Book Review: Switched On Pop (How Popular Music Works and Why It Matters)

Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding are music nerd friends who host an interesting podcast — Switched on Pop — that became the anchor for this book of the same name. In it, Sloan and Harding dive into pop music to figure out what makes songs and styles tick. In doing so, they brilliantly bring us deeper into tracks and showcase things you might intuit as a listener but not have the vocabulary or expertise to completely understand.

This book — Switched On Pop: How Popular Music Works and Why It Matters —  is fantastic in this regard, and Sloan and Harding make a perfect set of tour guides, being both ecstatic about the songwriting and production moves they uncover as well as pointing out the tropes that have long been hallmarks of pop music culture, whatever the decade.

Starting with an analysis of Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe, to Outkast’s use of unusual rhythms in Hey Ya; to the use of voice and timbre by Sia in Chandelier to Justin Timberlake’s use of “text painting” in What Goes Around; to samples as collage by MIA in Paper Planes to a comparison of two song with the same titles — Made in America — the Toby Keith version side by side with the Jay Z/Kanye West/Frank Ocean version … the paths of this book are varied and deep.

They reference Swedish producer Max Martin numerous times — he is the one who has crafted songs over the last decade or more for Brittney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift and many more — and while the writers note how often Martin seems to fall into tropes, he also is adept at adapting to the changes of production and sound and song types, transforming the way pop music is made and heard. A brilliant essay here shows how Maps by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs was used by Martin to create Since You’ve Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson.

The book ends with a look at one of Paul McCartney’s strangest releases in recent years called Get Enough, which weaves Auto-tune and modern sounds with some old fashioned instruments and McCartney’s ability to craft another “silly love song” for the modern age.

If you are a songwriting (as I am) or love music (as I do), this book is well worth your time. I highly recommend it, if only to give you another way to “hear” the songs that make up the musical landscape of radio (remember that?) and YouTube and culture.

Peace (harmony and melody).
Kevin

Collections of Covers (Animated Book Covers)

Covers from Henning M. Lederer on Vimeo.

I just wanted to share these out because they intrigued me, for my love of books and my love of animation and my appreciation for any artist who remixes what’s already there into something new.

More Covers from Henning M. Lederer on Vimeo.

The animation is by Henning M. Lederer, who has so far created three videos of animated book covers.

Even More Covers from Henning M. Lederer on Vimeo.

And I wonder: how could I do a version of this? How about my students? Hmm.

Peace

 

Book Review: World of Wonders (In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments)

If beautiful words were shimmers of light, this book would be luminescent. Maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole on my part for Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s book, World of Wonders (In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments), but some of these chapters just sing with poetry and such insight, as Nezhukumatathil explores her own life with connections to the Natural World, that I could barely put the book down.

(Perhaps this is also because I had recently finished with the Write Out Project or because the political landscape required some respite into something more lovely than my news feeds.)

Nezhukumatathil’s explorations into such plants and creatures as Dragon Fruit, Comb Jellies, Narwhals, Dancing Frogs, Whale Sharks, Cara Cara Oranges, and more — all situated in ways that make connections to her life as young Indian-American girl of immigrant parents, and then as academic, as wife, and then as mother — are so effective at times, it often takes the reader’s breath away.

Not every piece in this collection is a home run — some feel a bit like a stretch as she works to make connections — but when the writing works, well, wow. Her writing flows so beautifully off the page, and you can tell she is also a poet of insight.

There’s an underlying theme of acceptance running through each of the pieces of the strange in the world, of bringing that curiosity into our daily lives through inquiry and forgiveness, of understanding our places as people in the world that is larger and more diverse than we may ever truly know.

Nezhukumatathil opens and ends with stories of fireflies, and in her last chapter, she notes how many of her students that she works with not only hadn’t seen fireflies, but didn’t believe her that they even existed. And they live in places where a walk to the edge of the neighborhood would have revealed more magic than the video games and movies they were spending their time watching.

Nezhukumatathil is careful not to judge these children of the modern age (and maybe, us, too), but she is effective in sensing the things we are losing when we lose touch with the Natural World. And in reminding us to go outside and look for the magic.

Peace (seeking it at night),
Kevin

Book Review: The Poetry of Strangers

Brian Sonia-Wallace hit the streets with a manual typewriter to see what poems he could write for other people, and quickly found his calling. In The Poetry of Strangers, Sonia-Wallace recounts his years as a street-corner poet, typing out verse for anyone who “needs a poem,” as he asks those who come to him.

Part of it was an experiment, to see if he could spend a month as a street poet, earning enough in donations in a month to survive, and part of it was making connections with other people, to allow them space to tell their stories to him, the poet filter, who then would gift them with a poem.

The book recounts his journey, and while there are some sections that veer off the trail of his main theme, the book is a nice companion to stories of groups like Typewriter Rodeo, and suggest that bringing old typewriters into public spaces might touch an emotional core to many of us. And that he is able to both leverage poetry and elevate language to anyone with an interest is exciting for us writers, and suggests possibilities for poetry.

While I enjoyed his tales of where his talent has taken him (from streets of many cities in America to corporate functions to political campaigns and more), what I found to be most powerful was his insights into people, who yearn to be heard in the age of digital noise. Some of the most emotional moments, he notes, are in the conversations he has with people before he writes them their poem, where they share parts of themselves with a stranger/writer/poet, who then recasts that story in verse, and hands it over.

He ends his book with this:

With every poem I write, I remember the value of a story doesn’t always depend on how many likes or retweets it gets, or how many people it reaches. Sometimes, just one person hearing a story — is enough. — from The Poetry of Strangers, by Brian Sonia-Wallace, page 286

Peace (in poems),
Kevin

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (The Deep End)

I’m pretty sure, somewhere, in the past posts at this blog, there are fourteen other reviews of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid collection, starting with the very first one published 15 years year ago. I bought it for my eldest son; we read it together; we laughed at the hijinks; we bought the second one the following year. And so on and so on and so on, as each of my three boys grew up, we read the books each November.

Now my eldest son’s an adult, away from home, and my youngest is in high school, and still, I buy the latest Wimpy Kid book each November like clockwork. For a time, I did it because my students were still reading the series, and I am always trying to stay attuned to their interests. But I asked around the classes the other day, and no one said they were buying the new book, nor did many even know Kinney was still publishing them.

But I bought the newest one anyway, mostly out of habit, but also, because Kinney’s visual style and humor storytelling still makes me giggle at times, and who can beat that, really? Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Deep End, the 15th book, is classic Wimpy Kid, although the opening scenes in which the family is stuck at home, isolated and going batty, suggests the social distancing of the Pandemic in an inferential way (not outright), as Kinney seems to be acknowledging the world beyond the book, and the lives of his readers.

Then, the story moves on, with Greg Heffley and his family hitting the road in an RV to go on a vacation trip, and as usual, all sorts of craziness begins to take hold as they visit different vacation stops, each progressively getting more nutty, with flare guns in National Forests, a wandering skunk, inner tube disasters, sewage tank problems, etc.

The “deep end” of the title refers to both the swimming pool that sets the scene for the final section of the book, in which the family’s fun at an RV camp pool leads to their RV going into the river and heading downstream fast, and the going off the “deep end” is Greg’s observation of his own situation of losing it. As per normal.

There are narrative consistencies that Kinney keeps anchored on throughout the series, right from the start — family, resilience, humor — and the fact that Greg is still a middle schooler after 15 years and 15 books might give one pause, until you realize that middle schoolers have the best and worst views of the world, and that makes them a perfect foil for a comedy series like The Wimpy Kid.

Looking forward to next November …

Peace (laughing along),
Kevin

Book Review: Ghosts of Greenglass House

Like the first book in this series by Kate Milford, Ghosts of Greenglass House slowly unfolds into a dense and multi-faceted story, and the reader’s patience is rewarded. At the heart of the Greenglass House stories is Milo, a 13-year-old boy whose keen eye and attention to detail helps to solve a mystery unfolding in his adopted parents’ hotel — The Greenglass House.

Milo, with help of a ghost companion, Meddy, is friends with two smugglers, who arrive in the dead of night to kick off the story, as they tell a tale of a botched robbery. Then, a group of visitors from a nearby isolated community — a safe haven place — arrive as part of a holiday tradition, but someone in their midst is a criminal mastermind. In fact, it is soon apparent that the hotel has become a sort of den of thieves.

The story then settles into a ghost story/locked room mystery, as Milo seeks to discover who is hiding who they are, and locate pieces of what could be a very interesting map of the community of Nagspeak where they live — a place full of epic stories of pirates and plunder and criminals, and a geographic conundrum where islands and waterways shift so much that a regular map is useless.

The casual reader, particularly if you have not first read The Greenglass House, might be confused by all these threads, but Milford rewards patience by the end, as Milo’s intriguing sense of deduction and reliance on his ghost friend, Meddy, solves the mystery, and more.

This is an interesting tale, aimed at middle and high school readers who love a solid mystery whose pieces only fit together by the end, and the house itself — with its amazing glass art windows and hidden spaces — is a fine setting for such a tale. Milo, also, is complex as a character, grappling with his biological past — his Asian roots means he stands out in the school and town where he lives — even as his adoptive parents show love and grace, always.

Peace (tinted and reflected),
Kevin

Picture Book Review: 16 Words (William Carlos Williams and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’)

“Williams saw poetry in his patient’s lives.” — from Author’s Note, 16 Words, by Lisa Rogers and Chuck Groenink

Of course, I know the poem, the famous short verse about the red wheelbarrow, the rain and the white chickens. You probably do, too. What I didn’t know was who poet William Carlos Williams was — in fact, I didn’t know he was a doctor who scribbled poems on his way to patients or typed out verse in between appointments.

And I didn’t know the poem that made him most famous (along with his apology poem to his wife for eating her plumbs) was inspired by a neighbor, friend, and patient — Thaddeus Marshall — from whose window Williams saw the wheelbarrow, the rain, the chickens.

We learn all this in 16 Words: William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow” picture book by writer Lisa Rogers and illustrator Chuck Groenink. I appreciate books about writers, and picture books in particular have a way of bringing us a bit closer to the people in focus. This book is written in beautiful minimal language (as befits the topic) and the illustrations are lovely, too, bringing us into the small community where Williams is a family doctor as he writes his poetry.

You can of course enjoy his poetry, not knowing much about him. Even Williams said he didn’t strive so much for deeper meaning but to capture the lives and world around him. We teachers may be overanalyzing his poems, but there is no doubt to his skill of minimal beauty — of the glimpses into what he saw, through short verse and descriptive language.

This picture book would be a perfect read aloud for any poetry unit, and a reminder that poets can be any of us, and all of us, if we just take time and attention to noticing what is around us.

Peace (and poems),
Kevin

Book Review: Duke (Dogs of World War II)

This is a book about a dog named Duke. I have a dog named Duke. How could I not read this? Kirby Larson’s novel for adolescent readers is less about Duke, however, and more about 11-year-old Hobie, who gives his dog up to support the effort in World War II, even as his father is flying Allied airplanes in Europe.

The Duke of Duke (Dogs of World War II) is a German Shepard, who comes home a hero, but not after Hobie regrets volunteering his dog for the war effort, particularly once he realizes that Duke and his new soldier friend are heading to the warfront in Asia. The novel follows Hobie as he grapples with the absence of his dog, and then his father, who is reported as a Prisoner of War, and helps his mother and sister at home.

The theme of the story emerges as things get worse before they get better and a kind uncle fills in as Hobie’s father-figure, as a well as the soldier whose life Duke eventually saves (and many more), letting Hobie figure out to be brave, and scared, all at the same time. Some side stories — such as the German immigrant family that moves into the neighborhood and the school bully who takes aim at Hobie — give depth to Hobie’s experiences as a fifth grader moving into sixth grade with uncertainty around him.

This book is a powerful narrative, aimed for upper elementary and middle school students, and if you have readers who love dogs and who are interested in World War 2, Duke is the book for them. Even my Duke approves.

Peace (among the heroes),
Kevin

Book Review: The Distance Learning Playbook

While I can’t say there is a lot of new thinking for me in The Distance Learning Playbook by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie, I can say that I appreciate the way the three of these respected educators have succinctly and structurally pulled together pedagogy ideas into the much-needed frame of a teaching shift into online learning.

My school district bought this book for the entire teaching staff, as some of us have started to teach with the Hybrid Model in the school and some of us (myself, included) are starting the year with Distance or Remote Learning before moving back into the building with students. All of us are grasping for ideas, strategies, and thinking on what teaching and learning looks like in the Pandemic.

At my school, we spent a few hours during one of our early Professional Development days, doing grade-level reading of the book and then jigsaw-sharing out with the entire staff. I then went back to the beginning of the playbook (since my grade level had a later chapter) and have read through it all, with appreciation.

Along with important information about community building, and teacher readiness and professionalism, and developing engaging tasks for online learning with fidelity and clarity, the later chapters around feedback and assessment in Distance Learning was helpful for my teacher brain. The book covers a lot of ground, but in a very approachable way, and it comes loaded with QR codes for about 50 videos of classroom teachers sharing experiences and strategies, and I still have to sit with the book and my phone to view them, but I appreciate knowing some teacher voices are in the mix.

There are also plenty of resources and charts and probing questions in each chapter, to allow for teacher self-reflection. In all, The Distance Learning Playbook helped me get my mind and my lesson planning ready for the first interactions with my new students, and is a resource I can turn to now and then for advice and strategies, and for that, I appreciate the authors and also, the leaders of my school district, for buying us the book.

Peace (distant but closing in ),
Kevin

Book Review: Keep Scrolling ‘Till You Feel Something

This book is a joke. I mean, you can’t even read the cover of Keep Scrolling ‘Til You Feel Something: Twenty-One Years of Humor from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency once you take the paper sleeve off. You have to hold the binding up to the light, and twist it a bit, just to realize, the entire thing … just a big fat joke. Sixteen books better than this one? Is that what it says? Only sixteen? ‘Cause I got a larger list going somewhere over here.

Skip over the 600+ pages of nonsense to read more about the contributing writers. Informative? Well, sort of, if you can get past all the insider jokey references to humor writers, about living in either New York or Hollywood, and a smorgasbord of deadpan verbiage. (say that last bit out loud in the voice of the Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef … now, THAT’s funny stuff) Even the final pages of Additional Contributors are a big joke. Email as someone to thank? I think not.

Then go on, go on and dig your way through the pages of this brick of a book. Don’t hurt yourself as you hold this behemoth of paper. It’s heft might hurt your wrists. Drop it on your foot and you’re for sure on a trip to the emergency room, signing away your life to the health care industry. I blame the editors.

Before you open the book up, though, it’s fair to ask: McSweeney? Who’s the heck is he? Or her? What’s that? You won’t find a good answer inside. Instead you get so-called Back Stories and Behind the Scenes malarky (I’m stealing that one back from Biden) that will provide little to no insight into McSweeney it/him/herself.

And just look at the writers here. Jake Tapper? Really? Are we to believe the lefty CNN guy is funny? Come on. Jake Tapper, who are you, really, anyway? Plus lots of names you never heard of. John Hodgman? Ellie Kemper? Mingled in with some people you may think you might have heard of once, but, you know, probably not. Given the joke that this book really is, the names are likely jokes, too. You could spend a few hours trying to crack the humor code, but why bother? You’re not going to laugh anyway.

It’s not that kind of joke book. The one that makes you laugh.

Last of all, why buy the book when all of this material is apparently online? For free. If you can find it. If you care to look. Yet the book costs a pretty penny, let me tell you, and the joke is on me, and you, if you spent your last penny on the purchase. At least, you won’t have to indulge again for another 21 years. If books are even around. Stories may be gone, too, for all we know.

Yep, Keep Scrolling ‘Til You Feel Something is a joke. And so is this review. I am full of malarky and loving it.

Peace (it’s in the book, next to the decorative gourds),
Kevin