Sunday, October 07, 2018

Hallow-Reading: Green and Pleasant Land

Over the past few months my personal reading has taken a turn down an unusual rabbit hole resulting in a turn from fantasy and non-fiction to horror short story, "folk horror" in particular. A rainy October morning seems as good a time as nay to blog a touch about my most recent literary diversion.

Though I have long been a reader of Romantic (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for example) and cosmic (works of H.P. Lovecraft) horror sub-genres, folk horror is something of a new direction. Folk horror is defined by members of the Goodreads Folk Horror Revival Group as "a subgenre of horror fiction, but its roots go back at least into the 19th century. The horrific element in a folk horror story traditionally arises from a source associated with European pagan folk traditions." Think of the tropes and settings of either the original 1973 The Wicker Man or 2018's Hereditary movies (among numerous others), and you are on the right--or very wrong--track.

As with most literary genres, there is quite a bit of room for interpretation when it comes to considering what exactly meets the necessary folk nature of a text thought to meet the criteria. For example, a number of popular American folk horror reads reference the local folk lore of familiar spooky states such as Louisiana or Maine, drawing on the regional rather than the European. For my first venture into the genre, however, I went native and read Great British Horror 1: Green and Pleasant Land, a collection of modern short stories published in 2016 by Black Shuck Books and edited by Steve J. Shaw. As it announces on the back cover, the collection features "eleven previously unpublished stories of small town, rural and folk horror."

In addition to being an excellent primer for the genre, Green and Pleasant Land offers some  downright creepy reading, perfect for autumnal evenings. While I had not read any of the authors' previously, I was fascinated by their combined ability to draw me into their distinctive mythologies which remained grounded in a very discernable modern, real world context. Two personal favorites include:
  • "The Castellmarch Man" by Ray Cluley. With nods to modern elements of geo-caching and stay-cation culture this standout introduces the reader to a couple, Charlie and Lyndsey, who learn "getting romantic" in unfamiliar stables might have unintended consequences. Throughout the story, Cluley intermingles touristy information about British landscape and lore which offers possible backstory to the journey our characters are on, as well as the origin of their antagonist. I've returned to this story twice and it's eerie tone, complex characters and the ancient dread in builds to still resonate. An excellent mix of the modern and archaic and therefore a strong entry in British folk horror.
  • "Strange As Angels" by Laura Mauro. "It's a delicate little mannequin, tiny limbs curled and foetal, skin bloodless and rice paper thin." (54) And so begins the story of a broken couple who crash into a creature they refer to as an angel. As their relationship crumbles, Frankie grows closer to the creature they've adopted, while Jimmie begins to see it the angel as a competitor for his affection. While the initial encounter with the angel takes place in a natural setting ("dark and foreboding woods"), the story quickly moves to the modern confines of Frankie's apartment. A fascinating look at a fractured relationship that decays as quickly as the "angel" grows.
The other nine stories are also of high quality, each with a different approach tp transplanting the mythic or imaginative into the modern world. Small touches such as clearly British settings and nuances of spelling ("foetal", "arsehole", "programme") and grammar are the sole indicators of being British as the universal relationships reverberate throughout the collection. The collection is not necessarily for the very young reader due to the occasional expletives and mature content (none of which is gratuitous). Green and Pleasant Land has me looking very forward the next offering of Great British Horror, which should be arriving by mail soon.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Summer Reading: Your Black Friend

From My Black Friend, page 2, panels 1-2.
After seeing the extended collection of Ben Passmore's online comic strips, Your Black Friend and Other Strangers, recommended in the past few weekends' New York Times Book Review, I took the small step toward reading the entire collection by first ordering the single issue version online, Your Black Friend. The choice of the shorter, 11 page version was two-fold. First, I was looking to read with an eye toward sharing with my junior and senior high school students this coming school year (and as such it might be more affordable for their purchase). Secondly, given the subject matter and that first purpose, a direct succinct delivery of the message might serve more useful and accessible.

More a graphic-essay than novel, what we comic book collectors might call a "one-shot", Your Black friend is best described as "sharp, informed social commentary in the form of an open letter on race and being black in America." (Goodreads) Indie publisher Silver Sprocket, in a formal description picked up by other online sources, tells us that this is Passmore‘s "necessary contribution to the dialogue around race in the United States, Your Black Friend is a letter from your black friend to you about race, racism, friendship and alienation."

Perhaps not surprisingly, despite it's brevity, Your Black Friend is very challenging reading, and experience that is very likely to be shaped by one's own background and openness to facing difficult realities. Both Passmore's contemporary, colorful and engaging art, as well as a natural, organic, writing styles combine to craft a dialogue that resonates for the reader looking to engage. At the risk of sounding like that white friend that Passmore astutely suggests "express their undying enthusiasm for 'Black Lives Matter," Passmore objectively illustrates (in words and pictures) the self-defeating thoughts by many sides of the conversation that result in meaningful communication failing before it begins.

As a 49 year-old, white male reader auditing my own experience, Passmore has me pegged. In doing so he has my attention. The missteps Passmore presents, I think, are not intended to further deepen the white guilt that he astutely notes as problematic, but rather to prompt these moments of genuine reflection. For example, as a high school teacher of a primarily white student body with a (thankfully) growing level of diversity, I do find myself sliding into 'black' presentations thoughtlessly." This is a mistake, as Passmore notes I may have been "totally unaware of." I am now.

So where does this take us? As Passmore shows in the closing pages of his essay, which mirror the events in the open, often it seems to leave us as a community and culture right where we were in the first place. In between the framing device, Passmore opines insightfully, but the commentary appears to ultimately have little impact. At the end of the day, the "nicely dressed white woman" with the "Eat, Pray, Love vibe" and the white friend reading a Yoga Book remain peacefully blind (and mute).

Oddly this reminds me of my past experiences at school district opening days. Annually, teachers start the school year with a tremendous presentation preceded by "professional development" attended by a small group of administrators and select teacher-types. The entire district takes two hours before students arrive for the school year, to set the theme for the year to follows. Smaller building level trainings are sprinkled in for the whole body of teachers to participate in... and by June little is meaningfully changed within that system. Briefly though, maybe we feel better about ourselves...

I strongly recommend this graphic essay for all audiences, but especially white folks, well-intentioned or otherwise. I don't know about you, baby, there must be a better way. As the author notes in the panels above, "What white ppl fear most is making things awkward'" and perhaps the first step is accepting the invitation to be awkward.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Summer Reading: The Dreams in the Witch-House

Just as with certain superior recording artists there are “no B-sides”, some writers seem to hit on all cylinders regardless of the piece. While “At the Mountains of Madness” is understandably viewed as one of his masterpieces, H. P. Lovecraft wrote many other stories that despite slightly less literary love, seem, to this reader, equally impressive. More than just my restating the obvious (“Lovecraft is a great writer”), with each new story I read buried deep in anthologies of his work, I am sure I have not always appreciated just how “great.”

Take “The Dreams in the Witch-House” for instance. (Note: Upon researching some information on the story, I was surprised to discover that many reputable Lovecraft scholars deem this particular story to be one of his lesser efforts.) As a fan of Lovecraft’s mythos, as well as those other works clearly influenced by his writing, I found the description of the cosmic environments to be illuminating. Perhaps it is too overt in its depiction for those who like more nuanced horror, but the “vast converging planes of a slippery-looking substance” (At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror, page 153) populated by geometric creatures bathed in violet light and “iridescent bubble-congeries”, made concrete for this reader that which has not always been so clear. This approach is as effective as the more subtle approach, albeit in a different way. Much of the content and details in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” also provides a “Who’s Who” of Lovecraftian ideas. In some ways this is an excellent follow up to “Mountains” as it takes some of the cosmology eluded to in the first and grounds it in a more accessible folklore (witchcraft). In addition to the expected supernatural/fantastic elements inherent in the horror, familiar settings such as Arkham and Miskantonic University connect the story to the Cthulhu Mythos by grounding the action in a real-er world.

My favorite new comedic creature as
visualized by digital artist
 Carlos Garcia Rivera.
Few writers are as closely associated with their literary creations as Lovecraft is with his Great Old One, Cthulhu. In addition to vividly capturing the cosmic nature of Lovecraft’s aesthetic, “The Dreams in the Witch House” also introduces a terrifying creature, though of much smaller in cosmic and physical stature than Cthulhu, Brown Jenkin. “That shocking little horror,” Brown Jenkin, is described as being “no larger than a good-sized rat”, having “horribly anthropoid forepaws”, and a “tiny, bearded human face.” (145) Unlike some of Lovecraft’s creature creations, due in part to its rat-like nature, visualizing Brown Jenkin is much easier to do than others. The familiar of the witch of the title, Keziah Mason, Brown Jenkin enters the small room of the story’s protagonist, Walter Gilman, via a series of rat holes. As a familiar, he serves the role of Mason’s herald, visiting Gilman without his master at varying points of the story, often terrorizing Gilman in his sleep. For the reader, Brown Jenkin also plays serves as comic-relief, even if gruesomely so. “The sinister old woman and the fanged furry little animal” are quite the duo. If the evil witch is the "straight-man", Brown Jenkin is the comedic player. While requiring a leap, this dynamic is not one I generally associate with Lovecraft’s work so was pleasantly surprised by it. Perhaps it is Brown Jenkin’s tendency to “titter” maniacally throughout the proceedings that gave me a vision of the wisenheimer side-kick archetype. Of course by the story’s conclusion, no one’s laughing at Brown Jenkin or his “four tiny hands of daemonic dexterity”! So taken was I by this monstrous little creature that upon meeting him in the story, I immediately texted a friend of mine who has also read a few Lovecraft stories: “Where has Brown Jenkin been my whole life?”

The lesson here (beyond the coolness of Brown Jenkin) is that like those aforementioned B-sides, it pays to read deeper cuts by authors you enjoy. I know that as a result of this experience, I am going back through those other anthologies looking for any more gems.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Summer Reading: Afterlife with Archie

A few covers from the series (from top left to right) Tim Seeley,  Dave Devries, 
and Francesco Franacvilla. 
True confession: I have never been a reader of Archie comic books. That is, until now. I, like most, have always possessed a passing familiarity with the cast: Archie Andrews, Jughead, Bettie, Veronica, Sabrina, Hot Dog and others. Without having spent much time thumbing through the Archie Digest Comics at the supermarket check-out lane, I have somehow come to know these characters. I also know that I am not alone. Thanks to the success of the current CW Riverdale television show (also streaming on Netflix) a whole new generation of viewers may well insure the Archie empire spanning for another 70+ (!) years. The television show’s success combined with the 2015 relaunch of the flagship series, Archie, likely will at the very least keep these characters within the cultural zeitgeist.

The publisher of Archie comics has long been aware of the iconic status of their characters and unlike other cape-centered comic book publishers, they have used this to their advantage for many years, the recent update notwithstanding. Whereas Batman, Spider-man and Superman are frequently being “re-made” to suit the plotting of their respective writers, “Archie-kins”, and the dynamics of his relationships with secondary characters, has been something of a constant. Which brings me to the most recent expansion of, and my first formal foray into, the Archie-verse: Afterlife with Archie.

Had never heard of Archie's dog Vegas prior to this series, 
but won't forget him now.
Afterlife with Archie is that rare comic book that is likely best read in trade (though I remain committed to the single issue format) if only for getting the complete story in one piece. The sum of the pieces might take a while to make whole though. The first issue of Afterlife with Archie was published back in 2013 and after almost five years, only nine of twelve originally solicited issues have seen publication. But what a run it has been this far!

From the first page, storytellers Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla craft a unique vision of the familiar Archie cast as survivors of a zombie apocalypse with its beginnings in Riverdale. Both creators are known (and respected) commodities through their individual work in other comic books, Aguirre-Sacasa as the writer of the complete 30 issue run of Marvel Knights 4 (2004—06) and artist Francavilla from a multitude of variant covers such as those for Dynamite’s Lone Ranger series as well as his own pulpy The Black Beetle (2012).

Each issue includes a secondary 
reprint of classic supernatural stories. 
The chief narrative difference between this Archie and the traditional comic book series, and one shared by other titles in the “Archie Horror” publishing family, is that no character is safe from being (literally) eaten alive. To reveal too much would ruin the surprise, but from issue 1 on, people die violently. Even those characters that one may not know well, such as Archie’s dog Vegas are given strong, if small, character moments. Because Francavilla’s stark and stylized artwork is not particularly detailed, his use of (limited color) and Aguirre-Sacasa’s dialogue is used to maximum emotional effect.

As mentioned, the inconsistent publishing schedule of Afterlife with Archie can frustrate if you are impatient, especially for single issue readers. (I avoided this by buying up the ten issues of the series over a few weeks from my local comic book shop.) The first five issues of the series are available in trade paperback entitled Escape from Riverdale. A second trade, the very-spoilery titled Betty: R.I.P., was solicited (as were issues 11 and 12) but all three have been subsequently cancelled. Based on what I have seen in issues 6 through 10, Cthulhu and Sabrina fans will not be disappointed.

Here's to hoping that Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla soon return to conclude the current arc. Given the easy accessibility of these iconic characters, even in a unique setting, as well as the high quality of the content, waiting patience will surely be rewarded.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Summer Reading: Logan's Run

Like most 40-50 somethings, the 1976 movie Logan's Run starring Michael York, Jenny Agutter, and Richard Jordan (who also played favorite literary character from Frank Herbert's novel's Duncan Idaho in David Lynch's movie version of Dune (1984)!), was a very important part of my nascent science fiction fandom. Despite being the tender age of 7 at the time, between the film version, Marvel comic book (which ran seven issues in 1977), and equally short-lived television series (14 episodes), Logan and Jessica's search for Sanctuary was a big part of daily neighborhood games of "guns".  (Back-in-the-day, my friends and I would gather with all of our plastic arms, break into groups and simulate life-and-death chases of one-another throughout a three-block radius of our hood... these were very different times.)

Logan's Run #2 cover by comic book legends
cover by George Perez and Al Milgrom.
Recently a summer school colleague stopped to share his excitement at hearing that Logan's Run was once again in the Hollywood hopper for a potential blockbuster remake. After sharing memories of Logan's Runs past, I mentioned that I had heard that the new movie is to be based on the original novel rather than the more familiar iterations. I expressed a desire to read the original novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, but had always had difficulty finding an affordable edition. Later that day he sent me a link to a recent re-release he'd come across on Amazon. Three days later it arrived in my mailbox and I jumped right in...

Released as part of Vintage Publishing's "Vintage Movie Classics" collection of "novels that inspired great films" in 2015, this edition of Logan's Run includes a foreword Daniel H. Wilson as well as publication details for the original novel and the movie adaptation. The differences between the familiar film and the original movie are many, ranging from key characterization to the scope of the world in which the action takes place. The general plot and narrative drive remains the same in all version of the story: in a secretly dystopian future, policeman Logan "ages out" and as a result of first trying to find a mythical utopia ultimately joins another runner in seeking the right to grow old all while being followed by former partner bent on bringing both he and his lady-friend to justice.

Given that the 1976 film is so familiar, the easiest way to share thoughts on the novel are to point out two key differences between the two.
  • In the movie, when characters turn 30 years-old, an event communicated to those around them through the change in color (red to blinking red to black) of the crystal imbedded in the palm of their right hands, they are expected to participate in the Carrousel celebration. During this public display, their lives are extinguished. If one fails to participate, individuals become "runners" who are then targeted by policemen called "Sandmen." The future-cops are tasked with apprehending and killing runners on the spot, thus maintaining the social construct that no one lives past 30. This is actually a pretty significant point of deviation from the novel. In Nolan and Johnson's book, the age of termination is 21, an aspect that better communicates an important part of the novel's world controlled by youth theme. The movement through a prescribed color-themed lifespan is further developed and Logan's personal at each seven year increment are shared via flashback.
  • Just as Logan's backstory, as well as that of the culture he resides in, backstory is more fully developed, the world of the novel is much more expansive. This aspect of the novel is among the more intriguing elements. Rather than quickly moving from the Dome City to Washington, DC, with only a couple stops along the way, in the novel, we follow the runners from Los Angeles to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and across the United States. I enjoyed the use of actual historical locales like the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota as an important locales. Additionally, the inclusion of robotic Civil War re-enactors in Virginia. These touches gave the story a much broader feel and a clearer American tone. 

It is clear that most of the decisions made in adapting the novel in 1976 were made for budgetary reasons including the hiring veteran actors who could no longer pass at 21 rather than less marketable teen unknowns. For the time, the special effects in Logan's Run (1976) were very impressive, even earning an Academy Award. With the unlimited budget afforded novelists, characters and setting could be much more imaginatively depicted. A prime example is the character Box who controls the icy area called Hell. In the movie, Box is a not-so-menacing chrome robot, in the novel a grotesque combination of machine and human parts.

William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's Logan's Run is a very slight volume, clocking in at a breezy 166 pages. The narrative is presented in a serialized structure using a conversational writing style that includes few creatively modernized words that are easily understandable given their context. As advertised on the back cover, this novel is indeed a "page-turner", and I read a few entertaining hours.

The challenge now would be to track down the two sequels penned by the first's co-writer, Nolan: Logan's World and Logan's Search. Published to coincide with the release of the movie, neither has been re-published since and are only available on E-Bay and Amazon for up to $60 apiece. Until I come across the for a more reasonable purchase price at a used book store or garage sale, I'll need to access the guns game brain of my childhood to envision the further adventures of Logan and Jessica...

Monday, July 23, 2018

Summer Reading: American Monsters

Though I have attempted quite a bit of “serious” reading this summer, like any buffet, a palette cleanser is sometime necessary. Recently I have regained an interest in cryptozoology, one initially fostered in my childhood by a steady diet of my parents’ copies of World News and the National Enquirer. Thanks in part to the success of crytpid-related reality television shows such as Beast Hunter and Finding Bigfoot, reading about such creatures as the Mothman, Bigfoot and the Jersey Devil have become much more readily available. Compared to the halcyon days of Bat Boy, the writing has also become more polished, professional and consistently entertaining.

Due to the clean writing style and accessible nature of her writing, Linda S. Godfrey has quickly found her way to my nightstand as one of my go-to literary palette cleansers. “One of America’s foremost experts on mystery creatures”, Godfrey’s books take a journalistic approach to retelling anecdotes and presenting histories of a variety of “monsters”, both familiar and unfamiliar. American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America spans an extensive timeline of experiences, often relayed through first-hand accounts of a multitude of incidents with mysterious creatures. 

"Windigo" illustration, page 254.
The encyclopedic text is divided into three parts, Air, Sea and Land, and further organized into chapters. Each chapter is then broken into small account of related creatures ranging in length from one to four pages. This organizational approach allows the reader, such as myself, who is unfamiliar with the broad range of possibilities in cryptozoology, to consider both the familiar and esoteric side-by-side within this larger sub-group. The book opens, for example, with “Part One: Monsters by Air”, beginning with “Chapter 1. Feathered Fiends” before moving into tales of Bigclaw, the Micmac Culloo and other historical Big Birds. In a language that is conversational and a tone that is suggests a suspension of disbelief, the writer comes across as neither pandering nor na├»ve. Godfrey clearly lays out the experiences of  individuals in a manner that evokes each the erie mood fo each encounter. 

One of the book’s chief accomplishments, beyond being entertaining, is taking advantage of opportunities to add additional layers of insight to those topics readers might incorrectly presume they have heard everything about. The expert here is clearly Godfrey and she’s come equipped with multiple approaches to each subject. An excellent example of this is the section entitled “Challenge of Chupacabres.” Having seen the X-Files episode as well as one or two short videos on YouTube, it might be easy to assume one has all the relevant information necessary to make a personal call on the existence of this “hell monkey”.  While not offering a definitive answer on the existence of chupacabres, Godfrey does provide some examples of encounters and sightings with ancillary creatures that may be related to the Chupacabra phenomenon. Throughout the text, Godfrey also provides samples of photographic evidence and illustrations that range from the evidentiary to the ornamental. (As an aside, that evidence which is referenced throughout, but not included here, is readily available via a quick online search.)

American Monsters is a very entertaining and informative summer reading selection which has sparked a renewed personal interest in unusual creatures and monsters. My guess is that if you take the chance to pick-up this unique tome, you may find the same…

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

March Courtyard Birding

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).
This is my seventh(!) Western New York Spring in the second floor classroom where I teach high school English Language Arts. On most days there is some bird activity taking place in the courtyard the windows overlook. Occasionally I take out my camera (sometimes during class) and attempt to snap pictures. Most turnout poorly, and only a few of those are worth posting. These represent the two week's leading up to Spring Break 2018.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius).

Blue Jay (background) with Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

Monday, April 02, 2018

Building a Running/Jumping/Throwing Reader

Despite having coached middle and high school sports for nearly ten years, or 20+ seasons, prior to each season I still habitually purchase a variety of texts related to the sport. While some are drill-based manuals, others are fiction and nonfiction narratives set in the world of track and field. Among running readers, or reading runners, there are some clear classics such as Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr., or even Running with Buffaloes by Chris Lear. The overwhelming majority of these are bout distance running or endurance racing. There are also some obvious sport-based magazines that include relevant human-interest or historical essays, for example Runner's World, and others, like Outside, that regularly feature well-written pieces that touch on aspects of what could be called "the track and field lifestyle."

In my primary professional role as a high school English Language Arts teacher, I relish the days when I come across books, chapters, articles or paragraphs that I sense might resonate with the student-athletes I coach--often because they do so with me. Getting high school student-athletes to actually read and reflect on such selections is not easy as not all athletes, or high-schoolers for that matter, are readers-for-pleasure. Just as in English class, motivating students to engage text is frequently a matter of trying to fit a square peg into a triangular hole. At the beginning, I did what my coaching-mentor modeled for me: attach 1-3 page articles with titles such as "You Are What You Think You Are" to weekly team updates of information and training tips. After doing so, he and I might refer to the concepts or ideas with individual students-athletes as the teachable moment presented itself. Most times there would be minimal practical impact on the team dynamic as a whole since the articles and the messages inherent in each would be lost to the sands of time.

BEWARE: Typos above!

Last week, in the two days of practice leading up to our school's ten day Spring Break, I tried something more ambitious. I assigned "homework" for the members of the Girls Track and Field team. Yes, homework that did not include self-directed fartleks or core workouts (though those would be great, too). In addition to "enjoying family time," I wanted them to read. For this reading, I selected a personally annotated 10 page chapter entitled "Probing Commitment" from the tremendous book Dirty Inspirations: Lessons from the Trenches of Extreme Endurance Sports by Terri Schneider. I first read Dirty Inspirations nearly two years ago and have waited for the right opportunity to try to use it with a team. With a relatively new squad of girls, and a solid group of returning trackletes, this year seemed the right time to go for it. With a few days prior to break, I assured that everyone on the roster had a copy and articulated the task on the weekly update posted above.

Teaching experience reminds me that simply assigning and hoping text will be read because "it is the right thing to do" is likely to lead to only the few most dedicated girls actually doing so. During our last pre-break team meeting, I let them know there would also be a test of the concepts such as "leaving your ego at the starting line gives your team its best shot" (page 61) at our next full practice upon returning from break. I also reiterated verbally that which I had written in the assignment: "If you ARE part of the TEAM and the coach asks you to READ a selection, how do YOU demonstrate your commitment?" I am confident that this current collection of jumpers, throwers and runners are up to the task of reading and learning, and ultimately acting on something new...

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Spring Break Reading: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Prior to saying goodbye to my eleventh graders before our ten day Spring Beak, I suggested that they find a book or two to read during our time apart. Though more than a few groaned, a few asked for suggestions to which I replied a number of titles from high school cannon, such as I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and even a classic from middle school that most had not, surprisingly,  even heard of, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. At this point a couple of students began reminiscing about titles they had (shock of shocks) enjoyed reading that I had not heard of. One young lady mentioned her affection for a book read in middle school entitled The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. As she began describing the book as being about a "rabbit doll that gets lost," I scribbled the title in my notebook for future reference. Maybe it was the promise of a rabbit protagonist or the recollection of my own prior devouring of the wonderful The Sage of Waterloo by Leona Francombe, also about rabbits.  These factors along with the student's passion for a book read years ago moved it to the front of my spring break reading list.

Right to the top of the pile.
A longtime high school teacher, I have often searched for "lighter" fiction for sharing with students, and as a reader I, too, struggle with finding meaningful books with slightly less angst. I continue wishing for lighter literary entres to consume. Given both these factors, in addition to considering myself a reasonably "well read" person, I am embarrassed to share that I had not heard of writer, and Newbery medalist, Kate DiCamillo previously. If The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is any indication, I have been missing out by having not picked up any her many titles before. My student was telling the truth, and showing a pretty good memory in giving me a short synopsis; the book is indeed about a somewhat snooty, China rabbit (not a "doll" as he reminds us at every turn, though something he'll need to come to terms with) who goes missing. During a decades long journey, Edward comes to learn the value of loving and being loved.

This 211 page book is a joy, and like most good books, defies being placed into a box. I found this book in the children's area of my local bookstore, and after reading am going to share it with my mother who, like I, is beyond the publisher's target audience. Edward's travels take him through multiple relationships and a variety of lifetimes, but never loses a sense of the timeless. DiCamillo's narrative is further enhanced through the inclusion of illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline. Beautifully rendered in black and white, Ibatoulline's illustrations avoid anchoring the story and character in a specific time period, and do nothing to mitigate the reader's ability to imagine the events as taking place right now. Perhaps it was my nostalgia but I found the drawing reminiscent of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit art (my son's nursery had a border of the characters).

As a middle-aged high school teacher, I was impressed by DiCamillo's willingness to avoid writing down to her audience. There are heavy questions posed and big themes explored throughout, such as love, death, regret a nd patience. Lines such as "How does a China rabbit die?" (page 47), seem perfectly at home in DiCamillo's world of China rabbits and hobos. Vocabulary such as "ennui" (page 3), "discerning" (65) and "contrarian" (194), suggest an excellent opportunity for readers of all ages to add valuable words to their working vocabulary.

I am grateful for the quick conversation with one of my student's for leading me to this beautiful book. I strongly recommend The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline to readers of all ages looking for a powerful complex read disguised as a children's book about a China rabbit!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

2018 Johnny's Runnin' of the Green

A beautiful morning for a 5 mile run with 1,000 or so of my closest
sort-of acquaintances. (3/17/18)
Weather: Fair, 24°F (feels like 12°F) , 80% Humidity, Wind: WSW @ 13 mph.
Route: Johnny's Running of the Green, an out-and-back course.
Time (Pace): 41:29 (8:08 min/mile) Unofficial.

Pre-Race Observations:
With my forty-ninth birthday less than two months away, I have only recently returned to actively "running". My "competitive" racing "career" has entered a new stage beginning with this morning's awesome annual community run, the Johnny's Runnin' of the Green. In years past, I would fancy myself occasionally competitive. Now, I am just happy to be out there.

Following January's aborted Winter Warrior Half-Marathon, due to very inclement weather and, if I am honest, poor pre-race training on my part, this morning's (morn's?) run is my first organized one since December's equally festive Reindeer Run 5k. In the interim, I have been rehabbing my hamstrings, reading books, and whining about the weather (oddly, a time-honored tradition for those in Western New York born to it!).

Pre-run jitters less of a problem when
you're doing it for fun. (3/17/18)
After getting out and about on one-day-icy, one-day-spring-like roads for the past week-and-a-half, I registered for the Flower City Half Marathon this past week. This run takes place toward the end of April and today's run is just another step toward accomplishing crossing that finish line with a smile. This is my sixth Johnny's, and third consecutive one, and after posting admirable times the previous two years (38:20/7:40 per in 2016 and 38:33/7:43 in 2017), I suspect the law of diminishing returns will bite hard this year as I project a finishing time of around 45 minutes based upon the past two weeks. Like most "old grey mares", this one ain't what he used to be. An increasing comfort with that new reality does not mean I am resigned to not going faster, further in the future!

Post-Run Reflections: As usual, the Johnny's Runnin' of the Green was a festive, enjoyable community event regardless of how well one might have run. Lots of friendly faces, green t-shirts and picturesque skies made for a very pleasant morning jaunt. Though I am a little socially awkward, it is always nice to see some familiar faces enjoying their time together as a community of runners. It is even nicer to be a small part of it for a few hours on a cold March morning.

I felt remarkably well for initially feeling so unprepared to run. Though my pace was slightly slower than in years past, I was happy with both the final time and mile pace. As is to be expected with a back-of-the-pack position at the start (intentionally), my first mile was at a leisurely 8:49 pace though the final two miles were consistently faster (7:51 and 7:42). In both instances I settled within 5-10 meters of faster runners in an effort to pace with them. The pace also allowed me the breath with which to thank the many volunteers and police officers who helped keep the course safe.

While there was some slight discomfort in my hamstring, overall, I felt strong and excited about what comes next. With a little ice, core work and stretching, I look to be ready for tomorrow morning's longer, slower training run and ultimately (fingers crossed) ready for that half-marathon a few weeks.