Tag Archives: Burrow Press Review

Oh, the Horror

Two quick links for you, this Sunday afternoon in early November.

First, my epic essay “The Horror Aisle” is up at Burrow Press Review. It’s an exploration of my lifelong obsession with horror movies, and a walk down memory lane for those of you who remember what it was like to spend thirty or forty minutes wandering the video store, searching for the perfect movie for your Friday night. It’s also a love letter to the golden age of bloody B-movies, the late ’80s and early ’90s.  Admit it: you’ve always wanted a serious essay to discuss such gems as C.H.U.D. and The Stuff.

And over at the fantastic online journal decomP, you’ll find my short story “Submission Guidelines.” More accurately, it probably should have been titled “Submission Guidelines in the Age of the Zombie Apocalypse,” but I used up my allotment of super-long titles this year. The story follows a lit mag editor who is forced to craft guidelines for his magazine  after (you guessed it) zombies have destroyed America, and have eaten all the other lit mag editors. If you’ve ever submitted a story to a literary journal, you should enjoy this one.

Yes, these are both horror-themed writings, and Halloween was last week, so it feels like this posting is a little late. But hopefully you’ve still got a little Halloween spirit in you…maybe your pumpkin is still sitting on your front porch, going from orange to black/brown, and maybe your candy dish inside is still full of the worst left-over candies imaginable, and there are bits and pieces of costumes strewn about your living room that you don’t want to throw away (but which you know you’ll never wear again), and you’re thinking: It can’t be over! I’ve got to wait a full year until next Halloween? No. No, you don’t. Read my essay. Read my story. And for a few brief moments, it’s Halloween all over again.

Book Reviews/ Reviewer Reviews

So…I’ve been writing reviews and critiques for a long time now.

Back in 2005 or 2006, I started an account on Shelfari, and wrote a short review of every book that I read. Hundreds of short reviews, most of them trying to look at the book from a writer’s perspective: what could I gain from it? Some of the more articulate and insightful reviews now survive as blog posts here on my site, while others are…best left there on Shelfari, buried beneath hundreds of other short postings and comments.

I learned a lot from writing those reviews, no matter how dreadful some of them were. I learned that every book has an author, and that every author is a real person, and that every Real Person Author is probably the same as me: they read their reviews, and they care about what readers think. On the positive side, I was actually contacted by Brad Listi (Attention. Deficit. Disorder., and founder of The Nervous Breakdown), who loved my review of his book, and who thanked me for a thoughtful examination of the contents. At the time, that was the closest I’d ever come to a “celebrity encounter” with a real author (not counting my professors). On the negative side, though, I wrote a pretty scathing review of a book called Nylund the Sarcographer, by Joyelle McSweeney; it’s a book I still dislike and wouldn’t recommend, but it’s a small-press offering by an obscure poet, so did I really need to write something that so loudly trumpeted how terrible I thought the book was? Well. When I recently checked my old book review, I noticed that there were a grand total of four (4) people who have the book on their shelves, and one other review: this one a single sentence, generic, and much kinder, likely the review of one of the author’s friends. And someone had marked my review (which was extremely specific about the book’s failings) as “not helpful.” Oh no, I thought. The author definitely read this review. The author definitely thinks I’m a gigantic a-hole, maybe even marked the “not helpful” button herself.

Since 2007 or so, I’ve also been writing critiques for my Creative Writing students’ poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. In a single “Introduction to Creative Writing” course, I will write 75 highly analytical and personal 1-2 page critiques, one for each student for each genre in which they write. In a fiction or nonfiction workshop class, the workload is more reasonable: a detailed 2-page critique for each author’s short story. In every single critique, I am forced to consider the audience: I am not writing to other readers and telling them whether they should check this book out, but instead writing to the author him/herself to tell them what is working in their manuscript, and what ideas need further attention. The result is predictable: half of the students love me, and love the rigor with which I attend to their manuscripts; the other half hate me, and think that I’m attacking them, and (on some occasions) refuse to speak to me, or refuse to revise (the “I don’t care what you have to say! I’m a genius!” defense mechanism), or call me “harsh” and “unreasonable” in their evaluations, or cry (literally), or even begin to defend sloppy writing (“Come on, Mr. Holic. A few typos don’t really matter.”).

In any case, I’ve written thousands of reviews and critiques in the last decade of my life, some of which were appreciated, and many of which were not appreciated. (I even had a student who bragged that he had not read my comments.)

And now I’m writing a book review/ reading essay series called “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. I try to focus on small-press books in the column, but really, I write about whatever I happen to be reading, and discuss how my own reading habits are changing as a result of having a baby. The latest installment is here, and focuses upon Jess Stoner’s mixed-media/ hybrid novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This.

And what do you know? Jess Stoner read the essay, loved the discussion (and the criticisms), and made a really awesome post on her tumblr account. This was a real first for me, to have an author so grateful for the review I gave. Maybe I feel like the last seven years of reviews and critiques have actually been building me into a solid, honest-to-God book critic.

It makes me feel even better to contrast the above with the following exchange between author Patrick Somerville and The New York Times book review. The article is a must-read. Apparently, the book critic completely misread the novel, and not in an excusable way (i.e. not due to the fault of the author’s own poor/ confusing writing); the critic attributed the events of the entire first chapter to the wrong character, thus altering and muddying the book’s story and structure, and causing everything to collapse. Corrections were issued, but what does a correction matter to an author whose book has now been given a poor review that cannot be taken back? The book critic can’t re-read and re-judge the book, after all.

There is a similar responsibility in writing book reviews and student critiques, I think. To say something misguided in a student critique would be (potentially) destructive; it might even mean that you’re teaching the wrong principles, setting the student down a path where they think that 2+2=12. You’re writing directly to an author, and you don’t take on that task lightly. With a book review, the audience is obviously different, but maybe the responsibility is the same; maybe the critic should keep the author in mind…the main responsibility is to the reader, certainly, but just as good reviews can herald the arrival of new talent, bad reviews can sink careers before they even get started. A bad review might not matter for Stephen King, but for me? No, the author isn’t the primary audience, but if the critic remembers that the author is an audience, maybe it’s easier to remember the responsibility of writing a fair and critical review.

On the flip side, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing authors write things like “Thanks for the review!” on one another’s facebook walls, and I’ve become accustomed to seeing overwhelmingly positive reviews published throughout the small-press world. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. “Croney Critiques.” This is what happens when the critic makes the author into the primary audience for the review, and now we’re dealing with something that’s irresponsible for readers. Maybe it’s even irresponsible to the book’s author.

In my own writing, I strive to be as honest as possible. If I don’t give you honesty, then what the hell am I giving you? We’re both wasting our time. But honesty isn’t an excuse for hurtful or hateful commentary, either.

In any case, check out “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. Critiques are always welcome!

Some Thoughts on Comics and Mixed-Media Literature

As we enter the sauna that is summertime (in Florida, at least!), and as the world searches for great Beach Reads (if you live in Middle America, are they called “Beach Reads” still?), I figured I’d share some thoughts on a few recent books I’ve tackled. Because I’ve been immersed in comic creation over the last few months, I decided to write an essay round-up of all graphic novels and mixed-media books.

Check out the following link to get to “Reading Books While Burping My Baby,” my ongoing column at the Burrow Press Review. In this edition, I discuss Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep, the old ’90s fantasy comic Warriors of Plasm, Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole, and The Best American Comics 2011. And if you still need graphic novel recommendations after all of that, I have a few suggestions for you (which aren’t mentioned in the essay, but should be!): check out Eddie Campbell’s The Playwright, a fantastic comic/novella that starts breezy and humorous and winds up becoming deeply affecting. It truly feels like something out of Best American Short Stories, but the artwork adds an extra layer of depth to the book, complementing and building upon the text perfectly. Also, I recently finished Charles Burns’ Black Hole. It was too massive to qualify as a beach read, but it’s definitely a great summer read, and especially works well on those stormy Florida afternoons when it feels like the world is coming to an end.

And if you want to see what I’ve been up to lately, in the world of comics and mixed-media literature (and really, you should want to see what I’m up to, right?), here are a few links for access on your Kindle or iPad or whatever other techno-device you probably shouldn’t be taking to the beach:

My second installment in the graphic narrative adaptation of Alex Kudera’s Fight For Your Long Day is up at Atticus Review. This has been a true pleasure to draw, and I hope it’s going well. Please leave a comment at the site to let me know how I did!

The latest edition of Palooka is finally out, which features my graphic narrative, “On Seeing Yourself…” (really long title…I won’t re-type it, thus forcing you to click the link and see what the full title is!). This is definitely a journal worth supporting, and worth subscribing to. Some great work by a lot of interesting and varied writers; if you’ve never seen Palooka, I’d compare it to Hobart or Annalemma in execution. Striking, and creative. There’s an excerpt of my comic at the following link, but you’ve got to pick up the magazine to get the full story!

You can also read my graphic essay, “My Life in Gadgets: MySpace, Blogger, Facebook,” in the new edition of Fiction Fix. This is a journal that’s been around for almost a decade now, but I really think that their conversion from print to online has helped them to carve out a true identity. The journal is based at the University of North Florida, and for this edition, they’ve created a graphic literature issue. Some great stuff, including a novel-in-woodcuts, and a comic by the always-entertaining Jonathan Bayliss (author of “So…Buttons,” which was featured on AMC’s Comic Book Men). Go here to download the issue, and read my strange essay on the evolution of my old “Diet Coke Chronicles” blog.

Also, an interesting project called “Story A Day” recently reviewed my short story “Peeling” at Necessary Fiction. It’s a cool project (title is self-explanatory), and for writers, the idea of one story a day (with discussion) is a pretty good goal. Too often, I have student-writers who don’t think that they need to read at all…they think that they’re just naturally good writers. Then: they learn that they need to read, because they really don’t understand what’s out there. If that’s you, you should check out Story A Day, and set that goal for yourself! (Start by reading my story, of course, right?)

That’s all for this morning. I’ll write another post soon, but wanted to make sure to share those links and wish everyone a happy post-Memorial Day Week!

Reading Books While Burping My Baby

I know that it seems that the majority of my postings lately have been about my baby, or about fatherhood, but you know what? When you have kids, you start to view the world through the lens of parenthood. Impossible to get away from that. I can guarantee I’ll never be one of those people who drives past Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights billboards and writes editorials in the Orlando Sentinel about how the billboards should be taken down because they’re too scary. I also won’t ever complain about prime-time TV, and will never say “How am I supposed to tell my kids about this?” when I see a politician having an affair or a pro baseball player on steroids or a Janet Jackson nipple. Rather than seeing the world as something to shield my child from, I promise that I’ll attempt to see the world as a series of learning opportunities: “You see that, Jackson? That’s what we call a ‘poor decision.'”

So I won’t stop talking about fatherhood, but I can guarantee that I won’t be annoying about it. Hopefully that’s a good deal, right?

All of this as a lead-in, so that I can say: I’ve got a new blog over at the Burrow Press Review called Reading Books While Burping My Baby.”

You might have noticed that I don’t write many book reviews on my own site these days (though I do still update my “Reading List” page). Well, I’ve been searching for a way to reach a wider audience with my reviews, and to find a way to talk about how I read, rather than just the quality of what I read.

This month, I talk about Three Ways of the Saw by Matt Mullins, and a bunch of stories from One Story, including a great one from David James Poissant. My first few installments touched on Best American Non-Required Reading, Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, Ryan W. Bradley’s Prize Winners, Ben Tanzer’s Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine, and Artifice Magazine. Check it out at the link above. Hopefully it’ll give you your book review fix, along with your baby fix.