Skrip - tyur' - i - ent: adj. Possessing the violent desire to write.


#287 In which our hero discusses what he's been reading in the past year (part 2)

Cell by Stephen King (audio book)

When I was younger, I was a huge Stephen King fan. I read everything he put out. As I got older, I became a little tired of his writing (Will this Dark Tower saga ever end?) and then finally disgusted (Bag of Bones? More like Bag of Shit). So, it was with some reluctance that I picked this audio book off the shelf.

Shortly into it, I remembered why I so enjoyed King in the first place. And also why I grew to dislike him. The story treads very familiar ground (at times I felt like I was reading “The Stand Lite”) and King deals out all the old familiar tropes that he likes so well. But, his story telling is always engaging and there were a few truly suspenseful moments.

King also has a distinct style of dialogue… I find it hard to describe, but I immediately recognize it when I read it (or hear it, in this case). It’s not that his characters sound phony, and it’s not even that they speak in contrived sentences… it’s more like they speak a unique dialect based on old-fashioned movies. I found myself thinking, “that’s an odd way to express that” in many places. Perhaps that’s how King really talks. Again, it all felt very familiar.

A thing of note: the audio recording had clearly been re-edited at some point. There are odd passages when a jarringly different voice actor inserts a phrase here and there, sometimes even a single word. Distracting, to say the least.

The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III (audio book)

I picked this up at the library after learning from the cover blurb that they guy also wrote “House of Sand and Fog.” I never read that book, but I heard good reviews about the movie, which starred Jennifer Connelly, and I have a serious thing for Jennifer Connelly so, in a round-about fashion, I was really attracted to this book.

Now, this isn’t a nice book. It’s not pornographic or gory or violent (even though there are elements of all of the above in it) but it does dive into great depths in the mind of a terrorist. A September 11th terrorist, to be exact. This is unsettling, to say the least.

That said, I enjoyed this book a great deal. I walked away feeling like I had a better understanding of terrorists and why they feel driven to do the things they do--not sympathy, mind you, but understanding.

I connected with the characters, even the “villains,” and enjoyed how they were intertwined in the plot. I was even rooting for the redneck fuck-up.

Now, as is my wont, I usually look up reviews of these books after I’m done reading them. I was surprised to read that a lot of people thought this novel was overly long, and plodded in places. I, in contrast, felt like it kept a quick pace, especially once the major tensions were established.

However, I suspect this is, again, the result of listening to the novel as an audio book and not actually reading the words on the printed page. I listen to these books exclusively in my car, so I’m only ever giving them part of my attention anyway (the majority part being not driving into another car). So, it’s possible that I tuned out for a moment during another description of Al-Qaeda training camps or the patrons of a strip club or whatnot. While I’ve fretted that I might be having a lesser experience with the work since I’m listening and not reading, in this case it may have actually improved the experience.

Regardless, I think this is a great book.

Just After Sunset by Stephen King (audio book)

As I wrote above, I was/am a big fan of Stephen King. I don’t slavishly follow his work any more, but I notice it when it comes out. That’s why I was so surprised to see this on the library shelf, a collection of short stories that I knew nothing about. So I picked it up.

I’ve always liked King’s short stories, and these were no different. I enjoyed them all, most notably Willa, N. and The Things They Left Behind. The last so struck me that I listened to it twice (I really enjoyed the voice actor in that one, too). After listening to this, I realized that I had already seen N. when it was adapted to (or maybe it was written specifically for) a series of animated shorts hosted on the Internet. As I write this, you can still find the episodes on YouTube.

Forever Summer by Ray Bradbury (audio book)

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Ray Bradbury, so it took me a minute to get into the swing of his rhythms again. Because Bradbury has a definite style, one I’ll call “American Hokey.” Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy his writing, but a lot of it has a wide-eyed, Norman Rockwell, gee-gosh-golly quality to it, especially when he’s writing kids. And about 65% of this novel is written from a 13-year-old’s perspective. Some sample dialog:
“Let’s get out of here, Doug. I got the willies!”
“The willies, heck! I got the heebie-jeebies!”
And while it’s incredibly corny, it’s also sweet. Since I was listening to an audio book instead of reading the printed word, this hokum come through even stronger, especially considering that the voice actor made the decision to give the protagonist’s 10-year-old brother a lisp. “You thure ‘bout that, Doug? That thure looks thuper thcary!”

When I started listening to audio books, I wondered if I was missing something by not actually reading the words and processing them myself. For most books I think it works out just fine, but this is one case where I think I would have gotten more out of it by reading it the traditional way.

One last thing. The entire novel was a nice coming to age, young vs. old, ah youth! tale that unfolds by comparing and contrasting a 75-year-old man and a 13-year-old boy. Then, in the final chapter, the old man has a conversation with his boner. Needless to say, I didn’t see that coming. Not only does he talk to his boner, it talks back. Tells him that he’s going away now, and won’t return. Then, the same boner suddenly appears on the 13-year-old, apparently for the first time. The results are unintentionally hilarious. Especially when the boy asks his new-found boner if he is his friend, and the boner replies, “the best you’ll ever have.” I laughed out loud in my car.

The Last Centurion by John Ringo (audio book)

I picked this up on a lark because the back blurb indicated it was about a pandemic plague that wiped up a large portion of life on earth. For some reason, I’m drawn to stories like this. That said, it turned out to be mostly a true war sort of tale, which doesn’t appeal to me. But, in the end, I liked this book… mostly.

The story is the first person account of a soldier who was on the front lines when the world-ending flu spread across the globe, and what he did to lead his men back home. I think I enjoyed it because I like engaging stories that reveal to me a part of the world I don’t know; in this case, the American military.

The author relates, in what seems to be a high degree of accuracy, how the military works, how they would respond to a disaster of this magnitude, etc., etc. He goes into great detail about military equipment and procedures and strategy and other things I am largely ignorant of. Hey kids, learning is fun!

However, the voice of the protagonist (i.e., the author) is painfully didactic at times, and just annoying. Some of the themes beaten over the head include: global warming is bullshit, city folks are stupid, farmers make the world go ‘round. And, y’know, whatever, that’s fine… it’s your book so you can have whatever point of view you want. But it just got tiring to hear him go on and on about how the “ants” (smart, salt-of-the-earth people like farmers who planned ahead) were superior to “grasshoppers” (soft, soiled city dwellers who had no commonsense and were caught with their pants down when the world collapsed). Yeah, we get it. You don’t have to go on for 10 pages detailing how the “tofu eaters” (a euphemism used ad nauseum for liberals) screwed things up.

I enjoyed most of this book, but the proselytizing became overbearing by the end, and I was glad to be done with it.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (vol. 13) edited by Stephen James

I inadvertently read this book twice.

I bought this book years ago, started to read it, but never got the whole way through. I’m not sure why. So when I finally picked it up again, I just started from the beginning instead of trying to remember where I stopped.

However, it seemed like I was familiar with every story I read. I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have read everything save the last story or two. But, it wasn’t bad to read it again; most of the stories were entertaining.

However, the editor clearly has a different interpretation of what “horror” is from what I do; with few exceptions I didn’t think the stories were especially scary or suspenseful.

Out of all the stories the only ones that stick with me (as I write this months after the fact) is “Our Temporary Supervisor,” by Thomas Ligotti and “Shite Hawks” by Muriel Gray. These are also the only two that really got under my skin. So much so, that I think I’ll seek out some of their other work.

Dune by Frank Herbert (audio book)

Sometimes I’m in a big hurry in the library, so I grab the first audio book that seems interesting and get out. That’s why I ended up with Dune, even though I had read it years before (and the first couple sequels, I believe).

It’s fantastic writing, no-one will even dispute that. And I’m amazed that more than 40 years later, it has aged so well, remaining relevant and engaging as it ever was.

I was delighted when I started listening to it to find that it had a full cast of voices. Most audio books have one reader and, like ‘em or hate ‘em, you’re stuck with that voice for the next 10-20 hours. But, for reasons I cannot understand, only parts of this book used the full voice cast. You’d be listening to one section where Baron Harkonnen was voiced with evil glee from an actor with a deep baritone, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen was acted out with wonderful treachery by an English actress, Paul was voiced by a young man… then in the next chapter, it was just the narrator, voicing all the parts again. It didn’t seem like there was any rhyme or reason to it; it’s not like specifically exciting or climatic events got the full cast. It made the audio book a little jarring, as the main narrator made some different acting choices than the main cast, as if they never spoke or compared notes on the characters. Odd.

Still an amazing story, though.

Tales from Jabba’s Palace edited by Kevin J. Anderson

A long time ago I read “Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina” and hated it. I enjoy the Star Wars universe, but I was annoyed with this book because nearly every character you see in the Cantina scene in the movie is represented in this book. And not one of them is there simply for a drink after work; everyone is achieving their destiny or some such bullshit.

This book (also gifted to me by the same guy who gave me “Glory Lane”) is along that same lines. However, for some reason changing the setting to Jabba’s palace made it more palatable for me. And maybe because most of the stories centered around one main conspiracy, I found it to be more cohesive. Not a terrible book; but not one I’d ever return to, either.

The Devil You Know by Mike Carey (audio book)

Another “this looks good, I need to get out of here” selection from the library. But I enjoyed this one immensely.

I love contemporary horror, and this book had that with a great helping of humor alongside it. Plus, the author/protagonist is English, and stories sent in England always sound so quirky to me. And the voice actor had a wonderfully engaging accent, too.

You can tell that I really enjoyed this book because after listening to the audio book, I went out and bought the actual paperback so I could see the words for myself.

The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key

This is a book I read probably when I was 13 or so. It really stuck with me, so much so that I was moved to look it up and buy it from Amazon a couple of years ago. It sat on my bookshelf until I finished my last (hard copy) book and was casting about for something else to read. So I read this.

I didn’t know at the time that Alexander Key also wrote “Escape to Witch Mountain.” But after re-reading this book, it doesn’t surprise me. It’s definitely an early adolescent book, a little heavy-handed with the morals at the end.

Fangland by John Marks (audio book)

Another book that I think I enjoyed more than I would have otherwise because I learned something from it; this time, how a televised news program operates.

The protagonist is a female field producer for “The Hour,” a thinly-veiled version of “60 Minutes.” The author clearly has some experience with the show or programs like this, and goes on at length about its internal operations.

At its heart it’s the story of a woman who encounters a modern day vampire, and the fall out of that encounter. It’s sufficiently scary in parts, and has several inventive twists on the tired old vampire mythos. It also has a surprising amount of sex and blood, with an ending that was both oddly off-putting and satisfying at the same time.

It’s told in first person, a narrative mode that has a soft spot in my heart. Several of the characters recount their version of the story, and although this can get tiresome, I thought the author handled it deftly enough. Even though he does lapse into straight third person for a couple scenes that just don’t work from a viewers perspective. Something I always hate--it seems like a cop-out. If you want to write in first person, you should tough out the tricky parts, too.

I Am Legend (and other stories) by Richard Matherson (audio book)

I had also read “I Am Legend” before, albeit in comic book form. I enjoyed it, even though it was severely dated in parts. And the science that Matherson works so hard to establish fall apart in the end (the vampire bacterium causes fangs to grow on the infected? Really?), but otherwise a good, satisfying story.

The audio book also included several short stories, some of which I had read/seen in one form or another in the past. They all tend to be the of Twilight Zone variety, i.e., build up the tension then introduce a twist ending. Not bad, and some quite good.

“I Am Legend” was read by one actor, who sounded great. Another actor read all the short stories and, frankly, some of his accents/inflections detracted from my enjoyment of the book. At least once his delivery was so convoluted that I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

This is a book that The Scientist got me for my birthday. It's about improving your writing, from a professional agent's point of view. It's interesting, even if a lot of the advice seems pretty obvious to me. Then again, I like to think of myself as a capable writer, and a lot of the insight seems geared toward the very new writer. Still, it's all good review. I haven't finished it as of this writing... mostly because it's more textbook than absorbing read. But, I'll finish it here soon, probably over the Christmas break.

Ohio Oddities: A Guide to the Curious Attractions of the Buckeye State by Neil Zurcher

Another birthday present from my wife. I love weird roadside attractions like The World's Biggest Frying Pan or whatever, and this is full of them. It's not the kind of book I'd read cover to cover, but it has an honored place in the bathroom, and I'll definitely get through all of it in time.

Fray (volumes 1 “Busted” & 3 “Sex & Death”) edited by Derek Powazek

"The Fray" used to be my favorite website. It featured true stories about a variety of topics, with beautiful accompanying illustrations or photos. I read it for years, until the guy in charge, Derek Powazek, shut it down, saying that it had run it's course. That was years ago. Recently,
for no real reason, I looked it up again. Turns out that Powazek is still compiling personal stories, only now in the form of real, tangible books (I guess they're really more like magazines). Out of the three currently available, I bought two (they were on sale together).

I finished the first (Busted) and am halfway through the second. I'm enjoying them... but they're really reinforced that true stories aren't always great stories. Most of these are well written, but seem to peter out in the end. Because that's the way real life works, I suppose: you have an interesting experience, but rarely does it conclude in a dynamic, exciting and satisfying fashion, like it does in fiction. The books are filled with beautiful illustrations as well.

And that is it! The last couple of books on the list will get me into 2010, where I'll start a new list.

And, if you're keeping score, that's 12 books and 11 audio books that I've consumed in 2009.




#286 In which our hero discusses what he's been reading in the past year (part 1)

Some time around the beginning of this year I started writing down everything I read. Well, not everything, just novels and collections of short stories. This is something I had been meaning to do for a couple years, mostly to figure out how many books I read a year. Because this question comes up from time to time, and I really have no idea.

Once I started on the list, I figured I might as well write a little review of what I thought about the book, too.

You’ll notice that around March I discovered audio books. It’s not like I didn’t know about them before, I just never bothered to check any out of the library. But, being that I have a 40 minute commute twice a day, five days a week, it gave me something to do other than listen to the news.

Holy crap, I wish I had started listening to audio books years ago. As you’ll see, I’ve been tearing them up.

Also, I suppose I should include SPOILER ALERT because I'm not taking any pains to conceal the plot. I'm just writing about what I thought, which may include the ending. Be ye warned.

So, here’s my ear-end wrap-up of what I’ve been reading.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

I was out with some friends, and the topic of great sci-fi literature came up. This book was mentioned and several people around the table enthusiastically agreed that it was a great one. So I picked it up.

While I enjoyed it, this book left me with the same feeling that I’ve experienced with a lot of old (circa 60-70s) sci-fi. That the story wasn’t the point, that it was only there to set up a bigger and (in the author’s mind) more important thing. In this book, the preface by the author even states that his real reason for writing the book was to introduce the idea of Ender being a “speaker for the dead.”

And that’s all well and good, but it left me feeling that the bulk of the manuscript was hurried, like Card wanted to get to what he considered the good stuff and the bulk of the story was just in the way. And when we do get to the “good stuff,” it seems like it comes out of the blue, like a tacked on ending. The entire book is about Ender being a war strategy prodigy, and the twist ending (which I saw coming a mile away) in which he successfully defeats the aliens. This battle at the end, which seems like it should have been the big climax, felt anti-climatic. Mostly because that wasn’t the author’s idea of the climax, it was the last 20 or so somewhat rambling pages about what Ender did after the war. And the whole “Ender fought against the aliens so much that he formed a kind of psychic bond with them” was a huge WTF? moment for me.

Enjoyable old-school sci-fi, but not the best I’ve ever read and not, despite what was said around that pub table, one of the greats of the genre.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

And enjoyable horror story. It read to me like it was written by a younger and more in touch with the times Stephen King. Which isn’t surprising, I suppose, since Joe Hill is the pen name of Stephen King’s son.

Some of the early ghost-in-the-house stuff was really pretty unnerving (which is the point) but I was less impressed with the second half and climax. Very nice coda to the story, however.

Soon I will be Invincible by Austin Grossman

As a comic book geek I was instantly drawn to this story. I had read a favorable review and stuck it on my Amazon wish list (this is SOP for me… any book that sounds interesting goes on my wish list immediately or I tend to forget about them. This way I can review my list when I’m looking for something new to read or, even better, sometimes one or more of these books magically appear at my birthday or Christmas).

As I write, the concept (superheroes/villains in the real world) appealed to me, but I’m afraid it was better in the abstract than in the reading. It was good, don’t get me wrong, and I tore through it… but it seemed that I had read better executions of this concept before, most notably “Astro City” and “Ex Machina” (both real live comic books, not novels, so maybe the comparison isn’t really fair).

But, the ending did catch me off guard--which it shouldn’t have since the author played fair with comic book logic--and I found it very satisfying.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

I have been reluctant to pick books from the “Literature” section of the store before, since I’ve found that this label often translates to mean “inaccessible.” I enjoy reading, but I don’t want to labor to finish a book. That’s why I’ll probably never read Moby Dick… even though it’s a classic, etc., the bits and pieces I’ve read of it are dense, and it takes some doing to get through them. No thanks.

But I was pleased to find that Cormac McCarthy, despite being labeled “America’s Greatest Living Author,” writes in a clear, straightforward manner. It’s not without art, but his prose never feels like it’s in danger of collapsing under it’s own weight.

My one beef, though, is how he eschews proper punctuation, especially the “quotes” mark. This made it hard to follow some of the he said/she said dialog in the book. This complaint comes from a deep part of my brain, which says that if I have to follow proper punctuation in my writing, he should have to, too.

However, this punctuation omission is mostly forgiven because the dialog is so damn strong. There’s nothing that takes me out of the narrative faster than ham-fisted, fake-sounding dialog. McCarthy’s dialog rings true to me in every instance; it sounds like read people talking. I really love it.

That said, this was an odd book. The first hundred pages unfold at a rapid clip, and it sets all the characters on what seems to be a well-used and understood path. The resourceful everyman will defeat the overwhelming obstacle of the psychotic hitman, perhaps with the winking approval of the weary sheriff, and emerge with a few more scars, wiser for the experience.

But that’s not where the book goes. Not even close.

Instead the everyman dies, well before the end, and does so “off camera.” His death is senseless and, to me at least, unexpected. I went back to make sure I hadn’t accidentally skipped a chapter.

Then, as things are wrapping up, the psycho killer shows up at the dead man’s house to kill his wife, who’s been innocent of any wrong-doing in the entire novel. And after he kills her, he gets away. Not without injury, but still, he’s never caught. In fact, the killer is actually rewarded in the end, moving on to bigger and better clients. It is the complete opposite of what you’d expect to happen.

And finally, the grizzled old sheriff who took on the case is left with no resolution, to final fulfillment, no “it was all worth it” moment. He just fades away, his soul disquiet.

I was so surprised by the ending of this novel that I immediately went out and rented the movie. Surely, I thought, the movie doesn’t end on such a downer. They must have Hollywoodized the ending to make it more digestible to a mainstream audience.


Even the movie ends quietly, without any real revelations, no neat tied-with-a-bow conclusions. I really respect the film makers for that (but then again, it was made by the Coen brothers, and they’re phenomenal).

I think what I liked best, in both novel and movie, is that it all rings true. Unlike most novels, where the author jumps through considerable hoops to make the good guy win in the end, that doesn’t happen in real life. The good guy can do all the right things, and still lose. The bad guy can be really bad, but still get away scott-free.

Glory Lane by Alan Dean Foster

This book was in the unfortunate position of being the first one I read after No Country for Old Men, a great book. It is also in the unfortunate position of being a shitty book.

Now, I’ve read a lot of Alan Dean Foster, he was a mainstay of my early teen years. I like his stuff. But this book was just a turd, start to finish.

I probably most enjoy the dialog in the books I read. Again, this book suffered from the fact that I had just finished No Country for Old Men, which had great, realistic, telling dialog. This piece of crap had that overly-clever, look-how-cool-this-character-is dialog. For example, here’s a bit from the main protagonist (a spike-haired punk rocker) as he tries to hit on a cute girl working behind the counter at a bowling alley.
“Can I help you, sir?”

“Well now, that’s a leading question, isn’t it? I mean, it presupposes that I need help and that you could be of some assistance to me without even knowing what my problem is. Fascinating concept. You aren’t by any chance telepathic, are you?”

Ugh. And here’s a bit where he’s about to be thrown out of the same bowling alley by the owner.
“We don’t want your kind in here.”

“My kind?” [He] tensed as he glanced diffidently at the big hand, but didn’t otherwise react to the touch. “What kind might that be?”

“Bums. Jerks. Punks.”

“Ah. Now there you have me, sir. I will admit to the third. As for the preceding pair I’m afraid you’re way off base, but then I can see that you didn’t quite complete your graduate degree in sociology so I suppose we need to make some allowances.”

While this is painful to read, I also found it nostalgic. Because this is the kind of stuff I loved to read when I was 14 or so. I imagined that kids older and cooler than me (which wasn’t really saying much) really did talk like this, and I wanted to grow up to be as cool as they are. Now, I see that it’s just bullshit writing, with no ring of truth to it. This nostalgia is the only thing that kept be reading… that and the fact that the book was given to me by a friend.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (audio book)

While I wasn’t blown away by Heart-Shaped Box, I enjoyed it enough to try some more of Joe Hill’s stuff.

Am I ever glad I did.

This collection of short stories is really amazing. I found it far more enjoyable than his novel-length work (but, to be fair, I’ve only read one of his novels). I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, of course, but I don’t think there was a clunker in the lot. And a couple, most notably “Abraham’s Boys,” “In the Rundown” and “Last Breath” were really remarkable. These three in particular are creepy, emotional, moving and really got under my skin.

But the standout, in my mind, was “Pop Art.” The concept is so ludicrous it shouldn’t work, but shortly into it my skepticism was completely gone and I was wholly into the story. I’m a sucker for stories like these anyway, but I haven’t been so moved by a story since, perhaps fittingly, Stephen King’s “The Body.”

It’s worth noting that this isn’t a collection of horror stories per se, in fact, many of them are rather sweet (or, at least, bitter-sweet). I find this collection even more impressive since Hill is so often working outside his chosen genre.

Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk (audio book)

Wacky. That’s what this book was. Soaked with sex and wacky. I may have learned a little about the porn industry, but it’s difficult to determine what is factual, and what is just made-up bullshit. I suspect that a lot of what I thought was too crazy to be true probably IS true. I guess this was a fun book but, honestly, it’s so demeaning and misogynistic at it’s core that it’s difficult to get past it. Like all of Palahniuk’s stuff, not for everyone.

Twisted Little Vein by Warren Ellis

I’m a big fan of Warren Ellis. I’ve read several of his comics, and thought some of them (most notably “Transmetropolitan” and “Planetary”) were amazingly nuanced and insightful works of art. That’s why I was so disappointed in this, his first prose novel.

The over-arching theme--that America has slipped so far into depravity that many of the formally marginalized acts by the sick and twisted are now mainstream--is gleefully hammered over your head time and time again with great ham-shaped mitts.

And much of the writing simply does not work. I wouldn’t have expected there to be so much dissonance between a comic page and a novel page, but there is. In the comics you can slip in some outrageous act in the background, and it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative. But in a novel, when that same outrageous act is described in detail, I found the entire novel coming to a crashing halt. It doesn’t help that the book is set in modern day, providing the additional hardship of limiting the amount of disbelief I was willing to suspend. So when, say, the Secretary of State mysteriously visits the protagonist and injects himself with monkey feces to get high… I’m sorta not buying it.

Probably most damning is that this book pales compared to Transmet, which is much better and was written nearly a decade earlier. Many of the same themes are explored, but being that Transmet is set in the future, Ellis’ tendency to invent outrageous drugs/sex acts/etc. (Bowel Disruptor, anyone?) adds to the setting, unlike his novel, in which they detract (e.g., Godzilla bukkake porn – ugh).

It’s sad, because Ellis is a great writer, but he seems hell-bent in this book to push the Mad Englishman persona he has so skillfully developed as a personal brand. I suspect that his secret ambition is to have Twisted Little Vein shelved at the local Borders with Naked Lunch, Still Life with Woodpecker, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas and other works that appeal to college kids and pretentious douchebags. Sadly, they’d be better off heading over to the comic book section to see his good writing.

To be continued.




#285 In which our hero recounts his quest for the perfect man bag (part 4)

The first thing I put together was the handle. I really wasn't sure how this would turn out, and I looked at it as a bellwether of the entire project. It's constructed of two pieces of leather, but the way its assembled I ended up sewing through three layers. It went surprisingly well.

I was super happy with the results. It looked, I dare say, professional. I showed it off to The Scientist and my children, all of whom were much less impressed than I. After the handle, I began to feel confident that the entire satchel was going to end up looking pretty close to what I had in my head.

Because that's the painful part... I've worked on lots of leather projects where the end result fell well short of the image I had in my head. The projects weren't bad, per se, just not what I was hoping for.

The handle done, I started on the main body. First I sewed both gussets to the center divider piece. 

Also, I forgot to mention, at some point I decided to cut down the width of one of the gussets. I was afraid the bag would be too thick (girthy) and would look more like a piece of luggage than a briefcase. This ended up being a good decision, as my laptop fits perfectly snug in the smaller pocket.

After that, I sewed on the front of the bag.

You can see in the photo above both gussets sewn to the center divider. The front buckles are also sewn on, as they share a seam with the bottom of the bag. That done, I started on the back piece.

This was a little tricky because I'm sewing through three pieces of leather (the gusset, the back piece, and the back pocket). It's not the sewing part that was hard, it was making sure all the holes lined up correctly. 

Remember when I wrote that I was a little laissez faire with the measuring part? This is where it went wrong. Somehow I made the back pocket piece about half an inch wider than the back piece. If I just forced all the holes to line up, there would be an unattractive bulge with that pocket. It would clearly have to be trimmed. 

In this, I got really lucky. The pocket piece overhung the pack piece by half an inch, and my seam allowance was a quarter of an inch. This meant that I could trim a quarter of an inch off, and the already punched holes wouldn't show, I could punch new holes and everything would line up just about perfectly. 

At this point there was also a problem with the gusset and the main body lining up right. This was a much more serious problem. I'm still not sure what went wrong. And to make it right, it was a brute force fix. I basically cut a wedge in the bag, pulled the edges together and pulled really tight on the thread. Again, I got really lucky. It's virtually invisible from the outside. You can definitely feel it on the inside, but it's low enough in the bag that you can't see it unless you really stick you head in it and go looking for it. 

Then, I ran into another problem. 

Like I wrote before, I had used a belt blank to fashion the shoulder strap. By my rough estimates it was just the right length. But when I actually attached the bag to the strap, it hung too low, almost to my knees. 

I was afraid that cutting the strap and adding a buckle would make it too short. But, other than cutting off the buckle on the end and refashioning that entire thing, a buckle in the middle of the strap was all I could do. And it was the easiest fix. So:

It actually turned out really well. There was plenty of length left for it to hang right. And I had always imagined it with a buckle on the strap anyway.

I added the handle assembly to the bag, and it was done!

Well, almost done. I went to Things Remembered and got a brass plaque with my name engraved on it a couple days later. Once that was riveted on, then I was really done.

The the photo above, you can see the two-tone affect from the straps finished with gum trag. I didn't like it at first, but have since grown really fond of the look. As it ages and gets all the little nicks and scuffs that come with use, it'll look even better. 

Of course, as the person who made it, I see all the mistakes. But even so, it's really good looking, I have to admit. And it should last a lifetime. Even if it starts to fall apart, I know how to fix it. 

The best part (other than being able to tell people, "Yep, I made this") is that I paid considerably less than the $800 it was selling for in the Filson catalog. I have maybe $200 worth of materials in it, but that includes leather I didn't use and can use for other projects, plus some left over hardware (D-rings come in packs of a dozen, for example). Plus my time, of course. 

So, after years of searching for the perfect mag bag, I finally made one myself.




#284 In which our hero recounts his quest for the perfect man bag (part 3)

First up: cut out the big pieces. This is always the most nerve-wracking part, for me, at least. Math is my enemy, so I end up checking and re-checking my measurements half a dozen times. And since I'm very much of the "eh, close enough" school, this sometimes bites me in the ass (as it did at a later point in this project). 

But, after some trepidation, I had the major parts cut out.

There are four pieces that make up the bag, sewn together with two gussets (that's the two long strips in the foreground). I also cut out all the little fiddly bits of leather: straps for the front, straps to hold the buckles and the parts of the handle. I had a pre-cut length of leather for a belt, but I decided to use that as the shoulder strap.

When you're sewing thick leather, it's not like sewing cloth. You use a dull needle (actually, a pair of dull needles) called harness needles and push them through holes that have already been punched in the leather. There are a couple handy tools I have to help get the holes evenly placed from the edge and evenly spaced apart. But there's no shortcut in the actual punching of holes part. 

I punched somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,300 holes. One at a time, with the awl shown. It's tedious, and probably the worst part of a project like this. 

Next: dying.

I dyed all the pieces before assembling them to keep it simple. It's easier to get an even coat of dye of a flat piece of leather compared to something already assembled. What you see above is after three or five applications of dye (Fiebling's Professional Oil Dye, Dark Brown, if you care). The leather really soaked it up, and it took six coats before it looked even and not splotchy. And it still wasn't the rich, dark brown I was hoping for. Different leather's take dye differently, so you really never know how it's going to look until it's in the leather. The back pocket is cut from a different hide, and turned out a little darker than the rest. 

This caused me a little consternation at first. I really liked the color of the Filson satchel, and had hoped to match it as closely as possible. But the leather just wasn't getting there. So I moved on to the next step: finishing the edges.

I don't have any photos of this part of the process, maybe because it's fairly labor intense. And it is also one of the most important. Nicely finished edges really make a project look professional.

Here's the thing: if you've ever picked up a solid leather belt (not one of those crappy ones with two thin pieces of leather sewn together over a cardboard core) or a nicely-crafted bridle, you can run your hand along it and it feels great. What you're reacting to, if you were conscious of it or not, are the edges. When you cut heavier leathers you end up with a squared-off edge, which feels sharp and uncomfortable in your hand. If you round over this edge it feels much nicer.

My process of finishing an edge is to first use a tool called, fittingly enough, an edger. This takes off some of the sharpness of the edge. Next I use fine grit sandpaper to smooth off the remaining edges and give it a rounded profile. The sandpaper leaves it with an almost furry appearance at this point. To give it that nice, slick surface, I use a product called Gum Tragacanth. It's designed for this purpose and, apparently, it's used in confections, too. I had no idea. But you dab a little on the edge, rub it briskly with a piece of canvas, and it leaves a smooth, slick edge. 

It also darkens the leather. I wasn't careful enough when I was finishing the edges of the straps and got some of it on the surface of the strap. This left an unattractive blotch of darker leather. To hide my carelessness, I just finished the entire surface of the straps with the gum trag, making them a uniform color.

Now, this darker color was closer to what I had hoped the body of the bag would become. I toyed with the idea of slathering gum trag over everything, hoping it would result in the color I wanted. But, two things stopped me: 1., gum trag also softens leather, and as I've talked about before, I didn't want a floppy bag; and 2., it's not a water repellent. So I only did the straps this way. This decision payed off big-time later.

After dying the leather and finishing the edges, I had to figure out how to finish the leather (that is, treat it to be water repellent). The obvious choice is a commercial sealer that would protect it 100% from water. But I've used these acrylic sealers before, and while they work great, they can leave the leather looking a little plastic-y. Then I considered beeswax, which is supposed to leave a really nice, deep luster. But I've never worked with beeswax as a sealer, and I didn't want this to be my first experiment with it. I also briefly considered shoe polish.

I ended up just oiling it with linseed oil. Linseed oil is also supposed to soften leather, but in my experience it doesnt have much affect on thicker leather like the kind I was using. It'll work itself out of the leather eventually, and I'll have to re-oil it every now and again, but that's fine. I'm hoping that the oil will also darken the leather over time.

With everything dyed, sealed and edged, all that was left was to actually put the thing together.

To be continued.




#283 In which our hero recounts his quest for the perfect man bag (part 2)

The first step is creating this bag was getting the pattern right. The Filson catalog only had the one picture of the satchel, I didn't even know what the back of the thing looked like, let alone how the insides were assembled. So there were details I needed to work out. And, honestly, I still wasn't sure if I could even pull it off.

But, since we live in an age of wonders, I went online and found exactly what I was searching for: this forum includes a post by "TidyBeard," who bought an actual Filson Field Satchel. Most helpful to me, he took pictures of nearly every conceivable angle and posted them. 

This not only gave me what I needed to draft a pattern, it also confirmed something I suspected all along: the craftsmanship on this bag wasn't that impressive. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Filson's bag isn't well-crafted, because it is. It's just that it is a straightforward, rugged construction—by design. Take a look at this:

Ignore that this is a woman's purse. See how fine the stitching is, especially down the center? And see how there's a sort of yoke around the opening in the top? Construction-wise, there's a lot going on with this bag. That's craftsmanship well beyond my abilities. 

But the Filson bag has big, bold stitches. I can do that. The photos I found online also allowed me to figure out the pattern... which wasn't complicated. It's basically three rectangles of leather sewn together with two gussets. Add a couple straps and buckles, and you have yourself the perfect man bag!

I drafted a pattern out of plain paper, very roughly. Like I said, there were no confusing parts, so it didn't take much time. Actually, the majority of my time was spent figuring out the dimensions. Thanks to TidyBeard, I had a handle on the dimensions of the actual bag, but I made mine slightly larger, so my laptop could fit easily inside it. 

Next was a trip to the leather store.

I brought all my pattern pieces so I could make sure I got a big enough hide. If you're not familiar, leather typically comes in three sizes: the entire hide (basically all of the usable leather off a cow in one piece), a side (half a cow) or double shoulders (pretty much just what it sounds like). Double shoulders tend to be the finest leather, but they are also the most expensive (and more to the point, they typically aren't big enough to yield the size pieces I needed). I didn't need an entire hide, so I looked at the sides. 

A little more background. The thickness of leather is measured, oddly enough, in ounces. One ounce equals about 1/64 of an inch. Since leather is a natural product, it's not completely consistent across the entire hide... the leather is thicker in some spots, thinner in others. Therefore leather is usually sold in a range, i.e., a "6-7 oz. side." To give you some reference, belt leather is generally about 7-8 oz., or roughly 1/8" thick. 

The leather used in the Filson bag is really thick. In the catalog it's described as "genuine bridle leather,"which really doesn't mean anything. "Bridle leather" is more a descriptor of how it can be used, not it's weight. But, looking at the catalog and online photos, I'd guess it's about a 10 oz. leather. 

So I went into the leather store with a 9-10 oz. side in mind. But, talking to the owner convinced me that this was overkill, that I could use a lighter weight leather and still get a very rugged bag with plenty of body. Plus, he had some 6-7 oz. leather on sale. I bought a side of that, plus a side of 4 oz. leather to use for the gussets (they are designed to collapse or fold in on themselves, so they needed to be lighter than the main body). I also bought some of the brass hardware I'd need, namely D-rings and buckles; and a bottle of dye. 

I took all this stuff home, and there it sat in the basement. For months.

Every once in a while I'd bring up that website and look at all the photos of that great Filson bag. I'd think about tackling the project, then the mood would pass. 

It was a pretty big project, using rather expensive materials. I didn't want to jump into it and screw it up. And I wanted to make sure I had enough time to invest in doing it right. 

Finally, I took a week of vacation time I needed to burn. I didn't have any plans, other than a few around-the-house errands, so I decided to tackle the construction of the bag.

Once The Scientist was off to work and the kids were deposited at school, I trundled down to the basement and got to work.

To be continued.