Book Rundown, 2015

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This was a terrible year for reading. My average, until 2015 came along and ruined everything, was 98 books annually, but all I have to offer for this New Year’s Day recap is 19 books.

Some of this change was deliberate, to free up time for projects like getting a dog and writing some stuff of my own. Some of this change was because reading just doesn’t seem worth the effort when you’re depressed.

For this year’s Book Rundown, I’m taking a different approach and offering brief annotations for each book, because honestly there are only nineteen, this really shouldn’t take me long:

  1. Babbitt, Natalie. The Devil’s Storybook
    • This collection of short stories was a favorite when I was nine. Sometimes the devil gets his comeuppance, and sometimes he gets a fresh new soul. I read this for inspiration, though maybe I shouldn’t be admitting that.
  2. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn
    • A classic of fantasy literature, this is the story of a unicorn worried about species extinction. Beagle upends some common tropes, and I liked it well enough, but it didn’t have much emotional impact on me.
  3. Beckderf, Derf. Trashed
    • I loved Beckderf’s memoir about his high school classmate, My Friend Dahmer. This sophomore graphic novel, unfortunately, had very little plot. I liked learning about trash collection and disposal, but those tidbits weren’t enough to redeem the book. It would have worked better as a work of nonfiction.
  4. Bond, Rebecca. Escape from Baxters’ Barn
    • The reviews likening this children’s novel to Charlotte’s Web overstated the case, but it’s still a good story: an antisocial farm cat, upon discovering the farmers’ plot to burn their barn for insurance, sounds the alarm among an ensemble cast of animals. They scheme to escape their would-be death chamber, which seems fairly straightforward until you realize nobody has thumbs.
  5. Buehlman, Christopher. Between Two Fires
    • Chris (I can call him that; I totally got to meet him) never writes the same book twice. After debuting with a Southern Gothic werewolf novel, he wrote this medieval horror story about a battle between angels and demons, set against the backdrop of France during the plague.
  6. Buehlman, Christopher. The Lesser Dead
    • So then my pal Chris wrote a vampire book, this time with a setting in the sewers of 1970s New York. It reminded me, and I mean this sincerely, of Catcher in the Rye, only with more carnage.
  7. Butcher, Jim. Working for Bigfoot
    • Jim (I can call him that; I totally got to… actually that’s a story for another time) believes in Bigfoot the way Republicans believe in Reagan: passionately, with no tolerance for criticism. The three longish short stories in this collection are donut holes: not big enough to really satisfy you, but obviously you’re going to eat them anyway.
  8. Cohlene, Terri. Dancing Drum
    • This is a Cherokee  myth, presented as a children’s picture book, a format much more digestible than James Mooney’s seminal but dense History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee People.
  9. Eichar, Donnie. Dead Mountain
    • I didn’t read a Russian novel this year — 2015 sucked, all right — but at least this work of investigative journalism is set in the Urals. Eichar presents a new theory to explain the gruesome fate of hikers who died in the Dyatlov Pass incident of 1959. I think he’s on to something, though he’s no great shakes as a writer–and I can only assume his copy editor died a similar horrible frozen death before she got around to his manuscript.
  10. King, Stephen. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
    • For all his naysayers, I find King to be an impressive writer (HIS copy editors are clearly alive and well) and, in my opinion, a storyteller of the highest order. Though not his best collection of short stories, this book hit all the right chords: some stories were quirky, some were funny, some were high body count-y.
  11. King, Stephen. Finders Keepers
    • I read mysteries sparingly, but it’s Stephen King, you know? As the novel opens, an ardent fan steals the final, handwritten manuscript of a renowned writer (John Updike, for all intents and purposes). Decades later, the thief goes to retrieve his precious booty–but someone’s gotten there first.
  12. Maier, Corinne. Marx
    • I don’t remember reading this. It was a nonfiction graphic novel, that much rings a bell, but… well, it may have been good, but it wasn’t very memorable.
  13. McCloud, Scott. The Sculptor
    • A young sculptor, frustrated with his life and his art, makes a deal with Death: he will enjoy boundless artistic talent for the rest of his life, which now numbers 200 days and counting. It’s only after sealing the deal that our hero finally falls in love.
  14. Nicholas, Douglas. Throne of Darkness
    • In this medieval fantasy, book three of four in a series, my buddy Douglas (we’re Facebook friends. shut up.) pits a family of traveling musicians against evil shape-changers. Which makes it sound like a Scooby-Doo episode, which is terribly misleading. I love the dark atmosphere of these books, and the careful use of historical details, and the sense of horror, which is quiet and subtle–until suddenly it isn’t.
  15. Onion Magazine. The Iconic Covers
    • A collection of magazine covers from the only news source I trust.
  16. Parker, K. J. Savages
    • KJP, who finally revealed his real identity this year–hullo, Tom Holt–is indescribably good, and I do mean “indescribably.” Any attempt to summarize his books sounds dull (“Well, there are military tactics, see, and office clerks, and economic factions, and lots of details about government bureaucracies”) but he’s one of my must-reads.
  17. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Huis Clos
    • I read this just to get to the “Hell is other people” line. Totally worth it.
  18. Vandermeer, Jeff. Acceptance
    • The first work in this trilogy, Annihilation, was sublime. That’s the book writers should study when they’re learning to craft atmosphere. I read books two and three this year, and though I liked them, they just couldn’t match the creeping dread of the first.
  19. Vandermeer, Jeff. Authority
    • See above.

Previous, more impressive annual rundowns:

Turkey revisited

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Happy Thanksgiving.

This is the third consecutive Thanksgiving I’ve spent alone. I’m not sure how to feel about that.

It throws my social isolation into sharp relief, as though it weren’t plain enough already. I would feel better if my reclusion were intentional, if I were a hermit monk available only by appointment, and only after a grueling trek through inhospitable mountains.

But I am enjoying four days, all in a row, with no need to leave the house or interact with others, aside from Gremlin. This morning I fed her Whiskas Turkey & Giblets. Approximately thirty minutes later she threw up her seasonally-appropriate meal, managing to get it on two blankets and — a first — me.


White like me

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I’ve never felt nervous upon seeing a police officer. Why would I? They have no reason to bother me. The police are there to protect me.

This is the perspective of a law-abiding white person. Those with darker skin and/or criminal records are probably not nodding their heads in agreement.

In a normal day, I’m not fretting about my skin color/Otherness: most of my coworkers look like me, only without the superior fashion sense. When I hop onto twitter to see the news from my favorite writers, I see people who look like me but with beards.

No one has ever commented on how articulate I am, as though my fluency with English were somehow unexpected.

When I was uninsured and unemployed, no one looked at me askance when I went to the free health clinic.

No one has ever perceived me as a threat to her child.

No one has ever looked at me in a crowded park and wondered if was going to shout Allahu Akbar and blow us all to smithereens.

Every single interviewer for every single job I’ve ever applied for has been the same color as me. When I did not get jobs, I didn’t worry that it was because of my color. When I did get jobs, no one accused me of being there to fill a quota.

I try to be cognizant of my white privilege, but I guarantee I don’t think about race as much as some people do. When I express an opinion, be it benign (“I like spicy food”) or stupid (“I’m pulling for Donald Trump”), I don’t pause to wonder how it might reflect on other people of my race. A small example: I have a bad habit of assuming whiteness when I read about a person in a book or in the news– unless that person is a manicurist or a maid at a hotel or a migrant farmer.

So, okay, fantastic: I’m educated about race and racism and race issues. Yay for me. Yay for the white person.

Being enlightened and sensitive and thoughtful makes me a sympathetic figure to my friends, who are mostly all liberals, who are mostly all white. Being enlightened and sensitive and thoughtful has not, however, prevented any racially-motivated massacres or burned churches or burned crosses.

Ordinary, casual, frequently-subconscious racism is bad enough. We’re all guilty of that sometimes, no matter our color, no matter our good intentions.

But Klan-style terrorism, man. What do you do?

No one has ever used a racial slur against me. I’m thirty-four year old and I’ve never even heard the word nigger, except in a strictly socio-linguistic context. I’m sure know people who think it and speak it privately, but most racists know better than to expose themselves in front of casual acquaintances. They don’t enjoy being publicly shamed any more than I do.

So it’s not like I can spread the gospel of not being an asshole to my friends or acquaintances. The only injustices I see are small. Recently I was asked to select images for a presentation from a large set of pictures. I went through and counted 120ish humans, six of whom were people of color. That’s pretty lame. It needs to be fixed. But it’s not an act of terrorism or even deliberate racism.

One option would be to join a grassroots campaign or a local civic group. For several reasons this does not appeal to me. One of those reasons is that I don’t want to correct injustice as much as I want to prevent it.

When I think about cultural problems, I invariably reach the same conclusion: teach your children well. There’s nothing you can do about the true nutjobs, but almost all children, and very many adults, can respond to education.

People can change. This guy did.

I do not have literal children and I have few figurative children. My acquaintances are few and my friends fewer. There’s not much racism to undo in the people I know.

Here’s what I’d really like to do: I’d like to work one-on-one with racists. Reading through the comments of an internet article will not change hearts and minds, especially if that article supports your opinion in the first place. Talking with a real human being makes you think about your positions. Sometimes it even makes you listen.

I’m trying to picture the Craigslist ad: “Dear racists: I am right and you are wrong. Let’s get together so I can explain why.”

Probably I need to work on that a little.

Violent acts

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sansaDuring a recent episode of Game of Thrones, one of the main characters was raped. The scene was a brutal and graphic.

The internet immediately exploded with condemnation. It was a trauma trigger for some viewers; others thought it was far too violent for television; still others thought it was an example of poor storytelling.

My reaction to these perspectives suggests that I am a monster. Perhaps I am.

If depictions of sexual violence are unwatchable for you, then do not watch a gritty medieval drama.

The recent rape scene offended many viewers for the excessive violence. Being offended is an understandable reaction– but those people who are only now protesting the violence in Game of Thrones are a bit late to the party. The show is in its fifth season, and we have already seen the rape of other characters, beheadings, torture, flayings, castration, death by molten gold, burnings at the stake, infanticide, and the stabbing of a pregnant woman’s uterus.

Why cry foul now? Why is the rape of a main character unacceptable when all the rest of it’s okay?

I do not like the sanctimony, the supposition that sexual violence should have its own set of rules. If you’re going to be morally outraged, be outraged about violence, period.

And the depiction of rape is not necessarily an example of poor storytelling. Rape is overused as plot device, but there’s nothing inherently uncreative or unwarranted about it, and sometimes the show writer or the novelist gets it right.

Would I prefer to see less violence in books and television or movies? I’d prefer to see it handled better. I like stories that explore the meaning of violence, or the lack of meaning, and the reverberations for the victims and the perpetrators.

Fiction helps me understand violence without having to endure it personally.

Book Rundown, 2014

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It’s January 1st, that one magical day of the year when you can depend on seeing my annual reading experience described in wholly unnecessary detail. Nice to know something around here’s dependable, as I rarely post here anymore. Time might come when I post here only on January 1st, but I won’t surrender this annual tradition. The public demands it! That is to say, I track my reading habits obsessively, and if an innocent member of the public lands here, the worst that will happen is a mild case of tedium. It passes quickly.

Depression is a nasty disease. Not nasty like Ebola or multiple sclerosis, and as a topic it has no business in my annual book review, except for this: whole months of 2014 passed with me reading hardly anything. I just didn’t want to. Still don’t want to, most of the time. I would check out new books by authors I adore — Christopher Buehlman, Tana French, and K.J. Parker, for instance — and return them to the library without having cracked them open.

So it should have been a better reading year. It should have been a better year, period.

But you aren’t here for the gloom! You’re here for the scintillating minutiae of my reading life! I completely understand if you can’t contain yourself a moment longer, if you simply must jump to the meat of the Book Rundown, but some of you may wish to revisit previous years’ entries to torture yourself with sweet anticipation:

And now, the real reason we’re all here: Book Rundown, 2014

Total books read, cover-to-cover: 92

Age levels:

  • Adult: 85
  • YA: 6
  • Children’s: 1

Books read that were published in 2014: 38

Books read that won’t be published till 2015: 1. The Aeronaut’s Windlass, first in a new Steampunk series by Jim Butcher.

Nonfiction: 40. This includes a couple of poetry books and a collection of cartoons, which are murky from a classification point of view. Other people might class them as fiction.

Fiction: 52

Genres: (as some books have more than one genre, total exceeds 92)


  • Art and photography (collections): 4
  • Biography: 1
  • Cultural Criticism: 2
  • English Language: 1
  • Expose: 1
  • Feminism: 1
  • History: 5
  • Horror: 1
  • Humor: 8
  • Memoir: 9
  • Psychology: 1
  • Science: 4
  • Social science: 6
  • Travel: 1
  • True crime: 2


  • Classics/Literary canon: 2
  • Crime/Mystery: 3
  • Erotica: 1. Which should last me a lifetime, please and thank you.
  • Fantasy: 20
  • Historical: 2. Both by Douglas Nicholas. Superb medieval British Isles setting.
  • Horror: 13
  • Humor: 1
  • Literary fiction: 5
  • Mainstream: 1
  • Mystery: 3
  • Science fiction: 8
  • Steampunk: 1. Reluctantly– this is NOT my genre– but I wanted 2014 bragging rights for a book not pubbed til 2015, and anyway it’s written by my BFFF. (That extra F is not a typo. It stands for Frenemy. ‘sComplicated.)
  • Suspense/Thriller: 5
  • Western: 1


  • Audiobooks: 26. Would have been more, but I broke my own rule. Normally I listen exclusively to nonfiction, preferring to read fiction with my eyes, but I encountered such a strong audiobook review of a novel that I made an exception. I quickly recalled why I don’t listen to fiction: the pace, the literal pace, is too slow. Didn’t help matters that the novel itself was not to my tastes. I finally gave up on it sometime in summer, but I stubbornly refused to start a new audiobook till I’d finished the one in progress. The result: six months of no audiobooks. I ended the stalemate by reading the remainder in a print copy. Maybe now I can go back to audiobooks.
  • Collections/Anthologies: 18. 1 of cartoons (T-Rex Trying); 1 of fantasy art (Spectrum 20); 1 of speeches (by Kurt Vonnegut!); 1 of radio interviews (NPR’s Funniest Driveway Moments; not that funny); 7 of essays; 5 of photoessays; and 2 of poetry.
  • Graphic novels: 13, of which one was nonfiction.
  • Picture book: 1. Not for young children. This is a picture book for tweens and up, provided they have a bent sent of humor. It’s not as good as the first Patrick Rothfuss picture book, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, but I enjoyed the continued macabre adventures of the princess and her stuffed teddy in this sequel, The Dark of Deep Below.


  • Annual fat Russian novel: First Love, by Ivan Turgenev. Positively slender, by Russian standards, but positively not-positive in theme and tone, so it counts as legitimate Russian fiction.
  • Annual classic: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. It’s a coming-of-age novel, and I regret not reading it when I was a teen; would have meant more to me then. But I still enjoyed the hell out of it.
  • Annual language book: Bad English, by Ammon Shea.
  • Re-reads: 0. As in zero. I’d have to doublecheck my records, but I think this is unprecedented.

Authors: 87

New (to me) authors: 64, or 66 if we go with pseudonyms: I already knew Robert Gilbraith as J.K. Rowling, and I wish I’d stayed with Anne Rice and not tried her erotica pen-name,  A. N. Roquelaure. Two hundred  pages of spanking, that was.

New section for 2014! Authors by sex: Note that each author only gets one entry, so though I read three Stephen King books, I’m only listing him once. And I am treating Robert Gilbraith as a male, out of respect for JKR’s chosen pseudonymous identity.

  • Female: 21 (roughly one quarter)
  • Male: 66 (roughly three quarters)

Best book of the year, fiction: The Necromancer’s House, by Christopher Buehlman, published 2013. Baba Yaga is the antagonist. That fact alone guaranteed I would read it, even though my previous Buehlman book (Those Across the River, featuring werewolves) was merely enjoyable: liked it, didn’t love it. But this book? THIS BOOK? Astonishingly good. In contemporary upstate New York, Andrew is a mostly-out of practice necromancer, still mourning his dead wife but in love with a witch named Anneke, who loves him just as much. They’d be a great couple if she weren’t a lesbian. Instead Andrew meets his sexual needs, sorta, with a nearby carnivorous mermaid, who unwittingly murders an old man who had been dear to Baba Yaga, thereby invoking the wrath of the scariest, most powerful monster in all of European folklore.

The whole book has a moody tone. There are moments of horror, humor, violence, and pathos. Buehlman has a truly inventive imagination and sneaks in a lot of commentary on social issues such as alcoholism and sexual identity without being pedantic, and the climactic battle scene has a plot twist I promise you won’t see coming.

My only problem with this book? It is Urban Fantasy and Horror of the highest caliber, and nobody seems to know about it. Urban Fantasy fans know about The Dresden Files (hey Jim, love ya, noodlehead) and about folks like Kevin Hearne, Seanan McGuire, Myke Cole, and Chuck Wendig, but The Necromancer’s House isn’t getting the same marketing or publicity or con-time or whatever it is that makes established fan-bases aware of standalone novels like this.

Best book of the year, nonfiction: What It Is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes, published in 2011. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Bronson Pinchot. This should be required reading for any civilian, and ESPECIALLY for anyone in a position of power to send troops into war zones– but this is not a political book about the Vietnam War, or even a philosophical book about the ethics of combat. This is the memoir of one Vietnam vet doing his damnedest to explain what it’s like to go to war.

Marlantes is a superb writer: his book Matterhorn stands alongside Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the early novels of Robert Olen Butler as some of the finest fiction on Vietnam. And only a superb writer could bring such insight and clarity to terrible subjects like violence, dehumanizing the enemy, trauma, and PTSD. (His book has helped me understand my own PTSD and depression.)

But what I admire most is the honesty of the memoir. Marlantes tells the whole picture, not just the parts that paint him in a flattering light. He could have concentrated on the “War Is Hell” theme: no one would have argued with that, and it would have been the truth. But it would not have been the whole truth. Marlantes is brave enough and honest enough to talk about the parts he enjoyed: the adrenaline, the camaraderie, the killing of the enemy. And he has the courage to reveal how, all these decades later, he is still haunted: haunted by what he did, haunted by the aftereffects echoing in his civilian life, haunted by the parts of war he still misses to this day.

Honorable mentions: 

  • Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Middle-grades/YA novel featuring human zombies, cow zombies, baseball, and a really strong argument in favor of local agriculture and strict food inspections.
  • Poems Dead and Undead, edited by Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust. Most of us don’t read poetry for pleasure, perhaps because we had to count one too many iambs in grade school. It’s a short anthology, and you don’t have to read it cover-to-cover, but surely some of the poems will catch your fancy, as two in particular did for me. I was astonished at the over-the-top gruesome imagery (“What kind of sadist would write this?!?”) of a poem called “The Dead King Eats the Gods,” and then learned that it was inscribed on an ancient Egyptian pyramid. And I was charmed by the twisted fairy-tale version of God and his buddy Satan in “The Gardener,” by Stephen Dobyns.
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, might be the best example of embedded reporting you’ll ever read. For three years Boo immersed herself among three-hundred some families in a slum in Mumbai. To bring the religious and ethic strife, the overcrowding, and the overwhelming poverty into focus, she follows the stories of a few select individuals, resulting in a narrative that boggles the Western mind. The audiobook is narrated by Sunil Malhotra, who does an outstanding job of with the various accents.
  • The Aeronaut’s Windlass, first in a new series called Cinder Spires by Jim Butcher. It’s not published yet, so I can’t say much, except that it’s Steampunk, and I don’t like Steampunk, and I found myself grudgingly liking it anyway.
  • The Magician’s Land, the third volume in the trilogy by Lev Grossman. No book will ever touch me as did book #2, The Magician King, but this was a fine conclusion to a series that pays homage to Narnia and Hogwarts.
  • I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes. Just bear with the slow start, okay? Once the action gets going, the pace of this spy novel does not let up. I’m bored with most contemporary thrillers, but Terry Hayes nails it. International terrorism, unnerving but badass protagonist, exceptionally good plotting, little details that make it all seem believable. Hayes reminds me a lot of Neal Stephenson. Also? It’s a debut. That’s just annoying in a book this good.
  • Something Red and The Wicked by Douglas Nicholas. Nicholas is a poet, and it shows, but not in an obnoxious ooh-look-how-lyrical-and-erudite-I-am kind of way. Set in the medieval British Isles, and starring a family of four traveling entertainers, these first two novels in the series mix horror with magic and adventure and romance. The prose is lovely without bring pretentious, and I challenge even the nerdiest history buff to find a historical inaccuracy
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. Though I am leery of anything marketed as literary fiction, I’m a sucker for reincarnation stories. This sort of story has been done before (ha) but North has some unique angles. Quite reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith. Our hero in this YA novel loves his girlfriend but suspects he might also be in love with his best male friend. That’s right: we have a bisexual/questioning teenage male protagonist. Not a bisexual girl — face it, everyone likes bi- girls — but a sexually confused male. It’s so damn refreshing. I could stop talking right now and rest my case. Except maybe I should mention that Smith writes with a style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. And also maybe I should mention the humongous praying mantises poised to take over the world.
  • Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh. Another book too damn good to be a debut, this is a near-future thriller with just a little bit of science fiction. Our hero is an assassin. He really likes boxcutters. That’s the bright start of the novel: things tend to get a little bleak after that. Look, this is a really grim book, definitely not for everyone, but the prose is tight and I soaked up each page. Which possibly says something about me.
  • Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. Perceptive reader that you are, I bet you can already tell from the title that this is going to be another one of those not-very-cheery books. Most of the characters die in the first few pages, so try not to get too attached. For that matter, don’t get attached to the survivors. They’re not especially likable. This is a short book of ecological science fiction, with not even a hint of levity to disrupt the tense atmosphere.
  • Quesadillas, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Though wary of any book that threatens to reveal itself as literary fiction, I took a chance on this one because 1.) it was short and 2.) there was an amazing amount of swearing, I mean even on the first page. Not quite sure how to classify this — satire? magical realism? Marxist lit? — but no matter: it is the story of a family in Mexico with too many children and too little money. Funny thing is, it’s not bleak. Plenty of horrible things going on, but the tone dances between ligth-hearted and surreal.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir. Science fiction! Adventure! Survival story! Mark Watney’s fellow astronauts left him for dead, which is sort of unnerving to realize when you return to consciousness and realize that you’re alone. On Mars. With no transport. And no way to communicate with earth. With an inauspicious start like this, you’re probably expecting a short story– a very, very, very short story. But Watney has the ingenuity, the tools, and the chutzpah to not only treat his injuries but to establish his own one-person colony– and to start thinking up ways for a good-old-fashioned rescue. Props to Andy Weir for inserting all kinds of science and factoids without dragging down the narrative.


  • Nonfiction: Her, by Christa Parravani. This is not a bad book. Parravani is a gifted writer, and her story sounded like just my kind of memoir. Reading about other people’s struggles helps me understand my own. Parravani’s identical twin Cara was brutally, violently raped. She never completely physically healed, and it should go without saying that she never healed emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically. Cara began abusing drugs, and one day she died of a heroin overdose. Christa somehow managed to function after her twin’s death, but spent years suffering from the deep depression and unhealthy relationships.I’m with you so far, Parravani. This is a gut-wrenching grief memoir. But then one day along comes Mr. Wonderful, they fall in love on their first date, marry a few months later, and next thing there’s a baby. I am truly happy you finally got a break, Christa, and I wish you all the best. But this was the worst nonfiction book of 2014 for me, personally, because it ends with a deus ex machina. Prince Charming showed up to rescue you. I read grief memoirs to draw strength from people who survive even though things don’t get better.
  • Fiction: Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler. Yet again overcame my wariness of Literary Fiction to give this one a try. I should know better by now: if all the critics love a LiFi novel, I’m guaranteed to hate it. But it was set in rural middle Wisconsin, an area I know well and love. Long story short: the prose is fine, no problems there, and the characters are pretty well-developed, only I didn’t like the characters. Not always a deal-breaker– I love George R. R. Martin’s Tywin Lannister, for instance — but they just didn’t interest me. I didn’t care about them. And my biggest disappointment of all was that the book did not evoke rural Wisconsin. Hey, maybe for some folks it did, but the setting felt more like Ruraltown USA than Eau Claire.

And finally, all ninety-two titles, arranged by author:

Adrian, Matt The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds
Alter, Adam Drunk Tank Pink
Azzarello, Brian Brother Lono
Bacigalupi, Paolo Zombie Baseball Beatdown
Barnstone, Tony and Michelle Mitchell-Foust, eds. Poems Dead and Undead
Buehlman, Christopher The Necromancer’s House
Blum, Deborah The Poisoner’s Handbook
Boo, Katherine Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Bourdain, Anthony Kitchen Confidential
Bryson, Bill I’m a Stranger Here Myself
Bryson, Bill A Walk in the Woods
Butcher, Jim The Aeronaut’s Windlass
Butcher, Jim Furies of Calderon
Butcher, Jim Ghoul Goblin
Butler, Nickolas Shotgun Lovesongs
Carey, Mike The Girl with All the Gifts
Cargill, C. Robert Dreams and Shadows
Ciaramella, Jason Thumbprint
Cole, Myke Control Point
Connolly, Harry Child of Fire
Cosby, Nate Cow Boy
Crockett, Alexandra Metal Cats
Crosley, Sloane I Was Told There’d Be Cake
Estabrook, Barry Tomatoland
Ettlinger, Steve Twinkie, Deconstructed
Farinella, Matteo Neurocomic
Fenner, Cathy and Fenner, Arnie, eds. Spectrum 20
Forman, Gayle If I Stay
Gaffigan, Jim Dad Is Fat
Galbraith, Robert Cuckoo’s Calling
Gladwell, Malcolm Outliers
Greenberg, Isabel The Encyclopedia of Early Earth
Grossman, Lev The Magician’s Land
Harris, Alice Blow Me A Kiss
Harris, Joe The X-Files: Season 10
Hayes, Terry I Am Pilgrim
Hearne, Kevin Hounded
Hiaasen, Carl Team Rodent
Homans, John What’s A Dog For?
Ironmonger, J. W. Coincidence
Jemisin, N. K. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Jessop, Carolyn Triumph
Kidder, Tracy Strength In What Remains
King, Stephen Danse Macabre
King, Stephen Mr. Mercedes
King, Stephen Revival
Kittredge, Caitlin Coffin Hill
Korb, Scott Life In Year One
Krakauer, Jon Three Cups of Deceit
Lovejoy, Diana Cat Lady Chic
Magary, Drew Someone Could Get Hurt
Krulwich, Robert NPR Funniest Driveway Moments
Malerman, Josh Bird Box
Marlantes, Karl What It Is Like to Go to War
Martin, George R. R. The Hedge Knight v. I
Martin, George R. R. The Hedge Knight v. II
McKinley, Robin Shadows
Mueller, Tom Extra Virginity
Murphy, Hugh T-Rex Trying
Nicholas, Douglas Something Red
Nicholas, Douglas The Wicked
Norman, Howard I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place
North, Claire The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Parker, Robert B. Looking for Rachel Wallace
Parravani, Christa Her
Pratchett, Terry Raising Steam
Riordan, Rick The Lightning Thief
Robothan, Michael Watching You
Roquelaure, A. N. The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty
Rosen, R. D. Throw the Damn Ball
Rothfuss, Patrick The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Dark of Deep Below
Schulner, David First Generation
Scott, Traer Nocturne
Sedaris, David When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Shea, Ammon Bad English
Smith, Andrew Grasshopper Jungle
Smith, Betty A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Solnit, Rebecca Men Explain Things To Me
Stechschulte, Conor The Amateurs
Sternbergh, Adam Shovel Ready
Su, Kat Crap Taxidermy
Talty, Stephan The Illustrious Dead
Tobin, Paul I Was the Cat
Tregillis, Ian Something More Than Night
Turgenev, Ivan First Love
Vandermeer, Jeff Annihilation
Vanhee, Jason Engines of the Broken World
Villalobos, Juan Pablo Quesadillas
Vonnegut, Kurt If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?
Waters, M. D. Archetype
Weir, Andy The Martian
Wood, Jonathan No Hero

Anger Management

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I have trouble controlling my anger, but like all good contrarians, I can’t be bothered to have anger issues like everyone else. Instead of expressing my anger too much, I don’t express it enough.

I do okay with its cousins. I can express resentment and frustration and disappointment, and I fashion myself as a true connoisseur of irritability. My relationship with irritation is nearly transcendent. It is a wonder to behold, unless it is directed at you, in which case I advise you to retreat, quickly, because the chances of you calming me down are approximately nonexistent.

In the right circumstances, I can muster up some anger in the abstract. What is the point, I ask you, what is the point of having an insufferably rigid moral compass if you don’t rail against social injustice now and again? I like to do that occasionally, so as to pretend to myself that my degree in Women’s Studies has practical application in real life.

But pure anger– undiluted, unambiguous, directed at someone specific who deserves it– is not part of my emotional arsenal. This is not without its benefits: I get to look civilized and refined in comparison to people who can’t control their tempers, which usually only makes them angrier, which in turn makes me feel smug. I like feeling smug. Very satisfying in a petty sort of way.

But not expressing anger gets to be a problem with, oh let’s pick an example at random here, let’s say for instance my absolutely horrible relationship history, the typical pattern of which consists of the other person doing atrocious things to me while I respond with the all the fortitude and charisma of a potted fern.

This reluctance to express anger in appropriate situations is a function of both nature and nurture. I am a biological female, which means that I have less testosterone advising me to get into fist fights or to start wars with hostile nations. And I am a societal female, which means that cultural traditions for literally thousands and thousands of years have conspired to make me peaceful. We women are expected to be the diplomats and the peacemakers and the teachers, not the warriors.

(I learned this in my Women’s Studies classes. SEE? TOTALLY PRACTICAL DEGREE. Albeit useless for getting a job.)

Biology, culture, take your pick: whatever the reason, women rarely engage in physical violence. Exceptions abound: this is not a universal rule that applies to all women all of the time. Some women become career soldiers, and some of the most courageous warriors in history were women: think Joan of Arc and Boudica and Jennie Irene Hodges, who dressed in drag so she could fight in the Civil War. Plus you’ve got plenty of violent women in civilian situations: Anne Bonney and Mary Read were professional pirates (the Blackbeard type, not the modern Somali type). Lizzie Borden knew the business end of an axe. And modern teenage girls in catfights are fearsome to behold.

But even that language is loaded. Girls engage in catfights, which are bad enough but not, you know, real fights. A lot of scratching and hair-pulling and screaming, not a lot of crippling punches to the sternum.

Unusual circumstances and unusual women aside, females don’t fight. We aren’t supposed to, and usually we don’t want to. We will defend ourselves, usually inadequately, but we rarely attack.

So guess what. I’ve started taking karate lessons.

Here’s the thing: I’m not doing it for self-defense. If I cared about defending myself against aggressive strangers, I’d buy a can of mace. Cheaper and quicker than years and years of studying martial arts.

As it happens, I’m not worried about defending myself against aggressive strangers. Statistically speaking, any intentional violence done to me will come at the hands of a loved one. Get this: the leading cause of death among pregnant women is murder. The murderer is almost always the father of the child.

Not that I’m pregnant. Just trying to point out here that being attacked on the street or raped by a stranger behind a bush is much less common than domestic violence. And it’s much harder to fight against someone you love. Most women will resist an attack. Most women will try to defend themselves. But very few women will return (or initiate) an attack upon a husband or boyfriend or uncle or stepfather or whoever. (Notable exception: women will go to unprecedented lengths to protect their children, but that’s a moot point for me.)

My own history bears this out. I have been on the receiving end of some absurdly violent situations. (Oddly, considering everything else I’ve gone through, I have never been physically beaten up. It’s on my to-do list.) I have suffered emotional, spiritual, psychological, and sexual violence, and it’s always been from someone I loved. There’s never been a knife or a gun. (There was a bomb, that one time, but the explosion wasn’t aimed at me specifically so it doesn’t count. Probably. Probably doesn’t count.) We’re talking about weapons-free abuse from people who were supposed to be honoring and respecting me as much as I honored and respected them.

In hindsight, maybe a bit of carefully directed anger– you know, freaking standing up for myself— might have been useful.

This is difficult for me to reconcile. I am non-violent to my core. Politically and personally, I recoil at the thought of causing physical harm to someone else. I would like to think that, if I were ever in a life-threatening situation, I would be killed rather than kill. I hope I would pull a Gandhi and die with integrity.

That’s right: I care more about honor than life itself. Now you see why I like Russian novels.

This is where karate will help. The classes themselves are a controlled situation, where I am not just permitted but encouraged to move violently. I am appalled at the thought of actually hurting someone, but if you do it right, you don’t hurt the person. You just leave them, er, temporarily indisposed.


I’ve studied yoga for years. It’s actually proving useful in karate: the other students complain afterward of aches and bruises, and I’m all confused (“Oh, being thrown to the floor again and again and again and again was supposed to hurt? Huh.”). But the problem with yoga is that there is very little body-slamming involved. None, really. With yoga you’re not supposed to be angry. That in fact is the whole entire point of yoga.

But I’m trying to cultivate anger, and if it works out the way I hope, karate will teach me to express that anger in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. Maybe the way to tap into the my ridiculously repressed emotional anger is to move about with some nice healthy violence. No one gets hurt, but I still get to move with more kinetic energy than, you know, lotus pose.


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When I was earning a degree in Women’s Studies in the early 2000s, “trigger warning” was not in the feminist vocabulary.  Some years later the phrase started to gain traction in feminist circles, though by dint of my profession I only ever saw it in conjunction with books. “Trigger warning: this novel contains a rape scene” would precede a review, for instance.

Trigger warnings are a caveat emptor: proceed at your own risk, because something violent awaits. Often the violence is sexual, but it might be purely physical, or emotional, or psychological. Trigger warnings are most commonly applied to books and movies, but they can show up in lots of places. A haunted house at Halloween might come with a trigger warning.

The aim of trigger warnings is to protect people.  They serve to alert people in general that violence is on the horizon, but in particular they exist to warn people who are particularly sensitive to violent imagery. Survivors of war, combat, rape, assault, and other traumas are the ones who most need to be on guard.

I don’t much care for trigger warnings.

A few disclaimers: I’m a feminist. I’ve been raped. I am speaking for myself, not for all feminists, certainly not for all survivors of sexual violence. And I have deliberately not read a lot on the topic. I very much want to have an informed opinion, but for right now, I want my opinion to be informed by my own perspective, not by other people’s. This is one of those times where I want to reach my own conclusion before integrating any dogma. I read this New Yorker piece and then stopped.

I will happily modify my opinions as I learn more. This is just my starting point.

We’ll start with the trigger warnings I do applaud. If you as a creator want to apply a trigger warning to your own work, fantastic. It’s your intellectual property. You can do what you want. If you want to risk losing potential sales out of respect for other people’s demons, you are demonstrating courage and selflessness. Bravo.

I’m less enthusiastic about trigger warnings in reviews, but I suppose I still basically support them. I’m not wild about having a third party interpret, and potentially condemn, a creative work. One book reviewer’s trigger is another person’s salvation. But it’s the only workable solution I can see for people who are trying to research a book before reading it. Let’s say a reader is eager to try a new series but is wary of mention of suicide. Her choice is not to read the book at all – which is a really lousy option—or to consult sources that will give her reliable information about what to expect.

I do not like the idea of labeling all books, de rigeur, in a classroom setting, or in a bookstore, or in a library. For one thing, it’s impossible to accurately identify every conceivable trigger. A rape scene, sure, that’s pretty clear. But what about something less obvious? If you’re a parent who has lost a child, you might fall to pieces if you read about another parent’s loss. But you might also fall to pieces if you read about a parent who hasn’t lost a child.

Know what’s dicey for me? Reading about happy, healthy relationships. They’re not full-onslaught triggers for me, don’t get me wrong, but I get extremely uncomfortable when I read about normal happy people. Feels like an indictment of my own shortcomings. No way can anyone warn me about all of my triggers.

Here’s the thing: maybe you’ve been raped. Maybe you’re a combat vet. Maybe you’ve suffered from something less overtly violent, like a divorce or the death of a loved one. Know what sucks? The world doesn’t owe you.

Just because something awful has happened to you doesn’t mean the world will change to accommodate your psychological damage. You don’t get a free pass. Artists will continue to create content that will disturb you, and the fact that you have suffered does not give you the right to condemn them for it. The fact that you have suffered does not afford you further protection.

It sucks.

I know that.

You have endured something awful. I am so sorry for that. I’ve lived through way more violence than anyone deserves (and a lot less than some people get), so I mean that from the bottom of my heart. But that still doesn’t mean that censorship is right—and that’s what labelling usually becomes. At the very least, if you slap a giant yellow “Trigger warning: rape” sticker on a book, you’re going to stigmatize it.

magician_kingLev Grossman wrote a book called The Magicians, which I liked quite a lot, and then he wrote a book called The Magician King, which blew me away. The main character is my spiritual twin. Julia has endured worse violence than I have, and she is smarter than I am, which is not especially easy for me to admit, even about a fictional person. She is me, only moreso. The only explanation is that Grossman spied on me to create Julia’s character. I mean the man peered into my head.

The scene where she is raped is described in very graphic detail, and the whole book haunted me for months. I am profoundly glad to have read it. I hate to think of it getting labeled as inappropriate. It is inappropriate, for some people. For me it is indispensable.

For people who are sensitive to triggers, help is out there. You can ask a trusted friend to read through a book or preview a movie. You can go to a public library and ask about a specific title, or you can ask the librarian to pull together a list of materials that are safe for your needs. (Not all librarians are created equal, so if the first one seems stumped, try another librarian. Or just send me a message.)

And there are positive ways of creating change. Have you suffered violence? You can leave it at that. No one owes you anything… but you don’t owe them, either. You don’t have to become an advocate. You can choose to talk. You can choose to stay silent. Ain’t nobody’s business but your own.

But if you have the strength and the energy, you can speak up. Did a scene in a book upset you?  Again, I emphasize that it is the author’s prerogative to write things that bother you, just as it is your prerogative to read it, or not read it. But you might consider communicating with the author, through twitter or the author’s website or, failing those, the author’s publisher. Being petulant will probably get you sweet nowhere. Being open and honest might get you some meaningful dialogue. (“Hey, I read your book, and it caught me by surprise on p. 123. It stirred up some really painful memories. Just thought you should know.”)

control_pointAnd you can do things like this. Myke Cole is the author of some fantasy novels with a really fun concept: American military plus magic. (Start with Control Point). He also has triggers of his own, which come into play at fan conventions, where people wave around toy guns. He’s doing something good with his experience, offering free lessons in basic weapon safety.

By the way, an author friend of mine has made noise about going to a firing range. Well – he mentioned it once, and that’s good enough for me. I’m going to keep pestering until he does something about it. I don’t particularly see myself joining the NRA anytime soon, but I’ll try anything once. Plus I’m fairly sure I’d look hot with a gun. Which is my main motivation for doing things. Vanity, you know.

So what did I get wrong about trigger warnings? Like I said, this is a starting point. Let’s hear it. I’m prepared to issue mea culpas.


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