2017-08-15

Books I finished, mostly today

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

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

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

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

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 But the most obvious "out-of-date"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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

And, frankly, pretty darn funny at times.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Previously in 2017

2017-08-09

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

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



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

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

I had never heard that song before. Not ever.

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

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

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

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

Holy smokes!

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

Incredible.

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

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

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

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

Turn up your bass.

2017-08-04

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

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

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

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



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


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

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



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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

It hasn't settled yet, a day later.

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

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

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

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





Previously in 2017

2017-07-13

Books read while travelling

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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079) Dodger by Terry Pratchett, finished July 11

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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





Previously in 2017

2017-06-30

2017: Tʜᴇ Mᴏᴠɪᴇs
part two

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In theaters:


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

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

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



At home:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Elsewhere:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Previous films watched


2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

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