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City And the City

I was just on vacation (during my vacation, very post-modern) when I read City and the City by China Mieville.  It was my first time reading anything by this author and I will say I was very happy with this book.  It is a combination of noir, political allegory, and science fiction.

The basic premise is that there are two cities that touch but if you live in one, you can’t acknowledge the other (by law) and a person is from one city and murdered and their body is dumped in the other.  It is an interesting allegory of the Muslim and the western world.  I won’t spoil the book itself but I will say that it is worth picking up.

Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children

Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages

Richard Rubenstein

I have for some time been interested in the interplay between classical Greek philosophy, rabbinic Judaism, and early Christian thought. Neo-platonic thought and early Christian doctrine share a lot in common, and Aristotle had a clear influence on the codification of the Talmud. So when I saw the subtitle of this book, I was excited for an overview of that area of history. I guess I should have read the back cover before I purchased this one, because the title is highly misleading. This book has almost no information about the early Christian era; it is a book about the rediscovery of classical thought in the high middle ages and Renaissance. Think Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard, not Rabbi Akiva and Augustine of Hippo.

Though this book turned out to not be at all what I was looking for, it was interesting. As a theology buff, I enjoyed the arguments regarding the nature of the trinity, the infighting between the competing monastic orders, and the turn towards Aristotelian logic in theological debate. You can look down your nose at monks arguing over the question of how many angels fit on the head of a pin, but the rigor that people like Aquinas and Abelard brought to the discussion of theological questions is the foundation for the logistical thinking which brought us the scientific revolution. And the scientific revolution brought you the iphone, so shut up.

Aristotle’s Children may not have been what I was looking for, but as a piece of popular religious history, it’s a good read. Recommended for the curious.


– Sean


Where’s Chris Onstad? (UPDATED with answer)

On March 16, the administrator of a Facebook fan community called “Achewood: A Momentary Distraction on the Road to the Grave,” posted a terse update, the first time in over a month anything had been written on the page: “The hiatus is hella lame!” A few dozen people chimed in to agree, with comments like “In limbo, thinking about the back of a van” and “oh uh yeah.” To an outsider, the whole thing would have been incomprehensible, which only added to the tragedy: the best humorist in the country has been essentially AWOL for months, and no one has noticed except Internet people.

When Chris Onstad began the online comic strip “Achewood” in the fall of 2001, it was little more than a hastily illustrated collection of private jokes and surreal punch lines, more a project to share with friends and family than something with the potential to become one of the best works of American fiction since the end of the Cold War. Yet that’s exactly what it became over 10 years, as Onstad’s cast of anthropomorphic, frequently drunk animals evolved into characters so rich and dynamic they’d be the envy of any of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” crowd.

Webcomics have a signal-to-noise ratio roughly equivalent to their in-print cousins: a handful of greats, a significant percentage of perfectly good stuff that you forget about immediately after reading it, and a huge amount of work so bad it routinely makes you regret that the hippies smuggled the First Amendment into the Constitution. This was even truer when “Achewood” began, a time when roughly 80 percent of all webcomics were about elves having sex with each other.

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Comic Strip Tropes: The Silent Penultimate Panel

There are few chunks of media real estate more imperiled than space in the print edition of your local newspaper. For over two decades now, the actual physical paper has been shrinking both in page size and number of pages as advertisements and circulation figures drop. As a result, that space has become more precious than ever: fewer stories, fewer photos, fewer graphics mean everyone has to redouble their efforts to justify what they propose to put in between the tire ads. Knowing that, what would you do with a slot in hundreds of newspapers every week? Would you try to cram as much as you can into the shrinking space you occupy, hoping to maximize your limited resource? Or would you regularly devote between a third and a quarter of your alloted space to wordless filler? If you’re like a startling number of American newspaper cartoonists, you already know the answer to this. Behold, the Silent Penultimate Panel:

This phenomenon was first drawn to my attention years ago by a blog, now sadly defunct, dedicated to chronicling its startlingly regular appearance in the comics section of America.

Essentially, the silent penultimate panel functions as a comedic pause for effect in the dialogue of the strip, to further set up a punch line. In a four-panel strip, it works like this: premise, setup, silent panel, punch line. This is done by hack cartoonists and by great ones.

In theory, this is a perfectly valid comedic device, but its sheer regularity suggests a less happy conclusion: the silent penultimate panel is nothing but padding by artists who can’t figure out how to fill even the limited space they’re allotted.

That’s because the silent penultimate panel is often identical, in art, to the panels that surround it, except devoid of any dialogue or narration. It’s the printed version of dead air. In an age of newspaper austerity, it is the ultimate extravagant gesture: “I could put in more words or different art here,” it says, “but instead, I just cut and pasted the image from panel two and took out the dialogue box.”

The silent penultimate panel is an indicator of badly paced jokes. I say “jokes” because the silent penultimate panel never appears in the soap opera strips; because those strips have to advance a narrative (at what is often a glacial-seeming pace, especially in the tedious world of Rex Morgan, M.D.), they can’t afford to waste space on a blank panel that contains no new information.

Gag-a-day strips, though, lean on the silent penultimate panel all the time. The essential structure of a gag-a-day strip is simple: setup followed by punchline. This is so simple that, incredibly, sometimes artists can’t even figure out a way to stretch it to three panels.

There are structural ways to overcome this problem without regular recourse to the silent penultimate panel: “Shoe” has become a two-panel strip, with the setup appearing in the first panel and the punch line following in the second panel. “Mallard Fillmore,” a strip I loathe, has nevertheless accommodated its paucity of narrative direction by becoming a one-panel strip that contains a word balloon or two along with a credibly-executed drawing of a duck watching television. Take a look at the three examples above: all would work just as well with two panels, but for some reason (pride? habit?) they were stretched out to three.

I’m not suggesting some kind of “rule” against the silent penultimate panel. Used sparingly, it’s fine as a placeholder in a larger storyline, and there are times when it can even advance the story or provide information without dialogue in an effective way. A good recent example of this comes to us, not surprisingly, from the bleak mind of Tom Batiuk, who used a silent penultimate panel in “Crankshaft” (the “funny” strip in the “Funky Winkerbean” universe) to establish the “humorous” premise of a week’s worth of strips: an old woman falls on some ice and waits vainly for anyone to rescue her. That Batiuk always cracks me up!

Once you’ve thought about the silent penultimate panel, you start noticing it everywhere. The comics in this entry were taken from a two-week period, and I could have included more. There are, although it may be hard to believe, artists all over the country bursting at the seams with ideas for comic strips, who would vomit in a bag and mail it to their grandparents for a chance at the exposure most of these comics have. It must be profoundly irritating for them to open the paper in the morning and see the haves of the newspaper comic world phone it in so frequently.

(V. Charm)

Nerdsdropping: Overread in DC

I spend a good portion of my day schlepping from Maryland to Northern Virginia on the DC Metro, which gives me nearly two hours a day to read and nap while pretending to read.

The Metro is also a good place to do some nerdsdropping on my fellow readers. Having lived in America’s most highly educated metropolis for over a year now, I thought I would take nourishment from the vibrant intellectual capital that surrounds me and see what my fellow DC nerds are reading.

So what are all these uptight smart-looking, bifocaled Beltway types around me reading? Turns out to mostly be reports on really boring topics like emergency preparedness and Stieg Larsson. Almost dangerous quantities of Stieg Larsson.

During my week of creepy book-leering, I have discovered that the taste of the average DC reader is–how do I put this?–bad. For instance, the title of a book like The Art of Racing In the Rain actually sounds kind of poetic–until you look it up and discover it’s a blatant Marley and Me cute doggie ripoff.  Scratch that off my “possible read” list.

I did like that a punked out kid with a shirt that read vegan and tattoos up and down his face–including a conspicuous lotus flower on his chin–was reading the A Year of Living Biblically. Meanwhile his slightly less punked out boyfriend sat next to him reading trash about vampires. I suspect it’s just a matter of time before these two go from totally straight edge to handing out Chick pamphlets on the street.

Of all the books whose titles I was able to see, only Updike’s Rabbit is Rich and Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, a nonfiction account of the devastation of the Dust Bowl, struck me as potential books to track down.

I think I can now go back to ignoring my fellow passengers in peace.


What to read next?

I envy readers who approach their reading systemically, readers for whom reading is a process of getting to the bottom of a few private obsessions. Systematic readers may not always know what book comes next—but they will at least be able to narrow it down to a few good candidates. I mean, if you’re obsessed with the Soviet erotica, there’s a good chance that your next book will about Soviet erotica. (I assume such a thing existed.)

Then there are also readers who read purely as an aesthetic experience. I hold nothing but admiration for these readers.  There are some—or, so  I imagine, because I am not like this—who view each book as an opportunity to, in the words of Walter Pater, “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame.”  (How many moody undergraduate humanities students over the years have swooned to these words just before deciding to take on a lifetime of financial aid debt to pursue an MA in Art History?) For these readers, there’s a good chance you’ll be satisfied with some random 19th century Russian and French doorstop.

My approach to reading is neither especially admirable or worthy of envy.  Though I have my interests and sense of beauty, my reading philosophy can best be summed up as “eclectic nerd.”  There is a dutiful part of me—a smattering of Midwestern rectitude I inherited from my Ohio parents—that says that you do certain things because you darn well should.  I feel this way about books sometimes. There are certain books I should read because, damn it, I should read something at some point by Balzac or Günter Grass or (I suppose) Joyce Carol Oates.

Eclectic nerds like myself want to balance reading something new with reading a classic they blew off in college with reading about world religions they find vaguely ridiculous with trying to finally figure out what the hell the Frankfurt School actually was with learning about what America has done to poor brown-skinned people in remote parts of the world. 

As a result, putting down one book and picking up another for me can be a surprisingly difficult. Earlier this week I finished John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra. On my desk in front of me is normally a neat stack of books that I collected because they seem like books I really should read. I have been going through these books for the past two days, trying to decide what book I want to/should read next. The books are now clumped in scattered piles. 

In the off chance you have an opinion, here are some of my options:

  • I like the idea of reading Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier because it’s on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 books—and because I enjoy the fact that the author’s first and last name are the same. (I like William Carlos Williams for the same reason–oh, and his poetry’s pretty good, too.) 
  • I meant to read The Decline of the West when I was 21 and was ready to flush Western Civilization down the drain. But has anyone read this outside of a course reading list during the past 75 years?
  • Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy appeals to me because maybe it will teach me to console myself with a little philosophy rather than single malt Scotch. Besides, I should probably know a little something about what it was like at the court of Theodoric during the sixth century, right?
  • Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, because the publisher managed to slap a blurb from president Barack Obama on the cover. 
  • I’m wondering if Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is close enough to being out of fashion again that I should finally bother with it.
  • Nathaneal West’s Miss Lonelyhearts/The Day of the Locust, for some reason.
  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  Because maybe I’ll like spy thrillers.
  • Vanity Fair was one of TS Eliot’s favorite novel (an endorsement you might consider a little dubious) but every time I look at its 10,000 or so pages I start seeing if there’s a book on my bookshelf with zombies on the cover. (Speaking of zombies, World War Z is also on my desk—Studs Terkels meets, uh, zombies!)
  • Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. I am starting to wonder if I might be closer to an English Tory than an American Democrat. Then again: Margaret Thatcher.
  • The Wisdom of Insecurity. Because I aspire to be the most restless/impatient/distracted Buddhist in history, coked-up Hollywood Buddhists excepted.
  • Etc.

Any thoughts?



I am reading about 12 books right now. I haven’t been able to finish anything in weeks, but hopefully this blog will spur me on. Meanwhile, here is a message I just received from one of my Amazon customers.


Amazon sent me the following request: will you rate your experience with this seller? Now I have received the book in good order, and am happy with my purchase. I would gladly leave a positive feedback about this, if Amazon would not try and oblige me to add “Comments about your experience with this seller”.

I have no time for this ; since I cannot just submit my 5-star rating of your performance without having to fill in a textbox with whatever Amazon wants me spend my time on, I refuse to do so ; maybe you and other booksellers can bring this to Amazon’s attention.



Sex, death and nostalgia: three short reviews

The last three novels I’ve read have included a total of seven suicides, five acts of self-destructive sex and immeasurable quantities of nostalgia. To paraphrase Stalin, one death is a tragedy, but a handful of deaths is a real page turner.

Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is the story of a young man who falls in love with a fragile girl whose ex-boyfriend’s suicide leads—spoiler alert!—to her own psychological disintegration and suicide. Known for his forays into magic realism, the only fantasy Murakami brings to bear in this story is the somewhat unbelievable fact that Toro, the laconic loner at the heart of the novel, somehow manages to effortlessly stumble into bed with an assortment of lovelies. (One suspects there may be more than a little authorial wish fulfillment at work here.) The book quickly becomes an overheated fugue of loneliness and suicide and mental disintegration—such a piling up of the rawest materials of literary art that it comes off a bit like cheating. And yet, as much as you are perfectly aware that you are being manipulated, I defy anyone one who reads this book to avoid remaining disconcerted for days by the book’s massively overdetermined final act.

Like Murakami, LP Hartley’s The Go-Between revolves around the kind of bad sex that leads to great literary suicide. (Personally I concur with Woody Allen’s quip that “even my worst orgasm was just right,” but then again I did not have to operate within the strict social rules of the Edwardian upper class that this book depicts.) I picked up this book after seeing its first line quoted for the 100th time: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (That line is, by itself, is worthier than Carl Sandburg’s entire oeuvre.) As with Norwegian Wood, this book is a look back to youthful events that ending up recasting the narrator’s entire life. (The novel’s beginning is framed as the reconstruction of a childhood diary.) Spending the summer with the family of a wealthy friend from school, young Leo Colston passes letters between his friend’s sister (who is being courted by a local aristocrat disfigured in the Boer War) and a local farmer. Leo serves as the go-between in more ways than one—his role as a mediator of class is especially important—as he unwittingly serves as the catalyst for the novel’s (again) gruesome end. Though seemingly a bit fussy at first, the book becomes increasingly subtle, textured and inexorable. An almost perfect novel.

My latest bad sex/suicide book is John O’Hara’s 1930 novel Appointment in Samarra. Self-destructive sex? Check. Julien English, the novel’s protagonist, drunkenly attempts hanky panky with the torch singer girlfriend of a local mobster in a roadhouse parking lot while his wife stews inside. No matter what decade it is, this is a bad move. Suicide? Check. The novel is constructed so that each bad decision, starting with the senseless throwing of a drink into the face of an annoying man English owes money to, ends up culminating in (and this might sound familiar) his gruesome end. An artful book, dense and kaleidoscopic, the more time that goes by the less it has remained with me. It leaves me somewhat cold, perhaps because it strives to be relentlessly modern and brassy instead of morose and backwards-looking—in short, lacking in nostalgia.

In the end, maybe bad sex and suicide aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.


Shining Path

Nicolas Shakespeare, the author of The Dancer Upstairs has an incredible article on his first meeting with Martiza Lecca. Lecca is the ballerina in whose apartment Shining Path leader Alerto Guzman was captured. The article is haunting and excellent, check it out.

Not a lot is available in English about Shining Path, and much of what is available is very academic. My sources in the world of terrorism scholarship say the definitive book on the movement is David Scott Palmer’s The Shining Path of Peru. I might have to put that on the to be read list.