The Elephant in the Room by Jon Ronson


For years now, I’ve been a huge fan of Jon Ronson. His writing is entirely interesting and he knows how to tell his fascinating stories. I’ve read many of his books–some, more than once–and I adore listening to the audiobook versions that he reads himself.*

I don’t often get a chance to read non-fiction, but this is generally the kind I like and prefer.

A few years ago, I read Them: Adventures with Extremists and was horrified, but ultimately amused with the absurdity of David Icke and his very tall shapeshifting reptiles that both live underground and are adamant on controlling the human race, along with the tin foil hat variety of nutters like Alex Jones, who goes loony for supposed human sacrifice and for some reason is very keen on the idea that the government is constantly using actors in lieu of real victims of gun violence (if you hate yourself, just Google: Alex Jones + Sandy Hook). Their conspiracy theories were preposterous and if you scratch your nail shallow across their arguments, any rational human could see that they’re really masks for antisemitism (read the book; you’ll see). But these were fringe nutjobs, who I assumed had a small, obsessed following. I also thought they stayed in the shadows, tuning in to their insane radio shows, and keeping, ultimately to themselves and not getting their crazy train cooties on the rest of us. Sadly, that has changed this past year…

One does not have to read Them in order to read with rapt interest, Jon Ronson’s new title. It is a short piece–approximately 15,000 words–and focuses on the obscenely overt influence Alex Jones has on Donald Trump. It’s been about 15 years since the book and even though Jon Ronson has repeatedly stated that he personally likes Alex Jones even if the latter spreads paranoia and frightful insanity, he and Jones have had a falling out. Ronson reunited with him during the Republican National Convention to witness firsthand Jones’ ascent and how the once minor league captain of the tin foil hat society became the number one operator of the hate machine that is Donald Trump, the GOP’s presidential candidate this year.

The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the “Alt-Right” definitely is in the same vein of Ronson’s other writing: he places himself within the story he’s reporting on to illustrate how the naive reader might also perceive this strangeness and to illuminate a niche that might not be widely known and accessible. There is seriousness and humor. Jon Ronson is never dismissive of his subjects but he will point to when they are being ridiculous or worthy of criticism. He’s also very good at pointing out contradiction (for example, paintball guns and squirt guns were verboten at the convention, but real guns were a-okay).

Readers of Them will enjoy the part 2 aspect of this new essay, but readers who haven’t yet read the earlier book will indeed enjoy (used loosely) this, too. Ronson pokes at Trump’s inner circle and their shady dealings, how even Glenn Beck got creeped out once by Donald Trump, and how frightening it has become that these people that I once pshawed as weirdo fringe fruit loops, have now taken a mighty throne on top of a soap box which a vast number of people in a certain sect of the voting population are listening, too.

To them, it is okay to be an obscene bigot and unapologetic racist. These people enjoy their incendiary speech that is often misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic.

So enjoy!

No, really. I really recommend. I also recommend Jon Ronson’s other full-length books and audiobooks.

This is a Kindle Single and FREE for Amazon Prime US members and Kindle Unlimited subscribers everywhere. Otherwise, it is a mere $1.99 for the rest of us. So, grab it and read it right now.


(*) I also highly recommend checking out some of Jon Ronson’s past television shows from British TV. Doing a cursory Youtube search can bring up loads of episodes of Secret Rulers of the World and For the Love Of… When watching, please be forewarned of the 1990s.

(**) Sneaking in a second television recommendation: Louis Theroux also does similar reporting. His shows are great, too. The 1990s warning also applies here for some of his older episodes.

Froust Questionnaire, 10/12/2016

n. Proust, or more like the Froust Questionnaire (as in Fake Proust)

inhabited painting

Reading HorizonThe Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. This was recently recommended as a page-turner. It is, plain and simple. It is not perfect, but Dicker knows how to plot and keep readers engaged. What fun.

Audiobooking: Ready to start A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Writing: Have a few pieces still in their infant stages. Everything is a bit too abstract right now for my liking.

ObsessingWestworld. Has anyone else seen it? I was skeptical at first and almost didn’t watch it, but I saw the first two episodes and think it’s really intriguing. Because it’s HBO, of course there is annoying female nudity, but it sort of works here (but I argue that you still don’t need it; especially, considering that the male nudity is close to nil).

Brainstorming: Ideas for fundraising for online magazine. This is a very hard task.

Procrastinating: Need to read submissions for aforementioned online magazine. Doing it today! I swear.

Watching: Scream Queens (does anyone else watch? If not, you’re missing out)

Disappointing: The Sunday night presidential debate for so many expected reasons.

Froust Questionnaire, 6/21/2016

n. Proust, or more like the Froust Questionnaire (as in Fake Proust)

inhabited painting

Reading HorizonFarthing by Jo Walton, backlog of fiction submissions for magazine I edit (the co-editor is way ahead of me, for shame)

ListeningThe Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach

Day dreaming: Travel, always

Audiobooking: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (so long, but so good)

Writing: Making a lot of starts but not focusing. Need something that I am passionate about.

Obsessingnot applicable 

Brainstorming: Ideas for article pitches. Harder than you would think.

Procrastinating: Life, le sigh.

Watching: Scream the TV Series (new guilty pleasure)


Brain on Books

So busy. So very, very busy. Barely able to read a lick of text. I do hate when everything gets chucked to the side. I don’t feel very much like myself when I’m not reading or writing, and there has been way too much of that lately. However, I’ve been getting back into a routine and I’m writing writing writing (excitement!). Sadly, though, I’ve become one of those people that doesn’t read. How is that possible?! (wait, let me backtrack, I have been able to listen to a few books via audiobooks).

How does one unplug their brain? The galleys are stacking up and the publicists are chomping at the bit. While I try to figure out how to unplug my brain from the Matrix, I leave you with this photo of a skull on a pile of books. Odd, yet somehow fitting.

skull on books

Storytelling Through Crime: “People Who Eat Darkness”

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been knee-deep in books that can be labelled in the true crime genre. I’m generally not an aficionado of murder as entertainment (the sensationalize plots, bad acting, and terrible cop lingo of police procedurals on television, which make me want to gag with a spoon).  Yet, what has drawn me to a few of these titles has been more about the storytelling and craftsmanship. For me, it’s less about the gruesome, vial acts that have occurred, but more how the writer chooses to unfold them.

This began with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which discusses a mid-19th Century crime and the subsequent investigation during the early days of organized police deduction. I carried on with John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down, whose voice and point of view is very crucial to the storytelling. Safran is an Australian who goes to Mississippi in the aftermath of an odd crime. In the mysterypod podcast, John Safran discusses his approach to writing his book and how it was not as clear cut as one would have hoped.

My ears perked up when he told the host that he didn’t consider himself a journalist but a storyteller. Safran, too, has a six-part podcast that is worth a listen. It’s titled True Crime and he discusses with famous true crime writers the approach they’ve taken when writing such books. In episode 4, he chats with Joe McGinniss who wrote the magnum opus of crime books, Fatal Vision, which in itself is a master class in how to unravel information through a timeline.
people who eat darknessI hope to wind down from crime books soon (honestly, my threshold for debauchery and violence is being tested). I’ve just finished Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat DarknessIn one word, it was stunning. It was stunning in the complexity of the world it created (Roppongi, a Tokyo district known for its night life), the people who lurk through it, and the “characters” (I use this word as a replacement for the actual real people portrayed). The people are complicated; like Safran’s book, nothing is quite so clear as we would like it to be and like Fatal Vision, answers are not satisfactorily answered like in an Agatha Christie novel.

The crime is brutal and inhuman. If a reader can move past that and read the book for its storytelling, a writer can learn a lot from Parry and the others listed above. They have all moved past the sensationalism of the crime itself and focus on the people, the order of invents, and the style of their writing.

Because I’m currently working on short stories that toe the lines of horror, the uncanny, suspense, and unnerving, when to reveal or withhold are very important. Letting go of too much at one time can undermined the atmosphere and story.

I have a few more on my docket, but these, like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, are from events of years past. There is something about reading about contemporary crimes (let’s say last sixty or so years) that make these books particularly uncomfortable.

True crime can be a hard subject; I found In Cold Blood to be highly difficult to read when I read it six or seven years ago and I’m at my breaking point when it comes to anything Jack the Ripper related. Sometimes, cloaking true events in the guise of a novel can make it a little bit easier to deal with as is the case of the completely gripping The Murder Farm.

Does anyone else read these kinds of books? And if so, what do you make of them? Are they guilty pleasure imbibed in when you’re at an airport bookstore or go to reads when they’re published? It’s definitely been an interesting foray into non-fiction for a while. A different kind of reading experience for sure.

Thomas Bernhard on Literature & the Viennese Coffee Haus Disease

As I type this, I sit in my friend’s Wohnung in Vienna. I arrived last night, later than expected as all flights in Berlin were delayed due to a supposed bomb threat according to our pilot, and when I arrived in Austria, it was dark and drizzling. I have been to Vienna once before for just over a week. Perhaps, the great gods of Viennese arts and thought will strike me down as I take my sip of coffee, but I found the city–albeit, beautiful–a bit dull. The buildings are grand and opulent; sometimes I think of structures carved from marzipan by master bakers. I am here for three weeks and a pit grows in my stomach as I try to consider how this city will be more appealing for this longer stay.

Thomas Bernhard, 1957

Like all semi-tech savvy 21st century citizens, when recommendations failed from my friends, I went straight to the internet. There are certainly a few sites and top 10 lists, but they often suggest the same handful of Schlösser, other palatial estates, and museums. I’ve found some sites that are well-kept by engaging locals, which I am more than grateful for, but the trend is to point people of the non-castle trekking variety* to coffeehouses (Kaffeehäuser). Coffeehouses are completely part of Vienna. You have a coffee and a cake (actually, with all of my complaining, this is one of my favorite things to indulge in while in German-speaking countries; I can wax on endlessly about my favorite: pflaumenkuchen.)

I should be more grateful, as I am in the city for a literary grant, but in my curmudgeonry, I thought to Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was a 20th century Austrian writer who often poked satirical fun at what he thought were the tired and stupid ways of Austrians. His works caused scandals. A favorite of mine is Woodcutters (original title: Holzfällen), where the narrator cleverly mocks a group of dinner guests all the while sitting in a wing chair.

As I sidetracked from my original mission to find something interesting in Vienna, I did a quick internet search of Thomas Bernhard and if he had specific thoughts on the city. I immediately found an excerpt from an autobiographical work called Wittgenstein’s Nephew. The short bit is a humorous reflection that Bernhard has about his relationship to Viennese coffeehouses and what he calls the Viennese coffeehouse disease. It’s a quick read, for sure, but here are a few favorites:

On other literary-inclined coffee house patrons,

These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna’s premier coffee-house — not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant[.]

On German and Austrian newspapers (compared to English and French),

From my early youth I have regarded the ability to read English and French books and newspapers as the greatest advantage I possess. What would my world be like, I often wonder, if I had to rely on the German papers, which are for the most part little more than garbage sheets — to say nothing of the Austrian newspapers, which are not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper?

On Viennese coffee houses and himself,

The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself. Yet it is here that I find myself confronted with myself and my kind.

So there you have it. My Viennese dilemma. If you haven’t read Thomas Bernhard, you certainly should start right away. I think many of his books have been reissued in recent years in English translation. Has anyone else visited this beautiful yet dull city? Perhaps you are like my friend who has lived here for many years and compares it and its people to a mausoleum.


* I love castles, but I think I have seen so many on my previous trip to Vienna, there is no reason for me to go out of my way to see one. If I happen to stumble upon one, I shall look at it, thinks it’s beautiful, and continue walking on (probably to a coffeehouse to have a cake).

Exceptional First Sentences: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39_steps 39_steps1

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'”


I know I’ve noted before that things have been a wee bit quiet around here as of late–this is due to busy, busy, busy. I’ve been running around here, there, and everywhere and it seems as if this will continue for the next several months over the spread of many countries. I’m dead-tired today and can’t help but think of John Buchan’s man on the run, Richard Hannay.

I love The Thirty-Nine Steps and have seen many adaptations (my favorite has to be the stage play which I’ve seen twice). I have so many books lined up for this summer, but I can’t help but imagine running through Scotland on an adventure (minus murder, spies, and anarchist plots).


This book is available for free in the public domain.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Extra, Extra

DSC_0134 copy1

The long, hot days of summer are coming and the harshness of winter will soon be nothing more than a forgotten memory. There will certainly be sweaty days when idealized memories of snow lovingly pop into my mind. This chilly photo is my example for this week’s challenge, “Extra, Extra” (share a photo that has a little something extra). For the keen eye, there are two unexpected dogs in this shot–click to enlarge.

This photo was taken in the Hudson Valley. I think New York state is a beautiful part of the country and I’ve been known to take quite a few long walks in the forest. Occasionally, this location has informed my own writing. I once wrote a short story taking place in the same biting locale and I am currently working on a longer text taking place in a fictional version of this same village (albeit, in the summer).

And, of course, here is a bit of poetry:

The days are short,
     The sun a spark
Hung thin between
     The dark and dark.
–John Updike

Criticizing the Critics and Poking at Reading Lists

This morning, I read an interesting article in Vanity Fair that brings up the question of why are literary critics so dismayed by Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I must admit that I’ve not read any of the author’s work and when The Goldfinch was released, I was not only put off by its size (775 pages), but also by a child narrator (I’m completely biased against juvenile narrators; I generally dislike them). In the aforementioned article, the writer cites many prominent critics’ dislike of the book, usually noting its hackneyed prose and ridiculous plot. They all seemed to be in agreement with the premise that no matter how trite the writing is, plot can overshadow even the worst offenders. One of those writers is Francine Prose, who was appalled by the clichéd writing.

reading list banner

This brought me to Prose’s controversial 1999 article, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American high school students learn to loathe literature,” which appeared in Harper’s. It’s an excellent article. Even if you don’t completely agree with all of her points, she does an excellent job outlining reasons for young students’ lack of passion for literature and the dull teaching strategies dictated to teachers from various pedagogical manuals.

Her gripe is with both the high school reading lists and the approach of teaching them. She cites many canonical texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) and is usually dismayed by the syrupy plots and what she perceives as bad writing. Prose also points out the failings of many teachers to examine the writing and focus more on the plots and how students are meant to personally relate to them. Instead, works are chosen for the high school readings lists based on their ease to identify what is right/wrong, good/bad. If there is too much moral complication, the book is not normally considered.

reading list clip

Direct clip from Harper’s article.

I’m particularly on Prose’s side when thinking back to The Color Purple and Lord of the Flies, two high school selections I had trouble “getting on board” about. I don’t know how my adult-self would read these works today, but my sixteen-year-old self was not swayed by the melodramatic plot of The Color Purple, nor, was I taken with the dog-eat-dog plight of the lost boys of Lord of the Flies (why would Piggy tell them all that was his disliked moniker?). In 2012, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I liked in school and still like after my re-read, but I can understand Prose’s qualms with the depiction of characters that are either clearly good or clearly not. Around the same time, I re-read Catcher in the Rye and my conclusion was that it is a book that adults will not like or appreciate. Leave it to the kids. If you haven’t read it as a teenager, don’t bother. It will be meaningless and annoying to your adult-self.

Another frightful point Prose brings up is about teachers manuals. She directly quotes examples that pedagogues can use to assure extinguishing any delight in reading and literature or critical thought, for that matter. After reading them, I found myself lucky that my teachers mostly never went in for such methods. Of course, there were assignments I despised (like underlining every mention of money or the color green in the The Great Gatsby), but nothing as so insulting to intellect as these examples–I will leave those up to the Harper’s article to navigate (take special note of one manual’s appalling advice about dealing with The Diary of Anne Frank).

Instead of investigating why a book is written so well or its lasting effects on our culture and reading canon, texts like Huckleberry Finn are boiled down to the discussion of whether Mark Twain was a racist or not, totally eviscerating the humor and craft put into his writing. Also, this idea that everything must be neatly tied up, leaving no moral ambiguity to examine is an insult to the students. Of course, there are students who have no interest whatsoever in knowledge, but you would be surprised by the many who do. They don’t often need someone holding their hand as they navigate the uncomfortable tale of Lolita or the brutal violence in A Clockwork Orange. My teachers certainly didn’t and respected us enough to assign these books without novel projects designed by tedious teaching manuals.


Of course, there were dull books and assignments (good grief, do I still get a little twinge due to my dissenting opinion anytime The Color Purple is an answer on Jeopardy), but I must agree with Francine Prose on the fact that the approach to teaching literature in high schools is less than desirable and that reading curriculum should be re-examined. It is often disheartening to read when a book is banned at school and even more so when it’s a book that a teacher has chosen that is not considered part of the dusty old cannon, but instead, chosen as a fresh and invigorating offering to high school students.

I’m not sure if I will venture into the pages of The Goldfinch any time soon. There are so many more books on my to-be-read list that I just don’t see this one making the cut in the next months. Although, I am a big fan of a good plot, well-crafted writing and fresh sentences are a top priority for me. Purple prose and shoddy metaphors are things I do not take kindly to.


May is Short Story Month


May is Short Story Month. For a long time, short stories got the boot. They used to be so part of the reading conscious, but in the past decades, collections were overlooked for novels. However, they are making a comeback. Short Story Month is sponsored by storyaday.org and is hoping to encourage more consumption of short stories beyond just the month of May.

In the coming month, I hope to include more short fiction. I have some books and lone short stories already lined up. I’ve just finished one forthcoming collection, too. Because May is also Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, I am aiming to include writers who fit this criteria as well. So, let’s get our #shortreads on! Below are some past posts to get a jump on it. Are you reading any gripping short stories? If so, please tell me in the comment section.

+ “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey
+ “The Skull” by Philip K. Dick
“The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers
+ “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
+ and more.

I leave you with this quote from Neil Gaiman regarding short stories:

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”