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

Friday, January 31, 2014

Want Not by Jonathan Miles

Want Not by Jonathan Miles reminds me of two things. First, while teaching I had my students watch The Story of Stuff and then contemplate the consequences and results of what they saw and how it affected them. Second, whenever I walked the streets of NYC, I was amazed at what people threw out. As I surveyed the trash, I saw building material, furniture, and so much upon which to survive if I needed to. Many times I had taken discarded furniture easily repaired, painted, and restored to good use or interesting boxes or planters. Of course there are the ubiquitous bottles and foodstuffs that would provide money and sustenance if needed. Surviving the mean streets of NYC or any town isn’t impossible. This is my kind of survival book.
There’s Micah and Tal, squatters in NYC living off trash and in an abandoned building in Lower East Side. I agree with the notion that you know more about your neighbors from their trash than what they tell you. This knowledge comes to me as local dogs trash the neighbor’s trash and leave it on my yard where I clean it up and redeposit on their yard. Then there’s Elwin, a large man whose wife left him for a chef but doesn’t want a divorce just autonomy, who destroys the grill of his Jeep when he hits a doe on the way home after staying too long at a bar with a friend whose girl just left him. Elwin was a hunter and decides to haul the dead deer home to field dress it from his suburban home’s fire escape. A neighbor’s drunken son stumbles on Elwin’s work at 2 am and decides to help. Two drunks field dressing a deer in the suburbs at two in the morning. When he finally finishes at dawn, Elwin has not wasted the deer. Finally we meet Sara whose husband, Brian died in the twin towers and she has discovered intense email from Brian’s lover to him and his to her. It is devastating stuff. Brian is quite the man, apparently. Sara has stored stuff in a locker for the past seven years, Brian’s mausoleum. It is Thanksgiving.
Sara’s new husband, Dave, is hilarious until he’s not. Tal’s former college roommate, Matty, is hilarious until he is not. Elwin’s dad is hilarious until he is not. Micah’s Tarzan existence from the get go is interesting and almost enviable, she’s an innocent in a cruel World. There’s a lot of TC Boyle like prose and plot here.
Want Not begins as a lark, a notion that we want from nothing, that we want and don’t know how to say no. Then it becomes about what we don’t want, toxic dumps, babies, food, possessions, lives.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Truth by Michael Palin

The Truth by Michael Palin is about seeking the truth. Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see, is great advice. Keith Mabbut thinks he lives by this advice, but doesn’t. That is the problem and the solution is when he becomes a journalist with some pushing by interested parties who want him to report and write on their version of the truth.  It takes his own innocence to finally get to the truth in spite of himself and those around him. “Keith, why do you always believe anything except the truth?”
Mabbut gained a reputation as a journalist by writing an exposé and then dulled it with his favorable writing of an oil company. That is why he was picked to write a biography of an influential and mythical humanitarian and environmentalist Hamish Melville. Mabbut elicits the truth from Melville and those around him as his ex wife, Krystyna, his daughter, Jay, who undergoes some pain as they, too, discover the truths in their lives.
Mabbut is lucky, he is able to get to the truth and eventually live the dream. Shouldn’t we all be as lucky?
Oh BTW, I love London and reveled in the walks about London by Mabbut., delicious.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Cypress Grove by James Sallis

Cypress Grove by James Sallis takes it easy as the local sheriff comes to visit a former cop, Turner, who spent as much time in jail as on the force and now retired. Turner lives deep in the woods, watches squirrels try to crack pecans and owls fly off with latest rodent meal. The sheriff brings a bottle of bourbon while Turner brings out a bowl of stew followed by coffee. When the bottle is empty, the sheriff Turner for help in a murder. Country ways sure appeal to me, which is why I left NYC for the shores of Maryland in my retirement. No rush, everything takes time, even investigations, but eventually it all gets solved.
As we learn more about the local problem we also learn about Turner’s past. The beauty of this book is the plot development. the character development and the facts of life. Being in jail or retired, “If you don’t use your Time, it’ll sure use you.” Ain’t that the truth for life.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P.S. Duffy

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P.S. Duffy is about WWI, the war to stop all wars. A quick reference to Homer’s The Iliad, reminds me of that foolish notion. Angus, a Scotsman from Nova Scotia and a cartographer has gone off to the front to find his brother-in-law, Ebbin. Of course things change. Angus isn’t in the back making maps; instead he becomes an officer and is sent to the front. Ebbin’s company has been massacred. Only his dog tags are found, both of them, which is curious since one is always left with the body. So there’s hope or so Angus believes till he finds him alive with someone else’s dog tags. Ebbin’s metamorphous is equaled on the other side of the pond in Snag Harbor, Nova Scotia where news of Ebbin’s death or whatever is met with skepticism. Ebbin’s nephew, Angus’s son is learning about metamorphic insects and about séances which will allow his mother, Ebbin’s sister to speak to him. The problem is Angus can’t just come out with his discovery because it would mean Ebbin is a deserter and would be shot. And Angus has lost track of Ebbin’s whereabouts.
The story is about both sides of war, those who fight and those who wait and/or mourn. The Grandfather is a pacifist, he lost his brother in a war, his son is one; he is the soul of this book, IMHO an anti-war book and a good one. The classic father and son story of growing up and finally understanding.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet

Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet has a religious undercurrent. A fatal accident caused by a drunken father, leaves two boys, Michael and Patrick, on their own when the father goes to jail for fifteen years. A local religious man, with two girls, Layla and Verna, the former and older a rebellious Goth and the latter stuck in the reputation of dad and Layla. Dad fought the school about sex ed being taught in school.  It’s a small town, the boys have been target for the sins of their dad and the girls have been too. ‘The sins of the father’ is a theme and the title is apt as we all have tom save ourselves, no one else will. Lots of teenage angst as beautifully expressed by the young Verna, “Lord, I love my family, but I hate them when they’re together. Forgive me, Lord. Help me not to hate them. Amen.”
Cara, Michael’s girlfriend is a situation for the brothers. There is lots of pain in this book. Pain of parents over their children. Pain of parents over the death of a child. Pain of children because of their parents. Pain in school among schoolmates, bullying, and sex. Pain provided by “friends” to expunge the bad blood. To overcome pain we hear “It’ll be okay.” Being okay is redundant and certainly relative to the pain. In short, it ain’t going to be okay the way it is going. “Okay” can’t be forced, and force is how “okay” is being administered. Frost said it best about making choices and these kids, well they all make bad choices and it’s not okay.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash

Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash is a collection of short stories.
The first story “The Break” is a probing story of a recently divorced mother who has her college sophomore son stay with her over the Christmas holidays. She still lives under the illusion of my house my rules. She can’t let go of that little boy she loved caring for when he was younger and had to stay home from school with a cold and she could nurse him and watch him while he slept. Divorced and the empty nest make for unsuspected changes. She doesn’t do well. She doesn’t like his choice in a woman so she finds one for him. He is wiser than she expects and helps her with the new life in a typical way sons do for their mothers.
Everyone knows that the best time of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is the night before when they inflate the balloons on Central Park West. Its magic and all the apartment houses along the Avenue facing Central Park and overlooking the busy work of so many human ants are filled with people roaming the halls and entering different parties throughout the night. It is a beehive of humanity amongst the rooms of the apartment buildings and on the ground busy with tethering and watching and ohhing and awing. In “Balloon Night” Timkin’s wife, Amy has left him and he is still having the party in the apartment he inherited from his parents who moved to Florida, the classic New York story of real estate. It is reminiscent of John Cheever’s story, “The Swimmer.”
Lots of educated people in these stories. That is college educated as in students and teachers. In “Her Words” a father and professor of English invites his class over to his house. One of his students intrigues his son, who lives at home to the point of dating her and then having her move in. This is awkward, one of his students living in his house and sleeping with his son. It’s the classic tale of a father and son negotiating those waters when the son does whatever he wants for love and dad is helpless.
It’s a year later after a car accident in which a boy dies. His younger brother, Lou, blames himself for causing the accident. His mother meets a man with four kids of his own, all are older than Lou. Lou, his brother, and mom used to howl like wolves at the moon. Lou is pin balling around this new home with these new siblings, not seeing much of his mom. She eventually comes to explain to Lou, that the accident wasn’t his fault. They go out to howl at the moon in “Howling at the Moon.”
Real estate in the Adirondacks is premium and two young lads go around talking to widows, widowers, and aged couples about their land, their vast amounts of acreage in God’s backyard. Eddie’s advise to his young apprentice, Randall, is let them know you are somebody’s son, in the story “Somebody’s Son.” Randall’s a liar and a thief. This doesn’t bother an old couple from whom he will pay little for their 300 acres and steals little items from them on each of his visits. It is amazing how the young are predators of the old. I saw it in the schools of NYC, as young teachers vie for a position held by an older teacher. It’s life and death.
“How to Fall” is a story about a young woman who breaks up with her long time boyfriend and goes on a singles ski weekend with a friend. She meets someone and tries to move on. It’s a story about what we know and comfort as opposed to starting over and living.
A tennis academy is the setting for “Letters from the Academy.” A coach writes a series of letters to one of his charges; one he believes has great promise and could make a living playing tennis. We only read the letters from the pro to the father, who is an accomplished Jazz musician. From the letters we begin to pick bad blood or even inappropriate actions by the coach. When Pete Sampras happens to see the young protégé play, he takes over and eventually the coach is dismissed from the Academy. This is the study of the slow disintegration of a man.
January in the frozen tundra of upstate New York can be a very lonely, cold, boring month. In “January” Barbash introduces us to yet another dysfunctional family. The dad lost his job in a landfill, becomes a couch potato, is thrown out and ends up in a hospital in NYC with ailments caused by the landfill. The mother and son left behind become the focus of attention by a sporty guy who owns a Jeep and takes the mother out on little adventures and brings her back to life. The boy on the other hand is torn as is so often the case. It’s always harder on the kids.
The title story to the collection, “Stay Up With Me” continues the same note of a broken family, a child tending to one of the parents, and losing himself in his dreams of the past before the breakup. Do children from these broken families have broken relationships? Barbash thinks so.
“Paris” is about a rural town in upstate New York. Of course there is irony in the title since Paris, NY is steeped in poverty unlike the glamorous Paris, France. A reporter does an expose of the town that the town isn’t to keen on. His job is to write what he sees, not to editorialize, and to be neutral. He is and they come around and we do see a rose amongst thorns.
Being stuck in a rut is what happens in “Spectator.” Instead of being Lost in Iceland, he is lost in Ithaca. He teaches a college course and does woodworking. She, eighteen years his younger, is a student and failing three of four classes because they spend to much time together, he gets jealous when her friends call, and their wheels are spinning. He dwells too much on their age difference. He is lost.
Death permeates this collection of stories as well as divorce, first loves, and moving on after something horrible. Is this Barbash’s form of therapy?

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Tenth Witness by Leonard Rosen

The Tenth Witness by Leonard Rosen is a prequel to the earlier All Cry Chaos. We find Henri Poincaré in his early years as a treasure hunter. He finds himself surrounded by Germans, an earlier generation associated with the Nazi’s and their children, Anselm, the older brother and head of very formidable and profitable KRAUS Steel Company and Liesel, the younger sister and do gooder of the family. She uses their money to make schools and hospitals in which his brother pulls ore from third world countries. She attracts men and Henri is used to deflect her brother’s choice of man. Anselm is enamored with the shipwreck, Lutine, Henri is seeking. It gets complicated.
Death camps and WWII labor camps are merging into more modern day salvage docks and plants. Similar labor forces with similar life expectancies. Henri is concerned and alarmed. Henri is attempting to learn more about his uncle who worked in a concentration camp for Otto Kraus, the father of Anselm and Liesel. Apparently ten men vouched for Otto’s good and fair treatment and called him a hero. Otto was spared a trial and was allowed to continue with Kraus Steel. However these witnesses keep dying just before Henri can talk to them. He is getting in deeper and deeper with the family, especially Liesel. There is an Interpol agent sniffing around and confronting Henri. Henri is being torn apart as his own company is flourishing.
A visit to the flats reminded me of like places in Iceland, nothing and screaming. In answering his son, “Henri, beasts come in all shapes and sizes. The worst ones walk on two legs.”  Beware the two leggeds. Rosen explores the Nazi migration to Argentina, the name changing, the empire building, and the legacy the Nazi’s left for the next generation to maneuver and to deconstruct again.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone

A college professor becomes involved, no falls in love with one of his students. This is a first, though many believe otherwise. It gets complicated in Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone. “I’m not a womanizer. Just an easy lay.” the professor professes.  “Maud (that’s’ the girl) wanted fulfilling experiences. She wanted them for free. She’s reckless, he thought – heedless, demanding, and she’ll always be that way. She’ll break a few hearts before she’s though.”
We knew for sure what Brookman, that’s the professor, thought, “Why this is hell. Nor am I out of it.” His wife is pregnant. This will be their second child. Maud has a former cop for a father who lives next to an oxygen tank, goes to weekly AA meetings, and lives alone.  He has figured out about Brookman and Maud.  
Perhaps Maud’s accident death is fortuitous for many. Or was it an accident. She had written an article for the school newspaper about pro-abortion issues that included pictures of children born with horrendous birth defects, who didn’t live long. It angered many to the point of death threats. Was it an accident or did someone arrange it? Of course there is the professor, his wife, and her college roommate. Who knows, but it seems as if her death is more convenient than not. And if just an accident, life is capricious, death is certain.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Jim Henson by Brian Jay Jones

Jim Henson by Brian Jay Jones is about a man who influenced all of us as a parent, child, or both. My second child went to elementary school with the daughter of the Caroll Spinney who played Big Bird. The class and some parents used to make annual visits to the show to watch the filming and to interact with many of the characters. My son and I were filmed for the Elmo segments as part of a father and son video. Jim Henson and his creations were part of my family’s life. Jim Henson was an important part in many children’s lives, just as Dr Spock was an influence in the baby boomer’s lives. We all are a Jim – seed.
The work of Jim Henson gave people power, opened up the world to itself, and educated people all over the world. “Simple is good” was his motto. When I think of Henson, I think happy thoughts, satire, fun, all generations. “That idealism – that ridiculous optimism.” He wanted to leave the world a better place then when he began. He did.
Serendipity is a key word and event in Henson’s life. Many moments like meeting and working with Jane, by accident; meeting Frank Oz; creation of puppets, first trip to Europe, Wilkins Coffee to name a few define the events that shaped his life as serendipity shape our own lives.
The chronology and details of developing the team and the Muppets is very interesting and historical. There brief stint with Saturday Night Live and other TV specials highlight the rise to number one for The Muppet Show on TV. The Muppets weren’t just for kids and Jim knew that. It was more than Sesame Street.
The book begins slowly with the usual stuff about the beginnings of life, the tragedies, the early beginnings of the epiphanies of puppetry and making them, the early shows the hits and misses, until we get to the Muppet Show which is high octane and runs at full speed into Muppetmania. 1979 was a very good year for Henson and Family/Team.
One expression that amused me throughout the bio, “It isn’t about the money.” Not eventually, but in the beginning it was and throughout and always actually. It is also easy to say when you have so much and it keeps flowing in; you can afford to say it. Just take in the revelations about the failure of Labyrinth.
The Storyteller was one of my favorite shows, Henson did. In fact my favorite was The Soldier and Death. When I learned it was the one he directed, I was pleased. I used a VCR to record them and then use them in my Mythology classes.
The end comes too quickly and too chaotically, especially when Disney got involved. In the late 80’s so much began to unravel, his love, his projects, Disney complications and headache that he must have felt an end nearing. The most telling matter has to be the letter addressed to his children written in May of 1986 giving them instructions about his funeral.
Henson has had a great deal of power in educating people all over the world. I put him on the same stage with William Shakespeare as a creator, as a producer, omniscient, and as a man who made the world a better place.