June Movies (minimally jejune)


The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

I have some strong feelings about what makes a good Muppet movie.

First, the Muppets are at their best when they play themselves. So I don't care how much you personally love them, a Muppet version of Christmas Carol or Treasure Island is automatically second tier.

Next, the canon original story is The Muppet Movie, so anything that is in disagreement with that movie is the Muppets not playing themselves. Eg, the movie currently under discussion.

Which isn't a knock, necessarily. The Great Mupper Caper has some of my favorite lines and bits, and I certainly enjoy watching it, it just can't matter as much because it's less honest. (This may be why I appreciate the meta bits---they bring us back to "real" Muppetry.)

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Time flies. I would not have guessed four years have passed since I saw this trailer in a theater. To do lists can take a long time to execute if you're not focused. Maybe this has something to do with this movie, as well.

As an aside, a quick compliment to Samuel L. Jackson. His voice is so distinctive it can shatter illusions when it suddenly appears, but here he slides into being James Baldwin with such invisible eloquence. Excellent work from him.

But spending ninety minutes with the words of James Baldwin is the real gift. And the direction and editing of image and sound, creating juxtapositions reeling between the obvious, the startling, and the enlightening, keeps the mind active. No chance to doze off here.

America is still falling short and until we face our reality, it will stay our reality.

Have we so little respect for human life? The facts suggest as much, but are we satisfied treating each other so cheaply?

We cannot change anything, Baldwin says, that we do not face. So let's face it. And let's keep facing it. While we still have an imagined American ideal to defend.

The Shiver of the Vampires (1971)

So the movie is as dumb as advertised. I imagine the director's other movies will also meet that bar. There are a couple moments of visual merit and I love the period music which, when it appeared, made the movie vastly more interesting, but it fails to provide characters or a plot while also failing to function as decent surrealism. Picking a side probably would have helped. The occasional bouts of "humor" I suppose helped me stick with it (it was just running in the background while my attention was elsewhere) but did not improve the movie.

Also, I'm fairly certain the female lead was played by two different actresses*, although I can't find documentary evidence on the web to back me up.

Anyway, late '60s through '70s Eurotrash vampire films. Everything they are promised to be.

Patch Town (2014)

This is the sort of movie one wishes Tim Burton were making. A richly realized world with babies born of cabbages and frozen into dolls, an army of Santas, expressionistic sets, a 4'9" cross between Robin William and Brian Cranston who is utterly evil and charming, so-so songs popping up now and then as the movie remembers it's a musical---honestly, although it combined into something only alright, I highly recommend this movie.

Name one other film of your acquaintance that makes reference to both Elf and Get Out*.

*(actually, Get Out came out three years later, but it sure feels like a reference---Jung would no doubt approve.)

Incidentally, while I didn't think of it as "a kids' movie" while I was watching it, if your kids like Pee-wee and Nightmare and Beetlejuice, nothing here will be "inappropriate" for them.

My Dog, the Thief (1969)

This is not, you know, a particularly good movie or anything. The kids are into these 60s/70s live-action Disney movies (and who can blame them) but not all of them really need to be remembered.

But it does have Elsa Lanchester (which I always support, no matter how how small or pointless the role) and my new favorite dope. The cut-rate Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette were passable but no Dean Jones or Suzanne Pleshette (her dresses, however? wonderful!).

Anyway, it has a helicopter and a St. Bernard, so I'm sure you'll love it.

Endless Night (1972)

I had planned to day to watch either Holy Motors or The Florida Project, but then I finished reading Endless Night and discovered there was a film---and it was on Kanopy! Since I had just written that it could make a better movie, I felt obliged to see if that had happened.

Comme ci, comme ça.

They failed to capture the sense of wealth. The amazing house felt like a cheap set. And, worst of all, by giving the protag a voiceover, recreated the book's biggest flaw: first-person narration. (Although, it occurs to me now, maybe Dame Agatha was aiming for a Humbert Humbert sort of thing?)

Anyway, it was clearly aiming for the great Hitchcock films (including, in case you couldn't tell otherwise, hiring Bernard Hermann to write an excellent Bernard Hermann-doing-Hitchcock score) (also worth noting: the director had worked with Hitchcock before). It did have some moments of excellence (the swirling cameras and dutch angles and swapped dialogue of the New York scenes) and I thought it was about to really making an interesting change at the end, but then it went for less interesting, just making him extra wacko.

One reason I felt I had to bump the movie to the top of my queue was the presence of Hayley Mills. I figured she was playing the poor little rich girl, but hoped she was cast against type to the villain. No such luck. It was a fine performance, of course, but ... not surprising.

Apparently, my disappointment is precedented.

Holy Motors (2012)

This has recently appeared on two list of movies unlike anything you've ever seen before and, well, I took the bait.

I'm glad I did but, well, it's unlike anything I've ever seen before. I'm not sure how to draw comparisons in order to explain it.

It starts weird, but then gets perfectly normal. Then you realize that no, it is not normal. And you arrive at another theory as to what it happening. And then another.

Then there's nothing to do but start guessing? Is this some sort of science-fiction film without any explanation? Is it a treatise on acting and film? Is it an anthology film with the wildest framing device of all time?

Then it comes to it's final "act" and you realize your second guess may have been right. But then: it isn't.

And then---is it some sort of religious tract?

And then that coda.

Anyway, it's not like anything you've ever seen before.

There'll never be an American version but, if there is, I vote Sam Rockwell.

personal dvd library
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

This film holds up so well. The effects, by virtue of being simple and in complete service of the story, still work. Kate Winslet's character still feels like a rebuke to the manic pixie dream girl---a trope that won't even be named for another year.

Michel Gondry is a genius when he's working with genius-level material. Charlie Kaufman can outwrite anyone.

I would also like to note that Clementine clearly influences Ramona---and note that Ramona builds on her role as a counterexample---no matter what Wikipedia claims.

I doubt I'll have a chance, but I really want to watch it again with the commentary before film group tomorrow night.

IMDb TV (on Amazon)
Any Old Port in a Storm (1973)

I remember in the Nineties, when a new Columbo would be advertized, that it was a movie. I didn't realize that the original series was 100% movies. I mean: I guess it's technically a tv show, but it was over 90 minutes long. Self-contained. That's a movie.

I like Peter Falk. I always have, but I think The In-Laws really created a need in me to see more of him. And Columbo's the obvious place to start. Maybe his turn in The Great Muppet Caper (see above) is what prompted this sudden decision, but who can say. (If I'd known before I hit play how long it way, I might not have done it.)

Anyway, I picked this one because fans keep calling it the best episode. This and the #2 on this list and the Dick Van Dyke-as-villain episode are the three I think I'll watch before I call it good. Hard to say how long that will take.

I was surprised Columbo took so long to show up. And I was surprised how accurate the Columbo-is-crosseyed gag people make in other shows is.

But in the end, while this might have been a good episode, I'm not sure it was really a showcase for the character.

Nevertheless! I was entertained!

The Florida Project (2017)

I'm so glad this movie focused on children. For one thing, the kids still have joy. Second, kids have much less agency, much less control over their world. And that makes it easy to see that the adults are similarly without agency, without control. This movie is either arguing that time is a circle and there's nothing we can do to prevent the cycle repeating, or, we need universal basic income, stat.

You can't ignore the bright reality of poverty after living two hours in shiny, shiny Orlando with these kids at this hotel. This is the life so many Americans live.


What's your plan?

It takes a long time for a plot to resolve, but again---it follows from kids taking the lead.

personal dvd library
Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

It's crazy how few minutes are spent on the amnesia plot which, to me, is by far the most memorable element of the movie. I was starting to think I was crazy when it didn't arrive and it didn't arrive and it didn't arrive. Then it arrived just in time for the movie to end.

But this is more about how much I love Philup Phil than a knock on other classic sequences like the Muppet babies (which spun off into classic Saturday morning three months later) or the purse snatcher. Also, one has to wonder how much influence Ratatouille took from Pete's and, although Manhattan Melodies is an abysmal knock on lazy Broadway...one can make an argument that it also looks forward to Hamilton. (You may need to squint.)

But really: even though I have The Muppet Movie memorized and consider it a vastly superior film,---although Muppets from Space, for all its failings, is one of the most quotable films of the Nineties---I still might quote "makes you clean" more than any other line in the Muppet canon. Thank you, Philup Phil!

personal dvd library
Peter Pan (1953)


Now, I know Peter Pan is often cited as Something Racist from Disney's past, but that claim is generally accompanied by an image of Tiger Lily. Which, okay, but her appearance has got to be the least racist element of injunism from the movie. Egad. "What Makes the Red Man Red"? Yikes.

We bought this dvd years ago so I was shocked to find that it was still wrapped in plastic when the baby found and wanted to watch this fairy movie. Lady Steed and I both have fond memories of it from long ago and it's, you know, a classic or whatever. Not a lot of Tinker Bell though, alas.

Of course, if you somehow missed it before her appearance (I don't know how you could), Tinker Bell should help you recognize the other fun element in this movie: misogyny.

I suppose if I were writing a paper for some class I was taking, my thesis would be something along the lines of this: "English boys given the choice between barbarism represented by Red Men and swarthy pirates or the civilization provided by the bloom of the English female, blah blah blah."

I mean---it's astonishing.

Now, I'll grant you: not all this racism and sexism is meant to be taken seriously (and at times it is deliberately undercut), but children can't pick up on this kind of nuance. This dvd's headed right back into the vault, I can tell you.

unsolicited illicit file share
(but this should be public domain)
The Red Mill (1927)

I was publicly taken by a gif from this film, and one thing led to another and now I have seen it.

And I liked it! Marion Davies was good, but I think she could've been great. It was directed by Fatty Arbuckle under and assumed name (I assume because the scandal still hung heavy five years on?) and he, of course, would be one of the Great Clowns had the scandal not kicked him out of the club. But because he's no longer remembered as one of the great clowns, I don't know his work like I know Chaplin's or Keaton's or Lloyd's. He's supposed to hold up well but I just haven't seen him. And I wonder if, while Keaton and Chaplin were having a race to see who could eliminate the most intertitles and other dead weight, Arbuckle was left behind.

Which isn't to say the intertitles aren't great. Many were! Some were gags based on how the Dutch sound when they attempt English, but many were just straight wordplay and hold up nicely (example, example).

My favorite character might have been the mouse, Ignatz. His first appearance completely startled me, and he has many great bits, the most impressive of which might be his ten-second romance.

Artemis Fowl (2020)

So a movie with a prerelease history like this one you expect to be bad.

And this was bad.

Very very very bad.

I'm guess that instead of trying to make a good Artemis Fowl film, they just tried to take Bits That People Like from, in descending order, Marvel, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings. And misunderstood what made any of those good.

Just...an unmitigated disaster.

The closest thing to a redeeming quality was Lara McDonnell who isn't skilled enough to redeem this crapfest (even Dame Judi Dench won't get a shoutout in this paragraphy) but seems like someone who might actually be good at acting and worth looking at again, if this movie doesn't sink her career. Good luck, Lara!

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Although what I read about this movie a couple years ago intrigued, I wanted to watch it because of It Follows, which was great.

The film casts Andrew Garfield as Jimmy Stewart in a film that wants you to think it's a Hitchcock movie. However, although there are a couple hints early on, it took me most of the film to realize I was really watching a David Lynch somethingorother. (I would have figured it out earlier if I could have placed this face.) About halfway through, you start wondering if our leading man is insane. Tonally, after all, this doesn't feel like Twin Peaks although that is definitely what the crazed conspiracies seem to suggest---I mean, follow the coyote?

What I should perhaps have been paying attention to, thought, was the sex. That should have been my hint that what I was actually watching was not Vertigo or The Man Who Knew Too Much---but Mulholland Dr.

It should have been obvious. The setting, for one thing.

In the end, did I like it? Do I consider it good? I mean, yes? I guess? It had a lot going on and most of that I appreciated, but it's a hard movie to judge on one viewing and the sex will keep getting in the way.

Plus, c'mon, that would never happen to a squirrel.

Internet Archive
West of Hot Dog (1924)

Stan Laurel was a successful protege of Chaplin's, but he never really found his comedic voice before teaming up with Oliver Hardy. And this film really shows us why. It's good---competent, even---maybe excellent? but without anything really new to share.

The version I watched was fuzzy and missing frames that occasionally confused gag or plot, but overall I did like the movie. (My guess is maybe ten seconds [at most] were missing.) And two of the three two-story falls were utterly flawless. I would have been impressed by the third had it not followed the other two, but really: incredible effect.

Also, as observed above for The Red Mill, there was a real market for epigram writers, back in old Hollywood. A hilarious bonmot is just the thing for a title card, you know?

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

When we first watched all the Star Wars movies with the kids, we did it machete-style, and for all its advantages, it has been kind of sad that, you know, they never saw podracing or Darth Maul. They recently decided to watch them all again (it HAS been seven years) (??!?) and they're starting with Episode I. Like a normal person would, I suppose.

I wanted to watch it even though I long ago soured on Phantom Menace because --- is that souring real or peer-induced? I saw Phantom Menace in theaters more times than any movie except Jurassic Park and maybe Napoleon Dynamite. And even though midichlorians immediately raised my hackles, otherwise I was just overjoyed to be watching a new Star Wars movie! (This feeling was probably enhanced by my lack of opportunity to watch the special editions in 1997.)

The Machete argument for exciting Phantom Menace is persuasive and I still think its the best way to first see the movies if you are a true virgin with no knowledge whatsoever (although if you know someone like that, I also don't think it's a sin to just watch the original trilogy and call it a day, if you can get a version of Jedi without twenty-something Anakin at the end, which was one of the dumbest updates, imo).

But you know what? Phantom Menace isn't that bad. The script has some real boners and not all the line delivery's great and geewhiz people aren't kidding about the "subtle" racism, but there are still a lot of great Star Wars moments. And my kids laughed at a lot of the stuff that's there pretty much just there for kids to laugh at. So mission accomplished.

Also, I enjoyed this, my first viewing, since reading the Jar Jar's a Sith! theory a few years ago. That added a nice frisson.

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)

I was barely aware of the first half, and joined the second half. So I mostly missed the mostly worst parts and mostly caught the mostly action setpieces.

Having now read Princess of Mars (well, most of it) I realize that arena scene is total homage.

Yoda firing up his lightsabre should be one of the most thrilling moments in film, but all I remember feeling, walking out of the theater in 2002, is revulsion at the icky romance scenes. That was the biggest takeaway. (And I was married by then!) I wish a remembered feeling filled with joy as Yoda turned on his sabre and prepared for battle, but I don't remember that at all. Is it because Dooku came from nowhere? Is it the much-too-CGI feel of this film as a whole and this scene in particular (are ANY of the clones in armor actually there?)? I don't know. But what a missed opportunity. And although this movie isn't as bad as my initial takeaway, it must, at last, be counted a failure.

Incidentally, what's the deal with Padme? Great hero of the common people. Dresses in haute couture even when slumming with erstwhile slaves. The voice of morality but there there, everyone gets mad and kills every man woman and child now and then. I don't get it.

Contra Costa Library dvd
Blindspotting (2018)

The summer of 2018 was hella Oakland. Sorry to Bother You excited me most. Then Blindspotting. Then Black Panther, which rolled out first. I caught two, but Blindspotting, which looked necessary, I couldn't get to before school started up and that was it for the theater for a while (the next visit was months later and necessary to outwit Netflix).

Anyway, you know how it is. Time passes.

I finally picked up the dvd from the library back in late February or late March, then we went on isolation and any sense of urgency dissipated. Plus, it's rated R so I wasn't eager to show the kids and Lady Steed wasn't that interested anymore, so, you know.

Now it's Father's Day and mom fell asleep with baby, so, hey, let's pick one of those dad-only movies from the library and knock it out. I wanted to watch Blindspotting (someone on twitter was saying it was the movie we should all be watching in June 2020, #BlackLivesMatter) but if Snowpiercer was shorter, I was leaning to make the switch. (It wasn't.)

So it's great. And the most Oakland thing I've ever seen. It's more Oakland than Last Black Man is San Francisco. And when you think of those two and Sorry to Bother You together, you realize we've got so much talent that we're only barely starting to pay attention to.

I'll just single out Daveed Diggs who is incredible (writing, acting) He's a revelation. I just---I still haven't seen any of the Best Actor movies of 2018 but I can't see any of them being notably superior. But it doesn't work without brilliant writing and direction. And, like the two movies in the previous paragraph, it branches from realism now and then. Just as I was thinking it was going to distinguish itself from those two by being The Realistic One it pulled a worthy trick that killed me. I thought for sure that was the end of the movie.

But it kept going.

And it surprised me again with a compassion it didn't need to show.

But seriously: everything about this movie is great--every detail and its heavy ideas both. The Big O at least needs to see it. And maybe, were I bolder, I would show it to all three boys.

(Note to self: still need to see Kicks.)

my parent's dvd library
An Affair to Remember (1957)

When we watched Sleepless in Seattle last year, my need to watch An Affair to Remember was rekindled. My parents have the dvd and I'd been eyeing it for years, so I finally borrowed it. And since we're going to visit them this week, we'd better watch it and so we did.

The cinematography is so great! I wasn't expecting that at all. I was looking for a wellmade melodrama starring one Cary Grant---and wasn't that enough? But it's more.

Maybe the best example of how much more is the character's first kiss. I have never seen a first kiss like this. And that sort of clever camera work (at times only possible because of the screen's sheer width) underlies the film wit and reinforces its emotions.

Just a well made film.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

Meeting grandparents at the cemetery led to them giving us Little Debbie Oatmeal Cremes which led to memories of this movie and the kids loving the title and then us watching it.

I remember loving it in theaters then seeing it several times the next few years. Until, I suppose, disliking the sequel at a drive-in.

I'm thrilled to say it holds up. It's well written with successful action and humor. I expected it to hold up, but not this well. Sure, the effects have aged, but otherwise? Classic!

personal dvd library
Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003)

I haven't seen this movie in, what, fifteen years? and that was the first time I've seen it. yet, halfway through, I suddenly remembered the big revelation. Which was a shame. I don't remember if I figured it out ahead of time first go-round or not, but it seems like a fun revelation---although, really, it should probably occur a few minutes later than it does. (Even given this is a seventy-minute movie.)

One funky choice is the composer casting a sexy sax for Batwoman's theme. Although, I have a theory that the sax's use might be a bit more precise than this. Something clever could be going on here! But I don't care enough to watch just to check and the movie's not good enough to justify watching more often than every fifteen years. (And, given the baby got bored halfway through, I doubt she'll beg to see it again.)

Contra Costa Library dvd
Looper (2012)

We were enamored of Knives Out and had been watching time-travel movies and remembered liking this one so we put it on hold at the library.

Then we got it and it was rated R and that didn't really match our memories, but pandemic living made watching movies kid-free difficult and time passed. And now we've seen it and we're glad we didn't just show it to the kids.

But we're glad we watched it together! Great movie! Smart, realistic near-future world, strong acting, complex but not nosethumingly so.

Rian Johnson's got the knack.

Contra Costa Library dvd
Blindspotting (2018)

Lady Steed and I sat down to watch this together. It certaily holds up to a second viewing. My two minor complaints weren't the kind that grate on rewatch but that make better sense when you know where they're heading.

I was especially impressed second viewing with the sound design. I hadn't taken deep notice of it last time, but this time I saw how it was building and referencing and reinforcing.

I don't think this is a movie that will slip from my memory. I think it is now part of how I understand the world.

Contra Costa Library dvd
The Seventh Seal (1957)

If I'm counting correctly this is my second Bergman film and the first in well over a decade. And although the movie is beautifully shot and clearly iconic, it didn't really . . . do much for me. It was what I expected and it was not what I expected and I'm glad I watched it and didn't really leave it feeling anything.

Wish I could have seen it fresh and new when it first arrived in America back in 1958, but in 2020 it does come off more like a checklist movie.

We even have a pandemic on hand!

screener bluray
First Reformed (2017)

Let's get this out of the way: I did not like this movie.

I expected to. I really wanted to. But as it went on and on it just lost me more and more until it was just kind of dumb. Dumb in an ambitious way (props) but just not very good. I did not like it.

That said, it was ambitious and therefore interesting. Worth watching. Could improve upon further viewing, but such an event will not be self-motivated. I also thought it asked important questions that are worth asking and discussing and debating and should not be allowed to just sit.

However, the way it examined these questions was dumb. And: That Scene was more La La Land than 2001. (Yeah, I said it.)

Contra Costa Library dvd
Snowpiercer (2013)

Not flawless for those who like to nitpick worldbuilding, but unless your joy is taking things apart, this film is so well realized and real within itself that it will pull you straight to the front of the train. One nonaction scene seemed straight from Jaws, and this movie is nothing like Jaws.

Lady Steed enjoyed it more than I did, but I suspect that as it marinates in my mind, what I remember will grow in stature. And, as Chris Ware said, that's what matters.

But I will say that it's not my favorite Bong Joon Ho movie. I would put Parasite top followed by The Host, probably. Then Mother, then Snowpiercer, then Okja.

Contra Costa Library dvd
From the Blank Page to the Black Screen

It's a making-of, of sorts, but it becomes unexpectedly poignant at the end, when the original comics' illustrator is moved by the reception of his work decades later. Plus, his work in the past, in the present, and for the film are all so excellent. He deserves it.

You don't expect any emotional impact from a film like this. And yet here we are.

Longer than it needed to be but worth the ride.

personal dvd library
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Although we haven't watched this movie in probably over a decade, we still count it as one of our favorites. I cannot understand why it is always listed near the bottom when people rank Coen Brothers films. It's a great movie! What is wrong with you all??!

Two beautiful leads in their prime. Perfect casting for every role. Sharply written, twisty plot, old-Hollywood glamour, use of music (diegetic and no),Coen flavored shots and edits---

Seriously. What is wrong with you all?

I have to believe it's just some lemminglike behavior and most listmakers haven't seen this movie but once long, long ago.

Because, let me repeat: IT IS GREAT. Rewatch it, you dolts.

Amazon Prime
Late Night (2019)

So it's just as disappointing as critics said. And, frankly, it's not that hard of a fix. Simplify the plot 10% and up the quality of the stand-up routines (except for the tool's, naturally) and let some of the text slip into subtext.

That's all it would have taken. The cast is already good and the direction is fine. The script just needed some more work. Another pass, maybe a cowriter or two to consult with. It was just ... a bit flat.

personal bluray library
Ishtar (1987)

Even when Ishtar was merely The Great Flop---even before people were demanding it get a reassessment, even before I developed a deep interest in Elaine May---I had some interest in seeing it. But the constant hints that it's better than its reputation and the growing sense that it was dealt dirtily back in the day? Well, I had to see it.

And the only way to see it was to buy a physical copy. So I did.

And then Elaine May's birthday happened. And I realized my bluray player was over a year dead. So I bought a new one.

And today, finally, on the final day of June, ending c. 11.55pm, we finally watched Ishtar, Lady Steed and I. And I'm glad we did.

It's a funny thing, watching a movie you desperately want to be good but equally expect that it could be terrible. Those feelings cancel out.

And this is a good movie. I'm not sure it's a great lost classic as others have said. It did drag a bit in the middle but, also, it was the sort of drag I've felt in several excellent movies upon first viewing. And I liked this enough to watch it again.

A few thoughts.

One. The terrible songs written by Paul Williams and Elaine May and performed terribly by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty were wonderfully terrible.

Two. I had no idea Warren Beatty does comedy. I haven't seen many of his movies, but I just did not know. And in this film he plays of dope of Norville Barnes-esque stature.

Three. Isabelle Adjani was lovely and funny and expressive and had one of the best moments in the film. Plus, her father is actually North African. So hey.

Four. All our fears about America no longer living up to its ideals were ruined by the CIA long ago. I also submit as evidence The In-Laws.

How good is it really? One viewing can never answer that question for any movie. But I would certainly be up for watching it again.

And, with that, I proudly average over one movie per day this month.

Previous films watched


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









Picture books get political
(in very picture-booky ways)


Most overtly political pictures books are either bios or historicals or heavy-handed nonsense. They are, in other words, not books children would choose for themselves. They are popular in teacher classrooms and as gifts from well meaning old people. Not among children.

But there is certainly a terrific history of political pictures books, overt or not, that are attractive to (don't talk down to) children.

Some obvious examples include The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who!, The Sneetches, Yertle the Turtle, What Was I Scared Of?, The Butter Battle Book . . . .

Hang on. What the heck was Dr. Seuss up to???

Of course, "no book is genuinely free from political bias." But sometimes a book's politics which, in another era, might seem blase (if present at all), are rather cutting. Like these two books from 2018 and 2019.

The Wall in the Middle of the Book
That's right. Someone's built a wall. And that wall is intended to make the little man in his grand armor feel safe "from the other side of the book." The side of the book that he cannot see. Has only heard rumors of.* When the other side of the book rescues little armor man from HIS side of the book when HIS side of the book becomes uninhabitably dangerous, he overcomes all his prior assumptions and can live happily ever after. It's a book that never preaches. But will give you plenty opportunity to preach once you've read its final page.

The Sad Little Fact
This dystopian nightmare is about a fact---about many facts---who is dismissed as a lie and, when he refuses to "admit that it [is] not a fact," is locked in a box and buried deep under ground with all the other facts. Meanwhile, above ground, "the Authorities" begin fullscale manufactury of fake facts, leading the world to struggle along in ever-increasing darkness. Fortunately, though some people revel in the lies, others hunt out the facts and bring them back to the surface. It's a happy ending, I suppose, but this world is not fully redeemed by facts. Some people still embrace the lies, "turning their backs [on the facts] and walking away in a huff. But for those with minds to think and a need to know the truth, the facts could not be denied." In other words, it's an optimistic book, but its edges are darkened by realism. It's an honest book. And maybe that is what kids need right now.


Books Iz Books


038) Draft No. 4* by John McPhee, finished May 22

I would have finished earlier, but I was screaming through it so quickly, I forced myself to slow down. it's one of those books, the ending of which is too painful to contemplate.

It really was one of the most compelling and propulsive books I've read in some time. And it's all about writing! I want to steal from him in my teaching, but then I remember that his great ideas are for students of the craft---not people who need to be convinced to be students of the craft. Frustratingly, I always have plenty of the latter. Still. Lots to consider both as a writer and a teacher.

I had a Barnes & Noble giftcard to spend and I spent easily forty minutes wandering around, no book calling me with sufficient volume. But no way was I coming back, and the blurbs and simple cover called out to me and I ended up getting this one. (No way was I going through that shopping hell again.) Did I remember he wrote longform nonfiction when I made my choice? I don't know. It was a disappointing discovery as I opened it up for this read, but his bounty of startling real-life examples, his tales of The New Yorker, and the broad applicability of his wisdom made our different tasks immaterial.

(I do wonder about writing longform nonfiction, however. Nonfiction is a different set of muscles, muscles I rarely exercise, but some of my favorite own-works are nonfiction. And I wonder what the removal of deadlines and the support of editorial could have turned me into....)

Anyway, I absolutely loved this collection and heartily recommend it to you. You'll be forced to think about structure in new ways; you'll get to feel deep envy of having access to The New Yorker's factcheckers; you'll simply revel in the good company.
under ten days, probably under a week


039) Salt by Susan Elizabeth Howe, finished May 25

Terrific collection, as everyone's been saying for seven years. Not hard to see why it has become the defacto standard all since-published Mormon collections are measured against.

I wanted to just take one poem---one I particularly loved and was available online---and share it here with discussion. But frickin Quarterly West doesn't have its full archive online. Quarterly West....

And now I've spent so long looking that it's after eleven and I'm tired.

Thanks a lot Quarterly West!
under two weeks, maybe under one


040) Endless Night by Agatha Christie, finished June 5

When I started reading this novel, I was surprised to find I wanted to prioritize it. Not because it was startling me with plot twist after plot twist, but because I found its first-person narrator so compelling. If I hadn't known by the author's name and the blurbs on its back that it was a murder mystery, I never would have known.

And then, on page 173 of 191, the book betrayed itself and, thus, me. I can see how this twist might work better in a movie or even with a third-person narrator, but as written, this twist was a dirty trick. The ''Scotsman'' blurb on the back refers to "the shock revelation. Solutionists be warned, you'll have to work very hard at this one."

Well, yeah.


Happily, there were twenty pages after the twist where she tried to redeem herself. And maybe she did. Maybe if I reread the novel, I could see the honestly all along. But ultimately, the twist is based on a lie. And I just do not care for this.

I've never read an Agatha Christie novel before---and one can imagine me giving her another chance---but at the moment? I just feel betrayed.

UPDATE: writing about the movie adaptation it occurred to me she may have been aiming for a Humbert Humbert-type experience; I will accept that as an excuse but it doesn't make me any more forgiving


041) A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle, finished June 8

I guess I started reading these books to prepare for the movie (which got rather panned and which I still have not seen)? But also because A Wrinkle in Time is a classic I have never read (although it was read to the class by my teacher in, I believe, fifth grade---elements of that reading stick with me). And also becuase this volume was on my personal bookshelf as a kid and I read it several times. It was one of the stranger books I owned and I don't think it would be fair to say I loved it. And what it left me with was more a feeling than precise memories of plot or character.

Anyway, I read Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, then finished Many Waters over two years ago, which is when my reading ground to a halt. Not because I did not like Many Waters---it might be my favorite of the series---and not because I didn't have a copy---I had picked up a free copy reproducing the original cover---but because I really wanted to read my childhood copy. I knew I had it somewhere. And I would occasionally go to the garage to look.

Eventually I found it but by then I had lost any sense or momentum, and so both copies sat on my nightstand for months. Probably over a year. Certainly, the prettier copy was on my nightstand at or before my finishing of Many Waters.

But now I have read it! There is a pleasure in reading a book you knew well but really do not remember at all. I suppose I understood better what I was visiting by virtue of having read the other three books first, but the sense of familiarity came largely from deep within my subconscious.

And the novel is strange. Time travel and meldings of souls and this and that.

I have one major complaint. Rise of Skywalker has been dropping in my estimation since I last saw it, largely because I have less and less patience for The Great Families theory of history. And this is an idea Swiftly Tilting Planet goes all-in on. There are great families and the march of history depends entirely on who marries whom creating what sort of babies. It's all malarkey of a form I haven't much patience for.

That said, L'Engle writes beautifully, and I'm sure reading this book multiple times as a child gave me more capacity to read the poetic and the marvelous. Everything is metaphor and subtlity, and even with unicorns and magic words and uncountable generations and dramatically omnipresent good and evil larger than this universe yet smaller than an atom (see Wind in the Door for more on the latter), ultimately A Swiftly Tilting Planet relies on personal relationships, leaving most of the story unsaid, and seeing people for who they are---or might have been---or once were---rather than the simple shells we misjudge by.

So I liked it. Even if I fundamentally disagree with it.

Now the question is this: Am I done?

There is one Time book left, but it follows a slew of books from a different series. If I keep going, do I start reading those books or do I just skip ahead?

Well. Regardless. It sounds like a job for libraries and the libraries are still all closed.

So I'll just sleep on it.
under two weeks


042) Caldera Ridge by Jack Harrell, finished June 10

I am a noted fan of Harrell's short fiction, but this is my first time reading one of his novels, even though I've been hearing good things about them for almost two decades.

Caldera Ridge's attitude and strengths are much like what we see in his short stories, but the shorts generally work better. He has an idea, he tells his story, he gets out. Here, he has time to spend dozens of pages of his main character asking the same questions seventy-five "different" ways. It can get tiresome. It's not precisely TSTL territory, but sort of the masculine, philosophical equivalent.

Then the book took a surprising turn about a hundred pages in. It made more and more sense as the book continued (and wasn't so late as to become Endless Night-like unforgivable), but it did through me, and it took a while to get my feet back.

As time went on, I saw that a Cormac McCarthy-esque sequence of violence and ugliness. It did find a way out of one horror I expected, but the violence did come---and from even more angles than expected. And then it settled into a resolution of the questions through a sequence that aspired to but failed to reach The Backslider's Cowboy Jesus.

Still! Props for ambition.

Ultimately, I think the power this book carries depends a lot on how much you personally are distressed by questions of fate versus agency. I certainly recommend it, but I don't want to promise a particular experience. After all---you have some say in that.
under two weeks