Fancy Letters

Illuminated (artistic) Letters

We’re reading Book: My Autobiography, about the history of stories and books, and the concept of Illuminated Letters provides a nice path to doing some artwork, as students use their name initials to create a version of an “illuminated letter” from the Middle Ages.

Peace (coloring it in),
Kevin

Origins of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Stories

Choose Adventure Quote1

My friends Terry and Charlene both alerted me on Twitter about a New Yorker magazine article that explored the history of the Choose-Your-Own Adventure books that are at the heart of a unit of writing I teach that I call Interactive Fiction.

I appreciated the exploration and origin in the article, and how it was a father who was telling stories to his daughters, and then asked his daughters to give ideas for how a story might proceed, that led to the creation of the books that were very successful when they launched and still sell quite a few copies to this day, even though video games have mostly taken over its terrain.

I’ve run summer camps with a focus on Interactive Fiction, using various technology tools to help young writers explore second person narrative point of view and the branching of choices that these stories require. One summer, along with sharing student stories, I also shared out a series of tutorials that others can use, if it is helpful, with a focus on using Google Slides, InkleWriter and Twine. (And Charlene found the original book in which the writers share their advice to readers on how to emulate their book formats)

It’s interesting that the article in New Yorker tried to emulate the use of choices and paths, but since the magazine itself is paper (which is where I read it), it seems a bit odd to have choices, and then when I went to the online version, even there, the New Yorker did not make links to the paths through the article (which I think could have been easily done and given a content texturing to the piece).

Choose Adventure Quote2

Peace (on every path),
Kevin

Picture Book Review: The Boy Who Loved Maps

It’s been some time since I’ve picked up a new picture book (alas, my boys are older) but I saw The Boy Who Loved Maps (written by Kari Allen and illustrated by G. Brian Karas) and could not resist. Like the protagonist here, a young mapmaker, I love maps in all the ways they spark imagination and wondering.

In this book, the Mapmaker is visited by a girl, who becomes his new friend, and she asks him to draw a map of a special place, and as the two dance around what the place is that she wants to see charted out  — she describes her place in ways that he can’t get down on a map —  they become closer as friends, and end up where their mapping has taken them: home.

And both end up making the map together.

It’s a lovely story, infused with the magic and dreaming of maps, and Allen, at the end, has provided lots of resources for young mapmakers to make their own maps, with ideas and definitions, and after noting the inspiration for the book came from her own son’s mapmaking adventures — “…getting lost in all the little details” — she asks the reader: Do you want to be a mapmaker, too?

Yes.

What about you?

Peace (and picture books),
Kevin

Book Review: Things To Look Forward To

Sophie Blackall’s Things To Look Forward To (52 Large And Small Joys For Today And Every Day) has echoes of Ross Gay’s wonderful The Book Of Delights – the literary DNA of both books is to notice and appreciate the wonders around us, even if it all too often feels like chaos and confusion is winning the battle of the soul and the mind.

Here, Blackall gathers together 52 small moments that gives the reader a chance to breathe, and her illustrations alongside the writing — short texts, no more than a paragraph at times and no longer than a page or so at others — provide a sense of beauty and calm to this book.

It begins with “The Sun Coming Up” and then wanders through topics like “Listening To A Song You’ve Heard Before” and ends with “Seizing The Day.” Her writing is intimate, a portrait of a writer and artist taking notice of the world. The topics are calming, a reminder of how to center oneself in a world off kilter.

It was the kind of book I needed, just days before the start of a new school, and the kind of book you might gift a friend in need — as I did, sending a copy of Things To Look Forward to one of my best friends, whose family is dealing with a few issues that has unsettled them all.

I borrowed Blackall’s book from the library, but now realize, I may need to get my own copy, along with Gay’s book, too, and begin a little section on the bookcase for books that bring calm and clarity. A zen shelf, perhaps.

Peace (in the noticing),
Kevin

Book Review: Two Heads (A Graphic Exploration of How Our Brains Work With Other Brains)

Although not in an all similar in content or style, Two Heads (A Graphic Exploration Of How Our Brains Work With Other Brains) reminded me a bit of Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening for the way in which deep and difficult concepts are rendered more clear for a reader through the mix of text and graphic art.

unflattening_book_cover
Two Heads — written by Alex Frith with art by Daniel Locke, with ideas from Uta Frith and Chris Frith — explores the science of the brain itself, and the complex and intriguing ways that our brains work or don’t work, particularly in social situations, with other people in the mix. The graphics and the writing here are fun and engaging, even as the explanations are rather necessarily dense and complicated, as the book dives into focused neuroscience concepts.

This book, like Sousanis’ book (which was his graduate thesis), is a definitely a scientific exploration, complete with references and citations to more than 300 studies and papers, and it never skimps on the science of the brain, whether the book (through the characters of Uta and Chris Frith, both esteemed figures in the worlds of brain science and psychology) is exploring autism, instinct, empathy, cooperation or free will.

Their main shared focus, as indicated by the subtitle, is how people’s brains work differently and more efficiently, and more creatively, when they are cooperating and collaborating with others (with some exceptions) and how the brain itself functions and adapts in different situation, and what it might mean for us all. I’ll be thinking about the book’s concepts for some time to come.

What makes the book so readable is the playfulness of the writing (by Uta and Chris’ son, established author Alex Frith) and the artwork over hundreds of pages by Daniel Locke. Locke turns brain concepts into visual art in so many inventive ways, and Alex Frith brings his parents to life on the pages with great compassion, making the husband-wife team not only understandable but lovable, too.

If only more academic textbooks were rendered in the format of graphic art …

Peace (thinking on it, deeply, with others),
Kevin

Book Review: Concord

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Concord, a historical novel of New England by Don Zancanella, and I took it out of the library after reading a positive reference to it somewhere (now forgotten in my memory).

The short review: I really enjoyed it, from start to finish.

Now, I am admit I am pretty biased towards stories about writers, and Concord centers on that Massachusetts community right when Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Sophia Peabody, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne were in the same circles (only Emerson, as the elder here, had established himself at the time and setting of the novel — the others are all young and upcoming thinkers, writers, artists who have yet to make their marks on the world to any degree).

The chapters unfold, in present tense voice, through the various characters, and it is a fascinating use of historical documents and journals, as Zanacanella weaves an engaging narrative of these characters, diving deep into the inner voices and unfolding literary ambitions and emerging artistic communities that were centered around the small towns of Boston (Concord is just outside Boston).

We care about the characters, and knowing what they will come to write and create years from where they are in the story, it’s quite fascinating. I found Margaret Fuller to be the most intriguing character here, and one I knew the least about, but Hawthorne and Thoreau are interesting, too, as we learn more about how their upbringing and family inform who they are, and then inform the writings that still exist today.

As I was reading Concord, I was reminded of recent examination at various creative scenes (what Brian Eno calls “scenius”), and how the mixture of people with similar visions seem to find themselves together, pushing each other, encouraging each other, bringing a vision into being through a shared working environment.

Now, it should be noted that the characters here are white, middle to upper class New Englanders (although some of the families are struggling financially), and they are mostly privileged enough to have the time to sit around and write, or paint, or edit journals, and more. Who else at the time was making art? Plenty, I am sure, and lost to the world. Connections matter.

That fact of the world doesn’t take the pleasure out of reading this well-written novel, though, and I recommend it. (And I see he has a new book coming out this summer, about Mary and Percy Shelly, and Lord Byron … adding that to my read-later list).

Peace (in the text),
Kevin

Book Review: More Real Life Rock

Buy More Real Life Rock by Greil Marcus With Free Delivery | wordery.com

I recently read through, and reviewed, Greil Marcus’ earlier collection of columns about pop culture, music and politics — Real Life Rock — without realizing that he had a brand new collection out called More Real Life Rock. So I grabbed that one, too, and, as with the first, I enjoyed most of what Marcus has written in these Top Ten formatted short pieces of analysis and insights, almost always with some connection to music.

While the first collection covered a span of time from 1986 to 2014, as Marcus jumped from different platforms to host his column, this second collection is more modern day, with a big part taking place during the Trump years. The years covered in this one is from 2014-2021, and again, was hosted in a variety of places.

The insights of Marcus are always intriguing as he mixed quotes and editorials and reviews of music and shows, and sometimes, friends writing in to him about the world, and yet, he always seems fixated on some central artists of the past — Bob Dylan and the Band continue to get featured quite a bit, sometimes in celebratory mode but just as often, with a critical eye. Sleater-Kinney gets lots of ink in this collection, and that’s a good thing.

I appreciated learning about many musical artists that I had not heard of before, and it’s clear that Marcus has a veracious appetite for music and art, and through the reading of these columns (which ran in places like Barnes & Noble online magazine, Pitchfork and others), one can make a connection to the larger world, of how art intersects with culture and politics. His playfulness with skewering the Top Ten format is appreciated.

I won’t say I agreed with all of his views, and that’s OK. He can have a biting way with words, particularly if he doesn’t like something or finds it lacking in integrity or originality. I prefer that voice of his in this context, as it resonates through the entire collection of pieces. Apparently, he’s once again without a platform home (I wonder what editors think of his pieces), but I read that he is might be moving his Top Ten column over to Substack as a newsletter in the near future, so I might wander over and see what he’s up to there.

Peace (and criticism),
Kevin

Book Review: Six Walks (In The Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau)

Six Walks | Tin House

Ben Shattuck’s wonderful new book — Six Walks (In The Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau) — is built on a quest, of sorts. Shattuck wants to wander, and he uses six different adventures that Thoreau wrote about in various books and journals as a guide to leave home and explore. Where Thoreau goes, so goes Shattuck.

The result becomes more of an internal journey, as Shattuck uses the explorations (Cape Cod, New Hampshire, Maine, etc.) as a way to think about his own world, in the quiet of contemplation from being alone (mostly). Throughout the book, Shattuck weaves in the voice of Thoreau, in his many complications as a person and writer and thinker, while making his own observations of nature and the world.

Quite a bit of time passes between the first three walks and the last three, and Shattuck’s own life has changed, as he is engaged and has a child on the way, and the gap between that earlier, uncertain life and the one where he finds love as a force of stability gives the writing balance and ballast.

I enjoyed his observations of the forests and sea coasts and lakes, and the ability Shattuck has for weaving narrative from those observational strands, never flinching from difficult stories nor worrying about celebratory ones. And Thoreau hovers like a ghost in the book, his words and own travels guiding Shattuck forward into the wilderness of discovery.

I could see this book, and the model of the hikes inspired by another writer, as a possible text for folks who participate in the yearly Write Out adventures.

Peace (in the farther woods),
Kevin

Book Review: Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a legend in rock music criticism, a longtime voice on the scene that often cuts through the surface of music to go deeper by observing the cultural moments and the lens of musical history. He can be witty, supportive and insightful, and he can just as quickly be harsh, snarky and critical. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s clear on what he thinks about a particular artist, song or cultural moment.

In his book Real Life Rock, Marcus gathered together decades of columns in various publications (starting with The Village Voice and ending in The Believer) of a column by the same name of the book, where Marcus uses the Top Ten list concept by examining music, culture, art, books, television, politics and whatever else caught his attention at the moment. (Note: he also has a new book out, with more recent columns)

For each of the ten topics in any given column, he mostly opines in only a few sentences, although there are other times when he takes liberty with the space offered, writing a short editorial beneath any given topic. You can tell he has found something passionate, and has sunk his hooks into an issue. His breadth of knowledge is pretty impressive.

Common artists emerge across time for his opinion (often skeptical but sometimes celebratory): Bob Dylan, cover albums, the Mekons, Lucinda Williams, Bonny Prince Billy, Sleater-Kinney, Allison Krause, and more.

I flipped to a page in the book, and here are the topics at a glance, which give a sense of the wide scope of Marcus interests:

  • Dido’s Thank You song (and what Eminem did with it)
  • Live concert of Rock Your Baby (Portland) by Dick Slessig Combo
  • Billy Bragg and Wilco (Woody Guthrie covers in Mermaid Avenue Vol.2)
  • Shalini (singer from North Carolina)
  • Thread Waxing Space (art display in NYC) – life casts of musicians

Reading his pieces across time (1986 through 2014) is pretty fascinating, and even if I skipped through many of his pieces as I sort of did a power reading tour of musical criticism, Marcus’ voice is always loud and clear, confident and critical. I didn’t always agree with him but I always kept on reading him. The rewards in terms of tiny nuggets of insights were always worth the time.

Peace (in books about music),
Kevin

Book Review: Flooded (Requiem for Johnstown)

Rosemary's Reading Circle

Ann E. Burg’s Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown, a novel in verse, is a powerful set of interlocking character stories, informed by historical record, that lays bare the tragedy of the dam that burst in the working-class town outside of Pittsburgh, and all that died as a result.

Even worse, the story reminds us that the powerful and wealthy (ie, Andrew Carnegie, etc.), who bought the abandoned dammed-up lake for summer recreation and then failed to invest enough in its upkeep and maintenance, are clearly to blame for the 1889 disaster, and were never really held accountable. They blamed nature, not themselves.

Flooded is told in poetic verse, through the voices of children of the town as they prepare for Decoration Day, honoring veterans of the Civil War. Burg stitches together their stories and voices through some researched historical records, and with the freedom of a fiction writer. The result is a moving quilt of life, from the eyes and lives of young people, brought into the chaos of the flood, and the destruction of the town, and the loss of many, many lives, on that day when the dam breached and the water ran downhill.

The river, too, has a voice here, as it weaves its own story in between narrative sections, with narrow text formatting to visually show the winding path of its waters, and warning us of how it might never be tamed, and is always wild.

The last section of the book, where Burg uses anonymous letters and numbers as identification, is both insightful and, at times, both despairing and hopeful, the wishes of the dead for the survivors to carry on, to press ahead, to make something good in the world, to remember the stories. She even uses faded font texts to indicate those whose lives were taken, their ghost voices rises from the pages like distant music, and those who survived, devastated by loss but intent on moving forward.

As I read Flooded, I was reminded of the great 1874 Mill River Flood in my area of Western Massachusetts, in which a dam burst, towns were destroyed, lives lost or forever altered, and the wealthy — who ignored the upkeep of the dam, were never held accountable. Sound familiar? That river is one I walk by all the time, and the memorials erected and reminders we have (including a map of the flood on a wall of our house) is never far away from our thoughts. And I have Burg’s structure in my mind now, too, and how stories can be told.

Peace (comes after a time),
Kevin