Diary of a
First Year

Esmé Raji Codell
(Algonquin Books
of Chapel Hill)
She's the teacher you and I wish we had in the fifth grade. She's funny, alive, curious, human, warm --- and she hates the principal. Our favorite teacher --- the one who made us want to learn, one who made it so we would go to class without dreading it.

    When learning about electricity, we made light-up quiz games. When learning about light, we put on shadow-puppet shows. When learning medieval history, we built an accurate castle, then decorated it with colored marshmallows and put it in our fairy tale book display. When we learned about air, we had a bubble festival. When learning about Asia, we made sushi. We made video commercials to promote our favorite books. We had a book character masquerade party. We went to an outdoor Beethoven concert and visited Buckingham Fountain downtown. The kids had checking accounts in a classroom economy. We had a cereal box supermarket, and the kids learned to make change...

She just breezes through it, right? Nope. Authority and bureaucracy, in the form of the principal, a Mr. Turner, harasses her at every turn. She wants to show the kids trees dropping their leaves, he thinks of possible liability. She thinks the kids shouldn't be calling her "bitch," he refuses to do anything about it. She --- for her own reasons --- has the kids refer to her as Madame Esmé, he writes her up for it. You do something --- and the school authorities think of every reason in the world you should not be doing things that are different and alive and worthy.

And then there are the tales --- the sad tales of her thirty-one black, destitute charges --- what they call "at-risk" students. Latoya comes to class late, four days in a row. Esmé wants to yell at her, but, thinking better of it, takes her aside, and asks why. "We are in a shelter this week, and I have to drop my little sister off and take the train over. It takes longer than I thought. I'm sorry, I'll be with my aunt next week and then I can walk over." Esmé quickly says: "Don't apologize. I'm proud of you for coming each day. It wouldn't be the same here without you..."

We have to love this off-the-wall teacher, and her fine diary of a year in the Chicago public schools. We come to be appalled that she has to fight in order to teach as the fifth grade should be taught. We also come to be appalled that she and the other teachers have to waste their time on absolutely boneheaded special projects --- one of which is called "sex ed:"

    It showed a cartoon of a goldfish pooping out eggs and another fish pissing out sperm. "A fish has eggs," the video droned, "and a dog has eggs. A sheep has eggs. A giraffe has eggs. And a woman has eggs." I'm not usually compared to a dog, sheep, and giraffe. My girls looked perplexed, too, as though they were destined to someday poop out eggs for their boyfriends to piss on. Indeed, as we filed out of the room, JoEllen whispered urgently, "Madame, am I going to lay an egg?"

---Lolita Lark

Slowly Down
The Ganges
Eric Newby
(Lonely Planet)

    This is the story of a 1200 mile journey down the Ganges from the place where it enters the Plains of India to the Sandheads, forty miles offshore in the Bay of Bengal, made by two Europeans in the winter of 1963-4.

No, it's not. It is the story of the author and his wife starting in the Valley of Rishikesh, planning to go downstream until they get to Sandheads --- but getting stuck, waylaid, their boat sinking, wrecked, to such a point that they spend some time on the Ganges, but as much time trekking overland, or riding buses, or trains, or ox-carts, trying to maintain their original goal, but only barely doing so.

    It is difficult to describe the emotions that one feels when one is aground on a twelve-hundred-mile boat journey within hailing distance of one's point of departure. It is an experience that has fallen to the lot of some blue-water sailors who have grounded when setting off to sail round the world. But about them there was something of tragedy which derived from the grandeur of the design. To be stranded in a river sixteen inches deep is simply ludicrous.

They do, finally, get started --- after being grounded twenty or thirty times --- and for the first half of this travel-tale we are with them as they deal with appalling Indian bureaucracy, superstitious-ridden Indian workers, maps out-of-date, their own doubts. For example, early on, needing desperately to find a suitable boat, and being buffaloed by officialdom,

    We were prey to all the violent, unworthy emotions that have consumed visitors to India from time immemorial: impotent rage; the desire that Timur Leng, the terrible Tatar, knew was able to gratify, to make hetacombs and raise great towers of skulls...but for us there was no such way to vent our spleen.

It's the tale of all of us who have visited India --- or Morocco, or Uganda, or even the local Social Security office, god knows --- and wanted to wreak havoc on some petty idiot standing in our way,

    The inhabitants of India have a simple genius for concocting exasperating situations which, however long he may have lived in the country and however much he may have anticipated them, burst on the victim each time with pristine force. One of the pre-requisites of real exasperation is that there should be no one to vent one's anger on, and there was no one.

Eric Newby was travel editor of the Observer, and has written several similar travel books for Lonely Planet. In Slowly Down the Ganges, he gives us a portrait of two people --- him and his wife Wanda --- in an impossible country, on an impossible assignment. The best parts are the frustrating parts (the strange prejudices and habits of the people hired to assist them, or the people who want to stand in their way); or the historical/architectural/cultural parts; or the comic parts (the menu from a railroad station café includes "Fruit Tipsy Pudding," "Sandwitches," and "Fish served with Chips or Whaffers").

But something happens half-way through our journey. The fun goes out of it. It is as if the accumulated frustrations of the trip have worn away not only Newby's patience --- but his writing skill. The tale turns pro-forma, and we are left with the feeling that he made himself finish his book --- did it, good soldier that he is, because he had to, not because he wanted to.

--- Carlos Amantea

Memoirs of a
Shy Pornographer
Kenneth Patchen
(New Directions)

Is it fair to review a 250 page book after we find ourselves fagged out on page 60? Probably not. So here goes:

Even though it is considered to be an important literary artifact; even though it is a rare example of the Marx Brothers in print; even though the author has written some fine poetry and an even finer autobiography; even though Jonathan Williams has written a loving introduction to the volume (although stretching a bit to compare the author to composers Franz Josef Haydn and Carl Nielsen); even though this is being issued on the 50th anniversary of its original publication --- we still find Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer to be no more nor less than flapjaw mopery.

Yes, there are rare moments --- for example, this pun-filled lubricious take-off on detective fiction of the period,

    "Why don't you call a spade a spade?" the young woman demanded.

    Cigarette glanced over at another man.

    "You're archer than I thought," he said.

    His mouth was twisted in a wolfish grin and I knew that there must be pressure behind his eyeballs...

    Quickly he poured two straight ryes. One for himself --- and the other for the wolf.

    Fat man was still in his chair.

    And Gunsel had his 22:20-on-a-45.-frame levelled right at him.

    But just then Cigarette's eyeballs splugged out and nailed him to the wall.

Obviously Patchen was heavily influenced by The Dream Life of Balso Snell and the early essays of S. J. Perelman. Obviously, Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer sold because the title alone is a bit of haiku, a work of art. Obviously, the author should have consigned it to the East River, before this deformed bastard child ever saw the light of day.

--- A. W. Allworthy

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