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Reading list 2020

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What are girls and boys for?

On reading the quote below, I wondered if high quality teaching and learning can really take place without this question being addressed?

“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” the Under-Secretary assured him. “New Rothamsted is one of our best schools.”

“What’s your criterion of a good school?” Will asked.


“In what? Winning scholarships? Getting ready for jobs? Obeying the local categorical imperatives?”

“All that, of course,” said Mr. Menon. “But the fundamental question remains. What are boys and girls for?”

Will shrugged his shoulders. “The answer depends on where you happen to be domiciled. For example, what are boys and girls for in America? Answer: for mass consumption. And the corollaries of mass consumption are mass communications, mass advertising, mass opiates in the form of television, positive thinking and cigarettes. And now that Europe has made the breakthrough into mass production, what will its boys and girls be for? For mass consumption and all the rest—just like the boys and girls in America. Whereas in Russia there’s a different answer. Boys and girls are for strengthening the national state. Hence all those engineers and science teachers, not to mention fifty divisions ready for instant combat and equipped with everything from tanks to H-bombs and long-range rockets. And in China it’s the same, but a good deal more so. What are boys and girls for there? For cannon fodder, industry fodder, agriculture fodder, road-building fodder. So East is East and West is West— for the moment. But the twain may meet in one or other of two ways. West may get so frightened of East they it will give up thinking that boys and girls are for mass consumption and decide instead that they’re for cannon fodder and strengthening the state. Alternatively East may find itself under such pressure from the appliance-hungry masses who long to go Western, that it will have to change its mind and say that boys and girls are really for mass consumption. But that’s for the future. As of now, the current answers to your question are mutually exclusive.”

“And both of the answers,” said Mr. Menon, “are different from ours. What are Palanese boys and girls for? Neither for mass consumption, nor for strengthening the state. The state has to exist, of course. And there has to be enough for everybody. That goes without saying. It’s only on those conditions that boys and girls can discover what in fact they are for-—only on those conditions that we can do anything about it.”

“And what in fact are they for?”

“For actualization, for being turned into full-blown human beings.”

“Island” by Aldous Huxley (1962).

The Knight & The Wizard

The Knight and the Wizard are two parts of a long story by Gene Wolfe. I’m just coming to the end of The Wizard, the audio version, excellently voiced by Dan Bittner who earns my great respect by being an American who can not only do a flawless British accent (unlike Dick Van Dyke, bless his soul) but can do a variety of local Brit accents to voice all the different characters in this complex yarn. He always keeps them apart (how, is a complete mystery to me). He no doubt has a lot of help from Wolfe’s written dialogue, but he’s managed to give them all a unique sound and character. The cat Manny (which Wikipedia tells me is spelt Mani), for example, reminds me of the “Englishman in New York”, Quentin Crisp, and that is at least as much because of Wolfe’s dialogue as of Bittner’s tone.

“The Knight”is a long and complex fantasy which places medieval concepts and principles in a way accessible to a modern reader by having the main character a boy from America who wanders into another world, a world of “faerie”, populated by knights in armour who joust and have honour and duties; by elves (thought not like Tolkien’s); and which is complicated by the existence of multiple levels (the hero arrives in one level, the elves belong in another, but the inhabitants of each level can move between levels, with limitations). There are dragons and giants and many other creatures (though no dwarves).

Others have summarized the story better than I could so I won’t dwell on that here. What fascinates me most about this series is the concept of honour and the examples of education or training.

Early on in the story, the hero, a young teenaged boy, meets a Knight and his squire. In their conversation, the Knight teaches the boy that “can” and “may” have different meanings and corrects his usage: the boy says “can” when he means “may”. This is a recurring theme (or running joke) in the first book, “The Knight”, with first the Knight, then the hero correcting others. This illustrates one of a Knight’s duties: to teach, to instruct, to correct – particularly his squire. A squire is an apprentice knight: he (presumably) wants to one day become a knight and the way you become a knight is by learning how to be one, and the way to learn that is to apprenticed to one. A knight’s squire or apprentice learns to become a knight by learning first how to be a squire. In the process, of course, the squire is learning (perhaps without being aware of it) how a knight teaches his squire.

School-teachers know that motivation is always a key, and often problematic, issue. The motivation for a squire is, of course, the desire to become a knight, thought that is not always motivation enough when the cold, the arduous chores, the beatings, etc., start to take their toll.

There is one scene which taught me very clearly the difference between a student and an apprentice, or perhaps between teaching in school and instructing an apprentice: it comes in the first book, “The Knight” (I forget which chapter and beg the reader’s forgiveness!). The boy has now become a man, at least physically, after an encounter with a lady elf, so much bigger and stronger than he was before that others who knew him as a boy cannot believe he is the same person. He finds himself under attack, alone (the Knight and he have long parted company). He escapes from a house by a back entrance to avoid his trappers and finds only a boy blocking his path, a boy whom he quickly overpowers. The way ahead lies through a forest inhabited by outlaws and who knows what awful creatures, and night is approaching. He press-gang’s the boy into his service. “We need each other: I need you to warn me of dangers ahead, and you need me to protect you from them.” He then questions the boy about who or what might be in the forest. Very nervous, the boy gives non-committal, one-word answers, but he is immediately rebuked by the hero. “I am a knight,” he says, “and you will address me as Sir Able. You will say, ‘Yes, Sir Able”, not just ‘Yes, sir,’ and you will give me complete answers, telling me everything you think I might need to know. Complete answers,” and he is about to add, “like in school” but thinks better of it (perhaps because he’s a boy recently come from America and he has no idea what kind of schools, if any, the people in this land have), and says instead, “Or I’ll break your arms!”

Now THAT’S motivation!

The hero is in the early stages of becoming a knight. It’s the encounter with the Knight and his squire that inspires him to become one, and he decides he IS one, in all but name. His methods are still, therefore, rough. Slowly, he learns to be courteous to all, even to his squire.

Another major theme in the series is honour, chivalry and duty, and I was continually surprised by the hero’s (and other knights’) decisions. In one scene, Lord Beale, who is an aristocrat with social ambitions, father of a daughter whom he hopes will marry a king, and on an ambassadorship of peace to that king. Despite facing overwhelming odds, Beale keeps his cool and his dignity, and his sense of duty. Facing the king, he makes a faux-pas, which the king (a huge giant) points out. Beale’s response: “Slay me!”

What the ….?

Rustling paper nightmare


Have you ever felt afraid, and not known exactly why you were afraid? The rational part of you will tell you there’s nothing to be afraid of, but the terror still lurks around the corner, in the shadows of your mind. That terror is the terror of nightmare, when the rational mind is asleep or off duty.

You’ve probably felt moments like that, in nightmares if not in waking life. Yet did you ever talk about it with anyone? Did you write it down in your diary? Did you put it into your novel or a poem?

I’m simplifying a novel – rewriting it for Japanese students of English – and there’s a scene in which a young woman becomes terrified without quite knowing the reason, and she flees the house and runs to a friend’s, even though it is very late in the evening, and even though that friend is living with his mother.

In fact, there is a very real danger to the girl, but she is not fully aware of it, or of its nature. It has to do with her uncle and the kind of life she lives with him: a life which, we learn gradually, is becoming moulded more and more by an uncle who seems to have very little real respect or sympathy for his niece, or for people generally, although he always sounds sympathetic, and talks grandly of universal brotherhood. It becomes clear to the reader that Uncle is smothering the girl, keeping her like a caged bird. Not only that, but the way he does it is by subtly laughing at the girl’s ideas and ambitions and hopes. When she says she wants to go to college, he laughs and says, “God made the elephant for toil and the mosquito for flitting about and it’s not advisable to experiment with the laws of nature, however, if you want to try it, my dear child….” He uses a similar approach when she talks of getting married.

Her fiancé has a sense that this is not healthy, and remonstrates with the girl, but she will hear not hear a bad word spoken about her Uncle. She handles his fan mail, you see, and she reads the letters of gratitude from readers for all the things he’s done. The girl thinks uncle is kind and understanding, but from the hints she drops, the reader (and her fiancé) sense that he’s not really kind at all.

So when the scene with the rustling paper happens, the reader can understand the cause of her horror: it’s her Uncle’s stifling, stifling the life out of her, mocking her own desires until she abandons them as puerile.  Read the rest of this entry »

Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” – a personal response

I recently read British horror-fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s epic (600+ pages) novel, American Gods. A thoroughly good read. Gaiman knows how to tell a story all right. This was my third Gaiman novel,  and I read it immediately after finishing the first two (Coraline and Marvel 1602: 10th Anniversary Edition).

This one was a little violent for my taste. It has been made into a TV series (which I haven’t seen except for the trailers on YouTube), with (predictably) all the latest technology used to portray blood, gore, violence and horror, in close-up and slow motion. (Is this really the best human beings can do with all their intelligence and creativity, come up with more ways to horrify, with  in-yer-face violence? Personally, I have a vivid imagination, and I really don’t need to have cinematic, full-colour renditions of what is described on the page. And even some of the written descriptions were too much for my squeamish stomach, like the embalming scenes, and I closed my eyes and flipped ahead. But that’s just me, and judging by the sales numbers, many disagree.)

Here’s the trailer for the dramatization.

The basic story is about a war between the old gods and the new in America, the new gods being Media, hi-tech, TV, video games, etc, and the old gods being ones from the various “old countries” – they came over with the immigrants, you see – mainly Norse gods like Odin, Loki, etc. Gaiman has obviously had fun with renaming these gods so that their identities are not immediately obvious: Odin, for instance, introduces himself, when asked his name, by asking, “What day is it today?” “Wednesday.” “Well, then, you can call me Wednesday,” which is of course Woden’s (Odin’s) day.

Short version:

The story was well paced and kept me reading to the end; the dialogue was good and sometimes very good and funny; there was one small scene of mercy that seemed to me to totally un-pagan and much more Christian. Details below. The story also reminded me of earlier writers who became infatuated with Norse myths, such as CS Lewis.

Read the rest of this entry »

D-Day +1

June 6th was the 71st anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy landings of 1944., dubbed the largest amphibian military assault in history. 156,000 troops landed on a 50-mile stretch of the French Normandy coastline on the morning of June 6th.  A large complex deception plan was enacted to deceive the Germans about exactly where and when the invasion would take place. This plan included fake equipment, a phantom army and fake radio transmissions. (Read more here.)

How much do you know about D-Day? Take a quiz here (I got 60%. How about you?)

I  recently read some excellent children’s stories about the European theatre of WWII, but first, here’s a remarkable video of statistics about military and civilian deaths in WWII:

I recommend the following books about WWII:

  • Ian Serrailler’s “The Silver Sword”, a fictional story but based on real accounts, this tells the tale of 4 children from Warsaw, Poland, whose parents are suddenly arrested by the Nazis, leaving the children to fend for themselves. The father is sent to a prison camp in the south of the country, but he escapes and makes his way back to Warsaw where he hears that his wife was packed off to work as a slave in Germany, and his house was blown up by the Nazis. And the children? Nobody knows anything about them, but while visiting the site of his home, the father  finds a small silver sword, a paper knife he’d given to his wife, and then he meets a strange wild boy named Jan who picks his pockets of food and demands the silver sword. On a hunch, the father gives the sword to Jan on condition that if ever Jan meets his children, he will tell them to go to Switzerland where his wife’s parents live, and where they had agreed to meet should the family be separated. Jan later does meet the 3 children and gains their trust by showing them the sword. The four of them decide to go to Switzerland. The rest of the book is about their extraordinary journey. Written for children, it avoids over-graphic descriptions, yet remains grim and realistic and does not sugar-coat anything. As such, it makes a moving and enjoyable read for adults as well. Serrailler was a school teacher, and during the war was a conscientious objector, yet his descriptions of war-torn Poland are remarkably detailed and convincing. I first read this story when I was 11, and never forgot it.
  • Parallel Journeys, by Eleanor Ayer. The personal experience of WWII, told by a German teenager who joined the Hitler Youth then the Luftwaffe, and a German Jew who “escaped” to Holland in 1939. Author Eleanor Ayer ties the two stories together and acts as an editorial voice connecting quotes from the original books by each participant, Alfons Heck and Helen Waterford, in their own words. Each chapter recounts the events in one of the two’s lives. The chapters alternate between the two characters and are in chronological order.Points that struck me: the fatal hesitation on the part of so many Jews even after the writing was on the wall; the shock when Helen realises this talk of “labor camps” must be a lie; the sickening yet totally believable naivety and fanatic enthusiasm for Hitler and his mad plans on the part of teenaged German youths; the angry good-sense from… (read the rest of my review on Amazon Japan).
  • Resistance 1, a graphic novel by Carla Jablonski (story) and Leland Purvis (illustrations), about some children living in “Free” France who hide a neighbouring Jewish boy when his parents are arrested by the Nazis. Realizing they can’t keep him hidden forever, they decide to contact the Resistance to see if they can help get him to Paris where he learns his parents are in hiding. The book is a light read for adults, but may be a good introduction to this period of French history for younger English readers. There is just one death – a Resistance fighter is killed right in front of the children – but the brooding menace of the times is felt, and the difficulties of getting children to understand the situation.
  • There’s No Escape, by Ian Serrailler. This is more of an adventure story than a war story, and everything is fictional, although the countries’ are obviously similar to European countries in the time of WWII. I inlcude it here because it is a thoroughly enjoyable read and showcases Serrailler’s extraordinary powers as a story-teller. The story is a string of upsets and unexpected twists (more or less believable). A British scientist is persuaded to rescue another scientist from behind enemy lines in Europe. He is trained in parachute-jumping and given false papers and a rendez-vous in 10 days. Everything goes wrong: he lands in a tree and wastes valuable time extricating himself. He buries his parachutist’s clothes, only to discover that he has left his map in them by mistake. He hurries back, but his clothes have disappeared! He is given refuge by a local farmer and tells them of his plans, hoping for their aid, only to fall ill and be laid up in bed for a week! One day, a “doctor” pays a visit; the doctor turns out to be the scientist our hero was supposed to look for! The farmer’s son found him. The rest of the story describes how the two manage to get themselves to the rendez-vous, only to be arrested there and miss the plane that comes to pick them up. There is another way out of the country, but it involves a high mountain pass, and the two must bring along the farmer’s wife and children or leave them to certain death.

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Getting your Kindle book notes into Evernote

Do you read books on Kindle or a Kindle app on an iPad or similar device? Do you want to make notes or highlight passages in your ebooks but don’t know how? Would you like to have access to all your notes and highlighted passages even when you don’t have your Kindle or iPad with you? Would you like to do this but don’t have an account, or you buy your ebooks from some other store than Would you like to share your notes and highlights with others? Would you like to transport all your notes and highlights into Evernote? If your answer to any or all of the above is ‘yes’ then read on.

In this post, I show you how I, a Japan resident who purchases most of his Kindle books on Amazon Japan (not, I don’t have an account there)  get my book notes and highlights made on my iPad’s Kindle app into Evernote. It’s a non-geeky (no coding required), unoriginal solution that makes use of free automation services and apps: Evernote, Kindle app for iPad, Twitter, IFTTT.

(This is for Kindles or Kindle apps only; I’m still figuring out how to do the same thing for notes/hightlights created in iBooks. Here’s a video on how to share notes and highlights in the iBooks app.)

Why bother?

Why would you want your Kindle notes in Evernote? As you’ll see below, notes and highlights made on a Kindle or Kindle app are automatically stored on your Amazon Kindle page. So why bother transferring them? You can edit them, sort them by book or by date, delete them, all on your Amazon Kindle page. Well, I like to have as much of my work- and research-related info as possible under one roof, not scattered across different programs or devices. Also, with Evernote’s offline notebooks capacity, I can access and edit my book notes in Evernote even without Internet access. If those considerations are not important to you, then you can stop reading right here. If you’d like to know more about your Amazon Kindle page, read Michael Hyatt’s post: How to Get Your Kindle Highlights into Evernote.

Evernote ambassador and SF writer Jamie Rubin has a geeky and long-assed post on how he gets his Kindle book notes and highlights into Evernote AUTOMATICALLY, but it requires knowledge of snakes and anyway it only works for notes taken on a Kindle device. If you take notes on, say, the Kindle App on your iPad, you’re out of luck. There is an app called Snippefy, which seems to do exactly what Rubin and I want, but unfortunately it’s not available for Apple Japan.

Michael Hyatt’s post: How to Get Your Kindle Highlights into Evernote, is good, but it involves manually transferring each highlight/note from your Amazon Kindle page to Evernote. This article gives a very good overview of Amazon’s Kindle page. I recommend it. For best results, and if you don’t mind not sharing your notes on Twitter, the simplest solution may be to wait until you finish reading your book and making all your notes and highlights, then going to your Amazon Kindle page, selecting all the notes for that book and copying and pasting those suckers into an Evernote. You have to do this manually, tho. Or perhaps Snippefy will do the job. Unfortunately, I cannot test it out.

Once set up (explained below), and assuming I’m reading a book on my iPad’s Kindle app, theree are just 4  manual steps, all done within the Kindle app (see below for details). Read the rest of this entry »

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Jane Eyre Movie Trailer Official HD – YouTube

Update: Though she would never have put it so indelicately, in this quote (from a letter, August 16, 1849 ), Charlotte Brönte kicks ass, with spirit and decision!

I do not respect an inconsistent critic. He says, ‘if Jane Eyre be the production of a woman, she must be a woman unsexed.’ In that case the book is an unredeemed error and should be unreservedly condemned. Jane Eyre is a woman’s autobiography, by a woman it is professedly written. If it is written as no woman would write, condemn it with spirit and decision

(thanks to Dear Literary Ladies)

Just read this for the first time recently. It was so good, I immediately borrowed more novels by Charlotte Bronte, and enjoyed those too.  I hope the movie doesn’t make it “just a love story”. It really helps to understand the social background of the times to appreciate the dramatic events. Charlotte Bronte felt very strongly the limitations on a woman of those times: you had to be rich or beautiful (preferably both) to have any hope of getting married, and if you didn’t marry you were limited to being a governess or a nursemaid or similar servant, with the lifelong bitterness of knowing you were not and never would fulfil your potential, and would have only a tiny chance of meeting someone who appreciated your mental abilities and character.

Being an 18th-century novel, it has its share of melodrama – the rather (to our 21st-century senses) strained coincidences, and the odd incident of second-sight – but I didn’t find they distracted from the story. Bronte was criticized for other things in the novel, too: her description of the dress of the upper-class ladies, for instanced, or their conversation, were laughed at as being unrealistic, and revealing of how little  Ms Bronte knew about the world she was trying to depict (which was a “nice” way of saying she was out of her class, in more ways than one).

I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. Here’s the trailer below, and there’s more info on the excellent IMDB website.

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The Promise/The Chosen

chosen: danny saunders
Image by giveawayboy via Flickr

I recently read Chaim Potok‘s The Promise, and am now reading the book that preceded it, The Chosen. These are the first books by Potok I have ever read. I had never heard of Potok until a week or so ago. Then I read an article that mentioned Potok in passing. It was a slight reference, yet somehow I was intrigued enough to buy the book. Two, in fact.

What was the reference that intrigued me so much? While I was reading The Promise, I kept asking myself that question! Why am I reading this boring book? I’m not interested in these people! Why should I be interested in them?

I put the book down. I picked up a different book. Couldn’t get into it. Kept thinking about the characters in “The Promise”. What’s going to happen to Michael? What exactly is going on with this weird kid who seems so wound up?  What’s a beautiful Jewess doing studying James Joyce? How is this part of the story?

By the end of the book, I felt as close to these people as if I’d spent a week in their intimate company.  I also knew more than I will ever need to know about the Torah and what you have to do to pass the yeshiva examinations and become a rabbi.

“The Chosen” starts off well: a rivalry on the baseball field between two teams who’ve never played each other before, and between two boys who meet for the first time on this baseball field. Then an accident happens. A strike hits one of the boys in the face, smashes his glasses and bounces off his forehead. He’s in terrible pain. Then he’s at the hospital. Why is everyone looking at him that way? How do they make the fluorescent lights change colours like that? “Er…. you’ll be fine, kid, you’ll be fine. Jesus!” said the baseball coach. “I had never heard him use that word before, and I wondered what had made him use it now.”

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Intellectuals 4 – what are they?

What is an intellectual? Johnson makes a clear distinction between writers, artists, men of letters on the one hand and intellectuals on the other. Of course, a person could be both, and Edmund Wilson is a good example: someone who started out as purely a writer, then became an intellectual, then gave that up and returned to being a writer, a process that Johnson seems to approve of.

Johnson  compares Hemingway to Kipling and Byron, and in the process reveals a little more of his definition of an intellectual (the emphases are mine):

It is the subtle universality of the Hemingway ethic which makes him so archetypically an intellectual… But Kipling was not an intellectual. He was a genius, he had a ‘daemon’ but he did not believe he could refashion the world by hiw own unaided intelligence, he did not reject the vast corpus of its inherited wisdom. On the contrary, he fiercely upheld its laws and customs as unalterable by puny man and depicted with relish the nemesis of those who defied them. Heminway is much closer to Byron, another writer who longed for action and described it with enthusiastic skill. Byron did not believe in the in the utopian and revolutionary schemes of his freind Shelley… but he had fashioned for himself a system of ethics, devised in reaction to the traditional codehe had rejected when he left his wife and England for good. In this sense, and only in thise sense, he was an intellectual… It is a system of honour and duty, not codified but illustrated in action. No one can read these poems without being quite clear how Byron saw good and evil and especially how he measured heroism.

Heminway worked in a similar manner… His novels are novels of action and that makes them novels of ideology because to Heminway there was no such things as a morally neutral action… The framework is personal and pagan; certainly not Christian.

You might expect Johnson to continue exploring his definition of intellectual through Hemingway, but he stops there. Instead, he goes on to point to similarities between Hemingway and other “intellectuals” he has written about: the lying, the creation of a public persona that may or may not coincide with reality; the self-publicizing; the drinking and womanizing; the quarrels with and meanness towards former friends (“As with so many intellectuals – Rousseau and Ibsen for instance – his quarrels with fellow writers were particularly vicious”. p. 159…. By 1937 he had quarreled with every writer he knew.” p. 160 …)

Hemingway, like many other intellectuals of the time and like some others described in Johnson’s book, was a supporter of Communism and Stalin: “It was Hemingways’ line, in accordance with CP policy, to play down the role of the Soviet Union [in the Spanish Civil War].” (p. 156.)

Is Johnson suggesting that quarreling bitterly with friends, and falling for Marxist ideology are definitions of an intellectual? At times it seems like it.

Another characteristic seems to be gross selfishness, a further one is someone who believes in total solutions, and a third is to lack self-awareness.

So, if an intellectual is someone who wants to change the world based on an idea or set of ideas, what about Ayn Rand? Hannah Arendt? Mary McCarthy? And if Tolstoy and Rousseau and Shelley had “messianic” tendencies, what about the original Messiahs, Jesus and Buddha? Would they qualify as intellectuals under Johnson’s definition?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the difference between Camus and Sartre: Camus believed that people were more important than ideas. Perhaps another part of the answer is that neither Jesus nor Buddha wanted to change the world, although some might disagree. I think Jesus and Buddha felt that people were more important than ideas, and that people had to come to an understanding of their own free will. I also think they were interested in individuals, not people as a whole or as a group.

By contrast, Johnson quotes Tolstoy’s wife Sonya on the question of whether Tolstoy “ever really loved any individual human being, as opposed to loving mankind as an idea.” (p. 125):

‘My little one is still unwell and I am very tender and pitying. You and Syutayev may not especially love your own  children, but we simple mortals are neither able nor wish to distort our feelings or to justify our lack of love for a person by professing some love or other  for the whole world.’ (p. 125)

Such an extreme cerebration is also close to Ayn Rand’s definition of the sin of altruism: putting other people’s interests before one’s own and those of one’s dependants and loved ones.

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