Book Review: Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is a writer whose name has become synonymous with modern fantasy. His second novel, The Last Unicorn, has become a classic and has been turned into an animated film, a play and a comic. Over the years he’s written for film and TV, short stories and novels. Of course it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t always thought of in those terms. His first novel was A Fine and Private Place, which todays is considered a modern classic of fantasy, but it was an unusual book that stood out for many reasons both then and now. His second book was I See By My Outfit, a nonfiction account of traveling cross country by scooter. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he overlapped with people like Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry.

Maybe I should admit up front that while I like The Last Unicorn, it’s never been my favorite book of Beagle’s. I don’t say this to be petty, but I was reminded of this fact reading the first chapter of Summerlong. The Last Unicorn is this lovely fable, but the truth is that Beagle’s great talent lies in the fact that he writes fantasy stories that are not fairy tales.

Books like Summerlong, for example.

The book is about Abe and Joanna and her daughter Lily. These are not fable-like characters, they are precisely rendered, quirky and unique individuals with rich full lives, walking contradictions, and struggles. The way that Beagle writes them for chapter after chapter without fantasy intruding – and then for many more chapters with the fantastic at the edges of the action – demonstrate that if he wanted to, he could write a completely realistic novel. He could write a series of realistic novels with complex characters with messy lives and immerse us in the drama of their ordinary but colorful lives. To find and depict the quotidian in new ways, to capture colorful people falling in and out of love, having adventure, struggling to maintain the status quo and abandon what they’ve built. He could probably gain a lot more readers and make a lot more money if he did that.

He’s not interested in writing that book, though.

For Peter S. Beagle, those details, those lives, can also be the foundation of a work of fantasy.

There is so much that I like about the book and these characters that critiquing elements feels almost rude. My biggest complaint is that I could see the twist coming and knew what would happen. Of course when I say that, I’m being disingenuous. I knew who the fantastic figures were and what that meant. I could guess how certain things would play out. I have read a lot of fantasy, a lot of mythology, and so I knew who the characters were before it was explained, and I know that encountering the divine does not leave people unscathed.

When it comes to what would happen to the human beings, to Abe and Joanna and Lily, who we’ve come to know, the truth is that I did not see what would happen. It was surprising but not shocking. Beagle has them acting in character of course. He’s too good a writer to simply throw things at us or have them respond in ways that don’t fit. But there is also the simple fact that the fantastic, the magical, has entered their lives and it changes them. As in classical myth, that doesn’t mean that one’s life improves necessarily, but they cannot simply go back to the way things were before. There is no normal anymore after such an encounter. These vast unchanging figures of myth continue as they have since time immemorial, unchanged, but every time they intersect with the human world and with human beings, they leave wreckage in their wake.

That’s another good example of why his fairy tale stories have left me cold. As I say it’s personal preference, but when Beagle is able to so precisely dissect human relationships as he’s shown he can here, why would I be satisfied with a fairy tale. This is why so much fantasy leaves me cold. Somehow the world they depict is fantastic but it also means so little to characters who are thinly written. The stakes are too low for me to care and be fully invested.

The truth is that the fantasy stories that are impactful, depicted events that changed and reshaped the characters in them. Everything from the legend of King Arthur to Beowulf to Lord of the Rings features characters who change, who die, who are transformed and never the same again. They feature human flaws and human drama, and too often genre fiction is willing to put aside drama and humanity for spectacle. Perhaps that’s modern, or maybe that’s simply American, I don’t know.

But this is why I have read all of Peter Beagle’s work, even if I don’t always manage the month they are released. Because even when I don’t love them, I am affected by them. They are moving and thoughtful stories about people. Beagle’s great skill is how time and again he has found ways for magic and the fantastic to interact with ordinary lives – and find a way to make those things feel both natural, or at least have the effects within the realm of possibility for those outside the direct circle of them, and yet seismic to those who are caught up in it. After all, that is how all the ancient stories and myths worked.

Summerlong is such a precisely drawn, beautifully written book. It was a pleasure to read even after summer has ended and even when the characters behave in wrenching ways. This is a book that doesn’t offer a happy, pat ending. It is a book, though, that was hard to put down. This is no fairy tale; but it is magic.

Review: Alone: A Love Story by Michelle Parise

A few weeks ago I discovered the CBC podcast Alone: A Love Story. I know that I’m late to the party. The podcast wrapped up after three seasons earlier this year, but ever since I discovered it I’ve binged listened to every episode of this brilliant, incisive, heartbreaking, awe-inspiring podcast. Quite frankly the work of Michelle Parise and her story editors and co-producers Veronica Simmonds and Marc Apollonio has been just one of the very best parts of my days in recent weeks. Over three seasons Parise recounts how she met her husband and their marriage, the birth of their daughter, and then, the bomb. After that, Parise rebuilds her life, begins dating again, reconsiders her life all the while putting her daughter first and trying to keep it all together. Throughout the three seasons there were moments where Parise was able to capture such vivid moments of joy, of pain, of longing.

It’s the longing I think that has stayed with me the most. Or maybe that says more about me than her and the series. But it’s those scenes where she’s conveying the overwhelming joy that her daughter brings her even while every other aspect of her life feels in free fall, the walls closing in on her. Those moments of being good at her job, of knowing her daughter is spending time with her father, the ex, and unable to stay alone in her apartment. Of the sheer bliss that comes from those long fun nights of dancing with her friends and then going home with a younger boy, and then pivoting to being a mom with a very different purse. And doing that knowing about what she’s missing out on, what she wants her life to be, what she used to have.

Or that scene in the second season – episode 14, maybe? – where she spend more than a minute listing off all the things she wants from a partner like looking up from her book to see him looking at her, singing in the car, all these small mundane moments. These ordinary things that have brought her such joy in the past, moments that she hopes to find again. That she knows are possible.

It’s the way that she’s able to move between joy and sadness, having built a life that may not have been perfect but meant so much, only to have someone destroy it and having to rebuild. Admittedly I kept thinking of myself at those ages, or where I might be at those ages. Of what was and what might be and what it meant.

I also heard Parise’s surgically incisive takedown of Peter Pans, 30 and 40 something men, and it was hard not to see myself in some of her critique. It was also hard not to argue that she’s right.

I’m not just heaping praise on her because she knows what the best Springsteen album is and thinks it’s obvious. (Seriously, anyone who claims it’s not Darkness is suspect)

Partway through listening to the series I realized that it’s just Parise in front of a microphone talking. Yes, there’s music and sound effects added and woven in, but it’s such a beautiful and simple effect. Not all simplistic, because how hard is it to find one person with a voice (and a voice) who could carry this many hours of radio. But it is something that when listening for it, makes it all the more impressive.

One reason it jumped out at me is because I’m working on a radio piece that’s the same format and I tried for the next day or two to pay more attention and note the ways Alone used music and sound cues for storytelling effect, many of which are so subtle and beautifully done. But for the most part I got lost in the story and I’ll have to listen to it again to catch all those technical elements.

Because I did get lost in the story. Again and again I kept coming back to Parise and pulled through the narrative’s twists and turns, and the ways that she managed to ground the story in so many mundane ways. Over the course of years, not a lot happens. They get married and have a baby, he cheats and the marriage ends, she dates while balancing everything, there are a few vacations, some serious relationships, but very little happens, and it’s so compelling. Maybe because Parise finds that right balance of deep analysis of her own thinking and a casual tone of what happened in her day.

What is it about the narrative that grabbed me? I’m still not entirely sure. Listening to her voice through headphones day after day no doubt was a big part of it. But I don’t tend to read a memoir, even if it’s someone roughly may age or who has had similar experiences, and think, the next time I’m in Toronto, I need to get coffee with the person to see how things are going. I don’t think I’ve ever thought that. But that is what I caught myself thinking the other day, a couple days after listening to the final episode. This combination of missing her voice and her presence in my life. The way there are people I know, who I’m not especially close to or have their numbers, but we’ve spent time together, we know each other, and I care about how they’re doing.

Since the final season dropped, Parise announced that she will have a book published which will cover these events of the bomb and the aftermath. Which I will read, of course. How could I not? I’m curious as well since storytelling on radio functions differently than it does on the page. There was also news that CBC is developing the show into a possible TV show. Which I think could be a great idea. But we’ll see.

“I don’t have a happily ever ending for you. Sorry,” Parise says near the end of the final episode. Maybe it’s my own aloneness speaking, but I didn’t expect that or what that out of the narrative. Though I understand of course that some people would like such a narrative wrapping up. There’s a reason why it’s such a common storytelling device. But this isn’t really a story about relationships, or about love or marriage. I man some of it is in the title – Alone – but this is a story about Michelle Parise. It’s a story about life. It’s a story about hope.

“There’s only the truth about life, which is that it keeps on going. And most days in very boring, regular ways.”

Yes, it does. Which is both a philosophical statement, a pessimistic statement, and a truism. And it is hard fought knowledge to understand that within the context of our lives. Here’s to Michelle Parise and Alone: A Love Story. Here’s to being alone, but not lonely. Not when her voice echoes in our ears. Not when we’re here to remind her that she’s not alone. Not as we walk down the street, both the streets she knows intimately and those she’s never walked, through her city and our cities, listening to her words echo from one corner of the globe to another, filtered through hearts that are bursting with love and broken in pieces and somewhere in between, alone, tethered together by the hope that leads us to the next day.

The Ballad of Ramblin’ Chris Murphy

The Ballad of Ramblin’ Chris Murphy

Rambling Chris Murphy
Walking ‘cross our state
Talking to the people he runs across
Trying to relate

Some folks say we’re proud of you
and all the work you do
and others say, just go to hell
I got better things to do

He’s trying to meet the bosses
who don’t call into his offices
They’ve got opinions and concerns
And he’ll hear them say their peace

Now we live in cynical times
and I’ll be honest I’m worse ‘n most
I don’t want to overpraise Murphy
for doing something this simple

I think it should be a job requirement
for every politician in this country
to walk across their district
talking to whoever they meet

to listen to their problems
not just rich folks who want to bribe
– sorry, “lobby” – them
with a bag of cash and demands

When was the last time you saw Mitch McConnell
meet with people on the street?
or talk to anyone not a waiter
who didn’t pay for the privilege?

How many times has your mayor or local rep
sought to meet people just to say hi
and listen to what they have to say
when they’re not running for reelection?

Why there are some politicians
who won’t even attend debates
and folks still re-elect these people
who clearly don’t have time for them.

Agree with him or not
Murphy never was a rich man
One of the poorest members of the Senate
who didn’t magically get richer

trading stocks with secret knowledge
or whose wife goes to work trading influence
Which is the way I thought it’s supposed to work
In this here USA

I have to admit I was impressed
watching him talk to people
he didn’t agree, wouldn’t change his vote
but he never tried to escape

Let people talk, didn’t glance around
for an aide to move people along
just listened pretty intently
and that ain’t an ordinary thing

Now I’d like a representative
who agrees with me 100
But barring that, I like having one
not afraid of the people in his district

I see it as a matter of respect
I was brought up to believe that matters
So I appreciate the town halls
The long walks and the meetings

And that he thinks part of his job
is just to go and talk to people
Which shouldn’t be all that unusual
And I hope that soon it won’t

I wish more local politicians
would take the time to walk and talk
if they did, we’d have better sidewalks
which is neither here nor there

But until that day arrives
and they stop thinking they’re better ‘n us
Because every single one of them
should be like rambling Chris Murphy

He’s not running for reelection
just ambling ‘cross our state
talking to whoever he comes across
Trying to relate

Some folks say we’re proud of you
and all the work you do
and others say, just go to hell
I got better things to do

Til that better days comes,
and the sidewalks here improve
I know I’ve got a senator
who’s always on the move

Every day we should try to be better
And sometimes that means doing small things
Chris Murphy is listening, rambling along
showing us who he is

with the blisters to prove it

Articles Published the Week of 3 June 2019

“Once the Ink Was Done, That Was It, Tough Luck”: An Interview with Kat Verhoeven. I’ve been a fan of the webcomic Meat and Bone for a while and I spoke with the cartoonist behind it, Kat Verhoeven for The Comics Journal because the print edition of the comic is out in stores now. We spoke about making a longform comic like this, how her process changed over time, and how Montreal is like Portland to the Canadian imagination.

D-Day 75 Years Later

My grandfather like most members of his generation, was a veteran of World War II. He was drafted before Pearl Harbor and in 1944, was sent to Europe where he was part of the Sixth Army Group which invaded Southern France and moved North before crossing the Rhine into Germany.

To hear people like William Barr compare being Attorney General to being a paratrooper on D-Day is disgusting. The fact that his statement makes it clear that he doesn’t really understand what being a paratrooper involved makes it even more comical that the chickenhawk is trying to sound and act like a tough guy.

Of course he does work for a President – and I’m writing specifically that he works for a President as opposed to working for the American people or at the discretion of the President – who has made vile comments about prisoners of war, soldiers killed in action, and Gold Star families. A President who wants credit for improvements others made to the VA but has done little to improve it – and who behind the scenes wants to privatize it. A President who is sending our troops to the Southern border to paint a wall, among other actions that erode military readiness. A President who is busy threatening war but not planning for one. A President who isn’t taking care of military personnel and their families, diverting money allocated to improve housing to other things.

The Chairwoman of the GOP tweeted: “We are celebrating the anniversary, 75 years of D-Day. This is the time where we should be celebrating our President, the great achievements of America, and I don't think the American people like the constant negativity.”

Honoring the anniversary of D-Day is literally NOT about the current President of the United States. The whole point of D-Day and honoring those veterans is not a celebration of the current President of the United States.

“Constant negativity” is taking time out on that day to talk with someone on Fox News and attack your domestic political opponents instead of taking time to focus on D-Day, on those veterans, on remembering what happened and what it meant. Instead, the President and those around him turned the anniversary of D-Day into just another day of partisan political fighting.

Maybe this was inevitable. As those who lived these events passed away, these events become either symbols that have been drained of much of the meaning that they were originally imbued with, or they become simply another day on the calendar. But it is the actions of a President who feels that nothing is sacred. And does so in our name. What do we believe in and stand for?

This isn’t the piece I wanted to write for or about D-Day, but these are the times in which we live. I don’t mean the question rhetorically, I’m truly unclear what we stand for and what we believe.

Where I Stand (and On Which Side of the Pond)

I can trace my roots in what is now the United States back to 1631, when my ancestor arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Relatives have fought in almost every war, major and minor, since before the USA existed. Just about everything in the nation’s history – good and bad – can partially be laid at the feet at my relatives.

I mention all this for context. Because when the President of the United States visits Great Britain – one of our closest allies – and immediately attacks members of the royal family (The Duchess of Sussex) and prominent politicians (Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London), endorses a clown for Prime Minister (Boris Johnson), thinks a hard no deal Brexit would be a great idea but has no interest in fast tracking a trade deal with the UK, meets with a minor racist politician (Nigel Farage), pointedly refuses to meet with the leader of the British opposition (Jeremy Corbyn), refuses to obey protocol or even obey basic courtesy when meeting the Queen (though as with almost everything, it’s unclear to what degree the President simply didn’t care about protocol or whether he’s too stupid to remember what he was told to do two minutes earlier)…

In this case, I stand with the people of the Great Britain against the clown representing me and my nation.

The people of Great Britain seemed to like the Baby Trump balloon more than its irl inspiration. I know exactly how they feel…

R.I.P. Uncle Peter

In the early hours of Friday May 31, Peter L. Dueben passed away from sinus cancer.

Born in Clifton, NJ on July 30, 1956 to Bernard and Helen Dueben, he was a graduate of Clifton High School and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A former employee of Toyota, Peter was a talented woodworker and leatherworker who made mission style furniture and housewares. He was a longtime volunteer at the Kentucky Horse Park, in his adopted hometown of Lexington, where he did leatherwork by hand, made halters for horses and helped to reopen the park’s tack store.

He is survived by his father, his older brothers Bob and John, and various nieces and nephews. If he had any doubts that his family was limited by blood, the myriad ways that so many friends have helped out in his final year put that rest.

His death was sudden, though he’s had cancer for nearly a year, which has included surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. My uncle Bob was there with him at the end, and has been out for weeks at a time. My father has flown out to Kentucky more times than I can count and had weeks of classes covered so he could be there. Pete was their little brother, and there was only so much that they could do. I know that they’re just two of the many people who helped him in ways both large and small in this painfully hard last year of his life.

I believe that in the face of death, we are all a little selfish. We are thinking about the person who died, but also about our memories, about the place they occupied in our lives that is now empty. Shared experiences are now ours alone and fragile. There is a piece of ourselves that has been lost with them.

My uncle Peter was not the relative I was closest to, but he was perhaps the one I was most like, both for good and ill. All my life he was the skilled craftsman of the family, and he had been from a young age apparently, with an eye and hand that others couldn’t match. He always made a point of talking about my work. He’s probably read more of my work than most of my relatives put together. But just as we were alike in our passion, in our craftsmanship, we were also alike in our inability to give other aspects of our life the same care and focus that we did our craft. We tried to do what made us happy and center our lives around that, which can be joyous and passionate, but it can also be selfish. Trying to navigate that - and failing and trying and hopefully failing better - while doing work one loves and being a good person is the most valuable lesson he tried to show me.

“Memory is the resurrection,” Joy Williams wrote. “The dead move among us the living in our memory and that is the resurrection.” I don’t agree, but the quotation has always stayed with me. I am writing this from my parents’ home. They returned from vacation early – just over a week ago they were texting Peter who was in good spirits – and I’m driving my dad to the airport before dawn. In the room is a table that Peter built; it will outlast us all.

Articles Published the Week of 27 May 2019

Q&A with Marguerite Dabaie. I spoke with the fabulously talented cartoonist of The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories, the comic strip Ali’s House, and the upcoming A Voyage to Panjikant about her work and approach, design and color, and Pete’s Mini Zine Fest, which she co-founded, which is coming up again in July.

“It’s Our Time”: Cave Canem’s Founder on the Power of Poetry. At The Millions I spoke with the award-winning poet and memoirist Toi Derricotte about her new book, I: New and Selected Poems, spirituality, personal history, co-founding Cave Canem and what it meant to her, and changing the world with poetry.

Kelsey Wroten’s Cannonball. One of the big comics debuts so far this year was Kelsey Wroten’s Cannonball. The cartoonist and illustrator has already made a splash with her short comics and work for various magazines, but her first book is a thoughtful and nuanced character portrait with a climax that isn’t centered around the text but rather around the artwork in a really interesting way.

Articles Published the Week of 20 May 2019

Brian Azzarello and Sierra Hahn Talk Faithless. The writer and editor behind the new miniseries from Boom talked to me about the book - or at times, refused to talk with me about the book - a magical, erotic story that

“You Could Stand Up a Little Taller”: An Interview with Paige Braddock. Paige Braddock is best know among comics people for her long running comic strip Jane’s World, which she ended last year. She’s written and drawn other comics, and she also has one of the coolest and most intimidating day jobs in the world - Chief Creative Officer of Charles M. Schulz Associates - where she oversees the Peanuts empire. We spoke about her life and career.

Rory Frances and Jae Bearhat’s Little Teeth. One of the most striking comics to come out so far this year, the book tells the story of a group of queer friends and acquaintances living in an unnamed city. It’s thoughtful and funny, made me laugh out loud and made me cringe with recognition. Quite simply a brilliant work by young creators who will hopefully go on to make more amazing work.

Articles Published the Week of 13 May 2019

A Meal with Blue Delliquanti. I’ve been a fan of the webcomic O Human Star for years now and the science fiction story has always been interesting, but I really loved Delliquanti’s graphic novel Meal, written with Soleil Ho, which was recently published by Iron Circus. The story of a chef who moved to Minneapolis to work at a restaurant that specializes in cooking bugs, it’s also the story of communities, of food, of of culture, gentrification, with a gentle love story at the center. A great work on so many levels.

Q&A with Marko Tamaki. I’ve been a fan of Tamaki’s writing since Skim, and in a series of books including This One Summer and a number of comics including Supergirl and Tomb Raider, Tamaki has really carved out a unique voice in comics. She has a gift for capturing teen and pre-teen voices in ways that are resonant and revelatory. Her new book Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me has at its center a young woman who has been dating the most popular girl in school, the titular Laura Dean. Tamaki described the book as in the vein of old eighties teen movies, but I also think of it as a critique of them, as the main character started dating the hot, popular girl – and it turns out that she’s a horrible girlfriend. I do dislike eighties teen comedies, but I loved this book.

Gifts I Have Purchased for My Brother in Recent Years (On the Occasion of His Birthday)

A Bobblehead of The Old Man in the Mountain.

Many years ago my parents spent a summer working at a camp in New Hampshire, and my brother and I were in the day camp and on their days off, we visited New Hampshire sights, most of which I remember being somewhat less than enthused by. (Pizza in New Hampshire was mediocre, taking a gondola up Wildcat Mountain felt very unsteady. Maple candy, which is an old timey idea of candy but sucks by comparison. I also distinctly remember a restaurant that offered “Oriental Food”). I remember driving across the Kancamagus Highway. One day we visited the Old Man in the Mountain, immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne in prose and seen on New Hampshire license plates. We parked the car and walked to the overlook to get a glimpse. My brother’s response, we drove all this way for this?! He was not impressed. When I saw the bobblehead, I knew I had to get it for him. If only to see his face upon opening the box.

A Corn Muffin recipe.

One of my brother’s favorite things is a good corn muffin. Always has been, ever since he was little. He does struggle to find good ones. He’s searched for them. I’ve brought him muffins back from New York or elsewhere. He’s been in foreign countries and curiously investigated places renowned for their muffins. None ever met his criteria. So I embarked on a task, to comb through the internet and hunt for recipes, to experiment and see what I could make. Anyway, I gained weight. My parents probably gained a few pounds. Fortunately some of this period of experimentation coincided with pledge week so I dropped off a couple dozen to the WNPR offices. And eventually I found one that was noticeably better. And when he tried it, he had to admit that they were very good.

Mini Loaf Pan. Made by USA Pans. From King Arthur Flour.

My brother’s favorite muffins from childhood could be found at the Pie Plate. A local chain, there were restaurants in Westfarms Mall, where they occupied a corner space on the second floor with two entrances, and another in Avon. There were others in Fairfield, Vernon, Waterbury, and the Danbury Fair Mall, but I don’t think I ever went there. It was a diner like restaurant, think Friendly’s and that ilk. I don’t remember the pies honestly, but I remember the muffins which were rectangular. They were also delicious. To go with the corn muffin recipe, I got my brother a loaf pan so he could make the corn muffins in the shape and style of his old favorite.

The Muppet Movie soundtrack.

One of our favorite things from childhood was the Muppets. Still is, really. To this day we quote The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper and will make references like “You know, like when the pigs took over The Muppet Show.” So when I saw the CD of the movie soundtrack, from Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher, I had to get it for him. We will quote Moving Right Along to this day, because it’s incredibly quotable, but I will go to the mat arguing that Rainbow Connection, I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along, and I’m Going To Go Back There Someday, are quite simply great songs.

A Psych t-shirt.

My brother loves the TV show Psych. He’s the one who got me into the James Roday and Dulé Hill starring series about a fake psychic in Santa Barbara – which is so obviously filmed in Vancouver. But recently I was in Santa Barbara for a wedding and walking down State Street, I saw in a window a Psych t-shirt, which stopped me in my tracks. I ducked in and bought him one. No occasion; I just knew he’d like it. And I’ve seen him wear it a few times since.

A pineapple.

When Seth and his girlfriend bought a house, I debated on the appropriate housewarming gift. I gave them a pineapple. Which is also a Psych joke.

Penguin Encounter at Mystic Aquarium.

One of the things that my brother and I agree on as adults is that penguins are one of the best animals. Period. Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut has African penguins and they offer encounters with the penguins (and other animals as well) and when I saw that people could visit and meet penguins, I knew this was something for him.

Ice Cream Sandwich kit.

I’m not sure it’s ever been used, but I thought it was a great gift.

Articles Published the Week of 6 May 2019

Ben Nadler on The White Snake. I spoke with the cartoonist about his first book, an adaptation of a Grimm’s fairy tale, working with editors Françoise Mouly and Ben Karasik, writing, and related topics.

Maggie Umber Talks about the 2d Cloud Kickster and Her Book in Progress. I’ve interviewed Umber in the past and we spoke about 2d Cloud’s recent setbacks, their 2019 catalog, owls, and much more.

Fiction Friday: Buffalo Soldiers

I stared at the screen of a modified burner phone operating off the wifi in the coffeeshop where I was sitting, refreshing an app that a few months ago I would have dismissed as some bullshit for kids. Sally sat next to me, drinking a latte, dressed like she was going to yoga class, looking a lot more calm than me. Maybe that was what being a parent did to you, forced you to compartmentalize. Or maybe just enjoy the rare moment where you didn’t have to do anything.

The app updated. Our burners were muted. Our actual phones were elsewhere. My brother put mine in his locker at work. Sally’s friend brought hers to a yoga class. I bumped Sally’s knee with mine under the table. She looked up and opened the app.

Brown Ford CT 687GTA

We put on leather gloves and I pulled the keys from my pocket. A taurus was parked on the side street, nondescript, old enough to not have a transponder, with fake temporary plates.

I drove it off the lot that morning before meeting Sally. We had met twice before. She looked like the soccer mom that she was. She was also in excellent shape and wearing loose fitting clothes today. If she’d worn yoga pants like the last time we’d met, everyone would have noticed and remembered her. Not her face, but still, they would have remembered.

I pulled out and sat at the light. She pulled up the only other app on our phones.

“They’re a little South,” Sally said pointing left, “heading our direction.”

I pissed off the driver behind us by not turning right on red. We watched a brown sedan pass by.

“That’s them,” Sally said, her eyes not leaving the screen.

We followed them at a distance. We could track them, but we had to time this right, so we couldn’t hang back too far.

They parked on the street a few miles from where we had picked them up. Nik’s was somewhere between a lunch counter and a diner and famous in the neighborhood. One of those good, cheap places that never gets written up, but has a following. It was also a favorite of beat cops and I could see two sitting at the counter through the plate glass window.

Sally used the app to send a message, tagged with our coordinates:

Nik’s on Capitol.

Seconds later, we got a reply: Go

I pulled up right behind the car, and slowly edged forward with my foot on the brake until we hit their bumper, and only then put it into park and pulled the brake. I grabbed the temporary plate that was sitting on the dashboard and Sally grabbed the paperwork from the glove compartment.

She didn’t say a word or even look at me as she closed the door behind her. Sally had opened a knife and twice stabbed the back right tire of the car in front of us. She then removed the fake temporary license plate on the back bumper of our car and stuffed the paper into her jacket pocket before continuing to walk down the street, earbuds in her ears, as though she was just out for a walk.

I locked the car behind me and pulled out a knife, stabbing both tires on the left side of the car. The first one I took care of with two quick thrusts. The front tire I pretended to bend over for some reason and made sure I went deep and could hear air escaping before I walked on.

Sally walked South and I walked North. At the corner I waited for the light to change. As I did I pulled out the burner.


A car approached and pulled up near where I had parked. It didn’t park behind me, as I had parked behind the car in front of me and people had been doing. Instead it double parked, blocking the brown sedan. A man stepped out of the drivers side who I couldn’t ID after the hazards started blinking. He locked the car behind him and began walking South on Capitol before taking the first side street. I could see Sally in the distance, who kept walking in a straight line.

The light changed and I crossed. All the exterior cameras on the block had fizzled out at the same time for one minute. They should be back on now. I hesitated, wanting to go back and watch, but kept to the plan.

There was a trash can on the corner two blocks later. I paused to untie and re-tie my left sneaker, and took a look around. Then while waiting for the light to change, I pulled out my phone and removed the SIM card. I snapped it in two and tossed one half into the trash can.

I walked a few more blocks to the bus station and standing on the corner, tossed the other half of the card into a trashcan. I only had to wait a few minutes until the 118 arrived. I paid cash and took a seat in the back. I heard a few languages from the people scattered in the bus, talking to each other or on their phones. The Spanish I could mostly understand. I wouldn’t have been able to hold a conversation, but I understood the gist of what was being said. I could hear Creole and another romance language. Two women were speaking Korean or maybe Tagalog? This was the background noise I grew up with. This was the sound of America. I wondered how long the war would last. This was just the first day.

No, I corrected myself. The war had been going on for a while now. This was just my first day. The old song came to mind: Only thing I did was wrong, Was staying in the wilderness too long.

Review: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

First of all, Sabrina has nothing to do with either witchcraft or Satanism.

It’s always odd to talk about reality in terms of science fiction and fantasy, because of course it’s not real, but it is supposed to feel real. It’s supposed to feel plausible or believable. It’s supposed to make sense in the context of the world that’s presented. This is what “World building” means. Sabrina is trying to be ambitious and stylized, but it also keep failing because it’s unable to simply be its own weird thing, but it also isn’t real.

And if I thought this were intentional and trying to reflect the fact that she’s half-witch, half-human and torn between these two sides, then maybe it would work. But it never feels intentional, with each having a very distinct or planned aesthetic and sensibility and the ways that she struggles to move between, instead it just feels odd.

The series is directly based on the comic book, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is also the executive producer of the TV show and wrote four and co-wrote two episodes. The comic is a strange and beautiful thing. The artwork from Robert Hack is gorgeous and the story is weird and creepy and strange. If you’re reading after reading the thousands of Sabrina comics stories of the Melissa Joan Hart sitcom, it’s a shock. The cannibalism (the aunts run a funeral parlor but in the comic they sometimes eat “long pig” which for those who don’t know, means human). The murders. The deaths. The cameo from Ann-Margaret. And those aren’t even the weirdest, creepiest parts. It’s a strange hypnotizing spell and I’ll be honest, I didn’t see a lot of the twists and I don’t quite know where the comic is heading. Though at this point, given how infrequently issues have been appearing, I’m unsure if it will ever get there.

The TV show is based on the comic, but it is very much its own thing. Even the opening credits don’t really capture the feel of the comic, though they do look comicbook-y and hand drawn.

I would like the show more if it included the credit “Sabrina the Teenage Witch was created by George Gladir and Dan DeCarlo.” Given that they, you know, created the character.

Of course the show is based on the comic series which Aguirre-Sacasa created which is based on the series that they created, but that feels belittling to not mention them. Both were it should be noted credited for creating the character in the credits of the live action 1990’s sitcom.

It’s also hard not to think that this is an intentional slight to the late DeCarlo. Though he worked for Archie Comics for decades, an argument over Josie and Pussycats when the movie was being made led to a lawsuit over the rights and the company never hired him for the rest of his life. In the history of comics, this is fairly typical.

The comic and the show remind me of Bewitched. Which reminds me of the Jimmy Stewart-Kim Novak film Bell, Book, and Candle. But Sabrina is Bewitched crossed with the teenage comics that Dan DeCarlo had been making for decades, with a witch (which is a heredity thing) living in the mortal world and complications ensue.

This is the same nonsense that’s perpetuated in Harry Potter and elsewhere, that only certain kinds of special people can do magic. Ordinary folk can’t. Which is of course nonsense – and also makes no sense. Because literally the entire reason why so many women were accused of witchcraft – and why it was so terrifying – was that anyone could do magic. That was literally the point.

Smarter and more thoughtful people than I have pointed out how Harry Potter is very much a metaphor for the British class system. That the special kids are sent away to boarding school where they can meet and marry each other, and are taught that the non-magical people in the world are essentially another species. The “bad” people think that ordinary people should be killed or treated like cattle, while the “enlightened” people think that ordinary humans should have a separate but unequal world, as long as the humans don’t get uppity.

This idea of class very much carries over in Sabrina, but it seems unconscious, or at least, there’s no evidence on screen that the writers have in any way interrogated it. There’s a way that the Spellmans represent a certain “old money” sensibility when it comes to both humans and witches, but nothing is done with this idea. They’re property rich and run a funeral home and have a large house filled with books and various odds and ends. On the witch side, Sabrina’s father was a major figure in the church, and both aunts attended elite schools (though only one enjoyed it), but neither has much standing in the church, though that may be because of gender.

They live in Greendale, which is a mining town but there’s one mine and it has a single entrance, which resembles those from old 19th Century frontier towns. (Or movie sets) Then of course there was a reason that mine entrances looked like that. Here the first time it was on screen – and every time afterwards – I keep being pulled out of the scene because it just looks fake. And not Ray Harryhausen creature or guy in a rubber suit Godzilla fake, but just fake.

The show has a similar problem whenever Satan appears on screen.

Also, the owner of the mine is Harvey’s family and they have to work in the mines digging coal? Leaving aside the fact that the grandfather lives somewhere else and the drunk father is supposedly running the operation, he send his sons to work in the mines? It’s weird. I say this because in reality that’s not what mine owners do.

Questions of gender certainly come into play. The hierarchy of the witches and how it plays out never really gets explained in a way that makes much sense. Sabrina’s father ran the coven now Father Blackwood (played by Richard Coyle) does, who talks about passing the leadership role to his newborn son. So how did he become head? Is it based on merit? Is there an aristocracy of sorts? Where does Aunt Hilda fit into this hierarchy?

I suppose my problem with comic books – and by extension comic book movies and TV shows – is that the world building tends to be, well, incomplete let’s say. There’s a certain default to being set in our present moment but at the same time, it’s fantastic and as events pile upon them, then it can no longer be like the world outside our window but so many comics function as though they do. Or some do and some don’t and that creates an uneasy and awkward continuity.

The first part ended where one part would have to end. The whole season (sorry, “part”) was about Sabrina living this divided life – part human and part witch, shuffling between the two worlds. In the final episode of the first part she signs her name in the Devil’s book and turns her back on her friends and the human world.

In the second part Sabrina admits to Aunt Hilda why this was. That she knew that what happened in the finale to part one wasn’t the last bad thing to happen, but a lot more was coming and she shut off her friends because she didn’t want them anywhere near her when it happened. That she was doing it for their protection.

Now admittedly this is the sort of self-sacrifice, I can’t be happy because I have a destiny kind of speech that one hears on just about every cop show, on every big fantasy story, in all those chosen one narratives. So there’s nothing new about it. It is tbh the kind of speech I would have loved to give as a teenager. Angsty and passionate, and maybe it’s because I find it annoying and overwrought when half the cops on half the cop shows in America give that speech, it fell a little flat here. Don’t get me wrong it worked in one sense, and once she admitted it, her aunt said, go. Which is what she needed. To be pushed or prodded into the proper action.

But I think that it also illuminates one of the problems with the show, particularly in the second half. The aunts occupy a role of parent-guide-teacher role to Sabrina but also in the way of stories about teenagers, they’re often tangential to what’s happening. This is Sabrina’s story but she’s busy trying to save the world and things like that. How did a handful of teenagers from some random small town end up in the midst of this? Of course they’re at the center of this because the show is about them, but like my earlier point about world building, it feels odd at times.

The world manages to feel very small, and somehow whenever the story is opened up and references are made to other places (the show never leaves Greendale), there is a strangeness because somehow everything is about this town. Not because people are drawn there, but simply because being there makes them important and capable to be a part of this epic battle.

Of course one way to make this smallness work is to go a little crazy with it. The comic book series on which the show is based is truly insane in a way that the series never even tries to capture. But in the comic everything is happening in this crazy world and we just run with it. Here the setting and the tone is more ordinary and less heightened and so those moments where I think the show sought to be big and melodramatic and operatic so often fall short.

I mean Satan literally walks the earth. There are witches and witch hunters and apocalyptic visions and the romance between Lilith and Satan and then there’s more ordinary things and it never quite finds a way to balance and synthesize all of these elements and tones.

The first part at least has an operational theme. It’s about Sabrina being part of two worlds and the ways that she’s drawn to both. The problem is that the second part starts with her having chosen one, and has nothing to replace that operational theme with except plot. Which is fine, but honestly the internal politics of the coven isn’t especially compelling or interesting. I pointed out how I object to the way that the show (and so much else in pop culture) portrays witches. But one reason that we keep seeing this is because it functions as a great metaphor, as something relatable to so many people. But in the second season we move past that and I don’t think it was clear just what discarding that would do to the show and how important it was.

Because by the end of the second part, she’s back to being a part of the town, she has regained her friends, but it’s more about how circumstances have pulled them together. And of course the witches’ coven is destroyed, the school is no more, and so she’s a part of the human world by default, essentially. For all the ways in which the character is central, she’s at the heart of this battle with the devil and the fate of the world, but then these other aspects aren’t about her at all, it feels off.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of pleasures to be found in the show. The actors are fabulous and the writing gives them the chance to play a wide range showing off both their comedic sides and the darkest sides. (In Lucy Davis’s case, those two moods are disturbingly – but perfectly – close together). I think that Kiernan Shipka could go darker and more dramatic, and she could play the light hearted Sabrina if given one of the old sitcom scripts with equal ease.

Michelle Gomez is amazing. Michelle Gomez is always amazing. The Weird Sisters don’t do very much, but what they do, they do to perfection. Chance Perdomo as cousin Ambrose is fabulous. Lucy Davis is great.

One of the show’s greatest pleasures - the very best thing about the show to my mind - is Miranda Otto. Yes, Éowyn herself, sitting at the kitchen table with her cigarette holder is so perfectly droll, I don’t know what I want to see her in more – a period piece where she plays a matriarch as elegant as she is terrifying, a Sherlockian investigator annoyed at having to solve crimes and deal with people so much less clever than she (I’m picturing a cross between Nero Wolfe and Phryne Fisher), or Morticia Addams. She would be a magnificent Morticia…

The closing moments of the final episode show that the coven is mostly destroyed, the handful who survived now living in the Spellman house and the prospect of Zelda organizing and running a matriarchal coven is an interesting idea with a lot of possibilities. Would they be torn between the structure that Zelda tries to craft and Sabrina’s more chaotic approach? Would they all have to attend public school, which could be interesting.

Of course the final scene of the season makes me think the next season will be all about these elaborate over the top magical adventures about rescuing her boyfriend in hell, so I think I’m done with it. This is one of those shows that I would enjoy a lot more if I were closer to the age of the characters, I think. Then I would see the teenage characters taking charge and playing leading roles, but as an adult, I’m left underwhelmed, and find a lot of the teenage stories to be troubling and uninteresting. Saving the world is all well and good, but I need a little more.

What Would Have Been Wednesday's Blog Post

I spent a lot of time writing a piece to post today and it was mostly finished, but then I spent many hours researching the Georgia and Ohio abortion bans. Reading the bills in detail, they are aggressively ignorant with regards to science and the people behind them hate women so much. It’s vile and disgusting. I can only imagine what it would mean for a woman who miscarried to have to answer questions to prove what really happened. Or the women who have ectopic pregnancies who now have to deal with lawmakers who honestly have no idea what that is or how it’s treated.

I just don’t have the words. These angry ignorant people want to inflict pain on others all in the name of religion. This is the inquisition. And the only solution is to fight as hard as we can as long as we can. It’s as simple as that. They want to kill us. All we can do is resist. Days like this, it’s as simple and as complicated as that.

Review: How To Be Alone by Lane Moore

How To Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t

by Lane Moore

I feel as though there’s been a new school of memoir/nonfiction written by comedians which have been coming out over the past decade or more. There are other books by comedians which are comedic in nature, extended riffs, whereas these other books are often about the stories behind the comedy and what they talk about on stage. They’re about discussing the roots of what they do, their journey, and in some ways capture that distinction between what Hannah Gadsby in her special Nanette talked about, between jokes and stories. For me Jen Kirkman is just brilliant at this. I’m a big fan of her comedy, but I think both of her books (I Know What I’m Doing: And Other Lies I Tell Myself, especially) are simply excellent, being both laugh out loud funny but also darker, deeper, more intense, and display a different type and approach of storytelling.

Lane Moore is the latest person to do this with her book How To Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t. The collection of essays covers a lot of ground by the comedian-writer-actor-musician behind the band It Was Romance, the comedy show Tinder Live and other projects.

Moore had me at the title. I read a lot of books about being alone and what that means for the simple reason that I’m alone. And I use the word as Moore does which is that it’s not about being single which is a temporary relationship status, but instead something more. It’s something that I sometimes use in jest, but it’s not an accidental or casual word choice.

But I do occasionally use it in jest or in a flippant manner, and in her opening chapters Moore slaps the reader across the face by saying, no, do not be fucking flippant about this. Because she talks about her childhood, which was brutal and lonely on levels that a lot of us have never had to deal with. About a childhood that was harder than a lot of us had to deal with and hurts to read about.

There are two aspects though which make this less brutal for those of us who had relatively happy childhoods. One is simply the ways in which she has such great insight into herself and to the people around her. From the dynamics of teenage and pre-teen friendships, to how we make and nurture friendships to parenting and so much more. Also she mentions how the act of writing this book meant that she reached out to her mother and sister to talk about some of these events and it sounds as though writing the book has brought them closer together than they have perhaps ever been.

Moore also writes extensively about one relationship – and the long and messy aftermath. There’s a lot that’s heartbreaking about this relationship. But what’s stayed with me is how insightful Moore is in dissecting both of their behavior. The way that she’s spent a lot of time thinking about it, how this relationship does stand out in so many ways, and what it meant. What it continues to mean. Because for some people there is this one relationship in our lives that didn’t work out, but it was the one that hit us. The one that really affected us. The one that taught us a lot about ourselves. And it didn’t end in this happily ever after way. It ended in this messy way that’s left marks that take us some time to figure out.

There’s a chapter about her adventures in babysitting – both when she was a kid and then in New York as an adult. There’s a New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs piece that covers some of the same ground but in a comedic way, showing off some of her purely comedic voice and approach.

There’s a chapter talking about TV and which mostly consists of her sharing her love for Jim Halpert from The Office and talks about her tendency to ship characters on TV shows which made me go, okay, fine, great, but then she mentioned Jaye and Eric from Wonderfalls as one of those couples she loves. And this is one of those things that I think is a good lesson with people as well as writers which is that one so often encounters in life and in works of art these elements and digressions and aspects of the work which is less than interesting, which doesn’t enthrall us, which makes us go eh. Chapters like this where it’s easy to skim to get to what we want. But what interest us in this person or in this artist is contained within there.

Plus she cited Wonderfalls. I mean Moore is so clearly my people.

Besides which she talks about the obnoxious disgusting bi-phobic bullshit that we find all over the place from all sorts of people. But not much. One could write a book about about being open to so many people but being rejected in such a nasty way by so many. But that’s another story and another book. To be honest I liked the fact that she didn’t make the book about that, though I’m sure some people will react differently.

The final essay in the book is titled “How To Be Alone” and if the earlier chapters in the book veered between scenes I couldn’t relate to and those to which I related so intensely, this chapter made me almost cry a few times. First of all it involves traveling alone, which I love doing and to the point where I struggle sometimes traveling with other people. Some trips have been the best of my life and some have been depressing, but I love traveling alone and any joyous tribute to the people you meet doing that is perfect in my book.

This last chapter is also where she tries to say, embrace being alone. Enjoy sleeping alone. Travel alone. Be weird. Be yourself. Do whatever you want. Encouraging us to see being alone as an opportunity. And as someone who deals with depression, I know what she means, and I also know what it means to be unable to think in those ways. Moore is saying to go and do what you want and find a new way to be. To take exercise classes and be open with your feelings to people. But also what it means to need physical affection when single and how hard that is for so many of us. She writes about getting a dog and how that changed her. She writes about her career triumphs, which are beyond what she ever would have dreamed. She writes honestly about how that doesn’t mean that dealing with depression and longing and sadness doesn’t go away. But that we know that life is hard and depression will return and that being in a relationship won’t solve any of our problems. The only solution is to simply be ourselves and grab at things and do what we love and what we think will bring joy. It’s a knowledge that comes from hard won sadness and depression and loneliness, but that’s the only answer. It’s not necessarily a comfort, but it is the answer.

“You take all that love you keep giving to selfish idiots and try to throw some of it in the general direction of your own heart and you pray even a little bit of it sticks there.”

I don’t know how it’s possible to read the book without falling in love with Moore a little. Without wanting to give her a hug and go drinking together. (Or at least attend the next Tinder Live show she does...more information of which can be found on her website). But if you can’t, then sitting alone in a room with a drink one night, and after turning that last page feel a little bit better, a little more connected, and a little less alone, that’s not bad, either.


Hard To Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper. I interviewed Hopper about her book for The Rumpus which is about friendship and love and life outside of marriage. I feel like Hopper and Moore would be friends. Maybe, maybe not – I don’t know either of them – but I feel pretty certain that their books would be friends and go drinking together.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. A book about being single and lonely in a new city and through it interrogating art and artists who have been lonely and solitary and how their lives played out and how some of their work tries to visualize this idea of loneliness in very different ways. I love all of Laing’s work but here she really captures in her own story some of the loneliness of living in a new city and she managed to make something from it in a way that’s really thoughtful and inspiring.

Articles Published the Week of 29 April 2019

“What’s Next, Walmart?”: An Interview with Mary Fleener. For The Comics Journal I spoke with the cartoonist and artist Mary Fleener who has had a long artistic career in and out of comics about her new book - and first graphic novel - Billie the Bee, and her long career.

Otava Heikkila on Letters for Lucardo. The Finnish writer and artist Heikkila spoke with me about his new book, Letters for Lucardo: Fortunate Beasts, the second graphic novel of his series about the romance between a young vampire and an older mortal man.

Q&A with Darryl Ayo. I’ve known the cartoonist Ayo for years, encountering each other at events and interacting online, but we never sat down for a long interview to talk about his own work and how he thinks about comics, Little Garden, and what he’s thinking about doing next.

Articles Published the Week of 22 April 2019

Lin Visel and Joseph Bergin III on How Do You Smoke a Weed? The duo known as Owlin have made a lot of different kinds of comics over the years but their new book is a funny informational guide to marijuana. I learned a lot, the artwork is gorgeous and it features characters who live “weird, weedy-muppety lives.”

A Q&A with Kori Michele. I’m a big fan of the cartoonist and editor who in recent years has made a great series of short comics, in addition to co-editing the anthology The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance.

Articles Published the Week of 15 April 2019

Today’s National Cartoonists Society: A Conversation with Steve McGarry. For The Comics Journal I spoke with the British cartoonist and former President of the NCS who is one of the people behind NCS Fest in May to talk about the festival, the society, and more.

Paul Constant’s Planet of the Nerds. I’ve been reading Constant for years but now the journalist has written the new comics miniseries from Ahoy about a group of jocks form the 1980’s who wake up today - and are horrified by what they find.

Omaha Perez: The Drude 2. I’ve talked with Perez a few times over the years and we spoke about his new graphic novel which he wrote, which besides having one of the most startling covers of any comic this year it’s a fabulous and strange magical ride.