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Weekend link dump for November 15

As a reward for making it through these past few weeks, please enjoy this amazing aerial photo of the Astrodome, from its early days.

“After four years of a president who couldn’t abide pets, dogs will once again cavort on the White House lawn.”

“The strategy to wage a legal fight against the votes tallied for Biden in Pennsylvania and other places is more to provide Trump with an off-ramp for a loss he can’t quite grasp and less about changing the election’s outcome, the officials said.”

“Post on polling in 2020. TLDR: projections based only on past voting returns better predicted 2020 results than poll averages in battleground states. I review how we used this to decide to spend in GA, then ask what might went wrong with polling in 2020?”

The law is coming.

“It’s not a stretch, then, to think that the organization with the most influence over what Americans believe, including about Donald Trump, is Facebook. And Twitter, as the shared watercooler of the entire media industry, probably isn’t far behind.”

“Pat Nixon was the first first lady to wear pants in public. Hillary Clinton was the first first lady to be elected to a public office. And now, Jill Biden is projected to become the first first lady to keep her full-time job outside of the White House.”

“Biden has several serious challenges ahead of him to curb the coronavirus’s exponential growth. First, he won’t take office for several months, which means the virus will continue to spread largely unabated if nothing is done. But perhaps most importantly, his administration needs to regain shattered trust in public health officials and agencies. He’s not just starting from scratch in creating a federal response; he’s facing a deficit with nearly a year of disinformation and deep politicization of the virus and its risks.”

“French media having to explain to readers who @GrittyNHL is as part of their election coverage wasn’t on my 2020 bingo card, but it’s definitely my fave moment of the cycle so far.”

Election Precedent 2020.

“If we have a safe, effective vaccine come out of clinical trials in the coming weeks, but we are not fully ready for a vaccination program, that will be a self inflicted national wound. A delay that could cost many thousands of lives.”

“What is clear is that it is no longer useful to clump millennials and Gen Z together as shorthand for youth. They may not have noticed it, but the upper cohort of millennials are fast approaching middle age. The second they try looking at themselves in a Gen-Z-approved upward camera angle, they’ll find that out for themselves.”

“The end of democratic self-government is not a thing one has a legal plan for. That’s like asking what my plan is for closing a demonic hell mouth that opens in my backyard. Die. My plan would be to die. I’m not Keanu Reeves.”

“President-elect Joe Biden looks to have won more than 300 electoral votes while winning the popular vote by more than 5 million votes. It was a more lopsided win than George W. Bush’s defeat of John Kerry in 2004. As a percentage of total electorate, Biden’s electoral mandate is on par with Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980. Heck, Biden swept every state mentioned in Steve Miller’s “Rock’n Me” (hat-tip to Jason Isbell for that observation). It’s a big win, by any measure.”

RIP, Disco Kroger. Houston’s grocery scene will never be the same.

The near future landscape for the NBA, NHL, and MLB.

RIP, Tommy Heinsohn, basketball Hall of Famer, and Boston Celtics legend.

There were more votes cast in 24 of the 36 Congressional races in Texas than in the entire state of Wyoming.

“So with his flight, [Vic] Glover is not only making history as the US gets back into the business of human spaceflight, he will become the first Black person to live on the space station. This seems like a shocking fact. The space station has now been inhabited for more than 20 years, after all, and 126 humans have lived there during that time. But none were Black. Six African-American astronauts visited the space station during shuttle missions, but none stayed aboard as long-term crew members.”

My initial favorite for a new Jeopardy! host is Ken Jennings, but I have to say, LeVar Burton would be an outstanding choice.

RIP, Lucille Bridges, American hero.

RIP, Paul Hornung, football Hall of Famer who won a Heisman, an NFL MVP, and multiple NFL titles with the Packers.

Interview with David Cay Johnston


This interview is a little different than the ones I usually present. Barbara Radnofsky got in touch with me a couple of weeks ago to say that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Cay Johnston was going to be in town to promote his new book, The Making of Donald Trump, and would I like to talk to him? I don’t get a whole lot of invitations like that, so of course I said Yes. I’d listened to Johnston’s earlier interview with Jacob Weisberg of Slate, and I’ve begun reading the book, and the main thing to take away from all this is this: Whatever you think you know about Donald Trump, the reality is so, so much worse. No, seriously, you may think you know all of the awful things about Donald Trump, but until you read the book (or listen to these interviews, if you want to take the modern day Cliff Notes route), there’s much you don’t know. Here’s my interview, so you can see what I mean:

(Also, too, for those of you who remember Spy Magazine from back in the day, here’s a little bit of good news for you, and a classic revisited for today’s audiences. You’re welcome. Now I’ll get out of the way so you can listen.)

We missed you, Bill Watterson

Stephan Pastis wins the Internet, and pretty much everything else, this week.

Let me tell you. Just getting an email from Bill Watterson is one of the most mind-blowing, surreal experiences I have ever had. Bill Watterson really exists? And he sends email? And he’s communicating with me?

But he was. And he had a great sense of humor about the strip I had done, and was very funny, and oh yeah….

…He had a comic strip idea he wanted to run by me.

Now if you had asked me the odds of Bill Watterson ever saying that line to me, I’d say it had about the same likelihood as Jimi Hendrix telling me he had a new guitar riff. And yes, I’m aware Hendrix is dead.

So I wrote back to Bill.

“Dear Bill,

I will do whatever you want, including setting my hair on fire.”

So he wrote back and explained his idea.

He said he knew that in my strip, I frequently make fun of my own art skills. And that he thought it would be funny to have me get hit on the head or something and suddenly be able to draw. Then he’d step in and draw my comic strip for a few days.

That’s right.

The cartoonist who last drew Calvin and Hobbes riding their sled into history would return to the comics page.

To draw Pearls Before Swine.

And so he did, for three days. It was right there on your comics page this week. Did you notice? Did you realize what was behind it? Read the whole thing and see for yourself how it went. How often does magic happen right before your eyes? See this followup interview with Watterson in the Washington Post for more.

My father, the book critic

My dad emailed me the other day to inform me that he had written his first book review on Amazon, and to ask me if I might mention this on my blog. What’s even the point of having a blog if you can’t mention stuff like that on it, I ask you? So if you’d like some more opinionated writing on the Internet by someone named Charles Kuffner, head over to Amazon and see what my dad’s been up to.

Amazon has a strange idea of what constitutes “erotica”

In last week’s Texas blog roundup, we saluted Amy Valentine for successfully turning her blog about surviving breast cancer into a book about surviving breast cancer. Amy is a friend of mine from my class at Trinity University, and I’ve been following her blog since its inception, partly because I’ve cared about what’s happening with her, and partly because she’s dealt with this awful situation with great humor and courage. It turns out that the joke is on her, as her book – a Kindle download – has been classified by Amazon as something it is not.

Breast cancer is not erotic

Amazon’s Kindle has categorized my digital breast cancer memoir as Erotica. The funniest part is that I notified Amazon of the error. After all, there is nothing erotic about breast cancer. Yet, Amazon refused to recategorize my book! They pointed out the book’s “adult content” and told me it would never be placed in a “general public listing.” I felt like I was a 12-year-old girl getting a scolding from her Sunday School teacher. I know my book’s title, Killer Boobs, can be a bit risque and the cover art, which was in the stock photos that Amazon provided, is of a naked woman’s torso, but when partnered with the overall book topic, it all works. After all, my breasts did try to kill me. And the skinny model’s torso on the cover looks more like a cancer patient in my eyes than a sexy playboy model. I don’t know who I feel most sorry for: folks hoping for Erotic literature who mistakenly buy my book, or my 77-year-old mother’s friends who purchase the digital book and then find out that other buyers purchased “Bondage Babes” and “Whips, Chains, and Lipstick.” Amazon Kindle editors will really be upset when I publish my memoir’s sequel on my harrowing and sometimes funny trip through breast cancer world: “Cleavage to Die For.”

I joked to Amy on her Facebook page that the title and art would work equally well for a Mickey Spillane novel, but there is a bit of serious business underneath all the boob jokes. Every book has a potential audience, and no book can find its audience if it’s off in the wrong section of the bookstore, whether virtual or not. If you are sent a link to Amy’s book, and see that the webpage its on contains recommendations like the ones listed above or the books that were recommended for me, you’re probably not going to have an accurate picture of what it is you’re looking at. I don’t know what Amazon’s algorithms are, but surely they ought to have some capacity for taking a writer’s word for the fact that her book is about chemo and healing and not whips and handcuffs when she tries to tell them that. A book about breasts is not necessarily a book about sex.

“Windows on the World”

Andrea White – author, wife of our former Mayor, and all-around nice person – asked me to share this with y’all.

WINDOWS ON THE WORLD by Andrea White is science fiction set in a post-apocalyptic world in which an orphan girl, Shama Katooee, is summoned to an elite military academy in order to travel back in time to New York City on September 11, 2001, to save the future. This is the first title in the UpCity Chronicles trilogy and we would like to bring it to the attention of as many readers as possible.

To that end, we are offering a free ebook edition (.mobi, .epub, or .pdf) of the book to all and sundry. To get a copy, go to the namelos web site, and click on WINDOWS ON THE WORLD. Enter the promotional code “wotw” in the box under the menu of editions and click “submit.” That will take you to a page where you enter your name and email address and the format you require. You will receive an email with a download link. The file will be delivered to your hard drive and from there you can transfer it to your e-reader. That’s it: the whole process should take less than two minutes. Please note that the files are generic with no DRM and, therefore, can be shared with anybody. Also you can send the promotional code and the recipient can download a copy. We want as many people as possible to enjoy the book. We will disable the promotional code on the official publication date: June, 1, 2011.

So go now and download yourself a free book. Happy reading!

Saturday video break: Let’s have a little talk about tweetle beetles

I give you Dr. Seuss’ “Fox in Socks”, read by someone who can read it a lot faster than I can:

She goes so fast I can’t really swear that she’s actually reading what’s on the pages in question. The loud reactions from the audience don’t help, either. It’s still pretty damned impressive. Those of you of a certain age may be reminded of this classic commercial:

You think maybe she could be his daughter?

RIP, David Thompson

What a terrible shock.

We loyal patrons of Murder by the Book, Houston’s go-to place for all things murder and mystery, are devastated to learn of David Thompson’s sudden passing yesterday. David, a Murder by the Book fixture for 21 years, seemed to know the guts of every book, and had an infallible sense of connecting customers to their Holy Mystery Grail.

David met his wife, McKenna Jordan, while both were employees. Along the way, she bought the bookstore, and he founded a mystery publishing company, Busted Flush Press, which features both aspiring writers and established notables such as Reed Farrell Coleman.

I’ve been patronizing MBTB since I moved to Houston in 1988. I introduced my parents to MBTB many years ago, and they insist on visiting whenever they’re in town. What makes the place special is the people who work there, who can tell you more about a given book or author off the top of their head than a dozen Google searches. You could feel the passion, the love, that David had for mystery books every time you entered. Like any repeat customer, they’ve recommended more authors to me than I can count, with an extremely high batting average. Houston has lost a special person, and I’m deeply saddened by this news. My sincere condolences to McKenna and everyone at MBTB. For many more tributes to David and his life, see ‘stina, the MBTB Facebook page, and Sarah Weinman. Rest in peace, David.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”

From the twisted mind that brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies comes a new work that sounds just as excellent. Here’s the nickel description, from the Murder by the Book email newsletter:

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (by Seth Grahame-Smith; Grand Central; $21.99) From the best-selling author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! Indiana, 1818. Moonlight falls through the dense woods that surround a one-room cabin, where a nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln kneels at his suffering mother’s bedside. She’s been stricken with something the old-timers call “Milk Sickness.” “My baby boy…” she whispers before dying. Only later will the grieving Abe learn that his mother’s fatal affliction was actually the work of a vampire. When the truth becomes known to young Lincoln, he writes in his journal, “henceforth my life shall be one of rigorous study and devotion. I shall become a master of mind and body. And this mastery shall have but one purpose…” Gifted with his legendary height, strength, and skill with an ax, Abe sets out on a path of vengeance that will lead him all the way to the White House. While Abraham Lincoln is widely lauded for saving a Union and freeing millions of slaves, his valiant fight against the forces of the undead has remained in the shadows for hundreds of years. That is, until Seth Grahame-Smith stumbled upon The Secret Journal of Abraham Lincoln, and became the first living person to lay eyes on it in more than 140 years. Using the journal as his guide and writing in the grand biographical style of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, Seth has reconstructed the true life story of our greatest president for the first time-all while revealing the hidden history behind the Civil War and uncovering the role vampires played in the birth, growth, and near-death of our nation.

You always suspected as much, right? Here’s a positive review of the book, whose movie rights have already been bought by Tim Burton; its predecessor is also headed to the big screen. I can’t wait.

The university printing business


An experiment at Rice University to make scholarly research available to anyone with an Internet connection is trying to change the world of academic publishing.


“The costs of publishing are reduced by digital dissemination, but they are hardly eliminated,” said Charles Backus, director of the Texas A&M University Press, which produces as many as 70 books a year, including some available electronically.

Rice goes further: Every book may be read online for free; none are printed until an order is placed, with the payment covering the cost of printing and delivering the book. There is no sales staff, nor warehouses to hold unsold books.

“It’s unbelievable how expensive it is to produce and distribute these academic titles (in traditional press operations),” said Fred Moody, the sole employee at the Rice press and an evangelist for the digital future. “It’s a model for hemorrhaging cash.”

There is little disagreement about that.

Doesn’t seem like a propitious time for Rice to be investing in such a thing, but at least they’re doing it in a relatively low-cost way. My own alma mater revived their press a few years ago, via the more traditional means of a foundation grant. I wish Rice luck in its venture.

Bill Watterson speaks

The reclusive “Calvin & Hobbes” creator gives his first public interview in 20 years. I had hoped they’d ask him about those “peeing Calvin” stickers, but according to Wikipedia, he has actually addressed that before, so no big deal. (See Ask Metafilter for more.) Anyway, if you’re at all a fan, you should read it, and the accompanying story about the 15th anniversary (!) of “C&H”‘s last strip, as well. Check ’em out.

The future of textbooks

I figure the traditional textbook is eventually going to go away, but how and when it will be replaced is not yet clear.

The average college student spent $702 on books in 2006-07, according to the National Association of College Stores — a figure that has continued to grow and is speeding the transition to electronic textbooks and other digital class materials.

“At some point, we’re going to price ourselves out of the marketplace,” said Anthony Martin, director of the campus bookstore at Houston Baptist University. “Kids are going to figure out a way of getting through school without books at all.”

Relief has been sporadic, at best. Plans to exempt textbooks from the state sales tax fizzled in the Legislature this spring. But an increasing number of faculty members are paying attention to the price of the books they assign, and a few are using electronic textbooks — about half the price of a print book — or materials that can be downloaded free.

Rice University is one of the leading players in the latter movement, which has the potential to reshape the textbook industry.

“This is the generation that grew up with the Internet and TV,” said R.H. Richardson, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who will use an electronic textbook for the first time this fall. “I think the e-book will evolve far beyond its present state. You can stick in a video if you want to. I’m sure there will be video games built into a textbook some day.”

Thinking back to my experience in college, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I’d say that you could replace the bulk of the dead-tree books for the problem solving classes – calculus, linear algebra, differential equations – with computer-based training and texts pretty easily. Classes that are about doing proofs, maybe not. But taking derivatives, solving integrals, that sort of thing, I don’t see why it couldn’t be done on the computer. If a company like Reasoning Mind, which is delivering math curricula at the grade school level here in Houston among other places, can do it for grade schoolers, surely someone can do it for college kids.

Beyond that, it seems to me that a lot of the books I bought in college were plain old ordinary books, not textbooks. I see no reason why you couldn’t just get them on your Kindle or whatever digital-book device you have. At least that would create competition for the campus bookstore, and would make it easier to find and buy used copies, which would push prices down. Maybe you could rent them this way, instead of buying them – how many books from college do you still own after graduation? I have some math books, including a few from graduate school, and a couple of other random books, but it’s maybe ten percent of the total I bought over four years. I suspect some texts will still be delivered as plain old bound paper for years to come, but I see no reason why most of what is being bought now can’t be transformed into electronic format in the near future, if not already.

Terrible Yellow Eyes

Please allow me to introduce you to Terrible Yellow Eyes.

What I’ve wanted to do for sometime is make a collection of paintings inspired by Where the Wild Things Are as a tribute and celebration of the book. And now with the release of the film later in the year, the world of Wild Things has opened even wider.

My goal for this project is really just that, expressing of my love for the story. None of the art has been done for any profit but has all been created out of admiration for Maurice Sendak and Where the Wild Things Are.

Over the coming weeks and months I’ll display a growing collection of works created by invited contributing artists and myself. We share a love and admiration for Sendak’s work and the pieces we present here are done as a tribute to his life and legacy.

Simply put, like a visual love letter to the book, with Terrible Yellow Eyes I am seeking to celebrate and promote the original masterwork by Maurice Sendak in the best way I know how — with pictures.

Do yourself a favor and click here and scroll down through all the contributions he’s received for this. I dare you to stop without looking at them all. There’s some truly amazing artwork in there. Both our girls love the book, and I’m thinking maybe we’ll take Olivia to see the movie. I’m sure we’ll get the DVD in any event – we already have a Scholastic DVD with an animation of the book. And speaking of the movie, go watch this Film School Rejects trailer/feature about it, which if you’re not already giddy with anticipation about, this will help you get there. Maybe between the two, MeMo will finally come to get what it’s all about

RIP, Frank McCourt

Bestselling author and former high school teacher Frank McCourt has died at the age of 78.

Frank McCourt, the retired high school English teacher who became a best-selling memoirist, liked to say he had disproven F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage about there being “no second acts in American lives.”

McCourt, who had been gravely ill with meningitis after recently being treated for melanoma, died Sunday afternoon at age 78. He is best known for the first of three memoirs, Angela’s Ashes, about surviving an Irish childhood of near-starvation. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1997 and was turned into a movie in 1999 starring Emily Watson as McCourt’s long-suffering mother, Angela.

As McCourt put it, “I refused to settle for a one-act existence: the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools.”


He was 66 before he published a book. What took so long?

“I was teaching, that’s what took me so long,” he wrote. “Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools.”

He would cite novels about professors “so busy with adultery and academic infighting you wonder where they found time to squeeze in a little teaching.” But when you teach high school classes all day, he said, “you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes, your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.”

His books turned him into a celebrity, or as he put it, “the mick of the moment.” He was even paid to go on cruises.

“I watched him sign his name in thousands of books,” says Patricia Eisemann, former publicity director of Scribner, McCourt’s publisher. “But of all the people who came to the readings, he was happiest when he’d hear, ‘Hello Mr. McCourt,’ and he’d look up and find a former student. That’s when his ever present smile grew wider.” In 1999, at a book party for ‘Tis, he said was having the decade of his life — at 69.

That, he added, was a good thing: “If all of this had happened to me in my 30s, I’d be dead by now from all the whiskey and all the fornication. I’d be in a state of paralysis.”

I totally believe that, based on my remembrance of the man. He was an unconventional teacher – I don’t know that he had a set lesson plan when he taught creative writing at Stuyvesant High School. We spent a fair amount of time talking about children’s books – “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” was the first book he had us read. He also had us write and illustrate a children’s book, which was evaluated by a group of fourth-graders. I lack artistic talent and was never able to think up a good plot, so I did miserably on that assignment. Some days the class was free-form discussion, with him asking us questions or having us ask him questions. And when the weather turned warm, in May, he’d sometimes just take us outside to the park across the street and let us enjoy the day. It was like being allowed to have a little senioritis, except we were just juniors.

Rest in peace, Frank McCourt. I plan to raise a glass and tell a story in your memory.

UPDATE: My friend Julia shares her memories.

Frank McCourt “gravely ill”

Sad news.

Frank McCourt is gravely ill with meningitis and is unlikely to survive, the author’s brother said Thursday.

Malachy McCourt said that his 78-year-old brother, best known for the million-selling “Angela’s Ashes,” is in a New York hospice, “his faculties shutting down.”

“He is not expected to live,” said McCourt, himself an author and performer.

Frank McCourt was recently treated for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, but his brother says he had been doing well until about two weeks ago, when he contracted meningitis.

“He was out and about, being active, doing talks and so forth,” Malachy McCourt said.

As you may know, McCourt was my English teacher for my junior year at Stuyvesant High School. (I received word of this via the Stuyvesant HS Class of 1984 Facebook group.) I got to talk to him again a few years ago when he spoke at the annual Planned Parenthood luncheon, and he was basically the same guy I’d remembered, just a lot more famous. Gave a really enjoyable talk, too. He’s a talented writer, and he will be missed.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

You know, if they’d given me books like this to read in high school, I might have actually read them.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen’s classic novel to new legions of fans.

Outstanding. I just hope that someone has bought the movie rights. Who do you think should play Elizabeth in the film version? Leave a comment and let me know. Thanks to Crooked Timber and The Little Professor, both of whom have their own suggestions for similar works, for the link.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

You know, if they’d given me books like this to read in high school, I might have actually read them.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton–and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers–and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen’s classic novel to new legions of fans.

Outstanding. I just hope that someone has bought the movie rights. Who do you think should play Elizabeth in the film version? Leave a comment and let me know. Thanks to Crooked Timber and The Little Professor, both of whom have their own suggestions for similar works, for the link.

RIP-to-be: Opus the penguin

You’ve probably already figured this out from the tone of the recent strips, but for the third and apparently last time, cartoonist Berkeley Breathed is preparing to quit the funny pages.

The 51-year-old cartoonist said he will pull the plug on his comic-strip career and “Opus” after Nov. 2.

In an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, the 51-year-old Breathed wrote, “30 years of cartooning to end. I’m destroying the village to save it. Opus would inevitably become a ranting mouthpiece in the coming wicked days, and I respect the other parts of him too much to see that happen. The Michael Moore part of me would kill the part of him that was important to his fans.”


Breathed, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Bloom County,” also writes screenplays, novels and children’s books. In a press release from the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates “Opus,” he said, “With the crisis in Wall Street and Washington, I’m suspending my comic strip to assist the nation. The best way I can help is to leave politics permanently and write funny stories for America’s kids. I call on John McCain to join me.”

Five years ago, when Breathed first spoke about resurrecting Opus, he said “It was painful to sit through the war without a public voice.” I guess he decided that the voice he had, doing children’s books and other stuff, will be sufficient for him going forward. I wish him well in those pursuits.

By the way, if you go to, you can guess what ulitmately happens to Opus. I think I’d feel a little too weird about that to participate. Better to imagine him as perpetually in the 1980s, pursuing dandelions, rock and roll, and Diane Sawyer.

“The Strangerer”

You may recall the news from 2006 that President Bush read Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” while on vacation in Crawford, the announcement of which caused a few heads to explode. If you think you’ve sufficiently recovered from that, then you will be pleased to hear that The Catastrophic Theater will be presenting the regional premier of the play “The Strangerer”:

In hopes that the French philosopher might shed some light on the recent political clime – or vice versa – Mickle Maher’s new play The Strangerer collides several of Camus’ works with the first Bush/Kerry presidential debate in 2004. The formalities of the debate are overturned as Bush and Kerry struggle with the question not of if or why an innocent man should be killed (the man in question being moderator Jim Lehrer), but rather what is the proper manner in which to go about killing him. The Strangerer is part political satire, part classical drama, and part contemporary debate. A murder mystery with the murderers in plain view.

And who among us hasn’t wanted to murder a debate moderator this year? The show runs on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from October 16 to November 8 at DiverseWorks Artspace (1117 E. Freeway). Check it out.

And so we come to the end…

It all started nearly five years ago, and now it has finally come to an end: Slacktivist has reached the end of the first “Left Behind” book. How do you wrap up something like this? Here’s a taste:

Left Behind, ultimately, is just nonsense. It makes up its own rules and then breaks them. And then it makes up more rules that require its other rules to be broken. Left Behind refutes itself.

The premise of the book is clear and clearly stated. The Rapture and all the other events foretold by premillennial dispensationalist “bible prophecy scholars” are all real and are all really going to happen. Soon. The book wants to show us the events of this cosmic drama acted out before our very eyes in a story that takes its plot from the authors’ End Times check list.

Yet the more we watch, the more we read, the less convinced we become that such a series of events could ever occur. Not because they’re too outlandish, but because they contradict and preclude one another. We cannot accept the authors’ assertion that A will be followed by B and then by C, because A renders B impossible and C could never take place in a world in which B had already happened.

This is the great and insurmountable failure of Left Behind. It set out to be a work of propaganda, a teaching tool meant to demonstrate — the authors would say to prove — that the events it describes could and indeed will really happen. Yet their attempt to present a narrative of such events instead demonstrates — I would say proves — that these events could not and indeed will not ever happen. It proves that the weird and contradictory events of their check list could never happen in a world anything like the world we live in, or in any other imaginable world. It proves that their supposed prophecies will never, and can never, be fulfilled.

Left Behind fails as a novel for many, many reasons, but all of its other faults — the odious lack of empathy it holds up as a moral example, its blasphemous celebration of self-centeredness masquerading as Christianity, its perverse misogyny, its plodding pace, its wooden dialogue, it fetishistic obsession with telephones, its nonexistent characterization, its use and misuse of cliches, its irrelevant tangents, deplorable politics, confused theology, unintentional hilarities, hideous sentences, contempt for craft, factual mistakes, continuity errors … its squandering of every interesting premise and its overwhelming, relentless and mind-numbing dullness — all of these seem to be failures of the sort that one might encounter in any other Very, Very Bad book hastily foisted off onto the public without a second glance.**

Any one of those faults, on its own, would have been enough to earn Left Behind a place on the Worst Books of 1995 list. The presence of all of those faults — in a single book and in such concentrated form — is more than enough to secure its place on a list of the Worst Books of All Time.

If you’ve not been reading this outstanding series, which I’ll say again is some of the best contemporary writing anywhere, all I can say is you’ve been missing out. Read The Visitation Preacher, with a box of Kleenex handy, for a singular example. You can plow through those archives, or you can hope someone takes up Chad‘s suggestion and gets the whole series published as a book, but either way, go read. And wait as I am with bated breath for the (hopefully less than five years length) series on the “Left Behind” movie, and the first of the book sequels.

Kos comes to Houston

I mentioned before that I had the chance to meet Markos Moulitsas Zuniga from Daily Kos. He mentioned to me as we chatted that he’d be back in Texas soon, Houston in particular, as part of his book tour. Turns out he’ll be giving a lecture as part of The Progressive Forum‘s speaker series. The event will be Monday, September 22 at 7:30 at the Wortham Center, Cullen Theater. More details will be forthcoming in August, but for now you can find everything there is to know at that Progressive Forum link.

The book was different

So one of the things I did while on vacation last weekend was finish reading Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked, which I’d been meaning to do for awhile. It’s a very interesting book, if a tad bit slow at times, and the chapter about the inevitable confrontation between Elphaba and Dorothy is excellent. But man, is the book nothing, nothing in any way, shape, or form like the musical. I mean, sure, you expect differences, and a dense 400+ page book is surely going to need radical surgery to be transformed into something stage-worthy, but really, the two things almost can’t be compared. For one thing – I don’t want to give anything away here, so I’ll be brief – the musical takes place almost entirely during the college years of Elphaba and Galinda/Glinda; that same time period is maybe 25% of the book. Glinda hardly existed as a character after the Shiz years in the book, whereas she shares top billing in the musical. And though it hardly needs to be said, the endings are very different.

While there is of course nothing unusual about a stage/movie adaptation of a book taking a wide divergence from the source material, it’s usually the case that experiencing one form of the story will give you some idea of what to expect when you experience the other form. That just wasn’t the case here. Another example of this is the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which is completely different in just about every way than the book Who Censored Roger Rabbit?; whichever one you consume first, you will not be able to anticipate the action when you experience the other. What’s your favorite example of this?

One thing that reading “Wicked” makes me want to do is actually read the original source version of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, namely L. Frank Baum’s book. It was clear to me in reading that last chapter of “Wicked” that the movie version, from which I gathered almost all of my Oz-related knowledge, was not Maguire’s inspiration for those scenes. I did read one of Baum’s sequels, The Magic of Oz as a kid – I have no memory of how I came across it – but not the original. Time to fill that gap, I suppose.

Judy Norsigian in town

One of the fine people I met at my precinct convention on March 4 was a woman named Cathy who served as the convention secretary. She sent me the following information about an upcoming appearance by Judy Norsigian that I said I’d pass along:

Saturday 4/12/08. 4pm Pregnancy & Birth: women’s problems & nurses problems in Houston.

Judy Norsigian, founding member & Exec. Director of Our Bodies OurSelves (OBOS), Nuestros Cuerpos, Nuestros Vidas, Boston Women’s Health Book Collective representative, writer, and international women’s health advocate, hosted by National Nurses Organizing Committee-Metropolitan Houston Chapter (NNOCTexas):

Public invitation: Labor & Delivery nurses, Ob/Gyn nurses, midwives, childbirth activists, community women, women’s health advocates…

3:45pm Press conference; Dinner. NNOC Houston Office:1709 Rosewood near N. Main St. Houston

4pm Dialogue & Dinner

Contact Linda Morales [email protected]

Sunday, 4/13/08, 10:45am-noon, Houston Women’s Group, Politics of Pregnancy & Birthing in the USA: Sojourner Truth Room, 3rd floor of the
First Unitarian Universalist Church, 5200 Fannin, at Southmore.(elevator accessible).

For more information email Courtney [email protected]; website:

Judy Norsigian, Exec.Director, co-author, of” Our Bodies, Ourselves,” will lead discussion on the politics of women’s health movement, creating choices in pregnancy and birthing; book signing. Lunch afterwards.


Tuesday 4/15 5:30-7pm Texas Medical Center Women’s Health Network, Women’s Health and Sexuality & Childbirth Controversies. Houston Academy of Medicine-TMC Library, 1133 John Freeman Blvd., Ground Level Conference Room (directions and parking information here.

The program is free and open to the public. Refreshments are served.

Judy Norsigian bio informtion here.

Any questions, let me know and I’ll pass them on.

Houston. It’s Worth It: The Book

Houston. It’s Worth It. is now in book form. Houstonist has a conversation with its authors, Randy Twaddle and Dave Thompson. There’s also info in there about a couple of “big blowout parties” related to the book, one of which is tonight. Check it out.

“The Tales of Beedle the Bard”

Here’s one book by JK Rowling that won’t sell a gazillion copies.

A set of fairytales mentioned in the final Harry Potter novel, which have been handwritten and illustrated by JK Rowling, are to be auctioned off to raise money for a children’s charity.

The author has handwritten and illustrated just seven copies of the Tales Of Beedle The Bard.

It is her first work since the last Harry Potter book was published in July.

While one copy will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London next month, the others will be given away by Rowling to those most closely connected with the Potter books.

Her agent? Someone at the publisher? Daniel Radcliffe? Melissa from The Leaky Cauldron? I can say with some confidence that I am not on that list.

The Tales Of Beedle The Bard played a central role in the seventh book about the boy wizard, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows.

Only one of the five fairytales, The Tale Of The Three Brothers, is recounted in the book.

Now for the first time, Rowling is revealing the four remaining untold stories which make up the set.

They are The Fountain Of Fair Fortune, The Warlock’s Hairy Heart, The Wizard And The Hopping Pot, and Babbitty Rabbitty And Her Cackling Stump.

Rowling said: “The Tales Of Beedle The Bard is really a distillation of the themes found in the Harry Potter books, and writing it has been the most wonderful way to say goodbye to a world I have loved and lived in for 17 years.”

The aforementioned Leaky Cauldron has more. One presumes that a non-handwritten version will hit the bookstores presently, but the AP version of the story makes it seem like that may not be the case. It also mentions that Rowling is back at work:

Rowling said she was working on a new book, “a half-finished book for children that I think will probably be the next thing I publish.”

One way or another, she’ll be back in bookstores.

Dumbledore comes out

Well, this is a surprise.

J. K. Rowling, author of the worldwide best-selling Harry Potter series, met some of her American fans Friday night and provided some surprising revelations about the fictional characters who a generation of children have come to regard as close friends.

In front of a full house of hardcore Potter fans at Carnegie Hall in New York, Rowling, sitting on the stage on a red velvet and carved wood throne, read from her seventh and final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” then took questions. One fan asked whether Albus Dumbledore, the head of the famed Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, had ever loved anyone. Rowling smiled. “Dumbledore is gay, actually,” replied Rowling as the audience erupted in surprise. She added that, in her mind, Dumbledore had an unrequited love affair with Gellert Grindelwald, Voldemort’s predecessor who appears in the seventh book. After several minutes of prolonged shouting and clapping from astonished fans, Rowling added. “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy.”

I confess, this possibility had never occurred to me. Not because I think there’s anything inherently ridiculous about it, but because I just never gave any thought to the relationships of the adults, other than those who were directly connected to Harry’s parents. Which, I might add, were about the only adult relationships examined in any detail by Rowling. So it was just never on my radar. And for what it’s worth, if having “no close relationship with women and a mysterious, troubled past” is evidence of gayness, then one could make the same case for Voldemort. Without bothering to look, I’m sure more than one dedicated fanfic writer has already explored the possibilities of Dumbledore/Voldemort slash. I’ll leave the rest to you. Pete has more.

Watterson on Schulz

This is fascinating on many levels: Bill Watterson, the reclusive genius behind “Calvin and Hobbes”, makes a rare public appearance to write a review of a new biography of Charles Schulz, the genius behind “Peanuts” who inspired him to be a comics artist. Check it out. Thanks to Mark Evanier for the link.

Turns out (also via Evanier) that Schulz’s son dislikes the result; apparently, he “expected vanilla and got Rocky Road”. All I can say is that this makes me want to read it even more. More specifically, over here, Monte Schulz says “Honestly, the quote I’ve really wanted to give the press, after reading both the early of the manuscript and the final book, is this: ‘The book is stupid, and David Michaelis is an idiot.'” Yowza. It doesn’t appear that Monte’s message is getting through, however. You’ll have to judge for yourself. And those were two more links from Mark Evanier.

Books by people I know

Technically, John Anderson isn’t someone I know, since I’ve never actually met or spoken with him. But he’s the cousin of my buddy Michael Croft, and that’s close enough for me. His book is called Follow the Money, and it’s about the migration of Texas politics to Washington, DC, after the election of George W. Bush. It got a nice review in the Statesman over the weekend, and for those of you in Austin, he’s going to be at Book People tonight (details here). Check it out.

Someone I definitely do know personally is New Orleans food writer Pableaux Johnson, though I knew him as Paul Johnson back when we were both students at Trinity. His book is called ESPN Gameday Gourmet, and according to the Houston Press, it sounds like the sort of recipes I could get my head around. If you like this sort of thing, then this is probably the sort of thing that you’ll like.

Stephen King and Harry Potter

Nice piece by Stephen King on the Harry Potter series, the generally uninteresting reviews of those books, and the future of reading. Check it out. Link via dghall.

JK Rowling’s new gig

Say what you will about JK Rowling, she hasn’t been sitting on her laurels since she finished the last Harry Potter book.

J.K. Rowling has been spotted at cafes in Scotland working on a detective novel, a British newspaper reported Saturday.

The Sunday Times newspaper quoted Ian Rankin, a fellow author and neighbor of Rowling’s, as saying the creator of the Harry Potter books is turning to crime fiction.

“My wife spotted her writing her Edinburgh criminal detective novel,” the newspaper, which was available late Saturday, quoted Rankin as telling a reporter at an Edinburgh literary festival.

“It is great that she has not abandoned writing or Edinburgh cafes,” said Rankin, who is known for his own police novels set in the historic Scottish city.


In an interview with The Associated Press last month, Rowling said she believed she was unlikely to repeat the success of the Potter series, but confirmed she had plans to work on new books.

“I’ll do exactly what I did with Harry — I’ll write what I really want to write,” Rowling said.

As a fan of the Potter series as well as of British crime fiction, let me say that I’m looking forward to this book. I rather doubt she’ll make an appearance at Murder by the Book for a signing, but I’ll be sure to take a look at it when it debuts anyway.

Now here’s a question for you. Which do you think is more likely: The book will receive undeserved praise from critics who are giving her credit for all things Harry Potter, or the book will receive unjust derision from critics who are mad that she isn’t writing any more Harry Potter? I lean towards the latter, but could be persuaded otherwise.

Fifteen geek novels to read before you die

Dwight Silverman has a reading list of novels for geeks that you might like. The criteria for making the list is a bit elastic – from affecting the geek culture and language (the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy) to being about a geek in some fashion (The Catcher In The Rye) to being about technology and its effects on society (Neuromancer), among other things – but they all fit. As with most lists of Books You Should Have Read, I haven’t read most of them (though I have read the four-(should have been five)-book Asimov trilogy that descends from I, Robot); maybe this one time I’ll try to do something about that. I draw the line at the Tolkien stuff, however – I tried, I really did, to read The Hobbit a few years ago, and failed miserably before the end of chapter two.

Anyway, if nothing else, this should be some good debate fodder. And if you want more, check out his earlier list of 15 geek movies to see before you die, which has more stuff I’ve watched than the book list has stuff I’ve read. Check ’em out.

It is finished

It’s done: I have finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Our copy arrived from Amazon UK yesterday, and after Tiffany announced that she didn’t intend to start reading it till Monday, I pounced. I’m happy to have finally caught up with everyone else, and to be able to freely read what’s out there without worry about being spoiled. I won’t say any more about it here.

I do have a few spoilery thoughts to add, which are in the extended entry. DO NOT CLICK ON unless you’ve finished reading.


Spoiler shields still up

I figure by now that about half the US population has read the last Harry Potter book. As we like the British editions, we’re waiting on our copy’s arrival from Amazon UK (according to an email I got yesterday, it has been dispatched and is estimated to arrive via international mail on or about July 30). In the meantime, I’m doing whatever I can to remain spoiler-free. I’ve stopped reading newspaper stories about the book, even stories about midnight madness events at bookstores, just in case. That may sound excessive to you, but one of the Chron stories from Thursday quoted from early reviews of the book, and what they excerpted from Michiko Kakutani’s review in the NYT talked about how the saga ended, and that’s already more than I wanted to know, even if it was one of the scenarios I figured JK Rowling had to use.

So, I’m trying to maintain complete radio silence on all things Potter for the next week or so. I’m also going to have to wait till Tiffany reads the book first once it gets here, but at least she reads fast. If you’ve already read it, feel free to gloat about it in the comments, but please please please don’t say anything more about it than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”. Thanks.

Spoiler alert level: High

I know that I will have to be very careful about seeing spoilers online for the last Harry Potter book when it comes out. But I had no idea people had experienced this sort of thing when the previous one came out.

Lisa Miller arrived later than she should have for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on July 16, 2005 — a slip-up she rues to this day.

It took about 20 minutes for Miller, 26, to get inside the London bookstore where she bought the sixth book in J.K. Rowling’s juggernaut fantasy series. But before she had the novel in hand, a crucial plot point was ruined for her.

“Some ‘lovely’ person drove past where we were queuing and shouted the spoiler of who died in HBP,” Miller wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press. “It was so horrible to think of it being true that even when I read the book, I still held out hope that they were making it up!”

Pranksters pulled similar stunts worldwide. In Dallas, a driveby spoilsport yelled “[spoiler spoiler spoiler]” to fans gathered outside a Barnes & Noble. A blurry, shaky video of the verbal assault can be found on YouTube.

Now, as the July 21 release of the seventh and final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, approaches, fans who have waited the better part of a decade to find out the ultimate fate of Harry, his friends and his nemeses are taking no chances.

But how far do they have to go? Must they close their eyes, cover their ears and scream, “LALALALA?”


Many fans don’t want to give up the excitement and camaraderie of a midnight release party, but they know they’re putting themselves at risk.

“We advise people — I know this is terrible — to bring headphones to the book release and put them on as they leave the store so they’re not subject to the idiot across the street screaming the end to them,” said Melissa Anelli, a webmaster of the Leaky Cauldron, a prominent Harry Potter fan site.

Good Lord, I had no idea. As with all previous installments, our copy of Book Seven is on order from Amazon UK, so I won’t have the idiot-at-the-bookstore problem to worry about. But man, I can’t believe there are people like that out there. To me, this is the equivalent of defacing a painting. Why in the world would anyone do that?

Anyway. What evasive measures will you be taking to avoid having the book’s end spoiled for you?