Review: Deep Dark Fears, by Fran Krause

This title was provided to me at no cost for review purposes by the publisher.

Fears seem to share some properties with dreams, as both spring from similar irrational, twilight corners of the mind. While it’s practically axiomatic that among the most boring things one can discuss is the weird things seen while asleep, I’ve long found discussing fears to be far more interesting and instructive. Unless one subscribes to the notion that they’re somehow prophetic or expressive, a dream is easily dismissed as random in origin and meaningless without some kind of post-hoc rationalization. A fear, though, whatever its murky provenance may be, is important. Fears shape the way we act, which shapes the world. They can also be illuminating about their owner, as one’s fear may be another’s fancy.

Krause explores 100 fears in all, each a tidy first-person narrative expressed in a handful or two of panels. The linework is soft and casual, colored as with watercolors, pairing well with the somewhat shaggy but never violated panel borders and narrative captions. Overall the effect is to help crate a rather creepily accessible setting for the gleefully strange and horrible vignettes. Some end in humor, others in irony, most in disaster. I found that my favorites involved cause and effect at work in the young mind: the boy who thought his departed grandfather would be flushed away just as his goldfish had been, or the child beset by nightmares of huge grasping robot named Dracula, knowing only that Dracula was something too scary for her to be allowed to watch. Among the hundred, though, there are many which adhere to common tropes: loss of teeth, things in the dark or otherwise unseen, and social mortification. The ones which hit home were those that I thought were unique to me. The blurb mentioned that Krause based the strips “on idiosyncratic and universal ‘deep dark fears.'” It would seem that among my fears is that my fears are not entirely my own.

Review: Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley

After a phenomenon like Scott Pilgrim, anything Bryan Lee O’Malley did next would naturally invite comparison. Seconds certainly has some things in common with Pilgrim, particularly by way of personalities, and even in terms of conventions which replace conventional exposition with a pithy caption. Our protagonist, Katie, is seemingly the polar opposite of young Mr Pilgrim, though: a skilled overachiever, career-focused to the point of self denial, and about to open the restaurant of her dreams after years of work running Seconds, her first popular and well-regarded eatery. What she does have in common with the previous spawn of O’Malley’s pen is an unusual living arrangement — she lives in an apartment upstairs at Seconds — and an uncanny ability to adapt in all the worst ways to bizarre situations.

O’Malley’s characters are highly stylized, in a much-hipper-than-reality sort of way, but still able to convey emotion well. The story mechanic breaks the narrative at critical junctures, leaving a great deal of whitespace on the page as the grid of panels also breaks as each new reality replaces the old. Combined with a change in palette in which everything reddens, the reader is primed to see what comes next, especially as the complications mount and the story’s position on the recursively iterating tree of possibility drifts further and further from any familiar reality.

When traditional superstition steps into the everyday, Neil Gaiman’s oeuvre stands as a high-water mark. O’Malley invokes shades of Gaiman as Katie is sternly warned and yet sallies on into the dangerous unknown, but for better or worse, he does not  drop upon his protagonist the full weight of her transgressions, allowing for a happy ending for just about everyone. Seconds is a tightly-woven story, compact in concept, straying only rarely, which makes for a highly satisfying tale.

Review: The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud

David Smith is a sculptor at the end of his rope, having blown his moment in the spotlight of the New York art scene and possessed of little save his idiosyncratic set of promises to himself. While spending his last few dollars in a diner, he is joined by his uncle, who he soon realizes is not the man he remembers. Death, bound in human form until its last link to the living is broken, offers his host’s nephew the power to make the shapes in his mind reality in exchange for a hard limit on his remaining time among the living: 200 days. By the end of the first part, David is a real character. Not simply a sad sack, nor merely a victim of his own introversion and iconoclastic tendencies, his backstory and path to the state in which we find him are crisply laid out, but not with the excessive precision often lavished on exposition to get it out of the way; the other characters draw these details to the surface for us as the tale progresses. His chance transformation into a viral video star puts him in contact with guerrilla actress-slash-bike courier Meg and her found family of artists and hard-luck strays like himself. McCloud takes pains not to make their relationship seem too foreordained or too permanent. David’s grim chess-playing benefactor advises against it for her sake, but it does eventually and surprisingly gel distressingly close to the end, and in a way which canny readers might realize well in advance of the explanation will make the plans hatched by the lovebirds as the clock ticks down all for naught. Meg herself is not some insubstantial MPDG without well-developed problems of her own. McCloud presents her experiencing repeated depressive episodes, and her long-term friends take issue with what they perceive as David’s unseriousness, unsuitability to assist, and even his role in enabling her resistance to taking her medication, all of which underscore Death’s advice.

McCloud has long been highly self-critical about his artistic skill, generally citing a lack of dynamism in form as his weakness. While his in his now quarter-century old ZOT! comics he sometimes managed to make a flying superhero look a bit stiff, here he makes a poor stiff, David — forbidden from superheroics by Death — look quite expressive, indeed. His power to reshape matter can be exercised by mere touch,but McCloud draws him as an artist immersed in the creative process, using muscle and motion to conduct stone, steel, glass, wood, etc., into new forms like an emphatic maestro leading an orchestra. He dives into blocks of stone, rolls up sidewalks, and bends I-beams with his bare hands.Outside the panels, the McCloud reaches deep into the toolbox he examined in Understanding Comics and uses the layout to help set tone and even suggest when a world beyond David’s intrudes. In every two-page opening, at least one panel bleeds to the edge, perhaps leading in or out of a scene; in scenes of great passion,be they artistic, carnal, or otherwise, the panel boundaries contract to almost nothing, and the action flows uninhibited from panel to panel. The dichromatic color printing is used to good effect as well, with blues fading from bold to atmospheric, allowing the city to be present but distant in some places, and suffocating in others without requiring too much heavy linework.

The Sculptor is a great modern low fantasy story which could have easily gone any number of directions under its establishing premise, but chose to be a well-grounded exploration of its characters and how their grand and banal motivations in turn betray them and drive them to leave a mark before shuffling off.

Review: The Good Inn, by Black Francis and Josh Frank

My familiarity with the Pixies’ music is shallow at best, and nonexistent when it comes to Black Francis’ solo work, so I can’t speak to The Good Inn as a work reflective of any lyrical tendencies. In fact, when the characters break into song (as they do occasionally), the tunes I found myself reaching for to make words into music in my head were nursery rhymes. Nonetheless, this is an interesting work, taking on shades of Stoppard and Gilliam in following Solider Boy as he traverses newly-minted fiction, lost fiction, speculative reality, and known reality. Based on what the introduction claims is the first known narrative adult film, now known only from stills and remakes, this tale in screenplay form fleshes out the skin flick by giving the male character a life before he comes on screen, and continues as he tries to move beyond it. It’s convoluted and even confusing at times to be sure; I’ll admit to backtracking more than once to suss out what was happening; even then, I’m sure it would make more sense on screen, or at least be forced into some sort of visual sense on its way there. I came upon The Good Inn while looking for new graphic novels to read, but while the art is sequential, it’s rather too sparse to be a comic book; illustrations appear only every few pages. The art has a casual and expressive line to it, and in places can be absorbing as one tries to map text to image. It would be interesting to see this screenplay produced, even on a very small scale.

Banned Books Week 2014

He really, really wants you to read Moby Dick.

This post also appears on the Deep Stacks blog at Round Rock High School Library.

It’s not news that comic books, or at least stories and characters that were born in that medium, have become more and more visible over the past several years. Even if you’ve never darkened the door of your local comic book shop (which you should, even if — especially if — you don’t think you’d be interested), you’re doubtlessly at least somewhat familiar with the exploits of Scott Pilgrim, Groot, or Enid & Rebecca. But even with their renewed cultural currency, comics are not without their detractors. In recognition of this, the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week 2014 is focusing on comic books and graphic novels which have have been challenged in our school and public libraries.

The Guardian published an interview on Friday with acclaimed comic book writer and artist Jeff Smith in which he discusses his views on challenges to library collections and his feelings about his best-known work, Bone, showing up on this year’s list of the most challenged titles:

“Comics are now part of the literary scene, part of the discussion, and it shines a spotlight on these kinds of attacks,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the people who want to ban these books are malicious; in fact just the opposite. They have a concern which to them is legitimate. But that isn’t the point. The point is that they are trying to take away someone else’s ability to choose what they want to read, and you can’t do that.”

In concert with the ALA, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) has published a free Banned Books Week Handbook focusing on the unique vulnerability of their favorite kind of book to  well-meaning but misinformed censors, in which they explain why comics and graphic novels are popular targets:

Why are comics banned?

Comics face challenges for the same reasons as any other books. Reasons books are frequently challenged include “adult content, “language,” “sex / nudity,” or “inappropriate for age group.” Comics are uniquely vulnerable to challenges because of the medium’s visual nature and because comics still carry the stigma of low-value speech. Some challenges are brought against comics because a single page or panel can be taken out of context, while others come under attack because of the mistaken notion that all comics are for children.

Your RRHS Library carries copies of many banned books, including Bone, Fun House, Blankets, The Killing Joke and other challenged graphic novels, including more from this list  from Entertainment Weekly of all-time comic book greats which have been subject to challenges. Come on in and read something dangerous.

For more about Banned Books Week, check out our post from Banned Books Week 2013, the 2013-2014 Books Banned or Challenged report, and these banned graphic novel discussion planners from CBLDF.

Review: In Real Life, by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

The integration of the internet into day-to-day and now moment-to-moment life continually narrows the distinction between still relatively abstract actions mediated by the network and those taken apart from it. Stories told since the popularization of the internet, especially those about young people, often include an element of moral panic, a concern that the new facet of modern life will somehow damage or corrupt the innocent and impressionable. In In Real Life, Cory Doctorow spins a compelling tale of ethical reasoning and moral awakening out of several popular bogeymen of the past generation: Stranger Danger! Video Games! The Internet! (No drugs, though).

His protagonist, Anda, is an authentically drawn girl gamer (MMO & tabletop) and budding coder, invited to audition for an all-female guild in a popular MMORPG. Recognizing her skill in the game, an elder guild member invites her to turn that ability into cash by disrupting the activities of other players who sell their in-game loot for hard currency. In doing so, Anda’s eyes are opened to the realities of the much different role the game she plays holds for people her age in other places as she at first clumsily, and then more humbly, tries to help them in a material way.

Doctorow manages to work in a realistic way with the obstacles and resources available to an attentively-parented teen exploring the world of online gaming for the first time, including justifying it to her mother by way of persuading her to advance the first month’s subscription, as well as allaying her fears regarding perceived risks. While told in an economical pace, he still manages to slip in an interesting inversion of stereotype, in which the traditional outsiders that are Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts themselves constitute an in-group dismissive of interest from more mainstream outsiders.

Jen Wang’s linework is expressive and effective in-game and out, providing a diverse cast with a broad array of telling detail, but not to the point of realism. Instead, a humanistic freehand style leaves even architectural detail with a warm unevenness. Where many other tales split between two “worlds” adopt the Wizard of Oz-esque convention of using a brighter color palette for the less quotidian one, Wang’s colors, suggestive of watercolors, do not change radically from one setting to the other. Instead, her panel layouts play the part of graphic differentiator, becoming more dynamic and less constrained by panel boundaries when Anda is in the game.

While the up-front novelty of In Real Life is its take on the global economies built upon MMORPGs, its message is more deeply rooted in the idea that actions should be based upon a firm understanding of the situation and informed by compassion. Even when such actions take place across a global computer network, they are fully a part of real life.


Nancy Jeanne Riviello, née Decker, was amplified by her voice. While small in stature, her presence in song soared to fill any space; while lightly built, she carried conversations tirelessly. Years ago, her decline robbed the maestra of her instrument – as if a normal life’s supply of notes and words was still not enough to supply her. Therefore, when she finally took her bow on February 18, 2014, it was in silence. In the echo of her eighty-year serenade, the many parts she sang can still be heard.

Her heart sang as she vowed to love and honor her Carmen Frank Riviello until the end. Through 57 anniversaries, their bond endured through the ages, until sundered by his passing in 2011.

As a new mother, she cooed and sang to her firstborn, Carmen Jr., in Pennsylvania. In California, she intoned and murmured at the arrival of her first daughter, Pontia. To her last child, Corrine, she trilled to the ukuleles of Hawaii, where Nancy would return with her Carmen as often as they could throughout her life. The tunes she shared with her children would be shared in turn with the spouses they would take: Kathleen, Beverley, and Russell.

The echo of her lullabies and the scent of her ginger crinkles and chocolate chip cookies remains strong with her seven grandchildren Russell, Christine, Clare, Thomas, Sean, Rochelle, and Shana to whom she was simply Nona.

The gentle service and many songs of her active retirement as a domestic missionary ring sharply still in the hearts of those she touched, from Hays Hills Baptist Church in Buda, Texas to New Smyrna Beach in Florida to the Plains Baptist Assembly of Floydada, Texas to the First Baptist Church of Schertz, Texas.

The work she did resonates more distantly in a panoply of roles at Woolworth and Capitol Records in Scranton, as well as a children’s radio show host in El Paso and a dental assistant in Austin before coming to Motorola as part of the team responsible for the 68030 and 68040 microprocessors which powered many Macintosh computers.

To her father, Harry Decker, she was his last-born child; to her mother, Ethel, she was both daughter and student – teaching her piano and sending her to voice conservatory, thus passing her love of music to Nancy. The graceful notes which Nancy has left will echo in us forever.

Christmas 2011

A typical holiday afternoon at Stonebench.

Friends & Family, Thither & Yon,

The world appears to spin faster and faster about the sun, each year briefer than the last, events separated by what once would have been long intervals now practically on top of one another. Reviewing our lives in 2011 reveals an astonishing wealth of life which has taken place in what feels like the blink of an eye. Thank you all for sharing in our joys and our miseries, whether in person, by voice, or by text; the encouragement and inspiration we receive from family and friends is truly beyond value.

Emerging from the winter doldrums in March, we revisited a favorite getaway for a quick Spring Break recharge before Christina plunged back into the classroom. On this visit to Fredericksburg, we stayed in a peculiar lodging known as the 6666 Pullman Bed and Breakfast, a private Pullman car once used by Teddy Roosevelt. A train nut since early childhood, and a fan of TR since Bugs Bunny wielded a big stick while wearing a fake mustache and pince-nez, Russell could scarcely have been happier if he got Christina to scale Enchanted Rock. Which he did, slowly but surely, on a gloriously brisk and overcast morning.

April marked the one-year anniversary of Russell’s daily bike ride to and from work, a slow, ongoing trek which should reach it’s thousandth mile sometime in early 2012. In addition to a much-needed workout, cycle commuting has also provided him an opportunity to exercise his narrative voice, racking up two wins in a weekly essay contest on a local cycling blog. The prizes were, naturally, re-invested in safety gear.

In late May, Russell’s maternal grandfather, Papa, passed away unexpectedly. It was a devastating loss for the family, an absence keenly felt in this season. Russell was called to bend his writing style to the task of memorializing the man who inspired and encouraged him in so many areas, from their shared love of reading and speaking to cooking and baking. His unconventional narrative obituary ran in the local weekly, but was initially rejected because of its unusual style by Papa’s hometown newspaper.

In the midst of record-breaking summer heat in Austin, the air conditioning system in our heretofore reliable Suzuki gave up. Once repaired, it cooled us down nicely, but presaged a cascade of system failures which finally resulted in a hunt for a new car. After a few test drives, much deliberation about features, and a search for the right configuration, our new silver Kia Soul is cozily resting its wheels in our garage.

As December began, Christina’s semester at the University of Texas’ School of Information Science came to a close with her poster presentation on the role of graphic novels in the classroom and in the library. Capping off a year of three complete courses, Christina is steeling herself (while Russell, Soot, and Smoke steel their respective selves) for the coming Spring semester, when she will take on a two class workload in preparation for a Summer practicum to finish her degree.

This Christmas finds Stonebench silhouetted with festive lights for the first time, and the kitchen in a near-constant state of production of sweet treats for gifting and bringing to celebrations, including our forthcoming Christmas Day with the Taylors in Buda. While Canadians enjoy their annual celebration of fisticuffs, we will be on our way to spend the last week of 2011 with the Streeters in Plano, ringing in 2012 with the western swing of A Ride With Bob. However you celebrate, we wish you safety, health, and happiness.

And of course,
a Very Merry Christmas,
and a Happy New Year!

Big WTF Candy Mountain

A favorite since I was introduced to it, strangely enough, in bowdlerized form in the Rankin-Bass classic The Easter Bunny is Comin’ To Town, Big Rock Candy Mountain (in its non-bowdlerized form) has popped up twice in recent days on my various music-shuffling devices. The all-knowing oracle tells me that it’s a modern Cockaigne song, a tale of a mythical land of improbable liberty and plenty. A fun tune, despite it’s somewhat troubling views of paradise, including jails made of tin, from which you can walk right out of as soon as you’re in. The crime rate in Big Rock Candy Mountain is likely astronomical. Nonetheless, I can see how it’d be appealing to early 20th-century transient rail enthusiasts, i.e, hobos. Apart from shotguns, what else do hobos want?

A land that’s fair and bright. Everyone wants this. See, hobos are people too!

Handouts that grow on bushes.

To sleep out every night.

Empty boxcars.

For the sun to shine every day.

Cigarette trees.

Lemonade springs.

For all the cops to have wooden legs. Nevermind, hobos are cruel, cruel beasts.

For the bulldogs all to have rubber teeth.

For hens to lay soft-boiled eggs.

For the farmers’ trees to be full of fruit. See, they support the family farmer; maybe a hobo could get elected president one day!

Barns full of hay.

No snow.

No rain.

No wind.

To never change their socks. We’ll come back to this one.

Little streams of alcohol trickling down the rocks.

For the brakemen to have to tip their hats.

For the railway bulls to be blind.

A lake of stew, and one of whiskey too, in which one can paddle all around in a big canoe. Right with ya up until that last bit.

Jails made of tin, from which you can walk right out again as soon as you are in. Note that they’re fine with being
arrested and processed and incarcerated, so long as they can Kool-Aid man out of the jailhouse wall once they’re in a cell.

No short-handled shovels, axes, saws or picks

To sleep all day.

To hang the jerk that invented work.

All in all, not the craziest list of demands I’ve ever heard. Given the challenges of the lifestyle and the meager comforts available, I can sympathize with almost all of these hobo dreams. Except the sock thing. It nearly ruins the song for me, really, because I can’t for the life of me figure out how not changing one’s socks would be of either material of emotional benefit to anyone. I’m not some sock-changing fanatic, either; in a pinch, I’ll slip on a previously worn pair. But consider: long days, or even weeks holed up in a boxcar, or worse, on foot, trekking from hostile town to hostile town with aggressive vagrancy laws, scrounging for sustenance, contending with your own funk and that of fellow-travelers all the while. Why, for the love of all that’s fluffy and cottony, wouldn’t you want to change your socks? And how, given the manifold dangers and deprivations faced by hobos, does this bizarre desire rate high enough to make it into the song?

I must say that I’m stumped. I welcome any theories or speculation you may have to cast light upon this lyrical hosiery mystery.


The night he passed after a sudden decline in health, my mother asked that I handle my grandfather’s obituary. She specified that it should be something out of the ordinary for printing in a handout at the funeral, with a shorter version for publication in the local news and in his hometown paper. Alas, the journalistic establishment of Scranton PA would not see fit to run anything not in “news format.” The internet, though, notoriously lacks editorial standards. Thanks to my editors, who in other guises are my lovely wife and my dear mother; my brother, whose media production skills are frighteningly good; and of course, the man whose recipes I still follow in and out of the kitchen.

The Rev. Lt. Col. Carmen Frank Riviello, Sr. (ret., U.S.A.N.C.), last stood about 5’’3″” on his size 8 ½ feet. The buffeting winds of age and care had eroded a full three inches from his height, but not an atom from his wit.

As a boy in the Lackawanna coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania, he walked the train tracks, collecting lumps of anthracite fallen from the cargo of passing trains which carried the black nuggets his father helped mine from the Paleozoic seams to the furnaces of the pre-rust Steel Belt. Each lump was added to his sack until he returned home to add it to the coal cellar to supplement the family’s supply for the stove.

In the same way, he trod the path of life, collecting the memories that make up a lifetime until it came time to shrug off his burden at 15:00 25 May 2011, a week and half before the 80th celebration of his birth on 4 June 1931. And this is what is left: a deep and dense trove of memories, left for us all to mine and add to our own collections, to help keep us warm through the rest of our days. The last, freshly-hewn nugget of memory he collected was surely one of kisses and hugs, prayers and whispered worries, and of tender touches amidst the joyful noise of his family enjoying each others’ company even in that grim moment. The conversation and tempered laughter halted as his labored breath did.

Below it lay a thousand craggy memories of sad days watching his precious wife Nancy’s slow decline, punctuated by joy, amusement and pride of days spent with his Great-grandson Gavin. A reach below the surface brings up a day of his retirement vocation, meeting the spiritual needs of others at the First Baptist Church of Schertz and Brooke Army Medical Center, then visiting with his close neighbor Robert “Woody” Woodfork. Another has him sharing his faith from the high plains of Floydada, Texas to the sea coast of New Symerna Beach, Florida, and another still preaching the gospel as an associate pastor at Hays Hills Baptist Church in Buda, Texas. Deeper yet, there are memories of his days treating college students at Southwest Texas State University.

The birth of his youngest grandchild, now a newly-minted marketer, Shana, his Contessa, is not much deeper down, nor is that of his Pinecone ― Gavin’s mother ― vocational nursing student Rochelle. The skilled and inquisitive Sean, whom he nicknamed Snag, was born on his birthday in 1983. University of Houston business student Thomas, or Big Tom, arrived only a few months earlier. University of Texas Mathematician Clare, his Princess, came along in 1981. The adventurous Christine, who is truly Rotten was his first granddaughter. Russell, whose subscription to National Geographic started before he was born, answered to George, and made him a grandfather they would all call Papa.

Almost halfway down, there is a memory of his first career, before his retirement from the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, El Paso. In one of the final moves of his globetrotting service to his fellow citizens, he moved his family from his previous post in Augsburg, Germany, to Fort Dix, New Jersey where he put to use his skill for healing, this time cooling the fever of racial strife which plagued the Army in those tense times. A little deeper and a world away, his tour of duty in Vietnam is a heavy and dark lump of time away from his family, a burden which he was nonetheless proud to carry.

That family was made complete only inches further down, when his youngest daughter Corrine was born while he was stationed in Hawaii, just weeks before it became the fiftieth state and a few months after the death of his beloved mother Ida. Another level holds the arrival of his first daughter, Pontia, while at Fort Ord, California. Down below the memory of his third entry into the Korea-era Army as a Second Lieutenant, and under his second drafting as a corpsman, is a memory made in his time as a civilian, the day he became a father with the birth of Carmen, Jr. In the same era, across the nation, were born those who his children would marry, and who he would hold in his heart as dear as they: Russell, Kathleen and Beverly.

Sitting next to each other only a quarter of the way from the bottom are memories from a momentous month in his young life. The worn and treasured recollection of his wedding day, when his love for Nancy Jeanne was solemnized into a bond which spanned the Earth and 57 happy years to be parted only by nature, sits cheek-by-jowl with the memory of the day not two weeks later when his country first called him to serve.

The loss of his father Francisco when Carmen was 13 is a stone far too deep by any measure, but as the youngest of nine siblings, he was not without others to show him the way, and to keep him on it. The pattern of this foundational gravel of childhood nearly fuses into a mosaic of life as a child of immigrants, comprising memories of his differences, memories of the high expectations that come with being born in the Land of the Free, memories which he was sure to pass on to each of his descendants. Deep in this matrix of days and routines is a small cabochon, told and retold, of a walk down the tracks, which is picked out, and dusted off, and made into something new.

In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to the Antioch Church Building fund or the Hays Hills Baptist Church Youth Group, for which Carmen and Nancy provided seed funding. Donations for either may be sent in care of Hays Hills Baptist Church, 1401 N. FM 1626, Buda TX 78610, or call (512) 295-3132.