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

Friday, March 28, 2014

Orfeo by Richard Powers

Orfeo by Richard Powers begins with an old man, Peter Els calling 911 for help for his dying dog. “Not until the age of seventy, an old man burying his dog, did he recognize it, at last, as childhood memory.” “It” is what he seeks to understand. He recollects his father the day he died of a massive heart attack. In the background is the music of his life, classical, especially Mahler, inspired by death.
Els is a musician and music is the heartbeat of the novel. While his house is being raided by men in hazmat suits, he teaches his music class. In addition he explores I the lab and his biological studies get him into some legal trouble. “He was altering genomes in his garage. He couldn’t tell her: He’d missed his calling.  Science should have been the career, music just the hobby.” Els remembers the past, when he got married, puked before the wedding, the birth of his daughter and the late sixties all around him.
Els races around the country reliving the opera he created and his life is becoming that opera. Just as music is the background for Els, Powers provides us with a symphony of words that are melodious. An artist who tries to feel, to comprehend does it through the tragedies of his life: the assassinations of the 60’s, Che, Vietnam, Challenger, The Twin Towers and so forth. For this musician, points of despair are those points to be transcribed onto sheet music and into music.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

All the Land to Hold Us by Rick Bass

All the Land to Hold Us by Rick Bass is a saga, a metaphor, a love story, and a man in conflict with nature tale. In the 1960’s a young couple have a burning love and child. They plunder the desert and salt flats for oil, treasure, past lives only to leave it barren and bereft of life. Just as they sap the land around them, the land has its revenge by collapsing and eventually swallowing them up as they uncover those earlier swallowed victims. It is a circle, dust to dust. And that’s just one story in this magnificent metaphor of love and life in the desert.
“A strange and powerful landscape summons strange and powerful happenings” trumpets the tone of this novel as those who venture into this land with dreams and aspirations find them altered not because of their own failings or shortsightedness, but because of the power of the land, which is why it always man in conflict with nature with self and others tagging along in the currents of the river or the shifting of the sand or the reforming of the salt lakes. The inhabitants of Book I are the salt of the earth. A love story of the 60’s and one of the 30’s gone south are reignited in the 70’s.
Natural anomalies abound: an elephant in the desert, a huge catfish in a small pool, the land constantly collapsing as oil and gas are extracted, and man’s continual attempt to control nature. And on education in Odessa, Texas, I just had to chuckle, “It was the quintessential small-town craziness, the sweetly supportive abiding side by side with the maliciously venomous.” This is just the microcosm, which also holds true in the macrocosm of America.
It always seems to be about blood, family, and love. Richard has returned to find Ruth teaching the children. He joins her in this endeavor rather than seek oil or gas, instead he seeks sweet water for the town to replace the saline they have endured for too long. The returning man to a place that has been unrelenting in its thirst for dreamers he asks her, “Does it fill you, or does it hollow you out?” That is a question we all must ask, especially when the circus returns to town and challenges us not to be afraid to live.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs & Michael Duffy

The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs & Michael Duffy is about second chances for our former presidents and about recycling former presidents’ skills and connections. Herbert Hoover, one who really needed a second chance was the first member of this exclusive club for Harry S Truman. This book chronicles the Modern Club starting with Truman as President and Hoover as the first Modern Day member. Of course George Washington was the first member for President Adams. Lincoln had access to six because of all the one-term presidents. Only Washington and Nixon, upon his second reelection had none. Clinton had five. It is admirable how these former foes became great friends and advocates for the sitting president.
Herbert Hoover became the first weapon used by a sitting president, Harry Truman, in the Cold War. Hoover, who had been responsible for feeding Europe after WWI for President Wilson, now became that food czar for Truman. It was important for America to take the lead in feeding Europe as well as Africa, India, and Japan after the war instead of the Soviet Union. Hoover had experience in the logistics and his exile since Roosevelt became president marked a modern new world for the White House.
Ironically Eisenhower was an aide to Truman before Ike became President. Then Ike, the only modern president who had more experience to be president than any successor never used the Presidents Club as others would. He did command the European theater in WWII. In fact Ike and Truman separated company until after JFK’s funeral. It’s interesting how Ike behaved as president as opposed to as a general. Then I recall how MacArthur behaved and was dismissed. Truman had his hands full with these egomaniacs. As I look back on history, it is too common the same pattern of a war hero botching it up in a civilian position of power. It is good Ike was our last major war leader to become president and it should serve us notice never to elect another one again. Consider the current state of chaos in our military today. Generals make bad presidents because military command is the other side of the coin to civilian leadership.
Enter JFK and a brave new world that goes awry because of the Bay of Pigs. This entire episode is one disaster after another and the shocking detail that many supported a shadow government run by Ike provides fuel for any assassination conspiracy. It is stunning that we have not had a coup in this country and methinks this one episode may have been one of those times we were the closest. Inherited problems by one administration to the next are a constant theme for all presidents. Perhaps this is why a Presidents Club is so important and also ripe with danger so a predecessor can maintain some power into the next.
A quote from then NSC Advisor Bundy addresses important issues that plague any new president and one particular matter of this president, “Bundy invoked his predecessors, with the clear suggestion that maybe Kennedy could learn something from the old guys. ‘Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozens in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning,’ he noted, ‘and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet with you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings, for a total of about eight minutes, and I conclude that this is not really how you like to begin the day.’” Leadership we learn requires discipline and assistance from others and JFK had a haphazard meeting policy. He hated meetings and instead met with advisors one on one. Building on the past is how the present is formed and the future planned. In addition, we now know more about JFK and no these morning meetings were not how he liked to start his day. He preferred to be briefless and not with Jackie.
The conflicts between JFK and Khrushchev remind me of Obama and Putin. Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall. Perhaps Putin will build a Crimean Wall. Also Putin seems to be bullying Obama the way Khrushchev bullied JFK, till The Cuban Missile Crisis. Will history repeat itself?
Johnson started out well, had support and used Ike and Truman well to help with international agenda at expense of domestic agenda. Vietnam was his Waterloo.
Nixon and Reagan had been friends since 1947 since both in California and from Midwest. Their political lives intermingled for decades with Nixon always being the lesser of the two in terms of popularity, whereas Nixon was the shrewder politician.  The battle for 1968 is intense, cagey, and exciting. This is filled with a huge ‘What if.’ Nixon back channels the peace talks just as Reagan will with Iran during battle with Carter. It was politics as usual for Nixon as he continues politicking in his usual underhand devious way. One of the last things LBJ said to Nixon as he turned over the keys to the car were, “I will warn you now, the leaks can kill you.” Nixon was alone in 1972 after Ike, Truman, and LBJ al died in quick succession. And what a mess of things he made of it.
With the election of Reagan, the Club now had three members. Nixon emerged again and as he constantly sought redemption, his membership was useful, while Ford and Carter with Reagan as their common foe became fast friends and formed an unlikely union that lasted for twenty years. Nixon became a very powerful ally to Reagan and Bush I. His political insights were never wrong and he was helpful to both men in winning the WH. What is most scary is how Nixon’s predictions about things is right.
The events of the 41, 42, and 43 are still unfolding as 44 sits in the WH. What an insider’s read and story.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage is a fun juvenile novel about a duo of sixth graders who are the Desperado Detective Agency. The first thing that struck me was these ain’t no sixth graders. I used to teach them way back, and they don’t talk like this, act like this, or use this sophisticated language. What the hey. This is going to be fun in a made up world of sixth graders made by a good adult writer helping us wish we were like this when we were in sixth grade.
Mo and Dale are the agency. Mo is an orphan and Dale lives with his mom and his dad is in jail. They work at a diner, so they are in the middle of all the gossip in this 147 person town and they get tips.
Yikes the pedantic pedagogue in me is going to emerge. In Chapter Eighteen, Dale exclaims he hates English. No problem, Mo comes to the rescue. He asks, “What is an analogy again?” Mo replies that Miss Retzyl, their sixth grade teacher calls them, ‘double-barrel comparisons.’ YIKES!! Then Mo goes through a couple of examples without much explanation. A huge missed teaching moment by our author who dares to venture into a teaching moment so unprepared as to do damage and to continue the mystery of analogies and teaching. Here the author should have had Mo refer to her notes from class to explain to poor Dale what an analogy was. For example she should have explained the basic concept of how they are about relationships. What is the relationship of the first pair so you can solve the second pair. What is the relationship between the two in the first pair? Opposites, degree, type, characteristic, synonym, part/whole, tool/worker, action/object, item/purpose. Mo could have helped Dale with analogies and helped the young reader in a teachable moment. Alas it was lost by our author. For more on analogies check out a page I used. There are great links to more pages on analogies for the enquiring student, especially this one. I found most students hated English because it was a mystery. Demystify the stuff and bingo you have a lover of English. Dale is still in the dark about analogies, since Mo is doing it for him. Dale needs to do them and understand why. The pitiful one he creates is not believable, it is an accident, because he doesn’t know why it is an analogy. End of rant.
No, actually not end of rant. This book sucks. The reviews suck. To compare this to To Kill a Mockingbird is a travesty. This book is immature. When I taught this grade level in the late 70’s, my students read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. American education has been so dumbed down a book like this exists and seems to have a following, YIKES!!! Harper Lee should be rolling in her grave and screaming.
I’m retired and thankful for that. This is the kind of crap NCTE would herald as new wave. This author won a Newbery Honor, YIKES!!!!

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Sniper’s Wife by Archer Mayor

The Sniper’s Wife by Archer Mayor returns me to Brattleboro, Vermont. I spent some time there working with teachers at Marlboro College as a consultant with graduate students who wanted to use technology in their classroom and to help design a high school using technology in unique ways. The second part never materialized, so I returned to NYC to help open our own technology high school in Queens. We meet Willy Kunkle, a Vietnam vet, a former NYC cop, and now VBI officer in Brattleboro. He was described as “on his own toboggan ride straight to the bottom of self-indulgent despair.” He has a past that comes back to rediscover him. Thought and memory. He returns to NYC to ID his dead former wife, Mary, and then investigate her death.
Kunkle navigates Mary’s past after their divorce that reunites him with his older brother, an old Nam friend, her rehab clinic, and drug dealers. His boss and current partner from Vermont come to NYC to find and save himself from himself. They are on different paths that meet at the end.  Just as Vietnam created two kinds of vets, good ones and bad ones. Willy a one armed lawman from Vermont returns to NYC to solve a case in his own way and on his own terms.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield is the name of a huge department store, an emporium for mourning. Bellman joins forces with Black to create this store.
Will Bellman killed a rook with his catapult from an impossible distance when he was ten years and four days old. Everything goes well in his life. He marries the woman of his dreams and has four lovely children. He becomes an integral part of the family business, eventually running it, becoming rich, and then everyone he loves except his oldest daughter, Dora, die in quick succession. Black is present at each of these funerals. Will makes a deal with Black and they shake hands. Dora lives and the deaths stop. The store is the deal; Bellman is to build it for Black.  Black is an elusive partner.
What is a group of rooks called? A parish, a clamor, a parliament, a building, a storytelling of rooks. Rooks haunt the book, are evident everywhere, come to Dora in her sickness, are studied, are drawn, and are revered. We learn a great deal about rooks and even their cousin the raven in & chapters. Rooks tell our stories. They are about Thought and Memory and it is these two that are what fuel what flashes before us as we die, Thought and Memory. Curious how this book reminds me of my love an early volume of poetry by Ted Hughes called Crow that I read in my college years.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is a debut novel. Ruth, a seventy-five year old widow, with two sons abroad has settled into the family summer home on the coast of Australia. While she is in bed at night, Ruth thinks she hears a tiger roaming her house. This is possible since she leaves a door open at night for her own cats. Suddenly a caretaker, Frida, arrives form the government. Ruth hasn’t asked for her, but accepts Frida and slowly her hours of help go from a few hours a day to full time as Frida moves into one of her son’s room. Ruth begins a romance with a long lost acquaintance, Richard Porter, though he did kiss her when they were both young. Now he is eighty. He comes for the weekend. Is Frida conning Ruth or is Ruth actually losing it? And where are her sons? Growing old can be tough.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Salt River by James Sallis

Salt River by James Sallis is two years later and Val is still dead. Turner is recovering.  The past is like gravity, keeps pulling you back to earth as you also try to move on and fly. For Turner the past is winning. He is back as sheriff. Val’s musician partner, Eldon, has returned with a problem, and Stillman, the guy who runs the camp in the woods comes to tell of how his former partner was just killed in Memphis. Doc’s word for it is frangible, easily broken. Life is frangible as Turner agrees.
Salt River is reminding me of Lexicon and All the Land to Hold Us. It is strange how I pick books on occasion that work together in stunning ways without a plan, serendipity. Metaphors of our lives as we continually pay attention, just listen, and see the connections. All the loose ends come together in bizarre ways and get resolved fancifully to tears of friendship, joy, togetherness, and because the world is so beautiful. Crying in joy or sadness is like what the rains do to our landscape, they cleanse and clarify it all for us and invigorate us.