Making a Supernatural Living

July 30, 2008

Ah, capitalism! Someone sees a market for something and then acts to fill that need at a healthy profit for themselves. It works so well (on paper)! A personal hobby horse of mine is what often seems to be a failure of otherwise fascinating and detailed fictional worlds with meticulously developed supernatural or pseudoscientific powers failing to take the profit motive into account.

My most often cited example of this is the long suffering Peter Parker. The poor guy barely covers rent in a thankless job doing freelance work for a borderline yellow journalist. The psychological reasons for why he continues to punish himself year after grueling year have been well-documented, but still, I’ve occasionally wondered why a man of such scientific skills doesn’t get himself a better job. This is a guy who over what was essentially a long-weekend invented an incredibly compact liquid substance which when exposed to air would instantly harden into a powerful adhesive which would furthermore dissolve all by itself after a few hours. Consider the potential non-lethal uses of such a weapon in the hands of law-enforcement agencies as a legacy for poor martyred Uncle Ben. If you were willing to be a bit more mercenary, consider the industrial applications. I recognize that he has a deep need to do personal hero work, but it just seems that having a decent financial base to fund your vigilante efforts above the poverty line might make your life a little more bearable (not that it seems to help Batman much).

Still, an example of a well-thought out economic plan in an unusual setting always makes my day. Here are a few examples, though I’m hoping other people will share a few more.

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Teach for America or The Collapse of the “Public” in Public Education

July 26, 2008

(After much lurking in the shadows and posting the occasional odd comment such as this one or that one, I have decided to make my initial post as a full-fledged contributor to Geek Buffet. I promise that others won’t be on such serious topics as this one. Enjoy!)

The Background Story: I was at a small departmental gathering last night and – after much food and drink – the topic of conversation turned to Teach for America, since our host’s daughter is going through their training program as we speak for a Denver teaching position in the fall. Not being one to hold back his opinions, I made several disparaging remarks about Teach for America, including that it A) encourages people to see teaching as an altruistic resum√©-builder that a privileged recent college grad could do rather than as a serious profession that must be done by our best and brightest, B) has a low rate of participants who continue in the field as teachers, C) doesn’t sufficiently train their participants to deal with the tough educational environment of poor rural and urban public schools and D) is a stop-gap feel-good solution for a much wider educational equality problem of income tax disparities between districts. These opinions reflect both research published in various educational journals and in the Education training I received at Grinnell College, particularly from Drs. Jean Ketter and Kara Lycke.

Needless to say, the whole room eagerly jumped down my throat to stop my heart. The counter-arguments were admittedly valid: Teach for America does convince our best and brightest that teaching is a serious profession, many folks who wouldn’t end up teaching suddenly become inspired and go on further in the field, the teachers-to-be get 5-6 weeks of intense training and then have to apply for positions at individual schools on their own, and, the real heart-string-puller, these inner-city kids need enthusiastic warm bodies in their classrooms NOW. It turned out to be a complicated and heated subject of conversation as liberals circled the wagons against a radical lefty (me) who believes that Teach for America should be helping to overhaul the whole public education system in this country for the better, not support the continuous, monotonous moralizing discourse of American poverty and education that has ensnared plans for real reform. Let me explain my wacky position.

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Fictional Shakespearean History in The Book of Air and Shadows

July 25, 2008

I appear to have inadvertently started a trend of posting book reviews on Fridays. Just in time to give you ideas of something to read over the weekend! I am thinking only of you, dear reader. Anyway, this week’s book is something I actually read back in March but hadn’t gotten around to writing about: The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber. It’s actually a pretty good choice to follow my review of The Historian, because it’s another story where the present and the past end up intertwined and the main characters have to chase their goal through history as well as geography.

Also similarly, this story has multiple but converging storylines. In this case, the adventure starts when one of our main characters, Jake Mishkin, an IP lawyer, is given a document by a Shakespearean scholar from a local college, who came to him for some advice. Mishkin thought the guy’s request was a little odd, but put the document in the law firm’s safe and goes on with his day. Then the scholar turns up tortured to death.

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Hunting Dracula with The Historian

July 18, 2008

I honestly never meant for Geek Buffet to end up with a whole series of posts on vampire fiction, but here I am, adding to it again. (Previous posts here, here, and here.) I picked up The Historian to take with me on my long business trip in large part because it looked interesting enough and, perhaps more importantly, it looked long, thereby cutting down on the number of individual books I would be putting in my luggage. It turned out to be a good choice, so if you’re looking for summer travel reading as well, read on.

I mentioned before that most of my vampire fiction reading has ended up being at an interesting intersection of vampire and detective. The Historian doesn’t quite fit that model, although the story definitely provides enough mystery and suspense for the reader to make you have to know how it ends. (Or at least it did me.) The title, interestingly enough, could apply to any number of the characters in the book: the narrator, her father, or her father’s advisor. Truly, there are three stories going on in the book, from each of these historians’ perspectives, creating a very layered effect as the story travels back in time through three generations of characters and then forward again, (which at least one person I know found off-putting enough that she didn’t get past the first couple of chapters, but really, you should keep going.)

The stories are all really the same story, of course, and everything converges nicely at the end. The premise is this: The narrator begins the book by saying that she wishes to present the story of how her family became so involved in, and later known for, the search for Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula. She begins at the beginning of her own journey, when she was still in high school and discovered a strange book in her father’s library, blank except for a woodcut illustration covering the two pages in the exact center of the book depicting a dragon and the word “Drakula.” It is also accompanied by a bunch of very old letters addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.” Her curiosity piqued, she finally asks her father about them.

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Basque Gastronomy and History

July 11, 2008

I seem to have stored up a backlog of book reviews that I’ve been meaning to post, so I’ll start trying to clear them out of my head and onto the internet now. This first one is somewhat unusual, in that it’s actually non-fiction, which I haven’t been reading much of lately.

This book actually has to be paired with a radio story. Back in May, before I had to leave for my 3-week business trip to Asia (I’m chronicling that over on my personal blog), I heard this piece from the Kitchen Sisters on NPR, from their Hidden Kitchens series: The Sheepherder’s Ball: Hidden Basque Kitchens. While my own cooking skills are notably underdeveloped, I find this series fascinating for the way it explores history and culture through the initial touchstone of recipes and food. In this case, they revealed the existence of a sizable Basque community in the US that I had never heard about before.

Francisco and Joaquin Lasarte came to America in 1964 from Basque country in northern Spain. Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who repressively ruled the country for nearly 40 years, made life miserable for the Basque people, suppressing their language, culture and possibilities.

The result was a massive exodus, and the only way to come to the United States for many Basque was to contract as sheepherders. There was a shortage of shepherds in the American West, and Sen. Patrick McCarren of Nevada helped craft legislation in 1950 that allowed Basque men to take up this lonely and difficult job.

Neither Lasarte brother had any sheepherding experience when they arrived in America.

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Blogroll Addition: Jeff in Burundi

July 8, 2008

We seem to be having some sparse posting of late, but the summer travel season (including such things as vacations, business trips, weddings, moving, and preparing for new schools or jobs) is well underway, which is terribly distracting for our writers, alas. Hence, a blogroll addition to keep you distracted.

Jefferson Mok is a classmate from Grinnell who has just moved to Burundi to “establish a residential shelter for female child soldiers who need assistance to reintegrate into their communities.” Simple, yes? Especially as the sole representative of his organization. You can follow his adventures so far at his blog. He spent the last two years working with asylum seekers in Chicago, and is now going to try to help at the source. We wish him the very best of luck! I, for one, am somewhat in awe at the task he’s taking on.

Untimely Ripped

July 3, 2008

If you’ve had a child in the last ten years or so – or rather, if you’ve seriously contemplated having a child for more than about fifteen minutes of your life – there’s one fact you’ve probably heard: Caesarean rates in the first world, especially in the US, are too high. Every few months brings along another article like¬†this one, deploring the Caesarean rate and explaining (1) why it’s so high and (2) what doctors and patients should be doing to solve it, and aren’t. In many circles, unmedicated natural childbirth is held to be the best possible birthing experience — “our birthright” according to one midwife — and women who end up having a Caesarean for causes which aren’t immediately and obviously life-threatening for the baby (for instance, prolapsed cord) quite often feel that they’ve somehow been denied a good birth, or that they have let themselves or the baby down. On Plans, we were discussing how “birth is not a competition”, but human nature is such that some people will inevitably regard it as one; to have had an unmedicated birth somehow gives you a head start in the Good Parenting Stakes, and to have had a Caesarean shows lamentable weakness.

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