Review: Wolf: The Lives of Jack London

Wolf: The Lives of Jack London
Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Call of the Wild has long been one of my favorite books, and it’s the first novel we read together in my AP Literature class to illustrate The Hero’s Journey and introduce literary movements. I’d read London’s The Road memoir of his life as a tramp previously and liked it, so when I found this full biography at a Half-Price Books there was no leaving it behind.

To say London led an amazing life would be a gross understatement. From poverty-stricken child with a crazy mother to oyster pirate to offshore lawman to gold prospector to hobo to author, the man did more than any dozen men would do today. He spent a good deal of his life lecturing about the benefits of socialism, which always struck me as strange considering the naturalistic survival-of-the-fittest themes he often wrote about. He must have been an interesting man to know.

I couldn’t remember how London died. Haley goes into it and, basically, no one is really sure if he overdosed on morphine by accident or on purpose. Haley is of the opinion it was an accident because of the plans London had laid out for the future. He makes a good case, but shows how London knew he was hastening his own end with a lifestyle he refused to moderate.

I liked this book, but somehow it left me unfulfilled. I wanted to know more about particular pieces of fiction. One of my favorite London short stories is “A Piece of Steak” and that story didn’t even get a mention. Maybe I should give it four stars out of five instead of three, but I’m just not feeling it. Despite that, the book is very well written and engaging and likely more than enough for a more casual fan.

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Review: ‘Salem’s Lot

'Salem's Lot
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So many years since my first visit to Jerusalem’s Lot! Way back in the halcyon days of the early 1980s, when the teenage version of myself decided to move out of high fantasy and explore the horror genre, I began by buying an H.P. Lovecraft collection of stories, and another called Night Shift by Stephen King. I liked both, and wanted something longer, so I bought King’s Salem’s Lot and was hooked. It remained one of my favorite King novels ever since.

As my AP Literature kids settled in for the annual reading of Dracula, I decided to take up some vampire fiction, myself, and return to the Lot. This time the trip was more nostalgic than scary, but was still pretty fun.

Ben Mears, writer, returns to one of the places he lived for a short time as a child. He’s writing a book about the creepy old Marsten house that broods over the town, an evil place that draws evil to it. Ben isn’t the only new guy in town. A couple of distinguished older gentlemen named Straker and Barlow have bought the Marsten house and opened a business in town. And suddenly everyone is getting anemic, then disappearing during the day.

It’s a fun book. King overindulges in similes and rambles off on a few side jaunts that could have been cut out, but compared to a lot of his more recent work Salem’s Lot is a tightly plotted story with lots of action and atmosphere. These vampires aren’t angsty. They’re not in love. And they most definitely do not sparkle.

Returning to the book now, as a much more mature reader, I can appreciate the parallels to Dracula and the homage to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. One can see themes and ideas that would recur over and over in King’s later work. I can also see what a huge influence this novel was on some of the trunk novels hiding in my own attic.

Salem’s Lot is a fun, creepy vampire story. Still one of my favorite King novels, and highly recommended.

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The case for alt certified teachers

A friend and colleague recently showed me this article in last Sunday’s Oklahoman newspaper. The article quotes an educator with some pretty derogatory and fallacious things to say about teachers with emergency and alternative certification. For instance:

“Emergency certified personnel may have had zero experience with children, may have achieved a 1.0 grade-point average or lower with a major in physical education at University of Phoenix, may be alcoholics with pornography addictions, but they have been hired by the state to teach English at the local middle school,” said Lawrence Baines, associate dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Oklahoma’s Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education.

Seriously? Look at this quote from the American Psychological Association:
Various international studies have put porn consumption rates at 50 percent to 99 percent among men, and 30 percent to 86 percent among women, according to Gert Martin Hald, PhD, and colleagues in The APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology (Vol. 2).
Here’s a bit from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
About 1.5 million adults received treatment for an AUD at a specialized facility in 2014 (8.9 percent of adults who needed treatment)5. This included 1.1 million men (9.8 percent of men in need) and 431,000 women (7.4 percent of women who needed treatment)5

The point I would make to Mr. Baines is that it’s very likely he has colleagues at the great University of Oklahoma who are alcoholic porn-watchers. Does he know they fall into this category?

The thing is, if a person has no history of getting in trouble for being an alcoholic or looking at pornography, it won’t come up in the mandatory background check done for anyone who works with students. That includes teachers with traditional certifications.

Mr. Baines goes on to say that alternative and emergency certified teachers have a higher rate of misconduct. He provides no statistics to prove this, and the reporter didn’t bother to fact check him. So, if anecdotal evidence is good enough, how’s this: The high school where I work has been notorious for misconduct by coach-teachers. All of those people had traditional certifications. Hmm.

Why am I defensive about this? There are several reasons. The most obvious is because I am alternatively certified. After 10 years in machine shops, I finally went to college. I started as an English education major, but a series of hyper-liberal closed-minded English professors at the University of Central Oklahoma and the adrenaline rush of journalism diverted me. I earned a BA in journalism in 1999 and spent the next seven years working for newspapers or doing public relations work. I’d been doing PR for a while when I looked at my life and decided I wasn’t making a positive impact in the world, so I got my teaching certificate. I worked as a substitute for one semester, then got hired full time with my current employer.

I’ve now been at my job for over 10 years. In that time I’ve been named Teacher of the Year once and consistently score Highly Effective on my evaluations. My former students routinely thank me for preparing them for college after their freshman years. But if one only goes by what Baines says, non-traditional teachers “are not just under trained, but may be a risk to students.” Nowhere is he quoted to say anything positive about non-traditionally certified teachers, so one can infer that the above quote is his attitude toward the entire group.

I currently have and have had many colleagues who are very good teachers who are also non-traditionally certified. I have had colleagues with traditional education degrees tell me that they didn’t learn anything in college that was actually useful in the classroom.

Personally, I think it’s a good thing to have teachers who did not follow the traditional path of high school to college back to public education. What do they know about the world outside of academia? Not much.

We have a teacher shortage in Oklahoma. This shortage is caused by legislators who reduce education funding, who refuse to pay teachers a salary comparable to surrounding states, and who continually fault teachers for students who don’t learn, ignoring more dominant and negative factors in the lives of those children. When people are willing to leave private sector jobs that typically pay more and step into the classroom they face the scorn of snobs like Mr. Baines. Is it any wonder Oklahoma can’t keep teachers?

Finally, my last problem is with this article itself and the reporter, Ben Felder. I contacted him and complained about the tone of his article. His response was that he didn’t personally say bad things about non-traditionally certified teachers. True, Mr. Felder, true. But it’s your article and you had access to sources that would have shown you a different perspective. You chose to only give voice to Baines’ point of view. From a former journalist and a current teacher who isn’t an alcoholic or porn addict, I say that’s just bad reporting.

Review: The Life We Bury

The Life We Bury
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Life We Bury is one of those books where you can see what’s coming from a long way off, but the characters are compelling enough that you want to keep reading. But then everything happens pretty much just like you predicted and you’re all like, meh. It was a decent book and I did enjoy the characters despite very little growth.

Joe has to write a paper for an English class, so he goes to an old folks’ home thinking there’ll be someone interesting there. Sure enough, there’s a murderer who has been paroled to the home to die of cancer. Joe soon comes to believe the man is innocent. His autistic brother unintentionally plays wing man so Joe can hook up with Lyla, the cute girl next door. Joe has to deal with his alcoholic mom and her abusive boyfriend, gets chased by some bad guys, but SPOILER ALERT … ultimately solves a crime that multiple trained professionals couldn’t solve when it was new.

I would have liked to get to know Carl better. He was the most interesting character in the story, and the catalyst for everything that happened. There was so much back story that could have been revealed. Instead he was kind of the stereotypical good guy in a bad situation in Vietnam who didn’t have it much better when he came home.

I don’t regret the time with this book. It wasn’t bad, just not all that good. The narrator’s voice on the audio didn’t really appeal to me. He sounded like some kind of detached goth twenty-something.

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Review: Man Hunter

Man Hunter
Man Hunter by Dusty Rhodes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a novel about Superman playing Santa Claus dressed as Josey Wales in the Old West. It ranged from mildly entertaining to borderline frustrating for over 500 pages, then came to an anti-climactic ending.

As I’ve stated before, I break Western novels into three categories: 1) Shoot-em-ups that are just plot, virtually no character development, 2) Stories set in the Old West that have some character development and at least one theme and a sub-plot or two, and 3) Epics with deep character development and multiple themes and subplots.

Dusty Rhodes started off pretty much in the first category, as Matt Henry went seeking revenge against the gang that raped and murdered his wife and cut the throat of his son … no, wait, we learn later it’s a step-son. It just so happens, though, that this feller Matt, who is about 27 years old and spent eight years as an Apache captive followed by five in federal prison, just happens to be the best gun hand America has ever seen. He’s also an excellent tracker and a shrewd businessman, generous to a fault, and despite absolutely no experience, the best boss a cow puncher could ever hope to work for.

This was my problem with the book. At no time did I ever feel that Matt was in a dire situation. Sure, he was thrown into a silver mine to work as a slave. He was shot on two occasions, and dragged behind a horse once. But there was never a real sense of danger because his fast draw, his indescribable wit, or unbelievable luck was always there to get him out.

On top of that, Rhodes had some pet phrases he trotted out just a few too many times. I gritted my teeth over the times somebody would “scrape out” a chair and “fold himself” into it.

And then there’s the fact he threw in every stereotypical plot device anyone has ever used in a Western novel or movie and put them all in this one story. The gang of killers, corrupt Mexican soldiers, hostile Indians, corrupt businessmen, town bullies, a storm on the prairie, stampede … you name it, it was here.

That said, you might wonder why I even gave the book two stars instead of just one. Well … as aggravating as it was, I never wanted to just stop. It wasn’t horrible. It was just predictable.

So, it’s probably a great book for someone new to the Western genre. To people who were alive when John Wayne was making movies, there’s nothing new here.

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Review: Wolves

Wolves by D.J. Molles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another one that was compelling enough that I almost gave it five stars, but in the end I held back because it didn’t really have any deeper meaning than just a really, really good story about a man who’ll stop at nothing to avenge the memory of his wife and daughter.

Huxley, his wife, and their daughter survived “the sky fire” and built a new life for themselves in a commune on the western edge of “the wastelands”, and area that seems to correlate to the American southwest. Then the slavers came, raped and killed his wife, and took his daughter to market somewhere in the East. The story opens with Huxley near death as he’s given water by Jay, another broken man burning up inside with hate for the slavers. Together they go east, looking to “make them bleed” for what they’ve done. Others join the trip here and there, and adventures happen. Eventually, Huxley finds more than he bargained for in the Riverlands as it is invaded by the Eastern Democratic States of the old East Coast of America.

The book’s focus is really on Huxley’s inner struggle. Has he become as bad as the people he is hunting? He kills without mercy when needed, and unleashes the rage of his companions, who do much worse, and shoulders the guilt for their actions afterward. He fears becoming a monster his wife and daughter wouldn’t even recognize.

The action is non-stop, the story is gripping, the characters are mostly fleshed out. I had issue with a couple of things with the plot, but they were fairly minor. The first was Huxley not asking any questions but just accepting Don’s word about who controlled the water where the met Lowell. The second was Huxley’s sudden change in attitude toward Jay; it just seemed to happen too fast.

Christian Rummel did an excellent job narrating the book. Each character had a unique tone and dialect and I liked the inflections for Huxley as his mood changed.

If you like Westerns or post-apocalyptic fiction, you’ll like this one. It’s sort of Mad Max meets Terminator in a Sergio Leone atmosphere.

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Review: To the Far Blue Mountains

To the Far Blue Mountains
To the Far Blue Mountains by Louis L’Amour
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The continuing adventures of Barnabas, founder of the American Sacketts, L’Amour’s most famous family saga. Still more of a swashbuckler than a western. I think I liked it better than the first book, but Barnabas was still too arrogant, too sure of his destiny, too skilled in things the reader had no idea he knew about.

It was frustrating how Barnabas kept exposing himself to his enemies, almost as if L’Amour was just trying to pad out a much shorter story by working in near-captures and daring escapes.

I’ll give this series one more chance with a book actually set in the Old West, but if it doesn’t get better I’m done with the series, and likely with L’Amour. I much prefer the storytelling of Johnny Quarles and David R. Lewis.

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