Android Dreams & Eclectic Sheep

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We watched Altered Carbon on Netflix and honestly, it’s hitting all my buttons.

What can I say, I’m a cheap date.

A lot of the criticisms I’ve been seeing of it are pretty valid in terms of how the visuals are, at times, drawing away from the narrative, although my counter to that would primarily be in that, being a very by-the-books noir mystery (again, my jam), the story’s sorta wild and thin by default. Chandler stories aren’t the most linear and he’s the gold standard as far as I’m concerned. There’s also the criticism of the sexualized violence as well, though for that I tend to default and defer to this essay that talks about similar things in TV’s GAME OF THRONES, on the sad inevitability of sexual violence in settings that are built upon patriarchal structures.

I will concur that there’s a huge untapped field to play with in a critical and narrative sense around the story’s usage of body-swapping in both a dysmorphic and racial way, because so much of Altered Carbon is touching on the hell that capitalist posthumanism has ultimately created. It’s not the wild fantasy elements of sci-fi, but rather the mind-numbing mundanity of it as your reality, another standardized but (for many) out-of-reach-financially aspect of everyday life. Ghost In the Shell in its various incarnations (barring the recent live-action movie, which I refuse to watch) does a great job with this, personally. I wish Altered Carbon did more with the elements we’re seeing here in terms of how people adjust to and struggle with their new and/or unfamiliar bodies, sometimes when put there seemingly against their will.

Ultimately, a lot of the sci-fi falls away in this in favor of the murder-mystery aspects and the overall attempts at noir, which works in a variety of ways;

  1. It’s really messy. I love older classic murder-mystery stuff but the narratives tend to be secondary to the storytelling/language, which means that you end up with scattered and messy stories. Altered Carbon embraces this with a completley-ramshakle and bonkers story that ties a minute thread from the beginning of the story to the ending as a lichpin to the whole thing, in a way I’m still thinking about. I feel like I have to go back through the story to make sure I got it all, because the symbolism (albeit heavy-handed at times) replicates the written language, forming an aesthetic and impressions rather than a tight linear narrative.
  2. The violence and casual prejudice is awful, subversive, and entirely necessary. The big complaint I’ve seen about the show is how it treats women, with most of the victims of violence in this story being female and/or sex workers. However, a big element of cyberpunk/sci-fi that I find important to maitnaining the genre’s definitions is to highlight the cornball but necessary “the more things change, the more things stay the same” trope. No matter what, and especially moreso in a Westernized world where physical is secondary, arbitrary cruelness to women will be inevitable, if not moreso magnified.

It’s not perfect, by any means. A lot is missing that could have further fleshed out some interesting points about the “post-racial” implications of a world where bodies can be swapped, and there’s the quest of the AI hotel to understand humanity and to make actual deep connections, something that “Poe” seems to struggle with but doesn’t quite get why until right to the end, tragically. I’d have loved to see more of the AIs considering the immense implications of their existence and their seemingly-ultimate dismissal as a fad in the face of physical immortality.

I’m also a little fascinated at the implications of the “Meths” as being characters right out of a Dan Simmons novel, post-humans on the edge of godhood and the implications of that. Still, as a down-n-dirty cyberpunk story that hits a lot of William Gibson buttons in my brain, I really enjoyed it. It’s one end of the cyberpunk spectrum in fully throwing itself into the visual aesthetic that’s rooted heavily in posthumanism, issues regarding authoritarianism and violence, and how little the world seems to change no matter how far forward we go, which to me is an important element of cyberpunk and science fiction.

And then…there’s Blade Runner 2049.

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I haven’t watched the original Blade Runner in a very long time. I first saw it after I’d read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the novellas that inspired the film, albeit-loosely, back in high school at some point. However, going into this I vaguely knew that there was no real need for that, because (in this weird case sort of ironically) the film uses cyberpunk in the same way that the original one did, an arguably unique lens that’s at an intensely-far spectrum spot;

Blade Runner 2049‘s cyberpunk dystopia, similar to the one of the original, posits not an overrun and exaggerated version of our present world (the model a lot of cyberpunk borrows from in taking basic surface pointers from William Gibson’s early work) but rather, a dying one. The world of 2049 is a dying one, and human beings are simply going through the motions of a former “golden age” (if anything like that ever exist for them), the planet inexorably crawling towards death. It’s highlighted a lot more in the original book, but the obvious implications are that the Earth is unsaveable and that colony/extra-solar life is the only way that the species can sustain itself long-term. While the neon of the signs is just as bright, rather than act as a smokescreen, it’s a glaringly-obvious reminder of the frailty and futility of pretty much anything.

Altered Carbon, for better or worse, is noir-ish through andt hrough, but Blade Runner 2049, to me, hinges less on that and more on an understanding that it’s a film about a conversation relatedt o existence. Existential dread is arguably a more Lovecraftian struggle, but science fiction has a great viewpoint to examine the fears and ideas that consume us when we aren’t even certain of our own selves. K, in BR2049, exists in a constant state of the razor’s edge over his own physical existence and ownership of self, because (and I didn’t know this going into the film) he’s a replicant that hunts and kills other replicants. He lives in a state of actively knowing how limited his life is, conscious of the blocks and barriers that keep him from actively lying, as well as the overall state of how precarious his existence is due other humans (and also in comparison to what seems like the touch of power that other replicants have brushed against as either rebels with higher senses of purpose…or as the brute-physical manifestation of the will of the humans who are after the hybrid. When the challenges form cracks in his odd state of not-quite-dread (something the film depicts well, a sense of sadness but also, in the beginning, nihilistic acceptance), it’s ground-shaking.

Nihilism being challenged by existential questions are the root of the story and atmosphere of BR2029, which is why even though it’s just as (arguably moreso) cyberpunk than Altered Carbon, people felt more comfortable in the familiar embrace of future-version-of-mystery that AC offered, compared to the honest and deep er questions about the judgement of living beings as nonhuman, the usage of them as workforce against their own “kind,” and whether acknowledging they’re a “kind” and not a “tool” can make us guilty of forcing a people (replicants) to have to grapple with our own existential weight as we allow our surrender to slow extinction to taint us.

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Young, Loud, and Scotty

The first time I taught was in 2010, during a summer session of a college where a family member worked and got me a gig. I was an adjunct faculty member, literally a month out of graduate school with an MA in literary theory, a thesis on science-fiction, and a few punk- and pop-culture-related publications under my belt.

It went terribly.

No one wants to be in class during summer sessions, especially for a 6-9pm class on Thursday nights being taught by an absolute first-timer. I’d kinda bullshitted about knowing how to do any “real” technical writing when I sat down for the informal interview with the department chair before the semester started (I’ve since done some actual real tech writing gigs…after that first class) so I was teaching Intro to Technical Writing. I got a stock syllabus, a faculty email address, a copy of the textbook, and a calendar of when grades were due. That’s basically it, no guidance, no tips or tricks, just…”You’ll do fine, email me if you have any questions!”

Incidentally, that was the inspiration ultimately for this project, but anyway…

I tried way too hard to be amicable and liked, I was barely a week ahead of them lesson-wise, and I constantly struggled to fill a three-hour block of time when I had almost no experience with the material. I was nervous, I tried to be the “nice teacher,” I just was not doing well at it at all. I don’t remember specifics but it couldn’t have been more than a dozen students, and I could barely manage it all.

And…here we are now, eight yeas later. Last semester I had around 150 or 160 students throughout six classes, and I have a similar number this term. I’m the unofficial faculty member covering classic world literature at one campus (I’ve done this class three, four times in a row so far?) and have been tutoring, workshopping, and lecturing to students on a range of stuff from literature, nonfiction, composition, and how to write research papers and essays at the college level for a living for a while now. I’ve had parents, soldiers, retirees, people right out of high school, people from where I grew up and people from across the planet as students, and all of them, in some way, have been interesting people. I had a crazy Fox News-watching mom who said she was related to Johnny Cash and was sad school didn’t allow her to open-carry on campus (this wasn’t in New York). One student took classes I was teaching 3 times, and every time he never remembered who I was, assuming I was new. There were people who pestered and harassed me over “owing them” a passing grade, and people who told me that I helped them understand and feel confident about building their communication skills. Even at their laziest and worst, they were and are, my students.

For a period of time I also taught middle and high schoolers, the youngest 12 going on 13.

That was a two-year trial by fire, because as I learned, teaching kids in high school and middle school is completely different from teaching people (even teenagers) in a college setting. I came out of that with a lot of baggage but also a whole new bag of tricks in terms of classroom management and lesson planning. Those kids drove me absolutely fucking bonkers, infuriated me constantly, tested every raw nerve I’d ever had, both through their gentle monstrosity and purposeful malevolence.

They were also, at times, some of the most unsure and sensitive kids I’d ever encountered, full of plans for the future, full of plans for that weekend, and even some of the legitimately-shitty ones had times when I was genuinely proud and happy for them. Some of them got letters of recommendation for colleges from me, and every single one of those letters were glowing. I even re-did one for a student who lost the first one I did for her the day it was due, because I knew how much it meant to her.

She got into the college of her first choice, and I’m glad. One of them caught me last year on the subway, and I was shocked to see this awkward shy boy I’d known having turned into a fucking confident young man over the span of a year away from me, singing my praises to my face (this was after I stopped teaching there, for a reason you’d have to get from me in meatspace). All of them, even the bad ones, they were my students.

This also the first time I started to get asked about what I’d do if “something happened” in the school. Or the classroom. You know…like a shooting.

It’s a depressing fucking thing to get asked by high schoolers with a head full of questions but also an extremely limited sense of just how blunt they can be. I don’t remember what caused it, or which particular class asked about it, but they did, and it put me on the spot.

Later on when I started teaching college exclusively again, it came up. Faculty, on our first day back one semester at the traditional breakfast, were told that the day’s meetings this year were being supplemented with a “special safety presentation.” It was some NYPD and Homeland Security-types, on how we should think and respond if a gunman stormed the campus going room-to-room.

I hated it. I hated the fucking necessity of it, I hated having to take notes, I hated having to pay attention because as much as I wanted to ignore it, I couldn’t. Because apparently, that’s the thing now. That’s the thing that we have to talk about. Not how little money people like me make compared to the amount of work we do, how we do this work that ultimately puts us either in the spotlight or on a problematic pedestal that’s a backhanded complement. Not how the industry is constantly attacked and belittled and treated like a joke, like those who do it are failures in any other field. But how we’re “heroes.”

No one should have to be a hero. No one should have to think about how quickly they can run across a classroom, hit the lights, get everyone to shut up, and try to silently slide furniture across the floor to barricade the door, and herd everyone into a far corner away from an angle of the window in the door.

By the way, most schools don’t let us lock a classroom door from the inside.

I don’t know what the point of this all is, really. I hate talking about these sort of events when they happen because it can create a weird sense of pointless rage in me, trigger-happy bad decisions by me, and are such minefields for students and teachers to talk about in the classroom. Then of course the debates surrounding “arming teachers” come up, the arguments about having armed guards, about how teachers who die are the real heroes, teachers who get shit on by parents and people criticizing how liberal colleges are or whatever, but now that the people who are in my field are dead, they’re martyrs, easy heroes who have no complex needs that you have to address.

I just don’t know. I don’t know what would happen if “something happened” to any of them, at any time, and I hate that people go out of their way so that I have to think about that sometimes.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 4; THE CARDINAL OF THE KREMLIN by Tom Clancy

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Hey, we’re back!

This is such a “parent book.” Of all the books and authors I as a young teen I swiped from my parents to read, Tom Clancy books were the most “parent”-y. The cliche is of course that Clancy books are the only fiction books that suburban (white) dads read because everything else they consume is nonfiction about WW2 and the Cold War, which is partially true. I mean, think about what it is that they embody ultimately, which is American exceptionalism. It’s the veneer of extralegal operations in the name of greater “good” that inevitably always reflects and reinforces American interests both at home and abroad, and a general disdain for structures that stand in the way of “the right thing” like soft indecisive liberalism, corrupt politicians that are inevitably portrayed as hiding behind some kind of faux-populist veneer. Of course, being a stupid moron at that age, I ate them up. And as a 30-something now critically wading his way through nostalgia whenever the mood strikes, I still…sorta look back on them fondly?

I wrote about Tom Clancy’s impact on me and my family briefly when he died in 2013. I think out of all the writers that I was exposed to because of my habit of filching my parents’ books as a kid, Tom Clancy was the one I immediately remembered and recognized as “famous,” because there were also all the movies. About the time I first read his stuff, like The Cardinal of the Kremlin, stuff like Clear And Present Danger and  Patriot Games (starring Harrison Ford as Clancy’s creation of Jack Ryan) was in movie form and on TV, so I was watching Clancy on the screen too. Because of all this, it was so strange to find out he’d actually passed away, and then having to actively come to terms with the fact that he was probably the first writer I’d read that would make me think about the “separate the writer from the writing” dilemma (what with him being a fairly notorious neocon pro-military type and me being a godless liberal red scumbag).

But, like baseball and making fun of my aunts at family gatherings, Clancy books like this one (which involves the torture and interrogation of someone using sensory deprivation to make them think their body is paralyzed so they go into an existential crisis and spill state secrets, which at the time was one of the most depressingly-scary things I’d read at the time) are one of the things that I have that connect me to my dad.

My father and I have a weird relationship (which I struggle to try to describe because I’m not entirely comfortable talking about it in terms of what should be private and what I should talk about to try and get off my chest), in that he was the “cool” parent (compared to my mother the lawkeeper), and the older I get, more and more people tell me I’m like in terms of humor and mannerisms. I don’t think he’s ever really understood his older son, who grew up quiet and kinda wimpy and emotionally stunted, preferring to read and skateboard and be alone. Also, I’ve never really done much more talking-wise with him other than casual conversations about work, school, and bills. But we’ve had baseball and movies, and even though we’re not necessarily a family that “discusses what we’re reading” (despite being a family of voracious readers…we’re people who read for fun, not for dinner-table or party conversation), we’ve had books.

I think my dad’s openness with letting me read any of those books of his the closest bond we’ve ultimately had, because even beyond just Tom Clancy, my dad is the one who ultimately let me me know it was OK to read “adult” books, stuff with  nudity and explicit violence. He also gave me some Indiana Jones novelization the was very much in the vein of the pulps that inspired it (Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils by Rob MacGregor, after a quick Google search) that I remember 12- or 13-year old me being initially mortified at discovering having sex described in it.

Those shift moments when you go from “kid stuff” to “adult things” are intensely subjective and personal, honestly. It’s also hard to talk about them at times if you’re uncomfortable with discussing seemingly-taboo topics like sex, sexual attraction, and the shallowness of our attractions to those topics (i.e. reading books just for the dirty parts, which is coming up in this misshapen excuse of a “series”, I promise). Who wants to admit that some of the books you remember fondly from your childhood or teenage years are the ones that finally introduced you to graphic violence, or to depictions of sex that were early forays to masturbatory material for those who didn’t immediately have access to porn?

They, like so many adult things you gravitate towards, are hidden, secret at times, the books I’d hid in a corner of my bedroom as I read them. To get that “Yeah, it’s OK” when I (for some stupid guilty reason, who knows) asked my dead if it was fine for me, a kid, to be given stuff like this to read, it was life-changing, honestly. I’d been encouraged to read controversial work before (both my parents encouraged me to read the usual spate of 70’s/80’s/90’s “controversial” young adult Newberry Medal winners, stuff touching on death, bullying, and racism like Maniac Magee, and of course classics like Huckleberry Finn and Where The Red Fern Grows), but this…felt different. This wasn’t serious stuff for kids, this was an Adult Thing.

Ultimately, the more I think about it the more I realize that my dad never really treated me like a little kid, and was more than willing to let me completely fuck up to learn a lesson, which is just as good as anything I’ve gotten from anyone else as a gift. It’s just taken me a bit of time to figure out what it was there, and that it was something to appreciate.

Tweed Elbow Patches ‘N All

So I was going to apply for PhD candidacy this year (literally applications were due the first of January) but decided not to for a variety of reasons related to being in my 30s and working full-time.

Part of the application asked for a writing sample and since I didn’t have any “current” academic writing, I randomly spent last year working on a short academic paper. I’m not gonna shop it around anywhere, but I like it, so I‘m hosting it as a free, Creative Commons-licensed download to read at the site I have set up as a portfolio of my teaching/academic work (that I don’t really mention a lot because it’s mostly static, but whatever).

Anyway, if you’d like to read a short and hopefully non-boring academic paper about comic books and crime fiction, you can get it here.

I hope I did all the APA stuff right, I honestly pulled most of it from memory rather than double-check the formatting, but since I ended up not submitting it I think I’ll be OK.

The medium of comics has been commonly viewed through a pop-culture lens, keeping it for the most part considered an illegitimate and “childish” medium of literature that tends to be viewed as a genre, not a form of storytelling. This mistake in reading and in appreciation has been corrected over time, with comics being viewed more and more in the past few decades as a serious literary form for storytelling. What this means is that just like prose or poetry, literary theory can be applied to take the medium apart and to look at the stories that can be told. We can apply “framing” as a way to break down and critically read crime comics to not only look at how the graphic storytelling medium tells effective crime and mystery stories, but it also how framing allows to interweave personal and non-“mystery” stories within the larger narrative, with multiple levels telling multiple stories at the same time to get to multiple conclusions.

Comics has always existed as a literary medium that employs framing, albeit in a literal sense, with panel borders creating both clearly-defined borders for the sequential elements but also lines that help to tell the story through helping the reader establish story beats. They are, literally, guiding lines.

“a ride home and a couple days of sleep…”

So I’ve been writing recently about the impacts and memories of specific books from my teenage years, in particular the various paperbacks I tended to read a lot that were borrowed or swiped from my parents and other older family members. It’s odd though because, as someone mentioned online recently in a casual question, it made me think about why I’m choosing those books at all. A lot of them are not that great, or I just haven’t read in a long time and honestly don’t know if I ever will.

The question I saw floating online was what was one of the first books to truly make you fall in love with reading and…I can’t say. I honestly don’t remember, and I don’t know if it’s just because my brain can’t stretch that far back, or if it’s because I don’t think there was one book that “made” me a reader. I’ve always been a reader, and I think it’s because of narratives. In particular, it was about how I saw my own “narrative.”

We tend to view our personal narratives as the stories of our lives, but in a way we’re also thinking about how we make decisions and end up with experiences in those narratives. Our narratives are so intensely personal, but also heavily molded by our experiences, creating this symbiotic relationship where we test the limits of our control of that narrative, compared to the subconscious influences on it from outside forces.

Honestly, I don’t think I ever felt that as a kid.

I don’t think that, as a young kid and later on as a teenager, that I actually had any sort of control of my narrative. I had friends but not a lot of them, and mostly in a casual way, I had interests but not ones that made me “me” in any way (except probably for punk rock, which is more of a thing of seeking out your tribe, but who wants to hear another white guy talk about that over and over although I’ve been reminded that since I’ve been thinking about him again, Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned is the best expression that I’ve been able to relate to), and I felt like I was a constant state of anxious uncertainty in terms of what I could do, what I couldn’t do, what I couldn’t bring myself to do, and where I was even going. There’s a very specific memory of being 16 or so and realizing that the low-grade gut pain that I associated with uncertainty was gone and that I couldn’t remember when I’d last felt it but that I’d somehow been feeling it for years almost constantly.

Being 16 was an interesting year.

Books though? Books already had a pre-defined narrative. It was a narrative that I could immerse myself in and, temporarily, not have to worry about my own. I didn’t have to lament about the state of my own direction because I was so heavily invested in the direction of someone else, a whole cast of other people at times. Maybe it was some sort of early pre-aware appreciation for metaphor and symbolism in literature, but more likely, it was just what I tend to tell people when we talk about the love of reading;

As a kid, I read to escape. I didn’t seek or particularly appreciate work that had to do with people similar to me (young adult work, books about teens aimed at teens, etc) because I already knew, deep down, about stuff like that, even if I wasn’t particularly aware of the minutiae of my parents worrying about work and bills, about bullying being symptomatic of other things, of what my own struggles with fitting in meant. Hence my immersion in fantasy, science fiction, and horror, to get to stories that addressed things that could take me away from my own lack of control over my own story.

In reading, I knew that I didn’t have to worry about my own anxiety and awkwardness about figuring out what I needed to do in order to not come across like a weirdo desperate for friends and peer approval. I was both above that in being the viewer of the narrative, but also had that-preset awareness by following the protagonist, written by someone with (to my mind) far better expressive capacity and also, better social skills.

I’m sure this isn’t a unique feeling, but until recently I don’t think I’ve ever been able to really articulate it before, a problem I’ve noticed when it comes to trying to talk and write about WHY certain things resonate for me. This tends to make me oddly-cranky when coming across others’ explanations for why they like or connect with the same things I do, and finding that their connections either don’t make any sense to me, or just seem to be trite and too-perfectly framed in their explanation, even though thinking that just makes that uncertainty and anxiety flare up again, a fear that I’m just too hard on others who are expressing their love for things in far more eloquent ways than me. After all, a lovely side-effect of this fear surrounding your own narrative is imposter syndrome.

“Surely they can express themselves better in their love of books because they’re better writers, they’re better educators, they’re more into it and truly love it, I’m just some dumb asshole who stumbled into this and perpetually lives on the benevolent blindness of others to not recognize my fraudulence”…or something like that. And while I tend to go through this cycle every couple of months when it comes to my job (“imposter syndrome” is fairly common in academia), it’s a weird feeling to have it rear its face when it comes to just expressing why I love to read.

Ultimately, in my mid-30’s nowadays I’m far more confident in my personal narrative in general, so this is just a collection of passing thoughts about how people seem to express their own influences and inspirations these days. This idea that there are singular moments or items/experiences that trigger these changes in personality surrounding media is just such an odd one for me, because in my experience and in the experiences of people around me, it’s both far bigger and far more opaque and hazy.

Every start of something in my life that’s made me me is a haze. A haze of books and reading experiences made me a reader, a haze of friends and musical exposure made me love punk music, a haze of so many things made me a fan of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy…it’s all a haze of mixed experiences in my narrative. Sometimes those hazes can be good things, and we just look back on them and figure out how to express it as best we can.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 3; THE CHAMBER by John Grisham

Who the hell let me read this book?md20482718725

Yet another “claimed from my parents” read, this was my first exposure to Grisham (I ended up working my way backwards into his body of work from this point) and it’s still a really odd work. Ignoring the kinda ridiculous movie that came out of it with Gene Hackman, The Chamber by John Grisham is an incredibly dark path to let a 14-year-old brain down.

Basically a young and naive lawyer who just graduated from law school allows himself to get drawn into the last-ditch appeals of a KKK member on death row, about to be executed for the deaths of several young children during a church bombing at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Grisham was, at the time to an impressionable young reader, incredibly good at capturing what I thought the South would be like (and my limited exposure has sort of reinforced) of being incredibly hot and intensely slow in a metaphorical and spiritual sense (in that the hectic thrum that I, a garbage northerner from New York, consider the standard of energy for a metropolitan area is far too much and all wrong in how one conducts oneself).

There’s the obligatory horrific family secrets and some level of odd closure about broken families you expect from sad books like this, there’s some action, crooked politicians, and what I identified as something Grisham held in a unique regard, lots of drinking.

Alcohol is so pervasive in this book in my mind. Everyone drinks constantly, and for some reason I associated it with being a lawyer, that the stress of this righteous job would make you dive into the sacred blur of alcohol to escape the harsh world you deigned throw yourself into willingly. Of course nowadays I can look back on those memories of reading that and realized it was just Grisham’s reinforcement of the white Southern moneyed “good ol’boys club” mentality where alcohol and complaining are the standards of behavior, rather than legitimate coping mechanisms.

Still, I’m pretty sure this was the summer I first tried alcohol. To get drunk, that is.

I’m the grandchild of immigrants, part of a large extended family with heavy roots in Eastern Europe. Alcohol’s a huge part of the culture, and letting small kids nip from the dinner table during celebrations is pretty standard. Summertime when you’ve got a family background like mine is basically being cut loose for the most part all day and most of the evenings, which means that young teenage Costa first started to experiment with getting drunk.

Honestly, there’s a lot I don’t remember, and not in a “ha ha I was so drunk” way. I just…don’t remember stuff, or remember it poorly (it’s partially why I’m so hesitant to do more personal essays). There’s a nice chunk between 14 and 16 that’s mostly a blur, honestly. It’s a lot of introduction to punk rock, reading books because I didn’t have a lot of friends, experimenting with drinking, and occasionally bursting into fights with other kids (fights I usually lost) because I kept constantly stuffing rage inward over dumb stuff I couldn’t tell what it was now. It’s strange to think about how some people can mine their pasts with such regular clarity and confidence in those memories. I honestly don’t know why I just can’t seem to remember certain times beyond just the vague impressions they left on me. Dates elude me, and the cloud of personal prejudices and perspectives also make me terrified that I’ll just never tell the “right” version of a story and be obviously corrected by someone. It’s honestly easier to just work on fiction sometimes, to write my own The Chamber rather than try to remember that specific summer I spent reading this book.

But I remember stealing beers at family events, and I remember a big public thing while visiting family in Greece for a whole village by the ocean, being drunk on the beach thinking everything was super-fucking funny. Who knows what I was thinking about? Maybe it was this book, and thinking in some way, that me being drunk and waxing poetic on the two or three beers I’d downed (I was a super-small kid and a skinny teenager so I was a real lightweight) made me just as deep as I thought the protagonist of this book was in that one scene where he thinks deep thoughts about his messed-up family or whatever was going on in the book or that particular scene. Southern gothic novels feel like they’re full of nothing but messed-up families and lots of drinking, so it’s possible that in his own way, Grisham was continuing the tradition?

Probably not. If anything, it’s probably just what I thought, the reflection of his own upbringing and his own background work- and social-wise as a liberal Southerner who worked in law but was still heavily-immersed in his own boy’s club world. Which isn’t to say Grisham is necessarily a bad person (from what I understand he’s fairly liberal, involved with stuff like The Innocence Project, workers’ rights, and calls for prison reform), but the characters in his books, in particular the legal thriller ones, clearly reflect his previous lives working in politics and law and the privilege that comes with those kinds of lives.

Still, for a teenager looking to try and bridge that weird wobbly bridge between being a kid and being an adult and really only had books to guide him, I have a weird place in my heart for Grisham’s books. This book and his previous work, A Time To Kill, are rife with racism, the history of post-Reconstruction Southern states, and the overarching theme of how dangerous but necessary things like digging up the past and pushing past the uncomfortable to get to the truth can be.

It’s odd to think that depressing legal thrillers read during sun-drenched summer afternoons about the legacy of the Klan are such a huge part of my youth. If anything though, I managed to learn a lot about how the death penalty worked in the US thanks to this book, which made me a big hit with punk girls at parties and outdoor stoops bumming cigarettes, trying to impress each other.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 2; “Mind Prey” by John Sandford

[UNSET]

You bet I’ve got more of these. I was one of those annoying kids who raided their parents’ book stashes, after all.

I liked doing the last one of these because saying it out loud (or rather, typing it) makes me realize how bizarre so many of these kinda books really were, and how reading them as a teenager instead of whatever YA books my parents periodically got me, like Where The Red Fern Grows or whatever (which is a great book, but not the point here).

This book is kinda fucked up, the more I think about it.

John Sandford is actually writer/journalist John Camp, writing under a pseudonym. He’s another one of those glossy paperback mystery/cop thriller writers I picked up from my parents’ stashes of books. I carted this one back to New York from overseas to finish school in America. Or maybe I found it among my dad’s leftovers in my grandma’s house. It’s one in a series involving Sandford’s police detective character of Lucas Davenport (portrayed on TV by both Eriq La Salle and Mark Harmon, respectively), another one of the gimmicky Holmes-esque badasses that populate these sort of novels. Davenport is a gun collector, a crack shot, a scarred badass with a bevy of sexual conquests, and is somehow ALSO independently wealthy because he makes RPGs and runs a video game company (and from what I remember, Sandford/Camp actually did his research is knowing how to describe the terminology and mechanics of how stuff works). Davenport’s basically every nerd’s wet dream rolled up with the standard hardass cop of these types of books.

Liberal but not valueless in that way that neocons and people with pro-cop bumper stickers disdain, he’s a man of action. His vices are masculine and coded as cool. He represents law and order, but also bucks the system to both overcome bureaucratic red tape AND corruption (a prevailing theme in a lot of these sorta books). Yeah he makes video games and isn’t a raging racist, but his tolerance and empathy is limited because of the near-vigilantism that he tends to embody (that most fictional law enforcement tends to, in general), skirting with breaking the law because sometimes laws and social niceties just “get in the way”.

You know exactly what kind of literary character I’m talking about. While the root is older, the 80’s and 90’s are rife with these types, part of what’s now obviously a weird shift in how we depicted law enforcement in fiction to foster a positive “lone wolf” sort of vibe, making it “cool.” In a way, Sanford, like a lot of other guys, took Robert Parker’s Spenser to the next seemingly-natural stage (at least to me). Davenport is, for a large chunk of the books, a bachelor, and even in the author’s own words is kind of a sociopath with few real connections to the world around him other than the job. That is, in reality, not a good person, and definitely not the kind of person you really ant as an actual cop. In fiction, on the other hand? Especially escapist detective/neo-noir/suspense paperbacks?

Anyway this book, Mind Prey, is actually one of the first times I think I read a book that was really explicit in depictions of sexual violence (it’s about a serial rapist/killer kidnapping a woman and her daughter) and, thinking back on it, it’s kind of jarring and disturbing (though a lot of these books, not just Sandford’s, thinking back on it, cover a lot of horrific and very brutal crimes…William Diehl comes to mind). And what’s even weirder is that somehow, I ended up doing a report on this book in high school for my 11th-grade English class on “classic detective novels”.

The teacher for that class was the personification of the “cool high school English teacher” trope. His class was fun (I read Sherlock Holmes in his classroom), we got to laugh and joke but also do work that we (or at least I remember) liked. He was one of the chaperones for the senior prom (which I went to for some reason, and was miserable at, but that’s another story) and the common belief was that since he (and several other teachers) had been there for a couple of hours before students showed up, he was mostly drunk as shit (he acted it). He was a “cool teacher” (something my school had a bit of a problem with but…again, another story) For our final project, let us do weird reports about readings from class or that we’d found on our own. I, being a dweeb, used Mind Prey. I did some faux-profile of the antagonist and compared him to some other characters from some other readings we’d done in class. It wasn’t the best assignment honestly, and to this day I think I got by mostly because I picked a reading that wasn’t one of the in-class ones, which counts for a lot.

I wonder sometimes what happened to him. I occasionally have a dread feeling about trying to look up teachers I admired in high school, because there’s a part of me that is definitely thinking “shit, if it turns out he was some kind of abusive or predatory weirdo I’m gonna be sad”. I saw him once wandering around my old neighborhood near the school when I was 19 or 20, and was briefly tempted to yell out a hi, but of course, awkwardness and that perpetual fear he didn’t remember who I was kicked in. Sometimes too, I think about just how “cool” a teacher he was, and if it was just a mask for something worse that my privilege protected me from. I know that’s a pretty bleak outlook to have, but really, I feel like deep down it’s not an unfair assumption to have as a possible scenario.

A cursory Google search shows me that this teacher isn’t at that school anymore, and I don’t have a yearbook or anything laying around to get his first name and do a more thorough look (they, like a lot of my stuff from high school, is scattered around my parents’ house on bookshelves and in boxes). I still think about that class and that book though, and doing this half-ass project on a fucked-up detective book involving a cop who also made video games.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 1; William Heffernan’s “Ritual”

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So I’ve talked before about being the kid who read a lot of mass-market paperbacks because A) I just read a lot and B) they were all we had around. I’ve been thinking back on those books as I’ve been browsing Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell, a humorous look at paperback horror novels through the past decades.

It’s a weird art form/subgenre that (I think rightfully) has started to again garner a bit of a spotlight in pop culture (not necessarily for the right reasons but whatever) again, but to me, Hendrix’s work is just one part of a much larger tapestry that I distinctly remember being a part of as a kid. I joke that I’m a book hoarder and the son of book hoarders, but my parents both read voraciously, and used to have tons of books of all sorts all over whatever home we lived in. Even now, with them wanting to have less and less stuff around, I know that in the attack are just crates of old paperbacks, waiting for a new life cycled out of there onto the bookshelves in the house proper for a tour of duty.

I think I found this book (Ritual by crime writer William Heffernan) during the period when my family lived overseas and I was basically grabbing and consuming any and every English-language novel I could see to satisfy a desire for something. I must have been about 13 or so, I remember reading and re-reading it one summer, my usual habit since I didn’t speak Greek that well at the time, didn’t have many friends, and there was no TV or radio, so I had to ration the batteries for stuff like a Discman (and later, a Gameboy). It was my first exposure to Heffernan, just one of however many my parents had accumulated, being book hoarders themselves (especially my dad). Also, I was (and still am probably) one of those types who was really into weapons, like the budding sociopath I was.

As a kid I was fascinated with swords and axes and bows and arrows, so a book with a weird knife and crazy title on the front (I’m gonna say I read Relic by Preston & Child about the same time so the cool one-word titles were a thing) was almost custom-made to draw my attention in. Did it have some kind of fantasy elements to it? Was it scary? It gave it a sense of fantastic to the book, clashing (on the cover) with the policeman’s shield/badge. A lot of the Signet books (an imprint of NAL, the New American Library publishing company) had designs like this. It might have even been partially-raised, giving a cool texture feel to the cover too, I don’t remember exactly.

Why did we have so many of these kinds of books? My parents are not necessarily the types of people to seem like they’d be obsessed with mostly just crime-slash-mystery novels, they’re fairly run-of-the-mill middle-class types, the children of immigrants. Then again, you never really know about that, about what is going to appeal to people, or why it does.

Also, it’s entirely possible that as a family that travelled a lot at times, these types of train station/airport novels just turned out to be the perfect thing for travelers/commuters to grab and read regularly, and save because they were cheap and fun escapes to come back to once in a while. I’ve read a lot about the crime/mystery market and the whole subculture of straight-to-paperback airport novels, and how they’re a pretty natural evolution of dimestore spinner-rack cheap pulps. I’ve never not paused in a bookstore (even if I know I’m not gonna buy anything) in an airport or a bus/train station, unless I’m in a rush. The desire for a quick fun slab of entertainment with a semi-predicatable but still enjoyable twist is a strong one, maybe moreso than any sort of apparent higher literary calling. They’re so intensely American to me (while I do know the tradition isn’t rooted necessarily in anything uniquely American, it just feels like that), a literary field completely devoid of pretension and desire for anything other than wide readership so that the checks coming in can buy the fancy whiskeys.

Anyway, this is obsensibly a Heffernan book about his character Paul Devlin, but Devlin’s a secondary character compared to the Holmesian Stanislaus Rolk (at least he’s Holmesian in my imagination, I haven’t read this book in like twenty years). I think I really loved it because (SPOILER ALERT FOR A BOOK THAT CAME OUT IN 1990) Rolk turns out to have been the killer all along, and his tough partner Devlin has to be the one to bring him down. It was also gruesome as all fuck and moderately titillating, involving naked human sacrifices, decapitation with an obsidian knife, and the wearing of human skin like a cape. The intellectual detective let his dark side overtake him through his curiosity, delving more and more into obscure Toltec rituals and beliefs (this book is probably the only time the Toltec people were ever mentioned in pop culture), ultimately becoming the obsidian knife-wielding spree slayer. I don’t remember much else about the story, how it ends, how the twists and turns go. Part of me wants to find a cheap copy of this and re-read it, or maybe see if my local library can get me a copy, but part of me recognizes too that a lot of these books from that time of my life were probably not that great for a variety of reasons.

I read a bunch more Heffernan after this book, he’s incredibly prolific as a writer, my parents had a ton of them stashed around our home. A year or so ago When I got my short story “Hit The Till” published through Akashic Books, I found out that Akashic had also published some of Heffernan’s work and I almost hit the fucking ceiling. Those books, with their slick and raised covers, cheap paper pages fat in the glued paperback binding, with the ads and mail-order catalogues in the back, were some of my earliest connections to crime writing/mystery novels, and…yeah, it was wild to, in a tiny and very roundabout way, have my little short mystery story now in the same spider’s-web of publication as his.

Random aside to this whole thing; Looking for a picture/scan of this book’s cover, the cover I remember as a kid is pretty much the main one that comes up, compared to the searching I had to do for other books to find the covers of the editions I remember. It makes me think I wasn’t the only one who loved this cover and was drawn into the book solely because of it. Makes me think maybe I wasn’t as weird a kid as I thought.

Abracadaver, 2017!

So it’s December.

I’ve got a little more to do before Christmas, but for all intents and purposes I’m done for the year work-wise, which means time to do what I’ve been planning for a while…play a lot of DESTINY 2.

WHAT 2017 WAS LIKE
1. A trash fire, politically – No shit, huh? I mean I know (and say) that only naive idiots or absolute monsters run for public office, but this year’s definitely driven that point home. Still, there have been some hard-won fights that we (collectively as a people dedicated to decency, leftism, and walking tall) won. You survived. I survived. We’re gonna keep on surviving, and refusing to let the lines be constantly redrawn when it comes to how things work. Unless we’re redrawing them for the better, that is. Always doing it for the better.

2. A raging tire fire, socially – These fucking people and their stupid fucking opinions. It’s a weird social tide shift regardless, feels like, where the mouth of awful decided that regardless of what was going on it was going to start to vomit a lot more into the public consciousness louder than usual. Again though, I feel like we’re not just building up the barricades, but girding ourselves to go over the top to push craven cowardness and petty stupidity back. Don’t give them any ground, and take back what they took inch by inch.

3. Not…personally terrible – I hate to say it because so many people really did not feel that good this year, but it wasn’t a terrible year for me, on a personal note. I wrote a lot, got work published, survived a lot of teaching. 2017 feels like what 2014 was, a weird crucible work-wise that I came out of having learned a lot about myself and my work for the better. 2018 is also shaping up to be a decent year personally, and while I kinda feel bad about it, I also take it as a personal victory and something to lord over assholes.

GOALS FOR 2018
1. Don’t die – You’d think this would be some kind of given, but hey, good to say it out loud.
2. Academic irons in the fire – I’ve been tentatively thinking and talking about a few teaching things I’d like to maybe get going in this upcoming year.
3. Get married – Oh yeah, I got engaged last year so I guess I’m getting married in 2018. Gonna throw a party.
4. Write – Goes without saying, yeah? I got a bunch of work “accepted” between late 2017 and into 2017 but only two pieces actually showed up, so I figure one to three pieces a year’s a good rate to aim for in the upcoming year. Oh, and a few bigger things should get started, but we’ll see.

I don’t really have much to say honestly, I’m trying to not push myself into writing when I don’t want to, and enjoy down time when I have it, so that’s balancing with the desire to be productive and just stare at the computer screen all day and type. It’s been a wild year. What’s that curse, may you live in interesting times?

As the saying goes, be brave enough to be kind. See you on the other side in 2018, people, keep those knives sharp and hearts open.

Swords, Sorrows, Satire

ByChanceOrProvidence-1I love fantasy novels and comics. I talk about them a lot, probably not as much as I talk about horror or crime writing or punk rock, but I love it. It’s such a deep-rooted part of me, back to the beginnings of my love of reading. As I’ve said, before punk rock and horror, fantasy was there, and it’s always stuck around in some way in my life.

It’s kinda weird to find any these days though to me that I can genuinely enjoy because of how a lot of it, to me, comes across. So much of modern fantasy fiction seems to fall into one of two extreme camps these days, either being “A Game Of Thrones” grimdark or satirizing the genre in a humorous way, which bothers me. Here’s this great genre wish so much flexibility and muscle in it treated as either a bad video game or a joke about DnD.

I know that the good stuff, the groundbreaking work is coming out as we get new and fresh voices more and more unafraid to push boundaries (I’m trying hard to get to that work and get back in the loop), but I feel like signal-to-noise when it comes to what I grew up on VS what doesn’t interest me is overwhelming.

Maybe I just don’t look hard enough?

Which is…fine. It’s fine. I mean, a genre should be flexible, should be reaching to far ends of the spectrum its on in terms of attitudes and whatnot. To be bound to the absolute middle of the whole thing is a dangerous precedent that creates the limited and arguably conservative mindset that can ruin a literary genre and make it an unfunny and unfriendly sort of place. Fantasy (like a lot of genre work) already can be an unfriendly and conservative sort of place, so the pushing of those boundaries outwards is welcome.

Still (and I say this primarily as a person who knows the privileges of representation in his fiction and all that entails when he talks about enjoying more “classic” or traditional genre fiction), sometimes the work I see in fantasy these days is JUST at those two ends, with the middle being almost immediately dismissed as too conventional or conservative (something I’d wholeheartedly disagree with). There’s such a huge range that fantasy can and pull from (re-reading Raymond E. Feist’s “Serpentwar Saga” recently definitely made me think about fantasy fiction being used to discuss the impacts of war on non-“special hero” types and surrogate families coming together in really interesting ways), and that includes horror. Real deep bone-hungry horror, something from the edges of the world that you barely even knew one stalked the land you now lived in. So much fantasy is set in pre-industrial and historically-influenced settings, and I think those sorts of things can have amazing approaches to scary stories. It’s frustrating

Part of it is probably the critical  literary desire to say that great work rises above the genre it’s in when in fact saying shit like that does a disservice to the work and to the genre itself. After all to act like something is “too good” for the conventions of genre (horror has the same issues) basically spits on the genre as well as making a lot of assumptions about the work of the author.

Anyway when I was in Canada a few weeks ago I bought this and recently got to read it finally. I read Becky Cloonan’s collection By Chance Or Providence, collecting her haunting and emotional historical fantasy comic shorts like “Wolves” and they’re so amazing while still easily-recognizable as “fantasy fiction”. Ancient gods and swords, but also the sweat of a man in a horror story, of a woman at the end of an unholy bargain. It’s horror, but also drama and doomed romance. And yet, those are all things that can be in the overall umbrella of “fantasy” and I don’t really know just how rare this is in fantasy. Arguably, a lot of Tolkien is almost Lovecraftian horror (his elves are eternal eldritch beings of frightening nightmares, no matter what anyone says about ethereal beauty and all that), but most of the time when horror and fantasy cross it tends to, again, go back to that “grimdark” viewpoint of horror (the literary equivalent of gorefests or torture porn, I guess), Cloonan’s work is more haunting that scary, in that it’s trying to evoke a sense of low constant dread.

Also, the balance of outright fantastical and grounded in her work, which yeah, feels very manga-influenced but is also working hard to humanize flawed and malleable characters (they feel like the flesh they’re made of, rather than the adamant we feel these types of characters sometimes seem to be), with dirty armor, notched sword blades, and fatalistic attitudes that don’t rely on heavy-handed and nihilistic life outlooks. There’s a weight to the world, to the stories, but it’s not an overbearing one.

A thing from my childhood that I loved, Marvel’s big black and white THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (hell, most Conan stories, actually) touched on something from fantasy that I don’t think, post-Tolkien, we really use much, which is the idea of worlds with no real overarching “mythology.” That is to say, places where there is no larger-scale of deities or curses or belief structures or myths tying it all together, simply a chaotic world full of monstrosities and nightmares held at bay, barely, by walls. Though the stories in this are obviously drawing on folklore and myth, the fact is that in the worlds where they happen, they JUST happen without too much (or really any) insistence on creating an elaborate and intricate mythology, is something I appreciate.

It’s very Howard-esque, basically, which is metal as all hell and very much up my alley. Despite Howard’s hack-heavy and hamfisted takes on writing (at times, arguably), his work and his impact on fantasy has always fascinated me, caring less about the complexity of the world’s mechanics and more on an immediate experience surrounding whatever the conflict or adventure he came up with for that particular point. Tolkien’s work is creation story, epic saga. Howard’s work is all forward action and motion, one immediate foot after another, sword or axe always at the ready to hack your way through a confusing and dangerous world that doesn’t care what you want to do, it just wants to kill you and eat you.

By Chance or Providence is a lot like that, in this overarching reminder that the world was ancient before we got here, and that under the surface of civilization, it’ll be here and ancient after we’re long-gone.