Some Dark Humor in The Aeneid

I’m in book 10 of The Aeneid–a major battle scene–and I just came across this lovely bit:


Ha! “There were these two identical twins…at least, they were identical twins until one got his hand cut off and the other got decapitated. NOW we can tell them apart just fine!”

What President Monson Is Reading

512ktnfwjelIn President Monson’s brief remarks at this month’s General Conference, perhaps the thing that struck me most was in the priesthood session when he said, “Recently I read the true account of a dramatic manifestation concerning these promises.” Most of the talk, in fact, is a summary of a story from the book. That right there is already pretty high praise for a book, to have a prophet mention it and cite from it as the core of an address to the world.

It’s great to know what the prophet has been reading. He’s still working full time as CEO of a global organization, he’s several years a widower now, and his strength is starting to decline, but he still reads, and this is what he reads: a book about the inspiring experiences of Latter-day Saints during World War II. As far as I know, there isn’t a team of research interns doing any behind-the-scenes lifting in preparing anybody’s conference talks; when the prophet says he’s been reading this book lately, it’s really something he chose to pick up and spend time with.

Maybe we would do well to follow the prophet in his priorities, his habits, and even in his specific choices in reading. The book he mentions, Saints at War: Experiences of Latter-Day Saints in World War II, isn’t on Google Books, but it’s on sale at Amazon for as low as 14 cents a copy.

14 cents, to do what the prophet does.

You know what would be great? A “Prophets Book Club,” where people read books mentioned by prophets and apostles in General Conference.

At the end of the citation for this book in the published version of President Monson’s talk, a note says, “used by permission.” That’s wonderful: the prophet (or maybe his secretary) reached out to the author to ask if it was OK to refer to the book in General Conference. What a sweet conversation I bet that was.


Top 5 Most Frightening Scenes In Stephen King Books


Be ye warned, Constant Reader: here there be spoilers.

5. The Dark Tower VII: “The Thing Under the Castle”

This is the most recent entry on this list; the only one from the 21st century, but it works because it so strongly harkens back to classic King style: that combination of simple, elemental storytelling with detailed, psychological exposition.

Roland and Susanna are, as the chapter title implies, fleeing some unknown thing in the winding, dark passages under a ruined, ancient castle. At first, there’s just a slight noise in the distance, but then, over the course of several pages, the noises get clearer and closer, and that primitive instinct we all have warns of an approaching predator.

The pace increases to one of sheer panic as they first jog, then run, then sprint with terror-fueled energy away from the mysterious thing. Susanna, whose wheelchair has been lost, rides on Roland’s back and can see behind them into the darkness at what’s coming. As it finally comes within biting distance…


Continue reading

A French Writer On Politics & Society Today

From Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel, Submission:

“The Muslim Brotherhood is an unusual party, you know. Many of the usual political issues simply don’t matter to them. To start with, the economy is not their main concern. What they care about is birthrate and education. To them it’s simple–whichever segment of the population has the highest birthrate, and does the best job of transmitting its values, wins. If you control the children, you control the future.” pg. 64

“My only goal in life was to do a little reading and get in bed at four in the afternoon with a carton of cigarettes and a bottle; and yet, at the same time, I had to admit, I was going to die if I kept that up–I was going to die fast, unhappy and alone. And did I really want to die fast, unhappy and alone? In the end, only kind of.” pg. 203

“The fact is, most people live their lives without worrying too much about these supposedly philosophical questions. They think about them only when they’re facing some kind of tragedy–a serious illness, the death of a loved one. At least, that’s how it is in the West; in the rest of the world people die and kill in the name of these very questions, they wage bloody wars over them, and they have since the dawn of time. These metaphysical questions are exactly what men fight over, not market shares or who gets to hunt where. Even in the West, atheism has no solid basis.” pg. 204

Highly Recommended: Mockingbird

51IwBRUAXyL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I think I’ve found a new favorite science fiction novel. Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, is “set in a grim and decaying New York City in the 25th century. The population is declining, no one can read, and robots rule over the drugged, illiterate humans. With the birth rate dropping, the end of the species seems a possibility.”

The most amazing thing about this story is just how uncanny its dystopian vision is. Combine the most prescient parts of Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World and you have this. Actually, it mostly reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, but where that was just a skeleton of a fable, this is fully fleshed out.

I marked a couple of dozen passages about stupified dependency, obsession with self-fulfillment, and the joys of rediscovering civilization; there are just too many to quote. Instead, here is a picture of one page, where the hero shares a passage from a history book that explains how the world fell. I got chills. This was published in 1980. He saw where things were going perfectly.


It’s not just a simple tale of society falling apart, though. There’s genuine love and adventure and sadness. Part of it is a Shawshank Redemption-like prison story. Part is wilderness survival. And there’s even more than that.

Just as with another great dystopian sci-fi classic, The Children of Men (which was also about the decline of the human family), there is one f-bomb, powerful for its lone status. At one point, a suicidal robot tells a pregnant woman that she should have an abortion. Let’s just say that I wholeheartedly approve of her response.

Notes and Review: Fair Isn’t Always Equal

51KK0WZvPCL._SX397_BO1,204,203,200_Last semester, administrators at my school bought copies of this book about grading in the “differentiated” classroom for the staff and encouraged teachers to read it. “This is the direction we’re moving in,” we were told. I don’t know if this dictate comes from them or their own bosses far above us all, but based on my notes for this book, I’m worried about that direction.

  • Chapter 3: the first of the big red flags, this quote: “He or she has to understand each student’s ‘truth,’ and convince students that their perceptions are incorrect or incomplete, and that the ‘truth’ the teacher has is the one they should adopt.” (20) Creepy indoctrination much? A similar puppet-master mindset comes across later on page 129: “[grading on a curve is] an obsolete practice indicative of less enlightened times. We’ve progressed…” Fascistic rhetoric really shouldn’t have any place here.
  • The top of page 24 uses the phrase “death bell” when the author means “death knell.” Similarly, the bottom of page 182 mentions “the big questions that get circumnavigated in our daily attempts,” when clearly the word he was looking for was “circumvented.” There are more examples. Such mistakes from an “expert” make me worry.
  • Page 31: “Some students’ mindmaps of their analyses of Renaissance art rival the most cogent, written versions of their classmates.” Yes, but mustn’t everyone learn to write well?
  • Chapter 7: a meandering, pointless mess of gobbledygook here.
  • Page 90: grading is “a single symbol in a tiny box on a piece of thin paper that may or may not make it out from the crumpled darkness of the boom bag–and only if parents ask for it.” Isn’t that a bit of a straw man? Those always worry me. And do the reforms to grades suggested for report cards in chapter 14 really fix this? If not, why not?
  • One problem with edu-expert books like this is that they tend to see each factor of teaching in a neat vacuum, separate from the rest. For instance, Wormeli often paints problems and offers solutions that either have already been solved by 504s and rubrics, or that couldn’t be solved in the ways he suggests because of 504s and rubrics! Chapter 7 has too many examples of this.
  • The mindset behind Chapter 8 is almost entirely proven false by that one simple Woody Allen quote: “80% of success in life is showing up.”
  • Chapter 8: “laziness is a myth…laziness doesn’t exist.” (104) Students aren’t immune to human nature. Nobody is immune to human nature.
  • Page 108: “To purposely set up a compelling goal that everyone else can easily earn but they cannot seems to be a penalty of sorts.” It’s called life. Good grief. America’s young don’t need more bubble wrap.
  • Chapter 9: “There is no solid evidence to support the current emphasis on students doing large amounts of, or even daily, homework.” (120) Besides all the evidence that might be given here, I might suggest Wormeli read up on Robert Marzano’s work, except that he must already know it well–he cites four of Marzano’s books in his own. Seems oddly convenient to ignore him now.
  • Chapter 15 is a weird collection of ways for administrators to manipulate teachers into accepting the advice in this book. Page 185, for instance, suggests slipping an “expert” into the teachers lounge to casually strike up conversations in favor of these reforms. Seriously. The last of many red flags.

Overall, this book seems like slick pseudo-professional propaganda for things like unlimited late work with no penalties, minimum F, and abolishing homework (or graded homework, at least). The author’s tone makes it clear that this is just science, people, not an attempt to make things easier for kids and harder for teachers. Let’s put it this way: if you really were trying to dumb down our system so that more students do well and we all magically look better, isn’t this exactly how you’d do it? Shouldn’t that make us wary?

Not to seem too cynical, I actually highlighted lots of good ideas in the book, but here’s the thing: all of them were reviews of simple, common sense teacher training that had nothing to do directly with the main thrust of the book. So why were those things here? You’d find that same material in any of a number of beginning education textbooks.

I suppose this truly is the direction into which we’re going. The signs are clear. Alas.


“It All Matters”

          It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

          What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.

          What is worth dying for is barely noticed.

–Laura McBride, We Are Called to Rise


Highly Recommended: The World’s Strongest Librarian

51HOYIpg0PL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_From this book’s Amazon description: “A funny and uplifting story of how a Mormon kid with Tourette’s found salvation in books and weight lifting.” What’s not to like? Here’s what appealed to me about each part of that summary:

FUNNY: Josh Hanagarne is a natural comedian. His panache for characterization and anecdote are evident on nearly every page, and his memoir is filled with plenty of amusing characters and anecdotes–most chapters start with stories about his work in libraries, which reminded me of the McSweeney’s feature “Dispatches From a Public Librarian,” which I also loved.

UPLIFTING: This is no Hallmark movie. There’s an unvarnished–but still generally lighthearted–feel to this story that does leave you feeling positive about things.

MORMON: Spoiler: Josh ends the book not active in the church, but he is never bitter about it; there’s no axe to grind here. Instead, all of his descriptions of Mormons are positive. He even relates a couple of earlier spiritual experiences and doesn’t try to downplay them–they’re still very real to him. That’s rare and wonderful. Alas, his only references to the Book of Mormon are to lament how boring it is, though.

TOURETTE’S: Josh handles the telling of his experiences with Tourette’s with the same deft narrating that strengthens his humor as well.

BOOKS: I’ll love most anything that name drops as many great titles as lovingly as this book does. Josh has some great taste. I also loved his ecstatic passion for libraries.

WEIGHT LIFTING: Just as with the humor, religion, and Tourette’s, his stories of working out are enthusiastically entertaining, especially the segments towards the end of the book with his main trainer, a perfectly amusing, realistic, and inspiring character.

This is also a fine memoir about a young man starting a family, and loving every tedious and frustrating moment that entails. So really, this book has it all.



Hugh Nibley’s Favorite Books

Not my favorite books by Nibley, but his favorites. I remembered seeing this list a long time ago, and finally tracked it down. Here it is in the Deseret News, October 31, 1980. (Thanks, Google. It’s also in one of the newer volumes of the Collected Works, but not one that’s online yet.) Chronicles and Satyricon are both on hold at my library now…


Recommended Reading: Michael Dirda’s Browsings

51etSw1BApL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Near the end of this collection of short essays, Dirda says that his goal with the original weekly columns was “to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.”

Mission accomplished.

Dirda is a book reviewer–a professional book nerd–and his infectious passion for all things bookish is on full display here. It’s hard not to get caught up in the joy of his love for books, though search me for why anyone would try to resist.

His voice in these essays is kind and witty, his boyish enthusiasm rattling off each page like any kid geeking out about a new obsession. Some of the casual chattiness comes off as a bit contrived, but never distractingly so. Dirda is the essayist that Nora Ephron wanted to be.

Continue reading

Early Christian Fathers

fathersI’ve been reading a great collection of writings by Christian leaders from just after New Testament times. I’ve largely enjoyed it, but as I get into the second half, I’m stalling out–my enthusiasm for this one is just winding down, so I’m putting it back on the shelf for now (sorry, Justin Martyr).

The Ensign had a great article about these writings in the August 1976 issue.

Of the documents I’ve read so far, all were at least good, and some were really great. The four marked with an A+ I highly recommend to everybody. Here are my notes and quotes:



This one comes from a bishop who knew and was mentored by the Apostles, and his letter is amazing. It’s actually from within the first century, making it contemporary with the New Testament, and was even included in some early versions of the New Testament. It isn’t canonized scripture for us, but it isn’t far off…the Spirit is there in this one.

35 How blessed and amazing are God’s gifts, dear friends!  2Life with immortality, splendor with righteousness, truth with confidence, faith with assurance, self-control with holiness! And all these things are within our comprehension.  3What, then, is being prepared for those who wait for him? The Creator and Father of eternity, the all-holy, himself knows how great and wonderful it is.  4We, then, should make every effort to be found in the number of those who are patiently looking for him, so that we may share in the gifts he has promised.  5And how shall this be, dear friends? If our mind is faithfully fixed on God; if we seek out what pleases and delights him; if we do what is in accord with his pure will, and follow in the way of truth. If we rid ourselves of all wickedness, evil, avarice, contentiousness, malice, fraud, gossip, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, pretension, conceit, and inhospitality.



There are seven of these letters–as a whole, I give them an A-, but his letters to the Romans and to the Philadelphians each get a solid A, and my favorite, to the Ephesians, gets an A+. A quote:

9 I have heard that some strangers came your way with a wicked teaching. But you did not let them sow it among you. You stopped up your ears to prevent admitting what they disseminated. Like stones of God’s Temple, ready for a building of God the Father, you are being hoisted up by Jesus Christ, as with a crane (that’s the cross!), while the rope you use is the Holy Spirit. Your faith is what lifts you up, while love is the way you ascend to God.

You are all taking part in a religious procession,185 carrying along with you your God, shrine, Christ, and your holy objects, and decked out from tip to toe in the commandments of Jesus Christ. I too am enjoying it all, because I can talk with you in a letter, and congratulate you on changing your old way of life and setting your love on God alone.

Continue reading

Reviewed and Recommended: The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell

6199d0InE2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The world waited ten years for a follow-up to the amazing novel The Rule of Four, and last year we finally got it. One of the co-authors of The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell, published The Fifth Gospel, a dense and literary murder mystery set entirely in the Vatican.

It’s a worthy second work, though not quite as gripping and fast-paced as his previous book. In fact, it’s quite slow at times–there’s not much action here. It’s more Agatha Christie than Dan Brown.

But it wasn’t the plot that kept me going. It was the narrator. The Rule of Four was about college students, written by two guys in that phase of life themselves. Ten years later, Caldwell is a husband and the father of three small children, a young professional settling into the life he’s established. Again, this is all reflected in the narrator.

Caldwell loves the family that are his characters and he wants us to, also. And we do.

Even better, the narrator is a religious scholar and a priest. I don’t know if Caldwell is religious or not, but his book is. It doesn’t aim to be faith promoting, but it takes religion seriously. In the eyes of the narrator and the world around him, faith is a valuable, respectable thing that has real heft in our minds and spirits. I was immediately comfortable reading this book in a way that I haven’t been with a novel in a long time.

The worldview of the novel is mature and realistic in a way that most of our society has forgotten is even possible.

Caldwell’s writing is skilled, and yes, there’s plenty of intriguing trivia here to keep the da Vinci Code crowd interested. Like The Rule of Four, The Fifth Gospel largely revolves around reverence for a historical and rare ancient text, another huge plus in its favor.

As soon as I finished it, I realized that I liked it enough that I’ll read whatever Caldwell writes next, whatever it is and whenever it comes out. Hopefully it won’t take another ten years. What better recommendation can a reviewer give?

“Relatable” Reading

There’s a popular trope among students (and many teachers) that the things people read should be “relatable,” meaning that stories should reflect the ideas, cultures, and even ethnicities of the readers. That, we are told, is what gets people interested, and helps them to enjoy and benefit from reading.

Hogwash. Balderdash. Baloney.

If the point of reading–of education in general–is only to wallow in a celebration of ourselves as we are, then what’s the point?

Some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had–and certainly the ones that have mattered the most and stuck with me the most–are those that challenged me by presenting things that were not relatable. (I still remember sitting in some waiting room about a dozen years ago and passing the time by perusing a copy of Latina Businesswoman Magazine; it was a joyous glimpse into another world.)

There might even be an almost inverse relationship between the power of a text and the degree to which it resembles the life of the reader.

The pandering instinct behind the push to present more relatable texts to students is only going to stunt their minds further. After all, even for the selfie generation, staring at themselves eventually becomes boring.

Continue reading

For #TBT: Three Book Thoughts

That’s what TBT stands for, right?

  1. I read any number of Cliff’s Notes when I was young, and the summaries never stuck with me for long. However, putting in the dozens of hours to actually read a big, dense novel always burns many aspects into my long term memory. There’s nothing else like this experience for non-readers to relate to, and it’s sad to me that so many students may never know the thrill of remembering the favorite minor details of a weeks-long reading project years or decades later. It’s one of life’s special pleasures.
  2. Over the last two weeks, I’ve picked up a dozen books that I’ve been meaning to read from the library. I’ll never be able to read them all before they’re due, but carrying the stack around and feeling them all together is pleasant. Hopefully seeing them on the table will motivate me to read the ones I’m in the middle of now faster. Man, I love the library.
  3. Another great joy of being an aging reader: seeing the covers of new editions of cherished books and remembering how much better the old ones were. I don’t keep as many books at home as I used to, but I still have some from my youth 20-30 years ago and seeing those old covers is always a treat. For some reason, the illustrations on older editions of horror novels are scarier, fantasy and sci-fi novels are more creative and clever, and literary novels are more earnest. Nostalgia, I suppose. Something else we miss out on if the young don’t read. Life with books is grand.