Review: Orbiting Jupiter

Orbiting Jupiter
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In many ways this book reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The narrator, the tone … It just put me in mind of the other book. That’s a pretty good thing.

Our narrator here is Jack, a sixth grader whose parents decide to foster Joseph, a troubled 14-year-old boy who’s spent time in juvenile detention after fathering a child with a rich girl the same age as himself. Joseph, of course, is not the thug most people think he is. What he is, is desperate to see his baby daughter, Jupiter.

Jack and Joseph grow close as brothers. Joseph’s father causes problems. Joseph’s age and history cause problems. The ending isn’t happy.

It’s a good story, and short. I enjoyed it a lot and recommend it.

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Review: Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah
Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, read when I was in 8th grade, was a real eye-opener to me at the time, and I re-read it every few years now as a reminder that we can be better than we are. The only other Bach book I’d read previous to Illusions was The Bridge Across Forever, which I also enjoyed, but not in that life-changing way of JLS. Many people said Illusions was as transformative for them as JLS, so I was looking forward to reading it, especially since I’ve been in kind of a mental funk.

Well … I really liked the book, but so far it hasn’t really had the impact of JLS. The story is built around the narrator, Richard, a barnstormer giving airplane rides for $3 for 10 minutes (it was the early 1970s) and how me meets Donald Shimoda, a messiah who gave up that job and is now also giving airplane rides. Don gives Richard a Messiah’s Handbook and proceeds to teach him that, basically, he controls his fate, his reality, and that everything he sees in the material world is an illusion.

The conversations, and especially the bits from the handbook, are insightful and interesting. But some of the concepts, like swimming in the earth, seem far fetched. Have I lost the imagination I had in 8th grade? Or are these things like earth-swimming and vaporizing clouds symbolic for how we can control other things in our lives? If I go around vaporizing clouds, won’t that just create drought and crop failure? I’m probably overthinking it.

This is a book I’ll re-read. Probably fairly soon. In fact, I may just carry it with me for a while and re-read it a little at a time. I do recommend it. The wisdom is important, reminding us to slow down, to think differently than the world would have us do.

Among the many sayings include is this one, maybe my favorite: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” Accept no limitations. Be you.

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Review: My Ántonia

My Ántonia
My Ántonia by Willa Cather
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There are some fantastic lines in this novel. Some great scenes. I liked the characters a lot. But ultimately … nothing happens. There’s no crisis. No villain. No problem that has to be overcome. It’s just kinda there.

What’s the story about? Well … the male narrator presents a friend with a manuscript entitled My Antonia. It’s his recounting of a Bohemian girl he grew up with. They’re friends, her grandfather blows his brains out, the girl grows up, working for families in town, loves to dance, has a passel of kids, then end. That’s pretty much it.

As I said, there are some wonderful lines and Cather does a great job of making the reader visualize the Nebraska farmland of the early 20th century. But there’s no real story.

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The Year of Horses and Porn

It’s time for my 2016 year in review in terms of books I read. There are a lot of Westerns on the list. There’s also a lot of erotica. I swear, though, that stuff was for market research purposes. Honestly!

I read 55 books last year. I don’t know if this is a personal record or not, considering I’m ancient and can’t remember a time I didn’t love to read. But it’s certainly a high point since I started keeping my stats on Goodreads. Because there are over 50 titles, I’m not going to go over all of them. Most of the reviews were published here and you can find them if you care. Here are the highlights and maybe a couple of lowlights.

The highest highlight for me this year was David R. Lewis’s Trail series of Western novels. I read the first seven books one right after another and had to stop myself from going back to the beginning and immediately starting over when I finished the seventh one. I love Lewis’s characterization, his use of dialect, his mix of action and character development … just everything. I only gave each book 4 out of 5 stars because they are not complex plots, don’t rely on symbolism or other literary devices. Yes, I did it because as an AP English teacher I’m something of a snob. I regret it now. They deserve five stars for the entertainment they gave me. I read several other Westerns, but didn’t enjoy any of them as much as this series.

The single book I enjoyed the most was probably Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, and this was a surprise to me because, as a thriller, it’s pretty much outside my normal reading area. But this story about an elderly Vietnam veteran helping a young boy despite all their differences was just a fascinating story.

I reread some John Steinbeck, and added a couple of his books I had not yet read. Of those, I really liked To a God Unknown, an early work that showed the master coming into his own. This is a book about a family and their relationship to the land. I also reread The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, and read The Pastures of Heaven for the first time.

Some other books I reread were The Book Thief, which I still think is one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years, but it did lose a little magic rereading it so soon after the first time, and Salem’s Lot, one of the first horror novels I ever read. It had been at least 20 or 25 years since I read it last, and it reminded me why Stephen King’s early work was such an influence on me.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t finish Richard Adams’ Shardik. I really tried, but I lost interest. Then the great man died.

In nonfiction, I read Eric Weiner’s Man Seeks God, a book I really enjoyed, but found difficult to use in the classroom. I liked David R. Lewis’s Endless Journey better. I also read Conversations with John Steinbeck, a collection of media interviews, and Wolf, a nice biography of Jack London. Oh, and a short piece in which William Peter Blatty talked about his career.

Erotica. Most of that stuff is poorly written, not copy edited, and frankly, pretty boring.

I finished 2016 with three books going, which is one more than typical. I’m currently reading Willa Cather’s My Antonia, David R. Lewis’s Glory Trail, and Richard Bach’s Illusions.

Review: The Day the Cowboys Quit

The Day the Cowboys Quit
The Day the Cowboys Quit by Elmer Kelton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven’t read a whole lot of Elmer Kelton’s Western fiction — in fact, this is only the second novel of his I can recall reading — but that needs to change. I really enjoy his style of writing, his level of detail that paints the picture without bogging down, and his strong characterization.

The Day the Cowboys Quit is not a shoot-em-up Western, nor is it a sprawling epic. It’s a very realistic account of a cowboy strike and its immediate aftermath in the Texas panhandle circa 1883. Our hero is Hugh Hitchcock. Hitch is one of those ramrod straight cowboys with an unbending code of ethics. When he gives his word that rancher Charlie Waide won’t join the other big outfits in posting new, restrictive rules for cowhands, Hitch has to stick to it when events unfold and force Charlie’s hand. From there it’s a pretty familiar story of cowboys and little ranchers against the big boys, except instead of a gun battle at the end we get a court case.

I’d have gone four stars on this one, but the ending, while realistic and believable, felt a little flat. I guess the kid in me wanted Hugh and his friends to pick up guns and start blasting away, as out of character as that was. I’d explain more, but that’s spoil some things.

For those who like realism in historic fiction, I highly recommend this one. If you’re looking for Josey Wales, move on, pardner.

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Review: Orphans of the Sky

Orphans of the Sky
Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend told me about this novel way, way back in the early 1990s. I kept forgetting the name of it, but finally bought a copy several years ago, and just now got around to reading it. From the moment Bruce told me about the novel I was intrigued by the situation: People living on a space ship have been there so long they’ve forgotten that they are on a ship and believe it is the whole of space.

From there it’s kind of downhill. Like so many science fiction novels of its time, Orphans of the Sky suffers from pretty thin characterization and a paint-by-the-numbers plot. The muties were an interesting touch, and honestly, the character I probably liked the most was Bobo. Basically, it’s a great idea that just wasn’t executed very well.

Still, the short novel is worth reading. It won’t take you long. I would have read it much faster if I’d had the time, but I was limited to a few pages here and there.

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Another Open Letter to Oklahoma Lawmakers

State Question 779 was not a good bill. It put the burden of the legislature’s job of funding teacher salaries onto the shoulders of everyone in Oklahoma, hurting the poor the most. And so it failed. One can hope people voted it down because it was a regressive tax and not because they feel like Oklahoma teachers are overpaid, but … Who really knows?

Oklahoma ranks 48th out of 50 states and D.C. in the quality of education our kids receive. You get what you pay for, as we also ranked 48 in per pupil spending. Prior to the start of this school year (2016-2017), 1,530 teaching jobs were eliminated due to the Oklahoma Legislature’s failure to diversify state revenue and mismanagement of the funds that did come in. Despite that, school districts had a hard time finding teachers to take the open positions they could fill. There were no teachers left to take those jobs. Between May and August the State Board of Education had issued 730 emergency teaching certifications to people with no prior teaching experience, and that’s after issuing 685 last school year.

Classrooms are overcrowded. Untrained people have been put in charge of kids. Student achievement is getting worse. Oklahoma is getting dumber.

And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The failure of SQ 779 means that the floodgates are about to open in a way you haven’t imagined. The $5,000 pay raise the penny sales tax would have provided still wouldn’t have brought Oklahoma teacher salaries within range of our neighboring states, but it would have been something, a frayed rope thrown to a swimmer in a stormy sea. The legislature has shown over and over that it doesn’t want to pay teachers. Now the people have supported that view.

Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, even Kansas all pay their teachers salaries that, by comparison, show just how little Oklahoma cares about having quality educators. When those states start posting their openings for 2017-2018, they’re going to be swamped with applicants from Oklahoma. This state is about to see a teacher shortage so severe that it may finally kill public education here.

Let’s play with numbers.

My current annual salary is $38,000, which is the state minimum for someone with my credentials. I have a master’s degree and 11 years experience teaching. According to Sperling’s Best Places, the cost of living in Oklahoma City is 87.2 percent of the national average. A teacher with the same credentials earns $54,480 in Springfield, Missouri, where the cost of living is 84 percent of the national average. In Ft. Smith, Arkansas, those credentials would bring a salary of $52, 045 at a cost of living that is 82.1 percent of the national average. In Wichita, Kansas, the pay is $52,768 with a cost of living at 84.6. My favorite, though, is Amarillo, Texas. They don’t have their detailed pay schedule online, but based on the information they do offer, a mid-range salary for a classroom teacher is $59,640 and the cost of living comes in at 83.3.

Let’s sum that up. I could go a few dozen miles west of the state line and increase my pay by over $21,000 per year and it would cost me almost 4 percent less to live there.

I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave my students to suffer with whatever warm body my current employer can find to replace me next year. I don’t want to leave Oklahoma, the state I’ve called home for all of my 50 years. But as a Republican myself, I do adhere to the credo of, “If your current situation isn’t good enough, take responsibility and change it.” That’s what we said when middle-aged McDonald’s workers wanted $15 per hour, right?

Like many of my colleagues, I’m working more than one job. I teach high school English full time. I also adjunct teach at a local community college, bring in a little bit per month with my fiction writing, and sometimes I get lucky and can officiate a wedding for a few extra bucks. It doesn’t pay extra, but most of my “free time” is spent grading papers from those first two jobs. Also, my wife works. Still, it isn’t enough.

You people in the state congress will bandy about words, pretend you care about us, but in the end you probably won’t do anything to help. In the spring we’ll apply in other states, we’ll pack up our belongings, cut our losses on our homes with the earthquake damage done by your pet injection wells, and we’ll go away and leave kids who need us. It won’t be easy for us, but sometimes we have to put our biological kids ahead of our school kids and do what’s best to provide for our own families.

We’ll also leave the stress of multiple jobs, of having more students than we can reasonably manage, of having to buy our own school supplies, and of looking at our neighbors and wondering why they turned us out by voting no on SQ 779 and and yes on putting the party with an anti-public education track record back in power.

If you really care about education in Oklahoma, you have until the first of May to show it. We’re waiting.