Frog and Toad in a New Light

June 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

At The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Colin Stokes has a delightful remembrance of the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel, with a revelation from Lobel’s daughter, Adrianne:

Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me. “It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me. Lobel never publicly discussed a connection between the series and his sexuality, but he did comment on the ways in which personal material made its way into his stories. In a 1977 interview with the children’s-book journal The Lion and the Unicorn, he said:

You know, if an adult has an unhappy love affair, he writes about it. He exorcises it out of himself, perhaps, by writing a novel about it. Well, if I have an unhappy love affair, I have to somehow use all that pain and suffering but turn it into a work for children.

My experience of Frog and Toad came via one of those read-along record books. I know one of the stories was “A Lost Button,” from Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970). Toad loses a button off his coat and Frog and some friends try to help him find it, but he grows frustrated with them when the buttons they turn up are not the thick, white, round four-holed button that he lost—only to find it on the floor when he returns home.

Frog and Toad felt timeless to me even then, so that even now it’s hard to believe that they were still relatively new, a 1970s creation. I believe the record was voiced entirely by Mr. Lobel himself, and he rendered the two characters distinctly, portraying Toad the more high-maintenance of the pair, irked by Frog’s inappropriate measure of chillness. There was, I sensed, the insinuation of wonderment and spiral of questioning that takes off when the other member does something perplexing, the kind of reaction that tends to gets doused in straight platonic friendships. I find it wholly believable that Lobel intended for the characters to evoke a subtle and complex intimacy, creatures of grace wading through moments of fear, pain, and longing.


Low-Flying Panic

May 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

Radiohead made sure that the release of their new single, “Burn the Witch,” was an event, by going dark on all of their social media platforms and then posting two samples of the video on Instagram before the whole video went up on Youtube on Tuesday.

Today saw the release of another single and video, “Daydreamer,” and the announcement of the release of a new album, the band’s ninth, on Sunday.

“Burn the Witch” has apparently been in the vault since the days of Kid A, which was released the month before George W. Bush was elected, and it absolutely continues some of the themes of fear, isolationism, and oppression that the band’s best music from that era evoked. At The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich finds in the song’s lyrics (e.g., “this is a low-flying panic attack”) a humanistic critique of the mob mentality that Internet culture perpetually rewards:

Yorke once gave wild voice to the dispossessed (“I’m not here, this isn’t happening,” he moans on “How To Disappear Completely,” from “Kid A,” a lyric so suffused with grief it’s hard not to press your hands over your ears), but now he’s assumed the point of view of the autocrat, the bully: “Avoid all eye contact, do not react, shoot the messengers.” The stop-motion video for “Burn the Witch” is set in a whimsical village where ordinary-seeming human beings do horrifying things to each other for reasons that remain largely unclear, except that they appear to be following the guidance of a demagogue-like figure, dressed in a uniform and medallion. The clip seems inspired, in equal parts, by the British children’s series “Trumpton” (the name of which does not feel coincidental), and the horror film “The Wicker Man,” from 1973.

The video’s allusions are coy. The whimsical village is pre-industrial, complete with a model of itself that would seem to be able to be manipulated in the way any user wishing to be in control would want. The visiting character makes notes on his clipboard; he is, essentially, a commenter from the outside. And it’s probably not an accident that the clip begins with a shot of a bird in a tree, literally twittering.

While “Trumpton” may be the more likely inspiration, to me the animation in “Burn the Witch” more accurately resembles the short midcentury animated films of Karel Zeman, starring the character known as Mr. Prokouk.

Mr. Prokouk became such an iconic character in pre-Prague Spring Czechoslovakia that he appeared in the title cards for the government film archive during what became known as the Czech New Wave.

Remembering Jenny Diski

April 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

The thing is, nobody is better at having cancer than me, in the sense that I like nothing more than sitting on the sofa doing fuck all and trying to write. – interview with the Observer.


I’d been impossible from the start. Asking questions that shouldn’t have been asked, thinking they had an answer. I’d sulked: I don’t remember about what, but I’m sure I did. I brought men home. I fucked men in Doris’s house. I wasn’t doing enough work at school (my new school) and for a while I had a boyfriend whose main wish was that I wore a uniform and who met me for a little fellatio before the school bell rang. I skipped lessons I thought didn’t matter and sat in the coffee bar across from the school smoking and drinking coffee, reading or sometimes with a friend. I didn’t work hard enough to fulfil my potential. I wasn’t grateful to Doris for the opportunity she had given me. – on her time with Doris Lessing in the London Review of Books.

The Guardian shares favorite quotes from the late Jenny Diski, who has died at the age of 68 after a battle with cancer.

Wonderland at Washington Square Review, Now Online

February 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

Activists walk up to Sweet Pea on the sidewalk and with garlicky breath explain that the Salvation Army is an organization that traffics in hate; those coins clinking in that little metal kettle aren’t putting poor kids in clean khakis, they’re funding the beheadings of gays in Uganda and the purchases of tiny drone helicopters used to buzz abortion clinics.

Last year I was fortunate enough to have a story published in Washington Square Review #36 (Summer/Fall 2015). Now the good folks there have put all of the content from that issue online, that including my story “Wonderland.” I’m excited and grateful to be able to share it.

Stymie is Returning

November 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

I am glad to see that Stymie Magazine will be re-launching after the first of the year, and is looking for submissions.

In an announcement published on November 20, the editors write, “the space that is serious writing about sports and games has evolved and changed – in some ways good, in other ways not so much.

“We hope it means we get inundated with thoughts on Tecmo Bowl, the 1985 World Series, that time a horse race was so much more than a horse race, and everything in between.”

With a name originating from golf—when one player’s ball blocks the path of another to the hole—Stymie uses the subject of sport to present situations of human struggle and perseverance with a nuanced, literary touch.

Stymie published my story “Hurry Someday” in 2014, one of four stories (so far) in my series about teenage ballplayers growing up in a Detroit suburb in the 1990s.

The Old Apple at Cobalt

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Just in time for the postseason, Cobalt has released its annual All-Star Baseball Issue, and I’m batting ninth and playing second base with a new story, “The Old Apple.”

My teammates this year are Sarah Moran (CF), Anthony Moll (SS), Frank Morelli (1B), Walker Harrison (3B), Joanna White (C), Matt Hohner (LF), Ray Morrison (RF), and Leo Ryan (P).

Big thanks to Andrew Keating for this one.

In the Here and Now

August 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

At The Lit Hub, Alexander Chee offers praise for the present tense in fiction:

In the present tense, you aren’t stuck to the moment—you can go forward and backward in time. In fiction, the demands of the present tense are in some ways the opposite of that exploration of uncertainty—the tense places a demand for the elimination of all other possibilities in the writer’s imagination—this is what happened and is what is still happening whenever this memory returns to this character or whenever this moment matters.

The present tense encourages a sitting, an observing, a letting things come to us. How often do we use it when we relay things that are comfortably secured and locked in the past? Think of how we share stories among friends, the way we talk as though the audience member is present at the scene: Tommy sees the snake and comes bursting out the bathroom with his pants around his ankles and the rest of us are just sitting there, dying laughing. Or: I’m driving down Route 6 minding my own business when this cop comes up behind me, and I’m thinking oh shit, what the fuck does he want? We use the present tense to tell narrative jokes: A man walks into a bar…

Critics often use the present tense to summarize movies, as though the audience is following along in the moment: Sonny stops at the toll booth, and there’s a delay as the toll booth operator drops the change. Then the movie goes silent, and that’s the moment when he knows he’s doomed.

Sports color commentators use the present tense to rehash a play that just happened. Archer throws a changeup on the outer half of the plate and Ortiz does a nice job of keeping his hands back on the ball and lifting it to the opposite field.

I have used present tense a few times myself, including for my baseball stories, even though they are set in the 1990s. It should come as no surprise that some of my favorite fiction uses the present tense, including John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy.

Space, Time, and Love

May 30, 2015 § Leave a comment


It is a routine now: every Friday, near the end of the afternoon, I go to the Guardian web site to see the latest episode in Chris Ware’s graphic novel, The Last Saturday.

The series began last September, and as its opening panel wryly indicates, is meant to hearken back to the days of patiently waiting for serial comics (especially one “as inscrutable and patience-testing as this”) to come out in print on the weekends. In this age of binge-watching cable dramas, that investment in the unfolding of characters and events over time, the room to wander and wonder, is lost.

Ware’s work looks into the complicated shadows of modern households, the lonely, blank-faced folks who inhabit them. Even if you haven’t read any of his novels, look at his New Yorker covers. Even one of his happiest covers, the 2013 Mother’s Day edition: you get the day-to-day depth of that entire family in that one image, from the jackets hung on the rack to the coffee mugs matching the couple’s robes to the memos on the bulletin board.

Then there’s the October 11, 2010 cover, which folded out in a multi-panel comic.Set right in the middle of the recession: a couple with a young daughter sit at a counter, trying to work out which bills they are able to pay. (Unfortunately, there’s no good, readable image of the foldout online anywhere.) The daughter’s choice of toy—a cash register, with play money—hints at a wish to understand the source of the adults’ frustration, a need to simplify their entanglements in order to connect. As often happens, fear and pessimism breed rotten luck, distraction and carelessness (leaving the gas burner on, the quiet blue flame in the corner). The mother trips and falls. A doctor bill to come.

In The Last Saturday, we get to know six characters living in a neighborhood in Sandy Port, Michigan, in the 1970s. First, take in the details of the era: the suburban tract housing, the old brand designs (Kellogg’s Corn Pops, Prell shampoo), the cigarette smoking in public spaces. Putnam Gray is an only child. His father is in school, studying psychology; his mother works during the day. There is stress in the relationship, sourness: they are receiving financial support from her parents. At the corners lie clues to a darker cloud of discontent. Putman is supposed to be nine or so, but notice, in week 10, the high chair in the kitchen, where mail now piles up. A sibling recently lost?

The color palette changes as the seasons change. As arguments are heard over his head, through walls and floors, Putnam comforts himself with deep, imaginative questions about the space-time continuum and philosophical cause and effect (Weeks 1, 25, and 36 in particular). He befriends a new girl, Sandy Grains, who makes an effort to speak his odd language. But he is so comfortable with his invented scenarios that he struggles to treat her as a friend in the real world. He would rather remain convinced that he is in love with pretty snob Rosie Gentry, who ignores him. When Rosie insults Sandy, Putnam defends the wrong girl.

Ware is incredibly subtle with delivering outside-the-panel information. The adult conversations that take place over Putnam’s and Sandy’s heads, ominous like stratus clouds, literally fall off the panel’s edge. Week 7: Sandy and her mother meet Putnam and his father at the beach. (Where is Putnam’s mom?) Mrs. Grains is recently widowed. Mr. Gray is nicer to her than he is at any point to Putnam’s mother. Ware teases at misbehavior that wouldn’t be picked up by Putnam. Week 21: they flirt as he refills her wine glass. Week 34: a magazine in a doctor’s office with the headline “The Swingers Next Door.”

For how long will the story go on? I didn’t pick up The Last Saturday until about Week 22. Now I don’t want it to end. Snow comes down in Sandy Port. School is canceled. Putnam is seeing a psychologist. There is a sense, as in a Rick Moody novel, that some kind of crisis point lies on the horizon, or that Putnam, forever hamstrung by his passivity, will be tested with a chance to redeem himself, and realize that Rosie Gentry is not worth his time.

Recently Enjoyed

February 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

It’s the evening of July 4th and the fireworks are blooming in sawtooth spirals, but the math is off, the spirals are uneven. We are mixing drinks in the living room. There are a whole pyramid of options, three of them spiked with MDMA—come play the American Roulette, we yell. God Save the Queen is the response from the balcony and we all laugh. We laugh until we bend and the corners of our ribcages are almost touching like a tunnel that’s caving in on itself. Soon we’ll be a complete circle of pale, snapped bones. Stonehenge of the body.

-Joy Clark, “Smoke Left Behind,” at Juked

“This can’t go on,” she said. “We need to sit down with the children,” she said. “We need to tell them something.”

Jenny wanted him to give some variation of the speech everyone else was apparently giving their children. She recited a version of it to him. She said, “We need to tell them something like ‘Mommy and Daddy aren’t living together because they don’t love each other anymore. But we both love you, very, very much. And we will always be here for you. That will never change.’”

He was silent. She’d asked him to leave, yes, she’d told him she was in love with someone else, yes, but she’d never come right out and said she didn’t love him anymore.

We’ll say something like that,” she said. “The children need to hear something like that.”

-Stephany Aulenback, “The Lot,” at Hobart

I was searching for something in every photo, in every update, in every public message someone had written him. I wanted a reason why he didn’t love me or want to be with me regularly. I needed a story to tell myself, to answer the why. I blamed my body. I was so much curvier than his previous girlfriends. I blamed my lack of experience. I’d only been with two other people prior to him and one of those people had been my husband. I blamed my lack of career aspirations. He owned his own furniture-building business too, although he spent most of the time working on his mother’s house down the road. This should have told me something about his lack of ambition, but I misconstrued it to mean he really cared about his mother, which was a good quality in a man, one that would supposedly predict how he would treat me.

-Amanda Miska, “The Online Stories We Tell,” a Saturday essay at The Rumpus

A Form That Accommodates the Mess

February 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Samuel Beckett, dead some twenty-five years, is nonetheless giving inspiration from the grave in some of the unlikeliest places. First, there is MBecketTA, playwright John J. King’s Tumblr juxtaposing aptly chosen Beckett quotes with bleak photos of snow-crushed Boston. (Hat tip: Jenn Monroe.)


If that isn’t enough, playwright Danny Thompson has put together a seamless and very believable film showing Beckett in the opening credits of a fictitious 70s-era cop show. (Hat tip: Clay Ventre.) As Ayun Halliday notes:

The title sequence hits all the right period notes, from the jazzy graphics to the presentation of its supporting cast: Andre the Giant, Jean Paul Sartre, and Jean “Huggy Bear” Cocteau. (Did you know that Beckett drove a young Andre the Giant to school in real life?)

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