And Therein Lies a Tail

It seems Watanuki’s reading comprehension is a trifle lacking.
He often leaves part of his body sticking out of the condo, but it’s usually a paw, or even his entire front half.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen him leave just his tail behind.

Yes, OK. His tail is always behind him. I get it. Very clever.

As best I can tell, he’s trying to emulate the Cheshire Cat, but he’s gotten the quote quite the wrong way around. “…this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”


“Well! I sometimes see a cat without a tail,” thought Alice; “but a tail without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!” Setting aside her saw, Alice continued down the path. “I do believe the March Hare will require an ax.”

Alice II: Nightmare in Wonderland


I heard recently that the Texas School Board had banned Terry Pratchett’s books from schools. As a big fan of his work, I was disturbed to hear it. Also rather surprised, as I hadn’t thought there was anything in his works that was likely to lead to a ban. Granted, the Texas School Board is notorious for banning books on little provocation,* but if they were going to start banning Pratchett, they’d almost have to ban the entire SFF canon.

* In 2010, a children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” was banned because its author had the same name as the author of “Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation”. The latter book is obviously a “very strong critique of capitalism and the American system”, and children must be protected from any works by an author who could create such dubious content. The fact that it was a different author altogether escaped the attention of the Board member who added “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” to the list. 2010 was a busy year for the board, which revamped the social studies curriculum to remove mention of Hispanics, stress the superiority of American capitalism, and eliminate discussion of the separation of church and state, then later in the year banned books that have an “anti-Christian, pro-Islamic slant“.

So I went online and did a bit of digging. Given Pratchett’s ardent large and vociferous fanbase, I didn’t figure it would take much digging to turn up the details. I spent rather longer at it than I expected. After a couple of hours of digging over two days, I could only find one mention of a ban on Pratchett’s work. It is in Texas, but it’s not a blanket ban, and it has nothing to do with schools. The single book “The Last Hero” is banned from Texas prisons. The reason for the ban isn’t stated in the report, but presumably it has something to do with the plot which features an attempt to destroy the home of the gods with a sled load of explosives.

I’ve just used over 300 words on this, not to debunk an apparently non-existent banning or to warn about the dangers of believing everything you hear, but because it reminded me that I really should do at least a brief write up on Terry Pratchett. Long way around the barn, isn’t it?

Stylistically speaking, Pratchett is almost as great an influence on my own writing as Douglas Adams. (It probably says something significant about me that my major stylistic influences are British, but that may be a topic for another day.) Where Adams’ style is, in my opinion, monological, Pratchett’s is more conversational. I can almost hear the pauses where he expects the reader to ask questions. His use (some might say “abuse”) of footnotes is legendary, and certainly has had great impact on my own use of digression in both speech and writing.

Pratchett’s dedication to his craft is admirable. Despite having been diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease in 2007, he has continued writing. He has used a combination of speech recognition software and dictation to produce at least four more books in the Discworld series, now at forty titles, as well as other works of both fiction and non-fiction.

Forty titles in the Discworld series, and they haven’t gotten stale?

Nope. He’s kept them fresh by focusing on different characters, different locations (he does have a whole world to play with, after all), and even different time periods. Even when he says with a single character for an extended period, the characters grow and change, learning and taking on new challenges.

The majority of the first book in the series, “The Colour of Magic”, is made up of his takes on Lovecraft’s Cthulu and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders; in both cases, he expertly straddles the line between parody and pastiche. Almost in passing, Pratchett built a universe which has far outgrown its origins. Few readers would advise those new to the Discworld to begin with “The Colour of Magic” or the second book in the series, “The Light Fantastic”. Beginning with the third book, “Equal Rites”, Pratchett began focusing on the characters who inhabit his universe; the tropes of fantasy became places to begin an exploration.

My own recommendation would be to begin with “Equal Rites”, which introduces the Witches and the town of Lancre; “Mort”, which elevates Death from a bit part to a starring and continuing role; and “Guards! Guards!” which brings the Ank-Morpork City Watch to the fore (and says some very complimentary things about libraries). With those three books, the majority of the ongoing characters and most common locations are in place. The reader, by now probably well-hooked, can then move on to the remaining thirty-seven books in the series.

Although the Discworld fantasies are the work for which Pratchett is best-known, he began his career writing children’s fiction in both fantasy and science fiction modes. His first two adult novels were science fiction, and has lately returned to science fiction in collaboration with Stephen Baxter. Personal preference here: while Pratchett’s SF is good, the fantasy is much better at each stage of his career. The stories flow more smoothly and seem more internally-consistent. Perhaps most importantly, in fantasy Pratchett seems to feel free to let his sense of humor fly free, but reins it in in his science fiction.

A Gorey Tale

Hold tight. We’re going to take a quick left turn into the land of the surreal.

Edward Gorey was, in the far too inadequate words of Wikipedia, a “writer and artist noted for his illustrated books … [which] often depict vaguely unsettling narrative scenes”.

Gorey is arguably best known to the general public as the creator (or inspiration – there seems to be some disagreement among sources) for the opening credits of PBS’ “Mystery!” TV show. Although most think of him as an artist or illustrator, he considered himself an executor of literary nonsense in the tradition of Lewis Carroll. Gorey’s nonsense, however, comes from a much more explicitly dark place than Carroll’s.

His best-known printed work is “The Gashlycrumb Tinies”, an alphabet book in which the letters are represented by rhymed couplets describing the unusually macabre deaths of children. The poems are accompanied by lovingly-rendered drawings of each demise. From “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs”, which shows a fall reminiscent of flying as Amy sails down a grand staircase with her arms outstretched, through “Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin” depicting a very tea party-like session in which Zillah shares her bottle with a skull-headed doll, the illustrations serve less to elucidate the verses than to raise more questions. How did Basil come to meet the bears? What sort of butterfly led Quentin into the mire?

“The Gashlycrumb Tinies” was the first of three pieces in Gorey’s 1963 book “The Vinegar Works: Three Volumes of Moral Instruction”. The second piece, “The Insect God”, drops the humor of “The Gashlycrumb Tinies”, focusing on the macabre side in its telling of the story of Millicent Frastley, who is kidnapped and sacrificed by strange, insect-like beings. “The West Wing”, the final tale in the volume, has no text. Through drawings alone, it creates a sense of foreboding and impending doom.

“The Gashlycrumb Tinies” has achieved great popular acclaim; it has been reprinted many times, and the pages have been reproduced in whole or part on posters, calendars, mugs, lunchboxes, and even watches. The other two works have not done as well – as a rough gauge, Google shows more than 50 times as many hits for “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” as the other two combined. And yet, something about “The Insect God” seems to call out to the artistic spirit. It has been the subject of at least two different musical settings, by Jazz/Rock composer Michael Mantler and Camper Van Beethoven spinoff band The Monks of Doom. Multiple stage productions (examples here and here) have been made as well.

What is behind the artistic fascination with “The Insect God”? Why do people say it remains with them over the years?

Part of it must be the immediate resonance of the story: child abductions have been a staple of the press since at least the Pool kidnapping of 1819. The year after “The Vinegar Works” was released, the Highway Safety Foundation released the infamous “The Child Molester” safety film. Today’s newspapers are full of stories about a spate of kidnappings in Seattle and New South Wales.

But that can’t be the whole story. Nobody, as far as I can tell, has written a stage play about Jaycee Dugard or a ballad about Amanda Berry.

I’d argue that the difference is that Gorey goes, in the immortal words of Prince Buster, “One Step Beyond” by making his kidnappers giant insects. That moves “The Insect God” into the realm of the “unreal” – the same space inhabited by horror movies. Glenn D. Walters hypothesizes that horror movies’ popularity can be traced to their ability to give concrete form to people’s fears, but remain at sufficient distance from reality to allow the viewer to establish mental control.

I note that at the same time Gorey was writing “The Insect God”, another well-known horror work was being created. It took Alfred Hitchcock $3,300,000 and two hours of screen time in “The Birds” to reach the same place that Gorey arrived at using 15 pages of pen and ink drawings.

Happy Towel Day

Happy Towel Day a little early!

Towel Day (May 25th) is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of Douglas Adams, his life, and his writing. The event has been held annually since his death in 2001, though in keeping with his off-kilter style, the date is not the actual date of his death, birth, or in fact, any other date of significance to Adams or his career.

Adams is probably the single greatest influence on my writing style. He had a relaxed, casual approach that made the reader feel like he was kicked back in a comfortable chair at a party chatting with the lunatic sprawled on the couch. I don’t aspire to match his absurdist British humor – I agree with John Scalzi that one almost has to be British to really handle that style well – but I would love to handle the “conversation with the reader” approach with something close to Adams’ skill.

His best-known work, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“, began as a radio show. Given its popularity in the UK, Adams did a novelization of the show, which also proved very popular. Unlike many of his American fans, I stumbled over the book before the radio show made it to the US – the book came out in 1979, but the radio show didn’t arrive on this side of the Atlantic until it was broadcast by NPR in 1981. Getting it backward that way didn’t appreciably degrade my appreciation for Adams’ style or sense of humor; while it left me with the feeling that some lines in the radio version are “wrong”, I would be hard-pressed to decide which format I prefer.

Later books in the series served as the basis for further seasons of the radio show, and the trilogy reached five volumes*. H2G2, as the Guide is fondly known, has also made it to TV and to the silver screen, albeit with less success than the original incarnations.

* Not a typo. There was a long gap between the third and fourth books, so fans became very used to referring to “the trilogy”. Rather than disturb that habit, the trilogy was just extended to four and then five books. Copy editors complained, but marketers loved it.

Comparisons to Monty Python’s Flying Circus are inevitable and warranted (and in fact, Adams was a writer for Monty Python).

As noted by Fraser McAlpine for Towel Day 2012, Adams’ best known quote is probably “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” But many other Adams lines have spread through science fiction fandom and beyond into popular culture. Perhaps you’ve heard some of my favorites:

“This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays,”

“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job,”

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so,”

“How do you feel?” “Like a military academy: bits of me keep passing out.”

As I write this, a couple of days before Towel Day, the Internet is abuzz with the word that Google has submitted some kind of media player, perhaps a successor to last year’s ill-fated Nexus Q to the FCC for certification. The relevance is that the device’s model number is H2G2-42. H2G2 is, as noted above, the standard abbreviation for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy” and 42 is, according to canon, “the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”. In any case, if Google chooses to make a product announcement tomorrow, I’ll certainly pass that information along.

But why towels? A towel, according to Adams, “is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” Essentially, any non-hitchhiker will figure that someone who can keep track of their towel while traveling the length of the universe must have something on the ball.

Adams himself knew where his towel was, in his writing as well as in his support for environmental causes. I may still be looking for my professional towel, but I intend to carry it well and follow in his footsteps.

Please join me tomorrow in proudly carrying your towel in Douglas Adams’ memory.

Seymour’s First Clarinet Concerto

Some of you may have noticed a discussion of feline intelligence in the comments on my post introducing Kokoro. I’m citing Kokoro as the most intelligent cat I’ve known, while my father is championing Seymour, the cat of my childhood. In making his case for Seymour, Dad invokes a family legend regarding Seymour’s musical abilities. Now Dad provides additional information in support of his cause.

Book Cover

Full disclosure: What follows is hardly a disinterested book review. Given my close familial relationship with the author and protagonist, and given that the artist is a family friend, it could scarcely be otherwise. And yes, it’s also potentially a paid review: if you buy a copy through the links above or below, I’ll get a small cut out of Amazon’s share of the purchase price. If you choose to assume bias on my part and reject the book, though, you’ll be missing out on a pleasant experience. Biased or not, I promise to avoid the word most woefully overused in reviews of children’s books: “charming”.

“Seymour’s First Clarinet Concerto” is a tale of a cat and his boy. It’s a simple tale with an artfully concealed message about the importance of promises, friends, and promises to friends. The art is colorful and engaging. Children too young to appreciate the story will still enjoy the illustrations, but the text and the drawings hide enough jokes and references to amuse adults who are reading the book to their offspring for the thirty-seven thousandth time. Well, OK, maybe only twenty thousand times.

If there are a few minor deviations from reality here and there (I don’t believe the American Museum of Natural History admits cats, for example), what of it? The deviations are necessary to the story being told, and frankly, reality comes off worse in the comparison.

“Seymour” has been in the works for decades, and was – as Dad notes in the afterword – inspired by the real-life Seymour who did indeed listen as my sister and I practiced the clarinet (and other instruments). While he never offered explicit critiques, there was a certain amount of correlation between the quality of the music and the speed at which he swished his tail back and forth. He wasn’t our first family cat, but he’s the first one I remember. A very friendly creature he was, and never happier than when he had a lap to sprawl in.

Dad wrote the first version of “Seymour” in the 80s, but never found the right artist, or a publisher for it. Over the years, he pulled it out and tinkered with it, but it didn’t go anywhere until recently. When grandson Simon (my nephew) came along, Seymour gave Dad a metaphorical tail-thwack to the shins, demanding a place in Simon’s lap, and the project took on a new life.

Dad revised and updated the text, recruited Vic to illustrate, and hooked up with CreateSpace (who did a wonderful job putting the book together, by the way), and the result is not just a splendid gift for Simon, but also a wonderful tribute to Seymour.

Does “Seymour’s First Clarinet Concerto” clearly establish Seymour as more intelligent than Kokoro? I’d have to say that it does not, but it is a strong argument. Ball’s in your court, Ms. K-poof.

Buy yourself a copy. Get one for your child too. If you’ve got more than one child, get them each a copy. Don’t forget your nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, and you should even consider one for that annoying brat down the street who keeps walking on your lawn.

(And note: not only did I avoid “charming”, I also skipped “delightful” and “adorable”.)


Those of you who know the Science Fiction/Fantasy field may be wondering why I consider Jim Butcher an inspiration. Today’s post is an attempt at answering that question.

Unlike other creators who I consider general role models, Butcher is an inspiration for one specific aspect of his work. To date, he has published 14 novels in the Harry Dresden series without falling into the pitholes that long-running series with a single main character are prone to: telling the same story over and over again or warping the character in some arbitrary way to allow the author to start over.

As a counter-example in the same “urban fantasy” genre, consider Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Hamilton, IMNSHO, commits both sins. Through the first eight books, Anita faces a series of opponents of increasing strength, culminating in “Blue Moon” where she encounters a demon. In Blake’s universe, demons are at the apex of evil power, so Hamilton doesn’t have a whole lot of room to continue escalating Anita’s opponents; instead Anita, formerly a self-doubting heroine with a strong personal moral code throws her moral code out of the window, choosing to drift through a series of repetitious encounters and complaining about her unhappiness. She sleeps with vampires and a variety of weres and has multiple relationships at once, things she had previously vehemently rejected. She acquires new powers, each of which seems to serve little purpose but to drag her from one partner to another. In short, the later books of the series feature a character who shares little with the original beyond a name, and the stories have changed from fantasy-themed mysteries to fantasy-themed generic romances. (Disclosure: I read the first half-dozen books multiple times, haven’t re-read later books at all, and stopped reading them entirely around book 13; it’s possible things have improved since then, but it seems unlikely based on the synopses I read while writing this paragraph.)

How does Butcher avoid similar fates for Harry? Over the course of the series, Harry acquires a set of allies, people he can count on to assist him when an opponent is beyond his own abilities. His allies have lives of their own as well. They move in and out of the novels, things change in their lives when they’re not on stage, and they return with new motivations derived from their off-stage experiences. Harry grows in knowledge and power, not so much gaining new powers as enhancing and refining the ones he has. The cost of growth is in self-doubt and concern over his ability to continue doing what he believes to be his mission: protecting Chicago and its residents from the supernatural powers they don’t believe in and couldn’t fight if they did. The result is that Harry changes greatly, but he’s still the same person as in the first book, just more nuanced and thus more interesting. Meanwhile, each book still has a “whodunnit” at the core – or at the very least a “whydunnit”.

According to Butcher’s website, he has a definite end planned for the series, with another nine books to go, give or take. Unlike Anita, who seems to be hopelessly adrift and likely to remain that way until the public stops buying the books, Harry is going someplace. He may not like it when he gets there, and he definitely isn’t going to like the trip, but I have faith in Butcher that I will enjoy the trip and be satisfied that I’ve arrived at the right place.