Just revisited: 'Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone'

Just revisited: 'Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone'

Inspired by this week's kickoff of Binge Mode: Harry Potter, I re-subscribed to Audible and listened to Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone this week. As I got through the approximately 8.5-hour audiobook in about 26 hours of real-life time, you could say I Binge Mode-ed it myself.

First, a bit about Binge Mode, which is becoming a highlight in my podcast feed. It's the only show I'm currently listening to from The Ringer's podcast network, and it has recently been featuring Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion dissecting a recently released movie or TV show each week. These weekly episodes often take on the same format: Mallory and Jason recap the plot of whatever they're discussing, then choose a main theme from the work, then go through and call out specific points to show how the media represents that theme. It's a pleasure to get this type of analysis for newly released films, because it's often much more thoughtful and put-together than the types of podcasts that release show from a more instant reaction-based point of view.

This week, though, they began their jaunt through the entire Wizarding World of Harry Potter. They're going through The Sorcerer's Stone this week with five hour-ish-long episodes all week, with the first four episodes splitting the book up into chapters and investigating the overarching themes in those chapters, and the final episode focusing on the movie. From the first episode, I knew I'd want to accompany this with a revisiting of the Harry Potter series myself.

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Just read: 'Friday Night Lights' by H. G. Bissinger

Just read: 'Friday Night Lights' by H. G. Bissinger

The position Friday Night Lights has assumed in the general pantheon of pop culture is pretty remarkable considering it started out as a simple inspiration to write about high school football. H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's best-seller, written about the 1988 Permian Panthers football season, seems like a far-fetched project in retrospect. Bissinger, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was granted a leave from his day job only about a year after winning a Pulitzer Prize there for investigative reporting. His goal was to find a small town and write about big football.

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Just read: 'The House on Pooh Corner' by A. A. Milne

Just read: 'The House on Pooh Corner' by A. A. Milne

After reading through the marathon that was The Stand, I decided to switch gears and get into a book that was a little more on the lighter side, so I downloaded The House on Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne for my Kindle.

Aside from the relief of reading something that dealt very minimally with an apocalyptic world or death in any capacity, the book is extremely enjoyable on its own and I would recommend it as a palette cleanser the next time you need one. It's short, at under 200 pages, and its 10 chapters mostly function isolated from one another so you can read a quick chapter each day, which is what I did.

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Just read: 'The Stand' by Stephen King

Just read: 'The Stand' by Stephen King

The Stand is an objectively long book. It clocks in between 1,100 and 1,400 pages or so, depending on whether you purchase on hardcover, paperback, or mass market paperback. Since I had the defined goal of making my way through Stephen King's bibliography, I had my eye on The Stand from the get-go. I figure if I can make it through this book, I can theoretically make it through anything he's written.

The version of The Stand that I read was the complete / uncut edition, and I read it on my relatively new Kindle. The Kindle is new in the sense that The Stand was the first book I read on it, but not-so-new in the sense that I bought it two months before I started reading, and that the book took me about seven weeks to read on its own. This is a beast of a novel in terms of length and ambition (an aside: the uncut edition includes roughly 400 pages of story that King had to leave behind from the original version of the novel; his publisher at the time said the book was too long for their paperback printers), but I am pretty happy I read the this version. While there is certainly more beef in the novel than is absolutely necessary, I tend to enjoy long stories and the rich character development that usually comes with them.

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Just read: 'On Tyranny' by Timothy Snyder

Just read: 'On Tyranny' by Timothy Snyder

This will be a pretty short blog for a pretty short book.

Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny is a look at the current state of American politics and how it compares to political moments in various countries at various times in the past. Snyder is a Holocaust historian and is especially expert in the history of Eastern and Central Europe, so his knowledge of the rise and power of anti-democratic states in Germany, Russia and Czechoslovakia is encompassing.

At only 125 pages, this book is small enough to fit in a back pocket, and some of its lessons feel important enough to keep them that close at all times -- and it only costs between $4 and $6 on Amazon, depending on whether you prefer Kindle or paperback. On Tyranny promises "20 lessons from the 20th century" on its cover, but I prefer to think of each of these 20 chapters as a full-on, dual-purpose crash-course in How To Not Accidentally Stand Idly By As Your Country Becomes A Fascist State. The first task of each chapter is to introduce a way in which you can visibly see and predict the dissolution of democracy based on how democracies of the past have failed. Each chapter's second job is to tell you what you can do to help prevent that from happening. The book's bite-sized presentation is handy for its brevity; On Tyranny is a quick-paced read, so it serves as a good introduction to historical reading or to critical reading of current American politics (which is an introduction I certainly needed myself).

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Just read (and watched): 'The Shining' by Stephen King

Just read (and watched): 'The Shining' by Stephen King

Continuing my crawl through Stephen King's works, I've just read The Shining, and semi-accidentally watched Stanley Kubrick's film based on it for the first time as well. Knowing it is widely considered to be one of King's most popular books, and knowing there was a classic film accompaniment, this is one of the novels that I was most excited to read during the early parts of my foray into King's bibliography. 

The Shining (1977) is Stephen King's third novel (following Carrie and 'Salem's Lot, both of which I read in 2016), and it seems pretty agreed-upon that it's scarier than either of those first two books. One of the reasons I wanted to start reading King is that I had never really been scared in a horror or terror type of way while reading a book before; there were tense or psychologically thrilling moments in plenty of books I'd read in the past, of course, but I was pretty interested to see how scared I could get while turning pages. Turns out, you can get decently scared if the writing's done right.

King builds a base level of innate tension and fear in The Shining via early character development and narrative descriptions of The Overlook Hotel, which serves as the story's primary setting and a character in itself. The novel focuses on the Torrance family: parents Jack and Wendy and their gifted son, Danny. Jack has a recent alcoholic past, though he's currently sober, and he was fired from his teaching job at a Vermont prep school after he assaulted a student there. Jack's alcoholism makes for a poor cocktail with his short temper -- we get harrowing accounts of how he accidentally broke his son's arm while drunk, when Danny was only a toddler, and of his assault on a high school student who he'd caught slashing his tires in the school parking lot after a fair amount of shared animosity between the two. Jack is described as "seeing red" in these moments, and it seems plausible that his temper could snap with enough build-up, even if alcohol weren't involved.

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Year-end 2017 stuff: A reminder that I'm not yet good at reading books

Year-end 2017 stuff: A reminder that I'm not yet good at reading books

Last year was the first I made an effort to start reading more, and I was semi-impressed with my ability to get through 14 books and 25 trade paperbacks. I know this isn't a lot in the grand scheme of things ... I know plenty of people who try to read a book a week. But this year provided a reminder that I'm kinda bad at reading stuff, and some reflection will prompt me to make some changes in the way I read next year.

It wasn't an infrequent event for me to pick up a book, make good headway through it, then ignore it for a week or two in favor of listening to music or podcasts on my commute. This didn't have anything to do with how much I was enjoying the book, either -- and truthfully I don't have any good reasoning behind this other than I often didn't feel like having a book in my hands if I was standing up on the train? It's a lame excuse when it's typed out.

In any case, I bought a Kindle toward the end of the year so that I could stop adding onto our already-very-full bookshelf with more books that I may or may not finish. Throughout 2017, I ultimately wound up getting through four books and four trade paperbacks -- awful numbers. I am happy to report that I already finished the last half of Stephen King's The Shining in the first four days of 2018, so maybe there will be improvement for me yet.

Here's the full (behold! in its glory!) list of everything I read in 2017. This year, I'm really looking forward to continuing my way through Stephen King's works, taking the next step in the Batman trade paperbacks, and catching up on Marvel's run of Star Wars as well.

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Just read: Michael Chabon's 'Kavalier & Clay'

Just read: Michael Chabon's 'Kavalier & Clay'

It is a blessing, in that decidedly push-up-your-glasses type of way, to read a book that engrosses you and makes an immediate impact while also letting you know, subconsciously at first and then, eventually, overtly, that you're going to read this again and you're going to enjoy it even more the next time. Not that reading books is this exclusively "nerdy" thing and so this experience only applies to "nerds" -- but that this feeling will mostly come down upon those who are regular readers, or it's the regular readers who will appreciate it most, compared to the readers who might get engulfed in any given book because of the novelty of it, and due to my personal years-long reading drought, it's something I haven't felt very vividly in some time. While not quite yet worthy of a descriptor like "voracious," I have read enough material recently enough to be able to say Kavalier & Clay is a decidedly special novel for me.

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Just read: Monte Burke's 'Saban'

Just read: Monte Burke's 'Saban'

Seeking out long-form work about a subject I generally dislike isn't really my normal bag. Nick Saban, the head coach of the University of Alabama's football team, is an exception to this usual rule for only one main reason -- he seems like a total lunatic at surface level. His celebrity presence as college football's most successful coach has driven media and fanbases across the country to adopt a pretty agreed-upon stance on him, and that stance is generally that he appears to be an asshole.

Saban's success and seeming lack of happiness to accompany that success is what stands about most about him from a bird's-eye perspective. People always repeat the same things -- he doesn't smile, he wins the national championship then gets right to work recruiting, he doesn't take any vacations, doesn't spend as much time as he should with his family, he's too hard-nosed and businesslike for the college game, which is rife with tradition and character.

Saban: The Making of A Coach, by Monte Burke, sheds a ton of light on how Saban ticks. For me, the book was especially illuminating in two fashions. It takes a deep dive into Saban's relationship with his father, Big Nick, and the circumstances of his upbringing in a coal mining town in West Virginia, and it also fully explains the evolution of his "Process," which he brought to life with the help of a psychology professor at Michigan State University.

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Just read: Nick Offerman's 'Paddle Your Own Canoe'

Just read: Nick Offerman's 'Paddle Your Own Canoe'

Last year, I wrote about three (3) books which I didn't read, but listened to via Audible. The idea was to listen to audiobooks read by their authors, and all the works I chose were by relatively funny people whose work I enjoy as comedians or actors. The first was Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance, which was followed by B.J. Novak's One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories and Tina Fey's Bossypants.

Toward the end of 2016, I transitioned mainly into reading comic books and only a few occasional IRL books outside of my podcast listening. But since I recently discovered a way to better destroy my podcast backlog, I had room for listening to Nick Offerman's Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living.

Offerman is best known as the actor who plays Ron Swanson in NBC's Parks and Recreation, which is going to be a show that goes down as having one of the best casts of all time probably. I knew this book was memoir-ish, and subsequently expected some type of detailing of life similar to Fey's Bossypants. Instead, Offerman takes on a single thesis: Tips for how to live a delicious life, as the title puts it. These tips are presented in the context of his own life story, of course, but the driving through-point made the book a remarkably easy and enjoyable listen. As a side note, early on: If you've never seen Offerman's stand-up production, American Ham, it's well worth your while, and serves as a bit of a companion to this book if you're still considering whether to read it.

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Just read: 'Hatching Twitter' by Nick Bilton

Just read: 'Hatching Twitter' by Nick Bilton

Loving Twitter is a difficult thing to do in 2017. It's no secret the company has been plagued with tons of issues since its initial public offering in November 2013 -- and while some issues are nerdy and technical, like their inability or (seeming) disinterest in truly improving their product, the worst of these issues are basic and human. Twitter still hasn't publicly unveiled a way for users to effectively filter harassment on the service, making any Tweeter (but especially marginalized persons) easy targets for awful online abuse. There are plenty of cases to highlight this, both high-profile and non-, but there's no real need for me to re-hash them now. It seems like there's always a conversation at Twitter about "fixing" this in general terms, but very minimal action to help the average (i.e., non-verified, non-celebrity, non-"famous") user. This is trash.

It's a frustrating place to be in many ways, because the lack of policing and individual freedom on Twitter lends the service to be absolutely invaluable in some aspects -- the best real "coverage" of protests against police brutality have come via first-hand Tweets, as an example. I remember following the protests in Ferguson, MO almost exclusively on Twitter, both via activists like Deray and via civilian reporters who were on the ground to share raw footage of the events. Twitter and Periscope were so effective at enabling people to share their experiences that it seemed like almost every video shown on TV via traditional news networks like CNN were sourced from the service.

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Everything I read in 2016

Everything I read in 2016

At the beginning of the year I made a goal to read more than I had in the past. Since graduating college in December 2012, I had barely read any books at all -- choosing instead to spend my time listening to music, listening to podcasts or reading Twitter / articles / etc. So I used a conscious effort to seek out authors I had an interest in, and started down that road.

Ultimately I wound up reading 14 books in 2016, which isn't a ton, but that number probably represents the most books I've read in a single year since high school. Amongst the books I read was work by Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King -- the top three authors I had on my list when I started this effort in January. I know I'll read more by them next year, even as I expand into different things.

I also picked up reading comic books, which I couldn't leave out of this post. Focusing on trade paperbacks for the sake of collectability and ease of reading, I read titles mainly with the Batman and Star Wars realms, coming to a total of 25 trade paperbacks.

A full list of all the books and trades I read this year is below. I made the effort of writing about everything I read this year as a way to keep myself engaged on my goal, so I've linked to all the blogs I wrote as well.

And, if you're so inclined, tweet me the best things you read this year and I'll start compiling a list of titles to look into.

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Just read: Mark Titus' 'Don't Put Me In, Coach' and Stephen King's ''Salem's Lot'

Just read: Mark Titus' 'Don't Put Me In, Coach' and Stephen King's ''Salem's Lot'

Okay, so, I didn't "just" read either of these books. I read them both a while ago, but didn't write about either of them, and that's been bothering me because I've managed to write about everything else I've read this year. It seems impossible that I'll keep this up in 2017, especially since I plan to continue to read a heavier amount, but I want to tie the bow on doing this thing for a full year.

These books obviously have nothing in common, lol. Mark Titus is a former walk-on basketball player at Ohio State University who garnered some fame for writing a pretty cool blog called Club Trillion about his experiences playing for the Buckeyes. His book, Don't Put Me In, Coach, is an awesomely titled account of those experiences woven in with stories about his blog's success. He now writers for The Ringer. 

'Salem's Lot, meanwhile, is Stephen King's second book, and the second portion of my quest to read every single novel by him, which is set to be completed in the year 2043 at my current pathetic pace; but if King keeps writing at his current pace, and continues to write at that pace forever, without slowing down in his older years (he's 69 right now), I actually won't catch up to him until 2058 or 2059, my math probably isn't perfect. Stephen King would be 112 years old at that point and still writing books at a rate that's almost as fast as I am reading them.

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Just read: Laura Jane Grace's 'TRANNY'

Just read: Laura Jane Grace's 'TRANNY'

This one's a quickie, because it's a link-out to Chorus.fm for the full blog. I read Laura Jane Grace's new book, TRANNY, which chronicles both the lifespan of her band, Against Me!, and her personal lifelong experience with gender dysphoria.

The book is brilliant, as Grace is an awesome storyteller, but I feel more importantly, it's an opportunity to become more educated about gender fluidity, gender identity, and more. 

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Just read: Tina Fey's 'Bossypants'

Just read: Tina Fey's 'Bossypants'

Bossypants is the third audiobook I've listened to (following Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance and B.J. Novak's One More Thing), following the theme of listening to funny people read their books to me. Tina Fey is very good at this, better than Novak and at least as good as Ansari (who I thought was really, really good at it). 

Fey's book is a more traditional autobiography (albeit an extremely sharp, witty and overall hilarious one), telling her story from growing up in Pennsylvania to getting her start in improv at the Second City in Chicago to her early days at Saturday Night Live ("Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity") and finally her success with 30 Rock. She is extremely humble and honest throughout the book, discussing low points with transparency and letting readers in on intimate moments through her life. Equally as intriguing are the sometimes silly, yet thematically revealing, chapters on family, work/life balance (or lack thereof, when you're in charge of a whole TV show), and mundane things like driving across Pennsylvania for the holidays with your parents or in-laws.

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Just read: Chuck Klosterman's 'I Wear The Black Hat'

Just read: Chuck Klosterman's 'I Wear The Black Hat'

This statement may be extremely obvious, but also the most accurate, summation of Chuck Klosterman's I Wear The Black Hat: It's a book that's written by Chuck Klosterman. So if you've read his work previously, you know what you're going to get. This is the first Klosterman book I've read, but I've ingested enough of his writing in other formats to have an idea of what I was diving into. 

I Wear The Black Hat is a collection of essays / rants / ramblings with a general backdrop of villainy, and exploring how we observe and remember villains. Klosterman uses this curtain of villainy to generally write about totally unrelated topics from one chapter to another, and frequently jumps around semi-unrelated ideas within single essays. Featured characters include Kanye, LeBron, Darth Vader, Perez Hilton, Kim Dotcom, Batman, this guy, O.J. Simpson (who is dissected alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and many more (including Hitler, who Klosterman acknowledges is included in the book mostly out of obligation). 

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Just read: B.J. Novak's 'One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories'

Just read: B.J. Novak's 'One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories'

B.J. Novak's One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories is the second title in my recent Audible quest of listening to books written by funny people, read by the funny people who wrote them. One More Thing is a collection of short stories (64 of them, to be exact) from Novak, who is best known for his writing and his portrayal of the character Ryan on The Office. This is Novak's first book, and it balances the expected humor with occasional, surprisingly cutting pieces of insight and depth. 

The average running length of each story is probably somewhere between three and five pages (tough to fully gauge when you're listening, but I can guess); some are extremely short, while there are a few that run quite long. The lengthier stories are amongst his best work here, and they're peppered in throughout so if you're reading the book in order, there's plenty of variation from story to story in terms of length, seriousness and tone. Here's one of my favorite stories on the way shorter side of things, presented in full, below:

The Walk to School on the Day After Labor Day
I was sad that summer was over. But I was happy that it was over for my enemies, too.

This quick turn of phrase manifests itself often through Novak's short stories. One semi-frequent trick of his is putting a new spin on old fables, like in the story that opens the book ("The Rematch"), which sees the hare absolutely obliterating the tortoise after training for months to beat him in a rematch. "Slow and steady wins the race, 'til truth and talent claim their place," he writes.

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Just read: Aziz Ansari's 'Modern Romance'

Just read: Aziz Ansari's 'Modern Romance'

Well, I'm putting this under my "just read" moniker but... I have to admit that I didn't actually read this book. Aziz Ansari read it to me and I listened. A while ago, I realized that I stopped listening to books on Audible (after having gone through a few late last year) and that I'd amassed something like nine credits without paying attention. So I canceled my subscription and used up all my credits on one specific type of book:

  1. Aziz Ansari - Modern Romance (read by Aziz Ansari)
  2. Tina Fey - Bossypants (read by Tina Fey)
  3. Neil Patrick Harris - Choose Your Own Autobiography (read by Neil Patrick Harris)
  4. B.J. Novak - One More Thing (read by B.J. Novak)
  5. Nick Offerman - Paddle Your Own Canoe (read by Nick Offerman)
  6. Nick Offerman - Gumption (read by Nick Offerman)
  7. Amy Poehler - Yes Please (read by Amy Poehler)
  8. Rainn Wilson - Bassoon King (read by Rainn Wilson)

I theorized that listening to books by funny people, read by those funny people, would be not just funny, but funnier than reading their books on the printed page in my own little voice in the back of my head. So far, this idea has a perfect, 100 percent hit rate (currently one book in). Listening to Aziz Ansari read Modern Romance was enjoyable and funny, as expected -- and beyond the surface level enjoyment, hearing an author read their own work lets you notice emphases, pauses, etc., where the author wants you to notice them, which affects the way you digest their work (in a positive way, IMO). 

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Just read - Hunter S. Thompson's 'Hell's Angels'

Just read - Hunter S. Thompson's 'Hell's Angels'

After enjoying both The Rum Diary and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I was very excited to dig into another book by Hunter S. Thompson, Hell's Angels. Thompson was embedded with a gang of motorcycle outlaws called the Hells Angels in/around Oakland for over a year, and this book tells his stories with the Angels and sees him commenting on their wild popularity in the mid-'60s.  

Perhaps it's the more straightforward tone or the mostly/totally nonfiction-ness of Hell's Angels, but this book was much harder for me to get through than the previously mentioned ones. It felt poorly paced by comparison, and sometimes dry despite a pretty interesting subject matter. You can tell that Thompson didn't have his full voice about him yet, but unlike The Rum Diary, where that was easily masked by a decent fictional narrative, Hell's Angels doesn't keep your attention as efficiently.  

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