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Five Books You Must Read Before I Die!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hey, I didn’t come up with the title.

Just so you know, I don’t plan on dying anytime soon, and this isn’t meant to be a morbid post. A few months ago, I read a book called 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and at the time I thought putting 1000 books on a list like that was obnoxious.

I’ve read more than five books on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. I haven’t counted them, but I know it’s more than five, and I like the number five. If you have an internet list, five is a good number, especially if you’re going to explain each listing. 1001 is way too many for an internet list. Five is way too few for a book.

If you think my title is morbid, remember that I’m not the morbid one. I didn’t come up with the concept of reading a certain number of books before I die. That was somebody else. I even posted the book cover to prove it. I’ve never had an actual book published, so you know that’s not my name on the cover.

To make things easier for potential book readers, I made my own book list, and I think you should read these books before I die because it doesn’t do me any good if you read them after I die. If you read these books after I die, we can’t talk about these books.

I feel uncomfortable telling you that you MUST READ THESE BOOKS BEFORE I DIE. I don’t like bossing people around. Yeah, I was a teacher for 30 years, but I still didn’t enjoy bossing students around. When teaching, I tried the soft approach as much as possible. I never told the students they had to read this book before they died; I just said they had to pretend that they’ve read this book if they wanted to pass my class. I thought it was a fair policy, but some students didn’t even bother to pretend.

Anyway, I have a few guidelines for my FIVE BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE I DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

First, you have a lot of time to read these books. I don’t plan on passing away any time soon. I know things can happen unexpectedly, but I’m not writing this post out because of morbid thoughts.

Also, I’m not including literary fiction. I don’t want anything that can seem pretentious. I’ve chosen five books for their entertainment value only. Even if I thought Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy was a MUST READ BOOK, I wouldn’t include it on the list. What did Leo Tolstoy know about happy families anyway? There were no happy families in 19th century Russia. Tolstoy had no frame of reference for his first sentence in that book.

What I’m trying to say is that every book on my list is schlock, and I know it.

And don’t worry about the consequences. Nothing bad is going to happen to you if you don’t read these books. I’ll never know. When you’re on your death bed (hopefully that won’t be until decades and decades from now), you won’t regret not reading these books. It shouldn’t be on your mind in that situation. You should be happily unaware because of drugs at that point. Again, I’m not trying to be morbid.

Enough explaining! Here are FIVE BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE I DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Different Seasons by Stephen King

I don’t even like reading Stephen King books anymore, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the novellas in this collection. Two of the stories are great (though implausible) and made pretty good movies.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

The dialogue is great. There is too much exposition through dialogue, but that’s true for most mysteries. It’s still very entertaining, and there isn’t any other mystery novel quite like it.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

Yes, The Godfather was a book before it was a bunch of movies. I can’t believe I still have to tell people this. You could watch the first two movies instead of reading the book, but that wouldn’t be reading.

The Warlord Chronicles: The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur by Bernard Cornwell

It’s a trilogy (yawn!), but it’s a real trilogy, not a fake one (if you know what I mean). The first 80 pages of The Winter King might be a little slow, but then… things pick up a little bit.

Marathon Man– by William Goldman

Most readers know William Goldman for The Princess Bride, but I’m partial to Marathon Man. It’s shorter, more fast-paced, and I prefer “Is it Safe?” over “Inconceivable!” WARNING! The Marathon Man movie is so 1970s that it hurts my eyes and ears. You’re better off reading the book.

*****

There you go. These are the FIVE BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE I DIE!!!!!!!!!!! If you want, leave a comment with your FIVE BOOKS I MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE!!!!!!!!!!! I can’t promise that I’ll read all the books (or any of them) on your list, but I won’t think you’re morbid.

What was the deal with…? Bloodstone by Karl Edward Wagner

I’m a cheapskate, and last week I spent $20 on this used paperback copy of Bloodstone by Karl Edward Wagner.

I rarely spend $20 for a single book. I won’t spend it on a brand new hardback, even if it’s on discount. I won’t even spend $20 for a box set of multiple books. But I spent $20 for this beat up paperback copy, and I don’t regret it.

I’ve read Bloodstone three or four times throughout my life. It’s one of my favorite sword & sorcery novels. It’s only about 300 pages. It’s a self-contained novel in a series where you don’t have to read the other books to know what’s going on.

The book isn’t perfect. A couple sections in the second half feel rushed. The descriptions get a little repetitive. Even though the flaws in the writing are noticeable, they weren’t bad enough for me to stop reading.

Anyway, Bloodstone seems like a simplified version of A Game of Thrones. Two cities are manipulated into war, while the instigator gathers the forces of an ancient race to conquer the world. It’s not exactly like A Song of Ice and Fire, but there are some basic similarities.

I know George R.R. Martin has read Bloodstone. I mean, I probably can’t prove it in the courts, but I still know. Anybody who writes sword & sorcery knows Bloodstone. It came out in the 1970s, which was probably the peak for sword & sorcery sales. There’s no way George R.R. Martin didn’t read it.

I’m not saying A Game of Thrones is a Bloodstone rip-off. There are some similarities and parallel thoughts. It’s not a rip-off like The Sword of Shannarra was a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings. If anything, Bloodstone might be considered a rip-off (I use the term ‘rip off’ loosely) of The Lord of the Rings, because it involves an almost all-powerful ring that controls its possessor, but there are no dorky hobbits or elves or dwarves. It’s just humans, sorcery, monsters, and misogyny, everything you need for great sword & sorcery.

Bloodstone is way better than A Song of Ice and Fire simply because it’s done. Karl Edward Wagner actually finished the story. He didn’t get bogged down with adventures of Teres (an interesting character in Bloodstone) or the political rise of Dribek (another interesting character) before he finished the novel. Wagner just told the story and then wrote more books.

Of course, Karl Edward Wagner wrote his books in the 1970s. He didn’t have the internet to distract him every day like George R.R. Martin does now. A few fantasy geeks knew Karl Edward Wagner’s name name, but nobody would have recognized him if they saw him just hanging out at a sci-fi convention.

I still can’t believe I spent $20 on Bloodstone, though. I’m not the only sword & sorcery fan who is aware of Bloodstone. The book pricer at the used book store knew to sell it for $20 in the “Collectibles” section. Most books in that area go for $5, maybe $10. Bloodstone was the highest priced item that wasn’t locked up. According to the price sticker, Bloodstone had been on the shelf for only a few days. If I hadn’t bought it, I’m pretty sure somebody else would have soon.

I had most of Karl Edward Wagner’s books when I was a teenager, and then I sold them on eBay as a collection for a ridiculously high price a few years ago. Back then, I’d take stuff from my book collection and let them sit in a store format at extremely high prices for months at a time. It was a great strategy for cleaning out stuff that I wasn’t going to read anymore because almost everything eventually sold. I emptied out some space in the house, and we paid some bills ahead of time.

Every once in a while, though, I want to reread something that I’ve sold. The good news is that it’s easy to buy stuff back. I probably could have waited and gotten Bloodstone for a cheaper price, but I don’t know. I enjoyed reading it again. Now maybe I’ll sell it again. I think that’s the healthy way to treat books. Instead of having a bunch of old, crusty, yellowed books gathering dust in a closet, I can sell them or lend them out.

Anybody want to buy Bloodstone for $30?

In Defense of the Year 2021

(image via wikimedia)

I feel bad for the year 2021 because almost everybody hates it. I understand that a lot of people had a bad 2021, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame 2021 for being such a bad year. It’s not 2021’s fault. Most of the bad stuff that happened in 2021 started in 2020 and maybe even before that.

I don’t want to call 2021 the WORST YEAR EVER because I know it was a good year for some people. My daughter, for example, had a great year. She graduated from high school, and now she’s thriving in college. She feels like she made the right choice in schools. She’s made a lot of new friends and is doing a bunch of stuff that she enjoys. I don’t want to belittle 2021 when it’s been such a great year for her.

2021 has been a pretty rough year for me, though. My stepdad died in April. My mom died in May. We had to put our dog to sleep in July. A good friend of mine died in October. My uncle died a few weeks ago. That’s a lot of loss in one year. Plus, there was a bunch of family turmoil, some caused by the deaths and some that was just normal stuff that happens in every family.

Even though several friends and family members died in 2021, their deaths were caused by stuff that had happened in previous years (or even previous decades), so I don’t want to scapegoat 2021 for everything bad that happened this year.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe in scapegoating, but I don’t like scapegoating powerless people or entities. 2021 can’t do much to defend itself. If I’m going to scapegoat, I’ll scapegoat the powerful. That’s why I like scapegoating the Ivy League.

I can make the case that most problems today were caused or made worse by somebody who went to an Ivy League school. Ivy Leaguers are powerful people. They can handle being scapegoated. A lot of Ivy Leaguers could have me murdered and get away with it. They could have me murdered and even wipe out any evidence that I had ever existed. That’s how powerful Ivy Leaguers are. They even brag about it. Attaining that kind of power is why they go to Ivy League schools in the first place.

I blame the Ivy League for everything bad that happened in 2021. I like to keep things simple like that. If you went to an Ivy League school, though, I’m not talking about you, and I’m not blaming you. There are always exceptions to stuff like scapegoating. Anybody who reads this blog is okay so that means you’re okay, unless you start leaving condescending comments about how everybody should be grateful for Ivy Leaguers.

Anyway, I’m kind of optimistic. 2022 could be a great year. If so, I’m not going to give sole credit to 2022. If 2022 is awesome, it will be partially because of stuff that happened in 2021, so I’ll want to give 2021 credit for the greatness that might be 2022. But if 2022 is awesome, I won’t give the Ivy League any credit for it. If the Ivy League has anything to do with a great 2022, it will be purely accidental. After all, the Ivy League sucks.

Birth of a Silent Grammar NAZI

(image via wikimedia)

Everybody knows the scene. A kid walks up to a teacher during class and asks:

“Can I use the bathroom?”

The teacher says, “I don’t know… Can you?”

The student sighs and asks, “MAY I use the bathroom?”

The teacher says yes, believing he/she has taught a valuable lesson about the difference between the words ‘can’ and ‘may.’ The student goes to the restroom, glad to get out of the classroom but with the belief that the teacher is a dick. The student most likely never applies the lesson of ‘can’ and ‘may’ to any other future situation that doesn’t involve bathrooms or getting out of class.

I’m going to give myself credit. In my 30 years of teaching, I never responded to a bathroom request with, “I don’t know… Can you?” I wasn’t morally against saying “I don’t know… Can you?” I just saw it as ineffective. Plus, when I made semi-sarcastic remarks to my students, I liked to use my own original material.

Even though I understand the difference between the words ‘can’ and ‘may,’ I’m not a full grammar NAZI! Yes, I understand most sentence structure rules, and I apply them as best as I can when I speak and write. Yes, I notice the grammar and sentence structure mistakes that other people make when they speak or write… but I don’t say anything about them.

To be a complete grammar NAZI, you have to correct people to their faces. I couldn’t take that step outside of the classroom. That’s why I’m not a complete grammar NAZI. I’m only a silent grammar NAZI.

I’m not sure I could be considered a good grammar NAZI anyway. I’m not very good at following orders. NAZIs have to be good at following orders. When a boss gives me an order, I usually get a small detail wrong and mess it up, or I ask so many questions that the boss just gives the work to somebody else.

I understand most grammar rules, though. There’s a logic to the rules, except for the exceptions, which then make the rules interesting. I understand the rules because I had a very thorough 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Reischmann.

Mrs. Reischmann was the first grammar NAZI I ever met. She was tall with short blonde hair. She looked like a female NAZI. She even had the letters R-E-I-C-H in her name. I think she put the ‘S’ in her name to hide her identity, but she couldn’t fool me. She had REICH written all over her.

I don’t remember any specific instances when she corrected my grammar. She probably did. I probably blocked it out of my memory.

Mrs. Reischmann gave me my first ZERO ever in school. That, I remember. Students were to keep a journal with several entries a week, and I’d turned in some half-hearted writing. Each of my entries had been one or two sentences, and that was it. In my defense, she hadn’t given us a word minimum. I was silently outraged when I received my ZERO. I hadn’t even gotten one point for each word. After that, I made sure to fill up the pages in my journal. Maybe her lesson inspired me to be a writer. Maybe it taught me to be long-winded.

Mrs. Reischmann also taught me sentence diagramming. I don’t mean just simple sentences with a prepositional phrase. Reischmann was serious. By the end of the year, I could diagram compound/complex sentences with multiple adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. I could have diagrammed Ulysses by James Joyce. I wouldn’t have understood it, but I could have diagrammed it.

Sentence diagramming seemed pointless at the time. I didn’t enjoy it. I remember complaining about it a lot… at home. We didn’t complain in Mrs. Reischmann’s class. But I never had to be taught grammar again. Over the next few years, whenever we students faced the grammar sections in our English books, I understood everything right away. In college, I gravitated toward the writing and literature classes, and then I became an English teacher.

A few years into my teaching career, I tried to teach sentence diagramming. That was one of my worst mistakes in teaching. Whenever I taught sentence diagramming, students would sneeze and fart. Students could tolerate me teaching many concepts, but not sentence diagramming.

Unfortunately, farting and sneezing are great ways to disrupt class. When you disrupt class with an over dramatic sneeze, you can (lie and) tell the teacher that’s how you always sneeze. When you stink up a class with a fart, you can blame the guy next to you. Even if the fart is a loud juicer, the teacher can’t prove it was you. The teacher might know, but the teacher can’t prove it. There’s no such thing as a fart detector to prove who dealt it. If fart detectors actually existed, schools would buy them up.

I’m stubborn, but I have my limits. I gave up sentence diagramming, and students eased up on the sneezing and farting. Sometimes teachers have to give students their victories. And it was nice to breathe freely in my own classroom again.

I’m glad that I’m not a full grammar NAZI. Since I don’t correct anybody’s grammar, most people can tolerate me, and I get along with almost everybody. I know the difference between the words ‘less’ and fewer’ (not ‘fuhrer’), but I’ve never discussed it with anybody outside of the classroom. I know what a gerund is, but the only person I’ve ever explained it to outside a classroom was my daughter, and when I was done, she said, “That’s it?”

But now she doesn’t remember what a gerund is. I guess she isn’t going to be a grammar NAZI, not even a silent one. It will die in my family bloodlines with me.

Do Bibliophiles Dream of Nothing Books?

It’s kind of dumb to dream about reading. There are a bunch of better things to dream about. I like flying in my dreams. I’ve gotten pretty good at that. I don’t hit buildings or tree branches anymore, and I’ve stuck the landing a few times without breaking any bones. I like dreams where I fly because I can’t fly in real life.

I haven’t had any intense nightmares for a few years. In the past I’ve been stabbed, chased and mauled by wild dogs, fallen from mountainous heights, and I’ve drowned a few times. Drowning was the worst because it was difficult to come out of those dreams. When I got stabbed or mauled, I’d wake up before any damage was done, but with drowning, I already couldn’t breathe, and there were some moments where I knew I was dreaming but still felt like I couldn’t get any air.

I could see myself actually dying because I drowned in a nightmare. Everybody would say I passed away peacefully while sleeping, but I’d know better. I’d be kind of disheartened if my obituary said I’d passed away peacefully in my sleep when I’d really died because I drowned in a nightmare, but I guess there’d be no way to tell anybody. Maybe there is, but it’s probably not worth the price. I wouldn’t want to walk the earth for eternity, bugging everyone that I knew that I’d died because of an intense nightmare. I’d just have to let the false record stand.

The good news is that I’ve been avoiding nightmares recently. I’ve seen the wild dogs in the distance and have avoided them. I’ve shot the guy with the knife a couple times (and he stayed down). I’ve become a better swimmer, and I’ve gotten really good at flying.

But now I can’t read in my dreams. As much as I enjoy reading, I don’t care that much if I can’t read in my dreams. As long as I can read while I’m awake, I’m okay. But still, it’s kind of weird that it keeps happening.

Sometimes the letters in the books are jumbled or unrecognizable. Maybe I’m holding the books upside down. When my grandfather was first being diagnosed for Alzheimers decades ago, the doctor initially thought my grandfather was fine because he was intently reading a book. My grandma had to point out that my grandfather was holding the book upside down. Maybe the doctor should have been tested too.

These reading dreams might be warning me of possible cognitive decline. That would make sense because I fear the cognitive decline more than I fear wild dogs or knives or falling. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to get bitten or stabbed or fall off a mountain, but I can make good decisions to avoid those situations. Cognitive decline? Besides learning a new language every three months and taking a bunch of experimental drugs, there’s not a lot I can do to avoid that.

Now whenever I read, I double check and make sure I’m holding the book correctly. That’s especially true when I get tested at the doctor’s office. If I’m going to cheat on my cognitive tests, the first step is holding the book I’m reading the correct way. I don’t know why I’d want to cheat on the cognitive decline test, though. If my cognitive abilities are declining, I probably should want to know. But maybe successfully cheating on the cognitive decline test means that my cognitive abilities are fine.

Sometimes the books in my dreams are blank. That doesn’t bother me as much because it means that somebody gave me a copy of The Nothing Book. Back in the 1970s, The Nothing Book was a popular scam book. It was like a nice hardbound journal but without lines and margins. I don’t know anybody who ever filled out a Nothing Book. I’m left-handed, so I’d smudge the pages and give up. The Nothing Book was stupid, but I admit that it was a great publishing scam. The Nothing Book was almost as good of a scam as the Pet Rock or the Turd Bird.

If you claim to have filled out an entire copy of The Nothing Book just to be one of those people who likes to prove me wrong, I won’t believe you. I’ll demand proof. And we’ll have to agree ahead of time what successfully completing The Nothing Book actually means. A book of one-word so-called “poems” doesn’t count. Making a flip book movie out of stick figures doesn’t count either. If you complete your copy of The Nothing Book out of spite after you’ve read this blog post, there’s something wrong with you. I’m fine.

Even though I’m making a big deal about this topic now, the dreams where I can’t read don’t bother me that much. I don’t have a desire to read when I’m dreaming. I don’t go to bed every night proclaiming, “I can’t wait to read a bunch of books in my dreams!” I go to bed when I’m too tired to read or write or concentrate on anything else that day. I just think it’s interesting that I can’t read in my dreams, and that’s all. I’m not losing any sleep over it.

The Teacher Dead Pool of Hellhole Middle School

I was ready to quit teaching until I found out I was #1 in the teacher dead pool.

It was 1989. I was 23 years old and in the middle of my first semester of teaching eighth grade English at Hellhole Middle School. The school wasn’t named after anybody named Hellhole. That actually would have been cool. The students called the school a hellhole, so the name Hellhole Middle School just fit.

I know, all students think their schools are hellholes, but this one really was.

The school grounds were surrounded by a ten-foot high chainlink fence topped with wire. The teacher parking lot was was gated shut when school started, but the sidewalk gates were left open, so students could leave and enter campus at will while the teachers were stuck inside.

The school was spread out with four different buildings and lots of space between them and too many places for students to hide. The campus had probably been nice in 1950, but it hadn’t been maintained, and by 1989 it had turned into a hellhole.

The school was considered “academically challenged” in a community with a lot of violence that would often spread onto the campus. There would be two or three fights every day. A large percentage of students were too old to be there, with a range of 17-year old eighth graders and 10-year old sixth graders. The hallways were always crowded, even during class. Teachers weren’t allowed to lock their classroom doors, so students in the hallway would fling open the doors, yell something profane or insulting, and then run, and then students in the classroom would run out into the hallways.

I won’t get into all my classroom struggles, but I was having a disastrous rookie year. I was young for a teacher, I didn’t fit in demographically, and I wasn’t used to a constantly high-charged environment. And every once in a while, kids in my classroom would out of nowhere say to me:

“You’re next, Mister.”

I had no idea what they were talking about. It would happen a few times each week in different classes with different students. It was kind of annoying. Nobody would tell me what they meant by it. This went on for weeks and then months.

“You’re next, Mister.”

What was that supposed to mean? Nobody would tell me.

One day I was passing out packets and a burly kid said to me,” You’re next, Mister.”

“Your mom’s next,” I replied and walked off.

The class jeered the kid way too loudly, and he looked like he wanted to fight me, but he stayed in his desk, and I waited for the noise to subside naturally before I continued class. I didn’t win many exchanges in those days, so I let the moment last.

My sixth period class finally told me about the teacher dead pool one day in November. That class was the most challenging, but they were funny when their energy was directed the right way. I think it was a Friday, and I’d gone easy on the classroom assignments for a couple days, and in a moment of weakness they decided to tell me what was going on.

The teacher dead pool had been going on since school started in late August, they said. Students were betting on which teacher they could run out next. Classes took pride in running off their teachers. Not every teacher was in the dead pool; it was reserved for new teachers, teachers who didn’t demographically fit in, and extremely unpleasant teachers. Being #1 meant that I was considered the teacher most likely to get run off. “You’re next,” meant that students had bet on me to quit next.

I’d been #1 on the list since the beginning of the year, but I hadn’t quit. Not yet. Meanwhile, a bunch of other teachers ranked below me had already been run off:

* One teacher had quit mid-day in September without telling anyone. The school staff spent that afternoon searching lockers, just in case he’d been knocked unconscious and stuffed inside. We found out later that he’d called for a ride from the front office and had walked out a student gate with a bunch of skippers after first lunch.

* Three teachers quit on the same Friday later that month.

* One teacher faked an injury while breaking up a hallway fight and tried to collect a settlement from the district, so he was gone.

*One female teacher yelled at her seventh period class that EVERYBODY IN THIS ROOM HAS DETENTION EVERY DAY NEXT WEEK!!!! The class cheered, and she never came back.

* Another first-year teacher declared that these were the worst kids he’d ever taught. I told him, to be fair, it was his first year teaching, so these were also the best kids he’d ever taught. That guy didn’t show up the next day. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut.

* A bunch of other teachers whom I don’t remember dropped out just because.

By the end of November, I was one of three dead pool survivors and the only one who didn’t demographically fit the school. One was a woman who had grown up in the area. Once students realized that, they dropped her from the dead pool. The other was a young guy who demographically fit the school but took everything the students did personally. He was planning to quit at the end of the semester and find another job during the Christmas break.

I thought about quitting at the end of the semester too. Every surrounding suburban school district would have understood my reasons. They would have respected a guy who’d gone a full semester at Hellhole Middle School. But that dead pool ticked me off. I didn’t want to reward students who were betting on me to fail. And I didn’t want to merely be the last teacher to get run off; I wanted to beat the teacher dead pool, and to do that, I had to go the full year.

I had a couple advantages over the other fallen teachers. I was a tall male. I wasn’t confrontational, so I usually didn’t escalate bad situations. I had a sense of humor. I didn’t take things personally. I was disliked by a lot of students but not universally hated. In teaching, there’s a huge difference between being disliked and being universally hated.

To be honest, in order to survive that first year, I had to do a bunch of stuff that the other teachers weren’t willing or able to do:

* I found one assistant principal who agreed to help me with a few of the most disruptive students.

* I talked the front office secretary into making class sets of copies for me every day after school so that I wouldn’t have to use the time-consuming leaky purple ink mimeoograph.

* I actively asked for advice from all the experienced teachers who would talk to me.

* I tried almost every strategy that was suggested to me; most of them weren’t effective for me, but I’d occasionally find something that worked for me, and I added it to my small but growing list of worthwhile classroom activities.

* When I failed students for a grading period, I’d give them a high failing grade like a 65, so that they’d be able to recover ground later in the year.

Things started to come together for me during the second semester. A bunch of new replacement teachers got targeted in the teacher dead pool instead of me, and I was usually left alone. Nobody was saying “You’re next, Mister,” anymore. I kind of missed it. I don’t know; maybe I liked the attention.

At some point, it became obvious that I’d make it to the end of the school year. Once those 8th graders realized that I wasn’t leaving and that they had to pass my English class to get out of Hellhole Middle School, their attitudes changed, and my classes calmed down and became productive.

One day in April, some kid from my rough 6th period blurted out, “This feels like a real class now.”

“Damn right it’s a real class,” I said. “Now shut up and get back to work.”

I could get away with saying stuff like that by then.

Don’t get me wrong: I was no Jaime Escalante. We didn’t cover four years of material in the last two months of school. We covered maybe two months of material in the last two months, but that was considered pretty good at Hellhole Middle School.

I was the only teacher to survive both semesters of the teacher dead pool at Hellhole Middle School that year. As we teachers on the after-school ramp duty watched that last school bus exit campus in early June of 1990, I felt a twinge of disappointment. I should have gotten a plaque for surviving the dead pool. Then I realized I was about to get something even better, a summer break. I felt pretty good about things.

“Hey, Mister!”

I saw an unfamiliar kid in the back of the bus sticking his hand out and flipping me off, and I heard a bunch of kids cheering him on.

It wasn’t a plaque, but at least it was recognition.

The Ugly American by… maybe it’s a MUST READ book!

The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick is one of the best books that I’ve read in a while. I’m not going to do a synopsis of the book because you can get that anywhere, but The Ugly American meets a lot of my criteria.

The book is short, at just over 200 pages.

My copy of The Ugly American was cheap. I bought this old paperback for $3.00 at a used book store. I know the price of a book doesn’t really affect its quality, but not paying much makes me feel pretty good about it. Plus, the book was in great condition for its age, and I didn’t mess it up when I read it.

Even though The Ugly American was written in 1958, it predicts a lot of what would happen with United States involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. Most analysis about the Vietnam War was written after it happened, but here is a 1958 novel that lays out exactly what not to do, and then the United States did a lot of what the authors said not to do.

The title The Ugly American has more than one meaning, which is always good for a book title. For example, a couple key chapters are about an American who was described as literally ugly. He had an ugly wife too. You should never call a guy’s wife ugly, though. You can think it, but you shouldn’t say it, and you definitely shouldn’t put that in a book.

Yeah, I know the ugly American’s ugly wife was a fictional character, but still… I don’t think the authors should have hurt her feelings like that.

I don’t make BOOKS YOU MUST READ lists, but if I did, The Ugly American would probably be on it. I don’t even plan on traveling to foreign countries, and I still think it’s a cool book. I heard the movie sucks, though. I’m not going to watch the movie just to verify that it sucks. I’m just going to assume that it sucks.

Even if the movie sucks (and it probably does), I still think The Ugly American might qualify as a MUST READ BOOK, if such a category exists. I don’t think a bad movie based on a good book should ruin the good book’s reputation.

I know I have to be careful when recommending books. Some people have a natural inclination to dislike a book when it’s recommended. That initial response is even worse for a MUST READ book. The worst, however, is when a book is assigned reading. I was an English teacher (in a somewhat previous life), and whenever I had to assign a book to students, most of them would automatically hate the book before they even knew the title. To be fair, some of those books deserved to be hated, but some good books didn’t stand a chance.

I’m the same way. I still dislike The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. They’re probably good books, but they were assigned reading when I was in high school. I can overlook a bad movie based on a good book, but assigned reading is tough. A book has to be almost flawless to withstand the stigma of being assigned.

I like The Ugly American so much that I would never have assigned it to my students. I might put it on my nonexistent MUST READ BOOKS list, but damn, the authors called the ugly guy’s wife ugly. That still seems pretty harsh.

Return of the Lonely, Awkward Book Signing

(image via wikimedia)

The first thing I saw when I walked into the book store was a guy trying to sell his novel. He had a table set up just inside the entrance of the book store, and he greeted me with a smile and a cheerful voice. He asked me something like if I would want to buy his book or talk about his book or if I would look at his book. I don’t know how he phrased it, but I knew I didn’t want to look at his book.

It had been a while since I’d seen a lonely author book signing. I used to see them frequently a few years ago. Back then, I treated lonely book signings like mall kiosks salespeople; I just didn’t make eye contact. Then the pandemic hit, and book stores closed down for a while. Then the book stores slowly reopened but did extreme social distancing. Now the lonely, awkward book signings have returned.

I felt bad for the author. His book was a hardback with a decent cover. Whether or not he used his own money, I don’t know, but somebody had invested in that book. Things didn’t look good for him, though. It was mid-afternoon, and the stack of books looked pretty tall, and customers were steering clear.

As I analyzed the author from a distance, I noticed that his book had a niche topic. I won’t get into it, but the book probably appeals only to a small percentage of a certain kind of nerd. Plus, the author seemed uncomfortable. He tried to be charming with customers when they wandered too close to his orbit, but it seemed forced.

I was torn. Maybe I should have talked to the guy. Then again, I try to avoid as many awkward situations as I can. Plus, I didn’t want to give the author false hope. He might still do okay with his book. He just won’t be successful at that kind of book store.

The thing is, I might have to do my own book signing in about a year. I don’t want to, and I might not do one, but I might.

After all, I’m a former English teacher. Of course I’m writing a book. Every English teacher wants to write a book. I want to have at least one real book with my name on it. I’ve written a few ebooks, but I don’t count those. I think of them as practice. My ebooks are okay, but they’re flawed.

If I do a book signing, I think I’ll do a silent book signing. Customers wouldn’t have to talk to me. I would be glad to talk to them, but I wouldn’t initiate the conversations. That’s how I am most of the time. I rarely start conversations, but I’ll gladly talk to you if you initiate.

Instead of ambushing customers as they walk in, I’d sit quietly at the table with signs about my book posted throughout the store. My book has a good title. My book has a good premise. It should have general appeal with a niche element that makes it unique.

Or I could get an extrovert to do my talking for me. I have a couple charming friends. If I can’t get one of them to stand by me and talk up my book, I can pay somebody charming to stand next to me and pitch my book. This is my one book. If I do a book signing, I’ll go all-out.

I like these possible book signing ideas. I might not sell many books either way, but at least I won’t be responsible for a lonely, awkward book signing.

Literary Glance: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr took seven years to write Cloud Cuckoo Land. Maybe he didn’t really take seven years. Maybe he goofed off for six years and then wrote really hard for one year. That’s the thing about writing; even when you’re goofing off, you’re still thinking of ideas for your stories and your mind is still swirling through the writing process.

I appreciate an author who takes years to write a single book. I also appreciate authors who don’t write the same book over and over again. I’ve read only a few pages, and so far, Cloud Cuckoo Land is nothing like Doerr’s previous novel All the Light You Cannot See.

It had to be tough for author Anthony Doerr to write a new book after his novel All the Light You Cannot See was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He probably knew anything he wrote would be compared to his Pulitzer Prize winning novel. He might have been tempted to write a similar novel or, even worse, a sequel. But no, Anthony Doerr went for something different. He wrote Cloud Cuckoo Land, whatever that is.

I initially thought that Cloud Cuckoo Land was a stupid name for a novel, but now that I understand the context, I’m not so sure. Context matters. Since the book explains the context, I won’t get into it. The context matters only if you decide to read the book.

Cloud Cuckoo Land doesn’t seem to be a straightforward story, so this book might not be for me. There’s some timeline juggling. Some readers love complicated timeline juggling. Decades ago, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut had some timeline jumping, and most readers loved it, but it gave me a slight headache. If I remember correctly, I liked a lot of the passages, but I had to go back and forth to keep up with what was going on. Sometimes I thought it was weird just for the sake of being weird, and I got tired of “And so it goes.”

I’m not so sure that’s the case with Cloud Cuckoo Land. I can’t tell until I read the whole thing, but I don’t want to read the whole thing. I like straightforward stories. It’s one of my flaws as a reader.

My brain also sees time as linear, so when stories are interweaved so that when the future affects the past which affects the present which affects the past and then affects the future, I think, “You’re full of crap,” and I put the book down. I admit, the writer manipulating time in stories might not be full of crap, but it makes me feel better to make the accusation.

I’m not saying that time isn’t linear. I just don’t see it. I admit that my brain is kind of limited. I’m pretty good at the stuff I’m good at, but I suck at the stuff I’m not good at. For example, I understand the rules of chess, but I can’t see 15 moves ahead, so I suck as a chess player. I also couldn’t be an engineer with my brain. Highways would collapse, and buildings would fall down. I could be a scientist, though. Nowadays, science is just fundraising off of unproven theories and data manipulation. I could do that.

That’s just the way my brain works. When it comes to reading, my brain likes the straightforward story or the straightforward information. My brain can handle a lot of information as long as it’s straightforward, and I can keep track of lots of characters as long as they don’t have long Russian names.

My brain isn’t into Cloud Cuckoo Land, and I’ll blame it on my brain. Since author Anthony Doerr has proven that he can write a non-pretentious Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I’ll assume that Cloud Cuckoo Land is pretty good, but my brain just isn’t built to read it.

Maybe I’ll keep reading Cloud Cuckoo Land. I just hope it doesn’t take me seven years to finish it.

“Yes” Is A Complete Sentence!

(image via wikimedia)

“‘Yes’ is a complete sentence!” some guy said harshly at the gas station. He was talking (probably on his phone) on the opposite side of the pump, and I couldn’t get a good look at the guy without making it obvious that I was eavesdropping while preparing to fill up my gas tank. I kept my blank face and made sure not to look in the guy’s direction. He sounded angry, but he wasn’t angry at me, and I meant to keep it that way.

I’m a pretty good eavesdropper. Eavesdropping was an important skill when I was a teacher. I usually gave students a significant chunk of time each class period to work with a partner or a group of friends on an assignment. The group time gave students a chance to blow off steam while (theoretically) doing something productive, and it gave me a chance to walk around the classroom and have informal interactions with students. A lot of times I’d just stand back and listen (and pretend to grade papers).

I learned more about what was going on around school and with students from my eavesdropping than I did from all the essays that they wrote for my classes. I’m pretty good at hanging around and being unnoticed, even when I’m supposed to be in a leadership position like teaching. I could teach a course on eavesdropping and its uses in the classroom. Or maybe I could write a book about it.

“‘No’ is a complete sentence!” the guy at the gas pump continued.

The guy sounded confident, but the former English teacher in me wasn’t so sure. By itself, the word ‘yes’ can be an interjection, a noun, an adverb, and even a verb, though that’s extremely rare. A part of speech by itself can’t be a complete sentence… unless… unless the ‘yes’ was meant as an implied complete sentence. Maybe you could make the case that ‘yes’ is an implied complete sentence if it’s following a question.

For example, if a wife asks, “Are you listening?” the husband’s automatic response is usually “Yes,” even though there was a 50% chance that the husband wasn’t listening. In that situation the word ‘yes’ by itself implies the sentence “I was listening.” That was an interesting idea, I thought, if that were indeed what that guy meant when he’d said that the word ‘yes,’ was a complete sentence. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it’s at least interesting.

“I don’t need to say ‘ma’am,” The guy continued. “I don’t need to say ‘sir’!”

This changes things, I thought. Did this guy think that the difference between a complete sentence and an incomplete thought was the word ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’? You have to have a subject and a verb to have a complete sentence, and adding ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’ adds neither. The guy sounded pissed, so I wasn’t about to insert myself into the conversation to discuss grammar. Nobody wants to talk about grammar.

I might be a former English teacher and someday I might write an educational book about eavesdropping in the classroom, but I’m definitely not going to write a book about grammar.

Or maybe I will.

“It’s a southern thing, and I’m not from here,” the guy continued ranting.

It’s kind of a southern thing, I thought, but not exclusively southern. Before I moved to this southern city, I had lived in a small midwestern city for most of my life. The ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ thing was big up there too. People were very polite. I mean, they were polite until they weren’t, and then things could get ugly very quickly, and certain people could go from genial to genocidal in a blink.

“I’m not gonna say ‘sir,’ and I’m not gonna say ‘ma’am.'” I don’t do that.”

So he’s talking to somebody who thinks adding the word ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ is a big deal. When I was a kid, my parents made a big deal about treating adults with respect, but I’m pretty indiscriminate with my use of ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ now. It’s based more on my mood than somebody else’s status. I don’t expect to be called ‘sir’ either If an adult told me to my face (or on the phone) that I had to call him/her ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am,’ I might flip out too, though I’m usually not confrontational in public.

I resisted the urge to look when I heard the guy get into his car. I’d made it this far without looking, I wasn’t going to ruin it at the end, but I really wanted to look at the guy. I had so many unanswered questions: Who was he talking to? What had set him off? Was it a boss? A girlfriend? A boyfriend? A combination? What had even caused this conversation in the first place? What were this guy’s issues?

I had my own issues, I realized. I hadn’t even started pumping my own gas yet.