Monthly Archives: July 2013

Dial H for Hawt: Miéville Writes a Comic

Netgalley, y u never approve me on Miéville titles? Maybe if you had approved me for Dial H, Vol. 1: Into You, I wouldn’t be months down the road after twice unsuccessfully requesting this from the library, unsuccessful because they blew up my local library branch, and it’s sometimes tough to get down to Central. (See also: The Shining Girls, which just got sent back because I didn’t make it in time. Sob.) Anyway, once something turns into an epic quest, I’m half-expecting the payoff to blow my circuits, which this, alas, did not. 

I’m not saying I didn’t like it, just that it’s all over the place and uneven. In that, it reminds me a little bit of the first of the Sandman collections, The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, which spent a fair amount of time sorting out how Morpheus of Gaiman’s work was related to the Sandman of the 30s serial and hat-tipping a bunch of DC properties like John Dee and John Constantine. (Everyone to be named John, I see.) Which is one of the reasons I find comics so fucking frustrating: all these connections and referents, this huge world spanning decades with re-starts and blind alleys everywhere. How can the casual reader be expected to get into this sprawling inside joke at all? It’s very rewarding, of course, if you know all that stuff. So a little like the Western Canon, but, like, with more pictures and spandex. 

Some of my bitching being the point, undoubtedly, of Dial H, which takes a playful tone in regards to the powers of superheros and the like. Overweight, unemployed slob Nelson Jent is being returned home by a friend after a heart attack when he and his friend argue about his general lack of care towards his life and person. The friend takes off; Nelse follows to apologize; the friend is beset by knee-cappers. When Nelse goes to call the police in an old timey phone booth, he instead is transformed into Boy Chimney and saves the day, transporting his friend to the hospital. There’s a plot involving a bunch of people who didn’t make any sense to me, but it turns out any time Nelson dials H-E-R-O on the sketchy phone, he turns into a different comic hero, characters like Captain Lachrymose and Chief Mighty Arrow.

After a fair amount of confusion on my part in the beginning – who are these people, and how are they related? whatever, moving on – the plot shapes into your usual origin story with your usual surprises and the like. Maybe I’m being jaded, because maybe the usual reversals aren’t nearly as usual as I expect, superhero comics being the last refuge of the lame, heteronormative boyfest. Making the ersatz hero a big, bumbling bumblefuck maybe is a pointed commentary about the self-insert or something. I felt stronger about the reveal of Maneau’s true identity, because who she is a stranger animal to find in superhero comics, except as a wise aphorist. She’s still sometimes a wise aphorist though, straight up. Nelson has some real identity problems with his swirling changes into the myriad of oddball supes, and Manteau’s covering of her supe-identity with yet another mask was honestly a cool choice. There’s a baddie who has a typically Miévillain (get it? GET IT??) esoteric weirdness, and I dug the head-spin thinking about nothing fighting nothing. 

Later, when things begin to make more sense, and Nelse is kicking it sidekick style with Manteau, Dial H gets into some pointed criticisms of the racism and sexism that often punctuates superhero comics. Nelse turns into a hugely war-bonneted Indian chief, and Manteau is like, you are NOT leaving the house like that. Then the Hi-Yo-Silver-like horse eats her yard. Dang you, horse! I dug that immensely. The last episode has that what-the-fuck-is-happening vibe with a shift to an ancient Mesopotamish locale and a cuneiform dialer that was cute, but also began to deepen the mystery of how the dialers work, and what kind of universe(s) we’re living in. 

So, like Sandman, it’s possible this uneven plot will settle down into something truly game-changing, but for the moment, things seem a little…rote is the wrong word, but something like that. Comics are about mid-season payoff, once they’ve found their legs and start really messing around in earnest. Origin stories are necessary, I guess, but they feel, to me, like placeholders until the writers can finally get something done. And I wrote myself out of this observation, but I’m not sure that the comic format plays to Miéville’s strengths as a writer, as he tends to go in for verbose, profane sidebars, and, frankly, his abilities in the punchy humor department are lacking. So I’ll check out volume two, for sure, but I’m not overwowed at the moment.

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

I have a fractious relationship with Quirk Books. No, fractious isn’t the right word, is it? Because they don’t know I exist nor do they (or should they) care about my opinion? I was excited for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because the idea rules, but then it turned out soggy and under-heated. But then came the clones - Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic with a Blood-Sucking TwistThe Meowmorphosis - which mimeographed this idea into a purple-blue stew of end-cap bait, finally culminating, for me anyway, in the dire shit-show that was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. That book made my blood boil. 

Because, look, I don’t really mind end-cap bait, and I don’t mind the toilet reads that publishers put out to give my non-reading friends and family something to give me when my birthday rolls around. (“I know you like Jane Austen! I think you’ll love this!”) I’m not even being an asshole when I say I appreciate the thought. So when the illustrious and inimitable karen sent me William Shakespeare’s Star Wars out of the blue, I thought, uh oh, I’m going to have to make the choice between my desire to shittalk this book, and being a grateful and worthy human. Again! Why am I such a terrible person? etc.

But as it turns out, hey Mickey! She likes it! So, phew. There’s a dry conversation one can have about translations: which is better, a translator writing from the original language, or one writing to the target language. Is the translator’s mother tongue the original or the translated language? My own take is that it’s almost always better to write to the target language. I once read this biography of Rasputin that was obviously translated by a native Russian speaker, and while it was often hilarious, and I enjoyed the wobbly prose as a desultory Russian language student, you just can’t mix verb tenses like that in English, товарищ. 

I think there’s something of the translation problem in the mash-up, for the reader at least. P&P&Z was probably more aimed at the Austen nerds, because the zombie parts were really more about ninjas, and big swaths of the text were from Austen herself. So you rate it as an Austen nerd, not a zombie nerd – if you happen to be both, like me. (A straight up zombie nerd should probably just stay away.) As an Austen nerd, it was mostly just perplexing, like, what exactly are you saying about Charlotte? Also, you get that messing with the chronology messes with…oh Jesus, nevermind. I really liked the cover and study guide, so I guess thanks for that, Quirk Books. 

By the time Dawn of the Dreadfuls rolled around, that book managed to drop trou and dump on both Austen nerds and zombie nerds – remember, I’m both, so double dump for me – which turned the translation problem into a Zen koan of Not Giving a Fuck. If the translator in question doesn’t care about either language, that’s what you get. (And I’m going to throw in the disclaimer that if you’re neither kind of nerd – Austen nor zombie – then you’ll probably think whatever about all my shouting.) Point being, it is clear to me that Doescher is a Star Wars nerd – that’s the language he is translating to - which I think is a pretty good choice. I’m going to wince when he drops a Naboo reference because I spend a fair amount of energy pretending the prequels never happened, but then I’m also going to hand-clap about a sly reference to nerf herding, which, you know, wasn’t a thing until The Empire Strikes Back. Ahem. Shut up. 

So this isn’t really for Shakespeare nerds. (Do you people exist? I mean, I’m sure you exist, but are you reading slovenly populist Internet reviews?) I wrote this whole thing aping Shakespeare to start my review, but it turns out when I try to write that way, I end up sounding like a pirate. Avast, me hearties! God’s teeth! and all that. So, we’ll give Ian Doescher some props for pretty solid metered dialogue, plus he manages to pull off an occasional heroic couplet that made me smile. I did spend some time discovering this handy nit-picker I got as a booby prize for being an English major had somehow gotten into my hand, and then having to put it away. I’m like an unconscious nit-picker fast-draw, matey. All the short’ning o’ words wit’ apostr’phes to make fit the met’r makes me freak out. Just, ugh. Also, I kept thinking things like, “Other than maybe the chorus in Henry V, who is present at the beginning of every act, Shakespeare didn’t really use a chorus throughout the action like that. That’s really more a feature of Classic Greek playwrights.” But then I gave myself a wedgie. Language from, babies, even if it’s kinda dumb. It’s dumb with jokes about R2D2 monologuing about stuff as an aside, which is pretty freaking fantastic.

So thanks, karen. This rules. 

Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder

So, I got a message from a friend of mine who lives out of town. “You, like, read, right?” My friend asked. (I’m being hugely unfair here in my characterization of Emily; she and I have swapped many a book.) Turns out, Steve Ulfelder is a friend of her husband’s from college, and he was going to be here in Minneapolis doing press for the newest book in this series, Shotgun Lullaby, and maybe I’d be interested in checking out the signing? Sure, I said, because even though mysteries are pretty far out of my reading interest, I’m game. I like playing desultory ambassador of my city. Plus, it gave me an excuse to visit in Once Upon a Crime, a mystery bookstore which is walking distance from the house I grew up in, but (because of my reading proclivities) I’ve never steeped foot in.

Boy, what a cute little bookstore: pin-neat, well-curated, with a large section of local mysteries festooned with signed stickers and little hand-written notes. It’s the kind of place that I suspect will close when the aging proprietors – who were incredibly chatty and informative – retire, and it will not be replaced. I would like us all to pour some out to the fading animal that are the corner bookstores. I’m still stinging from the loss of Orr Books, and I would like to extend a middle finger to the people who tore down and evicted that entire block so they could put in a piece of shit furniture store made out of tick-tack and coolness. They don’t make brownstones or bookstores like that anymore, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

But before I start frothing at the mouth about city politics and preservation, I should probably remember I’m trying to write a book review. I ended up talking to the small collection of folk at the signing. There were the proprietors, and Ulfelder, a smattering of non-talkers, and a dude who might have been some kind of publishing flack? I demurred that I knew next to nothing about the mystery genre, which prompted pretty fantastic sermonettes from all and sundry about the various sub-genres, and some cool observations about genre jumping and the like. It sounded a lot like conversations I’ve haddelivering the sermonette about science fiction, but with wholly different referents and traditions. You may not be my people, mystery readers, but I pound my heart at you. 

Conway Sax in Purgatory Chasm is one of those dudes whose wallets undoubtedly is emblazoned with the words bad motherfucker, who, I would not be surprised to learn, occasionally rode a shark into a volcano once or twice in his drinking days. He’s ten years into sobriety, a meeting-after-the-meeting member of an AA group known as the Barnburners. Started as a non-national-charter AA group for badasses and ex-cons, it’s since neatened up and gone national, but not entirely. Conway’s been an enforcer over the years for Barnburner business, and half-sketched kneecappings and even a manslaughter two conviction dot his past. When a Barnburner asks for help, Conway provides it. 

dude flying a shark into a volcano

So when Tander Phigg, congenital asshole and Barnburner, asks Sax with help getting his Mercedes back from a second rate auto outfit, Sax steps up. It’s all super sketchy, Sax doesn’t trust anything Phigg says for a second, and it all turns into a big mess pretty fast. Sax was a NASCAR also-ran – before the drinking ruined his career – and a mechanic afterwards, and one of the funnest parts of this novel, for me, was the industry insider observations about cars, customers, how the car trade works, and the like. I work in the building trades, and while my cast of characters is slightly different, there are still a fair number of anecdotes that sound like bullshit when I go to tell them. 

I once knew a dude named Sean – and I swear on a pile of bibles this is true – who had an identical twin brother named Shawn. They pronounced Sean as seen to differentiate. Every day he listened diligently to KQ92 because he and his brother always put in for some daily contest thing. When I asked how he would know they were reading his name and not his brother’s, he was like, I don’t follow you. I didn’t rephrase. Good luck, Sean pronounced seen. There’s some folk like this, and some more ordinary folk, and they rub up against each other in a plot. It’s cool. I like the idiomatic style and the badassery. 

I also liked the Boston / New Hampshire locale, which, given my limited dealings with the area, felt kinda accurate to the social milieu. There’s maybe way too much driving around, but then when you’re dealing with NH, state-shaped suburb of Boston, that’s probably accurate too. I spent some time laughing and shuddering about the NH survivalist brothers, as they were more or less my in-laws’ neighbors for a while in rural New Hampshire. Live free or die, man. I was less enamored by all the daddy crises in the book – Conway’s own deal with his dad felt…maybe forced is the wrong word, let’s call it shoehorned – but then, as I’ve noted, I’ve never had the bother of being a boy growing into a man and all. I did appreciate all the declensions of recovery – many of the players are alcoholics in various relationships to the wagon, and there’s this low-grade conversation about how that all works, or doesn’t. 

Anyway, so I’m glad Emily dropped me a line, and I’m glad I read this. It turned out I can like this hard-boiled business, because I like profanity-laced choppy prose about fuckups and weirdos that isn’t trying too hard. It did me right fine for a Sunday porch read. 

The Five Stages of Plagiarism: In Which I Rattle a Little about Word-Theft

It’s probably just the clustering illusion or some other freak cognitive thing, but two relatively high profile cases of plagiarism just came to my attention today. (I’m not saying they broke today, just that I noticed them today.) First, Lianne “Spiderbaby” MacDougall, Quentin Tarantino’s girlfriend and horror critic, was caught cobbling her articles together from pretty much everywhere. From the comparative links, it looks as though she started out snagging sentences here and there, weaving them together into a coherent article, but by the time she was caught, had moved into full-on fuck it mode, and was copy-pasting other articles in their entirety. But no matter the manner of the plagiarism, it appears to be systemic to her writing output for a very, very long time. Second, turbo-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer has, for completely inscrutable reasons given that two out of three of his previous books have been recalled and pulped due to plagiarism (at presumably considerable expense), been given a new book deal. What is the punchline to this book deal? Allegations of plagiarism have surfaced for the proposal of the book he has yet to write. I strongly recommend checking out Tom Scocca’s hatecast on the matter, as his ire is beautifully articulated.

It was a fun rabbit hole to fall into this afternoon, charting the ways the scandals break and various reactions to the plagiarism. There’s a plagiarism playbook out there, which runs something like the Kubler-Ross model of grieving:

1. Denial. “I’ve never even read the book I supposedly plagiarized from.”

e.g. Alex Haley, after getting busted for plagiarizing from The African when he wrote Roots.) I didn’t know large swaths of Roots were plagiarized, even though the suit happened in 1987 and the trial, despite the out-of-court conclusion, is pretty definitive. I liked the deposition by an old classmate that he’d actually given Haley his copy of The African years before he published Roots. How bad do you have to piss off your classmates for them to do that?

2. “Mistakes were made” style apologies.

Lehrer, after getting busted the first time for self-plagiarism and manufacturing Bob Dylan quotes, describes how he barfed “into a recycling bin” (Reduce, reuse, recycle!) He then goes on to describe his systemic plagiarism as a “lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes.” Uh, no. there was nothing desperate about the ongoing theft. That wasn’t a mistake, or an unfortunate case of cryptomnesia. When copy-paste is involved, it’s not an echo or a memory unwittingly recalled. 

3. Acting like the plagiarist is somehow more sinned against than sinning.

From an email from Spiderbaby to a blogger who was one of the first to detail the thefts: 

Hi – my name is Lianne. 

I’m asking that you please stop writing about me online and let me address the issue. I’m writing an apology for my blog now that I will make available for everyone. I’m undergoing some issues right now and I’m receiving emailed death threats (and have been for the last month) which is why I haven’t commented at all on any of this.

The email goes on to reiterate the above statements three times, like she couldn’t figure out how to say what she was going to say and then say it. You can get out of practice with writing, apparently. I am aware that it’s a pretty big nightmare to be a woman in certain fan communities, and that rape and death threats are par for the course when women, well, when women do anything. I don’t think that is an appropriate response to plagiarism. But let’s decouple the actions of fan culture shitheads from the problems of being a plagiarist. No, she shouldn’t get death threats for being a plagiarist – and it’s notable that the fuckwit Lehrer keeps getting book deals when she gets told to die, in your fucked-up gendered response category – but sweeping her actions under the rug won’t make the shitheads go away, and it doesn’t dispute the facts at hand.

4. It’s not theft, it’s post-modern “mixing”! You old people don’t understand.

Teen phenom Helene Hegemann gets busted for lifting copiously from another writer’s novel, claims that “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” Which, allow me to make a jerk-off motion with my hand. I mean, heavy hitters such as Lethem have published avowedly lifted works such as The Ecstasy of Influence: a plagiarism in Harper’s, which cobbled together an essay on appropriations and authenticity in art by stealing every single line. This smells faintly of vinegar and water – or as we would say in French, douche – but at least it’s upfront, and more importantly, the theft is an important meta-factual part of the argument of the the essay. Lethem’s not stealing because millennials don’t understand personal property the same way, lol, but because theft and originality are like a steak dinner and the dog under the table – they are always going to be in the same room. One’s going to end up inside the other eventually. 

5. Ca$hing in like a boss! 

I’ve already mentioned Lehrer, who seems entirely unrepentant, and will continue shaking his stolen tailfeathers as long as idiots in publishing are willing to keep handing him money. I honestly don’t even understand the thought process of these editors, who say a bunch of mealy-mouthed stuff about “second chances”. We’re on at least the fourth chance with Lehrer, after two books have been recalled and he got hugely fired from the New Yorker. It seems like a bad bet to keep letting him “write”, and seems like a questionable thing to do when Big Six publishers are besieged by Amazon and shifting business models and whatever. (Not that Amazon is dealing with plagiarism any better. Welcome to the Way It Is.)

But then there’s Q.R. Markham, nom de plume of the Brooklyn bookseller Quentin Rowan, whose debut spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, was recalled within weeks of its release by Little, Brown, due to the fact that it was a quilt of dozens of other fictions patched together. Rowan ended up the subject of a painfully lame New Yorker profile. Sample lines:


 “As writers from T. S. Eliot to Harold Bloom have pointed out, ideas are doomed to be rehashed. This wasn’t always regarded as a problem. Roman writers subscribed to the idea of imitatio: they viewed their role as emulating and reworking earlier masterpieces.”

I mean, come on. That is such unbelievable bullshit. Sure, it’s totally true that a literature, in the sense of works understood by its writers and readers to be in the same stylistic ballpark, are going to riff ideas and images off of one another – genre as a scaffold of shared experience – but this isn’t anywhere near copy-and-pasting someone’s work without any fucking attribution. Maybe I’ve been unduly influenced by the thousands of FBI warnings I’ve been subjected to when watching movies, but the right to copy is a real thing. It’s called copyright, motherfuckers.

Maybe I’m being insincere in my outrage though, because I want to put on the boxing gloves when people dismiss 50 Shades of Grey as plagiarism, because while that book is totally shit, and it started life as fan fiction, it’s mostly shitty in its own special shitty way, and, as far as I can tell, James wasn’t copy-pasting huge swaths of Twilight. She was just taking a bad idea (one that did not originate with Meyer, I’ll note) and made it worse. Good job. Maybe I’m being too narrow in my definition of plagiarism, which I’ve mostly built using hazy understandings of copyright law and fair use, but I seriously cannot credit any criticism of 50 Shades based on Twilight being super original in its stalker-hero and average-yet-special protagonist. I can credit criticism for tons of other reasons, just not that one.

Anyway, the New Yorker article ends with Markham/Rowan chatting excitedly about how some fool publisher had decided to publish his next, presumably-not-stolen novel. Cha-ching! Let’s win from our fail, brothers and sisters! I’m cheered to see that book in question, Never Say Goodbye, has one one-star rating on Goodreads, no one has written a review, and only eight people have shelved it. (Although I would like to know wtf with the publication date of September 11, because there are lot of reasons why that might be problematic. Whatever.) One can only hope Lehrer’s new clusterfail of a book will sink without as little comment, but I suspect that will not be the case.

So. I meant to write a post about my own experience with Internet plagiarists, specifically the adorable Texas educator who trolled a bunch of reviews on Goodreads, including one of mine, which resulted in the discovery of dozens of his plagiarized reviews – stolen from such out-of-the-way reviewers as Roger Ebert – and the resultant crowd-sourcing of the links necessary to take his stolen shit down. It’s a long story, and one full of lolcats, and maybe I’ll tell it tomorrow. That experience very much made me think about the psychology of plagiarism, which is such an odd thing, and something I barely touch on in my link-fest here. (I’ll just say that writing about plagiarism makes me twitchy about linking to anything that might even remotely be source material, because, Lord, do I not want to get caught not citing sources in a post about not citing sources.) Goodnight, friends, maybe we’ll talk about this some more later.

Day by Day Armageddon

When I was in the 8th grade, my English teacher pulled one of those Lord of the Flies-style writing experiments on us. I have this feeling that the background of this writing experiment had something to do with House of Stairs, which we read at about the same time. House of Stairs is an oddball little YA fiction which is about a group of children being ‘sperimented on by a totalitarian regime which includes, I believe, a taxonomy of personal ethical states which caused a fair amount of consternation. (I should really reread that, because a lot of it has drifted in the intervening *coughcough* years.) 

Anyway, the writing experiment had us pretending to be on a plane going on some kind of exchange program, but then the plane crashed and we were all stuck on a desert island without any adult supervision. We were split up into groups, or I think more accurately, we split ourselves into groups, and then went wandering off in search of food or shelter or whatever. The teacher would periodically lob pieces of paper with events scrawled on them – a storm, or an attack of bees or something – that we would have to incorporate into our teen survivalist narratives as we wrote furiously about how we found a pineapple tree so we wouldn’t starve tonight. (Editorial comment from the teacher: pineapples grow on bushes.) 

We never did split into factions and try to kill each other, at least within the confines of the survivalist teen story playing out in class, though I think it would be accurate to say we were already split into factions and trying to kill each other in real life. The teacher – whose name I’m struggling to remember – would explain certain things in her lobbed paperballs – like how we were all suffering from some kind of poisoning because we weren’t boiling our water, and then we’d duly figure out that we should be boiling our water and incorporate it in our stories. It’s kind of embarrassing how we just went for the most obvious physical solution to whatever trouble she tossed our way, totally ignoring the very real, very social-combat stuff we were living day-to-day, but then we were 13, and she was kind of a psycho for trying to get us to kill each other fictionally. The writing experiment ended with Zuckerman getting eaten by sharks after going mad, and then we got rescued. My frame narrative was that I was in a psych ward, having gone nuts after my experience on the island. I’m sure my story was hugely insensitive to actual mental illness, but then it doesn’t exist anymore, except as a half-memory, so I’m safe. 

I thought of this teenage writing experiment when I was reading Day by Day Armageddon, being the point of this anecdote. Our possibly unnamed narrator – though I wasn’t paying close enough attention to key on a name-drop – starts a diary on New Year’s Day after being sent back to San Antonio on leave from the US Navy. He chats a bit about Christmas with his folks in Alabama (or possibly Arkansas; I can’t differentiate between the two because I’m a sucky Northerner) then sketchy stuff starts happening in China, then the US. Narrator dude seems to have a preternatural sense of when to fortify the house, like someone were lobbing authorial information from on high, which he does with an outrageous attention to detail. I believe he even specifies the size of drill bit when he screw-guns some plywood up on the lower windows. 

Narrator dude – forthwith to be ND – hangs out in his house a lot, obsessively watching tv, trying to get through to his folks, and rationing his MREs. The walking dead start hanging around the house, so he dispatches them with fire in a way that seems like it would end in the neighborhood getting torched, but whatever. He eventually meets up with a neighbor – an engineer, you know – and then they picaresque around the zombie apocalypse hijacking planes from small airports and trying to find a safe place to be. ND and neighbor (Dave?) end up on an island for a while, which seems like it might be sweet, but then the island is big enough to have a shitton of walking dead on it, but too small to have much in the way of necessary foodstuffs and whatnot. 

So. Before I start and-then and-then and-then-ing like this novel, I should probably pull back and talk about some higher level shit. I read the first maybe third of this novel a half dozen years ago, when Bourne was writing it as a serial internet narrative thing. This book was one of the early Internet book phenomenons, back when such a thing was notable. (And I’m using the term “phenomenon” pretty loosely, but his blogging did result in for realz publication, which was something back in the day. Maybe it is still notable; I don’t know.) I didn’t want to go on with it at the time, because it’s so…hokey? straightforward? but then I recently decided to check out the really pulp edges of the zombie genre, and here I am. 

The shitty editing and overall bollocks of this novel can be chalked to its diary format, which makes me a little resentful of the diary format. Is it fair to give embarrassing grammar a pass just because the book is supposed to be a diary, and it’s not like people bother with grammar all that much when they don’t think anyone is watching? I’m going with no, because despite the cutesy intentionality of all the scribbles and underlining, typos is typos, and those are some fucking typos. That said, this was a delightfully wonky read written by someone who obviously knows his way around various hardware. I’m going to guess that Bourne himself is a military dude just like ND, and there’s a lot of really detailed descriptions of guns & ammo, and a refreshingly sensible take on how things might work, or not, in the zombie apocalypse. He calculates head shot radios and amount of ammunition left. He nerds out on tech. 

There are zero characters – not even ND, who is more a collection of MacGuyver-like skills than a person – but the narrative occasionally slips up into something like a voice. ND has ticks, like the phrase “no joy” when something goes wrong, but he’s pretty squeamish about emotions. Neighbor-possibly-Dave has to kill his wife, and starts bugging out emotionally for a while, and while ND notes this, he doesn’t do anything to correct it. It just sort of works its way out conveniently without any comment. Various chapters end with the question, “why am I living?” Which, good one, because other than a few brief moments where things aren’t shit, there’s not much to live for other than gun-cleaning and food-sourcing. Even the action scenes are bloodless, and often rushed to the point of not registering. 

So, this was fun to read on a hangover Sunday, but it’s not, like, good on any kind of technical level. Cool, arresting images are squandered, like the zombie on a crucifix thing which might be becoming a trope, and was dealt with insanely awesomely in Zombie in a Penguin Suit (Question: what’s black and white and red all over? Answer: AHHHHH.) A number of events parallel This Dark Earth, but that has a ton more style, and actually engages the diary format in one of its sections as a device. (But Wittgenstein’s Mistress blows everything out of the water in terms of post-apocalyptic diary format, not that it’s even fair to mention.) I don’t really care where this goes, because I have no one to invest in, but it was fun while it lasted. It’s almost refreshing to read something so little interested in the questions of what makes us human and how to construct a reasonable society in zombie fiction. I’ll just be here running the numbers and cleaning my guns.

The Secret of Ferrell Savage by J. Duddy Gill

You know, I wrote this whole ridiculous review where I hand-wrung about middle grade fiction, but that was lame and I’m glad it got lost. I’ll just note, in lieu of recreating said hand-wringing, that middle grade is a tough genre for me to assess, because it’s so totally not aimed at me, not just in age, but in reading and worldly experience. While the big life themes are of course present for the middle grader – how to deal with your parents, and friends, and sometimes even romantic love, the constant whooo-ammmm-III? – it’s just odd for an adult to remember being a child with the child perspective on all that stuff. 

My ten year old and I occasionally swap books for the MG set – him being a middle-grader and all – and we rarely agree about what is awesome. Adam Rex is a winner for both of us, because he’s funny and, maybe more importantly, a weirdo, writing just the strangest narratives. I mean that decidedly as a compliment. (Also, of note, I drunk-friend-requested Rex on Goodreads once, and he was gracious enough to accept and put up with a slobbery PM from me. The boy still bugs me to send him more PMs, but the sober light of day has prevailed heretofore. You’re welcome, Adam Rex.) Anyway, point being, I think this might be a winner for both of us. I’ll have to slip it in next to his bed and see what happens. 

Ferrell and his neighbor and good friend Mary are preparing for the annual sled race at the start of the novel. Mary is bossy and driven, the way girls are before the whole Ophelia death-trap of adolescence. Ferrell is much more happy-go-lucky, good-natured and not particularly competitive. Mary has decided she’s going to win the fudge (only I didn’t actually say fudge) out of the race, carefully constructing a sled out of a wash basin – the race is of home-built wacky sleds, not just your usual red runner – and Ferrell, true to form, leaves his sled-building to the last second. After the race, some family history comes to light for Ferrell and Mary, and no more about that because spoilers. 

I kinda love Mary and Ferrell, the whole darn it, Ferrell, pay attention!! from Mary, and Ferrell’s whole gosh, Mary, sorry which is then tinged with irritation. I like these stories about the odd changing moment in male-female friendships, where you very subtly realize that your bff for forever is a girl, and you are a boy. (Or vice versa, you know.) It’s not the relationship has to go all romantic or something, just that there’s this tiny shift, along with a dozen other little shifts in how you perceive your parents and your peers and all that. 

The Whole Stupid Way We Are and Breadcrumbs rocked in depicting this shift, but I think they’re probably, um, how do I say this? too literary for the fart-joke set. Maybe in another couple of years when my boy is actually going through this shift. (Though there are signs it’s happening; heaven help him.) I think The Secret of Ferrell Savage is going to be a win for the boy because it’s really cleanly written, and it’s about sled racing and cannibalism. Goofy goes a way long way in holding the attention of ten-year-olds, and while the sled-racing and cannibalism is treated earnestly in some ways, Gill doesn’t veer to precious or dour. There are great Dickensian names, like the titular Ferrell Savage, who is a vegan, or the nemesis, Littledood. 

But then also, I just love stuff like this, in a conversation between Mary and Ferrell during the crux of the whole thing. No spoilers, I promise:

“I wonder why there are so many movies about vampires and none about cannibals. They’re both gross, no matter how cute they guy is who’s biting you.”

Then I said, “I think sucking blood isn’t as gross, because you don’t have to chew. There’s just something about having to floss all those little arm hairs and bony pieces out of your teeth that kind of ruins it for me.”

Out of the mouths of babes, man. My Grandpa would hate this, because he was one of those red-meat-and-potatoes guys who thought anything that suggested that vegetarianism was okay – veganism hadn’t been invented in Pennsylvania in the 80s, though it may have existed elsewhere and would have driven him nuts – was the work of Communists. Watching the movie version of Babe: The Gallant Pig with him was a frustrating experience, I’ll tell you what, and I’m not even a vegetarian. So it was cute to have Ferrell be a vegan and not have it be this big thing either way. Or it is a thing, but not the way you expect. Also, Ferrell and Mary pretty much nail the vampire craze right there. Booyah. 

So I hope I can get the boy to read this, because my reader’s advisory hasn’t necessarily been the greatest, but I’m learning.The Secret of Ferrell Savage is undoubtedly the most adorable novel about cannibalism ever written.


I received my ARC from the publisher, but no conditions were put on my review. 

ice

Ice by Anna Kavan

I woke up (on that June 2nd) from a very vivid dream. In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.

Stephenie Meyer, from her Twilight FAQ

I don’t think I’m going to rate Ice by Anna Kavin, as I don’t think I can say I liked it - like is such a degraded term – but I also feel a fiercely uncomfortable kinship with its dead-eyed wonder. I think if I’d read this 20 years ago, I would have gone one of two ways. Either I’d dismiss it as plotless mind-fuckery – using, no doubt, a brilliant metaphor involving an emperor’s sartorial stylings or lack thereof – or I’d enact that uncomfortable bullshit of pretending to understand something I didn’t get. Maybe I’m not giving younger me enough credit, and I’m not trying to humble-brag that I get this now by trashing my younger self. I believe Ice is ultimately un-get-able, probably intentionally so (not that that factors for me, entirely), but in a way that speaks to several of my personal obsessions: the housewife in fiction, post-apocalyptic landscapes, the harder to describe slipperiness of mid-century female writers. Ice, for me, reads as a daughter of Story of O, fraught with the eroticism of landscape and decay, the brutalization of half-sketched girl through the eyes of half-sketched men, written by a woman who, like Pauline Réage, ran her identity like artwork itself. 

Nameless characters in a post-apocalyptic dream state enact a chilly, brutal love triangle.* There is a man, and another man – sometimes a warden, sometimes a husband – and they tug-of-war over the image of a sylph-like girl who is described dismissively by her hair color and her victimhood. She cowers, there. Her wrists become bruised. Her mother was cruel and taught her submission. The man – who is the main character – alternately murders her and tries to rescue her from the other man, sometimes at once. Locations bleed from one to the next; walls of ice rear up or cower themselves, in the distance; concrete details of flat-letting and luncheons dissolve into war and radiation. The girl is trussed and murdered a thousand times, or she isn’t, and everywhere she is half out-of-sight, a mirage in a damp-smelling room or a field of trees lit by moonlight and her bare, frozen feet are blue against the snow. Or the warden’s eyes are blue like a gem whose name the narrator can’t recall. Ice is infuriating until it poleaxes you, like the dream I had last night of a bunch of gossipy chatter at a picnic with a bunch of friends that did a focus-in, dolly-out on a creature, made of smoke, who sought possession of me and mine and I ran until I was screaming and my husband woke me up, telling me I was shouting in my sleep. Exactly like that. 

Like with Story of O, I’m maybe more interested in Kavan’s fascinating biography than I am with the text itself. Born to ex-pat Britons in France, people who are primarily referred to as cold, she was a heroine addict through most of her adult life. This is often described as medicinal, as she suffered from what we would pigeonhole as depression, and she herself was unrepentant about her addictions. She burned all her correspondences and most of her diaries near the end of her life, saying, “I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be.” And how, woman. Way to rock the fuck out of self-as-art. I can see thousands of sophomore-level papers about ice-as-addiction or ice-as-domestic-panic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but they would also hugely fail. Ice might be the artifact of biography, but wrestling this bear down with life details won’t do. We shall not be going to the lighthouse today. 

“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf

I read this up at the cabin, in snatches, like something stolen. In the category of post-apocalyptic post-Modern meta-mind-fuckery I’ve read at the cabin, I’m going to give the award to Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but it’s probably not wise to conflate the two. When my friend Alexis showed up with her daughter so we could enact our own lighthouse-not-going with the kids, we walked over the harsh geology of the north shore and shit-talked books and people. She’d read the back-flap of Ice, which likened Kavan to a raft of female authors, for no discernible reason other than they had lady-parts, and then named a raft of people she influenced, all male. Sure, it’s just blurb-craft bullshit, but it is also A Thing, this melting fulcrum of the pen spurting out its translations between the genders and influence and anxiety and all manner of Bloomian bullshit. 

Bullshit, she said, and pointed to the land, this mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon. 

Whatever. 

I am losing my coherence, the way I do. But I started with Stephenie Meyer talking about Bella Swann, that girl in the gloaming imagined by a woman asleep, the day before her kids were to start swimming lessons which would give her the brief stolen moments to write her dream of a girl being fought over like a bone by boyish monsters, her blood in the snow, her warm chastity, his chilly skin like a wall of ice. Sometimes when we dream, women dream of being killed by men. You can collapse the narrative of Ice with fractal precision into its opening and closing lines: “I was alone” and then, “The weight of the gun in my pocket was reassuring.” The rest is geometry, and the angles cut. 

*Though I admit my use of the term love triangle is primarily a troll – let’s see how many people run up in the defense of the seriousness of the literary qualities of this book – I’m somewhat douchily trying to enact the gendered ways we approach literature of all stripes. Love triangle is a dismissive term – oh, sigh, another girl thinks she’s average-special enough for a ream of hot guys to love her to the point of annihilation, which is, here, absolutely the fucking point, or not, who knows what the point it? There is no spoon. Do or do not. Both, motherfucker. None.

Rhubarb Renaissance

Many moons ago, my good friend Joanna was living just over Grand Ave from me in a nice little brick fourplex. The back yard had this incredible shrub rose, one that no doubt had been planted in the 20s, and was now seeking total yard domination. The landlords decided to rip it out, because they were jerks. Under it was a rhubarb plant, a plant that had managed to thrive under a rapacious rose for a hundred years, and also had an eye towards world domination itself. I got a call from Joanna: you have to come save this rhubarb! You’re the only person I know with a yard! I duly went over with garbage bags and a spade, and planted the poor thing back by the garbage cans. It doddled on for a couple of years until I built a box for it and moved it, at which point it went completely nuts. It flowered this year, which allowed me to cut the scariest bouquet ever. 

rhubarb flower bouquet
I’m gonna lay eggs in your thorax

The house I grew up in in South Minneapolis had a similar rhubarb plant, this big, almost black-leafed thing that Mum would occasionally cut stalks from to cook up into sauce that we ate over vanilla ice cream. I don’t remember one at Grandma Dory’s house, but I’m sure it was there somewhere, all of her pies and bars – always bars, in the 70s, never cookies. I used to filch the sugar bowl off the table and go out and eat stalks straight off the plant, dipped in sugar, the sour of the plant almost painful in that way that makes your eyelids flutter, and then the crystalline melt of the sugar. I absolutely love the shit out of rhubarb. I wrote Grandma Dory a letter once the plant got going; do you have any recipes for me? She responded by mailing me Rhubarb renaissance: A cookbook, publication date 1978, which is filled with her terse marginalia – “good” or “delicious” or, harder to parse, a + – and includes three yellowed newsprint squares pasted into the back leaf of recipes she clipped from the paper. 

Rhubarb renaissance: A cookbook is completely a product of its time, heavy on the sugar, specifying margarine for everything. (My rule is to halve the sugar in cookbooks from the 70s, and add more if it’s too sour. You can’t take it back out again.) There are lots of bars, and pork, and, adorably, a biggish section on punches. Why don’t we make punch anymore?! Observe:

Mock Pink Champagne

Rhubarb juice – 1 cup sweetened and chilled
Dry white wine – 2 cups, chilled
Ginger ale – 1 quart bottle, chilled.

For each glass, use four tablespoons rhubarb juice, stirred well into 1/4 cup wine. Fill glass with ginger ale. 

Isn’t that adorable??? There’s something called a California Waker-Upper that includes prune juice and powdered milkand I just…I’m not even sure I have words. There are a bunch of beet recipes too which are all very good, really pretty and rosy in addition to being good pairings taste wise. 

Anyway, the real thing I learned from this book is how to cut rhubarb for sauce or pie. I’d always just chopped the stalks lengthwise and then dumped them into the pan, with a little bit of water. Wrong. It goes stringy, as you might know, and holds its shape in a way that isn’t awesome. Also, adding water makes it too soupy. You have to split the stalks down the middle, and then again if they’re big enough, and then chop them. Then leave the chopped rhubarb for a half hour, and the stalks will weep the liquid you need to cook them, no water necessary. Adding sugar hastens the process. Well watered rhubarb won’t need any water added, and, probably a tablespoon or three of minute tapioca wouldn’t hurt to add to the mix to make it thicken (especially with pie.)

So then, many moons later, my husband gave me Rhubarb Renaissance as a birthday gift. Oh, I already have this! I said, and then pulled down the recipe book from Grandma Dory. Nope. Apparently rhubarb goes with renaissance in the titling world, and, as far as I can tell, Ann Saling and Kim Ode have no connection, nor do their cookbooks. Kim Ode writes for the local paper, and, judging from the beautifully vernacular recipe for rhubarb wine in the back that was written by a grandmother, is a Midwesterner born and raised. Both books talk about how rhubarb originates in Asia, and then migrated over to Europe, mostly as an herbal remedy and not as, you know, food, until the Scandinavians got ahold of it and enough sugar to start making pie. Which is how come rhubarb is still a sort of Midwestern, flyover state kind of plant. My Scandihoovian people, when they were getting tricked by the railroads to come to America, brought the plant with them. And here we are! Ta da!

Kim Ode’s renaissance focuses on the savory applications of the pie plant almost exclusively, a corrective to rhubarb’s long, staid marriage to the strawberry. I know several people – two cousins and the aforementioned Joanna – who are at war with this pairing. All rhubarb or nothing in pies! I ran a berry experiment one summer, pairing rhubarb with every berry I could think of other than the straw in pie, and blueberry-rhubarb is the most interesting, while rasp+rhu is probably the most crowd-pleasingly sweet. I have yet to try mulberries, but my crazy neighbors’ shrub is going gangbusters, so I might steal a pint and see what happens. Anything to keep the berries out of the birds, who then deposit livid mulberry crap all over my porch. Jerks.

Ode’s book has a lot of fish – shrimp in particular – and a whole lotta chutneys. My only complaint is much of the book is foodie fussy, with a fair number of items that if you’re in, say, Grand Marais, Minnesota might be hard to source. I’m lame enough that even if I were in town, I’m not sure I’d know where to get parchment paper for packets, but that could certainly be chalked up to it’s not you, it’s me. And I mentioned this before, but the rhubarb wine recipe, which is dodgy and personal and hard to follow the way family lore is dodgy and personal and hard to follow, is absolutely worth the price of admission for me. Recipes are notes to self, a quick notation of “good” or “cut these ingredients”, because you know how to think like yourself when you go to perform a familiar but half-forgotten task. “Test for sweetness and add sugar,” you say, cryptically, but you know what you meant. “+” you said, and you know what that meant too, but maybe your granddaughter didn’t. She’ll just have to cook until it comes clear.