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As English majors with creative writing backgrounds, Kelly and I are obviously fond of the written word, but our fondness for the visual arts doesn't always get as much attention. This is partly because it is often a bit more expensive to display one's fondness for a particular drawing, painting, or photograph than it is to do the same for a piece of text. Buying an original work of art can set one back quite a bit; prints and other replications are a good bit cheaper, but one still has to find the money to put it on display properly, whether by paying for framing, dry-mounting, or just the hardware to hang it on the wall. (We'll consider paying for the wall space a given.) 

Still, we're both longtime fans of one particular visual artform that we feel often gets short shrift: comics. Despite having collected a fair amount of comics-related art over the years of our marriage, we kept a lot of it in storage because of those added expenses for display. With the move to a new place, however, we decided it was time to invest a little cash, if only because we were really tired of looking at blank white walls. Here, then, is your look at some of the items we've hung up:


This is a print of a sketch by Erika Moen and Steve Lieber, an homage to the famous woodcut by the Japanese artist Hokusai, "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife." Moen is the author of DAR: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary , a fantastic comics memoir, and this print came as a bonus when I ordered the two volumes of DAR from her online store. (She's also the creator of the web's most refreshingly open, informative, and positive comic about sexual matters: Oh Joy Sex Toy. If there's anything you've ever wondered about sex--how to maintain a long-distance relationship, whether there's a better way to deal with menstruation than standard tampons, which vibrator packs the most bang for the buck, etc.--there's a decent chance OJST has dealt with it in at least some fashion, and that it's been dealt with in a manner that is frank, non-judgmental, and thoughtful.) We knew from the moment we saw this image that we wanted it in our bedroom, but not until we found the perfect dark-grey matting and simple black frame did we know exactly how to display it. Unfortunately, Movable Type seems determined to show it to you in the wrong orientation; the woman's head belongs at the lower left. If you click on the image, however, you'll be able to see it properly--and very close up.)

A rather less daring picture is this, an original work by Thom Zahler, author of what is probably the only superhero-romance-sitcom comic on the market, the delightful Love and Capes. Like Kelly, Zahler is a fan of the 1990s TV show Due South, which put frontier-bred RCMP officer Benton Fraser (played by Paul Gross) in a police procedural with a bunch of streetwise Chicago cops. When Kelly met him at a convention, he pencilled, inked, and colored this beautiful sketch of Fraser and his lupine companion Diefenbaker, apparently from memory. And again, orientation is apparently something of an issue here. Click on the image and enjoy it as it's intended to be seen.


Here we have a pair by the ridiculously talented Ursula Vernon, author of a myriad of comics and books ranging from the Hugo-winning Digger to the hugely popular Dragonbreath books to our household's recent favorite, Castle Hangnail. Knowing how much I love Ursula's artwork, Kelly bought a couple of pieces as a birthday present for me, but they were complex enough to make us despair about framing them. How can you find a frame to match images of lavender birds on a blue background chased with golden circuit diagrams? Well, as it happens, we stumbled across a pair of gold-colored frames with texturing that can only be described as baroque... and to everyone's surprise, they worked. (Also, to my surprise, these are oriented correctly.)

Finally, there's this one: the first piece of art we ever got framed, side-by-side portraits of Edsel and Mirth from Matt Wagner's series Mage: The Hero Discovered. It has been on the wall of our bedroom since we got married, and it consists of two sketches Kelly got from Wagner when he visited Chapel Hill's Heroes Aren't Hard to Find comics shop. Mage was an important part of our early relationship, and not just because I kind of had the haircut worn by Mirth. Back when we were first dating, both Kelly and I were buying the series, so when she visited my apartment and accidentally spilled coffee on my copy of issue #6, she knew exactly what she'd done. She apologized profusely, but was expecting me to blow my top at this horrific violation of the collector's responsibility to another's collection. Instead, I calmly assured her that this was nothing to panic about, and I refused her offer to supply me with her copy. It was at that point, apparently, that she decided I might be a keeper.

So. Welcome to our walls. Try not to get a crick in your neck.

4:38 PM

Back to School

Tomorrow marks the first day of a new school year for me. Yes, I've already had a week of faculty meetings, working to get my head into the proper space for a teacher in this new environment, followed by four days of Camp Week, when students arrive, get the basic bureaucratic needs out of the way, and start the process of becoming socialized. That means I've had a full nine days of getting to know my colleagues, and a little less than half that of getting to know my students, but to me, school doesn't really start until classes do. And classes don't start until tomorrow.

Some of what happens tomorrow will be old hat. I'll be standing in front of a bunch of boys and trying to tell them things about books and writing and the English language, which I've been doing six days a week most weeks since 1995. That's not going to be the hard part. The hard part will be adjusting to a new schedule, a new structure, and a (fundamentally) new prep.

The schedule will be liberating in many ways. I'll have Wednesdays off, for one thing, and I won't have evening or weekend duties. Basically, once the last kid leaves campus (circa 3:45), I'll be free to head home. The difficulty, however, is that two classes per day will be much longer than I'm used to; first and second periods are both and hour and twenty minutes--roughly half again as long as the classes I've been teaching for two decades. The afternoon classes are 50 minutes, which is close enough to my norm that I probably won't notice the difference, but coming up with strategies to keep middle-schoolers engaged for the length of of a feature film may prove more challenging.

The structural change is a need to write out a homework "grid" that is available to students two weeks in advance. This isn't drastically different from the syllabi I've handed out over the years, but it will need to be updated weekly in order to stay current; I can't just create one syllabus at the start of the semester and work from it. It will make me a bit more flexible and responsive during the course, though. There's also a heavy commitment to teaching note taking, which means I've got to do some serious work on preparing partial notes for the boys to complete; as they get more accomplished with understanding both their reading assignments and the way to record information from them, I'll be able to take a less involved role.

Finally, there's history. Though my degrees are in English and education, I have always loved history, and I came very close to majoring in it. (The decision to go with English was largely a function of my realization, just before my senior year at UNC, that I had enough credits to get an English degree by May, but would have to stay in school for at least one more session to get a history degree.) I wasn't done yet, though. When I student-taught in 1988, I worked with a mentor whose teaching load was extraordinarily varied; he taught ancient history, journalism, creative writing, and speech. Since I was ostensibly going to be teaching English after I wrapped up my M.A.T., he thought I needed to work in an actual English class. so he farmed me out to another teacher during his journalism class, but I was left to work with the other three, covering everything from argumentation to Greek military actions to sonnet forms.

That may be why my English and speech classes at Woodberry tended to have a strong historical component. When I taught my speech classes about Student Congress, we always took some time to study the Constitution and Bill of Rights, while my 11th-graders could look forward to a lengthy discussion about the mechanisms of slavery and secession when we dove into Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life... Still, I haven't taught a history-qua-history class in many years, so putting this one together for a group of sixth graders will require some creativity on my part, no question.

In short, the above is what I'll be working on today. After brunch.

8:17 AM

Between the Lines

I am a coward.

I mean, that's not the ONLY thing I am. I'm also just plain sensible. But there's no question that a decision I made a while back was made at least partially out of fear. It was a fear that I don't always feel, nor always respond to when I do feel it, but in this case I was getting the same message from both my emotions and my brain, and that message was a clear and unequivocal Don't do it.

So I didn't. As I was working on Along Those Lines, I consciously and deliberately chose not to discuss one of the most significant lines in the human experience: race.

I can't say that I've been called out by any reviewer or reader about this act of cowardice-cum-common sense, but that's probably due to the book's relatively small number of reviewers and readers. And who knows, maybe opting to write about race would have created more buzz, and sold a few more copies, and garnered a few more reviews, but at that point the reviewers might have been taking me to task because I did choose to write about race. It's not as though the topic is simple, or uncontroversial; it's arguably the single hottest of hot-button issues in America today, one that is currently warming up everything from Donald Trump's presidential campaign to the various arguments about state monuments. I knew going in that I could do far more justice to topics such as gender differences in neurology or observation of religious holidays, even irreverently, than I could to that of race relations.

But why is that? Why should a male writer with WASP ancestry (on one side, at least) feel comfortable addressing women's issues or non-Christian faiths but hesitant when it comes to race? Well, it's partly because, despite my unequivocal maleness, I've spent a large part of my life considering gender issues. As I've mentioned on a number of occasions, my mom was a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine, leading me to adopt a feminist viewpoint very early in life, and being married to an independent-minded woman for nearly three decades has only made that viewpoint sharper. (Raising two sons and working for twenty years at an all-male school has brought a few things into focus as well.) Similarly, my 1975 confirmation as an Episcopalian and ongoing ability to pass as a gentile doesn't disguise the fact that I've been taking an autodidactic course in comparative religion for essentially my whole life; between Mom's family's Judaism, our various relatives' membership in dozens of Christian sects, my own longtime fondness for Taoist philosophy, and a healthy dose of raw skepticism, I've been able to devote a hell of a lot of time to musing about faith. In other words, when it came to writing about these two topics, I had confidence that I knew what I was talking about, and that I could avoid saying anything too aggressively stupid.

But race? Oy. In some ways it would have been the perfect subject for the book, because the lines of race are a perfect example of my overall theme: that lines are drawn by human beings for human purposes, and that a strikingly large number of lines have no objective existence. That's absolutely the case with race, where there are still arguments about the race of our president, as though being able to assign him to one race or another would somehow encapsulate his political positions. But that's largely what Americans have always done: first, decide the race of an individual, and second, by that first simple decision further decide how he/she should be treated. This is why we have terms such as "one-drop rule," "octaroon," and even "paper bag test." The lines that define racial categories and sub-categories are exactly the same kind of lines we use to define pretty much everything else in the universe: a convenient fiction. Whose convenience? That of the people drawing the line.

But at the same time, that fiction has created very real experiences for very real people, and I am intensely aware of my own ignorance when it comes to many of those experiences. I have, as the saying goes, White Privilege. This does not mean I've never suffered, or that I should feel guilty about any success I've had in overcoming that suffering; what it DOES mean is that I haven't had to experience certain additional kinds of suffering that non-white people often do. Cops, for example, are generally pretty friendly with me; I've never been pulled over for anything other than an obvious driving mistake on my part, and even when I've been pulled, I've never been ticketed. I contrast that against the experiences of a former colleague of mine, a pious, well-groomed, professional graduate of both an elite prep school and an Ivy League university, who has been pulled over on several occasions purely for Driving While Black--even in the town he grew up in.

White Privilege is why I did not have to give my sons The Talk--the one about how to handle themselves safely in an interaction with police--because I had no real fear that my sons would be targeted or mistreated by the police. The Talk may not be universal in African-American homes--I wouldn't pretend to know--but I've heard enough people refer to it that I feel pretty confident it's a widespread phenomenon. And of course White Privilege is why I don't have to worry about things like redlining--the practice of bankers and realtors drawing lines around certain neighborhoods, establishing the borders of where blacks can and cannot rent or own homes. White Privilege doesn't make white people's lives free from suffering; it just means there are fewer directions from which that suffering is likely to come.

So yeah, race would have been a great topic for Along Those Lines, but I was afraid of it. Why? Because I don't know it well enough. Those long years examining sex and religion left me confident that I could articulate ideas and experiences different from my own, but the sad fact is that I never had those experiences where race is concerned. My schools were integrated, sure--though in North Carolina, they hadn't been for all that long when I started--and my basketball teams were as well. But even with those facts, I never had a lot of close black friends growing up; maybe that was due to racism when it came to tracking students into academic classes, or maybe it was just me, not bothering to seek out people who didn't look like me, or maybe it was that Chapel Hill High's theater department was lily-white until the last months of my senior year, when we put on The Wiz and brought a number of talented black students into the fold for at least one show.

But by then, it was really too late. Social circles that had been established for years weren't much altered by that one play, and when I got to college, the social circles there were largely white ones as well, and that's kind of how it's been ever since. I've had plenty of black classmates and colleagues and friends, but I haven't been close enough to them to be the beneficiary of deep, detailed conversations about race. And despite twenty-plus years of teaching, coaching, and directing black students, not to mention serving as faculty advisor to several, the flow of information in a teacher-student relationship is always heavier from the former to the latter than vice-versa. Basically, if I were to write about race in ATL, that section's foundation would be far, far less solid than those of the sex and religion chapters.

But that wasn't my only fear. There was also Coates.

I don't recall the exact timing of my discovery--maybe 2008? 2009? All I know is that when I first came across Ta-Nehisi Coates' writing, he was guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. I appreciated his undisguised nerdery, but I also loved his unflinching willingness to examine an idea, even one where he felt ignorant about the topic. Soon after that, he started his own blog at The Atlantic magazine's site, and something really weird happened: I found myself in long, detailed conversations (and not a few short, goofy ones) about subject ranging from comics to politics to science fiction to music to food to, yes, race. The comments there were closely moderated by Coates, who took an active role in most of the conversations, and by virtue of exposure to the gaggle of contributors there, I began to realize just how little I really knew about race in America.

That gaggle (known by an ever-shifting set of aliases including the Lost Battalion of Platonic Conversationalists, the Black Republicans, the Fucking Feminists, and most frequently the Golden Horde) consisted of TNC fans of various ages, backgrounds, nationalities, sexes, experiences, sexualities, and races, but they had one thing in common: they wanted to know about stuff they didn't know, and they were happy to tell YOU about stuff YOU didn't know. The Horde collectively set me straight about subjects of all sorts, including feminism and Judaism, and many of the members became my online (and in some cases offline) social companions of choice.

Alas, it couldn't last. As Coates' writing became better known, the blog's comment section began filling up with people who weren't much interested in Platonic conversation, preferring to make sweeping assaults on statements Coates hadn't even made, and often favoring outright trolling to interacting with people who might teach them something. When he published "The Case for Reparations," the most buzz-heavy magazine piece I can remember a magazine printing in decades, it got worse. And as he was spending more and more time doing research and writing, Coates didn't have much time to play moderator; worse, The Atlantic wasn't inclined to do anything to help. Before long he was writing pieces without even opening them for comments.

But that was where the fear set in for me. The fear that no matter what I wrote about the lines between races in America, it wouldn't be good enough. The fear that I'd say something ignorant. The fear that it wouldn't be up to the standards the Horde demanded. And in the back of my mind, the fear that Coates himself might write a book on that topic, one that would outshine my own with the intensity of a thousand burning suns.

Well guess what? I was right.

Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, is something I could never duplicate. That's not necessarily a demeaning statement about my own abilities as a writer, but it's very definitely a statement about White Privilege. I could not write that book because I have never had to experience the things that allowed Coates to write it. Presented as a letter to his son, the book touches on the fears that every parent has for every child, but those fears are raised to a feverish pitch by Coates' unblinking and penetrating examination of American history. It's a book that contains Emmett Till thrown in a river and lines drawn across the blocks of Chicago and Prince Jones shot down by a cop. It is The Talk raised to an art form and delivered to an audience that in many cases has never heard it.

It's a book I wish I could have written. And I'm damned lucky to be unable to write it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


4:57 PM

Back to School

So I have a new job.

Like the previous one, it involves teaching English. To boys. At an independent school. In Virginia.

Outside of those similarities, however, the differences are numerous and sometimes vast. I've spent the last twenty years at Woodberry Forest School, a traditional, well-endowed college-preparatory boarding school founded 125 years ago and set in a bucolic 1200-acre campus far out in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Starting next week, I'll be teaching at Richmond's Seven Hills School, which is far newer, less married to tradition, and thoroughly urban, a middle school set in a handful of converted public works buildings hard by Interstate 95.

Here, let me show you. This is Woodberry's library, Hanes Hall:

Woodberry library.jpgThis is Seven Hills' administration building:

DSC02677.JPGIn short, there is at the very least a slightly different aesthetic on display. While I enjoyed and often treasured my two decades at WFS, there were definitely times where I felt frustrated by what seemed to me a lack of pragmatism. Too often function was sacrificed to form, with something that helped the boys or the school as a whole being sacrificed because it didn't look "appropriate." I had issues with the sheer difficulty of defining that word--or even specifying who the judge of propriety might be--and sometimes found my old Tar Heel motto (Esse quam videri: to be rather than to seem) at odds with whatever words the Woodberry authorities lived by.

At Seven Hills, by contrast, form seems to play a decided second fiddle to function, but that's not an implication that form is not important; you can see by the photo above that appearance matters there. (And I am, I should note, quite pleased to be working at a place with a mural containing barn swallows and portraits of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.) But there's no hiding the fact that these are old industrial buildings, with loading ramps and block-and-tackle setups visible to all. Better still, there's no intention of hiding it. Instead, Seven Hills celebrates these old buildings, using them as a canvas for the school, rather than having its buildings express only the architect's vision; and the murals, not to mention the interior walls covered with stencils and drawings and paintings by students, do give me hope that the overriding purpose here is to engage the students, and to inspire them, and to help them create their own designs.

It's an exciting prospect. I'm looking forward to getting spattered with paint.

12:57 PM

RVA Eats

This morning, as we've done pretty much every Saturday since we moved here, Kelly and I walked over to the South of the James farmers market in Forest Hill Park. We picked up goodies from a lot of our usual vendors--mushrooms at Haashrooms, eggs and a hot sourdough doughnut to split from Mrs. Yoder's, two coffees at TaZa--but once we'd loaded up with staples (including some of the best sweet peppers I've ever had, courtesy of Amy's Garden), we decided to hit the food trucks for a more substantial breakfast. In the past that has led us to try such fare as the shrimp & grits taco from Boka--totally fantastic--but today we gave the Monique's Crepes truck a try, and well, I have to say it: I was disappointed.

One problem was that the service was painfully slow; after we ordered, I think we may have stood at the window (in an increasingly hard, cold drizzle) for over fifteen minutes, and we were unquestionably there for more than ten. The cost was a little higher than you want at a food truck, too, but honestly, the crepes themselves could have made me forget all that. They did not. They weren't bad, but they were solidly mediocre, which left the service and the price weighing rather heavily in our judgment of the meal.

But as we sat in the shelter, fighting our crepes with some rather inadequate recycled flatware, I realized something: this was the first time I could recall feeling disappointed by a meal in Richmond.

Sure, not everything I've eaten here has been transcendent, but I honestly cannot recall eating anything in RVA that failed to live up to my expectations.

Mind you, I'm pretty good at setting expectations; I know what chains deliver vs. what unique restaurants deliver, and I don't expect silk purses when I belly up to a table at the Sow's Ear Diner. That was what made this such a remarkable realization: that the Richmond restaurant scene has managed to leave me a satisfied customer in essentially every situation I've encountered it, despite my wide-ranging tastes and the huge variety of situations under discussion. I've had golden anniversary and fiftieth birthday celebrations with huge groups of family members, post-show munchies with the kids, exploratory expeditions to odd corners of the map with Kelly, you name it, and I've felt great pleasure at best or solid contentment at worst in every instance before today.

So, you may ask, your salivary glands beginning to loosen up, where exactly have we eaten on these occasions?

I doubt I can make this anywhere close to exhaustive, but the list of  Richmond area restaurants where I've had at least a decent meal would include:

The Village Diner
The Camel
Foo Dog
Three Monkeys
Sticky Rice
Burger Bach
Ellwood Thompson's Deli
Carytown Burgers & Fries
Baker's Crust
Texas de Brazil
Happy Family
Doner Kebab
Ginger Thai Taste
Weezie's Kitchen
Galaxy Diner
New York Deli
Coppola's Deli
Buzz & Ned's
Chef Mamusu's
Crossroads Cafe
Bon Chon
Cafe Rustica
The Boathouse
Capital Ale House
The Answer Brewpub
Little Mexico
Joe's Inn
Thai Diner
Hibachi Sushi & Supreme Buffet
Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken
Kitchen 64
Dot's Back Inn
On the Rox
Proper Pie Co.
China Star
Strawberry Street Cafe

Throw in solid chains like Noodles & Co., Chipotle, Cook Out and such and you'll see why our dining experiences in our new home city have been, with one exception, at or above expectations. I promise we'll be happy to patronize any of these places again--and in many cases, I hope to do so many more times.

4:25 PM

The Science of Cinema

Compared to the amount of blogging I've done about music, books, comics, and sports, the amount I've written about movies must seem relatively small. To some degree, that's probably because movies generally don't loom as large in my personal pop-culture universe as the others do. I mean, music and books are something I encounter daily, while comics and sports have been fields where I've devoted insane amounts of time over long periods of my life, even if I don't pick up a copy of Swamp Thing or Astonishing X-Men whenever I go to the bathroom or check scores on ESPN every day.

Movies, though, are much more occasional. Sure, I've seen every James Bond film ever made, and I revere a classic Chuck Jones short more than a sane human being probably should, and Katharine Hepburn is still on The List even now, but I doubt I go to the theater more than a dozen times in a typical year. I watch the majority of the films I see through some other method--DVD, Netflix streaming, occasionally even an old VHS tape. And though I have taken one film criticism class (and won its Oscar pool, thanks very much) I'm not a cinephile in any true sense of the word. I don't watch a lot of foreign films, I've ignored many of the medium's classics, and there are whole genres (particularly biopics) that simply hold no interest for me. Maybe there's a reason you don't see a lot of movie talk here.

But talk is one thing that I very definitely get from movies. My conversation (not to mention my writing) is peppered with catchphrases and vocabulary gleaned from films of all sorts.
"We're gonna need a bigger boat."
"Never tell me the odds."
"Well, ain't that a geographical oddity."
"It is only wafer-thin..."
"I am shocked, shocked..."

Heck, the number of times I'll quote Ghostbusters or Airplane! in a typical day is probably in the dozens. If not for movies, I literally wouldn't sound like myself.

And that's probably true for a good many people today. Our common parlance in the past was built primarily on the rock of the Biblical allusion, with a certain well-read native of the West Country providing words, words, words. But for the modern American, these are not necessarily areas of common experience; instead, we rely on something we've all heard said by James Bond, or Michael Corleone, or Yoda. And eventually, even people who've never seen the movies begin to know the phrases, just as non-Christians and non-Shakespeare fans still say "Hallelujah" or speak of thing vanishing into thin air.

With all that cinematic information flying around, then, it's natural that any modern individual, even one who's not a serious student of film, would have a set of ten favorite movies. My particular set, however, may not be seen as exactly natural.

For one thing, the films on my list aren't set in stone. Well, to be honest, some of them are. Like a scientist considering the theory of gravity, I must allow for the possibility that new evidence MIGHT persuade me to change my mind about the validity of this long-tested theory, but I recognize that the odds of that evidence appearing are infinitesimal. So yeah, I have a top ten list, and it's possible that it may change over time, but I can say with confidence that four of the films on it are never going to be kicked off it.

DSC02767.JPGIn alphabetical order, the four permanent members of the PC Cinema Council are Brazil, Local Hero, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Raising Arizona. I've loved each of them too long and watched each of them too many times to have any doubt. Holy Grail in particular is a foundation of my speaking habits and my sense of humor, and an appropriate (usually) quote from it is never far from my forebrain. In addition to being just bloody hilarious, Raising Arizona is a fantastic exercise in storytelling and characterization, with Nicholas Cage's best performance ever holding the center. Brazil is an amazing work of imagination, where every visual pushes reality farther and farther away even as it drags the film's theme closer and closer to the viewer's life. And Local Hero remains in some ways my Platonic ideal of a movie, with gorgeous scenery, distinctive characters, sparkling dialogue, plaintive music, and a wistful, inspiring tone; there's a reason I insisted on taking Kelly to Scotland on our honeymoon.

But there are six other spots. What's in those?

Teetering right on the edge of the top five is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I love it, and when I've rewatched it I've been reminded again and again of how good it is. But I haven't seen it enough to be completely confident that it should sit at #5.

The second half of the top ten is tricky. There are movies that have had a major impact on me over decades, and movies that have given me untold delight, and movies that I quote regularly but don't actually like that much, and movies I remember loving but not enough to buy the DVD, which suggests I don't love them that much. But if I had to put five more films on the list to fill out the top ten for today, the alphabetical list would look like this:

Arsenic and Old Lace
(terrific on so many levels, but mostly just Cary Grant)
The Empire Strikes Back
(the best of the Star Wars movies, and I just can't ignore Star Wars)
(I love music, I love animation. Why wouldn't this be a favorite?)
The Man Who Would Be King
(an old-fashioned classic)
A Mighty Wind
(a movie this funny shouldn't be this touching)

That leaves a lot of favorites out--Airplane!, Blazing Saddles, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, GalaxyQuest, Ghostbusters, Gregory's Girl, The Impostors, Much Ado About Nothing, Pinocchio, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Toy Story--but they've all got a shot at rotating into the top ten at some point. As long as they bring the evidence.

11:02 AM

A Scale of Tens

Former schoolmate, former co-worker, master of fandom, self-described dilettante, and longtime friend of the blog Kevin J. Maroney (a/k/a "Womzilla") recently noted on Twitter that his reading habits have changed over the years; he compiled a list of writers with ten or more book-length works that he had read, discovering that he had explored only 16 writers to this degree. In his post-college years, however, he has been more inclined to read only a book or two by a given writer, diving more deeply into the world of comics and exploring prose in a more scattershot manner. Since graduation, only three writers have moved him to read ten or more of their books.

Curious to see if my own reading patterns were at all similar, I whipped up a list of my own, and here's what I discovered.

Ignoring comic books and comic strips (and thus the scores of titles by Alan Moore or G.B. Trudeau that I've read) and anthology-editing (which knocked George R.R. Martin and his dozen Wild Cards books off the list), I looked only at writers with ten or more book-length works that I had completed. Seventeen of them made the list:

Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy, plus Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Empire; The Gods Themselves, The End of Eternity, Asimov's Mysteries; Nightfall and Other Stories; The Best of Isaac Asimov; and probably a few more I'm forgetting.)

Ray Bradbury (R is for Rocket, S is for Space, Twice 22, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Halloween Tree, A Medicine for Melancholy, I Sing the Body Electric, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and probably others)

Orson Scott Card (The four Ender books, Ender's Shadow, the four Maps in a Mirror volumes, the five Alvin Maker books, A Planet Called Treason, Treason, Wyrms, Hart's Hope, Songmaster, maybe some others. I no longer own any of Card's books.)            

Jack L. Chalker (The five Well World books; three newer Well World books; the four Warden Diamond books; The Identity Matrix; four of the Dancing Gods books; Downtiming the Nightside; The Messiah Complex; two of the Flux & Anchor books)

Harlan Ellison (I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Deathbird Stories, The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat, Alone Against Tomorrow, Partners in Wonder, Strange Wine, Angry Candy, Shatterday, Slippage, Love Ain't Nothing but Sex Misspelled, An Edge in My Voice, Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, perhaps others)

Stephen Jay Gould (ten collections of essays from Natural History; The Mismeasure of Man; Wonderful Life; Full House; Questioning the Millennium)

Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Friday, The Number of the Beast, Job, The Past Through Tomorrow, Glory Road, Podkayne of Mars, Tunnel in the Sky, Farnham's Freehold, Starship Trooper, The Puppet Masters, Methusaleh's Children, The Door into Summer, Time Enough for Love)

Stephen King (Carrie, The Shining, The Stand, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, The Dark Half, Night Shift, Different Seasons, Cujo, Christine, It, Thinner, Misery, The Tommyknockers, Gerald's Game, Bag o'Bones, Everything's Eventual, Danse Macabre, On Writing)

Ursula K. Le Guin (the six Earthsea books; Always Coming Home, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Changing Planes, The Lathe of Heaven, Lavinia, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Word for World Is Forest, Planet of Exile, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else)

C.S. Lewis (the seven Chronicles of Narnia; Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, Till We Have Faces, Of Other Words, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity)

Julian May (the four-volume Saga of Pliocene Exile; the two volumes of Intervention; the three Galactic Milieu books; two (with the third still in progress) of the Boreal Moon Tale books)

Larry Niven (three Ringworld books; Tales of Known Space, World of Ptavvs, Protector, A Gift from Earth, Neutron Star, All the Myriad Ways, A Hole in Space, The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, The Flight of the Horse, Convergent Series, A World Out of Time, The Integral Trees, The Smoke Ring, N-Space, Playgrounds of the Mind, and collaborations including The Mote in God's Eye, Lucifer's Hammer, Footfall, Inferno, The Legacy of Heorot)

Terry Pratchett (39 Discworld books, Nation, Dodger, A Blink of the Screen, and collaborations Good Omens and The Long Earth)

Neal Stephenson (eight paperback volumes of The System of the World, though it was released in three hardback volumes; The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, Anathem)

J.R.R. Tolkien (the Lord of the Rings trilogy; The Hobbit, The Tolkien Reader, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, two volumes of The Book of Lost Tales, The Children of Hurin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

John Varley (the Gaean trilogy; The Ophiuchi Hotline, The Barbie Murders, The Persistence of Vision, Blue Champagne, Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, Millennium, Mammoth, Slow Apocalypse, Red Thunder, Red Lightning, Rolling Thunder)

Roger Zelazny (five volumes of The Chronicles of Amber; five volumes of The Second Chronicles of Amber; This Immortal; The Dream Master; Lord of Light; Creatures of Light and Darkness; Isle of the Dead; Damnation Alley; Jack of Shadows; To Die in Italbar; Doorways in the Sand; My Name Is Legion; Roadmarks; Changeling; Madwand; A Night in the Lonesome October

So: seventeen writers, most of them in the realms of science fiction and/or fantasy, most of them encountered when I was in college or beforehand. The most recent discoveries are Gould, May, Pratchett, and Stephenson; I began reading the first two in graduate school, if I recall correctly, but didn't dive into the latter two until the late 1990s.

Was anyone else close to making the list? Oh, you bet. Realistically, both Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman should be on it, as I've read dozens of stand-alone volumes and collections by each, but I've only read Moore's comics (I find his prose a bit on the slow side, in all honesty) and the non-comics Gaiman books I've read tally only seven, plus a collaboration with Pratchett and two rather brief children's books.) But I'd said I'd keep comics off, lest Trudeau (58 books, not counting Sunday collections) and Walt Kelly (25 books and counting) take over completely.

There are also plenty of writers moving close to the magic number, but who haven't gone over the top yet. With nine books each, it's only a matter of time before David Quammen and John Scalzi go over the top. Jim Crace is standing at eight, Octavia Butler at seven, Connie Willis and George R.R. Martin at six apiece, and Mike Carey and John McPhee at five each. All but Butler are still writing, but I've got a number of her works yet to open, so in a year or two we could be looking at a list of over two dozen authors. Every one of these writers, I should note, is one I've discovered in my adulthood; in fact, I came across Quammen, Scalzi, Crace, and Carey only in the 21st Century.
In short, right now my list of Deeply Read Writers is skewing powerfully toward my schooldays. That's to be expected, given that those are the days when you tend to have both the ability to focus intensely on an idea or a story and the time to devote to that intense focus. But I have to say it's been an interesting exercise, if only because I can see from the numbers just how much I have left to read, and how I can hope to discover wonderful new writers even as I get older. Thanks, Kevin.

6:09 PM


*I haven't done an LBJ post in a while, and certainly not since the move, so why not now?

*The move is effectively done. We got everything out of the house at Woodberry weeks ago, and after a couple of weeks where we couldn't bear to carry more than one item at a time up the stairs--say, a roll of wrapping paper or an umbrella--we've finally cleared out the cars as well. Mind you, I do have to go back and get my stuff out of my classroom, but I'm hoping that won't be a task that requires too much hauling. I've got books there, and posters, and some office supplies, and SOME file folders I'm going to want to keep--SOME--but it shouldn't be as brutal as cleaning out the house was.

The counterbalance for this, of course, is that the new apartment is full of stuff. A great deal of it has been unboxed and placed in proper locations, but we're a long way from done with that process. For one thing, we're going from a three-bedroom house with a finished basement, three bathrooms, and no fewer than three storage areas to a two-bedroom/one bath apartment--that means we're having to be a bit more creative with placement than we had to be in recent years. The good news is that though we now have fewer rooms, the new place has a) much larger rooms, and b) much larger closets. Each of the four non-linen closets is bigger than any of the closets we had at WFS, and the master bedroom actually has enough space that we can fit our dresser at the foot of our bed AS GOD INTENDED IT. At the moment, figuring out where to put everything is something like working out a giant Rubik's Cube, but we're getting there. I'm hopeful that we'll be ready for visitors by, say, Thanksgiving.

*Home birding has become a rather different pastime here. Because we're in a third-floor apartment overlooking a parking lot, I can't really put up any of my feeders. My new yard list (which consists of anything I see while standing in the apartment complex--four buildings and the parking areas/grassy areas that lie between & around them) stands at a mere baker's dozen after over a month here--and four of those are birds I've only heard and not seen. Granted, the former group includes both Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, both of which obligingly flew overhead, and the latter includes Barred Owl and Pileated Woodpecker calls, but the quantity is on the low side. That's why I've got a second list going for anything I see across the street--in Forest Hill Park. This expanse of grass, trees, lakeshore and riverside (if you follow the creek down to the adjoining James River Park) is an incredibly rich and varied ecosystem, and it's rumored to be the best place in Richmond for spring warblers. It's certainly host to plenty of nesting birds in the summer; I've got 35 species there so far, including Acadian Flycatcher, Great Blue Heron, Eastern Wood-pewee, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Orchard Oriole, and Osprey. Still, my daily summer birds now are House Sparrows, European Starlings, and American Robins, rather than the Indigo Buntings, American Goldfinches, and Eastern Phoebes of the countryside. Ah, well.

*I can't recall which blogger it was who made the somewhat controversial suggestion that everyone should take a year to read only books by women and non-white men, but it was an idea I found at least potentially interesting. The hard part would be giving up the work of some of my favorite white-guy writers for twelve long months, but the benefits would be enormous: I'd get to read plenty of some other favorite writers--Le Guin, Wharton, Byatt, Rushdie, Ishiguro--and I'd be motivated to explore the works of a lot of other people whose work I haven't yet read--James Baldwin, N.K. Jemesin, Barbara Tuchman. In the end I didn't consciously commit to the plan, but as I look at my reading list, I find that I may have done so unconsciously. Seven of the last nine works I've finished have been non-white-guy-created, including such winners as Castle Hangnail, Ursula Vernon's terrific YA fantasy about a young girl who wants to be a wicked witch and run a haunted castle, or Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, Lucy Knisley's delightful comics memoir of her upbringing among the foodies of North America. I'm finishing up a fantasy trilogy by Ms. Julian May right now, but after that, if I can't get my hands on Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, I may dive into The Sculptor, the latest graphic novel by Scott McCloud. I've met Scott, and I can confirm that he's a white guy, but I'm not going to hold that against him.

*I've been teaching my students about certain subjects for a long while now, and one such subject is the Confederate Battle Flag. I do so using a fairly simple process: to show them what the Flag stands for, I have them look at the words written by those who first raised that flag--the Confederate States themselves. When the South Carolina legislature voted to be the first state to secede from the Union, it declared its reasons for doing so openly; Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and other states did likewise. And those declarations state, with no real lack of clarity, that the stimulus provoking this drastic response was slavery.

You don't have to take my word for it, though. You can read those declarations for yourself right here.

A few quotes that may stand out for you:

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world." -- second sentence of the Mississippi declaration of secession

"For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery." -- second sentence of the Georgia declaration of secession

"A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery." -- South Carolina declaration of secession, issued three months before Lincoln's inauguration

"We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states." -- Texas, pushing not just for slavery, but for white supremacy, in its declaration of secession

In short, you may choose to fly the Confederate flag for reasons other than racism if you like, but any reasonable observer who views it as a racist symbol has history on his side, and will be likely to view you as a racist for flying it. If that bothers you, you may wish to reconsider flying it; if it doesn't bother you to be viewed as a racist by reasonable observers, well, maybe it should.

*Speaking of my old job, if anyone knows of a job that can be done in Richmond or done FROM Richmond, I'd be happy to hear about it. Drop me a line at if you like.

*I'm not really motivated yet to write about next year's presidential election, but I can't help noting that Donald Trump, who leads the GOP field in several polls, is pretty much already in what Bill Simmons used to call "the Tyson Zone." That zone, named after the former heavyweight champ and sometime ear-biter, is the residence of any celebrity about whom ANY story, no matter how outrageous, has at least momentary plausibility. If you heard that Mike Tyson was caught at the Sydney airport trying to smuggle a cocaine-filled, fifteen-foot taxidermied salt-water crocodile to the U.S., you'd have to consider that it might actually be true. At this point, if I saw on the web that Trump had walked into a bar, dropped his trousers, and rubbed his naked hindquarters in the face of a Mexican-American busboy, I'd have to at least spend a few minutes researching it before I dismissed it as a hoax. Needless to say, I had no trouble believing that he'd criticize John McCain for having been captured and imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton for five years. No, what I found hard to believe was that a number of Republicans--among them Bobby Jindal, Bill Kristol, and Rick Perry--dared to criticize Trump for running down the reputation of a war hero. They certainly didn't seem upset when their fellow GOP members were doing it to John Kerry a few years ago.

*My dad recently bought me the most expensive beer he'd ever purchased. That happened partly because when I asked him to buy it for me, I didn't expect it to come in giant 22-ounce bottles. I also didn't expect him to buy me THREE of those bottles. Still, the contents more than lived up to the hype, and I'd have to call Starpoint Brewing's Whiskeytown milk stout one of the best beers to cross my palate recently. Brewed with chocolate malt flavoring and milk sugar, and aged in retired bourbon barrels, it's got a heady aroma and an aftertaste that's almost as tart as a cola, but it's smooth and tasty in the extreme. It runs about ten bucks a bottle and isn't easy to find, but if you're in the Triangle area, keep your eyes peeled.

*That novel thing? I'm working on a new draft. Since it's a combination of brand-new stuff and previously written stuff, it's a bit hard to say exactly how far I've gotten with it, but I hope to keep at it until I get, y'know, employed or something. I'll keep you posted.

10:06 PM


I'm currently sitting at a table at my local cafe--for a revised definition of "local"--enjoying a brunch on this, the first day I don't have to drive back to Madison County to get more stuff out of the old house.


Life is good.

12:06 PM

The Way We Live Now

A few changes:

We're in a third-floor walkup apartment, sans kids.
We're down to two bedrooms and one bath.
There's a coffee shop within two blocks of us.
Next door to it is an African/Caribbean restaurant.
A bit beyond that is a convenience store, a bike shop, and a garage--all within easy walking distance.
Across the street from us is one of Richmond's best and least crowded parks.
At the far side of the park, about half a mile away, is the James River.
If we go a dozen blocks west, we find a pizzeria, a Chinese restaurant, and an Irish pub.
Near that are a library, a comics store, and an Italian restaurant.
We're a bit more than a mile from a bridge into downtown RVA, and we can be on Cary Street in under ten minutes.

I think I could get used to this.

9:03 PM


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