Tuesday, May 31, 2005

"Joan of Arc" A Biography - Page 134

Last night, I read a part of this book to my nine-year-old daughter, about Joan talking her way through an enemy post without telling a single lie. Joan maintains that she didn't deceive the captain, but that he deceived himself.

We both laughed with delight.

Monday, May 30, 2005

"Joan of Arc" A Biography - Page 76

Well, I thought I needed a break from war literature, but then I read the back of this book and knew I had to do just one more.

Only seventy pages in, it has been a great education to me about my biases and how easily they can be formed. One of my favorite works of literature is Shakespeare's Henry V, particluarly the St. Crispian's Day speech to his troops.

Then I read in this biography about how Joan was three years old when the "Atrocity of Agincourt" occurred. Atrocity? Well, yes, I guess it was . . . to the French, but I never really thought about it that way. That just goes to show me once again that such things are never black and white.

The other fascinating thing about this book is that its author worked on it for twelve years, rewrote vast sections many times, traveled to France several times to research for it and considered it to be his best piece of writing ever. And that's no small thing to say for an author like......

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Mark Twain. Yes, he is the biographer. How about that?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

"The Last of the Mohicans" by James Fenimore Cooper - Done

I have not had enough time to post because I have been using every free moment to read. That’s how much I enjoyed this book.

It taught me a new respect for the strengths, behaviors, and customs of Native Americans, in large part because it was not polluted with the shaming of whites that so often accompanies such teaching.

I loved the character of Hawkeye and can see why that made its way into M*A*S*H legend.

I loved the footnotes, in which Cooper seemed to magically anticipate questions I may have had while reading, and went ahead and answered them for me right there on the page.

I love that he had an understandable and lamentable bad guy…not completely black, but having many shades of grey.

The most striking aspect of the book, though, was the number of close shaves, last minute saves, and almost got the bad guy, but didn’t, that the book had without ever being cliché, trite, or repetitive. And just when you think that you are going to get Hollywood ending…well, Cooper lived long before Hollywood. I can tell.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway - Done

I knew from the start of this book how it would end. Anyone who knows the poem from which the title is taken should be able to see that easily enough. The only questions were how would it happen, and of course, whether or not he would complete his mission.

Then as I read, I grew to like Robert Jordan more and more, but always remained aware, as Pilar is in the story from her look at his hand, of what was to come. And it did…sort of. For me, the story ended a page and half too soon. I went ahead and finished the story in my own mind, but I would have preferred for Hemingway to do it. He piloted the ship for the entire journey; he might just as well have put it in the port.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway - Page 345

FROM THE BRUTAL IRONY DEPARTMENT

A few pages ago, I hit this assessment as Robert Jordan ponders his father’s suicide.

"Then, as he thought, he realized that if there was any such thing as ever meeting [in the after-life], both he and his grandfather would be acutely embarrassed by the presence of his father. Any one has a right to do it, he thought. But it isn’t a good thing to do. I understand it, but I do not approve of it. Lache was the word. But you do understand it? Sure, I understand it but. Yes, but. You have to be awfully occupied with yourself to do a thing like that.”

Indeed.

Friday, April 29, 2005

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway - Page 255

Two parts of this story that have most affected me so far both belong to Pilar. The story of how the revolution started in her village, with a gauntlet for the fascists, left me about as ill as I have ever felt reading anything.

Then her description to Robert Jordan of what death smells like…woah.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway - Page 86

This has been a fun read because I know of and have been to many of the places he talks about in Spain. I am finding, though, that in spite of the year I spent there, I am rather ignorant about the Spanish Civil War. Yes, I have seen the bullet holes in statues in Madrid, I have studied and written about Picasso's Guenica, and even sat at table with a man who served as a general under Franco, but I do not know the history…yet. I will soon, for as I read, my curiosity about it builds.

I remember American friends of mine reading this when we were in Spain and hating the directly translated swear words, pronouns and sentence constructions. I'm actually really enjoying that aspect of the book and can feel my mind twittering toward thinking in Spanish again. That would be cool. It's been a long time.

Last thing for today...Happy Birthday, Will.

Monday, April 18, 2005

"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens - Done

What a great read. Aside from having a title that hopefully Biship Spooner never went near, there are:

Ten things I never want to forget about this book:

Jerry Cruncher's crude yet flawless dignity.

How Doctor Manette's self-reliance crumbles when his success is for naught.

That the gratitude Charles Darnay must feel toward Sydney Carton is the gratitude I must feel toward Another who did the same for me, and that I must tell my children "the story with a tender and faltering voice."

How badly I misjudged Sydney Carton based on this: "Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him and resigning himself to let it eat him away." When I read that of Carton, I swore I would not trust this character a bit. Whoops.

How badly I misjudged Madame Defarge. I liked her at first, solid no nonsense kind of woman. Whoops.

How wicked and ugly vengeance can be.

That Dickens is hard to get into, but once in, so worth it. After three chapters, I couldn't put it down.

The sickness I felt when it became clear that Charles Darnay was going back to France.

Great opening: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…"

Greater closing: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Outstanding!

Saturday, April 02, 2005

"A Hand Full of Stars" by Rafik Schami - Done.

Written as a series of journal entries by a teenage boy living in 1980’s Damascus and who wants to be a journalist. I didn’t mean to read this book, but it compelled me fairly quickly based on just a thumb through.

The merits are the narrator’s relationships with older characters, especially his “uncle” Salim, the old coachman who on his deathbed gives the narrator a gold coin. The coin had been given to the uncle by a thief who told the uncle, “Give this to someone who has no other options.” The uncle discovers that he has never had to expend the coin, because there was always another option, but somehow the coin brought a certain peace.

The coin can then become a symbol or a metaphor for that last refuge that we hold dear. What is my last resort? Fortunately, my life has been sufficiently blessed with enough options that I haven’t had to contemplate this much.

The narrator also has a friend who is a washed up journalist named Habib, who is tired of censorship in Syria and choosing to spend his energies on translating. He inspires the narrator and his friend to start an underground newspaper. The most delightful conflict of the book is the problem of distribution of the paper without getting arrested. These gambits include folding copies into cheap socks that they then sell at the bazaar, packing copies into orange crates that will be exported to France, and (my favorite) sending up balloons holding light, flat little baskets of the leaflets to be blown out and about from on high by the wind.

These days, of course, they could just start a blog.

Monday, March 28, 2005

"A Wind in the Door" by Madeleine L'Engle - Done

This wasn’t as good as its prequel, and much harder to get into. In spite of this, there were a couple of aspects of the book that were fun.

One is the idea of kything, which means to consciously communicate with someone without speaking. It is a sort of telepathy and the characters must rely on it when they are in environments which are not conducive to the spoken word. I often kyth with my wife, where we seem to read each other’s minds, but I never had a word for it. Now I do.

L'Engle also plays delightfully with the idea that a human’s body could be construed to be an entire universe to submicroscopic entities, with the lives of those entities playing a considerably important role in the health and well being of the person. Conversely, it may be that our universe is a mere particle in some unimaginably larger being, an idea portrayed at the end of the film “Men in Black.”

I have a friend who when we were much younger, often said that we are pure energy and our entire universe is but a molecule in a hacky sack bean. Weird.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

"A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle - Done

I have started this book a dozen times in my life and could never get into it. Then my wife and daughter read it and I wanted to know what they were talking about.

It operates on several different levels, one of the most fun of which is the application of quantum physics to a children’s story. I found myself at the kitchen table talking with an eight-year-old about folding space to travel through time and how we would appear in flatland.

My youngest daughter gravitated to the story as well. Every time she saw the book, she pointed to the cover and said, “That’s a Merehorse.”

By far my favorite aspect of the story is that it is a thoroughly Christian allegory in which love is more powerful than power, in which self-sacrifice prevails over coercion, and where pride goes before the fall. The image of a uniform society is a great depiction of what hell must be like.

The book has given and will continue to give me a rich source of examples to teach my children about some of the realities we face in this life, one of which (just like in Meg’s case) is the flawed and mortal nature of their daddy.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara Done

You know it's a good book when after 350 pages you don't want it to end. But it did.

I loved what the afterword says about Chamberlain, "He is chosen by Grant from all other Northern officers to have the honor of receiving the Southern surrender at Appomattox, where he startles the world by calling his troops to attention to salute the defeated South." What amazing class. I would love to know to what extent this gesture worked toward the healing of this nation following that incredibly bitter and bloddy conflict. I also wish that those who created the Treaty of Versailles had followed Chamberlain's example of grace and compassion.

I also loved the final line about Chamberlain. "Dies of his wounds, June 1914 at the age of eighty-three.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara - page 227

Wow. After slogging through so many thick pages of Russian History, it sure is fun to be in a book that moooooves. One thing I love about Shaara is his speculations on the conversations that each of the figures in this battle is having inside his head. Longstreet who battles the image of his dead children, Lee carefully choosing what is worth worrying about, and Chamberlain wondering, if only for a moment, if he could be wrong, and carefully convincing himself he is not.

What Shaara ultimately demonstrates through these in sights is that most of these men were incredibly disciplined in their thoughts. He must have inferred this based upon their actions for as a good student of the human condition, he must know that actions follow in the ruts formed by thoughts.

This brings me to Chamberlain’s fixed bayonet charge, one of most exhilarating passages I have ever read in any book.

“He saw an officer: handsome, full-bearded man in gray, sword and revolver. Chamberlain ran toward him, stumbled, cursed the bad foot, looked up and aimed and fired and missed, then held aloft the saber. The officer saw him coming, raised a pistol, and Chamberlain ran toward it downhill, unable to stop, stumbling downhill seeing the black hole of the pistol turning toward him, not anything but the small hole yards away, feet away, the officer’s face a blur behind it and no thought, a moment of gray suspension rushing silently, soundlessly toward the black hole . . . and the gun did not fire; the hammer clicked down on an empty shell and Chamberlain was at the man’s throat with the saber, and the man was handing him his sword, and in one motion and Chamberlain stopped. ‘The pistol too,’ he said.

The officer handed him the gun: a cavalry revolver, Colt. ‘Your prisoner, sir.’ The face of the officer was very white, like old paper. Chamberlain nodded.”

Yes, despite the best rhetoric Chamberlain could muster to convince himself that he was right, it must have been nothing compared to the argument made by God’s great protection . . . and the officer in gray knew it too.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara page 147

An amazing bit of delight in the book today . . . but first a little background.

One of my all-time favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird which of course takes place in Alabama. In it, there is a family of tremendous disrepute named the Ewells. They are the ones who bring false charges of rape against a decent black man. Throughout the story, the family is marked by cowardice. The son named Burris backs down from a fight with a much smaller kid. The daughter Mayella bursts into tears on the witness stand and refuses to answer questions. The father, Bob (Robert E. Lee) Ewell physically attacks the children of a man who has insulted his "honor" rather than facing the man. And so it goes.

Well today, I was reading about the one-legged Confederate General who blundered when he failed to drive the diminished Union army off of Cemetery Hill when he had the chance. The general froze giving the Union the night to dig in, bring in reinforcements, and occupy the next hill (Culp's Hill) which the Rebs could have had with no fight at all. This cowardice changed everything in the battle of Gettysburg, which of course changed everything in the war.

The general's name? Richard Ewell.

Monday, March 07, 2005

"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara page 95

Whew. I have to take a break from the Russian history for a bit. It is so bleak that I can literally feel it depressing me.

Now, on to Gettysburg. I have taught excerpts of this book, (Chamberlain's speech to the 120 reluctant Maine men as an example of brilliant rhetoric) and had several people whom I greatly respect say it is phenomenal. So I picked it up two days ago and pounded through almost 100 pages. This one might get in the way of my work. What a read.

Already, I can feel my attitudes about the Civil War (one of the greatest oxymorons ever) shifting as these mere names of history are being humanized. My education hitherto in Civil War history was limited to "North: industrial, nice railroads, good guys," and "South: agricultural, racists, bad guys." I should know from years of teaching of "The Iliad" that things are never this cut and dry, black and blue. Shaara through his silken prose is fleshing out the men on both sides so well that I have forgotten who to root for.

The book also seems to be tangling with the very reason that so many books are written, movies are made, and histories are sung about war. . . our futile but irresistible desire to understand it.

Friday, February 25, 2005

"Lenin's Tomb" by David Remnick page 302

I just finished the chapter about the death of Andrei Sakharov. He was a nuclear physicist who helped the U.S.S.R. achieve nuclear weapons capability, but around the the mushroom cloud of the first ground test, he saw the light. The rest of his life he dedicated to changes. He spurred Gorbachev relentlessly in the congress, often having to be silenced by the "Great open-minded Gorbachev."

It's interesting that before reading this book, I had never heard the guy's name, but he figures so prominently in the history of the fall of the Soviet Union that in the index of Remnick's book, there are 67 references to him. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, for what that's worth.

Remnick writes of Sakharov after his funeral, "I felt hollow that day and for days after. . . . Many people I knew in Moscow felt the same, and even more strongly for having lived their lives under the regime. In March, 1953, the bewitched people of the Soviet Union learned of Stalin's death and asked themselves, 'What now?' Now the spell was finally gone, but the question was the same. 'What now?' Sakharov was just better than the rest of us. His mind worked on an elevated plane of reason, morality and patience."

I would like to be like that.

Monday, February 21, 2005

"Lenin's Tomb" by David Remnick page 235

The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.

I just read about the coal strikes in the summer of 1989. "It started when a group of miners in the Siberian town of Mezhdurechenk walked off the job at the Shovikovo mine, lead by their shift leader, Valery Kokorin." The reason is suprising...in spite of horrible equipment, dangerous miserable work, bad food and clothes, paltry living conditions, the real issue for these miners was soap. They didn't have soap and could never get clean of the black dust.

As I read this, I wondered about a government, and a system that so dishonors people as human beings that it can't provide something as basic as soap.

Friday, February 18, 2005

"Lenin's Tomb" by David Remnick page 223

I started reading this Pulitzer Prize winning history of the last days of the Soviet Empire about a month ago, and I have read 223 of 530 pages of rather brilliant writing. Remnick lived in the U.S.S.R. for four years as a correspondent for the Washington Post, I think between 1988 and 1992. During that time, he interviewed people, researched, traveled, and literally lived the history as it happened. The book is the product of that work as well as the compilation of the articles he wrote for the Post.

Living as I am in a post Soviet eastern bloc country, this book has been an amazing education to augment what I have experienced here. The most powerful lesson I’ve seen so far is what happens when a society becomes Godless. There was so much energy poured into forcing this system into place, rolling roughshod over anyone who so much as questioned it. And then to maintain that system for upwards of seventy years, all the energy of constantly saying black is white…how could it do anything but destroy people, especially when they had to finally face the fact that black is black.

Many of the stories early in the book are about true believers who dedicated their lives to communism and the state, who then had to come to terms with the horror of it. I see more clearly than ever why God’s first commandment is Thou shalt have no other gods before me. These people bowed to and worshiped something invented and implemented by horribly flawed men, and it destroyed them.

I’ve known for a long time that the Stalinist purges claimed more that 20 million lives. Some put the number as high as 60 million. What the book has really pounded into me is that one didn’t have to get a bullet in the back of the head or be buried in a mass grave to have their life destroyed. The collectivization of the farms throughout eleven time zones of our world shredded to threads the fabric of thousands of societies and put nothing in its place. Remnick tells the stories of the old women in the nursing homes who remember before all that what a joy is was just to own some chickens.

Beyond being a fine wordsmith, I also admire Remnick’s pluck. He goes places he is far from welcome, pursues people who don’t want to be found, and through persistence, gets their stories. I get nervous going to a cranky babushka in the kiosk for a bus ticket, and get totally riled if she refuses to sell me one.

Friday, January 14, 2005

"Little Men" by Louisa May Alcott Done

I just finished this sequel to Little Women in which Jo is all grown up, married and running a school for boys. It reminded me of Benion’s ranch because when I went there, we had boys from all walks of life, much like in the book. She has some rich kids who go to the school like a boarding school, orphans with no other place to go, and a few boys in between. Benion didn’t have orphans, but some of the kids there were pretty close to parentless. Also like Benion’s, manual labor was a part of the boys’ days which is so healthy for adolescents. Making boys full of hormones sit quietly in school desks is inhumane, and they know that at Jo’s school.

Other wisdom of the book is how incredibly careful Jo and her husband are to treat each boy as an individual. For each child, there are different expectations for their behavior and learning, tailored to that child. Though that isn’t remotely fair, it is loving and just, which is far more important and more difficult than being fair.

Finally, they do an amazing job of calling out the individual strength of each boy, and it is inspiring to watch the ways the boys rise to that call. We don’t do enough of that in our society because we are afraid of men being strong. Strong men are dangerous, of course, but that’s fine with me as long as they are good.

In a book called Wild at Heart, John Eldridge talks about men who are dangerous but good. One such character who totally embodies this is Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Just how dangerous is this unassuming southern lawyer? See what he can do to a mad dog with a rifle, or to a racist jury with his discourse. Watch out.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

"Catch 22" by Joseph Heller Done

I just finished this fat novel of 570 pages, and still don't know quite what to think. As I read it, I wondered how the same kind of book could be written for the current public education system, given that similar inanities, egos, and misguided priorities, which Heller lampooned in the military, exist in that behemoth as well.

I know many people think this book is funny, but the only even remote laugh it got from me was a shameless pun about an innovation of soldiers marching without swinging their arms and that they "won the marching competition hands down."

In spite of how hard Heller tried to make me, I never really cared about Yossarian. There were a few times I felt bad for him as his friends died, and I shared his frustration with a character named Arafy more than once, but that was the extent of the love. Heller in the forward tells a story about some guy who made a bunch of stickers saying "Yossarian Lives" to stick all over New York. Honestly, if I saw one, my response would probably be, "Who Cares?"

I guess reading through that many pages of cynicism left me a bit, well, cynical.