Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle

Mike’s review

I have this bad habit of not writing the titles of the books on the paper I’m using to take notes. I did this here. And I didn’t leave myself much in the way of notes to spur my memory. I know I’ve looked at these notes before, trying to figure it out. I’ve googled “simple math and its consequences” before and it hasn’t helped. But this time I remembered. Probably because I recently saw a “Most anticipated of 2017” list and Darnielle’s new book was on it. The human mind is a crazy thing.


Surprised it opens with disfigurement stuff and not game stuff. A bit tough for me to stick around for.


It’s challenging enough to not be told what happened in the accident, but to then add in the ambiguous trial is a bit much. Hopefully something is revealed soon.


Like two pages later, “murder” is illuminated. Guessing I’ll have to wait a while (possibly never) to find out about disfigurement.


And then two pages later, I find out exactly what happened (still no why). Guess that means he waited pretty much the exact right length of time to reveal.


“simple math and its consequences”


It’s been so long since I’ve read this, no way could I do a legitimate plot summary. Something about a role playing game is all I remember. Despite the issues I had with this, I am genuinely eager for Darnielle’s next book. I mean, this is one of the people who’ve written a song that’s guaranteed to make me cry every time I hear it, so of course I’m eager.


11/22/63 by Stephen King

Mike’s review

Plot summary: A Maine teacher is shown a wormhole that takes him back to 11/22/63. The person who shows him the wormhole convinces Jake (the teacher) that the most important thing he could possibly do with the wormhole is prevent the assassination of JFK. But he needs to be sure Lee Harvey Oswald acted (acts?) alone. So he spends a bunch of time track Oswald. He falls in love. The past fights back because it doesn’t want to be changed.

There were a solid handful of logical fallacies/lack of thought-out plans that frustrated me here. A friend gave me a hard-sell on this book and I think I expected more. There seemed to be a lot of waiting around, which seemed silly. And a lot of poor decisions made that were pretty obviously poor just to add tension. And there could have easily been exciting bits just by exploring the past and seeing what the world was like then. Overall, I thought a lot more could have been done in a book which was so large.


78 pages read in the first day. Which, after not finishing Unaccustomed Earth because I just couldn’t, was a nice change of pace. Not that this is especially good. It didn’t pull me in until the end of the day, but it’s readable and enticing.


Why would you stay in Derry for two months? Go do something. See the baby-world. Why just hang out in nowhereseville?


Wouldn’t it be more efficient to go back to present day and ask Harry his father’s name/where they lived as kids?


I suppose I should point out that there was a bit with the yellow card man that creeped me out pretty hard. I didn’t write it down, but I think it was when his card turned black. Again, though, I think the yellow card man was another thing that could have been mined that was mostly ignored. There was very little about the ethos of time travel and exploring the yellow card man could have easily done that.


Kinda slow while waiting for Oswald. Surprising because it’s a rollicking presence and didn’t expect this pacing from King, but makes sense given when wormhole drops off. And, ultimately, the stakes are raised by this lull. Harder to go back each time because he’s given up so much of his current life.


Why not use spare time to learn Russian? At least acknowledge it: “Not a possibility, would raise suspicion that I was a commie sympathizer. And without a past to vet…” It’s probably dumb of me to bring up logical fallacies in this sort of thing, but these brought me out of the story a lot.


Isn’t it significantly more likely that de Mohreaschildt  (I’m not looking that up to see if I copied the spelling correctly) was an orchestrator than actually having pulled the trigger? And if Oswald’s dead, he’ll just have someone else do it?


And why not kill Oswald in New Orleans so you have some getaway lead to get to Jodie?


How could it possibly be a good idea to bring Sadie to the future? Best case: she gets her face fixed but lives in isolation/constant surprise/wonder. Worst case: she dies when going through the wormhole.


And a few notes about the Hulu series I watched after reading the book, too:

Good decision with Al’s voiceover-guided narration. I was worried about long stretches with no human interaction and this solves that and makes sure we don’t take forever setting up all the rules/guidelines.

Carving the tree is such a simpler way to prove you can change the future in the past. Haha. The convoluted bits that King used were one of the things that were actually super illogical that didn’t pull me out of the story at the time.

I wasn’t super into the series either, but if you feel like you’re only going to pick one, I think I’d choose the series due to it being less of a time commitment. It felt less disappointing, but that might be because I was already disappointed by the book and maybe my expectations were lower. I really wanted to like both of these and I didn’t. They weren’t bad, but I expected greatness and got mediocrity.

The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich

Mike’s review

The plot isn’t the plot and the actual plot would be 100% spoiler. But…Woman comes home to find boyfriend dead, attacked by dogs. Her three rescue dogs covered in blood, she locks herself in bathroom and calls cops on her dogs. In death, more is revealed about the man. He isn’t entirely who he said he is. Every lie reveals more about the tangled life/death of her fiancé.


I would absolutely put my dog down rather than leaving her in solitary confinement forever.


The instant placement into scenes is jarring and takes time to figure out where I am, who I’m with (still not sure who Katie is), but I like that it wastes no words. May like it more because I’m being overly verbose in my own writing now. Brevity must be impossible in a collaboration (this was written by two people–Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment–A.J. Rich being their together-pseudonym).


Hard to allow a reader to see the twist coming and still have the reader say “Fuck you” when it happens.”


Basically read in a single plane ride, which is one of the most perfect ways to read a book.


Kind-of spoiler alert for after the next line break.


Like the day after I read this I fucked a person who said she was going to tell her other lover about it for his pleasure and I freaked the fuck out after just reading about Billie’s power play/trip over Bennett. So, what are the ethics of that? Can you involve Person C verbally in Person B and A’s sex life without Person C’s consent? Is that a form of sexual assault? Why is it that the only time I’ve ever asked a real question in these things, it’s hidden behind a spoiler warning where possibly no one will read it? For the record, I will absolutely let you tell your boyfriend I fucked you.

Screen reading vs. Paper reading

The other day I was at the beach with the fam and an old girl walked by our sprawl. She saw my mate & I lying in the sand, both of us with a thick hardcover.  “Good for you. I like to see people reading actual books. No one reads books anymore,” she spoke with a thumbs-up gesture. I made one back.

It was only by chance I had a hardback. I do not bring electronics to sandy beaches. Most of my reading I do online via laptop, or on my Kindle e-reader. Or an iPad. Or an iPhone.

Odd how in the past, artists and photographers fetishized the woman in repose, reading. The image suggested rest, or a lovely respite from the world. Nowadays it’s become  a social faux pas, though, to be seen reading in public, especially on a smartphone, a ubiquitous instrument of alienation.

Anything that gets people reading is fine by me. I take my words in any format possible, including audio. In its extreme, when people shame us for screen staring, they are threatened by information gathering on a certain level, which is an anti-knowledge stance. What people are really mad about is attention being diverted from the present moment, which may or may not mean it’s isolating the hater from the gadget user.

Yes, it’s annoying when your mate checks his text ding right in the middle of a sentence. Yes, the urge to check email every five minutes is a chronic disease for even the non-clinical OCD person. But sometimes people are merely looking things up to supplement a discussion point. Does snapping a pic take you out of the moment, or further solidify it by documenting it? The argument can be made that people are reading more and being more creative than ever before thanks to these gadgets.

Once humans can easily get computer implants to gather info from our own “throbbing brains” and the use of such devices is biologically seamless, it will present a new level of discomfort for luddites, so that people who are out there, reading, can be left alone again.




Using Symbols in Stories: Arson and Fast Food

(On “Slow Roast,” a story from Mike Bahl’s Scenic Utah)

“What is the slow roast referred to in the title? Is this a reference to global warming, Vonnegutesque in that it’s extremist near future, ecological disaster, drought being the necessary component to foreshadow the story’s final fireball moment?”

I don’t know how old you are, so I don’t know if this will be the same for you, but I remember this drought, exactly like this. I distinctly remember a drought while I was in elementary school. It’s possible this was only actually a heat wave, but this is what I remember. I remember the arid desert in Wisconsin. I remember thinking we were all going to die because God would not bless us with rain (sometimes I push this recovering Catholic theme a little far, but at this time, I was still probably fairly devout as God had not yet abandoned me to the abyss of loneliness). I remember the apocalypse. Now that I live in California, in an actual, legitimately scary drought, I know that I was insane as a child. It’s actually, on a day to day basis, not scary at all. It’s not even noticeable. Which is what’s actually so scary about it. This lack of concrete data in front of your face at all times is what allows my neighbor to (literally) wash the gutter in front of my house with a huge stream of water, which would be crazy even in non-drought conditions.

Yeah, the drought is symbolic and foreshadows the conclusion (especially with all the bullshit flowery asshole metaphors I use throughout this one), but it’s also practical. A cigarette butt can’t start a fire in normal Nebraska conditions.

“His drunk dad feels happy his son got a fast food job. The son has a cig and then burns the house down. Ever worked at a fast food place?”

Yup. It was no worse than anything else, really. Other than the half-priced meals and my fat tits. I was employee of the year once and that shit was the primary feature of my resume forever. It was a Hardee’s, literally two lots away from home, while I was in high school. This short travel distance set me up for unrealistic expectations in terms of future job-related travel. I now have to drive half an hour (usually) to work and it is absolutely the worst. I think about veering into a retaining wall or off an overpass every single day because I hate driving this much. I swear it’s not self-loathing. Probably.

“Ambiguous ending. Should we expect he was offered grief counseling due to his father going up in smoke or that he was prosecuted for arson?”

I’ve literally never considered after.

This story sat inside me forever. The youthful obsession with the drought. And then when I started smoking, this clicked into a constant “what if?” situation. I’d say I had the skeleton of this in my head for three years before I managed to set one word to paper. This skeleton never had an after. It always ended right where it did. The fire happened. There was no coping, no after effects, just destruction. I suppose I was a little more nihilistic when I was in my early twenties than I am now. Even now, when forced to consider after-effects, I can come up with nothing. I have no idea what happens next. I guess you get to decide. A nihilist would just go on with his life like nothing ever happened.

“What about video games makes him a passive viewer of the scene where the house goes up?”

“[L]ike a kid playing a video game” isn’t meant to be the reason for his passivity. His passivity is more just who he is. “[L]ike a kid playing a video game” is where the narrator becomes a self-aware, conscious adult. It’s a subtle change within the text and there are only two sentences afterwards, but that was my intention. Throughout most of the story the narrator is telling the story in the past, but with the eyes of a child. There is no historical perspective/hindsight included. But suddenly he is “like a kid,” when a few sentences before he was most definitely actually a kid. It’s a coming of age in a trial by fire story (I couldn’t resist the pun; I’m sorry).

Mike wrote about the book’s evolution and publishing process here.

Scenic Utah is available for purchase here.

The Note: Writing Around Themes

On The Note (a story in Mike Bahl’s Scenic Utah)

“Would you agree that this short short is about drunk driving and road rage, without using those words in the text exactly? Do you often write “around” themes?”

MB: I considered writing, “I’m going to answer this as directly as possible,” and then writing around using the word yes, but that seems like too much work for a joke that isn’t funny, so I’ll just say yes instead. I live my life “around” themes. People who talk directly about things are scary and weird and did not grow up Catholic in the Midwest.

That said, I think it’s a stretch to say the story is “about” drunk driving and road rage. Certainly they’re a part of it, but I’d say it’s more “about” not saying what you mean/passive aggressiveness (which, I suppose is why it kinda seems like it’s not about anything).

“Is the length meant to reflect the title, in that it’s note-length? Coincidence?”

I titled it after I wrote it, so I can’t call it a coincidence, but this correlation was not my primary consideration.

“Strangers leaving mean notes for each other. makes me think of trolling on the web, leaving anonymous notes on peoples posts, etc. What is your thought about people owning up to their rudeness?”


I can’t remember if I actually got this note or not. I’ve certainly been the recipient of these notes at some point and have considered leaving them, but never have because it’s kinda dumb. There was one to the effect of: “If you want to park in front of MY house [on the street] then you had damn well better park farther away [than a foot] from my [very wide and easily negotiable] driveway.” I don’t know. If nothing happened, then why leave the note? What’s it matter?

The Internet is stupid. I’m as secluded on here as I am in real life so I’ve never really gotten into it with anyone so I don’t know how to actually answer this question. I want to say, who gives a shit, but I also recognize that my sensitivity would perhaps respond differently in an actual situation.

“Is his reading the note an atonement for his bad park job? Does he feel like he deserved it?”

Catholics must not talk about their sins except behind a veil. They must be punished for their sins.

“Where is ‘out here’? This is like city vs. country mouse too, then?”

I thought city vs. country was the main conflict in this story, but, like always, it’s man vs. self.

To refresh yourself on this series on craft tied to the book Scenic Utah, start here.

Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

Mike’s review

Dreamlike but not stream of conscious. I’d suddenly find myself somewhere else, unsure of how I got there. Possibly translation in part, but also pastoral and alcoholic and scatter-brained by nature.

I felt like I was in the bathtub the whole time I read this, even though I don’t think I ever was once.