Month: April 2016

Reading Animal Farm with eighth-graders

This particular re-reading of Orwell’s classic novel has been brought to you by my eighth grade English class, who picked Animal Farm over two other books, the names of which I can’t remember right now. The book was almost unilaterally beloved by my class -one girl called it “the exact opposite of a John Greene book”, a comment that she meant as high praise and gave me plenty of chuckles. While not a particularly delicate or subtle piece of satire, I was still very impressed by how much the kids got out of it, considering the lack of knowledge they had of the 20th century political revolutions that informed the novel.

Animal Farm can be a bit heavy-handed, but in light of its fairy-tale sensibilities, this isn’t even a flaw. And it isn’t preachy, which was one of my fears about this re-reading. I loved Animal Farm as a teenager, when I was going through my anarchist and libertarian phases (don’t worry -I never stooped so low as Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead). 1984, while more well-known and having had a greater impact on popular culture, didn’t hold up to my post-university criticisms nearly as well. None of the complaints I had about that book apply here.

Animal Farm demonstrates Orwell’s masterful command of simple, Anglo-Saxon prose on a sentence-by-sentence level. Finding a single passage in here that wouldn’t be a good sample paragraph in a creative writing course would be a challenging task. The book is a pleasure to read, and it reads easily. Having read many of his essays recently, this was not surprising to me. What was surprising, though, was his perfect pacing. I’m not throwing around the superlative lightly -in teaching this book, I’ve read it three times, and the progression of the narrative is literally perfect in a way I’ve seldom encountered in any genre of fiction, although literary fiction is notoriously bad in this regard. This book was educational, and is inarguably a masterpiece.

Recommendation: Read it, re-read it, and read his essays. Goddamn.


Gateway to Paradise Revisited, and Further Notes

I recently had a conversation with someone more familiar with this book than myself, and it brought up a few things that I didn’t really address -or that I addressed badly- in my original reading log. As such, I want to set the record straight. This project is, and will continue to be, a series of rough drafts, and as such I did not want to edit the original entry (which can be found here:

The main complaint I had about Gateway to Paradise was that I felt it was timestamped. In addition to the aforementioned conversation, I have re-read the book, and while I still feel it falls short of his other work, my complaints were a bit too generalized. I had not realized this, but almost all of my irritations at the “ephemera” in this collection were centered on one story, “The Visiting Writer”. Vollmer references Malaysia Airlines flight 370, (the missing plane that dominated CNN in 2014) The Walking Dead, (”I slid out my phone and texted my wife, who, at this hour, would no doubt be curled up in bed, binge-watching a show that followed the survivors of a zombie apocalypse”)and Instagram (“…my eleven-year-old daughter’s recent obsession with a photo-sharing social media app, and that she now spent the majority of her free time taking pictures of herself wearing sunglasses or of the strawberry sandwich cookie she was about to ‘crush’ or simply posting kissy-face Emojis to a variety of boys’ comment streams…”). This is a story that I actually found very memorable, very good both as a whole and with regard to specific passages that jumped out and grabbed me. I found this story (and to a very slightly lesser extent, “Probation”) to be the strongest and most memorable story in the collection, yet the things that irritated me most about this book were all within my favorite story. This seems to tie in with my larger experience with the text -I’m going to be most critical of the things that interfere in any way with the kind of writing I enjoy most. When I go into a book written by an author I love, I’m going to dig out any and all irritations, especially in those stories or sections I enjoy most.

This brings me to an evaluation of the methodology of my way of logging my reading experiences. As longtime readers know, I always keep these reading logs to three paragraphs, and I tend to refrain from quoting or referencing the text in question. I want to communicate the general experience of the text to my readers, rather than analyze the particulars. I love literary criticism and analysis, but that isn’t what this project is for. I think there is value in this kind of general and quickly digested approach, (and I’ve gotten comments and messages to that end) but it is going to leave a lot of important information out. So, to clarify, these writings are not reviews. They are not an in-depth examination of a text. They are recollections and impressions, intentionally recorded at a distance from the source material. There is a different kind of truth to be found in these sorts of observations, and I find it to be worth pursuing.

Matthew Vollmer’s Gateway to Paradise

This is the third book of Vollmer’s I’ve read, the most recent, and the one I’d be least likely to recommend. I loved “Inscriptions for Headstones” -it was a fantastically novel and cohesive piece of work that employed both an engaging literary device and a compelling literary voice. And his short story collection, “Future Missionaries of America,” made good use of religious theme and held itself together well. As for this collection… the most unified feature of it was it’s frustrating propensity to time-stamp itself with references to Snapchat and Twitter. This book is not good right now, and it’s going to be a real slag in about ten years.

I don’t have any issues with incorporating the ephemeral into fiction. But Vollmer’s way of doing it serves no purpose -if anything, it distracts from the narratives and from the voice. And the voice, while not as powerful or engaging as I’ve found it in the past, is still the strongest part of Vollmer’s writing. These stories have clearly been worked over, but they remain badly flawed. There’s so little to hold on to. While I vividly remember sections of “Inscriptions” and complete stories from “Future Missionaries,” almost everything here is forgettable.

Vollmer is a strong writer, and the stories here are still a fair bit higher on the shelf than most of what is available. But this story collection is measurably worse than other things he has written, and I’m pretty disappointed.

Recommendation: Skip it. Read his other stuff.

Book Fight!

Book Fight is a easily my favorite literary podcast out of the half-dozen or so that I listen to. I’ve mentioned them here before, but they are in the midst of a publicity drive in lieu of fund-raising, and since I’m a broke-ass sometimes-teacher in underfunded (underpaying) public schools, I relish the chance to be able to participate without putting myself in an uncomfortable financial situation.

Book Fight is a podcast produced by and featuring a couple of guys who went through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who teach Creative Writing at Temple, who do a fair bit of writing themselves, and who are editors at Barrelhouse Magazine, that wonderful intuition of letters at the intersection of literary inebriation and reality television.

Go download Book Fight on iTunes. Listen to a couple episodes. Mike and Tom kick ass, and they manage to offer damn good literary perspectives on every genre of writing imaginable, a practical perspective on the acts of writing and teaching writing, and a sufficient degree of condemnation pointed at whole damn edifice that is the literary world. And they’re funny as hell.

Recommendation: Go. Listen.

“Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss

This is easily the best essay collection I’ve read this year. I had previously encountered Biss reading Volume 1 of Best Creative Nonfiction, as well as on the wonderful podcast Book Fight, which I have recommended before and plan to again. Her work always stood out to me, but there’s a lot of good writing out there, and it took me a while to get to her. The project of reading fifty female authors this year probably expiated that, and I’m glad.

These essays deal with identity, specifically the search for identity in race and nationality. Biss, who is white, has grown up with black family members, and has developed a nuanced and piercing sense of racial examination. Whether she is pondering her time as a teacher in Harlem, examining her own role in the gentrification of a mixed Chicago neighborhood, or feeling shame at her American identity in a Mexican border town, she cuts through the obfuscatious bullshit and forces both herself and her readers to face some profoundly unpleasant truths.

While this description may sound like some unpleasantly sanctimonious lefty academic hand-wringing, the only thing it has in common with that unfortunate genre of academic writing is its subject. In the title essay, Biss talks about the history of lynching in America within the context of the invention of the telephone and the implementation of the ubiquitous poles that made phone lines possible, and their inevitable incorporation into the systemic terrorizing and murder of black men. It’s a masterful piece of writing that is simultaneously approachable enough for me to teach it to my 8th grade class (most of who read at least a few grades levels below 8th grade) and dense enough to not only stand up to a half-dozen readings, but to thrive under that degree of scrutiny, offering greater nuance and detail.

Recommendation: Buy this book. If you are undecided, read the essay mentioned above (link below).

An update to my experiences with Google voice typing on Docs:


A previous post chronicled my trials of Google’s voice typing program, and now that I’ve used it a bit more, I have some further thoughts.

1: It’s damn handy for transcribing something written on paper to a digital format. Not perfect, but very useful. I had lost about twenty pages of a manuscript in a computer crash after going a bit too long without a backup (a situation I have taken measures to prevent happening again) and voice typing made the process of getting it all back into Scrivener much easier. P.S., back up your shit.

2: It’s tough for me to use it as a means of direct composition via dictation. I’ve practiced thinking compositionally at the speed I type and at the speed I write by hand, but learning to do it at the speed of speech would be an effort.

3: There are lots of other ways to implement it. I can imagine using it while having an argument or a conversation and mining the resulting wall of text for useful bits, or using it clean up a rough draft. More experimentation needed.