Review: How to Be Perfect

I don’t usually review non-fiction books, least of all books on philosophy, yet when I started the ironically named, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, I should’ve known that I would be jotting down my thoughts the second I finished it. Michael Schur, writer for The Office, co-creator of both Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and creator of The Good Place, builds on the moral questions he explores in The Good Place but in a way that doesn’t not produce a migraine.

If you are looking for a dry, serious analysis of the history of philosophy, this is not that thing. If you earned PhD in, I don’t know, epistemology and you’re looking for the newest piece of scholarship to further your specific content area, this is probably not that thing either. If you studied philosophy/anthropology in college, enjoy reading or reading about moral philosophy, and enjoy books with lots of jokes, then this is definitely that thing. One doesn’t help create four of the funniest shows in recent history without being able to write some very smart and very funny stuff, and Schur does not disappoint just because he set his sights on moral dilemmas rather than penguin weddings and sensitivity trainings.

Fans of The Good Place may be familiar with T. M. Scanlon’s philosophical work on contractualism, What We Owe to Each Other. (The book Chidi gives to Eleanor and she then basically ignores until the very end of the series.) While contractualism is present in How to Be Perfect, Schur doesn’t belabor this single theory. Instead, he presents three schools of thought central to Western philosophy, analyzing different moral dilemmas through these lenses. Those basic schools of thought are Aristotelian value ethics (the golden mean); deontology (Kant’s moral imperative); and utilitarianism (the most happiness for the most people). Through these lenses, Schur considers theoretical dilemmas like the Trolley Problem (and a ton of it’s variants), daily problems like tipping 27 cents on a $1.73 coffee, but only when the barista can see it, and gigantic issues like world hunger and global warming and how-in-the-world to pronounce “eudaimonia” or even more how-in-the-world to work it into casual conversation.

When he does come to contractualism, he does so in a logical way, built up from those three schools of thought, so that even a reader relatively new to philosophy has a solid understanding. And in the end, Schur does introduce a new idea (newish idea?), which he calls “moral exhaustion.” Similar to “compassion fatigue,” moral exhaustion is when our good intentions wear us out. Compassion fatigue primarily affects teachers and counselors who take on the problems of their students and patients, offering so much compassion that it negatively affects their own mental health. Moral exhaustion, in contrast, can affect anyone who struggles to make a thousand moral decisions a day–just to throw up their hands and do whatever they want instead.

Much of moral philosophy is written in order to not be misunderstood (at least that is the intention), so jokes and generalization are not the norm. Thankfully in Schur’s book they are. This is both laugh-out-loud funny and thought-provoking–and a must-read for those of us often paralyzed by what to do and why.

Mystery Review: Down a Dark River

From the publisher: London, 1878. One April morning, a small boat bearing a young woman’s corpse floats down the murky waters of the Thames. When the victim is identified as Rose Albert, daughter of a prominent judge, the Scotland Yard director gives the case to Michael Corravan, one of the only Senior Inspectors remaining after a corruption scandal the previous autumn left the division in ruins. Reluctantly, Corravan abandons his ongoing case, a search for the missing wife of a shipping magnate, handing it over to his young colleague, Mr. Stiles.

As an orphan and former bare-knuckle boxer, Corravan would make a great hard-boiled detective, but Odden plays it traditional with this one. In fact, he reminds me much more of the detectives of the Golden Age period of mystery novels than the noirs of the same time–that is if Dickens was writing then instead of Agatha Christie. There is clearly a great deal of period-expertise and research behind this novel, but that doesn’t get in the way of a great mystery.

As a mystery writer myself I am always daunted by the task of coming up with something “new.” I seek out a new method or a new motive and usually settle on a new variation. I was pleased to discover something entirely new in Odden’s novel, though I won’t spoil it for you.

Fans of both traditional mysteries and Dickensian-period dramas will find much to enjoy here. As this is the first in the series, I’m excited to see what Corravan will get into next. Check out the series today: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B091Q7PR8C?binding=hardcover&ref=dbs_dp_awt_sb_pc_thcv

Kansas Library Tour

This June, I had the honor of traveling the state of Kansas to offer a mystery writing workshop. I spent a good deal of time back in September and October setting this up, but I think it was well worth it.

The Libraries!

We visited TEN libraries across the state of Kansas! While I failed to take a picture of the tenth (Salina), I think this photo of Margot inside their children’s section accurately summarizes how we all felt by library #10.

We set out in Leviathan (our minivan) and visited some family along the way. My kids hadn’t seen Aunt Lena and Uncle Tom for far too long–and that goes double for Nana. One huge accomplishment was appearing on the front page of my “hometown” newspaper. Newton, Kansas, is where I attended elementary school and also where I first came across the term “hometown.” As a nine-year-old, I always wondered what my baseball card would say for “hometown.” Even at that age, I’d already lived in three states and six towns, so it could’ve said anything. Luckily, I never made it to the Majors. Or the Minors. Or my high school team. Maybe “luckily” isn’t the right word…

Traveling

“Science” was probably the key term for our travels. Between Dodge City and Newton, we visited the Cosmosphere in Hutch. For our Eureka/Chanute leg of the trip, we stayed at a working farm near Severy, Kansas, giving the kids great exposure to ducks, chickens, pigs, sheep, and even cattle. Throughout, we did several “light experiments” involving Margot’s new telescope and my SLR camera. And in Manhattan, we bought a volcano experiment, which we used with cousins upon our return to Garden.

Attendance

Okay, so not all of the workshops were well attended. The lowest number was one attendee. Thankfully, the librarian sat in, otherwise I would’ve been presenting to one person. (Awkward…) Even then, however, I got to meet a young, aspiring author, and he walked away with several new ideas for fiction and, hopefully, a better understanding of the novel as an art form.

Bottom Line

One thing writers and educators have in common is an obsession with effect rate. How effective is this teaching method? How many sales did this ad service produce? Who took my pen? (At least, these are things I say all the time.)

I visited ten libraries across my home state and they all paid my mileage to make the trip. Win-win. Each library bought a copy of my book and put it into circulation for their patrons. Win-win. I sold a total of 26 books in twelve days, which was less than I brought but more than I would’ve sold otherwise. Also, a number of libraries and individuals purchased the book ahead of time. The biggest win of all, however, was that I met numerous independent and aspiring authors and left them with some helpful tools. Who knows what fruits that will bear? I’m excited to find out!

Review: The Wayward Path

Synopsis

Charity Gray was an intelligent, inquisitive teen who disappeared fifteen years eariler. When her body is discovered, it should be a typical cold case. Before the Detroit police can get started, the FBI commandeers the investigation, with a prime suspect in mind: retired mobster Leo Agonasti. When Agonasti slips through their grasp, he reaches out to Sergeant Jefferson Chene. Their unusual friendship draws Chene into the thick of the case. Burdened with two reluctant FBI agents, Chene is working against the clock and the feds to find the real killer. Chene senses they are getting close to the answers. Will he be able to solve the murder and clear the old mobster of this heinous crime before time runs out?

Review

Cutting back and forth between the perspectives of prime suspect Agonasti and lead investigator Chene, The Wayward Path walks the line between a police procedural and a crime novel, giving us lots of characters to root for. As it becomes clear that Agonasti had nothing to do with the death of Charity and Chene learns about her fierce curiosity, only more questions arise? What did the teenager come across? Who is targeting Chene? And why, after a gunfight in the streets that lands Chene in the hospital, do police find a picture of Chene’s girlfriend in the shooter’s pocket?

Fans of straight police procedurals will find a lot to like in the pages of Mark Love’s newest. Also, those with an interest in seeing both sides. With his attention to Agonasti’s backstory, I was reminded of Dennis Lehane’s Joe Coughlin series.

This is a solid read with interesting characters and a mystery with more than meets the eye.

Pre-order today on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Apple Books!

Learning from the Masters: How to Write a Mystery

For the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of being a member of Mystery Writers of America, whose membership includes such heavy-hitters as Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, and Tana French. (When my debut mystery, How Everything Turns Away, came out, it was listed right beside Stephen King’s newest, Billy Summers.)

Last April, MWA put out a book specifically for mystery writers working on their craft. How to Write a Mystery consists of essays by bestselling mystery and thriller writers from its membership. I read it when it first came out, took amble notes as I was plotting out my sequel, and planned to write a review. Then school started, my debut came out, and I got busy marketing it and writing the sequel. Now that school is over and my sequel is with my editor, I thought I’d better review this puppy before I forget all about it!

The collection is edited by Lee Child with help from Laurie R. King. The essays are broken into four sections: The Rules and Genres; Other Mysteries; The Writing; and After the Writing. Rather than give an overview of these, I thought I would just offer some gems I found in each section.

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The Rules and Genres

“The novel is a movie stuntman, about to get pushed off a sixty-story building. The prop guys have a square fire department airbag ready on the sidewalk below. One corner is marked Mystery, one Thriller, one Crime Fiction, and one Suspense. The stuntman is going to land on the bag. (I hope.) But probably not dead-on. Probably somewhere off-center. But biased toward which corner? I don’t know yet. And I really don’t mind. I’m excited to find out.” -Lee Child

“The hard-boiled detective – think Chandler, Hammett, and Ross Macdonald…often has unorthodox methods that suit them well, and is not averse to bending or breaking the law in pursuit of justice…In the cozy, the setting is usually rural or small-town, the violence most often occurs offstage, the sex and profanity are minor to nonexistent, and the investigator is usually an amateur and most often a woman whose interests lie elsewhere – knitting or baking or antiques, say…technothriller novels [feature] international military action and potential conflict of all kinds, suffused with a deep knowledge of hardware, tactics, and the military heart and mind. Tom Clancy is the king here…Other writers have mashed the subgenres up…Carl Hiaasen combines the environmental thriller with comic noir…Andy Weir’s Artemis blends science fiction with the heist novel. Stephen King’s 11/23/63 is a political thriller by way of time travel. Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls does the same for the serial killer novel…Read them all, absorb them, see what works, figure out why it works – and then use everything you’ve read to create your very own style. Surprise yourself. Surprise us all. Make brilliant pretzels.” – Neil Nyren

“In a thriller, the story is about the choices the characters make when facing deadly threats, under increasing pressure, often with time running out. The only real way to find out what characters are made of is to crack their world in half.” – Meg Gardiner

“Twists can involve a discovery, a revelation – say, of a secret – a betrayal, a declaration of love, a mistake, a failure of courage…But no matter how you plant a twist, it should be earned, or the reader will feel burned. Use twists to ramp up the tension, the suspense, the stakes; to reveal and change character.” – Meg Gardiner

“An amateur sleuth is not paid for investigative services, the most daunting challenge for a writer of this subgenre is to justify the involvement of their protagonist in the storyline…Rather than worrying whether readers will like your amateur sleuths, you need to consider whether the characters are compelling and entertaining.” – Naomi Hirahara

“The root of noir is in character – and to fully experience a noir story, you have to see the character go from their norm, whether buttoned-up businessman unhappy with his job or bored housewife, to their rock bottom…while these kinds of characters can exist in a PI novel or procedural, if the series is more evergreen than ‘evolving,’ it’s harder to label the work as noir…The primary challenge in writing noir is the ability to let go – to allow your characters, through their own actions, to dig themselves deeper into the holes they’ve created, and to allow them to fail…In a dangerous world that’s more gray than black or white, noirs reflect our darkness – creating an eerie beauty that can arise only when all hope is gone.” – Alex Segura

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Other Mysteries

“You should write the kind of story that you, yourself, want to read. If you are into crime, skip the feel-good stuff.” – Dag Ohrlund

“Poe believed that the short story was the pinnacle of prose compositions – the one that ‘should best fulfill the demands of high genius’ – in part directly related to the form’s brevity. Short stories, according to Poe, should be capable of being read in a single sitting, with ‘unity of effect’ being both a goal and a challenge.” – Art Taylor

“Writers often (too often?) strive to sneak a plot twist into the final line…But while such reveals can surely offer immediate pleasures, I would argue that character twists are often more effective.” – Art Taylor

“To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, plot is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing. All the pretty prose, marvelous metaphors, and captivating characters in the world will not make up for the lack of a good story.” – Carole Bugge

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The Writing

“Be audacious with your style. Be simple with your sentences, too. Just don’t attempt to do either one constantly.” – Lyndsay Faye

“I outline to what feels like the middle of the book, [then] I jump ahead and actually write the last chapter. By writing the last chapter, I know who did it, why they did it, and how they did it.” – Rae Franklin James

“When all else fails, remember to raise the stakes! Readers don’t read mysteries just for the puzzle. You have to give them emotional engagement.” – Deborah Crombie

“If you are writing a story with a character who is a forensic scientist, you might try to arrange an interview with a real person who works in a crime lab. Similarly, if you’re creating a character who has a background different from your own, you might want to reach out to someone who can tell you if you’re ‘getting it right.’ ” – Frankie Y Bailey

“When is it a good idea to introduce laughs and when should we resist? Can a death scene be funny? A murder? Absolutely. Elmore Leonard wouldn’t write them any other way and Oyinkan Braithwaite has taken up the baton in her biting black comedy My Sister, the Serial Killer. You have to park most, perhaps all, of your empathy to appreciate wit this scabrous – but it’s worth it.” – Catriona McPherson

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After Writing

“Advertising and marketing are for visibility, not for sales. A lot of people get disappointed when they invest in an ad campaign and they don’t see immediate sales results.” – Liliana Hart

“Your mailing list, which you use to send monthly or semiregular newsletters, is one of the foundations of your online presence. Newsletters allow you to reach your biggest fans directly.” – Maddee James

“A veteran writer was talking to someone whose first novel had just come out, and who was having an anxiety attack about the upcoming panel. The debut author admitted he had no idea how to promote his book. ‘I’ll tell you how,’ said the vet. I leaned closer. ‘Don’t promote your book,’ he said. ‘Promote yourself…If they like you, they’ll probably buy your book, and will probably like it…and will probably tell others about it.’ Wait a minute, I thought…if a book’s bad, no amount of liking the writer will change that. And that’s generally true. And yet…” – Louise Penny

Review: Six Memos for the Next Millennium

In 1985, Italian novelist Italo Calvino delivered a series of lectures at Harvard University. His topic? The future of the novel. Six Memos for the Next Millennium explores five topics relevant to the novelist of today—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity—and an unwritten discussion on consistency.

Lightness

For this first essay, Calvino draws inspiration from the story of Perseus and Medusa and the play of heaviness and lightness the story contains. The sight of Medusa induces petrifaction, yet the droplets of blood the drip from her severed head produce the Pegasus, an ultimate symbol of lightness. He then juxtaposes two Roman writers, Lucretius and Ovid, the prior of whom explores the atomic nature of reality, the seemingly solid world “composed of unalterable atoms” (11) while the latter concerns himself with external forms that change at a whim—from woman to lotus tree, from Arachne to spider—because of the mythological common substance inside all things. One author finds lightness through scientific inquiry, the other through the fables of myth. He also juxtaposes two Italian poets, Guido Cavalcanti whose vagueness he prefers over Dante Alighieri’s concreteness, comparing a phrase written by Cavalcanti and then altered by Dante: “e bianca neve scender senza venti” (and white snow falling on a windless day) which becomes in Dante’s Inferno “come di neve in alpe sanza vento” (like snow on mountains on a windless day) (17). The distinction of mountain versus air is minute but important to Calvino. The final image, one Shakespeare returns to again and again, is the moon, that object of light that is ever changing and conceals as much as it reveals. Calvino believes literature shouldn’t accurately represent the weight of the world but should instead serve as a magic carpet, as Kafka’s flying bucket or, to return to the original image, as the Pegasus, taking us up and away into the realm of the imagination.

Quickness

This essay begins with a discussion of an old French legend: Charlemagne falling in love with a German girl and becoming heartbroken after her death. Calvino discusses several versions, but concludes that the most straightforward is the best. It takes us from A to B in the most interesting way, implying what is uninteresting and implying through juxtaposition of scenes additional causation and meaning. This is not to say all writers should just skip to the end. “The story is a horse,” he writes, “a means of transport, with a particular gait—trot or gallop—depending on the route to be traveled” (47). He concludes this talk with another story, this time of Chinese origin. In it, a gifted artist, Zhuang Zhou, is asked by the king to draw a crab. He requests five years for the task, then another five years. He requires space and servants. The king obliges and obliges. At the end of the tenth year, “Zhuang Zhou took his brush and in an instant, with a single flourish, drew a crab, the most perfect crab anyone had ever seen” (65). I sometimes become a slave to the act of writing, to producing pages, when I should be conceptualizing what exactly it should look like.

Exactitude

“Literature—by which I mean literature that responds to these demands—is the Promised Land in which language becomes what it truly ought to be.” (68)

Visibility

More than any of the others, this talk deals with the nature of artistic inspiration, the realm of both the muses and the Holy Spirit, of psychology and ideology, of Apollo and Dionysus. In the way Calvino covers both Christianity and Greek Mythology, Dante and Felix the Cat, in “Visibility” does he most remind me of Nietzsche. This discussion could very easily be read as a response or addendum to The Birth of Tragedy, which juxtaposes two varieties of artistic inspiration—Apollo’s orderly rationality and Dionysus’ passionate irrationality. In the end, he finds both impulses in Honore de Balzac, who mid-career “rejects the literature of the fantastic, which for him has meant art as mystical knowledge of everything, and he undertakes the minute description of the world as it is, still convinced he is expressing the secret of life” (119). The degree to which a novelist leans toward Giordano Bruno’s spiritus phantsticus (fantastic spirit), with its infinite well of imagination, or Balzac’s Comedie humaine (human comedy), with its near infinite reality of details, determines how they will attempt to capture the universe: through possibility or through probability. Either way, the individual author is creating a new novel and offering it to the body of literature, bridging “exteriority and interiority, world and self, experience and imagination.” Calvino finds his ultimate truth not in the novel as isolated construction but The Novel as shared idea, a universal body of novels. “These pages of signs,” he concludes, “as dense as grains of sand, represent the variegated spectacle of the world upon a surface that is always the same and always different, like dunes driven by the desert wind” (121).

Multiplicity

Drawing from two engineers-turned-writers, Carlo Emilio Gadda (Italian) and Robert Musil (German), Calvino demonstrates how two writers with similar backgrounds can develop opposing philosophies and approaches to the novel. Gadda represents a “tension between rational exactitude and frenetic deformation” while Musil’s writing is “fluid, ironic, controlled” (133). Both inhabit the same space, where mathematical rationality meets the roughness of human affairs, but in completely different ways. Here we find perhaps the most literary references to contemporary and near-contemporary authors, from Flaubert and Proust to Borges and Georges Perec. In the tight constraints of Oulipo Calvino finds his answer to the future of literature, quoting Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau, “Le classique qui ecrit sa tragedie en observant un certain nombre de regles qu’il connait est plus libre que le poete qui ecrit ce qui lui passe par la tete et qui est l’esclave d’autres regles qu’il ignore.” (The classical author who is writing his tragedy follows a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes down whatever comes into his head and who is a slave to other rules of which he is unaware.) (150-51). Or as Frost put it, “writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” While there is certainly freedom in exploration and experimentation with forms, abandonment of all constraints is itself a kind of imprisonment.

Consistency

Above the door in my classroom hangs a sign, one foot by three feet, which says simply “Consistency.” I put it there my second year and have been striving toward that ideal ever since. Ironically, the closer I get to it the more I am repelled from it. Every class, every student, every day poses a different set of variables. If I were truly consistent, I would no doubt miss countless opportunities. So it also seems fitting that instead of ending with the last of the six essays, Calvino leaves that talk unwritten. In a sense, consistency as an ideal would contradict all that he laid out before it. If the novels of Balzac from Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) to his Comedie Humaine teach us anything it is that an author is not a monolith and shouldn’t strive to be one. Perhaps Calvino left off the final topic because he knew that the natural variety within each of us is far greater than any consistency imposed from without. Or he just forgot.

Mystery Review: The Madness of Crowds

Taking it’s name from Charles Mackay’s classic study of crowd psychology, Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, Louise Penny’s most recent mystery takes us back to Three Pines and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache as he first protects a controversial statistician and then must investigate a murder following her visit.

Abigail Robinson is a visiting Professor of Statistics ready to give a lecture at a nearby university. However, her talk is cut short by gun fire. Why? One reason is certainly the content of Robinson’s lecture: forced euthanasia for the infirm and the elderly. One thing a worldwide pandemic proved, at least in Robinson’s eyes, was that the death of the sick and aged saved the country of Canada a lot of money. What if the nation took the tragedy as a model of public health moving forward? What if unavoidable death became mandatory? The slogan that gave so many hope during the pandemic, ça va bien aller, all shall be well, soon becomes a sinister mantra. If we kill all who aren’t well, then all who remain shall be well.

Inspector Gamache, his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and their team soon uncover an intricate web of deceit, torture, and murder, and it seems that half of Three Pines is involved or at least knows a small piece of the puzzle.

While both engaging and timely (the spurious correlations made by Robinson are some of the very same we’ve heard about the pandemic in general), the plot does tend toward the overly complex at times. I have often wondered if contemporary mysteries have a convolution problem, as if the only way contemporary mystery writers can create an unsolvable crime is to add rope after rope, coil after coil, until they have a proverbial Gordian knot. I won’t give away the resolution of The Madness of Crowds, but suffice it to say, it requires a lot of people to be guilty of a lot of tangentially related things. Rather than an elegant reveal and a motive we should’ve seen from the beginning, we end with Gamache untying a number of threads I wasn’t sure should’ve been tied together in the first place. I had the right suspect fairly early on, but the motive took a lot of uncovering to understand.

That being said, I enjoy Gamache and the folks of Three Pines, and Penny did provide a good meditation on our times. One thing the pandemic has proved, to me at least, is that the pro-life movement continues to struggle toward consistency. With this mystery, Penny offers an interesting take on the concept.

Buy it on Amazon

On Publishing Stories

I received my first print publication of a short story last month—six months after my debut novel came out. Read “The Opening of a New Spy Novel by an Author You Love” online at Calliope on the Web. Fans of post-modernism, especially the work of Italo Calvino, will find much to enjoy.

I was always told to focus on the short form before venturing into writing a novel. However, the short story has frequently eluded me. While novels and feature films feel intuitive, with their large and climactic narrative arcs, their dynamic and wide-open characters, short stories have felt less straight-forward. Where should one start a story? Where should one end it?

I recently read an Oulipo piece, “How to Tell a Story,” by Jacques Bens. In it, a writer character named Matthew fails to teach a class of college students the art of story telling. Afterward, he wanders around Paris contemplating what he should’ve said and as he does so, he concocts an “example” story, featuring a young and beautiful barrel organist. At the end of his wandering, the organist, now flesh and blood, visits him in his office, telling him, the author, that the hero of his story now wants to marry her, which seems a bit fast. Then she adds, “I must be missing an element somewhere.” Matthew responds, “Yes, something is missing, that much is clear. But where? And what?”

I often feel just as Matthew does after finishing writing my own stories, and even more often after reading those of the greats. While some of my favorites wrote primarily short stories—Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, and Donald Barthelme among them—I invariably turn to a guide of some sort, be it critics or the authors themselves. Whereas with novels I almost never do. I read it. I comprehend it. I move on. Even when I do turn to a guide for the purposes of teaching a novel, the guide does not suddenly reveal the meaning I missed. Usually, it merely helps me form the right question or locate the proper page number. What is left out of the story is almost always included in the novel. Why is this? I do not know.

Some things I’ve found helpful over the years are the writing exercises in 3AM Epiphany, George Saunders’ wonderful analysis of Russian stories, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, and a recent series of instructional videos from Reedsy, entitled “Short Fiction Deep Dive.” I hope these help you in your own journey and that they save you some of the time I spent puzzling and shaking my head.

Christmas 2021

Friends,

If COVID in 2020 was a roaring lion that broke down our door, maimed us, and left us collecting disability, COVID in 2021 has been a lamb braying incessantly. At least for us.

Last year, we continued to wear masks and practice social distancing in our respective schools, but with the advent of vaccines and boosters, life has largely returned to normal in our little corner of the world. In fact, this year marks our tenth year of marriage—and it’s been the fullest one yet.

Margot has gone from babbling to speaking, though often I suspect she’s less interested in communicating and more in shocking us. I’ve convinced the children that if you break the law, you go to jail and in jail one must eat bugs. The other day, after Charlie urged me to “go faster daddy!” to beat an on-coming train, I explained about the law again. “Should I break the law?” I asked. Charlie, whose current nemesis is any word that starts with the letter “L,” responded, “No, don’t break the wall.” Then, with perfect timing, Margot muttered, “I break wall. I eat bugs.” Then she stared down the railroad tracks as far as she could see and rolled a pack of Lucky Strikes into her shirt sleeve.

Thankfully, she’s also developing her emotional intelligence, which should balance out her criminalistic tendencies. Although, she is still working out the nuances. When she does something wrong and I get mad, she frequently asks, “Daddy, you mean?” No, I say. Then she brightens up. “Daddy, you happy?” Then I tell her no, not happy either, and she cocks her head to the side. “You mean?” She’s also learned to open doors, so now nothing is safe. We’ll hear her roaming the house like a velociraptor, her long curved talon clicking eerily against the hardwood floors, and then she’ll appear with my wallet, a pair of scissors, or the circular pin from the fire extinguisher. At least, I hope it was from the fire extinguisher… She’s become so adept at manipulating doors that she recently locked our daycare provider, Ms. Debbie, out of the house.

Charlie started preschool this year—and immediately started speech. After his first session, he told us excitedly that our neighbor was “Luh, Luh, Lucky.” R’s were also giving him some troubles so that his name sort of came out “Chawie Miwwa.” The dropped R’s didn’t cause too many miscommunications, other than people thinking he was from Boston. However, they did garner some unwanted attention at the grocery store when Charlie started belting out a song about his favorite Disney character, Forky. Grandmothers and priests turned with unbelieving horror; middle school boys with unrestrained glee; and our cart turned right back out of the grocery store. He also started the year with both limited letter recognition and unlimited confidence. When asked to spell his name, he replied boldly, “C-H-A-L-T-W!” What about his sister Bonnie’s name? “B-T-2-خ.” I didn’t even realize he knew Arabic! Numbers, on the other hand, seem to be his forte. When Susan introduced him to the coding game her classes had been working on for weeks, he immediately caught up with them, then asked, “Can I do more?” The next day I found him fiddling with our home computer, the screen a mass of numbers like a scene from The Matrix. Then yesterday, he came home from preschool with a pamphlet tucked in his backpack. It looked like recruiting material to me. Then I saw the NSA seal. “What’s this?” I asked. He shrugged. When I pointed to the letters, he rattled them off happily, “T-C-O. That spells dinosaur.” Then he chased Margot around the kitchen table, him a T-Rex, her a compsognathus.

Bonnie started kindergarten and has become our little reader. It’s exciting, miraculous, and terrifying. Finally, she can partake in the joy of reading! What magic! But also, how is she old enough to be reading?? How old must that make me? The first book she read was about a puppy, a little girl, and a fair amount of sitting—they sit, they sat, they sat over here, they sat over there—but it was still a book! Now she’s reading all sorts of things, deciphering words on her own, undaunted by the absurdities of English spelling, whose rules swing wildly and illogically from French to Anglo-Saxon to drunk to the work of a hoarder—who put all these extra letters in “daughter”? What were they, drunk?

She’s also started writing little stories. I don’t mean to sound patronizing. They are physically small. Mostly, they’re on the backs of the 3×5 index cards I use to plot out my own writing. When I read over her stories, I make sure to highlight what she’s doing well before launching into my critique. “This dragon bully is a great source of external tension,” I’ll say. “Uh-huh,” she’ll reply. “But your pegasus protagonist is missing subtextual motivation.” Then she’ll cock her head and say, “Daddy, I asked how to spell kangaroo.”

This school year, Susan traded in the trauma and bewilderment of first year teaching for the far less eventful exhaustion and frustration of second year teaching. Every day I’m reminded how much funnier, more interesting, and more important elementary school is than high school as Susan tells me all the amazing things she’s doing with her kiddos. Still, I wouldn’t trade her. I like teaching picture-less books too much.

In January Susan set out to read one hundred books, and she’s very nearly reached her goal. It’s been inspiring to see how many books she can devour. One downside is she keeps reading amazing books that I must also read as soon as she’s done. While she suffers from abibliophobia, or the fear of running out of reading materials, I have the opposing problem: stackcrashaphobia, or the fear of being crushed to death by my to-be-read pile.

Also this year, I published my debut novel, achieving a goal I set for myself some twenty years ago. How Everything Turns Away follows an FBI agent who must untangle an attack at a private school. If you Google my name, about 1.2 million people who are not me pop up. So, I went with a nom de plume: Steven J. Kolbe. The week the book came out, the most frequent comment I received from friends was that they couldn’t find my book. They, of course, were searching for How (something or other) by Steven Miller. I repeatedly explained that I had used a pseudonym. “Why?” they asked. “So people could find it more easily.” You live and you learn.

I’m currently working on the sequel and just finished the first draft thanks to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I also convinced one of my classes to participate and am proud to say five of them reached their writing goals—one wrote 15,000 words! I printed off fancy certificates on cardstock and only misspelled one of their titles…It was a good lesson in proofreading.

This year we purchased a minivan. It had to happen eventually. Because it is large and gray, we named it Leviathan, the mythological sea monster from the Hebrew Bible. Susan assumed the kids would call him “Levi” for short, but they all faithful say “Leviathan” or “Viafen” or “Lvthvllen.” We planned to take a trip to visit different state capitals this summer. I had a route all plotted out, then a funeral came up in Alliance, Nebraska, so we re-routed. Our stops included Denver, Cheyenne, Pierre, and Lincoln. At each city, we visited the capitol building where the kids excitedly ran up the long stone steps and then asked where we were going for lunch. By the time we reached our third capitol building, Margot was spotting them before we even did. She’d spy the dome rising above the more modern buildings and announce, “Capitol Boop-boop!” Ironically, we did not make it to Topeka. Maybe next summer.

We also stopped at Wall Drug Store, the Badlands and, of course, “Mt. Mushmore.” Walking up to that landmark on the morning of Fourth of July felt like making a religious pilgrimage. Clad in our red, white, and blue, we found the Kansas plaque and flag and explained the importance our state plays in contributing to the greater—“What? No, we aren’t in Kansas right now…We live in Kansas…No, our house isn’t Kansas…Yes, I realize that’s confusing. We’re in Nebraska…Sorry, your mother is right, we’re in South Dakota.” Well, we tried to explain it. Then we ate breakfast on the observation deck, those four foundational presidents watching over us, and life couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d written it for myself.

We hope your year has been full of love, new experiences, and hope. May God bless you in the new year!

Merry Christmas, The Miwwas

Us with tree

Jólabókaflóð

For the past few years, my wife and I have participated in the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood. I don’t know where I first came across this tradition, but the internet articles I read universally agreed that it involves gifting books to your loved ones on Christmas Eve so they can spend the evening reading. What could be better?

However, a question nagged at me each year as we picked out books for Jólabókaflóð, the question of authenticity. Is this a real tradition in Iceland? Or is this obscure, out-of-practice, or even mythological, like the idea that the Inuits have 400 words for snow? Apparently, the practice began during WWII when most materials were rationed. Most materials but not paper.

My internet research turned up mostly American’s offering boiler-plate descriptions, and while they all confirmed what I had read, I still didn’t know if this practice really went back to WWII rationing, if it had continued to the present, or if it was a large or a niche part of Icelandic society.

Therefore, I decided to start contacting actual Icelanders. With the use of my email address, Google search, and Google translate, I set out to find the true nature of Jólabókaflóð.

My first stop was the library in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and largest city. They referred me to Félag Íslenskra Bókaútgefenda, or the Icelandic Publishers Association. Within no time, I found myself trading emails with Heiðar Ingi Svansson, President of the association.

According to Svansson, Jólabókaflóð isn’t just a part of Icelandic culture, it’s integral to the country’s publishing industry. November and December alone account for 42% of the country’s book sales each year. When you add October, that percentage jumps to 56%! Its impact doesn’t stop with sales.

“This tradition and its season are the highlight and a climax for the whole book cultural sector in Iceland,” Svansson said. “That means that many new titles are published during this time and the effect of that is a lot of book-related events…authors signings and readings in coffeehouses and bars, publishing launch parties, etc.”

Were its origins as dramatic as the American articles and social media posts I’d read?

“This tradition began during World War II once Iceland had gained its independence from Denmark in 1944,” he confirmed. “Because of bad economy and depression, there were…very strict restrictions on many things you could import. And that limited very much the selection of commodity goods that you could choose as Christmas gifts. But fortunately, paper was one of the few commodities not rationed during the war. So paper was imported to produce books that were written and then printed in Iceland. By doing that, Icelanders shared their love of books even more as other types of gifts were in very short supply.”

Being an American, I am always cautious when it comes to cultural appropriation. This was another stumbling block between me and the full adoption of the practice. What would the Icelanders think of me bestowing books upon my loved ones, me with not a drop of Nordic blood?? I decided to ask one.

Svansson, for one, didn’t even realize Americans were beginning to practice Jólabókaflóð.

“But personally, I’m very happy to hear and I find it both very surprising and interesting…maybe we should put some more emphasis on spreading the good word more on an international level.”

Iceland holds two important events each year around this time.

“The first one is the Icelandic Literary Awards [which our association founded]. Its patron is the President of Iceland,” Svansson explained. “The prize was formed in 1989 and has ever since played a very important role in our Book and literary culture…books are nominated each year in three groups with a nomination ceremony 1st of December and then the winners are introduced in late January the year after.”

The second event is a book fair in late November.

“Publishers and authors introduce and sell new titles. It is accompanied by a diverse literature program for kids and adults. Unfortunately, we had to cancel this event last year and this year as well. Instead, there were some book-related online events.”

After a week of research and going straight to the source, I’m happy to report that Jólabókaflóð is alive and well, and we Americans are officially invited!

Need some ideas on what to give this year? These mysteries are a perfect fit!