I’ve taught at the same school since 2011. For some these kids I’m the only English teacher they’ve had. One thing that’s fascinating to me this year is how utterly nice and good natured the current 6th graders are. Not that I’m complaining, but it puzzles me and I wonder if this was somehow created or if it’s just luck. Like, not every student is perfect or a great kid, but there’s no horrible bullies, which have been a problem in previous years, or kids prone to violent out-bursts (which is a problem at my other school). Instead the worst thing I have to put up with is some shenanigans where some boys have become competitive over who can be the best class clown. And if class clown shenanigans is the worst I have to deal with, I’ll say thanks and be happy.
And it is just these 6th and 5th grade classes. The classes coming up behind them are already showing some problem behaviors. So that makes me wonder what worked for those two classes and is it something that can be replicated?
Possibility 1: It’s dumb luck, and the chemistry between these students is just how it is and/or they had the good fortune to be matched with good teachers.
Possibility 2: It’s the environment. My school’s neighborhood went through a revitalization project that made the population dip while construction went on. Class sizes shrunk in real time (as opposed to always being small), so students bonded as a group better. Now this renewal project has ended and the neighborhood population has stabilized, but instead of having 3 classes of 22 students, the lower grades have 2 classes of 33 students, which is starting to feel crowded enough for students to get lost.
Possibility 3: A policy change, either regional or local. I’ve seen 3 principals come and go. Each one brought a different character to the school. Maybe a shift in the priorities at the top filtered down and affected the school’s character. Student behavior might reflect this.
But I count myself lucky for now despite the horrors of my second school – my main school’s all right, even if it does make me wonder.
“It’s not that these things happen or even that one survives them, but what makes life strange is that they are forgotten.”
– Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
That’s one of the books I finished recently. It’s pretty good if you like your modern novels on the short, impressionistic, and ultimately sad and depressing side. In fact if that’s what you like, it’s better than pretty good.
Now if only it had a wizard or some astronauts in it…
Here’s what I read over my vacation. It would have been twelve books, but I’m still reading The Orange Eats Creeps, but it’s okay since that book’s like prose no-wave. I sometimes kick myself for not putting up more content here, but other than a weekly writing status report, which I suspect no one wants to read, I can’t think of anything to write for regular content. So monthly book reports it is.
The Drowning Girl – Caitlin R. Kiernan (2012): An impressionistic ghost story that might not be a ghost story, but more along the lines of a Blackwood story where someone encounters something and the something is unfathomable. Here we have a schizophrenic young woman encountering the unknown in the person of another woman, who may be a ghost, or a mermaid, or a wolf dressed in the skin of a girl. Atmospheric and weird in the best way.
Smonk – Tom Franklin (2006): Violent over the top Southern-fried Western populated by mutant cartoon characters armed with guns and high explosives. If you like your violence tobacco-splattered and foul-mouthed, you’ll probably like this.
The Dinner – Herman Koch (2013): Two brothers and their wives get together for dinner and attempt to come to terms with the fact that their sons committed a horrible crime that’s been caught on camera and broadcast around the nation. As the man-hunt remains ongoing each family prepares to do all it can to protect itself, including murder. A somewhat enjoyable book with an unreliable narrator, but I couldn’t help but feel that Koch required pages to tell you what Simenon would only have needed a paragraph and a few ellipses to do.
Missing out: In Praise of the Unlived Life – Adam Phillips (2012): One problem I have with nonfiction is that too often it reads like it would have made for a better article than a book, and that’s the case here. Some nice nuggets buried throughout such as: “We know more about the experiences we haven’t had than about the experiences we have had.” And Phillips then goes on to critique this omniscience and poke holes in it, but often I found the conclusions drowned beneath the erudition.
Killing Rage: Ending Racism – bell hooks (1995): Essays and analysis on racism in America. A counter-point to the Terkel book I read last month. I started it right after that book, but its density slowed me down and I ended up reading it a bit at a time week by week. I’ve recommended it to friends since then. Most people should read this.
Junky – William S. Burroughs (1953): I forgot how great this book was. Yeah. Burroughs was a criminal psychopath. There’s no denying that. But when writing white-hot, as he is here, his prose throws sparks off the page.
Resume with Monsters – William Browning Spencer (1995): Protag works a series of dead-end jobs while trying to get back together with the woman who left him (for good reason) and battle Cthulhu and assorted other Old Ones hiding out behind the facade of corporate America. If you’ve ever worked a shit job and had to suffer through horrible HR presentations than you’ll be simpatico to this book.
The End of Everything – Megan Abbott (2011): This was an amazing book, part detective, part coming of age novel, all riveting, creepy, and startling. A girl’s best friend is kidnapped the summer before they’re both set to begin high school, and sets in motion events that can only lead to an end of innocence and childhood. The brilliant thing in this book is the way the jaded PI trope gets upended by a girl playing detective who’s a complete innocent encountering a wider world of adulthood mystery.
I Have The Right To Destroy Myself – Young-Ha Kim (2007): A Korean novel from the mid-90s where all the women exist to commit suicide and the guys make art and dream about cars. I don’t know what to make of this book. It’s narrator is a bit Holden Caulfield-esque – if Holden was a serial killer going around Seoul convincing alienated twenty-somethings to kill themselves. And that’s what the novel sort of exudes and revels in: twenty-somethingness that mistakes a shallow morbid lack of empathy for profundity.
Storm Kings – Lee Sandlin (2013): Two-fisted tales of meteorology! This is a fascinating account of the oft-contentious history of American meteorology and storm chasing from the Colonial Era (Ben Franklin and his kite) to the modern day. The chapter titled “The Finger of God” is worth reading, even if it’s just in the bookstore.
Jack Glass – Adam Roberts (2012): Fantomas of the spaceways that sometimes downgrades to fan fiction for equations. I preferred the former more than the latter.
Random Acts of Senseless Violence – Jack Womack (1993): The Diary of Anne Frank meets Clockwork Orange by way of Gossip Girl set in a dystopian USA that looks more familiar than it should. At the end you either feel sad for Lola, its protagonist, or glad that she’s adapted to her changing environment. Worth tracking down.
I wanted to make July all about reading nonfiction, but that didn’t happen. Some fiction squeaked in. Plus I started more books than I finished, because nonfiction, so now I’m reading nonfiction in between and around fiction. An essay here, an essay there.
On a similar note, August was supposed to be all about Epic Fantasy but I picked up the first 700+ page book in the pile and cracked; my resolve fled and I said, “Fuck no!” Instead August is going to be all about stand alone genre novels. That’s what I’m writing, so that’s what I’m reading. Fuck Epic Fantasy.
On to the books:
I can’t believe I hadn’t read Terkel until now. This book was great. I feel like Terkel should be our (USian) default historian, like most citizens should read his stuff and be familiar with it even if you don’t agree with it. And there’s lots here. The whole book is interviews about race relations in and around Chicago from the 50s on into the 80s. A document of lives lived through the death of Emmett Till, the housing protests, Affirmative Action, the closing of the steel mills, and the rise of the Nation of Islam. Like I said, agree or disagree with the speakers here but at least have the conversation to happen. Here’s the quote the book ends on from a mixed race man named Leo:
“I have faith we can mature. Stranger things have happened. Maybe America, maybe the world is in its adolescence. Maybe we’re driving home from the prom, drunk, and nobody knows whether we’re going to survive or not. Maybe we’ll survive and maybe we’ll be a pretty smart old person, well-adjusted and mellow.”
I did blather some about Eiseley before and this book is as good as any other to jump into his stuff with. The titular essay is probably his most famous. It’s about encountering a man on a beach that throws dying star fishes back into the sea. But the essay I loved was called “How Natural is ‘Natural’?”. That one read like pure Arthur Machen mixed with Edward Abbey or Henry Thoreau.
“I too am aware of the trunk that stretches loathsomely back of me along the floor. I too am a many-visaged thing that has climbed upward out of the dark of endless leaf falls, and has slunk, furred, through the glitter of blue glacial nights. I, the professor, trembling absurdly on the platform with my book and spectacles, am the single philosophical animal. I am the unfolding worm, and mud fish, the weird tree of Igdrasil shaping itself endlessly out of darkness toward the light.
I have said this is not an illusion. It is when one sees in this manner, or a sense of strangeness halts one on a busy street to verify the appearance of one’s fellows, that one knows a terrible new sense has opened a faint crack in the absolute.”
Cosmic vastnesses indeed!
So, yeah. This book was why I didn’t finish more nonfiction this month. I was part way through bell hooks’s Killing Rage and Adam Phillips’s Missing Out when this book came along in the mail and I said, oh hey, let me read one of these stories and see what they’re all about. And that led to me reading another one and another one and another one.
These stories are pretty damn f’n great y’all.
Okay, so the only other Japanese ghost stories I’ve read are by Lafcadio Hearn and his wife Koizumi Setsu (and when people talk about Hearn’s Japanese work I think they should mention how it was a team effort between him and his wife), and also the work of Edogawa Rampo.
Miyabe’s are different from both of those.
Hearn and Setsu’s were all about the Japaneseness of the stories, because Hearn’s readers wanted exoticism. Rampo’s work took Poe and the conte cruel and mashed them up with their Japanese equivalents to give you such creep fests as “The Human Chair” and other nutty stuff.
In comparison to those Miyabe’s stories are more grounded in the everyday and mundane. They’re all about the marketplace and the ties of association between merchants in 18th and 19th centuries Edo. Each involves either an apprentice or bonded servant entering a situation where they encounter a ghost or demon. Their stories are intersecting other stories and that sense of indebtedness from one person to another is carried over between the living and the dead. Yeah, there’s nothing here that’s going to make me have to get off a crowded train like reading Rampo’s “The Caterpillar” did, but that’s not a bad thing. For a collision of the mundane and the fantastic these stories are perfect. Check them out.
“This book will be read and cherished in the year 2001. It will go to the MOON and MARS with future generations. Loren Eiseley’s work changed my life.”
That’s Ray Bradbury from the back of Eiseley’s The Star Thrower. Reading that quote made me wonder how many people I know (most of whom are readers) have actually heard of let alone read Loren Eiseley. I don’t even remember how I came about reading him. Maybe it was simply from romping around on wikipedia or maybe someone mentioned him. But when I asked friends if they had read him most people my age or younger hadn’t even heard of him. I guess his fame never made it past the 1980s (at least outside of his hometown), which is a shame because he’s amazing.
He’s a more humanist Carl Sagan. A nature essayist that writes like Thoreau by way of Weird Tales. An essay about foxes will start with a quote from Peter Beagle talking about magicians. It will end with Eiseley sleep deprived at dawn, chicken bone in his mouth, playing with a fox cub in the dunes. Maybe it’s the fate of science writers. Their work too tied to progress and the rate of technological advancement to be anything but doomed to oblivion. Maybe he straddled the line too much and wasn’t enough of a materialist. He spoke too often of miracles.
“Since boyhood I have been charmed by the unexpected and the beautiful. This was what had led me originally into science, but now I felt instinctively that something more was needed – though what I needed verged on a miracle. As a scientist, I did not believe in miracles, though I willingly granted the word broad latitudes of definition.”
The roads were dangerous at night. The King’s Daughter, filthiest of witches, confused travelers and shoved them into bogs. The demonic Lillies made their homes in caves and the hollows of tree trunks. Ygereth, Machlath, and Shibta enticed men off the highway until they defiled themselves with nocturnal emissions. Shabriry and Briry polluted the waters of springs and rivers. Zachulphi, Jejknufi, Michiaru, survivors of the generation that had built the Tower of Babel, confounded men’s speech and drove them mad or into the mountains of darkness.
– from The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer
People write books for children and other people write about the books written for children but I don’t think it’s for the children at all. I think that all the people who worry so much about the children are really worrying about themselves, about keeping their world together and getting the children to help them do it, getting the children to agree that it is indeed a world. Each new generation of children has to be told: ‘This is a world, this is what one does, one lives like this.’ Maybe our constant fear is that a generation of children will come along and say : “This is not a world, this is nothing, there’s no way to live at all.’
– Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban
Patricia Anthony died last month, and for whatever reason the word has only been released now.
Anthony published a number of SF books throughout the 90s that read like grimmer versions of Philip K. Dick novels: deceptively easy to read, but grueling in style or subject matter. For an example of one of these check out Brother Termite. She later drifted away from SF in disappointment and took to writing screenplays. Supposedly there are a few unpublished novels that may or may not see the light of day.
One of my favorite reads from recent years was Anthony’s Flanders, a World War 1 magic realist novel that it’s a bit like Goodbye to All That mixed with the Last Temptation of Christ. That’s actually a rather dumb description, but the book was a delight to read. Both funny and horrifying.
“I was having a good sit-down myself, not the yellow squirt I get when the water’s bad, nor the dark goat-turd pebbles I get when the food’s not plentiful enough. No, this was a great, glorious golden cigar of a turd that felt fine and upstanding coming out, a British sort of turd. Major Dunn would have pinned a medal on it.”
Yeah, it’s a quote about poop. So what? It occurs in the middle of a book featuring trench warfare. When it happens the main character has seen some bad shit (pun intended), and the fact that he can still be pleased and make a joke about crapping hits you like a punch in the gut. You’re laughing, but there’s something more going on. You actually feel happy for the guy.
It’s a shame she’s gone.
I finished Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape. It was pretty great. I recommend it.
It’s the type of book you can read a chapter of and then put aside for weeks or months and then pick up again when you’re on the way to the can or wherever, read another chapter, and continue on this way until the book’s done. It’s a collection of biographies, so it never feels like you missed anything.
Here’s a bit about Nero’s swinging megadungeon:
“What they saw as a labyrinth of rooms within a mound of earth, with tunnels and cells buried deep in darkness and trees growing high above its topmost story, had originally been a large and sumptuous mansion on the street level, open to the air and sky all around, and that it had simply been buried by age, disaster, neglect, and oblivion. They looked at the richly decorated halls, far beneath the level of what they knew as Rome; they saw the elegant and comparatively fresh decorations, satyrs and garlands and wreathed columns, sacrificial emblems and trumpeting tritons; they decided that such fantasies were appropriate for the subterranean orgies of a bad emperor, and that, just as Tiberius had gone to the topmost summit of Capri to indulge his nameless vices, so, Nero, to hide his delights from the eye of heaven, must have buried himself in a subterranean cave, a grotto, secret but brightly lit and brightly decorated.”
Lastly, in all the books I’ve read about Rome’s history (this is three books) there’s always mention of how in the Middle Ages Rome consisted of mostly fortified noble houses from which the nobility would fight one another in the ruins. AND THAT’S IT, like one little footnote. I want to read a book all about that. Seriously. If there was an Osprey Book, Gangs of Medieval Rome, I would eat that shit up.
In other news, Pelican died. I was sad. Now I have to play a paladin. It sucks.
And, Elmore Leonard died, which also sucks. I’ve only read one book by him, though I have a few of his Westerns here on my shelf. His books are one of the half dozen or so ubiquitous ones you find in expat used book store coffee shops.
“Lonely people write letters, so that they can communicate with those whose eyes are turned elsewhere. Often such letters are merely negative, calls for sympathy, cries of despair. Often they are dreary personal reports, tedious self-analyses, lists of miniscule happenings within one tiny system.”
– From Poets In A Landscape by Gilbert Highet (the Horace chapter).