Thursday, December 31, 2009


You know, over the past few weeks I think I've amassed about a dozen aborted blog entries on what's going on in our lives, what with Laurie's Mom's death and all, and some of my thoughts. Every time, about halfway through, I decided I'm not sure I wanted to go into detail about what it's like to go to the Neptune Society or hospital chapels or how once occupied and familiar apartments now echo in their emptiness when you're turning in the keys to the landlord. I'm not sure it's the sort of thing I want to bring into the public square. It's been a rough few weeks for Laurie and I, and I think I've finally come to a few words I would like to put out there before the world. Tonight seems like an entirely appropriate time to say it too.

When you meet someone you don't usually think that you might one day be carrying their remains. As you visit with the people you see every day, you don't think that this may be the last time you ever see them. But now I think we should. We all should.
Recently someone who was fighting with his girlfriend asked me for advice. I told both of them that they should treat one another as if this could be the last time they see one another before the other one dies. Because you really do never know. This year, which will end in a few hours, we did just have Laurie's mother die fairly suddenly. We also had our cat Mao die suddenly. I just heard from my own Mom that the pastor we had while we were growing up, Pastor Gordon Clarke, passed away in September. He'd been pastoring in North Carolina for about 2 decades (and, I'm told, preached right up to the end.) He was also one I'd always meant to write and send a letter thanking him for having been such a positive force in my formative years. I always meant to do that but never sat down to.

If you can do something, don't wait.

You also never know when someone is going through the hardest time of their life. You never know when the person in the car next to you is on their way to pick up the remains of their mother. I've told the story before, but I really did have the experience once of saying "Hey, who died?" to a gloomy person and having them respond that one of our close friends had died in his sleep the night before. I will never use that glib phrase again.

I've been asked in the past 24 hours at least three times about my New Year's Resolutions. I don't usually do them because I feel about them the same as I feel about "saving things for a special occasion." Life is the special occasion and you're not guaranteed any more of it. If you have resolutions to make, if you see how you can be a better person, do it now. Because it's all "Lord willing." Anyway, I've been fliply answering "I want to drink more coffee and become employed." But in all honesty, I think I want to do two things. I want to keep the weight of things in mind. Not that I want to be joyless or eschew beauty or anything like that. But rather I think that there is wisdom in the house of mourning because that is the end of all flesh. In other words, I think I want to be ready to shift into consolation smoothly whenever the need arises. I think life's too short, important and serious to ever be flip. And likewise I think I would like to try to be more gentle, compassionate, kind, and giving. We are all dying, we just don't all know when. Also, we are all in this together, all of the same substance, all in the same state.
Most of all, I think I want to be diligent to not lose the lessons of this year. I wish you all the best of New Year's Eves (and the safest.) I love you all and thank you for being involved in my life.

Reading the Classics with Paul- Walden part 1

I was sitting with my father in a bakery downtown explaining my Reading The Classics Book Group to him. My father smiled when I mentioned that my copy of Walden has his signature from the 1960s inside the front cover (and laughed when I described the cover as "Thoreau in Yellow Submarine." See cover to the left.) He probably hadn't read the book in my lifetime (I, myself hadn't read it in about 20 years), but my father was much influenced by the book in the 1960s. I remember once when Pat and I were kids on a family trip to Massachusettes, my father insisted we visit Walden Pond. It meant nothing to me at the time, but it did make a strong impression on me. I can still remember the cabin and the body of water.
So, there in the bakery, I asked my father what he thought of the book and he pretty much summed up everything I had to say about this section in one sentence: "I thought he had some really great ideas and observations about human behavior, but that he mainly went way too far with everything."
And if you come up with other philosophers who fit that description, you get a pretty ugly rogue's gallery. Ayn Rand comes to mind. As does Nietzsche. While I happen to agree with Thoreau's particular reality tunnel and I think that his recommendations would make the world a much better place, I can't help getting his extremism stuck in my craw.

But, let me back up a few paces. Thoreau very early on stabbed me directly through the heart with his passage on the desperation of men, wage slavery and how pathetic it is to serve the god of keeping up with the Joneses. First of all, to a large extent that kind of thinking has lead our country into its current economic collapse. Of course, the American economy is structured in such a way that contentment and simplicity undermine it. Our economy runs on avarice and discontent.

Sorry. Apparently I'm incapable of reading a section of classic literature without following with a Marxist tirade. I'm turning into one of those guys. And here I am wagging my finger at Thoreau's extremism.

I know it's designed to do that. I do think that this is one of the passages that qualifies the entire book as a classic. This passage should make everyone take a look at their own lives and think "wait a minute. What am I doing and why am I doing this?" Also "Is there another, better way?" I think that those are very good questions to be always asking ourselves.

Also, it's kind of amazing to think that Thoreau was writing this at a time when the entire United States total population was the roughly that of modern day Texas. His observations about men leading lives of quiet desperation can just as much, nay, infinitely more so, be applied to the masses today. Heck, toss in a reference to a major national chain store and a preciously handled gory detail about how a bullet shatters a jawbone and you could probably slip it into a Chuck Palahniuk novel without anyone noticing. There's your homework.

Of course, part of the major problem is that America has evolved to the point where one cannot really realisically do what Thoreau did. I know Thoreau addresses people who said similar things to him in his day (I loved the part about the farmer who says about the need for meat to build bones and then plows with an ox who he feeds an entirely vegetarian diet.) But the world has changed so much since then. He does not address property taxes.
It reminded me very much of a church Laurie went to where they had a strong "homesteader" fad running through the women of the church. One day Laurie went to a class on bread-making and quickly realized how ridiculous the whole thing was as it was WAY cheaper both time and money wise to just go to the store and spend a buck fifty on a loaf of bread.

There was a part where I was kind of embarrassed for him early on. It was when he said something to the extent of "I've lived 30 years and never heard wisdom from my elders worth a darn." Really, Hank? I guess I shouldn't speak too strong against Thoreau on this point as Lord knows I've had plenty of "braying ass" moments to repent of in my own life. I remember when I read that bit I put the book down with the back cover facing upward. On the back was this quote from Emerson "No truer American existed than Thoreau."

He wrote a section that made me very happy about wearing threadbare or patched clothing being a fine thing. But then at the end of this section he had the confusing poem about The Pretensions of Poverty, I guess so that no one will confuse what he's saying with saying it is virtuous in and of its self to be poor. There was also a strange swipe at organized religion at the end of this section. Strange in its placement anyway, I thought.

Having said that, I didn't find myself disagreeing with much of what Thoreau said, but the length at which he rants about it and the lengths in which he goes in his life made me kind of feel like I was listening to a nut who I happened to agree with what he was fixated upon.

Really, this is the strangest and most difficult book for me in the series. And this may have been the most difficult section of the most difficult book, so there's your ray of sunshine. I think it gets much more interesting from here on, now that he's gotten so much off of his chest. It's also the only Non-Fiction offering in this series unless we're all mistaken and it turns out The Odyssey was originally meant to be journalism.

For me the other most interesting part of this section is when he gets into actual narrative. Unfortunately, I thought that his actual "economics" part of this "Economy" section doesn't survive very well. I don't have much of a frame of reference for inflation and so when he talks about the cabin costing $27 he may as well say it cost 30 cents. I have no idea if that was dirt cheap, reasonably accomplished or a high figure to aspire toward in that day and age. Of course, not having the option of following his example, I could quickly disregard those bits. The parts where he talks about borrowing an axe, building the cabin, the garden, his furniture and so on, were the more riveting parts of this section for me and, if I remember correctly, is how much the rest of the book reads, along with more spiritual reflections.

I should probably say that while I personally wouldn't have put this on my own list of Essential Classics, I am glad we're reading it. I do expect to get a lot from it. This first section was, in my opinion, a bit of a young man's rant and the words of one who is sorting through some issues which he then goes to take action on in the best way he can imagine. And I should probably state that while this will probably end up being the most negative comment I'll have on a passage in this entire series (at least until we get to Dante's weird theology and Melville's long chapters on tying whaling knots), I am looking forward to the next section.
Which will be "Where I Lived And What I Lived For" (page 59 in mine) up to "The Bean Field" (page 107 in mine.) I was going to go further, but don't let's knock ourselves out. Anyway, I think Visitors will be a more compelling section to end up. So, at the end of next week we'll hit section 2. Good reading to you!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review- Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite

I just finished the third book in Poppy Z. Brite's Liquor trilogy. It's titled Soul Kitchen and it is at least as excellent a novel as the other two in the series (which, if you haven't yet, you can observe me gushing over here and here), although I think I might make the argument that this is the best of the three - with a minor stipulation. The minor stipulation is simply this: I think you probably do want to have read the other two before getting to this one.

Not that you need to. In all, we are plunged right into the action and characters are developed by observing them in situations, how they act and react. The exposition is tight, light (for those who have already read the other two) and reads like part of the story rather than explaining history from previous books. However, I think that having read the other two builds the love of the characters one should have going into this one.

This one opens on a murder and a man just being exonerated after a long prison sentence. The man is a brilliant chef, and John Rickey, our protagonist, hires him on to the kitchen at their restaurant Liquor. Needless to say, the effects of the murder are still rippling and our story mainly hinges around said effects. Also, Rickey is injured; Rickey is hired to another consulting gig; G-Man has an issue involving a co-worker; and Lenny tries to maneuver two very strong wills back together. In the process, he kind of falls apart in some surprising ways. Lenny is one of my favorite characters in the series and I thought his established character was very well used in this one. He pushed the story forward beautifully while experiencing quite a character arch himself. There may be more than one meaning to the title, but I'll leave you to have fun with that. There are themes of bigotry, class, addiction, communication, alienation, unfulfilled dreams, severed relationships, loss. None of which are smashed over our head. All of which are handled masterfully.

The food descriptions in this one are beyond the pale. From the alluring to the fascinating and finally to the ridiculous. The denouement in the Polonius Room is amazingly written, a catharsis for so much of what we see in modern fine dining without being on one hand cartoonish or on the other too apologetic toward contrived cuisine (ugh, sorry. My alliteration switch seems to be broken.) Really, that scene (and especially coupled with the scene immediately after with Rickey's reaction to the man on the street) is of the type that makes this series so well done, such a cut above normal contemporary literary fare.

Not too put too fine a point on it, but I do think that these are some of the more impressive contemporary novels out there today. I would highly encourage everyone to read all of them. They are well worth it and very rewarding.

We have reached what is currently the end of the series, although I've read the author expressing that more are within the realm of possibility. When I opened my copy of this book, just after the title page was a dedication explaining that the book was finished the day before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. This is why there is not a fourth book in the series as of my writing this. And I really don't know what to say. Everything I think about writing seems really trite. There's a line in the book, a little throwaway description of where a retired doctor lives, and it's right next to a levee. In retrospect, it's such a haunting thing to have in that book at that time and serves to show what a completely different world Louisiana is from pre-2005 to post-2005. I think Katrina was one of the greatest, largest tragedies in America and one of the most devastating domestic events in my lifetime.

So, I'm sorry to end this series on such a dark note. I don't know if Poppy Z. Brite will write another novel. Needless to say there's a lot of turmoil that comes from surviving such a thing. I can say with full confidence that I think she's one of the finest living American authors. If she doesn't write another novel, she's written three of the finest contemporary American novels I know of. I would and frequently do recommend them to everyone.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Book Review- Recalcitrance by Anurag Kumar

I first met Anurag Kumar online when he found that I was a fellow fan of the works of Thomas Hardy. We wrote back and forth on Twitter (you can follow him too. He's @anuragkumarlko.) Mr. Kumar lives in India, specifically in Lucknow which is a capital city in Uttar Pradesh in North Eastern India.

He was gracious enough to send me a copy of his book. It's called Recalcitrance and the subtitle is "A novel based on the events of the Great Uprising of 1857." The link can point you toward places online where you can get your own copy.

Now, before I continue, I should probably take a moment to point out my own embarrassing ethnocentrism going into this. I knew very little about Indian history. I had never even heard of the Great Uprising of 1857. Here was this man who I'd been communicating with in real time on the other side of the world who had written a whole book about it and sent me a copy. I'd been given a great gift. Along with a book (which, as you well know, is the best gift anyone can give me) I was given a walking tour of an event of major formative importance to one of the largest countries in the world; also a reading experience from a man on the other side of the world who wrote this on his blog about the writing of his book (which, I should probably also say, was published in time for the sesquicentennial of the uprising, which would have been 2007):

Then something awful happened the 150th year of 1857 suddenly came upon me. There were good and hard working authors ready with their stuff and with much fanfare they had their books released by celebrities - I was almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This was a historic opportunity passing me by I was on the verge of tears all the time. Then I started my book - I could have written a book on history but I wanted to say some things which can only be said in a novel. I had the material but just this Himalayan lethargy, this laziness stopped me. I wanted to complete the book but .......
I had often criticized authorities for not doing enough to let Indians know about the sacrifice and bravery of people behind the 'mutiny' of 1857 now as I passed by monuments connected to 1857 in Lucknow I felt guilty, I felt as if the martyrs are saying to me 'what have YOU ever done?', that was what broke my lethargy.
He felt the weight of history, the importance of the event and he responded with this book. As one who has also experienced the compulsion from the weight of history to write about an event in local history, I appreciate his blog entries quite a bit. I like to read contemporary people's interactions with historical events. It helps to illustrate how we are all tied into it ourselves.

The book is, as I mentioned, a novel. As usual, I don't want to give too much of the plot away because I want people to read it themselves. There are many Hindustani words used throughout the text, but there is also a very helpful glossary in the back and one quickly picks up on the more commonly used terms in the books. It takes place, as I said, through the uprising, and much of the narrative comprises the action of that event. There are many characters in the story, although I would probably say, if pressed, that the story follows the character of Chote Bhaiya. Or maybe that was just my interpretation, but I found myself identifying with that character. Although there is a great deal of conflict action, it would be misleading to call this an "action story." One of the things I greatly appreciated was that the story pays great respect to the people involved. Mr. Kumar very much takes us into the lives and minds of the individual characters in their uprising against British rule, their passions and fears. As he said in the blog entry quote above, he succeeds in doing things through the form of a novel that he wouldn't have been able to communicate with straight history text. Personally, as one being introduced to the story, it really brought me into the narrative and engaged me in ways that dry information probably wouldn't have.

The language guides the sense of urgency throughout the text. There is a heartbreakingly subtle love story which, again and as usual, I don't want to give too much away, save to applaud how well it was handled in the book.

In America, I think there's so much we could identify with, so much that this story has to tell us. I mean, there is the aspect of uprising against British rule and that historical parallel, but I also think what happened in Lucknow can speak to all of us everywhere in the time in which we live. I'm in Chico, California in 2009 and found the story of the uprising quite moving.
What's more, and hopefully not to get on too sanctimonious of a high horse (bear in mind I came into this story knowing nothing about the uprising either, so I'm probably saying this more to myself than pointing fingers at anyone else) I think we in America could stand to do a lot of work on being better global citizens. I think we all could be better informed of what is happening and what has happened in other parts of the world. What happens to Lucknow in the story is really something I think everyone should know. Although the story goes as it goes and ends how it ends, there is hope at the end of it all I think. Narenderlal says earlier in the book at one point "Remember what Mahatmaji at the Ghat told us: the mother conceives a baby and thanks God for His blessing. She goes through enormous trouble during those nine months and then there is the horrible pain of childbirth but it brings forth a wonderful creation, an image of God Himself. On being shown the face of the infant the mother forgets all her pain and hugs the little creature to her bosom. Also sometimes the baby is still born but the mother does not say to God: do not give me anymore babies, but eagerly looks forward to another birth. Similarly, he had said that our country is going through a painful phase but this will end bringing in a new life. However, this struggle must be continued if any such thing is to happen."
Those words have stuck with me so much in the past few weeks.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Reading The Classics Group Reminder

Just a quick reminder to those who would like to read along with the Reading The Classics Book Group. Next Friday we will be posting our comments on the first section of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. We will be focusing on the first section which is titled "Economy" and is about 60 pages worth of material.

If you have not yet secured a copy, this is why the Good Lord gave us gift receipts.

As a side note fun fact, my copy is the copy that was owned by my father when he read it in the 1960s. It's the old Signet Classics edition with the Yellow Submarine looking Thoreau sitting beneath a tree on the cover. It has my father's signature in the cover and is falling apart.

As you will remember, I usually put a little fun side material on these reminder posts. Here's a Youtube video of a guy going into a cabin which is not Thoreau's cabin, nor is it on the spot where Thoreau's cabin stood (as you will learn from this week's reading, Thoreau did not enjoy the luxury of a parking lot outside of his cabin), nor is the guy in the cabin making much of an effort to actually act like Thoreau, nor does he take the opportunity to actually say anything relevant about Thoreau or Walden but rather rambles a bit about a Danish philosopher. It is, however, a Youtube video with Thoreau's Walden in the subject line. You cannot successfully dispute that fact. Also, it may give you an idea of what Thoreau's cabin may have looked like. An inaccurate idea, but an idea none-the-less.

So, get Walden, read the material, and next Friday we will meet back to comment upon it!

The Restivus

My gorgeous wife as she looked sitting next to me for Christmas dinner, stunning to the point of making me entirely inept with keeping the camera strap out of frame.

My parents were adamant that pictures be posted of them pal-ing around with our dog Ginger!

The meal set before me. A challenge that I met valiantly.

From where I sat at the table: from left to right: Tony, his girlfriend Karina, Gina, her boyfriend Stefan, and my father in that nebulous state between standing and sitting.

My mother, Tony and Karina.

Gina, Stefan and Dad.

From Gina's POV: Laurie, me, my mother and Tony.

Christmas update

I'll start by saying that for some reason no pictures were taken on my camera after my parents arrived for some reason. I assume they have pictures on their camera which is identical to mine.
My folks actually came into town Wednesday night. As you can imagine, we've been a bit preoccupied and the holiday really did sneak up on us this year. I did, in fact, buy presents up to Christmas Eve this year.
Last night my parents took Laurie and I out to dinner. We also had the hymn sing and pie feed (and the ghosts of Andy Griffith and Garrison Keillor were there too I suppose) with our church.
This morning the males in the house slept in. Laurie has been preparing a Christmas meal all day. Gina came over and we had our family opening of presents. I'll walk you through the pictures. The first is me with an awesome pencil from Gina with a guy in a beanie on the end of it.

Here are the kids opening their stocking presents.

One of Laurie's specific items on her list was Susan Boyle's cd. I got that for her.

The kids got me a set of 10 Beers Of The World. Each from a different country. Contrary to appearances, I had not drank any of them when this picture was taken.

Schubert stuck right by me all morning on the chair. All of the activity made him nervous (even more so than usual.) When my parents showed up he went and slept on the bathroom floor which is what we do in our house when things get too crazy.

Gina also got me a coffee mug with a picture of Einstein on it.

I wanted to be sure to post pictures of the kids with the items my grandmother sent for them. Here's Gina with her new purse.

And Tony with his new flannel hoodie.

Gina also hit gift-giving gold when she got me the first season of This American Life: the tv show. Note the unfettered delight on my face, the unhesitating assumption behind my eyes that we will be watching it tonight.

I, in turn, succeeding in marrying form with function in my gift to Laurie of a silicone pot holder in the shape of Pac-Man.

Also jewelry and a lovely antique box.

One of my favorites was this new coat from Laurie which I think it probably destined to be one of those articles of clothing one associates with a certain person. It was love at first sight. Somewhere a tailor thought that they were imagining up an ideal person when they had me in mind while they fashioned this coat.

Then my parents showed up with more presents. I will try to put all of what I was given here:
a tripod flashlight
enough In-N-Out gift certificates to eat exclusively there for a month
John Hodgman's book
a copy of Life of Pi
Poppy Z. Brite's Soul Kitchen (you can expect another gushing book review of it soon)
a DVD of Irish poetry
a DVD set of the Ken Burns National Parks series
radio controlled sumo wrestlers
a board game about books
a DVD series about the Vatican Museum
A DVD show of Nature's Most Amazing Events
Tom Waits' Glitter And Doom cd
a Wagner cd
a classical guitar cd

So, it was a year of great gifts and a lovely morning. Soon we will be full of food.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Last night I wrote this little update and didn't post it until today. It's a difficult thing to write about. It's been some of the more difficult days of both Laurie and my life so far. But I did want to post a few words, at least to let everyone know what's going on.

Yesterday (Friday) morning (it's really hard for me to believe that all of this is within the past 48 hours) Laurie and I got up and got ready to go the hospital. On the way, Laurie's Mom's doctor called. Laurie's Mom, whose name was Geraldine, had had a very bad night and had turned for the much worse. When we got to the hospital, the words were along the lines of "making sure she is comfortable." Her kidneys had completely shut down, her body was filling with toxins, her heart was also failing.
When we got into the room, she was awake for a time and Laurie spoke with her a little.

The rest of the day was both very long and a blur. I probably don't need (or want) to go into a lot of detail, but she went in and out of consciousness, most likely from the strong pain medication, and she passed away slightly before 6pm.
My brother came and we had a small, impromptu psalm and prayer in the hospital chapel followed by many stories from Gerry's life.

Gerry was a big part of my life. A daily part of my life for almost 3 years now as Laurie and I took her a soda and a snack most days. I loved her quite a bit and it's very difficult to think of the life ahead where she is not in this world. She will be missed tremendously.
It's a great comfort to know that she is not suffering anymore. It's also a very difficult loss for everyone involved.

I do also want to say that everyone's kind words, condolences and best wishes really do mean a lot. Every one of them. More than I could have imagined.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I'll not be doing a Thursday News in Review this week. Instead here's what's been going on in our lives over the past few days for anyone who is interested.
On Monday, Laurie's Mom went into the hospital with congestive heart failure. She's still there. Since she's been there her kidneys have been shutting down, she's had a heart attack and her congestive heart failure has not changed. At this point, it does not look good. It's a bit of an emotional rollercoaster as sometimes she'll be almost completely like her normal self, talking and joking and within an hour she'll look terrible again.

Laurie and I are pretty much spending whatever time Laurie's not at work at the hospital. That's why I'm here typing right now. While Laurie's at work I'm trying to keep a few other of the plates spinning: dishes, trips to the post office, the animals tended to and so on. When she's not at work, we'll be back at the hospital.

Laurie's Mom is in the old section of the hospital. I haven't really been able to discern what that section means, which is to say what kind of patients they place there. It seems to be sort of an extended emergency room, people who are really very sick but aren't as urgent as those who would be in the ER. There are so many subtleties in the hospital and so much of it is designed to draw attention away from its self. Hospitals are very strange places in our culture. I was amazed at how much comfort food they served in the cafeteria and in a moment of gallows humor joked with Laurie that it serves the dual purpose of comforting the visitors and possibly insuring more patients.

Anyway, I'm not sure I really want to be talking about the hospital right now. The real reason for this post is just to let everyone know in a little more detail what is going on.

Also, I've not heard back from the job interview I had on Monday yet, but I was told I would hear by Friday at the latest. All of which I guess is to say that there will be more news here soon.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

George Whitefield Notes

So, this week's class was about George Whitefield. As I mentioned, some people have asked me to post my notes from the class, so here they are. Bear in mind, these are the notes from which I taught my class, so know that I'm mainly only posting it for the sake of the information.
I should probably mention that this is a series of classes I am teaching on Church History from roughly the mid-1700s through roughly the mid-1800s. Last week's class was largely about John Wesley and, realizing that Whitefield was getting the short end of the stick, this week I devoted a whole class to the subject of Whitefield. So, there is some context you might be missing if you weren't at the previous week's class, but anyway, here are my notes from this week:

In the autumn of 1740, a there was a great stir in the American colonies. If you had lived in the colonies at that time, perhaps you would have heard of the leaders of this man's movement's recent mission in Georgia although the unfortunate scandal of one of his co-workers, John Wesley, undermined that effort. You'd probably have heard about Revival in England, in the Church of England of all places and how he was preaching to groups so large that they had to hold meetings out of doors. Certainly you'd have heard one of the most unconventional aspects to his coming visit, that he had sent along copy, an advertisement, to create a stir, for the local ministers to read from the pulpit. Certainly you would have seen similar techniques used to promote books or plays or musicians before, but never for a spiritual event. You've also read about his visit in the newspapers, including advertisements for books by or about him. Also for books that George Whitefield approved of.

You'd probably heard ringing endorsements of this great public speaker from some of the most famous men in the colonies. Men as vastly different as Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards were excited over the upcoming tour. Early in Whitefield's visit, you would have heard the story told far and wide about the thousands of people who packed into a church to hear George Whitefield preach. The church was so crowded that the balcony began to give way and the people panicked. They stampeded. Some jumped from windows. Five people died and many were injured. Whitefield, after those in need were treated, moved the meeting outside where the stunned crowd of thousands heard him “improve the Lord's awful judgment.” He mainly preached out of doors for the rest of his visit.

The governor of Massachusetts also dined with Whitefield, and attended several of his services, sometimes spotted weeping openly for joy and repentance from Whitefield's preaching. On Whitefield's final Sunday in the colonies, 20,000 people turned out to hear him preach. It was the biggest gathering in the history of this continent up to that point. America had been visited by its first “star.”

I think we shall see that the influence that George Whitefield's visit had on the America to come extends much further than the Great Awakening and the effects much more abiding in the national consciousness.

Whitefield was a born actor and public speaker. Benjamin Franklin said that during one of Whitefield's sermons, Franklin had walked away from the crowd until he could not hear Whitefield's voice clearly anymore, then calculated the circumference around Whitefield from where Franklin stood, and concluded that over 30,000 people could easily have heard Whitefield speak. Whitefield often spoke of the emotional life of biblical characters in the passage he was exegeting, often acting out scenes from scripture. It's said that seldom did he preach without weeping at some point and the multitudes would follow suit. He was young, firey, and flying in the face of authority figures in his native England. Truly this was a hero for this young America.

One of the interesting, populist bents of Whitefield's preaching was what was called an inverted jeremiad. Up to this point, New England preachers had railed against their unconverted parishioners. Whitefield was suggesting that the tables be turned. A spiritual people should challenge the authority of insufficiently spiritual clergy.

One day Whitefield was walking with Jonathan Edwards to a speaking engagement when another pastor came up and told Whitefield he thought that a minister did not need to be converted himself to be an effective minister. He cited the famous Puritan Solomon Stoddard who was a successful minister even before he became truly converted. This choice in examples was probably meant to ratchet up the awkwardness of the conversation as Stoddard was Edwards' grandfather. Whitefield stood his ground and said that a minister absolutely must be converted to properly lead his flock.

As Providence would have it, when they arrived at the speaking engagement, a large number of well known clergy from New England were in attendance. Whitefield decided to change the topic of his sermon to the need for the clergy to be truly converted. He pulled no punches. He said “One of the reasons the church in New England is so dead is because dead men preach to them.”

Whitefield traveled and preached constantly on his visit, often preaching several times a day to packed crowds. His journey on horse back from New York City to Charleston made a new record of being the longest such trip undertaken up to that point in North America by a white man. The crowd at Jonathan Edwards' church wept bitterly over themselves when Whitefield reminded them from the pulpit of the intensity of their revival as recent as 1734. Edwards himself wept at the clearly renewed revival. The flame Whitefield had reignited spread through the town more fervently than before. By December, Edwards wrote to Whitefield with great joy that revival had spread to the youth of the community, including some of his own children whom he said were clearly “savingly brought home to Christ.”

Whitefield was impressed that the Edwards children were, in his words “not dressed in silks and satins, but plain, as become the children of those who, in all things, ought to be examples of Christian simplicity.” Whitefield had complained that the people of Boston were too wealthy, too worldly and to married to the pride of life. Women wore jewelry and flashy clothes to church. “The little infants who were brought to baptism, were wrapped up in such fine things, and so much pains taken to dress them, that one would think they were brought thither to be initiated into, rather than to renounce, the pomp and vanities of this wicked world.”

This visit was around the time the Wesleys breaking with Whitefield was going on back in England over Whitefield's Calvinism. Whitefield was one of the loudest proponents of Methodism in the world at the time, which we remember from last week was a pietistic movement. In one's behavior, Methodism demanded sacrifice of all worldly pleasures in order to better serve Christ. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Whitefield had earlier tried to follow in the footsteps of Paul and be celibate and unmarried. But with his meteoric rise to fame and the great crowds of admirers that followed, he thought it best if he married, following instead the Pauline admonishment that “it is better to marry than to burn.”

Earlier Whitefield had proposed to a lady in England emphasizing in his letter that nothing could hold the marriage together but the mutual love of Christ and that a wife should not cause a pastor to preach one sermon less than he would have otherwise. She turned him down.

Whitefield married another Christian lady on his return to England who was willing to agree to his standard.

It's a little strange that of all of the famous men before the Revolution in America, Edwards and Whitefield did not become close, but Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin became very close friends. Although vastly different in spiritual views, the two had much in common. They were both innovators and invented completely new concepts within their calling or, in Franklin's case perhaps more accurately, profession. Both played upon the possibilities of an awakening commercial age. Both rebelled against old, established, hierarchical authorities and institutions. Each would give voice to concepts that would mobilize the public. At one point, Franklin even suggested to Whitefield that the two of them found a colony in what would become Ohio.

Whitefield was born in 1714. He was the son of a widow who kept an inn. He was educated at Oxford. Whitefield cam from a poor family, so he didn't have the means to pay his tuition. When he enrolled at Oxford he enrolled as a servitor. There was sort of a caste system at Oxford, servitor being the lowest rank. He received free tuition, but was sort of a servant to other, higher ranking students. He would be in charge of their schedules (including waking them in the morning), pressing their clothes, polishing their shoes, even doing their homework in some cases. Yeah, and this was not only condoned by Oxford at the time, but instated by them.

As we saw last week, he was a member of the Holy Club which John Wesley started. He took over as leader of the Holy Club when the Wesleys went to Georgia. Whitefield was ordained into the Anglican church. It was in England that he began his unorthodox practice of open-air preaching.

Whitefield founded several churches. He was known to have been a rare white preacher to preach to slaves (although he also owned slaves later in life.)

He visited America seven times and, in days when trans-Atlantic voyages were very long and dangerous, he made the trip 13 times (he died in Massachusetts.) He also traveled to preach in Bermuda, Scotland, Holland, Gibraltar, and Ireland. It is said that throughout his life he preached over 18,000 sermons (many of which are still in print. I know Banner of Truth has a collection of his sermons in print.) He is buried in a crypt in Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I usually try to end these character sketches with some information about their death, but there is very little recorded on Whitefield's. I was also unable to uncover any information on why he is buried in a Presbyterian Church, although it would seem that it was another church founded by Whitefield. It is still very active today. But I do know that he was preaching outside the church on the staircase just a few hours before his death.

Next week, we will have a general overview of the Enlightenment, focusing specifically on three people: Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Isaac Newton.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Quick update

Well, it's been an uncharacteristically interesting few days for us. On Friday I posted some photos on my Livejournal which lead Laurie to mention that she'd never seen a Woody Allen movie before. I marched her straight to the video store where they had a deal on renting 5 movies at a time. We got Annie Hall, Sleeper and Zelig, as well as Das Boot and Terry Gilliam's Brazil.
That first night we watched Brazil and as we were watching it I came down with a fever. I slept most of Saturday, but by Saturday night was pretty much well again.
On Sunday I taught my class in the morning on George Whitefield and in the evening gave the 3rd Advent service sermon. At the request of a few people, I will post my notes from the George Whitefield class on this blog very soon.
Part of the reason why the fever on Friday night was a frightening thing, beside the obvious, is that today I had a job interview. It was the first I've had in a while and it was for a place where I would really love to work. I would really like to get this job. I should know about it by the end of the week.
Also today, my mother went in to surgery for the cancer on her forehead. It looks like it was a complete success. But then Laurie's Mom went into the hospital with congestive heart failure this morning. Laurie's been at the hospital with her all day. So by strange coincidence, if you believe in that sort of thing, both of our mothers were in the hospital today.

So, that's where I find myself this evening. Life's thrown a few uncertainties our way over the past few days.

The Post of Books Yet To Come

Book Groupies,

So, we have finished Of Mice and Men. This is just a quick note to let everyone know that next up, my Reading the Classics Book Group will be reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. We will take a short break before starting so that people can deal with Christmas. If I'd followed our regular reading pattern we would be starting on Christmas Day and that seems like it would be asking a bit much.
So, if you want to start reading along with the book group, now is a lovely time to start. You have two weeks to secure yourself a copy and read through the first section titled "Economy" which I think runs about 60 pages. We will post our comments the Friday after Christmas which is... New Year's Day. Well, looks like the calendar is working against me, but nevertheless, we will have our first round of comment meet ups on New Year's Day.

On a personal note, I am looking forward to this one as I find myself most daunted by this one out of all of the titles on the list. I don't know if it's the tone or the subject matter or the fact that it's the only non-fiction book on the list, but the fact that it is the scariest to me also suggests that it's likely to be most rewarding. I highly encourage everyone to read along.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reading the Classics- Of Mice and Men- Part 2

Okay, Book Groupies! We've finished Of Mice and Men. I am very much looking forward to all of your thoughts on this second half of the book. Here are a few of my own thoughts.

Now begins the parts of the book I tend to remember when I would think back on having read it over 15 years ago (this triptych of sections I remember well and also the thing earlier with Candy's dog. Oh, and I guess the first scene with the dead mouse and beans. Really it's the mark of a good storyteller if you can remember most of the major plot points and some detail work after having read it once over 15 years ago.)

Before we get too far into it, I wanted to mention that Edward Albee's play Zoo Story kept popping into my head during this week's reading. If you've never seen it, do or just get a copy of it. You can read it in an afternoon. If you have two people, you can read it out loud as it's a two character play (I read it out loud, appropriately, to my dogs a while back and did both of the voices.) There's alienation, loneliness, desperation, being in extremely depressed circumstances with aspirations, cruelty to the helpless or weak, but especially the thematic similarity of how people do not talk to one another and do not listen to one another. Society puts these fears and weird, fabricated structures of hierarchies and social duty and appropriate behavior that leaves some people behind. If people would only talk to one another, smile, love one another. And it's all within the realm of the plausible, but I think it speaks to human nature that we will not. We can be united. We can have peace. But we don't. On some level we like the fear, alienation and violence or, at least, we find the rewards worth the risks we create when we marginalize others.

The scene in Crooks' room mainly revolves around the three characters that Curly's wife calls weak. And she's right if by weak you mean stripped by life of the illusion that they are not lonely and desperate. In the beginning of the scene, Lennie has a moment in his simplicity of doing exactly what would solve almost all of the problems and conflicts in the book. He comes to Crooks with no preconceptions or prejudices, just simply and earnestly seeking his company, and wins him over (albeit not for very long) with a disarming smile of friendship.

There's also the racial stuff which once again is a facet of man's inhumanity to man. Crooks is an outcast on two levels, both with his race and his back. He is so used to his condition that he almost runs off the company that he's so desperate for. And again we see Lennie's mixed up tenderness, loyalty and raging, powerful violence, just a hint, just a reminder.

Curly's wife also hits the nail on the head when she says “You're all scared of each other, that's what. Ever' one of you's scared the rest is goin' to get something on you.”

Well, that fairly sums up the history of human civilization, doesn't it? But be careful, Mrs. Wife, there's nothing people hate more than having their precious fears taken away. Although I don't know about you, but most of my burgeoning sympathy for her melts away as soon as she goes after Crooks like that. People who do not have much power often grab hold of the tiny corner they can grasp and swing it like a sword at anyone they can.

And then we reach the climax. Already the scene in the barn has the weight of the book on it as lights up on Lennie and the puppy. The train has wrecked in exactly the way we feared it was going to. Curly's wife enters into the scene which, in case you didn't know and haven't read it before, you will probably remember this for the rest of your life. Lennie does try to do what he's supposed to but a) he's already screwed other things up so bad in his mind at that moment and b) he doesn't try hard enough. Or, rather, his panic slowly builds upon panic.

Curly's wife continues the flirtation which clearly started when she ascertained that Lennie crushed Curly's hand (I strongly suspect that may have been her motivation for showing up in Crooks' room.) Needless to say she is completely unaware that the man-child in front of her is already in a state of hyper-panic. Her mind is elsewhere.

We begin to understand her a little better. We probably didn't need her to tell us that she really doesn't like Curly, but there it is and it explains a few things. We also get a little glimpse of innuendos of the past of a fast and loose young girl with big dreams. Big dreams shatter hard. She is a very young, not terribly wise in her choices (in that respect a little like her husband), but also very lonely and desperate girl. Also very sure of her self and her world view which, in a moment, will prove fatal.

Inevitably, the conversation turns to liking to rub soft things. It became clear to me again from the text that Lennie doesn't like puppies and rabbits and mice and girl's hair or dresses particularly. He like to rub soft things compulsively and on his terms. It could just as well have been a swatch of velvet as a living being. Coupled with his low IQ and misguided judgement of his own strength,well, it also proves fatal.

It is a horrific scene.

I mentioned last time that Steinbeck claimed that Lennie was an actual guy. He said this happened when he was young and working on ranches, but it wasn't a young woman, it was a ranch foreman who mouthed off to the real life Lennie. The foreman got up in Lennie's face and Lennie broke his neck. The real life Lennie was in a mental institution to Steinbeck's knowledge and given those days not likely to ever leave (also not likely to ever be capable of doing much of anything.)

The moment between Lennie's departure and Candy's arrival is, in my humble opinion, one of the greater moments in one of the greater novels ever written. Don't miss it. The dog cowering at what she knows is over there, two heaps of death a few feet away from her new puppies. Curly's wife, in death, stripped of all of her terrible armor, looking alive.

The men arrive and it goes pretty much how one would imagine it. I wasn't sure where Carlton's pistol went and I was wondering if Candy was going to off himself over Crooks' prophecy over their farm dream coming true. Instead, like so many of us, he lives on with that despair and we leave the character of Candy, a man who had very little upon meeting him, now stripped of everything as well.

George accesses the situation. If they had a week to let Curly cool off or if Curly wasn't there, Lennie would probably spend the rest of his life in a mental institution drugged or lobotomized out of life, but still living. But a far more likely outcome was Curly shooting Lennie in vengeance.

In the end, George does the most loving thing he can do. Of course, it must be done and it is horrible. But in the final moments, George gives Lennie a beautiful rest of his life. He stays true to his promise to Aunt Clara and looks after Lennie. Instead of the terror of the other options, George gives Lennie his rabbits.

George is also stripped of all dreams. No one ever does make it out of that loop although it looks like they can. The carrot is on the end of the stick which keeps some of them working and the Earth spinning. But no one ever gets out. George is resigned to the other life, the life of one month's work blown on a weekend's joyless release, then back to work Monday morning. Twas ever thus.

But in the final moment, maybe there is hope. Steinbeck gives the very last moment to who might arguably be the most abominable character in the book, which is to say Carlton. George never turned into that and you know he never will. George's motivations were love and hope. I don't know where he will end up now that those are stripped from him.

My gosh, I've cried for hours over this tiny book. What a masterpiece.

Well, that's all I have (actually, I had a whole other bit about who I would cast in my film version but I think wisdom edited that out of this post.) I certainly hope this experience was rewarding for you. I know it was for me. Thank you for joining me. Again, I look forward to all of your comments. Very soon I shall post an announcement for the next book in our Reading the Classics series.

Thursday News in Review

Opera News:

Actually, this is a little belated opera news. I just got the most recent issue of Opera News magazine where they give out the Opera News Awards of 2009. There's a thrift store in town which gives away outdated magazines for free and I always cruise their stack for the latest Opera News.
This year they gave them to mezzo Joyce DiDonato who they rightly describe as an artist in her prime, Gerald Finley about whom I know little aside from that he played Oppenheimer in the Doctor Atomic opera at the Met, and some kind of lifetime achievement award to Philip Glass. It's funny to me how almost across the board classical music writers fall all over themselves to explain to people that Glass really isn't difficult and really is a venerable and accomplished artist in the grand tradition. The classical music critics know their blue-haired audience well. And they are right. At this point Glass is about as establishment as they get. Also awarded were a few people I'd never heard of, but look forward to reading the rest of the article.
Also this week in opera news, the Los Angeles Opera is in a bit of trouble. As you well know, opera is tricky financially, requiring huge spectacle sets, top notch talent and the pay that that requires, all for an art form that is largely anachronistic. They rely on a very small and rabid fan base as well as appealing to the snob factor of the nouveau riche who think that they become more cultured by sitting in the same room as an opera whether they manage to stay conscious through it or not. Needless to say, times of severe economic crisis hit the opera house, as it does all of the arts, very hard.
The LA Opera's massive production of Wagner's Ring Cycle has been a bit like Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote or Orson Welles' Heart of Darkness for something like a decade now. Finally they are in production with Gotterdammerung to finish the cycle in April when this week the LA Opera came to LA County with hat in hand and asked for a loan of $14 million. The details are still unclear, but it's already shaping up to be kind of a sad story.

Linguistic News:

The BBC pointed me at this strange and fascinating study of some famous authors (Hardy, Melville and Lawrence are mentioned) whose works have been charts by vocabulary and word placement. The idea is that one can see distinctives of each individual author from the words they use and how they use them. Even more interesting is the hypothesis of a "meta-novel" which every author pulls from, which seems to be suggesting the author themself or, perhaps more accurately, the author's brain.

Publishing News:

Some sad news in the publishing world this morning as the Kirkus Review has folded. Kirkus has been a major force in literary criticism since 1933. In a shrinking world of book reviews, this is heavy news. Well, why don't I let some quotes from some other news sources do the talking:

Washington Post Book World fiction editor: "You'd think w 3 newspapers still running book reviews & more than a dozen bookstores left in US, Kirkus would have been rolling in the dough...Every time we lose 1 of these rare independent voices we grow more dependent on publicists, authors' parents' friends clogging blogs [with] praise."

Literary blogger Edward Champion: "What happens to all the books that can't get coverage in the newspapers? Blogs can't come close to picking up the slack."

Soft Skull editor Denise Oswald: "Yikes, is this going to make it even harder to sell in."

Also, Editor & Publisher is being closed down by their owners The Nielsen Company. They are selling off several of their titles like Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter. Editor & Publisher, the foremost publication on the journalism industry, has been publishing for 125 years.

You'll remember that Gourmet Magazine also just folded. It's not been a good year for publishing (nervously said by the man who is working on writing a book.)

Is there happy news this week?!!? I started focusing these things on the arts and sciences to avoid this kind of gloomy week. Is there any happy news? At the very least, is there anything funny this week?

Throwing Things At People News:

I'm sure you all remember the Iraqi reporter Muntadhar al-Zaidi who threw his shoe at former US President George W. Bush during a press conference? Well, at a Paris news conference this past week, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoe at al-Zaidi. Apparently this particular, new shoe thrower was an exiled Iraqi journalist who spoke in defence of US policy and accused Zaidi of siding with a dictatorship. I really guess this shouldn't be that funny except that I immediately think of a variation on the old Gandhi quote, something about "leaving the whole world bruised and shoeless." I would direct your attention the video below where you can see as the new shoe thrower is being thrown out of the room, another man hits him in the head with a shoe. The commentators from the podcast The Bugle called it "the perfect metaphor for international relations, but with shoes" and then went on to suggest that someone needs to find the guy who hit the new shoe thrower with a shoe and throw a shoe at him.

Oh, boy, do I need to go for a walk after all of this.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Let nothing you dismay

A couple of nights ago I finished reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol aloud to Laurie. It's always such a striking story although, much like the holiday surrounding it, it's been so overdone that it's hard to really have anything original to say about it (which I also know is far past being a tired old cliche, much like the news story "comic books aren't just for kids anymore" or saying "Saturday Night Live isn't funny anymore and their skits go on far too long." Yes, we all know this and have known this most of our adult lives. Even commenting on it is tired and old.) I can say it's still an effective story after all this time, at least on me. I cried during the Marley's Ghost part.

Dickens wrote it with two things in mind. The first is an important point. He wrote it as a pot boiler to bring in some extra income in a time of need. This is a fine example of how potboilers can become classics. Of course, pot boilers can also be utter tripe, but I think this is a fine argument that just because something is widely popular doesn't necessarily mean that it sucks.
The other reason was as social commentary on extremely greedy business practices of the day. I know that when I get on economic topics like this I am amazed I've made it this far without someone calling me a Commie. But I've long been of the belief that if more people, out of the abundance of their hearts, gave until it hurt, a lot less people would be hurting. I've always liked the story tremendously, but the more cynical part of me usually at some point thinks that while humans could and, indeed, should adapt their behavior for the good and general welfare of their fellow human, humans will do no such thing.

I was going to write a long post about Christmas and human behavior, but I don't think I'm quite in the mood to get into such deep waters on such a high horse. Instead, I thought I might shift gears say a few words about Christmas music. I've been mulling over the topic for the past few days.

The catalyst was the local classical music DJ over whom, as you know, I have very mixed feelings. In this case, she chose to play a piece of Christmas music the other day. I took no issue with it because it was a brass ensemble playing some medley with songs like Good King Wenceslas. Which I can handle and even like although the brass ensemble hit choppy content waters when it hit Ding Dong Merrily On High. In case you had not noticed, there are very distinct degrees of quality in Christmas music. Although, Christmas music is also largely a matter of taste, I plan on tossing that information aside and once again boldly putting the mantle of Arbiter of Good Taste on my own brow.

Good King Wenceslas is one of my favorites. It's tune is very simplistic but somewhat austere. Its message is a model of good behavior. I'm sure people will not be surprised to learn that the old Christmas hymns are largely favorites of mine as well. Laurie and I are both fond of O Holy Night if done well, Silent Night, We Three Kings, some versions of Little Drummer Boy (she hasn't heard Nicki Jaine's version yet, but the evening is young.) Mainly cozy and/or holy ones. I like the Carol of the Bells quite a bit. I also like Winter Wassail, Let it Snow, Marshmallow World... Actually, upon reflection, I think I like a lot of Christmas music.

There's a lot of "reinvention" that people seem to attempt in Christmas music which I find to be the very definition of "hit or miss." Some are great, some fail miserably. Also the release of a Christmas album is a fairly safe indication of dinosaurhood in a recording artist (perhaps like Dickens they are put out as potboilers to make some quick cash.) Possible exceptions are the largely wonderful Projekt Christmas albums (the goth music label got the idea to put out Christmas collections with their artists and when the laughter finally died down they came out with some really amazing music. These, along with Tchaikovsky, Handel, Schubert's Winterreisse, Leon Redbone's and Squirrel Nut Zippers' Christmas albums are the music I drag out from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas to enjoy.) Although I hasten to add that the composition and recording of new Christmas music yearly is probably a very good thing as we would get sick of the old very quick (I think Lady Gaga's Christmas Tree song is hilarious, but hardly the sort of thing appropriate for me to post here. I try to keep my blog PG at worst. I also think Bob Dylan's Christmas album is hilarious in a "punk rock" and "hilarious that it exists but I'd never want to listen to it" kind of way. And while I've heard nothing but good about it, I am terrified of Tori Amos' new Christmas album.) Another favorite of mine is John Lennon's Happy Xmas (War is Over) and several of the covers of it as well. Gorgeous contemporary Christmas song.

I also like a few more recent and secular additions to the Christmas music canon. I tend to like the ridiculously happy ones if the joy doesn't strike me as contrived. I absolutely love this version of Frosty:

And this:

They appeal to the Fezziwig in me.

I may be a novelty in not expressing the usual socially agreed upon disgust with Christmas and the music that comes with it wholesale. So, I guess this post was mainly just rambling about Dickens and Christmas music that I like without anything terribly important to communicate. But I try to keep in the habit of writing consistently and you've probably noticed I'd gone a few days without writing. So, what are some of your favorite Christmas songs?

And, just so you know, if you say Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, I will not say anything rude, but I will privately judge you in my head.
Although satirical Christmas music can also be excellent if they are oh so clever, and I'll leave you with a few gems I do like:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Reading the Classics- Of Mice and Men- Part 1

I think it's kind of charming when a very early edition of an author's masterpiece identifies the author as "author of" what is now one of their lesser known works.

Welcome, Book Groupies. Here is the first post of our Reading the Classics Book Group. Below are some of my thoughts on this, the first section of Of Mice and Men.

Initially I was a little surprised at this choice on the part of the good people at Penguin Classics. Not because I don't think it's a masterpiece, but more that left to my own devices I probably would have gone with The Grapes of Wrath. I think we can safely assume that someone sat down with a list of authors of that time period: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, maybe even Woolf or, on the other chronological end, maybe even Wolfe, and settled on this. Well, two thirds of the way through I have absolutely no misgivings about this choice. It is masterfully written and, yes, I would agree that no one should leave this world without having read this book.

One of the things that occurred to me early in this book revolves around a common response that I don't really understand. Of Mice and Men is one of the “commonly challenged” books which means librarians and high school teachers are often dealing with uptight parents over certain aspects of the text. The reasons they give are mainly about the language (although the fact that almost most of the “foul language” is blasphemous, I think it's probably pretty tame by today's standards. I'm not readily remembering any language that one couldn't hear in contemporary prime time sit-coms) the coarseness, the mentions of prostitution, and I'm guessing just the hardness of life in the book. Get used to it, kid.

One of the things that struck me very early in my reading is that I'm not sure your average high school kid of today would really understand the book. I mean the text and story itself is fairly simple, but the harsh reality is probably outside of the experience of your run of the mill Gossip Girl watching, self-absorbed adolescent. The mirror held up to nature is a little too clear perhaps for the constantly socially reinforced narcissist. In a culture where everyone under 30 is promised that they'll be a rock star at any moment now, what do they know from the cares of common people? Grim reality hasn't gnawed on most of their skulls yet. But don't get me wrong. I think that's all the more reason everyone should have to read this right before graduating high school. In retrospect, I think it's one of the rare instances in my public school education where I actually was being prepared for the real world. I wish I'd understood that at the time.

I think you have to have some work experience and some of the harshness of life experience to fully appreciate the picture that Steinbeck is painting. The men in the book are striving for dreams that may seem pretty small. They are living fairly bleak existences. Like one character (I think it was Slim) remarks, the workmen spend so much time alone and they don't want to talk to anyone anymore. They get mean and they get so turned in on themselves that they want to fight everything else. Anyway, this time reading through the harshness of the place doesn't seem all that far fetched or extraordinary to me now after working a few years with manual laborers and going a few months between jobs. I think Steinbeck pretty much nails it.

It's seeming to me that one of the major themes may be along the lines of tenderness and both our strong desire and complete inability to find it. As though we're all fumbling around in the dark for something we could locate immediately if we'd just turn the lights on.

So, we start with... Well, actually we start with some description of a place and I don't know about you but I was transfixed by Steinbeck's descriptive powers. George and Lennie come hiking through the area we've already established ourselves in (the whole novel so far seemed very theatrical to me. As in like a stage play with scenes opening and closing in one set place. It was adapted kind of famously for both the stage and screen several times. The original Broadway production was directed by George S. Kaufman of the Algonquin Round Table.) George (character in the book George, not George S. Kaufman) is grumbling over the bus driver who left them there. Lennie is mainly concerned with petting mice, rabbits, ketchup on his beans and the promise of a puppy. The mouse also serves to show us that while we love Lennie, we also fear his raw, unfocused power. Lennie gets scared, Lennie panics, Lennie adores cute things, Lennie is strong as a steer.

In later interviews Steinbeck claimed that Lennie was a real person he was acquainted with back in the days when Steinbeck was a gandy-dancer or a bindle-stiff or one of those jobs that sound like a Victorian anachronism. More on that next time. I made the connection in my mind that the book was published in 1937 and that Karloff's Frankenstein was one of the more iconic images of that decade. If you've seen that film, the thing with the mouse should draw some parallels. Also a study in misunderstood tenderness. Although it would seem that any connection was entirely sub-conscious at most on the part of the author. More likely coincidence if you believe in that sort of thing.

One thing I'll mention here in this scene is a question I would like everyone to think about as they read the next section and bring to the table next time. Who are the protagonists and who are the antagonists in this book? The answer seems a little easier in this part, but I think that might change for some of us as we conclude next time.

George is a character of great longing. Although he has these dreams, and even moves toward his goals, we quickly see that those dreams are not the real reason why one could argue (which I very well may be doing right now) that he is the one character with hope in this story. What gives us hope for George in the character he reveals in his relationship to Lennie. Also the reasons he later gives for travelling with Lennie. I don't think any of us are fooled, even in this scene by the riverbrushes. George has strong affection for the helpless Lennie (much as Candy has for his dog.) But he also in conversation with Slim later reveals that he travels with Lennie because he doesn't want to be that hard-hearted, cold, mean, selfish rancher which seems to comprise most of the rest of the characters in the novel.

They arrive and we meet Candy and his stinky dog. The boss appears and seems kind of hard nosed but everyone seems to understand that he's okay, just doing his job, just being a boss. Carlton, the fat guy (or did I make that up myself because of the man I associated him with?), makes an appearance and he's kind of slimy. Curly makes an appearance and he's mean and hot headed, but almost immediately we realize that he's also a man who makes very poor and rash choices.

Enter Curly's wife. It's clear to everyone that she is trouble on her own and mixed with a volatile husband, it's not difficult to sense an explosion in the works. It is clear that her eye wanders to other men and not in a lazy eye kind of way.

We're set up for a lot of horrible things and we all know they're coming. Even Lennie knows and we wish George would listen to him and leave that mean place. Although I found myself thinking during that exchange “And do what, Lennie? Go to another mean place? Because it's all like this.”

Slim seems to play his cards pretty close to his chest and I admit I have no memory of where his character ends up. I don't trust him, but maybe that's just my distrust of top feeders speaking. One of the other more adult (as in grown up) themes of the book is that while workers are always needed, none are individually particularly important without a special skill. Slim is the only one there who is important and everyone knows it and treats him as such. One of the key differences between modern adulthood and childhood (which given what I've witnessed of modern school agendas I'm a little surprised this book is taught in them) is the crushing realization that you are not special or important. The dreams of the men, including George and Lenny's dream, mainly seem to point to wanting to “make it.” The sad realization on our part is knowing full well that none of them probably ever will. Another one comes when we then look at ourselves and our own dreams. Are we doing the same thing? Can we ever really “make it?”

There is a well done (as in I didn't realize it was happening at the time) sort of whirlwind tour through the brains of the men and what they care about. There's the guy with the booze and cat house dreams of blowing all of his pay as soon as he gets it. There's the entertainment and celebrity junkie thing with the western magazine. Also a bit of fame and jockeying for position.

Carlton does the unthinkable to Candy. Slim, whose word is law with the men, backs him up. There's a reflection on the fragility of life, the world's harshness toward the helpless things, and, again, the stark truth that they are not special. My mind drew a very strange parallel to David, Uriah and Bathsheba. There's a man who has a very selfish desire and he's willing to take and destroy the only important thing to someone else, some weaker person, to gain his own satisfaction. So often in life this happens. I think about this sort of thing every time I walk past the clothing section of Costco. How often in our wealthy culture do we do this without even knowing it?

The scene of waiting for the sound of closure is grueling and masterfully written. Everyone knows how wrong it is, but no one did or maybe even could have done anything about it. So they have to sit and wait. A naked lunch moment where everyone sees exactly what's on the end of their fork.

Lennie gets a puppy and we all kind of hold our breath. We're both happy for him and worried for the puppies. Lennie's fixation on the puppy gets a little unnerving, to the point where he's willing to lie and hide for his pleasure. And we begin to see hints of Lennie's desire to possess rather than a big-hearted love and compassion for the weaker, soft thing. Is that a shadow I see in the foreground?

George, Lenny and Candy get positively drunk on their fantasy of a ranch of their own and, again, hope is hinted at. I'm not ashamed to admit I teared up when George realized that they might actually be able to go through with their dream. While they are basking in hope, the smell of doom fills the room.

Curly, Slim and the rest come back in and, frustrated by his impotent attempt at focusing his rage on Slim, Curly starts savagely beating Lennie. The violence is shocking and the end even more so as Lennie sort of, as it were, “kills a fly with an atomic bomb.” Don't miss that once again a soft and tender thing, in this case Curly's hand, is crushed. It's a motif, people!

So, as I said, now you can link to your own thoughts on this section on your own blog or you can post your comments in the comments section. Sedge and I are on Google Wave with a version of this book group. I'm still a little hazy on exactly what that means, but if you're itching to get on Google Wave, I can probably get you an invite.

Next week we will finish the book. So read through the rest of the book and report back next Friday!

Thursday News In Review

Bird News:

We start this week with a story relegated to the back pages of major news sources of the past week, but containing a fairly major kernel of scientific discovery. The University of Freiburg released findings of a research project which suggests that the human practice of hanging bird feeders actually changes the evolutionary path of birds.
A certain species of Blackcap always migrated further north than others, but in a humanless world they wouldn't have made it because there would not have been enough of the proper kind of food in that time of the year in England. But humans have sustained that species of Blackcap unawares with outdoor bird feeders. With the milder winters of the past few years, temperatures have allowed the birds to migrate all the way to England. With a food source, they will be able to survive the harsher British winters.
But there is a concern of a potential derailer, once again reaching back to greedy banks and mortgage lenders primarily in the United States. Because of the weak global economy, scientists fear Brits may not feed the birds as much this year (they may, instead, choose to have their tuppence patiently, cautiously, trustingly invested in the - to be specific - in the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.) To stabilize a species like this would take a very long time, so an interruption in the availability of food could cause this remarkable occurrence to collapse.
But this is the major point I wanted to make sure that everyone came away from this story with. It's a remark on the meaning of the study by Dr. Martin Schaefer who was the head of the research project at the University of Frieburg. He said, "It's positive news for us, because it means not all the changes [humans] produce are necessarily bad."
Good news of that sort is a bit of a novelty and I wanted to share.

Chico News:

I think this is the first time I've put up a local news story, but in the night between Monday and Tuesday of this week a fire broke out in the kitchen of a major restaurant in Chico. Tres Hombres is on the corner of West 1st and Broadway. It's central location downtown and right next to Chico State campus made Tres Hombres one of the more successful restaurants in town.
The fire started in the kitchen late in the night, burned through the wall and completely destroyed Mr. Pickles' Sandwich Shop next door. Tres Hombres, it's said, sustained major damage, but will probably be back up and running very soon. Mr. Pickles, on the other hand, is dead.
I used to deliver to both of those restaurants every day. They were both wonderful people and I am very sorry for their loss.
The building its self is one of the oldest buildings in Chico (which may be why it wasn't completely destroyed in the fire.) It used to be John Bidwell's store and office in the 1860s.

More LHC Watch News:

The Large Hadron Collider set a new record this week. It became the world's highest energy particle accelerator this week when it pushed its particle beams beyond one trillion electron volts. Take that, Tevatron particle accelerator!
Cern's director general Rolf Heuer said, "It is fantastic. However, we are continuing to take it step-by-step, and there is still a lot to do before we start physics in 2010. I'm keeping my champagne on ice until then."
By start physics he means slamming sub-atomic particle beams into one another at near the speed of light in an attempt to recreate conditions similar to the beginning of the universe, but you already knew that.

Beer News:

The Sam Adams Brewery (didn't he used to go by Samuel?) in Boston has unveiled their Utopias beer. It costs $150 per bottle and it boasts 27% alcohol per volume which is the highest beer alcohol content in... ever! The United States lept into action and 13 states have already banned the beer. I'm guessing because the high alcohol content was beyond the wildest imagination of lawmakers, although I would note that the extreme beer probably doesn't pose much of a public health threat outside of the multi-billionaire crowd. But then, considering how the past year has gone for them...
I would also point out that the beer has not yet been banned in California. And Christmas is coming!
Due to the long (15 year) aging process, the beer will only be available every two years (and only in 37 states.) This year, Sam Adams is releasing 10,000 bottles for sale. Of course, the big question is "Is it any good?" Well, Sam Adams says, "The beer is a dark amber color with a tinge of rose. The beer flavor is like cognac and has a hint of vanilla, honey and maple flavors." So if that sounds good to you and you have $150 laying around that you don't need... GO GIVE IT TO A CHARITY OR SOMETHING! Gosh! What're you thinking?!!? $150 for a bottl... I'll tell you what, if I spend $150 on a bottle of beer, it had better be a bottle the size of my garage!

Well, that's all I have this week. Apparently the Classical Music world takes Thanksgiving week off. As well they probably should. The Christmas season, like so many industries, is crunch time for them.

A quick side note for the Book Groupies, the first Classics Reading Group Post will go up late tonight. Stay tuned for that.