Books with looks!


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

two days


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

maybe two weeks


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

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

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

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

Previously in 2017


Books I finished, mostly today


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And, frankly, pretty darn funny at times.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previously in 2017


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


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

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

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

I had never heard that song before. Not ever.

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

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

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

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

Holy smokes!

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


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

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

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

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

Turn up your bass.


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

It hasn't settled yet, a day later.

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

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

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

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

Previously in 2017