Sequels and sixth-graders

So I walked into the auditorium for my talk to a bunch of sixth-graders, and one of them is helping to set up the AV.  I tell him my name, and he says, “You wrote The Portal?”

“Yep.”

“I loved that book!  Have you written a sequel?”

“Well, it just so happens…”  And I pull a copy of Terra out of my briefcase.

“Cool!”

By the end of my talk, though, I was beginning to worry a bit about getting these kids to read the sequel.  The protagonist of The Portal is in the seventh grade, and he’s already interested in girls.  In Terra, he’s heading in to the eighth grade, and things are heating up a bit.  He meets a girl.  They are thrown together in a bunch of adventures.  He kisses her.  He sleeps with her snuggled up against him.  He sees her naked.  He has… reactions.  Who am I to say if this is appropriate fare for a sixth-grader?

And, I have to say, those particular sixth-graders looked awfully young.  The teacher told me that each class has a personality, and this year’s group was on the immature side.  He didn’t seem worried about pushing them a bit towards maturity.  But I sure don’t want to have to explain myself to their parents if they find any of this stuff objectionable.

It’s tough being a writer.

Sixth-graders are the best people in the world!

I posted this photo on Facebook already, but here it is again for my blog.  I was invited to give a talk about The Portal to the sixth-graders of the Gateway Regional Middle School in western Massachusetts — maybe about 60 kids in total.  A bunch of them had already read the book, and were really enthusiastic.  Yikes, I have some fans in western Massachusetts!  Here are a few of them after the talk, along with some of my show-and-tell items:

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They were all great — funny, curious, and friendly.  I was going back to a classroom after the talk, and those two girls on the right offered to carry my books for me!  I was honored.  I’m always a little skeptical about people asking for my autograph–who, me?–but these kids honestly seemed happy to have me sign a scrap of paper for them.  Glad to oblige!

Here, by the way, are their current learning objectives:

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How would you do on those?  Maybe I could write a persuasive five-paragraph essay, but I’d probably be pretty cranky about it.  I’ve got nothing on brook trout.  I can’t do those conversions, but I know how to get Siri to do them for me.  And that last one–create a replica of a famous monument–would make me hang my head in despair.

Still, I’d happily be part of that class.

Moral choices in the time of Trump

The new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly, is by any standard an estimable figure — a distinguished retired Marine general whose Marine son died in Afghanistan.  He was widely regarded as one of Trump’s best cabinet picks.  His life story is mildly interesting to me because he’s the same age as me and from the same town (Brighton, Mass.).  It’s entirely possible we went to grammar school together, although I have no memory of him.

Now his agency is at the center of a firestorm of criticism over the enforcement of Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees.  Apparently he wasn’t consulted about the executive order before it was signed.  OK, fine.  But he’s going to enforce it, because good military men follow orders.

And now what?  I wonder if he’s pondering the fact that he is in the process of permanently tainting his life story.  That forever more, instead of puff pieces like the one I linked to above, stories about him are going to start by talking about how he was running DHS that time when families were ripped apart, when people who had helped the American military were placed in handcuffs at airports, when scientists coming to this country to help cure diseases were sent back to where they came from…. and he did nothing but follow orders.

I wonder if he’s worried that his grandchildren might possibly end up being ashamed of him.

If he’s not worried about this, I kinda think he should be.

What “A Theory of Justice” needs is a little “Slaves of the Volcano God”

I am following through on my resolution to read John Rawls’s magisterial A Theory of Justice.  But I’ve gotta say that it doesn’t have a lot of laughs.  Approximately zero laughs so far.  Nowhere near as many, in other words, as you’ll find in my friend Craig Shaw Gardner’s Slaves of the Volcano God.  I’m even using my valuable Slaves of the Volcano God bookmark to mark my place in A Theory of Justice, in hopes that some of Gardner’s humor will rub off.  No such luck.  (Of course, if what you’re looking for is political philosophy, I’m pretty sure you won’t find much in Slaves of the Volcano God.)

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By the way, something else that could have used a few laughs is Manchester By The Sea.  Casey Affleck is good in it, I guess, but mostly what he does is mope.  Maybe he’ll get an Oscar for moping.  (His big scene with Michelle Williams, though, is epically good.)

If you’ve already read Slaves of the Volcano God and still need some laughs (don’t we all?), you should try Gardner’s new novel, Temporary Monsters

Naming names

I was too annoyed with Western civilization last month to write the usual recap of my year’s reading.  But the best novel I read was The Sympathizer, which my son recommended to me.  It’s a novel about the Vietnam war, and life in America, and Apocalypse Now, and sundry other things, written from the point of view of a nameless Vietnamese double-agent.  For my son, this was pre-history; for me, it was stuff I had vaguely experienced, second-hand, told from a completely different perspective.

It was brilliant, but the author made a couple of choices that I found odd.  I liked that the narrator was nameless, but I was puzzled that many other characters–but not all–were also nameless.  The narrator’s boss is referred to only as The General, but the boss’s daughter has a name.  One character he has to deal with is called “the crapulent major”, while a comparable character is named Sonny.  (Spoiler alert: the narrator ends up murdering both of them.)

I have trouble deciding ahead of time whether minor people and places deserve a name.  In the novel I’m writing now, I have already had to retrospectively name a couple of places that turned out to be more important than I originally expected.  But this is standard fiction writing: characters and places, if they become important enough, get a name; otherwise, it’s hard to keep track of them  Nguyen is obviously trying to distance us from some of his characters; I’m not sure why.

Another distancing effect: he doesn’t use quotation marks.  My son didn’t even notice this, but it annoyed me.  It seemed like an affectation.  Punctuation helps the reader, and sometimes we need all the help we can get.

New PORTAL cover?

My publisher liked the cover we came up with for TERRA.  (They also seemed to like the uppercase letters.)  So they suggested coming up with a comparable cover for The Portal and change its title to PORTAL, which was okay with me because that’s the title I came up with in the first place.

Anyway, here’s the new cover design, courtesy of Jim McManus:

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