Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019: The Year In Review: The Reading

So here we are, on the precipice of a new year. Leftovers from Christmas are eaten, most of the mess of 5 minutes of joy has been cleaned up and put away. The last week I've been ridiculously unmotivated in my efforts to do just about anything. I had loads of plans, all of which were abandoned for lazily sitting around doing nothing constructive. I still have some time for this (writing) and that (reading and binging TV shows) and the other thing (school planning and an audit of some of my grades), but today is all about reflecting on the year that was. I've filled an entire composition notebook with my random ramblings. I'm pretty proud of that. I decided to save my writing post for the new notebook and post it tomorrow. For now, let's talk about what I read this year, so get out your Amazon gift cards and get ready to do some ordering.

As the year comes to a close, I've read 155 books. That's the most ever in a year. Thank audiobooks for a lot of that. I'm setting a goal of 120 for 2020, though I'm sure reading with Cooper and my string of graphic novels will bulk that number up. I'm going to start working through my bookshelf and knock out some of my epic fantasy series as I prep for my year of writing....but I'll get to that in my next post. This is about the reading.

Top read of 2019:

THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean: This book was incredible. After hearing Jeff Pearlman talk with Orlean on his podcast, I checked the book out of the library. It blew me away. I couldn't put it down. (I read it on the beach in Maryland.) Part true crime, part history of the LA library system, part love letter to libraries, it is all amazing. The chapter where Orlean describes the process of burning a book is truly one of the most amazing things I've ever read.


Other best reads of 2019:

  • WHY THEY CAN'T WRITE by John Warner: Holy crap, what a game changer. This book has completely changed the way that I look at the way I approach teaching. It's really made me rethink so much of what I'm doing in my classroom. 
  • THE ELECTRIC WAR by Mike Winchell: Mike is a friend and long time supporter. Even if he weren't, this book is outstanding. Mike takes a difficult and complicated time in history and weaves it into an actual story. Reminded me of Sheinken. I can't wait for the follow up. 
  • THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DINOSAURS by Stephen Brusatte: I can't believe that three of my best of books are non-fiction, but it was a weird year. This book was amazing. It turned millions of years of natural history into an exciting narrative. I was my 6 year old self seeing the T-Rex skeleton at the Museum of Natural History. 
  • FIRE AND BLOOD by George RR Martin: Not non-fiction but it read like non-fiction. It really showed the depth of the world that GRRM created for his classic novels. 
  • FOR THE KILLING OF KINGS by Howard Andrew Jones: My favorite fantasy of the year. A throwback to the 90s, this book was a rollicking, fun adventure that reminded me of my own writing. It's pretty easy to see why we were agent mates for a while considering the similarities in our work. 

Disappointments: THE EYES OF THE DRAGON, THE SONG OF SUSANNAH, DRAGONS OF THE HIGHLORD SKIES. THERE WILL COME A DARKNESS (to be fair, I thought this was good but I had extremely high expectations that it didn't meet).

Series I Finished:
  • THE DARK TOWER by Stephen King: Long, meandering and equal parts masterpiece and piece of garbage. At a get together this past November I had a long conversation with a super fan of the series that was thrilled to talk about it with me. I'm glad I finished it and experienced it. 
  • THE WINNER'S TRILOGY by Marie Rutkoski: Satisfying but flat ending to a series I really enjoyed. Relied a little too much on the "characters making stupid decisions for the sake of plot" trope at times, but it's still worth the read. 
  • THRONES AND BONES by Lou Anders: I wish that this series wasn't over because it's really great. I'd love to see the world book that I KNOW Anders has for it. 
  • SIN DU JOUR by Matt Wallace: A classic fantasy series that grew in epic-ness as it went on. Side note, the final three books of this series I read while sitting in the hospital with my dad as he had a growth moved from his brain. It helped, so thanks Matt. 
So that was 2019 in reading. Tomorrow I'll likely talk about my writing. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Few Thoughts On The Rise of Skywalker (SPOILERS)

Excuse my language, but I FUCKING loved it. Ignore the critics and the trolls, and there are plenty of them out there, They either want clicks or have an axe to grind. It was a huge, glorious, fun epic that doesn't stop moving and ends in a fairly satisfactory manner. I'm still thinking about it almost sixteen hours later, rolling things over in my head and smiling at some of them. There's a lot to unpack and I feel like I'm going to write another entry when I go see it a second time over break.

The movie isn't perfect, but what STAR WARS movie is perfect. There are legit criticisms you can make about it, but I will not accept any variation of the following three:

  • Rey is too powerful/Rey is a Mary Sue.
  • The plot was too convoluted. (Especially if you raved about ENDGAME)
  • Too much fanservice/ It was fan fiction. It's a fucking Star Wars movie for Chrissakes. 
As I said, the movie truly is an epic. The run time is listed as two hours and twenty-one minutes. It felt like they could've spent another hour telling the story to flesh a few things out. It suffers, a little, from the "traveling at the speed of plot" trope, but if you know me at all, this isn't much of an issue. I can see how that could bother someone, though.

JJ Abrams catches a lot of shit, but he made some interesting choices for this movie, especially when it came to the structure. He leaned heavily into the things that inspired it, like epic fantasies. It was interesting to see. The film starts with a clear prologue that basically sets up the plot of the rest of the film while resetting a lot of what we've seen so far. (They leave PLENTY of blanks for the EU to fill in and I actually appreciate that!) The story starts en media res and never really stops rolling. And that's a good thing. It plays with the epic framework quite deftly. The beginning re-establishes our characters while briefly (maybe too briefly) fleshes out some changes in their relationships. The plot hits all the beats (or "checks boxes) as our heroes go on a good, old fashioned quest. It's a lot of jumping around and feels a little disjointed in spots, but it works well. I didn't see how it was "slow" the way some critics described it. The story transitions from the quest narrative into the "final battle" beats, from gathering the team to the final assault. It works and it a thrilling action sequence that steals from all sorts of sources (including an outstanding nod to ENDGAME). The conclusion is satisfying enough, with all the hallmark STAR WARS notes and the story is bookended with a beautiful, poignant epilogue.

In the end this was fun, and we're missing fun in today's epics. I've written about this before. Everything is grim and dark and gritty. There were sacrifices and stakes and risk without all the GAME OF THRONES grimdarkness. And that made it vastly more entertaining.

A few thoughts:

  • Ben Solo's redemptive arc: I was hesitant to embrace this, considering what he did to his father, but in the end it worked in no small part to the performance of Adam Driver. Of all the roles, he had the most difficult. We needed to hate him and sort of understand him at the same time. Driver NAILS it. 
  • Rey Palpatine: I loved this entire arc. His resurrection is unsurprising and has been hinted at in the EU since Disney reset the canon. It actually goes all the way back to ROTJ and it makes sense that he really was the "phantom menace" the entire time. (I can't believe I typed that either.) The revelation about his relationship to Rey is downright biblical. She was created for the sole purpose of creating a vessel for his soul. That's some real Old Testament shit. It's also creepy, evil and shows how Palpatine really was looking at the long game.
  • The scene that absolutely destroyed me was after the duel in the ruins of the Death Star. Ben Solo, having abandoned the Kylo Ren identity, is faced with his father's spirit in the "Force zone" (I'll talk about that in a minute) and that helps him turn to the light. I wept when I saw it, I sobbed in the car thinking about it after and I'm a little misty right now writing about it. It's got a lot to do with what's going on with my dad. Couple that with the fact that I think there's a passing resemblance between Han and my dad and it was over for me. 
  • The supposed LAST JEDI blowback was such clickbait bullshit. So much of what Abrams did in this movie was clearly connected to TLJ, either explaining it or supporting it. Any explanation was done with what felt like no disrespect or attempt to undo what Johnson tried to do. The only gripe I had about the Rey revelation was that it undid the idea that ANYONE can be a Force user. (Where's the kid with the broom?) Is there going to be a new Jedi order? Are Finn and Jannah going to become Jedi?
  • Speaking of Finn, I enjoyed his character arc, but what did he have to say to Rey? I'm glad they left it out in the end. Are him and Rose still a thing? Or is she with Merry now. I am here for an EU book featuring the four of them in a real love dodecahedron. (Hey Disney/Del Rey, I'm available if you need me to write it!) 
  • I thought Rose was criminally underused and I really, really missed Phasma.
  • A friend on Facebook made a point about all the Sith in the Temple. He asked if that meant that everyone knew about the Sith. But that's not the case. I don't remember any of the Resistance mentioning the Sith, only the First Order and that was after they met Palpatine. The Sith are an accepted part of the canon, so people would know about them. I believe some of this has been addressed in the EU (in particular Chuck Wendig's books). I liked it because it showed the power of a few cultists to blindly follow a selfish, out-for-himself madman. 
  • Threepio's arc was really cool. Goldenrod gets to be the dashing hero. His actual enthusiasm and willingness to go was a great little change. His "goodbye to my friends" scene teared me up. His willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good is a long way from the droid calling R2 a "overweight glob of grease." It was a beautiful moment, completely undone by having his memory restored. I felt it robbed him of that moment. 
  • The Rey/Kylo duels were amazing. The use of the "Force plane" was really cool and became a really fun little wrinkle. The dyad line in the hangar was really, really powerful.
  • I thought the space battle was a little underwhelming but it did the job it was supposed to. 
  • Hux's arc was pitch perfect: an entitled, petulant little prick. His line that he didn't care who won as long as Ren lost was so good. 
So, ignore the critics and trolls. It was a thrilling ride that had me smiling. 


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Why We Do It

I haven't written much about school this year because  haven't had much to say. (When coupled with my recent writing struggles it's called a motif in the literature world.) But last week, some things stood out and I wrote about it.

The worst days on the job are the ones where you find yourself stuck in the doldrums that only get worse when ideas start rolling around in your head because the job numbs the mind and soul. The best days are the ones where you walk away feeling like you did something important for someone and that they are buying the soup you are selling.

Last week, coming back from Thanksgiving break, I wasn't at my best. I didn't feel good. I had a busy week planned and we were already a day behind. But something happened along the way. My students were a little more attentive and engaged, despite a dry, lecture based lesson plan. I connected with some difficult students about their reluctance to finish a major assignment that ended with me extending a deadline for them. It was turning into a good day.

I went downstairs to check my mailbox and wound up in the main hall with the athletic director just as two of my students were walking down the hall. One is an athlete and the AD asked her how her college essay was coming along. My jaw damn near dropped and I put up a full-court, "I'm offended" attitude. I did this because her college essay was moving. So moving I posted about it on Facebook.

Her essay was beautiful and devastating and emotional, so I told her that. She blushed and was awkwardly silent for a long time. I told her to come see me and that we could fix it. It was too long and needed about 200 words culled from it. She shuffled away and agree to meet me the next day during my planning period. To my surprise, she came and I was elated.

She's a tough cookie. A quiet tomboy that gives out a heavy "don't F with me vibe." She's got a smile that lights up a room, though, and it has to be earned, which is what makes it so powerful when she does smile. She not mean but serious, two attributes easy to confuse, and guarded. That she trusted me this much meant so much to me. She's also a talented writer, though I don't think she knows this being shackled by our five paragraph form essay. But that's another blog post.

What happened in the next hour or so was nothing short of remarkable. We pulled up her paper, making a duplicate to work with because I felt that the entire essay needed to be saved. She wanted to know why and I told her, very frankly, that her essay was important and there were a lot of young people that need to read it so they would know that they are not alone in the world. She blushed furiously when I said that. I might have too. This wasn't pandering, this was the truth.

We pared the essay down to a tight 590 words and she thanked me for the help. It felt amazing, this is what teaching should be. It was a two way street. She trusted me and was willing to go along with what I was telling her. A lot of students wouldn't have gone along with me, feeling their work was adequate enough. But she wanted to get better and know why we were doing what we did.

I want more days like this at school. This is why we do what we do. Here's a young woman with an important story to tell and she tells it well. I was able to help her, encourage her and tell her how important her words were. Maybe I don't present myself as the ally I should in moments like this. My relationship with students can be antagonistic much of the time. Maybe that can change just a little.