August Book Log

August 29, 2011

Well, I accomplished my primary goal of reading three enormous books this summer. That said, this was an odd reading month. Three of the books were more-or-less assigned as I taught/will be teaching them this year and hadn’t read them ever or in a long time. I am very eager to read some shorter and non-required books and to reread some old favorites.

1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (1/5) – To see a full airing of my grievances against this book. Go here.

2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (4/5) – This was the last of the enormous books I read this summer. I wasn’t disappointed, exactly, because I knew what was coming, but I couldn’t help being flabbergasted by the extraordinary racism in this book, and I don’t mean on the part of the characters. The treatment of both black characters and blacks in general by the narrator is appalling. I especially remember a three page rant on how worthless free blacks were. Mitchell’s inability to retain any objectivity regarding her subject keeps this from being a masterpiece. That said, the story is very compelling and the white characters are fully realized, wonderfully unlikable people who make the book worthwhile. I will say, I don’t understand the apparently long-running debate about what happens to Scarlett after the end of the book. It seems fairly obvious to me that she returns to Tara and descends into old age.

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (5/5) – I can’t remember if I’d ever read this before, but I don’t think I had. I was pleasantly surprised. Early science fiction so often does a wonderful job of presenting moral discussions in unique terms, and this novella is no exception. If they can get past the vocabulary, I think my students will enjoy this a great deal when they tackle it here in a few weeks.

4. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (5/5) – I’m in the midst of teaching this book now. I hadn’t read it for about five years, and I’d forgotten how wonderful it is. I can’t imagine a better refutation of colonialism. Achebe makes the vital choice of having his protagonist filled with imperfections. This makes him immune to the criticisms that could easily swamp novel where one of the primary goals is to refute the treatment of Africans in early works (Heart of Darkness). The story is lively and fascinating and has one of the great endings in literature.

Fall Book Queue (to be completed by the new year):

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • Netherlands by Joseph O’Neill
  • Next by James Hynes
  • Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides

All My Friends

August 26, 2011

Until today, my friends and family have mostly escaped the economic catastrophe that’s been hitting the country since I was in college and which has only gotten worse the last few years. I would like to say this is because the people I know are smart, creative, and industrious, and so they are bound to prosper in most any circumstance. In fact, they are smart, creative, and industrious, but it would be foolish to pretend that anything other than luck has kept all of us employed. Economic troubles like these are indiscriminate, and often, it does not matter how hard you’ve worked. You can still lose your job.

Today, many of my friends are losing their jobs.

The company I worked for before I became a teacher is shutting down, and I can promise you this: It is not because of the workers. The people I worked with when I was there were among the the very best people I have ever worked with. We worked hard and were not paid nearly enough. We all saw the writing on the wall, though. The company was an illustration of everything wrong with America. It was run by the greedy sons of greedy owners. They once told us right before a major snowstorm that was going to hit the day before our Christmas holiday that if we did not come to work, we would not be paid for our holiday. They once called us together to tell us the company had set profit records that year, but there would be no bonuses. Never has there been a better advertisement for the inheritance tax and a progressive income tax. The people in charge were callous and coarse and incompetent. They had done nothing to earn their position, but that did not stop them from exploiting it.

But somehow, they got lucky. They hired a bunch of people who actually cared about doing a good job. More importantly, they hired an amazing office manager (who was eventually in charge of hundreds of people). We hated the company and he hated the company, but we loved him. And so, we worked hard. We did the best we could because we wanted Kevin to look good. Because we knew he was what made the work bearable. He was all that stood between us and the incompetent stumble-bums above him.

I made friends at that job. Friends I will keep the rest of my life. One of them stood up with me at my wedding. Another took our wedding pictures. Fortunately, both of them got out a few months before the end. Even though I hated my job, I was happy to have the people. Whether they knew it or not, they sheltered me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. I have never been so lost as I was those first few years after college.

I do not feel that I owe that company anything. But I owe the people who worked there – the people who kept it afloat all this time despite the incompetence above them – too much to repay. I wish all of them the best of luck and if anyone needs an editor or one of the best managers you’ll ever meet, let me know.

A Snippet

August 24, 2011

A bit of tiny fiction. That is all.

Money Is Not Inspirational

August 19, 2011

Recently, the space shuttle program came to an end. You may have heard. Astrophysicist (and nerd-celebrity) Neil DeGrasse Tyson got pretty worked up about it. You can find a video of him being worked up here. In it, he talks about how the lack of ambition where space exploration is concerned hurts the sciences in education. He talks about how many kids wanted to be astronauts once upon a time and how this got them involved and engaged in science. I can remember this. When I was in elementary school, I desperately wanted to be an astronaut. His ramble on the subject got me thinking about how we try to inspire kids today.

All you ever hear about, be you educator or student, is how if you go to college you will make X dollars a year more than if you don’t. That’s it. Money is supposed to serve as the whole motivation for getting an education. But when I was a kid, no one ever talked about how much money astronauts made. I can’t remember ever thinking about how much any of the fantasy jobs I wanted paid. I didn’t care about the money. I just thought they would be neat things to do.

Of course, much of this is the naïveté of childhood. We were pretty poor when I was little, but money still never entered into the equation whenever someone asked me what I wanted to do. Later, in middle school and high school, I started to hear the money-first rhetoric and suddenly I wanted to be some indistinct thing called a “businessman” (I distinctly remember putting this on some career survey they had us do). Of course, I never really wanted to be that. It was simply driven home to me that money was what mattered and money, obviously, was in business. Whatever that was.

But why do we do this? I am a high school teacher and I am happy in my job. I assure you it has absolutely nothing to do with my paycheck. I have a friend who is now a lawyer. When he was in law school, he told me that I should go to law school so I could be a lawyer and make ridiculous money. My response was that I did not want to be a lawyer. I did not think I’d be happy working the absurd hours a lawyer has to work to make ridiculous money while spending all my time doing something that didn’t seem particularly enjoyable.

But I like the job I have now. Yes, the summers off are nice, but I like getting to work with kids on writing and I like teaching good books and I like that at least a few kids have made it clear that I’ve made a positive impact on their lives. But no one ever talked to me about this kind of thing when I was in school, and I think that’s a shame.

Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to know that money wasn’t the most important thing to me, but it was a close call. I wonder why we can’t talk to kids about how money might not make them happy if that’s all they go after. In fact, it probably won’t (ask my friend who now has the lower-stress and lower-paying lawyer job by choice). There is something to be said for contributing to society or pursuing your low-paying dreams in the arts or whatever else it is that really grabs you.

You hear a lot of stuff about how growing up has a lot to do with letting go of your dreams (something I disagree with, but that’s neither here nor there), but I think we’re almost reaching the point where kids don’t get to dream at all. We’ve become such a materialistic, Tea-party driven society that the only thing we really praise is the pursuit of wealth. As a result, I think we, as a society, are losing a wonderful kind of purity.

Think about when you were a kid and how your dreams gripped you. At different times, I wanted to be an astronaut, a baseball player, a scientist, and eventually a writer/English professor. Most of those things have a lot to do with curiosity. They are about pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This was what inspired me. It wasn’t money.

I grew up at the end of a time in America when everything seemed possible. Who knew where we might go in space? Who knew what we might accomplish as a people? There was real value in helping. In working for societal gain instead of personal gain. There was satisfaction to be found in cooperation and creativity and curiosity and sacrifice. As a result, our society grew and innovated and prospered. Perhaps I am being nostalgic for my childhood, but it seems to me we were happier and better for it. If I get the chance, I will try to mention this to my students.

Normally, I only write about books I’ve just read in my monthly book log, but recently, I finished a book so terrible it merits its own post. That book is The Hunger Games. It was, I will note, required reading as it was the summer read for our school because we thought kids would actually read it. I’ll find out in a couple of days. Certainly, I can understand why it would appeal to a teenager. That does not, however, make it good. What follows is a list of things that made me hate this book.

1. Total unoriginality. There is nothing new in this book. In fact, much of the plot seems to be lifted straight from Battle Royale.

2. Extraordinarily poor choice of perspective. If you are writing a book where the survival of your main character is theoretically in question, you should not write in the first person.

3. Extraordinary predictability. The last 250 pages of the book are completely unnecessary as it is totally clear what is going to happen (main-character and her “friend” triumph over evil). I gather the book is supposed to be suspenseful. So much for that.

4. Flat characters. Only the main character (Katniss) is a person, and then only barely. Everyone else is a total cliché. Boring. Boring. Boring.

5. Extreme repetition. Here’s how most of the book goes – Character is given obstacle, character overcomes obstacle, except wait, oh noes!!! Something else is happening now!! Repeat.

6. Utter lack of resolution. The author is so bent on maintaining the suspense that she only bothers to write about a paragraph after we know for sure the two main characters aren’t going to die.

7. Overt marketing potential – The only reason this book was published (and I have to believe the only reason it was written) is because it will very obviously make a good, solid action movie with a built in audience of kids who’ve read the books. This is not a good reason to write or publish a book.

8. Horrible message. What does this book have to say? Not much, but as far as I can tell, it is saying that one should never, ever, ever openly question authority. Rather, one should accept that those with power will always have it and that nothing can change it and we should just deal with their terrible actions as best we can.

9. Strawberries and blackberries are not in season at the same time. If hunting and gathering figure to be a big part of your story, you should look shit like this up.

10. Horrible writing. Normally, I would never drag a book through the mud like this, but the writing in this is so terrible that I can’t believe there was real artistic motivation behind it, so I don’t feel bad. I will now destroy the opening paragraph of chapter 2. It goes thusly (with commentary):

One time, when I was in a blind in a tree (distracting parallel structure), waiting motionless (wait, why weren’t you doing jumping jacks?) for game to wander by (why else does someone wait in a blind?), I dozed off and fell ten feet to the ground (as opposed to the sky), landing on my back (if it had been your head, maybe I wouldn’t have to read this crappy book. Also, I like a good comma as much as the next kid, but come on). It was as if the impact had knocked every wisp of air from my lungs (I’m glad that’s not what actually happened because that would suck), and I lay there struggling to inhale, to exhale, to do anything (normally, when I can’t breathe, I like to go for a jog or eat a steak and I never find it to be a struggle).

You aren’t going to find a better example of poor word-economy. Here’s (more or less) how that paragraph should actually read:

Once, when I was hunting in a tree blind, I dozed off, fell ten feet, and landed on my back. The impact knocked every wisp of air from my lungs and I lay there struggling to breathe.

The original paragraph clocks in at 59 words (sans commentary), mine comes in at 37 without losing any information. This should tell you everything you need to know about this book.

Reinventing the World

August 5, 2011

This is a long and meandering post. I’m not entirely sure what the point is. This is the luxury of a blog.

As you, dear reader, are likely aware, I spent a good part of last month plowing through A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel The Children’s Book. It is centered in England at the beginning of the 20th century up to WWI. The main characters are, primarily Fabians, Socialists, and similar derivatives. What they generally have in common is a desire to make the world into something different. They live in a time of enormous injustice and are generally aware of it. They hold political meetings or write editorials or participate in protests in an attempt to change their society for the better. They do not, generally, succeed, but that isn’t the point. The point is they tried, and much of what they started did lead to real changes over time.

Beyond that, there was this idea/feeling of optimism. It’s something the US really had after WWII. I can remember the last strains of it from my childhood.

And then I look at the absurd mess that is the United States right now and I am totally flabbergasted. We have now reached a point where some of our elected officials are willing to destroy the economy of our country to ensure that rich people get to keep every-damn-penny they have. There is no sense of optimism. There is no sense that we are all working together to make something new and good. There is only division and selfishness.

Never mind that there is no evidence – none – that conservative economic policies work. What is most disgusting to me is how utterly uncharitable it all is. America has become a place where money is the only thing that matters.

You may be familiar with the concept of Gross National Happiness. It is a concept introduced by the king of Bhutan in an attempt to better measure how well the people of the nation are doing. It attempts to measure several things. Let’s look at each one for the US:

1. Economic Wellness: This is bad and getting worse. Republicans haven’t totally destroyed the economy yet, but they’re getting close. Real wages haven’t gone up in I don’t know how long and unemployment is high. No one thinks the recent deal in Washington is going to make things better.

2. Environmental Wellness: We are currently in the process of gutting a lot of our environmental standards (at least where enforcement is concerned) and it’s impossible to get any new regulations through congress because we don’t want to hurt industry. Someone remind me, again, how it is that industry has been helping the general populace lately?

3. Physical Wellness: Well, once the rest of Obamacare kicks in, things should get a little better here. That said, every year I’ve been teaching, the cost of health insurance has gone up (often matching exactly whatever raise I was given) and benefits have gone down. A great many Americans are still uninsured, and we rank near the bottom of the industrialized world in health care. But again, at least this one figures to get a little better.

4. Mental Wellness: I don’t really know much about mental wellness stats in the US, but since basically everyone is worried about losing their job, I have to believe this is kind of a downer, too.

5. Workplace Wellness: Yeah. Do I even need to explain?

6. Social Wellness: We live in a nation where religious discrimination is almost status quo. We live in a nation where sexism, misogyny and violence against women are horribly rampant.

7. Political Wellness: Oy. vey.

And here’s the thing, we could fix most all of these things. Much as the Republicans have been trying to tear apart the New Deal for decades, it freaking worked. Why can’t we do something like that now? Why can’t we make a giant investment and agree, as a society, that we want to make a better nation. Things we should do:

1. Economic Wellness: We’re going to need some kind of rational tax system. Rich people benefit from the society that allows them to be rich. In most instances this comes in the form of inherited wealth. In other instances, someone is simply lucky enough to have their particular talents valued highly by the society in which they live. A stock broker is very important in America. Less so in nomadic Mongolia. If you are rich, you are also almost certainly very lucky, thus you should pay a higher percentage of your wages to keep society going.

2. Environmental Wellness: It is time to go the route of green energy (if you don’t think global warming is real, you are an idiot, I’m just going to state that as a fact) via direct government. The US government has invested in industry infrastructure before (think railroads, among others) and it’s time to do it again. The primary problem with green energy is the upfront cost. If the government starts to offset that, suddenly green energy is much less expensive.

3. Physical Wellness: Socialized Medicine. Single Payer. Do it. I know socialism is a bad word, but if you really hate social programs, I hope you’re sending your children to private schools and hiring a private security force to take care of crime in your neighborhood. Why basic health needs aren’t considered on par with these other things is beyond me. Also, socialized medicine works way better than our current system as about a million studies will tell you.

4&5. Mental Wellness & Workplace Wellness: I’m tying these together to talk about human-friendly labor policy. Why on earth don’t we have paid maternity and paternity leave? Why don’t most of us have decent amounts of vacation time? This one would be pretty tricky as it really requires a mental shift to the idea that time can be more valuable than money. Less work would lead to less production, overall, but I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. Economies can’t grow forever. Eventually, we need to stabilize, and I would be willing to bet that most people would be way happier without the 60-hour work weeks and constant fear that you could be fired at any moment. Stronger unions would certainly help this along. Interestingly, despite this idea that lack of job-security makes people more productive, every study I’ve ever seen says the more secure a person feels, the harder they work. This comes, I suspect, from feeling like and important part of an organization instead of like a nearly-worthless cog that can be replaced at any time.

6. Social Wellness: Let’s start by trying to value all members of society equally and go from there. It would certainly help if a certain political party could drop the sexism, homophobia, and mad-crazy religious intolerance.

7. Political Wellness: This comes down to the anti-intellectualism in place right now. I don’t know how this happened, but it now seems to be decidedly uncool to have any idea what you are talking about. I suspect a lot of it stems from the political power ultra-conservative religious groups currently have. You can’t be a member of some of these sects without stomaching a lot of cognitive dissonance (I’m thinking of the things that come out of Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck’s mouths). Basically, you can’t believe that nonsense if your willing to actually research information. Thus, researching information (also known as learning) is bad and ignorance is good. This explains how the Tea Party got so many people elected during the last go-round. If you could take care of this and get everyone thinking that it’s a good idea to listen to people like Paul Krugman (who has been very, very right about what’s been happening in the economy) because, you know, they actually have some expertise and don’t say stupid things like, “You know, where I grew up, we believed in common sense…”

So what if we did all this? Well, we’d end up with a sustainable nation where people are mostly happy. Instead, we have an unsustainable (oil is going to run out eventually) mess with high unemployment and an overwhelmingly unhappy populace. But it could change. We just need to realize, as a nation, that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It’s time to try something else. We can reinvent the world. We have the means, we only lack the will.