28 November 2012

Tales mostly lost on me

The world lost a number of wonderful people that I knew in the past year. In 2008, I shepherded one of them, at the age of 88, into the local Democratic caucus, and the excitement of a thousand or two people milling about the Northfield Middle School so she could cast her vote for Obama. Another, at age 90, asked a friend to take her to an exquisite dinner, and announced afterward that she was ready. A few days later she died. A third asked me, through her daughter, why I seemed to read nothing by mysteries. (I never got to answer the question.)

But the question stuck with me for months. It's true that all of the books I've read in the past couple years have been mysteries.

Now, in another part of my life, I read political science and scan the headlines of a dozen online news sources every morning looking for things that might help teachers of high school courses in comparative politics. I post the things to a blog that attracts a couple hundred people a day. (That's about 50 times as many people as look in at this blog.)

That's all to say that I read more than mysteries. But non-fiction books? Not so much.

In any case, I scanned the new non-fiction shelves at the library recently and picked up The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean. It's subtitled Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by our Genetic Code.

I feel particularly ignorant about our genetic code, so I thought this might be a good introduction.

Not so much.

Now, I've heard about this thing in Literature that's called "voice." I think Sam Kean could use some study about the voice in which he writes. I had to get to the second half of the book before I caught on to the fact that Kean was telling stories. I wasn't always sure there was a connection between the topic he started out with and the examples ("stories") that accompanied his explanations.
The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour coded by element and the detailed structure of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. -From Wikipedia
Describe this in words. I dare you.
It seemed mostly like an inadequate textbook. I had to go online to make sense out of his description of chromosomes, genes, and all the other bits of DNA. Then, every once in awhile, Kean would throw in a sentence or two that sounded like a smart alec remark a high school student might make. Other times he'd try to describe an incredibly complex process like making DNA sculptures without a diagram.

There were some interesting stories and lots of facts about our genetic code. I've forgotten most of them.

I do think I'll go looking for another bit of non-fiction to read and hope it's more Literary.

Have you read Kean's The Violinist's Thumb? What did you think of it? Do you think non-fiction can be Literature?

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

Non-fiction can be "lethal?"

In another part of my life, I post excerpts from bits of journalism to a blog. The bits are related the countries and the curriculum of the AP course in Comparative Government and Politics.

I don't usually post excerpts here, but this appeared in an op-ed section of the New York Times and it's a good introduction the book I just finished.

You can tell I haven't studied Literature because I don't know what that means. As a teacher and a social scientist and historian I always assumed that non-fiction could be Literature.

Now any of us who have been subjected to textbooks knows that some non-fiction will NEVER be Literature. I don't know why most textbooks are so poorly written that they induce sleep more than admiration. That's an argument for the study of more non-fiction.

Why anyone would find more study of non-fiction a "lethal dose," is beyond my ken. Unless, of course, the objection was to the lack of good examples. How about beginning with the essays of Stephen Jay Gould? There's a guy who wrote Literature. Literature about ancient things and evolution.

Well, the book I finished is not Literature. That's coming up next. Meanwhile, what do you think of Sara Mosle's ideas about non-fiction?

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

What Should Children Read?

By Sara Mosle

[T]he Common Core State Standards [are] a set of national benchmarks, adopted by nearly every state, for the skills public school students should master in language arts and mathematics in grades K-12...

Depending on your point of view, the now contentious guidelines prescribe a healthy — or lethal — dose of nonfiction.

For example, the Common Core dictates that by fourth grade, public school students devote half of their reading time in class to historical documents, scientific tracts, maps and other “informational texts” ... Alarmed English teachers worry we’re about to toss Shakespeare so students can study, in the words of one former educator, “memos, technical manuals and menus.”

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”...

One education columnist sums up the debate as a fiction versus nonfiction “smackdown.”

A striking assumption animates arguments on both sides, namely that nonfiction is seldom literary and certainly not literature...

As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I’m with Mr. Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing...

I love fiction and poetry as much as the next former English major and often despair over the quality of what passes for “informational texts,” few of which amount to narrative much less literary narrative.

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways...

Narrative nonfiction also provides a bridge between the personal narratives students typically write in elementary school and the essays on external subjects that are more appropriate assignments in high school and beyond...

There are anthologies of great literature and primary documents, but why not “30 for Under 20: Great Nonfiction Narratives?” Until such editions appear, teachers can find complex, literary works in collections like “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,”...

If students read 100 such articles over the course of a year, they may not become best-selling authors, but like Mr. Gladwell, they’ll get the sound and feel of good writing in their heads. With luck, when they graduate, there will still be ranks of literary nonfiction authors left for them to join.

05 November 2012

Volcanic ash covers a crime scene

I found Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's book, Ashes to Dust, A Thriller, on the "new books" shelf at the Northfield Library. I had vague memories of reading Last Rituals a couple years ago and checked out this newer book.

Yrsa signing books
As I noted before, Icelanders are part of a country small enough to dispense with family names most of the time. In her books, most of Yrsa's characters are identified by first names only. As her books get translated, globalization proceeds, and Yrsa publicizes herself on Facebook, she adds her family name. And she adds family names to some of her characters. (However, her lover from Last Rituals is still only the German lawyer Matthew.)

I noted that the title on this dust jacket seems to include a PR person's sales pitch that Ashes to Dust is "A Thriller." Last Rituals was labeled "A Novel of Suspense, but lacked much suspense. Ashes to Dust is not thrilling. In fact, it's anything but exciting. It's interesting. The story is well told. It's about the investigation of a forty-year-old multiple murder and a contemporary murder that might be connected. What kept me reading was not the pursuit of thrills, but curiosity about what chain of events was going to explain the discovery of three bodies and a severed head in the basement of a house covered by volcanic ash in 1973, and whether or how a 2010 murder is related to the earlier crimes. In the back of my mind I kept wondering when something thrilling might happen. But the thrills never came.

There were opportunities. The bodies had been discovered by archaeologists excavating some of the houses buried by the volcanic eruption. Thóra and her assistant prowl around the basement in the dark. They meet with tough-looking sailors on a dock in the dark. They take an aimless tourist cruise as the only two passengers in order to talk to a shady sailor. There are opportunities for thrills, but none are taken.

Nor did I feel any emotional attachment to the characters. Some of them were interesting. Most were just there. The motivations of several of the key players didn't make much sense or weren't explained very well. Students of Stanislavsky and Strasberg would have a terrible time portraying these characters without a lot of imaginative work. Too bad that Yrsa didn't do more of that work.

So no thrills. No emotions. An intellectual puzzle well told, but only partly explained (sounds terribly Scandinavian). Attorney Thóra once again does nearly all the detective work. It seems the Icelandic cops, especially the small town guys, are too overworked to pursue clues — even in a murder investigation. Thóra's love interest is offstage and considering a job offer in Reykjavik, but she isn't sure how to encourage him without seeming too needy. (Even that bit of emotion gets stuffed.)

I enjoyed the puzzle and the way that Yrsa revealed the pieces of it. It wasn't riveting.

Have you read Ashes to Dust? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

01 November 2012

More Scandinavian mystery fiction

Dale Stahl wrote as promised because he finished the Jussi Adler-Olsen Department Q novel he'd begun.

Here's what he had to say:
I enjoy Jussi Adler-Olsen's Dept. Q novels. However, I notice a persistent theme among some of these Scandinavian/Northern European-type authors: a tendency toward apocalyptic views of human nature and overcoming obstacles to solve a crime.
[My note to Dale: go watch a couple Ingmar Bergman films.]
Adler-Olsen's main character is Carl Mørck, who is a classic, irascible, irritable guy who is more thoughtful and smarter than everyone else on the detective force. But, he's likable for his human desires, foibles, heart pounding self doubt and limitations. Still, the crime in the first Dept. Q novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes, is so outrageous because of the horrific treatment and torture of the victim, that it is almost beyond believability. If it weren't for the real life treatment of someone like Jaycee Dugard (held captive for 18 years), I might have just thrown the book away. Still, there is something compelling about Mørck and his assistant Assad. In addition, I always find a a novel in which the plot revolves around a cold case or a past event compelling. I liked it and was glad I read it.

Then I got the follow-up book, The Absent One, and was even more irritated by the ridiculous, over-the-top crimes and bad behavior of the gang of suspects: wealthy boarding school kids who delight in sexual promiscuity, violence, and the torture of animals and innocent people. It irritated the hell out of me, yet I am Scandinavian and have just enough pessimism about human nature to believe that there are people out there who are that base and brutal. So, I read the book doggedly to the end, and I will be damned if I don't read the next one.

The finish was absurd, the denouement implausible, but I want to find out if Mørck ever gets to have a relationship with his crush and therapist, Mona. And I want to find out if he ever solves the crime which involved an ambush that killed one of his two best friends and paralyzed the other. That story was begun in the first book.

[Dale seems repelled by the savagery; attracted by the romance and the mystery. Those of us who read murder mysteries (even if they're cozies) have strange motives, don't we]

[Questions: Is it a coincidence that Mørck's assistant has the same name as the former dictator of Syria? And, is it a coincidence that Mankell's detective Wallander has a black lab named Jussi?]

[One answer from a publication "In the Footsteps of Wallander," a tourist brochure from the Ystad (Sweden) Tourist Office: Wallander named "the dog Jussi after the famous mid-20th century Swedish tenor Jussi Björling."]

Have you read anything by Jussi Adler-Olsen? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world how you reacted.