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The Ugly American by… maybe it’s a MUST READ book!

The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick is one of the best books that I’ve read in a while. I’m not going to do a synopsis of the book because you can get that anywhere, but The Ugly American meets a lot of my criteria.

The book is short, at just over 200 pages.

My copy of The Ugly American was cheap. I bought this old paperback for $3.00 at a used book store. I know the price of a book doesn’t really affect its quality, but not paying much makes me feel pretty good about it. Plus, the book was in great condition for its age, and I didn’t mess it up when I read it.

Even though The Ugly American was written in 1958, it predicts a lot of what would happen with United States involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. Most analysis about the Vietnam War was written after it happened, but here is a 1958 novel that lays out exactly what not to do, and then the United States did a lot of what the authors said not to do.

The title The Ugly American has more than one meaning, which is always good for a book title. For example, a couple key chapters are about an American who was described as literally ugly. He had an ugly wife too. You should never call a guy’s wife ugly, though. You can think it, but you shouldn’t say it, and you definitely shouldn’t put that in a book.

Yeah, I know the ugly American’s ugly wife was a fictional character, but still… I don’t think the authors should have hurt her feelings like that.

I don’t make BOOKS YOU MUST READ lists, but if I did, The Ugly American would probably be on it. I don’t even plan on traveling to foreign countries, and I still think it’s a cool book. I heard the movie sucks, though. I’m not going to watch the movie just to verify that it sucks. I’m just going to assume that it sucks.

Even if the movie sucks (and it probably does), I still think The Ugly American might qualify as a MUST READ BOOK, if such a category exists. I don’t think a bad movie based on a good book should ruin the good book’s reputation.

I know I have to be careful when recommending books. Some people have a natural inclination to dislike a book when it’s recommended. That initial response is even worse for a MUST READ book. The worst, however, is when a book is assigned reading. I was an English teacher (in a somewhat previous life), and whenever I had to assign a book to students, most of them would automatically hate the book before they even knew the title. To be fair, some of those books deserved to be hated, but some good books didn’t stand a chance.

I’m the same way. I still dislike The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. They’re probably good books, but they were assigned reading when I was in high school. I can overlook a bad movie based on a good book, but assigned reading is tough. A book has to be almost flawless to withstand the stigma of being assigned.

I like The Ugly American so much that I would never have assigned it to my students. I might put it on my nonexistent MUST READ BOOKS list, but damn, the authors called the ugly guy’s wife ugly. That still seems pretty harsh.

Return of the Lonely, Awkward Book Signing

(image via wikimedia)

The first thing I saw when I walked into the book store was a guy trying to sell his novel. He had a table set up just inside the entrance of the book store, and he greeted me with a smile and a cheerful voice. He asked me something like if I would want to buy his book or talk about his book or if I would look at his book. I don’t know how he phrased it, but I knew I didn’t want to look at his book.

It had been a while since I’d seen a lonely author book signing. I used to see them frequently a few years ago. Back then, I treated lonely book signings like mall kiosks salespeople; I just didn’t make eye contact. Then the pandemic hit, and book stores closed down for a while. Then the book stores slowly reopened but did extreme social distancing. Now the lonely, awkward book signings have returned.

I felt bad for the author. His book was a hardback with a decent cover. Whether or not he used his own money, I don’t know, but somebody had invested in that book. Things didn’t look good for him, though. It was mid-afternoon, and the stack of books looked pretty tall, and customers were steering clear.

As I analyzed the author from a distance, I noticed that his book had a niche topic. I won’t get into it, but the book probably appeals only to a small percentage of a certain kind of nerd. Plus, the author seemed uncomfortable. He tried to be charming with customers when they wandered too close to his orbit, but it seemed forced.

I was torn. Maybe I should have talked to the guy. Then again, I try to avoid as many awkward situations as I can. Plus, I didn’t want to give the author false hope. He might still do okay with his book. He just won’t be successful at that kind of book store.

The thing is, I might have to do my own book signing in about a year. I don’t want to, and I might not do one, but I might.

After all, I’m a former English teacher. Of course I’m writing a book. Every English teacher wants to write a book. I want to have at least one real book with my name on it. I’ve written a few ebooks, but I don’t count those. I think of them as practice. My ebooks are okay, but they’re flawed.

If I do a book signing, I think I’ll do a silent book signing. Customers wouldn’t have to talk to me. I would be glad to talk to them, but I wouldn’t initiate the conversations. That’s how I am most of the time. I rarely start conversations, but I’ll gladly talk to you if you initiate.

Instead of ambushing customers as they walk in, I’d sit quietly at the table with signs about my book posted throughout the store. My book has a good title. My book has a good premise. It should have general appeal with a niche element that makes it unique.

Or I could get an extrovert to do my talking for me. I have a couple charming friends. If I can’t get one of them to stand by me and talk up my book, I can pay somebody charming to stand next to me and pitch my book. This is my one book. If I do a book signing, I’ll go all-out.

I like these possible book signing ideas. I might not sell many books either way, but at least I won’t be responsible for a lonely, awkward book signing.

Literary Glance: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr took seven years to write Cloud Cuckoo Land. Maybe he didn’t really take seven years. Maybe he goofed off for six years and then wrote really hard for one year. That’s the thing about writing; even when you’re goofing off, you’re still thinking of ideas for your stories and your mind is still swirling through the writing process.

I appreciate an author who takes years to write a single book. I also appreciate authors who don’t write the same book over and over again. I’ve read only a few pages, and so far, Cloud Cuckoo Land is nothing like Doerr’s previous novel All the Light You Cannot See.

It had to be tough for author Anthony Doerr to write a new book after his novel All the Light You Cannot See was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He probably knew anything he wrote would be compared to his Pulitzer Prize winning novel. He might have been tempted to write a similar novel or, even worse, a sequel. But no, Anthony Doerr went for something different. He wrote Cloud Cuckoo Land, whatever that is.

I initially thought that Cloud Cuckoo Land was a stupid name for a novel, but now that I understand the context, I’m not so sure. Context matters. Since the book explains the context, I won’t get into it. The context matters only if you decide to read the book.

Cloud Cuckoo Land doesn’t seem to be a straightforward story, so this book might not be for me. There’s some timeline juggling. Some readers love complicated timeline juggling. Decades ago, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut had some timeline jumping, and most readers loved it, but it gave me a slight headache. If I remember correctly, I liked a lot of the passages, but I had to go back and forth to keep up with what was going on. Sometimes I thought it was weird just for the sake of being weird, and I got tired of “And so it goes.”

I’m not so sure that’s the case with Cloud Cuckoo Land. I can’t tell until I read the whole thing, but I don’t want to read the whole thing. I like straightforward stories. It’s one of my flaws as a reader.

My brain also sees time as linear, so when stories are interweaved so that when the future affects the past which affects the present which affects the past and then affects the future, I think, “You’re full of crap,” and I put the book down. I admit, the writer manipulating time in stories might not be full of crap, but it makes me feel better to make the accusation.

I’m not saying that time isn’t linear. I just don’t see it. I admit that my brain is kind of limited. I’m pretty good at the stuff I’m good at, but I suck at the stuff I’m not good at. For example, I understand the rules of chess, but I can’t see 15 moves ahead, so I suck as a chess player. I also couldn’t be an engineer with my brain. Highways would collapse, and buildings would fall down. I could be a scientist, though. Nowadays, science is just fundraising off of unproven theories and data manipulation. I could do that.

That’s just the way my brain works. When it comes to reading, my brain likes the straightforward story or the straightforward information. My brain can handle a lot of information as long as it’s straightforward, and I can keep track of lots of characters as long as they don’t have long Russian names.

My brain isn’t into Cloud Cuckoo Land, and I’ll blame it on my brain. Since author Anthony Doerr has proven that he can write a non-pretentious Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I’ll assume that Cloud Cuckoo Land is pretty good, but my brain just isn’t built to read it.

Maybe I’ll keep reading Cloud Cuckoo Land. I just hope it doesn’t take me seven years to finish it.

“Yes” Is A Complete Sentence!

(image via wikimedia)

“‘Yes’ is a complete sentence!” some guy said harshly at the gas station. He was talking (probably on his phone) on the opposite side of the pump, and I couldn’t get a good look at the guy without making it obvious that I was eavesdropping while preparing to fill up my gas tank. I kept my blank face and made sure not to look in the guy’s direction. He sounded angry, but he wasn’t angry at me, and I meant to keep it that way.

I’m a pretty good eavesdropper. Eavesdropping was an important skill when I was a teacher. I usually gave students a significant chunk of time each class period to work with a partner or a group of friends on an assignment. The group time gave students a chance to blow off steam while (theoretically) doing something productive, and it gave me a chance to walk around the classroom and have informal interactions with students. A lot of times I’d just stand back and listen (and pretend to grade papers).

I learned more about what was going on around school and with students from my eavesdropping than I did from all the essays that they wrote for my classes. I’m pretty good at hanging around and being unnoticed, even when I’m supposed to be in a leadership position like teaching. I could teach a course on eavesdropping and its uses in the classroom. Or maybe I could write a book about it.

“‘No’ is a complete sentence!” the guy at the gas pump continued.

The guy sounded confident, but the former English teacher in me wasn’t so sure. By itself, the word ‘yes’ can be an interjection, a noun, an adverb, and even a verb, though that’s extremely rare. A part of speech by itself can’t be a complete sentence… unless… unless the ‘yes’ was meant as an implied complete sentence. Maybe you could make the case that ‘yes’ is an implied complete sentence if it’s following a question.

For example, if a wife asks, “Are you listening?” the husband’s automatic response is usually “Yes,” even though there was a 50% chance that the husband wasn’t listening. In that situation the word ‘yes’ by itself implies the sentence “I was listening.” That was an interesting idea, I thought, if that were indeed what that guy meant when he’d said that the word ‘yes,’ was a complete sentence. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it’s at least interesting.

“I don’t need to say ‘ma’am,” The guy continued. “I don’t need to say ‘sir’!”

This changes things, I thought. Did this guy think that the difference between a complete sentence and an incomplete thought was the word ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’? You have to have a subject and a verb to have a complete sentence, and adding ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’ adds neither. The guy sounded pissed, so I wasn’t about to insert myself into the conversation to discuss grammar. Nobody wants to talk about grammar.

I might be a former English teacher and someday I might write an educational book about eavesdropping in the classroom, but I’m definitely not going to write a book about grammar.

Or maybe I will.

“It’s a southern thing, and I’m not from here,” the guy continued ranting.

It’s kind of a southern thing, I thought, but not exclusively southern. Before I moved to this southern city, I had lived in a small midwestern city for most of my life. The ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ thing was big up there too. People were very polite. I mean, they were polite until they weren’t, and then things could get ugly very quickly, and certain people could go from genial to genocidal in a blink.

“I’m not gonna say ‘sir,’ and I’m not gonna say ‘ma’am.'” I don’t do that.”

So he’s talking to somebody who thinks adding the word ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ is a big deal. When I was a kid, my parents made a big deal about treating adults with respect, but I’m pretty indiscriminate with my use of ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ now. It’s based more on my mood than somebody else’s status. I don’t expect to be called ‘sir’ either If an adult told me to my face (or on the phone) that I had to call him/her ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am,’ I might flip out too, though I’m usually not confrontational in public.

I resisted the urge to look when I heard the guy get into his car. I’d made it this far without looking, I wasn’t going to ruin it at the end, but I really wanted to look at the guy. I had so many unanswered questions: Who was he talking to? What had set him off? Was it a boss? A girlfriend? A boyfriend? A combination? What had even caused this conversation in the first place? What were this guy’s issues?

I had my own issues, I realized. I hadn’t even started pumping my own gas yet.

Harry The Dirty Dog vs. Dirty, The Hairy Dog

I remember reading Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham when I was a kid. Even back then, I knew there wasn’t much to it. Harry The Dirty Dog didn’t inspire my imagination like some Dr. Seuss books or Where the Wild Things Are or Harold and the Purple Crayon.

But it was still an okay book, I guess. It’s stood the test of time; I still occasionally see Harry the Dirty Dog in bookstores.

On the other hand, Dirty, the Hairy Dog never got published.

When I was in high school, our English teacher had us students create our own children’s books, and then we were going to read them to a class of 1st graders at the nearest elementary school. My children’s book idea was Dirty, The Hairy Dog. Of course, Dirty was very hairy, which caused his owners some grief, but it made the dog easy to draw. All I had to do was pencil and ink a ball of hair with four legs sticking out.

Unfortunately, Dirty had a dirty mind and some dirty thoughts that were accompanied with dirty word balloons, and the rough draft of the book had a few double entendre dirty jokes that elementary school kids probably wouldn’t get. My English teacher, however, understood the double entendre dirty jokes and shut down my project. He didn’t get mad; he just strongly suggested that I go in a different direction if I wanted a good grade.

I understood. I’d gotten a few laughs from my friends about it, and I half-heartedly put together something stupid but suitable for a general audience. I scribbled something dumb like Bobby the Balloon. Balloons were easy to draw and color, and the book was kid friendly, but it wasn’t worth saving.

Looking back, Dirty, the Hairy Dog wasn’t a bad idea. It was kind of like Ted (the movie), but decades before Ted. I hate it when I’m ahead of my time and nobody notices.

The children’s book assignment should have been easy for me, but it wasn’t. Children’s books are more difficult to write than people think. I know people think children’s books are easy because every celebrity who wants to be thought of as a literary genius tries writing a children’s book at some point, and they almost all suck.

I sympathize. Bobby the Balloon sucked. But I was kind of forced into Bobby The Balloon.

I know I was onto something with Dirty, the Hairy Dog. The intentionally inappropriate children’s book is a cheap way to sell books nowadays. A few years ago Go The F*ck To Sleep was a giant hit in publishing. It was designed to look like a children’s book, but it had lots of profanity. I’ve felt a bit of resentment towards that book. If Go The F*ck To Sleep was allowed to be published, I should have been able to produce Dirty, the Hairy Dog.

I admit, the illustrations in Go The F*ck To Sleep were way better than my illustrations for Dirty, the Hairy Dog, but I didn’t rely on the same joke over and over and over again, like the author of Go The F*ck To Sleep did. Once you’ve read the title of Go The F*ck To Sleep, you’ve already read the book.

At least Dirty, the Hairy Dog would have had original content between the covers. And most children could have read Dirty, the Hairy Dog without knowing that it was dirty. If a 1st grader had understood the dirty humor in Dirty, the Hairy Dog, that wouldn’t have been my fault. I would have blamed the parents. Or better yet, blame the schools. When given the opportunity, always blame the schools.

I’m not still bitter about Dirty, the Hairy Dog. I’m just pointing out my former bitterness. It’s okay to talk about former bitterness in order to show your own personal growth.

I’m reading Harry the Dirty Dog again. I’m in the middle of it now. It shouldn’t take me too long. I can probably finish it by the end of the day. It’s not like reading Finnegans Wake.

The illustrations in Harry the Dirty Dog are okay but bland. There isn’t any rhyming. It’s not very colorful. The story isn’t imaginative. It DOES have a happy ending, though. I don’t see the big deal behind this book. Maybe the author bl… knew the publisher or something. I’ve heard that stuff like that happens.

What was the deal with… ? Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

The novel Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice never should have meant anything to me. It wouldn’t have, except my first ever girlfriend broke up with me after I told her it sucked.

I had a tough time with girls when I was in high school. I had no money and no status (I had a lot of acne, but that wasn’t a currency I could use to my advantage), and therefore, no shot at a decent girlfriend.

Things didn’t change much in college. The women in college were more intelligent than the high school girls I was used to, but they still weren’t interested in me. Some sudden changes happened my junior year, though. My face cleared up, I started dressing a little better, and I became a Resident Assistant at one of the better dorms at my university.

This seems really stupid, but the status I had as an RA changed women’s perspective of me. From my point-of-view, I was just a doofus RA stumbling through campus regulations like I’ve always stumbled through everything else in my life. To a bunch of college women, I was suddenly a guy who knew everybody and knew everything that was going on around campus and I wasn’t acting like a dick about it.

I’m getting to Interview With The Vampire, I promise.

I ended up with a pasty literary chick who had been in a writing class with me the previous semester in my sophomore year. I admit, I had quietly dominated that writing class with some relatively high quality stuff. Some of it had been polarizing, especially when I’d used first-person point-of-view for a despicable character who’d made a logical, humorous case for justifying his actions. A lot of students in that class couldn’t understand that the narrator wasn’t really me and that I was writing a character, so they hated the story and they hated me because they thought I actually was the character.

I’d had to sit there quietly in class while my story was getting butchered with student criticism, and finally this pasty literary chick with big glasses vigorously defended my story. I was grateful that somebody had understood what I was doing with my writing, but I felt like that pasty literary chick was fighting my battle for me. I still can’t believe that college students couldn’t grasp that first-person point-of-view doesn’t mean the author agrees with the narrator.

Even though the pasty literary chick had understood my story, she wasn’t interested in me that sophomore year (and I don’t blame her), but one day during my junior year for some reason she showed up at my RA dorm room. She was displaying a lot of cleavage for a pasty literary chick with thick glasses. She quizzed me about all the books I had on my shelf. She stood really close to me. She kept brushing her hair back. She kept hinting about stuff she wanted to do around campus.

Before I knew it, things got out of control, and I hadn’t even bought her dinner yet.

The next few weeks were great! The pasty literary chick became my pasty literary girlfriend. Everybody knew she was my girlfriend because she was wearing my Cerebus the Aardvark t-shirt; I didn’t just let everybody wear that. I kept my grades up. The RA job was cushy. Between classes, RA stuff, and a girlfriend, there was a lot to juggle around, but I managed. And then…

My pasty literary girlfriend told me that I needed to read Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice. Interview With The Vampire had come out in 1976, but it was massively popular in the 1980s, and author Anne Rice had already written a sequel. Everybody who knew anything about books knew about Interview With The Vampire. I knew enough about it to know that I didn’t want to read it.

I shouldn’t have agreed to read it. I had a bunch of books I had to read for classes. I had a ton of college stuff to do, plus a pasty literary girlfriend that I liked hanging around with. I was annoyed at the double standard; I never would have given her a book and told her to read it. I’d never have given her a Mickey Spillane or Mack Bolan pocketbook. Those books are relationship killers.

To my credit, I tried reading Interview With The Vampire. I tried, but it gave me Moby Dick headaches, along with yawning and heavy eyelids. I couldn’t get into it. It affected my mood. When my pasty literary girlfriend asked me what I thought of Interview With The Vampire, I flippantly told her that it sucked.

I could tell immediately from her eyes that I’d hurt her feelings. She got quiet and went home early. I had that aching feeling in my gut; I knew I’d screwed up. I should have handled it better. She had tried to share something she liked with me, and I had rejected her. I hadn’t intended to hurt her feelings. I just didn’t like the book.

Even though she didn’t return my phone calls over the next few days, I thought we’d patch things up, but then I opened up my campus mailbox one morning and saw that my Cerebus the Aardvark t-shirt had been stuffed inside of it. Yeah, that was the sign things were over. At least she hadn’t shredded the shirt.

As disappointed as I was with the break up, I felt even worse a week later when I heard that she’d been spotted holding hands with the campus poetry professor. The guys on my floor gave me grief that I’d been dumped for an old dude who looked like Shel Silverstein. I had to take it. I couldn’t tell them that I’d been dumped because I said that Interview With The Vampire sucked. At least the guys on my floor understood that a poetry professor had more status than an RA.

Plus, I bet that poetry professor had pretended to like Interview With The Vampire. Damn, I thought, that’s what I should have done.

Later on that semester, I ran into that poetry professor in a men’s bathroom. He recognized me as a former student, so we talked for a few minutes. I don’t know if he knew I had been his girlfriend’s boyfriend first. At that point, it didn’t matter.

I could have blamed myself for the way that relationship with my pasty literary girlfriend ended. I could blame my own insensitivity, my inexperience with women at the time, or my general lack of social awareness. I could have blamed my pasty literary girlfriend for putting too much emphasis on a book that wasn’t written for a guy like me. Or I could just blame the book. Yeah, I just blamed the book. I’d rather blame an inanimate object than a real person.

I’ve never tried reading Interview With The Vampire again. I’ve never seen the movie. But still, I kind of wonder… What was the big deal about Interview With The Vampire?

The Worst Book I Have Ever Finished Reading!

Deadly Welcome by John D. MacDonald isn’t the worst book I’ve ever started reading, but it’s probably the worst book that I’ve finished.

It’s one of those old pocketbooks from the 1950s and 1960s. Pocketbooks were straight-to-paperback novels printed on really cheap but aromatic paper. They’re kind of like the literary world’s version of movies that go straight to cable/video/dvd/redbox, except straight-to-video movies usually suck (or have a limited potential audience) but a lot of the pocketbooks could actually be pretty good.

John D. MacDonald’s books were often pretty good. Decades ago I owned one of his short story collections The Good Old Stuff. I’ve always liked that title. It’s not pretentious. He admits that the stories are just good. He doesn’t try to oversell his product. He just calls it “stuff.” I respect that.

Deadly Welcome is old (if a book published in 1959 is considered old), but I don’t think it was ever good. It’s bad even by pocketbook standards. I finished it only because it was short, less than 200 pages long, and I wanted to see if John D. MacDonald could actually write a book that was 100% crappy. He almost succeeded. I think I found one good page in the whole book, and I’m being generous; that one page was only almost good.

The book has four major flaws. The first is that the protagonist doesn’t have to work that hard to solve the mystery. Characters just show up and talk and inadvertently give him the information he needs. That happens in a lot of mysteries, but in most books the protagonist has to try a little bit.

Next, the book is almost all exposition through dialogue. Most of the action is told through characters talking in giant block boring paragraphs. Again, this is standard in a lot of mysteries, but authors usually figure out a way to break up the monotony a little bit.

Even worse, the femme fatale sucks. This book had two potential femme fatales. One got murdered before the book even starts. If a female character is already dead at the beginning of the story, then she can’t be the femme fatale. Plus, she never got any guy to kill for her before she died. If she can’t get a guy to kill for her, then she’s just a slutty chick, not a femme fatale.

Don’t get me wrong, slutty chicks are great in fiction. I’ve learned to stay away from slutty women in my own personal life (man, they can cause serious problems), but they’re great in fiction. The only rule for slutty women in fiction is that they actually have to be alive in the novel, at least for a little while. A dead slutty woman is useless in a pocketbook novel.

The other femme fatale candidate was the dead slutty woman’s sister, who of course was overly-virtuous. The overly-virtuous sister would have been alright if she’d loosened up a bit, but no, she pretty much stayed virtuous throughout the novel. A woman who can somewhat maintain her virtue is great in real life (and possibly in literary fiction if the character’s goal is to maintain virtue in a world full of sin), but it makes for a lousy pocketbook novel.

My last complaint about Deadly Welcome is that even the violence sucked. I’m not a violent person. I haven’t been in a real fight since I was 15, and I lost in grand one-sided fashion. Years later, I sucker-punched a guy, but that doesn’t count as a real fight because I cheated. Looking back, I probably could have gotten into huge legal trouble, but luckily the crowd was on my side. If the crowd is on your side, you can get away with almost anything.

Deadly Welcome has maybe two violent sequences, and there’s no emotional impact to either of them. Even when a couple minor characters get killed, nobody really shows that they care. The characters in the book cared that the slutty woman had gotten murdered before the book started, but nobody cared that a couple guys got killed while chasing the guy who had murdered the slutty woman.

The book had a couple opportunities for a good bar brawl but failed to deliver. Whenever I have a slow spot in my own fiction, I throw in a good bar brawl. If I’m really desperate, I’ll have a slutty woman get a couple guys to fight, and everybody in the bar starts pummeling each other for no reason. Those scenes are fun to write. But I’ve never killed off a slutty woman in any of my stories. They’re too valuable to kill off in fiction. John D. MacDonald should have known better.

If you’ve never read a John D. MacDonald novel, don’t start with Deadly Welcome.

Robert E. Howard’s Letter to Two Nerds in the 1930s

I have mixed feelings about author Robert E. Howard. He’s written some of my favorite short stories, but he also murdered one of my favorite authors. I’ll get to that a little later.

The first part is about two nerds who were fans of Robert E. Howard in the 1930s. I’m not 100% certain these two fans were nerds, but they definitely had nerd tendencies. One fan was an educator, and the other was a chemist. Plus, they read Conan the Barbarian stories from this pulp magazine called Weird Tales. Yeah, they were nerds.

I’m not making fun of these two Robert E. Howard fans by calling them nerds. I’m the last person who has any business making fun of somebody else for being a nerd. I’m just calling them what they probably were. It makes explaining things easier.

Back in the 1930s, nerds didn’t have the internet; there was no social media, no email, and no television. There weren’t any comic books yet and no video games. By today’s standards, life would seem boring. There was nerd stuff like math and literature and philosophy and history and classical music, but there wasn’t much fun nerd stuff, except for Weird Tales and other pulp magazines.

I understand the nerds’ admiration for Robert E. Howard. Most normal people know Conan the Barbarian only because of some mediocre movies, but Robert E. Howard’s short stories are really good. Since Howard’s death, other authors have been allowed to write Conan novels, but they’re not the same. Any Conan the Barbarian story written by somebody other than Robert E. Howard is just a story about a barbarian who happens to be named Conan.

Anyway, the nerds wrote Robert E. Howard a letter, and then Robert E. Howard wrote them back! And he didn’t just send a quick thank you note. This was a long, well-written response. Obviously, the nerds were thrilled because they kept the letter, and it was later published in this 1967 edition of Conan (which reprinted a few of Howard’s stories from the 1930s).

The nerds’ letter was first published in this 1967 book.

The letter itself is going to be boring to anybody who isn’t a Conan fan. Even if I weren’t a fan of Howard’s Conan stories, I’d be impressed that Howard wrote a letter like this to people he had never met.

Robert E. Howard was just getting warmed up. Here’s more!

If you’re actually reading the letter, don’t worry; he’s about to wrap things up.

Unfortunately, Robert E. Howard committed suicide a few months after writing this note. That sucks. Robert E. Howard murdered one of my favorite writers.

The nerds had to have gone through a quick contrast of emotions: Oh my god! We’ve gotten this awesome response from a writer we admire! Oh my god! Robert E. Howard respects the work we put into our map and history! Oh my god! There’s the possibility of future correspondence with Robert E. Howard, one our favorite writers!

And then Robert E. Howard kills himself.


The Secret History of “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE!”

(image via wikimedia)

My high school friends were shocked when I called my mom the devil incarnate to her face.

I don’t remember the reason. It was probably a curfew situation. All I know for certain is that a couple of my friends were with me at my mom’s apartment (this was after my parents divorced), and my mom had said no to something, and I responded loudly in a self-righteous tone, “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE! YOU ARE NOT MY MOM!”

My friends were shocked at my seemingly disrespectful behavior. They were further shocked that my mom just smiled and rolled her eyes at me.

After my mom and I figured out the curfew situation (or whatever it was), I explained the DEVIL INCARNATE comment to my friends. The short version was that when I was in elementary school, my dad had gotten drunk and then had turned his drunken rage at my mom about something stupid and yelled in that same self-righteous tone: “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE! YOU ARE NOT MY WIFE!”

And then my family laughed about it later whenever my dad wasn’t around.

That’s the short version. The longer version gets a bit more intense.


When I was a kid in the first house that I remember, my bedroom was next to my parents’ room, and I could hear my parents fight in there when they got drunk. I couldn’t tell what they were fighting about, but I recognized the sounds, and that’s all I need to say. I’m not trying to relive the experience. I’m just trying to explain what happened.

Once I understood that my dad was slapping my mom around, my senses were alert to any sound from their bedroom. I’m still kind of a light sleeper because of it, but I’m not on any medication or anything like that. I just run a fan at night to block out random noise.

It didn’t happen every night. I couldn’t tell you how often I’d hear him hitting her. Maybe once every few weeks when he was with us and not stationed somewhere else. But it happened enough that every sound at night made me alert.

My dad was in the air force and would be stationed in Southeast Asia for months at a time because of the Vietnam War. We kids actually liked it better when he was gone. My oldest brother would act up a little more when my dad was gone, but there were lines he wouldn’t cross, so everything seemed okay from my perspective when my dad was gone.

There wasn’t much I could do about my parents fighting. I was in elementary school; I couldn’t bang on their bedroom door and tell them to keep it down, that I was trying to sleep. I just closed my eyes and tried not to listen. My older sister and brothers were aware of what was going on, but their bedrooms were farther down the hall or in the basement, so they could drown out the noise if they wanted to.

The physical aspect of the arguing ended one Friday night after my mom finally hit my dad with a fireplace poker stick. I wasn’t home when that happened. I had spent that night at my best friend’s house and then heard about the fight from my older siblings the next morning when I returned home.

The story goes that my mom and dad were at a party with a bunch of friends, and I’m sure everybody had been drinking. When my parents left the gathering, my mom had said something like “Let’s go home and screw.”

For some reason, this comment embarrassed my dad and the following argument at home escalated into physical violence with my dad shouting (according to my siblings) “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE! YOU ARE NOT MY WIFE!”

I don’t understand the logic of a man getting violently angry that his wife wants to go home and screw (unless she was talking to another man). But that’s what supposedly set off the fireworks. Dad start hitting my mom in the living room, she bashed him in his knee with the fireplace poker stick, and I think that ended that. My dad never hit her again.

When I asked my mom about the incident years later, she admitted that she hit him with the poker stick (I didn’t ask about the “Let’s go home and screw” comment), and she verified the “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE! YOU ARE NOT MY WIFE!”

My mom claimed that she was not the devil incarnate and that she was indeed his wife at that time of the incident. I understand that the devil incarnate would never admit to being the devil incarnate, so she could have been lying, but Dad was her only accuser, and he lacked credibility because he was the violent drunk in the family. Then again, the devil incarnate could have driven him to drinking.

As demonic as my father could get when he was drinking, I appreciate a good line when I hear it, and I have to admit, “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE! YOU ARE NOT MY WIFE!” is a keeper.

I can’t use it on everybody, though. Without context, people can really misunderstand what we’re saying. When a family member and I have a disagreement, I can occasionally end the conflict with “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE! YOU ARE NOT MY BROTHER/SISTER/MOTHER!” and they understand it. It’s our way of showing that there’s no hard feelings.

Like I’ve said, there are limitations. I’ve never said “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE!” to my wife. She doesn’t see the humor in it. I don’t think I’ve ever brought it up with my daughter either.

Unfortunately, my mom died recently, and I don’t disagree with my older brothers enough anymore to use the line very often. I’d hate to see “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE!” die out. It’s a good line, but… sigh… maybe it’s time for “YOU ARE THE DEVIL INCARNATE!” to go away.

Fight White Supremacy… and Give Us Lots of Money!

My wife received this “petition” in the mail a couple days ago. I’ve seen this kind of fund raiser before. There will be a survey with a bunch of questions asking for her opinion, and then at the end they’ll probably ask her for money.

Just so you know, my wife is not white, so the political organization might think she is more concerned about white supremacy than I am. I’m white, but I have my own concerns too. First of all, I don’t like people who don’t like my wife, and I’m guessing white supremacists wouldn’t be too fond of her.

White supremacists wouldn’t like me either. I’m the one, according to them (not me), who has betrayed my race by committing myself to a woman who is not white. According to white supremacists, I’m the race traitor. I’m the sell-out.

Actually, nobody has ever called me a sell-out. My wife, on the other hand, has been called a sell-out, but not by a white supremacist. I think it was a different kind of supremacist.

This political organization that’s (claiming it’s) fighting white supremacy should leave my wife alone. She’s already done her job. According to the white supremacists, she’s destroyed my perfectly pure white bloodline by giving birth to our biracial daughter. What more can they want?

That’s the problem with these political organizations; once you contribute, they never stop bothering you. They never say “Thank you. You’ve done enough for the cause. Now we’ll leave you alone.”

I’m no fan of white supremacy. I avoid white supremacists as much as possible. But I also don’t like rich people who try to con me out of my money. I wouldn’t be surprised if the political organizations supposedly fighting white supremacy were run by white supremacists who think it’s profitable (and funny) to raise money off of people who are afraid of white supremacists. I’m not a con man or a white supremacist, but if I were both, that’s what I would do.

But I’m not. So I don’t.

It’s times like this when I’m glad I’m a cheapskate. I don’t get mail from scam artists asking for money anymore. Charities. Political groups. Anything that says it’s… (sniffle)…. for the children. It’s taken decades of throwing stuff in the trash (or recycling), but they leave me alone now.

Most (if not all) charities and political organizations are run by rich people, and they ask people who are not rich to give them money. Then these rich people use the money to pay their friends and maybe a little bit actually is used for its stated purpose. Maybe. It’s almost like legalized money laundering.

The best term I’ve heard for this is “weaponized empathy.” The charity or political organization picks something that you care about and says it will do something about it. In my wife’s case, the political organization says it’s fighting white supremacy. This organization has said recently that white supremacy is more of a threat than ever, yet this organization has been fighting white supremacy for decades.

Evidently, this political organization sucks at fighting white supremacy. I’d prefer to give money to a political organization that’s effective at fighting white supremacy.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with the petition. Since it’s addressed to my wife, I can’t just throw it out. I’ll leave it on the coffee table and hope she’s in a good mood when she sees it. I’ll make sure that the movie Mississippi Burning isn’t on the television when she sees the petition. If she sees Mississippi Burning and the petition at the same time, she might sell the house and give the profits away to fight white supremacy. I’ve been trying to get rid of the televisions for years, just so that we don’t accidentally see Mississippi Burning again.

On the other hand, if a Real Housewives marathon is on, the political organizations have no chance. Yeah, the needless bickering of the housewives can get on my nerves, but it puts my wife in a good mood, and our house has lots of doors so I don’t have to hear it. But no door can block out Mississippi Burning.

Ugh… Mississippi Burning… those damn white supremacists… Where’s my credit card?

Yeeerrrgh!… Those damn scam artists… Must not fall for their tricks…

Urrrrrrgh… Mississippi Burning…. I must not think about… scam artists…