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 . . . . :


Unfinished Books: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization


I want to say up front that this is an Unfinished Book and NOT a Rejected Book, even though I will largely be complaining about its failures. I really did plan to finish the book even so, but its failings made it hard to keep picking up. Basically, after we got back from LA and I had access to other books, I just couldn't convince myself to keep reading even though I was fascinated by the subject matter.

The problem was that Lawler lacks a clear sense of where the interest in his stories lies. He'll drag along along through tangential trivia and skip lightly over challenging demanding aspect of the tale. This leads to frustration or boredom, back and forth between the two. Which is a shame because, as I said, there is much of interest here, historical, sociological, and pressingly contemporary.

I wonder if he just had a hard time making the leap to booklength nonfiction? I dunno. It was disappointing though.

I really wanted to learn about chickens.



Unfinished Books: The David Foster Wallace Reader


I've always ignored David Foster Wallace. He wrote massive messes like Infinite Jest and since I didn't find him when I was into artsy messes, I just wasn't interested. Even after watching an excellent YouTube video of his water speech (not this video---the one I saw was animated, but alas I canna find it). But the water video, seen years ago, supplemented by the biopic trailer seen in a theater, meant that when I saw this 963pp READER on the library's NEW shelves, I picked it up. I first looked for "This Is Water" but it was MIA so I skimmed the nonfiction for something short. Found such a thing, but while turning there bumped into "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"---a phrase I did not know was Wallace's. I started that instead, not knowing it was essentially a small book of itself.

I loved it. Besides being human and funny and sharp and well written &c, it captured everything I assume must be true about cruises and exactly why I don't ever want to go on one. Thank you very much, Mr Wallace. Now when someone invites me, I can just send them to you.

Then I did read some of the shorter works and yes they were nice. But my favorite pieces from the book where the longer essays---add to "A Supposedly Fun Thing" those about television and the Illinois State Fair. The only piece of fiction I made it through was a work from his undergrad days, a punchy drag about depression and other fun crimes our minds commit.

I've renewed the book twice which means when it's due in three days from this writing [ed. note: this time has now passed], I will have had it nine weeks. Most of those weeks consist of days I didn't touch the book, but realizing our end was drawing nigh, I've spent the last couple days downing as many pages as possible.

Among this cramming were pages I dogeared (don't tell!) because I want to steal them for pedagogical reasons. Specifically, elements of his own syllabi written for classes he taught. I would like to immediately implement many of his strategies, but here's a fact: what works for twelve students a semester is not practical nor practicable when one is responsible for 107 (this semester's count, divided over three classes). Le sigh.

Anyway, the point is maybe I should just buy myself a copy. Perhaps someday I'll even trust him enough to consider reading Infinite Jest. I rather doubt it, but maybe someday I'll get therapy and perhaps explain to myself how I changed from eager participant in the madness to strict apostate.


Every single one of these is worth your time. Every single one.


092) Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O'Brien, finished September 5

We listened to this book (read by Renée Raudman) early in the summer, but lost it then had to recheck it out and anyway we finally finished it. We had to, hassles or no. It's ineffably charming and heartfelt and even me, still burnt out on animal books from twenty years ago, loved it.

O'Brien can get away with a lot of weird stuff because she establishes her scientific credentials early and often. I don't know what hardcore professional scientists think of her little book and her little theories, but she makes even things like telepathy tough to discount. But that's just some stuff tacked on at the end. The bulk of the book is charming stories about a woman living with an owl. It's cinematic stuff. I mean---you'd have to animate and I don't know what story you'd tack on, but you'll be jealous you didn't get to be there watching.
over two months


091) The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, finished September 5

I'm not sure how I got to this article, but it's what turned me onto Nell Zink, middle-aged wunderkind. She's a fascinating personality. Read the article. Don't let Franzen's enthusiasm turn you off her.

I wasn't interested in her overly meta novel and her newest isn't in my library's catalogue, so I picked up The Wallcreeper about American's watching birds and committing adultery in modern Germany. The novel starts with a killer line (The New Yorker calls it "unimprovable") and continues with marvelous images and metaphors. I had noted down three to share with you, but the book isn't searchable on Amazon so now I have no real way to find them. Which is a shame because, obviously, phrasing matters in situations like this. But to ballpark two of them:
a river envelops a city like a uterine wall

crows walk about like cops looking for a body
Yeah. They were better in the original. I didn't realize how lazy Amazon was making me.

Anyway, our protagonist has no clear direction in her life, but her life feels real and honest so even when it's absurd or nonsensical, we remain with her. Even if the last couple pages feel a bit moralizey.

I had a lot more to say about this, but I finished reading it just before a three-day trip and Amazon is hiding lines from me so I guess that's that.

Anyway, wallcreepers are LBJs with flashes of color in their wings. Don't hit one with your car.
maybe two weeks


090) The Animal Family by Randall Harrell, finished September 4

Of course you remember eight years ago when I read The Bat-Poet? I knew you would.

This is another book for the young by the great American poet and critic and this one is utterly different in all respects aside from being beautiful and wonderful and moving and excellent. Again with illustrations from Maurice Sendak (these even more restrained).

I learned of this book at the Hammer gift shop. I didn't buy it but neither did I forget it. And now I have read the library's copy and I almost wish I'd bought it (except that no one in this house ever rereads anything).

Since our last Jarrell, the Big O has grown from preliterate to bookcrazy. He's started this one and he's enjoyed it so far. I hope he finishes it.

In short: A man lives alone on a coastside, alone since his parents died long ago. He befriends a mermaid who learns his language and comes to live with him. They can't have children but over time adopt a bear cub, a lynx cub, and a shipwrecked toddler.

And holy crap but is it beautiful and wonderful and moving and excellent!

You would be crazy not to read it. If you were here, I would start reading it to you right now.

over a month methinks

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Meh. The next post will be better.


089) Zenith: Phase 1 by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, finished September 4

Tiny bite-sized pieces from the '80's 2000AD about some alternate-universe contemporary Great British superheroishness. A pleasant read. Used the teensy-bit serialized form well. Not surprising to learn Morrison goes on to bigger things. That's all.
an evening


087) Anthem by Ayn Rand, finished September 2

Oops. I forgot about this one. Largely because reading it with a class for the millionth time doesn't seem that notable. But I suppose I'll include it this time.

I have to say: reading Anthem as many times as I have now, its flaws are multiplying rapidly. It's still a great book to read with freshmen (look! I can see the deep stuff! 'cause it's right on the surface!) but I do wonder how much longer I can stand it.


088) The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay, finished September 1

Random is weird. This is the third book in a row I've read that features Jane Yolen's writing and her name on the cover. Wild.

Anyway, I quite liked this book. The writing feels grounded in a real place and time while simultaneously being poetic and frequently plebian and funny.

It's the story of a small village attacked by a dragon centuries since dragons had been destroyed. Stars a young woman whose father is the first victim. It's also a romance. In fact, I would argue that the romantic elements gain primacy by the end of the tale. Even though, from a writing standpoint, these aspect of the story is particularly underdeveloped.

But pause that and let's talk about Guay's art.

It's lush, it has depth, it's varied. Her style runs from Pre-Raphaelite to near sketch within the story. It would make sense to spend some time considering why she switches from one to another. But even at her lightest touch, she has a clear understanding of anatomy and gesture and although the energy is subdued, the sense of life is powerful.

If I hadn't been finishing late at night and anxious to turn off the light and sleep, I would have spent more time lost in the imagery. And if I had done so, I wouldn't have felt the sense of underdevelopment I mentioned earlier. See, Yolen trusts us to give her artist the time she deserves. And when we do, we get the sense of time passing that just reading the words and flipping the page prevents.

In other words, there's some nice synergy yall, going on between words and paint, if we slow down and let it wash over us.

I should read it again...maybe this time with a timer, requiring me to make it to the beep before turning the page....
one day

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Stuff you didn't know about me


086) A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales edited by , Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, finished August 31

I forget why I ran this book down. Perhaps I just saw Neil Gaiman's name then noticed Gregory Maguire and Patricia McKillip's names as well and thought, hey, why not? Dunno. The point is that I'm glad I picked it up and I quickly switched from planning to read a couple stories from names I know to eagerly reading one after another.

For a YA collection, the variety was terrific. From retellings that stayed very classic to modern settings to postmodern deconstructions. A little bit of everything. Some of my favorites were from writers I didn't know (and one was from a writer I only knew from her introduction to book #085).

Frankly, the best book of fairy tales I've read in some time.
over two weeks


085) Castle Waiting by Linda Medley, finished August 30

I loved the for-a-buck Castle Waiting novel I picked up at Escapist. When I learned more was available, I availed myself of the library. This volume includes a prologue, then what I had already read, then more. (I've put volume two on hold and am eagerly anticipating volume three.)

Having just read the Castle Waiting I own, I had planned to skip those chapters during this read. But the writing and art (and thus the characters and scenes) are so friendly and likable and inviting that I couldn't say no to an invitation to travel old roads with them again. And I'm someone who pretty much never rereads anything any more.

The charms of Castle waiting are largely mundane, domestic. People about their daily lives. And yes, this is a fantasy novel so everyday life includes sprites and golden eggs, but these aren't great heroes about derring-do. These are people. People so richly drawn that they feel like friends. An afternoon at Castle Waiting would rank high among my travels were I Thursday Next and tired of Jane Eyre.
maybe two weeks


084) An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy, finished August 30

This is a novel in verse, I suppose, in dialogue form, "He" and "she" taking turns speaking. "He" is a mortal man and "she" is an angel. Eventually they get on each other's nerves. She gets most of the best lines. Ultimately, however, it's pretty hard to tell what this is all about. Maybe this is a Poe issue. Although short enough to be read in one sitting, I'm not sure I was able to cram the whole thing in my brain at once. I could blame this on it being too literary, but I don't think that was the problem. The fact that sometimes I would forget who was talking was a bigger problem---only two characters? They should be more distinguishable. Anyway. Complaints aside, if you're looking for a manageable bit of book-length poetry, you could do much worse. Plus, it'll look cool on your shelf.
one morning and afternoon


083) Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact by Neylan McBaine, finished August 30


Neylan McBaine's name seems to be a bit like Joseph Smith's---known for good and evil (though without the same kind of among-all-people reach). It's fascinating how to some she is Moses come off the mountain and to others she's Uncle Tom. I think she's sensible enough to reject both those labels, but if those were the only two options, I would choose the former. But if she is Moses, she's more of a Greek Moses, not with anything written in stone, but with a wandering series of questions and reasonable answers and followup questions that lead to a seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Here I jump in and wonder if audience bias plays a role in how things "seem." Do I, Theric, find McBain convincing because I already assume that part of the Restoration is ever greater equality of the sexes and surely excerpts from the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book will be added to the D&C any Conference now? If I were one of those Twitter Stake trolls who make fun of the women giving talks during #ldsconf, would this book help me see past my sociopathy? Or, more importantly, if I were a well meaning bishop to whom it's simply never occurred to ask a woman for feedback on my Mother's Day plans, could this book increase empathy and lead to openings in my ward's spiritual growth? Or would I nod wisely and wink at my counselors and just keep on keepin' on? Buy one for your local chicken patriarch and let me know.

Regardless, this is a valuable book---and I think most people desire to see the Church grow in the direction of inclusion. Wily as she is, McBaine has grounded her discussion in what is currently allowed by the Handbook of Instructions, those blue and red books leadership is obliged to follow. Her strict adherence to these rules---even though they are merely temporarily immutable---makes her ideas both immediately implementable and, presumably, less horrifying to the conservative.

That she is swearing by the book as currently constituted brings her credibility that gives her ideas weight they can gain in no other way. Thus, when she screws up her following-of-the-book, she risks damaging her credibility. Here's an "unimportant" example---indeed, the only one I noticed:
...a ward council meeting officially includes ten men: the bishop, his two counselors, the executive secretary, ward clerk, high priests group leader, elders quorum president, ward mission leader, Young Men's president, and the Sunday School president. Three women are included: the presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary. Priesthood executive council (PEC) consists of all ten men from the ward council, with a potential invitation to the Relief Society president. The Young Men president is a permanent member of the priesthood executive committee, but the Young Women president is not even on the list of potential invitees.... the presence of twenty male voices in the two meetings is counterbalanced by the voice of three female voices (maybe four if the Relief Society president attends PEC). [43-44]
McBaine's point is that men have far more representation in ward-level councils than women. It's an important point that deserves discussion. And so she does. Here's my problem with what she's said (and note I already know I'm being persnickety): Aaaactually, the Sunday School president isn't invited to PEC either. Not according to the Handbook. So it's reeeeally 19:3.

That doesn't change the nature of the problem at all. Not at all. The problem is that if someone's reading this book under duress and looking for reasons to dismiss McBaine's arguments, this sort of petty mistake can lead to all sorts of uncharity.

Another mistake that threw me out was the story of a young Primary girl who wants to sing about the Armies of Shelaman. It's a charming story about a young Provo girl who was sick of being just a girl in a room overwhelmed with stories of boys and who carved herself a place. She's just a kid but she feels neglected, and the story is powerful proof that we need to lengthen our cords.

My problem this time? That story didn't happen in Provo. It happened right here in good old Berkeley.

Now look: I believe these were simple, editorial oversights. And they're the only two such errors I noticed. But the fact I found any makes me wonder how many I missed and any errors---but especially Handbook errors---damage McBaine's grounded-in-the-Handbook ethos. In fact, someone more cynical than me could think of reasons why those errors might be intentional (19:3 might be bad but 20:3 is worse and everything must sound as awful as possible) (this story works better in Provo---admit it was Berkeley and most saints will reject it as hippy nonsense), and the fight against any perception that she's manipulating facts is absolutely vital to the book's success.

But enough about that. Let's speak of the book's successes.

The first and greatest success, I think, is simply the massive collection of stories. We learn from each other, and if a woman would like to participate in her child's name and blessing but has never seen a mother do so before, how will she know she can ask? who to ask? what to ask for? Women at Church shares several different ways women have already participated in this event. Suddenly we have options.

The same can be said of past successes at getting women's voices heard in councils, finding equal(er) footing among their priesthood leaders, supporting women in their stewardships, empowering women to use their strengths within the body of Christ, etc. The book is loaded with useful tales. And some cautionary ones as well.

Stories are vital for building empathy, and empathy is the only way out of this rut we're in. Only by loving our neighbor as ourselves can all of us become one. Jesus didn't teach with stories by accident, you know.

I don't want to get into the (in my opinion) frustrating history of the Relief Society, nor do I want to debate the ultimate value of Correlation---even though both these stories are fascinating and vital---but I do think it worth mentioning that McBaine touches on both. She's not controversial---she more relays the facts than comments upon them---but, even without moralizing, that history helps us understand that our latter-day trajectory is sending us towards women with authority and power, rib-cracking hiccups notwithstanding. I can only believe that Women at Church is best understood as a helpful reminder of where we're headed and a kindly suggestion of where to step next.

This might be the historical "moment when [we] have gone to the edge of the light" and must step "into the darkness [only] to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two." Our wards and stakes might be stumbling forward at different paces, but we can all make sure that the direction is, in fact, forward. And this little book can help.

two-plus months


082) The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball's Forgotten Heroes by Gary Cieradkowski, finished August 25

This is one of the best collection of nuggets I can remember reading. Every story fascinates and Cieradkowski's art is terrific. I just got distracted after that last sentence, adding things I learned to Wikipedia. It's an hour later.

Each story is bitesize---some nibbles, some a full box of nuggets---and all are worth reading. Whether its players everyone knows like Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente, classic Negro Leaguers like Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, nobodies you'll never hear of anywhere else, and people you know better from somewhere else---like an Eisenhower or a Bush or a Kerouac.

Man it was fun.

Read it slow though---no reason to speed through it and realize that some of these legends collide uncomfortably against each other.

Or that one out of every four greats was called the Babe Ruth of X.

Anyway. Don't wait for the book! Start now by perusing the original website!

over a month

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Saint Cole and some other stuff


081) Saint Cole by Noah Van Sciver, finished August 20


Noah Van Sciver is doing remarkable work right now. This story about a midtwenties screw-up derailing his life with every choice he makes is heartbreaking. Joe's not a bad guy. He's just not equipped to make good choices, and his burgeoning awareness that he's an alcoholic isn't helping.
It's impossible not to feel for Joe, even as his id takes charge. He means well, he just can't hang on to a clear sense of what is best in this world. What his right. And his choices are spiraling downward---every good decision is outweighed by half a dozen bad.


You know when you're in an awful moment of your life, so bad the thought that hey---if only a truck would kill my boss, things would work out for me seems totally reasonable? Joe's deep into that realm. And he gets his wish. And for a moment we think, hey! yeah! That solves his problem! And then we remember...all his other problems. His deus ex machina might solve as many as two of his problems. It might make that many more. And one thing's for sure: it won't take the booze away.

The title is a fascinating choice. It reveals that the entire world we see isn't some omniscient narrator, but Joe's consciouness's filter. It starts and ends us with a sense of the holy---of pending deus---but is really no more than a cheap gag.

Where does this leave us?

With ambiguity. Life too real to be embraced. Art too powerful to be ignored.

One last comment: On one page, Van Sciver abandons the gutters and just rams the frames together, a sign of Joe's instability more subtle but just as effective as the wobbly thoughtboxes or concentric dark circles. The experimentation level is high, but it's kept entirely under control. Man knows what he's doing.
two nights


080) That A Guise, John? by Brace Pannier, finished August 19

Screenplay. MS POLICY enacted.


079) A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett, finished DATE

The primary impression of this book is that Terry Pratchett was not beset with false humility when he claimed he wasn't a strong short-story writer.

Don't get me wrong. The stuff he wrote when he was a teenager was precocious---on the par with the best student stuff of my career. But still only really worth reading from a scholarly perspective.

That his short stuff is good but not as great as his long work is true. And I suppose that's why it's not surprising that the best work in this collection is the longest: a 48-page Granny Weatherwax story.

That said, as I read on, I stopped skimming the occasional paragraph and just read the whole thing. No one made me. I was simply enjoying it.

(Final note: As a Pratchett fan, interesting to see the primordial versions of Truckers or The Long Earth.)
less than a month


078) Revival Volume Four: Escape to Wisconsin by Tim Seely and Mike Norton, finished August 16

Starting in the middle is unnecessary in this day and age, but I picked this up from the library's NEW shelf and hey, why not? So I don't have a clear sense of everything that's going on, but basically: the recently dead arose and are now immortal---but only in one small Wisconsin town, and naturally everyone (worldwide) is a mix of freaked out and jealous. Add noir, add sex and violence---it all makes for a nice package. (The kid, however, is written terribly.)
over two weeks

Previously in 2014 . . . . :




My superpower is being so sensitive to temperature change that a sudden drop gives me diarrhea. Not sure how this helps me fight crime....

Mostly vacation books, but also some sexy poetry


077) Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, finished August 15

Not hard to see how this became a classic. We enjoyed listening to the audiobook very much on our trip, and my boys don't even know who Cinderella is.

In an audiobook, the space Levine spends on her made-up languages gets a bit long, but ultimately Ella is a fun and interesting hero who earns her release from a fascinating curse. I think the boys choice this one because they expected more slapstick, but they still enjoyed the story.
six days


076) Happy Birthday, Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut, finished August 6

This is an excellent big of Vonnegut. The ending (which in the intro he admitted was reworked over the entire run of the play) doesn't quite land, but as a whole it is sharp and clean and smart and funny and thoughtful. And it's reliance on the Odyssey as source material makes it an excellent book to teach alongside Greek myth.

In short, Harold Ryan crashes in the jungle and seven years later returns to find his wife engaged. His wargoing ways are expired in a new era of aspirational peace (his sexism isn't so hot either). It's satire of course, and aged satire at that, but it nreveals both how far we've come and how far we've yet to go.
three days


075) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, finished August 4

Our latest adventure into audiobooks comes on a to-and-fro trip to San Jose and one way to Bear Lake, Idaho. Yes, Tom Sawyer is that long. I think we're all surprised.

Although some of the satirical stuff got boring for the boys (Exhibit A: poetry recitals), the Great Boys Tale is a fun and exciting as ever. And it gave us lots of opportunities to parent (eg, rage and tobacco). In the end, it's a fine book. And the sequel's finer. Which is what makes the further sequels so absurd.

Anyway, it's hard now to imagine Tom's world, the newest town impossibly far and the children free. A lost world. Largely for better but also for worse....

UPDATE: Not just because we visited a cave while in Idaho, Tom's adventures came up quite often in conversations with our kids over the following week or so.
four days


074) The Erotic Spirit: An Anthology of Poems of Sensuality, Love, and Longing edited by Sam Hamill, finished July 28

I didn't have high expectations for this book so I'm delighted to say it was pretty dang good. Plenty of things I personally would have left out and how can there be no John Donne??? but as a whole, I quite liked it. To my greatest surprise, most of my favorites were in fact the work ancient poets, many of whom I was utterly unfamiliar with. The poems I jotted down to revisit were by Anakreon, Asklepiados, Praxilla, Ovid, "Anonymous Japanese (10th century)," Liu Yung, Jelaluddin Rumi, John Keats, Carolyn Kizer, and Dorianne Laux.

I'll let you look up the actual poems yourself.
two weeks max

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


This time around


073) Dial H: Exchange by China Miéville et al, finished July 27

This one added too many characters and covered too much time, making it less fun than the first volume. I still appreciate what's being attempted, but the pacing was off and so much is going on, it's tough to juggle in the confines of the pages alotted to a monthly comic. So it goes.
a few days


072) Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World by Sid Fleischman, finished July 24

My son checked this out (they've all been big fans since we celebrated the Little Tramp's centenniel in a movie theater) but I don't think he's going to read it. I've been picking it up though and reading it now and then. It's great! Sure, it's for kids, but it's detailed and I certainly learned things I did not know. And it doesn't hold back when our hero's a cad either. Some parents might find this book too honest, too detailed.

I however hope one of these kids actually picks it up and gives it a go.

In the meantime, we're working our way through this: http://www.openculture.com/..free_charlie_chaplin_films...

Join us!


071) "C" is for Corpse by Sue Grafton, finished July 22

I had an interesting experience with my third dip into Kinsey Millhone's world. This book projected its solution much more clearly. I don't try to crack mystery novels as I read them, but elements of the solution here were so obvious I couldn't not predict them.


This was the first of the novels to keep me up late, tense, working my way to the finish.

Dramatic irony is the best path to suspense. But too much and the protagonist just becomes an idiot and how is she a detective? Kills my ability to care.

This novel teetered on that line, dangerously.

Can't wait for "D"!
ishly, two weeks


070) Isle of 100,000 Graves by Fabien Vehlmann and Jason, finished July 19

This nutty look at a young girl whose quest to find her father takes her to a school of executioners is nutty fun and suitably European in direction.

Writer Vehlmann has written a very Jasonian book. I would be happy to see them work together again.
not long

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Funny pictures and scary pictures and thoughty Mormons


069) Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett, finished July 17

This is the first of the City Guard books and, of the ones I've read, the least. That said, it was still smart and funny. No one can turn a phrase like a Terry Pratchett character. No one. And it did make me want to plow through the rest. I started with a mediocre short story in his short story collection (he wasn't joking when he said he's less good at short stories; the quality varies, but has not yet reached the level of his novels), and we have a couple more in our collection I haven't gotten to yet. But I'm making a possible error and instead of making the next in-the-car book another Pratchett, I'm trying on something very very different.

I'll miss you, Discworld.
just over three months


068) Dial H: Into You by China Miéville et al, finished July 15

Dial H is based on one of the hokiest concepts in DC Comics history. And that's saying something. But it's been recreated here with intelligence. Yes, the hokey aspects remain, but somehow Miéville found a way to bring it up to the "normal realism" of superhero books. (Whatever that means.)

Must be a fun book to write (and draw), being able to make up new characters---as absurd as you like---for each issue. Some are pretty great and I can imagine fans demanding to see more of them. Others are . . . hokey. And they do seem to run out of ideas now and then (the number of characters that, instead of arms, have everyday objects is striking), but still. It's fun.

One thing I like about this particular collection, is that after the first story ended, it included two other stories with very different flavors. Sure this happens a lot in The New 52, but these ones actually function to build the world rather than feeling like the writer needed a week off. The final story in particular, sending the Dial far back in time and introducing a sensible explanation with accompanying threat for those who use it, raises the stakes in a reasonable, manageable way. In short, pretty good stuff. One of the better New 52s I've read.



067) Benny Breakiron: The Red Taxis by Peyo, finished July 15

I've never read anything by the creator of the Smurfs, as I recall. This book is sort of a cross between Superman, Tintin, and Richie Rich. I think that's the best way to describe it.

Fun book. Very midcentury European. Very kid.

New to the U.S.



066) Bossypants by Tina Fey, finished July 14

If you love Tina Fey as we love Tina Fey, you will love this book as we love this book.

(Lynsey read it when it was new, then returned it to the library instantly, before I could touch it. So we got to have Tina read it to us over a couple long drives instead.)
a week


065) Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature by Marden J. Clark, finished July 12

I received a copy of this as part of the booty (or pretty much "the booty) with my AML Award and have picked up another copy since. They seem to float around Mormon arts circles.

Anyway, it was great. You can get a taste of what it's like by reading this abbreviated form of the title essay as published in the Ensign, 1977. It leaves out Flannery O'Connor, but includes the sonnet. That part of the essay I often share with my AP classes. It's good stuff.

Anyway, having taken so long to finish the book, I've forgotten most of what I wanted to say about it. Which was a lot. He talks about literature and religion and society and specific works of art and life and academics and . . . he talks about a lot of stuff. But it all centers around the paradox hinted at in the title: how limiting forms set us free.

It's a wonderful book and I commend it to you. In fact, if you want to swing by, I'll give you my extra copy.

The only sad thing about this book is that it's barely aged at all. Published in 1992, collecting essays that go back decades, and still very much the conversation we're having today.


Well. At least we can still read what the best minds have had to say. Let's start there.
maybe five years


064) The Rise of Aurora West by Paul Pope and J. T. Petty and David Rubín, finished July 12

This is a prequel to Battling Boy (see below) starring that novel's other young hero. As a prequel, I would call it a great success. It connects to book one in useful, intelligent, unexpected ways. In other words, it's not gratuitous.

We meet Aurora's parents in more detail. And if her father is "Batman without the baggage," well, Aurora's mother was killed and her father will die in Battling Boy. She gets to bring the baggage.

Pope only wrote this book. The art apes Pope's style ably, but it does feel like an aping---character's eyes are misplaced, but it doesn't feel like Pope's chaotic, black-smudged impressionism. It feels like a knockoff.

Still. It was pretty great. I'm looking forward to an addition to this series come October (a sequel to this book, not Battling Boy).

two days


063) Battling Boy by Paul Pope, finished July 11

I read this a year ago. It totally holds up.

I love the humanity of the monstrous villains, how prosaic the edges of their lives.

I love the youthfulness of the young heros

Man is Pope something.
one day


062) The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins, finished July 6

(Awesome cover, right?)

It's 2007 and the college-town video store is unwittingly being hunted by Netflix and the obsolete-itself behemoth Blockbuster. But it's a great place to work if you love movies and have a tough time with people. And after the novel has ended, its some of those employees that are what linger. I had some issues with this novel, but I did love some of these stuck souls.

Plus, the references they provide the reader to film would certainly fill your summer schedule.

The novel is a bit sloppy at times---for instance, we're told that one character talks "like a smoker" then, at the bottom of a page, he smokes. Suddenly his voice is a lot less mysterious. This "like a smoker" this is less a simile . . . and more like . . . a fact.

That example comes from the final third of the novel which is the sloppiest. It feels insufficiently redrafted, almost as if the original was trashed late in the process and this was rushed in to fill its space. That final third is also the most self-aware though that's largely redeemed as things continue to move forward.

The epiloguey final pages revealed to me something I had not realized tho this point---what I mentioned above---that Hawking had introduced me to people I'd thought I'l known but hadn't, not really. And now I did. Now I did know them. This section went on a bit long, but I can forgive it. It took me this long to build sufficient empathy. It must have been hard for Hawkins to let go.
a small number of weeks


061) Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken, finished July 3

[Note that my judgment of this book might not be fair. I slept through the middle half as it ran through our car's speakers.]

With a cover illustration by Quentin Blake, you have to assume the publisher's trying to sell us some substitute Roald Dahl. And a lot of the basic traits are the same. Young protagonist. Over-the-top adults. Fantastic situations. But (at least in the first story) these elements do not congeal. For instance, Arabel's mother is not internally consistent. You can be absolutely insane, larger than life, ridiculous---but you need to be consistent within thyself, O character.

Some elements work great (the raven eats stairs! meat-colored tiles! another example I've forgotten!) but ultimately it's just not magic. I think the primary problem is that Arabel's not an important character. The story abandons her for long stretches, she never actually does anything, she's not connected to the resolutions, she has very little character or personality. Yet we're supposed to care about her because, being the only child in a children's story, she's the nominal hero.

And somehow this merited a dozen sequels? Did they get better?
during our drive south


060) Templar by Jordan Mechner and Alex Puvilland and LeUyen Pham, finished July 2

For a book with wonderful action sequences and breakneck pacing and interesting characters, I found myself bored silly. Then I read an essay by Mette Ivie Harrison and it explained to me exactly the problem with this graphic novel. In fact, it predicted who would die in the penultimate scene.

The moral of the story is plotting according to preordained rules results in something a bit lifeless, no matter how well it's constructed.

There was a lot to like here, but your time's better spent with Mette's essay.


059) Heaven Knows Why! by Samuel W. Taylor, finished June 26

When Taylor's novel was first serialized in 1948 as The Mysterious Way in Collier's (see the layout of parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), it passed before the eyes of millions of Americans. This was the first nonpioneer Mormon-charactered (contemporary) novel published for a national audience. The action takes place a long-day's drive from Salt Lake City and when it first came out, its geography became a matter of some debate among the Saints as to who was whom and where was where. Taylor, of course, rolled his eyes and happily defined the word fiction for any who asked.

Anyway. Millions of readers did not translate into bestseller status when it was rereleased under the "improved" title in book form (though it did fine and got good reviews). It would be republished a couple times over the decades. My copy (pictured) is a 1994 Aspen Books rerelease which Taylor says he was talked into by Richard Cracroft (though I suspect his intro was originally penned for a c. 1980 publication). Cracroft called it "the best Mormon comic novel to date" and he says that it's still the only humorous Mormon novel. (This claim is why I think the intro is older than the publication date. By this time Curtis Taylor's The Invisible Saint was out not to mention Joni Hilton's Relief Society novels and Orson Scott Card's Hatrack River was publishing stuff like Paradise Vue. So 1994 would be a crazy time to make that claim. But whatever.)

The important question though is this one: Does the novel hold up, almost seventy years later?

The story has a brilliant bit of innovation by starting with a deus ex machina, then having the characters work through the mess that engenders. Old Moroni Skinner is up in heaven (heaven, incidentally, is a satire of midcentury American capitalism and has not aged as well as the rest of the novel) concerned with his grandson who's grown up to be the valley trash. He files the paperwork to make a visitation and so he does, making it up as he goes, dropping in on the town apostate and telling his grandson to marry the bishop's daughter (who is engaged to be married the very next day, unbeknownst to Moroni). And this descends chaos in the form of crazy and coincidence, capturing the very best elements of the comedies of Dickens and Shakespeare. It is exquisitely engineered. The characters are sharp and tear off the page in into the imagination. The hurdles to our protagonist's success just got greater and greater. And somehow---comedy!---it all works out in the end. (Unless you include the final chapter which returns us to heaven and adds on a painfully heavy dose of predestination to the mix.)

In short, this is a terrific look at midcentury Mormon-corridor Mormonism with its uncertain relationship with the Word of Wisdom and heldover pioneer-era Churchhierarchies and living breathing human beings.

Sp does it hold up? Yes. Most certainly yet. I may not have laughed on every page like Cracroft, but it was a fun, fun ride.

originally posted on motley vision
five days

Previously in 2014 . . . . :