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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben

Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben can be summed up in two words: Occam’s razor. This is a good parable concerning the title, one we all know, especially the second part. It is about the second part of that saying that this book addresses in dramatic fashion. It probes the guilty conscience in a cunning way. It is a testament to our military and to those who serve, survive, and carry the war with them forever. This is a book only the reader can evaluate and no review can hope to accomplish for another.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Underworld by Kevin Canty

The Underworld by Kevin Canty is about a town in Washington with a silver mine. Then there is a mining accident and ninety-one men died. Ann and Jordan are surviving wives. Ann is childless and Jordan has two small children. David survives his brother, but his mom and dad don’t do so well. The survivors are known as the “sleepwalkers” as they walk around with blank faces and a distracted look on their faces as they continue conversations, one-sided conversations. As Ann drives Jordan home after they have identified the bodies of their dead mining husbands to the suits, Ann reflects, “It’s strange how everything looks new today. She’s driven this road some uncountable number of times but today she feels like a stranger here and she can see the strange lonely little houses behind chain-link fences, the crumminess, fiberglass speedboats mildewing in the side yards, firewood stacked under blue tarps. Why would anyone live here? Years of smoke from the smelter have killed the trees. A tangle of weeds on the hillsides now. Scraps of snow in the creases of the hills high above, though it is spring in the valley, a season of mud and flowers. Half the cars look abandoned. Dogs bark at passing cars. People stuck around because the money was good, and it was good, but where is it now? This looks like a town of poor people, temporary people, like a good wind might blow them all away.”
Two miners, Terry and Lyle, spent sixteen days underground until they were found. This is a story of the survivors and how they cope and how they don’t cope. It’s about getting out of the hole.
It is so appropriate today as 45 revitalizes the coalmines and one has to wonder why. He certainly can’t be doing it for the miners, that life sucks and is so tragic. He’s doing it for the suits and at the same time changing science. 45 has no regard for nature or mankind, just the almighty dollar. He’s a suit.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Customer Service

Customer Service is a bellwether for our educational system, like the spotted owl once was in the forests of Northwest America or the canary in a coal mine.  Where do I start? Okay, let me ask you, What has been your experience with customer service?
I taught for a long time in public and private schools. The hallmark for any good educational success was when students explained their choices, could argue a good point, and could solve problems. I retired when this became extinct and multiple guess tests became the norm.  We don’t know why a student chose a or b or c or d because we don’t ask. Now we have customer service folks who can’t solve problems because it is not a choice on their menu of things they can do. Problem solving has been thrown out the window for what appears on a computer screen as an answer to input. They haven’t been taught how to think or problem solve, they have been taught to memorize and choose an answer from one of four choices. As America becomes more of a service economy, customer service must improve. But it will only improve if we resume teaching in schools and not continue with this mindless teach to the test form of schooling which is starting to show its results in customer service.  Now if you don’t believe me, call your insurance company or any other business with which you interact and pay attention to the maze you must wander in.
The experience starts when you have to get through the first gauntlet of voice recognition or a menu of options not suitable for your call. Asking for an agent or representative can be daunting. Voice recognition on most sites sucks. Too many times the choice you want, speaking to a human, is not available. Once when we called a business we got a human, now we get automation. How does this help fix unemployment? Here’s a place where we could add more jobs. Human jobs have been lost to automated answering machines. Sad. Fix it 45.
The next gauntlet is getting a human. Even as we deal with a human, we are witnessing the decline of education in America. These humans just don’t know how to solve simple problems any more and that’s very sad. We have to go up a chain of command to find resolution.
The third step is speaking to a supervisor. In half the times I have gotten to this step, I have finally gotten a resolution after much interaction. In the other half, I find a letter to the Customer Service department is necessary. Resolution takes the customary four to six weeks.
This is how we solve problems in America today. I thought computers were going to make our lives better. Gosh, was I naïve.
Our educational system has failed us and it is getting worse. We have accommodated education for the evaluators and not for the evaluatees, the students. It is easier to assess a multiple guess test than it is to evaluate essays. That is now the problem in America, we took a short cut and are now paying for not working hard. We have forgotten to ask why in school and we have certainly not allowed our students to show us how except to be sure to bubble in that little circle completely.
After that arduous customer service experience, there is that ubiquitous survey you can do after your, “I need a drink now experience” with customer service. Just shoot me now.
Oh, and why can’t coal miners learn a new trade like making solar panels or wind mills of electric cars?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bryant & May: Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler

Bryant & May: Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler is to London as Corby is to Ancient History in his Athenian Mystery Series. Fowler takes us on a very erudite and entertaining tour of British Literature, London, and the Thames through the character of Arthur Bryant. Bryant is the member of a unique police unit in London called the Peculiar Crimes Unit. They are headed by the very inept, Raymond Land, mon petit debile, mon petit crapaud, Bryant is the actual and official brain of the Unit along with his partner John May. The other members of the Unit include Janice Longbright, Dan Banbury, Giles Kershaw, Meera Mangeshkar, Colin Bimsley, and Fraternity DuCaine.
 We witness the death of a woman, Lynsey Dalladay, on the banks of the Thames at night. It appears she has committed but the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit to investigate it as a murder. She was pregnant and her boyfriend, Freddie Cooper is a prime suspect. One of the members of this unit, Longbright, explains their purpose best: “It’s not our job to understand why people do the things they do, Mr. Cooper. Even the well-intentioned ones can end up lying, and the best lies come when they’re finally convinced they’re telling the truth. People omit truths in order to ease their pain. We have to get the full story so that we can decide what to do.” It sounds like we all are members of this distinguished and peculiar group as we navigate our own lives.
I particularly love the times when Bryant is searching through literature with the likes of a Kirkpatrick or a Darcy Sarto and scans such tomes as Shakespeare’s First Folio or a Dickens novel for hints about the Thames and its power over people and the City of London. Bryant’s hallucinations about WWII and the blitzes of London are also illuminating if not troubling to poor suffering Arthur. Even his chat with Dickens is fantastic. Bryant is the clown to May’s straight man role. May holds the leash or so he thinks. “Arthur Bryant was getting better at evading his keepers.”
Other elucidating moments in this novel are the interactions with London historians like Audrey Beardsley, who would spend time relating the more esoteric historical facts of London and the Thames. The Thames becomes a character in this novel. “’What snakes through the heart of this investigation?’ Bryant continued, unconcerned about whether anyone was listening to him. “The Thames. The Silent Highway. Liquid history. Think about it, the livelihoods that depended on it, all the dock complexes, London and St Katherine’s, Commercial, India and Millwall, the Royals and Tilbury. Between them they took up an area of three thousand acres. Thirty miles of quays and dry docks. Think about the toshers, the mudlarks, the scuttle-hunters, the lumpsers –‘ ‘Nope,’ said May, ‘it’s gone.’”
The main subplot involves a recent illegal immigrant, Ali. Ali’s adventures to enter England are very sad and funny. He has special skills and hooks up with another wanderer, Cassie. They form different teams of entertainers to make money. Their misadventures are great sidebar stuff until they become entangled with the law, Bryant and May and The Peculiar Crimes Unit. Freddie Cooper, the ex boyfriend of the dead pregnant girl, Dalladay, is an investor to the pair’s latest scheme, Life Options. It turns out Ali slept with Freddie’s ex after they broke up. Cassie is concerned Ali may be the father. This will complicate things, if the police get involved with the pair. For Ali it is all about the money and he has the charms to extract it from the weak and susceptible. He is a snake and a con man.
More bodies are found in the Thames and the Unit is trying to find links and connections. The intrigue is kicked up a notch as we begin to sense the power of the river, the power of it as known by the Druids, Romans, and other inhabitants of the snake that slithers through London. The answer always lies in the money, follow the money and the solution will always be obvious.
The humor and dry wit have me in constant hysterics as I often have to reread passages just for the joy of the wit and sarcasm, “mon petit lecteur”.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance or is it James Donald Bowman or is it James David Hamel? It is called a memoir, but is really fiction. As a memoir it is fake, fabricated and just plain bullshit. This hoax sits along side other notable fraudulent memoirs like The Education of Little Tree and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces that fooled Oprah. In his introduction, which is excellent lawyer speak, Vance supplies much evidence to the hoax and in Chapter Two again warns us of his duplicity: “This is the story my grandparents told me, and like most family legends it’s largely true but plays fast and loose with the details.”  Vance would have done better if he followed Tracy Chevalier’s model, At The Edge of the Orchard.
I have always been told ignorance of the law is not an excuse. So, too, “Willful Ignorance” is not a defense against ignorance: “Their paper (NYTimes) suggests that Hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist.” Isn’t this the same crap we hear from Conway about Spicer’s “Alternative Facts”?
If this is real, then Hillbillies are just dumb sons of bitches who deserve their crappy lot in life because they are just too ignorant to know any better. And for Vance to be defending this stupidity is even more insulting to us. This is the story of people who literally cut off their nose to spite their face. They are admittedly “Willfully Ignorant” and that just isn’t a defense or justification for their ignorance and harmful actions. Their lives do have an impact on ours and that is wrong, just wrong. They are not good Americans because that is not what our Founding Fathers wanted from the people, “Willful Ignorance.”
“Papaw’s distant cousin – also Jim Vance – married into the Hatfield family and joined a group of former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers called the Wildcats. Cousin Jim murdered former Union soldier Asa Harmon McCoy, he kicked off one of the most famous family feuds in American history.” Add to this tall tale the one about a Tilden killing a rival on Election Day and we do have some whoppers here. “As Mamaw used to say, you can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you can’t take Kentucky out of the boy.” (Page 25)
“Jimmy (author’s uncle), Mamaw would tell me later, could sit up at two weeks, walk at four months, speak in complete sentences just after his first birthday, and read classic novels by age three (“A slight exaggeration,” my uncle later admitted.)” One bullshit story follows the next. This memoir reeks like a cow barn. It is however an entertaining novel, maudlin, but entertaining with its clichés while an adult romanticizes about his youth in awe and full of admiration that it might have actually been this way. Delusional!
I love the stories of the bully in school, fighting his sister’s boyfriend, and Mamaw’s advice on fighting. Perhaps the best religious joke I’ve heard and reflective of this book involves a man who in his house during a flood. As the waters rise a car comes by to offer escape and he declines saying ‘God will take care of me.’ He responds the same way when the first floor floods and a boat comes by and when he is on the roof and a helicopter comes by. Eventually he calls to God and wonders why he hasn’t cared for him. God replies, ‘I sent a car, a boat, and a helicopter. Your death is your own fault.’ God helps those who help themselves.” Of course that is the greater truth and further evidence to “Willful Ignorance.” Another deception or lie is about actual church going. “Despite its reputation, Appalachia has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, and is much lower in the South. This pattern of deception has to do with cultural pressure.” So lying and deception are cultural traits and mores. This helps explain the deception of this memoir, this hoax that at best could be a novel.
One dramatic moment from his life is followed with another. In one he forgets what he says to his mom that causes her to drive a hundred miles an hour promising to kill them both before he flies out of the car after she stops it and he runs through fields to a house with a fat woman in her pool demanding she call his Mamaw cause his mom is going to kill him. He forgot what he said? His mother is arrested after the woman called 911. Then after his Papaw died on a Tuesday he heard a Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Tuesday’s Gone.” This he remembers. And yet the episodes from any of his school days he remembers are those filled with books about social justice, The Truly Disadvantaged and Losing Ground, that are politically rooted to help him with his political agenda as supplied by his Mamaw’s rants, very convenient. Heck, school days are those days that dominate our lives forever when we are young and have nightmares about in our middle age. A memoir without school days is mighty fishy. How does he know such intimate things about his Mamaw like the time she took those Beaver Hunts magazines? As I said a fair novel, but hardly a memoir, mostly fiction built on a truth or two as any good novel is.
What would any good memoir be without 9/11 and a stint in the Marines? Well we get them both in this pile of bullshit. Be sure to tug at the heartstrings and go patriotic whenever the narrative looses momentum and you need to further the political agenda. I found his college and Law school a bit much. Yes, it is easily documented but college in less then two years, Yikes. All of this is just modest bullshit. “Just give me my diploma; I don’t need to shake the college president’s hand.” What bullshit.
At this point I was almost sucked in by this lawyer/con artist because I, too, found the military a saving grace for me. The military changed my life and allowed me to also go through college and post grad work successfully after a very lackluster high school lack of education. But then it hit me, this guy is a lawyer and like all good lawyers he can con any jury, and Vance has done just that, conned us with this bullshit.
What is it he isn’t telling us? What is this lawyer/con artist not saying? The one and most important aspect of Hillbilly culture that was lacking from this fake not authentic memoir was the absence of any discussion of incest, the cornerstone of Hillbilly culture. “Why did the Hillbilly go to the family reunion? To find a wife.” Incest is such a cultural norm in Hillbilly culture, sociologists and others study it on a regular basis and it has to be one of the main reasons and shames Hillbillies keep everything in the family and keep to themselves. It is what separates Hillbillies from the rest of us humans. That is why they are so different from us. There may be hints of incest in Mamaw’s secrets or mom’s desperate and irrational behavior with the flurry of men in her lives or why his dad escaped and became a born again or his uncle who escaped. Again I must remind myself a lawyer is weaving this tale and he spins a good yarn, but he has omitted a most crucial part of his proud Hillbilly existence and that is the scourge of Hillbilly culture, the shameful act of incest.
I know that Abraham Lincoln’s father left the Hingham Lincoln clan for Kentucky and Abraham rose from that ash heap to be labeled “Honest Abe” but Mr. Vance you didn’t rise high enough as you became a con man just like 45 who conned his way into the WH. White trash is so appropriate. Being a Hillbilly just ain’t no excuse for your down right plain “Willful Ignorance” and incestuous ways to expect forgiveness let alone understanding Mr. Vance or whatever your name is. It’s against God’s will. This is bullshit you Hillbilly son of a bitch. You have tried to con us and have succeeded in some circles. Remember there are two kinds of terminators, the good ones and the bad ones and there ain’t no good con men.
Perhaps a good discussion of education can come from this reading. I agree that education reform shouldn’t begin at high school but in Pre School and in the lower grades. Research informs us of that. Invest lots and lots of military kind of money in early school and we would do well. Involve the community: the previously employed, grandparents, high school students, parents and provide a community of learners in every community and the rest will fall into place because then we will have created a culture of learning. This is how you make America great again by making it smart. It’s all about education stupid.
Vance may have found the Author’s Note to Moonglow by Michael Chabon inspiring and appropriate. “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson is about the Internet and middle and high school. This combo makes for an interesting story and read. The schools are in the prestigious and wealthy community of Mill Valley on the outskirts of Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account for a reason. I used to have a cell phone blocker in my classroom for a reason. I created CyberEnglish for a reason. This novel verifies to me why my reasons make even more sense now than ever. This is a scary novel because it reiterates the idea that the inmates are running the schools. It reminds me of that classic movie with Alan Bates in the King of Hearts. A new teacher, Molly Nichols, makes all the classic first year teacher mistakes and some. The result is that she has her wings clipped severely along the lines of Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Again one has to ask the question why are we still teaching the way we were taught? Why do the five rows of six desks with the teacher desk front and center still exist? With this configuration I’d add a video cam to my teaching arsenal so I can video tape the class especially when my back is turned so I could provide proof to the overbearing parents and explain the ugly truths to my students. As Molly suggests, teachers may be glorified babysitters, which rankles her colleagues. It shouldn’t because that is what teachers are, “Glorified Babysitters.” I found that truth liberating as I proceeded in the classroom for my pleasure and joy and if the students wish to share in that joy, so be it. They do have the right to fail after all and who am I to infringe upon their rights. As I taught I just made sure no student infringed on any other student’s rights so we had a pleasant environment. It was not my job to teach them, it was their job to learn. I was to provide the safe environment and the data for them to learn, their choice, not mine. That is why I loved CyberEnglish so much and the drama class I taught.
Reading this book was one of the best I have read about the actual practice of teaching in a novel and I had fun with it. It also reiterated for me why I retired and am so happy for that decision since the current educational policies are so confused and misguided. Making America Smart Again is going to be an uphill battle in a war we may not win considering our current politics and leadership. When so many Americans consider “Willful Ignorance” a virtue, we could be looking at the fall of the American Empire.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Ionia Sanction by Gary Corby

The Ionia Sanction by Gary Corby is a rough read. In rough I mean savage in its description of the very common practice of anal impalement as a form of execution, which was replaced by crucifixion. In addition because Nico, our Athenian PI or agent who works for Pericles, finds himself in Ionia, specifically Ephesus and Magnesia, the western coast of today’s Turkey, he witnesses and is almost subject to this barbaric form of execution. They have much different habits than their Greek counterparts, so it is an education for Nico as much as it may be for us. The practices of the ancients were horrendous and cruel. Sexual practice in Ionia is as unbridled as was in Greece, but there seems to be more incestuous relationships in Ionia than in Greece. Diotima has moved to Magnesia and is one reason Nico takes the assignment for Pericles. Women’s desire to have Nico has helped Diotima figure out that she wants Nico and breaks her vows to marry him in a rather rushed marriage, since they both believe they will die.
Socrates, Nico’s younger brother, provides some humor as he pretends to be Nico’s slave for a night so he can go to his first and certainly not last symposium. He is a hit and the lead philosopher of the time, thinking Socrates is Nico’s slave, proposes to buy Socrates. The ensuing action with their dad is very funny. But then what older brother might not want to sell his younger brother? Another very interesting part is Nico’s interaction with Themistocles, who is the leader of Magnesia and a brilliant man, similar to a Winston Churchill in cunning, politics, and genius. Nico learns more from him about politics than he does from Pericles. Much is made of loyalty in this novel. Hector is the model of loyalty for the Greeks whereas; Themistocles is for the Persians and other non-Greeks. The Greek of course consider the state to be the first loyalty and non-Greeks start with self, then family, then state. The stories of different family members in this novel provide unique and clever commentary for all of us to chew on and ruminate over. The culmination of the wedding for Nico and Diotima is important as it lifts this tension between the two and allows for the two to work together more fruitfully.
Now on to the next adventure of Nico and Diotima, Sacred Games.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey is another borrow from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Miranda is six when we first meet her and her Papa. She is in awe of his magic and his art as he conjures for the wild boy of the isle to approach. Papa talks to the spirits, wheels his magic using the power of the planets, and sacrifices a hen to entice the wild boy, Caliban, to their abandoned Moorish palace. Miranda is under Papa’s spell and wants to make him proud of her, so she is very careful. Papa is all she knows for now. Since we know The Tempest, we know this. Carey has fantastical skills, too, and asks us to forgive her her trespass.
This prologue introduces us to Prospero’s magic skills and we learn how he wields them to control Miranda via an amulet with a lock of her hair that is around his neck. H has an amulet for Caliban too. This is how he controls the two of them. There is infliction of pain too. Ariel is released from his spell laid on him by Caliban’s mother Sycorax. The password to unlock Ariel is Caliban’s father, Setebos. Ariel promises to be Prospero’s servant, so he is released. The relationships among these three is interesting and develops as any threesome does develop with strife, antagonism, and jealousy. Miranda likes and teaches Caliban, but doesn’t like or trust Ariel. Ariel taunts and looks down on Caliban, while Ariel annoys Caliban. “Together, we (Miranda and Caliban) become student and teacher alike as we learn and relearn the art of speech. As for Ariel, the spirit makes himself scarce from my (Miranda) presence, and I am grateful for it.” When Miranda gets her first period things change.
The Tempest is a ballet and Carey dances about the issues beautifully in this prequel. She is of course hampered with what she can do in a prequel as opposed to a sequel. I love the exploration of the four characters: Prospero, Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel. She interprets the play well, as she provides a good story of these four in this prequel. It is plausible. It works and is well done. I also like the interaction between Papa and daughter, as it helps us better understand their relationship in the play. Carey does a wonderful job with Prospero’s cell and magic. I now must go and read The Tempest again especially after this and Atwood’s contribution.
The idea of this book is well founded as are other prequels and sequels to Shakespeare’s plays, but it should have ended at the storm, Chapter Forty-Four. The rest is The Tempest.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Hag-Seed, The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed, The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood is a novel about Revenge, using Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the vehicle. For some reason I am reminded of John Cheever’s Falconer because of the jail setting, also the beauty of the writing. Atwood has used The Tempest as the model for her novel. Her characters are living the nightmare that is the story of the play. One leader is ousted by another and ends up in isolation and then my chance they are reunited in the ousted man’s territory.
We all know the story of The Tempest. In Atwood’s story, Felix, is the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival until he is ousted by his assistant Tony. Felix has also had a personal tragedy. He has lost his wife in the childbirth of his daughter, Miranda, who in turn died of meningitis at an early age. He imagines Miranda is still with him. He disappears into the wilderness and finds an isolated house in the woods. He eventually gets a job as an English teacher in the Fletcher Correctional Facility and creates a troupe of players. After more than a dozen years of exile, Felix, now Mr. Duke, discovers his old enemies and ousters are to come to the prison, in the their new roles as government officials. Felix, Mr. Duke, plans his revenge. He will put on The Tempest, the play he was going to put on when he was ousted from the Festival.
There are three stories: The Tempest, Felix and his ghosts, and the play put on by the inmates. The most fun part is the play put on by the inmates. Felix puts them in teams and they have to determine the form of production and use their own experiences in the production. Getting them past Ariel the fairy and Caliban the beast are easily enough done and brilliantly. He brings in an actress to play Miranda. The revenge part is hilarious and moving as Felix weaves his magic, with some help from drugs, on his enemies. The interpretation parts of his directing are brilliant examples very worthy of any English class, which makes this a wonderful companion read when teaching this play. I gained such new insight from Atwood’s interpretations and teachings. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the lessons was how Felix demanded of the actors that they project what would happen next, after the play has ended to each of the characters. As always the best lesson when a story is done is to ask, what next?
Felix uses this production to exact revenge upon his enemies and to finally exorcise the ghost of his daughter, Miranda. Felix speaks of nine prisons in the play and as he helps the inmates negotiate these prisons he, too, is finding freedom from his own shackles.
Reading this novel based on the famous swan song play of the Bard is such a delight. I love The Tempest and her treatment of it with such reverence is magnificent. I hope this novel is on this year’s Man Booker List, it is most worthy.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

And Sometimes I Wonder About You by Walter Mosley

And Sometimes I Wonder About You by Walter Mosley resurrects Leonid McGill, a New York City PI, the east coast Easy Rawlins. Leonid has a very complicated family. Suffice it to say, most of the story revolves around his family, his estranged father, suicidal wife, children that aren’t his and are raised by him, and women who want him. He has a checkered past that has the police wanting to look him up. Former associates from the past make his current work successful. He has computer geeks who created a fortress for his office. They can find anything and anyone on the Internet since they have hacked all the government computers.  He has a street gang to rival the NYPD. All Leo wants is normal, whatever that may be.
His current case involves three different sets of killers who want McGill dead and three different women who just want him. After saving a woman on a train from Philly, this new case gets complicated because of the theft of an old copy of Herodotus’s Histories. Now what a coincidence. I had recently read a book, Gary Corby’s The Singer from Memphis, which has as part of its tale the writing of these Histories by none other than Herodotus himself. Finally, his son, training to be like his dad, stumbles upon a huge child gang headed by a modern day Fagin.  These three cases are juggled simultaneously with his interaction with three women, who each provide him with a piece of his needs. Add to this the sudden appearance of his long lost, whom everyone thought was dead. 
Mosley always writes a very human and intricate novel that revolves around family, some shady characters, and plenty of action. Novels like this would normally be just escape, but with Mosley it is so much more and it is always great.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty is the 2016 Man Booker winner.  This is a savagely satirical look at the black experience sprinkled judiciously with the right amount of sarcasm and wit as told to us by our narrator, a “sellout.” The action takes place in Dickens, California, a town that ceases to exist. It ceased to exist because the county officials wanted to erase the blemish of Dickens from the map. Dickens was bad for tourism and industry. To save the town the narrator decides to take it back to the days of segregation to save or to revitalize the town and its people. It is great history of people and a novel that should sit beside Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman on that shelf of American masterpieces.
“No, I don’t miss my father. I just regret that I never had the nerve to ask him if it was really true that I’d spent the sensorimotor and preoperational stages of my life with one hand tied behind my back. Talk about starting life off with a handicap. Fuck being black. Try learning to crawl, ride a tricycle, cover both eyes while playing peek-a-boo, and constructing a meaningful theory of minds, all with one hand.”
Beatty takes us on a unique adventure with a black man as he wanders through the turning point in his life. The characters around him define him, direct him, and give him purpose. A tyrant father home schooled him. He has a slave, Hominy Jenkins. He lives in a town that ceases to exist so he paints a line around it so as to reestablish the border of Dickens. He’s not as good a “nigger” whisperer as his father but he tries. He uses Latin as often as possible to elevate himself and to reflect his education. He disassociates himself with the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a club his father helped found. He is searching for love. Our narrator is everyone and no one at the same time. This satirical novel had me laugh, cry, and scream in frustration at the obvious story Beatty is telling us, the one we all know and have failed to really address. We still haven’t gotten too much further in America then Huck Finn or Go Set a Watchman. In the immortal words of 45, “Sad!”
One pure truth about America, not the only one, is that we are a racist nation. What makes us great is our diversity. What makes us weak is our diversity. That is why Huck Finn and Go Set a Watchman and now this novel, The Sellout are my choices for the most important American novels. They remind us of this sad fact. From the birth of this nation all the way to today, we are about racism. Everything else is the supporting cast. It couldn’t be more obvious than to look at America during presidents 44 and now 45. Ironically, when our narrator is asked what is the most dangerous word, it isn’t “nigger” he says, it is any word that ends in “–ess”. This is eye-popping mind fuck of a novel that is deserving of all its accolades and more.
Huck had Jim, Scout had Atticus, and our narrator has Hominy Perkins. As Huck lites out for the territory; Scout “can’t beat him (Atticus) or can’t join him”; our narrator has his father’s questions: “I thought of my father and remembered what he told me. You have to ask yourself two questions: Who am I? and How may I become myself?”
And in any great story we always have to ask, “So what happened next?”

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is a story about a mother and a daughter that reminds me of TC Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. In a final and desperate attempt to find a cure for her mother’s ailment, Sofia accompanies her mother, Rose, to a health clinic in Spain. Rose wants to amputate her feet. Sofia is her mother’s legs and feet. She has been ever since her father abandoned her when she was five. While Rose is at the clinic, Dr. Gomez, wants Sofia to separate herself from Rose. In doing so she takes on Juan, a local boy, as a lover; adds Ingrid, a local German artist, as a lover; and seeks out her estranged father in Athens. Her father has married a girl, forty years his junior who has had his baby, Sofia’s younger sister, Evangeline, which means messenger like an angel. Sofia is alone in the world. Sofia is an ABD anthropologist.
“I was beginning to understand Ingrid Bauer. She was always pushing me to the edge in one way or another. My boundaries were made from sand so she reckoned she could push them over, and I let her. I gave unspoken consent because I want to know what’s going to happen next, even if it’s not to my advantage. Am I self-destructive, or pathologically passive, or reckless, or just experimental, or am I a rigorous cultural anthropologist, or am I in love?” Sofia slowly learns the truths about those around her: her dad, her mom, Dr. Gomez, Juan, Ingrid, and even the howling dog she sets free. Is this about her mom’s ailments, or Sofia’s?
To be free one has to stop enabling others and to make and do bold things, otherwise we are alone and purposeless.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Swing Time by Zadie Smith is a long awaited new novel for me from this magnificent writer. The title, Swing Time, comes from the movie musical. Our narrator loves Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. It was the dancing that caught her attention, not the plots of the movies. Dancing was her early childhood escape along with her friendship to Tracey.  Their lives will be a dance.
“As a fact it was, in my mind, at one and the same time absolutely true and obviously untrue, and perhaps only children are able to accommodate double-faced facts like these.“ This quote resonates with me during our own political times and serves as a backdrop for the narrator and her best friend Tracey. Tracey is everything the narrator’s mother does not want in a friend for her daughter. They go to different schools, live in different housing projects, but share the same dance class. Tracey excels in dance; the narrator is flat footed. Tracey has a dark side to her, watches too much television, and does not show the independence the narrator’s mom expects of her daughter. It is the story of two girls and how they grew up differently and yet their lives kept interweaving.
Then the narrator meets Aimee, a huge music star, and just like that became one of three assistants. She traveled the world. Even though her life was separated from Tracey, she kept running into to Tracey whenever she return to England. They went in different directions. The narrator traveled the world as one of Aimee’s three personal assistants. Tracey followed a stage life in England and then became a mother of children by different fathers. There lives interacted in various and bizarre ways.
When the narrator’s parents divorce, the mother became a Member of Parliament. Then a strange interaction began between the mother and Tracey. The narrator doesn’t have her own life; she lives Aimee’s life. After she leaves Aimee or is fired, she cares for her dying mother. Our narrator returns to her roots and gets her life back.
This is a love story of how the narrator and Tracey find love, family, and purpose.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

All That Man Is by David Szalay

All That Man Is by David Szalay is a surreal collection of snapshots of different people’s lives. We enter and leave in the middle of things.  Each vignette is like a bad dream where you wake up in a more tired state than when you went to sleep. They are reminders of what it is like to be a man: aimless and not in control. When a man sits in a bar in old age and reminisce about life, these are the stories he will tell and wonder how it all went so bad. He tells them to remind himself he survived to tell them and to laugh before he cries. But then he doesn’t laugh then though. They are the nightmares of everyday life brilliantly told and choreographed. “Life is not a joke.” Life is filled with momentarily lost children, sudden and unexpected and unwanted pregnancies, the mundane, the ruts, the missed opportunities, the mistakes, jail, stolen money, and con artists.
“Yesterday he experienced a sort of dark afternoon of the soul.” This is the theme of the novel or of the lives in this novel.  Nine men who are reaching, grasping for straws as their lives unfold and they have no control. It is their own fault for not paying attention or for just not participating in life or for being distracted by non-life aspects and in the end they are like the character in Shakespeare’s Ages of Man. Many get to the point of so what, what else can happen. The novel grabs you in the pit of the stomach, twists, and doesn’t let go. There is a haunting beauty about it, though. It is a man’s novel about men. It reaches to the core of men, exposes so many truths about commitment or lack thereof, to loneliness or just being alone, to self expectations and failure even when no failure exists. It should be a depressing novel, but it is not.
“I was an idiot. End of.”

Monday, March 6, 2017

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Nutshell by Ian McEwan is Hamlet in the womb.  It’s Shakespeare. We know the story. A woman, Trudy (Gertrude) is married to one man, John Cairncross (British spy), and then takes her husband’s brother, Claude, as her lover. They kill the father of the child in the womb. This story is told from the womb.
This baby will be born with wants. He learned about wants in the womb as the mother indulged him with wine, too much wine, podcasts, and talk radio ad infinitum. He will be a precocious little brat, like the original, because his genes inform us of this fact. He has learned eloquence, reasoning, and what to expect while in the womb absorbing all, especially the relationships between his mother, Trudy, and the two men in her life, John, her husband, and Claude, his brother her lover. I loved all the Hamlet allusions. The baby avenges his father’s murder. Birth is chaos while life is seeking order.
Another Hamlet inspired novel is Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. It tells of why the pair has to murder Hamlet the king. It is a great prequel as is this gem, Nutshell.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby

The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby is the first of the Athenian Mysteries.  Nicolaos, a twenty year old who just finished his military duty, ephebe training, has a dead man with an arrow in him fall from the sky dead at his feet. The man is Ephialtes the father of democracy in Athens. Ephialtes is Pericles’ hero and Pericles hires Nicolaos as his agent to find out who murdered Ephialtes.
Life in Athens is interwoven into the story. We learn much about the Agora, the marketplace, while Nicolaos seeks information and Colby provides us with information about what life was like in ancient Athens. Colby adds fun with Nicolaos having a younger brother, Socrates who thinks too much. Nicolaos wants to be a politician and not a sculptor like his father.
What makes this book so much fun is how much we learn about ancient Athens and the way it was back then. A delightful way to learn history and the politics of this new thing called democracy, the rule by the people.
“There is what a man says to a mob to avert a riot, and there is what a man does for the good of Athens.” Says Pericles.
“And what, then, if the murder was done by Xanthippus (Pericles’ father)?” Says Nicolaos.
“Him I would prosecute.”
“Because your father is a conservative, and Archestratus is a democrat?”
“That’s right. Welcome to politics, my new advisor.”
I had thought Pericles a good man, and now I realized he was a politician like the rest of them. I was deeply disappointed.
This is one of the most interesting and fascinating series of historical fiction. Colby is providing an in depth look at ancient Athens in 450BC with all the main characters of the time and the key addition of Nicolaos to be our guide and narrator.
“Ah yes, Pericles’ little attack dog. I’ve heard of you.”
“That was not the most flattering description of me I’ve ever heard! I marveled at the different views of me going about. First the influential young politician from Telemenes, now the dog from Lysanias. And still I thought of myself as a mere investigator looking for a chance to show what I could do. As the philosophers say, no man can ever truly know another.”
We are learning all the ways and mores of the time and seeing the intricacies of how life was back then as well as being shown the birth of democracy. We are learning about the homes in Athens, the shops, the inns, the law, and the families of everyday Athenians. An interesting and fun character is Socrates, Nico’s little brother, who thinks too much and is warned it will be his downfall and yet he is key in Nico’s thinking his way through the case. This is so much fun, I can’t wait to continue in the series and watch where Nicolaos and Diotima’s flirting goes from here.
The Author’s Note is the denouement and proper way to end this fabulous historical tale, based on fact with a twist of fiction for our enjoyment and entertainment. Corby has used actual facts and details to serve as the foundation for this novel. He has taken a few items from the future of ancient Greece to help him with much delight to the Athenian crowds and for us. This is the ay to learn ancient history.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Felt Time by Marc Wittmann

Felt Time by Marc Wittmann is a psychological study of how we perceive time, Carpe Diem. I was intrigued by the title and concept because of the study of time by Shakespearean director John Barton who was curious about how ‘time’ was pronounced in the famous plays.
Wittmann opens with the Marshmallow Test. When I first saw this term, I thought of how people wait or don’t wait for marshmallows to cook when roasting them over a campfire. The more you wait the more delicious they become, but impatient folks don’t wait. But that’s not the Marshmallow Test in this study. Another example of temporal myopia as he calls it reminded me of social security benefits. When one reaches the age of sixty-two, one is eligible to receive hir social security benefits, but if one waits until s/he is seventy, the amount increases considerably. In fact between the ages of sixty-two and seventy each year provides a different amount. So when does one start collecting hir social security benefits demands on immediate or deferred gratification is an example of temporal myopia. The Marshmallow Test involved the giving of one marshmallow to a child and promising a second one in ten minutes if the first marshmallow wasn’t eaten when the giver of marshmallows returned to the room.
Time is a curious topic and study. How quickly someone answers a question does not determine intelligence, when we know taking time is usually more beneficial. For example, in school we give timed tests, which may be and is detrimental to many test takers.  Instant replay or video review in sports is another example of time management so we “get it right.” Time is a double-edged sword: quick versus slow.
As time passes, we often hear people speak of the “good old days.“ There was no such thing as the “good old days” when women too frequently died in child birth, when schools were exclusively white, when houses were painted with lead paint, when cars didn’t have seat belts, when life expectancy was low, when we savaged the earth, when we burned coal, when we polluted our waterways, when we used horses for transportation, when we had world wars and so on. Over time, we romanticize the “good old days.” It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t good, but it was the old days.
Time is measured in past, present, and future. It is on this measurement that the study of time is conducted in this study. “Gratification” is one of the tools. Do we regret or not regret a past event? Do we seek “immediate gratification”? Can we forgo “gratification”? The study of the rhythm of the brain uses days, months, seasons, and calendars such as school, fiscal, and tax to chart the degree of “gratification” and temporal cognizance. Wittmann’s referencing decade long studies are most interesting as are the elaborate and sometimes tragic brain study projects. Suddenly we become aware of feeling time, being conscious of time, being more aware of time. Time can be felt.
“Mindfulness” is a term applied to the here and now. Being conscious of the present is very difficult. When we gather with friends, we often reminisce about the past as in reunions of any kind. In social gatherings we talk about future plans, jobs, trips, and the like. But when one is left alone we might hear one is bored or lonely. Sitting in front of a fire is so calming and creates that state of mindfulness. Sitting in a chair on the ocean listening to the sounds, feeling the elements, seeing the waves and birds and fish interacting is mindfulness. One way I achieve this state of mindfulness is riding my bicycle. Zen or Yoga is a method we use to attain mindfulness. Consider New Year’s Eve. It is often a night of disappointment compared to the anticipation and preparation of it and days leading up to it. Projections of the event are usually better than the event itself. Mindfulness is a hard state to achieve; it takes practice. I concentrate on my breathing. Whether I am in front of a fire, on the beach, or on my bike I concentrate on breathing, each inhale and exhale which is mindfulness for me.
We all have a Circadian rhythm or internal clock. It is based on the twenty-four hour clock with the idea that we all need eight hours of sleep. With that in mind, we are larks, early risers, or owls, late risers. Much of this research on time is based on the brain and that is one area I did most of my study as a teacher. Sleep is important to the young and I believe we did them and still do them a disservice by starting school so early. According to this study and most of the brain research I did, the crucial study in school is best done from late morning to early afternoon. Schools are not set up in a time conscious manner for the youth. It is one argument I use in saying school is more a babysitting service than an educational one. When we have school days off, babysitters are the first called, and the time schedule of schools are based on parents’ work schedules. In fact the school year is still based on the agrarian calendar. The person who is in power dictates time. Employees have time clocks and time schedules. The boss can always be late because s/he was doing something important and hir lateness is excused, because s/he is the boss. Of course we are all conscious of how time drags when we are waiting and when it speeds by when we are having fun.
Time is instrumental in defining our ego. How we perceive time at any given time constructs our selves at that time. Time is the constraints we have and put on our actions and ourselves. Time controls conversations. Time is our dictator. So is “Time” a one or two syllable word? Is it emphasized on the first two letters or the last two letters? These are the questions Barton raised as a director and one Wittmann wrestles with in this fascinating and timely study.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Children of War by Martin Walker

Children of War by Martin Walker is his most accomplished and daring novel in the Bruno, Chef de Police series. He explores three wars: WWII, The Algerian War of Independence, and the current jihads. On one front Bruno is exploring the history of Jewish children hidden in St Denis from the Vichy during WWII. On another front, Sami, a refuge of the Algerian War has been adopted by St Denis residents and has become a French citizen. Sami, who is Muslim and autistic, has gone to a Mosque in another town and disappeared four years ago only to turn up in Afghanistan from which he has been returned to St Denis a physical mess. Things get complicated when Sami is suspected of being the Engineer, the person responsible for making very sophisticated and lethal bombs that have killed and maimed French and allied troops. A third group of children are the students at the St Denis school. In their computer class they are doing the research about the Jewish children of WWII and where Sami went to school before he disappeared.
Amidst all this angst, Bruno is able to share his time with Pamela, his lover. In a very beautiful three pages, Walker has Bruno making a lovely afternoon meal, wooing Pamela, sharing a swim in the pool, and making love while the bread is rising and baking.
Bruno is a many talented man as he negotiates among a former, current, and perhaps future lover with enviable ease; contends with lawyers and the law; and battles jihadists who invade his town, all the while protecting the children of this hamlet. “’I think we’d better warn the lawyer,’ the Mayor replied. ‘St Denis is a community that believes in the virtues of our République, a town that gave refuge to Jewish children and also tries to deal honourably with its Muslims, whatever the consequences. There’s nothing else we can say.’”
The politics of war, the actual battles, and the outcomes litter the landscape of this very historically current novel as it also probes the past to provide clarity to the present and hope for a better future. My favorite part of the book was when the students presented their plans of honoring the WWII children.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee is a handbook on crisis management. Ben needs to ask for forgiveness of his wife, his daughter, his law partners, and his neighbors; while in the process he losses everything and does some jail time. His wife, Helen, leaves him with their adopted middle school daughter, Sara, for NYC after she lands a job in a PR agency. She becomes a star as she advises the clients to apologize and rises very quickly. After her boss dies in an auto accident; she is then hired by the top PR agency to join their crisis management team. Suddenly, an old grade school classmate, Hamilton Barth, who is now a huge Hollywood star, runs afoul after a reunion the two have at one of his film’s premieres at the Ziegfeld in NYC. Hamilton contacts Helen for help. In the meantime Sara and her father are communicating after his jail time. It turns out he does have some money left and buys the house they all lived in in Rensselaer Valley.
As Helen grows in her job she learns about forgiveness herself. For someone who has a natural ability to advise others about asking for or granting forgiveness, she is bereft of it herself. Ben discovers much about himself in his acts of contrition. Sara forgives her parents. The lesson learned here is we all need to ask for forgiveness and grant it. It is a double-edged sword and a full circle kind of phenomenon in life. It reminds me of one of my mottos as a teacher when dealing with the administration, “It is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
Although this novel was written in 2013, during Lance Armstrong’s moment of clarity and contrition, I was stunned at how appropriate it was for today’s major topic, fake news. In scenes at the PR agency, Helen is confronted with the negative side of the industry as it creates fake web sites, blogs, and news all to further the careers of their clients. It is as if Dee has a crystal ball as he goes into some detail of how fake news is created, generated, and successful as he observes and reports on the culture that will allow for the election of 2016.
On a very personal note, Jonathan Dee was in a seventh grade English class, I taught my first year of teaching. I’m glad I didn’t damage his writing skills. It is always ajoy to read one his novels and to watch his success.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is a story about a mother and a daughter that reminds me of TC Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. In a final and desperate attempt to find a cure for her mother’s ailment, Sofia accompanies her mother, Rose, to a health clinic in Spain. Rose wants to amputate her feet. Sofia is her mother’s legs and feet. She has been ever since her father abandoned her when she was five. While Rose is at the clinic, Dr. Gomez, wants Sofia to separate herself from Rose. In doing so she takes on Juan, a local boy, as a lover; adds Ingrid, a local German artist, as a lover; and seeks out her estranged father in Athens. Her father has married a girl, forty years his junior who has had his baby, Sofia’s younger sister, Evangeline, which means messenger like an angel. Sofia is alone in the world. Sofia is an ABD anthropologist.
“I was beginning to understand Ingrid Bauer. She was always pushing me to the edge in one way or another. My boundaries were made from sand so she reckoned she could push them over, and I let her. I gave unspoken consent because I want to know what’s going to happen next, even if it’s not to my advantage. Am I self-destructive, or pathologically passive, or reckless, or just experimental, or am I a rigorous cultural anthropologist, or am I in love?” Sofia slowly learns the truths about those around her: her dad, her mom, Dr. Gomez, Juan, Ingrid, and even the howling dog she sets free. Is this about her mom’s ailments, or Sofia’s?
To be free one has to stop enabling others and to make and do bold things, otherwise we are alone and purposeless.