Monthly Archives: December 2013

“On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King

Okay, I never read ANYTHING by Stephen King. Horror is not my genre. I’m a wimp. I don’t watch scary movies. I’m so literal minded that whatever shows up on the page or screen is, to me, entirely real. Once I read a few pages out of King’s Cujo. Rabid dog menaces helpless woman. Couldn’t deal with it.

A friend told me that On Writing was great, useful in creative writing courses, and of interest to a wider audience, anyone interested in creativity. And he was right! It’s excellent.

The structure of the book is eccentric. It has three “forwards” followed by a C.V. (curriculum vitae). Then come three chapters about writing, a postscript, and three “furthermores”. Well, when you’ve made millions selling books, you get to do what you want. And it works!

The best parts of the book describe how King “gets” his ideas. First of all, he doesn’t believe in “plot”. He generates characters and situations, and writes in order to find out what will happen. His characters grow and change and often surprise him. He describes having once written himself “into a corner”, working on The Stand, a dystopian fantasy. He had too many characters and too many story lines. Stroke of genius – he blew up half his characters with a terrorist bomb, and finished a highly popular book.

King also talks about letting seemingly unrelated idea merge in his mind, and asking himself “what would happen if…” His breakthrough novel Carrie originated when he thought about teenaged cruelty/bullying and telekinesis. What would happen if a teen victim discovered she had telekinetic powers? Great premise, and it launched King towards money and fame.

King’s three chapters on writing

  • What Writing Is
  • Toolbox
  • On Writing

are brisk and informative. Nice to hear from someone who champions vocabulary and grammar. King and I went through American public schools at the same time and studied from the same textbooks.

There’s a section in On Writing which is different. Really different. In “On Living: A Postscript” King describes being struck by a carelessly driven van at age 52 and barely surviving. I feel tension in what he writes. I feel the effort it takes to put the pieces together after a life shattering event. I’ve been there, though not as the victim. “Narrative is the beginning of recovery.” (Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales.) Telling the story is essential to moving on. Sharing this is a generous act on King’s part.

So, I think I’m ready for some horror! I’ll start with Carrie, being careful to read it in a safe, sunny place with people around (not on a dark and stormy night or alone in a motel room). Maybe then I’ll look at some of King’s non-fiction.

“Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” by Barbara Ehrenreich

I loved this book! Ehrenreich started with her own experience of being told about the “bright side” of cancer. Ehrenreich’s response to cancer was ANGER. Anger that she had unknowingly exposed to carcinogens (as we all are), anger that the medical professions offer limited help, anger at people who said cancer would lead her to a better life if she would just let it.

Medical “positive thinking” inclines towards blaming the victim. “You can beat this if you just have the right attitude.” I think I was inoculated against this by my mother’s grim death from Alzheimer’s disease. No one will ever convince me that she died because she had a negative attitude (she didn’t) or because she got lazy… Sometimes THE DISEASE WINS. (Major life lesson.)

In addition to health issues, Ehrenreich analyzes the impact of positive thinking on economics (sub prime lending) and foreign policy (evaluation of terrorism risk). 

I don’t have a copy of the book in front of me. I believe there was a preface which said “This book is dedicated to the complainers of the world. Turn up the volume!” I’m personally convinced that knowing when to complain, and how to complain effectively, and doing it persistently and politely, are actions of a good citizen. 

Ehrenreich is a lively writer and a breath of fresh air. One Amazon reviewer summarized her attitude by saying “ignoring reality can be dangerous”. Good point! Read the book.

“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – A Hmong Child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures” by Anne Fadiman

This is another book that I read because of the Freshman Year Common Reading program at the college where I work. It was either a candidate book or the selected book a few years ago. Later, I will evaluate it according to the system I created and introduced in my post of December 6. (I originally read this book in January of 2013, because someone was giving away leftover copies.)

This book has “curb appeal” because the cover shows a photo of an adorable little girl in formal southeast Asian dress. She looks loved, even pampered. Her name is Lia. Her family came to the US after Laos fell in 1975. Lia was born in the US in 1981. I won’t try to summarize the complicated history of Southeast Asia as America struggled to extricate itself from Vietnam. Lia’s family and thousands of other ethnic Hmong were brought to the US to avoid retribution for having assisted the US military with its activities in Laos.

Lia suffered from epilepsy, and the book is a detailed account of how her family and her doctors tried to heal her. The differences between Hmong traditional medicine (inescapably intertwined with animistic religion) and modern Western medicine were so extreme that communication was almost impossible. Despite everyone’s good intentions, her condition deteriorated over months and years of crisis and intervention.

This book is an example of very high quality documentary writing, and worth careful examination in college courses. Academically, it would be classified, I think, as medical anthropology. It is clear and well organized.

Over time, Lia’s condition spiraled downwards. Eventually, she suffered a prolonged seizure and bout of sepsis (blood poisoning?) which left her severely brain damaged and terribly weak. The doctors discharged her to her parents care, expecting her to die shortly. Against the odds, she survived and in some senses improved, but this was not a “happy ending”. She never fully regained consciousness.

So there are two stories here. The book documents several years of intense struggle to control Lia’s seizures and give her a normal life. After that, Lia survived for TWENTY SIX YEARS under the loving care of her family. Few people in that so-called “vegetative state” live for more than a few years.

So using my rating system:

  • Globalization – 5 points. This book discusses languages, culture and history in great detail.
  • Engagement – 4 points. This book is about the American medical system, and the problems that people of good will and the best possible intentions have when faced with a totally unfamiliar world view.
  • Sustainability – 1 point, maybe? There is little here about “environmental” sustainability, which (I think) is what the college has in mind when they list sustainability as an organizing principle. From a broad socio-political point of view, the American intervention in Southeast Asia created an unsustainable situation from which only relocation offered hope of survival.
  • Learning – 3. This book highlights the need to KEEP learning, and the incredible difficulty of figuring out what you don’t know. How would an American doctor realize his/her need to understand a Laotian shaman?

So, that’s 12 or 13 out of a possible 20 points… But I think this book was a good choice for the common reading. It is challenging, well written and serious.

America’s Wars #3 – “Baghdad at Sunrise – a Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq” by Peter Mansoor

I read this book in July of 2009, and wrote the following:

This book deals with the first year of the war – summer, winter (such as it was) and summer. I had some trouble reading it but couldn’t really figure out why. Subconsciously, I think I expect any narrative to tell a story (beginning, middle, end) which this does not. This was “real life”, closer to a journal or diary.

The military language Mansoor uses is choppy and filled with acronyms. He felt no obligation to remind the reader of the identity of a person or organization. Maps and a list of acronyms were provided, but not a chart of military organization. I didn’t always know who was the superior officer, nor did I know the size of the unit in which a soldier lives.

Mansoor gives a brief historical analysis (p 351) which leads to a definition of Western Civilization as a policy of religious tolerance and an agreement that “the state should have a monopoly on the use of organized violence.” This is from the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648.

I found another interesting comment at the end of the book (p 347). “As the US undertook an intensive campaign of math and science education following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, so must it now pursue excellence in humanities programs such as languages, history, cultural anthropology and regional studies.”

2013 comments: I am one of those “Sputnik scientists”, encouraged from elementary school and treated, in high school, to the best teachers and some interesting innovative curricula. This overlapped with my natural inclinations and I got a very good education. Now “science” has been recast as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Hard for me to say how it’s going.

My sons (in a local public high school from 1998 to 2008) didn’t get good science training, and neither has pursued a scientific field. Standardized testing has done so much damage. Science doesn’t show up on the tests, nor do languages or history, so the teachers in those fields don’t get the support they need. Science and math are often taught by people who don’t much LIKE those subject areas.

As far as a comprehensive effort to teach languages and regional studies, I’m not seeing it. Language teaching barely holds its own and in some school districts it is diminishing. Ironically, if you choose to study Arabic in college and the airport screeners find your textbook, you can subjected to questioning as a possible terrorist. We’ve got a large backlog of educational issues that need attention!

“The Sibley Guide to Birds” by David Allen Sibley

This isn’t a book you “read”, but I spent the morning with it, so I think it’s fair game.

We went to the wildlife refuge because a snowy owl has been seen repeatedly over the past ten days. The advice was to get out there early, but it was at least 7:30 by the time we arrived. I’ve never seen a snowy owl in the wild, and my record on other owls is weak. I HEAR two species regularly on my own property, but I don’t see them.

The sky was overcast and the temperature dropped through the morning, but stayed above freezing. (I’m aware that a naturalist should be more specific about the weather, but I am not the family note taker.) There was a moderate wind.

We didn’t find the snowy owl, but the other birds we saw were magnificent! Perched on a pole, just where the snowy owl should have been, was a bald eagle in mature plumage! So BIG. I checked in Sibley – a wingspan of 80 inches. He stared at us and we stared back for 10 minutes, long enough for photography. Then he flew off at a right angle, so we could see his size and power. No wonder eagles made their way into myth and legend!

We saw much of what you expect on a salt marsh in December – ducks of all sizes, shore birds, and a northern harrier working its way back and forth across the marsh. 

To the north, in the middle distance, we saw an explosion of snow geese. There were so many, and, as they rose up, their bright white feathers made changing patterns against the gray water and greenish brown vegetation. Breathtaking!

Stay tuned for further adventures with D A Sibley.

“Orphan Train – a novel” by Christina Baker Kline

I read this because it was selected by the college where I work as the “common reading” for 2014. A copy will be given to each incoming Freshman. Some of these students will read it for their Freshman seminar. The entire college will be invited to hear the author speak. Some students may hear nothing more about it. (No one is willing to tell the faculty what they must include in a course, and there will never be a common reading that is universally popular.)

About half of the common readings are novels. There has been at least one anthology, one autobiography, a popular, semi-scientific approach to the supernatural, and a genuinely scientific book about the Mississippi River (Bayou Farewell). I think the common reading program is nine years old.

The plot? A girl who has spent much of her life in (low quality) foster care meets an old woman whose early years were also disrupted by suffering and grief. Each gains important insight.

So what are the good and bad points of this book for college Freshmen? Let me evaluate it against the four “pillars” of the college – global outlook, engagement, sustainability and learning. (How it pains me to see “learning” so marginalized!) Let’s see, on a scale of 1 to 5…

  • Globalization – 3 points. Immigration (Ireland to USA) is a major feature, as well as migration (involuntary) within the US.
  • Engagement – 1 point. There’s a social worker. Aren’t they automatically “engaged”? One of the protagonists is doing community service in order to avoid a criminal charge for theft.
  • Sustainability – 0. It’s not there. (I didn’t miss it.)
  • Learning – 4 points. Both protagonists love books and reading. The young woman “finds” herself academically as she is finishing high school. The old woman professes to be indifferent to the “information superhighway”, then plunges in with cheerful enthusiasm – starts shopping on line and using Facebook. Maybe 5 points for learning!

All that said, I give the book a B-. I like more development of character. I found the structure, skipping back and forth between two plot lines, distracting. I think college students should be offered something more challenging. This is too close to being a standard “feel good” book. But (by way of redemption) there’s one plot twist that surprised me. A child (I won’t tell you whose) is given up for adoption. I wonder how students will react to that?

Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) – Rest in Peace

On October 16, I wrote about Nelson Mandela as described in the book Playing the Enemy. 

Mandela was one of the greatest leaders of our times. 

Each year, the college where I work chooses a “common reading” for the incoming Freshman class. I plan to nominate John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy. (Anyone can make a nomination. I’m not entitled to a vote…) It’s well written and gripping, and the sports angle might have fairly wide appeal. One criterion is that the author must be available to speak at the college. Carlin is alive and (according to Wikipedia) resides in Spain. So it’s not out of the question! 

I hope, over the next few days, that Mandela’s life and work will receive wide attention. Maybe it will lead to some creative thinking about the many places now plagued by war and injustice.