Change of pace: Poems and poems and Matilda


058) Itself by Rae Armantrout, finished June 21

I know of two main schools of bad high-school poetry (this taxonomy is based on style, not content): tortured rhyme and rhythm; itty-bitty-lined free verse. Armantrout's new collection looks on the surface very much like this latter school. But her skill shows that, just as rhyme and rhythm weren't hackneyed in the hands of Donne or Frost, itty-bitty-lined free verse need not be either.

That said, I don't feel well prepared to say just how Armantrout manages to make her work better. Some lines absolutely shoot of the page. Some images and metaphors and conceits and juxtapositions are clearly brilliant. But sixty to ninety percent of the book isn't those moments. It's still "well written," but it might take a few more times through to figure out just what made it good. And I'm not sure I liked it enough for that.

Less than perfectly helpfully, after the poems had ended, at the end of the author bio, was this link: http://raearmantrout.site.wesleyan.edu/ and the promise of an "online reader's companion."

I'm not sure that's what I would call that site, Wesleyan.
a few days


057) Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry by John Frederick Nims and David Mason, finished June 19

I loved this book. Maybe part of my love is that I'm no longer a harried undergrad having to cut corners, but a steady adult able to take as much time as I like, working my way through its 600 pages. Be that as it may, Nims's explanations of things such as metaphor and allegory are so helpful I've already incorporated them into my own teaching, and if I ever do get to teach a poetry class, this is the text I would want to use. Though I don't know how to get kids with constant deadlines to reproduce my experience with the book.

Ah well.

Although this is really a book about analyzing poetry, I think it's of even more use to poets. Self-proclaimed poets are a lazy bunch and Western Wind reveals how much craft goes into the finest poetic work. If you care about poetry and [accurately] believe you can get better, this book will be a powerful tool. Pick up an older edition on the cheap.
about nine months


056) Matilda by Roald Dahl, finished June 15

Although Matilda frequently comes up in lists of people's favorite Dahl novels, I've never read it before. I assume because it was his last novel, came out the year I turned twelve, and I was busy reading other things. (Though this was the time Henry Sugar was blowing my mind and prepping me for Dahl's adult work, so this excuse isn't quite airtight.) Anyway, I found myself waiting in line at Costco having left my book in the car. Next to the checkout is the (sadly diminished) media section where I saw a copy of Matilda separated from its boxset, so I picked it up and started reading it. I got a chapter or so in before leaving it with the cashier. The next day I was at the library and picked up the same edition. I was making quick progress until Big O stole it from me. Anyway, I've finished now.

In some ways, this is the quintessential Dahl novel. About a kid surrounded by miserable adults failing to care for her, but this time her salvation comes from inside her---and it's not just her salvation: she also saves an adult who had once been a child surrounded by miserable adults---and who still awaits redemption.

Matilda is a marvelous character. Her gifts and circumstances are no doubt shared by plenty of to-be supervillains, but Matilda never really loses her innocence, even when she is given greater stores of knowledge and tastes the pleasures of revenge. It's wonderful to watch.

Perhaps no Dahl book has been better served by its Quentin Blake illustrations, either. Matilda is small and birdlike and charming and clever and innocent. Her parents and the Trunchbull are horrifying and ugly and menacing and fearsome, while Miss Honey is kind and put-together with a vulnerability and hesitance that don't get in the way of her being a stone-cold fox.

You don't need any more proof of someone's mastery of anatomy and emotion and technique generally than to look at Quentin Blake and how he makes things look so dashed off. He astonishing really.

Another thing I admire about Matilda is how quiet its ending is. And understated ending to one of his quieter books. I would argue Matilda is more magical than, say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, yet it is simultaneously much less mad.

The perfect ending, methinks, to a career.
about a week

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


let's see . . . more comics !


055) Bad Houses by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil, finished June 14

Small town, open secrets, young love, estate sales, hoarders, parents of adult children, loneliness, shame....

I don't remember what led me to track this book down anymore, but I was worth reading. I wasn't as overwhelmed as its blurbers apparently were, but it was a very human story and I enjoyed it.

two or three days


054) Star Wars Underworld: The Yavin Vassilika by Mike Kennedy and Carlos Meglia and whoever, finished June 12

These pre-Episode IV adventures of all your favorite smugglers and bounty hunters and gamblers and mobsters and suchlike have charm for boys but make the adult in you glad that they are not now nor will they ever be canon.
two days


053) Batman Vol. 5: Zero Year - Dark City by by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo (et al), finished June 11

This is book five in the New 52 reimagining of Batman so my perspective on it ain't complete, but I like this book a lot. Certainly a lot more than Batman's first having-sex-with-Catwoman-on-a-rooftop New 52 appearance. In part, because it was enough issues to tell a whole story, as opposed to most of the collections I've been reading lately with their slightly longer excerpts. But also because it was pretty darn good. Sure, it's trying to fit in as many oldtimey Batman references as possible (RRRRIDDLE ME THIS, BATMAN)---but most work, only a few are gratuitous. And this Dr Death character is a pretty terrifying new incarnation of a boring old supervillain. And seeing Batman and Gordon have some pretty serious issues and begin to resolve them was fun.

Something about the current generation of comics writers seems to want to make the Riddler into a true terror. I've seen this sputter but here it comes off pretty well. The Riddler is a horror in this book and not just a joke. Even if he does look a bit like my brother-in-law (it's the chops).
two days


052) Deadpool's Art of War by Peter David and Scott Koblish, finished June 10

I've never quite read anything that helped me understand why people love Marvel's psychopathic Spider-Man and Guildenstern, but this one gets close. Instead of seeming to be an attempt at recapturing spent wit, this seems reasonably fresh. Deadpool is retelling Sun Tzu's Art of War and causing all sorts of chaos as he demonstrates the theories. It mostly works. Certainly it results in more thought-out battles than we recently saw in X-Men. Although it does get a little crammed and sloppy at the end, I'm still tempted to make this required reading for any monthly writer who wants to do fight scenes that make sense and have dramatic purpose.

Plus, the covers were cool.

one day

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


American Movie


So after years of curiosity, I finally saw American Movie.

Then I found this . . . sequel of sorts. Starring Mormon (Morman?) missionaries:

Okay, kids! (a svithe)


Inspired by this fascinating tidbit from 1953, today's sacrament meeting was aimed at the kids. Speakers could speak on any topic, so long as their remarks were directed at the kids. In my introduction, I asked this riddle:
What is older than you
but shorter than you
and you're inside it right now?
The answer was sacrament meeting and we were off to the races. I shared with the kids a summary of that linked-to document (via time machine---paper has always been a time machine) and introduced the speakers and we were good to go.
Give your coloring books and Cheerios to your parents. Although, adults, Jesus told you do be as a little child as well, so you should be able to find something of use as well.
I heard a lot from adults who thought the sacrament meeting was truly excellent. My own kids gave it a decent review. Several adults wanted it to become a regular thing. I think maybe it will.

previous svithe


Let's see....comic book, comic book, comic book,
comic book, comic book and . . . . comic book


051) Men of Wrath by Jason Aaron and Ron Garney, finished June 10

'Tis the time of year when I find myself checking out lots of comics from the library!

This bloody thing is about violence passing down from one generation to another, and it's a nihilistic joyride, if such a thing is possible. It's not a clean thrill. The protagonist is quickly established as someone impossible to cheer for. Really, this entire Alabama is a people ripe for destruction. But it wasn't a story without purpose. Although any redemption is too small to have meaning, maybe future generations still have a shot? Maybe?

one night


050) X-Men: No More Humans by Mike Carey & Salvador Larroca & al., finished June 9

Here's the recipe for an X-Men comic:
Take some of the greatest and most varied and frankly interesting characters pop culture's produced in the last fifty years

Come up with a really terrific macguffin

Put in a lot of characters with deep-seated grudges and have them sorta kinda set them aside

Have every talk philosophies of love and piece while preparing to beat the crap out of each other

Stack bigger and bigger stakes upon bigger and bigger battles, none of which seems much more thought out than a four-year-old crashing his Hot Wheels together

Deus ex machina

Have someone give a moral to the story, but be certain no one internalizes it
That's about it.
two days


049) Alex + Ada by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, finished June 9

At first I thought I was reading Her---it's a very similar world and the story unfolds in very similar ways. In this case however, instead of an OS, it's a beautiful android. And instead of her attaining sentience on her own, he has to arrange on the black market to have her set free. And that's where the story ends.

Although it took a long time for me to really care about the characters, by the end I did. But this was in spite of the art. The computer-drawn stylings of the characters render them all plastic and android. None of them feel particularly alive. That their lines are often just slightly tweaked from panel to panel only increases the sense of artificiality. (I've read an excerpt from another Luna book, Girls, and it suffered from the same problem. Beautiful people made out of plastic. Just playing with dolls, which gets in the way of having a real human connection. You can pose them, but they don't live for themselves.

Which is a shame, given the excellent worldbuilding and story potential these barbies were plopped down in.
two nights


048) Miracleman Book 2: The Red King Syndrome by Alan Moore (not credited by name) and a bunch of other people, finished June 6

This looked kind of dumb sitting on the library shelf, but the blurbs were ecstatic. So I picked it up and read it. And had a very hard time telling whether I was being punked re its alleged history or if this was legitimately a 1980s artifact. I mean---that's the most, rrm, accurate birth scene I've ever seen in comics. So when I finished I checked Wikipedia and ohhhh...... It's that book. Yep. This is pretty famous. It's a pretty big deal. And yeah, for the 1980s this WAS an enormously ambitious comic and hugely important in creating the modern scene. And mostly it's aged well. It's better than Coffin Hill for instance (see below), but ultimately I don't think it's all that great. I like how it uses backgrounds to add thematic elements (animals killing other animals, for instance), but it tends to be heavyhanded. It's like Moore realized comics can be art---even superhero comics---and he's not going to let ANYONE escape reading a bit of Miracleman without having plenty of art shoved through their irises. For instance, the lone black character has lots of symbolic dreams and thinks about the absurdity of how symbolic his symbolic dreams are, so we can't miss how many layers of crazy crazy symbolism are being packed in. But the evil Mexican hangs out with unlayered Nazis and la de da.

Anyway. It's probably good I've finally read this. It always comes up when anyone from the era that followed (eg: Gaiman, Allred) talks about the genesis of the late '80s / early 90s renaissance of ideas in comics. It's important to remember though, that just because something was good and important and led the way, does it is the best. I accept that it feels that way to those who were changed by it, but let's step back a hundred years and see what history has to say, eh?
two days


047) Coffin Hill: Dark Endeavors by Caitlin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda, finished June 6

I actually liked this volume much more, largely because it focused more on her days as a cop rather than the Big Cosmic Evil aspects of the story. I did have to go back to volume one to check a few things as times progressed. I wish they thought more about when to collect monthlies rather than just make them all the same size.....

Also, I feel constrained to say that the way this book scatters hot dead chicks in their altogethers around is lazy and prurient.
a couple days


046) Coffin Hill: Forest of the Night by Caitlin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda, finished June 4

This is the first collection of a monthly for-adults horror comic from Vertigo. It has a complicated mess of backstory focused in the last decade but going back centuries and still hasn't quite come together to make sense. Visually, it's pretty cool (though character design is pretty everyday), but ultimately I'm not feeling much substance (just a relly good facsimile thereof). Both this and volume two were sitting on the new-fiction shelf at the library, so, since I have it, I might read it as well. Maybe I'll like what comes next. As it is though, if I want to read beautiful New England girls with evil and magic and witches killed centuries ago, I'll just rerereread Rachel Rising.

But now that I've knocked it, I should add that I do appreciate that it didn't read like anything else I've read lately from the big monthly publishers. So props there.
under a week

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Some of these things are quite delicious


045) Castle Waiting: The Lucky Road by Linda Medley, finished at midnight so either June 2 or 3

This is one of the most striking works of fantasy I've read in some time. It's a fully realized world dripping of references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The characters are as fully drawn as Bone's. It has bad people but isn't oppressed with the specter of an unspeakable evil such as Sauron. Although it begins with a woman on a quest, what she is seeking is simply refuge. She finds something even better---not mere safety, but also friends and welcome and a home.

All is charm and pleasantness.

Which may sound boring, I suppose, if you think fantasy should be running from one great battle to the next, but the rhythms of life at Castle Waiting are interesting and human and peopled with folk worth spending time with. It's quiet and quaint and pretty darn great.

Medley's published hundreds of pages more than were included in my volume. Which is to say that Castle Waiting is a place you could go to live as well.
under a week


044) The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami and translated by Ted Goossen, finished June 2

I know people love Murakami and now I can say I've read him in a gloriously overdesigned (by Chip Kidd) book-shaped short story. And it's the sort of silly surreal magical nonsense I was afraid it would be. Don't get me wrong: I didn't dislike it. But I've read better library hells and I've read better absurd writing and I'm relieved to be relieved of this obligation.

Strangely, before bumping into this book at the library, I had just taken Kafka at the Shore off my to-be-read bookshelf in a fit of realism. Great timing!
two and from school


043) The Round House by Louise Erdich, finished June 1

This was lent me by a fellow Little Hill English teacher with a glowing recommendation and I'm so glad I accepted the loan and read it. This is a marvelous book.

The story of a boy on the rez whose mother has been brutally raped and, because tribes are not allowed to prosecute non-Natives, will not see justice. That's the story, basically. Here are a few of the things I loved about it.

These boys are as randy as, say, Sherman Alexie's, but something about her matter-of-factness of it seems less pleased with itself. I'm not even sure if that's a virtue, but it's a weird age and she's a sixty-year-old woman and she nailed it. I'm impressed.

Speaking of sex, I enjoyed the dirty chatter of the elders in the novel. I love the idea of a culture where in old age you can finally get away with saying things about sex that generally just get swallowed. That seems healthy, culturally speaking.

The novel's grappling with both Catholicism and the native medicine struck me as fair and human---human not in the dismissive Hypocrite! sense but human in the more accurate striving sense.

The character development in the novel was stellar and clean. Although I don't see any compelling reason for her to have forgone quotation marks (can I assume this affectation will die with her generation?), the voices and mannerisms of the characters allowed for no more confusion than in a properly punctuated work of fiction.

The Round House should be read by anyone from a minority culture looking to see how to do exposition. Do it like this.

And at 317 pages it never hesitated, never dawdled. It was efficient storytelling---never rushed, just progressing. I'm not sure about the cluster of endings (or, more, about the final ending), but that's not because it was wrong in some way, but because it was an unpretentious complicating. The sort of ending likely to reward moments of quiet contemplation when laid over the more immediately satisfying and transparent pages.

Anyway. Erdrich's The Beet Queen was the source for the prose question on this year's AP Lit test. So she's basically canon now. Get on this train.
maybe two weeks


042) Best American Comics 2014 edited by Scott McCloud, finished May 31

I may have spent as long typing in and reading the websites Scott McCloud recommended as I did actually reading what was printed in the book. And that was AOK. Just use the look-inside feature on Amazon and search for thunderpaw and you'll be in the middle of some amazing stuff. And don't just read what's linked to. Bum around a bit and read some of the other work on those pages as well. You won't be disappointed.

McCloud went about this collection slightly differently (which seems rather common of the Best American COMICS editors). He broke the book into sections and introduced each separately. And although he seems (as seems rather common of the Best American COMICS editors) to feel obliged to include some of the ol' living masters, he does a better job justifying his choices, even if I don't always agree.

By grouping the comics together, he emphasizes various trends in the field. Which is great---that gives a better sense of what's going on out there.

I'd already read some of my favorites from this book, but of course it's given me another list of Things to Seek Out---which is one of the things I love about these books.

And, alas, this one too must go on a high shelf. There's always work not safe for kids in these collections. That will probably what gets me to finally stop buying them someday. But I'll find a way to keep reading them regardless.
a few months

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


The Joys and Glories of Creation


Last year in commemoration of Mormon Arts Sunday, we had speakers speak on creation one way. This year they spoke on creation/creators/creativity in another way.
God left the world unfinished for [us] to work [our] skill upon. He left the electricity in the cloud, the oil in the earth. He left the rivers unbridged and the forests unfelled and the cities unbuilt. God gives to [us] the challenge of raw materials, not the ease of finished things. He leaves the pictures unpainted and the music unsung and the problems unsolved, that [we] might know the joys and glories of creation.
Thomas S. Monson*

* The provenance has suddenly become less certain. Although I had a print version of Monson saying this decades ago, the God left the world unfinished for man to work his skill upon. He left the electricity in the cloud, the oil in the earth. potion of this quotation is attributed online to both George MacDonald (but I can't find it in any of his books) and to someone named Dr. Alan Stockdale. Unfortunately, I can't find my original paper source for Monson, but I think it was also in the 1960s. For today's purposes, because when I assigned the topic I gave credit to Monson---and since it appears the fullness of it is his, I'm leaving the citation to him at present. Thanks to Speaker One for alerting me to the MacDonald information.
All the speakers were excited by the assignment, especially Speaker One who about jumped out of the pew when I handed him a card with the topic written on it.

In brief:

Speaker One:
Creativity brings up to the joys and glories of creativity.
Speaker Two:
Spoke of creation in other contexts such as family.
Speaker Three:
Happiest time of his life was building a house of scrap wood at age ten.
Now go forth and celebrate in your own ward in your own ways.

previous svithe