Book Review: A Drop of Hope

Keith Calabrese’s A Drop of Hope is a stew of characters and connections. In short chapters, Calabrese weaves the story of a circle of friends, an abandoned town wishing well, and the hopes and dreams of many, all tied together with the possibility of magic in the world.

The three main characters — middle schoolers Ernest, Ryan and Lizzie — discover an old well, where people still toss coins and make wishes. When the kids find a secret entrance to the bottom of the well, they eavesdrop in on the wishes of others. The town is struggling, and some families are losing their jobs, and others are barely hanging on. And of course, for the kids themselves, friendship and family loom large.

In the attic of a deceased grandfather, the start of something odd is discovered and then slowly, unexpectedly, many of the wishes heard by the three protagonists start coming true as the kids try to find ways to help others. Interestingly, it never goes the way they think it will go, yet always seems to happen. The manner in which Calabrese makes the connections between the initial wish and the resolution of those wishes shows storytelling at its finest, and I tried to imagine the planning the author must have done to ensure that all loose ends get tied. It must have been a confusing writing plan, is all I can say.

The characters in this novel are quiet believable, and even if you don’t believe in magic, you will find yourself believing in the possibility of hope in the world, and how the unexpected gift often stems from not just doing the right thing in the right moment, but from viewing the world through a lens of kindness and compassion.

A Drop of Hope is a good fit for a middle school classroom.

Peace (in the wishing well),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Naturalist

Edward O. Wilson is famous (and maybe, as he admits, infamous) in the field of science, and I know a bit of him (but not a lot) so this new graphic novel version of his autobiography was an interesting, and sometimes heady, trip into Wilson’s exploratory forays into the world of ants, diversity and the world, mostly writ small.

Naturalist — adapted by writer Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by C.M.Butzer — starts with Wilson’s natural curiosity as a child of the South, and then moves into some pretty deep science (some of which, I found myself lost in), but what shines through is a love of learning and a deep-seated wonder at the wood or swamp or river just around the corner.

The graphic novel doesn’t shy away from some of the controversies that Wilson apparently stirred up in the world of sciences, which is more divided and territorial than an outsider like me probably realizes.

From what I can tell, too, his book on sociobiology led to intensive criticism of nature/nurture and of underlying racism, connected to views on Eugenics. Wilson (who once got water dumped on his head at a conference by protestors) admits that the book he wrote was really two books (one about nature and one about humans), and that he might have been better served to separate the two.

Still, his other work in the field of biodiversity has been used to ground ongoing nature conservation efforts in science. And his two Pulitzer Prizes give credit to the influence of his work. I guess his life as a researcher, scientist, naturalist is rather complicated.

I didn’t ignore these controversies, but I was more interested in how Wilson’s personal story is one of looking deep at something that inspires you, something that can drive you forward through your life, with passion. Naturalist shows a scientist in his realm, alone at times in unknown places, systematically gathering data and mulling over the ramifications. In this, we need more.

Peace (finding it),
Kevin

Book Review: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You (How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place)

It’s not easy to wrap the head around the role of algorithms in our social networks and our other online spaces but there they are — always on and always working and maybe causing trouble with unanticipated consequences. Just look at how algorithms push bias and racism, and lead us towards uncharted waters.

Janelle Shane, in her book You Look Like A Thing And I Love You does a fantastic job of explaining the ins and outs of algorithm design and workings, while keeping the mood light and entertaining with humorous stories and simple doodles — but never pure fluff. You’ll learn about mathematical modeling and algorithm coding and be reminded, again and again, how dumb algorithms really are.

It’s the human programmers that are the problem. That, and the ways that algorithms obscure what they are doing deep inside code, so that even as they are learning from past experiences and making adaptations to become more efficient in their job, it is not always clear how they are doing the work they are doing, once launched into their tasks. Shane dispels notions of algorithms taking over the world at any time in the near future, but she does warn that we need to have more openness and clarity about how algorithms work, so we can fix them when they go wrong.

Shane knows her topic well, and knows how to explain it to a non-programming audience. I found her book both entertaining and informative.

Peace (coded for now),
Kevin

Book Review: How To Write One Song

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is always an interesting read, or listen. In his new book – How To Write One Song — Tweedy turns teacher and cheerleader, urging people to find ways to be creative. Or, as the title suggests, to try to write a song.

Tweedy is certainly a talented songwriter, as far as I am concerned, and I liked the folksy voice he inhabits here, in this book, as he tries to explain the magic of being creative — of losing yourself in the moment of making art out of ideas and inspiration — and then moves into his own routines and practices around writing songs.

I’ve read enough books about writing in general (and the teaching of writing, which is what I do with sixth graders) to know there is nothing revolutionary here in terms of his advice and suggestions, but I appreciated the way he pulls it together, and his explanations of how to stitch ideas to music (even if you only know an elementary level of any instrument) to recording demos (he advocates finding a simple record/play app) was helpful.

For me, a songwriter myself, the best parts of the book were when Tweedy tries to find a way to explain what happens when he loses himself in the making of a song, and how three hours or so can go by, and he comes up for air, invigorated and inspired by a few verses set to simple strumming of his guitar.

Tweedy reminds us that creating art is something unexplainable at times. But when it comes together, it can be something beautiful, in both its outward expression (how it looks, how it sounds, etc.) and the inwards satisfaction of the one who has created it.

I kept nodding my head at these parts, appreciative of his way of grappling with artistic expression in ways that just cannot be fully explained in words or writing. In that, is the magic, and why I (and maybe you) keep coming back to the guitar or piano or whatever to make music.

Nothing energizes me or enlightens me or gives me comfort like when I am writing a new song that has some kernel of truth and possible beauty to it (even if that beauty is only in the eyes and ears of the beholder).

Tweedy also put out a new album  – Love is King — that he references in the book and Rolling Stone Magazine has a good interview with Tweedy.

Peace (strumming it),
Kevin

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