16 March 2018

Is Thomas Hardy Responsible for the Word "Cliffhanger"?

The prototypical Victorian cliff
William Dyce's Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858
Previously I blogged about Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes. Like many Victorian novels, A Pair of Blue Eyes was serialized; it appeared in installments in numbers of Tinsley's Magazine across 1872 and 1873. One installment ends with Henry Knight, one of the principal characters, stumbling down a cliff. I apologize for a length quotation; Knight has just saved a girl, Elfride from tumbling down too, but is losing his grip:
Between the turf-covered slope and the gigantic perpendicular rock intervened a weather-worn series of jagged edges, forming a face yet steeper than the former slope. As he slowly slid inch by inch upon these, Knight made a last desperate dash at the lowest tuft of vegetation – the last outlying knot of starved herbage ere the rock appeared in all its bareness. It arrested his further descent. Knight was now literally suspended by his arms; but the incline of the brow being what engineers would call about a quarter in one, it was sufficient to relieve his arms of a portion of his weight, but was very far from offering an adequately flat face to support him.
     In spite of this dreadful tension of body and mind, Knight found time for a moment of thankfulness. Elfride was safe.
     She lay on her side above him – her fingers clasped. Seeing him again steady, she jumped upon her feet.
     ‘Now, if I can only save you by running for help!’ she cried. ‘Oh, I would have died instead! Why did you try so hard to deliver me?’ And she turned away wildly to run for assistance.
     ‘Elfride, how long will it take you to run to Endelstow and back?’
     ‘Three-quarters of an hour.’
     ‘That won’t do; my hands will not hold out ten minutes. And is there nobody nearer?’
     ‘No; unless a chance passer may happen to be.’
     ‘He would have nothing with him that could save me. Is there a pole or stick of any kind on the common?’
     She gazed around. The common was bare of everything but heather and grass.
     A minute – perhaps more time – was passed in mute thought by both. On a sudden the blank and helpless agony left her face. She vanished over the bank from his sight.
     Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized loneliness.
And boom! You'll have to wait a month to read how that one resolves.

If you read a lot of Victorian novels, you'll know they're rarely so, well, cliffhangery in their serialization. Usually, they just kind of stop where one would stop any chapter while writing a novel. Wilkie Collins is probably the only Victorian novelist who bothers to have cliffhangers-- some of the ones in The Woman in White will knock you over.

As you can see above, this cliffhanger is surprisingly literal, the most literal cliffhanger I can think of other than the bit in the Doctor Who serial Dragonfire where the Doctor climbs down a cliff for no readily apparent reason, gets stuck, and then the theme music comes in. A lot of articles out there assert that it is thanks to Thomas Hardy and A Pair of Blue Eyes that we thus have the word "cliffhanger":
  • "The literary term, 'cliffhanger', derives most likely from Thomas Hardy's serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes." (The Victorian Web)
  • "Yet the iconic cliffhanger derives not from Dickens but from 'A Pair of Blue Eyes,' a little-known novel by Thomas Hardy..." (The New Yorker)
  • "The term that we use to describe Scheherazade’s trick was in fact coined in response to a novel by Thomas Hardy." (BBC*)
  • "Cliffhangers themselves (the term arose from Thomas Hardy and his preference for unsubtle plot twists) are time-honored narrative devices..." (The Atlantic
These are hopefully all sources that do their research, but I am skeptical of the claim, because the word "cliffhanger" doesn't come into existence until around 1931, according to the OED, which cites an article about movie serials from Variety: "Probabilities are a serial based on the life of Buffalo Bill and a treasure island thriller. Henry McRae, in charge of the cliff hangers, is searching for story material." It cross-references "cliff-hanging," which was used slightly earlier in 1930, still in Variety: "Fitting..into the pattern is the revival of the serial, with Universal and Pathe leading the procession toward cliff-hanging heroines."

Google Ngram Search backs the OED up on this, with no hits for "cliffhanger," "cliff-hanger," or "cliff hanger" in the whole nineteenth century. Google Books's earliest hit is hard to figure out because it has a number of misdated items and books you can only see snippets of, but around 1937. And then it doesn't refer to the suspenseful ending the way we use it now, but to the whole adventure serial itself.

Access this chart yourself here.

It seems unlikely to me that movie industry insiders of the 1930s were thinking of Thomas Hardy's third Wessex novel and not the more melodramatic perils of their own stories. As far as I can tell from Google Books, the first person to link the origins of the term "cliffhanger" to Thomas Hardy was the literary critic and novelist David Lodge, who says this in his 1992 collection The Art of Fiction:
[A Pair of Blue Eyes] contains a classic scene of suspense.... The word ["suspense"] itself derives from the Latin word meaning "to hang", and there could hardly be a situation more productive of suspense than that of a man clinging by his finger-tips to the face of a cliff, unable to climb to safety – hence the generic term "cliffhanger". (14)
You'll note that if you read Lodge very literally, he doesn't actually say Hardy's novel led to the creation of the term-- he just says A Pair of Blue Eyes has a guy hanging off a cliff, and that the most suspenseful thing there is is hanging off a cliff, which gives us "cliffhanger." But it would be easy to read his discussion here and think A Pair of Blue Eyes gave us the world "cliffhanger." I can't decide if this is deliberately or negligently misleading.

Presumably it carried forward from there, making its way onto the Internet. The Victorian Web article cited above is dated to 26 April 2006; on 3 May 2007, the Wikipedia article "cliffhanger" was updated to include the fact that A Pair of Blue Eyes was the originator. That same edit added a lot of information about Wilkie Collins which has since been stripped away, but the Hardy anecdote remains in the article to this day. Far be it for me to suggest that journalists are lazy, but all my other citations above post-date that Wikipedia edit. I'm not the only person to be suspicious; Google Books revealed to me a book called Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes from Hollywood to Broadway that Have Changed the English Language (2017), whose author, Josh Chetwynd, says "it's unlikely his [Hardy's] original plot directly spawned the term" (44).

While it's pretty neat that Thomas Hardy's cliffhanger was in fact a literal "cliff hanger," and it makes for a nice anecdote, people are overstating the case when they credit Thomas Hardy or reaction to him as the source of the word. I blame David Lodge.

(Though the Hardy cliffhanger claim mostly seems to be restricted to popular venues, I did find it in a book published by Oxford University Press. Hopefully it doesn't keep reproducing throughout academia in error.)

* This article seems to think Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop was written in the 1900s, so we should be very doubtful about any of its assertions.

15 March 2018

Review: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

Hardcover, 428 pages
Published 1953 (originally 1924)
Acquired and read January 2013
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

A friend told me that, based on my interests in science and scientists in literature, I had to read this book for my Ph.D. exams. Now, a 1925 American novel was more than a little bit outside my scope of British literature of the nineteenth century, but no one on my committee objected, and I put it on the list. (She also told me it takes place in a fictionalized version of my home city, Cincinnati, but Lewis's fictional state of Winnemac is partially carved out of northwest Ohio, which makes Toledo seem more likely.)

Well, I will tell you that I am glad I did, because the things that interest me about science and literature are all over Arrowsmith, with the added wrinkle of the differences wrought by the increased professionalization of science that happened between the 1890s and the 1920s. Martin Arrowsmith is torn between pure scientific aspiration and the commercial and financial necessities of everyday life in early twentieth century America. Martin sees being in the laboratory of his mentor Gottlieb as a form of prayer (27); Gottlieb is said to obey "mysterious and unreasoning compulsions of his science" (123); Gottlieb says that a scientific calling is "a tangle of very obscure emotions, like mysticism, or wanting to write poetry" (266); and Martin has the "one characteristic without which there can be no science: a wide-ranging, sniffing, snuffling, undignified, unself-dramatizing curiosity" (279). But these scientific values come into conflict with those of his peers, his superiors, his employers, his wife, basically everybody. I actually found Martin's continuing attempts to integrate his personal values with society's values quite moving by the end of the novel, because it's a struggle we all go through in our own way.

His problem is not that he wants one thing and society wants another, but that actually he wants two contradictory things. At one point Martin is on track for an incredible discovery, and he dreams of the personal benefit this will bring him:
He had visions of his name in journals and textbooks; of scientific meetings cheering him. He had been an unknown among the experts of the Institute, and now he pitied all of them. But when he was back at his bench the grandiose aspirations faded and he was the sniffing, snuffling beagle, the impersonal worker. Before him, supreme joy of the investigator, new mountain-passes of work opened, and in him was new power. (299)
Right in that short passage, you see him go from material aspirations to scientific ones. He wants the material benefits of successful inquiry, but he also just want to do the work, to feel like he's accessing prayer or something mystical like his mentor Gottlieb. The two desires are linked, of course, but not the same, and do not always align, and that is the tragedy of Martin Arrowsmith. I myself am not a scientist, of course, but the professionalization of curiosity may yet be my tragedy, and the tragedy of all of us.

13 March 2018

Review: The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 6 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2014 (contents: 2014)
Acquired March 2015
Read May 2017
The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 6

Written by James Roberts
Art by Alex Milne
Additional Art by Atilio Rojo
Additional Inks by Brian Shearer & John Wycough
Colors by Josh Burcham & Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long

This picks up six months after Dark Cybertron, and major changes have taken place on the Lost Light, the biggest one being the assignment of Megatron as co-captain. I'm of two minds about this. One the one hand, Megatron as captain provides possibilities, for both jokes:
I always like it when someone calls Rodimus out on his crap.
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #30 (art by Alex Milne)

...and for drama and character introspection:
Yeah, at least try to be good.
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #33 (art by Alex Milne and Brian Shearer & John Wycough)

But on the other hand, I find it implausible that a dictator and committer of genocide, whose five-million year reign of terror makes any human monster look like someone who was at most mildly rude, would be accepted aboard the Lost Light (or anywhere in Autobot society) under any circumstances. It's like once World War II ended they made Hitler captain of an American aircraft carrier and everyone acted like it was a minor inconvenience, only a million times more unlikely. So, I like it and I don't like it at the same time.

Other than that, this is another solid volume of More than Meets the Eye, not the best, but definitely of the consistent quality that James Roberts and Alex Milne have maintained since volume 3. Having all of the crew except for those who joined after issue #1 vanish is a smart move to give some time to new characters; so far I like Nautica, the earnest ex-teacher, and the appearance of Ravage has some potential. Plus all the old characters get nice moments and promises of interesting developments, like what's happening with Tailgate and Cyclonus, or Rodimus, or Chromedome, or Brainwave, or, well almost everyone. Also this pays off some ongoing plot threads seeded so far back I'd forgotten about them, so thank goodness for the Transformers wiki! Dark Cybertron was a bit of a dull derailment, but More than Meets the Eye still knows how to make you laugh and make you cry. (No actual tears this time, just metaphorical ones.)

Gotta love a space chalkboard.
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #31 (art by Atilio Rojo)
Next Week: Meanwhile, on Earth... Optimus Prime returns as one of many Robots in Disguise!

12 March 2018

Review: The Mighty Thor, Vol. 4 by Walter Simonson

Comic trade paperback, 237 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 1986)

Acquired December 2015
Read August 2017
The Mighty Thor, Vol. 4

Writer & Artist: Walter Simonson
Artist: Sal Buscema 
Inking: Bob Wiacek & Al Milgrom, Geoff Isherwood, Bret Blevins
Remastered Coloring: Steve Oliff
Letterer: John Workman

Like vol. 3, this volume of The Mighty Thor is a mixed bag. Were vols. 1-2 Walter Simonson's peak? I only have one volume to go, so I guess I'll see. But this has some good stuff and some dull stuff. Definitely the highlight is the storyline where Loki turns Thor into a frog, and frog Thor then has an adventure in Central Park, rescuing a group of frogs from evil rats. It's pure comedic genius in some ways:
Best "translation" caption in comics?
from Thor vol. 1 #364 (art by Walter Simonson)

But it succeeds in its playing of the peril as completely straight. These are beings in trouble on Midgard,* and Thor will defend them, as is his duty.

Even as a frog, Thor gives the best pretentious speeches.
from Thor vol. 1 #364 (art by Walter Simonson)

And then, once he's able to lift Mjolnir, he goes from being a strong and large frog to being... THOR FROG!

from Thor vol. 1 #365 (art by Walter Simonson)

It's a masterful example of things you can do in the goofy-but-epic medium of the long-form superhero comic. I can only hope that we get to hear Chris Hemsworth voice this storyline on screen in Thor 4.

Other than that, Thor having to rescue Balder from evil crones in disguise is classic fairy tale stuff, and pretty enjoyable, and I also liked Thor returning to his "human" life on Midgard and befriending the very large family of his Italian foreman.

These kids are the greatest. And Thor is a terrible liar.
from Thor vol. 1 #373 (art by Sal Buscema)

But some stuff was less interesting: Malekith and Kurse aren't really good villains, so stuff revolving around them kind of bored me, and whatever was going on with mutants in the tunnels of New York was okay. And there's this weird story where a Judge Dredd rip-off comes from the future. It would work if it was completely goofy, but it gets pretty dark, and unlike with the frogs, the balance isn't quite hit right.

from Thor vol. 1 #371 (art by Sal Buscema & Bret Blevins)

Still, the volume was fun enough, and better than the third, I think. I just hope Simonson ends his acclaimed run on a high note.

* Earth.

09 March 2018

Sandwiches I Have Known

1. The Humble Cheese Sandwich
Honestly,  this one I found on the Internet kinda looks too nice.
I feel like I must have learned this from my dad, but a go-to snack of mine in my youth was the simple "cheese sandwich." Just slice off the end of a block of colby cheese (there was always one in the Mollmann fridge) and place on a piece of white bread and fold. Pure joy.

Dad was always trying to convert me to the "mustard sandwich" (a folded piece of white bread with mustard on it, duh), but I can't say this one ever really took. I'm also not sure it counts as a sandwich in the strict sense.

2-4. Peanut Butter and Jelly / Peanut Butter and Banana / Peanut Butter and Marshmallow
I assume I must have attempted banana and marshmallow.
When you're a packer in grade school, there's only so much your mother can or should do. As far I as I remembered, I ate a peanut butter and something sandwich every day of my grades 1-8 life. All that could or would change was the topping. Carefully controlled variety, an ethos that lives with me to this day.

Packing got me into trouble, though. When I was in the first grade, the rule at lunchtime at St. John the Baptist School was that everyone was seated in the order they arrived in the cafeteria. You didn't get to pick where you sat, you just arrived and were placed in the next available seat. Plus, we were lined up alphabetically before leaving the classroom, so you didn't even control your place in line. (The disadvantage of having an "M" last name is that even on days where the teacher realized she was giving those children lucky enough to be born with the last name of Baum a consistent unfair advantage and reversed the whole line, you were still dead in the middle.) But most students, upon arriving in the cafeteria, had to go through the line to get their food. Since I packed, I skipped over this-- and thus ended up seating amongst the second graders, who had already gone through the food line.

The second graders were nasty customers, able to use their advanced size and intelligence against my naïveté. One time they manipulated me into sticking a bottle of mustard up my nose. Another time, I told a no doubt amusing anecdote about my kid sister, who at the tender age of one, refused to eat meat. (This was before the long phase of her life where she only ate chicken nuggets, clearly.) She was a vegetarian, I explained. So, asked the second graders with malevolent grins, is your sister a virgin? Not really clear on the difference between the words vegetarian and virgin at the age of six, I answered in the affirmative so as to avoid looking ignorant. They thought this was quite amusing. I couldn't tell why.

All I really wanted to do was eat my peanut butter and something sandwich in peace. Thankfully, the next year, the lunch table policies were revised, and we were segregated by grade. So from then on, only my own classmates could prey on my naïveté. 

5. Peanut Butter and Pickle
There are a surprising number of hits on Google Image Search.
Once in middle school, I reasoned that if peanut butter went with so many other good things, it ought to go with pickles, too.

I don't recommend it, but I don't really discommend it either. You know that there are combinations of flavors that are so aptly described with the phrase "two great tastes that taste great together"? Chocolate and peanut butter, spinach and artichoke, kielbasa and sauerkraut, pineapple and ham. And then there are things that should never be mixed, like cheese and chocolate, strawberries and mustard, peanut butter and sausage. Well, peanut butter and pickles just don't even exist on the same dimensional plane to one another. The flavor combination is just there, inspiring neither like nor dislike. It simply is, like a Zen koan, and defies our attempts to understand it.

6-10. Arby's Five for Five
We were a family of five growing up, and so Arby's Five for Five deal, five roast beef sandwiches for $5, was a recurring favorite. Whenever the deal rotated in, the Mollmanns would be off to Arby's for one roast beef sandwich apiece, and some sides of curly fries. (And if you know the Mollmanns, you know we did not eat out much.) I still favor the humble Arby's roast beef sandwiches; no matter what weird things they put on their menu, I know that this will be the best fast food for any road trip. Obviously you get the cheese sauce and the Arby's sauce; anything else is unnecessary.

That said, like I mentioned, my kid sister had a limited palate, and this continued her entire childhood. She didn't even eat sandwiches at all until college. So when we got Arby's Five for Five, who was eating the fifth sandwich...?

11. Cold Scott
The Internet barely even remembers Scott Dining Hall now.
In my college years, I worked at Scott Dining Hall at Miami University. Scott was sort of a weirdly laid out place; it had two halves with the kitchen in the middle. Employees could go from one side to the other, but not customers. These two halves were known officially as "Ovations!" and "Encore Emporium" (you can bet your butt that I was assiduous about writing that exclamation point), but colloquially they were called "Hot Scott" and "Cold Scott." Hot Scott was the side with the woks and the pizza oven (it really did roast over there), while Cold Scott was the deli, the burgers, the salad bar, and the espresso bar.

The deli served three different kinds of sandwiches: normal sandwiches on bread, bagel sandwiches, and wraps. (The best, by the way, was turkey and cheese on rye with mayo, tomato, lettuce, red onion, and pickle.) I worked as cashier often, and depending on how competently the sandwich had been wrapped, it wasn't always possible to discern whether it was on bread or a bagel. So I would usually ask, "Is that a bagel sandwich or a sandwich sandwich?" People often looked at me a little weird when I did this, but I feel like repeating a word is a perfectly good clarifier (sometimes I distinguish between my students' short papers and my students' paper papers), and that a sandwich on bread is the ur form of the sandwich seems pretty obvious.

12. Hot Scott
I had to get these images off Google Street View.
The real action was on the other side of Scott Dining Hall, though, where there were the woks, and the pizza/sub oven. We did personal pan pizzas and toasted subs, and that was our most popular station by far. At lunch it was usually nuts, and staffing required one person on register, three people putting stuff into the oven, and two people taking out. More importantly, you needed to be organized and on top of things to work the oven side. Once I ascended to the vaunted position of student manager, I ended up working the oven side of Hot Scott at lunch Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for like two years.

You pretty much ended up seeing the same people every week, and some people are very reliable, always wanting the exact same thing on their sub or pizza once it comes out of the oven. I prided myself on my ability to remember exactly what these people wanted, putting it on their sub without them telling me, and calling their name once it was done. Among these was the legendary Garlic Salt Girl, who only ever wanted a sprinkling of garlic salt. There was like... a thing that evolved between me and her. I guess you would call it a flirtation? The full-time employee who worked the oven alongside me most days kept egging me on, but nothing ever happened.... except that on her birthday, her friends came early and gave me a card to give to her along with her order.

There was a lot of giggling.

Hot Scott played a much more significant role in my love life shortly thereafter, though, once I started dating Hayley. One time she came in and I made her my invention, the chicken cordon bleu calzone. Calzones weren't on the menu, but sometimes employees would make them for themselves using pizza dough. This one required liberating chicken fingers from a line over in Cold Scott, actually.

I'm told it was delicious. Hayley still tells this story, which is that she was eating it and someone else asked her what it was. I like to imagine Hayley was really snide as she replied, "I'm sorry, my boyfriend made this for me, and he's a manager here."

(Have I gotten off track? Is a calzone a sandwich?)

13. Reubens 
This actually is the Rein's one.
When I was in college, I would occasionally go to a bar called Steinkeller's, a German place. This was probably the first bar I ever enjoyed going to, and I discovered I liked three things there: stouts, fried calamari, and Reubens. Even though I'm German-American and so is the Reuben, I'd never had one before; the Mollmanns are pretty poor German-Americans in that they don't like sauerkraut. But obviously the Reuben is delicious.

When I moved to Connecticut, though, I began to fear that the good Reuben had forsaken me. At restaurant after restaurant-- restaurants that made otherwise dependable food!-- I would order a Reuben and be utterly disappointed.

Finally I found a good one; an Irish pub opened in my town, and their Irish Reuben turned out to be a thing of delight, the only good Reuben I'd ever encountered in Connecticut.

The weird thing is, though, that Connecticut is home to one of the best Jewish delis there is (supposedly, as I can't say I've been to a lot of Jewish delis), Rein's. But I don't think I ever actually got a Reuben there. I'm sure it would have been delicious. That place did have, though, the greatest pickles of all time, introducing me to the half-sour. A type of pickle sadly in short supply here in Florida, as far as I can tell.

14. The Perfect Grilled Cheese
In her semiautobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson compares the construction of identity to the construction of sandwiches, saying that she goes through life accumulating stories:
I can put these accounts together, and I will not have a seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own.
     The salt beef of civilisation rumbling around in the gut. Constipation was a great problem after the Second World War. Not enough roughage in the diet, too much refined food. If you always eat out you can never be sure what's going in, and received information is nobody's exercise.
     Rotten and rotting.
     Here is some advice: If you want to keep your own teeth, make your own sandwiches.... (95)
My preferred self-made sandwich is simple. People say the key to a perfect grilled cheese is mayo, but people are nuts. (I tried it; there's nothing wrong with it, but it doesn't do anything butter doesn't.) The thing to keep in mind is that cheese has a high specific heat, so if you cook your grilled cheese too high, the bread will cook but the cheese won't have melted yet. Low and slow is how you do it. Set the stove at like 2 or 3, and do the crossword puzzle while you wait. All the perfect grilled cheese needs is patience.

15. The Monte Cristo
When I was a neophyte in graduate school, I was forcibly befriended by one Andrew Grubb. One of his favorite things to do was call me and tell me we were going to the Vernon Diner, a 24/7 diner about five minutes from my apartment.

It was there that I had my first contact with the Monte Cristo, a ham-turkey-and-cheese sandwich served on pieces of French toast. He ordered it the first time I went there with him; the waitress asked, Do you want maple syrup on the side? You bet he did. The next time we went I had to have it. It's delectable, the perfect combination of savory and sweet. When we still lived in Connecticut, my wife claimed that the Vernon Diner was my favorite restaurant. I don't know if that's true, but they definitely served my favorite sandwich.

I went back the first time in a long while for a celebratory dinner post-defense, and discovered that the Monte Cristo wasn't on the the menu. My world shook. Thankfully, the waitress said they could make me one anyway. I just checked the menu on-line; the public outrage must have been too much because it's back on it. Some things have to change (it has been eight years since Andrew Grubb called me on a Saturday night asking if wanted a Monte Cristo with waffle fries), but some things ought not to.

16. The Dagwood
If only, UConn. If only.
At UConn, I became an aficionado of the premade sandwiches served in the school cafés. The best was the Dagwood: salami, ham, pepperoni, turkey on rye. Like a lot of things I like, it involves a lot of flavors all at once. The name comes from the comic strip Blondie (1930-present), where the main character Dagwood has a propensity for giant sandwiches. The weird thing is that there is actually a restaurant chain called Blondie's that sells Dagwoods. What's weird about it is that this chain doesn't date to 1956 like you might expect, but 2005. Like, who in 2005 thought the ossified staple of the newspaper comic page Blondie was the thing to anchor one's restaurant chain on, some fifty years after it ceased to have any cultural relevance? Or were they marketing exclusively to sixty-year-olds? Apparently, some of the franchisees sued the franchise for fraud, claiming they misrepresented the Blondie's brand, but I'd say that if you thought the Blondie brand was worth the $346,000 investment it cost to open a new store, the only person defrauding you was you.

17. Crusty Grilled Cheese
I couldn't find any pictures that looked quite right, tbh.
My grilled cheese sandwich is perfect, but I do occasionally bypass it and make this recipe I found somewhere on the Internet:
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
3 tbsp. butter, softened
1 dash garlic powder
good bread (little, like a baguette)
good sliced cheese
sliced deli ham
fresh basil

1. mix Parmesan, softened butter, and garlic powder
2. build sandwiches: 1 slice of cheese per sandwich, 1 slice of ham, 1 slice of tomato, 1 basil leaf
3. butter outside and cook on medium heat
You get an amazing crust. Two of those with a bowl of tomato soup is an excellent meal.

One time I made these; a couple days later I had an idea. I made some scrambled eggs, and then put the eggs and a slice of cheese between two slices of rye bread, which I slathered with the leftover butter mixture. The crusty grilled egg and cheese sandwich was delicious. A couple hours later I was in excruciating pain, convinced I was either allergic to eggs or experiencing a heart attack. Hayley rushed me to the emergency room, and that's when we discovered that I had gallstones, and would have to lay off the fat, since eating fat causes the gallbladder to deflate as it releases bile, making it easier for a gallstone to block the bile duct.

Risk factors for gallstones are known as the four F's: fat, female, family, and forty. I used to tell people that one out of four wasn't bad, but then-- several months after this whole saga-- my father told me that all of his sisters and his mothers had had gallstones too.

This was a Sunday. By Tuesday, when I taught, I was still sore. I told my students the reason I was less animated than usual was because of this experience.

Was it worth it? they asked. Was the sandwich that good?

No, I said. No sandwich was that good.

18. Tofu Banh Mi 
Actually, it was pretty good.
Surgery was a possibility for me-- remove the gallbadder, remove the problem-- but it was also possible to moderate my diet. Since the surgery would wipe out a week, I opted to postpone it at least until the semester was over, and I ate low-fat. Lots of turkey, lots of rice, lots of broth, lots of Greek yoghurt. It was pretty delightful. I did lose weight, which was the first thing my mother commented on when she next saw me.

Things were fine. Occasionally, I thought I felt pain coming on and downed a vicodin, but nothing really seemed to happen.

One weekend I went to the local juicery (Willimantic, Connecticut, has inexplicably sustained an artisinal juice place for almost three years now, and it's not just an artisinal juice place, but the kind of place that calls sandwiches "handholds" for some reason) to catch up on grading, and I ordered a coffee and a tofu banh mi. A couple hours later, I began to experience pain. I hightailed it out of there and went home and lay down. I took my vicodin, and tried homespun Internet remedies like apple cider vinegar. (That was disgusting.) Nothing worked and it kept getting worse. I needed a heating pad, but it was August in Connecticut in an apartment without air conditioning, so who the hell wanted to use a heating pad? And Hayley was across the country in Ohio, and she had the car. I called her to complain, and she ended up calling a friend to come and get me and take me to the hospital.

I complained to the doctor that I had been eating low fat, not cheating at all, and that it was a tofu banh mi that had done me in. It wasn't fair! He agreed it wasn't fair. I signed up for the surgery.

What I later discovered is that if you have gallstones, you should also avoid coffee. Coffee reduces the risk of gallstones but it also causes contraction of the gallbladder. (This is the same reason coffee makes you poop.) But of course in the in-and-out minimum-assistance-possible routine of the ER, no one ever told me this. It would have been nice to know. I don't know if I could have done without coffee, but at least I could have been making an informed decision.

Even though I know it wasn't the banh mi's fault, whenever I see one on a menu, I can't quite bring myself to order it.

08 March 2018

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)

Trade paperback, 349 pages
Published 2016 (contents: 2014-16)
Acquired November 2016

Read April 2017
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Like a lot of the books I assigned in my young adult literature class without having actually read them, this hovers on the border between middle grade and young adult, and had I known that, I might not have assigned it. By the end of the book, Jackie is in the fourth grade, if I recall correctly. Yet-- and perhaps this is unavoidable if you're an African-American child in the 1960s South-- she has still undergone the processes that Roberta Seelinger Trites identifies as important to the adolescent novel: she has discovered the social forces that have shaped her. Not just the obvious one of race and racism, but also the dynamics of religion. Even from a young age, she's involved in protests and other forms of civil rights activism.

I was especially struck by how the book is an artistic coming of age. Her family are Jehovah's Witnesses, but she's not a very good one by her own admission, loving the stories of the Bible more than the theological answers it is supposed to provide (60). Acquiring a composition notebook even before she can write changes her life: "someone must have known that this / was all I needed" (154). As she gets older, she develops a talent for storytelling. Well, "talent" is understating it, actually; it's a desire or a passion or just a base need:
are like air to me,
I breathe them in and let them out
over and over again. (247)
This need gets her in trouble for lying even though she doesn't see it that way:
It's hard to understand
the way my brain works—so different
from everybody around me.
How each new story
I'm told becomes a thing
that happens,
in some other way
to me...! (176)
Her uncle likes her stories, her mother insists they're lies, but she concludes, "Maybe the truth is somewhere in between / all that I'm told / and memory" (176). Well, of course it is, because this very book occupies such a location; one of the first poems is about how there are a number of contradictory stories about her birth (her mother, father, and grandmother each has a different account), but there's a sense in which they're all true, because each one of those tales is something someone told her about herself, indicating a way they wanted her to be, and so they became a way she was. When her classmates ask her about her stories' authenticity, she always asserts they're true: "Did that really happen? the kids in class ask. // Yeah, I say. If it didn't, how would I know what to write?" (291)

While teaching the book, I had my class read it alongside Walter Dean Myers's "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?" and an examination of the We Need Diverse Books website. The book engages with this kind of material, not just by being about a person of color, but the moment where Jackie picks up her first book about a person of color: "the picture book filled with brown people, more / brown people than I’d ever seen / in a book before." She says that if she hadn't seen it,
I'd never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me had a story. (228)
So as much as she liked stories, the belief that her story was worth telling wouldn't have existed without a children's book about a person of color to inspire her-- and so she pays it forward, writing one of her own. In a way, the book doesn't end at the fifth grade, because there's an implied older Jackie, the one writing this book and looking backward at her childhood and figuring out who she is and how she came to be.

The book actually ends by explaining how stories construct your identity:
When there are many world
you can choose the one
you walk into each day.


Each day a new world
opens itself up you you. And all the worlds you are

[…] gather into one world

called You

where You decide

what each world
and each story
and each ending

will finally be. (319-20)
I guess this is the fundamental project of young adult literature, and that's why diverse books are so important. We need as many stories as we can get to decide who to be.

06 March 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Goth Opera by Paul Cornell

Acquired and read December 2017
Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures: Goth Opera
by Paul Cornell

This is a sort-of sequel to Terrance Dicks's Blood Harvest, the most recent New Adventure I read, so I interrupted my readthrough of those novels to pick it up. Paul Cornell does much better with the basic ingredients of vampires, Time Lord cults, Romana, and so on than Dicks did, though I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. Cornell is a thoughtful writer with a knack for characterization, and that serves him well in the Missing Adventures; you can hear Peter Davision saying the lines, and his Nyssa is pretty good, and his Tegan excellent.

This book is less thematically complicated than Cornell's NA work, but it makes for an enjoyable-- well, romp isn't exactly the word for a book where a stadium full of people is massacred, but maybe you get what I mean. It's a sold sort of Buffyesque modern vampire adventure with some inventive ideas. I like the hints about Time Lord history, and the explanation for vampires, faith, and garlic in a Doctor Who context. The idea of vampire/Time Lord hybrids marching on the universe is a great Doctor Who idea, and there's even foreshadowing of the Last Great Time War. I've never been terribly into the Missing Adventures (or BBC Books's Past Doctor Adventures), but this is an above average example of the form.

The Sabalom Glitz cameo is pretty random. And I say this as a devoted fan of the character. Cornell writes a delightful second Romana, though.

Next Week: That's it, I'm all caught up on reviews of The New Doctor Who Adventures, so I'll be rotating onto Transformers comics once more, beginning with the universe's most dysfunctional robots in More than Meets the Eye, Volume 6!

05 March 2018

Review: The Mighty Thor, Vol. 3 by Walter Simonson

Up now: the first of three weeks of THE MIGHTY THOR! But before that, here are two recent reviews I've written for USF, both of Doctor Who releases with two stories in one: Vortex Ice / Cortex Fire and Shadow Planet / World Apart.

Comic trade paperback, 260 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 1985-86)

Acquired December 2015
Read January 2017
The Mighty Thor, Vol. 3

Writer & Artist: Walter Simonson
Artist: Sal Buscema
Remastered Coloring: Steve Oliff
Letterer: John Workman

This volume of The Mighty Thor feels a bit transitional, between the epic battles of vol. 2 (including the death of Odin) and whatever is to come in vol. 4. A lot of the book deals with the repercussions of the big battle in vol. 2: the army of Asgard is still trapped on Midgard* in Central Park (though when this is resolved, it's surprisingly easy), the city of Asgard is being rebuilt, and the question of who will rule Asgard is beginning to be considered. Loki of course wants it to be Loki, and uses Lorelei (who began pursuing Thor romantically in vol. 2) to make Thor agree. This results in a pretty great Thor/Loki fight where Thor throws his hammer and then grabs Loki's neck so that when the hammer returns it will take off Loki's head:
Between when I wrote this review and made this scan, this scene was directly ported into Thor: Ragnarok. Simonson actually got a credit in the film, which was nice.
from Thor vol. 1 #359 (art by Walter Simonson)

Also Thor has maybe the best "next issue" boxes:
from Thor vol. 1 #357 (art by Walter Simonson)

There are also some hijinks on Earth with Beta Ray Bill, and Thor decides to deal with the death of his father by invading Hel-- as you do. He doesn't get his father's soul back, but he does liberate trapped human souls.

There are also four issues of a Balder the Brave miniseries collected here, which are decent. I've liked Balder's appearances in this series but don't know that I was clamoring for a spotlight for him. They are decently fun, though.

Walter Simonson knows his stuff, of course, but I felt like this volume didn't contain much meat. Hopefully vol. 4 gets back to the core of what made vols. 1-2 such a success.

How could I not be hyped for vol. 4, actually?
from Thor vol. 1 #363 (art by Walter Simonson)
* Earth.

02 March 2018

The Prehistory of the Omega Men

I didn't know when I began reading DC's The Omega Men that it was a spin-off of previous comics, mostly those by Marv Wolfman; I was actually surprised when I realized that Teen Titans's Starfire was from the Vega system that is the setting for The Omega Men. So now, as part of my dive back into 1970s-80s DC space comics, I'm reading a collection of random stuff that tied into The Omega Men in some way. Two enemies of the Omega Men, the Citadel and the Spider Guild, both appeared in Green Lantern originally (issues #136 and 167, respectively), for example. The Omega Men appeared in a number of stories across Green Lantern, Action Comics, and The New Teen Titans before they got their own ongoing, and it's those I want to talk about today.

* * * 

In addition to the issues of Green Lantern cited below, I also read #136-39, 164, 167, 172, and 180-90. I was in general impressed by what I read of writer Marv Wolfman's run (which in full goes from #133 to 153); Wolfman is very adept as balancing ongoing plots with standalone stories in the way that I feel is ideal, and even though I was plunged right into the middle of several ongoing stories, I never failed to understand what was going on. Those old comics where the characters spend a page thinking about what's happened to them recently might look a little silly to us now, but that conceit sure is helpful!

The Omega-Men Saga! actually gives very terrestrial roots to what would become quite a cosmic concept. Carol Ferris has been deposed as head of Ferris Aircraft by her father, so Carol and Hal Jordan-- who have only recently rekindled their relationship-- go on a trip to Newfoundland to get away from it all. Writer Wolfman implies a lot of tent sex. Because Hal Jordan is dumb, they run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, and when he uses his ring to get to the nearest town, they discover the whole thing is an illusion created by... the Omega Men! They're a group of resistance fighters from the Vega star system, who are masking themselves from the hunters of the Citadel, the evil empire that dominates their home system. Of course Green Lantern fights them, but when the Gordanian hunters arrive, they unite against their enemy. (Green Lantern previously fought the Gordanians in the 22nd and 58th centuries in Green Lantern #136-37.)

It's an okay story. With eight different Omega Men to incorporate (Primus, Kalista, Tigorr, Broot, Nimbus, Harpis, Demonia, and Auron) into what's really just two issues, none of them make much of an impression. Primus is the boss one, Kalista is the girl one, Demonia is the evil one, Auron is the god one, and that's basically it. And can I just say that Wolfman's naming is incredibly unimaginative? Primus is the leader, Tigorr is a tiger, Broot is a brute, Nimbus is a cloud, Harpis is a harpy, Demonia is a demon, and Auron is a light. Anyway, Joe Staton draws some good fights, the Gordanians are sent packing, and the Omega Men will stop hiding on Earth and go back into space to fight the Citadel.

* * * 

If this story (hardly a saga) had been their only appearance, I doubt anyone would remember them, but Marv Wolfman brought them back a year later, by which time he and Joe Staton were writing and drawing Action Comics. The end of The Omega-Men Saga! implied that the Omega Men were heading off into space, but apparently they actually didn't because they still had stuff to do. They need Green Lantern's help to finish fueling up their ship, only he's in space, so here they go ask Superman instead. However, we'vre right in the middle of an ongoing plot for Superman, where he's been split into two different people, each of which only has some of his powers, and one of which is lost in the medieval era. Just another Tuesday for Superman. So the Omega Men end up helping him and Lois (Wolfman is good at giving the female love interests stuff to do) fight some underground people who want to auction him off.

Not all of the Omega Men appear in this story, but the beginning of The Starfire Saga is also perfunctory. Some fighting, blah blah blah. Like with the holographic village in Green Lantern, the Omega Men seem to have a level of power not really consistent with what we see in the later ongoing Omega Men series by Roger Slifer and company; here, Kalista can use sorcery to summon someone on the opposite side of the Earth! It's hard to imagine the Omega Men leaving Vega at all, actually, based on the ongoing. (There definitely were some retcons when the Omega Men were made into their own thing.) The Superman stuff here was honestly more interesting than the Omega Men stuff. Which I guess makes sense; it's Superman's series after all!

However, at the end of its second issue, Superman takes the Omega Men to the Justice League satellite, where he provides them with the fuel they seek... only to be interrupted by the New Teen Titans barely reaching the satellite, as they nearly asphyxiate in space. The Starfire Saga continues from there in the pages of The New Teen Titans, which fill in how they ended up in this predicament: they were trying to rescue Starfire from being kidnapped by her sister Blackfire, who works for the Citadel. (Starfire and Blackfire's backstory was depicted by the recent Tales of the New Teen Titans #4, where we got our first glimpse of the key Vegan world of Okaara.)

The Omega Men have to go to Vega anyway, and hate the Citadel already, so they let the Titans accompany them in what leads to a series of pitched battles, as the Citadel tries to steal the Vegan god X'Hal. Some of the Titans stay on Okaara to defend the planet, while others go to the Citadel itself to rescue Starfire.

It's all exciting stuff. Marv Wolfman and George Pérez were at the top of their game in the 1980s. These are cosmic battles and personal foibles as only they can tell it, and even though I've scarcely read any of The New Teen Titans, they made me want to start collecting some expensive omnibus volumes. The Omega Men are still kind of just there, except for Demonia who is so evil that it seems improbable the rest would put up with her.

These stories do succeed in making you want the Omega Men get their own series, though, because of the worldbuilding. We see several planets in the Vega system, each with some kind of cool cosmic imagery, like the crystal interior of Okaara, or the asteroid fortress moons of the Citadel. You finish the story wanting to see more of this incredible world, and the best stories from the Omega Men ongoing would do just that. The only thing not to like is that the gorilla-like Citadelians are written as so stupid it beggars belief they could manage an interplanetary empire. (And Marv Wolfman doesn't seem to know the difference between a solar system, a galaxy, and a universe.)

* * * 

The last Omega Men story before they got their own spin-off was a two-issue return to Green Lantern. It's a simple story: Green Lantern is captured by some old enemies, the Headmen, who have really big heads. Listen, not every concept can be a winner. The Headmen seek to demonstrate their fitness to join the Citadel Empire by executing a Lantern. (The Citadel is much more expansionist in these precursor stories than it would be in the actual Omega Men series; I don't remember them ever trying to expand beyond Vega in those.) The Omega Men intercept the transmission between the Headmen and the Citadel, and go and rescue Green Lantern to repay their old debt. That's basically it, though it's a decent story; like Staton and Pérez, Pollard is a strong artist.

Its final issue came out in Feb. 1983, and The Omega Men began in Apr. 1983, so it seems likely this story was intended to directly set up the ongoing; it clarifies what would become a key part of the Omega Men mythos, that the Green Lanterns are forbidden by treaty from interfering with the Vega system. I found it weird, though, that the book doesn't actually mention that the Omega Men are about to get their own series. Shouldn't the new book get some explicit advertising?

* * * 

A collected edition of much of this material was solicited by DC a few years ago, but never released. I'm glad, then, that I tracked these issues down, and I look forward to someday rereading The Omega Men with this context in mind.

The Omega-Men Saga! originally appeared in issues #141-44 of Green Lantern vol. 2 (June-Sept. 1981). The story was written by Marv Wolfman, illustrated by Joe Staton, lettered by John Costanza (#141) and Ben Oda (#142-44), colored by Carl Gafford (#141-43) and A. Tollin (#144), and edited by Len Wein (#141-42) and Cary Burkett (#143-44).

The Starfire Saga originally appeared in Action Comics vol. 1 #535-36 (Sept.-Oct. 1982), The New Teen Titans vol. 1 #23-25 (Sept.-Nov. 1982), and The New Teen Titans Annual  vol.  1 #1 (1982). The story was plotted by Marv Wolfman (#535-36, #23-25, Annual #1) and George Pérez (#23-25, Annual #1); scripted by Marv Wolfman (#535, #23-25, Annual #1) and Paul Kupperberg (#536); illustrated/pencilled by Joe Staton (#535-36) and George Pérez (#23-25, Annual #1); embellished/inked by Pablo Marcos (#535), Sal Trapani (#536), and Romeo Tanghal (#23-25, Annual #1); lettered by Todd Klein (#535, #24) and Ben Oda (#536, #23, 25, Annual #1); colored by Gene D'Angelo (#535-36) and Carl Gafford (#23-25, Annual #1); and edited by Julius Schwartz (#535-36) and Len Wein (#23-25, Annual #1).

Return of the Headmen originally appeared in issues #160-61 of Green Lantern vol. 2 (Jan.-Feb. 1983). The story was written by Mike W. Barr, pencilled by Keith Pollard, embellished by Sam de la Rosa (#160) and Pablo Marcos (#161), lettered by Todd Klein (#160) and Ben Oda (#161), colored by Tom Ziuko (#160) and Anthony Tollin (#161), and edited by Ernie Colón. 

Note that none of these titles are quite official. The cover of Green Lantern #143 calls the issue "THE SHATTERING CONCLUSION OF THE OMEGA-MEN SAGA!" while the lettercol of New Teen Titans refers to the story begun in Action Comics as "the Starfire saga" on occasion. There is no overarching title given to Green Lantern #160-61, so I just made one up.

01 March 2018

Reading Roundup Wrapup: February 2018

Pick of the month: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. Not a lot of options this month, but this was good solid fun.

All books read:
1. Transformers: Titans Return by James Roberts and John Barber with Mairghread Scott
2. Leviathan Wakes: Book One of The Expanse by James S.A. Corey

A new record low! (Previous was 4.) Man, The Norton Book of Science Fiction is taking time to read, even for a chunky anthology. I need to be more diligent.

All books acquired:
1. Star Trek: Discovery: Drastic Measures by Dayton Ward

At least my net rate is still good.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 655 (no change)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 14 (down 5)