Literarily solving for X


Books lead to books, have you noticed? I started with the penultimate Sue Graft and then jumped right into the next, which is already engaging with the form in new ways we haven't seen from her before and I anticipated finishing it quickly. But I was also reading a biography about Buster Keaton, which, being a library book, required quick-finishing. And which led to me reading three of the other book on the list and more you may hear of later.

You just never know.

030) X by Sue Grafton, finished March 28

Here we are, nearing the end, and Sue's still innovating! This time, the only out-of-p-o-v chapter was the very first. And it was difficult to even know its relevance for quite a while. The book featured three mysteries, none of which Kinsey was paid for and none of which were resolved until the very final pages of the book. Anything else would be too spoilery, but it makes me happy to see she's still going strong.

just over a month

031) Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary, finished April 5

Another excellent piece of work from the great Beverly Cleary. Seems we'll keep moving through this series.

 about two months

032) Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century by Dana Stevens, finished April 5

I heard about this book thanks to an interview on Fresh Air and put it on hold right away, unsure if I would actually read it. But I did. I most certainly did.

Stevens's technique is such that this isn't precisely a biography. It's largely a biography and everything does connect to Buster Keaton, but it's really a look at a time and at an industry and at a thousand sideroads. Rather like the histories from turn of the millennium that explained world history through, say, cod or salt.

For instance, we get a chapter about the development of anti-child-abuse laws because the Three Keatons were hounded by those do-gooders. Naturally, since the act essentially made young Buster the most famously abused child in America. That the abuse never seemed to bother him was key to the comedy but do-gooders aren't always the most comedy literate, you know? Not to say one shouldn't do good, but you know.

We get a chapters about Bert Williams and Mabel Normand and Alcoholic Anonymous and, the one that felt furthest afield to me, F. Scott Fitzgerald. But this is the pleasure of the book. Buster is the freeway, but our guide is happy to take us onto small rural roads that eventually lead back to the big road, but oh the sights we see on the way!

Reading the book was helpful just in terms of getting the chronology in line. I've always been confused about The Cameraman, for instance, but now I get how the pieces fit together.

I was also confused because I had bought into the SOUND RUINED BUSTER'S CAREER notion even though I know he was in a bunch of talkies and later in television. Now I get it. And my leeriness of the talkies has been both justified and overcome by reading this book.

I have a long list, now, of Buster-made, Buster-featuring, and Buster-adjacent films that I need to watch.


That said, why don't the big publishers pay for indexes anymore. The people want indexes!

under a month

033) Abe Lincoln in Illinois by Robert E. Sherwood, finished April 8

Robert Sherwood was one of the delightful tangents in the Buster Keaton book I recently read (see above) and I'm sorry to say that the anemic Wikipedia article hardly touches on why. Any any rate, I wanted to read at least one of his plays and, as it ends up, one is exactly how many my county library had. But, in the process, I picked up a lot of other plays from the era and darn but I mightn't read more.

This play covers Lincoln from his late teens to his getting on the train for the White House and it did a couple things for me.

First, it captured the complicated nature of a man at once charismatic and depressed, noble and common, ambitious and hesitant. And the characters about him also make sense. It's well written and I can believe it plays excellently well on the stage.

It also revealed to me that I am no actor. I sometimes fantasize about returning to the craft, but all these excellent parts are outside my range. They require real skill and props to the men and women who can pull it off.

The movie stars the original Lincoln and Maude in her first film role as Mary Todd. I think I better find it.

two days

034) Theology of Play by J├╝rgen Moltmann, finished April 12

I loved this book. It was far enough away from my usual thinking that I'm not sure I'll quite hold on to what I want to hang onto, but I hope I do. It opens up a lot of doors to thinking about God and Jesus that are helpful.

Even though aspects of the books are so not-Mormon that I can't incorporate them, plenty of it was.

Probably shouldn't tell Moltmann I said that, though. For this American edition / English translation, three English-language writers were invited to write responses to his book. I thought they were terrific! Discussed some gaps in Moltmann's thought, I thought, and Sam Keen's poem was wild fun.

But then in his response to their responses, Moltmann could barely believe he was on the same planet as these people who clearly had no understanding of any of his pints which he then reiterated bullet by bullet.

Okay, man.

five days

035) The Male Animal by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent, finished April 12

I've been aware of this play since, I don't know, let's say high school, but most of what I know about it I learned from a biography—I've never read it nor seen the movie (nor the many tv versions).

I was worried as it started with one of Thurber's least-fun go-tos, the black maid who talks funny as in what was once considered one of his masterpieces, a work I barely understood even though I read it several times as a teenager as I knew it was one of the best.

It certainly isn't one of the best in 2023.

And then it went on to be about Midwesterners getting drunk and talking football and I was getting nervous, but it ends up being as timely now as then, an anti-McCarthy/StopWOKE play that dives headfirst into both comedy and relationship ambiguity while making us root for good old-fashioned American liberalism of the sort that led to the Bill of Rights in the first place.

(Incidentally, the first filmed version, leaves out all this political stuff entirely. Because McCarthy et al.)

Anyway, I don't know how often it's staged anymore. The cheap mammy character has to go (she's not important; she's only for laughs) and some of the 1940s sexual politics would dampen it's power, but skilled acting and direction could redeem it still. I'd be interested in the attempt. Honestly, I'd love to see it.

since saturday

036) Bluffton by Matt Phelan, finished April 16

After reading the Keaton biography above, I've been hunting down Buster-related things I haven't seen (much of which are here...until I've watched them; it's already shorter than it was so act quick). One of the videos apparently doesn't exist online at all, but it did lead me from link to link to this site which inspired many further rabbit holes, including this graphic novel about Buster's childhood summers, as told by a fictional kid in the same small Michigan town.

My first Matt Phelan graphic novel underwhelmed, but even if I had remembered that before discovering this book, I would have read it anyway. And good thing I did, because this simple story of three summers and one day much later is lovely.

I do wonder how it reads to an audience that hasn't just read a big Keaton biography, but I think he did a good job for such as well.

And I particularly love his watercolors. They're beautiful. And the way he handles the seasons and how relationships quietly ebb and flow.

My only complaint is that the characters were identified by age near the end of the book, during which the art had led me to imagine them as a few years younger. And a few years are a lot when your around the one-to-two-digit barrier. Otherwise: terrific.

one sitting

037) Number One Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss, finished April 15

Martin and Bliss have been working together for a while, making cartoons for The New Yorker (their previous book, I believe, is single panels only, though I have not read it and may be in error). The "Other Diversions" half of this book is mostly single panels as well, many of which are very funny, with a few one- and two-page strips dancing through.

The first half covers Steve Martin's life in movies as an actor, writer, etc. Touches on people he's met, details about the craft, curious events, etc.

The conceit is Steve telling stories to Harry and Harry's dog. He's in his raging-egomaniac persona and the whole thing is delicious and smooth, like a butter milkshake. Clearly, they work well together—the proof's in the product.

two nights


Previously . . . . :

final posts in this series from
  2007 = 2008 = 2009 = 2010 = 2011 = 2012 = 2013
2014 = 2015 = 2016 = 2017 = 2018 = 2019 = 2020 = 2021 = 2022

Earlier in 2023

001) The Dark Room by Gerry Duggan & Scott Buoncristiano, finished January four
002) The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, finished January 6
003) Rose by Jeff Smith and Charles Vess, finished January 10
004) Acting Class by Nick Drnaso, finished January 10
005) Red Scare by Liam Francis Walsh, finished January 11

006) The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck, finished January 18
007) Filmish by Edward Ross, finished circa January 20

HOW many times?

008) Maddy Kettle Book: The Adventure of the Thimblewitch by Eric Orchard, finished January 24 
009) Fantastic Frights: A Beginner's Guide to Scary Stories, finished January 24
010) Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, finished February 2
011) Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, finished February 3
012) The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain, finished February 4

013) Is that all there is? by Joost Swarte, finished February 6
014) Edge Case by YZ Chin, finished February 7

If it weren't for a friendly sex talk, everything here would be miserable

015) Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, finished February 10
016) Sex Educated: Letters from a Latter-day Saint therapist to her younger self by Bonnie Young, LMFT, finished February 13
017) Unmask Alice: LDS, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson, finished February 20 

A Bookful Bounty for thee and thine 

018) I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jeannette McCurdy, finished February 27
019–21) The Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kershl, finished March 6
022) Displacement by Kiku Hughes, finished March 6
023) The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V and Filipe Andrade, finished March 6
024) The Homeland Directive by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston, finished March 7
025) Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare, finished March 14
026) Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange by Tess Taylor, finished March 15
027) 22 Young Mormon Writers edited by Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft, finished March 19
028 & 029) Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare, finished March 23 & March 27


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