Goodhart's Law in education and religion


I just heard of Goodhart's Law this week thanks to xkcd. This xkcd required a bit more supplementary reading than usual. The comic itself is sufficient to get the joke but not to really get the joke, if you know what I mean.

Goodhart's Law: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure"

In short, some things we deeply care about cannot be measured. But since related things can be measured, we just measure those instead. But, sometimes, we then start to care about the thing we’re measuring more than the thing we care about.

Incidentally, the images in this post will all link back to where I took them from. Starting with these from something called Jascha’s blog:

Never have I seen something that so well explains so much of the crap happening in education. One example that’s been in the news lately is the way Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report rank colleges.

  1. We care about what colleges are good.

  2. No one knows what that means.

  3. So we measure other things instead. Such as how many more people apply to a college than the college is able to accept.

  4. Thus, the University of Chicago spends tons of money each year trying to get kids to apply whom they fully anticipate rejecting just to get their numbers up.

But this also applies to a lot of the postgrads trying to study what makes teachers good at their job or the weird assessments schools and teachers give kids in order to see if they’re “learning.”

Teaching to the test is an example of Goodhart's Law. No Child Left Behind is an example of Goodhart's Law. As is Race to the Top. Some of those may be results of Goodhart's Law and some may be examples from birth but all of them result in looking at the wrong things rather than what we care about: happy, intelligent, well balanced, educated kids.

Education needs to “[end] the myth that standardized data is a perfect, neutral arbiter.”

Then, as I was sitting in the temple this afternoon, I realized a lot of the same crap is happening in religion too. Or, at least, my own religion.


Take for instance the Church’s recent decision to remove women from the stand in Bay Area congregations. This decision has caused a great deal of pain and upset. And why? Well. Goodhart's Law. That’s why. Here are three paragraphs from that article:

The practice was abruptly discontinued last month, according to church spokesperson Doug Andersen, at the order of the North America West Area president, whose jurisdiction includes California.

The Utah-based faith “has a long-established practice when it comes to worship services,” Andersen says. “The general pattern includes presiding authorities sitting on the stand along with other women, men, youth and children based on their invitation to participate in the service.”

Local leaders, Andersen says, “were recently reminded of this practice.”

This has to be the weakest reasoning for official action I’ve ever read. Certainly it’s the least Joseph Smithy reason I can fathom. But if you want to hear me complain more about the dumbness of it all, you got this:

But here’s what I think happened. And thank you xkcd for helping me figure this out.

  1. We want to achieve Zion, to be of one heart and one mind.

  2. No matter where you attend church across the world, the Saints are (more or less) studying the same lessons at the same time.

  3. All surface things must be the same!

  4. Oh no! Women on the stand in Lafayette? That’s not happening in St. George!

  5. Shut it down.

The Church’s unwillingness to kick women off the stand in writing. The fact that not only is this not a canonical doctrine—not even a policy!—just a “general pattern” or “practice.” These facts show that it’s not really defensible.

Having women on the stand led to area women feeling seen and appreciated. It helped us all come closer to the ideal of one heart and one mind.

And the inelegant way this was torn away from the women specifically and Zion generally threw hearts and minds into chaos and pain.

And that’s the danger described by Goodhart's Law.

Zion is, perhaps, an impossible thing to measure.

So better be careful what we do measure.

And we’d better be careful not to let that measurement turn into an idol.

Souls are on the line.

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A few of my favorite things


Clearly, I like comics and I like religion and I like the intersection of comics and religions.


011) Roaming by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, finished February 3

This is a very quiet book. I sat it down and it got covered by other books and I completely forgot it existed until I was looking at my library account and saw it was still checked out.

It's the story of three friends* (asterisk intentional) taking a five-day trip to New York City. Three college-age girls having good times and falling outs. Their unfinished personalities go in and out of sync like three cars wait at the light in a left-hand-turn lane.

It's a very real-feeling slice-of-life circa 2009 with occasional moments of real beauty.

And I'm not sure I'll remember reading it.

over a month

012) The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, February 9

Satisfying enough conclusion to the trilogy. The 7yrold is making plans for a Zita Halloween costume.

one sit

013) Things in the Basement by Ben Hatke, February 10

Lot less words in this one.

I've been making the 7yrold do her best to "read" these at least a couple times before I read them to her. We also have a rule that I only ever read a particular comic out loud but once.

Storywise, this is a lot like Zita: kid enters a strange new world makes strange new friends becomes a hero and returns home changed. Can't really go wrong with that story, I suppose. And the art is charming and guileless.

I can see why our daughter loves it.

one sit

014) A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles M. Schulz by Stephen J. Lind, finished February 10

Look what I read!

(By the way, don't love the cover. I did at first, but as it continued to hang around the bedroom, I soured on it. It's pleasant to look like, but the font, while Schulzian, is much harder to read than his actual handlettering (especially at smaller sized at the top of each page). And what's with the kites? What to kites have to do with God? Let alone the entire Trinity. Also, the Trinity seems a tad too . . . theological for Schulz's own taste. I think what happened here was they were looking for something simple and they came up with one element of this concept and the more they thought about it the cleverer they thought they were and the cleverer they got until they ended up with this cover which is fine to look at but, the more you think about it, the dumber it gets.)

This is a deeply researched book. Lind has done so much reading and notetaking and organizing and networking and interviewing and and and and and, resulting in an important, well researched, and very readable book.

It's part biography, part literary analysis, with chapters covering some of the more obvious moments such as A Charlie Brown Christmas. The pacing is good and the depth is appropriate for a work of popular scholarship. I don't mean that as a knock. The book is solid work and covers a lot of ground and has a lot of depth. It is, in my opinion, the final word at this moment and will remain so indefinitely.

I found it helpful in organizing the information I already had. I've read all the strips and lots about Peanuts, and clearly Schulz had a strong religious feeling but it's not like its easy to nail the man down. He worked on the strip fifty years and no one remains static that long. And plenty has been written about him, as various factions in American religious discourse strove to claim him. Lind makes strong arguments (thank you, evidence!) to understand Schulz a certain way and until persuaded otherwise, so I shall.

I feel my own religiosity is developing along Schulzian lines, although I feel much more strongly about the importance of Church as community and aligning myself as I do with the Saints definitely puts air between us. In fact, one chapter is largely about his daughter Amy's conversion to Mormonism and his reasons for distaste as it comes to our tradition. But simultaneously, shared faith brought them closer together, even for all the differences. Lind quotes extensively from the letters Schulz sent Amy on her mission, for instance, and that's the kind of personal touch this book provides.

Incidentally, Lind switches between calling him Schulz and calling him Sparky even though they never met.

I kinda feel like all of us, once you spent enough time in the man's world, should get to call him Sparky. I call no foul.

The book, as mentioned, is deeply sourced. A couple interviews in particular I want to run down. The Gary Groth interview appears in a very cool-looking (but expensive) issue of The Comics Journal; the other appeared in Penthouse, which, um. Luckily, Fantagraphics made the Groth interview easier to find (bs, am). The other I found on the Internet Archive and I'm happy to say no naked ladies before the first page of the interview. (Well. Almost.)

The other source it made me hunt down I have already read.

two or three weeks


015) 1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction by Joseph M. Spencer, finished February 10

So I have finally dived into reading these books and the first one was a delight. I have been coming around on Nephi and trying to like him more and Spencer provides strong insights into Nephi's rhetorical strategies and the choices he's appears to be making that make that an easier prospect. But it also doesn't paper over his flaws. Although brief (as promised) I especially appreciated the looks at the book's three main problems: the killing of Laban, the fraternal issues, and the visibility of women.

For instance, in the latter one, Spencer notes a clear parallel structure between Sariah's complaining and the daughters of Ishmael's later complaining. In the first story, Sariah is rhetorically adept and the story ends with a reconciliation (I'm simplifying). In the latter, the women's complaints are turned into fodder for the men's ongoing argument. Spencer then convincingly ties that to Jacob's later teaching about Nephites and women and proposes that things were going wrong clearn back before they even got on the boat.

In his conclusion, Spencer namechecks Nibley's Lehi in the Desert, which I have and have been wanting to read, but now's not the time. Onward into the Brief Introductions!

seven days

016) Dendo by Brittany Long Olsen, finished February 11

It's been a while since I last finished Dendo; this time I read it Sundays with the 7yrold. Not every Sunday, so it took a long, long time. I mean—it's a daily comic covering eighteen months. So it took us longer than that to read it. I think we began it after finishing Enid, though it was certainly in response to the love she had for Served. I doubt she remembers reading them anymore. Back then, I was still referring to her as "the baby."

Dendo didn't so long because she didn't like it (though early on, she didn't care for its blackandwhiteness) but because it was "the Sunday book" and not always did we get to bed early enough to read from the Sunday book. Often it was just a poem then bedtime. Or she wanted Mom to read to her. Anyway, it took a long time but she loved watching the sisters serve and it gave us lots of opportunities for worthwhile conversations.

I still hold that Dendo is a book every Latter-day Saint household should own. And I think I have proven the rightness of my stance once again.

almost three years

017) The Ten Winners of the 2023 Whiting Awards, finished February 12

Everything in this slim volume is good. The writers features are Tommye Blount, Mia Chung, Ama Codjoe, Marcia Douglas, Sidik Fofana, Carribean Fragoza, R. Kikua Johnson, Linda Kinstler, Staphania Taladrid, and Emma (in the book, Milo on the Whiting website Wippermann. Each selection is brief, just enough to get a taste. The Whiting Awards are for "emerging writers" but, as you can tell from the links I've provided, it's not clear exactly what they mean by that. I think, for most of the ten (and historically, glancing at their full list of recipients), "emerging" means already successful but not famous yet.

That said, I hope the little guys do do good things with their fresh $50K.

There are a couple books I'll be looking for.

a friday and a monday

018) The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life edited by Andrew Blaune, finished February 17 

This is a strange collection. Based on the copyright notices, it appears that most of the essays here were written for the collection. But at least a few more than listed were not. One is an adaptation from a Complete Peanuts introduction, for instance. And some necessarilies are included such as Umberto Eco's famous (and disappointing, though I guess it gets points for being early) essay. Yet even those written for the book don't always make sense. For instance, Maxine Hong Kingston's is only barely and tangentially related to the work of Charles M. Schulz. In one sequence, a trend breaks out among the high school kids she's teaching: they're all drawing the same image of a pregnant Lucy Van Pelt. The illiterate kid the essay is about doesn't get the joke. It was a good essay—one of my favorites in the book—but I'm not certain it belonged in the book. Space was limited. So let's limit ourselves to more relevant essays, mm?

If I get my Peanuts unit put together in time for my own high-school students, the only essay I'm hoping to track down and be able to include is the one by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell. That one is both entirely relevant, a perfect mix of analysis and the personal, and accessible. Trifecta, baby.

The thing that you can see over and over in the essays is people's absolute confidence that the Peanuts when they discovered it was the comics' peak. Sadly, after 1965 or 1975 or whenever, it got redundant and dumb. The jokes were all Woodstock falling of the doghouse or whatever. Only one of these writers showed a glimmer of self-awareness as they made this claim.

These claims (which generally praise the strips of the '60s and '70s) even got to me, who only read fresh Peanuts in the paper starting c. 1988, and although there were favorites I was looking forward to I was terrified I would agree with those old Boomer / early Xer viewpoints and find my Charlie Brown and Snoopy an inferior Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Happily, I did not. While people are free to argue that the World War I Flying Ace is simply superior to the Valley Forge Soldier, I do not agree. And in the final years, Sparky's sparkly innovations with Rerun alone should have earned him another decade or two of life.

Now I grant my own bias here, and it's the next couple generations that'll really decide this, but we're poisoning the well against them. I need to write my own essays about the strengths of later Peanuts to even things out.

Anyway. I should admit I skimmed essays that had less to say or said it less well or were on less relevant topics. I mean—I liked the essay on Vince Guaraldi, but it also probably belonged in another book. But as an amateur scholar of the field, I still count this book as a must read.

a couple weeks or something


019) Do Not Disturb Any Further by John Callahan, finished February 17

I don't think I've read him before (not sure I'd heard of him before the movie) and he's  just as shocking/funny as I'd been told. One of the blurbs says if you laugh and then say that's not funny, that's Callahan.

I get it.

waiting for my kids in the car

020) Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke, finished circa February 19

We have to read these because in volume three he has a crossover with Zita the Spacegirl!

It was more Ben Hatke and Ben Hatke is good at what he does. Another fun read.

one sit

021) 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction by Terryl Givens, February 24

When students ask me the difference between AP Lang and AP Lit I sometimes explain it this way:

In an AP Lang essay, you gather in sources on your topic and assemble them. Breadth is the key. In an AP Lit essay, you only use the one source but you dig deeper and deeper and deeper until you have uncovered all there is to say.

The first two books in the Brief Introductions series reflect these two angles.

In 1st Nephi, Spencer explicitly stated that the work of theology is to read a text very very very closely. And that's exactly what he does.

Givens however is magpieing sources from all over the Book of Mormon, other scriptures, ancient Christians, early Latter-day Saints, et cetera. This too is an insightful and eye-opening approach but it's quite a different approach. The two books are distinct, to say the least.

While Givens approach provides more Fun Facts, I do prefer Spencers—at least in terms of what I wanted from these volumes. However, arguably, Givens methodology does make a lot of sense for Second Nephi as magpieing is rather what the bulk of Second Nephi is, Nephi collecting and rearranging work from his father, brother, and scriptural heroes.

But this is the upside to the whole series, right? A whole lotta different perspectives.

Onward to Jacob!

two weeks


+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + 

the first ten books of 2024
the first ten books of 2024


Update to A Missionary Mystery
(facts prove useful)



In the order in which they appeared, here’s the help my friends gave me:

= = = = = = =

from my friend since 2002, Foxy J:

Looks like it pertains to the earlier time period, based on the information here that talks about when the Missionary Home was at that address. The description of activities at the Missionary Home in the 1920s seems to fit.

However, I still wonder about the reference to the "Church Office Building" because that wasn't dedicated to the early 1970s, and I can't find another administrative building referred to by that name during earlier times.


= = = = = = =

from Kent, the creator of one of my favorites, Mormon Baseball:

I'm fairly sure that the "Church Office Building" was what is now called the "Church Administration Building", built in 1917


= = = = = = =

from El, who has been taking apart an erstwhile favorite of mine, the clincher:

okay, here's my best guess

  • The main title font is Coronet, which was created in 1937.

  • I'm less confident on the "MISSIONARY HOME" font, but my current best guess is Erbar, created in 1926 (It's such a small sample size that I can't be certain)

  • The font for the bulk of the text is, I believe, Dutch Mediaeval, created in 1912

  • The end of the YWMIA was hardest to find--I ended up looking at "sustainings of General authorities" from past conferences. October 1973 had the sustaining of the YWMIA general board. April 1974 has a solemn assembly (for Kimball), and it's the "Aaronic Priesthood MIA (YW)." (There's also an Ensign article from January 1973 about the MIA program that makes things a little less clear as well https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1973/01/news-of-the-church/first-presidency-announces-priesthood-mia-programs?lang=eng)

  • Based on some comments in the Improvement Era, it does look like Kent's suggestion of the Church Administration Building being referred to as the "Church Office Building" is accurate (there's a reference in 1963 that definitely isn't referring to the newer building)

  • An IE article mentions the Lion House Cafeteria closing "for an indefinite period of time" in March of 1964 (April 1964 IE, p. 292)

  • Based on a chapter from Richard Cowan, the Missionary Home was used until March of 1962 (when it was moved into a hotel)

  • Smallpox vaccination requirements could have been as early as the 1800s (I haven't found a source specifying things for missionaries yet), while typhoid vaccination was required for the US Army in 1911

  • usage of "Temple Block" in the IE appears to taper off in the mid-1960s

  • The Bureau of information started in 1904

  • Commercial flights in SLC began in 1926, with major improvements to the airport in 1933 and 1950

So, as of this point, it's between 1937 (Coronet's creation) and 1962. I'd guess it's from your grandma based on the age.


A Missionary Mystery: calling all archivists


My aunt recently found an old piece of paper in an old book and thought it might be an artifact from my father’s mission. My father said no, certainly not. The artifact—a schedule of events for missionaries undergoing training in Salt Lake City—did talk about missionaries leaving for the field on trains which was still true in 1970 (barely) but the training lasted a week and by the time he arrived, training had been trimmed to a mere three days. Here are the outside and inside of the program:

(see them L A R G E)

Share this post with someone who may want to help solve the mystery?

It seems likely that the program was collected by one of my grandparents at the beginning of their mission. I believe the North State address would have been the same address for both of them and for my father. Based on the slightly anemic and poorly sourced information on Wikipedia (I added the complaint about the quality of citation last night), I believe this Mission Home was open from 1925 through 1971. My grandfather began his mission October 1928 and my grandmother sometime in 1939.

One remarkable thing about this program is how . . . timeless it is. There is really an absense of identifiable information.

The ink stands above the paper and is easy to feel with your fingertips with our knowledge we cannot determine whether it was letterpressed or offset or what.

Anyway. That’s about all we know. Can you help solve this mystery? Are we in 1928, 1939, or other?


Rejected Books: Mexican Gothic
Why must I be wrong?


I mean---I'm fine being wrong. I know people love this book. I'd intended to love it too. It's deliberately following a trail laid down by Wuthering Heights and Rebecca and "The Yellow Wallpaper," and it's not short on interesting ideas and characters and places with potential, but egad it's sloppy. Where are America's editors?? I feel the way the way I felt reading Twilight: like a writer with potential is not reaching her potential because no one is helping her grow. At least Silvia Moreno-Garcia hasn't blown up to such a size that everyone knows her name and most of them feel obliged to hate her. So maybe there's still hope.


This book takes place c. 1950 in Mexico City and (mostly) a house at the top of a mountain next to an abandoned silver mine. That house is inhabited by a pale and fallow English family and our protag is a wealthy young dark-skinned Mexican socialite who is visiting to check in on her once-vibrant cousin who has been wasting away following her marriage to this family's heir. Promising stuff.

Noemí is that main character and she's a checklist. In addition to being wealthy, a good dresser, beautiful, witty, a skilled flirt, etc; she is also a polymath who can rattle off precise facts in multiple fields and possessor of a Green Lantern-level of will. I don't mind this level of Mary Sueing, but somehow this pampered Daddy's girl also has the capacity to spend all day polishing silver and to do it well. She, though wealthy and privileged, has deep connections to and comfort with people at all levels of society, servants for instance, but also poor villagers whom she seems never to have seen before this trip. And they (at least the non-English ones) seem pretty accepting of her, too. Okay.

The old house has very little electricity and not enough lightbulbs so we are forced to use candles and oil lamps (#atmosphere) but at the end, when a tiny, barely visited pantry needs light, there's a functioning lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Which pantry only exists because we walked down a back staircase, suddenly revealed when our characters suddenly need a previously hidden back staircase to exist.

And here we get to an embarrassing admission. I had such a hard time reading this book that the day of the faculty book club I'm still not halfway through so I skipped to the end and read the conclusion. I was hoping that the conclusion would inspire me to go back and read the rest (some people always read books this way which I, I just, I can't...), but no. The people still didn't talk like people. They talked like a parody of silent-film intertitles.

Other complaints include the abuse of what's pretending to be third-person limited, and the addition of details because probably the audience is too stupid to recognize, for instance, the effects of colonialism when they see them.

The book did not do well being read alongside my classes reading Pride and Prejudice. Austen famously wrote that she did "not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves." And when you read Austen, yes, you feel respected. You feel like she expects you to be smart and if not, well, you can still enjoy the happy ending.

Mexican Gothic felt very much like it was written to dull elves. You have terrific potential with your setting and characters, but then you write a book afraid your audience isn't bright enough to see what cool things you have. And so your book is like a series of Instagram posts---cool little bits, one after another, instead of a coherent novel filled with rich characters we care about who grow and develop and discover and earn their happy ending.

I'm so bummed.

But here's a maybe-a-bright-side:

Perhaps what we have here is evidence that some publishing houses are sticking with authors while they learn. The fact that this author's books sell makes me doubt that. But I hope it's not entirely untrue.

But what I think is more likely is that this is part of the YAification of adult fiction. I don't mean this as a slight against YA fiction, but it makes sense that fiction aimed at a YA audience would do more handholding. But there is so much YA fiction now, that it's possible to be an avid reader and yet make it to adulthood without ever exhausting your library's YA holdings. And so you never leave that corner, which, for all the good stuff on those shelves, let's not pretend isn't limiting.

One thing I appreciate about Mexican Gothic is the author wears her influences on her sleeves. It's such a love letter that some books (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre) are even mentioned within the novel. So I hope that it takes readers to the Brontës and beyond, and that we start to see that reflected back in new novels.

Anyway. The point is I hope I'm wrong about this book and that you all vehemently disagree with me.


2024 × 10 = Bette Davis being Bette Davis


Nobody cares about this but me, so skip this paragraph unless you'ld like to hear me note that I've simplified the formatting of the books posts to ease their transfer from Thutopia to Thubstack. We'll see if it makes life easier / makes for a prettier newsletter. If you notice such things, let me know.

Lotta comics to start off the year, including kiddie space opera, Sandman, and Peanuts so you know it's definitely me writing this. We also have a fascinating work of Mormon lit from last year, a look at Siskel and Ebert, a terrible science-fiction novel by a beloved mystery author, and the best thing about Bigfoot I've ever read.

001) Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, finished January 1

I found a copy in a Little Free Library and remembered liking it so I grabbed it for the youngun and then reread it myself. It charms but it is just a reshuffling of cliches. And having read this immediately before, well....

a beach sit


002) The Complete Peanuts: 1977 – 1978 by Charles M. Schulz , finished January 6

I'm building a Peanuts book for us with my sophomores. So far its all essays, but I need to start collecting strips as well. The secret to that is to continually enjoy reading the classics, baby.

a couple weeks or so


003) The Sandman: The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman et al, finished January 10

This is the longest of the Sandman books but that's not why it took me the longest to read. I should never have read the introduction. It told me things I did not want to know. Which is a shame because a) the is the second time in this reread that I've read a volume I've never read before, and b) I liked it a lot. It might have my favorite art so far, but the way they assigned credit for the artists makes it impossible for me to say who did what.

Anyway, this is the climax, I assume, of the whole run. Big things happen. Lotsa stuff comes together. I'd rather not say more.

over a month

004) Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, finished January 17

The 7yrold's been carrying this around and "reading" it more or less constantly. So when she asked me to read-it read it to her, I felt I had to. She loved it.

two or three days

005) Touched by Walter Mosley, finished January 19

I hated this novel. And I resent it especially because it's my first Walter Mosley novel and I've been wanting to read him for a long, long time.

It is my own fault, of course. I own a couple copies of Devil in the Blue Dress and my wife's cousin who's a huge fan just recommended Gone Fishin' but instead I picked a short science-fiction novel off the new shelf.

Always be cautious reading science fiction by someone who comes to it late in their career. Read what they're known for.

Touched starts of intriguingly enough but the novel is lost. It has no idea where it's going or what it's point is. The main character / pov character forgets his dream that is motivating the plot. Other characters "remember" but you get the sense the author has forgotten as thoroughly as his hero.

It's starts out as a dystopia  but forgets that. Has some comic elements but can't figure out how to integrate them into the plot. By the end, I was just angry. Angry that a book like this got published. Angry that Mosley's editors did him dirt like this. Angry that he didn't pause when he realized he had no idea what he was doing. (I'm assuming a write of his caliber did realize.) Angry that I picked it up. Angry it was short enough I didn't feel like I could just stop reading.

It's a terrible book. If I had someone to sit down and debate with (see next book) I would happily get into more reasons why (let's talk about familiars! let's talk about vocabulary! let's talk about the use of sex and death!) but frankly it doesn't deserve it. If your daily paper needs a review, let me know. I'll be happy to pan it in more detail.

a couple weeks but only because I got sick

006) Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever by Matt Singer, finished January 20

I love Siskel and Ebert too. I wish I'd seen them more often as a kid. After Siskel died in 1999 (at age 53!) I spent at least ten years, whenever an interesting or particularly promising movie was about to drop, wondering what he would've thought of it. I still wonder that every now and then, even though Ebert too is now a decade dead.

I knew Ebert better because his column was carried in the Bakersfield Californian, but I was always wishing I could stay up and watch their show. Singer talks about doing that will a little tv he had in his room from a much younger age than when I started really watching it (late high school).

It's a tragedy to me that none of their show's incarnations are easily available. Some crappy prints appear on YouTube and elsewhere, but I think there's a Bob Ross-like market for old episodes. Just no will to bring them to the public, no doubt because, the suits imagine, who cares about those movies anymore?

Anyway, I loved this book, too. I rushed through it. I found it compelling and fun and fascinating. I learned a lot I didn't know and found their journey a delight to join.

There is an appendix of twenty-five movies that never really caught on but both of them liked. And here Singer quotes Siskel waaay more often than he does Ebert. Which I find fascinating. It suggests to me that ultimately he finds Siskel's opinions more persuasive. But it could also be that while he had a chance to work with Ebert, he never met Siskel. And so that hole may be what led him to make that (probably subconscious) editorial decision. I dunno. But it's interesting.

I was also persuaded by the broader impact Siskel and Ebert's shows had on the culture.

Anyway, it's a quick read and a fascinating look at the first quarter century of my life as lived by two of the most unlikely (but deserving) tv stars of the era. I wish you were here to debate this with me.

three days

007) Evergreen Ape: The Story of Bigfoot by David Norman Lewis, finished January 24

This book is short and intoxicating. Easily my new favorite in bigfoot media. It taught me a lot of history I didn't know and managed to get someone (me) so utterly sick of anything bigfoot to turn page after page after page.

It's clear he's skeptical of bigfoot's existence, but he also admits the bits of evidence that are difficult to (honestly) explain away.

Even more compelling is his sharing of the history of actual wild men like John Tornow (the Wikipedia article is worthless) who returned to the wild in a serious way. He also tells stories about Ishi that I'd never heard before and which helped me understand the ones I had.

In the end, his biggest thesis is that bigfoot tells us more about white America than anything else. In particular the Boomers.

If you have the least interest in the bigfoot phenomenon, this is the book. Plus, it ends with some wonderful sounding hikes where people like to see sasquatch. Although he does suggest once that an animal you can actually see in California's Humboldt County is the grizzly. I don't think so.

Other than that (and the fact that there is no bibliography) I found him a trustworthy host. Even if he does apparently dress like this.

one day

008) What Falls Away by Karin Anderson, finished February 1

I want to start by saying that I found the denouement of this novel absolutely beautiful, moving, wondrous. I want to say that because as I write about it I will make many complaints and I don't want those to take away from the novel's successes which are significant.

A couple years ago I read a funny and charming and happily Mormon and seemingly angst-free essay by Karin Anderson England and I wondered whatever happened to her, only to discover that she is the same person as Karin Anderson following a (I hear) rancorous divorce and a bitter falling out with the Church of her upbringing. I already knew Karin Anderson through a book she edited and I appeared in, and her manner of presenting herself was as the still-angry post-Mormon editor to balance out the faithful editor. (Her weirdly strident pride in heresy made a big impression on me.)

Wild that they are the same person.

But I wanted to read more of her writing and she had a new book. I successfully talked my local library into buying it and now I have read it. (It also started raining while I was reading outside and so I may end up paying for it anyway.)

Our main character, Cassandra, grew up in a high-mountain Utah valley. A beautiful place. Idyllic. But it really sucks the way small towns in faraway places can really suck.

After decades away, Cassandra is forced home by circumstances (her estranged mother's decline) and I had a hard time telling whether our hero is an intentional self-caricature of a strident heretic or a realistic portrayal of a person who, um, plays like a caricature of a bitter, angry, hateful, damaged, unforgiving strident heretic. Every Mormon character was absurd—but was that because they were absurd or because we only see them filtered through Cassandra's bitter soul?

Generally, as a reader, I am skilled at divorcing my thoughts about an author from the narrator or the text. But I had a hard time doing that with What Falls Away.

Eventually we get flashbacks of the series of events that led to Cassandra's expulsion / fleeing from Eden, and they are suitably horrifying. And believable. I lived in a town much like this town until I was ten and I've always believed that was a good time to leave. The place is still "home" as much as any place can be, but I am glad that my coming of age happened somewhere else.

Still, I have a hard time believing in youths who do the sort of things that the youths in this book do at their various camps and such. I know that I would've been the last person to know, but still. A Boy Scout circlejerk? Really?

Anyway, the horrors of her past let us understand Cassandra a bit more. The basics of what was had long been clear, but walking through the experience with her made her soul more accessible.

There are still plenty of wild and unlikely characters to come. For instance, the main villain, whom we barely see, makes the villain from Magdalene seem like a pretty chill and stable bloke. An additional problem is that Magdalene is proudly overthetop genre while What Falls Away positions itself a something more staid and "literary." I mean—this dude's crimes are outrageous. And his justifications are more outrageous still. He is the novel's apex of religiosity and masculinity (two things regularly conflated), and even with his rare appearances, this colors all other forms of religiosity and masculinity.

(One could make an argument that Cassandra's father is the actual apex, but I'm not writing a dissertation here.)

Which isn't to say there aren't other human options on display as options. But every intelligent woman's allegiance to the faith is self-admitted to be soft. And the kinder (less blowhardy) a man? Same.

One problem with the novel is it has a really, really hard time being sure how angry it is and about what exactly. This is like it's primary p-o-v, of course, as Cassandra's ability to cope with her family and with the Saints and with [etc] is limited by the damage she has undergone. She has regular moments where old trauma overwhelms the now. I do not mean to minimize what she's been through and it's an interesting artistic choice to have the narrative at large experience the same limitations. But it also makes it harder to see the larger themes of overcoming and forgiveness and redemption that I think (pretty sure) the book is ultimately about.

Perhaps we should consider it more honest that the moments of light are often short or interrupted or overtaken. The book ends with Cassandra's mother dying as Cassandra's own motherhood is restored. Shouldn't that basic structure make the point that the emotionally crippled main character and novel cannot?

But, as I said, the end—a funeral—crashes all these elements together. Some aspects of that final scene don't make sense (why did the children of that guy choose this funeral to appear at?) and Cassandra falls into another of her panic attacks, but it's also the first time she's with the whole family and the children will not let the adults fail to finish effecting her/their redemption. And it's lovely.

Cassandra's about twenty years older than me so I won't know pretend to know the truth of such things, but some of the horrors (the halfway house for instance), while within the realm of the believable are also just not believable. Again, is this because it's coming through Cassandra? Or is this Anderson's way of revealing a Dickensian horror I'm ignorant of?

But we run again into the earlier problem that the projected genre of the novel does not easily accept these over-the-top elements.

I liked the novel. Overall I can say I liked it a lot. But it had a hard time letting me believe in it for a hefty percentage of the pages.

But that very pushing-me-away is part of what makes the whole thing work. As much as I often found Cassandra unlikely, I just as often found her absolutely enthralling and attractive, as only the greatest fictional characters can be. Oh, how I wish to see her draw.

about a month maybe

009) Peanuts Jubilee: My Life and Art with Charlie Brown and Others by Charles M. Schulz, finished February 3

This book was published for the 25th anniversary of Peanuts and the last words in its final essay are "I hope very much that I will be allowed to do it for another twenty-five years."

He was. And we are glad.

Anyway, the book is three essays by Schulz, a bunch of Sunday strips (in color—and Frieda is blonde??), a timeline, and a bibliography of every book to that point that involved Peanuts, from collections of strips to books that only used, say, a panel for illustration. That last one is very cool. I've often wondered if even the museum knows every book out there. I still do, but it's nice to know they've been on top of it.

My favorite part is the essays. To read in Schulz's own words is great. The first essay was autobiographical; the second is a history and commentary/philosophy of the strip; the third is about production of the strip (mostly) and ancillary stuff.

He's a thoughtful and self-aware fellow (not surprising) and I'm glad I went through the hassle of finding this book. I'm surprised the essays haven't fallen across my path before.

maybe a couple weeks


010) Legends of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, finished February 3

Having enjoyed one so much we went to the library for two. Next we'll head to the library for three.

Anyway, this one introduces new characters and conflicts but it also feels more settled in. So it's a nice volume two.

a few days


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