The tyranny of getting stuff in the right order


First, I screwed up and left off a book. So I'm putting it in where it should have gone, then getting back on track and ending with, wait for it, another motion picture masterpiece (!).


051) On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder, finished May 8

As with last year, I read this book in class with my AP Lang students. And it was still a solid way to bring discussion and some interesting writing. But noticeably less so. And while there are undoubtedly several reasons for this, one is certain: even just twelve months later, the Trump era is already falling into the past. This book was released in 2017 and Snyder's conceit is that we are all midshock. But that's not true for my students. 2016 was almost half their life ago. Think about your political awareness in fifth or sixth grade. Whatever was happening then, by the time you became an upperclassman, is just what the past was like. They can't be shocked about Trump any more than I can about Iran-Contra. And so while they get why it matters, Snyder's rhetorical stance is already fading.

Which is fine. It's another thing I can teach about. But it's also a little depressing. These kids' normal-to-be-changed was, not so long ago, a normal we must prevent. And only mostly succeeded at doing so. And the battle's not over. The battle is now normal life as we know it.

As we expect our adulthood to always be.

most of the semester

057) Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Guruhiru, finished May 13

Man, when Gene Luen Yang is at the top of his game, he is unstoppable. This is among the best Superman stories I have ever read. It's based on a story from the radio show that is often credited with quashing the Klan's post-WWII resurgence. I'd love to hear that sometime. I should go looking for it.

I only heard about that storyline recently. I also checked out a nonfiction book but it wasn't as focused as I wanted and, um let's just say it's for a younger audience. That's true of this book as well but it transcends that audience designation.

The story has all the elements you'd expect from someone trying to tell a story that's good for you, but this isn't checklist writing. This is an excellent writer who means what he says and is using the correct tools (eg, Superman) for the task.

His afterword is likewise excellent. Also moving. And a bit more personal.

There's a lot of history that I didn't learn in school. Reading books like this can save the next generation from similar ignorance. And they will read it because it's a freaking awesome Superman story.

Somebody make this into a movie, geez.

an evening

058) Four in Hand by Alicia Mountain, finished May 17

My latest free grab from LibraryThing is this collection of four sonnet crowns (heroic crowns, technically). I hadn't heard of the form before learning of this book and I didn't anticipate liking the form. And maybe in other hands I would not, but I loved Alicia Mountain's, They are excellent.

(it looks better on the watercolor-paper cover than in jpg)

Well, three of them are excellent. In one, the sonnets get but one word per line and, while it's a good poem, it seems like a waste of the form. But that's me.

The others are great, even the fourth which is composed entirely out of lines lifted from emails she received from Merrill Lynch. The first is a paean to lesbian longing, the third about family. But all four have overlapping interests.

Plus, I just loved the form. I'm intrigued by it and want to visit that playground.

And Alicia's voice is terrific. I just started reading Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry and his early emphasis on taking poets' words literally I a) loved and b) found applicable to Mountain's simultaneously plain and ranging style.

two days

059) The Glob by John O'Reilly and Walt Kelly, finished May 20

The world is full of marvelous things! For instance, this bit of nonsense based on stories O'Reilly told his kids about evolution. Essentially, one immortal creature goes from crawling out of the ocean to founding the first town, becoming more human along the way as he picks up a pet dog and invents words and music and a joke and so on.

It's okay. But Kelly's illustrations elevate it to something consistently charming and fun and worthy of attention. It's a good pairing.

It's also short enough to know when it's done. Which is too say, each eon and the book as a whole finishes before you have a chance to grow tired of it. (Technically, it's too short to make the list, but it's too fun to leave off.)

perhaps a week

060) Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner, finished May 24

So I love this book. And I have loved it since about the time I started reading it. And you should know: I don't buy books on pedagogy. And I don't read them when they are given to me. I almost always disagree with them foundationally. But not this time. As I read this book, I often sat down to send out a flurry of tweets in solidarity with John Warner. I may well have sold more copies of Why They Can't Write than Byuck.

To repeat: my philosophy of teaching writing is aligned with Warner's. But me, I haven't made the time to think so thoroughly about pedagogy. (Writing twice-weekly here, for instance, would help get one's thoughts in order.)

My entire AP Lang course was built on suggestions Warner made, but, more importantly, having his clear language in my corner when discussions arise as to how one best teaches English class has emboldened me to speak up. I always knew I was right, but now I have a teammate.

Among Warner's many excellent suggestions, we can find ones on audience and prompts and rewriting and grading and other in-the-classroom whatsits, as well as observations on larger issues such as the payment of teachers of writing in our universities.

I savored this book as I read it, keeping it one my teacher desk, rather than carrying it with me and rushing through. It is filled with underlinings and marginalia and postits, and it will continue to influence my teachering as long as I stick with the profession.

I could say more or give examples, but I don't want to distract too much from my enthusiastic endorsement. Let my emotional alliance to this short and friendly book persuade other teachers to give it a read. It has a lovely cover and will look nice on your shelf or desk or in your hand.

We all know American students are terrible writers. And we also know that the traditional fixes are worthless. So let's stop digging in and just let the kids write. Let's give them assignments that are too interesting not to excel at and let's watch them persuade themselves to grow.

I mean: let's.

likely over four years

061) Less by Andrew Sean Greer, finished May 25

First, it was the excellent cover that caught my eye. Then it was a Pulitzer. Then Lady Steed read it and was distinctly underwhelmed. And then four years passed. And now I have read it. And I'm a bit underwhelmed myself. Which is disappointing as I so badly wished to like it. And because it would seem to be exactly the sort of book I would like. I feel that way even more strongly now that I've read it.

One of the things I was intrigued by was hearing that the last word of the book was an amazing revelation, a real tearjerker, an emotional faucet. Hearing that, I knew exactly what that last word must be. And hearing this, I expect you now do as well. And I didn't mind knowing where it was headed.

In fact, the third third of the book was when I most liked it. Until the end, the unveiling of the narrative twist. Although I wouldn't go so far as to calling it cheating, it's dang close. I can make excuses for all the ways it's sneaky but I don't believe those excuses. And they project that final-word ending a bit too much. And the phrasing of the final ten words turns that final word (and thus the novel) into something of a shaggy dog.

I liked a lot about this book. And I would love to own Arthur Less's suit. But too much hangs on a narrative gimmick. And the book would have been strong enough without that gimmick.

One thing distinctly unsurprising to learn upon finishing the novel is that my suspicion it was essentially autobiographical was correct. You give me this kind of picaresque and a protagonist who is a novelist writing a novel similar to the novel I'm reading, and I just have to assume. None of this is a crime, of course, but but it is something like one of those penalties in some race that goes on and on and on.

If the world were smaller, Less would make me read more Greer. But the world is large and I have many other books waiting to be read.

Still. So many things I liked. And we should all rejoice when a comic novel wins a Pulitzer.

a small number of weeks

062) Children of the Woods by Ciano/Hixson/Stevens/Otsmane-Elhaou, finished May 27

A use of the occult to be about everything from teen trauma to addiction to the handing down of abuse to cutting to you name it. Lots of interesting moments but it didn't really add up to anything for me.

at the library

  063) The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece by Tom Hanks, finished May 29

I heard of this book through a terrific interview with the author. His first book got great press and blurbs but I'm always slow to pick up collections and besides, why does Tom Hanks need my attention?

(Bad news on the novel, incidentally: it's really good.)

But this interview was too intriguing not to put it on hold at the library, where it showed up much quicker than anticipated, so I dug right in.

The conceit of the book is that a fellow whose book was made into a movie by the great Bill Johnson is invited to the set of Bill's next movie with the idea that he will write a book about the making of that movie. And this is the result.

But it starts decades earlier in a small town in Northern California with a family whose connection to the major motion picture masterpiece is not at all clear, then coincidental, then central.

Then we meet character after character, each excellently drawn. It takes a long, long time to get to the making of the movie, but who cares? We like the people we're with. But then, once the movie is getting made, we feel the stresses of everyone working on set.

(The trick, incidentally, to making it in the pictures business is two-fold: solve more problems than you make and be on time. This is good advice for any field of endeavor, really.)

There are a handful of choices Hanks makes that feel a bit amateur but then there are brilliant little touches like writing OO7 instead of 007 which are smart and just right. And the whole 400+ pages live. I kept wanting to pause my reading to hit IMDb up for more information on various characters. And so I had to keep reminding myself that none of them were real.

That's the kind of novel this is.

Incidentally, there's a QR code to the script Hanks wrote in order to write this novel. So I read that as well.

thursday, friday, saturday, monday



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

Literarily solving for X

030) X by Sue Grafton, finished March 28
031) Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary, finished April 5
032) Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century by Dana Stevens, finished April 5
033) Abe Lincoln in Illinois by Robert E. Sherwood, finished April 8
034) Theology of Play by J├╝rgen Moltmann, finished April 12
035) The Male Animal by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent, finished April 12
036) Bluffton by Matt Phelan, finished April 16
037) Number One Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss, finished April 15

From Lolly to Elias

038) Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, finished April 17
039) The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson, finished April 19
040) Beware the Eye of Odin by Wager/Odland/Madsen/Dukeshire, finished April 19
041) The Complete Peanuts: 1965–1966 by Charles M. Schulz, finished April 20
042) A Wealth of Pigeons by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss, finished April 22
043) Elias: An Epic of the Ages by Orson Ferguson Whitney, finished April 23

Old Hollywood & Olden Times

044) Straight Lady: The Life and Times of Margaret Dumont, "The Fifth Marx Brother" by Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian, finished April 25
045) Voices from the Radium Age edited by Joshua Glenn, finished April 26
046) The Ballad of YFB by Aaron Brassea, finished April 28
047) Reynaud's Tale by Ben Hatke, finished May 3
048) Superman: Up in the Sky by Tom King and Andy Kubert, finished May 5
049) Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary, finished May 5
050) Resurrection Row by Anne Perry, finished May 6 

Saying good bye to our friend Kinsey

052) More Gross: Cartoons by S. Gross, finished May 9
053) I Am Blind and My Dog Is Dead by S. Gross, finished May 9
054) Batgirls: One Way or Another by Becky Cloonan / Michael W. Conrad / Jorge Corona / Sarah Stein, finished May 11
055) Batgirls: Bat Girl Summer by Becky Cloonan / Michael W. Conrad / Neil Googe / Robbi Rodriguez / Rico Renzi, finished May 11
056) Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton, finished May 12


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