Contented Reader

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Archive for October 2011

Things I will read

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Written by Contented Reader

October 31, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Posted in What I'm reading

Mythlopedia: All In the Family

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Mythlopedia: All In the Family

Steven Otfinoski


I wouldn’t normally bother writing here about a book like this.  It’s one of those light, funny, cartoon-illustrated reference books that Scholastic markets to junior high school students.  A staple ingredient of any good classroom library, sure, but not exactly Literature.

This one, though, in its benignity, really meant something to me, and that something was this:

Artemis’s Spell

Narcissus falls in love with the best-looking guy around

The goddess Artemis vowed revenge on Narcissus for his cold-hearted treatment of Echo.  She put a spell on the self-centered youth as he walked through the woods.  When Narcissus stopped at a pond to get a drink, he saw his reflection in the water and thought it was another person- and a good-looking one, at that!

As Narcissus took a drink, the water rippled and the image disappeared.  Narcissus waited patiently until the reflection reappeared in the water.  When it did, Narcissus tried to embrace it, but the image didn’t move.  Narcissus was so captivated by his own reflection that he neither drank nor ate, and he gradually wasted away.  Artemis took pity on the youth and transformed him into the wildflower that bears his name, the narcissus.

Did you notice it?  I noticed right away.  It has long been a point of irritation to me that in every single retelling of the story of Narcissus for kids I’ve ever seen, he mistakes his reflection for a beautiful girl.  Better to make the story not make very much sense that to let kids know that, in old Greece, boys sometimes fell in love with other boys.

But in this book, without making a fuss, the writer tells the story as a boy who falls in love with a boy.

It isn’t to make a point about gay people, it isn’t explained in detail, it’s just taken for granted- that’s the way the story goes.

And that is the way the story goes, but this is the first kids’ book I’ve ever seen tell it that way.

It made me feel like the world is getting better, if at least one writer at one important children’s publisher doesn’t think it’s worth the effort any more to try to hide from kids that sometimes, boys fall in love with other boys.

And then turn into flowers.

Written by Contented Reader

October 30, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Posted in Reviews

The Complete Peanuts: 1967 to 1968

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The Complete Peanuts: 1967 to 1968

Charles Schultz


In June 1968, Charles Schultz introduced the character of “Franklin” to Peanuts.  Franklin was black.  At his first appearance, Franklin is playing at the same beach where Sally and Charlie Brown are playing, and they play together on the beach.  Charlie Brown, impressed by Franklin’s mad sandcastle-building skilz, invites Franklin to come and visit him some time.

In October 1968, Franklin appears again, making that visit.  But Charlie Brown isn’t home, so he wanders the neighborhood, meeting many of the other characters, and then, just as his host appears, he decides to leave.

Charlie Brown: Franklin!  Where are you going?

Franklin: I’m going home, Charlie Brown… this neighborhood has me shook.  I didn’t mind the girl in the booth or the beagle with the goggles, but that business about the “Great Pumpkin”….. No, sir!

Charlie Brown: But…

Schroeder: Hi!  Did you guys know there are only sixty more days until Beethoven’s birthday?

Charlie Brown: Oh, good grief!

Franklin: <leaving, eyes wide and anxious> Like, wow!

Accounts of the history of Peanuts say that Franklin was controversial when he first “integrated” the strip.  But they all seem to tell the same few stories, about one or two unhappy letters, and one southern newspaper editor, indicating that there shouldn’t be a black kid in Charlie Brown’s white community, and especially not in school (that isn’t in this volume.  It comes later.)

So the impression I get is that in a comic strip that reached millions, the number of people who had a problem with Franklin was small enough to be counted on one hand, yet the history books still accuses the nation’s Peanuts readers of ‘controversy.’

I mention this because the Internet is kind of like that.  One nutcase way out of the fringes of sanity will say something ugly, and suddenly the video of it is on everyone’s Facebook page.  And people treat these lone nutcases as though they were representative of whatever group of people I dislike anyway, or as if they were evidence of some large-scale social trend.  Remember that guy who burned a Quran?  His whole church was, what, ten members?  But somehow he became international news.  In the same week, I bet there are hundreds of crazy people who did crazy things, but only one of them was a lead story on CNN.  “See the anti-Muslim hysteria in this country?  Isn’t it awful?”  Meanwhile, the vast majority of people in this country are working alongside Muslims and not thinking that hard about it.

Internet, it’s okay to just ignore crazy people when they do and say crazy things.  Most people are actually pretty reasonable.  One crazy person doesn’t mean the world is crazy.  It means, in a world that is mostly pretty sane, the crazy people stand out.

Written by Contented Reader

October 30, 2011 at 9:08 am

Posted in Reviews


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I went to a student’s bar mitzvah today.  Kids invite their teachers to their bar mitzvahs, out of respect for education.  I think it’s a nice tradition.  This student turned out to be Orthodox, so I was startled to find myself sitting in the women’s section, on the other side of a screen from the actual service, where I could hear but not see.

AND the men got the windows.  I don’t care much about the service, but I’m definitely bitter about the windows.  It was a very pretty fall day out the windows.  Ask a man; they could tell you how pretty the trees were.

My student’s portion of the Torah was the story of Noah and the flood.  He read it in Hebrew, of course, which I don’t speak, but that’s okay, because I know the story.  God realizes that the people of the world are wicked and evil, and decides to wipe out the whole world with a flood.  But he recognizes Noah as good, and decides to spare him and his family, on an ark with breeding stock for all the world’s animals.

It’s a story that makes a good children’s toy.  Pairs of giraffes, pairs of cows, pairs of elephants.  But rarely pairs of sloths.  I’ve become very interested in sloths lately.  They move slowly, live their whole lives in trees, and are very solitary, coming together only to mate.  If I believed it ‘spirit animals,’ I think mine would be a sloth.

As an invited guest, my place is to sit quietly and politely through two and a half hours of Hebrew chanting on the other side of the screen, congratulate my student on his rite of passage, eat some very strange food, and then go on with my day.  And that is what I did.  Here’s what I didn’t say:

“Let’s suppose that I am truly fed up with how my class is behaving.  They are very disruptive and rude, and rarely completely assignments.  It’s my professional opinion that, no matter how hard I work, I am not ever going to be able to teach them what they need to know to be high school graduates or happy, useful citizens.

“So I decide, in my authority as teacher, to kill the whole class.  I bring a semiautomatic gun to school, ready to kill the whole class.  But as I think about it, I remember that you are a pretty good student, well behaved, with good work habits.  So I tell you that I’ve decided to spare you, because you are the good one.  And then I kill every single one of your classmates.

“Would this make you worship me?  Honor me?  No, of course not.  It would make you hate me, because I would be a monster.  You would be the first person testifying against me at the trial which would end in my entirely justified death sentence.  And I would never, ever, ever do that, no matter how bad my class was.

“Shouldn’t a God worthy of worship be more moral than your junior high school English teacher?”

Written by Contented Reader

October 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Posted in Opinions

The Magician King

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The Magician King

Lev Grossman


The first time I read The Magicians, I could see that it was something special. Grossman was taking the books I loved as a child and turning them inside out, deftly.  But I didn’t love it the first time.  There was something about it found difficult to completely take in.  I don’t know what it was.  It wasn’t more difficult reading than any other literary novel, certainly not something I had to struggle to understand, but I did find myself struggling to actually sit down and read it.  It didn’t call to me from my reading table, like some books do when I’m in the middle of them, to come and finish the story.  Instead, I had to make a choice to sit down and read a few more chapters.

The second time I read The Magicians, I found magic there I had missed on my first reading, and it was so much worth it.  I am so glad I gave the novel a second chance.  Grossman has to know how thoroughly he took the enchantments and disillusionments of my experience of growing up and gave them back to me in a form so rich with wisdom that I felt like he was reading my mind and understanding it better than I ever did.  And I suppose that, although my life seems special and unique to me, he was writing to emotional and psychological experiences of  growing from childhood to adulthood in love with fantasy books that are common to man of us.  I found wisdom, when I read The Magicians the second time.

And so I patiently waited for The Magician King to finally reach my name on the reserve list at the Cincinnati Public Library.  I had to wait a while, so I suspect that every nerd in Cincinnati was also on the list.  My inferiority complex assures me that the rest of them understood the first novel on first reading.

The title of The Magician King refers to Quentin, the narrator of The Magicians, who I last saw finished with his education at a school which is certainly not Hogwarts, flying out a window to return to the Narnia-like Kingdom of Fillory, to maybe reign as one of four kings and queens of that magical kingdom.  Just when disillusionment seemed too much, he grabbed a thread of hope and… the book ended.

So here’s Quentin again, settled and contented as a king of Fillory, with a magic horse and a pleasant quest and a beautiful, simple room in the tower of the castle, finally adjusted to life as a magician king.  Happy, more or less.

But despite the title and the first narrator, this book isn’t really about Quentin.  It’s more about Julia.  Remember Julia?  She was Quentin’s crush object in high school.  They both took the exam to go to Brakebills, the magical college, together, but when Quentin was accepted, Julia found herself back home with a disturbing hole in her memory.  I last saw her in Brooklyn, angry and bitter at being left behind, feeling like her destiny had been stolen.

In Fillory, Julia is different.  She has magical power now that is different from anything they teach at Brakebills, darker and wilder and more dangerous.  She is changed, herself, too- she has clearly paid a high price for the magic she wanted so badly.

So there are two stories in The Magician King.  There’s the story of a quest, on a ship which is not named Dawn Treader but might as well be, a quest to the islands at the edge of Fillory in search of seven golden keys.  And there’s the story, told in flashbacks, of how Julia learned her magic, and the price she paid for it.

Julia’s story is the story that was, for me, the point of this book.  Her anger, her pain, her darkness, her quest for magic, are so passionately real I feel like she is a real person.

It’s been kind of a not-so-great week for me.  I had far too many papers to grade, tests and essays and reading responses, and I’ve been feeling overtaxed and spread too thin.  Even my hour in the morning, stolen for reading, wasn’t giving me enough pleasure to compensate for the badly-mannered students in my ninth bell class.  And I was finding The Magician King, like its predecessor, to be a little bit of a slog on first reading.  But last night, and this morning, as I reached the conclusion of the book, Julia’s story become so powerful and horrifying and wonderful that I was glad I’d made the journey.

I think this is a book that I’m going to need to read twice in order to fully take it in, just like the first book.  And I think that, in six months or a year, when the first reading has had a chance to settle in a little bit, I’ll see The Magician King on a new paperbacks shelf somewhere, and read it again, and I predict that it, too, will repay richly on second reading the effort I spent on the first.

And now it’s time to go to work, and go over boring vocabulary lessons and even more boring tests, and deal with four seventh graders who are smarter than their parents and so haven’t yet realized that they aren’t smarter than all adults.  I will be bored and annoyed.  But somewhere in my brain, I’ll have a vision of Julia at the end of this book, which will be enough- just barely enough- to get me through the day.

Written by Contented Reader

October 28, 2011 at 7:13 am

Posted in Reviews

L’Homme de L’Ennui

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I was reading Matilda Betham poems today, while my students worked on writing a descriptive essay, and I found this.  I laughed at how well it captured the middle-class angst of some of my black-clothed, poetry-writing teen students.

    Forlornly I wander, forlornly I sigh,
    And droop my head sadly, I cannot tell why:
    When the first breeze of morning blows fresh in my face,
    As the wild-waving walks of our woodlands I trace,
    Reviv'd for the moment I look all around,
    But my eyes soon grow languid, and fix on the ground.

    I have yet no misfortune to rob me of rest,
    No love discomposes the peace of my breast;
    Ambition ne'er enter'd the verge of my thought,
    Nor by honours, by wealth, nor by power am I caught;
    Those phantoms of folly disturb not my ease,
    Yet Time is a tortoise, and Life a disease.

    With the blessings of youth and of health on my side,
    A temper untainted by envy or pride;
    No guilt to corrode, and no foes to molest;
    There are many who tell me my station is blest.
    This I cannot dispute; yet without knowing why--
    I feel that my bosom is big with a sigh.

    Oh! why do I see that all knowledge is vain;
    That Science finds Error still keep in her train;
    That Imposture or Darkness, with Doubt and Surmise,
    Will mislead, will perplex, and then baffle the wise,
    Who often, when labours have shorten'd their span,
    Declare--not to know--is the province of man?

    In life, as in learning, our views are confin'd,
    Our discernment too weak to discover the mind,
    Which, subdued and irresolute, keeps out of sight;
    Or if, for a moment, her presence delight,
    Our air is too gross for the stranger to stay;
    And, back to her prison she hurries away!

    If my own narrow precincts I seek to explore,
    My wishes how vain, my attainments how poor!
    Tenacious of virtue, with caution I move;
    I correct, and I wrestle, but cannot approve;
    Till, bewilder'd and faint, I would yield up the rein,
    But I dare not in peace with my errors remain!

    With zeal all awake in the cause of a friend,
    With warmth unrepress'd by my fear to offend,
    With sympathy active in hope or distress,
    How keen and how anxious I cannot express,
    I shrink, lest an eye should my feelings behold,
    And my heart seems insensible, selfish and cold.

    I strive to be gay, but my efforts are weak,
    And, sick of existence, for pleasure I seek;
    I mix with the empty, the loud, and the vain,
    Partake of their folly, and double my pain.
    In others I meet with depression and strife;
    Oh! where shall I seek for the music of life?

Written by Contented Reader

October 27, 2011 at 4:56 pm

The Bloom County Library

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The Bloom County Library

Berkeley Breathed

IDW Publishing

I was an avid Bloom County reader all through high school, even though I didn’t understand all of the jokes.  Most of the political humor went right over my head, and ditto the jokes on the cultural battle between reason and idiocy.  Back then, after all, most of the people I knew were on the side of idiocy.  Boycott K-Mart for selling Playboy!  Down with The Last Temptation of Christ!  Madalyn Murray O’Hare is about to make it illegal to talk about God on television or radio!  O’Hare had been dead for several years the first time I saw that little scare letter, mimeographed.  I’ve gotten it again via email since then.

That was all a long time ago.

Now there are these beautiful hardcover collections of all the Bloom County strips.  These are really well-done books.  The print quality is excellent, the pages are nice and large, the binding pleasantly solid.  These aren’t cheap books, but I feel good about the money I spent, because I fully expect to die with these books still on my shelf.

The amazing thing is how well the humor holds up.  Political humor gets stale quickly, but Bloom County, despite its many 1980s pop-culture references, has a timeless quality to it.  And idealist, befuddled Opus is just as wonderful as he was when I had his stuffed likeness on my desk, back in 1990.  Breathed adds some commentary into his though processes, and the editors sometimes gloss pop-culture references that have gotten a little too obscure.  (I admit it, I had forgotten about Morton Downey.)

I read most of these in the newspapers, back when they were fresh, and so for me, there’s an element of happy nostalgia in reading them.  But I think that there’s a new generation who will fall in love with Bloom County for the first time.  Pop music and political names may change, but the basic idiocy that is human culture seems to have stayed pretty much the same.

I have this fantasy that somewhere in his forest mansion, Berke Breathed is still drawing comic strips, and putting them in a box.  And some day, we’ll see his take on Facebook, and Lady Gaga, and Michelle Bachman…. I choose to believe this, because I badly want it to be true.

Written by Contented Reader

October 27, 2011 at 8:10 am

Posted in Reviews