Book Review: Some Writer

I am resisting the urge to say …. well … Ok … this is Some Book. Really, Some Writer is a fantastic non-fiction cross between picture book and biographical story that expertly weaves in the life of writer E.B. White with fantastic primary sources, often in the form of artistic collages.

Like many, I am sure, I know of White’s work as the author of the marvelous Charlotte’s Web. But I also remember reading The Trumpet of the Swan, and even Stuart Little, to my older sons as read-aloud books, and wondering at the inventive spirit of White’s stories. Some of the vocabulary and syntax always seemed a little more adult-like in the Swan and Stuart, but I never felt that way with Charlotte’s Web.

White, of course, made his name not just as a children’s novelist, but as a writer in the New Yorker magazine, where he wrote funny small pieces and sketches of characters and places for decades. My first encounter with White beyond my own childhood reading of Charlotte’s Web was Strunk & White’s famous Elements of Style book, which is sort of a bible for writers. I wanted to be a writer, so it became a regular reading.

In Some Writer, Melissa Sweet has not just done her homework, but she has brought White’s words and experiences to life in a book that should appeal to readers of any age. From White’s life-long journal entries, we find a curious and funny soul, noticing the world through attentive eyes. We find drafts of stories (including a fascinating series of drafts of the first lines of Charlotte’s Web, where White struggled to write the perfect opening).

It’s another in a line of new non-fiction that shows just how creative one can get with telling a story of another’s life, and here, Sweet’s gentle guiding voice and collages do just that. It’s a lovely reading experience.

Peace (written on the Web),
Kevin

 

If the Web is the City, Are Apps the Gated Suburbs?

I’ve recently read, with interest, a book by Virginia Heffernan entitled Magic and Loss: The Internet As Art, and it seems to mesh quite nicely with some of the exploration that had been done in the Networked Narratives experiment. As the title suggests, Heffernan proposes that we view the Internet itself as a huge canvas of realistic art, and then she dives into elements like design, text, images and more to explore these ideas through a networked lens.

In the chapter on Design, she notes that because the Web is both a commercial space and a collaborative space, it has become a messy sprawl of links, images, advertisements, and more. As a result, the experience of many users is far from ideal.

“The Web is haphazardly planned. Its public spaces are mobbed, and urban decay abounds in broken links, ghost town sites, and abandoned projects. Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary. Bullies, hucksters and trolls roam the streets. An entrenched population of rowdy, polyglot rabble dominates major sites.” — Magic and Loss, page 45

Heffernan then goes on to develop the metaphorical supposition that this messy reality of the Internet gave rise to the closed and contained experience of Apps, which pulled us away from the Internet and created a sort of Gated Community. She talks about this as the “online equivalent of white flight.”

“The parallels between what happened to Chicago, Detroit, and new York in the twentieth century and what happened to the Internet since the introduction of the (Apple) App Store are striking.” — Magic and Loss, page 45

Is this true? Does the metaphor hold?

I guess I had never really considered the connections but she raises some intriguing points. So, as we talked about the nature of “civic imagination” in Networked Narratives and built our own “Arganee World,” we also considered what we meant by public spaces. A further point of discussion might have been how to “design elements” can play a larger role in the permanence of online spaces, and is connected directly to how much a user invests in the experience.

I guess one of the larger questions remains: What do we give up when we move into any gated community? What do we trade for our security? There is a certain beauty in the chaotic mess of the Internet — the expected discovery or connection — as well as some real ugliness — trolls and negative comments and attacks — and we cede some authority to app developers when we move into the app on our mobile device.

During one summer’s CLMOOC, we explored the idea of the Internet as Public Sphere. I wrote about it here and here and here.

Peace (in all spaces),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Anatomy of a Song

Here’s a book that hit a number of buttons for me. It’s about music. It’s about songwriting. It’s an oral history project. It’s an inside look at how creative people are creative. Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits by Marc Meyers is apparently a riff off a Wall Street Journal column he wrote, diving deep into songwriting by interviewing the writers, producers, engineers and musicians behind some iconic music. (I didn’t know WSJ had a music column, did you?)

I really enjoyed Meyer’s approach here, as he brings the voices behind the scenes up in the mix, so to speak. I knew most of the songs, but not all, and he stops at REM’s Losing My Religion, arguing that 25 years have to go by before one really knows if a song reaches iconic status. I’m fine with that.

It’s intriguing to hear the stories behind the songs, of where the inspirational lines may have come from or where the melody or harmony originated, and the process that goes into the writing, recording and engineering of songs that become the soundtrack of our lives.

Anatomy of a Song covers quite a bit of ground — there are 45 chapters, sort of like a 45 spinning on your old record player — from Lawdy Miss Clawdy by Lloyd Price to You Really Got Me by the Kinks to The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff to Heart of Glass by Blondie to Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper and more. You might quibble with his selection, but I didn’t mind.

Peace (inside the songs of our lives),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Spill Zone

It’s a strange world that Scott Westerfeld and illustrator Alex Puvilland have envisioned in Spill Zone. Something tragic has happened. Something so immense and unfathomable that whole cities are evacuated and left to ruin. But what exactly happened? If Westerfeld knows, he’s not telling. Not yet anyway.

The graphic novel, Spill Zone, is a fascinating entry into the world gone awry, as our teen heroine, Addison, seeks to make enough money to survive, and to protect her younger sister, who was caught in the midst of the catastrophic meltdown or explosion or whatever it was when it happened and now, she is strangely silent. Her doll, though, is even stranger, communicating to the sister in some form of mind-melding that hints at something larger unfolding.

The doll needs to recharge so periodically in the spill zone. When Addison goes back to the devastated city on her motorcycle, where she takes photographs of the strange new world to sell, the doll comes for a ride, too. The doll is an indication of something really strange happening.

The story here revolves around a business offer that Addison can’t refuse, although she should refuse it. The work brings her deeper into the city than she would normally allow herself to go — right into the heart of the very hospital where her parents were working when the catastrophe hit, and died (as far as we know) — and then, even weirder things happen as Addison makes her escape.

Spill Zone is the first book in a series (which I think played out as a comic, too) and my middle school son and I were both hooked. But, a word of caution: this is aimed more for high school readers and older, due to some language and content.

Peace (strange, indeed),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Stone Heart (The Nameless City)

You know a book has captivated your attention when you find yourself on the edge of your seat, wondering what will happen next, and then stare for a long time at the cliffhanger at the last page. Such was the case with the second book in The Nameless City trilogy by Faith Erin Hicks entitled The Stone Heart. (I wrote about the first book — The Nameless City — here).

Hicks has tapped into the very elements that make graphic novels so special to read and experience — using her artwork, historical research and development of characters, Hicks has created an imaginary world (based on Ancient China and the Silk Road) that feels alive and real. The artwork is really exquisite and detailed. Reaching the end of The Stone Heart is a disappointment but only because Hicks is still working on the third, and final, installment of the story.

Now we have to wait …

And what is this story? A city of mixed tribes and people that has two potential paths — war and conquest, or peaceful transition in which all tribes determine the future. For now, war has won out, or the prospect of war, and our two main protagonists — Rat, an orphan girl raised by monks in the Nameless City, and Kaidu, son of a Dao warrior — are faced with a dangerous task that may shape the Nameless City for years to come.

The mysterious backdrop to the story is a past people — the ones who first built The Nameless City and whose reign mysteriously came to an end  — and a hidden book that contains a power of great destruction, a book once protected by monnks that has now fallen into the hands of a young leader who has killed his father in order to ascend to power. He believes the book will forge his way forward. Others, like Kaidu and Rat, understand that the book was hidden for a reason and fear what it may unleash on the world.

The Stone Heart is an adventurous book that stays true to its historical (if fictional) roots of Asian culture. It continues the magic of the first book, and I am hopeful Hicks will bring the overarching story to a close with the third book with all the elements that has kept me reading (as well as my middle school son). The Nameless City series is appropriate for upper elementary, middle and high school students, with some violence as part of the plot of palace intrigue.

Peace (hoping),
Kevin

Book Review: The Poet’s Dog

The title is what caught my attention: The Poet’s Dog. Poetry. Dog. Book. I’m in.

But it was the story that kept me reading, devouring this short but sweet story in one sitting, and wanting to read it again. Then I realized that the author, Patricia MacLaughlan, lives in the town right next to mine, and I felt an even deeper connection. (I admit: I have not read her other books that have brought her much attention, including her novel Sarah: Plain and Tall.)

The Poet’s Dog has beautiful prose, with whispers of poetry everywhere, as the story explores the notion that dogs can talk to children, and to poets — both of whom have open ears and open hearts to the world. Here, a dog saves two children in a winter storm, and then the children save the dog from his sorrow, and in-between, we learn the real story of Teddy, the dog.

There are no wasted words in MacLaughlan’s book. Each sentence, each piece of narrative, is there for a reason, and I found myself in the poet’s house, huddled up amid the fierce winter storm, as the dog and children become part of each other’s lives with words and love. The ending, too, is very satisfying, if not too surprising, allowing us a glimpse into the kindness of the world, and the possibilities of poetry.

Dogs. Poets. Kids. Kindness. What’s not to love about all that?

Peace (after the storm),
Kevin

Book Review: Book Scavenger

Now, here’s a book with a cool story (and perfectly suited for read-aloud, as I did with my son) that comes with a perfect activity for all of us book-loving, game-loving fools of the world. Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is a mystery story of sorts, as our protagonist, Emily, must solve a series of puzzles, found in books, to solve a larger mystery of a game set across the city of San Francisco. It all begins and centers on Edgar Allen Poe, but that’s about all I will say, so as not to give anything away.

Suffice it to say that Bertman has infused her novel with a love of books on many levels, with allusions all over the place to much-loved classics, and established Emily Crane as a heartfelt character. Her family moves .. a lot. Her parents aim to live in all 50 states, and then write a book about it (they already blog about it), and so Emily (age 12) never connects with other kids her age. She knows it is all temporary.

But James, a boy whose family owns the house where Emily’s family rents, is the first kid whose love of puzzles and challenges draws her into an unexpected friendship, as both kids try their hand at Book Scavenger, a website where people hide books and others find them, and collect points. Garrison Griswold, publisher and creator of Book Scavenger, has set in motion a new game, but then falls victim to a subway attack. Emily finds one clue and then game begins… and the story twists and turns, full of cryptic notes and odd discoveries.

Although Book Scavenger, the game and website, is part of a fictional novel, Bertman (and no doubt, her publisher) have created a real-life Book Scavenger site, where you can hide books and track the progress of those books being found. My son was very interested in this literary hide-and-seek game, and I am sure we will be doing some book hiding in our part of Western Massachusetts. Of course, we hope others in our area have read the book and followed the path to the website. (And you can track activity via the #bookscavenger hashtag on Twitter)

Now, the question is: what book shall we hide? And where?

Peace (hidden but in plain view),
Kevin

Book Review: Best American Non-Required Reading 2016

One “count on me reading it” book is often the latest edition of The Best American Non-Required Reading collection for a number of reasons:

  • I can often read pieces I missed during the year from publications like the Iowa Review or Granta or various chapbooks that would likely never be in my radar;
  • The collection is always curated by high school students from California and Michigan as part of the 826 Valencia (an organization started by Dave Eggers) and proceeds from the book purchase support the literacy work of the organization;
  • There is always a cool mix of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and comics, and other assorted odds and ends, and that mix is right up my alley as a reader.

While Eggers has mostly moved on from this project (yet still has his hand in the mix, I think), the venture remains in solid hands, and the high school students who spend a year as curators of material makes it always worth a look because it provides some insight into what is deemed important and interesting to at least one group of young literacy buffs.

The 2016 edition of Best American Non-Required Reading has the expected wide range of pieces, from an oral history of a Palestinian refugee’s life story to the conception of an amazing collection of mostly forgotten bird taxidermies on display in Iowa to the graphic story of a homeless man that shows the cyclical nature of despair to a studied history of the Black Lives Matter movement. There are always a few pieces that I skim through, but that’s to be expected in a collection like this.

Overall, I trust the judgment of the high school curators, and each year, my trust is rewarded with an enriching reading experience. This collection is no different.

Peace (read it and write it),
Kevin

Book Review: The Daily Show (The Book – An Oral History)

 

There was a time when my wife and I were regular viewers of The Daily Show … and then we weren’t. It had nothing to do with not liking Jon Stewart and his show — we did — but more that we didn’t want to pay a cable television bill that included the Comedy Central package. And then we had YouTube, made for our short attention spans and social media sharing.

But I always admired how Stewart and his crew battled the bulls$#t of politics, and brought a fairly progressive voice to the mix. This new book — The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History — is my kind of book (I am a big fan of oral histories), showing the genesis of Stewart’s vision for the show over the years as he found his voice (after taking over from Craig Kilborn) and how he used it with wit and smarts, shaping the way we talk about politics and share political rants and think about how the media plays a role in how we talk about politics.

Is that a good thing? Yes, and maybe no. “Yes,” in that the show made visible how a media outlet might respond to the “message” coming out of Washington. Reading over the Bush years and the wars it led us into, and how The Daily Show responded … it’s a reminder of how the Washington establishment at the time really dictated a message that most media outlets bought, hook-line-sinker.  And “No,” in that we may have put too much weight in Stewart himself to be the “voice of reason” from the progressive arena, and where did that take us? Right into Trump. (I’m not blaming Stewart for Trump, although that might make for a funny bit on the show.) Trump seems able to harness the worst but most effect elements of Daily Show-isms to create .. Trump Inc. (The fact that Trump hates Stewart is another reason to like Stewart).

This oral history book is comprised of a multitude of interviews from many of the people who worked on the show over the years, and Stewart himself. Ignoring some of the soap opera elements that come with any television production (romance, debauchery, conflicted vision), the most insightful elements for me was how attuned Stewart was to creating something that was comedic and serious, and with a message that would cut the heart of a truth (which might be variable, depending on your political lens). Hearing the “voices” of writers and producers and researchers, and many more from behind the scenes, gives power to the idea of how something comes into being over time.

David Remnick, in a piece about Stewart before he left The Daily Show, praised Stewart for “punching up” — for taking on those who were in political power and being unafraid to show fire and anger and zeal, and to hold Washington somewhat accountable.

I really liked The Daily Show (The Book), and The Daily Show itself. It’s fingerprints are all over television and social media, and the ways we use satire and humor. But I haven’t even seen anything with Trevor Noah as host of the show since Stewart left. Have you? Is he any good?

Peace (each day),
Kevin

Book Review: Al Capone Shines My Shoes

Al Capone Shines My Shoes the second in a series of three books (so far) by writer Gennifer Choldenko in which our protagonist, 12-year-old Moose Flanagan, is living on Alcatraz Island with his family. His father is a prison guard there, and Chodenko uses this closed community setting (with a prison filled with violent criminals) as an intriguing backdrop for Moose and his family and friends.

There a nice mix of humor, and insights about growing up, as well as prison intrigue, particularly when Moose and his friends have to stop a breakout attempt with their wits alone. But what sets this book, and the last one (Al Capone Does My Shirts) apart for me (and my son) is how Moose interacts with his sister, Natalie, who has autism during a time when autistic children were often sent to live “away” at state hospitals. Natalie is crucial to the plot from so many angles, and Choldenko treats her with respect even as the quirkiness of her autism makes her different from those around her.

Much of what Moose does in the story is hinged on protecting Natalie, including an ongoing and uncomfortable interaction with the most famous convict behind bars — Al Capone. I won’t give things away, but Choldenko does a nice job of not giving us too much Capone. What we see in Capone is both dangerous and curious, and Moose himself knows he is out of his league with something that started in the first book and continues as a thread here, with hints for the third book.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes is a perfect read for a middle school student, with rich characters and even richer setting. My son and I — we read it as a rad-aloud — are looking forward to her third book: Al Capone Does My Homework.

Peace (breaking in),
Kevin