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

Alumni Spotlight: Steven Miller

K-State English

Steven Miller (MA ’15)


“Late Have I Taught You”

Whenever I told people I wanted to study English, they would invariably reply, “So you want to be a teacher.” I would laugh—ha!—and tell them I’d never be a teacher. I wanted to be a great novelist.

Apparently, they knew more than I did.

After a decade of trying out various careers—reporting, ad sales, insurance, editing, and even a stint doing various part-time jobs—I found myself applying at a high school in tiny Holcomb, Kansas.

Other than its proximity to Garden City, where my wife and I settled after grad school, I think what drew me most to Holcomb is its literary history. The sight of the Clutter murders, Holcomb became famous after Truman Capote and Harper Lee visited and Capote forged a new genre, the nonfiction novel, with that tragedy at its heart. As an aspiring mystery writer, I felt…

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Recent Events

I decided to start promoting my debut mystery novel, How Everything Turns Away, at the local library and coffee shop. Here are some highlights!

A full house – for a fiction class in Southwest Kansas, that is
What’s the difference between a crime novel and a cozy? I’m glad you asked!
They even let me sell a book or two
A cozy reading at Patrick Dugan’s in downtown Garden City

Overall, it has been a successful launch for the book. In-person sales are steadily trickling in, a few each day, and my rankings at the online book sellers are moving up and down mysteriously, so that’s exciting. If you know of a coffee shop, book store, or library that would like to have me put on a reading or workshop, let me know!

Story Analysis: A Good Man Is Hard to Find

In this classic 1953 story by Flannery O’Connor, a grandmother subtly navigates her family’s travel plans…with disastrous results.

Read the story here first.

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is an absolute favorite of mine to teach. Unlike, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” or “Revelation,” it resists a straight-forward moralistic reading. While O’Connor’s Catholicism is overt in those stories—and many others like it—here it comes to the reader at a slant, and a disturbing slant at that. Though the story resists an easy moral, it offers writing students a great look at escalation, intention, and irony.

“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida,” the story begins and everything that unfolds from that point onward is a direct result of her desires and meddling. In order to avoid the terrible fate of Floridian travel, she warns her son Bailey about a dangerous outlaw nicknamed The Misfit who has broken free from prison and is supposedly headed to Florida. “You read here what it says he did to these people,” she tells Bailey. “Just you read it.” From this point forward, she uses fear, deception, and filial and Christian obligation to steer her family toward absolute tragedy.

One thing I noticed the last time I read this story was the cat. Because her son doesn’t want to bring the family cat, the grandmother must hide it beneath her valise in a basket. Once the grandmother has guilt-tripped, tricked, or otherwise manipulated the characters onto that fateful dirt road, hilly with “sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments,” the grandmother realizes the house they’re looking for with it’s mythical silver-filled “secret panel” is located elsewhere.

“The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting the valise.” What comes next is a beauty of escalation, cause-and-effect, and payoff. Pitty Sing, the cat, leaps onto Bailey’s shoulder who is driving the car. He sends the car turning over and its occupants flying.

There on the side of the road, the family waits for help, but are met instead by The Misfit himself. At this point, all of the grandmother’s conniving and cajoling fail. In the end, she gives up trying to control others and has a transcendent moment, seeing the Misfit not as a tool for her use (to strike fear, to persuade, to comment on the state of the world) but as a human being with a soul: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”

The theological implications of this moment and the stark critique of the grandmother’s brand of Christian judgment are profound, but what I am most drawn to as a teacher and writer is the ironic cause-and-effect that drives the narrative forward. In nearly every action, the grandmother inadvertently causes their meeting with The Misfit to come about. It is all her fault. O’Connor makes no concessions about this. The grandmother begins with a simple argument—If you don’t listen to me, we will all be murdered by this monster—and develops and complicates it throughout.

A simple set of rules for a devilishly ironic story could be derived at this point:

  1. The protagonist is her own antagonist.
  2. Her actions necessarily push the story forward to the climax.
  3. Finally, the end is the exact opposite of what she wants or said she wants.

Concerning #3: What does the grandmother want in this story? She wants to tag along and she wants to call the shots. In the end, she does just that. The irony arises, not because she meets the Misfit or because she feared the Misfit. Rather, she has used him as a boogeyman to achieve her far less profound goals. If her true goal was to be a part of the family’s trip and determine its destination, then voila, she has succeeded. We laugh or recoil or toss the story across the room because through all of her fear mongering she has produced the very monster herself.

In the end “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a critique of the entire family—the fear monger most, but also those people willing to be lead by the fear of bad ends, as improbable as they may be.

Saunders Takes on the Russians

American short story master George Saunders takes on four Russian masters, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol in his new book. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is part story collection, part master class, and part meditation on the writing life.

I’ve always struggled with the short story form, which is ironic, at least to me. I’ve read hundreds of novels with relative ease, written several of my own—the most recent one of which is in the process of being published—and I’ve taught a dozen or so to my high school and college students over the last few years. One would think the novel, with its length and grandeur would be less approachable than the humble short story, yet I have found these narratives in miniature nearly incomprehensible at times. The more straight-forward the story, the less I’m able to grasp it.

So, the publication of George Saunders’ new book sent my writer’s antennae straight up. I purchased it immediately and devoured it.

The book tackles four of the greats, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, one story each from Gogol and Turgenev, two from Tolstoy, and three from Chekhov. I think we can see the clear winner in Saunders’ mind. After reading the stories, I’d have to agree. While Gogol appeals to my absurdist bent—Donald Barthelme might be the first short story writer I ever really connected with or understood—and Tolstoy has a command of epic narration, Chekhov writes with a subtle complexity I find most enviable.

Saunders approaches Chekhov first with “In the Cart.” Rather than merely discuss it or present the story and then analyze it, he opts for an imitation of a genuine class. I often stop my students every few paragraphs to check for understanding. Here, Saunders stops every page. We receive a page of Chekhov and then several pages of analysis, breaking down what the master is doing. “In the Cart” is eleven pages long but, with the interruptions, it reaches 46 pages! If your goal is to read these seven stories as quickly as possible, this is not the book for you. If, however, you’ve read Anna Karenina with no problem but stumbled through “Gooseberries,” you must read this book. What the analysis and brief afterthought (three more pages) offers is a key to unlocking Chekhov’s nuance and purpose, which in my mind is well worth the time.

“What makes Saunders such an authority on these texts?” you might ask. While he’s not Russian or a reknown literary scholar, he is a master of the short story form and has been teaching a class on Russian literature in translation for twenty years. Furthermore, he’s consulted numerous Russian scholars and translators over the years. Also, and this is the most important aspect, he genuine gained insight as a writer from these very stories. We have all read literary scholarship about the symbolism of color scheme or bilingual word play or cultural/historical/religious significance in a body of work. These may expand our body of knowledge and ignite interest in other literature or literary scholarship, but I don’t know how helpful they are to the writer in their pursuit of developing the craft. Here Saunders does not break the stories down as Russians or because they’re Russian or the in the context of that culture or language, but merely because they represent a sampling of great stories.

For example, in his thoughts on Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” he mentions the author’s involvement in a Christian-anarchist religious movement and then drops it almost entirely, turning his focus instead to Tolstoy’s use of factual narration, as opposed to authorial opinion, to create an believable reality. He then dissects the plot point by point to explain how the author achieves what he calls “cinematic propulsion.” Reading the story, we are thrust forward, but only afterward through Saunders’ expert analysis do we see how each action and reaction propelled the story to its unforgettable conclusion.

This book, for me, has been a Godsend. Before I was halfway through, I began gathering all my Russian short story collections and searching the local libraries for more. Susan and I took a trip to Kansas City to visit her sister and I made it my mission to find a collection by Gogol, the only author I didn’t own and couldn’t locate (his short stories, that is). I read that almost as rapidly as I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, and thanks to Saunders, I actually understood it.

Classic Corner: Murder on the Orient Express

Perhaps the most popular mystery novel of all time, this classic novel pits a nearly superhuman detective against a nearly unsolvable mystery—all in the claustrophobic confines of a snowed-in train. What makes this novel so popular and adaptable? Let’s take a look.

Neither of the film adaptations I’ve seen do this fantastic novel justice. As wonderful as Kenneth Branagh is, his portrayal of famed detective Hercule Poirot came off more cartoonish than superhuman. (That being said, I will be first in line for Death on the Nile, which is set to release later this year.) For me Poirot will always be Sherlock Holmes plus age and experience and a soul and mustaches and a Belgian accent. He isn’t a joke—although, I do have a number of Poirot novels to read.

If you haven’t read any Christie, this is a great introduction. And Then There Were None is arguably her best novel, but it doesn’t star Poirot. The first novel to feature the Belgian detective is A Mysterious Affair at Styles, but I argue this can be read after MOTOE. There are at least three reasons for this:

  1. By the time Christie wrote this one, Hercule Poirot was established as a character and his keen senses are a wonder (at one point he reveals a character’s true identity by deciphering that an “H” we readers have been holding in our minds as a major clue is actually a Cyrillic “N.”)
  2. The evidence and interviews are handled systematically in a highly teachable method (Poirot travels from train car to train car, establishing an easy to visualize chronology).
  3. The climax and wrap-up are highly logical and highly surprising, and Poirot’s role is incredibly human rather than legalistic.

Furthermore, the characters, not just Poirot, are intensely fascinating in ways that characters from mysteries of that time period often weren’t. Frequently, a character existed for the sake of their clue or a telling anecdote or their role in the murder. Here, every person has a soul. Perhaps this is in part due to the historical context in which the book takes place. The kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby serves as a necessary backdrop for the novel.

Readers are still drawn to Agatha Christie today because of the brilliance of her detectives, her ability to render their thought processes intelligibly to her audience, and the complexity of even seemingly minor characters. For the aspiring mystery novelist, each of her novels serves as a master class in of itself, but especially this one.

Some take-aways after reading MOTOE:

  1. Don’t forget to let your reader in on the detective’s thought process. Most of us won’t get there with just a list of clues.
  2. Don’t forget to make your detective (whether they’re actual law enforcement or a curious/courageous individual) human.
  3. It’s okay to make the make the crime nearly impossible to solve so long as when the detective reveals the answer, your reader feels that same joy one feels upon hearing the solution to a complicated but perfectly obvious riddle.

Haven’t read it? You must! Get a copy here.

Award Winner: The Stranger Diaries

Last year’s Edgar Award winner for best novel, Elly Griffin’s The Stranger Diaries looks at what happens when love turns deadly.

Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Diaries-Elly-Griffiths/dp/1328577856

This was a particular favorite of mine from this year. For one, Clare Cassidy is an high school English teacher obsessed with a mystery writer, and it’s always nice to see oneself in print. While I am not a woman, and teach in America, not the UK, there was still plenty for me to relate to.

After a colleague is murdered, Clare’s life becomes entangled with the investigation headed by Harbinder Kaur, a detective sergeant who must hide her sexuality from her Sikh, immigrant family. While the novel is told primarily from Clare’s POV—her family and dating life, relationship to the victim, work on R. M. Holland’s short story “The Stranger,” and her diary all play key roles in the mystery—DS Kaur really stole the show for me. She is funny, insightful, and interesting whereas Clare is fairly straight-forward and, at times, stereotypical. It’s no surprise to me that Kaur has garnered her own series. (I just added the second book on Goodreads.)

In some mystery novels, the twists and turns feel predictable, the killer obvious. In others, the details are so well buried that the conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, and the detective seems like only a genius because the author made it so. The Stranger Diaries finds a happy middle ground. I was surprised by the ending, but not in a way that felt altogether satisfying. The killer’s motives felt underdeveloped and I didn’t hit my forehead and announce to my wife, “Of course! I should’ve seen it!” However, it did make sense, and the rest of the novel worked.

The school dynamics, the literary allusions, and the intriguing DS Kaur make The Stranger Diaries an incredibly readable novel that keeps you curious and guessing up to the last page.