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.

Review: Stranded: A Novel

Stranded: A Novel
Stranded: A Novel by Bracken MacLeod
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a good one. Is it a horror novel? A science fiction novel? An adventure story? Why choose? It’s all the above!

Noah Cabot is a deck hand on the Arctic Promise, and the ship is in a very violent storm as the story opens. The storm passes, but the fog that follows is incredibly thick. Then Noah sees that ice is starting to form in the ocean. Next thing you know, the ship ain’t moving because it’s beset by ice. But that ain’t half the problem. The ship’s master is Noah’s father-in-law … and the old man hates Noah to the point of wanting him dead. The men are getting sick and the equipment on the ship is shutting down. Then they find a lump on the horizon and a team goes out to see what it is … and things really take a turn for the weird. I can’t say too much more without giving away a major bit of the plot, so I’ll just say, alternate realities.

MacLeod seems to really know is transport ships, oil platforms, and the arctic. I would have read this book for those descriptions alone. The fact it came with a breakneck-paced plot was a serious bonus, though. There is not a dull moment in this book, and when a certain character does a certain horrific thing, there are no punches pulled.

So, yeah, I really liked it, but that doesn’t mean it was perfect. I did guess what the solution to their problem was going to be before MacLeod revealed it, and I knew what would influence Noah’s final decision. But really, there are no original plots. You read a book like this to see how the particular author will tell the story his way. MacLeod does a fantastic job.

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Review: Fate and The Exorcist: An In-depth Interview with William Peter Blatty

Fate and The Exorcist: An In-depth Interview with William Peter Blatty
Fate and The Exorcist: An In-depth Interview with William Peter Blatty by Brian James Freeman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not really a biography, but an extended interview with William Peter Blatty. It left me with a lot of questions that still aren’t answered, but it was an interesting read. You’ll learn more about the author of The Exorcist by reading his memoir I’ll Tell Them I Remember You, a book that was never brought up in this interview.

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Review: In the Season of the Sun

In the Season of the Sun
In the Season of the Sun by Kerry Newcomb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I just didn’t care for it. The story was too heavy on the romance. This will sound sexist, I know, but honestly, the romance was such an important element of the story that I thought Kerry was a woman. Yeah, sue me. Whatever.

The writing is competent. The story isn’t horrible, if it’s the kind of thing you’re into. I was looking for more Western-style action. I found the story to be pretty predictable and the characters one dimensional. Your mileage may vary.

If you like Dana Fuller Ross, you will probably like this. Again, not horrible, just not what I enjoy.

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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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