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A Slant of Light
Jeffrey Lent

This remarkable book, set in western New York at the end of the Civil War, reads like Shakespearean tragedy. The descriptions are rich with the precision of poetry, the sentences often twisting in unexpected ways that leave you wondering how the writer is going to resolve this one, and then he does. Perfectly. Even the dialogue is crafted in this way. My typical reaction: people don’t speak this way. But in this case, the dialogue works beautifully. Plot? Plenty. Something dramatic happens on page two, the suddenness of which causes you reread it. The rest of the book shifts back and forth from the source of the drama to its consequences. I’m being intentionally vague as usual to avoid spoiling your reading pleasure. Trust me. This is one of the best books you’ll read this year. I’ve never read any books by Jeffrey Lent. Now I have to read them all.


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Sick in the Head
Judd Apatow

When he was in high school, Apatow worked at the radio station at his school, which gave him license in his mind to call up comics for an interview. Not just any comics, but the biggest names in the business, including Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Allen, the guy who invented the late night talk show format. When he called, he conveniently never mentioned his age or how many listeners tuned in to the radio station. His questions even at that young age show his passion for and immersion in comedy, and he has continued these interviews into present day, collected in this book. The interviews are fascinating, full of wisdom and candor, not only about the life of a comedian, but about life. 


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Our Souls at Night
Kent Haruf

This is Haruf’s last book, published posthumously. And it is a gem. He returns to his usual theme: the ways we form ties and establish community with others, through kindness and grace and honesty, the kind that unfolds haltingly but that sticks. You can finish the book in one sitting, which I did. I so enjoyed spending time with these characters that I began reading it again. Immediately. 


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The Confessions of Frances Godwin
Robert Hellenga

I’ve been reading Hellenga for a while, and this is one of his best books. You will love spending time with Frances, who is a retired Latin teacher, a loving wife, and a protective mother of a daughter who is dating an asshole. And she’s a criminal. And, oh, she speaks to God. Which creates this strange sense that you’ll find out a few secrets of the universe. At the very least, you’ll learn about Latin and music and science and Rome. This book will take you far.


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The High Divide
Lin Enger

This is about Ulysses Pope, who suddenly leaves his wife and two young sons. He abandons them. It’s 1886, Minnesota, a time when everyone needs to pitch in just to survive. The sons pursue him. Their mom doesn’t even know where they’ve gone. In the meantime, she has to pacify creditors at home. So there’s plenty of adventure, and it feels like an old fashioned Western, but ultimately it’s a sweeping story about survival and sacrifice and love. Written with a keen eye for details, the language always precise, this is a great pleasure to read.



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H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald

This is an unusual memoir that may not appeal to everyone, but it’s written so well that I want to include it here. In the aftermath of her father’s death, Macdonald, as a way of dealing with her grief, buys and trains a hawk to feed from her glove, to fly and return to her, and to complete a multitude of other tasks. The training process is often arcane—and sometimes tedious for Macdonald—but always fascinating in the telling. I do wish she’d have devoted more time to her father’s life. But this is a wise, instructive book on patience and discipline and grief.


 
 
I recently spent a few days in Nashville. This is what the main downtown strip looks like at night.
Reminded me of Vegas. But less crass and more earnest. Though unlike Vegas, it’s a place I’d want to visit again. Inside every bar rocked talented musicians, who were earning their tips with long sets and strident wails. Not a false note anywhere.

Walking these streets reminded me also of Orson Welles’s movie, Touch of Evil, because every few steps you’re assailed by a torrent of different sounds. (It’s a 1958 movie, probably not on your radar, but if you get a chance to watch the first six or seven minutes, it’s one spectacular shot, minus today’s computer gimmickry.)

Everyone down there in Nashville, from waiters to taxi drivers to tour guides, are hoping to break into the music world, it seemed. I did wonder if the regulars playing in bars had given up their big dreams and remained content to eke out a living playing covers, which would make a good movie. I think I’ve seen that movie a few times.

And the dreams begin young.

One night, a crowd of young people was herding into the arena where the Nashville Predators play hockey. We asked a radio station worker at a booth what was going on. And why the handful of protesters were trying to block the entrance, hollering that the people marching in were going to hell. When the radio guy handed us some free tickets, we decided to check it out for ourselves. It was a Christian mega-concert, a little heavy handed with its message, but innocuous and even inspiring at times.

We stayed for about an hour, then moseyed 100 feet down Broadway Street and found a piano bar called The Big Bang. The wait staff wore shirts that said Bang This. And the piano player was imploring one patron to “Show me your boobs.” Also innocuous. But quite a contrast from the arena.

One day we took a tour of Barbara Mandrell’s old house, which is now a museum of sorts. I didn’t have any particular interest in Mandrell, but the house was supposed to be spectacular, which it was. After learning about Mandrell, I grew to admire her talent and the way she kept her family grounded in the midst of wild success.

When she was twelve, she was a prodigy on many instruments, so talented at steel guitar that Patsy Cline invited Mandrell to join her band. Her parents feared this would interfere with her education and kept her home. Shortly after, Cline’s plane crashed. It’s likely that Mandrell would have been on that plane. It’s a chilling story that has stayed with me. But I also started wondering. It’s possible that had twelve-year-old Mandrell joined Cline’s band, maybe that would have prevented the crash through some odd coincidence. Maybe Mandrell couldn’t fly that day because of a fever, an ear ache, something, and maybe the rest of the band would have postponed the flight. Not likely. But possible.

At her house, you were allowed to touch the books, sit in the chairs, and pick up the instruments. Here’s me with Buck Owen’s guitar.

Look for my upcoming album on vinyl, Italian Country.
 
 
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One Movie That Didn’t Get Enough Attention

Love and Mercy, the story about the genius and the demons driving Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. I’ve never been an avid Beach Boys fan, but their music always made summer nights fuller and winter days less chilling. If I had known back then about the battles waged to create the music, I wonder if the songs would have seemed any less comforting. Because sometimes it’s better not to know. But all these years later, the music knotted firmly in the American psyche, the story of Wilson’s trials only serves to heighten your appreciation of little deuce coupes hugging California highways and surfboards building to safari pitch. Though what I liked best about this movie was the attention paid to the craft of music making itself.

One Movie That Got Too Much Attention

Jurassic Something. I’ve never been interested in any of the Jurassic movies, though I can’t quite explain why. The premise is intriguing; the special effects are dazzling, or so I’ve heard; I like Spielberg. But even he once admitted that after working on Schindler’s List, Jurassic seemed frivolous. Anyway, I didn’t see this current installment either. All I know is that it came out the same week as Love and Mercy and sucked the attention away from what everyone should have been seeing.


 
 
Hard to believe it’s been a week since my mother-in-law, Marilyn, died. The best mother-in-law I ever had, as she would kid.

She suffered from Alzheimer’s, an agonizing disease that disorients not only the sufferer but the family as well. Everyone’s memory is robbed. And the decline is swift, yet gradual enough that you become accustomed to each new version of the person, a process that interferes with your lifelong perceptions and memories of the person you love. A cruel trick that extends the mourning for years. You miss not only her old, healthy self, but the self from just a year ago, when she would recount over and over again how her sisters smoked and drank. I’d be happy to hear those stories one more time.

As we watched Marilyn decline though, there was a goodness at her core that remained pure. Not even Alzheimer’s could touch that. She smiled to the end, danced when she could, and just before her ability to speak finally failed her, she was left with three words: “I love you.” For weeks, that was all she could say, and she said it generously to everyone she encountered. I’m sure these were her last words because soon after she couldn’t speak at all. I don’t know what my last three words will be, but I’m fairly certain they will echo with complaint. Marilyn had every reason in the world to complain, but she never did.

That she left us with such simple eloquence is ironic because Marilyn had a tendency to mangle the English language. If someone was choking, you should do the “Heineken maneuver.” My daughter, running gracefully down the basketball court, ran like a “gazebo.” When a tsunami struck the Phillipines, she talked about that “awful salami.” Toy Story for her included the famous character, Bud Light Year. She’d tell us to look up things on “the Google,” and referred to Facebook as “see my face.” We’d laugh at these mistakes. How could you not laugh? But Marilyn was always a good sport and would laugh harder than anyone.

Even during her regression, Marilyn left us all a lasting gift. At first, we ignored what she was trying to teach us. We couldn’t see it. The disease punctured her inhibitions, and she found it hilarious to ask strangers if they wanted to marry her or wash her back in the tub or perform dozens of other inappropriate tasks. We of course would try to discourage this, not only for the sake of the strangers, but for Marilyn, who we thought we were protecting. And for ourselves as well, I suppose. We held on to the dim hope that maybe she’d take our cautions to heart, that she would change. But once she was moved to a Catholic home for the elderly, I finally recognized her lesson, that we should accept people as they are, not how we hope they will be. Soon I began asking her if she wanted to marry me, which she found doubly hilarious. I won’t pretend I’m good at this, this unqualified acceptance of others, but I’m working at it, with Marilyn as my guide.

 
 
People in high places must be reading this blog. A few weeks ago I wrote about the idiocy of one-size-fits-all, standardized, #2 pencil testing and specifically mentioned the newly installed PARCC tests. Don’t worry about what the acronym stands for. I spent over 30 years in education dizzied by all the acronyms spewed out every few years that didn’t really mean anything. Anyway, newspapers reported recently that the frequency of the parcc tests (there, I’m going to deCap it) will be severely reduced next year. See, I have some power.

But enough about tests. I want to describe an inspiring alternative teachers can implement to counter the deadening effect of filling in bubbles. I witnessed this at Fremd High School a few weeks ago, the school where I taught, the school that’s been hosting Writers Week these past 20 years, five days in which writers from around the country converge on our campus to read and discuss their work. And students look forward to the week all year.

As a sort of adjunct to that week, current coordinators of Writers Week, Gina and Russ, had a genuinely inspiring idea: Write Nite. On a Thursday evening in late May, when most teachers are wiped out and are more concerned with finding the tops of their desks than motivating young folks, Gina and Russ organized a stellar event of friendly games and exercises in the library, all designed to showcase student and faculty writing. A haiku tournament, a story battle, sing-offs, and a non-writing element that didn’t hurt in packing the place: pizza. For nearly three hours, the room was buzzing. Over writing.

If you’re a teacher and want details about the activities, my good pal, Gary Anderson, wrote about it on his BLOG.

I’m not sure how much “learning” happened at Write Nite, in terms of objective measurements. But I know the results will be far reaching. I witnessed a true sense of camaraderie and community, along with a hearty appreciation for language, word play, and argument.

Here’s a test question for you. “If on this night in the library, you had dropped in some random student from anywhere in the country, and also dropped in a different random student into a testing center that allegedly measured reading comprehension or vocab or writing, which one would be more likely later to pick up a book or a pen on his or her own?” I wish you could have been there that night to witness the power of that obvious answer.

I’m reading David McCullough’s fascinating biography, The Wright Brothers. The Wright children were allowed to stay home from school if they had good reason, and reading a book sometimes was reason enough. Orville says, “…the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always encouragement to intellectual curiosity.” The parents didn’t need to identify and quantify and measure the worth of what to most people is an obvious educational pursuit. And their two boys, Wilbur and Orville, didn’t do too poorly for themselves as a result.

 
 
Those of you who stopped by to say Hello at Printers Row Lit Fest this past weekend: Many thanks. Nice to see you.

One of the sessions I attended featured poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read from her fine memoir, The Light of the World. It’s the kind of a book, when you hear about the subject matter, that you may decide you don’t want to read. It’s the kind of book Alexander wishes she didn’t have cause to write. It’s about her 16 years with her husband, Ficre, who died suddenly in their home recently.

At the session, she talked about how she and her two boys support each other, how they suffer together, how they find strength—and through all this, you can feel the goodness of Ficre, how he still inhabits their lives. She writes about how when she was with Ficre, “there was suddenly enough time: to talk, to read, to think, to sleep, to make love, to drink coffee or tea, to practice yoga, to walk.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, part of a beautiful and eloquent tribute to a man you wish you’d met.

It’s a sad book but ultimately uplifting because it captures Ficre’s abundant and free spirit. I highly recommend this!

 
 
I never quite know what to make of reviews of new music. I usually enjoy reading them. I admire the effort. But describing music with words seems a little pointless. Either you like the music or you don’t, and it doesn’t take much sampling of an album to realize that a critic’s hearty endorsement rings hollow. For you.

Yet. I keep reading them.

Given that paradox, I’m reluctant to write about George Miller’s Mad Max, Fury Road because the movie breathes like a symphony. It’s orchestral and pulsating and dreamlike, bringing to mind both the quaint past and the dusty future. This is heavy metal amped by diesel bass engines and dirty oil. This is punk grunge armed with spiky treble. This is a brass and string concerto played on a craggy, mud strewn stage. And just when you think a note will be resolved, another flurry of sound ignites and pulls you into a more cavernous mosh pit of tumbling images. I found out afterward that much of the tumbling was stunt work, not computer driven, and now I have to see this again.

The script, the actual speaking parts, is pretty bare. But this only adds to the symphonic impression. And with Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy as nimble band leaders, their movements, their eyes, speak powerfully.

The story is simple. A few hold power over many. And that ain’t right. And enough is enough.

This is not the kind of movie you want to watch at home. You need the giant screen and the concert speakers. I did not see this in 3-D because I don’t like to be yanked around by what the technicians decide should be in focus at any one point. But I don’t think this movie needs additional dimensions.

So settle in with a big tub of popcorn for a couple of hours, which makes for a long movie, but you’ll wish there was more.

 
 
Yesterday, I wrote a review within a rant about Ken Robinson’s book, Creative Schools. I should have known I’d have more to say.

A few years ago, I met Robinson at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual conference. I didn’t mention this yesterday because I didn’t think it was relevant, but I was reminded of a few interesting economic details.

The conference is costly: a hefty registration fee, round trip airline tickets, two to three nights of lodging. I was fortunate enough to have my textbook publisher, EMC, sponsor me and coauthor, Gary Anderson, pictured above on the right. Every year, though, a handful of other English teachers also want to attend because they get to meet some of the best English teachers in the country and share ideas. This is true professional development, not the forced “institute days” that school administrators sponsor, where they dictate the agenda and waste precious time—and taxpayers’ dollars—over nonsense. I can’t think of a single institute-day task in my 32 years of teaching that directly benefited students. I might be exaggerating a bit here, but not much.

These English teachers who wanted to attend the national conference, my colleagues, they were willing to foot their entire bill. All the district would have to do is hire a $90 substitute. These substitute expenditures add up, sure, but the figures are peanuts when compared to the exorbitant fees districts hire for so-called expert speakers to enlighten us during institute days. Some are better than others, some are worthwhile, but I always felt that the resources immediately around us—other teachers—could have provided equal value, at zero cost.

One last thing to consider. For now. Companies are making a boatload of money in the testing business. Do you think these companies care about students’ lives, their goals and interests? They don’t even care about students’ bubbled answers on the tests, only that states keep nodding and asking for more, more tests, more paper, more profits.

For more details on standardized tests, you have to watch this, the brilliant John Oliver. Warning: you will become infuriated, but you’ll understand. And if you have kids in school, you might just join the quiet rebellion against standardization.



John Oliver Clip
 
 
17 May 2015 headline in Chicago Tribune: “Suburban district urges students to take test.” The article reports that 90% of students at Rolling Meadows High School in District 214, did not take the newly installed PARCC tests, based on the Common Core. That’s a capital Common, which strikes me as ironic. The Illinois Board of Education is not happy and could, according to authorities at District 214, take away IHSA eligibility. Not sure if this is a real threat from Illinois or if the district is huffing and puffing.

I happened to be at Rolling Meadows High School last week, speaking to their creative writing classes. I talked to one of the teachers there, who explained that students did not ditch on the big testing day. Instead, all of them showed up on time, marched to the testing center, waited to be handed a test, then 90% of them politely returned the test, saying something along the lines of, “I prefer not to.” They waited to be dismissed, and when they were, they filed out in an orderly manner.

Someone teach me how to do a backflip right now. I’ve been waiting decades for this sort of rebellion. I’ve been rebelling quietly for years, mostly in the form of not paying attention at meetings that hyped new district or state testing standards, or something like that. If I’d paid more attention, I could be more specific. I knew that the meeting agenda would be replaced by a different agenda in a few years, with a new set of revolving administrators, who would spout the importance of new data points and aims.

Here’s an example of the absurdity. One year, every teacher in every discipline was supposed to highlight math. As in, how many times does Huck Finn board his raft? We all nodded, hid away in our classrooms, and shut the door.

I always had the urge after these meetings to stroll the neighborhoods around the school and shout to the taxpayers, “Do you know how your money was spent today?” When we could have been in classrooms, teaching, we instead integrated objectives for the 17th time, discussed data, listened to some highly paid expert telling us the worth of things we were already doing. Then we’d have to write down how we were going to implement the practices that we were already doing.

More absurdity. On the first day of school, teachers meet in the auditorium to learn about new tardy regulations and how we must use pink slips this year and not yellow ones for discipline referrals, and on and on. This is usually followed by a pep talk, which we all need by then. One year, the principal pulled out a note from a former student. The student wanted everyone to know how well the school had prepared him for, well, for so many things. A glowing letter full of gratitude and praise. In the next breath, the letter put aside, the principal outlined the changes we needed to implement in the upcoming year. Whoa, hold on a sec…the letter, that kid, what we did, ten years ago, it was, it changed his life, maybe what we’ve been doing is okay, better than okay, maybe we’re on the right track.

Which brings to mind this remarkable truth: teachers are never asked by school administrators what they think. As in, How do you think we could raise test scores? What are we already doing to encourage curiosity? What are the most effective ways to engage students? Do you think we should keep the yellow referral slips?

I’m kidding of course about the yellow slips. Pink are better. But I’m not kidding. Teachers should be consulted also about the mundane day-to-day procedures. We know which rules will rankle students. We know the stupidity of banning Halloween costumes because two or three students the previous year went too far. We know that students will not value a “Pride” award if it’s not linked to some particular behavior. We know we know we know, yet we’re never consulted. Everything is decided top down, which is especially true of the latest round of government tests.

If you want to know how we got to now, read Ken Robinson’s latest book, Creative Schools. Not only does he trace the path of standardization from Reagan to Bush II to Obama, arguing convincingly that all the tests have not achieved their intended results, but he offers solid, particular, evidence-based alternative methods that schools can follow to inspire reflection and curiosity, and in turn, achieve higher scores.

My fifth-grade nephew, once terrified by the prospect of days of testing—this in just third grade; why are we doing this to kids?—recently came home and joked that he and a friend would soon have to take the PARCC tests. But no longer cowed by the pressure of a meaningless test, he and the friend reversed the acronym. They would not opt out of the test, as those high-schoolers at Rolling Meadows did last week. But they would be taking, they said, the CCRAP tests.

 
 
Danny Collins

I was reluctant to see this movie because the previews looked, as young people say, lame. And given the premise, I already knew the ending. A famous singer, Danny Collins, known for his schmaltzy pop songs, receives a letter from John Lennon, but he receives it 40 years after it was sent. Insufficient postage? With the encouraging letter in hand, Collins has to reexamine his entire career and his strained family ties. (It’s my understanding that such a letter was actually sent by Lennon to some musician. The rest of the film strays from this simple fact.)

So yes, the plot is predictable, with a few surprises thrown in here and there, but the story unfolds convincingly, and the writing is smart and crisp and rarely hits a false note. The acting is superb, especially a shambling Al Pacino in the lead. And the Lennon songs sprinkled throughout add a layer of emotion that’s hard to deny, especially if you’re a big John fan.

I really enjoyed this movie.  Touching and sincere.       
                                  3 & 3/8 stars. 

Ex Machina

Biggest obstacle to seeing this movie: how to pronounce the title when buying a ticket. I just said, “Ex.” I was pretty sure it was EX MOCK EE NUH, as one would say it in Italian. Without reservation, the guy in front of me said he wanted a ticket for Ex Machine-uh. They let both of us buy tickets and enter.

In contrast, the previews for this movie were enticing, but the movie itself was a bit of a letdown. It reminds me of the movie, Her, that also centers around the link between humans and machines. With Her, an interesting cultural angle is developed. The entire society has become dehumanized to an extent by its reliance on technology. Sound familiar? The alluring voice of an app mesmerizes the lonely, main character, and we come to understand why he’s drawn in. The entire movie feels prophetic, like a funhouse mirror of what’s happening all around us today.

In Ex Machina, the machines are artificial intelligence robots, created in an isolated pocket, far from society. The threat here is the old Asimov idea that machines will “evolve” and do away with humans, who age and become ill and die, and who are inferior, from a machine point of view—and that’s the premise here, that machines can have a viewpoint, a consciousness.

The movie is sleek, a pleasure to watch. The writing is fine, with a few hitches here and there. The acting is good. The pace is slow but engaging. But in the end, I wanted to like this movie more than I did. Though I’m not sure what I’d change. I suspect that I won’t feel haunted by this movie, as I felt for days after seeing Her.

Overall, though, I think this is worth seeing.      

                        2 & 1/4 stars. 



(By the way, it took me 15 minutes to figure out how to insert actual stars, but when I pasted those stars here, they turned into letters. I'm going to figure this out!)