Who's Scarier: Stephen King or Johnny Cash?


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

a couple weeks or so


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

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

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

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

This was a satisfactory effort.
a few days


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

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

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

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

about a week

Previously in 2015 . . . . :


PULP Literature


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

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

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

Spring 2015: another pretty great issue.

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

Some others:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Feature films 2015: third quarter


In theaters:

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

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

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

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

At home:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous films watched