Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Monday, September 30, 2013

Let Him Go by Larry Watson

Let Him Go by Larry Watson keeps me out west in North Dakota, 1951. This novel has more of a feel and read like Cormac McCarthy than Ivan Doig. It is a tale of grandparents, George and Margaret Blackledge, trying to recover their grandson. He has survived his father’s tragic and sudden death after falling of a horse. His mother has remarried and they have moved away to his family’s ranch. Margaret is the spark in this quest and George is there to support his wife. She is concerned about the family tree, the generation she has no influence on, and the reminder to her of her son.
Mother bears have their ways, as do men. This is the west in the 50’s, Montana specifically. One clan lives on one side of Montana and another clan lives on the other. One clan, the Weboys, have taken a grandson from the other, the Blackledges, and plans to raise him as their own. The Blackledges take action against the other clan, not popular and feared in their own community. It gets ugly and bloody. We all know how we as parents would behave and react. This is a typical dark Montana/North Dakota kind of tale.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig

Sweet, the latest from Ivan Doig, Sweet Thunder. At the end of the last novel, Whistling Season, Morrie Morgan had made a bet on the 1919 World Series and won a bundle. He and his new bride, Grace Faraday, married and spent four months honeymooning in Europe, Eastern America before returning to Butte, via San Francisco. Morgan’s former employee, Sandy Sandison, Butte’s librarian and former rancher, has bestowed his mansion to the couple after his wife has died with the one provision he can still live there. So it is 1920, Grace has a new house, Morgan is unemployed, the two old curmudgeons, Hoop and Griff, from Graces former boarding house join them. Anaconda Mining is still king of Butte much to everyone’s regret.
Morrie becomes Pluvius, his nom de plume for the editorial voice of a new upstart newspaper to counter the pulp owned by Anaconda. It isn’t the first time Morrie has changed names, which gets him in trouble with Grace who moves back to the boardinghouse. His lost luggage finally arrived. Morrie has a gambling history from Chicago and has the mob looking for him. In addition he is mistaken for the local moonshiner, Highliner. Just trying to live a simple life, Morrie keeps getting deeper and deeper into it as the past slowly creeps back, the present confounds him, and the future, well that’s anyone’s guess.
The action of this novel takes place in literary settings a well-stocked library and a newsroom. The library serves all characters well fro the well read Morrie to the fledgling reading newsboy and everyone in between. There is even a celebration of Burns on January 25th. Latin quotes and constant references to classical literature abound to satiate any reader, especially a retired English teacher.
Perhaps the most despicable character in the book is Grace. In a book of villains and crooks and back stabbers, she is by far one of the most horrendous characters I have had the displeasure of meeting. She is Morrie’s weakness and very much undermines his otherwise admirable character. She is selfish, disloyal, and utterly shameless. There are no redeeming qualities about this woman. It is she who should be apologizing to Morrie instead of the other way around. She jumps to conclusions and is too judgmental to be worthy of Morrie. She makes Cutlass a more honorable character. She is one of those horrible women we get fooled by in life.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Humans by Matt Haig

After the last read, it seems appropriate to read The Humans by Matt Haig. A visitor from far far away visits earth, takes over a human’s body and life, Professor Andrew Martin, and writes a book about his adventures, discoveries, and observations. Hilarious would be to put it mildly. “No wonder they are a species of primitives. By the time they have read enough books to actually reach a state of knowledge where they can do anything with it, they are dead. They need to sit down and look at each word consecutively.”
Our visitor is here because Prof Martin has solved/proven the Riemann hypothesis and this is not good for the universe. Our visitor’s mission is to eliminate all traces of the proof and to eliminate all who know about it. Integrating into the family and work is a daunting task for our visitor. The wife, Isobel, the son, Gulliver, and the dog, Newton must be probed for information and then eliminated is the general consensus. He tells the dog after enjoying a jar of peanut butter and music, Debussy and the Beach Boys, “I am here to destroy information. Information that exists in the bodies of certain machines and the minds of certain humans. That is my purpose. Although, obviously, while I am here I am also collecting information. Just how volatile are they? How violent? How dangerous to themselves to others? Are their flaws – and there do seem to be quite a few – insurmountable? Or is there hope for them? These questions are the sort I have in mind, even if I am not supposed to. First and foremost though, what I am doing is elimination.” So instead of eliminating Newton, he cures his blindness, fixes his limp and turns a hater into a lover. Instead of growling at the visitor now, Newton licks the visitor’s face and follows him everywhere. He connects with Gulliver who has been estranged from the Professor for two years. Something was happening to the visitor.
The Mork like conversations the visitor is having with his home planet are disturbing his people. The visitor is getting too close, too involved with humans for their liking. Is the mission going to be compromised? No, he insists, just more research is needed. Be careful, the humans will suck you in if you aren’t on guard, they remind him. Too late.

Monday, September 23, 2013

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler starts in the middle of things, which is always a good place to start. It saves us tedious beginnings and forces us to pay better attention. Shakespeare always started his plays in the middle of something, usually a conversation causing us to pay attention and try to catch up. We are in the middle of a family situation. A daughter, Rosemary Cooke, of a college professor is taking more than four years to complete college. Rose is the narrator and entertains us with her language prowess. She aced the SAT verbal. Part of the family problem arises with her older sister, Fern, a chimpanzee. Rose’s college professor father was a psychologist studying language and chimpanzees and raising a chimp with a human.  Fern eventually has to move o to a different environment and that upsets the family dynamics.
I’m laughing one moment then weeping the next. Another dysfunctional family trying to put itself back together again at Thanksgiving, “Restored and repaired. Reunited. Refulgent.” We always think everyone else’s family is more normal than ours. The question raised here is that there is no normal family.
Memory plays an important part in this novel. Rose has memories and as she sifts through them with us, we get closer to her and slowly understand more about us primates and about our own cruel and shameful acts. Animal and behavior science still has a long way to go before it is humane.  Rose loves to play with solipsism and the theory of mind as she interacts with classmates. She is constantly reminded that, “You always learn as much from failure as from success, Dad always says.” Personally. I think we learn more from failure, since success too often is a mistake and we really don’t know why we succeeded, but we do know more about why we fail. Still Rose wonders why she keeps making the same mistake over and over again.
Suddenly without warning this novel becomes a story about animal cruelty and the ALF, Animal Liberation Front. Lowell, Rose’s older brother, is up to his neck in this organization and is wanted by the FBI.
At some point during the reading, I remembered a family that once lived across the street from us when I was in 7th grade. The boy and I were friends. They had chimpanzee that lived with them. Their house was designed for the chimp. The house was separated. There was the chimp part and there was the human part. We spent lots of time in the chimp part because it was one large playroom. I don’t recall why they had a chimp nor why they had designed their house to accommodate the chimp. I remember when they moved, too. It was sad. I suspect now that my neighbors were like the Cookes.
I think I have to reread Franz Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy.”

Friday, September 20, 2013

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

I’ve wanted to read this novel ever since I saw McCann on The Colbert Report and then to discover it was on the Man Booker list made me more intrigued, but it didn’t make the short list. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is about flight and all its meanings. “They are due to leave on Friday the 13th. It’s an airman’s way of cheating death: pick a day of doom, then defy it.” This all ends with seagulls dropping oysters on a tin roof followed by the aerobatics of the gulls as they collect their spoils.
This is a story of a family told through the daughters. It is about a journey from Northern Ireland to the Americas and back. It covers war and peace and slavery. Fredrick Douglass has a major role in this novel as do mix marriages. The oak barrel will have a new meaning to me now as will the notion of 12 ½ pound barbells and what they were made of. It’s about conflicts, but then how could it not when we are in Northern Ireland. George Mitchell plays his role. And all the time the women of this family continue on past deaths, auctions, and moving. I was constantly reminded about the idea of reaching the point of no return from one generation to the next. McCann’s control of language is soothing and wonderful: “the wind muscles,” “dawn unlocks,’” and “The trees were stubborn against the wind.”
“It astonished her to think that her own mother had been on a coffin ship some eighty years before, a floating boat of fever and loss, and here she was, now, with her daughter, traveling to Europe, first class, on a vessel where the ice was made by an electrical generator. “

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Gargill

Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Gargill is one of those delicious books that begins classically, “Once upon a time.” That beginning has always sucked me in and was a phrase I instructed my scholars to use when stuck with how to start an essay. The scholars were instructed to erase the phrase once the essay was written, though some cleverly used that phrase as a way to introduce something from what was read as a hook to the essay. “Once upon a time,” is a grand way to begin.
I’m not a real fan of Sci-Fi, so this choice was a chance. A good chance with a passage like this: “He’s (a vizier) the king’s most trusted advisor. If the king has a question or a command, the vizier tells him whether it’s a good idea or not. Sometimes the vizier tells what he should do, but he does so in a way that makes the king think it was his own idea.”  Just like real life, haha.
We encounter fairies, monsters, supernatural beings, and genies make this a very clever fanciful adventure. Bouncing between expert essay excerpts on the supernatural, fairies, and more that provide the science of the shadows and dreams and the very world about which these excerpts speak is an attempt to make it all real. Dreams have always fascinated us, but it is the shadows that have always concerned me. Tricks of the eyes or stuff in the eye that make us think we saw something flit in front of us or to our side confounds us. Not any more, this book helps explain all that to me and that I’m not seeing things, I’m seeing things that can’t be explained. I like that.
At first I had trouble getting onto this novel and then it kicked in and was fun.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Rathbones by Janice Clark

The Rathbones by Janice Clark is her debut. Whaling was such a hard occupation. Gone for years, years. How did the family survive, pay bills. One thing is sure this Penelope didn’t just wait on the Widow’s Walk. Our narrator, Mercy, is pro active and with her cousin, Mordecai, a bookworm who explores libraries and studies birds, as they seek out her father and brother. This is not just a book about whaling it is also about family, Moses Rathbone, his seventeen wives, and umpteen sons who followed their daddy’s trade for the next three decades and the Starks.  Sperm as in whaling and child reproduction is a common word bandied about. I am reminded of Homer and Melville as the pages turn, however it is all Huck Finn meets Pippi Longstocking.
Mercy, is the daughter of the current Rathbone who has been at sea these past ten years. She and Mordecai set out to find him. They each share secrets of the family that they share while on their sea journey. Mercy is a student of the classics, hence the classical references, while at the same time this journey is liberally sprinkled with witty dialogue.
There is another family named the Starks, boat builders. The Rathbones and the Starks mingle and soon the next generation begins. Sons are taken by their Rathbone fathers to live “down below” and learn the art of whaling while the daughters stay with their Stark moms. The dads believe the daughters will marry fisherman while the mothers plan for their daughters to marry princes.  
Mercy and Mordecai’s plans have changed as Mercy learns more about her family, dad, and others, while Mordecai languishes in his dreams, ignorance, and birds.
There is something to be said about living in the present and looking to the future, while letting the past be the past. Maybe we spend too much time with the past and too little with the future, forgetting about the present, thus letting life escapes us.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw is the account of a billionaire who upon reflection wonders why he shot so low in his dream and waited so long to achieve it. His advice is to strike while the iron is hot, pay attention, and don’t expect a third chance. We are told by people without money it isn’t about the money; and by those people with money, it is about respect, piles of respect, a mountain of it.
This could be any major urban area in the world where immigrants go to make it. We happen to be in Shanghai. The pace is fast, keep up or become road kill. A replaced worker is barely missed after a week, forgotten in a month. The rise to the top is treacherous all over and the fall is all too familiar. Missed opportunities, timing, and knowing someone can make all the difference.
I’m not sure why this novel is on any long list, especially the Man Booker, but if it makes the short list, Yikes.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

It All Changed

This day shall always cause me to pause. It is the day everything changed. I still find myself waking in the middle of the night wondering about this day and the events that changed our lives forever. What we saw, what we lived through, what we became. I have planned to revisit two documents I created from the ashes of this event that provide me a map to find recovery. The first is our webpage of the day and those immediately following and then a community effort to understand and move on.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki isn’t another book written by any Tom, Dick, or Harry and it isn’t for the birds, though Oliver might disagree. Ozeki uses two voices: Nao and Ruth. Nao has written a diary she keeps belittling. “I took a bitter sip and waited for the words to come. I waited and waited, and sipped some more coffee, and waited some more.” Ruth is a novelist, writing a memoir, which isn’t going so well, and is reading the diary.
Nao is a product of globalization. Her Japanese dad got a job in Silicon Valley. This fifteen year old was raised American, but had to return to Japan after the bubble burst. She isn’t Japanese and with their new poverty she is stuck in a junior high without the skills nor the means to acquire them. Ruth who has just met a man, Oliver, lives in two places, NYC and a fishing village, Whaletown, in BC. Oliver is a naturalist and is interested in birds and the ocean flotsams.
The earthquake and tsunami event at the nuclear plant in Japan is the central event of this tale. Oliver has artifacts from the gyres created and populated by the event, so soon and so far from the event. Ruth may have the diary of a victim. Nao may be the victim. Sprinkle some religion, Zen Buddhism well you have a stressful time for time beings. Nao’s diary provides details of her family back before WWII. We learn each generation has its own version of suicide.
This novel is a good example of a reader-writer arrangement, agency. The diarist has said she is writing for the reader and Ruth is beginning to believe the diary was written for her to read. The reader is using the Internet to follow clues, to uncover more connections, while the writer is writing and leaving breadcrumbs. This agency starts with Zen moments, and then moves on to quantum mechanics, Schrรถdinger’s cat, Everett’s response, and Mu-Mu. The reader-writer conundrum begins to take on a chicken-egg scenario and presents an enigma involving quantum physics and the ultimate notion of being, past, present, future and multiple worlds. Where will this take them?
Down a rabbit hole, that’s where it takes us. Shape shifting, ectoplasm, shadows, superpowers are just some of the treats as we navigate our mutual internal disasters. The antidote to suicide is “to live.”

Thursday, September 5, 2013

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo is an apt title, when the main characters are ten and eleven year olds named: Bornfree, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stino. Chipo is eleven and pregnant. Since she became pregnant she has stopped speaking except when she recognizes the act that preceding her seeding. The narrator, Darling, “khona“ or “cabbage ears” a hated name regales us with family history which is loaded with violent deaths.
The kids wander from the slums of Paradise and the paradise of Budapest, nicknames for the communities in which these youngsters live, if this is living. “Her face has turned ugly now, like a real woman’s.”
Everything’s a game for these kids; otherwise life here would just be “kaka.” They live in a tin roofed shantytown called Paradise. From here they venture out to other communities on quests, missions, games to pass the time and rise above boring truth. “We are back in Paradise and are now trying to come up with a new game; it’s important to do this so we don’t get tired of old ones and bore ourselves to death, but then it’s also not easy because we have to argue and see if the whole thing can work. It’s Bastard’s turn to decide what the new game is about.” They play these games because they don’t want to be where they are. Their soldier games are too real, hunting bin Laden, and when they play doctor, they play doctor. Their games are reality. Vasco da Gama is a good guide.
The dialect and language are delightful and refreshing. The narrator’s aunt lives in an American city “Destroyedmichygen.” But our narrator lives in Paradise. “They say Paradise like they will never say it again: the Pa part sounding like it is something popping; letting their tongues roll a while longer when they say the ra part; letting their jaws separate as far as possible when they say the di part; and finally hissing like a bus’s wheels letting out air when they say the se part. “ Before paradise they lived in houses with all the luxuries of Budapest, then the bulldozers came. Why? And will the election bring Change as promised and hoped for?
This is a political story told from the point of view of children, the victims of politics no matter what color or what country. We are in Africa that shouldn’t be generically referred to as if it were a country. It is fifty countries. Her country is not a country chosen in the children’s “country game” game.  The children’s games are inspired by the acts of adults. When they go into a white persons house for the first time they act like adults on the couple’s bed.  The innocence is actually refreshing from these children being children in a horrific situation. The reenactments of events played out, witnessed by BBC reporters are too common. They learn by observing adults and many times safely hidden up a tree.  They have limited knowledge of television and school prior to taking up residence in Paradise, enough to help us understand their world and their perceptions of that world as they move through Paradise, Budapest, Shanghai, and Heavenway. The theme of home is powerful throughout this novel.
“They are leaving in droves.” Our narrator has joined her Aunt Fostalina in Destroyedmichygen. Her Detroit experience is mind blowing. There is the language difference, the cultural differences, the customs that force our narrator into embarrassing situations. She is now a teenager in America with a Victoria Secrets catalogue. She is also an illegal immigrant and is the parent of her parents. One word dominates her and her fellows consciousness: JOBS. Not Steve, the working kind. More than one, too. Too many are too dangerous, too.
Future generations flash before us as the past is erased. Grandchildren don’t know the horrors the joys. Phoning home is Skyping and eye opening. “Because we will not be proper, the spirits will not come running to meet us, and so we will wait and wait and wait – forever waiting in the air like flags of unsung countries.”

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Resistance Man by Martin Walker

Bruno, one of my favorite characters has returned in The Resistance Man by Martin Walker. All the familiar characters and animals and byways are thrust forward into my face as pages turn. The new young basset, Balzac, to replace his last; a horse, Hector; and his women, Isabelle and Pamela are just some of the blasts from the past. And he has one of the best websites out there. It gets complicated quickly, as we start with the natural death of a Resistance man, holding a bank note from that time and a famous bank robbery, the robbery of fine furniture and antiques of a house owned by a former M from Britain, and the brutal murder of an English antique dealer. All in one day that has Pamela return from Scotland, for good, and the return of Isabelle to over see the robbery and the securing of the Brits house.
The fun really starts when Bruno and his guests eat. Bruno is an exceptional cook. Walker does his best work in the kitchen and the garden. The history is excellent, the plot development is excellent, the dialogue is excellent, but the cooking is most excellent. The funeral, the burglary, the murder are all providing escapes from the dangerous waters in which the two women are swimming. Not to mention the homophobia that is rearing its ugly head.  
Once again, Bruno is dragged back to evens of WWII that eventually have resurfaced today to create havoc and murder. History is revisited, unearthed, and shared over good meals and in good company, many who have a memory of those days and a stake in the outcomes of investigations. It is amazing how yesterday continues to influence tomorrow.
Deaths and accidents are suffocating Bruno as he tries to unravel the mysteries from his work. He’s betwixt a rock and the hard place. He of course saves the day, cause he “has the balls to do something.”
Resistance Man is a Bingo.