We’re Moving!

I’m not likely to be very interesting this week. My wife and I have bought a condo and we are moving. So far, we have successfully moved half of our books before managing to move a single bookcase into our new home. (LESSON: move the bookcases first!)

Anyway, all of my writing is way, way behind and I’m not ashamed of that fact because hey guys, we’re homeowners now! Homeowners gotta do as homeowners gotta do.

My extreme house pride makes me think of the main character and narrator from House of Houses, a criminally underrated bizarro book that also happens to make an amazing statement about the commodification of the self under capitalism. It’s also about a man who falls amorously in love with his single-family home right before houses gain metaphysical dominance over humanity, but I digress.

That’s the only rec you’re getting for a few days. Be well, read lots.

 

Featured image by Erda Estremera on Unsplash!


Defining NaNoWriMo Success By The Enjoyable Act Of Tossing My Novel

National Novel Writing Month is proof positive that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will eventually work your way out of whatever task you’ve got before you. I believe that’s the actual point: to give writers confidence that they can, in fact, move forward with whatever they set their minds to.

This hasn’t been how I’ve NaNo’ed. Personally, I have no trouble setting down words – between my various writing clients, I’m sure I near 50,000 words a month at the best of times. If anything, my main struggle has been to focus on one single piece for thirty days. This November, I didn’t even try. Between growing this blog (hello hi how are you,) writing for Book Riot, and ghosting for persons redacted, I barely got my cathartic political battle royale off the ground. I did write the particular scene that I wanted, which made me cackle with glee at my own cleverness before I consigned it forever to the fire.

Horse, Mare, Friese, Laugh, Yawn, Tooth, Portrait

I amuse me. From Pixabay.

Beyond my unattractive tendency to be amused by my own work, I need to burn at least some of what I create in order to stay happy as a writer. There are times when writing is like riding a bicycle in the sense that it’s an empowering exercise. Then there are times when I’ve been pedaling so long that I begin to flag and worry primarily about where I’m going instead of taking joy in the action. I love a chance to enjoy the process of writing without having to worry about producing something good, or useful, or even saleable.

November, increasingly, has been my opportunity to write drivel. And I look forward to it with tremendous relish.

I don’t research and I don’t edit. I don’t worry that nobody will buy my work or that an editor would hate it. Nobody will ever see my NaNo writing. It won’t impact the rest of my career in a negative manner and my mother will not be ashamed of me. It’s true freedom, and it’s the delete key that caps it off. I don’t think I’ve ever kept one of my NaNoWriMo novels, even during those years when I’ve been able to focus hard enough to generate something coherent.

As a result, I tend toward bizarro fiction for NaNoWriMo. It gets weird. Gory, too, usually. I’ve had characters trapped in an enchanted Target with bloodthirsty love gods. I’ve had the Judeo-Christian deity Yahweh transformed into a rubber ducky and smiting people for their bathing behavior. I’ve had politicians cannibalizing each other. My hard drive is a bloody, disgusting mess in November, and then December wipes it clean. I’ve always admired those writers of extreme sci-fi, exemplified by Carlton Mellick III of Satan Burger fame, who fly their freak flags from the highest pinnacle. That’s commitment. It’s never been what I wanted, but it sure is fun to moonlight.

For my own part, I’m coming to realize that writing isn’t a monolith. Pieces that I write for fun and never publish are valid as personal entertainment, as writing that I do just to blow off steam and because I enjoy the craft. Listicles that I labor over, articles that I research, and book reviews that I blitz through don’t need to be as precious to me as the time I spend making something that I like just because. I could send a billion ghostwritten biographies out into the universe without once thinking of them as my precious babies, without ever considering them again at all except as points on my portfolio and solid pieces of work. But when I junk a NaNo novel, that’s the apex of my year. I never forget the joy of writing something redonkulously dumb, scrapping it without concern, and moving on with my life.

I have never felt the need to polish or publish my NaNos, not from this year or any other. I technically won the word count and I did have fun writing about someone whose name rhymes with Ditch McDonnell barbequing and heartily enjoying the roasted rump of someone whose name rhymes with Ronald Dump, but I’m equally comfortable not continuing the story. It was never meant to be completed or shared. That’s not what NaNo is about – for me.

In fact, there are a lot of successful novels that have come out of National Novel Writing Month. I did a whole bit about them over at Book Riot.  I think that’s wonderful. At the same time, I’m not sorry I’ll never be one of them. I’m a rebel, baby. Someday I’ll write a serious novel, but it sure as hell won’t happen in November! The point of my journey is just to get some invigorating exercise.


Saturday Fast Rec: Python For Kids

It’s Saturday! That means I recommend a book that I think you’ll like. (Yes, you!)

Today, I’m recommending Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming by Jason Briggs from No Starch Press. And I’m recommending it…for adults!

That’s right! If you (yes, you!) want to learn how to code, Python is a great place to start. It’s versatile, easy to learn (relatively speaking,) and professional coders do use it in actual applications. Kids can absolutely learn to make basic programs using the fun and surprisingly practical projects in this book, but I’m not ashamed to admit that this is where I started my own coding journey…at the age of 30. Remember that Jeopardy! champ who taught himself everything using children’s books? It’s not a bad way to introduce yourself to something new. Personally, I’ve not only learned to love Python thanks to Python for Kids, but found myself well prepared for the infamously difficult Java classes at my college because I’d already learned a similar programming language.

This book is fun, hands-on, and wonderful for all ages. There are some knockoff programming for kids books from other publishing houses, but don’t settle for them. No Starch Press is the best. This book is exactly where to start for kids or adults, and there are follow-up books that will rocket your skills to the upper atmosphere, if not to the moon. I recommend!


Review! That! Book! PURSUIT by Joyce Carol Oates

Happy Black Friday, guys! The nice thing about being a book person on this questionable day is that you can really just buy books online if you want to take advantage of deals. You could even spend the day reading what you already have and decline to participate in the annual sensationalized commercial frenzy that smacks of classism and exploitation of the poor. Or, you could read my scintillating thoughts on the work of Joyce Carol Oates’s newest book, Pursuit.

I’ve been reading JCO since I was just a wee lass in the ninth grade. I have very positive memories of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang and later Zombie: A Novel. Apparently, I didn’t rate either of them very highly on Goodreads, though. I wish I knew why. They’ve really stuck with me, but maybe I had some of the same problems I had with Pursuit.

This book presents us with Abby, real name Miriam, whose parents, Lew and Nicola, disappeared when she was a kid. Right from the get-go, she’s got some very odd trauma, which causes her enough mental distress that she wanders out in front of a bus. Coincidentally, (I’m sure,) she had just gotten married. This is the story of how Abbey/Miriam discovers what happened to her parents and why she’s in such distress.

Bad Guys Get Pages

This book didn’t dwell as entirely on the bad guy as Zombie did, but it sure did dwell nonetheless. The longest stretches of the story were from the twisted perspective of Abby’s father. This wasn’t necessarily a bad choice. It was certainly very entertaining. I think that what irritated me about it was how predictable Lew was. He was every scary thing: stalker, violent misogynist, addicted, jealous, murderous, delusional, untreated for his mental health problems, religious nut, probably a pedophile.

The only thing he didn’t have was a mustache to twirl and any real depth. Ultimately, Lew was just a mashup of male killer greatest hits and almost entirely defined by his relationship to the main character’s mother. There’s no reason that someone this cartoonish couldn’t be a villain, but if you’re going to write someone so over-the-top, you’d better have a good foundation for them. I have to believe it. I didn’t believe this.

Foil the Patriarchy!

At the same time, Oates goes out of her way to present Willem, Abby’s husband, as the ideal man. He’s sensitive, kind, gentle, patient – my goodness, everyone needs a Willem. But ultimately this makes him as two-dimensional as Lew. They’re obviously meant to be foils, but Willem doesn’t really function well in this role. He’s not really a very interesting dude, and anyway, he doesn’t really appear much compared to Lew.

I did wonder if Oates was trying to not-all-men this story by setting up Willem as an example of the fact that good guys exist. Theoretically, I’m into it, but Willem is even flatter than Lew! This dynamic would probably have required a bit more subtlety than a five-hour listen could convey, and because I know that Oates is capable of it, the slipshod nature of the Lew-Willem contrast really struck me as lazy.

OK, then Criticize the Patriarchy!

Oates does a good job of showing the patriarchy rather than just railing about it, as I tend to do once I wind up. Willem’s family is a good vehicle for patriarchal oppression, but I am also a sucker for well-meaning but toxic religious families in literature. Toxic masculinity suffuses the book as a theme, with Willem being an example of a good guy and Lew, of course, being an example of everything not to do or be. Abby/Miriam is a nice representation of a woman who upholds the patriarchy by maintaining silence to protect a man, which is, of course, a topical point. She’s also kind of a poster child for repressed and damaged femininity, literally haunted by the effects of the patriarchy.

The self-abuse and repression that she heaps upon herself to try and become this “good girl” she thinks she isn’t is very thickly laid. I liked it to a certain extent because I could relate to it, but it definitely didn’t strike me as the performance of a subtle literary virtuoso. As with Lew and Willem, I felt like Abby was the coloring book version of a good statement about overcoming the patriarchy. The outlines were great, but in practice, it turned out kind of flat.

Nicola is a piece of the feminist pie, too: the classic Woman Who Does It All, whose aggressor is a character who could be an incel parody. There’s a really excellent statement the be made here about how generations of women relate to one another in a patriarchal environment, not to mention how men sort themselves into ally or enemy categories in a polarized environment as reactions to empowered or helpless women. I think it’s interesting that Nicola, who becomes empowered, incites rage on the part of her partner, while Abby/Miriam becomes completely disabled emotionally and physically and thereby inspires extreme support and protectiveness from Willem.

I’m not sure Oates intended to suggest that bitches get stitches while violets get princes, but that was definitely what I came away with. Maybe it was meant to be ironic, or just a face-forward statement about what kinds of women men like.  Maybe it was meant to be a statement about damage and how women and men need to come together to repair the past.

But What A Bone Structure!

Regardless of her relative ability to discuss feminism through the medium of a thriller, Oates can structure the hell out of a novel. Despite the story jumping between several different points of view, times, and situations, I never once lost the thread. That’s why I’m going to come down on the positive side for this book after all. It’s effectively a feminist thriller, and although I don’t think it’s the smartest thing Oates has ever written, I don’t think she meant it to be an intelligent treatment of male violence and female victimhood. I think it was just supposed to be entertaining.

So if you want a dark, entertaining book with a scary villain, a damaged heroine, and a kinda half-baked feminist message that works if you blur your eyes and squint at one corner of it, then Pursuit is probably perfect for you. Read and enjoy. It’s short enough to hold you over the weekend plane or train ride back home from the holidays.

May your families be healthier by far than Nicola and Lew’s. Happy Holidays, feminists!

 


Happy Thanksgiving…Zombies.

It’s turkey time! Around this time of year, when debate turns to the possibility of zombies freezing solid, I like to throw a few dried femurs on the fire and ponder life’s great questions. This year, I’m wondering just how wide zombification has spread in literature. There’s Jane Eyre, of course. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, oh my.

I have to admit, although I’m generally not a big fan, I did like Austen with lurching corpses. From the amazing Anna Rettberg

Then there’s an entire army of zombie Christmas books. Twas the Zombie Night Before Christmas: A Zombie Kids Book, a heartwarming tale of how we hung up the stockings and “ate every mouse,” meets It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies!: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols, a collection of undead holiday chestnuts fit for an Addams Family Christmas. Or, you know, a pretty good prank on the neighborhood for a fun-loving group of social anarchists.

Don’t forget the Zombies Christmas Carol, because Marvel Zombies: The Complete Collection Volume 1 wasn’t hilarious enough when it was fresh. (Poor Spider-Man. Truly, we have all eaten someone we loved in one way or another.) A Zombie Christmas: The Mike Beem Chronicles Volume One appeals because you should always help others at the holidays even with an apocalypse on.

Then there’s my personal favorite, a sequel of the oddly compelling Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament entitled I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus: A Breathers Christmas Carol. Any zombie fan who hasn’t read Breathers is cheating themselves, by the way. It’s a lovely book about community, sacrifice, and secretly eating your parents to preserve your way of life. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll examine your prejudices against the living dead.

Image result for breathers zombie fan art

There’s another primary cover now, but it’s kinda lame. I like this one.

But what about the Thanksgiving zombies? Well, there’s another Mike Beem book, A Zombie Thanksgiving: The Mike Beem Chronicles Volume Five, as well as Zombie Thanksgiving: A YA Paranormal Story and Gobble: A Thanksgiving Novelette of the Zombie Apocalypse. But that appears to be it.

This is weird, right? Zombies are the ultimate symbols of overconsumption, specifically of a consumption style that’s actively driving life on Earth into the ground. I can see why Christmas would evoke zombie tales aplenty – not only is it a very popular holiday, but the rabid, unremitting waste of the season is basically its own apocalypse. The metaphor’s not much of a stretch, is what I’m saying.

But Thanksgiving is, if anything, more food-focused. Why aren’t zombies more of a thing in November? The parallels are uncanny.

  • The month starts slow. A few of the early infected begin to consume pumpkin spice and baked goods in quantity. Smart survivor types begin to stockpile food while it’s still cheap.
  • Innocuous news reports about odd eating behaviors abound.
  • As the month comes to a head, enormous numbers of people begin to travel. This is not unlike the zombie survivor’s futile flight from the plague, which only follows them because it is already endemic everywhere.
  • No matter how prim you may be normally, you rip into a 3,000-calorie Thanksgiving dinner like you’ve never seen food before. You’re not consuming to survive, you’re consuming to consume. You are a zombie.
  • Holdouts are cranky loners.
  • Everyone becomes an eating machine in the end.

The zombie narrative is comforting in many of the same ways that a cozy mystery is comforting. There’s a structure, a plot that follows certain traditions, and usually a posse where characters fill certain roles. To a great extent, it doesn’t matter if the zombies win or the people win. (Although most of my experience suggests that people usually triumph in these stories.) The point isn’t the zombies – they’re the window dressing of our collective Jungian neuroses. The point is that it’s a comfortable pattern. And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is about, too?

It’s an odd holiday. People complain about it, but love it too. How like my own relationship with the zombie novel. As rote and repetitive as they can be, and as low as I find the literary quality of certain zombie stories, I keep coming back over and over again for that feeling of safety that I get when the first revenant reanimates inside of a zipped-up body bag. Maybe that makes me a bit of a zombie for zombie books. So be it.

Happy holidays, fellow shamblers. For just one day, let’s indulge without guilt. After all, there’s a certain bliss in being part of the horde.

Featured image from GirlZombieAuthors! Give them a look!


Diary of a Librarian: The Skills We REALLY Need

Hello, friends! It’s nearly Thanksgiving, so I’ll keep this short, sweet, and to the point. We librarians need to edumacate ourselves.

I’m not talking about increasing our focus on reference or becoming better at beeping the books. That’s the old way of thinking about specialties. These days we need to develop new skills, and that means continuing ed. Let’s pay librarians’ tuition and send them to school to develop some useful new skills! These skills don’t have to be specific to each staff member. Someone could develop two specialties or even triple up – this, after all, is libraries.

Here’s what I think we need the most right now.

Education Librarian

We’re as much teachers these days as anything else. Patrons want to learn how to download apps and use Excel. The problem is that, aside from school librarians, we generally don’t know how to teach.

The education librarian would coordinate learning events in the library and, when necessary, instruct other librarians on how to be good teachers. When someone declares that there should be a Coursera run in the library, it’ll be the education librarian who figures that out.

Internal Communication Librarian

Librarians tend to be free spirits. Individualists. A herd of cats, you could say. And that’s great! Except it also isn’t. It also means that we trip all over each other in a group. Enter the internal communication librarian!

This person takes business classes and then manages meetings, makes sure that everybody knows what’s going on, and generally makes sure Person X talks to Person Y about Person Z’s project. Maybe they’d run an internal staff blog detailing the library’s news.

Outreach Librarian

A lot of places already have this person – my place does. But too many do not! Some librarians need to take marketing classes and become library bloggers, social media experts, and advertising mavens.

IT Librarian

That’s me, guys! The IT librarian might come in with some IT background, but they could also get training as they work for the library. They don’t have to be hackers or whatever, they just need to know something about a motherboard and be ready to talk the lingo to tech support.

The IT librarian could double as the cybersecurity librarian. They’d track the institutional passwords and explain to everyone why they really do need to change every 60 days.

Elder Librarian

Seniors have particular needs. Sometimes, these involve mobility and vision accommodations that most of us don’t think of before they happen to us. At the same time, they’re big-time library patrons. Why not specialize a librarian to them the way we do with teens?

Graphic Designer Librarian

Libraries aren’t not going to need to do outreach in the future. That outreach isn’t not going to need to look good. Why not train someone to be the library’s professional artist?

This shouldn’t require an art degree, just a willingness to learn. The graphic designer would make clipart, zshuzsh up promotional materials, and keep library materials on-brand and looking neat.

Betabrarian

We need librarians whose job priority is to watch for trends in the profession and in the wider world, and then test them out to see if they could be useful in a library context.

They should go to every conference, collect every business card, and build a weekly situational report for their institution that includes new social factors (“OK Boomer,”) new tech developments (foldable smartphone,) and the results of their own R&D. For example, maybe this is the person to test NFC stickers in the library.

Special Needs Librarian

There are a lot of possible applications for this kind of expertise. Are libraries overwhelming environments for autistic people? I have no idea! I’m not autistic and have no training in that area. Are children’s books available enough to adults who read at a low Lexile? Once again, it’s a need that exists and we might be able to meet it if we train someone to be an expert on the topic.

Linguist Librarian

This intrepid person’s job will be to learn languages. They should come into the library with at least two, but over the years, they will learn more. The library will send them to school to learn Spanish, French, Arabic, Mandarin, and anything else that could possibly come in useful. It won’t be their entire job, per se, but it’ll be a big chunk.

 

Now I want to hear your ideas. Comment with the librarian specialization you think we need right now! If you think librarians already have enough going on in their lives without more stupid school, comment about that too.

Happy travel day, library friends!

Special thanks to this awesome dude for our featured image!——-> Dollar Gill


Haunted by Central New York

I originally came from a small town in central New York. Cows outnumbered people approximately three to one, rural values dominated, and it’s fair to say that I left as soon as I could drive. I went to college in central New York, then grad school, and got my first job there. The place continued to not work for me, and about eight years ago, I moved to Massachusetts.

Weirdly, since I moved here, I’ve encountered several books that make me nostalgic for home. Not that they make me want to move back – I spent 25 years trying and failing to be a good fit for CNY – but because they terrify me. They’re frightening in the same way that I used to associate with some of the small towns I’d drive through on my way to work, and then also frightening in the way that I used to feel when people would tell me, without affectation or agenda, that I’d be back. Because everybody came back. That was just the way New York was.

I cannot describe the dread I’d feel when people would say this to me. It always felt prophetic. Reading home – specifically, reading horror about New York State – feels a lot like daring fate. Or pondering a return. It’s hard to say. I don’t know why the concept of living in a place that scares me is somehow so comforting.

My first experience of reading home was The Twilight Zone: Complete Stories. Little-known fact: Ron Serling may have based the show upon his upbringing in the Syracuse area. You can really see it in this collection, some of which were adapted and some of which weren’t. It’s…uneven in quality. By today’s standards for science fiction, anyway. Part of the problem is that what was fresh when Serling wrote these is now old hat. Maybe I’d be more impressed 40 years ago. But the eerie quality that carries them all is as spine-tingling as anything from Clive Barker, or so it seems to me. That sense that the rest of the world might be a myth or a delusion, that your neighbors could turn on you if the snow lasts a day too long, that you’re the alien is palpable in my childhood home. It’s a weird place and weird stuff happens there. If you’ve ever seen My Brother’s Keeper, then you know of Munnsville. It’s literally just a couple towns over from where I grew up.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Mr. Splitfoot took my breath away with its treatment of mystic cults, restless ghosts, and asteroid strikes upstate. I think I was lukewarm about this book when I first read it, but I may need to read it again. I’ve been thinking about it for years. The plot revolves around a pregnant woman whose horrible lover tries to slip abortion drugs into her food, prompting her to follow her long-lost aunt on a pilgrimage to a mysterious house in the woods of the northern foothills. Believe it or not, it gets stranger. I loved it. Part of the action took place in Troy, for goodness sake. I skated in a roller derby bout there once.

Did Mr. Splitfoot appeal to me because I recognized the place names or because it pinned the haunting nature of the place where I grew up? It’s hard to say. I’m certainly haunted by central New York now. One of the central themes that I noticed in this particular book was that it was impossible to tell who was the ghost and what, exactly, was doing the haunting. At times, it seemed like the living were haunting the dead, that the dead were being haunted by their pasts, and that New York was haunting everybody.

Finally, did you know that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place in New York?

Because of course it does.

In case you’re curious, Sleepy Hollow is here. So it’s not far upstate, but I count it because the easy, immediate way that Ichabod Crane loses touch with reality doesn’t strike me as superstition. I like to read the story as an examination of an intellectual man trying to escape the appetites and desires of his baser half, which eventually attacks the very thing that makes him superior – his imaginative mind – and makes it so he’s never heard of again.

I can relate to the fear of being erased, tracked down by a part of yourself that you want to dominate and instead falling prey to it. It is reminiscent of the person I was back home – angry, isolated, and steeped in my issues with nothing to do about it but pace around my snowbound living space. Sometimes I feel like that paranoid way of being is constantly riding behind me, and if I look at it too closely, it’ll attack. Maybe it’ll replace me after all. Is that what I’m running away from? And will I make it to the covered bridge on time?

It’s past Halloween, and therefore past the time of year when we can have fun being frightened. Now comes the really scary time of the year: the cold months. Even ensconced in our modern comforts, life is a little less certain when the snow starts to come down. You could skid on ice and crash. You could run out of food in a freak snowstorm. You could get snowed in on the highway without a sleeping bag.

So I do the New York things that remind me of home. I put on snow tires. I stock up on food in case we get a bad storm. I pack a down sleeping bag in my trunk.

I pack a copy of Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber. And I don’t look over my shoulder.