So the last two weeks have been busy. Lots going on at work and I’ve been doing a lot of side reading at the same time. So when the day winds down and the eyes cannot look at anymore words, what to do to unwind? Well, I apparently watch mindless, crap movies.

Here’s the last week in pictures.

[List lost in the apocalypse. I know Conan the Barbarian was among the crap.]

Hamlet’s Blackberry

Hamlet's BlackberryI read this looking for a book to teach with The Shallows. It’s plodding at bits because it’s driving home an obvious point. But that point is important and the book discusses it clearly, being both well-structured and directly written. “Plodding” in this sense is an asset for a research writing course. And I think the students might connect with it. They’ll certainly be able to fill in the necessary context.

(An additional, less positive cause of plodding: the book isn’t self-help, but it isn’t not self-help either…with all that awkward double-negative implies. It is a book aiming for practical application. Deep analysis is beyond it’s scope. It explores philosophical arguments, but it does so with it’s feet squarely on the ground. No soaring into the ether and there’s plenty of vulgarization. I’ve got nothing against vulgarization, but I’ve read Phaedrus closely enough to yearn for the real thing. That’s about me, not the book.)

The Road

The RoadI just reread this novel. Absolutely extraordinary. A narrative of patterns.

I took extensive notes in my edition. When I get a chance, I should type them up and organize them.

Consider Phlebus

Consider PhlebusConsider Phlebas tells of a galactic war between a human-computer and an “alien” civilization. A sentient computer (a Mind) is lost on a planet and both sides are trying to find it. I enjoyed it. If it was a bit too “action movie in words” in sections (is there anything more tedious that reading a fight sequence) there are other sections that are stunning. The two first-person chapters told by the Mind, the long description of the Orbital (and later its destruction), the game of Damage and the two appendixes (why do I always like appendixes and glossary’s in novels) stand out.

Now, I don’t read science fiction very much. I watch movies, but don’t read books. There are probably a lot of reasons. Sci-fi always seems a bit macho on the page: gear-head, hard-tech stuff or computer-nerd fantasy. Neither really appeal to me, and when it’s neither, it’s often silly. The biggest problem is that “genre” often becomes a vehicle for “childish” in sci-fi, a missed mark that disappoints and offends me so badly I’ll put the book down.

Sci-fi I’ve liked have been things like Dune and Frank Herbert’s other books (The God Makers and The Messiah Complex stick out) and C. S. Friedman’s The Madness Season. Otherwise, my sci-fi picks were always sci-fi fantasy hybrids: Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy and, when I was much much younger, Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity trilogy.

Dune hits pretty squarely what I enjoy in sci-fi: an interest in large-scale philosophical and political questions allegorized into space-travel terms. (I’ve had Dune on the mind since summer. It is a book about gridlock and religion and works as an allegory of the 21st century. I’ll probably reread it and post more detailed thoughts in the coming months.) These books are sci-fi but the drama, the interest is on the decidedly non-scientific humans at the center of the story.

The Madness Season does something less elaborate but just as enjoyable: transform gothic fears into technological terms without reducing them. (I’ve been thinking about steam-punk and wondering if some of this might crop up there.) Oddly enough, this book, like The Madness Season has a changeling as its protagonist, and like Fiedman’s book, a central element of the plot is this character’s struggle to be someone coherent, to maintain some kind of identity.

I plan on reading the next of Bank’s Culture novels. I’ll wait a bit though. This book was long. I had a hard time giving so much time to…I hate to say it, but it’s true….a genre novel. At least at this time of year.

The Hobbit

The HobbitI hadn’t read this book since I was a child. Rereading it now, my response repeats near exactly my reaction a few years ago when I reread The Lord of the Rings while I was in Paris. I was surprised at how good they are and how melancholy (The Hobbit less so). Tolkien’s talents as a writer are immense although–and I hate saying this–they are undermined by his subject. There’s no getting away from the fact that Middle Earth and all the rest, treated this carefully and this well, seem silly and more than a little embarrassing. Which is ridiculous, because I honestly love these books. But reading them, I can’t get away from wondering how a grown man (like me) could sit down and write this seriously about these things without chickening out. Which raises immediately the question: would Tolkien have written better or not at all if he had tried to write something else?

Reading this time, I was conscious of the shift of action off-stage and onto non-major characters in the last chapters of the book. Reading as a child, this shift always threw me. In fact, I was surprised how much of the book takes place after the Mirkwood. When I was younger, Bilbo’s adventures as he’s trying to keep up and keep it together attracted me. When (I now see) he begins to manage events that are larger than him and center on others, I dropped out of the story. Reading now, I see how important this shift is to what came after. It is as if Tolkien, like Bilbo, is inching his way out of the atmospheric but non-dramatic shire and discovering what might be possible elsewhere, and at what scale.

I was also caught off guard by the length of chapters. These are tightly narrated units that, especially early on, progress with the benefit of only a few line breaks to separate and organize action.

Finally, the illustrations were new to me. No other edition I read had them. Seeing them here, I was struck by how much the visual art interacted with and supported the literary art. Wikipedia has a nice run down of their history here.

Coteau Rouge

Coteau RougeI don’t know André Forcier’s earlier work, but I’ve seen his last three films. Along with Xavier Dolan’s two films, I think they are among the most interesting to come out of Québec in the last seven or eight years.

This film isn’t polished and works in an anti-nostalgic mode which makes it stand out from films like C.R.A.Z.Y. et al. It is absurd, non-psychological and looks closely at an unvarnished life populated with types of characters and of stories. It is ironic without being cynical or misanthropic. Instead, the irony cycles around toward the mythic. Here, the lawn mowers and grass, the sheets hanging outside, the silly schemes to build condos and to fake paternity, and the maternity that proves sufficient, rich while remaining oddly, terribly human, together these and all the rest press into the terrain of myth, suggesting a new story about who we are and why we’re here.

Films don’t reach for so much today. They come with pre-fab questions and we watch them with pre-fab answers looking for confirmation. They depend upon gestures or styles or twists. and indicate they are serious by being unpleasant or “difficult.” Coteau Rouge is different: short, simply shot and simply edited. It moves along at a good clip. It does what it does so economically and enjoyably that it would take no effort on our part at all to take the film as a bit piece too silly for television. Oops. Pause, rewind.

It would take no effort at all–none–to miss the fact that something bigger is going on.

Long live the pariah.

Heart, Intuition and Jobs

Steve Jobs at Stanford. From Steve Jobs: Imitated, Never Duplicated – NYTimes.com:

“In 2005, Steve Jobs gave the commencement address to the graduating students at Stanford. He told them the secret that defined him in every action, every decision, every creation of his tragically unfinished life:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.””



Breakfast with Scot

Breakfast with ScotI watched Breakfast with Scot after a long day of grading. The kid’s great and had me laughing at the beginning. But then his make-up is put away and what should have been a movie about kids in school and on the playground becomes a tired tired tired document of gay affirmation.

In this case, the affirmation depends upon a Hockey-gay’s “journey toward healing.” (I suppose the hockey angle is the hook for this Can-production?) This middle-aged guy with imaginary, made-for-the-movies “issues” will by the end experience an epiphany so small as to be invisible. In his case: “When I was a pro, the other players called me … [tears in eyes] they called me, Erica!” Unsurprisingly, these moments with him squeeze all joy and all laughs from what’s now a message movie.

By the end we are made to discover that 1) the macho hockey player best known for his bad-ass fighting skills is actually gay and 2) doesn’t want kids or like them and certainly doesn’t (gasp) want to turn them gay and (double-gasp) doesn’t actually even like gay things (especially not his boyfriend, who he doesn’t touch and who is never there) but that 3) if he’s given a chance to take care of a kid, he’ll start to look like any other normal, loving, straight, kid-obsessed hockey dad.

In summary, straight = gay = straight, and, because it’s Canada and everybody already knows that straight = gay = whatEVER?, there’s no need for anyone to say anything about anything but especially not gay stuff. So let’s just get on with Christmas already (cf. final 10 minutes). Are you feeling affirmed?

Ugh. Why couldn’t the movie have just been funny? If would have seemed less old.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

the death and life of the great american school systemDiane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education has been discussed quite a bit and rightly so. It is a very good book. I’ll say little right now except that chapter after chapter she addressed practices at my school that drive me batty and keep me from doing my job. I felt affirmed and despondent.

Find the card file here.

On a separate note, last Spring, after reading this book, I read In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic by Professor X. A very different, more personal book about teaching. It was less useful, but invited commiseration and was purgative. I annotated my “copy” extensively but the Kindle-machine ate my work. So no card file.

Standard Disclaimer: The card file contains the segments I highlighted on my kindle (may it melt in the sun and die) and that I have now pulled off the web. For now they don’t really make a lot of sense.

Card File: Emerson and Pen of Iron

Emerson by Lawrence BuellTwo books, both interesting in their own way.

Emerson by Lawrence Buell is an excellent entry point into Emerson-studies. I’ve read and enjoyed Emerson’s essays on and off ever since I read “Self-Reliance” in senior English class. Me and my nerd-friends loved his ideas and we loved his words. We memorized (what I now know are) the “greatest hits” from the essay and offered them up to each other in the hallways like apprentice wizards practicing incantations as we filed from lab to lab. Our imaginations were aflame and we felt full of life. Those bits of the essay put that fire into words to live by.

Teaching that same essay this year and reading again through parts of the two essay series in preparation, I’m shocked how much of who I am and how I see the world is shaped be Emerson. And I’m glad. Yet, I also realized, prepping, how little I knew about Emerson outside of these texts. This book was my first step toward filling in some of those blanks. My card file is here.

Pen of IronI started Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible by Robert Alter with high expectations, and the introduction and first chapter on Melville are quite good. The later chapters on Faulkner and Dreiser left me cold though. Whatever else might be going on, this reading is based on Alter’s ear for Biblical diction, rhythm, and etc, and at a certain point, the subtlety of his subject became an obstacle for me. I trust his ear, but I can only go a certain way beyond what I can hear on my own no matter how much I’d like to follow. My sparse card file is here.

Standard Disclaimer: The card file contains the segments I highlighted on my kindle (may it melt in the sun and die) and that I have now pulled off the web. For now they don’t really make a lot of sense.

Card File: Buddhist Practice

I’m posting these card files now with little commentary because I have too much to say about these books.

If I wait to post, I’m not sure when they’ll see light of day. And I think nothing else will come through the pipe until they go up. So, baby steps.


How to Practice by the Dalai Lama. Find the card file here.

Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein. Find the card file here.

Standard Disclaimer: The card file contains the segments I highlighted on my kindle (may it melt in the sun and die) and that I have now pulled off the web. For now they don’t really make a lot of sense.

Card File: The Shallows

An excellent book I’ll have more to say about later. For now, find the card file here. [Linked file missing. Back soon.]

Standard Disclaimer: The card file contains the segments I highlighted on my kindle (may it melt in the sun and die) and then pulled off the Amazon site to post here. For now, they are chaotic, refer to “locations” rather than pages, and don’t really make a lot of sense.

Card File: Affect and the Mind

Animals Make us HumanLast spring I read a couple books that dealt in very different ways with questions about the mind.

The more interesting was ostensibly about animals: Temple Grandin’s Animals Make us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Grandin is interested in how the affects–those root emotional responses that Eve Sedgwick discusses in some of her last essays–offer a guide to organizing domestic animals’ lives so as to make them as happy as possible. The animal issue is interesting but more interesting is her discussion of the interaction between the environment and affective response. I came away thinking that this book is about teaching. My greatest take-away: curiosity is a prophylactic for frustration. i.e. keep them guessing–not entertained–and they won’t become frustrated and angry. You can find the card file here.

Absence of MindLess interesting is Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind, an apology for religious thought in the face of the New Atheist assault on it. I am an irreligious but sympathetic reader. Devotion to god provided intellectuals with the vocabulary necessary for thinking about the human experience for thousands of years. Dismissing their thought because of the limitations of tools they used to develop it is foolish, and I do think many of the New Atheists fall into this trap, at least in their more populist (and therefore popular) moments. I also loved Gilead when I read it a few years ago, and so, came to this book looking to discover a different aspect of Robinson’s writing. But this ponderous lecture-serious-become-book is not worth the effort. Everything about the style here is weighty and self-consciously difficult despite the fact that the foundation of the argument was the rebuttal of a straw man. Worse it all feels tactical. The straw man is symptomatic of a decision to avoid confronting the New Atheists too directly. In part this is because she is concerned with an intellectual rather than a techo-scientific question. She rightly avoids the trap of eliding the two which–again in their popular/populist moments–these writers fall into. (In their case, it’s enabling: if the philosophical question is really, merely a scientific one, their technologies adjudicate. The shift in terrain wins the question before it is raised.) In part though, the straw man and the opaque style are also symptomatic of Robinson’s refusal to claim the ground as philosophical, her refusal to actually speak within the language of the cultural past she defends. She insists the NAs are not thinking expansively enough but never thinks expansively herself. I had the uncomfortable feeling that she was scared of being “religious” and therefore illegitimate. As a result, as I read, I began to feel that the question was no question, the NAs had won this book before it began and the difficult style was a defensive posture masquerading as careful deliberation. And because of that I thought of Judith Butler’s defence in Lingua Franca of inaccessible language as a tool of serious thought. She too under attack treated difficulty as nuance, suggesting inadequate reading was the problem. Whatever the merits to Butler’s stance–she’s a professional reader who communicates her reading in writing–the fact that Robinson, a celebrated writer and teacher of writing, has published an essay that makes me think of Butler is not a good thing. You can find the brief, brief card file here.

Standard Disclaimer: The card file contains the segments I highlighted on my kindle (may it melt in the sun and die) and that I have now pulled off the web. For now they don’t really make a lot of sense.

A Squeeze of the Hand

For my first appearance at a Dead Writer’s party, I went as Herman Melville and read an introductory remark and a poem. I took both from the chapter “A Squeeze of the Hand” in Moby Dick and changed the text only slightly. I added line breaks, invented a reference to “the present poem,” and cut a few bits for length. That said, what you read here is, for all intents and purposes, what Melville wrote.


Some of you may have had occasion to note that the sperm’s liquid part concretes into lumps not very long after being taken from the body. On a whaling boat, the men of the crew return this rich liquor to its pristine state by breaking these soft globules of infiltrated tissue with a gentle squeeze of the hand. The present poem was conceived while under the sway of the uncontaminated aroma–not unlike that of a musky meadow–which invariably awaits those who take up this sweet and unctuous duty.

A Squeeze of the Hand; a poem in free verse

Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze!
all the morning long;

I squeezed that sperm
till I myself almost melted into it;
I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of


over me;

and I found myself unwittingly
my co-labourer’s hands in it,
mistaking their hands
for the gentle globules.

Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling
did this avocation beget; that at last
I was continually squeezing their hands,
and looking up into their eyes


as much as to say, —come;
let us squeeze hands all round;
let us all squeeze
each other;
let us squeeze ourselves universally
into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever!
For now since by many prolonged, repeated experiences,
I have perceived that in all cases

man must

or at least shift his conceit of attainable felicity;
not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy;
but in the wife, the heart,
the bed, the table,
the saddle, the fire-side,
the country;

now that I have perceived all this,
I am ready to squeeze case eternally.

In visions of the night, I saw rows of angels in paradise,
each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.