow Baizerrist and unlike some others encroaching on territory I thought I discovered as a teenager, I feel like he's playing the game at the level I intend to.

Now, working as I am on the Curses & Llew novel and the Personal Progress screenplay, I finally took this book from next to my bed where it has sat for literally years waiting patiently, knowing I was looking forward to someday reading it. (According to this, incidentally, although I had forgotten, I've read one of these stories before.)

Anyway, whatever. The point is I wanted to read a novel that would do interesting things with language as I am trying to do interesting things with language and I wanted to be challenged by someone I thought would do it well. Handler delivered.

Being more familiar with his work for young readers, I was mostly struck, language-wise, through the first portions of the novel, how he's taken the games he plays as Lemony Snicket and sometimes refined them, sometimes grotesqued them---altered them in many a ways---and created an adult book. The same reliance on repetition and refrain, for instance. The same talking about words and phrases as living, potent things. The same quoting of outside texts, some real some not with no clear distinction between the two. The same living narrator whose omniscience requires the reader to grapple with his role (with a decidedly more postmodern conclusion demanded in Adverbs). In other words, I had a hard time placing Handler's work here in any tradition other than the one he coöpted and recreated from children's lit for the Series of Unfortunate Events.

Let's pause for a moment to talk about the structure of the novel. After the first few chapters, I thought that the "A NOVEL" label was a feint to force me to line up unrelated tales. Yes, as it progressed the overlaps became more clear, but I found it certainly---at least through the first 75%---as much a short-story collection as a novel.

What finally makes it unquestionably a novel is also what threw me out of my lazy consideration of it as Unfortunate Events: The Adult Version with a Penis or Two.

The 13th of 17 chapters is TRULY (each chapter is titled an adverb) which begins "This part's true." And, sure, okay. True like fiction is true, but something else as well. This self-designated essay is written wholly from the narrator's point of view who is Daniel Handler, I suppose, though he remains unnamed, though he's as Daniel Handlery as someone else might be Kurt Vonneguty, you bet.

I make this comparison intentionally. Prior to TRULY, I had been thinking of this novel's intention as an artistically equivalent sidestep from the Series of Unfortunate Events. Thanks to TRULY, I now see how Handler is a descendant of Vonnegut, which understanding gives me a better sense of the novel as a whole. Starting with seeing it as a novel as a whole.

The stories have characters named Joe and Andrea and Eddie and other names that repeat that repeat that repeat and are they the same person or are they not? Questions of identity swirl about and refuse to land as volcanoes and unnamed catastrophes destroy or don't destroy San Francisco or Seattle and magpies appear here and there and everywhere or maybe they are parakeets.

A reasonable person might suggest that an essay three-quarters of the way into a novel telling the reader what to think is a terrible idea and put that way I would agree with you. But TRULY doesn't tell you what to think at all. It may make some points regarding, say, magpies or what fiction can do, but most of what I took from this essay was a sense of the tradition Handler was working from and my own application of this knowledge is what brought the whole thing together for me. That and this one sentence that should perhaps offend my sense of figuring-things-out-for-myself but which I found too appropriate to be annoyed by and which I am giving to you without sufficient context:
It is not the diamonds or the birds, the people or the potatoes; it is not any of the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done. It is the way love gets done. . . . (194)
Love stories are as common as spit on the sidewalk, alas to how special your own love story seems to you. Love isn't that special. What's special is how you do love, how I do love, how we do love, how this love does this love. The adverbs.

A couple more side notes on the book.

First side note: BARELY, the penultimate story, stars Sam, a name that threw me as I did not think I had seen it before. And her friend falls in love with someone else and, inevitably, they will someday leave her life and forget her and that will be that, and Sam has no love story of her own waiting for her, and this is a book of love stories, and when she delivers the missing beloved bird to the woman across the street and the woman is so happy we learn that Sam, "somebody help her, this is the only story she is in" (258), a line that broke my heart. At first because this suggested that in her life, Sam will never be a vital part of anyone's story. She doesn't matter much to anyone in the long run. And then, I was a tad stunned to realize that it also meant that Sam is a name I had not seen in this novel before and would not see again. Artificiality enforcing realism.

Second side note: Listen to this and tell me if you don't hear the ghost of Vonnegut. A big breakfast weighs you down in the United States, not what you want to eat if you're going to work at stopping a disease. Nonetheless, Joe had eggs. He worked at a place called Stop AIDS Now, a political and/or social organization the aim of which is to stop AIDS, a terrible disease that has killed millions of people and which is spread through two acts much associated with love:having sex and having babies, now. At the time of this writing, lets' face it, nobody knows what to do about this. There's drugs but they don't work, and there's bigotry which for some reason works real well at the job of making everything worse, and people keep on performing acts of love and they dying, all over the world, all over the place. Joes' job thought that enough was enough, among other strategies. It was a worthwhile job and so paid not that well, but Joe told himself he didn't need much money, which is a common and surprisingly not-that-difficult thing to do. Eggs are cheap. Joe tried to stop AIDS now Monday through Friday except when he was sick or really wanted to go to a movie instead of to work, or was called---summoned, they call it, for jury duty. What happens with jury duty is, for a week maybe you get to be one of the twelve people who decides if someone's a criminal, maybe nothing happens. Neither is really that taxing. Thus eggs. (259-260)

Anyway, Vonnegut didn't really have it in him to write a love story, did he? Thanks goodness, then, for this collection of adverbs.
twoïsh weeks


010) Death by Chocolate: Redux by David Yurkovich, finished February 3

As I read the stories in this collection, I wasn't sure Yurkovich realized what the strengths of his concept was. Then I read his note in the back and I was convinced of it.

Here's the set up:

Vacationing chocolatier visits a Swiss chocolate factory and gets separated from his tour group. He overhears employees talking about how they've imprisoned an alien consciousness and trapped it in their machines, forcing it to make chocolate. They spot our hapless hero who tries to escape, ultimately plummeting into a vat of boiling chocolate. He becomes pure chocolate and is controlled by the vengeful alien. Eventually the alien leaves him---and leaves him with the power to change anything into pure chocolate. That's your origin story.

As a send-up of superhero stories, this origin cannot be beat. It is pure ridiculous. And the first story just grows in absurdity, making it a nice critique of superhero stories generally.

The further stories vary in success. Sometimes it ceases to be a joke at all. I can accept all these stories as long as we all remember that what we're reading is absurd. But at times the comic forgot how silly it was and wanted to be taken seriously. And that's when I stopped taking it seriously.

So overall? Some great concepts, some fun, some disappointment.
most of a week

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


50 Shades of Jesus (Christian Rock Anthem)


Note: I've been unable to find a top Christian-rock band to record this song in time to make a viral-YouTube-hit parody/protest against that certain-to-be-popular bit of modern-day Gomorrah, Fifty Shades of Grey. So I'm just putting the lyrics online (and promoting them on social media every day between now and the movie's release) in hopes some amateur hard-rocking Christians will make this happen. Anyone can have this for free (and rewrite as they like), but if you make over a thousand dollars, you have to give me half.


50 Shades of Jesus
(Christian Rock Anthem)

Whip me as you were whipped
Bathe my sinful flesh in
...your blood sweat and tears
Rock my tabernacle
...my body of flesh and clay
Punish my inner sinner
...love away moral decay

Crown my thorn with your crown of thorns
Thorn my crown with your love
When push comes to shove
...and pain turns to love
Keep me up all night
...with these feelings too right
Tie me down with your care
...make my soul pure and bare

...I'll be your slave
I'll be a slave for Jesus
...I was once a slave to sin
But now I'm yours

I've known the whips and chains of Satan
...and the whips and chains of sex
But the whips and chains of Jesus
...oh, I do love his the best
Let me into your house, oh Jesus,
...yes, your mansions above
Let me into your dungeon,
...your dungeon of love
...love, sweet, godly love

...I'll be your slave
I'll be a slave for Jesus
...I was once a slave to sin
But now I'm yours

The abuse you took
...is the abuse you take
From those whose
...wills will break
Oh lift me up and place me
...next to you upon your cross
Then take me down and love me
...my kindest cruelest boss

Beat damnation! Save me!
...is what the faithful cry
Beat damnation! Save me!
...is what we all should cry
My BDSM Jesus
Now never will I die

...I'll be your slave
I'll be a slave for Jesus
...I was once a slave to sin
But now I'm yours


A second batch of books for January


009) The End of the World by Don Hertzfeldt, finished January 31

I loved this book. Honestly, I bought it mostly to support an independent artist whose animation I love, but this book captures something along the lines of Edward Gorey in its disconnected sense of story captured in tiny enormous moments. (Think Gorey and you'll know what I mean.) Hertzfeldt however, instead of, say, a man stalking an opera singer, has chosen to address the end of the world. And with his stick figures and a few hundred pages, he addressed the end of the world. Frankly, this was as affective in its own way as The Road was in its way.

I'll be reading it again.

(Incidentally, something else I liked about this book was how it showed me a tradition I may be part of. Some of the art I do [such as "Faces" which how would you ever have heard of] behaves in a similar manner. Now that I can see what tradition I'm engaging, I'm interested in doing something more public with these projects.)

maybe fifteen hours


008) Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, finished January 24

So I totally get why everyone was so enamored of this last year. It's not just that it's a geeky Pakistani teenage girl who's the hero---it's that the writing is smart and funny and so is the art. Every page has little jokes or bits of foreshadowing buried in the background.

And maybe it just comes from working at the high school I do, but I really feel like I know this girl. I don't know a lot about Wilson, but she's captured something very true both about being a teenager and about growing up Pakistani-American---and she's done it with serious verve.

not so long


007) Drop Shot by Harlan Coben, finished January 18

The boys, apparently at random, picked this book our for me from Barnes and Noble as a Christmas present. I quite liked it, even though all the female good guys are drop dead gorgeous and all the male good guys are drop dead gorgeous and even though the jokes pound and pound and pound until you die from the lack of blood. The mystery itself was nice and intricate. Although one aspect of the mystery was obvious to me long before it was obvious to the dick, I didn't see how it resulted in the mystery's solution until the very end. Tight stuff.

I would love to know Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho lead was influenced by a character from this series.

Oh: and one other thing. This is the latest bit of art (this was the first) that's sent me thinking about "WASP culture." I had always thought WASP was supposed to be generic white Anglo American, but I'm realizing it's something much more precise (and moneyed) than that. Which is interesting. I'm as descended from William Bradford as the next guy, but none of my close blood's ever attended Harvard or been fictionalized in a Wall Street greedfest film. So . . . I'm suddenly curious about those weirdos with the money and cultivated landscapes. They seem different.
about nine days


006) Cardboard by Doug TenNaple, finished January 15

Exciting and vibrant and fresh and loaded with dumb moments that, in the final analysis, don't damage the kid in you's enjoyment.

one evening

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Ploughshares 40.1
(Spring 2014)


So, yeah, I'm definitely not reading these in order. But I have finally figured out where to read them (some things get read walking to work, some in bed, some on the toilet---ends up Ploughshares is one of the latter) so I may get through all the ones hanging around. However, this issue is pretty much everything I hinted at not liking last time. The big problem with the fiction in this issue is stories that do not end. The first story, for instance, "The Rink Girl" by Mark Brazaitis. It's brilliantly written---beautiful stuff, really. The teenagers, their relationships, their inner and outer lives. The plot is understated but compelling and important---to the characters and thus to us, the readers. And then? At the end? Instead of completing the story, Brazaitis cops out. He's like, "Hhhhhh! This is taking forever! Here, hang on. [rustling in bag] Here. Have a symbol."

I'm going to skip most of the stories and stick with the ones like "Rink Girl" that have frittered merit.

Next up, "The Sky in the Glass-Topped Table" which uses as its title an unimportant image. Another well crafted teenage lead. This time her story ends with an awful violence perpetrated against her which instantly becomes a huh!-type learning experience. Author Elizabeth Evans seems to want to show off a Troma-esque disinterest in the consequences of evil. Well. Lovely.

The most successful story in the issue was "Go-Between" by Peter Rock. This one too, arguably, ends prematurely and this one too, arguably, underserves life's unpleasantness, but its dreamlike atmosphere and unclear connection to the real makes these issues immaterial. This one too is about teenagers. Which I find remarkable---the best works in the last issue I read were also about teenagers. I wonder what the explanation is.

Anyway, that pattern is broken by the fourth story in this issue with merits enough to mention, Donna Trump's "Seizure." This story's about a man whose life and body have fallen apart, and how he attempts to remain, at very least, an involved and loving father. It's quite moving. Parts of it were genuinely painful to imagine. You can read the guest editor's comments here (and get a sense as to why she doesn't let stories end properly). I think my dissatisfaction with this story might not be the story's fault. In this case, it might be my adoption of the protag's own dissatisfaction with himself.

Anyway, this is a grumpy post. And will probably get me some hate from the literati. I mean---don't I know that all these stories I claim to like and yet still bash have more beautiful sentences than almost everything published in the most recent issue of Pulp Literature, which I just praised? Sure I do. And a couple of the stories I praised in that post could have benefited from more beautiful sentences. (Though I rush to point out that I'm not saying those stories had bad sentences. Just that, see my own next sentence.) What I'm saying is that beautiful sentences are not enough. A story needs to be completely a story. I'm not satisfied by beautiful pieces alone. What am I? A serial killer?

Anyway. I still have more issues to catch up on. I hope to say more positive things in the future.


Pulp Literature 5


Although of a consistent aesthetic, this volume is strikingly different from its predecessor. Take "Stella Ryman and the Four Digit Puzzle (Mel Anastasiou) and, to a lesser extent, "The Pledge" (Stephen Case). These stories are utterly mundane, yet told through pulp conventions. The first takes place in a retirement home and the hero's big case is trying to learn the code to open the front door. Yet it's complete with hair-breadth escapes and tall drinks of water and arch enemies, etc etc. "The Pledge" stars a literal PI, but his case is as dull as possible---and investigation reveals it's just as dull as it seems---although misunderstanding on the edges of the case does result in violence and police action.

Although I wouldn't suggest the editors adopt a diet of pure mundane adventure, I really loved these stories. I love the application of pulp convention to the unheralded vagaries of everyday life.

In other news, I loved the mix of plainfaced violence with bildungsroman and everything-old-is-new-again lesbianism in the lead story, Eileen Kernaghan's "The Robber Maiden's Story"; and Margaret Kingsbury's "The Longing Is Green When the Branches Are Trees" delving into a single-item apocalypse (rather like Connie Willis's "The Last of the Winnebagos" mixed the fantastic with the sf in pleasurable ways.

Speaking of stories that seem to be engaging with sf classics, "Some Say the World will end in Fire" by R Daniel Lester reminds me of the Ray Bradbury stories where the characters of books (or dead authors, depending on the story) are stranded on, say, Mars, alive, until the last of their books have been destroyed. In this case, the living (but unfinished) characters wish to die, and at the hand of their creator. A very different sort of arrangement than the one Bradbury presented---and an open question as to "what it all means."

Anyway, another good issue. This has been a good investment. Plus, check out this awesome back cover!

So be excited for that.