Recent Bookshelf

Since I’ve been back from my adventures in Asia, I have found some reading momentum. This usually happens for me in the summer, but this year I was scared it wasn’t going to. When the spring semester ended, I was excited to have the chance to get lots of reading done, but it simply wasn’t happening. I couldn’t get into anything, and I floundered through the opening 15 pages of various books, never catching any traction. Luckily, the 50+ hours spent in airports and on airplanes in my Asia travels sort of forced me to do some reading.

During my travels, I read–for very different reasons–Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009). I had purchased Greene’s book because it popped up when I did some Google searching for “novels about Vietnam” and it was the only one I found that wasn’t about the Vietnam War (at least directly). I really, really loved it, especially since I had watched some of Ken Burns’s recent documentary and had some knowledge about the historical and political context of the region before the war. It’s a great novel, but it’s even better considering it was written in 1955 but basically predicts what ended up happening less than ten years later. I thoroughly enjoyed it. McCann’s novel I had read before, and I re-read it because I’ll be using it in a class this upcoming semester. I don’t remember loving it when I read it in the past, and I wouldn’t say I loved it this time. But it checks all of the requisite boxes of a good contemporary novel, and I do really love the interweaved narratives circling around the centering event of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Two Towers. There were some parts where I was flipping ahead, disengaged and hoping for the next chapter to start. But, overall, it’s worth reading, and I *hope* my students have things to say about it. I also started Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995) while I was in Hanoi, but–like an idiot–I left it in the backseat of a taxi. What a waste. I hope whoever found it speaks English and likes to read.

My time abroad gave me some momentum, and I’ve only continued since I’ve been back. I have read A LOT in the past month, and hopefully I can squeeze in 1-2 more books before school starts in a couple of weeks. Here’s a list, followed by some specific thoughts about a few of them:

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (2016)

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

There There by Tommy Orange (2018)

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (2018)

Early Work by Andrew Martin (2018)

The last three I bought based solely on “Recommendations” on Amazon–they were books that kept popping up in my searches, so I went for it. I bought Less because it’s the most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Imagine Me Gone is a book I’ve seen in every bookstore I’ve walked into for the past couple of years. I finally figured that I should stop just looking at the cover and read it.

Of these five, my favorite is undoubtedly There There.

Image result for there there tommy orange

I try my best to always avoid reading the summaries in the dust jacket flaps or on the back covers, so I’m not sure what this one says. But I would be willing to bet that it says something along the lines of, “A harsh, unflinching look at the contemporary experience of Native Americans.” And, well, this is pretty much the same line I would use to describe the book, too. For some reason I say that hesitatingly. Is it wrong to call this a “Native American” book? If I do, am I relegating it to some sort of margin? If I do, am I unfairly attaching thematic stereotypes and “typecasting”? If I don’t, am I overlooking the book’s central focus and stripping it of its thematic heart? I don’t know.

Regardless of how I would sum it up in one sentence or what syllabus I would/wouldn’t put it on, I loved this book. Fair warning: It’s harsh. But pretty much every book I ever talk about on here is harsh. There are lots of things I liked about it, but I think the main one is its readability. I felt like I was reading Junot Díaz, which for me is a very high compliment. The book is colloquial in ways that seem authentic, regardless of the fact that I am no judge of whether or not a book about Oakland is or isn’t authentic. The group of characters is diverse to say the least, and although there were a few times where I was a bit confused about how each character related to others, or where in the story certain events or people fit, the last 25 pages or so brought everything together in a powerful way. Again, a warning: It’s rough. But it’s fresh, and it’s open-eyed, and it’s human. It taps into that level of reality from which some books always hover too far, and it hits notes that need to reverberate ever more loudly in our society. If you find yourself in a bookstore and you see the book, even if you don’t buy it, sit down, turn to the “Interlude” (about halfway through), and read it. Those 10-15 pages alone make the book valuable, and they are pages that I plan on incorporating into my classes immediately.

As far as the other four books go, I also really enjoyed The Incendiaries and Imagine Me Gone. Well, “enjoyed” probably isn’t the correct word for either. One of them is a graphic, heartbreaking look at the effects of mental illness, and the other is a narrative about the seductive power of religious cults, romantic love, and the overlapping of the two. Considering this, neither is “fun” to read, but both had me engrossed and I read each of them very quickly. I read Incendiaries on a flight to Las Vegas, and I read the other one in less than a week or so. Both of them would make fantastic movies, but not the types of movies that would make very much money at the box office. Let me put it this way: neither movie would star Dwayne Johnson, and at least one of them would probably be released around Christmas and get nominated for an Academy Award and probably never make it to theaters in Abilene.

I had read some quick reviews talking about how hilarious Less is. There are funny parts, and Greer clearly has a quick sense of humor not normally seen in books that win Pulitzer Prizes. A couple of times I laughed out loud at some of the wordplay. But–the Pulitzer? Really? I’m not sure how this book won, and I don’t think this is a book that I will ever think about much in the future. I feel the same way about Early Work. This one  came out very recently, and I don’t think it will be winning any awards. Very readable, with clean prose and some interesting observations for someone like me that went to graduate school and has read lots of the authors mentioned by the pretentious characters. But, in the end, these characters aren’t likable. They are selfish, and aimless, and lazy, and apathetic. I read the entire book in a few days, and then I realized that I’m not sure why I did, nor am I sure what I was supposed to take from it. A look at the empty lives of 21st century aspiring-artists-in-their-late-20s? Okay, I guess.

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School starts in two weeks, which means that meetings start in one week, which means that pleasure reading ends soon. I’ll still be reading a lot–more, actually–once school starts, but reading for class is much different than reading to read. But if giving up pleasure reading means getting back on campus, with new students and new classes and new chances to engage, that’s a trade I’ll take every time. I don’t think you can beat August on a college campus. So much energy, and such a sense of expectation and excitement. It is my absolute favorite time of every year, and I’m getting excited just typing this.

Of course, August quickly ends, and by mid-September that freshness has turned into, “How long until Christmas break?”


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After Asia


I returned to Texas from my travels in Southeast Asia four weeks ago, and I’m finally ready to think about the trip. I was extremely lucky to get the chance to be in Europe last summer for around six weeks, but I can’t really imagine how a trip could be much more different from that experience than my time in Asia. It was… wild. I think that might be the best word I can think of to describe it. Maybe I’ll think of a better one by the end of this post. I’ll get right to it:

My trip (15 days): 

Houston to Bangkok (layover in Taipei)

Bangkok to Krabi, then a ferry to Ko Phi Phi

Krabi to Hong Kong (via DMK in Bangkok)

Hong Kong to Hanoi

Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap

Siem Reap to Bangkok

Bangkok to Houston (layover in Taipei)

Overall, I took 11 different flights, 8 of which were international. I’m guessing that I traveled somewhere around 20,000 miles or so in those two weeks (including my flights to and from Houston). This means lots of time spent in airports, airplanes, customs, and immigration. A lot of time in food courts. A lot of time with headphones in, trying to fall asleep.  Luckily, we never had any trouble at all with immigration. Seriously: There was hardly ever much more than a 10-15 minute wait in any of the lines, which is pretty amazing. I can only imagine how much more difficult the travel would have been if we had had bad luck at one or more of the airports. Thankfully we didn’t.

Most of the flights we took were on budget airlines. If you think that there are lots of options for airlines in America, it doesn’t even compare to Asia. So many different airlines, so many different destinations. The problem, for me, is that many of those budget airlines are quite small when it comes to personal space. I am not huge, but I’m also not small, and I was scrunched into my seat on most of the flights. The worst was a flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong on AirAsia, which was the worst three hours I’ve ever spent on a plane. But, I will say: Many websites warned us that these airlines had strict rules about carry-on bag sizes and weights, and that some of them would make us pay to check the bag. This never happened to us. There were a couple of times when our bags were too heavy, but all we had to do was take a couple of things out, hold them in our hands, and then magically they were no longer too heavy (even though we immediately returned those items back to the bags). Overall, our travel over there was mostly painless.

That being said, my worst experience in terms of travel was a tie between two things: 1) The 2.5 hour ferry ride to Ko Phi Phi, during which half the boat got seasick and a couple of young girls were screaming, “We’re gonna die!” That was supposed to be a pleasant, sight-seeing-from-the-top-deck 1.5 hour ferry ride, but bad weather changed that experience drastically; or 2) The two hours spent in the domestic terminal at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi. It’s one thing to fly internationally over there–most of our time in those terminals was pretty nice and peaceful. Not the case in the domestic terminal in Hanoi. It was a madhouse. The worst speaker system I’ve ever heard delivering nonstop announcements, which were only avoidable because of the even-louder noise of screaming children. It was painful. Horrible. Never been happier to get on an airplane.

Most jaw-dropping experience: The traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. I wish I could adequately describe it. It was simply unbelievable. The amount of cars is incredible, but what makes it truly jaw-dropping is that every nook and cranny around each of those cars is filled in with scooters. I’m not exaggerating. I have never seen anything like the roads in Ho Chi Minh, and I honestly hope I never see them again. The traffic and congestion there almost ruined the city for me.

Most overwhelming place: This would be a tie between two very different places for very different reasons: Hong Kong, and Angkor Wat. Hong Kong is overwhelming in its scope and scale. I’ve been in London, Paris, New York, D.C. I’ve spent time in big cities and been surrounded by big buildings. But nothing really compares, in my memory, to Hong Kong. Everywhere you look are nothing but skyscrapers. And when you get to the top of Victoria Peak (which was amazing, other than the placement of the Bubba Gump restaurant), you realize that there are like ten different city centers that have their own collection of skyscrapers. It’s crazy. Angkor Wat is overwhelming for its scope, too, but also its history. The temples are so old, but they are also never-ending and everywhere. Our guide kept taking us to new spots, and each one seemed to have so many different structures and monuments of some kind. And he made it clear to us that there were even more spots we could have seen. I don’t think we even covered half of what that place has to offer. It’s astounding.


Best food: I ate LOTS of good meals when I was over there, usually involving rice, noodles, vegetables, and meat. I even had a great Indian meal in Hong Kong at the Queen Street Cooked Food Market, which was one of my 5 favorite places on the entire trip (it was BYOB and full of people and food from all of over the world). But one meal stands out as my clear favorite: bun cha in Hanoi. This is the meal that Obama ate with Anthony Bourdain, and this is the meal that we ate two nights in a row because we loved it so much. You don’t order anything–you simply sit down, and they bring you the food. Greens, rice noodles, and this amazing bowl of meat and vegetables in some sort of vinegar-y type broth. Gosh, it was so good. We loved it, especially washed down with a couple of rounds of Hanoi Beer. Here’s a picture:



Best bar: We went to lots of different restaurants and bars while we were there. It was during the World Cup, so basically every single night of our trip there was a game at 8pm and a game at 11pm, local time. This gave us a built-in plan each night, so whatever we did during the day, we were always finding a local spot to have some food and drinks while we watched the games. I kept track of all of the ones we went to in each city, and I loved most of them, but my favorite was actually in my least favorite city: Whiskey and Wares in Ho Chi Minh. Very small, very intimate, and very good drinks. We had a couple of great cocktails and local beers there, and we were lucky enough to get to talk to the guy running the place, too, who happened to be an American. If you ever find yourself in Ho Chi Minh and you are absolutely turned off by the traffic like I was, a cocktail at Whiskey and Wares can go a long way to take your mind off of it.

Best view: Like I mentioned before, the view from the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong was really amazing, but my favorite view of the entire trip was at our first location, Ko Phi Phi. There’s signs all over the north side of the village pointing you to a lookout spot, and our last day we finally did it. It was a long, sweaty hike up (we took the long way), but once we got there, it was amazing. It’s an island in the middle of nowhere Thailand, but you only really realize that once you get to the top and look out at nothing but ocean, with some mainland way in the distance. I was blown away, and I think that might have been the moment when it most hit me how lucky I was to be in such a remote spot across the world.


My favorite city: Hanoi, Vietnam. I’m not really sure what to say about why I loved it so much. There’s juste something about the streets of the Old Quarter that clicked with me. Every street seems to be the exact same there: nothing but open-face shops and restaurants, block after block. I’m not kidding: they all look the exact same. I literally got lost multiple times and had to ask for directions, and I’m usually very good with directions. There’s nothing about it that is fancy, and there’s nothing that would be easy to put on a flyer for why you should go there. But I absolutely loved it. The streets of Hanoi are basically nothing like the streets of Paris, but for some reason I find myself having the same feeling of complacency when I was walking around both of them. I’m not sure why that is, exactly. Nevertheless, unlike Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi is somewhere that I desperately hope I go back. If only to eat more bun cha.

A few of my favorite spots: Here’s a quick list: Hong Kong Park; Viking Beach (Phi Phi); Nan Lian Garden (Hong Kong; picture below); Queen Street Cooked Food Market (Hong Kong); Hoan Kiem Lake (Hanoi); War Remnants Museum (Ho Chi Minh).


Most uncomfortable moment: Other than that horrible flight on AirAsia to Hong Kong, the most uncomfortable I felt the entire trip was being in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh as an American. I’ve been to war museums before, but I’ve never been in one that was from the perspective of the other side of the story. I have no doubt that you could find all sorts of academic interpretations of the War Remnants Museum, and clearly there are certain biases at play. But whatever you may or may not know or think about the Vietnam War, it is quite the experience to be in that museum as an American, especially in the multiple rooms dedicated to American war crimes, complete with very graphic pictures. I found myself learning a lot in the museum, but mostly I was just unsure about how to act. Was it even okay for me to be there? Was there a place where I could officially apologize? Is there a donation box somewhere? I very different experience from visiting war museums here in the States.

Best deal: Pretty much everything in the category of food and drink. People told me Asia would be cheap, and they were right. Hong Kong wasn’t cheap, and I’m sure there are other places in Asia that aren’t (like Japan). But most of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia was for us. Unless you’re shopping, you can do quite a bit–and eat a whole lot–for very little money. It was fantastic.

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I sent lots of postcards from the various places I visited, because I found myself desperately wanting to spread the experiences I was having to people back home. I said something similar around a year ago after my time in Europe, but I again have the same thoughts: traveling abroad is a hugely influential experience. It makes you appreciate things about home that you previously didn’t, which is important. But I think that an even more valuable lesson that comes from being away is a firsthand reminder that we are not the only people in the world, and our culture is not the only one. It looks stupid to type that out, but that’s honestly the lesson I’ve learned the past two summers: we haven’t cornered the market on how to live in this world. We often think that we have, but we most certainly have not. American society does some things much, much better than other place. There’s no doubt that’s true. If I want to stand in a line that follows logic, or lay down on a comfortable bed, or use the restroom, I for sure choose America every time. But when it comes to appreciating simple pleasures like meals shared with friends, or making the most of time spent with family, other places are much better at this than we are. If I want to work my whole life to get the largest savings account possible, I’m probably best served by doing so in the States. But if I want to really have a life in which I spend as much as my time as I possibly can with people I care about, I’m not sure this country is the ideal location.

If you’ve never been somewhere, go. The cost is worth it. The long plane rides are worth it. The moments you’re lost in translation, or paying too much for a ferry ride, or unsure about which street or subway or elevator to take–they are all worth it. There’s so much world out there beyond the parts you’ve been to. Why not go experience them? You will benefit, even if those benefits aren’t immediate or obvious.

But, in case I wasn’t clear, the bathrooms here are so much better.

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Huge shoes to fill.

In the last 10 days, two huge names in American literature have passed away. Two names that I bring up often in my classes. Two names that were influential for very different reasons in my growth as a reader and as a scholar of literature.

Image result for tom wolfe   Image result for philip roth

Perhaps no book in my reading history stands out to me more than Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Image result for the electric kool aid acid test

I read it in college, and it opened the floodgates for a multi-year fascination with the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Reading that book felt like an acid trip–it’s written that way on purpose. It’s a quintessential example of New Journalism; it’s also a seminal text in the history of “hippies,” of drugs in America, and even of the Grateful Dead. Wolfe’s book sent me down so many roads of inquiry that have been influential in my professional and personal life ever since. I never would have read On the Road or Howl if I hadn’t read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I never would have spent so much time watching old clips from and reading articles on Woodstock, which means I also would have never gotten so deep into all of that great music. Tom Wolfe was my conduit to The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and Joe Cocker. Tom Wolfe was the matchmaker for my fascination with Hunter S. Thompson and Hell’s Angels. And, now that I think about it, Tom Wolfe was the bridge that lead me to Joan Didion, someone that is second-to-none in my list of reading influences. I was born in 1986, but I feel as if the 1960s have played as much a role in my relationship with American culture as any other. The music, art, literature, and political turmoil of those years has influenced so much of our culture today. I say this all of the time in my classes, specifically on the day in which I have them read the opening chapter of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The art that I watch, read, and listen to is totally a result of what I learned about those years, and I cannot think of a figure more integral in that relationship than Tom Wolfe. For over five decades he defined literary coolness in this country, and I do not think we will ever have another figure like him.

My relationship with Philip Roth is different. Whereas Wolfe was a big figure in my sort of coming-of-age as a reader, Roth has been a central figure in my years of graduate school and as an academic. Ironically, my most recent publication (forthcoming this summer) is titled “Roth is Roth as Roth: Autofiction and the Implied Author,” which will be a chapter in an edited collection. My chapter looks at contemporary American texts that play with overlaps between authors and characters; specifically, when authors include characters with their own names. In that piece, I look at Roth’s oft-overlooked novel, Deception. Most of the pieces that have come out in the last 24 hours about Roth’s career have mentioned his most famous works: American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater, and of course his most controversial and–ironically–“canonical” text, Portnoy’s Complaint. I have not read all of Roth’s books, and I do not consider myself an expert on his work.

Image result for the plot against america

But the Roth novel that was most influential for me was his work of historical fiction, The Plot Against America, which imagines 1940s America electing Charles Lindberg as president, resulting in the country not joining the Allied Powers in World War II. What I remember most is the vivid reality of the text, which is notable considering how unbelievable the book’s premise is. It’s an astounding achievement, and it’s a book that I’ve given as a gift to many people.

The styles of Wolfe and Roth are quite different. Wolfe’s prose is zany, especially in his early works. Like his subjects, Wolfe’s writing is manic and crazed.  Onomatopoeia and anthropomorphisms are in abundance, and the reading experience feels like what I imagine a serious case of ADHD feels like. Roth’s writing is nothing like this. His prose is expansive. He often has long paragraphs that seem to go on forever. This is not unique in literature, but what is unique is the rhythm and readability of these paragraphs. In all of the Roth novels I’ve read, I’ve consistently been struck by the exactness of his word choice and the seemingly perfect sentence construction. His paragraphs feel like a mix of McCarthy (except without the need for a dictionary close by) and DeLillo (without the emphasis on postmodern linguistic deconstruction). Earlier today I heard Terry Gross describe him as one of the leading voices on what it means to be an American, to be Jewish, and to be a man. That might make it seem as if Roth wrote narratives limited in scope, and while this is accurate in a sense, I feel as if his texts broach universal elements of humanity as well as any. Yes, his characters are usually Jewish American men, but they always deal with existential, sexual, and psychological challenges that resonate with all of us.

Without Wolfe, I don’t know if we would have the type of journalism we are so used to now, or the types of documentaries that we take for granted. Without Roth, we wouldn’t have Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem. Without either of these two authors, so much of contemporary culture and art in America is different. Tom Wolfe was 88. Philip Roth was 85. Two huge losses.

But Toni Morrison is 87. Cormac McCarthy is 84. Joan Didion is 83. Don DeLillo is 81. I hope that I do not have to blog anytime soon about the influence these or any other authors have had on me. Will we get any more full-length works from any of them? I have no idea. Stands to reason that something will come out from at least one of them, just as I’m sure some posthumous texts from Wolfe and Roth will be published in the next few years. I’m sure collections of unpublished letters, essays, and even an unfinished novel will come out. This is usually how things go when major literary names pass away. And, unfortunately, those posthumous texts are usually forgettable. Thankfully we have bookshelves full of titles that are going nowhere.

Regardless of how many more are published, though, a dramatic change in the “big names” in American literature is imminent. The names I’ve mentioned have owned those designations for decades; I am not exactly sure who will be the next ones to do so. Two weeks ago I would have said Junot Díaz, but it seems as if I would have been wrong. We have lots of young-ish authors with a handful of great works, but do we have anyone that comes anywhere close to the consistency and prolificacy of Wolfe and Roth? Are the days of “great American authors” behind us? In a world so saturated with text, is it possible for individual authors to write many texts that catch hold of large audiences in this way? I honestly have no idea. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to buddy up with the big names I’m used to.

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A big trip on the horizon.

Another school year is complete. No more stacks of essays to grade, no more committee meetings to attend (for the most part), and no more hours each day prepping for class. By mid-April of every year, I simply cannot wait for the semester to end. Then, like clockwork, once June rolls around, I find myself missing the classroom and my students. I don’t say that in a cheesy, sentimental way. I say it more in a “the classroom gives me something to fill my time” kind of way. Sure, I’ll get to play tons of golf this summer, and I always look forward to that first tee shot, regardless of who it’s with or how hot it is outside. And yes, I’ll have plenty of time to work on my scholarly work and to get some reading and writing done, which is a big part of summer life for professors. But neither of these is a substitute for the classroom, and I have to deliberately seek out ways to fill that void.

This summer’s solution: Thailand.

Come June 16, two of my closest friends and I jump on a plane in Houston; 20 hours later, we will be in Bangkok, and we’ll then spend the next 15 days flying around southeast Asia, soaking up as much of the experience as we can. Our plan is to basically stack five different 3-days weekends on top of teach other. Here’s the rundown:

Phi Phi Islands

^Just imagine an overweight American man will bad tan lines weighing down one side of that boat and you’ll have an accurate image of what I assume my experience will be.

Hong Kong

^Looks like a pretty small and intimate city. I’m sure we’ll be to see all this place has to offer in three days…

Hanoi, Vietnam

^How many different types of carbs can I eat on one single street? I plan on finding out.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

^There’s a very strong chance I will be involved in at least one scooter accident.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

^Apparently they built this new temple there recently that’s worth seeing. Sort of a Universal Studios meets Machu Picchu vibe, I think. I doubt there’s much history there… sure it doesn’t compare to the Alamo.

Five different places that are totally different and removed from anything I’ve seen or done before. Five different places to jump headfirst into culture. My only plan is to keep an open mind and to embrace all that each place has to offer. So, basically, I’m going to eat a lot.

Once the trip is over, I hope to have all sorts of stories to share, which I’ll be able to do on this blog. That being said, I’ve got my fingers crossed that I don’t use my return ticket. Instead, I’m thinking I might just settle down over there. Meet a nice woman, start a family, and have a novelty “American Steak Finger Baskets!” booth in one of the many, many street markets. Sounds like a totally realistic and reasonable expectation for the trip.

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Also, I turned 32 last week. Here are three new recommendations to start off this 33rd year of my life:

Read: “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. It’s a famous short story by one of the most famous American authors of short stories, and I have no doubt there are many places where you can find a copy for free online. It’s an unexpectedly tender and beautiful story that is well worth the twenty minutes it will take to read it. Go find it. Now.

Watch: May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers (2017) – This HBO documentary follows the band around while they worked on their most recent album, True Sadness. It has all of the things I hope for in a music documentary: backstory, candid moments between the band members, and awesome shots of in-studio and on-stage performances. I have been a big fan of the Avett Brothers for many years, and this documentary only made me like them more.

Listen: Ruins by First Aid Kit (2018) – First Aid Kid consists of two sisters, and their harmonies are as good as any. They make music that’s easy to listen to on repeat.

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Hey Jude

Image result for a little life

I was in Dallas over the holidays, and I made my usual trip to Half Price Books on Northwest Highway. While I was browsing the Clearance section, looking for my obligatory $10 worth of books, I saw a copy of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I was familiar with the book–the cover is hard to forget–and it seemed like a great purchase for $2. I didn’t expect to ever read it, to be honest. It’s 814 pages long, for god’s sake, and I assumed it would take a place next to Atlas Shrugged and Infinite Jest in my collection of “Books I own and can talk about casually without ever having read.” This might sound like a ridiculously illogical view of purchasing books, but that’s a different blog post. Sometime during that day in December, between meals and laughs with friends, I found myself reading the first few pages. There’s nothing particularly stunning or unique about those first pages, but for some reason I remember thinking to myself, “I think I might actually read this book. And finish it.” It’s now February 3rd, and a few minutes ago I finished reading pg. 814 and closed A Little Life for the last time. I estimate that I probably picked up and opened the book somewhere around 100 times over the last month, sometimes squeezing in 1-2 pages between classes, and other times reading in one- and two-hour chunks (which is very long for me). It’s towards the top of the list of longest single works I have ever read (maybe second only to Murakami’s 1Q84), and I’ve got to be honest: I’m sad that there aren’t more pages past 814. Simply put, reading A Little Life was time very well spent.

Usually, when I finish a book, I immediately get online and read reviews (New York Times; Kirkus; The New Yorker). I have not done this yet for A Little Life. Instead, I want to get my own thoughts and reactions down before I’m swayed by what anyone else has said.

The easiest way to summarize the book is that it’s about a group of four college roommates–JB, Malcolm, Willem, and Jude–living in New York City. The novel traces around four decades of their lives, starting as they begin to try and figure out their lives as an actor, artist, architect, and lawyer. Like I said above, the book is 814 pages long, so lots of aspects of each of their lives are covered. Two of them are black; two are white. Two come from affluent families; two do not. They are diverse in their sexuality, their professional successes and failures, and their sense of self-awareness. I don’t mean to imply that the four main characters collectively depict the “Everyman” experience, because this is not the case. Yanagihara does not give us a novel that is malleable to all sorts of American experiences; she gives us a very specific group of characters that have particularly nuanced experiences. All four characters maintain presence throughout the book, but the focus narrows by page 300 or so, when it becomes clear that the central emotional lens of the novel is on the most enigmatic and compelling of the four: Jude St. Francis.

I get teary-eyed whenever I read McCarthy’s The Crossing and re-experience the heartbreak of Billy Parham, and I am still not quite able to handle the emotional realities of the decision that Sethe makes in Morrison’s Beloved, but no character has inspired in me such deep astonishment, sympathy, and sadness as Jude St. Francis. In the first 100 pages of the novel, we know that Jude keeps to himself and walks with a slight limp, but it’s also quite clear that Yanagihara is preparing us for what’s to come in terms of Jude and his past. And what’s to come is, to be honest, some of the most horrific personal baggage you can imagine. Jude’s childhood is belittling, abusive, and destructive in every category, and there are times later in the book where I found myself simply wishing that I didn’t have to learn more about neither the horrible things that were done to him in the past, nor see how these past traumas tangibly affect his daily adult life. A friend of mine used the phrase “suffering porn” when referring to the book, and I’m sure she’s not alone in that assessment. Her take of the novel was positive, but I have no doubt that plenty of readers and reviewers have commented on the extent to which Jude’s life is full of trauma and whether or not a single person could have realistically gone through so much and survived. Does Yanagihara go too far with Jude? A fair question, and there were moments during my reading when I too found myself adamantly denying that any child could go through these things.

Of course, children do go through these things. Adults do horrible things to children, and those children turn into adults that do horrible things to themselves. This is not always the case, but it is the case for Jude. And as difficult as the book was to read at times–as shocking and nauseating and maddening as it was–what ultimately rose to the surface for me was a camaraderie I felt with the rest of the characters in the novel based upon a similar desire: I wanted to tell Jude that he did matter, that he wasn’t disgusting, that he deserved happiness and was worthy of love. This is what Willem wants. And Harold and Julia. And JB and Malcolm. And Andy, and Richard, and the Henry Youngs, and basically every other person in the novel that comes in contact with Jude. For 814 pages, they seek a key to the lock of Jude’s self-hatred, and I find myself still on that same search. I am not happy with how the book ends, nor am I satisfied with what I know–and don’t–about Jude. But it seems as if this is Yanagihara’s point. The most destructive part of abuse like this is the belief it instills in the abused that he or she deserved it. In the final pages of the book, Richard describes Jude as “stubbornly believing everything he was taught about himself.” This is the central tragedy of the novel, and it is one that will not quickly leave me.

All of that being said, the book is full of beautiful moments: moments of hope, and pleasure, and fulfillment. Moments of laughter and simple happinesses with groups of people that love each other. The book is full of touching depictions of the best, most true, and most worthwhile parts of friendship and of romance, of family and of the self. And at the end of this book full of all sorts of horrible things, the last page is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. My favorite line is when Richard articulates how Jude’s impact in his daily life: “And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

For me, A Little Life is a lesson in caring. It is a lesson in relationships. It is a lesson in how I view myself. And, most importantly, it is a lesson in how there are some problems that cannot be fixed by having good friends, but there are many others that can.

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The best movie I’ve seen twice in a long time.

I often complain in my classes about the state of movies. Specifically, I echo many other pretentious people like me in their complaints about how hard it is to find a movie in the theater that I want to go see. Instead, my Century and Cinemark and AMC are loaded with comic book movies, tired remakes, or a story about something that’s haunted (a doll, a house, a Polaroid camera, etc.). I get on my soapbox, make my complaint, and continue with my lecture about Emerson or rhetoric. I get it: I’m a cliche English professor, and I am not that original.

There are lots of problems with this too-sure-of-himself professor complaining about movies, but the one that sticks out the most to me is that I have recently realized that my complaints are simply wrong. Yes, my theaters are loaded with movies that I do not want to see, but there are also LOTS of movies that fit my narrow definition of “good” and “worthwhile.” People are still making great movies, just like people are still writing great books and poems and songs. It’s easy to say that Hollywood has sold out, but it’s also lazy and, to be honest, disrespectful to the people out there that are still telling great stories through film. I saw lots of great movies in the past couple of months–more than enough to prove myself wrong. They weren’t all in the theater, but plenty of them were. Here’s a list:

Paterson (on Amazon Prime):

A Ghost Story (on Amazon Prime):

The Big Sick (on Amazon Prime):

The Disaster Artist (in the theater):

The Post (in the theater):

I enjoyed all of these movies for different reasons. Collectively, they offer everything that I look for in movies. Some are serious, others hilarious, others confusing and frustrating, and all of them are well-made and captivating. I loved watching all of them, and I recommend them to anyone.

But there’s one movie in particular that I saw that convinced me more than any other that my complaints about comic book movies are nothing more than distractions from what I should be spending my time on: finding and seeing movies that are meaningful. The best movie I saw in 2017 (and again in 2018) is without a doubt, hands down, Lady Bird.

I cannot say enough about how much I love this movie. I found myself laughing throughout the entire thing, out loud, which is not normal for me, but I also was totally invested emotionally. It’s hilarious, but that humor is matched with serious, deep emotion. There are serious things in this movie, but the movie does not take itself too seriously. It’s organic in the same way that Manchester by the Sea was, but it’s a much more enjoyable viewing experience. I don’t know how else to put it other than it simply feels real. All of the notes that it aims for it hits in perfect tune. The relationships are authentic, the conflicts are all-too-realistic, and the overall tone is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I’ve never been a teenage girl, but I am convinced that Lady Bird‘s depiction of this experience is the best ever captured on film. It doesn’t miss a beat.

There’s a line in the movie where Lady Bird is talking to her teacher, who tells her that she writes about her hometown (Sacramento) with such love. Lady Bird reacts flippantly, saying that she simply pays attention. The teacher responds, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” What a simple, beautiful thought.

It’s so good. If it’s playing in your town, go see it. If you don’t end up liking it, don’t tell me.

This movie will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in March. It’s better than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s not even close. Ronan and Metcalf should win statues, too. And Gerwig. Basically, it should win everything except for costumes and music and the technical ones.

– – – – – – – – – –

Once you get done seeing Lady Bird, I also suggest reading this book:

Image result for go went gone

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated into English in 2017)

This is a German novel (didn’t realize that when I bought it) about a retired professor in Berlin that gets personally attached and caught up in the refugee crisis. The storytelling is much different than what I am used to, and there were times where I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. But once I got traction, I was into it. It’s a book about important things, and the message it conveys is one that needs to be heard. As a lifelong Texan teaching at a small university, I have absolutely zero understanding of the refugee experience or of what is going on around the world with refugees. This book didn’t change that, but it made me much more aware of my ignorance, and it posed questions that, frankly, I was not prepared to answer. It seems to me like this is what all great books should do.

Cheers to a new semester.

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Create Joy

I find myself surrounded by negativity. In 2017, we love to focus on how bad things are, and there’s no shortage of places to point. Presidents, protests, petty grievances. It seems as if one of our central pleasures is talking about all of the things that upset us. We are addicted to it. I am addicted to it. It’s almost as if I feel the need to have my own list of grievances ready at all times, so that whenever I get into a conversation with someone else about “the world” and what they see wrong with it, I will then have my own contributions.

“Can you believe . . .  ”

“Did you see where . . . ”

“Not to mention . . . ”

The above ellipses represent the people, events, and daily occurrences that fill up our laundry list of the various ways we see our cities and our country and our world going in directions of which we do not approve, of the people around us acting in ways we do not understand. I heard lots of this over my Thanksgiving break, and I added my fair share of the complaining. The world is an increasingly scary and messed up place, according to all of us.

But then I see things like this:

This is not the first time that a professional athlete has given an autographed item to a fan in a wheelchair. I know very little about Leonard Fournette. For all I know, he has all sorts of off-the-field issues. Or maybe he’s a respected player who does great things for his community. I don’t know if he kneels during the national anthem, and I don’t know if he has relatives that are veterans. I have no idea. I don’t care. Regardless of who he is, what he stands for, or the reasons for his actions, the moment in that video speaks volumes because of the look in the fan’s face when he realizes that this player is actually signing his cleats and then giving them to him. He can’t believe it is actually happening. And the look on his face is priceless. It is pure joy. If you didn’t see it, watch the video again, and pay close attention around the 18 second mark. This is the look of natural, unadulterated human bliss. It is a miracle.

This face reminds me that the choice to talk about all of the things that scare or worry me in the world is just that: a choice. These things are there. Human beings screw things up, and that will never change. This means that there will always be things in the world that leave people hurting and broken. Cruelty exists. Neglect exists. Vindictiveness and ignorance and selfishness and jealousy and apathy exist. We all know this, and yet somehow we continue to talk about them as if they are new, or as if we are the first ones to diagnose these problems. As if all of a sudden we realize that people act in ways that are not productive or helpful to others, thus necessitating we sit around, talk about it, and then do absolutely nothing except continue the cycle: 1) See; 2) Judge; 3) Complain.

This video reminds me that this is not the only option, that there is another choice we can make. Joy is waiting around every corner, and happiness is always at our fingertips. I do not mean that we can magically snap our fingers and make ourselves happy. This is not possible. But we can, at any point in time during our daily routines, make other people happy. This is what the football player did in the video. It took very little on his part. He gets cleats for free. He did not pay for that Sharpie, and he did not have to ask permission from his coach to take a second to walk over to the sidelines. All-in-all, this took him about 45 seconds and a few extra steps. But the outcome for the guy that got the cleats is worth everything. Getting these cleats doesn’t mean he’s going to get out of the wheelchair, or that his relationships in life are all of a sudden better, or that his life is suddenly going to turn in a different direction. But in that moment at the 18 second mark, he is, to his core, happy. And this type of happiness can only result from someone else making the choice to make it happen. The football player made a simple choice, and that choice created this beautiful, life-affirming moment.

I can do this. It will not make me a hero, nor will it really even change my own life all that much. But what’s stopping me from making someone else’s day better tomorrow? Why not do something like this football player did? In the big scheme of “the world,” I have very little influence. It is minuscule and inconsequential in the context of “problems” and “issues.” But I can make someone else happy tomorrow. I can say something to someone that they do not expect, a compliment or a comment that affirms their sense of self worth. I can purchase lunch for someone. I can send a text to someone I haven’t spoken to in a long time, letting them know I am thinking about them and that I care. I can tell someone that she is beautiful, or that he is more intelligent than he gives himself credit for, or that their friends are lucky to know them.

This football player in the video displayed great power: the power to create joy for another person. We all have this power. We all should live for moments where we create looks on people’s faces like the one the guy in the video makes. I don’t know if I can think of a better goal in this negativity-addicted world: to try, every single day, to do what I can to see that look on someone else’s face.

I probably won’t do it. Instead, I’ll get mad about another sexual harassment story on Reddit, or I’ll spend 15 minutes complaining about the struggling state of higher education, or I’ll complain to a colleague about something Trump said.

Why spend time making joy when I could sit back and complain about this joyless world? It’s so much easier to complain than it is to try and solve. In the meantime, I’ll just have to wait for more videos of someone else doing that good work for me.

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