You see before you one of the very special few. That’s right… I saw The Adventures of Mark Twain in the theater.
Mom took my baby sister and I to the movies, and this is what was playing. Mom didn’t know much about it, I think, but I looked at what else was showing in March of 1985, and this was definitely a better choice than Ghoulies, anyway. I remember it vividly, because the three of us were the only people in the theater. I’d never had that experience before. I didn’t know you could see a movie by yourself. In fact, as I reflect, I think that’s still the only time I have seen a movie in a theater that no one else at all showed up for.
According to IMDB, it made a grand total of $849,915, so I guess there were a lot of empty theaters that March.
I can understand why it failed. It’s hard to imagine who the intended audience is. Its main characters are children, and we thought it was a children’s movie, but it is dark and scary and disturbing.
Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher stow away on a balloon piloted by Mark Twain, a sad, aging writer. They just want to have an adventure, and maybe become famous. Instead, they discover that something is terribly wrong on this adventure. Twain, bitter, world-weary, and despondent after the death of his wife, is sailing his balloon directly at Halley’s Comet.
As they work to understand what Twain has planned, what their chances are of surviving it, and what to do about it, the three children explore Mark Twain’s written work. It’s a tour that focuses on Twain’s later work – the dark, bitterer, angrier stuff. After a brief stop at ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ and a nod to Injun Joe, it leaps right into ‘The Mysterious Stranger.’
This is the bit that stuck with me as a kid. Seriously, watch this.
And yet the movie was unpopular, if you can imagine that. In a different universe, this is the movie that college students are getting stoned and watching over and over on DVD.
I re-watched the movie last night. I wanted to see if it was as strange as I remembered from my childhood. And, no, it’s actually stranger. And clearly written by people who knew and loved Twain – all of Twain, not just the homespun sweetness of ‘Tom Sawyer.’
I love Twain, as it happens. Now I wonder if my love of Twain’s work might have been born in this movie, a long time before I ever read his work.
An Unnecessary Woman
I added this to my list of things to read back when the longest for the National Book Award was announced, months ago. This is a thing I do. I read the lists of books nominated for awards, and make a note of the things that are of interest to me, and then, eventually, I get around to actually reading them. No rush. I’m not a professional book critic, after all, just a reader, and there’s no particular reason that I have to get that brand new book read while other people are still talking about it.
This time, I was in no hurry at all to get to it. It waited for me, there on the things to read list, but whenever I looked at it, I chose something else instead. It just looked so serious, with its solemn silhouette and its glowing reviews. So literary. I love a serious book, but they also take a level of focus and attention and participation that I don’t always want to give. Sometimes, after a long day of trying to convince tweens that it’s worth their time to learn to read, I’d rather read something light and funny, because I just don’t have that much more to give.
But now it’s Christmas vacation, so with two weeks away from work, I checked this out from the public library, and… I was wrong to put it off so long. Because it’s charming. Just charming. Delightful, even.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s serious, this story of Aaliya, who lives in the wreckage of war-devastated Beirut, estranged from everyone and connected to the world only by the thin threads of her collection of French and English books, her never-read translations, and the voices of the downstairs neighbors. But it has so many funny bits that it wasn’t the forbidding task that the cover and the reviews made me expect.
I suspect I’m not the only book lover who will relate strongly to Aaliya, who is almost perfectly isolated from everything but literature and usually prefers it that way. I connected so strongly to her that I tended to forget that this was a story about a person from a very different culture, in a very different place. After all, once you are locked safely into your home, at your comfy chair with a good book, what does it matter whether the view out the window is of Ohio or Lebanon?
I think I’ll come back to this, in a year or so, for a re-read. There are layers here, and I never get layers on the first read.
Things I finished reading this week:
- Mostly Harmless, by Douglas Adams
- The Little Nugget, by P. G. Wodehouse
- Three Men and a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome (audiobook)
- How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees
- The Man Upstairs and Other Stories, by P. G. Wodehouse
- The Unreal and the Real, Volume Two, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The current state of the things-to-read shelf
The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin
Small Beer Press
I usually tear through books, fast. At the end of the week, I’m startled by how many I have read even when I feel like I haven’t had enough time for reading. This week, though, I’ve spend nearly all of my time immersed in this one book.
I don’t know why I haven’t read Le Guin before, now. Her sentences are beautiful. I liked several of the stories in volume one, but volume two is the book that really enthralled me.
Can I mention “Solitude?” It described a world inhabited by introverts, who make a powerful distinction between ‘people’ (which they most definitely are not) and ‘persons.’ I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it before. The point of view of a young woman of two worlds, the gradual unfolding of how the persons of Eleven-Soro understand themselves and their world, is something I’m going to come back to again and again.
“Poacher” startled me and delighted me at the same point, when I realized that I was reading a familiar story without recognizing it.
It’s not hard to understand why I’ve heard of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” even though I haven’t read it before, and it’s not hard to understand how it has made its way into a variety of classrooms.
I will keep both volumes of this collection, but volume two is the book I think I’ll be rereading soonest. I had no idea this was what Le Guin was like, and now I feel a little silly for having failed to read her before. I’ll likely be reading one of her novels in the not-too-distant future.
I don’t know anything about reality, but I know what I like.
How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening
I am a junior high school teacher, which means that pencils, and the sharpening of them, is a large concern for me. At my school, as in most public schools, students take a truly shocking number of standardized tests. Every year, there is the year-end state standardized test, a high-stakes test. High-stakes for the school, that is, which stands to lose reputation and funding depending on scores. There are no stakes at all for the students taking the test; there is no reward for doing well, no penalty for doing poorly- indeed, the test does not even appear on a child’s report card.
In addition to the year-end test, there are three pre-tests, administered at the beginning of the year, just after Christmas vacation, and about a month before the state test. These are as long as the state test itself, and take about three days to administer- more than a week, when one includes the make-up testing of students who are absent.
In addition to those, there are ‘benchmark tests.’ These are shorter tests, which take only one full class day to administer, and they are given once a month.
That’s a lot of number 2 pencils.
There is a nationwide move toward computer-based testing, which is coming in with the Common Core Standards. However, my school, like so many public schools, but unlike most businesses, is ill-equipped to supply every person with a functional computer. So the tests, for now, still use number 2 pencils. Many, many number 2 pencils.
In the past, I have used an electric pencil sharpener. But the heavy use by hundreds of tweens is too much for any electric pencil sharpener in a public school teacher’s budget. The sharpeners break quickly, and cannot be repaired. They are expensive to replace. Electric pencil sharpeners are also noisy, and get much louder as they approach the end of their miserable life. They are not, I think, a good solution for my classroom.
In the wall of my classroom there is a small piece of wood. It is clearly meant to be the installation point for a hand-cranked pencil sharpener. However, the construction of the building used up all of the budget, and my school, when deciding how to furnish the building, had to do without such luxuries as pencil sharpeners, clocks, and American flags. So my flag-stand stands empty, and the wood pencil-sharpener base remains sharpenerless, and many of my students, accustomed to cell phone displays, are unable to read an analog clock.
Small things matter.
If this book has a purpose beyond humor, it is to remind us that there is pleasure to be taken in small things, and that, the closer we pay attention to anything, the more important it becomes. There really is an aesthetic pleasure in a simple wooden pencil, well-sharpened, and it’s a pleasure that I rarely enjoy, with my Pilot G2 pens and my mechanical pencils.
I enjoyed reading this book. It made me smile. It also taught me a few things I did not know about pencils and their sharpening.
Inspired, I have installed a small hand-held single blade sharpener in my classroom. Its manufacturer intended it to be used as a key ring, but I have attached a chain to it and hung it near my trash can. It is virtually silent. It will last for years. It cost less than $5. As far as I can tell, it is superior to my long line of loud, short-lived electric pencil sharpeners in every way. I feel proud for having solved a minor problem so neatly.
I liked Roger Ebert’s The Pot, which is about cooking with a rice cooker, and M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, which is about eating reasonably well on little or no money (specifically, during the era of World War II food rationing). Using them, I have developed a weight loss/ money-saving eating plan. If you follow my plan, you will lose weight, be healthier, and spend very little money on food. The one problem is that you may need to give up the idea of getting pleasure from food, but life has many pleasures, doesn’t it?
At the beginning of the week, in a large pot or rice cooker, cook up a big batch of brown rice. As it’s cooking, add a bag or two of frozen vegetables and one cut-up sausage. Mix it all together thoroughly. When it’s done, measure it into half-cup servings and put it in the freezer. Viola! Healthy, cheap food for the week.
Now just eat that. Two or three times a day, whenever you’re hungry, take one or two out of the freezer and microwave it. Put some bottled sauce on it to make it more palatable if you like.
I can’t think of any reason that this wouldn’t work to make a person healthy and fit while costing a laughably tiny amount of money.
You’d just need to make the choice that you were going to find your pleasures in other things, and when you eat, you’re just going for nutrients to keep you from dying.
No, I’m not planning to adopt this plan at this time. But it’s nice to know it’s an option if times get hard.
- My Antonia, by Willa Cather. Enjoy it as a tale of female pioneers, or as a pseudoautobiographical, crypyolesbian novel.
- The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll. I’m assuming you have read Alice in Wonderland, but have you read Carroll’s other great work of nonsense?
- Departmental Ditties and Barrack Room Ballads, by Rudyard Kipling. Everybody enjoys a good Kipling poem, don’t they? Do you know about Michael Longcor’s Norman & Saxon? It’s a collection of Kipling poems set to music.
- Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomerey. If you don’t already love the spunky, imaginative, redheaded orphan, you’ve missed an important part of your teen girlhood. You can catch up now.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Everyone learned in history class about the role this sentimental melodrama played in the Civil War, but have you actually read it? You might be surprised at how well it reads. You can’t start a war with a boring book, in general.