Monthly ArchiveAugust 2009



Commentary 14 Aug 2009 08:34 am

Flavor of the week?

Here is my August 13, 2009, print column from The Alliance Review.

The strengths movement is yet another program gaining traction in education.

Saying it that way sounds kind of snotty, and maybe it’s meant to be. New theories in teaching and learning gain ground quickly only to lose it twice as fast when new flavors of the week come along. Because everybody has spent at least 12 years in school, everybody is an expert on education and isn’t shy about sharing opinions — kids should get back to basics, they should get away from basics, they should be in school longer, they should learn new math, they should go back to old math, they should still be beaten with wooden paddles with holes drilled in the business end to allow for better air flow, and so on.

Basically, the strengths movement, as advocated in a 2008 book called “Your Child’s Strengths” by Jenifer Fox and, to a lesser extent, in 2009’s “The Element” by Ken Robinson, is the power of positive thinking writ large.
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Books 13 Aug 2009 08:41 am

Remembering ‘Little House’

Today’s edition of American Profile, a newspaper magazine supplement that appears locally in The Alliance Review, contains a story about Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House” series of books, and a festival in Mansfield, Mo., to honor her. If you don’t receive The Review, you can read the article, “The Wilder Days,” by clicking on the link.

As a kid, I was enchanted by Wilder’s books, partly because of the TV show that aired each Monday on NBC, partly because my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Watson, read Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, the third in the series, to the class each day. (I was similarly hyped by To Kill a Mockingbird when my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Vien, read that book out loud a few years later.) For some reason, Mrs. Watson skipped Little House on the Prairie, at least to my recollection. I still remember the scene in Farmer Boy where Almanzo, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, uses a bullwhip to tame a group of unruly students. That wouldn’t happen today!

Anyway, being blissfully unaware that the “Little House” series was primarily a “girl thing,” I read them all. Somewhere in my attic, I still have a boxed set of paperbacks (well, most of a boxed set, anyways) with those pale yellow covers and art by Garth Williams, who also illustrated Charlotte’s Web and lots of other kids’ books. I bet I read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie a half dozen times each. Come to think of it, this puts the lie to my assertion that I didn’t read many YA books as a kid; the Ingalls’ series definitely qualifies. I might have to make a trip to the attic later today…

Movies 12 Aug 2009 03:18 pm

Double feature

horse-marx  7th

A golden-oldie double feature at Casa Schillig last night: The Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers(1932) and a Val Lewton thriller, The 7th Victim (1943).

I was slightly disappointed in Horse Feathers, which is not the best of the four brothers on film. For reasons unexplained, Groucho becomes president of the college where his son, Zeppo, is a perpetual student. To help prop up the losing football team, Groucho visits a speakeasy to hire two ringers. Unfortunately, the ringers have already been spirited away by a rival college, so Groucho ends up contracting the services (such as they are) of Chico and Harpo. Both Zeppo and Groucho romance the college widow (Thelma Todd). Was “college widow” a standard comic trope of vaudeville? I had never heard the term, but calling Todd that seemed to be enough of an explanation for audiences in the ’30s. Anyway, the usual hilarity ensues, ending with a football game where the four brothers show off more
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Commentary 12 Aug 2009 09:19 am

Kinda creepy

twilight-barbie1

Whatever happened to the All-American image of Barbie? Recently announced is Twilight Barbie, based on the popular teen vampire-romance books by Stephanie Meyer. I guess the undead have become as wholesome and American as mom and apple pie. What’s next — H.P. Lovecraft Barbie? Night of the Living Dead Barbie?

Come to think of it, I would buy either of those before I’d pick up the Twilight dolls. Come on, Mattel, as long as you’re whoring her out anyway…

Comic books 11 Aug 2009 07:23 pm

Archie goes digital

 arch-on-computer

Archie Comics has a digital comics service up and running. You can check it out by clicking this link. It has four free issues that you can peruse in their entirety, plus many more that are available by subscription only. If you don’t have Adobe Flash (I thought I did, but I guess not), you’ll need to download and install it — for free — before you can access the comics.

The user interface at Archie Digital is simple. You can click in the corner of the comic to advance or go back by two pages, or use the left and right arrows to navigate. Double-clicking enlarges the page for easier viewing. Pretty slick.

A six-page preview of the issue everybody’s talking about — Archie proposing to Veronica and getting married — is available by clicking here. Readers who subscribe to the digital service will receive the storyline mailed to them free; of course, they can also read it online via their subscription. One year costs $50 and gets you access to everything on the site — more issues are being uploaded all the time.

If you’re an Archie fan, a digital subscription is worth checking into. Just clicking around the freebie section, I read a vintage issue of Archie Madhouse and That Wilkin Boy, two series that the company no longer publishes. They were fun. (I love the Apple logo on the drawing above — about as close as the company will come to endorsing a specific brand, yes?)

Books & Comic books 10 Aug 2009 05:09 pm

Sleeper Season One

 sleeper-season-one

Sometimes I am reluctant to seek out earlier work from a writer whose current stories I enjoy, for fear that I’ll end up reading material completed during his or her formative years, and that it won’t match up. That’s silly, of course, and various works have proven me wrong over the years (one of the latest being Cormac McCarthy, whom I discovered via The Road and whose earlier All the Pretty Horses is a masterpiece), yet I persist.

So I was cautious about Sleeper: Season One from the Eisner Award-winning writer and artist duo of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. While I love the work the two are doing with Criminal and Incognito over at Marvel, I was reluctant to try their Wildstorm series for the reason listed above and  because the title is set in the Wildstorm super-hero universe, a locale I hadn’t explored and had no interest learning anything about.

I shouldn’t have worried. Yes, there are a few heroes flying around in Sleeper, but no advance knowledge is required to appreciate the story. It isn’t really a super-hero tale at all, but rather a big, dark, hard-boiled spy/espionage saga. The protagonist, Holden Carver, is a double agent assigned to go deep undercover in a “post-human” criminal organization, so far undercover that not only is he is framed for crimes he hasn’t committed, but his father (now deceased) is also implicated. This guy is so far out in the cold that it makes Siberia look like the Bahamas. Then, the one person who knows the truth of his undercover status — his boss,  Jack Lynch — ends up in a coma, and Carver
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Books & Commentary 10 Aug 2009 03:17 pm

Never outgrow a good book

thrill

I don’t know much about cartoonist H.T. Webster beyond his coining of the term milquetoast (this link provides a good summary of his life and work), but I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment he expresses in the above cartoon. Click on it to enlarge to a readable size.

I may be one of the last generations weaned on classic kid lit when younger. As a boy, my bookshelf was filled with the titles that Webster mentions above, and with few YA Novels, as they are called today. Oh, I had one or two things like Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door (which I need to revisit) and a kiddie version of Robin Hood — not to mention boxes of comic books.  Both the Key title and Robin Hood were Scholastic titles, which made it into my hands through school book fairs. But Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Jack London, Lewis Carroll, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson and the others were much more prevalent. I don’t think that’s the case these days.

I don’t have anything against YA novels, and often use them in the classroom with some of my reluctant freshmen. They are exciting and vibrant and quickly paced, but I often wonder how they’ll stack up in my kids’ memories 20 years from now, and if they’ll ever think back on them as fondly as I do those great classic books of old.

Commentary 10 Aug 2009 02:54 pm

TIME to exercise

The Aug. 17 Time magazine has an article called “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” that raised some eyebrows among my wife (a nurse), our doctor (an exercise advocate) and me (a nobody in the world of medicine).

The gist of the piece is that exercise is highly overrated as a component of weight loss because most of us negate its effects by a) eating excessively afterward, b) not moving as much afterward, or c) both. An accompanying graphic shows how long it takes to burn off a 360-calorie blueberry muffin by various physical activities. The point being: It takes a long time. If you reward yourself for exercising by eating snack foods (even a negligible amount) and staying sedentary, you’re deluding yourself.

The article doesn’t dispute that exercise is good for the cardiovascular system and as a stress reliever, but it does question whether we wouldn’t be better off just going about our regular activities and watching what we eat to lose weight.

Well, of course if you eat heavily after exercising you won’t lose weight. And if you only move once a day — say 30 minutes of walking to counter 23 1/2 hours of couch potato behavior – you won’t have burned enough calories to counteract what you’re taking in. Unless you have a true metabolic problem, weight loss is simply a matter of burning more calories than you take in. Exercise can help your body do that more efficiently.

The article did force me to realize why I’ve gained around ten pounds in the last few months, despite a very active exercise schedule. It’s the cheesecake, the little Keebler chocolate chip cookies (four on a plate + 30 seconds in the microwave = bliss), and the sourdough pretzels. If I want to drop those pounds again (and I do), I need to get serious about exercise AND diet.

Comic books & Movies 09 Aug 2009 03:54 pm

Who watches … ?

 watchmen

I’ve watched Watchmen (like many Hollywood blockbusters, it’s dropped the definite article before the title) a couple of times since its release on DVD, and I still think it is underrated. Probably too long for most viewers, slightly impenetrable to those who haven’t read the graphic novel its based on, partially silly with too many heroic poses and a regrettable sex scene — but a success nonetheless.

Following a multi-generation group of super heroes from the 1940s through the 1980s, Watchmen poses the question of what the political, social and economic ramifications would be of having real super beings on the world scene. Maybe it’s hard for today’s audiences to get too worked up over Cold War menaces and Russian nuclear threats, but these were realities at the time Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons released the comic-book series, and director Zack Snyder resists the temptation to update the material, even though it might have added an immediacy that would have helped him at the box office.
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Movies 09 Aug 2009 10:35 am

Revisiting last summer’s turkey

xfilesdvd

When X-Files: I Want to Believe hit theaters last July, I was pretty hard on the movie. Now that I’ve revisited it on DVD (relatives tend to buy you X-Files merchandise when they know you’re a fan, whether you want it or not), I realize I was overly harsh. Maybe it’s because I watched the extended cut, which added a layer of weirdness not evident in the theatrical viewing, or maybe because The X-Files just works better in the more claustrophobic confines of home, but I enjoyed it much more this time around.

Unfortunately, because the movie tanked at the box office, the chances of seeing the franchise revived for a third go-round are relatively slim, but stranger things have happened. I want to believe in a third X-Files movie, or even better, in some sort of television revival. The truth is still out there.

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