Citation Needed

I took my Kindle with me to Waffle House last night, and since I’m not in the middle of any serious reading right now (play rehearsals are kicking into high gear), I went to see if there was something already in my library, maybe humor or short-form nonfiction, that I could browse through over dinner.

I ended up re-reading some of the entries in “[Citation Needed] 2: The Needening: More of The Best of Wikipedia’s Worst Writing.”

The two “Citation Needed” books are hilarious. They’re dirt cheap for Kindle but also available in paperback. I don’t think I’ve blogged about them before. They’re written by Conor Lastowka and Josh Fruhlinger. Fruhlinger is responsible for one of my favorite web sites, The Comics Curmudgeon, which pokes fun at comic strips on a daily basis.

The concept, based on the authors’ Tumblr of the same name, is simple: the authors present passages from actual Wikipedia entries, each entry followed by the authors’ snarky commentary. The entries might feature tangled syntax, or a ridiculous level of detail about some bit of pop culture minutiae, or  what have you.

My description probably doesn’t do the books justice. Go to the Amazon pages and click “Look Inside” to see samples of the books for yourself.

Whose e-book is it anyway?


As readers of this blog know, I’ve been looking forward to next week’s return of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, the very funny improvisational comedy show.
Just in time for that, Colin Mochrie — one of the show’s regular performers — has published a new e-book, “Not Quite The Classics.”

It’s not a very long book, but it’s quite funny. The premise — inspired, not surprisingly, by an old improv game — is that Mochrie takes the first and last line of some literary classic — “Moby Dick,” “1984,” “Casey at the Bat,” “The Great Gatsby,” and so on — and uses them for a new, humorous short story. Sometimes, the new story references or is a parody of the original from which its first and last lines are drawn; in other cases, it goes off in an entirely different direction. Many of the stories involve some sort of genre parody — hard-boiled detective stories, too-precious fantasy novels, “Downton Abbey” and so on.

The parodies are mostly clever, although a few wander and seem like they’re going to turn out to be shaggy dog stories.

There’s one particular entry that really made me laugh, although to describe it further would almost constitute a spoiler. It ends up being a faux-serious treatment of a beloved character from another medium, although you don’t realize this at first. I e-mailed the great columnist, author and blogger James Lileks to tell him that one of the stories in Mochrie’s book reminded me of my favorite piece from Lileks’ humor collection “Fresh Lies.” I have no idea if he’ll even get the e-mail, much less read the book, and I had to be intentionally vague in order to keep from spoiling the story, so the e-mail probably sounded ridiculous.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the book. If you enjoy Colin on “Whose Line,” it’s absolutely worth checking out.

Dr. Koop

Christianity Today, in the wake of Dr. C. Everett Koop’s death this week, has re-posted a 1989 profile of Koop by its editor-at-large Phillip Yancey. Yancey writes about how Koop, who at the time of his appointment was hailed by conservatives and vilified by liberals, was later hailed by liberals and vilified by conservatives – all the while following his own beliefs as a Christian and a physician.

Some years after that profile, Yancey wrote one of my favorite books, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. The book is a series of profiles of people whom Yancey admired and whose examples had strengthened Yancey’s faith (later editions of the book altered the subtitle to make the book’s content a little clearer). They were honest profiles, not whitewashed, and Koop’s chapter included the scandal which came a few years after the earlier 1989 profile. Koop participated in, and allowed his name to be used for, a medical web site which didn’t disclose that some of its medical advice was advertising-driven.

Koop also testified before Congress about latex allergies without revealing that he’d been a consultant to a latex glove manufacturer; I don’t think this was in Yancey’s book, and I only read about it today.

Black marks aside, however, I think that Yancey’s 1989 profile reveals a man of compassion, principle, and a devotion to honest dialogue. I highly recommend you read it.

The Man Without A Country

TCM just ran a little short subject of “The Man Without A Country” to fill time between two excellent movies, “The Guns of Navarone” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

I hadn’t heard or thought about the short story for many, many years. I think I had it in the back of my head that it was based on actual events, but I see from the Wikipedia page that it’s not, although it was couched in many true-life details to give it verisimilitude. I also see that it was written to rally support for the Union cause in the Civil War. I blame the memory of a 50-year-old man for failing me.

In case you didn’t read this story in school, Phillip Nolan is a fictional character who gets involved with Aaron Burr’s actual attempt to start his own country. When Nolan is arrested and tried for treason, he becomes so emotional during the trial that he loudly proclaims that he wishes he could never hear the name of the United States again. The judge makes that his sentence – Nolan is to be imprisoned at sea on naval vessels for the rest of his life, with his jailers under strict orders never to mention the United States, or anything about it, in Nolan’s presence. Over the years, Nolan develops an appreciation for the homeland he portrayed, although the true extent of his feelings isn’t made known until he is on his deathbed.

Corny? Manipulative? Sure. But also quite moving, and even seeing the moldy old Warner Brothers short just now my eyes welled up a little.

The Sixth Floor

Perhaps the most dangerous and destructive game we can play is “what if?” I ought to know; I’m a grand master. What if I’d gone to MTSU instead of ORU? What if I’d been more diligent about creative writing when I was younger? What if I’d asked out such-and-such a woman (or, more often, what if I’d tried again after being turned down the first time)? What if I’d handled my finances differently? What if, what if, what if? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer, a question that always makes us feel worse about ourselves, a positively corrosive question that we continue to ask even though we know better.

We play “what if?” on a larger scale as well. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is a powerful topic for such speculation, perhaps second only to speculation about what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War. I can recall either a “Twilight Zone” reboot or a “Twilight Zone” imitator in the 1980s doing an episode in which a time traveler attempts to thwart the assassination. There was also a “Quantum Leap” episode that touched on the subject, lent additional interest by the fact that the show’s creator and executive producer, Donald Bellisario, actually met Lee Harvey Oswald briefly when both were serving in the military.

Time travel, in general, has a well-worn genre in the past few decades – providing clichés for “Futurama” to make fun of, more than once. I’m amazed that “Doctor Who” continues to make it interesting and find new things to do with it. Then again, “Doctor Who” – one of my all-time favorite shows ever since my college days – is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. In one era of the show, it’s implied that such-and-such cannot happen, and then in another era of the show, it happens, sometimes without even a token acknowledgement or trumped-up plot point to explain the inconsistency.

I was intrigued when I read about Stephen King’s 2011 book “11/22/63,” but I might never have gotten around to reading it if it hadn’t been for a $3.99 sale of the book on Kindle. It would have been my loss. This was a great book, the kind of book you can’t put down, the kind of book that has you cheering and weeping for the protagonists.

I can’t go very far without spoilers, but I’ll give you the basic premise: divorced and unattached teacher Jake Epping is recruited by a dying acquaintance for an unbelievable mission. The acquaintance has discovered a portal to the year 1958, and wants Jake to go through it, assume a false identity, bide his time for five years, and somehow prevent the Kennedy assassination. But the acquaintance warns Jake that the past doesn’t want to be changed, and that unusual obstacles will prevent themselves. There are also personal entanglements that complicate his mission and leave him unsure in which era his destiny lies.

King somehow manages to make time travel seem fresh and new and real. He sucks you into the story, and once you get going you have to keep going. I had no idea how the story was going to end – and I really cared how the story was going to end.

Sometimes, I think, a fictional “what if” story can be a catharsis, to help us process our own personal “what if” demons.  King’s book took me on a roller-coaster ride, and I’m still not sure about how I feel about it. It’s great writing. I’ve always thought I had a great novel in me if I could just buckle down and crank it out, but I don’t think I could ever produce something in this league. Many of you have read it already, but if you haven’t, consider this my strong recommendation.

Green eggs and [I’m a] ham

Back before the holidays, I signed up for the United Way-organized Raise Your Hand Tennessee program that places volunteers into local schools to read. I thought it would be fun, for a good cause.

I’ve read in schools a couple of times in the past as part of the celebration of Dr. Seuss’s birthday in March. Also, I was a founding board member of United Way of Bedford County, so I have a connection there. I don’t know if there was one thing or moment that made me decide to sign up, but somehow I did.

When you sign up for the program, you fill out an application (including the necessary information for them to do a background check) and give them a preference for whether you’d like to read with a child one-on-one, read to a small group or read to a full classroom. I checked either of the group options.

Dawn Holley, our local United Way executive director and my co-chair on the organizing committee for the Symphony in Shelbyville concert, assigned me to Learning Way Elementary and it was agreed that I would start after the Christmas holidays.

When I got to the school last Monday, there was a little confusion and I was sent to read with a young fourth-grader one-on-one, the one thing I hadn’t checked on my form. It wasn’t what I was expecting; it went OK, I think, although it was hard for me to know how much help to give him as he read. He was struggling so hard with each individual word that I don’t think he was comprehending the story at all. Every few pages, I’d read for a while, but even so I don’t think he was really connecting.

Anyway, I sort of sheepishly contacted Dawn. If reading one-on-one was what they really needed, I could do it, but if it was just a case of crossed wires, I really would like reading to a group. Dawn checked with the school and got everything straightened out, and so when I went to the school today I spent half an hour each with two different first-grade classes, taught by Regan Aymett and Jennifer Hester. In each class, I worked with a small group of kids in one corner while the teacher and the rest of the class were doing other things.

I had a great time. With the first group, I read “Green Eggs and Ham” and then used flash cards with rhyming words from the story to talk to the kids about rhyming. I love Dr. Seuss, so this was right up my alley. In the other group, each of the kids had a little booklet with a story about visiting an animal habitat. The kids took turns reading the story and then I led them through a worksheet about it.

I’ll be back at Learning Way next Monday – I’m not sure if they will send me back to the same classes or to different ones. I think I’m going to enjoy this. I was told that it’s typical for the male volunteers to want to read to groups and the female volunteers to lean towards one-on-one. In my case, it probably goes to my ham tendencies – the same thing that makes me try out for plays or what have you. Anyway, I had a great time with the kids today and I’m already looking forward to next week.

Page turners

I had gone through a little bit of a dry spell as far as reading was concerned, but the tide has definitely come back in. I’ve already told you about How The Bible Changed Our Lives (Mostly For The Better), a book of religious satire by Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. From that, I went to Gavin Richardson’s suggestion of The Crowd, The Critic, and the Muse: A Book for Creators, by Michael Gungor. I finished that one today, and it’s terrific, inspiring and thought provoking during a week when I’m questioning (even more than I normally do) my success, self-worth and future prospects.

Just as I was wrapping that up, I got the notice from the library’s Kindle-lending site that Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham, was ready for me to download. (For most of the good stuff, there’s a waiting list.) Because I only have that one for a limited time, it jumped to the top of my reading list. I just got through with the preface, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the rest of it.

Meanwhile, I have an old-fashioned paper book to read after that: my North Carolina brother, when he was in for Christmas, loaned me The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, by Bill Carter, and I can’t wait to get into that. (My brother, despite his career as a web designer, is a Luddite, and proud of it, when it comes to e-readers.)

I’ve also downloaded Where Is God When It Hurts? by Phillip Yancey. I enjoy Yancey, and even though this is one of his classics I’ve never read it. The Kindle edition is being given away, for free, for a limited time in response to the recent school shooting.

Reducing expectations since 1981

I actually read Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s fun and informative book Reduced Shakespeare: The Attention-Impaired Reader’s Guide to the World’s Best Playwright [Abridged] before I got to see (on video) what they’re famous for: the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s gut-busting production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), an irreverent romp in which a company of three actors blazes through various skits and dissections of the Bard’s most famous works. The first act covers almost everything Shakespeare wrote, then the second act is the ultimate send-up of “Hamlet,” complete with audience participation.

RSC has since come up with a number of omnibus satires in the same vein, covering topics like sports, U.S. history and the Bible. It was the Bible production that led a publisher to suggest Martin and Tichenor write a book about the topic. It was originally called “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” but now the rights have reverted to the authors, who’ve re-released it, slightly updated, in e-book format as How The Bible Changed Our Lives (Mostly For The Better).

When I heard Martin and Tichenor discussing the book on the weekly RSC podcast, and discovered that the e-book was only $3.99, I snatched it up immediately for my Kindle. I wish The Wittenburg Door were still around, because I’d be pitching Bob Darden an interview with these guys before you can say “irreverent.”

This is not a book for those with a hair-trigger reaction to religious humor. This isn’t exactly like “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” in tone, but “Life of Brian” might be a pretty accurate barometer of whether you’d find this funny or sacrilegious.

Each chapter is written either in Martin’s voice or Tichenor’s – or, rather, in comically-exaggerated personas with their names. In real life, Tichenor is an agnostic and Martin a Presbyterian, but for purposes of the book Tichenor is practically an atheist and Martin a Bible-thumper who has driven even his pastor crazy (think Ned Flanders and Rev. Lovejoy). They take turns talking about various parts of the Bible. Martin’s retelling of Exodus, which manages to confuse Moses with various other iconic Charlton Heston roles, is a scream. (The right to bear arms turns up as one of the Ten Commandments.)

The mockery is mostly good-natured, although of course there were times when I found myself waving my arms and saying “Yes, they’re making fun of the fundamentalist or the most popular interpretation of this passage, but don’t they realize there’s a different interpretation?” That sort of anal-retentive commentary misses the point, and the humor, and I’d have to remind myself that this is a humor book. I was startled by Tichenor’s take on the 23rd Psalm – he has trouble with the shepherd metaphor because, after all, shepherds ultimately turn their sheep into mutton!

When Martin and Tichenor get to the New Testament, the book takes an even more fanciful turn, with one of the author-characters taking a sort of messianic arc.

Again, the book isn’t for everyone. But I am, after all, a former contributing editor for the Door, and I have a soft spot for well-executed religious satire. This is well-executed religious satire, from experts on satire and parody.

Here’s a promotional video for the stage production which indirectly inspired the book:

House style

Every year or two, I re-read my battered copy of “The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies,” by Ethan Mordden. It may sound like a strange thing to re-read, but each time I read it I’ve seen more of the movies it references, and I always enjoy it a little more.

The book, sadly out of print (but still available as an Audible download, if any of you do that), is about the Hollywood movie studios during the 1930s, 40s and (to a lesser extent) 50s, when they were vertically-integrated companies controlling production, distribution and exhibition. Each studio had things it emphasized and did well, and Mordden gives a fascinating analysis of each studio and why it was what it was.

Universal Studios, for example, owned theaters in small towns and rural areas, while RKO owned theaters in the northeast, centered around New York. That affected which types of movies each studio thought would be successful. Paramount was a directors’ studio, where craftsmen like Ernst Lubitsch and Cecil B. DeMille could put their own distinctive stamp on things. MGM de-emphasized directors in favor of a producer-driven system and showcasing its unparalleled collection of stars.

Some of the studios had an emphasis that changed over time. At MGM, Irving Thalberg drove things in the 1930s – he was head of production for the first few years of the decade, then had to step back from that and become one of several producers. He guided the glamorous “Grand Hotel” MGM, with Garbo, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford as its biggest stars. After Thalberg’s death, Louis B. Mayer had more direct influence, and that led to the motherhood-and-apple-pie MGM of the 40s – Andy Hardy, for example, or the many Freed Unit musicals featuring Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.

There’s also a chapter on the smaller studios run by David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn and Harry Cohn (Columbia Pictures, now a major studio but then a tiny, poverty-row lot). Selznick, of course, ended up trumping the bigger studios by releasing the biggest picture of the golden age, “Gone With The Wind.” He had to give MGM distribution rights, however, in return for the services of Clark Gable.

In the late 1940s, a court ruled that the studios’ vertical integration was a violation of antitrust laws and forced them to divest themselves of their theater chains. The rise of television affected movie attendance, and the growing power of stars, directors and independent producers eventually killed the old in-house production system and led to the current environment, where pretty much everything is an independent production. No longer are stars, directors or other craftsmen salaried employees of a studio; they’re now freelancers, able to pick and choose their projects and demand whatever fee the market will bear. Most of the old studio nameplates (except RKO) still exist, but for the most part they only put together deals and distribute movies that have been produced by others.

“The Hollywood Studios” a great book, readable and funny, and as time goes on, and I see more and more of the movies it refers to as examples, I enjoy it more and more. I wish I could get a Kindle version; my hardback is falling apart.

All in

One of the fun things about having a Kindle and yet being on a budget is that, in your constant search for Kindle books that are temporarily free or on sale, you occasionally run into great books you might never have discovered otherwise.

Case in point: All In: From Refugee Camp to Poker Champ, by Jerry Yang (as told to Mark Tabb). Wow, what a great and unexpected book. I got it for free from the Kindle store; as I write this, it’s back up to $4.99, but that would still be a small price to pay.

My description of the book will make it sound like an awkward hybrid; it’s anything but. The book tells two stories in parallel fashion. The first is how young Xao and his Hmong family faced Communist persecution in Laos and made a daring escape to Thailand, then hoped to be chosen to resettle as refugees in the United States. The second story is how the adult Xao, a psychologist now going by the American name of Jerry, becomes an amateur poker player, eventually outlasting a final table of fearsome opponents to win the 2007 World Series of Poker.

(This is not, by the way, the same Jerry Yang who founded Yahoo!, even though some comparable tech moguls have taken up poker as a hobby.)

Yang’s Christian faith gently informs both stories, although this book avoids the ham-fisted, tract-like approach of some such autobiographies. It may sound surprising that a story about a poker player would have a faith element – and part of the story is how Yang and his family have a dialogue about how tournament poker compares and contrasts to other types of gambling; how he can participate in a responsible way, consistent with his beliefs; and how he used his winnings to do good.

Both stories are compellingly-written and hard to put down.

As regular readers know, I’ve been on five mission trips to Kenya  and three to various places in Latin America. Just a day or two before I started reading the Yang book, I was daydreaming about one of the people I worked with on several of the Kenya trips and what his reactions might be to seeing America for the first time. You get a little bit of that in Yang’s story of arriving in America, where his family lived in Nashville and Kansas City before settling in California. The story of his Nashville minister taking him for his first hot dog – and having to explain to him that the name doesn’t describe the contents – is priceless.

The very end of the book has an appendix with some poker-playing tips and suggestions, although this book isn’t really intended or suitable as a full tutorial of the game of Texas Hold ’Em.

Highly recommended.