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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Williston-Northampton 2018 Reunion

Dear Headmaster Hill,

I can’t remember when I first began thinking of my 50th Reunion at Williston. Maybe June 7, 1968. I never expected this great event of 2018 to turn into such a big disappointment. Williston is in my blood. I was one of those rare 8th grade five-year students, one of two in the class of ‘68 to return as a faculty member, and am in continual contact with classmates.  I have always loved reuniting with classmates in Easthampton in June. Why was the reunion changed to May?

I am not adverse to change; heck we were the class of change in a decade of change. Girls were gradually merged into Williston Academy during our senior year. In 1968, the world was changing around us at a rapid rate with too many assassinations, a war, a divided nation, and drugs.  Williston had been our constant in an ever-changing world, our sanctuary as we were changing, too. Change is not the issue with the decision to have Alumni weekend held on a weekend in May instead of June; it is the decision, that’s the problem. Students will be on campus. It is Mother’s Day weekend. Other schools in the area will be celebrating graduations. That’s not Alumni Weekend. I am very disappointed in the decision. I don’t remember being asked about the change as an alumnus about Alumni weekend. Were alumni involved in this decision about changing the date?

In past reunions, we stayed in the dorms, we wandered the dorms, revisited rooms we lived in for a year, roamed the passages that began our journey in life. It was affordable housing, too. Now we can’t do this in our 50th year. The campus is not ours on Alumni weekend. Dorms will be off limits, as will other places to congregate or stay. Where will we gather if not the common rooms, classrooms, nooks and crannies of our old school on reunion weekend? Distant hotels? It’s called Alumni weekend for a reason. It is for the alumni to gather on a shared ground to reminisce and reunite; it is a reunion, a retreat.

Finally, what has the turnout been like for reunions since this decision was made? I’m curious if the numbers of returning alumni in May is lower than prior reunions that were held in June? I would suspect so and attribute the low turnout to this poor decision of moving our reunions from the tranquil quiet weekend in June to the hectic chaotic weekend in May.  I won’t be there. I won’t be contributing to the Alumni Fund. After all, this isn’t personal; it’s business. I hope the school reverses it’s ill-advised decision and reschedules reunions to June so I can return to my beloved Williston on Alumni weekend. I look forward to that.


Theodore D Nellen ’68 F ‘79
I will be posting this letter on my Blog. Classmates, this missive and/or blog address may be shared with other Willies and others in the W-N community as appropriate via email or Facebook.  I don’t have Facebook.


Dear Mr. Nellen,
Thanks for taking the time to write. As a school that invests a lot of time and resources in Reunion Weekend, we have wrestled with all of the concerns you raise, and have heard from other alumni who prefer the June schedule.
There were a number of reasons for this temporary change, and we were inspired by the success and experience many of our peer schools have had with Alumni Reunion Weekends held during the school year. We decided to move to the May schedule for one five-year Reunion cycle (between 2016 and 2020) and reassess based on feedback from alumni participants.
In fact, with Williston having now organized two of these May reunions, one important agenda items for a new alumni volunteer group convening in early fall is to offer input and advice on this very matter. Any future changes to the schedule will be made far enough in advance to allow organizers and volunteers to adequately plan for any change.
I would encourage you to reconsider, give this a chance, and attend your 50th Reunion next May if your schedule permits. I know that fellow members of the class of 1968 have already been hard at work to make it a special and enjoyable weekend for all of your classmates. Based on the experience of many attendees this past May, I would be surprised if the schedule change diminishes the weekend.
Thanks again for writing, and I hope to welcome you back to campus next May.

Thanks for the detailed response with some explanation to the reason for the change of reunion Weekend from June to May. I can only hear my mother's response when I told her I wanted to do something because my friends were doing it. You know the response, too, I'm sure. I hope the decision to return Alumni weekend to June so I can look forward to my 60th on campus in June. In the meantime I will continue visiting with my classmates as I travel the country.
I'm still concerned for the younger alumni who have to figure how to pay for the cost of rooms in the area so they could attend Reunions. The Class of '68 is lucky to have a Jim Cain provide for accommodations in a nearby hotel. Not every class has this benefactor.

Dear Ted,
Thanks for this note and I do hope you make it back. Jim Cain is indeed a great supporter.  Losing his brother, Dan, last spring was an enormous blow to their family and to Williston as well, since he was a former Trustee and a personal supporter of mine.
The younger crowd, as you point out, took a bit of a hit on the rooming issue for reunion, but with Air BnB etc,, those who wish to return have seemed to manage. More important for me has been the involvement of our students in Reunion and the exchanges they have with returning alumni.  
This next statement does not apply to Williston Academy graduates who seem to all share in a heightened appreciation of their alma mater.  What I discovered from speaking to graduates from roughly 1980-2000 is that many of them hold a dated view of Williston as it is today, one based on how they recall their experience.  I want alumni from those years, especially, to see for themselves the students we have in action, the teachers who are consummate pros and the school as it is today.  I want them to have Williston on the short list for their own children, should they be looking at boarding schools,  rather than hear about such and such an alumna having sent her child to Loomis or Westminster or where ever, without even considering Williston.  Last year, the alumni who spoke to me really appreciated seeing the school in action and I believe had just as good a time with their classmates in attendance.
Proud to be serving in my eighth year, and hoping this year's reunion classes celebrate the best of Williston.
Best, Bob

Hello Bob,
Yes, the loss of Dan Cain was a huge hit. He was my hero when I was an eighth grader. The bigger thrill was that he knew me, signed my yearbook, and we maintained a friendship through the years as we reunited at reunions and in NYC during those W-N gatherings. I know his importance to the school and love how Jim is carrying on the Cain legacy.
As for me, I have a 16' Scamp trailer I travel about in and planned on parking in on the quad for the weekend and as a former faculty, the weekend is gratis, so these aren't issues for me. I spelled out the issues for me in my first letter and they still stand. I am well aware of how Williston looks today and functions. I continued my teaching career in NYC public schools for thirty-three years after leaving Williston faculty and am not interested in sharing my alumni weekend with kids, I'm retired now. I will be spending my Mother's Day with my grandchildren and their mothers, my daughters.
You should be proud of the work you have done. I am looking forward to more good years for you and to meeting you one June on campus.

Friday, July 14, 2017

While in Maine

I did some carpentry work.  I haven't done this kind of work in more than 40 years. I was working with an all metal 2 car garage and gave it a whole new wood face. The original doors were four metal doors that swung out. The two doors on the right were damaged and didn't open. The two on the left required some digging out to open. I had to use a cold chisel to break the bolts on the hinges to remove the doors. I replaced them with two large 8X8 batten doors, the right one was fixed while the left one was on a sliding rail. The triangle above the doors demanded plywood so I could shingle it and then I finished it with an 8" trim.
During breaks, I enjoyed kayaking on the lake, ate lobster and Pemaquid oysters, drank local beer, and enjoyed the cool of Maine.



Monday, July 3, 2017

Headlong by Michael Frayn

Headlong by Michael Frayn is about scholarship. “If I have any pretentions to be a scholar, then I have an obligation to put my findings on record, so that my colleagues and successors, now and down the years, can evaluate them.” Frayn has opened with my definition of scholarship: “publish, engage in peer review, and pass it on.” It was my pretention when I set out to create CyberEnglish. Was it the right thing to do or was it wrong? I, too, was in a quandary as I used my scholars’ published work to move CyberEnglish forward. As with our scholar hero in Headlong, only hindsight will give us the answer. For me with the emergence of both Facebook and Twitter, I feel justified in doing what I did with CyberEnglish, as it is a model for scholarship, unlike the rogue apps Facebook and Twitter, which are the opposite of scholarly as defined by both me and Frayn. CyberEnglish moves us away from the ideas espoused in 1984, whereas, Facebook and Twitter move us closer to the tenets of 1984.
This is an Ekphrastic novel. Brueghel or Bruegel, the Elder is the subject of this fanciful novel. Martin and Kate Clay have left London for the country with their newborn child, Tilda. Their neighbors, Tony and Laura Churt have artwork. The Clays are in the art world. The Churt’s invite them to dinner to get their advice on the value of the art. This is the first plot line. The other plot line is a study in Peter Brueghel the Elder. “They’re all iconographers. What this problem needs is an iconologist.” Martin thinks he has discovered a long lost Brueghel from The Twelve Months series. Martin wants the painting. Ekphrastic work is neither new nor unique. Usually it involves poetry and one famous example involves Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus in Auden’s poem, Museé des Beaux Arts.
The confidence game that Martin schemes eventually includes Kate. The foundation is built on scholarship; the knowledge of Brueghel in his time and that requires a great deal of research by Martin, so much research that the novel becomes historical in nature. We become art students studying the times of Brueghel so as to better understand him and to be able to determine if the painting that Tony owns is the missing Brueghel. The history lesson is comprehensive and interesting to the point I sometimes forget this is a novel with a plot and other characters and this part of it is just background to help the plot and the con carry on. As Martin learns more, he knows he wants the painting he only seen once even if it not real, he is obsessed, blinded by his desire, fueled by the history of it all. I do wish they had included prints in the book so I wouldn’t have to depend on the Internet to see the paintings as I read. I love the exhaustive research Martin is doing and it reminds me of my own days of pursuing scholarship. “I should be the man who’d finally solved the mystery of Bruegel. I should have lifted the veil, revealed the hidden figure behind the canvas. I should have found the thunder.” And as in all pursuits of scholarship, the mundane and everyday is lost and this causes problems in the real world. Research is the non-real world, we must remember, but Martin forgets. “I remember that I still haven’t looked up the Giordano. But by this time, the exact figures involved in the stupendous deal I’m about to do seem to me of remarkably little importance.” Is Martin dementing or just way ahead of himself? He went to town to find the price of the Giordano, but instead followed the rabbit down the rabbit hole in pursuit of Bruegel.
The human plot is filled with intrigue and twists and turns expertly executed by Frayn, but it is the study of Brueghel that captures my fancy as I jump from text to the Internet to examine and explore the paintings in question. The history lesson is also fascinating. The art and history plots upstage the human story of the Clays and the Churts.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Muse in the Museum

As a boy, I had always thought
The medieval knights at the Met,
The most awesome sight
I had seen in any museum.
Then I went to the d’Orsay.
Another corner turned,
Instead of knights on horse,
It was The Origin of the World.
Embarrassed and shocked,
In awe and wonder and delight,
Unable to avert my gaze
Drawn in closer and closer.
I could taste her, smell her,
Feel the softness of her skin.
Pinching her nipple, I long
To bury my face in her nest.
I was tingling all over.
Memories of the women
I’ve had in this position,
Dreams of those I will.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman is filled with many conundrums.  First how is the man’s name pronounced? Is it Ove as in “love” and “dove”? Or is it Ove as in “stove” and “drove”? Or is it Ove as in the Yiddish “Oy Vey”? The Yiddish is closest for me since the character in this book is the Yiddish definition, “expressing dismay or exasperation.” Ove exasperates everyone with his ways. When others encounter Ove, they become dismayed with him. He dismays and exasperates himself throughout the novel as he fails to commit suicide on many occasions.
Secondly, this is a Swedish novel and follows closely a Swedish tone of dismay and exasperation. Consider the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander and we have Ove. Ruminate over the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman’s work. Even little brother Norway produced The Scream. This novel fits in well with these three; they are cut from the same cloth.
The final conundrum is the man himself and his actions. “Instead they had parked here and walked all around the block looking for the café. Because Ove, as Parvaneh had soon realized, was the sort of man who, when he was not quite certain where he was going, just carried on walking straight ahead, convinced that the road would eventually fall into line. And now when they find that the café is directly opposite the spot where they parked, Ove looked as if this was his plan all along.” Ove is a man of principles. He will not pay an extra krona when he doesn’t believe he should and will forgo something or make his life harder. He never ever breaks the law or social more. As we watch all of his interactions with others, our only reaction is “Oy Vey.”
The man called Ove is a curmudgeon. The irony of his life is that he has a big heart, both literally and figuratively. His wife, Sonja, shows him this, much to his own dismay. Even his new neighbor, Parvaneh, provides reasons for Ove to display his big heart in the face of his persistence to be the curmudgeon. He is a man who wants to die and can’t take his own life because he has things to do for others.
This is a very satisfying and reflective read.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Our new Reality

A person who tells us a truth and is arrested and jailed. A person who lies is not arrested nor jailed. Our government knows stuff, we the people, need answers to and yet they withhold this information. Government officials lie under oath, are put in charge of key government positions, are outed, and yet no jail. I'm very confused. Our government is not on our side, it is on its side protecting itself, its job and not looking out for us. Liars tell us the truth is fake when we plainly see they are not lies and that the liars are lying, and yet we do nothing but go along with our merry lives accepting this new reality. Willful ignorance is our new reality and that makes us losers, not winners. Reality winners are in jail, the liars are not. It's all upside down. We are not the United States. This is our partisan government's fault and ours for allowing it and creating it. Willful, loser, ignorance. I see an American flag flying upside down and at half staff. People in power are allowed to stumble and make gross mistakes and continue in their jobs and yet the rest of us are not allowed these passes in error. When will this nightmare end? When will reality be restored?
I need to reread the Emperor's New Clothes.

Monday, May 8, 2017


One sure thing about camping is the ubiquitous whistle of a distant freight train. No matter where I am camping in America, I always hear that unique whistle. I don’t hear it at home, only on the road, like a clarion for the soul, a metaphor for my wanderlust, a symbol of that feeling of freedom for the traveler. I haul my little 16-foot home behind me as I travel. I left home about one in the afternoon on Tuesday to get across Maryland by nightfall. Almost to Hagerstown I camped at Greenbrier SP, a lovely place in the western mountains of Maryland. I cooked dinner, had a fire, and listened to the Rangers dominate Ottawa in Game three and then heard the Yanks complete a comeback. A good evening followed by a good sleep. I woke early and was on the road by six for the long ride and day across to just inside the Illinois border to camp at Kickapoo SP. I arrived in a light rain, set camp, and opened the awning so I could cook dinner. I was tired after the long ride, so after dinner I packed up in the light rain so I wouldn’t have much when I woke in the morning. I’m glad I did. It poured all night and was still pouring when I woke. Broke camp and was on the road by 6:30 and drove out of the heavy winds and rain. It took me nearly an hour and a half of these brutal conditions to arrive in clear skies and little wind. The cross wind was brutal to trucks as I saw them listing ever so. I saw a couple of barn roofs stripped of a panel in two instances. When I cleared the maelstrom, I was overdressed. The temperature had risen fifteen degrees with a bright sun. I changed into shorts and ate shirt. As I crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa and its flat roads, the sky ahead was cloudless. I arrived at Ledges SP in Boone Iowa at two in the afternoon; set camp and then drove into see Tommy in Ames. He is excited about graduating, has a job, is going to a Cubs Yankee game on Sunday with his girlfriend, who is a Chicago girl, and then flying to NYC for a week and will be going to Game six of Rangers-Ottawa series. Then he returns to Ames to start his new job on May 15. As he said, “That’s when life gets real.” But until then, he is grabbing life by the horns and enjoying his last days of school life and its freedoms. He will begin his new life as a catering manager for the Hy-Vee markets in Des Moines. He is excited and happy for a job in catering, his career choice, and to be in the area sharing his dreams with his girlfriend who is following her dreams in broadcasting. I’m so proud of him for where he is now after such a bumpy time of it in the beginning of his college life. I love it, a NYC boy in Des Moines dating a Chicago girl.
He and I went to a local café for a drink and some tapas plates. I then took him and his roommate to dinner, before returning to his favorite bar to watch Game four of the Rangers-Ottawa series. Once again the Rangers dominated as they have in the previous three games. The Rangers should have swept these guys; instead it is 2-2 in games. Hope they clinch for Tommy in Game 6 at MSG.
I am camped in a hickory forest. Some old growth as well as new growth. It is filled with birds and woodpeckers, hammering away. I had breakfast outside watching spring come to life, listening to the clattering of birds, and the soft voices of young kids as they bike around the loops while some seniors are getting their morning exercise. Iowa is celebrating their State Parks this weekend, so the place is filled as they begin another season of outdoor fun and games. I wonder if they celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Iowa? And there is that train whistle.
Graduation weekend is the best. A proud and happy graduate. Proud parents. The emotions are intense.
And then it is over and we all disperse.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Sacred Games by Gary Corby

Sacred Games by Gary Corby is about a murder during the 80th Olympiad in 460 BC. Nico is trying to prove an old childhood friend of Athens didn’t kill his arch Spartan rival before their Olympic event. Nico and Diotima are married, but their fathers have yet to approve the marriage. At one point in the investigation, Nico must confer with Pindar, the famous poet.
“Do you like to drink?” Nico asked.
“I’m a poet.” Responded Pindar.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
And so the games go on. Nico is coupled with Markos, a Spartan, to make the investigation equitable for both the Spartans and Athenians. The scene in Olympia is outrageous and just as bawdy as any modern day Olympics, except toady the athletes compete and walk around clothed, not so then.
One thing that is still the same is that the Olympics were a political event then too.

Monday, May 1, 2017

May Day

Rabbit rabbit and other such nonsense. I'm reading but not writing much and am getting spring fever and wanderlust. I'll be heading west to watch my son graduate from Iowa State University on May 6. I'll enjoy the drive, the festivities, and celebrating his accomplishments. After the weekend, I'll take the northern route along 90 and parallel roads as I slowly wind my way to the Maine coast and spend some time on a pond east of Rt 1. I have a new kayak and a cottage to help my lady make comfortable by planting a garden, doing chores about the place, and enjoying her company.

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.