Monday, February 20, 2017

The Women of Oz

One part children's fantasy, one part women's history, and a couple of spoonfuls of detective work: Kathleen Sorbella Di Scenna shines a light on the women in L. Frank Baum's Wonderful World of Oz!



Di Scenna, as you may recall from another article in Tablehopping, is the Executive Director of the Lyman Frank Baum Foundation, Inc. of Syracuse.

Baum's connections to Syracuse and Central New York are deep and possibly more varied than you know - as are the more than 400 characters he created to write the many volumes of his much beloved Oz series.

Recently, the Hotel Syracuse opened its doors to the Foundation, which found a new home there in the lobby. The Foundation will have rotating exhibits, but one you may want to put on your "must see" list will be the exhibits Di Scenna, working with noted Rochester feminist, Carol Crossed, is preparing for the Hotel during Women's History month this March.

Women? Oz? Well, of course, we know that the heroine of the stories is Dorothy Gale, a little girl from Kansas who doesn't make it to the storm cellar before a cyclone picks her house up, whisks it away, and deposits it magically in Oz - right on top of the Wicked Witch of the East (woman of Oz #1). And we know there is a Good Witch (Glinda). And a Wicked Witch of the West. And Dorothy's aunt, to whom she is very anxious to return. And, if you read more of the books that just the one made famous by the Judy Garland film, you'll know there was Ozma, another Good Witch, and a host of other female characters that populated the pages of Baum's delightful books.

Di Scenna has done some homework - and as Women's History Month approached, she believed she had the makings of a fine exhibit: many of the women who populate Central New York's most valiant Women of History also, she believes, are hidden in the women in Baum's books.

Baum was born in Chittenango, NY, and grew up in Mattydale on his parents' beautiful estate, Rose Lawn. The story of the women of Oz, according to Kathleen, begins with his mother.

Baum's mother, Cynthia Ann Stanton, wealthy cousin of Henry Brewster Stanton, marries - against the wishes of her parents - poor cooper Benjamin Baum. Henry Brewster Stanton marries -  you guessed it, Elizabeth Cady.

A fanciful if sickly child, Baum began writing early, but eventually followed his interest in the theater and set out to become an actor. He found little success until his father built him his own theater - and his sister Harriet encouraged young Frank (he evidently disliked the name "Lyman") to write. He enjoyed some modest success with some of his work, notably The Maid of Arran, and eventually Baum's female relatives decided it was time for him to marry. They chose Maud Gage - daughter of famed suffragist Matilda Jocelyn Gage. Matilda disapproved, but apparently women of this era weren't likely to take "no" for an answer in matters of the heart, and Maud became Maud Baum.

Matilda Jocelyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and of course Susan B. Anthony formed the famous triumvirate of powerful women who spearheaded the women's suffrage movement - and, according to Di Scenna, likely inspired Baum with the creation of some of the many female characters in his books.

I won't give away all her research here, but just leave you with one bit of literary sleuthing: who was Dorothy Gale? Di Scenna believes it is the immortalization of his little niece who died as an infant. The baby's name was Dorothy - Dorothy Gage. It isn't too far a stretch to imagine that he re-christened her Dorothy Gale, and made her his child heroine, who alone among all the travelers to Oz had the power to get her heart's desire without the Wizard's help.

Want to learn more?

Plan a visit to the exhibit at the beautifully-restored Hotel, and learn more about L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Women of Oz.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

My Bookshelf

I changed my cover photo on Facebook recently; the image was one of my barrister's bookcase (I have about 12 and I just got a couple more for all those books on the floor). I studied it recently, and was intrigued by the books that I found there.

I read a lot of books that I don't keep - I pass them on or donate them. And of course there's my Kindle books.

But I have many books that I have just because. Because I feel better knowing I can pick them up any time I want and re-read them, glance through them to refresh my memory, or simply feel good having them around.

So I thought I'd share with you some of my "I must have this book on my bookshelf" books.

In no particular order:

1984 by George Orwell. This book is one that I make a point of reading every year because it reminds me of some very important things: like, the meaning of words. The manipulation of "truth." Our willingness to succumb to blandishments and punishments.

Encyclopedia of British Literature, and Encyclopedia of American Literature. Now, granted, the volumes I have are dated - much has been written since they were published. But they are valuable nevertheless as they expose the reader to some of the greatest writing coming from each nation. And they're lovely because they can be dipped into without "committing."

For the same reason, I keep The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I had promised myself I'd read through it last year - I failed. Perhaps I can keep that promise this year! Shakespeare was a master of words, and a man with a prodigious talent for capturing human archetypes. If I could pick one person from history to have dinner with, he'd surely be on my top 10 list.

For a similar reason, I have Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad on my shelf. I continue to be astounded that a man born in the Ukraine, a native Polish speaker, could so perfect his command of the English language that he introduced me to words I did not know, but moreover, were the perfect word choice for what he was trying to express. While I love most everything he wrote, Heart of Darkness is a special favorite as one of the basic human stories of self-discovery and what lies beyond it.

Speaking of understanding human nature, I keep several books by Dickens on hand. I listened to A Tale of Two Cities on tape not long ago, and found myself weeping at the end as Sidney Carton offers his life up for the good of those he loves. Dickens could write a villain, and a hero, with such conviction that he is probably, next to Shakespeare, the master of this aspect of writing.

The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault. I discovered this book as a child while I was reading my way through the local public library. It introduced me to Ancient Greece, and sent me on a quest to learn all about Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt; the Gods, archaeology, history, and philosophy. And all because I read a book!

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Confession: I'm not a huge Steinbeck fan, and that's sort of like admitting treason in terms of American Literature. But this book won my approval for teaching me about symbolism - how to read a larger meaning into a perhaps hyperbolic character and situation.

The Arthurian Legends. Perhaps just because I love these stories; but also perhaps because it's another of the stories told over and over, in different ways, the world over.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It's complex, confusing, passionate, harsh and lush: Russian literature at its most provoking.

The Merck Manual. Because before there was the Internet, you learned about medicine from books.

Le Rouge et Le Noir by Stendhal. Probably just because it was the first book I read - without translating - in French. I would recommend this goal to everyone. When you can actually think in another language, you understand the power of language to influence everything about us as human beings. Which takes me back to 1984.

Friday, December 23, 2016

I Once Was Lost

by Jonathan Fanning

A friend and author asked if I would be interested in reading his latest book. He mentioned that it had something to do with C.S. Lewis - if not my all-time favorite writer, then certainly one of my top ten. Of course I would!

Unfortunately for you, the book won't be available until just after the New Year, but by the time this review is in print you may be able to find this very fine story on Amazon.

The premise is simple: take a man, a successful, driven business owner. Add his sister, married to his best friend who feels compelled to go and do his duty to his country, and never returns. Now, mix in a small boy of six. And finally, bring them all together around the uncle and nephew's discovery of the Narnia books - more accurately, the Uncle's introduction of Narnia to his young nephew, and what the ritual of reading them, with a few slightly uncanny episodes added just for the mystery of it all - and you have a touching, tender, thoughtful exploration of the meaning of life, relationships, purpose, and what we all can teach one another: sister and brother, husband and wife, child and adult, author and reader.

Jonathan, like his main character, Thomas, is an entrepreneur and a motivational speaker, so much of the story deal with themes that comprise his own professional life. But the story isn't his life; it is his interests and devotions delivered in a fictional tale that wanders through a man's struggle to find where he's meant to be when his successful and all-consuming business comes to a sudden halt; what his sister is trying to tell him when she asks him if he if he will - if he can - "listen." What his young nephew and he learn from their shared adventures in Narnia.

For anyone who doesn't know, Narnia is a world accessed through the wardrobe of a set of children waiting out WWII in their relative's home in the country. As they explore his mansion far away from the dangerous bombing of London, they find one day, playing hide and seek, that the back of the wardrobe in one of the lonely bedrooms leads to a mystic land where animals talk, where witches are real, and where children can become Kings and Queens once they discover the power within them to do the right thing. When I was about ten I found Lewis's Space Trilogy in the library and fell instantly in love. Later I learned about the Narnia books, and of course had to read them all, and eventually anything and everything Lewis wrote.

C.S. Lewis was a writer of great power and deep spirituality, who found clever and profound ways to bring his own religious convictions to readers of all ages, and to make sense of the mysteries of faith. But you needn't agree with his beliefs to enjoy his work or the overarching stories of The Good in mankind, and the constant struggle we engage in to understand our own foibles and failures, and listen to the voice of our best self when it speaks.

Fanning has accomplished something similar here: using Narnia as a point of departure, and the connection these children's books make between Thomas and his nephew, this book follows Thomas on his own voyage of self-discovery - and not without the added touches of magic that happen to our main characters as their tale unfolds.

Do yourself a favor and look for this book early in 2017 - it will be available on Amazon, and eventually as a book-on-tape. It will make for good reading over some long winter nights, and might inspire you to find a young one with whom you can share your own exploration of Narnia.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

This Book Shall Remain Nameless

Or: How Not To Write An Historic Mystery Novel

There are no real "rules" for writing a novel. More to the point, any rules there might be can be freely broken, but the risk is that such breakage ruins the reader's enjoyment and/or simply doesn't work.

Famous exception: James Joyce's Ulysses, though later scholarship indicates that perhaps he never meant to do his "stream of consciousness" in the final product, but that the book (unfinished) which remained really was just that: a stream of consciousness set of notes for a final book. Still, it has challenged and intrigued readers the world over, and intended it not, it worked, at least for most readers.

It remains true, however, that when we sit down to a novel we have a certain set of expectations, especially when the novel we're reading is advertised as a genre: detective story, whodunit, romance, historic fiction, fictionalized biography, etc. Skilled writers might deviate slightly from the established pattern of each genre, but it can only be described as akin to sitting down to a steak dinner to have it taste like oatmeal. Oatmeal may be fine if that's what you're expecting. But.

So it was when I decided to give my readerly self a little break from too much thinking and analysis and enjoy what looked like an historic (specifically Scottish) mystery with a female protagonist.

For the most part, these types of books contain the following elements: a spooky manor or castle; a plucky heroine with unusual talent, an anachronistic independence, mysterious or sad past or some other unique characteristic; a brooding (or crotchety old) laird; a scheming wealthy female neighboring peer; a true romantic hero (he and the brooding laird may be one and the same); a gristly murder or two, and a lot of local color: accents, countryside and quaint villagers, meals, clothing and customs, and a dollop or six of historic context. For that reason, such novels are often set in the most compelling periods of Scottish history (and of course, this applies to almost any historic mystery - whether it's set in London, Philadelphia, or Paris).

Imagine my disappointment when I indulged myself in such a novel - set in Edwardian times, a not particularly interesting period of Scottish history - in an Agatha Christie-like setting of a house party, attended by what seemed to be a lot of English lords and ladies, who end up stuck at the house following a murder (without even a generous second murder to help it along and create a little suspense) until the "procurator fiscal" can arrive to set matters right. At least the writer got the name of the official correct.

The heroine is far too modern - and not the least bit conflicted about her talent for dissecting dead bodies and painting them. Her supposed possible guilt is patently impossible as there isn't even a hint that she really might be the murderer - even for the assembled party. There is no obvious suspect who will be proven not-so-obvious in the end. There are no twists and turns, surprises or chapters that leave the reader hanging and therefore determined to read at least one more chapter to get to the bottom of the red herring. Never once did I say to myself: I know who it was! Worse, I didn't care.

But while all of these failings might be true of any mystery worthy of the name, what was truly unforgivable was the one that sets an historic novel apart and gives it its true charm.

Details. Detail, details, details. Have the lady dress for the day and describe her clothing, its color and fabric and why she is wearing this particular ensemble (she is going riding versus down to tea) rather than that. What did they eat? What are the rooms like, and how large a house are we in? Is it a beautifully appointed modernized country mansion, or a castle with forbidden wings and dark and drafty passageways and mysterious staircases? What is the pace of the day, and what is our heroine's place in the social order? If she has interests that go against her social status, what is the reaction of those around her other than a vague disapproval?

Accents and speech patterns are de rigeur. (I can't help laughing when a character in a film epic set in ancient Rome says "Ok," or "Really?") These are the first and foremost indicator that you, the reader, are, for a time, in another time and place. A more formal language, accents among the lower born versus the upper, the proper name for each type of carriage and means of addressing one another are needed to lull us into our temporary, fictional world.

What else is happening in the broader world? Yes, by their nature such novels aren't strictly speaking historic novels that seek to place fictional characters in a dramatic period of history and examine the more sweeping events of that time through the eyes of our main characters, but what is happening that might be of interest to our characters? If our heroine's unusual bent is for dissecting bodies and painting what she sees, what is the state of medicine at this time, and the attitudes toward its pursuit?

In this particular book, there was no hint of Scotland other than the fact that we were told that's where we are - otherwise, it might have been any country home in any country. The sense of period was limited to the occasional "smoothing of skirts." Our hero is vaguely described as inappropriately handsome and blonde, and I was left with an impression of an early day hair band singer. He pouted a little, but very little else is known about him - and not in a deep, mysterious way (who is this handsome stranger, why is he here, what secrets is he harboring?) but just in a matter of fact "he's just a prop" sort of way.

Had the book been modern fiction set in any house party on a well-to-do estate (there wasn't even anything particularly British about it), it might have been so-so ok for a rainy afternoon's read. The writer hints that her hero and heroine will be brought together again, "sooner than she could have expected." I'm guessing I won't be there.

This Book Shall Remain Nameless

Or: How Not To Write An Historic Mystery Novel

There are no real "rules" for writing a novel. More to the point, any rules there might be can be freely broken, but the risk is that such breakage ruins the reader's enjoyment and/or simply doesn't work.

Famous exception: James Joyce's Ulysses, though later scholarship indicates that perhaps he never meant to do his "stream of consciousness" in the final product, but that the book (unfinished) which remained really was just that: a stream of consciousness set of notes for a final book. Still, it has challenged and intrigued readers the world over, and intended it not, it worked, at least for most readers.

It remains true, however, that when we sit down to a novel we have a certain set of expectations, especially when the novel we're reading is advertised as a genre: detective story, whodunit, romance, historic fiction, fictionalized biography, etc. Skilled writers might deviate slightly from the established pattern of each genre, but it can only be described as akin to sitting down to a steak dinner to have it taste like oatmeal. Oatmeal may be fine if that's what you're expecting. But.

So it was when I decided to give my readerly self a little break from too much thinking and analysis and enjoy what looked like an historic (specifically Scottish) mystery with a female protagonist.

For the most part, these types of books contain the following elements: a spooky manor or castle; a plucky heroine with unusual talent, an anachronistic independence, mysterious or sad past or some other unique characteristic; a brooding (or crotchety old) laird; a scheming wealthy female neighboring peer; a true romantic hero (he and the brooding laird may be one and the same); a gristly murder or two, and a lot of local color: accents, countryside and quaint villagers, meals, clothing and customs, and a dollop or six of historic context. For that reason, such novels are often set in the most compelling periods of Scottish history (and of course, this applies to almost any historic mystery - whether it's set in London, Philadelphia, or Paris).

Imagine my disappointment when I indulged myself in such a novel - set in Edwardian times, a not particularly interesting period of Scottish history - in an Agatha Christie-like setting of a house party, attended by what seemed to be a lot of English lords and ladies, who end up stuck at the house following a murder (without even a generous second murder to help it along and create a little suspense) until the "procurator fiscal" can arrive to set matters right. At least the writer got the name of the official correct.

The heroine is far too modern - and not the least bit conflicted about her talent for dissecting dead bodies and painting them. Her supposed possible guilt is patently impossible as there isn't even a hint that she really might be the murderer - even for the assembled party. There is no obvious suspect who will be proven not-so-obvious in the end. There are no twists and turns, surprises or chapters that leave the reader hanging and therefore determined to read at least one more chapter to get to the bottom of the red herring. Never once did I say to myself: I know who it was! Worse, I didn't care.

But while all of these failings might be true of any mystery worthy of the name, what was truly unforgivable was the one that sets an historic novel apart and gives it its true charm.

Details. Detail, details, details. Have the lady dress for the day and describe her clothing, its color and fabric and why she is wearing this particular ensemble (she is going riding versus down to tea) rather than that. What did they eat? What are the rooms like, and how large a house are we in? Is it a beautifully appointed modernized country mansion, or a castle with forbidden wings and dark and drafty passageways and mysterious staircases? What is the pace of the day, and what is our heroine's place in the social order? If she has interests that go against her social status, what is the reaction of those around her other than a vague disapproval?

Accents and speech patterns are de rigeur. (I can't help laughing when a character in a film epic set in ancient Rome says "Ok," or "Really?") These are the first and foremost indicator that you, the reader, are, for a time, in another time and place. A more formal language, accents among the lower born versus the upper, the proper name for each type of carriage and means of addressing one another are needed to lull us into our temporary, fictional world.

What else is happening in the broader world? Yes, by their nature such novels aren't strictly speaking historic novels that seek to place fictional characters in a dramatic period of history and examine the more sweeping events of that time through the eyes of our main characters, but what is happening that might be of interest to our characters? If our heroine's unusual bent is for dissecting bodies and painting what she sees, what is the state of medicine at this time, and the attitudes toward its pursuit?

In this particular book, there was no hint of Scotland other than the fact that we were told that's where we are - otherwise, it might have been any country home in any country. The sense of period was limited to the occasional "smoothing of skirts." Our hero is vaguely described as inappropriately handsome and blonde, and I was left with an impression of an early day hair band singer. He pouted a little, but very little else is known about him - and not in a deep, mysterious way (who is this handsome stranger, why is he here, what secrets is he harboring?) but just in a matter of fact "he's just a prop" sort of way.

Had the book been modern fiction set in any house party on a well-to-do estate (there wasn't even anything particularly British about it), it might have been so-so ok for a rainy afternoon's read. The writer hints that her hero and heroine will be brought together again, "sooner than she could have expected." I'm guessing I won't be there.

This Book Shall Remain Nameless

Or: How Not To Write An Historic Mystery Novel

There are no real "rules" for writing a novel. More to the point, any rules there might be can be freely broken, but the risk is that such breakage ruins the reader's enjoyment and/or simply doesn't work.

Famous exception: James Joyce's Ulysses, though later scholarship indicates that perhaps he never meant to do his "stream of consciousness" in the final product, but that the book (unfinished) which remained really was just that: a stream of consciousness set of notes for a final book. Still, it has challenged and intrigued readers the world over, and intended it not, it worked, at least for most readers.

It remains true, however, that when we sit down to a novel we have a certain set of expectations, especially when the novel we're reading is advertised as a genre: detective story, whodunit, romance, historic fiction, fictionalized biography, etc. Skilled writers might deviate slightly from the established pattern of each genre, but it can only be described as akin to sitting down to a steak dinner to have it taste like oatmeal. Oatmeal may be fine if that's what you're expecting. But.

So it was when I decided to give my readerly self a little break from too much thinking and analysis and enjoy what looked like an historic (specifically Scottish) mystery with a female protagonist.

For the most part, these types of books contain the following elements: a spooky manor or castle; a plucky heroine with unusual talent, an anachronistic independence, mysterious or sad past or some other unique characteristic; a brooding (or crotchety old) laird; a scheming wealthy female neighboring peer; a true romantic hero (he and the brooding laird may be one and the same); a gristly murder or two, and a lot of local color: accents, countryside and quaint villagers, meals, clothing and customs, and a dollop or six of historic context. For that reason, such novels are often set in the most compelling periods of Scottish history (and of course, this applies to almost any historic mystery - whether it's set in London, Philadelphia, or Paris).

Imagine my disappointment when I indulged myself in such a novel - set in Edwardian times, a not particularly interesting period of Scottish history - in an Agatha Christie-like setting of a house party, attended by what seemed to be a lot of English lords and ladies, who end up stuck at the house following a murder (without even a generous second murder to help it along and create a little suspense) until the "procurator fiscal" can arrive to set matters right. At least the writer got the name of the official correct.

The heroine is far too modern - and not the least bit conflicted about her talent for dissecting dead bodies and painting them. Her supposed possible guilt is patently impossible as there isn't even a hint that she really might be the murderer - even for the assembled party. There is no obvious suspect who will be proven not-so-obvious in the end. There are no twists and turns, surprises or chapters that leave the reader hanging and therefore determined to read at least one more chapter to get to the bottom of the red herring. Never once did I say to myself: I know who it was! Worse, I didn't care.

But while all of these failings might be true of any mystery worthy of the name, what was truly unforgivable was the one that sets an historic novel apart and gives it its true charm.

Details. Detail, details, details. Have the lady dress for the day and describe her clothing, its color and fabric and why she is wearing this particular ensemble (she is going riding versus down to tea) rather than that. What did they eat? What are the rooms like, and how large a house are we in? Is it a beautifully appointed modernized country mansion, or a castle with forbidden wings and dark and drafty passageways and mysterious staircases? What is the pace of the day, and what is our heroine's place in the social order? If she has interests that go against her social status, what is the reaction of those around her other than a vague disapproval?

Accents and speech patterns are de rigeur. (I can't help laughing when a character in a film epic set in ancient Rome says "Ok," or "Really?") These are the first and foremost indicator that you, the reader, are, for a time, in another time and place. A more formal language, accents among the lower born versus the upper, the proper name for each type of carriage and means of addressing one another are needed to lull us into our temporary, fictional world.

What else is happening in the broader world? Yes, by their nature such novels aren't strictly speaking historic novels that seek to place fictional characters in a dramatic period of history and examine the more sweeping events of that time through the eyes of our main characters, but what is happening that might be of interest to our characters? If our heroine's unusual bent is for dissecting bodies and painting what she sees, what is the state of medicine at this time, and the attitudes toward its pursuit?

In this particular book, there was no hint of Scotland other than the fact that we were told that's where we are - otherwise, it might have been any country home in any country. The sense of period was limited to the occasional "smoothing of skirts." Our hero is vaguely described as inappropriately handsome and blonde, and I was left with an impression of an early day hair band singer. He pouted a little, but very little else is known about him - and not in a deep, mysterious way (who is this handsome stranger, why is he here, what secrets is he harboring?) but just in a matter of fact "he's just a prop" sort of way.

Had the book been modern fiction set in any house party on a well-to-do estate (there wasn't even anything particularly British about it), it might have been so-so ok for a rainy afternoon's read. The writer hints that her hero and heroine will be brought together again, "sooner than she could have expected." I'm guessing I won't be there.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What Is the Past Tense of "Read?"

As we all know, I love to read.

Reading books used to be my favorite pass time. Now I find that I spend more time - as do most of us - on the Internet. And I often find it to be a waste of time.

"Google it" used to be a punch-line. As if a Google search was a reliable source of information. "I found it on the Intertubes, it must be true!" That line was considered a joke. Now, sadly, it's taken seriously.

In this sorry election cycle, as I watch inflamed Internet Warriors hurling insults and "proof" at one another, I can only feel sad, and not a little frightened, that this Guttenberg of the digital age has proven to be so dangerous to our collective brain.

Yes, it is wonderful to be able to find the name of the actor who played the best friend in such-and-such a movie (though it makes us rely less and less on our own recall when the information is so handy using our cell phones); yes, it's great to be able to turn on an app that will guide us turn by turn to our destination (though I miss real maps, pouring over them for a particular route, and then relying on my own brain to store the turns); sure, it's interesting to follow a thread of information with a few clicks rather than hefting books off a library shelf and then digging through them for what I'm trying to find out.

But there are two major reasons why this "gift of fire," The Internet, could prove deadly to your mind:
 - first, a thing called "Confirmation Bias,"
- second, the sources themselves

Let's take confirmation bias first. This is simply the human tendency to look for information that "confirms" what we already believe. These days, this kind of highly skewed data is readily available on the Internet. The first thing I do when checking any nugget of information is try to learn where it came from. If the source is "OccupyDemocrat," or "BearingArms," I can be fairly sure the source will have an agenda, and I need to take what I learn with some salt.

This simply means that I hunt for as much information as I can find, try to locate original data (though as we all know, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics), and then interpolate what is probably "true." Or at least, reasonable to assume. Once upon a time, there was journalism, and there was "yellow journalism," or salacious and gossipy information from "a source close to the story." Now most of it is the latter - and even institutions of erstwhile merit - like the New York Times - have been found wanting.

Then, there are the sources themselves. We've already dealt with the fact that most Internet publications have a bias or agenda - one of them, of course, is to get "clicks." Hence, the "clickbait" titles on sidebar articles: "He Thought He Knew His Wife - Til He Saw This One Thing!"

But more to the point, even when an article is a genuine piece of journalism: it's too easy. It takes a lot of work and time to write a book, particularly a scholarly one. Original research, in depth analysis, long hours and many revisions. The writer was - had to be - invested in the product.

Now when a "reporter" has to churn out article after article without leaving his desk - who has time for phone calls, or visiting the location of an event, or asking people on-site at an event, or reading carefully foot-noted books with huge bibliographies to get a foundation in the subject? Rummage through a few Internet sources, maybe make a phone call, grab an image off the web (without even really examining it for the possibility of its being Photoshopped), and then write a piece that's mostly opinion.

I used to make a habit of looking for confirmation of especially those "memes" that people are so fond of passing around, even when they confirmed my own bias. I've reached a point of "why bother?".

I think I'll visit my local library soon - and "take out" a few books, and then read them carefully and slowly and thoughtfully. I'll let you know how my experiment turns out.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

How The Scots Invented the Modern World

The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It

by Arthur Herman

Confession: I'm still not finished with this book.

It's dense, and you can only absorb just so much at one sitting.

Second confession: No, of course the Scots didn't invent the world and everything in it - that's a process and process builds one block upon another. But having said that, the author makes a good case that the world, as we know it, owes much (for better and worse) to a wee nation of granite and heather up at the northern corner of a small island nation called Great Britain.

Most accurately, the book tells the story of the Scottish Enlightenment, and how this awakening of spirit, spiritual fervor, and fierce independence spread to a New World and the ideas that carried the settlers created the United States, which then went on to influence much of the modern world.

It all began - more or less - with the Scottish Reformation. John Knox, father of the Calvinist Presbyterian movement in Scotland, taught that God gave to men - to individuals - the power to administer and enforce His laws - not a monarchy.

To administer the laws, one had to know and understand these laws.

To know and understand them required that one be able to read scripture.

And to read, one had to learn to read.

That all added up to the first "public" schools - really, parish schools. Once each parish had a school, literacy grew at a startling rate, as did the demand for books, and with the demand for books, the need for writers.

Herman writes that it was, oddly enough, the defeat of the Scots and the absorption of them into the British Empire that was, at least in part, the reason they could become so influential on thought and ideas: after 1707, and more profoundly, after "The '45," (Scotland's final rebellion in which they, particularly the Highlanders, were defeated on the moors of Culloden), Scotland had many of the benefits of a strong, rich empire, and few of the problems. Scotland wasn't interesting enough to The Crown to be paid much attention to. So Scotland could trade throughout the British empire, paid relatively little in the way of taxes, and its people had the freedom to become thinkers, scholars, writers, inventors,designers.

Having once been fully absorbed into Great Britain, Herman calls the next phase of the Scottish story "The Diaspora." That is, Scots traveled to all corners of the British empire, in particular, the American Colonies. While many Scots were on "the wrong side" of the Revolutionary War (they sided with the "bloody Brits"), those who did side with the Colonists had out-sized influence on the Declaration of Independence and eventually, on The Constitution.

Though I don't yet know whether Herman also goes into some of the Scots' contributions to our modern way of life (among its many famous names who profoundly influenced modern life are Fleming, Graham Bell, MacIntosh, Roebuck, ; among its many inventions are the decimal point, penicillin, macadam roads, the telephone, radar and Whiskey). I'm still reading. And, as noted, it's dense material and much detail.

But, winter is coming.

And the Scots also gave us Auld Lang Syne.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Balls and Instincts: "Two Things Money Can't Buy and You Can't Teach"

by: Michael Drosdowich

Isn't the Internet a fascinating intelligence?



There are people I know whom I've never met, and books I've read that aren't in print. There are shouting matches that are silent, and voyages around the world taken via cell phone.

This book is one of these odd creatures: a self-published electronic book (or paperback, if you prefer), the author is an acquaintance I've never met face to face. Letting it be known than I'd edited a book or two, I was challenged to read this one, though it was too late to truly edit.

As I dug in, I immediately started making line edits in my mind: "Aint needs an apostrophe. He's changing tense from present to past and back to present - gotta fix that. The narrator is preposterously lucky and/or talented: he falls into a business-cum-romantic relationship with Hawaiian royalty? Impossible."

Somewhere along Chapter 4 (each chapter has a title, which I have to admit I enjoy - it's a carry-over from novels I read as a child, and I like the hint of what the chapter will contain), I stopped critiquing and found myself just riding along with the wave of the narrative.

Which is not to say that the book is all those hackneyed descriptives: "a page turner," "can't put it down," "was completely carried away in prose...."

No, it's more like it is Itself and Nothing Else, and after a while, you stop fighting for it to be another book written to a formula, and according to the rules of grammar and story arcs and character development, and you simply allow it to take over and lead you where it will: drugs, deals, thugs, who-is-the-good-guy?, graphic "love" scenes (ok, more like the S-word writ large), murders, mayhem, and mischief.

The biggest question I had is: it's written in the first person as if it's a memoir, but it's also hard to believe anyone would acknowledge the kinds of activities the main character engages in. My guess - though at some point I stopped caring whether it was "real" or "make believe" or somewhere in between - is the author knows whereof he speaks, but perhaps more as an observer than a participant.

But as noted, ultimately it isn't important. More interestingly, I found myself second guessing my line editing: perhaps this book, to be what it is, is written exactly as it should be: rough, wrong, direct, sometimes even deep. It's written in the voice of an original, and that's what makes it readable and fun. The narrator isn't going for poetry or the perfect word; rather it's the drive forward that carries the novel. "I got up and did this and went here and did that and ate this and met her..." all at a relentless pace that simply keeps you moving with it.

One of the things I dearly loved about Ira Levin's writing in "Rosemary's Baby" was the detail: what they ate, how something smelled or felt or looked, the ordinary details of the day-to-day life of the characters. It built suspense and made the unbelievable believable. If they weren't so ordinary, who'd believe witches in an apartment in New York City could be breeding the Child of the Devil?

So with this book, if I weren't getting the details of how an Hawaiian cook learns how to make proper Italian meatballs, how would I believe our hero just stumbles into dealing serious drugs simply because he won't back down from a fight? That is, the ordinary details lure you into the extraordinary story line without too much resistance.

And thus my final conclusion that the grammar and the plot line and the other details of "cleanup" on this book should simply be avoided here. Why would you rewrite a story written for a child by a child? It's exactly as it should be. In this book, we're being told a story of a way of life by someone living that life - or at least, the writer has adopted that voice successfully - and therein lies the enjoyment of his story. If it were perfectly punctuated and artfully written, it would be just another thriller. This book is something else.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

World's Fairs In a Southern Accent

by Bruce G. Harvey

I have to be honest and say that this book is not my usual (ahem) fare - which made it all the more interesting!

Essentially the thesis of the book is a relatively simple question, with a richly rewarding answer: what can we learn about the story of American cities as reflected in three of its earliest World's Fairs? The period covered is 1895-1902 - and right there, you have learned a lot!

Post Civil War America was booming. Post Civil War Southern America had something to prove - that it was competitive, that it was a place to do business, that it was modern and technologically advanced.

In truth, World's, and other large Fairs are all about just that: demonstrating what is new, exciting, different, advanced. I portrayed a character in an OHA Ghost Walk whose husband made a fortune because he attended a National Exhibition in Philadelphia where he learned about a little thing called a typewriter. That device, as my character says, changed the way business was done, and opened up careers in business for women.

Fairs have a long and fascinating story - though that is not the immediate subject of this delightfully well-researched book. Fairs have long been a place where people met, learned about new things, hired others, sold goods or bought them. What began as a way for people in a region to meet and market widened their boundaries and broadened their scopes. Now we have State Fairs as well as County Fairs, but for a period of time, the World's Fairs were the bronze ring of fairdom. In their heyday, they were a way to prove that your city was on the map. Between them, during this period, America, and the South, had a great interest in proving both.

Harvey's book explores this world by examining three southern cities that desperately needed the exposure and business boost a fair would bring - and the stamp each would put upon the ongoing culture of World's Fairs. It's a unique proposition: what can fairs tell us about our culture, and what do such fairs do to change or influence culture?

In the 1890s the South was, of course, laboring under the aftermath of the Civil War. There was much to labor under: destroyed property, demolished cities, the racial aftermath of slavery and emancipation, not to mention the relative backwardness, industrially, of the area - and a demoralized public.

To gain the prize of a World Exposition was an achievement; but the goal for Atlanta, Nashville, and Charleston was to not only put their cities on the map, but to put paid to the Northern, and even world ideas that the American South was poor, ignorant, impoverished, racist, and not a good place to do business.

I won't go into all the details - in truth, it would be impossible to know where to start! This is a book that will be like a gourmet meal for an historian (amateur or professional), but of interest to a more casual reader, as well. It is chock full of detail, facts, figures and most importantly, insights.

Harvey doesn't just list dates and facts - he draws the inferences and helps a non-scholarly reader see why these facts lead to this conclusion - the cause and effect, the significance of a community taking action, and the usefulness of the results.

To someone interested in World or US History, this book is sure to reward. But to someone more parochial - who would like to learn about the machinations of local business interests, and how they can be handled successfully (or not), this book also has a lot to give. Going even a step further - I would make it recommended reading for civic committees - it's that useful as a tool for understanding how publicity, image, and the cohesion (or disunity) of business interests can shape the fate of a community. Yes, that's all in this book for the reader to mine. This is a book you could enjoy on a long summer evening out on the patio - or verandah, as they'd say in the South.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

My Love Affair with Mystery Series

It was many years ago now.

A friend suggested I read - I think because I was a "cat person" -  a mystery series known as "The Cat Who" books.  Each book was entitled "The Cat Who..." (did something) and featured a cat with preternatural intelligence who would solve mysteries - typically murder - for his owner, a nouveau riche newspaper writer who, because of the requirements of his vast inheritance, has moved to a smallish city somewhere in what might be UP Michgan or might be Maine.

The books are delightful.

And I had discovered "cozy mysteries."

What is a cozy? Well, usually it involves a quirky individual in a smallish community who solves grizzly murder mysteries. Along the way, you'll be treated to meals eaten, community events attended, quirky friends, a quirky romance or two, and the inner workings of a quirky job or hobby or lifestyle: reporter (that one is popular), minister, coroner or doctor, teacher - you get the idea.

They're called "cozies," I suppose, in that they resemble that delightfully British invention, the "tea cozy." A tea cozy is a typically quilted wrapper that goes around a tea pot to keep the water warm while the tea steeps. So,in their way, cozies wrap you in a world, a place, a time, and people and the whole effect is - well, cozy. Not to mention a great many of them are based somewhere in Great Britain.

I read (and listened) my way through all of The Cat Who - to the point of sorrow when the original writer passed away and was replaced with a writer who simply didn't understand the style or the characters. This, of course, is an occupational hazard for series writers.

The Cat Who, should you be so inclined, is an American series that features Jim Qwilleran, a crime beat reporter from a big city who has a drinking problem. He inherits - through murder - two Siamese cats, Koko and YumYum. He then inherits - through regular old death - a not-so-small fortune, but, to collect on it, must move to a small city in the middle of somewhere indefinable, but utterly likable. There, he turns the mansion he inherits over to the town for a museum, and remodels an apple barn into his summer quarters, and lives in a townhouse in the winter. He makes friends, joins civic organizations, attends parties, visits the local diner, finds a girlfriend (or two), and solves an inordinate number of murders for such a small community.

But along the way, we are introduced to a variety of fun and lovable characters who become real for us, so that we look forward to each new meeting. And of course, there is the other necessary element for any cozy mystery: you must have many of the clues the main character does so you can start guessing whodunit as you read.

Having run out of The Cat Who I then discovered Hamish MacBeth.  Hamish lives in the Highlands, Scotland, in a wee town where everybody knows everybody's business, so everybody knows that Hamish is sweet on the daughter of the Laird, has a cat and a dog, and needs a wife, for Heaven's sake. There are a pair of oddball sisters, and the occasional visitor from elsewhere, but as Hamish is a handsome, if slightly unreliable, officer of the law, his many encounters with death and deception are to be expected.

The stories are full of Scottish lore and location, and are thoroughly fun. And there are lots them, so you will have a long, winding footpath of a read through this series.

The final series I'll mention - and there are too many to do justice to the many fine series there are - is another Highland series (if you detect a pattern here, you're a good sleuth - my mother, from whom I borrowed these,  has a thing for Scotland!) - the common thread being the author, A.D. Scott (of course!).  This series features another small town in the mid-fifties, and a female reporter for the town's little weekly. She is in an unhappy marriage when we first meet her, but has much in store for her as her life, and various dark deeds, unfold. I'm only on the second of a set of about eight that my mother let me have. And while cozies really deserve to be read in the winter when the sun sets early and there's a fire in the fireplace, there's nothing wrong with a Tiki torch and a lawn chair, either!

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Snapping of the American Mind

by David Kupelian

If you can tolerate strong political opinions, right or left, keep reading.

If you can't, and you're right of center, keep going. If you're left, stop now. You will find little, if anything, to like, much less agree with, in this book.

However, if you're willing to weigh and consider, you may want to give it a try - if for no other reason than to explore the "American Mind" that Kupelian refers to.

For after all, we each of us, considers ourselves to be the model of the American Mind. Nowhere is this so apparent than in what passes for discourse on social media. The screeching, screaming back-and-forth that passes for discussion on FaceBook and Twitter: "You're an idiot!" "So's your old lady!" "GFY!" and so on, in ever more angry invective, while under cover of anonymity.

However, if one is willing to explore a little, read and not immediately react, a great deal can be discovered by reading the strongly held opinions of those with whom we might naturally agree, or disagree - especially the latter.

Kupelian is an opinionated author. He is an old-school Liberal, modern Conservative, disagreed-with Jerko. In fact, though, he has some things to say.

Like many of his like-minded friends, Kupelian wonders where "his" country - his philosophical kinsmen - have gone. Believe it or not, it is a question worthy of the asking. After all, "America," as it came to be following the revolution against monarchic Great Britain, was not much more than an idea born of the Enlightenment: the astounding idea that we, as individual human beings, got our value and rights not as granted by a ruler or rulers, but from a higher power (a God, if you will, Nature's God if you prefer) that granted that we were all "born equal," and that nobody and no-one could take these rights from us unless we agree to cede them to a limited government - whose limits we described, not the other way around.

Hey, don't yell at me - it was not my idea, nor even Kupelians, but the men and women who decided that Medieval Divine Right of Kings was nonsense, and that we should rule ourselves, for good or ill.

In fact, America (for all that it may have been birthed as a consequence of conquest), was an experiment in whether people could, perhaps even should rule themselves - if they had that capability.

And that, is perhaps, the crux, of Kupelian's argument that the experiment is over, and has failed.

That people lack the skill, the will, and the (okay, I'm rhyming, but it makes sense) thrill garnered from calling their own shots, and sometimes, in fact, often, failing, to do a decent job of self-governing.

Kupelian suggests that we simply haven't hit the mark; we don't want to do the hard work; and we haven't come up with the "stuff" necessary to have our government obey us, but have settled down to agreeing to obeying the government, in return from the largesse it doles out, in what it considers to be fair helpings. And worse, perhaps we have been ruthlessly set up - drugged, lied to, hypnotized, over-fed and paid off - to fail.

Naturally, from neither the point of view of the Right nor the Left does Kupelian's exploration actually work. From the point of view of the Right those who put forth the effort have had their rewards taken from them; from the point of view of the Left the oligarchs still take far more than they're worth, and hand out pitiful shares to those who do the actual work. Both would agree with Kupelian, however, that neither side is making out very well in the deal - except for the very, very  few with an immense amount of power.

Kupelian errs, if err he does, on the side of the Right - though the reader ends up feeling more as though both sides have a valid point, and that the better solution would be closer to the original idea of individual effort and individual reward.

As with most books of its kind, this book won't convince you if you already have a contrary opinion, and will reward you if you are already on "his side." But he does an excellent job of quantifying the loss of that which we once considered "American," and considering what, exactly, will replace it. And what that will mean to you, and your children.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Journals and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian

A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion
1773 - 1774
Edited by: Hunter Dickenson Farish

History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors.

These days, it seems that history is not just written but re-written as the demands of the times warrant.

I continue to be shocked how much "the story" changes from one generation to the next, depending upon who is in favor, and who is out, both in a scholarly sense and a political one. Take The Crusades, for example. What you "know" about them depends upon your politics, age, religion, and general outlook on life, rather than anything we know or don't about those times. And of course, because it is so far back in time, the story is even more hazy than something that occurred 10-30 years ago. Even then, my mom is fond of saying, "Wuz you there, Charlie?" I'm not exactly sure who originated the expression, but at least in my family it means, "I lived during that time, and you didn't, so don't presume to tell me something I know to be false."

It will be interesting to see what happens to "history" going forward, given the ubiquitousness of cell phone cameras, video tape, and Internet publishing. (More about this subject of what is "real" in video will be dealt with in my computers and technology column for this month!)

I have a friend who studied (for reasons I will never quite understand) "old" Spanish, translating texts from a Medieval form of the language to modern English, and learning about the history of Spain from, as it were, those who "wuz there."

And in truth, for me, this is the only way to read history: from those who were writing about their own lives and times.

Granted, we all carry with us the prejudices and biases of our native country, language, social class, and other factors - and even though you may be reading something written at that time, it may still have a slant. But it's as close as we're likely to get to "what really happened."

In this case, the "story" is the diary of a young man who, upon completing is own education, accepts a position as a tutor to the children of a wealthy Virginia planter. The year is 1773-1774, just before the Colonies declared independence from England. And, in fact, one of the more interesting parts of the volume is that it contains little to nothing about the brewing anger and rebelliousness of the Colonials. What it does deal with in great detail is the young man's life, times, and fortunes. As he relates them, he reveals a great deal about the times. (And perhaps, the fact that the simmering rebellion is not mentioned is telling in an of itself.)

Young Philip Frithian is not exactly a fun sort of young man - and a good deal of that is explained by the fact that he is quite religious, and is only interrupting his study for the ministry with his brief sojourn as a tutor.

Philip has studied Latin (Lattin, occasionally) and Greek; he knows mathematics and rhetoric and music - all the things a well-brought-up young man of his era should, and, as he is studying for a life of prayer and preaching, he is in a position to impart some of his learning to his young pupils.

The young people in question are both boys and girls, ranging in age from 6 or 7 to the teens. They live in Virginia on a wealthy plantation, to which place Philip travels, noting his expenses (very specifically) and accommodations along the way.

Before leaving his hometown of Deerfield, Philip dithers about taking the position: it will delay his entry into the ministry; he will have to leave his "Laura," a young woman who has caught his fancy;  he is not certain he will like the less sophisticated life on a southern plantation; he is not certain he likes or wants to be engaged in tutoring young people at all.

Finally, he agrees to test the waters, and sets out on his adventure.

Travel at that time isn't for sissies. Time on the road is dirty, disagreeable, uncomfortable, and evidently, no cheap. (Money is still accounted for in the old English system of pounds, guineas, and pence, and Philip takes great pains to keep a record of how much and to whom he must pay: oats, bed, meal, drink, ferry boats, and so on.)

But the inducements of the job are significant: he isn't a man of great fortune or family, and like his female counterparts (well brought up but not wealthy) he finds he must do something to earn his keep (women typically became governesses if they needed to support themselves in a genteel manner). The position allows for a room and meals, a horse "kept," as well as pay - which, despite most of his physical needs being cared for, he must piece out to servants and tavern keepers, launderers and haberdashers.

What else do we learn from Philip's diaries?
 - Ill health was not uncommon, and people fretted over even a slight cold, as anything could lead to a mortal affliction;
- People kept hours not unlike ours - he "arises" at 6 or 7, and "to  bed" at 10-11;
- Meals were not like ours either in terms of when (breakfast might be a 9-10, even after arising at 6 or 6), and dinners were often late; or what: they seem to have been a bit larger than what we are accustomed to now - but then, people walked and rode (horses) great deal more than today, and even dressing was a chore;
- Entertainments were often supplied by the family itself for one another, and one of Philip's jobs is to help especially the young ladies with their musicianship;
- Letter writing was a common employment - and again, not as easy as it would be now if we still wrote letters, as pens had to be sharpened and in came in wells rather than disposable pens;
- Church going was along the lines of an entertainment, with Philip often remarking on the quality of the sermon, and the rather lack-luster sermons of the Southern preachers as compared to the hell-fire of the North;
- Young men could be intrigued by a pretty face, though ultimately a young lady's fortune and manners were the deciding factors when choosing a wife;
- Weather then, as now, took up a significant amount of people's interest and time.

There is a great deal more, though another thought that occurred to me while reading this work was how boring life must have been then as compared to now - we have so many things to distract us, while these people whiled away hours walking, in conversation, playing cards, and reading books.

As noted, Philip doesn't seem to be much taken up with the political scene, nor with the chance of a rebellion - even when he is in Virginia, where young George Washington had a plantation himself.

He comments on manners; behavior (one of his charges is a very spoiled and willful young man) and the necessity for chastisement of his young pupils; music; health and weather; clothing and appearance; Godliness; and to whom he dedicates his toasts (usually one of the better looking young ladies). He details visits to and from others in the area, both for an evening or for a week or more: having new company and conversation was very important in a life lacking in much in the way of diversion.

He also mentions the "Negro" slaves, a thing he disapproves of, being a Northerner, yet comes to accept as he finds they are not ill-treated in general, or at least, on this particular plantation. And he adjusts to the idea that a measure of a man's wealth is partly displayed by his servants and how well he treats them.

It is in these passing details that one discovers the history of a time - learning how something as heated as the subject of slavery was to become, and continues to this day to be, was tolerated and even somewhat ignored by the wealthier classes. How religion figured so much more in the day to day life of a Northern man than a Southern one (Philip learns that skipping Church on Sunday is not nearly as much of a social error as it would have been in Deerfield). And how arbitrary spelling was - almost as arbitrary as spell-check is today.

This is, of course, a "sipping" book - meant to be read in small doses daily rather than a page-turner that will keep you up at night. Nothing much happens. The joy of it is strictly in the ordinariness of the details that teach us how people lived, what mattered to them, and through what lenses they observed the world around them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

IF....


Another old-but-always-new book for you this month; it was a gift from a friend.


The book is actually about 20 years old, but I heartily recommend you pick up a copy (or several) and share them with friends and family.

It's a deceptively simple little book, presented in a small square and less than an inch thick. But its contents are anything but simple.

All it is is questions; propositions. But they are some of the most difficult and intriguing questions I have ever mulled over.

If you could spend a night alone with anyone living, who? Anyone who is no longer living? If you were granted just one wish, what would it be?

What if you could pull a Steve Allen and invite a group of people from the past to dinner - who would they be?

This is the type of book that young couples contemplating marriage might want to delve into - or perhaps a couple who has been married many years and has lost than sense of discovery about one another. Families could discuss a topic with children at the dinner table (minus the ones that are "adult themed," of course!). This is not a book to give to younger kids, though there are many questions parents could safely present to their children to help initiate a conversation. For that matter, it would be an interesting conversation starter for adult children to spend some time with their older parents, who can often feel that they have much to share and no one to share it with.

Because in the final analysis, the little book is all about, as its subtitle says "Questions for the Game of Life."

Some of them, on the face of it (all puns intended) seem silly -  "If you could only use one cosmetic item for the rest of your life, what would you choose?" - yet actually make you thing about what part vanity and comfort play in your life. Others would require, for some of us, a lot of thinking "If you had to choose the best book in history, which book would get the prize?" Oh, please, don't ever make me really choose!

Still others could provoke some fun and laughter - or maybe some hurt feelings: "If you had to pick the worst meal you've ever eaten, what would it be?" (I know that answer: I cooked it!)

And yet other might encourage you to do something: "If you could change one things about your home, what would you make different?" Maybe you can act on this one!

I'll leave you with this one, because I have often said the inverse: if I were going to sell my soul, it wouldn't be for that! So this question is: "IF you had to sell your soul for one thing, what would it be?"

Think about it.

This great little book, and it's sequel, are available at Amazon, and more than likely many bookstores still.

And by the way, MD, thanks!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War On You



By: Greg Gutfeld


No, this book isn't for everyone. Unless you, like me, enjoy reading polemic books because there are always nuggets of truth to be found, however much some of it may be off-putting, you may find this book annoying.

Greg Gutfeld is a self-described libertarian, and I would add, contrarian. He enjoys stirring the pot. Probably, literally.

He is a featured player on "The Five" on Fox News, so I'm sure that will give you some immediate insight, and he loves to go toe to toe with that show's nominal Liberal, now Juan Williams. (Previously it was Bob Beckel, who, following back surgery, did not return - though under less than friendly circumstances.)

Gutfeld is outspoken, sometimes out-of-left (or, far right?)-field, and some would say, outrageous. He doesn't hide his opinions, and sometimes opts for a laugh at the risk of sounding outright silly.

Still - as I said, you can find wisdom when you're looking.

Gutfeld's premise is not exactly original: we all want to be cool, and Cool will always be "owned" by some group or another. Therefore, if you express opinions that are contrary to that Book of Rules, you will be considered Un-cool, and you will be refused the company of The Cool.

To an extent, he's right. Er, correct.

Grafitti was found on the walls of buried Pompeii. Which means, there were people writing protests and nasty verses and silly comments on walls way back in 79 A.D. (or, to be cooly PC, 79 C.E.). That is to say, there have always been "people who consider themselves rebels and tastemakers for all that's edgy."

Going further, he makes a statement that I heartily applaud: "They (the cool) are now in control of defining the 'conversation,' - of deeming what is good and what is bad."

Not long ago, I read an excellent essay about who owns the Moral Authority, and what effect that has on particularly our political discussions. It seems there is an arc: you are the outsider, so you get to say whatever you want. You can be offensive, you can be outspoken, you and picket and chant and whine and object. You are the ignored and the marginalized; you are not what is "commonly accepted." Bit by bit, you gain ground, and eventually, you replace the old guard. For a while, all is new and exciting and you're quite sure that this is How It Will Be. "We" are the ones we've been waiting for! Until we've been around a little too long, and a new We is nibbling at the edges of The Establishment, because, while you weren't looking, what was once "hipster elite" (in Gutfeld's parlance) has become Establishment Boring. The new Old Guard.

Don't believe me? Read The Great Gatsby. Read On the Road. Watch videos of Elvis, The Dave Clark Five, or see The Rolling Stones (mostly) live. All so quaint, so old-fashioned. Once, each was, however briefly, the very epitome of Cool.

This particular essay went on to say that in many ways, he who owns the Moral Authority is also The Target. You can shoot darts at him with impunity, because he does own it. Looking back, in the 40s and 50s, that authority was owned by the jocks, the religious, the family guy, the work-a-day everyman. Lurking in beat bars and sleazy Village apartments were beatniks and rebels. Then one day Ed Sullivan featured Elvis. Soon thereafter, The Beatles. The toe in the door cracked open a little wider. By the 60s, the counter-culture was banging the drum so loudly it was difficult to hear the voices of parents and preachers, and eventually, the world turned and the counter-culture became the Common Culture. 

Gutfeld is, as I noted, a self-proclaimed Libertarian. So that means that the Left would consider him ultra-right, and the Right would consider him strange. Either way, he can't really be pinned down as a political entity, and he seems to be if not an equal opportunity offender, then surely not a Right Wing zealot.

It's his contention, however, that the world has turned so far that that Moral Authority I mentioned above has shifted center utterly, so that what was once Bad is now Good, and if you oppose these things, you are very, very un-Cool.

For now.

So, who, or what, in his opinion, is the New Cool? Or, the Existing Cool - as we are in a constant state, it seems to me, of shifting Central Coolness.

Gutfeld says that Cool is the so-called Liberal Elite. For starters, you don't want to be a banker, minister, executive, plumber or electrician. A social media director, app designer, song writer, or social activist  - any of these is a much better choice.  Don't be ordinary, by any means - be a misfit, an outcast, and have a geeky or nerdy period (even if you are now gorgeous and accomplished).

It's cool to be in jail for certain crimes (or when, according to popular culture, you have been wrongfully arrested), but not cool to be a policeman. Or, policeperson.

You don't want to be Billy Graham (rest his soul), Doris Day, or any Republican. But it's cool to be Che Guevara, Sean Penn, or a Democrat. You might want to be Lena Dunham or Dzahokhar Tsarnaev, but not Michelle Malkin or Arnold Schwartzenegger.  Be Melissa Harris-Perry, but for heaven's sake, don't be Greg Gutfeld!

Yes, the book can be over-the-top, and exaggerated to the point of pointlessness. And to the point of seeming like he's attempting to be - heaven help him - cool.

But underlying some of the hyperbole is an argument he makes, quite literally and calmly from time to time, in favor of finding your own cool and being true to it, rather than jumping on someone's else's bandwagon. And there, he has a point.

The other point-well-taken is his insistence that just because we right now find something cool because it is edgy and was unpopular (teen pregnancy, for example), it's still not necessarily the best choice for long-term happiness.

Ultimately, we will live with the choices we make. Some of them simply make us cringe some years later - like a bad haircut from the 80s, or perhaps a photo of those leggings you really shouldn't be wearing now because Facebook is Forever. Others can impact your life for good or ill for its duration, and that of others as well. Some choice need one's head in the game as well as one's heart.

Over the holidays I had a chance to watch a number of old movies on TCM (Turner Classic Movies, in case you haven't had the pleasure). I'm always captivated by not just the clothing and the lighting and even the plot lines, but also by the speech patterns. Once you've tuned your ear to it, you can identify the decade in which a movie was made simply by the accent, leaving aside the specific dialogue. It seems every ten or so years we speak English a new way - a little faster, a little more laconically; we adopt a faux Southern style or today's popular up-talk (you know? That speech pattern in which everything is a question? Even when it's not?); we deliberately choose words and usages based on social issues (today it is popular to "identify," and to ask for a new acquaintance's "pronouns" rather than assume them). In these shifting sands of speech we can watch the waves of Cool eroding from the shoreline here, adding to it there.

I'm amused to see that while Hippie was once cool, that has been over for a long time - yet there are people who still enjoy that lifestyle. The "real" Hippies, if you will. Luckily for me, about the time I figure out what's Cool, it's already on its way out, so I have given up chasing it. And perhaps, in the final analysis, that is Gutfeld's point, and why you would take the time to read his book: it's a reminder that Cool isn't forever. Enjoy it if your style happens to hit "Cool" in your lifetime. (Or feel slightly offended at all the poseurs trying to appropriate your culture, if you prefer.) Otherwise, don't worry about it. Because whatever it was then, it won't be soon.

But then again, right now, Authenticity is Cool. So, be it. Be cool.

Friday, December 18, 2015

33 Questions About American History



You're Not Supposed to Ask
by: Thomas E. Woods, Jr.


What better way to start the New Year than with an Old Book about really Old Stuff that's Politically Incorrect?

Ok. Let's start with the writer. He specializes in politically incorrect books - but, his C.V. reads much like another famous person's, though not necessarily in the same order: B.A. Harvard, M.Phil. and PhD., Columbia. Oh, and he's a libertarian, small l. Other than that, I can't attest to his scholarship.

The book is a publication of sub-title of Random House, so, again, reasonable though not guaranteed scholarship.

And, full disclosure (I love that expression): I did not go through and check each item against other publications on the topic but merely read for amusement, entertainment, and inquiry.

Now, to continue that disclosure: I was not educated, in the formal sense, in the last 20 years. And I do think that makes a difference. An FB Friend mentioned that his dad had a habit of reciting a long and rhythmic poem, and that put me in mind of a man I knew who did the same. I realized they'd probably both been educated at around the same time, when recitation was still done in some schools - kids were expected to learn a poem or reading "by heart" (what a wonderful way to put it!) and then stand and recite it in front of their appreciative elders, as kids today will... oh, never mind.

My point being, I grew up with a certain set of stories about American History - you know, like "In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," as opposed to "Columbus was an Oppressor from Europe who sailed to the New World bent upon the destruction of the Indigenous Peoples who had never done anybody any harm and were living in Eden." Ok, perhaps that's over-stating the dichotomy, but you get the picture. What kids are taught in school has a lot to do with what is popular culturally - history be damned. And neither story is necessarily "correct."

Every day, we re-interpret history; sometimes this is based upon new things that turn up (Kinnewick Man, for example), or upon a new way of "reading" things right before our eyes (is the Confederate Flag the secret sign of slavery, or a symbol of a rebellion, or both - depending upon who you are?).

What fascinates me is the information that you either must dig for, or that appears based upon some scholar digging into original (source) material (a friend spent his graduate days in dusty volumes of Early Spanish, learning what people like Columbus were writing about their adventures at that time) and trying to make sense of it in the context of all the other material that has surfaced.

Then, there are writers, like Woods, who try to popularize this information - that is, make is "available" to both the intellect and the education of the average person. And do so, I believe, honestly.

For I do get the impression that Woods, while, as a libertarian-small-l, he may have a smallish axe to grind, he is intellectually honest. He seems to bat both ways, though, depending upon whose darling is being killed, he will seem to be on "the other side."

I have a friend with whom I fight the Civil War, endlessly. I have to admit to having lost as many battles as I have won, but what's of great interest to me is that perhaps the people who were living in those times were as certainly-uncertain of why they were going to war as we who try to figure it all out are today.

Woods deals with that in the question of Virginia's State Constitution and Jefferson's idea of "state's rights," and whether this was, or was not, a defining issue of the Civil War. (See Chapter 19, and how and when and under what conditions Virginia agreed to ratify the U.S. Constitution.)

For each point of debate, you can read "The Myth" (the popular idea of the subject) and "The Truth" (or his reformation on the subject).

As I said, it's important to read each subject with the necessary grain of salt - and do some research of your own. If he'd perhaps divided his chapters into "The Common Story," and "The Uncommon Story," I would have felt less nervous about accepting the stories with which I agree with him, and dismissing the stories with which I disagree.

What's fun is, the book will make you think. And the fact that it was published a few years ago (and I'm just getting around to it, which tells you a bit about my pile of reading!), because so much of the history is relatively old (heck, even Bill Clinton, whose presidency is one of the issues, is 20-odd years ago), the issues he raises, as they have not been settled yet, are unlikely to have been settled by the time you get to reading this book.

For your consideration, some of the topics:
Did Martin Luther King Oppose Affirmative Action?
Were The American Indians Environmentalists?
Was the "Wild West" Really So Wild?
How Does Social Security Really Work?
What Really Happened in the Whiskey Rebellion?

And on it goes.

For your reading, and arguing, pleasure!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Book For Christmas

When I was a child, I had some great-aunts, whom I don't recall ever meeting, but they had a lovely tradition: they gave us children books for Christmas. It was always something unusual - a book I'd never heard of, unlike, say, my beloved Nancy Drew series, or even The Black Stallion books.

No, these were tales of children who lived on a remote Scottish island with puffins for pets, or a collection of poems with illustrations so beautiful I'd pore over them for hours, tracing ever line, and imagining myself in the painting.

There was nothing quite like opening Aunts Paula and Hannah's gift each year, and eventually, as Christmas dinner was cooking, settling down in the sleepy silence between gift opening and dinner to read.

There have been many traditions in family gift giving - the child who wanted a Harley, so a toy Harley was presented each year; or the ornament and pair of socks in the Christmas stocking; the "surprise" gift that Dad would pick out by himself each Christmas to present to us children - but none that was quite the same as that book each year. I'm sure I still have most of them, and I'm also quite sure I read a few of them to my own kids.

One of them I remember very clearly was a book called The Rabbit's Umbrella. It was written by, of all people, George Plimpton, that peripatetic man of all seasons - a man who enjoyed his wealth as I would, were I to be so lucky. "American journalist, writer, literary editor, actor, and occasional amateur sportsman. He is widely known for his sports writing and for helping to found The Paris Review. He was also famous for "participatory journalism" which included competing in professional sporting events, acting in a Western, performing a comedy act at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and then recording the experience from the point of view of an amateur."

In other words, he did it all.

But I digress. Back to The Rabbit's Umbrella - the book centers on a big, wonderful dog named Lump. He's brought home as a pet by Mr. Montague for his son, Peter. Mrs. Montague, a social climbing lady who lunches, expects a dainty little poodle, similar to those of her friends, who delicately receive bits of cucumber sandwich from the hands of their mistresses at tea parties. Instead, Mr. Montague falls in love with a big, lumbering, lump of a something-dog - and Peter names him Lump.

Meanwhile, in a haunted house on the other side of town - just a soon-to-be-decommissioned streetcar ride away, live three burglars: Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely. These three unlikely criminals rob houses, but never make much of a go at it as Punch is fond of whipping up a meal out of whatever he finds in the refrigerators of the unsuspecting householders. Usually, the owners will awaken - or return home - to find the remnants of some elegant meal in the kitchen, and little if anything taken.

All the elements for a great tale are in place: boy, dog, save-the-streetcar, and three bumbling burglars.

It's a chapter-book, as one young reader I am very fond of likes to call them. That means that while a young reader of a certain age can read by him or herself, it's the kind of book that mom and/or dad will also enjoy reading with children - one delightful chapter per evening.

Will Mrs. Montague let Peter keep Lump? Will the streetcar be abandoned in the name of progress? Will the burglars invade the Montague home? And most of all, will Mrs. Montague ever learn to put her car in reverse?

For a very young reader, don't forget the Richard Scarry books. These find the object stories are so full of detailed pictures a child - and a parent - can get lost for an hour on a single two page spread: scenes of perhaps a simpler time, but with happy, friendly, fun and filled frames of pigs and hippos and trucks and farmers and towns and railroads - it's designed for mom and dad to ask the little one,"Can you find the tractor?"

Perhaps there is a common thread in that both writers haled from a simpler time themselves, though both saw action in WWII.

Scarry's (an Irish name properly pronounced Scar-ee, but typically pronounced "Scary" by Americans) most famous series of books was about Busytown. Scarry's characters were almost always anthropomorphic animals.  But for a certain type of child, it is the detailed accuracy of how things work that will provide endless examination and enjoyment. One little boy I know was quite fastidious in his critique of things that work - and if the drawing would not work as promised, he wasn't reluctant to say so. But Scarry's illustrations never disappointed. His trucks and trains and tractors and gadgets would actually deliver - to this little fellow's delight.

For an older reader - why not go ahead and get a collected works of Dickens, or even Sherlock Holmes? It's a sad thing that, with so much to take up our time, we miss out on the drawn-out, detailed immersion of Charles Dickens and Conan Doyle. It was from reading writers like these that I learned to let the "movie" of the book play in my mind.  To this day, when I revisit Bleak House or The Speckled Band, I still see the same rooms, the same characters, and hear the same voices. Because in the days that these books were written, imagination of necessity filled the role that television, film, and even illustration now occupy, the reader's own vision of events became the story. I can still see the lights across the moors; the busy streets of London; the shabby Victorian rooms of Holmes or the Cratchits- the same way that I saw them the first time I read The Hound of the Baskervilles, or A Christmas Story.

So go ahead - start a Christmas gift tradition, for your own or someone else's kids. Or for anyone you want to delight. Find a book that will be a surprise.

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Year with G. K. Chesterton

365 Days of Wit, Wisdom, and Wonder
edited by Kevin Belmonte
2012

This isn't a book you'll need to - or want to - read all at once. It's that after dinner mint of a book; just one (or maybe two) entries read per day. Then you think about them, enjoy them, mull them over. Digest them.

Chesterton was a turn of the century (the last century, that is) writer, lay theologian, poet, dramatist, journalist, orator, literary and art critic, biographer, and Christian apologist.

Don't let that throw you off, though. Chesterton can be read without any specific reference to religion or theology - particularly this volume - and his observations needn't be read in the light of Christianity.

Chesterton was an odd-appearing man by age 62, though perhaps more so as seen through the lens of 100 years. Well-fed, in the manner of men of the Gilded Age, with a riot of waving hair and spectacles on a chain. Even as a young man he looked intense and deeply engaged. By all accounts - and certainly from reading this book - he was a man of prodigious intellect and spirituality. He counted among his closest friends C.S. Lewis and Hillaire Belloc. He has been accused, with some merit, of antisemitism, though that hardly squares with his strong anti-eugenics stance. He joined the Church of England, but then felt that as long as he was going to delve in, he might as well go for the original and was baptized a Roman Catholic. In short, he was a complicated man.


The editor, evidently an intellectual and thoughtful man himself (he wrote the screenplay for the film on William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace), organized the book as a daily diary of readings, each day containing a Biblical verse combined with a reading from Chesterton's own work or works (he wrote poems, biographies, critiques, essays, plays, and novels) and then perhaps a note about an event or publication that occurred on that date.

Among Chesterton's many other accomplishments, he is credited with reviving an interest in Dickens, of whom he is supremely fond. As I read passages from his writings on Dickens, I was reminded of something I never knew I was aware (which is something Chesterton might himself say!): how achingly lovely Dickens' view of mankind was. How charitable he was to the meanest of people; even his villains were to be pitied rather than merely scorned, though the villains who preyed upon children were, of course, mostly scorned.

I became intrigued with Chesterton when I read this observation:

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

I have remembered that, and thought about it, many times, and realized that it is not just a clever thought, but a brilliant observation.

But I fell in love with Chesterton when I came across this segment of his poem, The Ballad of the White Horse:

"Lady, the stars are falling pale and small,
Lady, we will not live if life be all,
Forgetting those good stars in heaven hung,
When all the world was young;
For more than gold was in a ring,
and love was not a little thing,
Between the trees in Ivywood,
when all the world was young."

I loved this poem for no reason, really, other than that it was like a fairy tale, told partly for a purpose, and partly just because it delighted the imagination and was full of magic and mystery and wonderful words strung together.

That's one of the delights of Chesterton that is discovered with this 365 days sampling: that he can be both practical and poetical; insightful and whimsical. Sometimes, I pondered the quotes and ended up nowhere. Not for nothing is he called the king of paradox.  And he appears to have equal admiration and disdain for the ends of the political spectrum, as well:

"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution."

Of course, when I began the book it was not the first of the year, but I was determined to read each passage on its own day. Still, I couldn't help finding my birthday and reading that passage immediately. I wasn't disappointed:

"Only in our romantic country (England) do you have the romantic thing called weather - beautiful and changeable as a woman. The great English landscape painters (neglected now, like everything that is English) have this salient distinction, that the weather is not the atmosphere of their pictures: it is the subject of their pictures. They paint portraits of the weather."

It seems the genius of Chesterton was his ability to observe, and find meaning in the meanest thing. Or no meaning at all - simply the act of observing. It is really up to you, the reader, which is what makes this thoughtful collection all the more delightful. My best guess is, I will read it again and again each year, til the pages are worn out, or until I have figured out a meaning for each entry. So, other than with a recommendation that you pick up a copy immediately - no need to wait for the new year - I leave you with this observation in a political year:

"It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem."

Friday, September 25, 2015

Yeats's Ghosts


 

The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats
by Brenda Maddox
published in 1999


When I first read the poem, "The Second Coming," in high school, I was captivated. It was the first time I had sat and pondered the words and meaning of a poem for hours; memorized it so that I could pull it out of memory at will; and felt that somehow the poet had found a way to combine words that was literally magical. If you've not read it, I'll quote it here:







The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

After reading this book, I'll admit to a little disappointment in the actual man - though he is fascinating - but I have also learned that even artists eat, drink, and well, you know. We have to allow for their humanity, even when their words or pictures are sublime.

But Yeats, like Byron, is in a category of strange that is all by itself, or at least that is what the research of author, Brenda Maddox, seems to suggest.

Yeats was an Irishman, and liked to think of himself as having some noble blood through the Butler family. He lived a bit more like the bards of old, at the largesse of those who admired him.

And he evidently had two significant issues: he believed deeply in the occult, and he had a problem with sex.

One might say, as has been written brilliantly by, I believe, Joseph Conrad, "funked women." Perhaps that is too heavy-handed: he did not exactly hate women, but he did appear to fear them.

He seems to have had a fascination with young girls, though there is no indication that he necessarily acted on it, and he had lengthy love affairs with women who were unobtainable (married) or inappropriate (too old or too young). His frustrated love for Maude Gonne (and no, the name is not invented!) is the stuff of much speculation and romantic fancy, and much of his poetry is supposed to reference her. It is certain that she fed into his Irish Nationalism and idealization of all things Irish - particularly its legends and mythic figures.

His personal journals, according to Maddox, reveal his struggle with his own sexual urges, and even ambivalence toward these urges. But ultimately, it was up to him as the single surviving boy of the family to have an heir. So he marries Georgie Hydes-Lee, a clever and very young woman who appears to know exactly what she's bought into, and how to manipulate her man.

And this introduces what is the greatest part of Maddox's book: Yeats' fascination with, even thrall to, the occult.

It appears that Yeats was involved in several metaphysical organizations, such as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, as well as Eastern religions and spiritualism. In this, he was not alone during this period. This part of the state experienced a spiritualist surge, which survives to this day in Lilydale, New York - a spot where mediums gather and the curious visit to peer into the future.

Medium is what Georgie purported to be, though it is Maddox's theory that Georgie was using her "powers" in order to control a gullible Yeats. Through automatic script - another popular activity of the period, along with tea leaf and card reading - she channels a number of "guides," among whom "Thomas" figures most prominently, but all of whom seem to give Yeats' detailed instructions on how to treat his wife, where they should live, when and how to have sex (often, apparently), and when to leave her alone.

There is much, much more in this richly detailed and very personal book - unlike many a biography, the writers interjects a great deal of interpretation and speculation, even wry commentary, as she examines her subject and his brilliance, antics, silliness and passions.

I still love Yeats' poetry, though I do find, having read the book, that I have to deliberately put the goofy, gawky, petulant fellow that she has exposed out of my mind and concentrate on the shimmering imagery and unexpected word choices, and merely relish the music of it. So reader, beware. He's only human.