Monthly Archives: April 2011

One of My Favorite Saints

As a young person I loved Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and recall memorizing one of the title character’s monologues for some forgotten reason. It was the time of the Vietnam War to which I was passionately opposed and so I was quite obsessed with Shaw’s pacifism. Around that time I also became a lifelong fan of Tom Lehrer, the witty mathematician at the keyboard. And so thought of both when I saw the following clever video of a song from a very worthy project described by one of its participants here.

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Lucy Knisley’s Vision of Harry and Co

Above is a tiny taste of Lucy Knisley’s delightful compressed comic renditions of the first four Harry Potter books.  Via the very sharp-eyed Phil Nel.

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Suzy Lee’s Alice

Thanks to Phil Nel for pointing me to this post about Suzy Lee‘s Alice in Wonderland.  As soon as I saw it I realized I had the book, but had it long before I’d seen any of Suzy’s fabulous picture books (such as Wave and Mirror). Now looking at it I recognize her style completely.  Delightful, of course. And eerie, of course, too.

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Peter Hessler on Mortenson

For years, I’ve found it hard to talk about Mortenson’s books. They often come up in conversation, because I’m a former Peace Corps teacher who lived in Asia for more than a decade. And yet that experience made me wary of any simple narrative that involves an American helping people overseas. Like many volunteers, I often felt overwhelmed and ineffective; it took two years of diligent study just to gain a decent facility with the Chinese language. I was still making cultural mistakes up until the day I left. If anything, I felt most positive about the Peace Corps experience because my impact was limited—I left without building anything, or changing the culture, or revolutionizing classroom patterns in my school. I always viewed it as an exchange: there was some value to my teaching, and in the meantime I learned a great deal from my students, colleagues, and friends. It seemed a tiny part of an incremental, long-term process, as China engaged with the outside world. And the key element was that the Chinese remained in charge—it was up to them to improve their country.

The above sentiments are excerpted from the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler’s thoughtful piece “What Mortenson Got Wrong”.  My own Peace Corps experience in Sierra Leone has caused me to feel similarly and I also struggle with the way so many are inspired by charismatic outsiders when they choose to contribute.  (As a child I was very inspired by outsider Albert Schweitzer.) One of the many things I appreciated about my Peace Corps experience was being forced to do it for two years, not one or a few months. As Hessler points out it takes a long time to even begin to get a handle on a culture so different from one’s own.

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Cosmic Skyping

Yesterday my class and I had a fabulous Skype visit with the delightful Frank Cottrell Boyce.  I was a big fan of his book Millions and then became an even bigger fan of his latest book, Cosmic.  I love reading it aloud and can say with complete assurance that the three classes I’ve read it aloud to are as enthused about it as I am.

While I was excited about yesterday’s opportunity I also was nervous.  It is one thing to Skype with one person, computer to computer, and quite another to do it with a whole class.  Also, I’d finished reading the book a while ago — what if the kids had forgotten it or had lousy questions for Frank?

Turned out I had no need to fret.  One of our wonderful school tech folks set everything up and used a camera to zoom in on the different kids as they questioned Frank and saw to it that all went smoothly. And the kids’ questions — they were excellent.  Frank told us all sorts of great things about his development as a writer, much about the inspiration and writing of Cosmic, and a bit about his newest project — a sequel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He showed us the cover and it looks fun. While I’m always a bit skeptical of this sort of thing (another author taking over something from a deceased author), I’ve liked so much of what Frank has done to date that I’m hopeful.

We recorded the session and, once it is edited down, plan to put it up on the school’s website.  In the meantime do read my students’ virtual thank you notes. My thanks to Frank and Walden Media for this great experience.

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The Complexities of Help

My experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone in the 1970s, my work there and subsequently with a variety of NGOs, a graduate degree in International Education, my later travel to various needy spots in the world, my work as an educator, and my observations of the way well-intended outsiders (adults and children) respond to humanitarian issues world-wide has made me very aware of the complexities of help. And so reading Jon Krakauer’s piece on Greg Mortenson had me saddened to see such well intentions go so far astray, but also hopeful that it will be a wake-up call to others who mean well and want to help.

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Ease on Down to Wonderland

Last night Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd’s musical version of Alice in Wonderland arrived on Broadway.  Now I am indeed quite a Carrollian, but a fairly selective one. That is, I don’t go to stage versions or buy book adaptations that do not seem likely to fit my tastes.  And so I’d held off going to this version based on the videos I’d seen which left me completely cold.  Charles Isherwood’s review in today’s Times only reinforced that feeling. He writes:

The model here appears to be the Broadway behemoth “Wicked,” which recast L. Frank Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as a moral-dispensing tale of exceptionally gifted young women (hitherto known as witches) finding common ground in girl power. Unfortunately “Wonderland” reminded me even more strongly of another latter-day iteration of the Baum story, the bloated 1978 movie version of the Broadway musical “The Wiz.”

You’ll recall — or maybe you won’t — that in the film the teenage Dorothy of the stage version became a grown-up, put-upon New York schoolteacher played by a saucer-eyed Diana Ross. The adventurer in “Wonderland” is also a harassed New York schoolteacher, Alice (the capable Janet Dacal), who aspires to write children’s books. Recently separated from her unemployed husband, she has moved to the “kingdom of Queens” with her daughter Chloe (Carly Rose Sonenclar, a good actress and an almost preternaturally skilled singer).

The problem for me is that Baum and Carroll’s stories are so different. The first has a driving quest plot — Dorothy wants to get home, but Alice hasn’t a similar wish in her original book — the only vague plot thread is her desire to get to the beautiful garden.  The heart of Alice’s story is the wit, the language play, and the episodic encounters with odd creatures.  I have no problem with someone figuring out how to strengthen the plotline as long as they maintain the humour and wit, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  (Nor was it, for that matter, in last year’s Tim Burton effort.)  And so Alice as Dorothy-in-the-Wiz just doesn’t work for me. (And by the way, Whoopie Goldberg already did an urban Alice for kids years ago.)

One film that does, I feel, give a sense of what Carroll was all about is Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild which is currently and frustratingly not available on DVD.  It does seem to be on youtube in bits so here is the first part so you can get a taste:

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