2017-06-19

Myths of the Norsemen, Criminals,
Imakulatans, and Mahometans

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075) Norse Mythology by Neil Gaimain, finished June 19

Two compliments which may not read that way:

This book reads like other books of myth I have sampled and enjoyed over the years like Hamilton or the D'Aulaires.

This book is a fun read and manages to have a through-line that almost tastes like plot.

I really only read this book through so quickly because I happened to see it on the library's new shelf and I have to return it before we leave town. So I rushed through it. Which was really the right way to read it and the opposite of how I anticipated reading it when, someday, I took it into my hands.

For instance, the sense of a beginning a middle and an end is the sort of thing that would have been lost, spreading Norse Mythology over a couple years. Also,
the names of characters and things would have required either confusion or frequent travel to the glossary. As it was, I didn't need the glossary. And I even caught a rarely-mentioned-god's-name typo I was so aware of my surroundings.

There's really no one better to take on the task of making Norse myth available to the general public than Neal Gaiman, and he's done a commendable job.

Although....
three or four days



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074) Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes by Matt Kindt, finished June 16

Here's a remarkable book. I would place it alongside my favorite crime novels, books like Glass City and Mr White and the Colorado Kid and that penguin novel. Yes, it's noirish. Yes, it speaks of clarity while while dropping the reader into a sea of confusion. Yes, it has much more to say about life and the human condition than about any specific crime. And yes, the crimes are fascinating and strange and compelling and unlikely.

I finish this book not even sure that cause and effect occured in the correct order.

Here's the skinny: a Holmes-level detective solves everything, but doesn't understand anything. He can't understand right and wrong until he crosses that line himself.

The art covers plenty of ground---part of the story is just word balloons, part is newspaper comics---and it all works.

It's bold and creative stuff. I'll have to look for more from this Kindt fellow.
two or three days



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073) Wyrms by Orson Scott Card, finished June 15

I got a stack of '80s Card from a rummage sale and I will (eventually) read them all. I was never particularly interested in this particular book but it had the most beat-up cover, so I taped it up and read it first. (Incidentally, the volume currently on Amazon shares my version's art, and I don't like it. That's nothing like what geblings look like! This perverted my ability to properly visualize the book!)

Anyway, plotwise this is lighter than Ender's Game; philosophywise, it's lighter than Speaker for the Dead. It was released immediately on the heels of those novels when his cachet was at its mostest, and it's a worthy successor. It doesn't quite reach the heights of those novels, but it's no slouch.

Let's talk characters first, then we'll get to plot and philosophy.

The main character is a precocious early teen---a deadly assassin, brilliant, emotionally aware. A typical Card protag, in other words.

She surrounded a mentor with an unknown hidden agenda. Distant (or dead) parents. Distrustful authority figures. Aliens whose minds and biology are radically different from our own.

Again, it seems like Card has taken the notions from the first two Ender books and reshuffled the deck. This is not a knock. He's very good at this stuff. And none of it is "the same"---we're in the distant, distant future on a faraway planet, for instance. And the world is wonderfully realized. It's good stuff.

The plot is a basic quest---young person goes out, is changed, comes back. And at times the structure is almost picaresque---I didn't realize we were on a quest until near the end of the book when I happened to glance at the back. I'm a bit embarrassed, but sometimes the trees are so fascinating you can miss the forest.

The philosophy rests on various comparisons between passion/desire, will, memory, relationships with others---and asking where is the true self located? The question is explored through pages of discussion between the characters, but also through the species that share the pages. Gaunts have no will. Dwelfs have no memory. Geblings share an "othermind" while humans are utterly alone within their minds.

One thing: my game of imagining how to film the novel I am reading was a grotesque failure this time. So much of what happens in this novel is hidden deep inside characters that filming it seems impossible. So much of importance has the sole visual of faces failing to reveal what they think. This is truly a novel of ideas and bringing them to screen would require a complete recreation of the novel.

Which is fine anyway as much of what is filmable is . . . problematic. And I just don't mean the creative and bloody violence. There's also [SPOILERS] a teenage girl getting raped by a giant space slug (and sometimes [but only sometimes] liking it)---and then making a life with a man a whole lot older than her. I haven't seen Game of Thrones, but I'm not sure even it went this far.

In the final analysis, this is a fine novel. Great for completists. Great for fans of the genre. Great for people who want to read just one Card book that will present much of what he is great at.

But not one of his clear masterpieces.
a couple weeks



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072) Cairo by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker, finished June 13

I know Wilson's work only in the form of Ms Marvel, but I wanted to know more. Starting with another comic.

This one takes place in Cairo (tada!) and is tonally separate from her Marvel work. That said, it is equally fantastic. A major character is a jinn, scenes take place in a -like "Undernile," and then there's this:


THAT's how you use a medium to move story forward in a way other media cannot.

Anyway, a couple American characters (one of whom starts out as a would-be suicide bomber), an Israeli soldier (were this to be made into a movie, the producers first question would be, can we afford Gal Gadot?), an Egpytian drug runner, an Egyptian journalist, a magical ganglord---you name it!

The story is coherent all the same and a delightsome introduction to some cultural concepts I'm pretty ignorant of (cf jinn). But it never really sang for me.
Part of that was the art. Overall it was fine, but sometimes Perker's humans didn't quite seem human. And sometimes Wilson left heavy lifting for the art (eg,
the romantic development), and the faces just weren't up to the task.

Plus, if you're thinking Ms Marvel was good for my kids, know that this has, you know, swears and icky violence and sexy dancers and such.
two days




Previously in 2017

2017-06-09

These are the books

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071) Abstract City by Christoph Niemann, finished June 9

I know Niemann's work from The New Yorker and WIRED, but I hadn't given him much thought until I bumped into one of his visual essays on National Geographic. I then put every Niemann book our local library has on hold. Most were kids' picture books, and I liked them, but this book I liked very much indeed.

It's a collection of his visual essays. They range from slice-of-life to series of puns to humorous "science" essays to historical remembrances to memoir.... And the art that goes along with each essay is unique. Several, sure, use his inky style, but one, while in that style, is drawn with coffee on napkins. One is made from cut leaves. The Berlin Wall essay is composed of weaved black and orange paper (analog pixel art!). One is made of ... shall we call them voodoo dolls?

In other words, Niemann is succeeding at baizzerrism beyond even my stated intentions. So of course I like him.

Anyway, in essence, what we have here is someone pushing their skills into whatever whimsical direction he pleases, and uncovering delight every step along the way.
Or, in other words, here is a fellow who has held onto the fun in art.

The afterword is an essay I would like to bring to my classes. Creativity is always possible. It just takes work and work and work. That's all. Anyone can do it.
So long as they work.
a few days



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070) The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple, finished June 8

This is a book I found through BAC. I have no idea what it is or what it's about. I mean, sure, I can tell you scores of details, but no way I can answer the seemingly simple question, What the hell?

The book is scrambled in terms of time and geography and reality, its violence not only literal but in the very lines and colors smeared across the page.


Unquestionably, reading this book is an experience.
about a month



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069) Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, finished June 5

I think, for girls, these things tend to be more intense (or perhaps this is more a comment on my people skills), but I recognize these feelings.

Shannon Hale's comics memoir (drawn by her Princess in Black-partner) is filled with the sorts of ambiguities we expect from good literature. In her afterward, she even says that she left some parts messy (that she would not have in fiction) because it was more true. Maybe, perhaps, I want more nonfiction from my YA novelists.

Because the messiness does make it more true. Even our hero engages in casual, accidental cruelty. And that cruelty may never be revisited because life is not that neat.

One of the most heartening things about this book---and part of the reason I expect it will become a classic---is that everyone is weak at times, everyone is strong.
Everyone is kind at times, everyone is cruel. And they all become real people.

And the future looks bright indeed. Ending on hope for that future is satisfying because it doesn't promise too much---while also promising the whole world.
one evening



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068) Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, finished June 1

The introduction from personal favorite Connie Willis set me up to expect to be immediately wowed.
I was not. I was, however, intrigued. And I kept reading.

Ish, our hero, is a man of his time. Like another book I read recently,
the novel is liberal-minded and thus exposes its of-the-time illiberal failures (racism, sexism) by how it attempts to be enlightened. (Makes me wonder what we'll sound like in seventy years.) But part of this, it ends up, is civilization itself.

Like Ish, I'm desperate to see this postapocalyptic life be redeemed by books and reading and education and civilization, goldarn it! (Skip to the ** to avoid grand-scale spoilers.)

It's when Ish is able to give up on civilization---or, more accurately, see that his bias for civilization is unjustified---that the book goes from being a just-fine postapocalypto to something startling, something that makes my soul feel like it's standing on the edge of a cliff with only clouds below.

And it's not just Ish's giving up on civilization that gives this feeling; it's also the way Stewart represents him as an old man. I don't know if that's what being ancient feels like, but it felt real. My insides feel emptied out and filled with ice.

I still feel a bit like that moment when the rollercoaster crests....

**I only heard about this book when a local oldtimer told me and Lady Steed it was a step up from Station Eleven, both because she found the newer book underwhelming and because Earth Abides takes place locally, which is nice added-value.

I disagree as to the relative qualities. I think Station Eleven is, overall, the superior novel, but that is no knock on Earth Abides which is powerful in its own way. And I agree that reading anything ever that takes place where you live is of itself powerful. We should all have that experience. Not just people from Manhattan.

Anyway, if you want to read a postapocalypse that lets the violence sing between the scenes and focuses instead on one man's mind and his relationship with other people,
the past, and the future, this is the one for you. It ain't no Road. And although Earth Abides apparently inspired it, I suspect it ain't no Stand either. It's too quiet a book for that.
But that's how it gets you.
more than five months






Previously in 2017

2017-06-03

Circus Screams

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Lady Steed and I took our middle child (the only one to engage in either circus or music training with any seriousness) to see our friend Sam's Circus Screams last night. (The baby also came along and, happily, she slept through it.)

It was pretty great. A smorgasbord of artifice!* You can get a sense of its aesthetic by looking at video and photos on Twitter.

I didn't know the show was going to be funny. But it was, largely thanks to the work by Natasha Kaluza who played three characters and whose killer mime skills moved the show from the literal to the imagination---much of what happens in the show wouldn't make sense without her laying the groundwork. In fact, a scene near the end similar to her scenes lost some of my companions (we ran into more friends at the show) because the man executing them lacked Kaluza's ability to clearly signify that what we were seeing had left the realm of the literal.

But first and foremost, Circus Screams was a musical performance. We have the cd, but I think I will find my way into it more easily now having seen it live. Yes the circus performers / actors helped here, but just seeing the band make the music also gave it life. (If you've never been to see music live---complicated music you don't quite understand---this may be why you don't quite understand it. Having seen it, you might still lack understanding, but it will live for you.

But enough with the preaching in the second person.

For all the laffs and murder and discord and acrobatics and audience-participation screaming, the show closes on a quiet trumpet solo. A prolonged moment in which the violence and absurdity and artifice recede and the audience is pointed toward the direction of . . . reality? But I hesitate to call it contemplative and I hesitate even more to sully this post with an unpleasant word like "reality." So let's just say that it's a quiet moment at the end, and we can all make of it what we will.

2017-05-31

Would you rather sleep on stage, with Wonder Woman, or with the fishes?

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067) One Minute till Bedtime selected by Kenn Nesbitt, finished May 30

I really should have read this as instructed---to my kids right before bed. But most of these collections are . . . awful, frankly. So I decided to check it out myself first. And then I read the entire thing. Because it's a terrific collection.

The poems' copyright dates are mostly 2016 or shortly before, so I suspect Nesbitt, more than "selecting" the poems commissioned them. Anyway, however whatever, they're great poems of all types. Rhyming, not rhyming. Serious, silly. Some of the finest concrete poems I've read. It's a terrific collection.

Another thing that makes it great is the illustrations by Christoph Niemann. So many poetry collections for kids have illustrations that battle for the eye's attention. A certain simplicity is required. A certain sense of play with the text. Think of Silverstein's work.

Niemann accomplishes this difficult trick. His mostly monochromatic drawings are simple, but when examined closely, they are infused with an excellent wit. They disappear when needed and reward when attended to.

It's the best book of its sort I've seen.

Or so I say prior to trying it out on my kids.

one evening



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066) The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, finished May 25

I read about New York's current production of this play in passing on The New Yorker (I can't find that article now, but here's their review of the show) and thought to myself---don't I have a copy of that?

I did. It's a production copy for an actor who played Gladys (when and where I do not know). And since I had also just read an article about Wilder's novels (and because, although I barely remember it now, I loved Our Town when I read it in high school) (and because I had just finished Enemy of the People so might as well have started a new play), I decided to give it a shot.

I was mesmerized by it at first, but ended up taking weeklong breaks in the middle of my reading and it's not the sort of thing that makes pure sense even without such unnatural breaks.

The characters have been alive for thousands of years and their world is a weird mix of an anthropology textbook and Genesis. There's a dinosaur. There's a New Jersey boardwalk. It's a mad mix of this and that, with copious breaking of the fourth wall and understudies pulled from the audience. Philosophers play hours of the clock.

But the whole thing is charming and goodnatured, even as it skewers today's political climate with as sure an eye as it did that of its original production.

Expect blood. The theater is not a safe space.
over two months



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065) Wonder Woman: A Celebration of 75 years by (various), finished May 24

It took me a while to get through the early stories. Golden Age and Silver Age comics just haven't aged well. It wasn't until the late '80s until it stopped being merely an academic exercise and became actually enjoyable. (Although that does coincide with the art getting . . . anatomically unlikely. Can't win them all, I guess.)

As with any of these kinds of collections, it can be hard to believe that after all the decades THESE are the ABSOLUTE BEST,
but that may be a matter of my personal biases. I will say that one advantage this book has over those two is waiting 25 more years because comics started getting better just around the time those were published.

Anyway! I'm worthy to watch the movie now!
a few weeks



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064) Leiathan with a Hook by Kimberly Johnson, finished May 12

Unlike many of the collections I've read this year wherein I start excited by the new voice then grow weary of it by the end, I didn't take to this book at all. It was many pages before I even found lines I liked. As the pages turned, I grew impressed by her innovations but confused by the coherence of imagery---or rather, this coherent imagery's lack of apparent connection to the collection's title. And then the third-to-last poem brought that all together. And the final two poems brought us in for a soft landing.
three days






Previously in 2017

2017-05-24

Regarding Our Mother
(2017 sacrament-meeting svithe)

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Like the previous svithe, one purposed of this post is to keep track of historical information. In this case, Mother's Day sacrament meetings I've organized.

In my intro I used a poem from an upcoming book.

The first talk was on why Jesus compared himself to a mother hen.

His wife spoke on how the Earth is shown as our mother in scripture.

The final speaker spoke on the topic: "I have a Heavenly Mother. So what?" She was the third terrific talk in a row---all three were thoughtful and carefully researched.

In between the final two talks, this hymn was sung. A clear tenor sung the lines, followed in echo by two men and women in harmony. It was a simple variation on the hymn as published, which made it easier to hear and understand the words. I didn't know when I requested the number if the music was any good, but it was beautiful as performed. If you want more info, this is the fellow who made it happen.

Between the first two talks, Primary stepped up to sing as well.

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

Here are a couple highlights I wrote down during the meeting. (There were many more than this, but I was paying too close attention to write much down.)

TALK ONE:
He drew on his experience studying story as a filmmaker to talk about some latin term I apparently forgot to write down and yonic symbols ad such. I should ask him for a copy of his talk. Having taken so long to write this up, I've lost the thread, alas.

"If we are striving to be like Christ, we must all strive to be like mother hens."

Like Jesus, we owe our mother's an unpayable debt.

This song (which made the fellow who did the special musical number nod in enthusiasm):


TALK TWO:
She began by talking about this article and her own mother when she was younger. Then on to how often, including in scriptures, women are so generally defined in terms of their relationships to other people. hcich prevents us from seeing them as themselves.

Mother Earth too experiences spirit, joy, pain.

Plus a quotation from Alexander Morrison, but I can't find it for you.

TALK THREE:
A song about Emma Smith (I'll add the link here when I find out what it was: link)

And... that seems to be all I wrote down about this one except for "potential" and "unconditional love." Which is a shame. It was some talk.


previous svithe

2017-05-21

Kid Svithe 3

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We're now making our for-kids sacrament meetings an every-six-months thing. (Previous two.) I haven't a whole lot to say about this one, but I'm writing it up anyway because I want to keep track of how I introduce them and these svithes are as good a way as any.

First, I talked about how hot it was yesterday. (Seventy-seven degrees! In Berkeley!) And being at the ballgame with the sun and the dust. Which is like another hot and dusty place, Palestine 2000 years ago.

After a hot and dusty of day of teaching and healing and changing the world, a buncha kids showed up. Other people told them to go away, but Jesus said no, they can stay.

Now, I counted about 20 kids during the sacrament. Say there are 30 minutes of talks in sacrament meeting, that's 600 kid-minutes spent listening to talks. Then say we multiply that by 52 weeks in a year and you have over 31,000 minutes of sacrament meeting talks.

Back to that story about Jesus, he didn't say the little children should suffer.

So here's a sacrament meeting for you.

Etc etc.







previous svithe

2017-05-11

The world is only as big as we are willing to read

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063) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, finished May 10

I took a class on Critical Race Theory in 2008 and it was not an easy thing to wrap my mind around. It was a challenge. And, in the end, it completely changed the way I understand my world---because it changed my understanding of how OTHERS see this world.

I get the sense that Coates's book has done this for many more people.

If you've missed it, it's a book-length letter to his son about being black in America. Which is a gross simplification but true enough for an itty-bitty review.

The intimacy with which he addresses his son and shares his life with his son allows us to step inside his perspective and view the world from that angle.

Coates is a great writer (I've bumped into him before). If you're looking to understand why you haven't understood, this is a pretty good place to start.

(Note: although his points are certainly true of African Americans, they are applicable to all of us no matter our [minority] identity if you redirection their facets to reflect upon you.)
at most two weeks



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062) Cover by Peter Mendelsund, finished May 10

Like his other book, this one threw some vocabulary at me I wasn't ready for. This just doesn't happen anymore, so I appreciate the humility.

I checked out this book primarily though to fill the ol' cistern in terms of beautiful book covers. I guess it did that, though I found it less instructive than Chip Kidd's books.

THAT SAID, I find Mendelsund a delightful guide. He's wonderful to listen to and he's filled with ideas I hadn't considered on my own. It's a stimulating book.
week plus



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061) Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia, finished May 8

This stark black and white comic has a punk feel in its lack of grays and ragged edges. And it reads like a cross between Black Hole and Peanuts. Teens out on their own doing rebellious teen things---yet no sense of adults at all. I was unclear whether the adults were actually gone or if we just weren't seeing them. Except for a brief interlude in the dog's point of view, no adults are seen during the entire book.

Meanwhile, bands are breaking up, lusters are hooking up, and bodies are piling up. What the hell is going on?

But because our protags are teens, they're focused on their next thrill and their torrenting emotions---they can't spend too much time worrying about missing adults and dead peers or they'll crack up.

The solution to the mystery doesn't come into focus until the end, but---twist or not---it's not some gotcha. The set up is natural and sensible and the reasons we the reader don't know what's going on likewise. So when the reveals fall upon us at the end we can only shake our head and say, oh. Yeah. That makes sense. Damn. Those poor kids.

a few weeks



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060) Age of Reptiles Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Ricardo Delgado, finished May 4

This began the same year Jurassic Park was released, but it never entered my consciousness. I suppose I must have seen them, but I have no memory thereof. This collected the stories from then until 2011---three in all---each terrific.

The dinosaurs are slightly anthropomorphized, but only in slight ways---enough movement in the eyes and mouth and shoulders to convey emotion---but essentially they are just realistic dinosaurs engaged in normal (slash-awesome) dinosaur activity.

It's beautifully rendered (shoutout to the colorists who caught the nuances of Delgado's art). I passed it off to my kids,
and the first got through it turning pages crazy quickly. Me, my reading was much slower. There may be no words, but there is much to read. I can't imagine just glancing and turning past the baby brachiosaur floating under the moonlight. That's intense stuff.

two or three days






Previously in 2017

2017-05-03

Two are funny. The funnies rather ain't.

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059) Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, finished May 1

This is an epistolaryesque novel. It's filled with precocious youngsters and rich geniuses. It's an incredibly fast read.

These are all things I am suspicious of.

But I loved this book. I even laughed out loud a couple times, and that's not something I do. I'm too interested in the technique of humor---too busy looking under the hood, as it were, to laugh.

I could make a longer list of games Semple plays that I would have recommended against, had she asked me, but that she pulls off with aplomb. So I stand preemptively corrected.

Anyway. Everyone was right when the bought this book and made it a bestseller a few years back. It's not too late to jump on this bandwagon! Join me in Antartica.
say ten days



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058) Little Tommy Lost: Book One by Cole Closser, finished April 28

Guess what! I followed through on something!

I read the beginning on this comic in BAC and thought I should read more. I bought it last August with some birthday money and finally read it. The entire volume holds up to the promise of the excerpt.

I don't know how Closser does it, but the book appears to be made from scans of old comics clippings from decades-old newspapers. My guess is he has some ancient newsprint he prints his comics on, but I really don't know.

Anyway, it looks and reads like something from the Nemo or Annie era, but, simultaneously, it makes better sense to a modern sensibility than those aged works.

I picked those two references intentionally. Tommy, like Annie, has no pupils and may or may not be an orphan and gets into wild adventures locked into an urban realism. And the Sunday strips are often Nemo-esque dreamscapes. Here's a favorite:


Tommy's separated from his parents and locked in a workhouse where he makes friends and enemies.

The volume tells one complete story, but Tommy does not get home and I for one am escited for Book Two.
four or five days



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057) Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett, finished April 24

As a novel, this is not one of Pratchett's masterpieces.

However.

Certain lines are genius. Certain concepts reveal genius. And his understanding of the world in 1996 reveals a greater understanding of 2017 than 90% of the jokesters now working.

He's Terry Pratchett.
fewer than twenty days







Previously in 2017

2017-04-22

Your house is burning down.
Which do you read as you await
the fire department?

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056) Angel Catbird (vol. one) by Margaret Atwood, et al., finished April 21

Look: Margaret Atwood is a great writer. She can be amazing, but she can also be ... less. This is less.

I'm glad she's getting to finish up her childhood by writing pulpy comics stories. And maybe the bad Silver Age dialogue and plotting are intentional. Certainly the dumb names are intentional. Angel Catbird I can almost believe someone thought was cool, but Count Catula can't really be seen as anything but an intentionally bad joke.

All that said, in theory, this book could still be a good time. A lark. A fun ride.

But it's not. It just doesn't ... fly.

And the occasional education breaks to teach us about cat safety don't help.

Alas.
two days



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055) The Dinner Club by Curtis Taylor, finished April 21

Let me preface my remarks that this is the second novel by the author of The Invisible Saint, one of the most important books in my personal development as a writer. And that this book is enormously flawed, burying its potential under tons of dross that should have been edited out.

I intend to write a longer look at the novel after I read Rolling Home which, I take it, is a novella-sized rewrite of Dinner Club.

Or possibly it's still well over three hundred pages. (The Amazon page is giving mixed messages.) But it has a new title and I can get it for free on my Kindle, so I'll at least check it out. I hope it's an improvement because there's an excellent book at the bottom of The Dinner Club and it kills me to see it drowned and sunk, bloated and dead.
started on a Sunday probably three weeks ago



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054) The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill, finished April 17

This novel was very important to me in second grade, but the last time I read it aloud, when my oldest son was in second grade, my now second-grader wasn't two. So we read it together. It suffered the indignity of many interruptions, but we enjoyed the experience. It's a magical book (and, I only recently learned, part of a rather extensive series), but it's hard to know, now, if it's anything special---or merely special to me.
But I'll keep reading it as long as there are second graders to share it with.
months



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053) A Field Guide to Awkward Silences by Alexandra Petri, finished April 9

The library gave me this Free Gift about the same time I was becoming a fan of the author's newspaper work (she's, like, the millenial Dave Barry). And so I'm sorry to say that much of the book stutters where her columns often sing. Or, perhaps more fairly, being bound in hardcover,
is sometimes overworked (and thus finds difficulty being light on its feet) and sometimes I probably held to an unfairly higher standard.

On the other hand, some of these essays are excellent. Let's take the penultimate essay which combines a disformed dog and the author's bad driving. Each half of the essay behaves like a longwinded tangent of the other, but they interweave like a complicated dance in
a high-budgeted Austen flick on the BBC. Sometimes, you might forget they're partners, but they keep touching hands in passing and the conclusion of the dance brings them together in satisfying fashion.

Some of the others I enjoyed more as sociology---learning about competitive punning, for instance. A better editor would have realized that this isn't a celebrity memoir but a collection of tightly constructed humor. Some of those would have made terrific magazine articles, but here they're struggling against the collection's better instincts and trying to turn it into the moving tale of a young woman stumbling into recognition of her adulthood. A noble enough goal, I suppose, and in general I've nothing against making a collection of disparate essays thematically whole. But trust your material.

Overall?

Let's keep an eye on her, shall we?
almost twenty months




Previously in 2017

2017-04-18

Our Lord and Savior Juliet

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I was at church Sunday when it occurred to me that Juliet must be a Christ-figure. She has the JC initials, she dies, is put into a tomb, and rises again. Other details seem minor compared to these (she's forsaken by her father; she's into love; she renders unto Caesar (Rome) (Romeo) quite a bit; her death brings a redemption and peace to the world; ...), but they're enough to be pretty sure that there's something deliberate going on. I'm just not sure what to make of it.

Is it ... ironic?

I didn't look very hard, but I couldn't find anything online exploring this question.

2017-04-10

These books we read

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052) The Ghost by Robert Harris, finished April 7

Having got tired of my in-the-car book, I replaced it with the appropriately titled volume. Which was a much more pleasant and breezy read. Much more exciting too. And the politics are more contemporary.

Set-up: After his first ghostwriter dies, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain is connected to a new fellow who experience is more rock stars and reality queens.

Ends up that first ghostwriter's death was no accident, but our new fellow's in way over his head!

It's fun and exciting and ends abruptly leaving me wondering why we still have so many pages left.

Naturally: there's a twist.

And it's a twist that is obvious in retrospect but which caught me totally offguard. As a good thriller should do.

This is my third Harris book (after Fatherland and Pompeii) and maybe the best (though my memory's shaky). Coming into the modern era is a good choice for him---this books seems to mean what it's saying a bit more, if you know what I mean. I'll wager this was even more so in Britain, tapping into the sense of being manipulated by the American government during the Iraq War / War on Terror / etc.

One other thing: I must have been a hundred pages into the novel before I realized that the point-of-view had no name. Which is very appropriate of course. And impressive to do it so cleanly I took so long to notice. Well done.

Next up: the movie.
monthish



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051) Injection, Vol. 1 by Warren Ellis & Jordie Bellaire & Declan Shalvey, finished April 7

So it appears that innovation is about to plateau and the world will thus get boring.

Not to worry! A solution is at hand!

Inject the internet with an AI that's fueled by the facts on which folklore is based.

I need not tell you this does not turn out exactly as planned....

three or four days



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050) Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam Miller, finished April 2

So I know everyone's already told you that this is pretty much the best book ever written and so my amen might not make much noise, but they aren't wrong: this is a great book.

But why?

My primary reason for loving this slim livre, speaking personally, is that Miller defamiliarizes topics such as sin and love in ways that would have been very healthy for me as a teenager or while in my twenties or, heck, now. So much of the way I interpreted my relationship to these abstract concepts proved to be problematic and sources of self-loathing at earlier eras in my life. I've moved past all that now, but my teleological framework is, in some places, still shaky. Miller simply and clearly lays out a new way to think about these things. I want to read the book again and this time mark it up, but I also want to stick to my original plan and, having read it, press it on my 13yrold.

Maybe I need a second copy.

Anyway. The point today is the buzz is real and deserved. Read this book.
about seven months because I just didn't want it to end



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049) Fences by August Wilson, finished March 30

Still one of the most fun books to read with students. I wonder if the movie will infiltrate culture enough that I'll stop seeing them be surprised--?
four days



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048) Art Ops Vol. 2: Popism by Shaun Simon and a crapton of artists including a panoply of Allreds, finished March 29

I didn't know until I hit up Amazon that this is volume two. Maybe I would have read it differently, had I know, and thus, perhaps, my experience would have been different.

But anyway, Art Ops is high-concept stuff. Essentially cops who deal with art that has escaped the frame into the real world. It's a fine enough idea and the supporting cast dresses fab, but there are too many characters to really care about. Parts of the team have no development whatsoever, and even some of the main characters have perplexing motivations. And the parallel storylines seem wildly offcenter.

But again: perhaps I would have been more grounded for all this had I known it was a volume too. I suppose the world will never know.

three days




Previously in 2017

2017-04-07

Rejected Books: The Man by Irving Wallace

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I picked up The Man at the recylcing center, intrigued at what a 1960s author had to say about a first black president. The novel thinks its very liberal but it hasn't always aged so well. As a sociological time machine though, it's fascinating. As a piece of writing, however, it's not that great.

Here's the problem. First, the first couple hundred pages or so are a nonstop series of new-character introductions. Even when new characters finally stop being introduced, the author can't leave them alone---he doesn't think we could bear not knowing about every moment in each character's life. So each time we remeet a character, we have to spend several pages as they eat a muffin and think over every bleeding thing that's happened to them since last we met. As a reading experience, this is incredibly frustrating. Just as I feel like the story's getting some forward momentum, it resets a few days or weeks or even months so we can learn what Joe Nobody's been up to.

I almost rejected this book last December, but then I decided not to start any new books in 2016 and so it got a reprieve. It stayed in the car as my in-the-car read and I read, oh, another hundred pages or so. (The book in interminable.) But I had it about a month ago and so replaced it with an appropriately named replacement.

I was just goofing around the internet and learned that some interesting events were forthcoming---the firing of the Secretary of State, an impeachment trial---but I just don't care enough to pick it back up. Giving up on this novel released me from an everpresent source of anxiety and I'm not going back.

Salut, President Dilman. I hardly knew ye.

2017-03-31

2017: Tʜᴇ Mᴏᴠɪᴇs
part one

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In theaters:



The General (1926): This is absolutely one of the greatest comedies ever made. It is a bit weird to watch a movie and be on the sides of the Confederates---that frisson never goes away---but maybe it's all the better a movie for that.

Silence (2016): This is a hard movie. It is true movie and it is a good movie, but it is a hard movie. This is not a movie where you hope the protagonists make certain decisions---because you don't know any better than they do what is right. Perhaps nothing is right. Perhaps we can only choose a lesser wrong. And in those circumstances, will God yet be with us? This movie gives us hope that he will. But it does not suggest his presence will make our pathways easy. No. This is a hard movie. (For further evidence, look away from the protagonists, to the lay Christians around them.)

The LEGO Batman Movie (2017): As funny as I was counting on. I thought it would be a bit emotional and, being a sucker, I thought I might tear up. But baby I cried. Sadly, our theater's speakers were half out so we didn't get the fully involved experience, but even so the sound design was good. One sound effect got perhaps the biggest laugh out of me. Which is why the diminished sound was so very very frustrating.

Get Out (2017): The theater comped us tickets to rewatch LEGO Batman, but Lady Steed and I walked into this instead. So glad we did. From what I'd heard, I was thinking Stepford Wives, and it did me good to hear Jordan Peele plugging it as an influence (although Terry Gross had been tricked by the people too good for that film). This movie didn't affect me as strongly, but that's not to say I think it's a lesser effort. Not at all. In fact, I think it is very much the film of our moment. It's a terrific film. Beautifully shot and tightly constructed. I think this Peele guy may have a future.



At home:


Room (2015): Emma Donoghue's script is a perfect adaptation of her novel. It's been five years since I read the novel so I can't be too precise, but I can't complain about anything left out (the only things I know were missing were fine to leave out---adaptation generally requires some of that). The editing is marvelous and steady; the sound is impeccable (and not just the music). Brie Larson deserved her Oscar nomination, but let's not neglect the performance of Jacob Tremblay who played her son and narrated the dang thing. That's a lot to ask of a kid and he was up to the task. A moving film.

The Hidden Fortress (1958): I checked it out because of its influence on Star Wars---and the DNA is easy to see. Not just the peasants who inspired the droids, but the wipes and Obi-Wan and Tatooine and Leia and more. Though to suggest that this movie is that movie would be wrong. Everything is slippery and changing and not what it seems. The film is shot beautifully---the framing! And it takes a long time to do certain things (climbing a hill, fighting a duel)---but that extra time creates a greater sense of place and measure. It's hard to get used to all the yelling in Kurosawa's films, but no question they are great rides. Why not spend the extra time with them?

The Karate Kid (1984): Since the Relief Society president talked about this film in her sacrament-meeting talk, my seven-year-old has not ceased asking to watch it. The thing is: I hated this movie as a kid. While the rest of America was flocking to dojos, I became more uninterested in karate than I was before. Which wasn't any. (That said, I will cop to trying to crane kick while alone and bored.) The problem was, I hated the bullying in '80s movies, and this one's no exception. And the fighting at the end wasn't much better. But, of course, I liked Mr Miyagi. And I don't know but that this movie is what introduced me to Japanese Internment. Anyway, I was unthrilled about letting the kids watch this but neither would I let them watch it without me. I think because of my transparently bad attitude, they couldn't enjoy it as much as they would have anyway (although the requisite '80s romance was also a turnoff), but they did enjoy it. And, to my surprise, I did too. I mean---I don't love it and I have no regrets about the almost thirty years spent not watching Karate Kid, but it wasn't so bad. One question though: am I crazy or did the scoring change between all the initial matches and the final match between Daniel and Johnny? It did, right? From best of three to best of seven? Am I wrong?

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993): I haven't seen this in about twenty years and my only memory is the twist (don't look it up---my family was surprised by it), but I have it on good authority that it is the greatest Batman film ever, and I understand the argument. It is a fine, fine Batman movie. I don't know if it's my favorite, but it's great to have the character introduced without having to watch his parents get shot.

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015): Hey. It's a straight-up crowdpleaser and well crafted to boot. Who's complaining? UPDATE: I considered including a parenthetical modifying "well crafted" to note problems with plot- and character-development and the objective excellence of the alleged showstoppers but decided not to. By the time I woke the next morning. I realized the real issue. The dialogue is sharp enough and the actors excellent enough that, for all its flaws, PP2 still feels well crafted. Cast well, filmmakers!

Storks (2016): Watching this while holding a baby might be ideal. Sure it's underbaked in a couple spots, but mostly this is a very funny and visually clever and susprisingly moving film. As an aside, I wonder if the reason I never heard about a boycott of this film is because its alternative-families-are-legitimate-families agenda was balanced our by its pro-life agenda? Ha ha! Modern culture!




Elsewhere:


The Princess Bride (1987): This class was too cool not to be bored by this pathetic oldtime piece of crap

Mean Girls (2004): I'm teaching Julius Caesar and bumped into gifs of a certain JC-related scene I had forgotten exists (it's probably been ten years since I've seen this film). So I watched it. Still good.

The Princess Bride (1987): This class was utterly delighted.

Orc Wars (2013): I have some technical complaints, sure, but many of those can be placed squarely on the budget. What I would rather talk about is the storytelling beats which I thought were quite good. It had a few surprises that were justified by what had preceded and although some of the characters were decidedly less developed than others, they all made sense. Also, the film surprised me with such things as the good-guy bodycount. So yeah, it's a low-budget affair (and the constraints upon the writing were absurd), but it works.




Previous films watched


2016

2015

2014

2013

2017-03-28

Allow me to comfort you with failure and sin and escape

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047) The Natural by Bernard Malamud, finished March 28

Knock another baseball classic off the list! I'm done early enough, maybe I'll fit in a nonfiction baseball book this year as well. We'll see.

This book is exceedingly modern---it's heavy with the Arthur imagery and the time symbolism and the symbolism through sex and the ending is very modern as well. This is stuff that often annoys me---and I'm not about to claim this is one of the greatest novels evah, but this book managed it all in a short 237 pages, so we'll forgive it.

My version included a couple nice intros (only one of which I read before the book) which get into the symbolism of the novel but which, for me, may have been of most interest because they were written thirty years after the novel which was written about that long before the events of the novel---in otherwords, they engaged in recursive nostalgia. They were well written and interesting and incisive, but they assumed a certain sort of lived experience shared between themselves and those who might pick up The Natural and read their introductions.

Obviously, I'm too far removed from Babe Ruth or the Black Sox to even have any inherited nostalgia---it's all book-lernin to me. Which isn't qute the same thing. But I think the novel does just fine without those elements. In fact, having those memories not be personal perhaps allows the book to be even more mythic in its scope.

Could be.

At any rate, it's a tragedy. And somehow I did not expect that.

(Incidentally, I haven't seen the movie since I was a kid, say around eight. I remember very little. But now that I've read the novel I'll have to rewatch it.)
maybe twenty days



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046) Let Me Drown with Moses by James Goldberg, finished March 26

If I make time for it, I hope to write two reviews on two different sites about this poetry collection.

I might say so now, but this is the first book I've read on my Kindle and I can't figure out how to access my notes....
seven months



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045) Kaptara Volume 1: Fear Not, Tiny Alien by Chip Zdarsky and Kagan McLeod, finished March 25

Okay. So imagine a Frazetta imagining of The Princess of Mars + Masters of the Universe + Douglas Adams-lite jokes + Sassy Gay Friend + Xanth + my high-school experience of making up stuff to make each other laugh (minus all the sex jokes because we were remarkably clean kids).

I can see why people talk so highly of the gentlemen who made this volume.

say a week



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044) The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, finished March 22

This is the longest of the single-author collections I've read this year, but it's also one of the strongest. It does have one flaw (some sets of poems are clearly just variations on each other) but it's okay because they do draw out and expand upon each other, even if I doubt they were originally meant to be placed beside each other. (That said, were I May's editor, I would have axed some of them.)

The book is remarkably coherent as a whole considering how long it is (~120pp). Although some of the poems were a bit too obtuse and others needed tightening, I enjoyed this book. Well done.
nineteen days









Previously in 2017

2017-03-21

That time that Swedish dude killed a kid in a submarine---a magical submarine

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043) Casanova: Acedia Volume 1 by Matt Fraction and Fábio Moon and Michael Chabon and Gabriel Bá, finished March 18

What a writing cast! And the art is a style I'm very fond of! Okay!


The real problem with this volume is that it's really not long enough. They should have waited to make a collection. Why must they all be the same length? This was super intriguing, but some of what made it intrigue also made it dissatisfy. For instance, there is, if I'm counting correctly, three ongoing stories (one of which is superbrief and meta and may be ignored as far as this argument is concerned). Which means the pagelength is split between the two. Which makes both even slighter than they would normally be in this sort of collection.

That said, both stories are genre-bending bits of bitesize brilliance (or at least curiosity). But was it enough to stick with me long enough to read more next time?

Ask Shutter.
one week



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042) Wolfie & Fly by Cary Fagan, finished March 15

This charmer (free from publisher) is about two loner kids (one by choice, one not) who find each other and embark on an adventure that is about three parts imagination to two parts reality.

It's fun and super simple. If you're looking to break a kid into chapter books, this could do it. It's smart and reasonably witty. It lacks the madcap strain on impossibility that you see in, say, Roald Dahl, but it's a dialed down entry into that same genre.
two noncontiguous days



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041) Cyrus Perkins and the Haunted Taxi Cab by Dave Dwonch and Anna Lencioni, finished March 13


I picked this up off the library's Adult Graphic Novels shelf and my nine-year-old read it before I knew it was in risk of being touched by a child. Luckily, this was okay. I mean---there's blood and ghosts and a demon and stuff, but nothing beyond your average Disney movie. Which is the great American benchmark for child safety.

Here's the story: cabbie picks up a fare who's been shot and dies en route to the hospital. The boy's soul is trapped in the cab and the cabbie feels obliged to solve the mystery of his death in order to, he hopes, set him free.

And so it goes.

What I like best about the book is its hints at richness---the sense that there is much more story to tell, characters to develop. The ghost in the cab is not close to the most intriguing element (though alas: it looks rather like it'll be adopting a ghost-of-the-week format going forward), but I recognize the value of less interesting stories while the larger arcs grow more naturally. Sure. That's fine. I get it.
two days over three days



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040) An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, finished March 10

What a play! This is a thrilling read and make no mistake. First we have what seems like a great victory of the liberals over the conservatives. Then we learn the liberals are exactly the same as the conservatives. Then we see our hero leap into a tragedy-sized abyss. Then we realize the tragedy will be less literal and all the more horrible therefor. Then we see that suffering is the actual heroism. Then we close the book and sit back and wonder if we were manipulated into the correct opinions, or tricked into the wrong opinions.

I believe all I’ve read of Ibsen’s before is A Doll’s House, and this play has many similarities. The mix of secrets-vs-disclosures within a family is different but present, and the hero is set up for utter tragedy, but by embracing that seeming tragedy, somehow finds a complicated and beautiful “happy” ending.

But along the way, Enemy of the People presents its themes with much more energy and vim. This would be a lot of fun to watch on stage, done right. And a film version should be rushed into production Right Now. THIS IS THE TIME!

Phew.
probably a month reading only on some fridays








Previously in 2017

2017-03-09

Caesar! Bunnies! Poetry! Gaiman!

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039) Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, finished March 9

I first read Shakespeare my sophomore year of high school. Mrs Errecart said we were reading Julius Caesar and I was, I'll admit, pretty scared. Shakespeare??? It was going to be hard and boring and miserable.

Only it was not. I loved Julius Caesar. When I graduated high school, my parents got me Oxford's complete Shakespeare and he's been a big part of my life ever since.

But I've never again read Julius Caesar---which strikes me as rather remarkable, given how much Shakespeare I was assigned in college, not to mention the occasional for-fun reads.

But given the current climate, I thought this play might be a good choice. My AP kids are reading it next week and I just finished my first-ever reread in preparation.

And holy cow, guys. It's really good. So much fun to read. It's fast-paced and full of great dialogue. No fat on this baby.

Now to see if my students feel the same.....
couple weeks or so



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038) In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary, finished March 5

So let's start by noting that Gary's professional life is dedicated to bringing out the voluminous, unpublished treasures Margarite Wise Brown left behind. This doesn't excuse that the purple-prosed hagiographic tendencies of this biography, but it does explain them somewhat. It's also worth complaining about that the biography tells a lot about what was flitting through its characters mind at any given moment, but the notes don't clearly back up that level of detail. The other thing that drove me nuts was how Gary would set up a storyline as important, then completely forget it. See her parents, for example, but the most egregious example, I felt, was her relationship with illustrator Phyra Slobodkina. They were working together at Margaret's Maine home when she parroted the anti-Semitic language heard from her America First Committee friends (and broadcasts). Phyra, being Jewish, was offended and left the next morning. Margaret felt awful and planned to make an apology. Did she? Dunno. In the remaining 140 pages Phyra's mentioned only twice in passing and there's nothing about the whole anti-Semite thing. That sort of thing is the book's biggest flaw.

But flaws aside, I really enjoyed this book. I didn't know much about Margaret Wise Brown coming in except she had written a whole lotta books. In fact, the only reason I checked this book out is because I had to talk to a librarian for checkout, was embarrassed by what I was getting, and had grabbed the closest respectable-looking thing off the NEW shelves as balance.

Even with the salt poisoning, I'm now convinced she was a genius. And not in the mystical sense, but in the sense of she had an unusual ability and spent her life working to refine it. Learning about how she got into the trade and the amount of time she spent with kids finetuning her stories was inspiring.

And her stupid, stupid death at the hand of a French doctor was shocking, even though I knew she was doomed to die young. She seemed to be on the cusp of her first healthy romantic relationship and then she was dead.

There are other biographies about her which I'll probably never read, but I now add her to the list of writers I admire. And the list of writers who were taken from us much too soon. I have to admit to a great, never-to-be-consummated desire to know what she would have done next.

(In closing, here's a you-never-know for you. During probate following her death, the estimated future worth of Goodnight Moon was estimated at $200.)
maybe a month?



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037) Ritual and Bit by Robert Ostrom, finished March 3

I really liked this collection. Even though some of the poems were dumb and some pushed a simple concept too far, I liked how adventurous it was and how it bounded about, sticking its nose in unexpected places and turning up all sorts of weird things, some of which even managed to be beautiful.

Here's to mating fun and ambition.
a week



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036) Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman, finished March 3

Gaiman's an interesting fellow. I stopped reading his novels for adults (not in an I've-sworn-them-off sense) because they just don't work as well as his shorter works---comics, short stories, novels for kids. And although I wouldn't call this new collection a 100%er, it's mostly good and mostly very good when it's good.

Gaiman's at his best when he's mining old myths and tales and melting them to ore to pour into new moulds. And there are some lovely examples of this here. (But also some examples where it almost seems like a Gaiman imitator taking his schtick too far. So it goes.)

I started this in the audio version. I enjoy listening to Gaiman, I suppose. He reads well. Though I'm not sure that his is always the best voice for a particular story. But hey: he's a rock star. No way around that. Give the fans what they want.
sixty-two days








Previously in 2017

2017-03-07

Redesigned Thmusings

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Thutopia has a cleaned-up look as of five minutes ago. A redesign was overdue, but my hand was forced by failed image hosting and Blogger's new set-up that doesn't allow the behind-the-scenes access to code I used to enjoy. No wonder everyone's moved to Wordpress.

The downside is this is just a generic Blogger look because, well, access to the code is extremely limited.

So.

2017-03-02

Lost Songs: “Just When I Needed You Most”

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Here's a really cheesy video that Google recommends when listening to this song:



I never know when I might start singing this song. When I was a kid it was probably because some dumb thing had made me think my life was a cesspool of sentiment and no song could better describe my forlorn state.

These days I guess it's just because the song has implanted itself deep into my musical dna.

Listening to it now, deliberately, yes, the song does show a few signs of age. But it is in fact a pretty great song. The fascinating way it emphasizes 'I'---in contract to how it emphasizes the word 'you'---is part of it. Randy VanWarmer suggested two reasons: one that nasty breakups are universal (though I love this song and have never gone through one) and the sweet autoharp break. My personal opinion is that it's the heartbroken pathos of his voice. And the fact that it is pathos and not bathos. He feels sincerely damaged, but not trying to wallow therein.

It's a beautiful song. It's not complicated. It's simple and therefore direct and therefore finds its way past my ironic barriers.

If you're interested, here's a Dolly Parton cover I just found.



The parts with the backup singers are hilariously badly aged. The parts with the actors, however....

I'm sure there are terribly saccharine covers out there, but the song doesn't require adornment. The simpler, methinks, the better.

2017-02-24

Poetry's okay I guess

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Twenty-seven of the thirty-five books finished this year are poetry and comics which explains how the numbers are already half of last year's. Of course, all those books added together don't match the word count of the pages read in Don Quixote last year.

Which I still haven't finished....






035) Under Brushstrokes by Hedy Habra, finished February 24

Two observations on this book.

1. Having such a large percentage of a book be ekphrastic ain't great, frankly. Just a list of paintings at the end (the end!) is way too much work for me, the casual reader. This should have been a coffeetabler....

2. Anyone looking for evidence of poetry in prose poems should check this book out. Lots of examples of high overall quality.
five days






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034) Rapture by Sjohnna McCray, finished February 20

The speaker of this book is the son of a black man from what our current president would call the inner cities and a Korean woman---an erstwhile prostitute met during the Vietnam war. His childhood involves the tension in this relationship and hints of other tensions---siblings by other mothers, inner-city crime, relatives, etc. The other primary angle the book takes is the speaker's adult love/sex life with other men. Hints of his homosexuality in childhood are too deeply buried for me to find. The closest thing to sex for himself is peeping on a naked woman with his cousins.

The final poem in the collection is multipart and eponymous and helps take the speaker from childhood to adult. We see him explore sex and the gay scene etc etc and find his own grounding as a man in meaningful relationships with other men.

My favorite part of the book comes in the final section of this final poem. Specifically, the underlined parts:


This captures something true about sex that I've never articulated to myself before, and I appreciate the insight.
two days



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033) The Destroyer in the Glass by Noah Warren, finished February 19

The foreword suggests this poet is great because hey, check out this poem, the first stanza makes sense and the rest of the poem makes no sense at all QED. I did not finish reading the foreword. I did, however, read all the poems, though I don't completely disagree with the foreword's assessment.

The best poems came in two types: long meandering personal histories, poems about specific and unexpected objects.

The best of the latter was probably "Automatic Pool Cleaner." This poem brilliantly and evocatively explores the cleaner and lets it become a metaphor on its own terms. And then it feels the need to explain it by getting obscure. It's a cheap trick and not an easy one to do well. Warren, I'm afraid, doesn't do it so well.

But he's young and although the collection has few very good poems, very good lines are scattered througout.
three days


Previously in 2017