Book Review: Sleeping Beauties

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Sleeping Beauties

by Stephen King and Owen King

 

To start with, I love Stephen King. I always have. I’ve read pretty much every one of his books, most of them more than once; I’ve been reading his work faithfully since I was 13, and my friend loaned me a copy of It to take with me to summer camp. (The Summer of Blood-Soaked Nightmares, I called that one. Subtitle, We all float down here. Sub-sub-title, Don’t ever use the bathroom in the middle of the night when you’re reading It.) I am a great admirer of his remarkable ability to create characters, to build suspense, and to squeeze a thousand details, all of which are both real and also unexpected, into the framework of a story.

So going into this one, I was already going to like it: there have only been two or three Stephen King books I haven’t liked – mostly the ones that have actual aliens invading, The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher. Didn’t like Hearts in Atlantis, either, which was too bad because I love the low men and the can toi from Desperation and The Regulators. Anyway, since the man has written like 75 books, the chances were good for Sleeping Beauties: something like 25 to 1.

And I liked it.

It wasn’t my favorite Stephen King book. It might be easy to chalk that up to the influence of his co-author, his son, Owen King; but to be perfectly frank, I couldn’t even tell that this was a collaboration: it just read exactly like a Stephen King book. You’ve got a supernatural being appearing within the very first few pages, and immediately diving into a bloodbath of murder and mayhem, without even the slightest explanation as to who or what they are, or why they are ripping people’s limbs off. You’ve got a large cast of characters, most of them good but flawed people; you’ve got a male lead with a troubled love life; it’s set in a dinky little town half in the wilderness and with one spectacularly creepy location – in this case a women’s prison – that plays into the story in some prominent way. You’ve got a character or two who act as a combination demogogue and Wormtongue, whispering in the ears of the populace, playing on their fears and hatreds to bring out their absolute worst traits; you’ve got a supernatural phenomenon growing more and more powerful, and more and more apparent, though never quite becoming easily explainable; and you’ve got some enormous fight scene at the end, in which at least a good third of the characters die. This one has all of that.

That is not to say Stephen King’s work is monotonous, nor that this book is just like any others of his. Neither statement is true. It’s just that he does have tendencies and preferences, and certain themes that he keeps coming back to: like the mob. Not the mafia mob, but the driven-crazy-by-fear, pitchfork-and-torch-carrying mob. Mr. King knows that mob well, and he recognizes that there is no better reflection of the evils of the 20th century and beyond – unless it is the slick-talking small-town salesman-and-politician which shows up in many of King’s works as well; though not this one.

But there are some real distinctions, as well, in all of King’s books, and in this one. The lead character, for instance, is an interesting man that King has never done before: he is a prison psychologist, married to the town sheriff – another new element for this book, because I can’t remember another woman cop; usually his cops are the bad guys, which is true of several of the cops in this book, but not the sheriff. But her husband, the prison psychologist – Clint Norcross – was a former foster kid with old anger issues from his youth, which was exceptionally violent. He was not the madman that Jack Torrance was in The Shining, and not the epic hero Everyman that, say, Stuart Redman is in The Stand, or Stuttering Bill Denbrough in It. Clint doesn’t save the day. Clint is a mostly good guy who does mostly good things. That’s all.

The real story here is not the Stephen King setting or the tropes; it is the question of sex. Gender. Men and women. Because the concept of this book, the supernatural event that throws everything into chaos, is this: all of the women in the world fall asleep, and they don’t wake up. The supernatural being who comes in and starts removing limbs in a shower of blood is a woman, perhaps Eve or Lilith or Wonder Woman or Pandora or all of the above – certainly Helen of Troy – and she represents a greater power that has decided to give women a chance at a better world, a world where they don’t have to be beaten or raped or killed by men. So whenever a woman falls asleep, she spins a mystical cocoon; and she remains in the cocoon until further notice, while her soul goes – somewhere else.

And meanwhile, without women to abuse and destroy, the men turn on each other.

That’s the basic story, and parts of it were tough to read: the stories of women suffering at the hands of men, fictionalized but by no means exaggerated by King, were often heartbreaking and enraging. I got a little frustrated with Clint Norcross, who reads sort of like the hero, but isn’t really the hero simply because he’s a man; I did like the main villain, who leads the mob into the final fight, because he was sort of the other side of the coin from Clint, which was interesting. But I certainly didn’t like the son of a bitch. One interesting thing, though: King has said that the quickest way for an author to get an  audience to dislike a character is to have the character hurt a dog. (A lesson King probably learned from Jack London). But the villain of this book? He is kind to dogs. Make of that what you will. In some ways, the hero is no specific person, and neither is the villain: the hero of this book is the better half of the human race. (Guess who the villain is.) And they’re not all perfect either, of course, because King doesn’t write perfect characters; but they’re a hell of a lot better than the men. It was a little tough reading 700 pages about why my gender sucks. But it certainly wasn’t news.

The suspense is great; the violence is savage and glorious, as always; the big fight at the end is wonderfully apocalyptic. I actually didn’t like the supernatural element as much, because I didn’t really like the resolution. Should have gone the other way. But I did like the fox. And the Tree.

This is a Stephen King book. It’s not for everybody, but if you like Stephen King, you’ll like this one. I did.

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Scat!

Okay: so my job, teaching? It involves a lot of shit. I get a lot of shit from students, both bullshit (“I was sick when you assigned this essay. Can I get more time?”) and insulting shit (“You ever think that you shouldn’t have been a teacher? You’re not very good at it.”), I return quite a bit of shit to them (“Of course I like all of my classes equally. I don’t believe in playing favorites. Though if I did have favorites, it wouldn’t be you.”), and the administration and I have a shit-full relationship, though there the shit-flow is only of one type: they give me more shit to do, and I talk shit about them.

Okay, I’ll stop saying shit. Though there is a reason, and it isn’t just because I have to control my language during the school day.

This week there has been a plethora of poop. A cornucopia of crap. First and foremost, we had our accreditation visit. Accreditation, for those who don’t know, is how schools prove that they are in fact doing what they are supposed to do, namely educating students, rather than using them as sweatshop labor or housing them in cubicles like rental shoes at a bowling alley. It’s a fine idea, as education does not have a terrible lot of oversight, but it does have a terrible number of ways to abuse or neglect the system, which can limp along for quite a long time before it breaks down. That is to say: if a teacher is thoroughly incompetent, students will still be able to learn something from each other, from the textbook, from the extra resources that some usually have, like tutors and older siblings and the internet, and so it may not be clear right away, or at all, that the teacher is truly incompetent. Teachers get observed on some kind of regular basis, but the three districts in which I have worked have observed me twice a year, once every two years, and once every four years; and in every case, with every observation, the person doing the observing has never been an English teacher: so while they are certainly qualified to say that I am not blowing snot rockets on my students during class, they can’t really say that I’m doing a good job helping my students become better readers or writers. The problem gets better and worse according to the subject: mine is pretty straightforward and well-understood by most educated people, but my wife, who teaches art to high school students, has been told directly that the administrators observing her had no idea what she was talking about when she spoke to her students about perspective and value and the like. An advanced mathematics teacher I know never heard the open admission, but was perfectly aware that the administrators did not understand what he was teaching, and so could not rationally judge if he was doing a good job.

That is not to say that all administrators are incompetent to judge teachers, nor that they are all incapable of understanding what is being taught. But I couldn’t follow an advanced math lesson any more than my administrators could; the difference is that they are expected to do so, and I’m not. Their ability to understand what I do is most of the oversight that I work with, other than the possibility of student and parent complaints about me – which, so long as I make my students laugh and give them good grades, are minimal or nonexistent.  Even if I wasn’t funny or generous, the truth is that nobody knows what I do in my classroom other than a bunch of teenagers, and, twice a year (or once every two years, or once every four years) between one and three administrators, none of whom understand what I do. (No, that’s not true: three of the administrators I have worked with have been past LA teachers. But the rest of them go: PE, PE, social studies, religious studies, science, PE, kindergarten, biology, elementary school, science and PE, and nothing – meaning they never taught in a classroom. I’m missing a few, but that’s the trend. Also: schools have even more administrators than they do poop, and administrators usually come and go faster than poop does, too.) That’s not a lot of oversight.

So accreditation, in which a group of inspectors come and do an exhaustive review of how the school functions and how it doesn’t, is a really good idea. Except guess who makes up that group of inspectors?

Right. Administrators. Administrators from other schools, but that doesn’t make them any more competent than the ones from my school.

The larger problem than competence (Though really, that’s enough to sink the whole endeavor) is the obvious impetus for quid pro quo. The inspectors in a given area are from that area; the chances that a principal will inspect the school run by the same principal who inspected the first guy’s school are quite high. When I ask my students to critique and grade each other’s work, they pretty much all get A’s, pretty much all the time, even from students who don’t like each other: because no kid wants to be the one who gives out bad grades, for fear of retribution. Same problem here. There isn’t a profit motive, so the intensity of corruption isn’t the same as with lobbyists in Washington; but the system here is as flawed as how our government asks major industries to regulate themselves; or hires regulators straight from the ranks of industry executives, who go right back into the industry once they finish their stint as a check and balance against abuses in that industry. It’s okay: they’re on a break, so it doesn’t count. Right? Just like Ross and Rachel.

School administrators are taught and trained to look for certain things. They want maximum attendance, minimum disruption in the form of behavior referrals and suspensions, maximum test scores, and maximum awards and recognitions. They love checklists, especially ones with impossibly vague categories and subjective descriptions of the achievement levels in those categories. (The accreditation system we went through has these: student is tasked with activities and learning that are challenging but attainable and student is actively engaged in the learning activities. The marks are: Very Evident, Evident, Somewhat Evident, and Not Observed. Pop quiz, hotshot: you watch a calculus class for 20 minutes, with 20 students in it: if the kid in the second row is facing the board and blinking at an appropriate rate, is their active engagement Evident or Somewhat Evident?) Because our current public school system is so unbelievably diverse, and so varied in its methods and results, the largest and scariest bugaboo for administrators this decade is standardization. They want everyone to be on the same page: to know the same things, at the same time, in the same order, to the same degree. They want teachers to all do the same things in all classes, using the same materials, and hopefully achieving the same results. That way, no child gets left behind (Because they’re all in lockstep, like one of those one-guy-with-five-mannequins-attached-to-him-with-broomsticks Halloween costumes), and all teachers are disposable and replaceable, like any other machine-produced standardized cog in a well-tooled machine. Because they are taught and trained to look for these things, these things are all they look for. They do not look for – Teacher knows what the hell he is talking about, and can answer a student’s random question. Teacher knows how to write a good multiple choice question, and how to score a test fairly. Teacher knows when to let a student go to the bathroom and when to say, “Why don’t you wait a couple of minutes?” The things they see may be important – may – but they don’t see everything that’s important. They’re looking somewhere else, entirely.

Observations in classrooms are something of a joke for another reason that I didn’t mention, which is: we know about them in advance. Which means, of course, that the administrators don’t see us going about our regular routine; they see us trot out the dog-and-pony show. My current school, which is the one that has observations twice every year, has one scheduled observation, for which I choose the day and the class when they come to watch me; and one unscheduled observation – for which they give me a window of two weeks when they may come observe any class on any day. In which case I am left predicting their likely choice based on past choices, such as: they prefer older students; they prefer smaller classes. They like coming in the morning more than the afternoon. So far I’m two-for-four predicting which class they will randomly select. Like the TSA and random searches at airports: look for the dark-skinned passengers, and you know who will be “randomly” selected. Even when I don’t half-expect them, I have still been able to adjust my lesson plans on the spot in order to make them reflect what I know the administrators are looking for; I know they want to see me assess the students’ learning, so I have made up a quiz question for the lesson, projected it on my whiteboard, and had students write a response: boom, instant assessment. Go me. Never mind that I usually don’t have my students do that: the observation went great. This is nothing compared to what many teachers do for their scheduled observations: it is not merely an urban legend, that gag about teachers telling the class, “If you know the answer, raise your right hand; if you don’t, raise your left.” I mean, observations determine whether or not we keep our jobs, and in some cases, our performance bonuses. Wouldn’t you work the system?

So do schools when the accreditors come by.

So in this specific case, we knew a month ahead of time when the inspector would be coming, and we had the observation system he would be using, which tells us what he will be looking for. The teachers were coached by the administrators as to what we should present, if the inspector came into our classroom, and also what we should say if we were interviewed personally about the school’s workings and its culture. The students weren’t coached, but there is a certain select group of students who are somehow always chosen (“Randomly” selected — and yes, one of them is dark-skinned.) to be the spokespersons for visiting dignitaries; they always know what to say. We have trained them well. I mean, maybe not for their future careers or the next stage of their education – but they know what to say to make it seem as though we have trained them for those things. And that’s sort of the same thing, right?

Right?

In my case, even though I was asked to join the teachers’ group interview with the accreditor, I avoided it. I didn’t want to be asked what I thought of the school or the administrators. Because what I think of them is this:

The problems with this school are the same problems with public education across this country: it is designed in entirely the wrong way. We take kids too young, and we keep them too long; we don’t allow them enough freedom, and we don’t know how to work to their strengths, instead forcing them to play to ours, or fail. We try to standardize everything, for no good reason that anyone can name other than the absurd “That’s fair.” It’s not. It’s not fair, nor efficient, nor even sane, and yet that idea – that every student and every teacher and every person have the same outcome from the same set of experiences – is the driving force behind almost every aspect of education. Probably because: when everything is the same, it’s easier to talk about. Harder to understand, of course, but so what? Then, we politicize this thing that we don’t even understand, and then make changes to solve problems we don’t understand, with consequences we don’t understand and don’t even pay attention to – because taking the action in response to the apparent problem is good enough for the politicians. In fact, that’s how we treat everything in education: just do something. Anything. As long as you can show that you are doing something (Preferably the same thing that’s been done everywhere else – that’s what we call evidence-based solutions!), then that’s good enough. We don’t recognize the people who are actually doing the good work, because we don’t recognize the good work, and we don’t reward those people for doing good work; instead we reward those people – both educators and students – who create the most convincing façade of achievement. This school is, in fact, no better or worse than any other: some of the students are wonderful, and some of the teachers are wonderful, and one of the administrators is wonderful; and a lot of the rest are – well, I did say I wouldn’t say “shit” any more, didn’t I? Let’s say “Somewhat evident.”

 

That was Tuesday, when the accreditor came. On Wednesday, we had a staff meeting, in which it took us – a room full of professional educators, mind, several with advanced degrees – thirty minutes to complete a conversation about the differences between two grading systems we have used, last year’s and this year’s. (Here’s the difference: last year each specific score was weighted the same as every other score, based on the percentages; this year a specific score’s total number of possible points is factored in. So last year a 75% on a 10-point quiz and a 75% on a 20-point quiz were the same; this year the 75% on the 20-point quiz is counted twice as much as the 10-point quiz, and has twice the effect on the final grade. Thirty minutes to say that. With diagrams on the whiteboard.) We also talked about how well the accreditation visit had gone, and how impressed the accreditor was with our school spirit and the commonality of our vision (We were coached on our vision statement, since it is different from our mission statement, and both are important. I mean, not to the actual work of education; but they’re important to the administrators who write those things, and then inspect and accredit other schools.).

And then we talked about – poop. Specifically, about how one of our students, or more than one, had intentionally defecated and urinated outside of the toilets in the boys’ room. Somebody soaked a roll of toilet paper in the dispenser, and on another occasion, someone left a pile of feces on the floor. We talked about whether we should have a hygiene class to teach students that this is not acceptable. We talked about whether we should put this story on our school newscast. We talked about whether teachers should check the restrooms regularly, or whether we should hire a new security guard. (That one was easy: security guards cost money. Asking teachers to perform tasks that have nothing to do with teaching is free. Stopping my discussion of rhetoric and syntax in order to try to catch somebody crapping on the floor: priceless.)

If only the accreditor had stopped in to visit that bathroom on that day. I wonder where that . . . piece of evidence would fall on the rubric.

Though the real question is: would he even see the actual shit on the floor? Or would he be looking somewhere else, entirely?

Helma: Tros Book II

Image result for helma talbot mundy

Helma (Tros Book II)

by Talbot Mundy

**Spoilers for the first book here**

The sequel to the epic historical fantasy TROS! OF! SAMOTHRACE! (Emphasis added, but, I think, implied.) is a good book: except it has completely the wrong title.

One nice thing is that this one picks up directly after the first one leaves off; like only minutes have gone by since last we left Tros, sailing back to England from Gaul, having managed to get his father away from Caesar’s legions. He arrives back near Lunden (Don’t judge me, that’s how they spell it) with his men ferociously mutinous because several of them were killed by Romans, and yet they came away with no plunder at all, and therefore no glory, which is the only reason they went on the voyage in the first place. Now they arrive back home, and find that Norsemen have come to raid England, and they see their opportunity to fight for glory and plunder. Tros has a hell of a time trying to fight them and keep them in line; he is only moderately successful, and finally his ship joins the combat against the Viking raiders. Tros, being Tros – or, pardon me, I mean TROS! OF! SAMOTHRACE! – wins his battle, and in the process, wins possession of a troop of Viking warriors when he defeats their leader in single combat. He also takes one of their longships as his own new vessel, the tub he sailed to Gaul having given up the ghost in the fight.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because, you see, the sister of that Viking war leader is – Helma. Over time, the Vikings come to serve Tros willingly, and he puts them in charge of building his new ship, his dream ship; Helma, he marries.

I feel I can spoil this because – there’s no point to it. At all. The romance is awkward and barely present at all in this story; Helma is a decent character, but really she’s a means to an end: the Northmen can’t speak Tros’s language, and Helma is the go-between for Tros and her brother. I suppose we are to see her as the perfect loyal woman, but there’s a much better example in this story: Fflur.

The main plot of this one has little to do with Caesar, though he is the snake in the grass behind most of the intrigue, the prime mover of the betrayals and infighting that fill this book. Caesar has sent agents to corrupt and break apart the British tribesmen, and they are, sadly, very effective; this book made me dislike several of the British tribesmen I got to like in the first book, as well as Conops, Tros’s main lackey, who disapproves of Tros’s marriage to the blonde Valkyrie. The worst casualty here is Caswallon, the king of the British tribe that Tros is allied with; he is a hero in the first book, and nearly Tros’s equal in importance and coolness, but in this book, he’s just a pain in the ass. His wife, Fflur, still rocks, and that’s why I don’t think Helma was necessary; she doesn’t add anything to the story that Fflur hadn’t already brought, other than she is married to Tros, instead of Caswallon.

Overall, the action in this one was still great, but the intrigues and the plot and the character development weren’t as interesting. I really want Tros to finish his ship and just sail the hell away from Caesar and all of this; I know Caesar is going to conquer Britain (Because that’s what happened, and Mundy was trying to stick to history with the Romans), and so I want Tros to try to circumnavigate the world, the goal he expresses in this book. I didn’t see the point of Helma, really didn’t see why Mundy named the book for her; this makes me both eager to read the third book, and also leery – as it is named for another new female character. Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we?

Tros! Of! Samothrace!

Tros Of Samothrace

By Talbot Mundy

 

Bought this one (several years ago) for the title. And the author’s name. Of course I did.

I also bought it because it had this wonderful pulp adventure cover image (even though, as my artist wife has pointed out, the anatomy is off; nobody’s torso actually bends like that), and because the story seemed pretty pirate-y. The hero, the almighty Tros of Samothrace, is a sailor by nature and inclination; the story is partly about his pursuit of the perfect ship, which he speaks of building more than once; and it also tells the tale of Tros sailing with a British crew and thwarting the invasion of England by Julius Caesar himself, which I thought would be interesting.

It was. This is the second time I’ve read this, because after the first time (And I genuinely can’t remember if I reviewed this book then, but since I can’t find the review to confirm it, I figured I might as well give it a write-up) I went back to Powell’s City of Books (Just about the only thing I miss after moving away from Oregon) and bought all four sequels; I wanted to read them again now, and so I re-read Tros so I could remember the story and characters before I read Helma, the second book. Which I have now read, and enjoyed, and will review in a few days.

This book held up well to a re-reading; better than most pulp adventure books. Part of that is because the character really is delightful; Tros, apart from his epic name (which I absolutely love and can’t resist saying with maximum emphasis every chance I get — “Tros! Of! Samothrace!”), has a great blend of brooding violence and anger, mixed with a life-loving, laughing vitality; he goes straight from cursing at a storm to laughing at the wind as it blows rain into his face, and it makes it a hell of a lot of fun to read his story. Another part of the quality of this book is the historical aspect: Mundy wrote a book that very well could describe what it was really like to face off against Julius Caesar. The descriptions of the character – who does appear in the book, holding conversations with Tros as well as meeting him in battle on land and at sea – seem pretty well in line with what I know about the man himself; Mundy doesn’t change history or Caesar in inserting Tros into his story. Caesar is still the unbeatable general who has at this point conquered all of Gaul; Tros only manages to get the better of him by taking advantage of Caesar’s weak points, and he frequently has to work hard to evade getting steamrollered by Caesar at his strongest. Mundy does it very well. The historical setting, the Anglo-British tribesmen whom Tros allies with, and the druid/mystic religion that Tros shares with the people of Britain, are all quite interesting and well done.

But really, this is a pulp adventure novel like Conan or Allan Quatermain; Tros is a good pulp hero, Caesar makes a fantastic villain, and the adventure is mighty fun to read. Definitely recommend.

Pirate Book Review: Silver

Silver

by Edward Chupack

I’m not sure why I didn’t like this book more.

I love pirate stories (I mean, I LOVE them. I am writing a pirate story that is most of the way through its second book now. I dress as a pirate every Halloween, and talk like a pirate every Septembarrrr 19th, which is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Some of my favorite authors, my favorite books, are pirate stories.). I love villains, especially when they are the protagonist. I love riddles and puzzles and the very idea of treasure maps. So I should have loved this book: which is about Long John Silver, who is a villain of the first order, a pirate, and the protagonist; and he also spends most of the book talking about riddles that point the way to buried treasure. When he’s not talking about killing people, that is, which he does quite a lot.

But I didn’t love this book.

Part of it is that I am not a serious fan of Treasure Island, the story that spawned Long John himself; I have read it once, in the last couple of years, but never as a kid, when the story really could have captured my imagination. Thus the references in this book didn’t really have much of an impact on me. I recognized some, missed others, and didn’t really care about any of them. Part of it is that the author makes a strange choice to have the entire story be a flashback, which is fine – but Long John is flashing back on his life from his current situation, which is imprisoned in the Captain’s cabin on his own ship, which has been taken from him, and he is being held until he gives up the location of his treasure. It was a letdown that Long John starts off the book having lost. There are some great moments when Silver makes fun of the cabin boy who is constantly bringing him food, which Silver refuses, presuming it is poisoned; and the life he flashes back on was fascinating and supremely piratey; but I hated that he was getting weaker and weaker, starving to death and suffering from a fever the whole time.

I was also disturbed that I couldn’t solve the riddles that led the way to the treasure. There are many hints dropped, and eventually the secret is revealed – or at least, one of them is – but not everything is explained, and I couldn’t get the clues by myself. There’s this one image that is reprinted at least six or seven times, which is supposed to be this fascinating clue that unlocks the secret path to the big treasure: but the whole time, other than the small details that Silver explains, which were pretty apparent from looking at the thing, I got nothing from it. And it is also true that the big treasure was not terribly interesting to me, even though it has some historical accuracy, which is great; but I kind of didn’t care about this one.

Overall, I think it was a good book, and well-written; I think it was just a little off the mark for me. I think someone else who loves pirates – especially someone with a particular love for Robert Louis Stevenson – would really enjoy this one. Though I will note that the Goodreads reviews of this book say that the connection between this book and Treasure Island is tenuous at best, and a shallow marketing scheme at worst, so maybe that wasn’t the problem; maybe it really just isn’t that good a story. I’m going to recommend giving this one a miss. Try Jeffrey Farnol: now that man could write a pirate story!

Book Review: Rediscover Your Story by Drew Kimble

Rediscover Your Story: A Journal for Creative Exploration

by Drew Kimble

 

I’m going to have to make this quick; because I have writing to do.

I have writing to do because this book inspired me to do it.

I am a writer, both a blog/ranter and a novelist; I am also a full-time high school teacher, because my vocation doesn’t make me money. I struggle, constantly and consistently, with keeping my passion and focus as a writer, because it is so easy to let the writing slide off to the side, to tell myself that I “need” to do work for my job, that my job is “important” and “valuable” and “worth spending time on.” It is even easier to find things that are related to writing, but not actually writing, and do those things in my free time; that way I can tell myself that I am writing, without actually doing too much of it. And of course I have to put aside the actual writing until later; I am too busy, and too tired. I don’t have time.

I’m not going to say that this book changed my life, because I’m not done working with it: I haven’t written out all the prompts, haven’t answered all the questions, haven’t examined and reflected and interacted with all of the inspirations inside. (There is one that I immediately want to turn into a piece of art – which I will do myself, though that scares me – and hang on my wall. It is “The unfed mind devours itself.” Page 134. Though in looking back through the book to find that one, I saw three or four others that I want to give the same treatment – “Do not dare not to dare,” and “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together” leap out at me. It may not sound that impressive that I want to make art of these quotes, but you have to understand: I have never been a visual artist, never made anything other than words on a page – and I’m married to a prodigiously talented illustrator. The bar is high, and I have never jumped. But I will try.) I don’t know that the book will change my life when I’m done interacting with it, though I think it likely if I can focus on small changes, planted seeds, an idea of old habits I would like to replace with new habits. That change, I think is pretty likely.

Because Mr. Kimble knows how to do this. The prompts are varied in style, ranging from internet quiz-style questions (Don’t scoff; we all take them.) to soul-searching checklists and life inventories. The types of prompts run the gamut, and the depth as well; I think that everyone will be able to find something useful in here. The quotations which appear in between each prompt-page are fascinating, also showing a wide range of focus and depth, some about the slow march of particulars, some about leaping to the stars. The book could easily be written in, or one could take the prompts and re-write them and one’s responses in a journal, which is what I will be doing; not that there is anything wrong with writing in a book, but I have all of these excellent journals. Though maybe I’m wrong: maybe I should do something different from my usual habit. Maybe I should write in this book.

I think I will.

One last comment: as a teacher, I could definitely use these as journal-writing prompts for my students. Particularly the prompts that push one to search for and define one’s self, one’s identity – and the ones that get you thinking about your future, too. Those would be good for my high school English classes.

This is a good journal. If you’re looking for one, this is a good choice.

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies

 

Interpreter of Maladies

by Jhumpa Lahiri

I didn’t love this book.

Some of the stories were beautiful. All of the writing was lovely, but some of the stories didn’t sing to me, where some did. I was a little disappointed that the title story was definitely not the best; it’s about a man who interprets for a living, who takes a group of American tourists (of Indian heritage) around on a tour of his hometown, which they visit every year or so from their home in New Jersey. The tourists are pretty delightfully obnoxious, and the ending of the story when one of them gets an Indian comeuppance, is delightful; but the major action involves this interpreter (who also works in a doctor’s office, translating people’s symptoms to the doctor – hence the title) developing a crush on the tourist woman. Which was pretty disappointing, really.

I did like about half of the stories. A Temporary Matter, the first one, was maybe the most touching; it’s about a couple trying to find their way after a stillbirth; they are mostly estranged and alienated, until the power company turns off all of the lights in the neighborhood around dinner time, and then these two people find that they can talk in the darkness in a way they can’t when the lights are on. The story doesn’t have a happy ending, which was also a letdown, though it did make sense. It was good, but not my favorite. The second story, When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine, is pretty much the typical story for the collection: it features a mix of Indian culture and Western, which creates discomfort and conflict; the characters are interesting, the descriptions are lovely – and the story goes freaking nowhere. Ditto for A Real Durwan, Sexy, and The Treatment of Bibi Haldar (The first and last only differ in that they are purely Indian, and so have at least some appeal in showing something of the culture; Sexy is the only story in the collection with a Western main character, and she’s a dud, as is the story.), and, sadly, the title story. Which at least does have the best title, which is, I suppose, why Lahiri picked it for the collection. The other three I’ve listed here were all a little too strange, and a lot too dull: nothing really happens, nothing gets resolved, nobody goes anywhere. I’m sure that was the point, an attempt to show the futility and emptiness of modern life, but — whatever.

The good stories were The Third and Final Continent, This Blessed House, and especially Mrs. Sen’s, which was my favorite. They showed relationships that were fraught, but not doomed; the couple in The Third and Final Continent actually work out quite well, as does the most significant relationship in the story, between the Indian main character and his American landlady, who is 103 years old and is splendid. Say it! Say “Splendid!”

This Blessed House has the most interesting character, in the woman named Twinkle, who reminded me of the classic vivacious hostess, the sort of Katherine Hepburn energetic wit with grace and style who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty; she was contrasted nicely with her dud of a husband, though I do have to say that, as an introvert, I was kind of on his side: he just wants a quiet house to come home to after work, and his wife keeps throwing parties and doing things. I have never been so glad to be married to a woman even more introverted than me.

Mrs. Sen’s was the sweetest story. It’s about an American boy who spends his afternoons at the home of his babysitter, the titular Mrs. Sen; seeing her through his eyes made her interesting but never offputting – other than the damned knife in the beginning of the story, which I could not for the life of me imagine; it’s apparently an Indian cooking tool, a blade fixed to the cutting board, and you move the vegetables over the knife to chop them. It’s a nice piece of Indian culture, but I just couldn’t grasp it. Still can’t. But I love how Mrs. Sen is so eager to get news from home, and I was heartbroken with her when the news is bad; I thought it was very sweet how she tries to learn to drive, and I actually liked her husband, which made this one of the few relationships in the book that isn’t depressing or disappointing. Plus, I used to have to go to my babysitter’s after school — Mrs. Bergstrom’s —  and so I bonded with the narrator right away, and I sort of wish that Mrs. B. had only had me to watch, instead of the five or six kids she took care of at once. I would have liked to get to know her the way we get to know Mrs. Sen in this story.

Overall, I don’t think it was really worth it; even the good stories aren’t among my favorites, really. If you are in the mood for a sort of gentle alienation, like looking through a soft veil at a surrealist painting, then go for it; if you feel like reading about romances that don’t have a whole lot of closeness in them, as well, then this one is right up your alley. I think it missed my alley.