Books Read In May

Beauty in the World, Rethinking the Foundations of Education, by Stratford Caldecott

Edwy the Fair or the First Chronicle of Aescendune  Historical fiction set in the time of St. Dunstan (Abbot of Glastonbury just before 1000 AD), written by a popular author if the second half of the 19th century.  A.D. Crake specialized in children’s literature retelling stories from England’s history, with a particular emphasis on events with some connection to the church.  Edwy the Fair is the story of a bad young king, the near ruination of one of his young subjects, a prodigal son story, and a tale of revenge.
It’s a bit high toned in the telling, and will probably be equally annoying at times to evangelicals and Catholics.  Crake converted from Calvinism to the Church of England as a young man.  He is highly sympathetic to Dunstan, but regretful at the superstitions of the Catholic church at the time.  Still, I enjoyed reading the story, and I think if you have a middle school or high school student interested in the middle ages and is a good reader, they would enjoy this as well.  I said it was historical fiction, and it largely is, but most of the characters in the book are real people and the events are based on real events in history. There was a king Edwy the Fair, he did lose his crown, he hated Dunstan, he did not attend his own coronation because he was busy with his lady friend, he did marry her later and the church did annul the marriage.  The fictional characters are the two brothers whose fates are intertwined somewhat with the young king’s, and act as lookers on and carriers of the story.  Their household appears in some of Crake’s other books as well for continuity.

 

Stuff Matters– terrific read for high school students or adults on ‘stuff,’ like steel, paper, glass, chocolate, and a few other things.  Good for extra reading when studying physics, matter, atoms, and how they work.  Chapter on chocolate may need previewing.

 

Annotated: America’s Secret Society, The Dumbing Down of America- by Antony Sutton.

I downloaded this for free from Amazon in 2012 (along with another Sutton book)- but it’s not longer available via Amazon.  I suspect that what I have is a bootlegged and badly done copy of some other work of Sutton’s.  This was disjointed, sentences cut off, poor grammar,  no title page, and so on.    But other works by Sutton have five star reviews, fifty or more of them.  He is a conspiracy theorist, blaming Hegelian philosophy and the Yale group Skull and Bones for the philosophical fall of America from liberty to statism and the reduction of a free and well educated, literate citizenry to Brave New World’s Gammas and Deltas.  Some of the conspiracy theories are far-fetched, and some… well, one looks around at what passes for education these days and has to wonder.

But the disjointed nature of this particular little book wasn’t because of the conspiracy theories, it was just badly put together and since Amazon no longer carries it, I think it was an unauthorized collection of somebody elses poorly construed grammar and ideas amalgamated with Sutton’s words.

Charlotte Iserbyt: The Miseducation of America, John Taylor Gatto, Samuel Blumenfield, these are other writers who point to the deep problems of our educational system. 

 

Clarkl’s Soup Kitchens– sci fi I got for free a while ago. I had read it before I realized part way through, but I finished because the ending had kind of puzzled me, or least, I remembered that it had.  It’s a combination sci-fi/mystery story.  I liked the weird world the author set up, it had some potential.  The characters were different, and interesting. However, the story is told through a series of journal entries told by each character in turn.  While I liked the way the journal entries unfolded and gradually revealed more about each of the characters, really, they all read as though written in the same voice.   Each new character will reveal a different view of something that happened or something of life on Clarkl. For instance, in one journal a character is frustrated because on the flight to the planet her room-mate suddenly changes her attitude towards our character, and she can’t figure out why.  The journal of a later character, in discussing social relationships on the ship and the different conditions under which they are traveling, drops a piece of information that answers that question for us.  However, while   the author gives them different backgrounds and viewpoints, and one of them is more crude in the events he describes, she doesn’t really succeed in making them sound different.  You can’t really believe you are seeing things through different eyes.  They all have the same writing style, although one throws in a few more direct references to sex.  Even then, he still used the same sort of voice, grammar, style.

There is some explicit sex in one of the last character’s journal entries. I only found one of the characters remotely likable and I wanted to know more precisely and specifically what happened to her and I never found out for certain.  There were too many implausibilities in how the alien society functioned. They would have died out long ago on if their lives and culture were really as described.   There was no real reason for some of the characters to do the things they were doing the way they were doing.  It’s hard to imagine a society which has time travel, space travel, and robots, but which still requires hands on farming, and hand canning of vegetables and fruits which requires humans to peel and chop and boil apples and pumpkins around the clock for small renumeration while living in unpleasant conditions.  People would not keep working so hard in these conditions.

The Great, Good Thing, by Andrew Klavan- I enjoyed this.  I think if you likDorothy Sayers’ Mind of the Maker, you’d like it, too.  It’s an easier read, and it’s not really quite the same thing, but the ideas are compatible.

You should read this interview with him.

And this was pretty good.

The Confederacy of Dunces, by O’Toole- I found this incredibly well written and also rather hilarious in places, albeit disgusting in a few others.  I am glad I read it, but I don’t know that I could recommend it willy nilly to just anybody.  If I sound confused about, rather.

Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 14 (1952)- I enjoyed the stories very much.  Isaac Asimov’s introductions are kind of annoying.

‘Lena Rivers by Marjorie Holmes: ‘Lena Rivers is Helena, a pure and sweet young maiden brought home as a baby by her abandoned mother to the old folks at home on a Connecticut farm.  The mother insists she was married, and doesn’t know where her husband went.   Lena grows up pure, good, unspotted by the world.  Her grandfather dies and she and her uneducated grandmother must move south to live with her selfish uncle and wicked aunt.  It’s a love story, and a little purple, but it was a fun read.

The Woman in the Alcove– mystery story, also old-fashioned (Anna Katharine Green was writing mysteries when Agatha Christie was yet unborn – November 11, 1846 – April 11, 1935).  Told in the first person by a feisty young nurse, although she gets a bit damp and unfeisty at times.  Interesting contrast to our times- the weathy scion of an old and established family vs the brought himself up by his bootstraps self-made man.

The Grave Man-  by David Archer- sweet story, totally improbable, but sweet.  Christian fiction, but there is some grit- drug bust gone wrong, deaths and injuries, kidnapping.  I enjoyed the read, but it’s a nice bit of splashing your feet in cold, shallow water while sipping a sweet lemonade, not much to think about here except for why in real life, everything the good guy is doing here would be a danger signal to a young single mom with a little girl and she should run away, instead of towards him, which is rather sad.  But otherwise, a light bit of afternoon reading on a day when it’s too hot to do more than touch the screen of a kindle.

The Patch of Blue,  Grace Livingston Hill- even more improbable, rather snobby (“Is she refined?” asked Mother anxiously.  Not that we should look down on her….”).  The snobbery is really most in view when the characters (and GLH) are trying painfully obviously not to be snobs. But, you know- GLH and her little bits and pieces about families making do with a stick of celery and a bit of leftover fish just hits my sweet spot.

“All You Zombies-“: Five Classic Stories by Robert A. Heinlein
Stephen Archer and Other Tales, by George MacDonald (I rather think I’m going to have to go back and reread a couple of these)
Approaching Oblivion, by Harlan Ellison- I rediscovered that I really don’t much care for Ellison. He writes well, but I don’t like his philosophy, worldview, or attitude, and often I don’t like his subject matter.
The World Turned Upside Down, a terrific collection of short sci-fi, mostly for teens (because basically the criteria was, something you read and were inspired by as a teen), edited by Baen, David Drake, and Eric Flint.  Their commentary reinforced for me that Asimov’s commentary is distracting, and usually self centered in and puffed up.  It’s funny that the commentary to these stories comes across as so much less self centered, when the whole premise (the scifi these guys read and enjoyed as teens) seems like it would be more self centered. But it’s really not.  This one is free at Baen books’ website.
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An Education in a few paragraphs of George MacDonald

Augustus is an older man, a widower, who has married a very young and quite silly bride.  During their courtship:

“Augustus Greatorex was fooled, not by poor little Letty, who was not capable of fooling him, but by himself. Letty had made no pretences; had been interested, and had shown her interest; had understood, or seemed to understand, what he said to her, and forgotten it the next moment—had no pocket to put it in, did not know what to do with it, and let it drop into the Limbo of Vanity.”

Naturally, this did not make for a happy and successful marriage.

“They had not been married many days before the scouts of advancing disappointment were upon them. Augustus resisted manfully for a time. But the truth was each of the two had to become a great deal more than either was, before any approach to unity was possible. “

He believed he would mold her mind, shape the poor girl into the woman she ought to be, when he had no real idea of the man he ought to be, or of the woman she was:

“He tried to interest her in one subject after another—tried her first, I am ashamed to say, with political economy. In that instance, when he came home to dinner he found that she had not got beyond the first page of the book he had left with her. But she had the best of excuses, namely, that of that page she had not understood a sentence. He saw his mistake, and tried her with poetry. But Milton, with whom unfortunately he commenced his approaches, was to her, if not equally unintelligible, equally uninteresting. He tried her next with the elements of science, but with no better success. He returned to poetry, and read some of the Faerie Queene with her: she was, or seemed to be, interested in all his talk about it, and inclined to go on with it in his absence, but found the first stanza she tried more than enough without him to give life to it. She could give it none, and therefore it gave her none.”

There is a delicate art to finding that balance between reading made too easy and reading which is challenging enough to improve upon, without being so challenging it is painful, or worse, utterly sealed to one’s mind.   One wishes to avoid complacency and self-satisfaction.
It is true that any book worth reading at 9 will also be worth reading at 39, as C.S. Lewis observed (or something very near, anyway).  But it is not therefore true that it is a good thing to be still reading at 29 or 39 *only* the sorts of books one read at 13.

“I believe she read a chapter of the Bible every day, but the only books she read with any real interest were novels of a sort that Augustus despised. It never occurred to him that he ought at once to have made friends of this Momus of unrighteousness, for by them he might have found entrance to the sealed chamber. He ought to have read with her the books she did like, for by them only could he make her think, and from them alone could he lead her to better. It is but from the very step upon which one stands that one can move to the next.”

“Momus was in Greek mythology the personification of satire, mockery, censure; a god of writers and poets; a spirit of evil-spirited blame and unfair criticism. His name is related to μομφή, meaning ‘blame’ or ‘censure’. He is depicted in classical art as lifting a mask from his face. He is the twin of Oizys, a misery goddess.”

And I believe I have been guilty more than once of trying to move a youngster from the step upon which he stands up to the landing in a single leap.

“Besides these books, there was nothing in her scheme of the universe but fashion, dress, calls, the park, other-peopledom, concerts, plays, churchgoing—whatever could show itself on the frosted glass of her camera obscura—make an interest of motion and colour in her darkened chamber. Without these, her bosom’s mistress would have found life unendurable, for not yet had she ascended her throne, but lay on the floor of her nursery, surrounded with toys that imitated life.”

Stephen Archer and Other Tales, by George MacDonald (it’s free at Gutenberg and Amazon)

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You’ll want to read this

“What lives in the Tower?”

Carolinus jerked his fierce old bearded face around to look at him.

“What’s living there?” he snapped. “I don’t know. We’ll find out soon enough. What is there—neither alive nor dead, just in existence at the spot—is the manifestation of pure evil.”

“But how can we do anything against that?”

“We can’t. We can only contain it. Just as you—if you’re essentially a good person—contain the potentialities for evil in yourself, by killing its creatures, your evil impulses and actions.”

“Oh?” said Jim.

“Certainly. And since evil opposes good in like manner, its creatures, the ones in the Tower, will try to destroy us.”

Jim felt a cold lump in his throat. He swallowed.

“Destroy us?”

“Why no, they’ll probably just invite us to tea—” The sarcasm in the old magician’s voice broke off suddenly with the voice itself. They had just stepped through a low screen of bushes and instinctively checked to a halt.”

 

St. Dragon and the George (not a typo)

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When Your Psyche is a Backstabbing Traitor

People ask me how I feel about my son leaving to go back to the U.S. while we stay here in the Philippines.  I smile and say we will miss him, and then I talk about how much money we are going to save on groceries, on our electricity bill, on our phone bills, on our internet (remember our charges are based somewhat on use), etc.  I talk about the closet in his room that I am going to get to use (it’s bigger than the one in our room).  I think of the groceries I won’t be buying, the deviled eggs I won’t be making for after school snacks several times a week, the coconut I will get to have entirely to myself (if I can cut it open without him).

Then the other night I had this horrible, awful nightmare, full of weirdness that never seemed weird at the time (as nightmares do).  It was the kind of things that wakes you up in a cold sweat, heart pounding, feeling desolated and  wanting to wail like a banshee.
We were at a Bible study with all of our Filipino friends (including several who do not know each other) and neighbors. It was in a pavilion- just a roof, no walls, and the floor was a bare dirt floor that was very, very muddy because it had rained recently.

Different men would get up to speak and encourage us, and from time to time, the ground beneath them would make a slurping noise and just collapse, dragging them down out of sight in an instant- it was this awful, muddy, sinkhole. But the other men in the group would just shrug, go up to the muddy pit, reach in and pull them out and the meeting continued. It was no big deal. And nobody ever suggested not standing in the sinkhole. Then my husband and son got up to speak along with two or three of our Filipino friends, and suddenly, they all sank. And when the other men went to pull them out, they couldn’t find my two guys. So then everybody just shrugged and went home, and I was there by myself trying to find them in the mudhole (while trying to keep our disabled child out of it).  I wanted to dive in after them, but I couldn’t leave her alone,  and no matter how many times I plunged my arms into the mud up to my shoulders, I couldn’t find them, either. At some point one of our daughters came to help. I hadn’t known she was there, but it seemed normal. And then somehow we were in a kitchen of a restaurant that served Filipino food (but still had this muddy sinkhole in it where my husband son had disappeared, and that seemed normal), and I was still on my stomach digging through the mud up to my eyebrows to no avail, and that seemed devastatingly horribly real but also normal. Sometimes I could hear their voices still,  but I couldn’t reach them in the strangely mobile pit of mud. The restaurant people told us we were in their way (politely), but were not unsympathetic when we explained, and they offered us shrimp to eat while we dug, and Jenny-Any-Dots had some but I didn’t (Jenny Any Dots hates shrimp and would never eat it, especially not if she has to peel it, and at any rate, of course she wouldn’t stop for a shrimp eating break if her daddy and brother were lost in a mud-pit). Somebody brought us a pole, but that didn’t help, and just when it was all entirely unendurable and horrible and I was nearly hysterically inconsolable,  I woke up.
After going over it in my head for a while, I realized that also in my dream, my son was about 8 or 9 years old instead of a 6’4″ 18, soon to be 19 year old.

I realized this is probably how my psyche really feels about my son graduating and getting ready to leave the Philippines and go back to the U.S. while we stay here. But I would prefer that my psyche just keep its most horrid manifestations entirely to itself.

(two nights later my nightmares were all about Visaya pronouns, which was exhausting, but preferable to being waterboarded by a grief I am not interested in acknowledging I have.)

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Why Do We Have To Know This Stuff?

This is a really interesting and fun old short story about an archaeology expedition on Mars and the efforts of a member of the team to decipher a language for which there can be no Rosetta Stone.

Or can there?

It’s Omnilingual, by H. Beam Piper

It won’t convince a die-hard skeptic, of course, because your 12 year old die-hard skeptic isn’t really skeptical about whether or not ‘this stuff’ might have a use, he just is convinced it has no use for *him*, and just as you cannot convince a 2 year old that you can’t see the picture he sees when he is looking at the pages and showing you only the cover, you can’t do much to convince a hardened 12 year old skeptic that when he is twenty he might wish to know more about subjects he disdained at 12.  He kind of has to make it to twenty to find that out.

 

For best use, I’d simply include this story with half a dozen other short stories in a brief introduction to speculative fiction in short form.  A few others:

A Pail of Air, from The World Turned Upside Down

A Gun for a Dinosaur, also from The World Turned Upside Down anthology; going back in time to hunt dinosaur. A good man dies, another man demonstrates the truth of the Biblical warning about digging a pit for others and falling into it yourself.

The Hunting Game, by Robert Scheckley- Humorous.  neither the hunter nor the hunted have any idea what they are actually up against.

Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut: classic tale of the tragic result of equality as mandated by democratic votes.

The Barnhouse Effect, Kurt Vonnegut (both of these are found in Welcome to the  Monkey House, an anthology of Vonnegut stories)- Read carefully.  What really causes war? Is it truly that lack of resources, or something else inherent in human-kind?

And He Built a Crooked House, by Heinlein: about an architect who outdoes himself and almost undoes himself building into another dimension. Fun story, interesting ideas.

A Sound of Thunder, Ray Bradbury – another time travel book about hunting dinosaurs.  Makes an interesting compare and contrast tale beside a gun for a dinosaur.  The Butterfly Effect- I don’t know if it comes from this story, or if Bradbury incorporated it into his story.

The Feeling of Power, by Isaac Asimov – what happens when everybody forgets how to do any arithmetic and leaves it entirely up to the computers, and then somebody else rediscovers it?    Weaker than the others.

The Cold Equation, by Tom Godwin: Heartbreaking story built on the solid premise that math doesn’t care about your feelings.  Things are as they are, not as you wish them to be, and there are hard realities,  things that you can’t change.  Unfortunately, to make the story work there are a couple of extremely irritating and irksome flaws.  If the punishment for trespassing was death, you’d expect there to be a sign a bit more stringently worded than “Do not enter,” for one thing. But the underlying premise is sound.  Math does not care about your wishful thinking, nor do physics (or biology, I would add).

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