Saturday, October 29, 2011

10 Days of Halloween Horror Day 8: You Can Beat a Classic

Welcome to Day Eight of the 10 Days of Halloween Horror 2011!  We'll be featuring horror-related reviews right up until the big day!  You can find the Halloween Horror posts for Panel Patter here, and don't forget to check out the Book Stew for book-book horror, too!

I recently got out an audio book of classic ghost stories, a sampling of public domain stories from names both familiar (Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Saki) and unfamiliar, at least to me.  The production value was top notch, with a venerable Brit providing the narration in a variety of tones and voices.  Unfortunately, however, I wasn't impressed with the stories themselves.  They felt extremely antiquated, slow-paced, and generally bored me more than thrilled me.

This came as quite a shock to me, because in the past, I found these gothic-style stories to be quite enjoyable.  as recently as Summer 2009 I was singing the praises of Dracula.  But I noticed upon re-reading some Poe that I was kinda non-plussed, and last year, I barely made it through a classic ghost story I'd downloaded for my nook.  This neutral attitude towards the classic ghost stories collection is part of a pattern:  I'm just not into old horror in the way that I used to be.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Tastes change over time.  I think I've probably read too many Stephen King books by now (and other novels that move quickly) to appreciate the slow-building horror that comes from the older writers.  Perhaps I'm just losing my attention span, as I find myself more pressed for time.  Get to the gruesome details, because I have ten other things to do today, you know?

I'm not sure that's true, though, because I still enjoy a classic horror film.  Slow-pacing is okay for me, but it has to have a powerful set-up.  If I can tell what is going on a mile away--and in the case of a lot of the classic horror I've read lately, that was exactly the problem--then I'm just not interested.  I think the reason I prefer newer horror, as long as it doesn't involve excessive violence, is that it either gets to the point quickly or the build-up is worth it.

At the end of the day, I think I may stop trying to read classic horror for awhile.  Let it sit for a bit. It's certainly not going anywhere.  How about you?  Still reading the old school stuff, or have you moved on?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Monsters Caught on Film by Dr. Melvyn Willin

Welcome to Day Four of the 10 Days of Halloween Horror 2011!  We'll be featuring horror-related reviews right up until the big day!  You can find the Halloween Horror posts for Panel Patter here, and don't forget to check out the Book Stew for book-book horror, too!

I've always been fascinated by the idea of monsters existing in the real world.  Maybe it was part of my interest in dinosaurs or reading comic books from an early age or watching horror movies a few years too early.  The answer is lost to time, like some of the legendary beasts captured in this book.  Regardless, my ears always perk up at the news of a sighting of Bigfoot, a Yeti, or the various lake creatures that dot the world, allegedly of course.

(I think I should add "In Search of..." to that list of things that spurred my interest, come to think of it.  Who can argue with Mr. Spock?)

When I saw this book on the shelf at the library, I simply had to grab it.  I haven't really followed the legendary creature genre for awhile, so I was curious to see what the internet age had done to the myths I'd grown up with.

If this book is any indication, time has not been kind to the idea of beasts not on your biology test.  Thanks to the ability to Photoshop just about anything, it's possible for anyone with time on their hands to craft a beastie, fog the picture up, and claim it to be original--as long as you "lose" the negative, of course.  As a result, this book trips over itself talking about how so many of the photos included in the book are likely to be fake.  Dr. Willin's solution to this problem is to add something along the lines of "Wouldn't it be cool if this were real?" to the bulk of the entries, and after awhile, that gets old.

While this book does have a lot of interesting pictures, many of them are the same ones I've seen hundreds of times, and the new ones are, if anything, worse in quality than their predecessors.  A section on wild beasts has blurrier photos than when the news reports on television about a celebrity porn video.  Other pictures are blatant forgeries, such as the models of a T-Rex taking down a rhino, but they are mixed in with screen captures that might just be real.  There is no clear separation between the impossible and the plausible, leading me to believe that the author is entirely too skeptical to be the collator of a work like this.  Despite protestations to the contrary, Dr. Willin seems not to regard anything in here as true, with the exception of real "monsters" like the Portuguese Man of War or the Komono Dragon. It would be like me trying to put together a book on Scientology--my credibility in their beliefs is so small that I'd never be able to make the work seem passable to someone who even at least partially gives credit to their faith.

When it comes to things like UFOs or mythical creatures or ghosts, I remain open-minded but generally doubtful.  It seems like Dr. Willin has a similar opinion, but ironically, I think books like this are best-served in the hands of true believers.  While their opinions may be wrong, they have a seriousness that Monsters Caught on Film lacks.  The tone is just wrong, keeping the reader from really getting into the idea of things like Nessie actually being real.  In addition, the use of verified creatures confuses things too much for my taste.  If you are looking for books about urban legend creatures, there are better ones out there.  If you really do believe in Bigfoot, then give this work a berth wider than that of an alleged yeti footprint.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Scandalous Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

I kinda pride myself on being a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to knowing things about what I like to call hidden history, a term coined by someone smarter than me for the parts of the past that don't tend to make it into school textbooks, or even the History Channel. I'd like to think I work hard on this, but then I read a book like Scandalous Women, which reminds me that no matter how progressive you might think you are, there's always parts of the historical narrative that only the most dedicated researchers can find.

That's certainly the case with this book, in which Mahon turns her blog into a book, hoping to catch people with this eye-grabbing title and maybe help them learn something. She does so not by trying to be neutral or present people in a good light. Instead, like any good internet writer, this book is filled with snark, pithy remarks (like how Anne Boleyn made King Henry VIII put a ring on it), and a frank discussion of the good and bad traits of her subjects.

The title itself is a bit of a misnomer. While some of these women certainly are notorious, I'm not sure that Amelia Earhart counts as scandalous. Of course, "Women You Should Know" just doesn't have the same ring to it. There is definitely an emphasis on sex in the book, even for those who were not really known for their sexual escapades. While the book seems to chastise the contemporaries of these women for focusing on their bedroom habits, it seems to me that Mahon has, to some degree, done the same thing. It does get monotonous at certain points, especially as the book progresses into 19th and 20th century women, where we know more of their relationship history. I know the idea is to heighten the scandal part of their lives, but sometimes I felt like I was intruding where I didn't belong in reading about their love affairs. Perhaps that's just me.

Where the book shines is in highlighting women who should be in their own spotlight, rather than hugging the shadows of a more famous man, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine or Emiie du Chatelet or even Bolelyn. There are also some interesting women who have similar male analogs who strike me as a lot more compelling, like Boudica or Calamity Jane (whose real story would make a great modern Western) or Ida B Wells-Barnett or the pirate lady team of Anne Bonney and Mary Read.

Some of these women were familiar to me, but others, Wells-Barnett in particular, deserve to have their story told on a wider stage. I'm sure there are biographies for these folks, but we need to get them into the wider consciousness, which means movies or at least a reference in a textbook. What Scandalous Women does well is gives readers a starting point. You could spend years reading about each of these women and not lack for quality material to study. The fact that Mahon did this for a blog, without pay, makes it all the more incredible.

Scandalous Women is very much a modern history book. I appreciate the fresh writing but those looking for a more scholarly approach will be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you want to learn a bit more about women who are just as important in history, such as a contemporary of Rodin that might have been his better or a woman who refused to let getting impaled prevent her from art and lovers, then give this book a try. You might even learn something, and even if you don't, I guarantee you'll be entertained!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

An Account of the Battle of Wilson's Creek by R. I. Holcombe

This book is part of my 7-year Civil War Challenge, where I read books relating to the part of the Civil War that is 150 years old. 2011 is 1861.

Not entirely satisfied with the other book I read on Wilson's Creek, I reached out into the public domain of and found this text, which is smaller, punchier, and ultimately more effective at giving me the details of the battle that certainly made it seem as if Missouri would be lost to the Union in the Civil War.

This text, which was clearly a source for the newer book, was written in 1883 and spends more time trying to get first person accounts of the battle from those who survived, which is why it is a far more engaging read than the drier, more matter of fact Battle of Wilson's Creek book. Holcombe repeatedly discusses his efforts to find facts from those who were there, and as a result, there is far more editorial commentary and criticism, particularly of General McCullouch's bungling that prevented the South from gaining an even more impressive victory.

As in the other book, it's clear the odds were against Lyon and he died trying to do his best with the crappy situation General Fremont (and to an extent, Lincoln) had placed him. This book posited the idea that had Lyon left the Confederates a way to retreat, he might have even won the battle. I doubt this, given the difference in strength, but it was certainly an interesting idea.

The book itself sometimes slips into breathless prose, but ironically, it has a far more modern feel than history texts written around the middle of the 20th Century. I appreciate the commentary and occasional sarcasm, as it is used quite appropriately and keeps things moving when you are discussing troop formations and whatnot. It is especially fun to see Holcombe condemn those who would mar history with lies. I could have done without a few over the top references to bravery and lost lives, but all in all, this was a quite readable book.

Unfortunately, it's probably not recommendable to anyone. The Archive's version is a very, very bad scan that I had to mentally translate entirely too many times, and it's not on Gutenberg as of yet. If you find this in print form somewhere, definitely grab it. This is an excellent account of a small battle, and the best of the three small engagement books I've read so far for the challenge.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Inventing George Washington by Edward G. Lengel

If there’s one constant in American politics today, it’s that the meaning and intent of the Founding Fathers is as relevant today as it was over two hundred years ago. Possibly no group of human beings has ever been so analyzed as the powerful Pantheon of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, and company, save perhaps Abraham Lincoln. No matter how many books are written about these men, it seems we can never truly agree on what they are. Into that fray comes Inventing George Washington, a book that attempts not to define Washington for what he was—but for what he was not.

It’s a novel approach, one that was initially taken by people called “debunkers” (working on the same theory as World War One de-licers), but is handled here in a far more subtle manner than the firebrands of the 1920s whose goal was seemingly to crash every historical figure off their pedestal—particularly the Father of our Country. In Lengal’s hands, the story of Washington after his death is not so much an attempt to make him less of a person but to show that despite being the most recognizable of all presidents, he is also the one that, pretty much from the day of his death in 1799, America knows the least about.

Starting from the early days, Lengel shows that Washington the man was outdone by Washington the myth almost from the get-go. Due to careless handling of his papers and even calculated destruction, it was difficult for any biographer to get a complete picture of the man. What to do? Start making things up. The more honorable the story (The cherry tree, anyone?), the better. Because this became such a cottage industry, everyone from religious zealots to those with political axes to grind would alter the history of Washington to fit their needs, a practice that goes on to this day. Lengel calmly walks through this minefield, pointing out the flaws as he goes.

Was Washington a prude? Not according to the records of the day. Was he a womanizer? That’s wrong, too, says Lengel, showing that extremes are generally wrong in any history of the first president. The same holds for multiple stories of his prayers/baptisms/conversions at Valley Forge, all of which have no historical basis in fact but are often repeated from grade school to grad school. Washington was neither a fervent Christian nor a Deist, showing both sides of this debate to be dead in the water. Similarly, he did love Martha, contrary to conventional wisdom, and was not above flirting, no matter how hard the Victorian prudes tried to paint him as above cares of the flesh.

Some stories included here are already pretty healthily debunked, such as the idea he had a slave love child or the Betsy Ross legend, but others really shocked me. The Quaker Spy story is just that—a story. I admit I was crushed. There’s also more evidence to support a lukewarm Christianity than I’ve seen in the past, though Lengel’s words will not soothe those who feel strongly about the faith of the Founders.

Perhaps the most interesting thing Lengel brings up is that Washington has been exploited for years upon years, and in many cases people prefer the myth to the legend. Everyone from PT Barnum to modern-day psychics have leaned on the power of Washington to make a quick buck, going back to before the days when Washington was even on the diminutive dollar bill. Want proof people prefer story to truth? A completely nonsensical psychic autobiography of Washington outsells many legitimate biographies. Americans know what they like—and it’s not true history.

Working roughly chronologically, Lengel discusses Washington the myth and does his debunking in a mildly sarcastic way, whether it’s to nibble at the edges of popular expectations or to mildly chastise those who are so desperate for a connection to Washington that they believe every Washington slept here story or take family tales for fact. He’s understanding of the need for connection, saving his venom only for the most poisonous or preposterous lies.

As a book, Inventing George Washington is less of a history and more of an un-history, or rather, it’s a history of the kind of inventions Americans are capable of, showing that our penchant for self-deception when it comes to American superiority started from the early days of the Republic and carry on in the words of 2012 presidential candidates. Washington as fact may not be very sexy, but Washington as myth has all the sizzle of a modern day scandal. For a man like Washington, who was very self-conscious, this would be very painful. Luckily for all of us, the one thing we know for sure is that he’s not alive to see it. Those willing to peek under the covers of popular history will definitely find a lot to enjoy in this work. You might even un-learn something!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Battle of Wilson's Creek by Edwin C. Bearss

This book is part of my 7-year Civil War Challenge, where I read books relating to the part of the Civil War that is 150 years old. 2011 is 1861.

In the early days of the Civil War, generals and troops were mostly raw and unused to their commands or how to properly fight a battle with a large number of troops. Even in a smaller circumstance like the Battle of Wilson's Creek, mistakes were plentiful and based mostly on one part misunderstanding and one part incompetence, with just a hint of inexperience thrown in.

The Battle of Wilson's Creek is the story of an engagement that must have seemed large at the time, but dealt with "armies" that had only about as many men as a typical division would hold at the war's apex in 1863-1864. It's the story of trying to hold Missouri, a border state, in Union hands, when there were quite a few in the state who wished it to go with its slave-holding brethren in the Confederacy. There are hopes and dreams and visions of the war to come, from grand ideas that don't work to ill-equipped soldiers to civilians caught in the middle. Told right, this small battle would be quite the engaging prequel to the bigger battles to come, starting with Shiloh.

Unfortunately, in the hands of Bearss, it's a rather dry read. There's not a lot of human interest included, Bearss opts to keep his own opinions out of the narrative, and troop movements dominate the text. Even the battle descriptions are rather pedestrian and don't seem to capture the horrors of war before anyone really knew what that would come to mean. As a result, I had a very hard time getting a feel for this battle. It felt too clinical in Bearss' narrative.

Generally speaking, this battle was an attempt by the Union commander Lyon to try and do some of the things Stonewall Jackson would later be famous for. Unfortunately, he had neither the subordinates to carry out the job or the ability to make it work. Wilson's Creek is an attempt to surprise a stronger foe, and for a brief time, it works. But as the day wore on and mistakes are made, the almost double Confederate force not only gains a military victory, it has a win in morale as well. After Wilson's Creek, the South takes control of southern Missouri for a time, and the only thing the Union has to show for this debacle are dead and wounded troops.

Who's to blame for all this? Arguably John C. Fremont, the arrogant former presidential candidate who would soon be shipped well away from the war. He leaves Lyon out to dry in the face of an important strategic goal and a superior force. Lincoln also has a hand in the defeat, by obsessing over troop strength in the Virginia corridor and not thinking about winning the war everywhere, an idea that doesn't seem to hit home for another two years.

I know very little about Western Civil War battles, so I enjoyed getting to learn something about a small but key early engagement. That's the point of this challenge, after all. However, given how dense this book felt despite its smaller size, I can't really recommend it to others. I'm hoping there are more interesting books out there that cover western battles, or else this challenge is occasionally going to feel like a forced march.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Original Curse by Sean Deveney

When I mentioned to a friend of mine, a person with strong Chicago ties, that I was reading this book, he asked an interesting question: Why write this book now? Why read it?

Obviously, no book really needs justification, and no reader needs to explain their reason for reading it, though I suppose I do that every time I get in front of my computer and start a review. However, I think he had an excellent point.

We all know about the Black Sox scandal. Most baseball fans even know that gambling was a bigger deal than just one World Series. A few might go further and name crooked players, starting with the 1919 White Sox team and going all the way to Pete Rose. It's not a proud time for the sport, but in a game with a history going back before the Civil War, there's going to be some blemishes that look terrible at the time but fade in impact as the game moves on.

For me, the thing that makes this book a recommended read for any sports fan is not just the great details about playing baseball in the early twentieth century, when 11 home runs was an amazing feat and a pitcher could throw all eighteen innings of a double header. No, it's the fact that no matter who the men running the leagues are at the time, baseball always has had a problem dealing with trouble.

See if this sounds familiar: In a changing United States economy, the sport of baseball grows more popular than ever, with fans packing the seats of both major and minor league stadiums. Some of these fans don't care much about how they are entertained, and players start to do things they shouldn't in the name of higher monetary gain. Baseball is informed of this problem, but opts to do nothing, shuffling problem players quietly out of the game and doing all they can to quietly discredit (or ignore) those who sound a warning cry.

Only when things are so bad that the court system is involved does baseball make a move, picking certain players to cast to the winds and declaring the game clean, trying to keep the problem as quiet as possible and keep fans in the seats. It's only a few isolated incidents, after all, no need to police the game better or admit there is a wide-ranging problem.

Steroids Era?

Nope, try the early 1920s, when baseball's problem was gambling. Players felt they needed to make more money, and therefore, some (perhaps a lot) turned to bookies, offering to subtly alter the course of a game in exchange for a piece of the action. In The Original Curse, Sean Deveney argues that the year before the Black Sox scandal, angry and disillusioned Cubs players tossed the series to the less-talented Red Sox, giving the 1919 cross-town rivals the idea to do the same thing.

Using sensational ideas, such as that controversial premise and planting Babe Ruth's name on the cover, Deveney hopes to draw the reader into a story that has the real purpose of serving as an allegory for the steroids problem, the drug trials of the 1980s, and baseball's rather weak acknowledgement of its decades-long racism that continued long after Jackie Robinson. It's a cheap tactic, but it worked, because I probably would never have picked this book up if it didn't have Babe Ruth's name at the head of the cover.

What does not work very well, is Deveney's claim that the 1918 shenanigans, promulgated in the shadow of World War I (and this making them even more shameful, as players draft dodged in order to keep making hundreds of times more money than the men--including relatives of mine--who fought and got gassed in the trenches), created the 1919 scandal. His evidence is extremely shaky, and while I think there's a good case that the 1918 series was rigged by the Cubs (thus meaning the aspersion cast on Ruth by the cover is borderline libelous), I do not see how this incident influenced the 1919 White Sox any more than all the other cheating that was going on at a brisk clip.

Ironically, it's the fact that Deveney makes a compelling case that *lots* of games were fixed that undermines what he's trying to prove. It makes me wish he'd changed his focus a bit, but then we'd lose the sexy and marketable title. In this era of competition for shelf space and attention, having a daring cover was more important than matching it to the facts inside, I guess.

Normally when an author misses their primary point, I'd tell you to steer clear of the book. This is an exception, however. The story itself is a strong condemnation of just about everyone involved, from the United States Government, which dithered over baseball's role and caused player uncertainty, to the players who cheated and tried to get out of serving to the owners, who apparently have to sign a "greed" clause when taking over a team. It's the only explanation for the stupidity that dates back at least to World War I and still continues to this say. Think Bud Selig is bad? Despite being a former owner of the Brewers, at least he's never been drunk during a labor negotiation!

While the majority of the book shows that there never was a "good old days" for America's Former Pastime, we can feel for a few players. Grover Cleveland Alexander did the honorable thing and went to war, effectively killing himself in the process. Other players had families and back in 1918, the US didn't care and would still make you serve. Their anxiety makes cheating almost--repeat, *almost*--justifiable.

Filled with little vignettes about important players in this drama, tales of two teams that made the World Series more by attrition than anything else, and some details that are only now coming to light, The Original Curse has a lot going for it, despite the not-very-appropriate title. It won't make Barry Bonds and company any less of a jerk, but at least you'll know they're in good company in the baseball Hall of Shame. At least these 1918 villains are about as far away from Cooperstown as Hawaii. Hopefully, they'll all stay there in the land of infamy where they belong and not move into a different Hall. That would be the biggest shame of all, one that not even years of good baseball could erase.

If you want a good read that proves the more things change, the more they stay the same, this book is for you. I enjoyed it a lot, but be warned: Reading it might make you like professional sports even less than you do now. Sometimes learning the truth does ruin the fun. It's what keeps baseball covering up for its players and owners, both in the history books and in the public eye. That's an original curse I don't think the game will ever shake.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Teaching Books: How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson

Last year, I started reading teaching books in preparation of starting off in a new direction in my life. Just because I'm actually teaching doesn't mean I stop reading books about it!

As with my past teaching book posts, this is less a review than a summary of ideas. Hopefully, it will help others interested in education with deciding if this is a book that might be helpful for them to read.

If you've ever read or been in a professional development about differentiation, chances are you know the name Carol Ann Tomlinson. She is one of the most well-known authors in the field of adjusting classroom instruction to meet the needs of varied students. In this small solo effort, Tomlinson describes a bit of her reasoning behind differentiation, but focuses most of the book on actual tips that can be taken into the classroom, particularly for those new to the concept of differentiation.

The book is broken down into chapters that provide insight on the process, how to talk to parents about differentiation, classroom management (particularly important due to the fact that not all students will be doing the same thing at the same time), ideas for beginning differentiation, and breaking down what differentiation looks like within the classroom. All of the advice is practical and usable immediately. The ending sections of the book provide ideas and starter hints for taking a boring, one-size-fits-all lesson, and giving it some zing. Anyone looking for ideas on how to take what was mentioned in a one hour session and turn into a living, breathing part of their everyday instruction can find a lot of what they need within this book.

Differentiation is easy to start, but it will take years to master. Even those who are quite good at finding ways to engage students on their level and in their learning preference will find new ideas in How to Differentiate Instruction. There is an unsaid challenge in this book to really look critically at what you do in the classroom. Could you increase student involvement? Can you allow for a varied product? Are you just giving "busy work" to fast finishers when there is so much more to do? This book definitely gets you thinking, unless you are completely cold to the idea of changing how you teach.

I admit, I'm sold on Tomlinson's ideas, so my feelings towards this book are quite positive. However, even if you are leery of going knee-deep in differentiation (you should, though--the water is fine!), there are ideas you can take away from this book. I think it belongs on the bookshelf of every teacher.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Irish Short Story Week Day 1: Oscar Wilde

I'm participating in the Irish Short Story Week, hosted by The Reading Life. Go see this great idea at its source!

While I know that the King of Irish short stories is James Joyce, I felt like if I was only going to have time to maybe do one of these posts, I wanted it to be Ireland's Court Jester of short stories, Oscar Wilde.

Wilde is one of my favorite authors, though I've read precious little of his work. What I have read, however, is spectacular, taking barbs at the society of his day, all while living a life that he had to hide. When his private life tumbled out into the public scene, he was ruined, jailed, and ridiculed. Not one of England's finest hours.

I love Wilde's playful side, which is why I of course chose one of his most serious and religious fairy tales as my short story selection. As we'll see, however, The Selfish Giant still shines with the flourishes of a man at home with words.

For those who want to play along, you can read The Selfish Giant online here. It's legal to do so, and won't take you very long. Even those who aren't keen on reading by screen should be able to manage it. I'll wait till you get back, playing with one of the children in the story.

Back? Good. These kids were starting to tire me out!

The first thing that really jumps out at me is the subtle Christianity of the story, which only comes into focus as the story nears its end. I don't tend to associate Wilde with being a Christian, though I have no particular reason to doubt his faith. Here he shows that you can make a religious story without beating people over the head with the idea of faith. Once our titular giant learns to love his brothers and sisters, he is ready for his heavenly reward. It's a touching way to end the story and even if you are not of the faith, the lesson is clear: Good deeds get rewarded.

What makes the story work for me, however, are the little touches. Wilde's personification of everything from the trees to hail are performed in short, funny strokes that are easy to picture in your mind. (My personal favorite is thinking about Hail, all made up of little stones, running around the garden after dancing on the giant's roof.) Sarcastic lines slip in (the giant is of limited conversation--he can only talk for seven straight years) but they do not keep the overall feeling of the work from being darkened by their barbs. Even the descriptions of the winter menaces are gentle, evoking more of a Disney imagery rather than, say, the angular work of Chuck Jones.

It's the overall story, however, that makes this one notable to me. It's clear that Wilde wants us to think about the haves and the have nots in our own world, and the Biblical instructions to help those who have nothing. Wilde was not blind to the rampant inequalities of his age (which are eerily similar to our own today), and he wants his adult readers to think about how they might be as selfish as the giant in their own lives. I'm sure Ireland's position compared to England had a bit to do with the story's moral as well.

In the end, we have a great tale that works as a fairy tale, a Christian story of charity, and a social commentary. As a bonus, the story is gentle enough for kids but with lines that will make an adult smirk and give readers of all ages something to think about. Wilde does this within just a few pages, making it all the more amazing. As with Shakespeare's plays or Jon Stewart, it can take a Jester to bring the truth to light.

Take that, James Joyce!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Irish Short Story Event Hosted by The Reading Life

Hard to believe with a name like mine, I know, but I'm actually only just a bit Irish. However, you can be sure I'll be sporting some green on March 17th, and not just the usual $6 in George Washingtons I keep in my wallet just in case I need actual cash.

St. Patrick's Day is generally associated with drunkeness, and I've tended to hate the day ever since I started having to share a bus with people who begin taking beverages before sunup and seem to be set on annoying the crap out of anyone sober within a twenty foot radius. In recent years, I've barely bothered to note the day, other than a casual clothing nod.

That's why I was so happy to see that Mel of The Reading Life put together a celebration of Irish short story writers for this week. Calling it "Irish Short Story Week," the event will run from March 14th to the 20th, primarily on her blog, but anyone else is welcome to join in. The Book Stew will lurk out of its semi-hibernation (I just haven't read anything recently that made me want to jump up and write about it) and try to participate at least a few times this week with some thoughts on some short fiction written by Ireland's best.

Mel, of course, is going full court press, and you should definitely keep an eye on her site all this week for a lot of insightful commentary and links to Irish short stories. I like Mel's reading blog because she spends a lot of time looking at short fiction piece by piece, not as a larger collection. She's definitely someone to add to your RSS feeder after this week is over, if you haven't before.

Anyway, hope you have the luck of the Irish, put on your green this Thursday, and enjoy as I keep things short for the rest of the week! (Sorry, no pots of gold. They're on back order.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Adjust Your Set by Linda Stitt

It's been a long time since I tried to review a book of poetry, which I don't think was ever my strong suit. As a matter of fact, in 2010 I didn't even read a single book of poetry, so reviewing one would be impossible.

As regular readers know, I'm trying to change that here in 2011, with a goal of reading roughly at least one poetry book a month. I'm aided in this by my pile of random poetry books that I grabbed over the past few years. Whenever I found them for a few bucks here and there, I'd peek at a few pages and see if the lines looked interesting. If they did, they ended up in my shopping basket.

This is not the best way to get excellent poetry, as I've discovered. It does, however, expose you to some interesting books. Adjust Your Set is pretty typical of the three I've tried so far (one of which was terrible and I stopped reading it). There are some awesome poetical moments, but the overall feel is just too uneven to make it a keeper.

Linda Stitt is apparently an older poet who has a few books out prior to this one. At the point this book is collected, she's reflecting on her life and what it means to be an older woman in society. When she's doing this, the results are often quite insightful. She talks about how she's less interested in sex or how she lived her life according to the rules and that it didn't get her anywhere. Other poems discuss her ex-husband (who presumably left her for a younger woman) or coming to grips with the ravages of time.

The concepts are perfect fodder for poetry. The problem is that Stitt tries too often to force her ideas into rhyme schemes, which take the good idea and torture it like humans do with a cat and a laser pointer. Like the cat who can't ever catch the bobbing light, Stitt can't capture the right feel when the seriousness of the verse is undermined by the need to Seussify her thoughts. The rhymes work okay when it is simply a stanza-long idea, but anything longer than that loses me in the sing-song nature of the words.

That's a shame because her free verse is quite good. In a poem about being forced into technology by her children (My New Literacy), Stitt discusses how her very poetry becomes stuff in the act of making it conform to the new computer she can write on. "The Matricide" is far too heavy-handed for my taste, but in the free verse format, Stitt clearly shows she can make allusions via her verse (in this case, that humanity is killing Mother Earth).

"Artifact" is a good example of what I mean:

I was offered a paint-by-the-numbers life
of circumscribed colours and designs,
with traditional patterns, nice and neat,
but I couldn't stay within the lines.

So I scribbled outside my social class,
my duties as mother and wife,
and I scrawled my name on experience.
It may not be art, but it's my life.

And often it stirs me into the crowd
and sometimes it sets me far apart.
It spatters my sense with splashes of bliss
and dashes love's pigments into my heart
and I am quite content with this
untidy life, my artless art.

That's a great way of artistically saying you didn't quite fit the mold. Unfortunately, there are also poems like "Forewarning" which starts thusly:

Look away from beauty,
beauty is to fear.
Beauty grabs you by the heart
and hauls you over here.
Beauty grabs you by the gut
and hurls you over there;
beauty shatters you to bits
and spreads you everywhere.

That seems like the chorus of a 1980s power ballad by a lesser hair-metal band, and the rest of the page-long poem doesn't get any better.

Overall, the good and bad match up roughly equally, making it hard for me to make a final judgment on this book. I think whether or not you'll be interested depends just how much you like rhymed poems. (I once knew a person who only liked rhymed verse, and considered anything else chopped up prose.) If you like or tolerate it, Adjust Your Set might be worth seeking out if you find a copy somewhere. If you are not a fan, then there's going to be too many pages you'll want to skip. I fall somewhere in-between. Adjust Your Set was good enough to finish, but I don't know that I'd actively look for more poems by Stitt.

Want to sample some of Adjust Your Set? A few preview pages are on Google Books.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hail, Hail, Euphoria! by Roy Blount Jr

I think it only fair to open this review by saying I have a strong bias in favor of the Marx Brothers. I never thought Karl was as funny as the rest of them, but it's much harder to get humor right in book form, so I think we can forgive him.

I've been Groucho Marx for Halloween, wooing a former girlfriend in his trademark patter and manic zaniness. I will shamelessly pick up any book I find to be affordable on the subject of this amazing comedy team that, if anything, had its best years in moments never captured on screen. Groucho died a little less than nine months before I was born, a fact I like to bandy about in mixed company. Though never when a food processor is involved, as I can't stand it when things get dicey. Give me hand-whisked company anytime.


Roy Blount, Jr. is also a Marx Brothers fan. How can any American humorist (note I did not say comedian) not be? As a frequent panelist on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, Blount is no stranger to making witty remarks that often border on the risque. This book is his love letter to the best of the Marx Brothers films, Duck Soup. Like any true fan, he lavishes praise on the film, perhaps going just a bit too far in places and leaving some lesser moments to hide while he talks about how good the movie it. That's okay, though. When the book's subtitle is "The Greatest War Movie Ever Made" you know you're not in for a critical analysis.

As a matter of fact, Euphoria! reads an awful lot like a person live-blogging the movie, only with unlimited time to add in notes and asides and a bit of additional research. I don't mean that as a bad thing, but it's the best way to describe the way Blount approaches the subject. After a brief introduction to why he has such an attachment to the film, Blount then proceeds to put the movie on his computer and write out his thoughts as the story unfolds before him. He encourages readers to do the same, but I don't need to. Duck Soup is a movie that is indelibly burned into my brain with about a 90% accuracy.

The style of writing has some awkward moments, like when Blount pretends to be talking to one of the Marx Brothers. The boys' banter needs to be read aloud to work, and when Blount tries it on the page, the whole thing falls flat. There's also a definite lack of criticism going on here, which is okay once you understand that this book is a love letter, not a history. Rather ironically, unlike the layered nature of Marx anarchy, this book is quite straightforward. Blount thinks this movie is awesome (and he's right!), and this book is going to tell you why.

Unfortunately, I think in his desire to talk about how damned funny this movie is, Blount misses the chance to also show that Duck Soup has a lot of political commentary in it as well. Think about the premise: A rich widow uses her money to buy a new leader for the country, who is absolutely and completely corrupt. The leader does nothing to help the country, and ends up getting it embroiled in a war, which seems like fun until the shooting starts. Sounds all too plausible, doesn't it?

And hey, what about the way this movie sends up the other movies of its day, culminating in a huge musical number that butchers every possible genre of song it can? The mock patriotism? The idea that many small states run by dictators end up embroiling their citizens in needless conflict? You can easily take any one of these ideas and run with them, all harping (no pun intended) on the idea that the completely chaotic Marx Brothers, when at their best, are tearing down the most serious parts of society. Karl would have been proud, had he lived to see them in action.

I really wish Blount had spent more time going over some of these ideas. If they do come up, it's like Blount is afraid to talk about them, for fear of offending someone. That's this age for you--never say something that might make someone angry. Pointing out the money in politics angle might make some of his conservative readers angry, so it can't be discussed. I'd love to know what Blount thinks about the subversive nature of Duck Soup, but alas, it's not to be. Groucho feared no one, or so it seemed. Blount apparently fears a lack of sales.

Perhaps I'm being too cranky about that omission, but to me the reason why this movie sings to my heart is because it's not just silly slapstick, verbal bantering, and watching the Brothers be mashers. This is the movie where they showed that comedy can be extremely subversive without being preachy. We don't get Jon Stewart without Duck Soup. It's a link that Blount misses, I think. It's also what makes this movie better than the rest of the Marx Brothers films, which tone down the tendency to destroy authority. Blount correctly notes that the Marxes will never again be this anarchic on screen, but I think he misses the true reason why: Comedy like this might just make people think.

But that's enough being serious! Let's talk about what Blount does well, which is describing why this comedy is so good. He correctly notes that it's one of the few 1930s comedies without dead spots, as the Marxes work their way across the screen at a frantic pace, with even the slow-burn set-ups having plenty going on to catch the viewer's eye. Descriptions of things like the Lemonade Stand, the Mirror Scene (always imitated, never duplicated), and the huge musical number towards the end are crafted with the loving care of a man who's watched this movie over and over again, and isn't ashamed to admit he's still noticing new things about the film, even after all this time. These moments are touching, and any Marx Brothers fan will find themselves nodding in agreement as Blount shows just how good these scenes were--and are, even today.

Where Blount really shines, however, is in the moments where he shares details about the making of the film itself. Duck Soup's creation will remind you of the adage about sausage. The original story was, quite frankly, crap. It would never have worked as a Marx Brothers vehicle. (Groucho as an arms dealing looking to start war and bloodshed? Give me a break!) Luckily, much of it was scrapped. As we "watch" the movie with Blount, he provides snippets, so we can see just how close we came to having a disaster rather than a classic.

Who made Duck Soup the movie we saw today? It's almost impossible to know for sure, if Blount's information is correct. Certainly there was ad-libbing from the Marxes, but after reading this it seems that director McCarey took some of the best ideas he used for W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy and adapted them for the insane four men he was trying to corral on the screen. It seems like this soup had an awful lot of cooks, and for once, it didn't spoil the broth.

Blount also provides a few asides about the Marxes, sprinkled in here and there as the story warrants it. Margaret Dumont is compared to the Marx Brothers' mother, for instance. There is a set of vignettes about McCarey to give us an idea of the type of person he is. Each brother has some story or the other shared, whether it's that Zeppo might have gotten himself killed had he not joined the act or that Groucho wasn't afraid to tell everyone about his own personal faults. Some of these were new to me, some were quite familiar. It shows that the Brothers at a certain point really did adapt the persona they used on stage, after awhile. The line between Julius and Groucho blurred somewhere along the way, and now pulling the two apart is as difficult as trying to recall why the youngest brother was called Zeppo, anyway.

Do any of these notes really have much to do with Duck Soup? Not particularly, but that's okay. This book is a long-distance conversation between friends sharing a passion together. Blount didn't write this book to get people to want to watch Duck Soup. He wrote it for people like me. He wrote it for people like my friends Drew and Bill, who once accidentally turned Duck Soup into a Rocky Horror audience participation experience, performing the lines and songs from our seats without even knowing at first that we'd done it. (Best of all? The crowd in the packed theater loved it, and not a single person told us to stop.) He wrote it for the Roys, the Robs, the Drews, and the Bills, who are taken to see this movie at an art theater and fall in love, generation by generation, with this amazing film.

Duck Soup may not be the greatest war movie ever made, but for me it's certainly the best. Any fan of the Marx Brothers owes it to themselves to join Blount here in celebrating it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses by Anne Trubek

Continuing my look at the quirkier side of American life, I grabbed this book off the shelf from the library based on the title alone. I like to travel to historical places while on vacation, being the type of person who shed a tear at Samuel Clemens' grave and will detour out of the way to visit a museum, monument, or shrine to a person that was of interest to me at some point in my life.

In short, I'm basically the type of person that Trubek doesn't get, as she explains that to her, the idea of immortalizing a writer by keeping their dwelling in existence (often at great expense) is a baffling one. She wrote this book as a way to try and understand the appeal, paradoxically making pilgrimages to such varied places as the ruins of Jack London's safe from everything save fire house to the run down by extremely popular Hemingway home in Key West.

Thus, despite not being entirely fond of the idea, Trubek worked her way across the country over the years, talking to tourists, owners, tour guides, and cabbies about the places where writers came to lay their head, often for periods of time the writer themselves might have preferred to forget. Though the settings and promotion often change, there's a definite theme in these visits: A sense of artificiality and a desire to capture a time period when the world around the building has moved on.

In several of the cases, there is also a monetary consideration. Every city and town hopes to draw in tourism dollars from people like me, and spending tons of cash to create a tribute to a writer, actor, or other potential draw is often at the center of a rehabilitation plan. Sadly, as Trubek correctly notes, these bets often don't work. Running a historic house costs lots of money to keep it in shape, and there's always a gamble on their popularity. For every evergreen Twain or Thoreau, there's the forgotten Tom Wolfe or Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Heck, even Thoreau's benefactor Emerson is losing his luster. The game of historical roulette too often comes up on the wrong color, leaving communities with an aging responsibility that no one wants to abandon, because hey, who wants to be the guy or girl who gives up on history?

I found Trubek's argument to be an interesting one, even if I don't exactly buy into it. She is an English Professor with a PHD, and her level of knowledge is going to be vastly higher than that of the average American (or any other visitor) who is going to these historical sites. While she might find Hannibal's conversion into Twain's fictional world disturbing, I'm sure there are plenty of people who take their kids there and enjoy the chance to be in an environment that's almost a theme park. What is so wrong with that? Why is she disturbed by people who want to go to Walden Pond or like the idea of seeing the Alcott house emphasize the parts of her life with which they are most familiar? There is a tone here that smacks of elitism, as though these writers can only be appreciated by those with sufficient knowledge about the writers. Even those who have an undergraduate understanding of Hemingway--he's a lousy writer who dislikes women--are portrayed in a dismissive light, as though it's necessary to appreciate him to really be a student of American Literature. That attitude turned me off in several places, because I find intellectual elitism to be worse than thinking Two and a Half Men is a great comedy (though only just barely).

On the other hand, Trubek does bring up some great points. The money that is spent on keeping a house preserved could be used for other things, like bringing those author's works to schools or providing economic development that will actually build a community back up in a way that tourism cannot. (She's a veteran of at least two crumbling cities, and in the course of her work sees quite a few more.) It's hard for me to argue that several hundred thousand needs spent on a house Langston Hughes lived in for barely two years when the same city's school district keeps laying off teachers. Probably millions of dollars are spent on preserving the past while our present is falling apart. We're failing this generation's next great writers while trying to keep fragile, stale memorials up for a few thousand die-hards to visit periodically. I can see why Trubek thinks this is crazy, but I also admit that I'll never forget going to Elmira, New York, where we spent several hundred dollars visiting. It's a tricky balance. Who's to say which is right?

There's also the matter of the writer's personal feelings to be considered. Would Poe really want his Baltimore house of poverty kept around for people to gawk at? Hemingway's fourth wife did not want the places where they lived turned into museums--why should we ignore those wishes? Do we really honor these writers by focusing on where they lived rather than on what they wrote? And how do we pick and choose? Which of the many houses Poe frequented deserve documentation? Is there a residency requirement? Washington Irving slept here, so let's pay a million dollars to make sure it doesn't end up as a parking lot? Where do we draw the line of obscurity? Wouldn't a memorial park to aid the community do more than trying to keep an eyesore in the public eye?

Again, Trubek makes logical points, all while also admitting that there is a strong fascination with the cult of the writer, and being where they typed your favorite book or experienced a personal loss that stuck with them until their death and influenced all they wrote. Like the writers themselves, these historical locations are desperate to make their mark and put their stamp on history. Sometimes, that stamp conflicts with the one the writer wanted, but history is shaped by those who follow. A writer might want to be known for their favorite book, but nothing is going to change that Joan of Arc will only be read by the most dedicated Twain scholars while Tom Sawyer is liable to follow us all into eternity.

This is where I think Trubek runs into trouble. She's trying to fight against America's need to prove how valid our history and culture is. Whether it's a state-erected plaque or a set of plaster dinosaurs, communities are always trying to make themselves stand out. Festivals mark events that are really inconsequential, but to those 5,000 people (or even 500) who call that place home, don't dare try to take that event away from them. (You can pry the Houston Pumpkin Festival from Houston, PA's cold, dead hands, and I don't blame them one bit.) These author's homes, as long as the author can still find a place at Barnes and Noble, will be points of pride, both for the places where they exist and for the fans of those writers. It may be foolish, it may be a bad investment, but it's (perhaps misplaced) pride in the heritage that once lost, will never return.

In the end, writer's houses and other historical artifacts only have the value we give them. America likes having as much stuff as possible, whether it's a bigger DVD collection, model trains, or porcelain dolls. There's a desire to hold on to the past, simply because it is the past. That appeal varies form person to person. A skeptic like Trubek isn't going to feel anything when she steps on the same wooden beams as her favorite novelist. I admit that I do.

While there are certainly valid points in A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses, I don't think she's going to win the day anytime soon with her desire to de-commercialize some locations and de-commission others. Still, this is a fascinating look at the idea of viewing history from the eyes of a person who doesn't see it the same way that I do. Those who are interested in the idea of historical preservation will find a lot to chew on in this book, whether you agree with it or not. In the end, the debate over writers' houses is not all that different from the debate over their writing: Those involved in the discussion will often have to agree to disagree. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

United States of Americana by Kurt B. Reighley

I picked this one up because I love reading about the quirky side of America, and I had so much fun with Way Off the Road that I wanted to read more in that vein.

When I think of Americana, I think of things like Dinosaurland or the Zane Gray Museum, perhaps Sunday flee markets or people who square dance in the old barn. Things that can trace a line back to America's roots, even if those roots are as shallow at the 1950s.

Reighley has a completely different approach, as this book shows. Instead of talking about things that are genuinely old fashioned, he concentrates on modern people, mostly crafty businessmen or hipsters, trying to cash in by making the simple things of the world as expensive as possible. That means customized taxidermy, people who think they're getting back to nature by raising chickens in their urban backyard, and musicians who are copping the acts of those who came before.

Is it interesting? Certainly, when it's not reeking of pretension or overlooking the fact that "American" companies like Woolrich are using overseas labor and have been for decades now. Spending a lot of time on why hipsters buy boots that mimic those of the old miners just isn't my idea of Americana, let alone talking about people who think that canning is a way to get back to their roots.

There is a lot of talk in this book about the yearning of Americans to try and get back to the old days, from trying established brands to listening to vinyl to using older skin shows for modern entertainment. The problem that I have is that nothing here is organic for the people doing it. When a rock band decides to cover Johnny Cash or an old blues legend, they are taking someone else's sound, not playing the same sound they grew up with. Maybe I'm spoiled by growing up knowing people who actually were calling square dances or playing folk from day one, but calling these co-opters members of a "roots" movement just rubbed me the wrong way.

The number grows smaller every day, but there are still Americans who do things the way they used to, even when a WalMart is only a few miles away. Drive into Central Pennsylvania sometime, or northern Georgia. You'll find them. I'm sure they're in the Midwest, Southwest, and West, too, but I've never made it out that far. People who can because they can't easily afford store goods, not because it looks hip to have the jars in your fridge and freezer. People who do make their own belts or boots. People who sing like they were taught.

That's the book I wanted to read, and its' not Reighley's fault that he didn't write that book. It just saddens me a bit that a move back to simpler things involves so much money, based on what he describes in the text. I'm not saying we should all live in a simpler time--that ship sailed ages ago, if it even ever existed. What I am saying is that if we have to buy Americana, then we've lost it forever. And that, dear reader, would be a shame. It's a topic Reighley never talks about, and I think that's the biggest shortfall in this text. Ultimately, United States of Americana is more a book about how we try to buy the past instead of just recapturing it. I really hope we haven't come to that just yet, but I'm afraid it might be true.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Reading Goals for 2011

I know I'm a little late with this, but here are my five reading goals for the side of me that reads "book books" as I like to call the ones that don't feature a lot of drawings.

1) Read 60 books. I hit 55 last year, so here's a chance to extend that just a bit. A little over a book a week is going to be tight, but I think I can manage it with practice and the help of goals 2-5, as you'll see.

2) Read 10 poetry books. I used to read a lot of poetry, but that's fallen away the past few years. In fact, I didn't read a single poetry book in 2010. That realization made me sad, and that's why I'm including it here to make sure I don't do that again.

3) Make my 10 books about 1861 challenge. I challenged myself to read 100 Civil War books during this 150th anniversary, and I only did 2 of the 5 I planned for in 2010. So I really want to pick things up here in 2011. (Bonus challenge: Make the goal of 10 and then read the 3 books I missed in 2010.) That's another 1/6 of my reading right there. See how easy it is to hit 60?

4) Read 10 of my anthologies. I have a lot of anthologies. Time to read 'em! This is a good chance to see if any of those Best American titles (which I have a love-hate relationship with) are worth keeping.

5) Read 10 books published in either 2010 or 2011. I need to read more new books, and while I could just limit this to 2011 titles, I'd like to give myself a little extra room so that I'm able to better use the "new" section of the library.

These goals do stack, so I can read, say, a poetry anthology and have it count for both. However, regardless, I need to hit 60 books. Can I do it? Stay tuned! And while you're at it, tell me about your 2011 reading goals for the books that mostly have words.