Mostly good comics, but also Fences


0108) Gast by Carol Swain, finished September 19

This book is wonderful. It reminds me of Duncan the Wonder Dog---and not just because this is a world as normal as ours exept the animals talk, although that's an obvious point.

Largely, what makes this book great is its quiet. It doesn't rush. It's not anxious to prove anything. It just presents the days of this eleven-year-old girl and allows her to live them.

Here's the basics: she moves to Wales with her parents. Shortly thereafter she learns that her neighbor recently killed himself and she undertakes learning all she can about him. She learns plenty, but what she comes to understand hasn't much to do with the facts uncovered.

My favorite characters are the dogs. The way they look at each other. The way they talk does, I think, better catch the way dogs would talk, could they talk,
than, say, Up. My favorite dog bit is when they're leading the girl somewhere and one of them keeps biting her ankle and she keeps complaining and the dog says, "Sorry, I keep thinking you're a sheep." and I love that.
two days


107) Paper Girls Volume One by Brian K Vaughan et al, finished September 16

Brilliant! I don't know what the what's going on, but every new layer to the mystery makes me more excited for the eventual conclusions (which there had better be). I can't remember the last first-collection I was this exited about.

The art, with its line style, dynamism, faces, religious allusions, and colors, looks like Mike and Laura Allred's work much of the time---which is just the right homage to make with this madness.

So we have time travelers and ancient reptiles and the '80s and more, and I've already put the next two volumes on hold.



104, 105, 106) Fences by August Wilson, finished September 15

I'm not sure there's any play I more enjoy reading in class with my students.
a week


103) Drama by Raina Telgemeier, finished September 11

This is my first full book of Telgemeier's and I have to say I like her long. I get why the kids like her. And if this is typical, it's probably a very good thing for America that the kids like her. This is just straight up middleschoolers being decent human being as they try to figure themselves and each other out. And although these kids are putting on a grotesquely more complex show than anything I did in middle school, it still felt real. And I love that kids taking on big tasks could feel real.

I suppose, maybe, this book is aspirational. But what, pray tell, is wrong with that?

an evening

Previously in 2017


Dialogue: Vol. 50, Num. 2 – Summer 2017


I've had an electronic subscription to Dialogue a few times, but reading pdfs on my laptop sucks. So I almost never read anything. I would love to subscribe to the paper, but it ain't cheap and my subscriptions budget is, shall we say, already rather full. And so most of the Dialogue I've read over the last ten years has been the gratis copies received when they've published my writing. I'm a bit ashamed to admit this.

But every time a new issue comes out, I always look over the table of contents and sigh and moan over the fiction I want to read and the poems I want to read and probably another thing or three I wish to read. But I never actually buy the issue.


And, weirdly, although it was the poetry and fiction that first caught my eye, it was a pair of book reviews that got me to plunk down five bucks for the Kindle edition. Specifically, reviews of The Garden of Enid (or, rather, the new collected volumes) by two of my favorite people, Brittany Long Olsen and Stephen L. Peck. Since I'm supposed to be an expert on such things, I had to read these. And I did. And while I'm tempted to review the reviews, I'm not sure that sort of metarecursion is really what America needs right now.

Instead, here are some brief looks at some of the issue's artsy writin.

Personal essays:
Lon Young, "That’s Where the Light Enters" — I learned a lot about leprosy from this essay. And about living abroad, far from certain internet and casual cultural assumptions. The alchemy that turns these things into spiritual metaphors is rather lovely and moving.

Gail Turley Houston, "Dreaming After Trump" — It's crazy to me how close the September Six brouhaha is to my own BYU experience and how little I was aware of its aftermath at the time. Laying that chaos under the chaos of Trump's election certainly makes for something to talk about.

C. Dylan Bassett, "True Ideas" — Couple fun bits of wordplay.

R. A. Christmas, "Not the Truman Show" — Always glad to see Christmas still publishing. I'm hot and cold on his work, but I like how this one is filtered through its title. Completely different work without that title.

Joanna Ellsworth, "Averted Vision" — This poem's placement next to Christmas's makes for a fun juxtaposition. They both are interested in the cosmic and in overlaying science with art.

Ronald Wilcox, "The Grammar of Quench" — This poem has a thrusting rhythm that adds a vital sense to its destructive suggestions.

Darlene Young, "Echo of Boy" — This story of a deacon becoming an adult during his freezing fast-offering route is the only thing in this issue I quoted on Twitter. It also ends with the very nice "contrail of boy."

Erika Munson, "What Happened Sunday Morning" — I suspect this tiny piece started life intended for Everyday Mormon Writer's Lit Blitz. There is so much excellent Mormon flash fiction these days. Anyway, this is short and ambiguous. Don't expect utter clarity on just what epiphany the p-o-v was supposed to've experienced.

Heidi Naylor, "The Home Teacher — This does a nice job weaving together the story of a missionary's success with a ruined human being and his later, less successful, experiences with another. For me, it had a lot to say about the heights missionary work provides for missionaries and the sometimes ambiguous effects memories of that single-minded devotion can have later in life.


Unfaithfully Yours is ... wow


Unfaithfully Yours (1948) is a Preston Sturges film. And so I had a Preston Sturges experience.

I knew coming in that contemporary audiences were thrown by this movie, confused by its shifts in tone. But you know what? I was still thrown by this movie, confused by its shifts in tone. I laughed a lot, especially in the final act.* Perhaps because I spent the middle of the film ... engaged in all other human emotions.

At one point I covered my face in horror, aghast at what I was seeing. I now realize the Dali painting should have warned me that what I was seeing was only real for a certain value of real. Instead, when I realized this routine was about to recur, I cried aloud, "No, Preston! No!" But this time, instead of anger and vengeance, I was treated to delicious self-pity. Which was ... funny, I guess. And then the third time---

So yeah. It's ... a comedy. It almost becomes a tragedy along the lines of Othello or a weeper along the lines of [tip of my tongue] or a freaking farce of particularly vicious vintage.

This is a whole lotta movies crammed into one perplexing space.

So it's funny kind of like, say, Burn After Reading is funny. I mean, that's funny, right? I remember laughing.

It's a funny movie. Is it?

I don't know. Burn After Reading is funny, but is it a funny movie? Great scott, the blood in that film!

Yeah. Once again, the only movies I can find to compare Sturges to are those of the Coens. At least this one obeys the rules of comedy in its final moments. But every moment up to then is steadfastly engaged in breaking rules galore.

Hoooolee, what a movie. I'm dizzy. I need to lie down.

Lost Songs: Break My Stride


I don't have anything, really, to say about this, but I'm glad it turned up on the radio this morning. What a great song!


Clean Room


102) Clean Room Vol. 3: Waiting for the Stars to Fal by Gail Simone et al, finished September 9
101) Clean Room, Vol. 2: Exile by Gail Simone et al, finished September 7
100) Clean Room, Vol. 1: Immaculate Conception by Gail Simone et al, finished September 7

Gail Simone is such a big deal whom I hear about so often that I was surprised to look through my records and see that I've never read any of her stuff (other than a single story here). I suppose a completely original work is a worthy entrypoint.

In short, this is the story of people who are saved from being dead by medical science and then can see the demons (if you will) all around us. One of them starts a Scientology-like organization. Although it's arguable that she is the series' protagonist (ultimately, I would say yes, though it takes a while for it to resolve around her story), the culty leader is certainly the key visual used on the covers:

At first, she seems to be the villain. Slowly she moves to being a villain who is the hero of her own story. By the second volume, she appears to be not evil in nature, but forced to be evil in order to stop the evil around her. By the end, she is a tragic figure who has sacrificed herself and her humanity in order to save the world.

One interesting aspect of this story is that she is but one of at least three Christ-figures, each of which competes, shall we say, for the true Christ-like role within this cosmology and within this moment of time. Which is an ugly and evil moment in time. Some people are good, but many are bad---and it doesn't help that the world is filled with things that are not, after all, hallucinations of the mad, but real evil come from elsewhere and looking to ... play with us, shall we say.

Here I enter true end-of-the-story spoilers territory.

The three volumes tell one coherent story, but the end bothered me. First, there were a couple sloppy bits that didn't make sense but were projected beyond the crisis (the Suddenly bisexual! storyline is the best example), but the primary issue, to me, was the great resolution itself. Our redhaired cult leader, having succeeded at destroying the enemy's invisible city in the sky AND their leader, arranged to have herself completely discredited---her entire organization dismantled and disgraced---all so people will not be forced to believe in this evil she successfully destroyed.

EXCEPT. Sure she destroyed the city and the leader, but untold numbers of these monsters are already living elsewhere on the earth and the alien pipeline that brought the demons here in the first place has not been destroyed. So, although the ending makes a certain emotional sense, it's utterly absurd in terms of good common sense.
And that means I was not, in the end, satisfied.

All that creative violence for nothing.
two days and one day and two days respectively

Previously in 2017


I have 99 books and A Bitch ain't one
(I don't even own that book)

gee whiz
I wrote that title before
I knew what the top book
would be and now
I feel terrible

I am definitely going to hell


099) Title by Rachel Hunt Steenblik, finished September 7

Read my full review here.

And shoot. I just remembered that I said I was going to buy another BCC Press book after I read this one. Hmm. Maybe Mel's should be next....


098) “L” Is for Lawless by Sue Grafton, finished September 6

I saw that “Y” advertised in the new Costco mag and I realized I have fallen behind pace to be ready to buy “Z” when it comes out.
Egad! The problem is: Kinsey isn't all I want to read.

That said, “L” was a lark. Crosscountry treasure hunt with cons charming and evil. In some respects, I worry though. Either this book was a bit more straightforward than some of the others, or I'm just getting better at cracking the code. I don't read mysteries much, but when I do, it's not because I want to outsmart the novelist---I want to be surprised! I solved this book a few steps ahead the whole way.
And sometimes I noticed dangers that didn't come to pass. I'm not sure if those were intentional on Grafton's part (and thus unintentional on the part of her otherwise quite competent detective) or errors. I don't like wondering this. Mysteries are not my genre. I should never worry that I'm smarter than my guide.

But: as I said. A lark. I shall continue onward.
a couple weeks


097) How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff, finished September 2

I try to pay attention to how numbers are used, but I'm often not careful and can get distracted by something that's more exciting than certain. Reading this brief and fun 63yrold book makes it much easier (still!) to sort through the garbage. As I was reading this I wanted to believe the world changed. Then I sat down and read this and saw all the same tricks employed. (And that's journalism! Not advertising or politics!)

Props to my Economics Professor Friend for the free copy, and I might as well pass along the warning he gives his student: This book was published a long time ago. It might not be as PC as you're used to. But it makes its points ever so well.
about ten days


096) Flight, Volume 4, finished August 30

Remember when Flight changed the world? Each one singlehandedly demonstrated to an amazed public the breadth and depth of comics possibility.

This, of course, is also why my kids were largely mystified by this book when I brought it home from the library. They wanted story,
in the way they were used to, from every single entry. But that's not what Flight offers.

For that, maybe check out Flight Explorer?
two or three days

Previously in 2017


Books with looks!


095) What Was Left of the Stars by Claire Åkebrand, finished August 30

I first came to know Claire (or, her work) when we were working on Fire in the Pasture. I've read bits of her poetry when it's appeared in my feed and now I've picked up her first book.

The cover is a painting by---I'm guessing her sister-in-law?---Amanda Åkebrand. It's titled "The Garden of Eden" and it looks like the Moulin Rouge. It's a beautiful cover. And the right cover.

I'll write a longer (but not completely thorough) review for Motley Vision. Here's a link that will get you there.
about a month


094) Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse, finished August 30

This has all the hallmarks of Wodehouse's comedic genius: well-meaning idiots, gloriously constructed strings of slang,
inexplicable love affairs, bubbly male friendships, and more! more! more!

That said, it's not surprising this book appears to currently be out of print.

The book takes place in old Hollywood, and it observes its racism without comment. And the Freaky Friday plot (a child star and a visiting English aristocrat change bodies at the dentist whilst concurrently under nitrous) is a danday set-up, but somehow both over- and under-used. Also, the end doesn't quite fulfill all the promises made by the beginning.

And, finally, the characters, though deliciously drawn, just don't come to life the way they do in his very best workds.

I don't disagree with those who claim Wodehouse is among the previous cenury's greatest artists, but this isn't the book with which to make thine argument.
about two months


093) Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Skottie Young, finished August 30

Gaiman's small book is for young readers or---even better---parents to read to young readers who may then reread.
It's charming and funny and a sequence of clever gimmicks that combine to make something greater than their silly parts.

But not too much greater. It remains firmly grounded in the world of the silly.

two days


092) Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, finished August 29

I often check short-story collections out from the library, read one or three, then return them. Generally,
I'm impressed by the writing, but I just have too many other things to read to take more than a representative sample.

This book I put hold because of an article in Wired about Arrival
(an article I can't find now because it's insanely difficult to find any magazine article on their website---why I'm not tweeting them all the time), but I wasn't totally sold on reading the book, so I didn't pick it up when the library set it aside for me. But as soon as we DID see Arrival, it went right back on hold.

I read the title story which inspired the movie. It was the same. It was different. I read the shortest story in the book. It was interesting. I started from the beginning. Here I recognized just how broad and masterful Chiang could be.
This story is a Tower of Bable tale that takes ancient cosmology seriously. As the tower grows, the moon passes by its workers.

Also featured is a world where sperm cells really are tiny humans awaiting an ovum to bring them to life. A world where angels are common occurrences and we can see with our own eyes whether the dead are lifted up to heaven or dropped down to hell. How I want to write a story placed in this world.

One thing that's clear reading these stories (and which is shown here) is how Chiang creates such deeply real worlds.
Genuine research. Geniune time. Geniune care.

The final story, written for the collection, did not seem to me, at first, as fully realized as the others.
Written as a documentary's transcript, it seemed a way to splay ideas without creating the world they fit in.
I should have been more trusting. It's a bigger challenge, but one Chiang was up to. If I ever teach a Chiang story,
I think it will be this one. If we could take away the tendency to judge by beauty, would we be right to do so?

This collection will keep me in thought for a long, long time. Check it out.

maybe two weeks


091) Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski & Lauren Myracle & Emily Jenkins, finished August 21

This book feels like it was written by a committee. And I'm not saying that because it has three listed authors, though that may count of evidence of my gut theory, but because of the nature of the writing itself. Sometimes it skips over important developmental moments to get to the next checkbox moment. It's hard to believe the novel wasn't first imagined by a room of educators and editors and marketers trying to put together a Needed Book not currently represented in the market.

That said, it does have a handful of brilliant moments and my kids---even the thirteen-year-old who started off chilly---all dug it and were glad to learn there are sequels.

So sure, it's a crass commercial project, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its merits.
one leg of a long long car ride

Previously in 2017


Books I finished, mostly today


090) The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, finished August 15

This is, according to its cover, a CLASSIC TIME-TRAVEL NOVEL. And I've read some good one in my days. My trifecta of excellence is To Say Nothing of the Dog, The Time-Traveler's Wife, and Replay. It's too soon to say if this novel will stick with me the way those have, but it was definitely good.

Curiously, even when I realized where this essentially plotless book was headed, the arrival of that destination still managed to be strange and satisfying and even surprising. And isn't that part of what a good time-travel novel should do?

Maybe it's necessary that a time-travel novel will have a curious relationship with time, but this one takes is a step further. It claims a 1973 copyright, but it talks about buying Apple stock and Fox having an unusually successful film in 1977.

Poorly aging aspects of this novel can be explained away by its own conceit. But the most obvious "out-of-date"
aspect is its take on sexuality.

Let's keep going with this disjointed and chaotic review, shall we?

I like the way this novel full-up embraces paradox as the story its telling rather than trying to explain it or work through or around it. I like how a seeming error in the first sentence is the key to the whole thing. I like how it dismisses its largeness in small paragraphs to instead embrace its smallness. I'm intrigued how I was much more involved by the heterosexual sex when the author is gay. I like how its plotless solipsism hid what was going on for most of the novel. I like how much the book just doesn't care.

But only time will tell if it is great.
six days


089) Mormonism for Beginners by Stephen Carter, finished August 15

This was sent to me by the publisher and I thought about comparing it to a similar book coming out about the same time, but I never got around to requesting it from the publisher. And then I misplaced this book for several months. So, you know, very professional.

Anyway, I'll admit I was a little leery coming into this. No knock against our author whom, generally, I trust. But I always get nervous when things sacred to me are presented for an audience who may not appreciate that. And I'm not convinced there are always two sides to a story. (For an obvious now example, cf.) So I can be jumpy.

The great news is that Stephen Carter's light touch and generous spirit makes his presentation of even extremely touchy topics like gay restrictions and polygamy and Book of Mormon historicity and racial priesthood restrictions understandable and open---we are free to judge, but we are also free not to judge. I not only enjoyed this book myself, but would give it to my kids to read or a neighbor curious about the Church or a longtimer knocked off balance by Recent Information.
Which isn't to say I view the book as a missionary tool per se, but that I feel its presentation is fair and detailed and respectful and daring.

And, frankly, pretty darn funny at times.

Speaking of funny, Jett Atwood's illustrations are often, essentially, standalone gags. Sometimes they're truly illustrative. And, in that latter category, they often add another layer to what Stephen is saying---as good illustrations can. And sometimes, as in the temple section, they move from her better known style to something more abstract.
Appropriately, I would say.

In short, this is a thoughtful book. Yes, it's funny. Yes, it spends some time among the weeds. Yes, it's filled with cartoons. But it's thoughtful and very well constructed.

The top-level topics in the table of contents are Mormon History, LDS Scripture, Mormon Life, Hot-button Issues,
and This Mormon Life. Each of those is broken down into multiple subtopics.

By the end of this book, the uninitiated will be well prepared to have intelligent conversations on the faith; and the initiated will likely end up with a few new facts they didn't know. For instance, did you know clips of Fantasia were used in the first version of the temple film? Or that the true order of prayer was practices in wards and stakes outside the temple clear into the 1970s? I didn't.

I suppose I should mention if I found any errors. I did, but they were minor and few. For instance, on the same spread as those last two facts, Carter claims that outside live sessions, those doing endowment sessions never move room to room.
Not quite. I submit Los Angeles for your consideration. But none of the vanishingly few errors I saw merit much attention.

In short, the book is well constructed. Friendly and easy to access while providing surprising depth and breadth in its pages. You could do a lot worse than assigning this to an Intro to Mormonism class.
most of the damn year


088) Ben, in the World by Doris Lessing, finished August 15

This novel offers a different set of complexities from its forebear, The Fifth Child. Ben, here, is an adult. And he becomes a much more sympathetic charactr, even as understanding him remains largely impossible.

The narrative voice pulls no punches---Ben may be strange and animal, but it is US and OUR WORLD that is evil.

It's interesting though---the much bigger canvas this novel plays with is ultimately less compelling than the very intimate and domestic story told in the first novel.
a small number of weeks


087) Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken, finished August 9

I'm not sure what possessed me to look-inside-the-book on Amazon before this was even released, but I did and I wanted to read more and so I put on hold at the library. I didn't really expect to read it. I mean, skim, sure. The takedown chapter of Ted Cruz, you betcha. And when I got it from the library and saw how thick it was, I knew no way would I finish it before it was due (it's new! no way I'll be renewing it!). But surprise surprise. Read it I did.

My main impression of Al Franken before he ran for Senate was from the titles of his books. And so I rather assumed he was a blowhard evenly balanced with blowhards on the right: a joker who pretended at reality, just with a different set of "facts." And so when he entered the Senate,
my main hope was that entertaining news would come out of it. (Minnesota had not disappointed with Jesse Ventura, after all.) That didn't happen, but when he did show up in the news,
he was acquitting himself pretty well.

Anyway, I learned a lot from this book. And Franken does a fine job establishing ethos that makes me trust him. Were his previous books more current, I might well read them for the facts (though jokes certainly help---how many other senatorial memoirs has Theric read?).

Reading this book also pushed me forward in recognizing the real nature and purpose of politics. Notwithstanding appearances, in fact, politics is the art of getting along.

The book has also pushed me further away from ever desiring to seek office. For all the reasons I would have said it's a bad idea last week.

In short, Franken is an intelligent and amusing guide through his life and the Senate. I hope people outside his normal sphere of influence / politics give him a shot.
under a week (unless you include reading the intro literally months ago)

Previously in 2017


Lost songs about commas
and men in traditional men's jobs


When I first moved to Provo in the a*****e-end of the Twentieth Century, one of the songs well embedded in my Internal Jukebox™ was James Taylor's "Handy Man," a song utterly forgotten by American radio and apparently equally unknown to those of my generation.

Skip to 1:47 to start where my spontaneous outbursts would start---the famous comma comma comma bit.

So there I am singing comma comma comma and people like yeah, I'm into it, and then they start singing about lizards.

I had never heard that song before. Not ever.

(This could lead into a discussion of how my knowledge of '80s music and Lady Steed's knowledge of '80s music barely overlapped at that stage in our history ... but not today.)

Eventually I had to push "Handy Man" back down whenever it arrived because it was subdesirable to have it hijacked by this . . . other song.

After Lady Steed and I wed, my music diet changed such that now I know about things like Culture Club and Depeche Mode and The Cure and U2 and stuff I'd never listened to as a kid and now I know "Karma Chameleon" perfectly well, thank you very much. And it feels like I've been hearing it all the bleeding time these past 17+ years. Which would be fine except everyone thinks IT invented comma comma comma-ing!

But then, two days ago, in my less-than-once-a-year trip to the bank, I heard "Handy Man" over the speakers.

Holy smokes!

Then! Tonight! In the grocery store! "Handy Man"!


Maybe the rest of the world has finally discovered what I've known since 1977.

(Incidentally, the original version of "Handy Man" by Sparks of Rhythm (listed at the link as Jimmy Jones) and the first charting cover by Del Shannon can be heard here.) (Just kidding. The Del Shannon version's not on Spotify. But isn't "Runaway" a great song?)

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

As long as we're here, why not one more song? This is "Delivery Man" by The Cruel Sea. Big in Australia. I got the album with a punched cover at an American dollar store. And it was awesome.

Turn up your bass.


In which Theric (!) complains about sex. Twice.


086) The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey, finished August 4

Up in the middle of the night writing a screenplay and eating cereal and reading this. Although I think the images could have been cranked a bit further comedically, this was a fun book. I enjoyed it.

My kids have enjoyed it too, though I think it might be best aimed at an under-eight crowd.
a few minutes


085) Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks, finished August 3
This is an ambitious book. It's filled with metametanarrative and philosophical discussions on literature and fantasy and self-realization and all sorts of hifalutin concepts. In the final analysis, though, it really seems like the philosophy is just sugar dusting the book's real raison d'être: drawing lots and lots of naked women.

For all its firm discussion of and ironic-winking commentary on the appropriateness of making women subject to male fantasy, it's hard to read this book as anything but a full submersion into just that. And that's not the only double-standard the book wants to engage in. Or to reject. Tentacle-monster/teenage-girl sex is discussed in largely the same tone, but Horrocks doesn't indulge in pages and pages of drawrin it.

Maybe I'm a prude. Perhaps. But what bothered me was less the sex than the high-minded preaching that was in direct war with what the book was actually doing. You can call that ambiguity if you want, but I think it would be more accurate to call it hypocrisy. Or perhaps merely horny laziness.
about a week


084) Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk, finished August 3
I listened to this on a lone car drive. This was probably better than reading this as the conceit is that the book is narrated into a plane's black box as its lone passenger waits for it to crash. Of course, the downside is that whenever the narrative pushes that conceit a bit past believability it is perhaps more obvious that this is the case.

I didn't know when this book was published but somehow I imagined it wasn't that long ago. But this assumption became obviously wrong as time went on. Some items it seems like Palahniuk should have anticipated (in 1999, wasn't it already obvious how the internet would change pornography?), but some probably could not have been (how America views and deals with hijackings took a sudden turn, after all, in 2001). But I'm not complaining about any of the above.

My primary complaint is how Palahniuk, near the end of the book, has a member of an ultraconservative Christian cult present a hyperliberal view of sex. The way this side character had been presented from the very first minutes was the initial damage against my suspension of disbelief. This character who could know very little started out by knowing a whole lot. And when his opinions change, the way he speaks about this change goes against his entire history. I can accept his change in opinion. What I cannot accept is the manner in which he speaks this opinion. I don't know if his opinions are Palahniuk's, but it sure feels the author stepping in, turning a character into a puppet, and soapboxing his opinions.


That said, this is a book in the Fight Club or Invisible Monsters vein, and its criticism of modern American culture is largely on-the-nose. Both cruel and fair.
Largely. It is satire, so your mileage may vary.

But really: the most remarkable thing about it is how well it documents how much we've changed since 1999. It's not just porn and planes; it's many small,
subtle things.
two days


083) CatStronauts: Mission Moon by Drew Brockington, finished July 29

This is a charming book. The cats are cats, even if they're scientists and politicians, and the details are suitably witty for even an adult to enjoy.
not very long at all


082) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, finished July 29

Believe it or not, I've never read A Wrinkle in Time before. I read A Swiftly Tilting Planet many times because I owned it and it was one of the books I frequently reread, but my only experience with its forebear was a teacher reading it aloud in elementary school.
I remembered the concept of tesseracting clearly, but otherwise all that was left was a vague sense of disquiet I did not desire to revisit.

Rereading it now, I can see the legitimacy of that sense of disquiet, but still. It's a beautiful book. Granted, I seem to be going through a weepy stage,
but weepy I got. And I knew the book was supposed to have Christian undertones, but I don't know if "undertones" is the right terminology---it quotes scripture at length, darn it.

Anyway. Even with modern film technology, this still seems nigh unto unfilmable. I haven't see the trailer for the new film yet, but I wish them well.

I'm excited to read the rest of the quintet. I didn't know there were more than three books until recently and not that there were five until today. I'm looking forward to working my way through all these unread words. (And to see how well I remember ASTP.)
about three weeks


081) The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, finished July 15

I'm not sure where I got it into my head to read this, but I asked the library to get me a copy upon my return from our travels and I read it during a solo shot to San Francisco to buy discounted pants. I'm glad I did.

It hasn't settled yet, a day later.

I don't know whose side I'm supposed to be on. The parents seem like good people. And the baby is horrible. But a baby can't be to blame. But if removing a baby returns happiness . . . is the baby to blame?

This book takes easy questions and makes them very very difficult to answer.

From what I've read, it seems this is one of those Instant Classics that didn't get assigned in schools and so has slowly slipped below general public awareness.
I'm seriously considering rectifying this. I love it as a companion to Frankenstein . . . .

And then maybe show Eraserhead for a fun finale?
one day

Previously in 2017


Books read while travelling


Three weeks on the road. Five books finished. Many books started but unfinished for various reasons (nephew returned it to the library, competition with kids, Pratchett audiobook proved to have more familywide appeal*, just never finished it alas). But it was a week of great variety and this is how it went:


080) The Novel by James C. Michener, finished July 12

Having grown fatigued of The Man, I replaced it with my first time reading a Michener novel. Luckily, I generally ignore blurbs until after reading a book because the ones on this were darn misleading. All the calls for adventure and thrills were . . . not exactly so. Perhaps out of context? I don't know.

I'm not sure what is the novel referred to in the title. At first I thought it was Lukas Yoder's eight novel as that is what the first section of the book---written in Yoder's voice---is about. But it doesn't even get mentioned in the second section starring his longtime editor. Maybe THE NOVEL is about the concept of the novel?
Some kind of platonic ideal? I'm not sure.

So the novel is broken into four sections. Writer, Editor, Critic, Reader. Each is narrated by such a person. Each narrator has his or her own motivations and concerns.
It does come together as a single, cohesive work with plot and everything! in the final section, but those aspects are also some of the most clunky in terms of the actual writing.

I found it most fruitful to read The Novel as an intellectual memoir in metaphorical form. Yoder, in this reading, is both an idealized version of Michener and a confession of what many of his contemporaries dismissed about him. It's hard to read this book and not think about the $30 million dollars he put up to endow the creative writing program in Austin. The book both defends the stodgy old and celebrates the daring new. It's various sections allow Michener to write both to a popular audience and to an audience of elites (though I don't know if the latter accepted his feelers).

It seems to me that UT MFA candidates should read this book. It's not great---it's not pushing me in the direction of more Michener novels (which, after all, on average are much longer than this one)---but it does intrigue. It certainly has made me question decisions I have made in my own writing over my unsuccessful years....
about than four months


079) Dodger by Terry Pratchett, finished July 11

Like Nation, this is a standalone novel for younger readers.
Like Nation, it takes place between a hundred and two ago. Like Nation, it features brilliantly conceived young protagonists. Like Nation, it's absolutely terrific.

Here's the gist: Dodger, a seventeen-year-old tosher (one who makes his living searching the sewers of London for lost valuables) saves a girl from being murdered which sets off a sequence of events that catapults him through all layers of society.

It's Pratchett-smart stuff and, listening to it, I kept thinking how tailer-made it is for BBC adaptation. It takes place in Victorian England. It features a wide variety of fascinating sets from the grimiest to the most glamorous (and all the people to match). It has fish-out-of-water. It has the opportunity for Sherlock-like "thinking." It even has some upstairs/downstairs stuff! And if all that wasn't enough, it also features all sorts of cameos historical (Charles Dickens,
Queen Victoria) and fictional (Sweeney Todd).

Were it up to me, I would ask Edgar Wright to take on this task, though I imagine more people would think first of Guy Ritchie. But it doesn't have to be someone with a movie background, of course.
It just can't be the people who've been making the BBC's Discworld nonsense.
about ten days


078) Big Nate: Great Minds Think Alike by Lincoln Peirce, finished July 10

If it wasn't for Big Nate and the Wimpy Kid, would boys read? I honestly do not know.

I feel obliged to read some Wimpy Kid, but haven't been able to talk myself into more than a few pages. Big Nate (the strip, not the Wimpy Kid-style books) is an easier sale. It's a smart strip, consistently funny. In that respect, it can stand proudly alongside the greats like Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes. However,
Big Nate doesn't have much to say beyond that. In other words, it has daily quality, but it does not have the broad years-wide quality of the greats.

This is not a knock. It's a good strip and good on Peirce for making money.

Fine book. I'm surprised I got through it though considering how many boys my reading was in competition with....
two days


077) Living Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson, finished July 7

This is a wonderful book. Like most people, I know Jackson best through "The Lottery" and one or two of her novels, but I also know the Charlie essay and so I got this collection for Lady Steed this Christmas, with the plan I would read it after her.

Lady Steed loved it. At first. And it never stopped being funny, but the way Jackson captures the oppression of being a mother was stressful for her to read.

From a professional standpoint, two things to observe. One, how she takes disparate essays published separately and turns them into one whole. Two, how well she uses adverbs in tags, something every writing teacher will tell you can't be done. But instead of being redundant or insulting the reader's intelligence or becoming swifties, Jackson's sly and ironic usage is like a secondary punchline---almost a parallel storytelling. It's quite something. She is a master humorist. Even if that's not how we remember her best.
not sure, but not that many days of actual reading time, most of them centered in the last couple weeks


076) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, finished June 30?

Of the books I downloaded for our trip, this is the one the kids chose to listen to first.

It's been a looong time since I've visited Narnia, so although the plot of the book was familiar to me, but of the rest was newly seen through an adult's eyes. For instance: the symbolism is actually quite heavyhanded. And the narrative voice has the sort of charm I know best, these days, as parodied by Lemony Snicket---but without the moralistic excesses Snicket is inoculating us against.

In the end, I enjoyed it. I expect I would still now, as then, prefer the standalone books (The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair), but I don't deny its classic status.
three or four days ish

Previously in 2017


2017: Tʜᴇ Mᴏᴠɪᴇs
part two


In theaters:

The Boss Baby (2017): I wasn't that interested in this movie until I read an article saying that the filmmakers tried to bring a traditional 2D sensibility to 3D animation. The books (1, 2) are great reads---at least as the current owner of a baby I think so---but the trailer showed that the movie was going to stray pretty far from the basic concept they present. In fact, having now seen the movie, it introduces even more high-concept nonsense that could very well have overwhelmed it with bad attempts at making absurdity rational. Many a kids' movie has perished under such a pressing. What makes Boss Baby not only survive but thrive under this weight is its open embrace of childhood imagination. And the 2D sensibility comes into play here. Many of the openly imagined scenes look crafted by Mary Blair or other midcentury concept artists / Golden Books illustrators. In other words, this film gives us what we think we want from a modern animated film, and delivers it through the medium of what our souls actually crave. I hope it's a harbinger.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017): This is just pure, crackling entertainment. Laffs. Tears. Surprises. Action. Reversals. Reveals. Joy. Sadness. Explosions. Suggestions of depth. Arguments for meaning. Color. Charm. Pleasure.

Wonder Woman (2017): Another great superhero movie with more than the average blockbuster's amount of depth. A lot of the movies wonder grows from watching Diana develop from a naif to one with wisdom. It's hard-earned. But Gal Gadot was up to the task. If this role doesn't overwhelm our impressions of her, she'll be around a long long time and should have an interesting career. Also: her theme is one of the greatest of all time. The first time I heard it (earliest trailer) it already felt like it had been hers since the birth of metal.

At home:

Back to the Future (1985): With bis brothers both gone to Grandma's a couple days, son #2 deserved something special and in this case that was letting him watch a movie he's been begging to watch ever since his older brother got to see it two Decembers ago. I wasn't so excited to see it again so soon, but wanted the experience to be as special for him as he hoped it would be. So I faked enthusiasm. Didn't take long for the enthusiasm to turn real, however, as, let's face it: this is a pretty great movie. Of course, no he wants to watch the sequels....

The Puffy Chair (2005): Ah, the birth of mumblecore! The movie that launched an empire! This film was filmed on the cheap* (and it shows), but it's well written and well acted and small enough to fit in the budget. I'll never watch it again and I don't know that I would necessarily recommend it, but I get why it's a touchstone and I thought it was truthful about things in a way that I understood, even if this is not my life. (In a way that, say Linklater's Dazed or Boyhood did not for me.)

Son of Kong (1933): This is a straight sequel to the original King Kong, bringing back several key and side players of the original cast (or crew, I suppose, being primarily men of the ship). The set-up is strong, but it loses its way a bit on the island---Kong junior plays for laughs a few times, mugging the camera and everything. And just as the story is taking off, they find treasure and a simultaneous earthquake/hurricane destroys the island. So while a lot of the instincts here were good, the execution of the last two acts gets more rushed and more sloppy until it's suddenly just over. Still: kid-friendly.

A Town Called Panic (2009): The kids got into this almost immediately, notwithstanding their aversion for subtitles. And of course! It's hilarious! But what interests me about the film is how much madness and absurdity it manages to hang on an extremely traditional structure.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016): I'm still filled with regret for not voting with my dollars and seeing this in theaters last summer, but hey! We watched it! It was good! My stomach doesn't ache from laughing as I expected, but it was funny---Sam Neill is brilliant, the kid is ... um, is "the boy Rebel Wilson" unkind? And Rhys Darby is a bleeding treasure. My dad would love this movie ... I'll bet you will too.

Fun and Fancy Free (1947): Although I've seen "Bongo" a time or three and "Mickey and the Beanstalk" many many times, I'm not sure I've seen the full, connected package before. (And I'm fairly certain I'm more familiar with the Ludwig Von Drake-narrated version of M&thBs that was made for tv.) To my surprise, the kids' favorite part of the show was probably Charlie McCarthy's snide remarks. Time to break out the Bergen!

To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters (2016): I was confused the first half hour because I was certain the severe stout sister must be Anne and confused at the role she was taking in the family. Once I got the casting sorted out, I did much better. The cinematography is beautiful. And you know, for all the tragedy, what a family to be born into.

Midnight Special (2016): Acting, editing, cinematography, etc very real. As Lady Steed says, "It felt real. Like it could really happen." The end even has realistic loose ends. In fact, it seemed to suggest new loose ends (was that flicker a "twist"?). And I didn't like the Tomorrowland-esque visuals at the end. I don't know that attempting to execute, say, a heavenly look would have been better or not. I dunno. It's weird for such a good movie to be rather ungood. Perhaps---perhaps it improves with further viewings. I can see that.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016
): We watched it with the boys and I have to say: it's better the second time.

Noroît (1976): This is a strange, strange movie. Which is fine, but in this case I think I would have been well served to do some reading up on it before digging in. The way it uses an old play in English (probably by Middleton) and the artistic choice to reimagine the utility of language in film took me most of the movie to figure out on my own. My favorite part is one of the murder-by-dance sequences at the end. The film this most reminds me of is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead in how it incorporates old theatrical elements into the movie. This one, however, manages to get less and less filmic just as it starts introducing techniques that only exist in film. Curious movie.

Hail, Caesar! (2016): The scene with the religious figures was the best of its kind since Hudsucker Proxy; the film homages were delightful even when they highlighted my ignorance; the religious aspects were honest; Clooney was underutilized; I really need to see it again to figure out just what I think.

All the President's Men (1976): We had to keep pausing this movie so we could chat and make sure we were grasping all the threads and the end comes in a massive rush of type, but overall the movie was terrific and eerily NOW. Lady Steed was convinced Woodward and Bernstein were going to die. All I can say is, when reporters start dying, that's when the American experiment will truly be over.

Sully (2016): The structure of this film is pretty interesting---how it keeps circling around the central incident, showing it from different angles, perspectives, understandings. It takes a couple shortcuts in storytelling (the bureaucrat's a meanie! now he's not!), but they're classy enough that they don't really damage the experience too much (understanding their motivation in making certain assumptions would have been nice, but okay). Certainly it was stressful when it was supposed to be---which is important even in a disaster movie where no one dies.

The Handmaiden (2016): In retrospect, probably should not have watched this. Those sex scenes may well prove sticky. That said, this movie was wonderfully crafted. Complex, circuitous, ambiguous, confusing, revealing, beautiful. I needed to read the Wikipedia article to clear a few things up---probably because I watched the movie in three or four pieces over six weeks---but even with those moments of confusion, it was coherent and lovely. Hitchcock would have been impressed.


Romeo and Juliet (1968): I am so intimately familiar with this movie now that I can tell when someone's reaction begins a shade too soon or the edit reveals someone facing a slightly different direction. In other words, I'm moving past opinions of good or bad and into something purely factual. I'm prepared for every finger-wiggle. It's weird to watch a movie from the perspective of omniscience.

The Ghost Writer (2010): I just read the book and so I wanted to see the movie. This is a case where that was a grave mistake. Based on the reviews, it seems like it must be a pretty good movie, but it didn't fare so well in the side-by-side comparison. Some setpieces (eg, the ferry footchase and the concept [if not the execution] of the denouement) count as improvements, but knowing what was coming weakened the film beyond repair. Perhaps it's unfair to come into a thriller knowing its twists. Then again, how many times can one watch Vertigo without it losing its thrills? (Answer: at least one more.)

Romeo + Juliet (1996): To me, this film is as fresh and as vital as the first time I saw it (2005?). But I realized this time around that it might not seem that way to fourteen-year-old anymore. I'm also worried that their filmic vocabulary is too limited to really understand what they're seeing. I'm not sure. Never base conclusions on one set of kids. As for me, this is the only cultural event I missed during my mission that's tinged by regret.

Fences (2016): I know this play extremely well. I've been teaching it about three years now and read it at least a dozen, probably twenty times. I know it. The first half of the movie I had the same kind of experience as with The Ghost Writer---it was just people saying words I knew. But the second half of the move tore out my heart and shredded it and then built me a new one prone to weeping. Terrific movie.

Forbidden Zone (1980): I heard about this movie on a podcast and decided I needed to watch it. Now, in my opinion, this kind of madcap surrealism, even when well done, is best finished under ten minutes. This is over seventy. (Also, I discovered after watching it, it's been colorized. I don't know how easily available the original b&w is to find.) But it's pure madness. I could cite you references and similarities all day, but here are a few to help you get a sense: Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, pre-Mickey Silly Symphonies, Max Fleischer, Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, Mary Reid Kelley, Nightmare Before Christmas.The plot doesn't really matter. The point is that the id has been loosed and we're lost in a dreamland with its own logic, absurd (and non-nice) as that may be.

Pride & Prejudice (2005): Every time I watch this movie I'm struck by the differences with the novel, but I still love it. The acting is terrific, the cinematography is stunning, the score is lovely. I will always have issues with the last two minutes, but overall I think it's a wonderful film. Man, those cameras! And I for one love the warmer Mr and Mrs Bennet relationship. And the general earthiness of the thing.

F for Fake (1973): This is a strange movie and I was deadly tired when I was watching it. I probably should have stopped it and just taken a nap, but I was afraid of losing hold of its many threads and kept going. I suspect that, regardless, this is a film not easily appreciated upon first viewing anyway. I can't honestly say that I liked it or disliked it, but listening to Orson Welles for 88 minutes is pleasure enough, don't you agree?

Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995): A charming documentary by his former partner and muse made largely from Welles's own unused footage. It humanizes him greatly. It shows that he could have been a master of YouTube had he hung around long enough. Clearly he never stopped working, even if fate and temperament kept him from finishing things. It also suggests a second something that may have gotten in the way: that very muse. He was clearly infatuated with her body---and so was she. In this film she includes a lot of her own youthful nudity. I think they may both have been seduced more by her youthful pneumatics than by his wisdom and experience.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994): First time I've seen the unedited thing! Like most Americans, I've only ever seen this film on tv. Put together, it's marvelous. It's been long enough since I've seen it at all that I can't really speak to the differences between this version and the tvified version---I wasn't surprised by anything---but it was unquestionably a thing of beauty. Almost too beautiful, maybe, but true enough that skepticism doesn't stick.

Casablanca (1942): Gets better every time. EV ER Y TIME.

Spirited Away (2001): I love this movie, but apparently they're watching it in a couple other classes, so I need to substitute it for another Miyazaki movie. Maybe it's time to try Mononoke again....

Psycho (1960): I love watching/hearing jaded teenage audiences react to this movie.

Rushmore (1998): A couple elements of this movie have suddenly aged (mostly kissing scenes), but it's still a masterpiece.

Do the Right Thing (1989): I skipped about 90 seconds of a certain scene, and with that gone I have no regrets about using this film. It shakes the kids, it brings some needed diversity to what I'm teaching, it full of Filmic Stuff, its literary while pushing against our stereotypes of what that means. It's a rough movie, but it's so human we can take it.

The Iron Giant (1999): Anyone who saw it as a child---even if they watched it over and over---is amazed when they revisit it later and discover it is capable of tearing out your soul and shining the light of heaven through it.

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987): The end of this movie is truly beautiful, but the first two acts are centered around an almost documentarian set of scenes of a) Robin Williams performing and b) scenes of everyday life in Vietnam. As I've never found Robin Williams to be all that funny, this got tiresome. I don't regret waiting this long to watch the movie, but neither do I regret having finally seen it. It's a curious snapshot of what the Sixties looked like when they were only twenty years old.

Previous films watched