How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents by Jimmy O. Yang—Goodreads Book Review

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As the title suggests, How to American is comedian and actor Jimmy 0. Yang’s story about coming to America from Hong Kong at 13, being cast in Silicon Valley, Crazy Rich Asians, and other productions, and all his experiences in-between. I listened to the audiobook, read by Yang, himself.

The narration and the stories aren’t for kids, but this was a great listen/read. Besides being genuinely funny, the book follows Yang’s process from being seen (and seeing himself) as an immigrant to the US to being not only a legal citizen, but also finding the balance between being simultaneously American and Hong Konger. His take on Asians avoiding characters with accents—which he believes reinforces the negative stereotypes of those accents, rather than broadening them as markers of an authentic, relatable experience—is insightful and very down-to-earth. In this and other commentary on his experiences, Yang emphasizes the uniqueness of America, as well as the cultural differences between its and Asian cultures.

In this way, Yang’s autobiography connects with other works about the Asian American experience. Were it not for the language (maybe even despite that, for older students), I might consider pairing the book with other, more self-consciously serious works as a synthesis exercise—as well as to show students that comedy can be just as thematically deep as drama.

How to American is honest but perennially optimistic, and, like Mike Judge says in the foreword, it makes me proud to be an American. It definitely made me appreciate Jimmy O. Yang, whom I’ll be watching more intently now. I normally don’t go in for Hollywood autobiographies, but comedians’ memoirs are a different story, and this was a fun first.


Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.—Goodreads Book Review

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My second Vonnegut, I’ll let others review the book more thoroughly. However, while I don’t know that I’d call myself a Vonnegut fan, his style is excellent and his satire sharp (if at times reductionary), and several of these stories will make their way into my teaching curriculum. Of note among them:

“Harrison Bergeron”: America finally achieves equity—by punishing any upward-moving difference. The strong must wear weights, the beautiful must wear masks, the intelligent must wear in-ear thought interrupters. An excellent prediction (prophecy?) of the sacrificing of greatness, uniqueness, and ability for strict egalitarianism, and how doing so only fosters mediocrity and ressentiment.

“All the King’s Horses”: “AKH” features Colonel Bryan Kelly who has crash landed in Asia with his family and men. Captured by guerillas under supervision of the USSR, Kelly must play a game of chess with the guerilla leader, Pi Ying, with his men being killed as he loses his pieces. What follows is provides an examination of the responsibility of those in the military who must strategize with men’s lives, as well as a general critique of militarism in the vague parameters of the Cold War.

“The Euphio Question”: Scientists discover and broadcast a radio frequency from deep in space which causes anyone who hears it to experience absolute euphoria; tapped for marking as a new form of entertainment, the frequency subsequently becomes similar to a drug, dragging people’s lives to a halt. An excellent examination of drug addiction, as well as implicitly of the assumption that drugs are simply a problem of the lower classes.

“EPICAC”: A retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac with a supercomputer supplying poetic lines for its overly analytical handler in love with his lab-mate.

“Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”: The invention of anti-gerasone has made dying of old age a thing of the past; subsequently, cities have sprawled (with the outskirts of Chicago being in Iowa), families have soured, and the old man just refuses to die. A humorous motif is the central family head’s will, which has been changed so many times it resembles little of the sombre document it once was. A satire that borders on the absurd, “T,T, and T” questions the presumption that we should want to live forever.

Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott—Goodreads Book Review

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Five Feet Apart: Dante’s Inferno Canto V in a modern context.

Opening in the hospital room of deuteragonist Stella, who has cystic fibrosis (CF), Five Feet Apart is a YA romance that explores the conflicts of people living with CF and other related diseases. Early in the book Stella meets the other deuteragonist, Will, and she can’t stand him. However, as anyone who’s read Much Ado About Nothing or seen a sitcom where opposites attract knows, this soon changes.

Going back and forth between Stella and Will’s first-person perspectives, Five Feet Apart steadily and subtly shows the two drawing together. One can see throughout the inner conflict each presents to the other: Will’s dark humor and desire to enjoy what life he has challenges Stella’s control-minded focus on staying alive, while Stella’s optimism and love for those in her life challenges Will’s cynical nihilism about the value of staying alive. I especially enjoyed and was impressed with Lippincott’s presentation of Will and Poe; more than once I told the student who had chosen to read the book that the author gets teenage male psychology spot-on.

Marketed as a YA romance that shows the experiences of the terminally ill, Five Feet Apart has a lot of depth. Like Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno, Canto V, Stella and Will can never touch, despite their teenage love. The reference to Dante is made explicit in the book’s second chapter, where readers find “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” written on Will’s door. Allusions to other works (eg Stella’s name and untouchability invoke the courtly love tradition of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella poems) similarly reveal how Five Feet Apart is self-conscious about the forms and archetypes which it uses.

Despite its tragic elements, it is, at base, a romantic comedy, and it plays with and reinterprets different tropes of the genre to excellent effect. The setting of the hospital, and the constant presence of the characters’ CF and B. cepacia introduce compelling conflicts into the plot. While young women are often taught to be skeptical of (if not to reject as objectification) appeals to their physical beauty, Stella’s condition lends a different element to the topic. As is shown in the book’s opening scene, where her best friends discuss and pick out their bathing suits for their upcoming trip to Cabo, Stella does not have the luxury of taking her physical beauty for granted (cue reference to “ugly duckling/Cinderella” archetype); this adds a special gravity to later scenes where she gets to experience being attractive in Will’s eyes. Similarly, her beauty and personality eventually give Will the desire to stay alive, and her effect humanizes him away from his mask of uncaring nihilism, a la La Belle et La Bete/Beauty and the Beast. Throughout the story Lippincott also shows the conflicts of the surrounding characters, all of whom develop as round and articulate by the end of the novel.

Entertaining for both passive and critical readers, Five Feet Apart is an excellent story that rearticulates established story elements into a modern context, and it’s as deep as one might want to look. The audiobook version by Simon & Schuster is great, as Joy Osmanski and Corey Brill give life to the two narrators to often very humorous and sympathetic effect.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard—Goodreads Book Review

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Winning Conan Bingo Card: “thew,” “(blue) balefire,” “tigerish strength,” “ivory breasts,” “by Crom!”

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is a series of short stories that introduce Conan, as well as the Hyborean Age in which he lives (like a mythical, prehistoric Iron Age). Written in episodes that cover different times and circumstances in the barbarian’s life, the stories and their various scenarios show Conan to be a primal, instinct-driven type of mankind, who often conflicts with (though is rarely seriously threatened by) both primordial forces and monsters as well as more civilized – and, in the world of the book, thus more vicious – men.

Published in the 1930s alongside Lovecraft’s in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, the Conan stories often involve consistent themes and motifs (see Bingo card suggestion above). Conan is beset by trouble, and he must get out of it — usually without craft beyond his sword arm. There is usually a woman involved, and she unerringly discovers that she wants to be possessed by Conan. Men of civilization (members of court, politicians, magicians, tacticians, etc) are internally threatened by Conan, as are their pretensions.

This last point touches on one of the deeper themes of the Conan stories: the fragility, irony, and decadence of civilization. “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages,” Howard writes, “because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” Another quote indicative of this theme is, “The more I see of what you call civilization, the more highly I think of what you call savagery!” Throughout the stories, by the magnitude of his will for life (in battle, at board, in bed) and his respect for the primordial, Conan reveals those who presume themselves his betters to be fragile, inferior, and untrustworthy. His difference from them is the difference between being and seeming, and it becomes an indictment of civilizations that might think themselves infallible or beyond the more basic need for (or threat of) thew and steel. Many stories involve the discovery of the remains of past civilizations, and much of Conan’s wisdom inheres in his consistently keeping the rise and fall of empires in mind when engaging in the power politics of his time.

The Conan stories are excellent in their characterization of the titular hero, as well as the consistency of theme and setting. They can be read for both entertainment as well as for critical understanding of the role which fantasy literature plays in culture (is he an artistic concretization of the values readers wanted and needed during the height of the Great Depression? One could also read Conan as a Nietzschean overman — or do a compare/contrast with Superman, who was noteworthily created at the same time).

While my only complaint is that certain phrases/vocabulary appear so formulaically, that might be, for some, a good thing, since one of the major virtues of Conan is his reliability and simplicity. Besides, The Silmarillion (written by Tolkien at the same time as Conan), itself, contains only about 350 words it reuses, so perhaps I need to take a cue from Conan.

The Last Tycoon by F. S. Fitzgerald—Goodreads Book Review

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Scott Fitzgerald’s last and unfinished work, The Last Tycoon begins the story of movie producer Monroe Stahr trying to maintain his integrity in an industry that has passed its peak and is tending towards decadence. Told from the perspective of his business partner/rival’s daughter, Cecilia Brady, who is in love with the producer, Stahr must apply his expertise and standards to the works that come out of his company in spite of pressures from unions, writers, and his own business partner, all while dealing with an increasingly dangerous heart condition. Meanwhile, in a flood caused by an earthquake, Stahr meets a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his late wife, actress Minna Davis, and his Spartan lifestyle is threatened.

Unfortunately left unfinished, The Last Tycoon shows Fitzgerald’s writing process at its most mature. Though many ideas and plot points are left unfinished and unvarnished, it has many of the themes and motifs present in Fitzgerald’s other works—the 20th century and its continuity/contrast with the 19th century American ideals (hence the title), a lone character surrounded by those who, despite their higher status, are his inferiors in ability, an admiring narrator reflecting on the romantic hero, and unrequited love in every direction.

However, there are also elements lacking in Fitzgerald’s early works. Stahr is not an upper class debutante, but a dynamo who knows his craft (he reminded me many times, in character dynamic and situation, of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, though Fitzgerald’s). The plot shows meticulous research on Fitzgerald’s part, and he presents and utilizes the Hollywood industry for excellent characterization and dramatic potential.

The edition I read had a synopsis after the manuscript cutoff of what Fitzgerald intended for the end, as well as copies of his notes and outline. My wife and I (we read it together) had already watched the miniseries starring Kelsey Grammer and Matt Bomer, and the two ended very differently (though the shows, itself, was unfinished, its second season being canceled due to production costs, so that’s debatable). Nonetheless, there were interesting differences between the two, and it was great to read and watch them for comparison. More importantly, there were many moments, phrases, and insights in the draft that showed Fitzgerald’s excellence as a writer. It was an excellent read, unfinished draft though it is.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain—Goodreads Book Review

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What would a 19th-century factory boss from New England do if, in a brawl, he was knocked unconscious and awoke in Old England? This is the question Mark Twain considers in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court through the character of Hank Morgan—whose answer is to make gunpowder, pretend to be a wizard, and try to industrialize and republicanize Arthur’s England.

A classic of satire, Twain’s use of a frame narrative allows him to examine, poke fun at, and comment on the, as his character believes, outdated aspects of chivalric England while also doing the same at his character, himself. Like with other narrators, Morgan’s assumption that he understands things best makes him subject to parody, as well. The effect is a complex mix of humor and commentary that, even when it is didactic, is rarely unironically so.

Throughout the work, Twain’s juxtaposition of the American man of progress with the established structures of England’s narrative past concretizes the questions of what had been gained by the development of the American national character, and what may have been lost. As such, it is as much an investigation of Gilded Age culture and character as it is of the English past, from which Americans should not believe they are so cut off—nor should they want to be. Because of all of this, CYKAC exemplifies why Twain stands as a quintessential American writer, incorporating so many aspects of American culture and its origins into a humorous plot as he does.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck—Goodreads Book Review

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An exploration of a setting and the characters therein, Cannery Row follows the residents and vagrants of a Monterey, CA, community during the Great Depression. Set between Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery Store, Doc’s Western Biological Laboratory, the Bear Flag Restaurant, and the storage-shed-turned-Palace Flophouse and Grill, the book consists of a series of vignettes that loosely follow the simple plot of a group of men, led by the enterprising Mack, trying to throw a thank-you party for their friend, Doc.

Throughout the plot Steinbeck includes different vignettes of other denizens of Cannery Row, employing his selection of detail in showing characters’ situations and living conditions. However, unlike, say, the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck refrains using the vignettes as a flashpoint for explicit political discourse, instead allowing them to show and speak for themselves. Because of this, although it is less character-driven than other works, Cannery Row exhibits many of the best aspects of Steinbeck’s writing.

Nonetheless, the book shows many of the aspects of American life into which Steinbeck had such insight. Brotherhood among unlikely friends, the mixed shrewdness and compassion of local business owners, the antics of well-meaning fools, and the attempts of honest people to live well and virtuously despite their circumstances can all be found in the book, and they make Cannery Row a great example of Steinbeck’s style and ability.

Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck—Goodreads Book Review

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I’ll preface this review with two caveats: first, I did not read this book. Instead, I listened to the audiobook voiced by Gary Sinise, and it was excellent. Second, I’ve been fortunate enough to drive across the USA more than once via different routes. Both of these made me thoroughly enjoy this book, and I knew within the first few chapters that it would make me want to do several things: enjoy more work by both Steinbeck and Sinise, find a dog like Charlie, and take my own road trip across America.

Of course, much has changed since Steinbeck made his trip. Indeed (not to jump ahead), this book or portions of it could be included in any course or high school study unit on the Civil Rights movement. What I found I enjoyed most — and which I would most worry would be missing were I to take my own trip — was the consistent theme of the mid-20th century sensibility of modesty, understatement, and yet humble pride among the people Steinbeck found in his travels. I don’t doubt this still exists, and that one might still trade a cup of coffee or whiskey for a trusty conversation wherein no names are needed nor expected. However, from my own trips I’ve found the KOA campsite has replaced the corner of farmland (though the respect for coffee and whiskey, perhaps, has not depreciated).

Not only Steinbeck’s descriptions of the Northwest or the South make this book worth reading, but his reflective commentary on America, as well as on the human person. Having grown up in and traversed California several times, I found Steinbeck’s take on returning to his home of Monterey especially poignant. I’d expect people from across the US, especially those with familial connections to the mid-west, would equally find enough homage and reflection to chew on. Conversely, I could also see myself using this book in my second-language English classes and tutoring sessions to give students and friends from other cultures a more personal view of the 20th century American ethos than they would find in a history book. Also, if you’re a dog lover, this book might be for you — Charlie is appropriately included in the title, his being a prominent character and occasion for commentary in the book. Definitely worth the read — though I’d also recommend the audiobook.

Subtle Man Loses His Day Job by Thomas Allbaugh—Goodreads Book Review

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Subtle Man Loses His Day Job is a book of short stories written by author of Apocalypse TV, Thomas Allbaugh. Comprised of both standalone vignettes and other stories loosely connected through the Michigan setting of Side Step Tavern, the book incorporates themes of grief at past loss, the inner life of characters who worry they’ve missed their chance, and the tension between past faith and current lack (or processing) thereof.

Set at the midpoint between steeple-laden neighborhoods and the slums, Side Step becomes the meeting place for those halfway through whatever it is life has dealt them—and it often provides the setting for the ridiculous burlesques into which they find their way. In their hijinx, reflections, and discoveries, Subtle Man’s characters find hidden and often humorous realizations that bring light and hope to their worries and humblings, all of which make them both absurd and uniquely relatable.

Ultimately a set of comedies, Subtle Man does not shy away from the tragedies that form its characters’ backdrops; approaching such things with introspection without pretension, the characters find their way out of their troubles—or at least to a place where they might possibly see the way out.

Full disclosure: I personally know and have worked with the author. Nonetheless (or perhaps therefore), I was able to find much in Subtle Man that is worth reading and rereading, and the book makes me look forward to more from Thomas Allbaugh.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck—Goodreads Book Review

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I had somehow avoided reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school—for which I’m glad, since it allowed me to read the book with a background not only of US economic history but also of European continental philosophy (specifically Hegel and Marx). I was surprised that I should have needed this last for context: I had not known how polemical is Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece.

The book, of course, follows the Joad family from the American Midwest to California in search of relief from poverty in work. Amidst the efforts of the family to make their way and survive (a plot which is conveyed excellently and sympathetically by Steinbeck) there are both explicit and implicit references and advocacy of a takeover by the farming and working class of the land from its legal owners. Though this is rarely more than an underlying theme in the book, it is, nonetheless, there, and it ironically acquires greater impact due to the selective nature with which the causes of the Great Depression are presented.

It’s not because of style that I only give it three stars (Steinbeck is excellent in his details, in scene depiction, and in the tension and release of his plot), but because the book, unfortunately, often presents an unnuanced perspective of the Great Depression. Granted, this may be intentional—one would not expect Tom Joad to approach his circumstances like an economist or a philosopher—but if Steinbeck was meaning us to interpret his characters’ experience with a critical or ironic eye, I could not see it. It definitely bears rereading, but I would only recommend or teach it with the same type of caveat and grain of salt I would use when teaching Upton Sinclair or Ayn Rand.