Review 204: Blackout & All Clear

LL 204 - Blackout-All Clear 1LL 204 - Blackout-All Clear 2Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

Reading one of Connie Willis’ time travel novels is like watching a master paper-folder perform a particularly difficult feat of origami. It seems simple at first, but then there are a few folds and twists, edges are forced together and bent apart, there’s a few points where you can’t even see exactly what her hands are doing, but when she’s finished, you have the pleasure of seeing something intricate and beautiful come into being right before your eyes.

The basic premise of her time travel works is pretty simple: in the future, we have time travel (but not cell phones, as you may recall from The Doomsday Book). The exact means by which it works is not revealed to us, which makes sense – the books aren’t about the mechanics of time travel but rather the results. On the other hand, the rules of time travel are vividly clear:

  1. You can only go to the past.
  2. You can’t bring back any souvenirs.
  3. You can’t change anything.

You just can't keep a good cathedral down...

No, you can’t bring back cathedrals either.

That last part is really important, and it is held as gospel by the historians who use the mechanism to go visit various eras in history. The space-time continuum will do its damnedest to keep a traveler from altering the natural flow of events. For example, in order to even get the machine to work, you have to be able to blend in – that means proper clothes and appearance, no hidden wristwatches or things like that. If you’re carrying a disease that the locals might not be prepared for, if you don’t know the language – hell, maybe if you’re just the wrong skin color, the system won’t open up and let you through.

Once you’re ready to go and fit in, there’s still the matter of being able to change events. Now it is true that simply by existing you have already changed things. You move air molecules that were moved differently before. You’re pouring heat into the environment that wasn’t there before. You’re making contact with the surfaces around you, shedding skin cells, making noises – and that’s before you even meet anyone. Once you’re out on the street (or country lane or agora or whatever), you’re interacting with people no matter what you do. They see you, you register in their consciousness to one degree or another – you’re changing things just by your very existence.

The continuum, it seems, is only concerned about big changes. You can’t get anywhere near Hitler, for example, or Kennedy on the day of his assassination. No matter how hard you try or how precisely you set the controls, you will end up displaced either in time or in space or both, unable to do a damned thing. The continuum protects itself, and historians can be assured that their actions in the past have no real consequence.

Or do they?

Dangerous? Nonsense. Now out of my way, I've milk to deliver.

Dangerous? Nonsense. Now out of my way, I’ve milk to deliver.

Three British historians have gone back in time to one of the most dramatic and dangerous eras in recent history – the Blitz of World War 2. This was a period of about eight months between 1940 and 1941 when German bombers tried to reduce England to a smoking pile of rubble. They dropped a hundred tons of bombs, cause immeasurable property damage, and killed thousands of people. Life in this time was dangerous, terrifying, and uncertain, and anyone who lived through it was aware that they could die on any one of the raids.

Despite this, the English showed a solidarity and a steadfastness that won the respect of the world (or at least the parts of the world that weren’t trying to bomb it). Everyone – soldiers and civilians – were encouraged to do their part during the war, and every action you took had to be considered in the greater scheme of keeping people safe and keeping London alive. A popular sentiment about the time is that there really were no civilians. Everyone played a hand in getting England through the Blitz, from the Prime Minister to the milkman. If you were an historian looking to see how ordinary people coped in extraordinary times, the Blitz would be the perfect scenario to observe.

Polly Sebastian is in the thick of it. She has traveled to London, September 1940, with the intention of getting a job in a department store in the middle of town. She arrives during a bombing raid and is ushered into a shelter full of people who will change her life.

Mike Davis wanted to see some true citizen-heroes, so he posed as an American reporter in order to witness the Dunkirk Rescue in May of 1940. He ends up far from Dunkirk, however, and his efforts to get there end up in him becoming part of the action.

"Oy dinn't do nuffin'"

“Oy dinn’t do nuffin'”

Eileen O’Reilly has gone to witness the children’s evacuation of 1939-1940. She poses as a maid in a manor house in the country, there to watch over children who had been sent from London to keep them safe from the war. Eileen has to not only contend with dozens of city children, an outbreak of the measles, and learning to drive an ancient Bentley, but she also has two of the most terrible children in England under her care – Alf and Binnie Hodbin.

All of these assignments would be a major task for any historian, but these three soon discover that they are not in an ordinary situation. It becomes clear to them that their actions are having consequences – Mike saves a soldier who in turn helps hundreds more. Polly says a few words that changes a young woman’s life. Eileen gives medicine to a young girl that no one living at that time would have given, thus keeping her alive. The unbreakable rule about historians not being able to affect the continuum seems to be bending.

What’s worse, none of them are able to access their “drop points” to return to 2060. They’re stuck in a strange and dangerous time, and are now just as at risk as any contemporary person is.

This was originally meant to be only one book – All Clear – but it kept growing and expanding so much that Willis split it into two volumes. This allowed her to not only show off what must have been an immeasurable amount of research over the eight years it took to write the novels, but gave us more time to become immersed and invested in a story that is both funny and heart-wrenching in turns. Our time-travelers are in very real danger, of more than one sort, and you really do feel their desperation and hope for their success.

There, there now. Train tracks are much safer than what's going on up there.

There, there now. Train tracks are much safer than what’s going on up there.

It would be so hard to sum up this book, except to say that it reminds us that everything – and everyone – is significant. The fate of the future rests on the backs of not only generals and prime ministers, but on shopkeepers and children. Words can change the world just as much as bombs, and every action you take contributes to the vast, infinitely complex unfolding of history. As our characters learn, there is no such thing as a passive observer. We are all part of the history, the society, and the world around us, whether we like it or not.

We may not know how it’s all going to unfold in the end, for good or ill, and that’s unfortunate. So all we can do when faced with an uncertain future is what the British did when oblivion came flying over the Channel to their shores. Stand firm and do your bit, and let history take care of itself.

—————————————-
“TO ALL THE
ambulance drivers
firewatchers
air-raid wardens
nurses
canteen workers
airplane spotters
rescue workers
mathematicians
vicars
vergers
shopgirls
chorus girls
librarians
debutantes
spinsters
fishermen
retired sailors
servants
evacuees
Shakespearean actors
and mystery novelists
WHO WON THE WAR.”
― Connie Willis, All Clear – dedication

Connie Willis on Wikipedia
Blackout and All Clear on Wikipedia
Blackout and All Clear on Amazon.com
The Connie Willis Blog

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Filed under Connie Willis, England, history, science fiction, time travel, war

Review 203: Winter’s Heart (Wheel of Time 09)

Wheel of Time 09: Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

Just a note – you may consider this spoilery. Continue at your own risk.

We are continuing on with the series, and once again there’s a lot going on in the Westlands (which is the much better alternative name to “Randland.”). In Caemlyn, Elayne Trakand is busy preparing to become the Queen of Andor, as the world still believes that her mother, Morgase, is dead. She’s not, of course. She became a refugee after the Seanchan attack on Amador, became a Lady’s maid to Faile and Perrin, and subsequently became a captive of the Shaido Aiel, along with Faile and Alliandre, the Queen of Ghealdan. Not a good day for them, seeing as how the Shaido have become the worst that everyone expects of Aiel – murderous, thieving and vicious. Perrin is trying to rescue his wife, of course, but that rescue is not certain. Faile and Morgase will have to figure it out for themselves.

But getting back to Elayne – in Andor, she undergoes the ceremony to become first-sister to Aviendha, the Aiel woman with whom she must eventually share Rand al’Thor’s affections. It’s a great scene, that – a very simple procedure, but deep and meaningful as well. And it suggests a custom that I appreciate very much, having had friends that I consider on par with family. Under the direction of the Wise Ones of the Aiel, you become bonded with your friend and re-born, in a way. Forever after that, you are considered siblings, just as if you had come from the same mother.

Not all sisters want to make your life better.

Having a new sister isn’t going to make things all work out, though – Elayne has to cement her claim to the throne, and deal with an army of Borderlanders who really want to know where Rand is. Why, we don’t know yet. But from the looks of it, it can’t be all that good.

Meanwhile, in Ebou Dar, Mat has reappeared after the injuries he took during the Seanchan invasion. Still wrapped around Queen Tylin’s finger, Mat is looking for a way to get himself out of the city without getting himself or anyone else killed. What this ends up meaning is that he has to escape the city with three Aes Sedai who have been leashed and collared to serve as living weapons for the Seanchan – a crime punishable by death.

The Seanchan are still an interesting player in this series, even if the battle scenes in the last book were kind of dull. They are the descendants of Artur Hawkwing’s armies, vanished across the sea a thousand years ago. Through a millennium of fighting both men and monsters, they have become a formidable military force, held together by the damane – women who can channel, but who are considered less than human for all that. Controlled by other women, sul’dam, the damane are the heart of Seanchan power. No conventional army can stand up to them, and if it weren’t for Rand and his Asha’man, they would have overrun the Westlands already.

(art by minniearts on DeviantArt)

They control Ebou Dar, of course, but they do it in a manner similar to the Romans. They don’t try to change the conquered people, or break them. All they require is an understanding that they are now living under Seanchan rule. Respect the new rulers, obey the laws, pay your taxes and life need not go on any differently. Cause trouble, though, and the hammer will come down on you. Hard.

Even though their military advances are being slowed down, though, their cultural invasion is proceeding. This is not a mission of conquest for them – it’s a homecoming. With the soldiers and damane are also coming farmers and weavers and blacksmiths – normal people who want to make a new life for themselves. With the Westlands practically empty as they are, the Seanchan will have no trouble finding places to live. Right in time for the Last Battle against the Dark One, of course, but they don’t know about that yet. Regardless of how things turn out, the Westlands will never be the same after this.

Rand al’Thor is on a mission of his own, one which involves a great deal of misdirection. After the attack on his person by renegade Asha’man – in which a chunk of the Sun Palace in Cairhien was destroyed and a lot of people died – Rand has decided that enough is enough. This whole “doomed to go mad” thing that comes part and parcel with being a male channeler of the Source has got to go. So yes, he’s decided to cleanse saidin of the Dark One’s taint, but not before taking a detour into the island city-state of Far Madding, to hunt down the men who nearly killed him.

What can I say – the story advances. The plotlines being what they are, we do miss out a bit in this book. Perrin’s hunt for his wife gets cut short, narrative-wise, and we hardly see anything at all of Egwene and the rebel Aes Sedai. This was, if I remember, really annoying when the book first came out. Reading them all at once, however, it’s easier to deal with, knowing that the next book will refocus on people who’ve been out of the spotlight for a while. The parts that did get the most page-time, however, were interesting and, for the most part, exciting to read. So, a step up from Path of Daggers.

—————————————————
“You can never know everything, and part of what you know is always wrong. Perhaps even the most important part. A portion of wisdom lies in knowing that. A portion of courage lies in going on anyway.”
– Lan Mandragoran, Winter’s Heart
————————————————–

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Winter’s Heart at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Winter’s Heart at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 202: Time Traveler

Time Traveler by Ronald Mallett, with Bruce Henderson

There are a lot of reasons to want to build a time machine. To learn the truth about historical places and events, to see creatures that have been extinct for millions of years, to kill Hitler – always a favorite. You could go to the Library of Alexandria and save the works of great scientists and philosophers that have been lost to history. You could document the Crucifixion or watch the fall of Rome first-hand. You could see Jimi or Elvis or Janice or Kurt in their heyday, watch the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, or talk engineering with DaVinci. With a time machine, the whole of history is open to you, and your options are just about limitless.

All Ron Mallett wanted to do with his time machine was see his dad.

Mastering time travel is easier if you have several lifetimes.

This book is not just about how one man went about figuring out how to travel through time. That in itself would be interesting, since time travel has been a dream of mankind ever since we figured out that time was a thing. There’s a lot of complicated science that goes into not just manipulating time, but figuring out that it can be manipulated, and it takes half a lifetime to master. A lot of popular science books focus on the science, unsurprisingly, and talk about how certain things were discovered and what can be done with them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but this book adds an extra element that’s often missing from other popular science texts. It talks about why.

When Ron Mallett was ten years old, his father died of a heart attack brought about by a combination of smoking, poor dietary choices, and a genetic inclination towards heart problems. Overnight, the man that young Ron loved and idolized was gone, leaving him directionless at an age when having a father can be so very important. With the loss of a beloved parent, it’s entirely possible that Ron could have seen his life crippled from that day onward.

It might have been, if not for H.G. Wells and his famous book, The Time Machine.

After he read this book, the notion that time could be navigated became the center of his life. His first attempt at a time machine – built of pipes and wires in his basement – was unsuccessful, of course. But he was undeterred, and realized that if he was going to make this dream come true, he would have to buckle down and start learning some science. Just the idea that he might one day build a machine to travel through time was enough to give him direction and purpose, and it set him on a course that would go on to define his life.

If he manages to make this work, the UCONN Velociraptors will be unstoppable!

The book is a memoir of his own travels through the world of physics and relativity, moving from one point to another as new ideas and discoveries signposted his route towards a theory of time travel. Initially guided by Einstein, Mallett went from being a young academic to programming computers for the Air Force, to becoming a full-fledged academic at the University of Connecticut. He makes sure that the reader can not only follow all the steps that he took, but that we can also see why he took them. What chance encounters and lucky finds pushed him forward, or what unfortunate incidents slowed him down. He reminds us all throughout the book of why he has chosen to do science, and never lets us forget this motivation.

At the same time, he is sure to tell us about two rather significant obstacles to his progress. The first, of course, was that he felt he couldn’t be honest about why he was studying what he was studying – relativity, black holes, lasers, that kind of thing. For fear that he would be labeled a crackpot and denied the opportunities he would need, he revealed his ambition to build a time machine only to those he felt he could absolutely trust. As far as anyone else was concerned, of course, he was just another theoretical physicist trying to figure out how the universe worked.

The other challenge he faced was that he was African-American in a field that was very, very white at the time. He had to deal with racism in both its overt and covert forms, and work even harder to prove himself to those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see past his skin color. He doesn’t dwell on it in this book, since that’s not what this book is about. But I’m sure if he wanted to write about what it was like trying to break into physics academia as an African-American in the 60s and 70s, he probably could.

Ladies and gentlemen, the father of time travel.

What’s most important, though, is that he continually reminds us of why he’s doing what he’s doing. He talks about his father, and the memories he had of him. He keeps his non-academic life in view, letting us in on his personal triumphs and failures, his struggles with depression and his joys at advancing towards his goal. The end result is a book that is not only about science, but about a person. The emotional thread that runs through this book is strong, and even if you can’t quite follow the science, you can still follow the passion that Ron Mallett has for this project.

The book, while fascinating, is technically unfinished. He has yet to build his time machine, and there’s no proof that the ideas he’s come forward with will actually work, even if the math says they should. As the book finishes, he has a plan, and he lays out the way he thinks his machine should work, but we’ll have to wait to see how that works out. Whether he succeeds or fails, though, he has built up a lifetime of research that has expanded our understanding of space and time in such a way that Einstein – and Ron Mallett’s father – would no doubt be proud of.

——————
“Time stopped for me in the middle of the night on May 22, 1955.”
– Ron Mallett, “Time Traveler”
——————

Ron Mallett on Wikipedia
Time Traveler on Amazon.com
Ron Mallett’s UCONN homepage

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Filed under autobiography, nonfiction, physics, quest, Ron Mallett, school, time travel

Review 201: Unseen Academicals

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate sports.

I know this may come as a surprise, since I studiously avoid all but the most cursory acknowledgment of current sporting events. I finish the paper when I hit the sports section, and the sport report on the news is, for me, time to wash the dishes. I have no favorite teams of any kind, no players I look up to, and no interest in following play-offs, bowl games, championships or derbys. Hell, even with the Olympics my interest plummets after the opening ceremonies.

But I don’t hate sports.

You see, in order to hate something, you have to actually care about it. And that’s the thing about sports – I just don’t care.

There but for the grace of god go I…

I wasn’t always like this, of course. When I was a kid, I tried all kinds of sports. I tried (deep breath) baseball, basketball, skiing, swimming, sailing, soccer, tennis, golf and judo. And those were after school. In PE class we had all the usual PE things – volleyball, softball, track and field, running, archery, field hockey, dodgeball…. What it came down to was that I had no natural talent for sports [1] and, more importantly, I never had fun. I never saw the point of the whole thing, so I pretty much said “Bugger this,” and turned to other areas of entertainment, thereby sealing off the sporting world from my interest forever.

A lot of my friends do love their sports, though, so I try to keep a cursory understanding of things – you know, how many touchdowns there are in an inning, that kind of thing. I mean, there’s nothing more disappointing than trying to talk about something you love, something for which you have great passion and enthusiasm and having someone just ignore you, right?

RIGHT??

Anyway, I’m telling you all this so that you can correct for it when I tell you about Unseen Academicals, one of the latest of the Discworld books. If my attitude seems kind of lackluster or disinterested, keep in mind that it’s probably not Sir Terry’s fault.

The book, you see, is about football. Not the sissy-pants American kind where the guys are so afraid of grievous bodily harm that they wear protective armor all the time, but the good, old-fashioned British kind, wherein people get their heads cracked open by cobblestones and die on the streets. You know, fun for the whole family.

I believe the English refer to this as “a jolly good time.”

In the great and exciting city of Ankh-Morpork, footy is a tradition. It’s a lifestyle, in fact. Where you live determines who your team is, and who your team is tells you with whom you can associate and mingle. A supporter of one team wandering into the territory of another is a person asking to be beaten to death by enthusiastic and drunk hooligans. “Suicide,” I believe the police refer to it as. It’s a game that goes beyond the simple description of “rough and tumble.” It’s a substitute for war in a time where war is neither profitable nor productive. It’s a channel for long-standing feuds and grudges and aggressions, and is practiced religiously in the streets of the city every weekend.

So obviously what this grand, injurious tradition needs, then, is the introduction of wizardry.

The wizards of the Unseen University are forced, through a clause in a long-forgotten honorarium, to put together a football team and play a match. Despite most wizards having the athletic ability of an overstuffed beanbag chair, it’s either play the game or lose so much money that they’ll have to cut down to only three meals a day. So, with the help of the son of one of the greatest footballers in the city’s history, two cooks from the Night Kitchen and a young Orc who is trying to find value in his life, they put together a team and oh gods, I’m bored already.

Seriously, I couldn’t care less about football. The book’s not really even about football, to be honest. It’s about identity and self-image, two things that are inextricably tied up in sports and sports fandom. The book is a lot less subtle than usual, pretty much hitting you over the head with a mallet and saying, “You are who you choose to be!!” over and over again.

Actually, what gets said over and over again is a variation on “A leopard can’t change its shorts,” a kind of humorous eggcorn that loses its humorous value after about the fifth time it gets used in the book. But it’s pretty much the theme of the book – what is identity, and can it be changed?

How… romantic?

To explore this, we have, for example, Trevor Likely, the son of a famous (dead) footballer who has sworn to his (also dead) mother that he will never play football again after what happened to his father. He’s introduced as a young layabout, a lazy grifter who works very hard at not having to work, and desperately doesn’t want to live up to his responsibilities. Unfortunately for him , he falls in love with young Juliet, a beautiful – if somewhat dim – young woman who works in the Night Kitchen. Standing in the way of their love, however, is the fact that they support opposing teams, and her family would never allow her to see the young man if they knew.

Hmmm. Trev and Juliet. Doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

Also mixed up in this is Glenda, the head of the Night Kitchen, whose identity as a below-the-stairs cook is so ingrained into her head that trying to become something else is almost unthinkable. The wizards themselves face an identity crisis as well – the Dean has gone off and accepted the Archchancellor’s position at another university, and has now come back to try and stand as an equal to Ridcully, the head of the Unseen University.

At the center of the book is Nutt, a strange young person who possesses a mysterious past. He looks a little odd, has an enormous intelligence, and harbors an unshakable desire to acquire self-worth, even if he’s not entirely sure what that means.

All of these people are trying to figure out the same thing – who they are. Some of them are surprised by what they find, others dismayed. Nutt discovers that he is an Orc, a race of creatures so hated and reviled that he could be killed on sight. Juliet discovers that her beauty is her path out of the kitchens, Glenda that her desire to control others can be focused into something productive, and Trevor that the destiny he has avoided for so long is what he always should have been.

Threaded throughout all this is the love of the game, the dedication of these people to their football. Indeed, the identity of the game itself comes into play here as well – will it remain a violent street game, wherein the only rule is that there are no rules, or will it gain a sense of purpose and order? How will the old-school, bare-knuckle footy fans deal with the changes imposed upon their game by Lord Vetinari and the Wizards?

He’s really just misunderstood.

It’s hard for me to filter through the sports aspect of this book, which is disappointing because it’s something that a lot of people will probably enjoy. There’s something about the devotion to a sport or to a team that is very important to most people that I just don’t get, and so my general lack of interest in this book is entirely my fault, and not Terry’s. I enjoyed the identity theme, of course – that’s always a rich seam of storytelling material. Watching Nutt come to grips with his identity as an Orc, or Glenda realize that her entire sense of self has been culturally imposed upon her, well, that was fascinating. It’s just that there was a whole thematic element to the book that I couldn’t identify with and didn’t care about.

It’s kind of like listening to Mozart and wishing someone would just shut all those bloody violins up.

So, if you’re a fan of Discworld, pick this up. If you like sports, pick this up. If you don’t like sports, well, you take your chances. As a Pratchett completist, there was no question about reading this book. But I don’t think it’ll be one that I come back to very often.

It’s not you, Terry. It’s me.

——————————————————————
“It seems to me that we have a challenge. University against university. City, as it were, against city. Warfare, as it were, without the tedious necessity of picking up all those heads and limbs afterwards.”
– Lord Vetinari, Unseen Academicals
——————————————————————

Now give me one of these…

[1] I think I made it to first base once in my Little League career, and actually got hit on the head by a fly ball – which, I am given to understand, are the easiest to catch. I nearly drowned myself repeatedly trying to learn how to sail. I used to knock myself over trying to kick goals in soccer, my trick ankles pretty much meant that tennis and basketball and any other activity involving quick stops and starts were out, and I got tired of being thrown to the ground real fast in judo. If there was ever such thing as an anti-athlete, I was it. I feared to shake hands with the jocks because I thought we’d both vanish in a cloud of photons.

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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, identity, sports, Terry Pratchett

Review 200: I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High by Tony Danza

If you’re my age [1], the first thing you think about when you hear Tony Danza’s name is the show Who’s The Boss? Honestly, I remember nearly nothing about that show except that it was set in Connecticut (which I only remember because that’s where I was living when it was on) and that Danza played some kind of live-in… servant? Housekeeper? For a divorced career woman?

Hold on, let me check Wikipedia to see if I even got that much right.

I did? Oh, good.

I really have no memory of this show. That might not be a bad thing.

Anyway, Danza kind of slipped out of my cultural viewfinder for a long while, so I was surprised to hear that he had not only written a book, but had done a stint as a teacher in a Philadelphia high school. Being a teacher myself, I was interested to see what his impressions were. He was, after all, coming to it from a very different background than most teachers, and with a different set of perspectives. On top of that, he had been convinced to do it as part of an A&E reality show – something I certainly don’t approve of. Not just because the business of running a reality show would interfere with the class, or because they take work away from actors like my brother [2], but because I think reality shows are a scourge upon modern television.

After going through training and orientation, Danza was put in charge of a double-period English class in Northeast High School in Philadelphia. It’s a huge public school – about 3,600 students – and is made up of kids from radically diverse backgrounds. Some kids were motivated and hard-working, others saw school as an imposition on their lives. Some kids had stable, supportive families, some kids were being bounced from foster home to foster home. To say that Danza had his work cut out for him would be an understatement. He not only had to find ways to engage the students (a buzz-phrase that he – and every other teacher – would come to resent at some level) and make sure they were all committed to their education, but also handle the byzantine bureaucracy that comes with running a school, the politics of the teachers’ office, union issues, getting parents involved, and negotiating the complex moods and interrelationships of hundreds of teenagers. He very quickly learned that being a teacher not only involves a significant investment of time and energy, but also of emotion.

And this is all I remember about “Of Mice and Men.”

Reading through the book, there were a lot of moments where I nodded in complete understanding. Like Danza, I teach literature in a couple of my classes. He was working on making Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird relatable to his students through constant activities and lecture sessions. I do the same with the books I teach. I might have the kids work on a timeline, or produce a short skit based on the story. They might make a poster or even a movie, if we have the time and the ideas for it.

He often runs afoul of the basic principles of being a teacher in such a large community. For example, there’s a section where he takes the students on a field trip to Washington D.C. It’s a wonderful excursion and the kids have a great time, but when he returns he gets a wrist-slapping because he hadn’t notified any of the kids’ other teachers that they would be gone. As far as the rest of the school was concerned, the kids had skipped class. Danza’s response was, “Well, I just assumed…” And that’s where I felt very close kinship with him. One of the things I learned very, very fast when I started this job was to assume nothing. And that’s hard to do, because the school assumes everything.

In another section, the school is practicing for the big achievement tests that will basically determine the school’s status as a failing or a successful school. During one of the tests he’s proctoring, Danza goes out to get more calculators, and is immediately ripped into by the teacher who’s running the test. This teacher says that if it had been the real test, Danza’s carelessness could have invalidated the whole thing, costing the school time and money, and running the risk of making it a “Renaissance School” (a nice euphemism for a school that’s failing so hard it has to be gutted and re-staffed from top to bottom.) My first thought when I read that was that the teacher in charge clearly didn’t communicate the testing protocols clearly enough – he just assumed every teacher would know what to do.

Oh. An apple. Thanks, that makes everything better.

I think a large reason for this is because of the incredible investment in mental and emotional energy that every teacher must make if they’re going to do their jobs properly. As human beings with puny human meat brains, there are only so many things we can keep track of at any given time, and for most teachers their students occupy the largest chunk of that attention. When you’re thinking about a hundred kids or more, invested in the success or failure of each and every one of them, remembering who does and who doesn’t know about some administrative detail is pretty far down on your list of things to care about. Near the end of the book, when Danza was asked if he would be interested in coming back the next year, he said, “At my age, I’m not sure I want to care this much about anything.” And the teacher he’s talking to just smiles and says, “That’s what it takes.”

And it’s true, that is what it takes. No one else would do it otherwise. Throughout the book, Danza looks at the reality of his colleagues’ lives and compares it to the public perception of teachers in the media of the day. The fact is that teachers are in incredible positions of responsibility, yet they don’t gain nearly as much respect and admiration (and money) as they deserve. When the students succeed, people praise their parents and their homes. When they fail, they blame the teachers, or call them “glorified babysitters.” Programs like No Child Left Behind added to the already unbearable burdens of teachers by creating the constant threat of unemployment should the schools not pass a set of standardized tests that may or may not have anything to do with what the kids are already learning.

You forgot your homework? I can’t work like this! I’ll be in my trailer!!

I could go on, but I won’t, since I have another blog where I bitch and moan about things that make me angry. What I will leave with is this – Danza did this as part of a reality show, one that was just as massaged, ordered, and manipulated as any other, though perhaps a little less than most. He was luckier than most at Northeast – only two classes a day instead of five, and he got the room with air conditioning, thanks to the influence of his network. His kids were chosen for the class, and he did the job without the threat of his career being brought to an ignominious end by some bureaucratic federal process. His experience was in no way representative of the other teachers at Northeast High or in fact many other teachers around the world.

All that said, however, it is clear on every page of this book that he cared deeply about the kids in his class and their progress. He cared about how the school worked, about how the other teachers viewed him, and about how the parents were – or were not – involved in their children’s lives. He almost immediately identifies and begins to struggle with one of the hardest problems in teaching – how to make the kids understand that they must be invested in their education. As easy as it is to tell a teacher that he or she must “engage the students,” it is just as important that the students engage themselves. Throughout the book, Danza looks for ways to do this, and it’s a constant theme.

I also don’t wear a tie – but I do wear a cardigan, so it balances out.

I finished the book with no doubt in my mind that Danza did the project in good faith and with full devotion to duty, just as any other first-year teacher would have done. He struggled and triumphed just as any teacher would do, and his sincerity comes across on every page. The title, too, resonated with me immediately, since that’s exactly what I thought when I started teaching. On top of all that, he cries almost constantly, something I’ve never done in my career, so he’s one up on me.

It’s a fast read, and very familiar to anyone who’s become a teacher or knows a teacher, no matter where you are. Plus, there are a ton of ideas to steal, which is a tradition amongst teachers around the world, so I’m grateful for that.

——
“Teachers and students need help, not accusations and pay cuts. They need to be a national priority, not an experiment stuck into a late time slot and then canceled for underperforming.”
– Tony Danza, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

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[1] ThirtyCOUGHCOUGHCOUGH
[2] What, me? Oversensitive? Never…

—-
Tony Danza on Wikipedia
I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had on Amazon.com
Tony Danza’s homepage

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Filed under education, memoir, nonfiction, school, teaching, teenagers, television, Tony Danza

Review 199: The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

I have two words for you: Ninja. Priests.

There you go, that should really be enough for you to go out and buy this book. I suppose if you need more, though, there is a whole “plot” and “world” and “characters” and stuff. But even Jemisin says that the initial idea that got her started writing was ninja priests, and everything else just kind of built up from there.

Welcome, then, to the great land of Gujaareh, a land not entirely unlike our own ancient Egypt. It rests alongside a great river that floods periodically and brings great wealth and prosperity to the land. The whole world lives in the shadow of their great, striated Dreaming Moon, the perpetual manifestation of their goddess, Hananja. In this city, people live healthy, productive lives, and it is all thanks to Hananja’s devoted priesthood and their arts of narcomancy.

Not this kind of ninja priest, though…

The Gatherers of Hananja are able to take dreamstuff from sleeping people, either willingly or otherwise, and their most honored task is to take from those whom their governing council have decided need to die. The terminally ill, perhaps, or the corrupt – these are the ones whom the Gatherers visit, giving them a final dream before sending their soul into the dreaming world embodied by their goddess.

Ehiru is the best of these Gatherers, a man with a deft touch and absolute devotion to his cause. He is told to gather and he gathers, bringing back the various dreamstuffs to the temple, where the Sharers can use it to heal the afflicted of Gujaareh. Indeed, until now, Ehiru has never questioned his place in the world. But he soon finds himself wrapped in a terrible conspiracy that threatens to upend everything he’s ever believed in, and may turn him into that which he has always despised.

It’s a really neat idea, with some very powerful characters and a well-built world. Clearly, Jemesin holds this world clearly in her mind when she writes, because the detail she gives, down to the smells and the surfaces, paint a wonderful picture. That said, though, this book didn’t really come together for me until about two hundred pages in.

Or a Magic Eye picture. I hate those things. Stupid sailboat…

I’m not sure why that was. Maybe I’m so deeply mired in the Alternate Europe mode of fantasy fiction that my brain had trouble adjusting to the deliberately different world that Jemesin built. Maybe she knows the world so well that she made certain assumptions about it that the reader – or at least this reader – couldn’t readily put together. All I know is that I spent a good portion of the book trying to keep everything in order in my head. It was like doing one of those sliding-piece puzzles: immensely frustrating until you finally get a good idea of how it all works.

Before you despair, however, note that number again: 200 pages. You would think that if a book baffled me for a while, I would probably put it down, but the fact that I was willing to keep going that far through my bafflement really does say a lot about the work that Jemesin did. The characters are interesting, and their relationships are intense – none more so than that between Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri. While Jemesin states clearly that the people of her world aren’t really concerned with labeling and compartmentalizing sexuality, Nijiri is definitely gay, and he is madly in love with his mentor, to the point where he is willing to give up his life to save him.

The Prince is another good example of an interesting and complicated character. The Sunset Prince, avatar of Hananja, gives off Bad Guy Vibes from the moment we meet him. There’s something about him as soon as he appears on the page that says he’s going to be trouble by the end of the book. Despite that, you can kind of see where he’s coming from, and you see the logic he’s working from. It’s deranged, yes, but in a very specific sort of way it makes sense.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is that it presents contrasting and incompatible cultural values with a sense of honesty and truth. The formalized execution/euthanasia that the Gatherers of Gujaareh perform is considered by their own people to be the best way to handle things. After all, why suffer in agony when Ehiru can come along and drop you into a pleasant dream for all eternity?

Not unlike the Cola Wars, but with less moral ambiguity… (photo by caycowa on DeviantArt)

On the other hand, Sunandi Jeh Kalawe is of the Kisuati, and they view the Gatherer’s narcomancy as a horrible power and their “gifts” as nothing short of institutionalized murder. The characters argue over this repeatedly in the book, and the best that comes of it is a certain mutual understanding. Not an agreement, mind you – neither viewpoint is either affirmed or torn down, but they eventually get to a point where they can start to see through the other’s eyes.

So as I said, it took about 200 pages for things to really click for me, but it was worth it when they did. Also, there’s a very funny author interview at the end where Jemesin is given the rare opportunity to interview herself. Definitely not to be missed. This is a really interesting world built on unique and fantastic concepts. There are more, too, which I’ll be looking forward to reading at some point in the future.

—————–
“You kill, priest. You do it for mercy and a whole host of other reasons that you claim are good, but at the heart of it you sneak into people’s homes in the dead of night and kill them in their sleep. This is why we think you strange – you do this and you see nothing wrong with it.
– Sunandi, The Killing Moon

N.K. Jemesin on Wikipedia
The Killing Moon on Wikipedia
The Killing Moon on Amazon.com
N.K. Jemesin’s homepage

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Filed under fantasy, murder, N.K. Jemesin, religion, war

Review 198: The Path of Daggers (Wheel of Time 08)

Wheel of Time 08: The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

Again, spoilers. Just putting that out there.

I knew I shouldn’t have left off reviewing this for a few days. I have almost forgotten what happened in this book.

Oh, I know the events that transpired – Borderland kings and queens assembling to deal with Rand in some mysterious way; the using of the Bowl of the Winds to finally change the weather – and the terrible bargain that it fulfills between the Sea Folk and the Aes Sedai; the second invasion of the Seanchan from across the sea, this time into Ebou Dar; Perrin building his army to bring the violent Dragonsworn who follow The Prophet back to Rand….

And that’s all just in the first ten chapters.

It’s not a matter of, as is so often complained about, “nothing happening” – plenty happens in this book. In fact, a lot of what happens in this book directly sets up the rest of the series, and marks some major changes not only in the plot but in the world of the story itself. The problem is that the format of the first half of the series – a reasonably self-contained book that has a clear story climax and some sense of closure by the end – has completely fallen by the wayside. At this point, Jordan is writing for the series as a whole, and has only divided it up into separate volumes because TOR can’t sell it any other way.

Yes, more on political machinations and formalwear. Please.

This does have its advantages, but the disadvantages are greater. So of all the books thus far, I’d have to say that The Path of Daggers is my least favorite. Again – and I want to keep stressing this – not because there’s nothing going on. There’s plenty going on. It’s just not all that easy to keep track of, nor is it necessarily interesting to read.

The worst example of this, I think, is the Seanchan invasion. To catch you up, the Seanchan are an empire that lives in the land across the sea. Descended from the greatest king in history, Artur Hawkwing, they have returned to reclaim their ancestral lands. To do it, they have brought an army that has been trained by a thousand years of battle, creatures that seem like monsters to do their bidding, and leashed women who can wield the One Power as a weapon. Even under normal circumstances, this would be a problem. For Rand, circumstances are far from normal. The Seanchan mark a serious complication in his quest to bring all the nations under his rule in time for the Last Battle, so he has to show them who’s boss.

Surprisingly, with a massive army and a corps of Asha’man – men who can wield the One Power to destructive ends – dealing with the Seanchan becomes a tedious chore to read. Perhaps in an attempt to capture “the fog of war,” Jordan has us jumping from place to place and time to time, from a variety of points of view. What could have been an awesome clash of armies, men and women really going all-out with the One Power in battle for the first time becomes a trial to read. Not least because Rand al’Thor has become a thoroughly unlikable character.

In the middle of the book, Sorilea, the most senior and powerful of the Aiel Wise Ones meets with Cadsuane, an Aes Sedai so formidable that she has become a legend in her own lifetime, and they agree that Rand has become too hard. “Strong endures,” Sorilea says. “Hard shatters.” They vow to teach Rand and the Asha’man to remember laughter and tears, and if you ask me they’re not doing it a minute too soon.

I’m ignoring you for your own good, baby.

Rand is doing his best to harden his heart by this point, and not without reason. He’s got armies at his fingertips, and his decisions will kill a lot of men. He’s got these Asha’man to deal with – men who will inevitably go mad from using the One Power – and he can only bring himself to think of them as weapons. There’s his issue with allowing women to come to harm. Instead of being an endearing (if somewhat chauvinistic) character trait, it just becomes tedious and repetitive. Thankfully, the Maidens of the Spear will later beat the hell out of him for trying to treat them so delicately. In this book, it is almost impossible for me to actually like Rand, and makes me wish that Mat hadn’t been given one book off to recover from having a building dropped on him.

Other than the complete mess that is Rand’s storyline, the rest of the book is actually quite interesting. Elayne has finally come home to Caemlyn and is preparing to take her mother’s place as Queen of Andor. We have the rebel Aes Sedai preparing for all-out war with the White Tower, and Egwene consolidating her hold on the rebels. In the White Tower itself, a hunt for the Black Ajah has begun as Elaida does what little she can to free herself of the influence of her Keeper, Alviarin.

Tell me Joan Crawford wouldn’t be a perfect Elaida.

A word about Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, as an aside. No one likes her, and I can understand why. I don’t like her either, as a person. She’s arrogant to the bone, impatient, self-absorbed, power-hungry, and completely disregards anything that doesn’t conform to what she already believes is true. This mode of thinking leads the White Tower towards utter disaster, from the botched abduction of Rand to the loss of fifty sisters to the Black Tower. Elaida risks being stilled and deposed should the Hall of the Tower find out about her bungling, and she would deserve it, if not more. The only thing keeping her from that fate is the machinations of her Keeper of the Chronicles, who is more than happy to put Elaida under her thumb.

Having said that, it was this book that made her into one of my favorite characters. I still wouldn’t want to sit next to her on a long airplane ride, but what happens to her in this book made me utterly devoted to finding out her ultimate fate in this series.

That pretty much sums it up, actually – taken as a whole, this book is pretty tough to get through and probably the low point in the series, despite having some of the most interesting and pivotal events take place within its pages. How Jordan managed to do this, I’ll never know. All we can do is take the long view – all of this will benefit the series as a whole, if not necessarily the book that contains it.

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“On the heights, all paths are paved with daggers.”
– Old Seanchan saying
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Path of Daggers at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Path of Daggers at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time