Elevator Pitch: Harold Pinter's Aquaman


041) The Birthday Party and The Room by Harold Pinter, finished May 6

My edition was published when these plays were still fresh and new and Pinter was still the dangerous young man. I've never read him before, but have long been meaning to. When I finished The Birthday Room all I wanted to say was WHAT THE HELL and I didn't feel it was at all what I had been expecting. but then I thought about what I had been expecting and what I had been expecting was not, in substance, that different from what I read. So good job at being Pinteresque, Pinter.

The violence in The Room was even more startling and unexpected, largely because the direction of it was quite opposite to the expectations created by the dread building up to it.

My first observation, reading The Birthday Party (before suddenly things got Dangerous and Weird), was how much the lead couple's was how much their conversation reminded me of the couples in Raymond Briggs. These are true working-class Brits, it would seem. And both Pinter and Briggs take that normalcy and do straaange things with it. There's a dissertation in here somewhere.
three days for the first
and two days for the second
but the third day of the
first and the first day of
the second were the same day
and there was a weekend between
that day and the final day


042) When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie & Edwin Balmer, finished May 11

I don't remember where I picked this novel up, but I was intrigued by the copy on the cover stating


I'll admit to a bit of skepticism. For one thing, it has two authors. This makes me a snob. For another, based on the backcopy, this book seemed to be a completely different sort of book than either of those British classic, and that made me think those writing things on the cover didn't really know what they were talking about.

I was right.

Perhaps the book could have been more highly regarded when it originally appeared (1932) and perhaps even when my copy was published (1973), but less so now.

The main issue is the authors' completely unexamined racist and sexist assumptions. Well, maybe that's not the "main" issue, but it's the one that would be easiest to write an outraged thinkpiece on. Because the book is a mess---a mess!---of completely unexamined racist and sexist assumptions. You'll have to be pretty damn ignorant and pretty damn WASPy to miss them in 2019.

But they are, in some ways, merely symptomatic of the even more fundamental issue: Wyler and Balmer cannot write believable human beings. They are terrible at writing characters. Everytime I had to read scenes with characters I wanted to pluck my eyeballs out. They are awful and unbelievable and the laziest, crappiest, most unexamined mix of sterotype and cliche I've read in ... a long time, maybe ever.

So why, you might reasonably ask, why oh Theric, did you continue to read?

Great question. And I have an answer: because the scenes without characters were amaaaazing.

Here's the set-up: a pair of lost planets that have somehow been sent hurtling starless through the galaxy are on a collision course with the earth. On their first pass, the larger of the two will pass so close to the earth that the tides will be hundreds of feet high and lava will erupt from the Earth's crust and the Moon will be demolished. On its second pass, the Earth itself will be destroyed but, luckily, the second (and potentially inhabitable) planet, will survive and be sent in motion around our Sun while the large planet continues on its hyperbolic path to deep space, ne'er to return. If we can just get to Bronson Beta, humanity may continue.

And so we get a bunch of Strong Men and Brilliant Men working on inventing space travel etc etc while there's still a chance. They are, none of them, really worth mentioning.

What is worth mentioning are the scenes of destruction. They are captured with such realism to take my breath. People dying, helpless, by the millions. The planet we know and love as home tearing apart under our feet. The utter helplessness I felt as I read this passages is on par with any work of horror or disaster, book or film. Sadly, they were all followed up with more Tony and his perfectness and token anxieties. Ugh.

The novel wants to do interesting things. Perhaps the Brave New World comparison was inspired by the (scientifically sensible) idea that the survivors on Bronson Beta should not reproduce according to such now-expired ideas as love and marriage, but through carefully planned matches to assure the next generation will be as genetically strong as possible (though the authors are way too invested in conventional morality to really explore the idea outside the most timid teeheeing). I'm curious if they really attack the sex questions in their sequel, but not enough to pick it up. I suspect it'll all be character stuff. And I'm not willing to take that chance. Let me perish on the Earth with real people like Dorothea Brooke and Kade Chance.
about eleven months


043) Aquaman: Sub Diego by Will Pfeifer / Patrick Gleason / Christian Alamy, finished May 18

This is a 2015 collection of a 2004 "classic Aquaman story." Oh, yeah.

Half of San Diego has sunk below the sea and there are survivors---only now they breathe through gills and cannot return to land although they still possess the instinctive drive to get above water and breathe air they cannot breathe.

The art, at times, is distressingly ugly. By which I largely mean that the way they look in any given panel is not the way they ought to look given the demands of the story. But at least they'll have breasts and/or muscles and definitely buttocks. So that's good.

The concept and everything is fine and maybe it'll go somewhere in a later volume of Sub Diego, but the main thing I got was an answer to the vital question---spoiler alert---can Aquaman talk to plankton?

two or three days


044) The Tragedy of King Leere, Goatherd of the La Sals by Steven L. Peck, finished May 22

I don't know if it's Peck's additional ethos by virtue of being a working scientist, but I have never read a climate-change near-fiction novel that feels quite so likely as King Leere. The heavy referencing to Shakespeare also adds to the books intellectual heft (I did just read Lear---which I actually liked more than my lazy review suggests). And although the book is a fun and quick read, it's never lightweight.

One of the joys of near-future novels (this one's older folks are probably younger folks today) is picking up on details that don't now exist but that make sense---that can easily be extrapolated by the attentive reader. Peck also peppers the book with cool tech that seems feasible but that I, at least, haven't heard of before (guns that make bullets from carbon pulled from the air, for instance). Leere also experiments deeply with different points of view and design quirks (robot thought, demon thought, blank verse*), much like The Scholar of Moab.

But this gets to an important distinction between Moab and Leere. Moab was finished. Leere is a mess of typos and design errors and boneheaded mistakes no self-respecting copyeditor would let past. It's possible this is not from a lack of effort (Peculiar Pages accidentally released the penultimate edit of Monsters & Mormons at first, later corrected, very embarrassing), but I'm suspicious that BCC Press is just taking good books and putting them out as they were delivered. And so Publishers Weekly assumes they're seeing an "uncorrected" proof when actually that's what the final version actually looks like. Largely it's just eyerolling stuff, but sometimes it really matters. The most obviously problematic recurring problem was a lack of consistency with how the blank verse was formatted resulting in problems determining which character is talking. Design matters!

Anyway. Disappointing, but don't let it keep you from the novel. Just know it's annoying and, if you're the empathetic sort, embarrassing.

The narrating demon, near the very end of the novel, directly calls out our slowness to address climate change (he lives at our time and speaks to us---but he is not attached to time as we are and tells us a story of the future). Like a Shakespearean tragedy, our favorite characters are probably dead by the end, but, even worse, we don't have much hope for a better world, either. Even the pequeninos, which survived, are likely doomed. What hope is there? The demon is direct:
I can see that I've gone too far. You want subtle hints that the ecosystems of the world are crashing. Bold statements of that reality trend you away from the subdued and masked literary allusions you so enjoy. You want to see it from the side, to pretend you see the hidden message of what I'm saying. You want it wrapped in metaphor that only those in the know will see. But I just state it. You are dying.
He's right. I want to feel smart, and special because I'm smart. And I also want to keep our pending doom easily hidden away in less used corners of my mind. Don't we all?

The real enemy is, ultimately, not humans, however. Something we no longer control, no more than a dissatisfied bee controls the hive.

This might be the most fun I've had reading a Steven Peck novel. It might also be the least happy one has left me. And there's competition.
eighteen days



Eat Book for Good Health


034) King Lear by William Shakespeare, finished April 13

As a teenager, this play really did not work for me. I blamed it on being too young.

If I am no longer too young, methinks I am also not old enough.
four days


035) Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil by Jeff Smith, finished April 13

I probably would not have read this when the boys brought it home from the library except ... it's by Jeff Smith! Apparently his first work after finishing Bone (?), it does read and look like Bone in some ways if you're looking for connections.

I know very little about Captain Marvel, but apparently the movie's take is one of two. In the movie, Captain Marvel is just Billy Batson in a bigger body. The other version (as here) has Billy as sort of a magic lamp with Captain Marvel as the genie. (And possibly just future Billy all grown up?) It works well here, but that seems like a version that could get very dark very quickly. Sort of like the Hulk, only ... worse somehow.

I don't think that version of Captain Marvel has ever been done. But, again, I'm no expert.

Anyway, back to this Jeff Smith book, fun read! It's truly for kids, but it's also written and drawn in a way attractive to an adult audience. If he had ever done more, I would be interested. (The series sort of did continue, but without Mr Smith.)

Ultimately though I think Captain Marvel has to be for kids. It's a silly concept (even for a superhero) and with young Billy as protagonist, moving away from work-for-kids would lose its way quickly. I imagine. It does seem like Black Adam is a character they like to turn dark, but again: I'm no expert.
the thirteenth


036) The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men by Carol Lynn Pearson, finished April 15

I'm not sure I'd realized, really, how much thought I've given this topic---especially because I haven't thought about it much in a long, long time. Perhaps I had blocked out thinking about polygamy because it can be an exhausting topic. But certainly it's on my mind. "The Widower," The Youngest Wife, some poetry forthcoming and as yet unaccepted---even "The Prophetess of Mars" is framed like a polygamy story, someone recently told me to my surprised agreement.

I think the biggest revelation Carol Lynn's book provides is this: I am free to reject polygamy. I think, after Lady Steed has read the book, and we can talk about it together, this will be a great weight lifted from us. I suspect this weight explains some things I've never quite been able to discern clearly.

I hope people are listening. This is an important book, and a true book---a necessary book and a difficult book.
three days


037) Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson, finished April 19

My kids had checked out at least this volume of Phoebe before and I had ignored it, thinking it was a Wimpy Kid-style book. Even had I known it was a syndicated strip, I might not have cared. This not precisely a golden era, after all. I don't mean to knock the strips being done, but they don't feel like a priority.

That said, I've been following the new Nancy since it appeared and the first strip delighted me. I just read an interview with that artist's editor at the syndicate and it mentioned that she also discovered/edits Phoebe and Wallace the Brave---two strips I did not know. Only the former had collections at my local library, so that's what I have now read.

And I liked it.

The introduction to this first volume was written by Peter S. Beagle (!) who compares its protagonist (favorably) to Calvin (!) and Charlie Brown (!) and says it is the best strip since Calvin's. So...impressive.

Having now read the first collection, I think a better comparison would be to Barnaby. Like Barnaby and unlike Calvin, Phoebe's friend the unicorn is unequivocably real. Like Barnaby and unlike Calvin, Phoebe's adventures are not limited t0 a primarily inner world and are certainly not limited to a short set of characters. It's expansively fantastical while remaining grounded in the small of an everychild's lived life. So yes. Phoebe's most obvious antecedent would have to be Barnaby.

the strips are colored in the book and, I suspect, at times the lines are strengthened and, in at least one case, cultural references (eg, Bono) may be written out


038) a novel by a friend, finished April 23

fivish days


039) Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett, finished April 27

Every time (or almost so) I read a Terry Pratchett book, I wonder if THIS one is the one I should have talked the school into adding to the textbook room. Rereading it, no. This is great. I find it emotionally moving, it's endlessly funny, and I think I've finally figured out the right way to teach it. (In the past I've taught it, let it lie fallow three years, taught it, etc.) But now? I think I'm figuring it out. The students have only just begun, but it seems to be taking.
perhaps two weeks


040) Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, finished May 3

I remember discovering this blog when it was still quite fresh, just as it was blowing up. Lady Steed and I would read it together, but it would take forever to get through as story as we were in literal danger of asphyxiation from all the laughter.

It's still good, but it's not as funny now. I have a few theories as to why:
1. I've read it before.

2. It's optimized for scrolling. Pages mess up the flow.

3. Smaller pictures.

4. We're older. Much of the insane stuff she does, grouchy old me wants to tell her to just stop doing stupid things.

5. It's 2019. We don't laugh at mental illness anymore.

6. I identify much, much more with her parents now. Those poor, poor people.

7. Miscellaneous similar points.
I would still recommend the book, no question, but the blog has a few stories the book does not (and vice versa) and is free. Maybe start there?
fivish days



Endgame spoilers


I've been reading Slate since the late '90s and today I made my first (possibly second?) pitch today. It's about Endgame and timely and I don't really feel like shipping it around and so, as it was rejected in about three hours, I just thought I would throw it up here. If anyone wants to persuade me to write the thing, I'm listening.
We probably have another week in which people are interested in reading about Avengers: Endgame, and although I found the movie satisfying, as it rolls around in my brain, I'm starting to find issues with it.

Ragnarok, for all its destruction (all of Asgard destroyed!), ended upbeat and saw Thor finally growing into his destined role as king.

Infinity War immediately ruined this cheerful close with Thanos's arrival. You could say, That's real life! Sometimes bad things happen! but this is movies and that entire argument is equivalent to arguing Endgame itself shouldn't have been made at all.

(Here, if you think it's appropriate, I could talk about my affinity for the films of Taika Waititi and how I think Ragnarok is a fine example of his personal work, which makes the rest of my take so upsetting to me personally. We could also leave me out it. Although I've been reading Slate since the very beginning, this is my first time pitching you. I don't have much ethos with your readership.)

As Infinity War flushed the Yay! Asgard! portion of Ragnarok, Endgame flushes Thor's personal development.

It's fine that he's been sad for five years and hasn't risen to the occasion. It's less fine that he appoints Valkyrie to be the #1 stay-at-home mom of Asgard (link to Slate's failed-feminism-of-Endgame piece) so he can leave his mancave and spend the rest of his life bowling with Star-Lord, a rabbit, and, one presumes, either John Goodman or Steve Buscemi in Thor 4: Asgardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.

In sum, all of Ragnarok's success and meaning have been rendered moot. One of Marvel's finest movies is now irrelevant. Thanos wins after all.

On the bright side for fantasy lovers, even if you get fat and drunk, we now know you never have to grow up. You can stay an eternal adolescent.


(And, if it fits in naturally, we'll have a Falstaff reference.)
I left out the stuff about my portfolio.


Feature Film: April2019


Us (2019)

I've written this in my head several times already and so this may end up a bit slight as it feels like rehash even though, of course, it's the first you're seeing it. If there were more of you, well, I might try harder. (Sorry.)

First, the movie is terrific. Jordan Peele has cemented his status. I suppose he could still have a Shyamalan-like falling off, but at present, he's established. I would give him my money. And I will, I suppose.

Anyway, the film does not have anything like as clear a stance as Get Out, but it has not shame in projecting. The amount of doubling and twinning and mirroring is intense; and details such as the VHS tapes at the beginning (The Man with Two Brains, Goonies, C.H.U.D.) aren't exactly subtle. (Period question: those movies happen just before the film. Release dates and prices were very differnt back them. Films often weren't released for a year after the theatrical debut and tapes could cost around a hundred dollars as only rental stores were buying them. So the question: is those three tapes on a little girl's shelf period?)

My other thing that might be a complaint is the scene of exposition near the end. Shot in a very cool way but pretty long. It felt too long. But then---the final twist---would it have worked as well without the exposition? That's the kind of thing that can only be discovered on rewatching. (And who knows if I will.)

Those quasicomplaints aside, the film is brilliant and wondrous

Cheatin’ (2013)

I don't think I've seen a Plympton feature since the summer after high school. It seems one with his shorts (which I've better kept up with). He's given up dialogue altogether, but his sense of music and timing and sound tend to make such a thing unnecessary.

He's still utterly willing to push animation into a morphic visuality no studio would ever use for more than a dreamed moment. Plympton really is willing to push into the surreal and symbolic to tell his story.

There's one particularly great moment where the parade of floozies flashes by while the protagonist's eyes remain constant. (I hope you can see this. If not, check with your local library---you may be able to sign up for some free films via Kanopy. They have a lovely selection.)

It's not easy to explain what's happening here in just a couple words, but regardless, even without context, it's a cool effect, no?

In the end, I only like the film okay, but I hope every student studies Plympton's work. I can't think of a better way to explode our visual vocabulary.

Captain Marvel (2019)

First, Captain Marvel was great. I enjoyed it very much and I'm more excited to see Endgame than I've been to see a film in sometime. So it did everything Disney wanted it to do.

You probably have your own opinions, so let me instead just spit details.

First, the films that are readable onscreen during the Blockbuster scene seem telling. It's great, for instance, that she blew the head of Schwarzenegger in a True Lies cutout. Appropriate. The line of VHS tapes she walks past? The only two I remember are Jumpin' Jack Flash and The Hudsucker Proxy. The former I've never seen, but the latter has obvious relevance with its themes of climbing up and falling down. And Babe? That's an interesting one to think about.

Speaking of which, how is it possible Chumbawumba was never used in this film?

But what year is this exactly? I can't decide. I'm guessing '96? It's a little fluid, but that's fine. The Nineties Nostalgia Parade didn't feel at all over-the-top to me, but it did certainly work on me. The music, man.

(Incidentally, the meta-cameo for Stan Lee was brilliant. I laughed loud and rather long. All by myself. Hm. Also, the Stan Lee-themed Marvel logo was a nice touch. He wasn't a perfect man, but it's no less than fitting.)

But the music! Sometimes it plays like it's stuff Carol should remember---but it's not. She disappeared in 1989, so---

Oh. Gone six years. 1989+6=1995. So that's settled. Except no way that Babe poster's up in Blockbuster, then. #WORSTMOVIEEVER

I will say it was distressing---viscerally and much more than I would have guessed---to have aliens shoot twenty or thirty missiles right at my hometown. Because they did. And I didn't like it.

The youngified Nick Fury was better than the youngified Phil Coulson who sometimes looked like he was in Harold Lloyd makeup, but both were impressive. I never doubted the Fury.

I look forward to seeing it again.

George of the Jungle (1997)

This came out just before I came home from my mission, but somehow, being an Adult, I still managed to watch in a good many times between arrival and setting off again. I don't think I've seen it anywhere (before today) asides my parents' home, yet I know it very, very well. My younger siblings must have really loved it.

This was a showing-it-to-the-kids event and they liked it. What's not to like? It's a mix of stupidity and absurdity yet well written! The jokes are clever, the film waxes meta without self-indulgence---everyone is respected young and old even though there are at least five to-the-crotch shots. How does that happen?

I already liked Brendan Fraser at this point, but it's how I met Leslie Mann. It's probably how John Cleese solidified his identity as anything other than one of the Monty Python guys for me.

I was afraid this would not hold up, but it does. Even the CG's not bad. Few live-action cartoons have embraced their cartoon heritage so thoroughly and successfully.

It's also interesting---somehow I don't think I'd ever thought this before, but clearly those old Jay Ward cartoons hold a powerful influence. The narrator in Powerpuff Girls, for instance, is a clear descendent of Jay Ward narrators.

Anyway, it's a very fun film, but it doesn't deserve me saying more about it than I've said about, say, All the President's Men.

Shazam! (2019)

Okay. This Captain Marvel movie is not as good as the other Captain Marvel movie, but it's pretty good and certainly fun. I think the sins were a bit undersold and a couple characters were conveniently inconsistent, but not bad.

I'm a fan of David Sandberg's shorts (still my favorite), but this is the first feature I've seen. It looks good. The funny and family stuff works well. And his wife still gets to die!

Honestly, even knowing Sandberg was the director and hearing that the film used his horror expertise, the ugly moments were uglier than I expected. Which is why the sins disappointed. The film has a physics which lets people survive things they could not survive and monsters happy to kill who do not kill---which doesn't match the least cartoony, awful moments. That's the film's real issue.

But it was fun! Superheros! Yay!

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

So Lynchian.

All I knew about the film coming in (besides it was David Lynch) was: L.A. noir, lesbian sex scene that might be part of a dream, a notable jump scare. The first of these, sure. The second, mightn't the whole movie be a dream? The third, I'm not sure what this was. And I'm a jumper.

I think this film represens, from what I've seen of the ouevre, peak Lynch. It's Twin Peaks out of the woods and into L.A. That it began life as a pilot strikes me as appropriate, though I think I'm glad it became a film instead. Even if it is very long.

I wish Lady Steed were here. I need to talk about it with someone.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

It seemed much more sensible on second viewing. It was Lady Steed's first time of course, and so she's where I was a couple nights ago.

Naomi Watts's transformations are incredible---it's not always easy to recognize her. Sometimes I'm not convinced she isn't a different person---methhead Meg Ryan or something.

Anyway. It's still strange stuff, regardless of making more sense next time 'round. It's good. Though I find the sex distracting, tbh.

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

This is every bit the trip the trailer promised---though I am glad I forgot almost everything about the trailer outside the initial premise and the basic tone of conspiracy.

It's strange, watching this, as I'm teaching my students how not to fall for conspiracies. Because conspiracies do exist. The important thing isn't to disbelieve in conspiracy as a concept, but to be wise and informed so you can tell facts from madness. Which can be difficult when sometimes they smell quite the same.

It is startling how the happy premise keeps finding new ways to darken---but it's also encouraging how it finds layers to that question of nature versus nurture.

An Honest Liar (2014) x2

Suddenly, I realized that this film I had enjoyed and which was now free on Prime was a perfect supplement to the weekslong discussion I've been having with my sophomores on logic and reason and conspiracy theories and storytelling and such.

And it was. It was also a hit. We haven't had a chance to talk much about it yet, but the story troubled some and enrapt all. Highly recommended.

King Lear (2018)

I'm not sure I've seen a filmed Lear before. I think I like this one. I mean---I like this one---I'm just still considering some of the choices it made and its value as a pedagogical tool. And I got to see Emma Thompson play against type, which was exciting.

Is modern setting now the default for Shakespeare films---is it more bold to play otherwise?

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

The anticlimactic ending drove me into a rage the first time I saw it and I went almost twenty years before a second viewing.

This is my third.

I don't mind the ending anymore (it is, after all, very Pythonesque), but the film as a whole I am quite fond of. I still like Flying Circus best, but that's largely for nostalgic reasons rather than careful reasoning.

I still haven't seen their other features though. Time to get there, I suppose.

Hancock (2008)

I'm not sure this movie deserves its bad reputation. Which isn't to say it's without flaws, but it's pretty good.

The main problem is that the third-act twist is a huge mistake. Could have been a good movie on its own, but it doesn't let the first two acts reach their proper conclusion. (And the denouement is ... bad.)

Keep in mind I just watched the extended version. I don't know how it's different from the original.

In short, the redemption story was the best thing this movie had going for it and, rather than The Twist, having him continue to check in with his prison groups would have made for a better movie.

That said, the mythology presented post-twist is pretty good, and the ambivalence of the "villain" is pretty great too. Maybe the sequel could have gone there. But smashing them together prevented either from becoming its best self.

Which is a little ironic, given what this movie was trying to be about.

One last note: the acting is terrific, especially from the leads.

Captain Marvel (2019)

Just as good on a second viewing. Which not something you used to be able to say about Marvel movies.

I did pick up on a couple eastereggs I missed the first goround and possibly an (intentional) error or two, but over all it was much the same experience.

I do like Brie Larson. From Envy Adams to Room, she delivers.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

This is a surprisingly good movie.

Considering how many moving parts there are and how much stuff I the viewer am bound to forget, it holds together.

And then: it keeps offering last-minute saves only to take them away. It must be the roughest franchise blockbuster of all time. Not even Empire killed over half its leads!


Previous films watched

jan feb mar apr may jun jul aug sep oct nov dec








Friday Rejections


In working on the Welcome for the opening day of the AML conference, I wrote these two things before settling on the final version.


Welcome to Berkeley, everyone. We’re glad you made it.

Living here, as I do, I have heard a lot these past couple years that the world is tipping precariously toward the endtimes, a rhetoric I thought I’d left behind, given the Church’s lean away from millennial rhetoric during my adulthood.

I hadn’t missed it, to be honest. I remember images of the world afire as the righteous floated naked above the confusion—as a 1967 illustrated Book of Mormon storybook had it—but I’m not anxious for the world to end! Even if there is plenty happening today over which reasonable people may reasonably find themselves reasonably stressed. You don’t need me to make a list.

On the other hand, as a human, you are less likely to die a violent death today than ever before in human history. So that’s something! Granted, you’re safer in Helsinki than Caracas, but, on average humans, are figuring this life-on-planet-Earth thing out. Assuming we don’t melt the place first, we should be okay.

I picked “Helsinki” as my low-violent-death place because of something funny the U.S.’s ambassador to the U.N. said last week. I picked “Caracas” as its counterpoint because, on the uncheerful Wikipedia page “List of cities by murder rate,” it comes in number two. And number one has a tenth the people of Caracas.

111.19 homicides per 100,000 people in 2017. Which is a lot of people. Saying it’s only 0.1% misses the fact that 3,387 people died that year, more than lived in my hometown the year I left it for California.

Another fact I pulled from Wikipedia.

Wikipedia, by the way, is the best evidence I know that the Lord Almighty is unlikely to smite us with a planet-consuming baptism by fire to float naked above anytime soon. The glory of God is intelligence which I am going to lazily equate to information here, and Wikipedia is the children of God sharing with each other more information than can be processed without the artificial brains we have created and distributed over our home planet to make ourselves more like God. We are slowly collecting and democratizing the history of our planet. We are sharing all we know and are learning about linguistics, literature, theology, thaumaturgy, and manga. There’s so much in Wikipedia about manga, guys. So, so much.

It’s also got somewhere between 500 and a thousand articles related to, as our name would have it, Mormon Letters. I’ve written a few myself.

Incidentally, back to Caracas, the Church’s newsroom tells me that 0.53% of Venezuela’s population is members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 168,123 members. And you know what I know about them?


Wikipedia’s great, but it’s not going to tell me what it’s like to be a Latter-day Saint in a city that kills off my hometown each year. Me, in my padded Berkeley life—how can I even imagine that? I could tell that story, but it would be wrong. Much better that I read that story.

This is a refrain we’ve been talking about in the AML for years—how shall we hear the international Latter-day Saint voice? We’ll be hearing a bit about that today and tomorrow, but even with an intended international thrust, we won’t be hearing a lot.

We, as the Association for Mormon Letters, need to remember the little word that gets left out of our initialism: FOR.

We are FOR Mormon Letters. And right now, though the how is unclear, it may mean leaving behind the one for a moment and seeking out the ninety and nine. To get hyperbolic about it.

I am excited for the lineup we’ll be hearing from this weekend, but as we regale in its brilliance, let’s remember there are more voices out there. The human family is international. The Church is international. Let’s keep striving to take AML international as well.

Let’s learn how to listen.


Andrew and I were talking about Maurine Whipple yesterday. The author of The Giant Joshua, one of the most significant novels in our field, left behind boxes of papers and unfinished works, including the two sequels to Giant Joshua.

Earlier this week, we received news that Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire passed away. A prolific short-story writer and poet, the Queen of Eldritch Fiction, and proud queer punk transvestite Mormon. We may never see his like again.

And on Monday, Ángel Chaparro Sainz was forced to tell me his funding was not happening after all and he would not be flying in from the Basque country to be with us this weekend.

I was born the same year the Association for Mormon Letters was founded, which makes me older than Stephen Crane or Jane Austen or Edgar Allen Poe or honorary AML founder Joseph Smith when they died.

People don’t last long on this earth of ours. Institutions hope to have better longevity but you never know. That’s why it’s vital we meet every year. That’s why we need to share and promote and publish.

It’s easy to forget which little word left out of the initialism connects Association to Mormon Letters. But the word is FOR. We are FOR Mormon Letters. And today we’re here to take other’s output seriously by sharing some output of our own.

Welcome to Berkeley. Let’s do something FOR Mormon Letters while our sun still shines.



Don't judge me; judge the book


028) Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs, finished March 20

Since the last two Briggs books I've written about, I've read two shorter ones. And now I've read this, his first nonfictional book, a loving look back at his parents' married lives. They are clear models for other married couples in his work---but these two are probably the easiest to love. And perhaps the easiest to understand.

He takes us through their lives, decade by decade, as they experience Depression and War and modernization---joy and sadness, the growth of their child, the mysteries of today confounded through the lens of the past with the future relentlessly pressing on.

I found these people, his parents, easy to know. They remind me in some ways of my grandparents, but they are not my grandparents. They are Ethel and Ernest.
three or four days


029) Let's Go Exploring by Michale Hingston, finished March 20

This is (at the moment) the last in a terrific-seeming series of books providing serious but friendly consideration of "pop classics." I enjoyed reading it and am considering making a pitch myself. I have a book I think they would be interested in and I know I could write it---but should such a book be my priority? That's what I'll need to consider. (I'm having the same internal debate re an LDS Eros book.)

ANYWAY, this one's about Calvin & Hobbes, described on the cover as "North America's last great comic strip." Which is arguable, but this equivocation from near the end seems much more inarguable: "if not North America's last great comics strip, then the last one with the power to unite readers around the world, across cultural and generational lines, and to serves as the kind of artistic and intellectual totem that millions of parents will reverentially pass on to their own children when the time is right" (121, the antepenultimate page).

Hingston makes some solid arguments about what makes the strip work so well, but analysis of the strips per se is maybe 60% of the book. Other chunks are about Watterson and his famed battles with fame and the syndecate. Peeing Calvin gets consideration, as well as other knockoffs including some good ones like Hobbes & Bacon and (so I've heard) Calvin.

Recommended if you love Calvin & Hobbes and palmsized paperbacks. (Buy the paperback and the publisher gives you the ebook free!)
perhaps two weeks


030) Gentleman Jim by Raymond Briggs, finished March 20

A little short for this list, but it demands inclusion.

While this book stars the "same" couple as When the Wind Blows, in this earlier book, they're hapless to the point of near-absurdity. Having also now read E&E (see above), I feel like I have to break my own rules and talk about the author.

It seems to me that Briggs, roughly forty when Gentleman Jim was released, was ready to tackle the spectre of his now-dead parents. An earlier book, if it existed, may have been more cruelly satirical. This book, though I guess I can agree it's "funny," is loaded with pathos. It relentlessly reveals the characters' ignorance, but I don't think it's that easy to laugh at them. They are too earnest, to sincere. The author holds us in his hand and invites us to examine them. And the cruel among us, if we desire, can laugh them to scorn. But it does require cruelty. I don't see how you can blame them for the situation they are in. Society made them this way. Made promises they can't understand. Took possibility from them.

Lady Steed called it a sad book.

I can't disagree.

feeling really nervous i've left something out

031) The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, finished April 2

I'm a bit embarrassed this is only my second Michael Lewis book the first) just because I've gotten to know the man a bit and he doesn't just write great books---he's a solid human being (and fine Little League coach). But this one is closely connected to Moneyball. Check out what I said when writing about it:
In other news, this book made me think a lot about how to apply math to improving [anything]. Because everyone from Bill Gates to Arne Duncan thinks we should do it. And maybe [they're] right. But what do we measure? And how do we do it? And what would those numbers then mean? And how would we go about acting on them?

We. Don't. Know.

And frankly, I doubt we ever will. Unlike stocks and baseball, we don't have decades of data measured in the same or similar ways over decades and zillions of incidents with tons of observers. I don't know how we can reproduce that.

So many variables. The mind boggles.
What did I learn from The Fifth Risk? That the government of the United States of America has unfathomable amounts of data on many, many things. And when attacked by math, amazing things happen. The improvement of weather forecasts? Thank you, federal government. The discovery of the opioid epidemic? Thank you, federal government. Enough food to let us live in cities? Thank you, federal government. And on and on and on.

Most of the book is really just a biography of the government bureaucracy, filled as it is with do-gooders and scientists. The deep state, if you will.

But the impetus and ever-hanging black cloud of the book is presidential transitions. Excellently well prepared-for transitions are messy and complicated and highly problematic. Then Coach Michael shows us what a completely disinterested (when not outright hostile) transition looks like and you have to wonder. After another term and a half or so of intentional dismantling, aggressive neglect, and prioritizing commercial concerns over human concerns, suddenly Republican's threats of us looking like Venezuela seem pretty plausible.

I was especially struck by how little people (me included) understand about what the federal government does for them. Take this guy: from Montana. Thinks his taxes are paying for California's illegal immigrants. Has no idea the federal government is propping up his state.

Coach Michael tells story after story about the federal government serving and supporting rural America without letting the people being helped that they are doing it. In some cases, they are forbidden by law to tell people they are being helped.

And the ubiquity of government assistance is such that we don't realize how much we need them until something goes wrong and we blame them. Our lives would be much, much more prearious without the Deep State making sure geese don't fly into airplanes and that chickens aren't giving us salmonella. But you can bet that when those budgets are cut (drain the swamp!) and more geese hit airplanes and more chickens send you to the hospital, the bureacrats will take the blame.

One thing that was particularly interesting is learning how little many capital-d Departments reflect their name. Commerce, for instance, does the Census. This I knew. But it also does a huge percentage of the government's data collection on any and all topics. Astonishing amounts of data about astonishing amounts of things. Data the new administration has been working to conceal and hide since they arrived. Data hidden can't help anyone.

I also knew a bit about the varied missions of Energy and Agriculture, but I was still in a constant state of amazement, reading this book. If I really wanted to help people, maybe I should have entered government.

If you really want to help people, vote the bums out.
about a week


032) No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay, finished April 8

I had this Barnes & Noble gift certificate, so I went to Barnes & Noble and went through their poetry section. This is the book I purchased, but several also-rans were picked up at the library and, therefore, read much more quickly, including (I think inclusively) later year's #45, #46, #48 & #49, and #65. Did I pick right? Who can say.

I did like the book, make no mistake. My only run-in with Kay prior to this was a poem about her elementary-school principal, that I saw illustrated online, somewhere. Not sure, where, but I'll guess it was the same illustrations now in a book. Dunno.

Anyway, it's pretty typical of her work (read it here). Everyday language, slightly heightened. It has the simplicity and easytofollowness required to be a big spoken-work success, but it's much better than properly maligned Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur. At times she's quite transcendent, but it's hard to judge if her work will outlast her generation. Sometimes that y/n feels obvious. Not here.

The manner is largely confessional and feels autobiographical. It's a good book. I liked it. Rare is the friend, however, upon whom this books would I press.
at most nine months but somewhat less than that


033) Letters to ta Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, finished April 9

I found plenty of wisdom in this book, but what surprised me was the endnotes---which revealed Rilke was quite the young poet himself when he wrote this stuff.

It's quite a brief read and thoughtful and contains no prescription.
possibly two years



Feature Film: March2019


Macbeth (2015) x2

This is a beautifully shot film. And it makes some impressively interesting choices (the kids with the Weird Sisters, the ghosts of Macbeth children). But ultimately it's a film for people who already know the play, the story, the characters, etc. As I was watching it, I often suspected I would be utterly lost if I didn't already know the next step of plot. Given that my students, pretty much universally, were lost and confused, backed up my suspicions.

To you teachers out there---this would be a better film to show after reading the play. Then they can debate the choices made. To watch it first? Well, it'll raise plenty questions for the reading to answer later.

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Okay, okay. I see why it's lesser Disney now. But it's still fun enough and my kids liked it.

In addition to being a movie-to-see-as-a-kid-or-you-won't-like-it though, it also hasn't aged supergreat. For a timeless sorcerer, Merlin's hella eurocentric.

Also, I'm not sure this thought had really occurred to me before, but the Genie is clearly a descendant of Merlin:

Frankenstein (1931)

I wish we weren't so stuck on "realism" these days. It would be nice to see some stained cloth playing sky, for instance. Some things set on obvious sets rather than on location or a striking facsimile thereof.

Let's step away from the real! We live in an era of superhero movies, for peak's sake!

(Special shoutout to Spider-Verse.)

Eighth Grade (2018)

I did not want to watch this movie for exactly the reasons it ended up being so great: I've no desire to revisit the horrors of being thirteen. Which it captures so, so well.

But it's not just universal. It's also specific.

The cellphone usage is quasisatirical, but only barely. I would call it pretty accurate.

Fun: after finishing the filmclub viewing, our president said a) you were all this accurate and b) go home and hug your parent. And the Big O in that moment walked over and hugged me.

Beat that.

Don Verdean (2015)

I've now watched this three times (first, second), if you can count this as watching. I was largely listening to the director's commentary by Jared Hess. Who began by predicting no one would listen to said commentary. That's about as valuable as it was as well.

Jerusha was also supposed to be there, but their kids had stomach flu the day of the recording so nope. Which is a bummer. I imagine it would have been a better commentary if Jared could have bounced off somebody.

He did talk a bit about the inspirations for the story (including Mark Hoffman) (but not including Ron Wyatt, sadly), but it was scattered and disconnected, alas.

Superman (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078346/)

I haven't seen this movie in aaaaaaages. I'm much more film literate now. So, for instance, I can see visual references to 2001 in the early scenes. But the much more interesting comparison is to the movie that came out one year earlier: Star Wars. Starting with the Jonathan Williams-penned overture upfront, the similarities keep coming. Rural setting. Having to do chores rather than go driving. Dead father figure. Exploding planet. Magic powers. Clark even inherits his father's lightsabre! (If you haven't seen the movie in a while, you might doubt me, but he pretty much exactly does get his father's lightsabre.) Margot Kidder even has a similar voice to Carrie Fisher. (How cool would it have been to have them play badass sisters?)

One thing I utterly did not remember is the poem during the flying-together scene. It's cited like a song in the credits. And ... I don't know. Lady Steed said she was utterly bewildered by it.

And the final act still a mess of nonsense---worse even than when I was a kid. The time thing didn't really work for me as a kid, but the problems with space and time start from the moment the missile goes off. None of that chronology really makes sense. And Supes's manner of prioritizing is absurd. (Apparently, this is where many of my wrongheaded ideas about earthquakes were born.) Then, if he's going to move time backward, why not far enough back to stop the missiles altogether?

I will say that Christopher Reeve is terrific. Even though the script isn't always great (poor Jimmy), Reeve is great. He's the modern superhero archetype and he deserves to be.

Fences (2016)

I've seen this a good many times now and feel qualified to make some judgment calls.

First, the acting is incredible, across the board. The performances improve with rewatching.

Second, why is the camera so active? I noticed it a tad on earlier watchings, but now the multiple angles and slow zooms (especially---almost to the point of constantly---on Troy).

The most idiosyncratic camera choice has grown on me, but a couple other choices (eg, the neighbors' window) still don't make sense.

I'm glad scenes with Alberta and Troy's father didn't make the final cut ... but I'd sure like to see them.

Macbeth (2010)

This is a pretty fun ride. I never imagined a Macbeth this old, but it works pretty well. Good casts can do that.

ALL THAT SAID, this is waaaay too long. Three hours? You have to be kidding.

As a stage-to-screen adaptation in the BBC/PBS tradition, this looks terrific. But ... it's too dang long. Even though I liked many of the choices (combining/splitting characters, frinstance). And check out the witches.

That...is really something.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

It's been a looong time. I think, largely, I like it better now than I did twenty years ago. What's interesting, though, is to judge it through some modern lenses. For instance, how Jodie Foster's character (and the other female cadet) have to navigate constant sexual harassment of varying degrees just to get through the world and live their lives. Now, of course, this is parcel with the themes of the movie, but one gets the sense it wasn't far at all from ordinary.

One complaint the movie has been getting since the beginning is that it doesn't represent ______ well. The thing in the blank has changed over time, and I'm certainly not willing to tell someone their experience with the film is wrong. I do think that the film is doing something complex with Buffalo Bill, however, starting with Hannibal Lector's insistence that Bill is not transsexual and ending with the easy crossing of the Bechdel bar, even though much of the film has Clarice alone in rooms filled with men.

My own reading is that the film is an attack on the sort of attacks the LGBTQ+ community was (communities were) upset about. It's difficult, to show something as one way and expect anyone else to see it another way. Silence of the Lambs isn't a broad satire or morality play or anything so obvious as that. What it "obviously" is is a horror film about a guy who makes suits of women's clothes in order to be something other than he is. And no matter what commentary may be in the subtext, it's easiest to see what's there lying in plain view. If that hits a sore spot, not much you can do. Because it is also exactly what they say it is.

It's an interesting problem from a critical standpoint. Maybe intractable.

Macbeth (1979)

I still haven't found a Macbeth I can show year-in/year-out like I have with, say, Romeo & Juliet. And I'm not sure why. I don't know why they don't work well enough to through at fifteen-year-olds.

This rendition plays with stark chiaroscuro and, although it's shorter, it's too dang stylized (and colorless) for my purposes. Still. Ian McKellin is much younger and quite good. Judy Dench is much younger and quite good (though I did get distracted by how much she sounds like the mom in Mary Poppins).

The cover also promised Ian McDiarmid as the porter. But long before the porter arrived, I was asking WHO THE HECK IS PLAYING ROSS. Ends up there was some doubling in this movie. C'mon, BBC!

Jane and Emma (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8581198/)

What a way to close the AML conference! We followed it with a Q&A with director, screenwriter, and a producer. I intend to mull over it some more before really writing about it.


Previous films watched

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