The President Has Been Shot, James L. Swanson

Monday, April 30, 2018

Any regular readers of this blog will know that non-fiction isn't really my thing. Apparently, I need a plot, because the only genre of non-fiction I read on a (semi)regular basis is the memoir. But, because we are gearing up to do some major curriculum revisions in the social studies department at my school, I spent the last month or so reading all the young adult non-fiction I could find pertaining to world history, American history, psychology, government, and even <gasp> economics.

Some of it was definitely not my cup of tea (I'm looking at you, Naked Economics), but I surprised myself by how many of the books I really enjoyed. One, in particular, was The President Had Been Shot by James L. Swanson. It details John F. Kennedy's rise to the presidency, including major events such as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then gives a detailed, almost minute by minute account of the days leading up to the assassination, and the immediate aftermath.

There has been a rise in the amount of non-fiction aimed specifically at young adults in the last few years, and Swanson definitely understands his target demographic. The book is chock full of photographs, maps, and diagrams, breaking up the information visually and providing support for the reader, both of which have been shown to have a positive impact on the engagement and comprehension of young adult readers. The prose mostly reads like a good story, rather than a list of dates and facts, written in language that is sufficiently academic not to insult the intelligence of young adult readers, but not so academic that it feels stuffy and dry. The subject matter lends itself to a feeling of drama and suspense, despite the fact that we obviously already know how things turned out on that fateful day, and Swanson's writing fosters that feeling, especially once he gets to the events in Dallas just prior to, during, and after the assassination. What was new to me, even as an adult reader, was the descriptions of what happened the day of the assassination in terms of the gathering of evidence and treatment of the crime scene by police, FBI, and Secret Service officers. How so many people botched what was, even on the 1960s, pretty standard investigative protocols is beyond me, even given the extraordinary event that was the assassination of a sitting president.

There are a ton of content connections in the text that could be used as jumping off points for bringing in other material, if this book were to be used in a classroom. It mentions the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, as stated above, but also the space race, the Berlin Wall, Joseph McCarthy, the Civil Rights movement, and Soviet defections. It is also an opportunity to examine the uniquely tragic history of the Kennedy family in general; Joseph Jr's death in WWII, JFK's assassination, RFK's assassination, Rosemary Kennedy's botched lobotomy, Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick scandal, and JFK Jr's plane crash. The book also makes mention of some of the conspiracy theories about the assassination that grew out of the Warren Report, providing a springboard for talking about how historians evaluate evidence and draw conclusions, as well as teaching students how to evaluate whether a source is credible.

I'm definitely not a fan of exclusively using the textbook to teach, well, anything, so if I were teaching US History I could definitely see using this book as one resource for a unit on the 1960s, the Cold War, or the US presidency. I think that it would stimulate not just intellectual curiosity but also the emotions of teenagers, and getting emotions involved is one way to help students retain information. If they can remember how they felt when they read something, the content will stick with them longer. Unless what they felt was bored, which is why I think that using this type of text is a great way for history teachers to increase the engagement level of their students with their content.

My Year of King #5: The Long Walk (as Richard Bachman)

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dystopian fiction has been big over the last decade or so, especially for young adults. Series like Veronica Roth's Divergent series and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy have harnessed the anxiety about the future of the human race that seems so prevalent these days and turned it into stories about brave young people defying oppressive authority and overcoming ecological and societal disaster.

When I first read The Long Walk in my teens, I had never heard the term dystopian, but it turns out that experience foreshadowed a future love for the genre. The Long Walk, published under King's pseudonym Richard Bachman, is the story of Raymond Garraty and 99 other teenage boys who are participating in the Long Walk, a competition to see which boy can walk the farthest without stopping. The reward for being the winner of the Long Walk is untold riches, but the consequence for coming in any place but first is death. The boys are followed by men with guns, ready to shoot and kill any walker who stops for longer than two minutes. The boys begin in Maine and walk until there is a winner. The Long Walk is the brainchild of The Major, the dictator of an America that is under totalitarian rule. Ray, being from Maine himself, gets a lot of support and encouragement from the spectators gathered along the walk's route, but will that be enough to give him the strength and stamina he needs to make it to the end.

What makes this short (for King) novel such an interesting read is the way he describes the physical and mental trials the walkers go through. As the Walk goes on through its second and third and fourth day, and the number of walkers gets smaller and smaller, King describes in pretty gruesome detail the effects that non-stop walking can have on the human body. This is not a novel for the squeamish. Each walker responds in their own way to the physical and mental pain and exhaustion, as well as to the increasingly likely event of their own death at the hands of one of the soldiers enforcing the rules of the Walk. A camaraderie forms between many of the walker, who find small ways to support each other, even though their friend's success would mean their own death. It is an interesting study in human nature, and how one author imagines we might behave under cruel and grueling circumstances.

My main criticism of this book, which I don't remember having when I read it the first time 30 years ago, is that though King drops some hints along the way about what has happened to make America into a totalitarian state willing to sacrifice its own teenagers in a bizarre form of ritualized physical competition, we never learn exactly what the purpose of the Long Walk is, who the Major is, how he came to power, or really anything about the state of the world outside of the Walk. From conversations between walkers, we know that it is illegal to speak out against the State, and the punishment is to be killed or "disappeared". We know that there is a militaristic security force that enforces these repressive rules. We know that something must be making these teenage boys desperate enough to be willing to participate in the Long Walk-none of them were conscripted. Each one made the choice to participate without coercion, as far as the reader can tell. I was left with TONS of questions. Readers often bemoan novels with too much exposition, but this one definitely could have used a bit more.

Some folks are also dissatisfied with the ending, I suspect, which leaves the finale of the Walk unresolved. But I am OK with it. I didn't need this story to have the ending tied up in a neat little bow. Unlike some plot-driven novels, I don't actually think the specific events of the novel were as important as the way that the characters reacted to them. All we know for certain is that there was a "winner"-but what that means, or what the long-term effects of being a walker might be on said winner, we will never know.

Death Coming Up the HIll, Chris Crowe

Monday, April 16, 2018

As a child of baby boomers, I heard a lot about the 60s, the Viet Nam War, and the civil rights movement when I was growing up. My father served in the Navy during the last years of Viet Nam, and was never stationed in Southeast Asia, but so many men of his generation were horribly traumatized by that conflict. And unlike World War II, which most Americans seem to regard as a just war, the advent of television and the anti-war movement created a very different cultural moment when it came to Viet Nam. The domestic upheaval of the 60s essentially redefined what it means to be an American in some pretty profound ways.

Chris Crowe's book, Death Coming Up the Hill, is a short novel, told in a series of interconnected haiku, does an admirable job of fitting in a little something about almost all of the major events of 1968 and 1969. The title, and the last chapter, are based on a letter sent home by a US Marine shortly before being killed during the battle on Hamburger Hill. The main character, Ashe, is a senior in high school. Every week, his history teacher writes a number on the board-it is the number of US soldiers killed in Vietnam the previous week. Numbers are very important to Ashe, especially the number 17, which is why he writes his "journal" in the form of haiku (Japanese poems that consist of three lines totaling 17 syllables). Ashe's mother and father married because of him. His father, a former college football star, gave up a career in the pros to marry Ashe's mother. His mother, for her part, was never 100% comfortable in the housewife role she'd been relegated to. When she becomes interested in the anti-war movement, things get really tense at home. Luckily, a beautiful new girl, Angela, enrolls at Ashe's school. They quickly become involved, and Ashe learns that Angela's brother is missing in action in Viet Nam. As the war grinds on, and things at home deteriorate, Ashe is forced to make a decision that may force him to pay the ultimate price.

Novels in verse are having a moment right now, so the fact that this novel is told through poetry is not singularly unique. What is, however, is the very intentional way that the author (through the character of Ashe) honors the memory of every US soldier killed in the Viet Nam war. Each syllable of each haiku represents one soldier lost, and the number of haiku times the syllables in each (17, of course) equals 16, 592; the total number of the fallen. Frankly, this is one of those feats that always amaze me. It's hard enough to tell a compelling story with all of the words in the world available to you, but to limit yourself to 196 poems of three lines and seventeen syllables each to tell a story as moving and comprehensive as this one is pretty impressive.

You'd think that a novel as short as Death Coming Up the Hill would feel overworked by the inclusion of so many historical references, but Crowe finds a way to weave the history of the late 60s into the story in ways that make sense and don't feel contrived. The school year he chronicles (1968-1969) was chock full of events with historical significance. Because I was thinking about using this in a US History class as a supplemental text, I made a list of the historical tie-ins that could be explored; the Viet Nam War, the civil rights movement, the assassination of MLK, the assassination of RFK, anti-miscegenation laws, the Democratic Convention riots, the hippie/peacenik movement, and the Cold War. Some of these topics are mentioned in passing in the context of some event that happens in the novel, and some become larger themes, but all are woven into the story in ways that feel true.

The character I probably related to the most on a personal level was Ashe's mother. My own mother was a housewife for most of my childhood, and that role never sat well on her. She is one of the smartest women I know, someone who needs a lot of intellectual stimulation, and being home taking care of the house and watching me and my brother was not really meeting that need. Luckily, she was able to go to college when I was in high school, and while she only briefly worked outside the home due to some physical challenges, college gave her an outlet for her own intellect and allowed her to meet likeminded folks who had more in common with her than many of the other moms on our block. So I saw a lot of my mother in the character of Ashe's mother, but I also saw a little bit of myself. I can totally envision myself doing exactly what Ashe's mother does when she realizes the power that she can have by freeing herself from the chains of expectation regarding what is "proper" for a wife and mother to do.

Of course, I'm old now, so it makes sense I would see more of myself in the adult characters, but Ashe and Angela are both well written and relatable. Ashe is a little more mature than I expect most 17-year-olds to be, but he had to grow up fast to survive the conflict in his home. I think teenagers will see in him the same uncertainty and fear they themselves feel as they grow towards adulthood, grappling with decisions about what exactly they will do after high school and learning to navigate adult relationships. While ultimately we decided not to use this book in US History, I still think it would make a good addition to a social studies class at the high school level.

My Lobotomy, Howard Dully (Charles Fleming)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Humans really don't have a great track record as a species when it comes to the way we treat people In fact, we don't even have a great track record of deciding what is and is not a mental illness in the first place. At various times in the last 200 years, we've pathologized a slave's desire to run away from slavery (drapetomania), women who are emotional and like sex (hysteria), and man-on-man or girl-on-girl action (homosexuality). Clearly, it's taken us a really long time to get around to understanding the full complexities of the human condition, and the medicalization of the normal range of human emotions continues today. There are some who are even questioning the psychiatrist's most important book, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which lists mental disorders, their symptoms, and possible treatments.
with mental illness.

One of the more recent (and shameful) periods in the history of mental health treatment came in the middle of the 20th century, the era of the lobotomy. A lobotomy is a surgical procedure that creates an incision in the brain, resulting in changes in personality, cognition, and behavior. The theory was that people with certain types of mental illness, especially those that resulted in abnormal, uncontrollable, or violent behavior, could be "cured" by disconnecting the pathways in the brain that are pathologically damaged. The procedure was pioneered by Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for advancement in psychosurgery. Perhaps the best-known lobotomy patient in the United States was Rosemary Kennedy, oldest sister to President John F. Kennedy. Born with cognitive disabilities, Rosemary's father Joseph ordered the procedure done on her when she was 23. However, serious complications during surgery resulted in her being severely disabled for the rest of her life, which she spent in an institution in Wisconsin. The lobotomy was also a prominent plot point in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

In the US, Dr. Walter Freeman was the most vocal and enthusiastic proponent of the procedure, and he developed his own version of the surgery, involving a literal icepick to the brain, inserted through the eye-socket. Freeman performed thousands of these procedures, despite having no surgical training. Up to 40% of his patients were being treated for homosexuality, which resulted in almost 2000 otherwise healthy people being brain damaged for life. He was finally banned from performing the procedure, but not before he had affected thousands of lives, including the lives of at least 19 minors.

One of those children was 12 -year-old Howard Dully.  In 1960, Dully's father and step-mother, after a year or more of taking Howard from psychiatrist to psychiatrist, stumbled upon Dr. Freeman. Dully's step-mother, Lou, was physically and emotionally abusive to Howard, constantly berating him and using him as the scapegoat for her biological son's behavior. She had taken Howard to many psychiatrists, none of whom found anything wrong with the boy that couldn't be explained by a stressful and toxic home environment. Dully's father, Rodney, was unwilling or unable to stand up to his wife, and, in fact, was also physically violent with Howard. Lou finding Dr. Freeman was the worst kind of luck for Howard. Lou was determined to have Howard removed from her home, and Dr. Freeman was overly-enthusiastic about performing lobotomies. Despite his own admission that he believed Lou to be the problem in the household, he agreed to perform the procedure on Howard. Instead of fixing the "problem", the surgery resulted in permanent changes to Howard's memory, cognition, and personality, and exacerbated his difficult home life. Forty years later, happy for the first time in his life, Dully decides to try to determine exactly what happened to him in the months and years leading up to and just after the procedure.

The telling is straight-forward and no-nonsense. Dully shares stories of his abuse and neglect, as well as honest accounts of the poor choices he made as he moved into adulthood. He did not have an easy life-he experienced abuse, drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. While no direct cause and effect can be drawn between the lobotomy itself and his future outcomes, it certainly couldn't have helped.  It was part of a pattern of trauma, physical and emotional, that has certainly been shown over time to correlate to exactly the kind of actions that lead to drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration later in life. What is clear, however, is that Dr. Freeman was guilty of more than just malpractice. His ethical and moral violations are mind-boggling by today's standards, and even during his most active period, there were those in his field who refused to associate themselves with him. But somehow he convinced enough people that his procedure was "curing" things like schizophrenia and homosexuality that he was allowed to continue practicing for YEARS. Historically, "cures" for mental illness have caused more problems than they've solved, and have led to real torture for some patients.

While we've certainly made advancements from the earliest days of locked asylums, ice baths, and electroshock treatments, we've still got a mental health crisis in the United States. The majority of people incarcerated are diagnosed with or show signs of mental illness. Ditto many people experiencing homelessness. In Cook County, Illinois, the largest provider of mental health services is the Cook County Jail. Lack of funding, lack of community support, lack of adequate mental health first aid training, overpoliced communities, and the effects of trauma on the brain all contribute to a system that abandons the most vulnerable patients to a patchwork of unreliable services, the jail, or the streets. Because I don't see any alternative to hope, I have to believe that eventually, we as a society will recognize the value of prioritizing the elimination of poverty and violence, as well as compassionate care for those who are suffering from mental illness or trauma.

M-O-O-N Spells My Year of King #4-The Stand, Laws yes!

Monday, April 09, 2018

Clearly, my Year of King is going to turn into my Year or Two or Three of King, but so far my rereading experience has been worth it, so I'll stick with it as long as it takes!

The fourth book to be published by Stephen King (and I mean by the actual person, not by one or the other of his pen names) is one of my favorite books ever, a book that I have on my "Books You Should Read Before You Die" list, the only Stephen King book to give me nightmares. The Stand is, I think, an underrated masterpiece of the 20th century, and should have been on every "best of" list created. I think it is probably underrated because King is considered a "genre writer", and literary snobs love to hate on genre books, especially fantasy and horror (hey, lit snobs, you do know that realistic fiction is also a genre, right?!?). First published in 1978 and clocking in at a whopping 883 pages, it was republished in 1990 in its unabridged form, bringing the page total up to a whopping 1152 pages. This makes it King's longest book; good news for me since his other doorstop novels should feel shorter by comparison. I have read both versions multiple times-I read the original in high school two or three times, and the uncut version in college at least twice-which also makes this my most frequently read King book.

In case you don't know, The Stand is a story of good and evil. After a plague created as a biological weapon escapes the lab, killing 90% of the world's population, the survivors find themselves drawn to one of two places. Those drawn to Hemingford Home, Kansas are hoping to find Mother Abigail, the 108-year-old woman who has shown up in their dreams, and who believes herself to be a prophet of the Lord, sent to defeat the "walking dude". The Walking Dude, Randall Flagg, sets himself up in Las Vegas, and those drawn to him are the violent, the selfish, the deranged, and the greedy. Mother Abigail and our heroes-Larry Underwood, Ralph Brentner, Stuart Redman, Frannie Goldsmith, Nick Andros, Glen Bateman, and Tom Cullen-relocate from Kansas to Boulder, Colorado and start rebuilding society. Flagg's followers, in Las Vegas, soon have the city up and running, and begin to collect as many weapons as they can find. Flagg rules through fear, while Mother Abigail's power comes from love. Flagg is determined to control the entire world. Mother Abigail and her people only want to build a new society that doesn't repeat the mistakes of the last one, and they know that eliminating the threat of Flagg's ambition is the only way they will survive.

Book I details the plague and its immediate aftermath. This is when we are introduced to almost all of the main characters, including Flagg and his future minions. This is the part of the book that gave me nightmares. I don't believe that evil is an actual real force in the world that somehow resides in beings like the devil or Randall Flagg, so that part wasn't scary to me. But, do I believe that humans could create a biological or ecological disaster that could wipe out most of the Earth's human population? You betcha! My nightmares usually took the form of me wandering around the ruins of human settlements, big and small, desperately crying out for someone, anyone, to respond. Honestly, the loneliness of being the last human alive is way more terrifying to me than some evil villain.

Book II is all about the creation of the Boulder Free Zone, the betrayal of a couple of major characters, and the set up for the final showdown. To be honest, this time around I skimmed A LOT of Book II. I remember being interested in the rebuilding society thing the first couple of time I read this book, but this time I really just wanted to get back to the action, already! Truth is, King's original editors were probably correct in their decision to cut those 400 pages, though things like the prologue and Trashcan Man's backstory did add to the plot in important ways. If you decide to read this for the first time, don't worry-after about page 850 things pick up again in a major way.

Book III is the journey of our heroes to confront Flagg, and the final showdown. Without giving too much away let's just say that some characters get much-needed redemption, some characters die tragic deaths, and some characters receive what may well have been divine intervention. Not that it's hard to make me cry, but tears were shed during the last 150 pages, just as they have been every time I've read this book.

This is the first appearance of Randall Flagg, the walking dude, the hardcase, the personification of evil, but it is certainly not the last. Randall Flagg appears, either by mention or as a named character, in many King novels and short stories. Most importantly, he becomes the "man in black" that the gunslinger Roland Deschain chases across the desert in The Dark Tower series. Fans of the show Haven will have seen his name on a newspaper in the opening credits. Whenever Randall Flagg appears, death and destruction are sure to follow. He is the personification of the evil that connects many King books, and constant readers (as King calls those of us who read and reread and read again his books) know that in many ways, King's books are all long chapters in this ultimate story of good and evil that he's been telling for 40 years.

After The Stand, King starts to be more intentional in his addition of "Easter eggs" in his novels and short stories. One of the things I love about reading a King book is finding those mentions of other characters, fictional places, events, and storylines; it feels like a reward for the many, many, MANY pages of King's work I've read over the years.

I am glad to say that I still love this book as much as I ever did (even Book II). King really hits his character-developing stride with this particular cast of characters, especially Harold Lauder and Nadine Cross's characters. They are perfect examples of something King explores in various ways in most of his books-the idea that all of us have good and evil inside of us, and it is this internal struggle that must be won if we want to stay on the side of all that is right and moral in the world. He created one of my very favorite characters of all time, Tom Cullen, the cognitively disabled young man who is really the heart of the story. His worldbuilding is also improving, though the clunkiness of some of Book II proves that he's still got some growing to do in that regard.

The one thing I am noticing most so far rereading these books is how much the language in common use around issues of identity has changed from the 1970s and 80s until now. Tom Cullen is a good example. He is described as "mentally retarded", and the not-so-nice characters call him a "retard". This is not the language we would use any more for people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, but it certainly was the appropriate term when the book was written. Ditto words like "scag", "fag", etc...King always uses the vernacular of the time when writing his characters-it makes them seem more authentic. However, it does mean that some of this dialogue doesn't really stand the test of time. I ended up feeling uncomfortable for reasons that had nothing to do with what was actually happening in the story, even though intellectually I understood why that word was used the way it was. This is not, however, enough to keep me from continuing with this journey through King's oevre. Next up, The Long Walk, a dystopian novel he wrote as Richard Bachman.