2015-02-27

Unfinished Books Bonanza

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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.

2015-02-25

Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed

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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)

2015-02-19

Oscar nominees: Best Live-Action Short

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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.

Aya
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.

Parvaneh
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."

2015-02-18

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

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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



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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



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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



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

Yup.
week





Previously in 2014 . . . . :

2015-02-10

VOTING CLOSES TODAY

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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.

ACT NOW

2015-02-07

Vote your conscience

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

Link.

2015-02-04

Mostly Adverbs (but also some chocolate)

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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



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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 . . . . :

2015-02-01

50 Shades of Jesus (Christian Rock Anthem)

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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.

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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

CHORUS
...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

CHORUS
...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

BRIDGE
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

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

2015-01-31

A second batch of books for January

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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



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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



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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



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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 . . . . :

2015-01-27

Ploughshares 40.1
(Spring 2014)

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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.

2015-01-26

Pulp Literature 5

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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.

2015-01-22

Return of "The Avon Lady"

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My story "The Avon Lady" appeared a few years ago, but is now out of print. And will remain out of print until the end of this month when Faed comes out.



Click to preorder on Kindle (other sellers will have it out soon).

If you can handle a monster story called "The Avon Lady."

The publishing group, A Murder of Storytellers, was great to work with. And I'm not just saying that because of how many lovely compliments they payed my work. The seem like genuinely on-top-of-it people.

2015-01-12

First five books of 2015!

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005) The Complete Peanuts: 1991-1992 by Charles M. Schulz, finished January 10

Schulz is experimenting more with his use of panels---full weeks of single-panel strips for instance---and the percentage of strips that whose majority payoff is sweet has gone up---though I laughed out loud---a lot---and I'm still filled with joy each time I begin---read---end a book.

I'll never grow tired of his lines or these characters.

17 days



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004) City of Brick and Shadow by Tim Wirkus, finished January 9


three or four or more weeks



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003) Harem Scarem in El Cerrito by Neva Calvert Carpenter, finished January 4

I loved this book. I found it constantly delightful. Why, when I didn't feel the same about the very similar if arguably better written Hooligan?

It comes down to one thing:

When I read Hooligan I tried to recreate the Provo of Thayer's boyhood in my mind and couldn't quite pull it off.

When I read Harem Scarem, that was no problem at all. Practically every event in the book takes place within a few blocks of my current house (within months of being the place I have lived the longest), and of the few that don't? I've driven past them in the last week. (Except for Arkansas.)

I read these childhood memoirs that try to recapture a specific place, it needs to be a place I'm familiar with so details like street names, and locations of stores and school are immediate in my mind. Provo doesn't do that for me. El Cerrito does.

It's local history and it makes me happy.

I hope your town has a book every bit as good.
about under a mouth



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002) iPlates Volume II: Prophets, Priests, Rebels, and Kings by Stephen Carter and Jett Atwood, finished January 4

I would have done well to reread Volume I first, but I still enjoyed the book quite a bit. Full review on AMV.
week plus



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001) Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, finished January 3

Finally finished my summerly Vonnegut read! I didn't like this book when I read it c. 1995 and I still don't. I know it's a lot of people's favorite, but for me, this is the novel where Vonnegut finally pushed his technique too far and the novel broke. Sorry, Kurt. You know I love you.
six months





Previously in 2014 . . . . :

2015-01-10

They Might Be Giants invented the modern world.

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They Might Be Giants invented the modern world. Or it might more be accurate to say that they prefigured the modern world. They were They in the 80s and by by the 00s, the world was catching up to their genius for song distribution and audience engagement.

I wouldn't really put them on the cutting edge anymore, but that's not because they's less innovative but because they've the Rollings Stones of geek rock. They can overcharge and precharge and preovercharge [see comment's for tmbg's rebuttal] and so they do---it's hard to blame them. They took that too far about ten years ago, but with a course correction I think they've found a nice balance between being elder gods and the They Might Be Giants of yesteryear.

For instance, they've reinstituted Dial-A-Song for 2015. You can call 1-844-387-6962* and get the same over-the-wires lo-fi that a huge percentage of their fans are too young to have ever experienced before. But it wasn't only a connection to the band that Dial-A-Song provided:


Anyway, the new Dial-A-Song is online but for $30 you can get all fifty-two songs emailed to you a day early. Which is great for the classic TMBG audience who has that money and might still care about owning things. And then is available free online a day later. Which matches the classic TMBG ethos from that moment into eternity.

Here: watch the video of the first song. It's pretty fun:


Aside: Remember when Radiohead released In Rainbows and you could pay whatever you wanted? And they made a ton of money? For all the people predicting this would be the new model, may I remind you of what Eric Garland said at the time: "Step one: Be Radiohead."

Which is what I mean when I say TMBG isn't so cutting-edge anymore. They're no longer showing new bands the way inside the marketplace or the hearts of fans.

But it's also why I'm wrong. What they're doing is showing how their original model is best applied to established bands. So kids in garages, you can pick up some hints from TMBG, sure, but bands playing to dyed hair and boob jobs at county fairs? You should have paid attention thirty years ago and you should pay attention now.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Incidentally, regardless of what you personally think of TMBG's music, this is why I think it's a travesty they weren't a first-ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. The influence they've had on the industry is much vaster than even their vaster-than-realized fanbase. Frankly, the kid albums should be a vote for and not against. And anyone who thinks that Green Day being bigger makes them more important is going to look back in fifty years and wonder what they were thinking.


some history via tal and sarah vowell

2015-01-05

On Ploughshares 40.4
(Winter 2014-15)

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I've been a subscriber to Ploughshares for a while now--two or three years I'ld guess. And this is the first time I've written about an issue, mostly because nothing that I've read has seemed important to write about. By far my favorite issue was the Spring 1984 poetry issue edited by Seamus Heaney sent as a free bonus for subscribing. I loved that one and keep it next to my document cam at school: in case we have a little extra time to talk about poetry, I open it to one of many dogeared pages and we read one. (Fun bonus: it featured a poet named Joyce James.)

This gets to one of my favorite things about Ploughshares: its use of guest editors who, presumably, keep the content from getting staid by bringing fresh perspectives. I admit I have not given a serious shake to every issue I've been sent yet (I'll get to them!) but it seems like the resulting variety appears only within a very narrow band. It's not like they're bringing in guest editors totally outside what they usually publish (literary work that is well crafted but only occasionally soulful).

Anyway, two stories in the latest issue really got me, and, happily, both are available free online. You should definitely read them.

The Case for Psychic Distance” by Jennifer Hanno
Both stories involve public education and teachers and students, which actually makes me more exact as a reader rather than more forgiving. The story is also in second person which, as you know, is usually a mistake no matter how well written. Hanno sidesteps the problem through a metameta conceit which, again, should't work but does. Something about writing-about-writing-that-ends-up-being-the-writing-written-about-writing tends to the painfully cute, but Hanno's managed to turn cute into the adverb while making painfully into a noun. The hero of her tale intends to use writing as an escape, but fails and fails until she turns it burns into a rage that acts as catalyst for grief.

I'm being vague. That's because, dang it, I gave you the link and I want you to read the thing yourself. Seriously. Go read it. Go read it. Go read it.

Rosalee Carrasco” by Tomiko M. Breland
I absolutely love the form Breland uncovered for this story. In brief, each character gets three sections---I is the character's past; II is the character during The Incident; III is the character after The Incident. (She does something simple and bold that makes me very very happy with one of her IIIs. You'll know which one instantly. You might even see it coming, but that won't change your delight.)

The Incident is a school shooting, though one very different from the sort that gives the 24hr news cycle two weeks of material. And the story is about how real people end up becoming what they become. How children become teenagers. How teenagers become adults. And as simple, flashlike, inandout character studies, the story is a great success. Largely because, like all great flashfiction, it's not simple at all. Read as a short-story-in-flashes, it's dense in lightness (if you will). But what's particularly remarkable about the story, however, is that, at the end it turns into an indictment on a certain aspect of modern American society. And not the indictment that had been casually hinted at throughout. In fact, indictment is the wrong word entirely. Found guilty does a better job.

Two things I like (and am unlikely to ever write about).
Here are two ongoing Ploughshares features I admire: Plan B is a writer writing about what else life offers (or could have offered); Look2 revisits and gives deserved attention to work not approved by the Church of What's Happening Now.

A note on the poetry.
The poetry is all over the place. Some I really like (eg, Beck's "Correcting My Mother's Essay") and others don't stick with me at all. But in honor of the recently completed #MormonPoetrySlam, here's a nice little number from Lance Larsen.

2014-12-31

2014: Movies of the final quarter

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In theaters:


The Invisible Man (1933): It's only the end of the story; it has almost too many laughs. But Claude Raines is awesome. One of the great masked roles in movie history. And to see it for the first time big was lots of fun. Only 71 minutes (too short for proper character development by modern standards) but an enjoyable 71 minutes.

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) / The Pawnshop (1916) / The Rink (1916) / The Immigrant (1917) / The Adventurer (1917): Although technically these posts aren't supposed to include shorts, but I took the kids to this show in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Little Tramp character's debut and they loved it. How could they not? So dang it this was a movie. The first in the program was the first or second Little Tramp short ever and had no story. Just the Tramp trying to get on camera while the cameramen try to get him out of the way of the race. Went on a bit long. Then it was great short after great short after great short. His recurring cast was strong and I wish we had room in modern popular culture for such eyebrows and facial hair.

Big Hero 6 (2014): Character design and acting are great. The design of the city is awesome. The villain is one of the best I've seen. (So good the filmmakers had to cheat to give the heroes a chance.) But the movie left me utterly disappointed. Sure I had some laughs, sure they manipulated my emotions successfully a few times, but I rolled my eyes over and over. Every plot point was painfully predictable moments (or minutes) (or acts) before. Nothing in this movie, in terms of story, was at all interesting. Even the short was generic and derivative of recent premovie shorts. Disappointing. Why didn't we go see Boxtrolls?

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014): Not as thrills-a-second as the first two movies, but that slowness was good, actually. Made for a much more grown-up movie. I'm not surprised this one isn't making as much money, but I thought it was fine. Also, it felt short, which was nice in this era of bloated epics. Not a lot happened, but I'm okay with that. Especially knowing how stupid the rest of the book was and that we may not have Philip Seymour Hoffman footage for the final film.

Interstellar (2014): Beautiful film, more moving than I expected, fantastic cast well used. Not perfect but very good and I want to see it again on IMAX.



At home:


Sullivan's Travels (1941): Hard to know what I think of this movie after only one watch. Especially when you consider that the only reason I haven't seen this movie already is because I've been afraid of loving it either too much or too little. As it is, I laughed a lot, was startled by its tonal shifts, am not sure what to make of it. In other words, a similar reaction to how I often feel when first watching Coen Brothers films---fitting as they've been rather publicly influenced by Sturges's work. As it is, the film feels important. Not so much as a treatise in favor of comedy, so much as a portrayal of what America might be, as it moves from the caricatured "Colored Chef" to its climax as the poor of America find a generous, almost postracial equality in their brief escape from misery. It's visionary.

The Fisher King (1991): Wow. I'd kind of decided Terry Gilliam is a gimmick-first-gimmick-last director, like Tim Burton, but this film---though certainly with gimmicks extant, is a great movie. Enough to make me willing to see any Gilliam films I've missed. Great script (Richard LaGravenese) and great acting, especially by the two leads, Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. Thanks to those, particularly Luisa, who insisted this be the film I see to commemorate Robin Williams. The perfect choice. A beautiful, multilayered, mythic story of friendship, love, and redemption.

Unicorn City (2012): What a grave disappointment this was. After hearing so many good things, I expected more of them to pan out. Moments of good performance were generally overwhelmed by tired cliches and ancient solution. Just a few changes early on would have necessitated a new trajectory that would have prevented the larger errors. For instance, if the gamer utopia hadn't ben prerequisited by the lead needing a job, the writers would never have been tempted to have him turn down the job later to Make a Point which needed not be made. Sigh.

Step Brothers (2008): More than any other comedy of the last ten years, I think this one is cited most by the teenagers in my acquaintance as their favorite, as the funniest---it seems to be the most quoted and the most beloved. And is it worthy of that love? Well. Um. I guess so? It's about what I expected. Maybe a bit funnier than average, but not really astounding. Good casting is the secret to any successful comedy though, and that's the case here as well. So yeah: casting. Good casting can float a lot of dumb crap.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012): If you, like me, mostly know that this movie has some curves it's best not to know before seeing it, then see it and come back. I'll be vague, but not vague enough for you. So yeah: typical slasher-in-the-woods with some minds behind the horror. Some nice banality of evil combined with increasingly eldritch undertones, ending in a climax that is purely gruesome while horrifically humorous and undertoned with a more existentially weird terror than is normal in slasher flicks. In other words, this film manages to be a whole lotta things at once and does almost all of them very well. It plays weaknesses of one level against strengths of another. The only actual disappointment is probably the final shot. But hey---I'm not complaining.

ParaNorman (2012): Surprisingly scary. The final act's a bit bloated and wholesome, but ultimately just about everything in this movie works and works well. Laika continues to impress. x2 Still a bit bloated, the bit with the witch, but actually better the second time around.

Paprika (2006): I don't remember what attracted me to this film eight years ago, but it wasn't enough to get me to theaters. Then a former student sent me a look at Kon's editing which is wild and fascinating and led to this viewing. And I loved it. A bit of Bill Pympton madness in a better dreamworld that Inception and yes: fascinating and wild editing. Brilliant and beautiful. Some of the same cultural thinking in films like Spirited Away while having some very different things to say. I don't yet know, for instance, what to make of its take on gender. Lots of unpack here.

The Shining (1980): Jeez, what a disappointment. I've been too terrified to watch this movie, always bumping it to next October, and I watch it and it's just a bunch of Technique. Sigh. Well. So it goes. We'll see if it shows up in my dreams..... (So annoyed I wrote a post.)

The Night of the Hunter (1955): I was expecting an M-esque thriller. Instead, I got a much more balanced look at the good and evil promised by the reverend's knuckles, including a performance of honest goodness from Lilian Gish (I know! Lilian Gish!) that ultimately beat out Robert Mitchum's evil. At times, almost absurdly formalistic in composition (both visually and auditorily), each bit added to the whole. I'll have to watch it again sometime, knowing what I'm getting into. See how it plays then. (Also: I need to do some reading, see how people interpret the animals.)

Million Dollar Arm (2014): While, sure, a bit predictable, the Indian leads are compelling actors (it's the guys from Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire) and it's a thrill to watch them move up and down. Jon Hamm's fine; I didn't think to check if he was wearing underwear.

Mary Poppins (1964): A practically perfect bit of filmmaking. Every song is excellent. Bits of recurrent symbolism there for the picking or the ignoring as you please. Julie Andrews beautiful in face and voice and oh so poised. Dick Van Dyke the physical comedian I still aspire to be. Plus, having seen the machine Ub Iwerks invented that made this film possible before greenscreen at the Walt Disney Family Museum, thinking about the craftsmanship this time was all the more pleasurable. Truly timeless.

Dans la Maison (In the House) (2012): Swirling layers of storytelling and it's hard to tell when the Scheherazade, with his Joker-like smile, is honest and when he is not. When he is manipulating words and when he is manipulating people with words. Is he a young sociopath finding his way? Is he simply lonely and alone and desperate for human connection? As a whole, the movie worked well, though the ending stuttered. As one character says, the best ending is the one the audience did not see coming but feels to them inevitable. By giving us so many endings, the filmmakers hoped that would, of necessity, happen at least once. I'm not so sure it did. But I have a very strong suspicion that the French is much more beautiful than the English subtitles. Ah well. C'est la vie.

Safety Last! (1923): Considering how much I love Chaplin and Keaton, it's remarkable that I've never watched Harold Lloyd before. But what better way to start than him hanging from a clock? The physical comedy is, as expected, brilliant. The romantic plot is underpinned by lies and bad decisions in what will become classic sitcom fashion---and it painful to watch. In a good way, I suppose, but it's not my favorite basis for comedy. The building climb though is AMAZING. Tense and funny and frickin AMAZING. Totally lived up to expectations. Which was a lot of expectations, I assure you.

The Pride of the Yankees (1942): Gary Cooper isn't much good at playing twenty-plus years younger, nor is he a particularly good playful roughhouser---but when the film gets serious he excels. I didn't cry where I was supposed to, but the film is sticking with me in surprising ways. I doubt I'll ever watch it again, but I definitely enjoyed it this time around. Sure made me like those Gehrigs.

Why Worry? (1923): The kids loved this Harold Lloyd. Madcap all the way through. And the giant reminds me of Fezzik and Sweetums. What a great tradition film has! (We'll have to check out Volume 1 again to finish the features.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): Not as provocative as the trailer promised but a terrific action movie in all respects. Made me want to rewatch the first one. New characters to delight and more mythology to overwhelm. But a net win.

Ernest & Celestine (2012): As delightful as promised, with some interesting parallel structure and allusions to all sorts of film from dystopian prison films to interracial love stories. In fact, regarding that last one, I'm fascinated by how they crossed a child-friendly story of friendship with some serious sexual tension. ...Or was that just me?




Elsewhere:


William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996): Movies that are interesting to look at and technically adept---as well as well written and well acted---are easier to rewrite. Watched this time on the largest screen I've ever seen it on and noticed details I'd missed before---such as Mercutio's wig getting bigger in the dance scene.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (2000): The Reduced Shakespeare Company needs to record a new version. The topical humor ain't topical anymore. Also, I don't understand how Adam Long hasn't become one of the most sought-after voice actors in Hollywood. The way he passes from ridiculous to deeply emotional soliloquies is amazing. Although his performance is usually buffoony and absurd, elements of his performance are so pure and honest that I can't understand how he switches from one to the other in moments.

About a Boy (2002): This movie is still so great. If you look at the careers of the folks behind the camera, it seems a bit black swanny, but who cares. This movie is about perfect in every way. The acting the writing the direction the editing. The clever bits of parallelism and other terrific structural devices. One of the best uses of narration I've ever seen. How they painted a romcom over the top while not being a romcom at all. The planting of important details in a couple seconds in a way we always remember them. Just a great movie.

Previous films watched

2014


2013

2014-12-27

Lost Songs: 김종서 edition

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When I came home from Korea, I found it difficult to listen to much American music (Blondie and the Moonps being notable exceptions). And no although my favorite Korean bands were girl-fronted, no songs mattered more to me than this pair from Kim Jeongseo, the first of which I can still sing along with the whole way through. Which is remarkable figuring I can't do that to songs in English. Regardless: one of my all-time favorite melodies.



The second was made with former bandmate Seo Taiji (who had gone on to invent everything folks love/hate about modern K-Pop) and appeared on both of their solo albums.



Running down these songs tonight on YouTube felt so so good.

2014-12-26

Nearing the end, destroyed by our friends

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103) The Gigantic Beard that was Evil by Stephen Collins, finished December 26


Beautifully made book. Lovely to touch and to hold and to open and to read.

It's a morality tale warning us against the conformity and gets a bit heavy-handed in the middle, but as they take Dave and his beard and remove him from the once-safe Here and cast him to the unknown chaos of There, the novel redeems itself by sliding back towards ambiguity.

Of course, like so many comics today, this one is ultimately about story itself, but it's about story in a somewhat new way---which makes early moments like this stronger in retrospect:


Nice layering of details though makes this a terrific bit of literature, regardless of your or my personal opinion on its final level of success. Check it out!
two days



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102) Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, finished December 16

How I love McEwan's writing. Even in a book with an overly projected and contrived "tragic" ending, just reading McEwan is a delight. His words and sentences and paragraphs are joys. His adeptness with metaphor and dialogue and the whole dang toolbox.

This story pits humans against their work and I find myself taking art's side even though the tale warns me again and again that's a mistake. It's a startling balance.

Plus, the novel is short, under two hundred pages. This is a more natural length for me as both writer and reader. It's nice to be reminded in this post-King era that short books are still allowed.
under a week



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101) Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley, finished December 10

[reviews of Scott Pilgrim]

Bryan Lee O'Malley has done it again. He has managed to put utterly realistic characters into a contemporary world of metafantasy and made us care about them and understand their insane journeys. Seconds is about a late-twenties chef and her manic ability to screw up her life and the magical gift she's given to fix her mistakes.

Since O'Malley credits a drawing assistant and a colorist and a letterer, I'm not sure how single-artist this novel actually is, but regardless, it's freaking amazing. And not just the execution of the story. The execution of the detail. He's taken manga's genius and alternating between detail and no detail and put it to proper use. He does amazing things with panels that are pure black. His characters are truly cartoony but somehow are shaped and move like realistically drawn humans.


The story devolves into chaos but never loses its way---not an easy feat---and the ongoing tension between Katie and her narrator is delightful and instead of throwing the reader out, keeps us close.

If I were willing to make a scan and write all day, I could keep talking about this book for hours. But I got other stuff to do. Read it yourself.
a few days



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100) Paradise Vue by Kathryn H. Kidd, finished December 10

I believe I first learned about Paradise Vue from Storyteller in Zion (but I can't check because I can't find my copy), and so for twenty years I've looked forward to reading what is, according to its back copy---presumably penned by Card---"the funniest Mormon novel ever published. . . . [and] also the best." I finally bought it last January and finally picked it up recently.

Only to be pretty much immediately and constantly disappointed. It doesn't help that Card's introduction talked about how much he loves the book, dropping comparisons to Austen and Twain and Dickens like anyone who reads the book will feel the same.

The novel has a hard time settling on anything akin to a plot. Which isn't unforgivable---I don't mind a bit of picaresque now and then---but all the nonce characters and situations are set up with some lazy tell-not-showing then disappear again. At the end, where the novel decides it needs to have a point, that moral/resolution is projected much too strongly. Somehow, the final chapter manages to work even though I still don't really care about the widow's widowness or the cuckquean's husband leaving her. Maybe I'm just a very generous reader....

I'm not being too harsh, but I should point out that the novel has moments where it almost works. But there are much more moments like this:

As she grew more familiar with the group, Doris developed a sense of camaraderie with them. She barked orders and encouragement to each woman individually. (61)

If ever there were a moment to expand with actual diologue and business, it's this, right?

Or maybe not. After all, Doris will never appear again.

Which is probably for the best. When first introduced, Doris seems like she will be an interesting character. But then she devolves into being characterized solely by saying funny Asian things like "Dericious" (66).

I think one thing that made this book impressive in 1989 is how Transgressive!™ it is. The characters drink Pepsi and Diet Coke like Nick and Nora drink cocktails, and every hell and damn is italicized to make it extra realistic.

I can't get over how disappointed I am. I'll admit I might have been expecting too much, but gee whiz. It should at least have been a good book, you know?

Card started Hatrack River to publish books more honest than the extremes on either end being published by Deseret and Signature. His writings on this topic inspired me to get involved with writing Mormon fiction. But reading this novel---? I suppose I'm just thirteen years old and learning my parents aren't perfect all over again.

I would like to know if anyone's read other Hatrack titles and could tell me of any of them are more successful?
a couple weeks maybe



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099) Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995 by Bill Watterson, finished December 6

I'd seen this book around before but never picked it up. I had all the Sundays here or there, so why bother?

But when Little Lord Steed chose it from the library, we checked it out and brought it home. I'm so glad we did.

Just a few years after Calvin disappeared from newspapers, Ohio State did an exhibition of Watterson's originals alongside the colored printed versions. Sure, I've read all these strips before, but this book gets you one delicious step closer to the originals. Wonderful.

And even better are the notes from Watterson on his changing process. I could read something much much longer with these insights.

So great book. Just wish it was much much much much more.
two or three days or i don't even remember


Previously in 2014 . . . . :