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March Readings, Part 1(.5)

Since my last post about readings was February/March, this one is March, Part 1.5.

It’s been a busy month, and I’ve also been switching back and forth between a lot of different things, so I hardly read as much as I would like to be able to say I had. However, it’s been a month of very good, worthwhile reading.

Picking up from where I left off, I tore through Small Beer Press’ LCRW No. 11, which was sent to me by the lovely and (enviably) talented Tina Connolly. My suspicion that it might be a worthwhile zine to subscribe to was confirmed. It’s goofy in all the right ways, funny and smart and weird. It’s not really SFnal, so much as fantasy-oriented, but nary a sword in sight. It was fun, and also reinforced my idea that Good Things are happening at Small Beer.

John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. (See reviews here.) I go through cycles and phases. For a while — until I got to think deeply about it, and had a brief and somewhat dispiriting interchange with the author, I was recommending books by Derrick Jensen. (I still like Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, but I have serious problems with some of Jensen’s other ideas.) Now, it’s Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down that I am recommending to people.  When students say things that suggest they’re angry about their educational experience — the violence, the lack of real learning, the seeming failure of compulsory education — I recommend this book to them. Gatto’s main thesis is that compulsory education is doing its job perfectly, and far from failing, by disempowering us and ill-equipping us for intellectual and functional adulthood. it’s doing exactly what it was — consciously — designed to do. His frustrations, as well as his anxieties as an enabler of this system in the position of “teacher”, really struck a chord with me, and his thoughts had had a major effect on the changes that I’ve implemented in my classroom of late. (I want to check out his The Underground History of American Education next. It’s available free on his site, but I think I may buy it sometime anyway!)

F&SF January 2007 — excellent work by Sterling, quite good work by Reed, Gerrold, and Minton, and respectable (if not mind-blowing) contributions by Randall and Gaiman. (Though the latter was a little take-it-or-leave-it, to me. I’m just not a big Gaiman fan, I guess.) Bonus: a really fun movie review by Lucius Shepard, which is fun more for what it says about the film industry these days. Completely obvious, but I like how the man says it.

Zoran Zivcovic, Seven Touches of Music. This was passed on to me by the lovely and (enviably) talented Ian McHugh (no link as he’s living in the pre-Internet nation of Norstrilia). My feelings about the “mosaic-novel” form, from this one example, is that a mosaic novel is basically a book in which short stories are collected, which do not lock together into anything like a novel, yet also could not really function individually as short stories. There are some interesting bits in thisbook, but nothing that struck me as overly surprising or engaging. I certainly never had any of the Wow! moments I read SF for.

I found myself wondering whether Zivkovic actually considers himself a fantasy writer, and how in touch he is with what’s going on in the genre internationally. Unlike Borges, I didn’t find his work strong enough, unique enough, or just plain weird enough to stand on its own without some kind of awareness of the field. I guess my view harmonizes well enough with Ian’s actually, though mine is probably a little harsher. It’s not actually “bad”, it’s just not, well, not noteworthy, and if the book hadn’t been a gift, I’d probably have consigned it to the “Nah,” pile after the third or fourth story. Worse, I was ever so slightly disturbed by the underlying architecture of the book, which seemed to be a very hokey linkage between music and “nonrational forms of knowing” or something. Even worse, the stories were all short because characters either fled or died in the face of this unrational knowledge. I have a feeling I know why the stories all ended up being so short, and so uninteresting to me in general. Someone who knows a lot about music doing a similar thing — exploring the connections between music and magical, mystical, and nonrational knowledge — could probably blow me away, but in Zivkovic’s book, music is a doorway into the magical, poof, bang, wowee. It didn’t do much for me at all. Maybe I know too much about music to relax and let this hand-waving carry me away, I don’t know.

Drive-By English, a zine by J. Scott Burgeson. Burgeson mailed this to me when I inquired as to the availability of back issues of his famous zine about Korea, Bug. (And that led me to check out his book, a compilation of the best of the zine, mentioned below.) It’s full of the writings of some of his students. There’s a discernible pattern to it, with jokes interstitally arranged to punctuate more interesting writings about students experiences. I loved the glimpses of life in Indonesia written by one of his students, and the relation of first kisses by some of his students were sweet. Like anything interesting, some parts made me a little uncomfortable, too, like the recurring statements by some students that either foreign people “aren’t really all bad” or else that most of them are indeed bad. I sympathize somewhat: I’m not a fan of the majority of foreigners who end up here, as I’ve met a somewhat disheartening number of weirdoes and freaks, and a lot of plainly snotty fratboys and ignorant dolts who wouldn’t know the difference if they were overnight transplanted to China or Cambodia, such is their disconnection from the place where they live.  Yet despite all that, I find the most widespread, most loudly-declared Korean attitudes towards race disheartening at times. What to say when the worst student in class (it usually is the worst student) stands up and proudly declares, “I hate Japan!”, and you know he’s never met even on Japanese person? These days, I mostly focus on his grammar, and leave him to sort out his thoughts on the world in his own time.

Ray Vukcevich, Meet Me in the Moon Room. More Small Beer Press goodness, and also another gift from Tina, and a wonderful book. Another friend and classmate, the debatably lovely but nonetheless (danevolently) talented Ben, called me on my often-made claim to dislike fantasy literature. He was right to do so, if Vukcevich is counted as an author in that genre. Fantasy is weird, is exciting and strange, surreal and bizarre. Vukcevich actually brings to my mind, more than any other author, Tina herself. It’s surreal, weird, full of perfectly placed telling details and moments of introspection. When Vukcevich isn’t alienating you with this or that absolutely bizarre detail of his imagined world, he’s drawing you into it with this or that heartbreaking, amusing, or outright familiar, hey-that’s-me detail. The other thing that Vukcevich does amazingly well is to tell a story in a miniscule amount of space. Many of the stories are exceedingly short, most of them only a few pages long, yet I’ve been taking my time reading the book because many of them require me to stop and think a little — or, rather, to savour the last story — before going on to the next one.

Right now, I’m working on finishing the Vukcevich, as well as working my way through J. Scott Burgeson’s Korea Bug and, finally,  rereading the graphic novel V for Vendetta for my Media English class.  I have a feeling  we’re going to be reading it for a long time: it’s 300 pages long, and even if most of that is images, it’s still going to be a long slog for some of them. The books should be arriving next week, probably one week before we finish working through the film adaptation. Another book I’ll be rereading for that class is Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture (which is free online here), especially the parts on the history of copyright, since we’re discussing that this week in my Media English class.

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