Fifty Scary Short Stories from Flavorwire

halloween2014_poeI am not, as a rule, a big fan of holidays—especially the ones with stuff. The thought of having to get things down from the attic and out of boxes and put them all around my house and then put them back in the boxes and take them back up to the attic in short order does not excite me, to say the least. It’s enough of a daily challenge to get out and put away the things I actually need. The thought of making more work for myself, for reasons that don’t even come close to aesthetic, doesn’t really appeal.

On the other hand, I have no objection if other people want to get out their holiday stuff. Which is why I kind of like Halloween—it’s good-natured and usually a bit goofy, and doesn’t take itself seriously as, say, Christmas (which has every right to take itself seriously, don’t get me wrong). And Halloween has a great tradition of literature—it’s a holiday that lends itself to storytelling in a way that the others just don’t. Christmas and Easter have the one big story apiece, with everything else paling in their wakes; Thanksgiving, New Year’s, the Fourth of July have limited narratives as well. And who—even the most genre-deficient among us—doesn’t love a good ghost story?

I realize I’ve been leaning a bit heavily on Flavorwire in my very sparse posting mode lately. But they’re pretty good pickers, and I’ve been short on time to do much picking of my own. So without much in the way of regrets I offer you Flavorwire’s collection of 50 of the Scariest Short Stories of All Time. They range from good old classic tales like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which creeped me out when I read it in grade school, to Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” which creeped me out in high school (Flavorwire’s link is no good—try this one), to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which creeped me out in my 20s, to Karen Russell’s “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” which creeped me out when I read it last year, to Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” which I read last night and almost wish I hadn’t.

That’s a whole lot of creepiness to last you through Halloween night itself when you’re sitting home, waiting for little kids dressed as zombies and Batmen and Minions, and trying to distract yourself from eating all those individually wrapped chocolate bars because you’re never going to give them all away anyway. Might as well immerse yourself in some good scary fare, so that when the doorbell finally does ring you jump about a foot and answer the door a little sweaty and out of breath, and none of the parents in the neighborhood let their kids come to your house next year, which means more individually wrapped chocolate bars for you. Win-win.

In the meantime, read these babies with the lights on.


Sunday Links, October 5, 2014

7 SecondsAwards

The 2014 Utopiales European Award nominees have been announced.  This award is given to a novel or collection by a European speculative fiction author that was published in French during the literary season preceding the Utopiales festival.  The award ceremony will be held on November 1, 2014.

The 2014 Kirkus Prize finalists have been announced.  The Kirkus Prize is one of the biggest in the world, with $50,000 awarded to authors of fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature.  Six books have been nominated in each of the three categories.  The winners of each category will be announced on October 23.

The winners of the Sunburst Awards for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic have been announced.

Halloween Reading

Horror Novel Reviews lists the 100 scariest novels of all time.  It’s simultaneously disappointing and exhilarating to find I’ve only read 25 of them; I wish I had a better base, but look at all the great reading I have ahead of me!  I own more than 30 of those I haven’t read yet, so I have somewhere to start.  That’s assuming, of course, that horror readers generally agree with this list.  What are your thoughts?

The List Challenges website lists 45 top horror novels, and it’s interesting to note where there is overlap and where there isn’t.  For instance, I agree with this list’s contention that Dan Simmons’s Carrion Comfort is terrifying (though why neither list contains Song of Kali by that author is a mystery to me — it may be the most frightening novel I’ve ever read) — but I’ve yet to read Simmons’s Winter Haunting, so maybe I just don’t know what I’m missing.  I’ve read 18 of the books on this list, a much better percentage!  And I own another 15, so again, I’ve got a place to start.

What to Read Next

If horror isn’t your preferred genre, never fear:  October still has plenty of goodness in store for you.  Kirkus lists its top science fiction and fantasy releases for October, as does BuzzFeed (though the latter also includes horror; Kirkus promises horror titles next week).  There’s a surprising lack of overlap, so check out both lists.

FlavorWire lists 10 must-read books for October.

David Bowie lists his 75 must-read books for Brain Pickings.  It’s a fascinating list with a great deal of variety. has done its usual great job in rounding up all the different genres of science fiction and fantasy that are being published in October.  Here are the various lists:  genre-benders; science fiction; fantasy; paranormal romance; and paranormal and urban fantasy.  I’ll take one of each, please.  (I say that a lot, don’t I?)

Hachette v. Amazon

This story never ceases making news.  FlavorWire reports on famous authors speaking out against Amazon, provides some data I hadn’t seen before:  Amazon wants 30% of the sales price of any ebook sold, with the publisher and author to share the remainder.  That seems like an enormous profit for a retailer, and I can see why Hachette might not be too thrilled about that offer.  The really interesting part, though, is that the Hachette’s authors (and those of the other big publishers) seems to be hanging in there with Hachette, even though they’re getting hit in the pocketbook pretty hard.  Janet Fitch’s letter to Jeff Bezos — to which he never responded — is especially eloquent on the subject.  Lee Child dives in on J.A. Konrath’s blog, responding to those self-published authors who are on Amazon’s side.  The New York Times reports that Amazon is selectively selling Hachette titles, and not solely based on popularity — it seems to be taking political sides.  Damien Walter uses alternate history to suggest that Amazon may not be the bad guy after all.

Of Interest to Readers

Can you really read a 110,000 word novel in only three hours?  Rob Boffard tried, and was left in agony.

Helen Lowe is bemused at the fact that we’re still arguing about genre vs. literary fiction.  She makes a point with which I agree:  so-called “literary fiction” is just another genre, with its own distinctive tropes.

Charlie Jane Anders has a great essay in io9 about irony in science fiction.

We lost Lucius Shepard earlier this year — it’s been a bad year for science fiction and fantasy; we’ve lost too many shining lights.  Locus hosted a roundtable on Shepard and his work that I found fascinating.  So much so, in fact, that I wound up buying a copy of Trujillo, a collection of Shepard’s novellas that I’ve wanted for some time.

Cool Stuff

October 2 was National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom.  To celebrate, Anglophenia put together a collection of 10 British actors reading poetry.  I swooned for Alan Rickman’s reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, my favorite of all Shakespeare’s sonnets.  You’re bound to find something that suits you here, too.


The Birth of the Trailer

The history of book trailers dates back to the arrival of broadband Internet access and personal computers, for good reason—how else would you watch them? But there were a few outliers: TV spots for mass market blockbusters back in the early days of cable, and, apparently, some on film as well. Remember those odd shorts produced to fill time before the movie started? Most of them were cartoons, or newsreels, or weird little comedies, but at least one, as it turns out, was a proto-book trailer.

In 1973 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt put together a promotional film to market its newest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, and it’s… weird. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About: Sects, Sets, Sex, prefix, frankforts, Waldorf, idle, American, peanuts, gin, Heritage, cabbage, Dictionary, Rasputin, bassoon, cohort, rum, putty, rotor, usage, coquette, alfalfa, zipper, Mississippi, … etc.: But Were Afraid to Axe!! is definitely a child of the ’70s, halfway between hokey vaudeville and unhip psychedelia, something both your grandparents and your teenagers would have rolled their eyes at.

It begins with a strange French horn soundtrack and couple of people in white rabbit suits—a nod to Grace Slick?—and spends the next 16 minutes discussing pronunciation, meaning, usage, and spelling via a series of skits filled with bad puns (“the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five: a, e, i, o, and u”), painfully dated jokes about secretaries, butlers, and Brooklyn accents, and a DIY sensibility that’s almost shocking in these days of Photoshop and iMovie—by the end of the decade Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update would have shown us how to fake a newsroom decently with minimal resources, but the newsroom here has cutout paper letters saying “NEWS CENTRAL” glued to the wall, the ubiquitous teletype sound effect, and not much else.

Still, everyone’s clearly having a fine time—it was obviously a welcome break in the workday for the Houghton Mifflin employees who made up the film’s cast—and it’s good dumb fun. I was ultimately won over by the man-on-the-street feature analyzing the correctness of “bit” versus “bitten”:

“Our usage panel, consisting of Margaret Mead, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, and the like, voted 88-42 that the boy was bitten by the dog.”

“I don’t think its right, I don’t care what the usage panel thinks. Dogs shouldn’t bite people.”

I’m not sure how many people got up after their showing of The Sting or The Exorcist or Mean Streets or god only knows what it preceded and ran out to the nearest bookstore to pick up a copy of the American Heritage Dictionary. Then again, how many people are going to buy the books advertised in this year’s batch of trailers, which probably don’t even have a person in a slightly tatty bear costume walking off with a chair when asked to take a seat? Or a secretary calling the doctor to report that her boss swallowed a dictionary and she can’t get a word out of him? It’s a dying art, I tell you.


Sunday Links, September 28, 2014


Author Eugie K. Foster died yesterday after only 42 years on this earth.  I will miss terribly all the wonderful stories and novels she would have written had she lived, and treasure those she did write all the more.  Hey, cancer?  You can go do something physically impossible to yourself.  Right away.


The Sunburst Award Society has announced its 2014 members’ choice awards for Canadian science fiction.

What to Read Next

Real Simple points to 17 books you won’t be able to put down.  They’re not just new books coming out this fall, either, so if you’re a library user, you’ll be able to track them down pretty easily.

Don’t have much time to read?  The try one of Kirkus’s 11 fast reads.

Omnivoracious talks about the best books of September.  Part 1; Part 2.

The Guardian looks at the top ten walks in books.

The Guardian also lists the top 25 books set in or about Chicago — the first place I called home as an adult, and the city I still love the most.  (I don’t miss the winters, though.  Windchills of -80 don’t happen in the Central Valley of California, and I’m just fine with that.)

Things to Think About

Cass R. Sunstein reviews Altered Pasts:  Counterfactuals in History by Richard J. Evans as a springboard for a discussion of alternate histories.  It’s a great article that opens with a hypothetical that will knock your socks off.  Read the article and then read a few alternate histories, like the great SS-GB by Len Deighton — but you might want to skip Evans’s book, if it’s as joyless as Sunstein makes it sound.


Want to know how many hours you’ll have to invest to read that book, or that series?  Io9 will tell you.  Warning:  if you haven’t already read George R.R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire (on which the television show “A Game of Thrones” is based) prepare to spend many, many, many hours holding very thick books in your hands.

Any good reader knows that books can take her worlds away.  But what about taking you deeper into the world you already inhabit?  Bibliotropic writes about why diversity in reading is necessary to broaden one’s world.  Having grown up in a white-bread exurb of Chicago, where I never saw anything but white faces and all girls were expected to grow up to be wives and mothers and nothing else, I can see this writer’s point.

I’ve mentioned before that the idea of speed reading is anathema to me, despite the fact that I own a library too large for me to read in the years remaining in my life, even if I read a book a day and live a very long life.  Rob Boffard gives a very good example of why speed reading just plain doesn’t work for some books — the ones that make you think, or the ones you wish to relish, especially.

LightspeedDamien Walter writes about the renaissance of the science fiction and fantasy short story since the dawn of the digital age.


Joss Whedon gives a talk on screenwriting to Impossible News.  My favorite quote:  “Whatever makes you weird is probably your greatest asset.”

Lit Reactor lists five things literary writers can learn from science fiction writers.  “Strangeness” is my favorite.  Are you sensing a theme here?

Aliette de Bodard has some thoughts on writing diverse characters and cultures in science fiction.  She emphasizes the need for research, and for using research well, but there’s much more to the article than that.


J.A. Konrath gives us his two cents on the Amazon/Hachette controversy, with particular emphasis on the role being played by Authors United.  His point is essentially that people will happily stop reading the authors in Authors United if their books are not available on Amazon, and read the second-rate stuff that is self-published there instead because they can get it for 99 cents.  I don’t agree, but you might, and you can always tell me off in the comments.

Fun Stuff

There are a good many television series that are science fictional or fantastical these days; really, there nearly always have been, despite an interregnum here or there where we were caught up in police stations and hospitals.  Here’s a guide to all the new SF TV shows premiering this fall.  I’m looking forward to “Constantine,” which is based on one of my all-time favorite cartoon characters.  (We shall not speak of the movie starring Keanu Reeves; it’s just too painful.)

Those cute little free libraries seem to be springing up all over the place.  Here are 14 that have especially clever designs.

After some devastatingly clever and handsome man threatens women that he and others just like him won’t date them if they believe in equal rights, John Scalzi mocks him on Twitter.  Comments on the thread likewise dump on the poor, adorable fellow.  Hilarity ensues.

Chris HadfieldA five-year-old who is worried that Voyager is going to get lonely out there in the spaces between the stars gets a reassuring answer from Astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Art made from books always makes me just a touch queasy, because — well, books.  You know, intrinsically artistic and wonderful in themselves.  But then I see something like this awesome grown book art, and I start to think that the best use for outdated books might well be art.


Sunday Links, September 21, 2014


Graham Joyce has died.  He was one of the great fantasy writers of our age.  The first book of his that I read was The Tooth Fairy, which is wonderfully weird and off-balance, different from any other fantasy work you’ll read.  Most recently, I read The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, a coming-of-age tale set in one of England’s resort towns, which I enjoyed enormously (I reviewed it here).  I was stunned by the news that he was gone.  It’s been a bad year for those of us who love great SF; we’ve lost too many really excellent writers.


The winners of the British Fantasy Awards have been announced.  It’s great to see Clarkesworld, one of the best of the internet speculative fiction magazines, getting some love.

The longlists for the National Book Awards have been announced.  I’m primarily interested in the fiction list — and horror of horrors, I have not only not read any of these, I own only three! Time to get reading.

Ursula K. LeGuin has been chosen as this year’s recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.  It is well deserved.  To celebrate, I recommend one of her lesser-known works:  The Lathe of Heaven.  This book blew me away when I was in college, and it still has the ability to induce awe and wonder in me all these decades later.

What to Read Next

Kirkus lists the ten most anticipated books of the fall reading season.  I’ve got David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks in my To Be Read pile, and I’m eager to get to it; Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guest will arrive this week.  An embarrassment of riches, to be sure!

Kirkus is looking forward to some good young adult fiction, too.

Kirkus also lists the top speculative fiction picks for September.  One of the picks is Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, which I’ve just finished, and it’s excellent; The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire is also terrific — maybe her best in the October Daye urban fantasy series.  I’ll have reviews of both up at Fantasy Literature very soon, so keep your eyes peeled.

And again Kirkus:  nonfiction this time. has done its usual fine job in gathering up the titles to be released in September in various subgenres.  Here are the fantasy titles; here are the science fiction titles; here are the paranormal and urban fantasy titles; here are the paranormal romance titles; here are the genre-benders.  As usual, I’m particularly taken by the genre-benders, including Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood and Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall.  I wish would include a horror write-up as well, but perhaps I’m just being greedy.

Geek Smash is much choosier:  it suggests a mere five fantasy and science fiction books to read this September.  One of them is John Scalzi’s Lock In, which I’ve read and highly recommend.  (You can read the review a group of us at Fantasy Literature put together here.)

Looking ahead, My Bookish Ways tells us what’s coming in speculative fiction in October.  I’m looking forward to Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll, as well as Keith Donoghue’s The Boy Who Drew Monsters.

Tired of reading only those books written by Americans for Americans?  Want to expand your horizons?  This list will provide you with plenty of science fiction and fantasy to read from outside the States.  BoingBoing adds a list of Cuban science fiction that sounds wonderfully different.

Black Gate suggests some prime historical fantasy for your reading pleasure.  Make sure you read the comments for some suggestions of books in the same genre written earlier than the last two to three years.

If your taste runs more to short fiction, you might enjoy The Alternative Typewriter’s suggestions.  The best part is that the blog links the short fiction that is available online, so there’s no waiting to get the right collection, anthology or magazine.  Part One; Part Two; and keep your eyes on the blog for further suggestions.

And if you enjoy essays, here’s a real treat:  Flavorwire cites 50 essays that will make you a better person, with links where available, and links to sources you can seek out to find them if they’re not available online.

Need a way to get into a particular writer you’ve always wanted to read?  BookRiot offers Reading Pathways, suggesting a three-book reading sequence for getting acquainted with an author.


There’s nothing new in Garrett Powell’s advice on how to become a writer, but it helps to be reminded from time to time.  The real key, from everything I’ve read, is:  write.  Write some more.  Keep writing.

Henry Herz has some more tips about how to make your prose lively.

Stephen King has his own approach to teaching writing, but ultimately it still comes down to:  write.  This interview with the premiere horror writer — maybe even the premiere writer — of our time in The Atlantic is inspiring.

Haruki Murakami boils it all down to three characteristics:  talent, focus and endurance.

Brian Staveley discusses how to write a book without destroying your marriage.


Staffer’s Book Review suggests that the series is dying.  The murderer?  The internet.  It’s almost impossible to build an internet buzz for the third or fourth book in a series, Justin Landon says, no matter what its quality.  I see what he’s saying, but I also know that an awful lot of readers like to read what is comfortable and set in a world they’re already familiar with.  This is why so many Amazon authors are writing fan fiction and why movie and television tie-in books sell.  Larry Nolen at Of Blog has some thoughts about how long-tail reviewing also makes a difference, and may make momentary statistics a bit misleading.  Any thoughts on this one?

Publishing Technology asks what effect Kindle Unlimited — the new Kindle lending library offered by Amazon — is having on authors earnings.  The answer does not seem inspiring for authors.


The Atlantic asks who should be deciding what high school kids read.  The piece revolves around a dispute at Cape Henlopen High School in Delaware about Emily M. Danforth’s YA novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post.  It’s the story of a Wyoming teenager who is gay, but whose grandmother forces her into a group called “God’s Promise,” which tries to turn her straight.  Parents objected to the book, which was on a list of ten summer reading books from which students were to choose one.  The history of the dispute is laid out in the article, and it suggests that we’re still arguing about things we were arguing about when I was a kid.  I still remember when I exhausted the YA offerings in my local public library; my father instructed the librarian to let me read “the classics” from the adult stacks.  The librarian and I frequently argued over exactly which books fell into my father’s “classics” category — but at least I had plenty to read (I don’t recall her ever doing more than question my choices; she never denied me a book).

BBC Culture asks whether Jorge Luis Borges is the most important writer of the 20th century.  The article makes a good case that the answer to its question is “yes.”

io9 explores the Islamic roots of science fiction.

Everyone seems to have suddenly discovered that H.P. Lovecraft was a racist, though those who love his work (or at least hold it to be enormously influential) are dismayed by the focus on his racism, suggesting that it was nothing abnormal for the time.  Salon says it’s okay to admit that Lovecraft was a racist, and it would even be okay to change the World Fantasy Award from its current design as a bust of Lovecraft.

Flavorwire lists 50 of the greatest characters in literature.  While plenty of the expected characters are there (Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books, for instance, or Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird), a few surprises are also included, like Mickey Sabbath from Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and Mary Katherine Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  It’s a great list.

Gail Forman, writing for The Huffington Post, says that YA fiction is for everyone because it’s some of the most inspiring, risk-taking work out there these days.

Facebook analyzed answers to a meme that was floating around awhile back about ten books that influenced its users, and found that the Harry Potter books got first prize.  The entire list suggests that the most influential books are those we read as children, though there are a few outliers (I doubt that too many children read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance).

The Guardian is skeptical of YA dystopias, which it believes encourage children to submit to the free market, not fight authority.

Do people read as deeply, and become as involved in a text, as they used to?  Has the internet destroyed us from deep engagement with books?  Slate looks at our reading insecurity in detail.  It notes a string of studies that indicates we read the internet differently than we read physical media.  Yet there’s also the fact that we’re all reading more, regardless of medium; certainly that has to be worth something?  Do read the article all the way through, even though it notes itself that you probably won’t; there’s good information here.

Millenials are outreading their elders.  That’s good news, I think!

Are libraries dying?  This article says yes, but I’ve noticed that my local library is amazingly crowded every time I go.  Sure, many of the people there are using the computers, but there are also plenty of little kids running around pulling books from shelves and adults sitting and reading.  And I think the article also overlooks that many, if not most, libraries are also offering digital checkouts these days.

Amazon vs. Hachette

Yes, the battle rages on.  Nothing has changed.  Writer Ben Mezrich explains why this dispute is “terrifying” for authors, while writer Neal Pollack dissents, saying that Amazon is actually building authorial careers for many.  Some writers are now targeting Amazon’s board of directors with letters claiming that Amazon’s reputation — and the reputations of the directors themselves — are at risk, essentially comparing them to book burners.  In the meantime, independent booksellers are making hay while the sun shines, using this dispute to increase their appeal and market share.

Fun Stuff

This has nothing to do with books, but it’s a great video of an amazing athletic feat at the Nanjing Opening Ceremony for the Youth Olympic Games in 2014.  If you’ve never seen it before, you’ll be amazed; if you have, but haven’t looked at it in a while, you’ll be amazed all over again.


On Getting Self-Reliant

PhilosopherSelfReliance02Sometime around the middle of this month, I tossed a piece I’d been writing on and off for a while. That’s not something I generally do. Part of what I love about essays is the process of writing myself into—and then out of—a corner. Or to work with a slightly more claustrophobic image, since that’s mostly how it feels, writing my way out of a paper bag. The idea is to set up a problem and then solve it, whether it’s ideological, stylistic, or a matter of working through my own convoluted logic to figure out what I really wanted to say in the first place. But at some point I realized that this one—which had revolved loosely around issues of class and privilege among writers, among other things—had nowhere to go. Or rather, I had the sudden feeling that there was nothing I could say on those topics that hadn’t been said already, and better, by other people. It’s become a bit of a buzzword, the whole “check your privilege” reflex, but it’s also the source of some good and thoughtful writing. The more I wrote myself into that particular corner, the more derivative I felt I was getting. So I just chucked the whole thing—as my more polite Macbook would say, moved it to the trash.

Earlier this week, Flavorwire posted a great list titled 50 Essays Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person; great not just because I want to be a better person—who doesn’t?—but because it was a good bunch of essays to have in one place. I was of a mind to just post the link with minimal commentary, so that all Like Fire readers could have the opportunity to become better people too. But then the completist thing got a hold of me and I decided I should go the Full Better Person Monty and read them all myself first. I’d read a number of them already over the years, and figured they’d all round out to a good creative nonfiction experience.

OK, faithful Like Fire readers, who can remember the title of our very first post? I’ll tell you: it was called “Perfect is the Enemy of Good,” which is a concept I do constant, unwavering battle with. It was true five years ago, when I was dithering unreasonably with the CSS of this blog and finally just had to hit the “publish” button, and it’s true today. I got 11 essays in (although I’d already read Zadie Smith’s and Aleksandr Hemon’s, and one was a link to the entire collection, rather than an individual essay—Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers—which made me sad because I had been very much hoping for a freebie sample). And then I hit the 12th, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and bogged down completely; the idea of writing about the series languished as I tried to pound my way through it several late nights in a row.

I’d never read Emerson, but I’ve long felt that I should. My literary education is snaggle-toothed, with all sorts of unexpected gaps, and I’m definitely not up on my Transcendentalists (except for Walt Whitman, if he is one—I can never remember). The Flavorwire commentary just rubbed it in:

[T]here’s a reason we all had to read this in high school. Emerson’s basic message is so elemental, so American, perhaps, but still worthwhile: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Self-reliance, self-trust, self-belief—these things can go a long way towards just about anyone’s personal betterment.

Clearly, I didn’t have to read it in high school. All the better reason to tackle it now. But it was slow, slow going. Not because of the quality of Emerson’s writing; it’s very good. But it’s dense, and—for me, anyway—doesn’t scan easily. Maybe if I read an entire collection of his, I’d get into some kind of groove. This one took some real labor on my part, obliterating hours when I could have been doing any number of other, more productive things. Although, in fact, it did turn out to be productive in an oblique way. I see why it’s assigned in high school; it’s pretty much what you’re already thinking when you’re 16, and therefore a good gateway to more difficult writing and a more pan-historical perspective. And if you weren’t thinking that way when you were 16… well, that’s a shame, but it’s never too late. There’s good stuff for any age, particularly if you’re pondering online writing in 2014:

My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding.


It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

It turned out that there was a good takeaway for me here after all. What I ended up appreciating about Emerson wasn’t, ultimately, that he wrote so amazingly that it became the be-all and end-all on the subject. It was that he wrote about it well in 1841, and then Joan Didion did it well in 1968, and George Sanders did it well in his lovely commencement speech at Syracuse University in 2003 (all of which are linked to in Flavorwire’s collection). One of the pitfalls of having blogged for a long time, and finding yourself knee-deep now in hundreds of blogs interested in the same things you are, is that you start to doubt the value of your own take. Someone else with more time on their hands has already scooped the very topic you were so hot to discuss, or has found a far better cross-reference for the link you were about to post, and so on. You start to feel like an indistinct component of the greater babble—and really, what’s the point of that?

So it’s good to read Emerson’s thoughts from 175 years back and realize that they’re just as interesting, in their own right, as Didion’s or Saunders’s or anyone else’s in that 50-essay selection; that the voice matters just as much as the subject, just as much as the quality of the writing itself. And there’s always room for another voice. The trick for me is believing in the value of mine long enough to finish the damn essay, and only then sit back to worry about its jewel-like qualities (or lack of them). What’s been moved to the trash can be moved back. Because as Emerson counsels,

When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;—the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new.


Sunday Links, August 31, 2014


 The Hugo Award winners have been announced, as have the winners of the 1939 Retro Hugos.  If you missed reading the nominated stories, you can find many of them linked here.

 The Baen Fantasy Adventure Award winners have been announced.

The Mythopoeic Award winners have been announced.

The Sideways Awards for Alternate History have been announced.

What to Read Next

I’ve always found fall reading much more exciting that summer reading, but I’m weird.  Still, Vulture’s list of 57 books to read this fall makes my heart start beating faster.  I’m especially looking forward to Stone Mattress:  Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel.

Flavorwire lists its own 25 recommendations for fall reading, with surprisingly little overlap with the Vulture list.  Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age sounds especially exciting.

Never to be left out, The Huffington Post has a list of fall books, too, and again, there seems to be little overlap with the other two lists.  From this list, the book that especially tempts me is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

All those lists, all those books, and they don’t even include the science fiction, fantasy and horror!  Don’t worry, though, I’ve got you covered:  My Bookish Ways has a list of the best SF/F/H novels coming out in September.  As usual, I want them all, but I’m especially eager to read Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, and Monstrous Affections, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant.  Good thing I have nothing to do this fall but read.  (That’s sarcasm, of course; if only!)

io9 has its own list of science fiction and fantasy books that will change your life this fall.  I sure wish I had nothing to do but read for the next four months!

Feel like everyone’s closing up the summer too fast?  John DeNardo has some suggestions for end-of-the-summer fare.

Powell’s suggests 25 books to read before you die, and gives you a 30% discount of them besides.  The list contains an unusual collection — not the usual round-up of classics you usually find in such lists.

The Telegraph lists 100 novels everyone should read — a list that is precisely the sort of classics round-up mentioned above, though there are still plenty of surprises.

Or you could go the other way, and read bestsellers.  Kirkus suggests nine of them that you might have passed by.

How many of the greatest books by women have you read?  My score is a depressing 23 out of 102 books, though I own a surprising number of the books listed.  (Well, maybe not too surprising when you consider the breadth of my library; what’s really is surprising is that at the ripe old age of 58, I still haven’t read George Eliot’s Middlemarch.)

If you’d like to be author specific in your next bout of reading, you might want to try to read through this list of Patricia Highsmith’s best work.  I’ve not read any of her work, so find myself mighty tempted to do exactly that.

More and more literature is becoming available in translation, which strikes me as a very good idea indeed.  (If we’re all to get along together, we need to know each other better, and if you can’t travel in person, you certainly can by book.)  Cheryl Morgan lists some science fiction and fantasy works that are becoming available in translationAndreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers is an astonishingly good work, for instance; it’s been translated from the German.

Io9 recommends ten “ultra-weird” science fiction novels that have become required reading.  And it has another list of weird science fiction no one’s ever read (I’ve never read a single book on this list).  The lists are both older, dating from 2012, but I hadn’t seen them before and find them fascinating.


The Hachette-Amazon battle continues to rage, making it impossible to pre-order such don’t-miss books as Mira Grant’s Symbiont, due out in November.  Authors and readers have lined up on both sides of the divide, as previous Sunday Links columns have shown.  Frankly, it’s a mess, and it’s bad for everyone.  Jake Kerr makes sense out of it all.  J.A. Konrath has a somewhat different view, which isn’t surprising given that he mostly self-publishes through Amazon.


Jack Heckel discusses why we keep telling ourselves fairy tales.  I love reading rewritten fairy tales — the Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling series, beginning with Snow White, Blood Red is a special favorite.

Will Self says the novel is dead.  No, really, this time it’s really, really dead.  He might be right.  This morning’s New York Times Book Review contained the following quotation:  “Short attention span is the new avant-garde.  Everyone complains that we can no longer intake huge chunks of text.  I find that a reason to celebrate. . . .  Twitter is the revenge of modernism.”  Kenneth Goldsmith made my heart sink all the way to the floor with that one.

Along the same lines:  seems readers absorb less on Kindles than they do on paper.  It’s a small study, and it included only two experienced Kindle readers, but I think there’s something there to which we need to pay attention.  Similarly, recent research suggests that we should take notes by hand, not on a computer.

Has horror fiction run out of things to write about?  Is there nothing left that frightens us?  My opinion is that there may be more than ever that we find terrifying, not least of which is our very own minds and bodies.  The article’s recommendation of Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is right on target.

BookRiot suggests we should all lay off the criticism of Stephenie Meyer.  After all, it points out (correctly), she single-handedly improved the market for Young Adult books, and got legions of girls reading.


I’m looking forward to reading Lev Grossman’s latest book, The Magician’s Land — but I want to do it by rereading the first two books in his trilogy first.  I’m even more intrigued since reading this article by Grossman in which he describes how he discovered he’s a fantasy writer.

Delilah Dawson lists ten things you don’t need to be a writer.  It’s inspiring, especially to someone like me, who often thinks she needs some sort of credential in order to be able to write well.  (Really, I don’t need an MFA?  Or at least a six-week workshop?)

Fun Stuff

Okay, this is just silly:  geniuses who messed up desserts the first time they tried to make them.  Who knew Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t make lemon squares?

Bustle explains how readers react to those who don’t read.  I tend to work really hard at #5.  Surely there’s something for every potential reader, isn’t there?

Fifteen scientists share their favorite science fiction works.

The new season of Doctor Who has started, with the new Doctor played by Peter Capaldi.  So far, so good, with the second episode considerably better than the first.  What, you’re not a Doctor Who fan?  Then give it a try with the 30 episodes listed here.  Some very fine television in that list.  It inspires me to go back to the beginning of the rebooted series in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston playing the Doctor and watch all of it over again.

Readers are the best sorts of people to fall in love with.  A scientific truth, according to this article.  But we all knew that already, didn’t we?


Open Letters Monthly, August 2014

It’s the last week of August, the last week (perhaps) of unstructured summer reading, and the perfect time to investigate the August issue of Open Letters Monthly, if you haven’t yet. Or even if you have. It’s a fine way to say farewell to the month, the summer, maybe a long stretch of unemployed indolence… whatever you’re bidding adieu, this issue of OLM is stocked with an abundance of good reading to console you.

On the fiction shelves, Amelia Glaser has good words for Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, a family story that’s also about, among other things, “neuroscience (and minds that fail us), photography, the lasting trauma of immigration to the US, and the miracle of finding a soul mate.”

Elisa Gabbert dives into “master manipulator” Ben Lerner’s metafictional novel 10:04, with mixed results.

John William Walker Zeiser enjoys Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There (translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell), both for the storyline and its nostalgic descriptions of “an older Korea that still bursts through the slick glass modernity and high-speed technology that has supplanted it.”

In the nonfiction department, Dorian Stuber declares Bernard Wasserstein’s An Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, the morally complex story of the woman who helped prepare Holland’s Jews for emigration (and deportation) during WWII, a largely informative book that “allows us to conclude that ambiguity need not undo the possibility of virtue.”

Lianne Habinek examines Denis Donoghue’s Metaphor, which asks the crucial question: “Why say that something is something else?”

Jessica Miller enjoys Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s argument for the relevance of philosophy in the 21st century, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away—which includes bringing Plato here to talk with a Google engineer, a parenting expert, and a Bill O’Reilly type, among others. But far from being a simplistic book, it “challenges, it rouses, and it finally requires thinking participation in some of the most important and enduring questions human beings can ask.”

Jack Hanson is not too impressed with Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, posting that “If Dr. Harris believed that the question of consciousness is a serious one, and not simply a matter of making oneself feel better in world left cold by science, he would attend to it with the intellectual rigor he praises elsewhere.”

Michael O’Donnell takes on William Deresiewicz’s disquisition on what’s wrong with the college careers of privileged Ivy Leaguers, Excellent Sheep—pointing out that, as a good reviewer does, “I put my biases away so successfully that it took me about 80 pages to realize why I wasn’t connecting to the book before I thought, ‘Oh, right. I despise these people.'”

Steve Donoghue’s read on Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is that, while “Perlstein tells this oft-told tale with great amounts of gusto; as he demonstrated in Nixonland, he’s an enthusiastic and aphoristic storyteller,” the book’s lack of thorough attributions are cause for concern, concluding that the political era covered “deserves a better, more careful, more conscientious, more trustworthy book than it gets here.” (The New York Times picked up on this earlier in the month.)

Adam Golaski pronounces The Mind’s Eye: The Art of Omni, edited by Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz, short on information but long on the weird art we fondly remember from the magazine’s heyday—“fun to look at, even if frequently dumb.”

Brendan Costello Jr. visits Kara Walker’s installation at the Domino Sugar Refinery and declares it a success, especially for its site-specific qualities: “[T]he vaulted ceilings, charred walls, and pervasive odor of burned sugar made “A Subtlety” visceral. History literally permeated the air—you could not help but breathe it in—and it was not pleasant. This art got in your face in a way that Damien Hirst could only dream of.”

In her It’s a Mystery column, Irma Heldman reviews two books: Charles Cumming’s A Colder War and Neely Tucker’s The Ways of the Dead, pronouncing the first “state-of-the-art espionage fiction” and the second a “probing, powerful, edgy debut novel.”

We get not one but two new poems: Bonnie Auslander’s Felix Feels Bitter (“The toothache that seeks out only him, / the quarters his sisters get to keep.”) and Words, by Donald Illich, with its opening line full of promise: “When I wake words want me.”

Stephen Akey takes a look at the ins and outs—and the insides and outsides—of cultural criticism, ignorance, learning and forgetting, and the fine distinction between high- and low-brow, pointing out that “All these books and pictures and poems and great debates have made my life richer, not easier.”

And for this month’s Title Menu, OLM checks out 10 Great “Minor” Works by Major Writers, from Henry Adams’s The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma to Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent to Shakespeare’s Richard II (“the other Richard”).


A Brief Respite from Longlist Fatigue

Flaherty-Dunnan-long-list2Right around this time of year, I run out of things to say about book awards. By now all the big literary competitions have either come and gone or at the very least announced their finalists. Some, like the PEN fiction awards, have already voted in winner sbut like to ramp up the suspense by not announcing them for another month or two. By now we’ve seen all the longlists, the novels that have popped up everywhere like dandelions and the surprise breakthroughs that we’ve exclaimed over and vowed to read someday. After a certain point, for those of us who follow these things recreationally-but-attentively, there just isn’t a whole lot more to say (other than keeping a running tally on The Millions’s very Jamesian scorecard—and by Jamesian I mean Bill, not Henry or William).

So in the interest of leaving off with all the stats and metrics, I just want note that the announcement I’m most looking forward to this month is the shortlist for The Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Because… well, I’m sorry I can’t put it more critically, but that’s just a very pretty longlist. You’ve got your front-runners and your dark horses, big publishers and small presses, and really, not a single one that I wouldn’t gladly drop everything and read (except for the ones I’ve already dropped everything and read). Part of what makes the list so tasty, I think, is that the finalists are nominated by some 50 booksellers from indie bookstores all over the country—a kind of large-scale hand sell that carries a nice sense of justice. Recent winners include Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which got lots of additional attention, and Bonnie Nadzam’s wonderful, discomfiting Lamb, which didn’t get nearly enough.

The prize’s main sponsor is Nancy Dunnan, coauthor of—among other works—The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. With a $10,000 first prize and an additional $1,000 going to each of the shortlisted finalists, I’d say that’s a very civil display of literary manners. Mostly, though, it’s a great-looking longlist. I’m not quite ready to start thinking about the 2015 award cycle, but checking out the novels featured here should keep me busy for a while.


Letterforms Outside the Box


I discovered hand lettering in sixth grade, one rainy day poking through my mom’s studio in the attic. She had a little graphic design business on the side—on the side of what I was never sure, but between that and the darkroom in the basement it gave her every excuse not to engage with my dad, who had custody of the rest of the house. But she let me do anything I wanted up there: look through her collection of art books, use any of her cool materials—dip pens and mechanical pens and dyes and watercolors and big pads of thick cold-pressed paper. I was a careful kid, asked before I used anything and always cleaned up after myself, so I was always welcome, and it was a fine place to explore.

I already had a low-level fascination with type, and liked to look covetously through her big envelope of Letraset sheets, which I probably liked originally because they were a step or two up from the rub-ons I loved so much when I was little—the term for them, technically, was “rub-down transfers,” sheets of little dry picture decals that you could transfer onto the panoramic board backgrounds they came with—but that’s what we called them. In retrospect they sound kind of boring, but there was a certain hypnotic pleasure in placing each one in just the right spot, thoroughly rubbing the back, and pulling away the plastic—oh, the suspense!—to see if it had worked completely, or if you’d have to try a second time to transfer the other half of the image, and the edges never quite lined up. Letraset was like that, but I was also entranced by the letterforms themselves. I’m not sure I’d ever thought about the physical lines and shapes that made up the words in the books and comics I loved, but this made me consider them, and I liked the artistry involved.

Letraset was expensive, though, and I knew better than to use up my mom’s just playing around. But I found something almost as good, for my experimental purposes: a thick black three-ring binder with some 500 pages of fonts, full alphabets in graduated point sizes, from the conservative Times New Roman to any number of far out decorative typefaces. Octopuss. Lazybones. Motter Umbra. Tango. Sinaloa. This was the ’70s, and type was weird. But all I needed to experiment was tracing paper, a sharp pencil, and a radiograph to ink the finished product in. I spent hours out of my nerdy pre-teen life playing around with letterforms, and eventually started a little business doing custom lettering jobs—mostly for the front of other kids’ notebooks or textbooks, where I’d carefully rubber-cement the tracing paper onto Bristol board and proudly hand the finished product over for a couple of dollars.

I was still hand-lettering up until I got to art school, which had a computer lab. And then my agonizingly slow tracing days were over—you could do anything with some scalable fonts, Microsoft Word, and a little patience. I swapped free fonts with friends the way we would music a few years later. But I never lost my love for nicely handcrafted letterforms; I like to make them, and I like to look at them. Computers may have killed the necessity for hand-drawn type, but what is being made has a rapt audience online, and there are no end of variations.

Which is an awfully long-winded way of introducing a few of this week’s typographical finds.

D-Main-resizeFirst off, via Taxi, Nicola Yeoman’s letterforms. The collection isn’t a full alphabet, but assemblages of materials that form letters, and accompanying photos that deconstruct them, breaking them down into details. They’re haunting and exquisite—I think the letter D is my favorite, though the New York Times Magazine-commissioned T, with its scaffolding of branches, is a close second.

Tommy-Perez_AtoZoë_QOn the less mysterious side of things is designer Tommy Perez’s food alphabet, which he created for—and with—his 2-year-old daughter Zoë. As Perez explained to Fast Company Design, it was a way to teach her the ABCs but also get her involved:

Zoë has always had an interest in helping or contributing to whatever I was working on…. Whether it be building something or sketching, Zoë always wanted to be doing the same. So when I shifted to freelancing from home, I wanted to make sure she had something fun and creative that was just her own.

Plus, he says, she gets to eat the finished product, which includes hummus, olives, quinoa, and sunflower seeds.

calligraphy_textFinally, we have Christina Vanko writing in The Atlantic about sending all her text messages in calligraphy for a week. And while the temptation is to dismiss it as gimmicky and cute… it’s a great gimmick. And it is cute. Plus, as projects go, it turned out to be pretty interesting; she logs her friends’ responses (“It’s like you’re deaf and you’re writing down your response to everything. You should do this to ppl in person haha”) and questions (“Have you made like a go-to standard phrase page with like “lol” and “I know right?”). Aside from the more predictable discoveries—that writing everything out made her more thoughtful about what she was saying and how—I thought it was interesting that even with the expressiveness of handwriting, she missed the convenience of emojis (and used selfies instead).

So there you are, three artists whom I wouldn’t necessarily term typographers or calligraphers, who’ve taken advantage of the visual and conceptual resources of both arts. So much of my reading lately tends to be in pixel form, or e-ink, or just so content-dependent that I wouldn’t notice a beautiful ampersand if it fell out of the book and broke my toe. But it’s good to think about letters, and lettering, and what goes into the parts that make the whole.

(Images, top to bottom: Octopuss font; “Letter D” © Nicola Yeoman; “Letter Q” © Tommy Perez; Christina Vanko for The Atlantic.)