Under the Mountain

My Photo
Location: United States

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Catching Up

No, I didn't quit reading altogether the last few months, though I didn't get in nearly as much as I would have liked.  So here's a quick review of what's been consumer since August:

I can't figure out how to rotate this picture, and I've already given the book away, so you'll just have to live with it.  It's a hardship, I know, but really, if you've read this book, I think you'll appreciate that it's something you can probably live with.  The book (and the obligatory film) have been popular enough that you probably already know the plot -- a dying father travels with his young son toward a hoped-for but unspecified better place, set in the dreariest post-apocalyptic environment you can imagine.  As best as I can tell, all plant and animal life on earth is gone except for a few humans who manage to scrounge up something to eat every once in a while by digging in the residue of civilization.  If they don't turn to cannibalism, which many of them do.  Plus, it's darker and colder than it is now, just in case you missed the other symbolic cues.  But the story compels you forward because it is a story about a father's love for his son, with none of the opportunities for demonstration of that love that we are accustomed to.  This one will stay with you.

Men of Courage (1995) is a little  dated in that it was written for men living in a world without the internet, but its ideas and prescriptions hold up solidly twenty years later.  Crabb thinks it's very bad that men often don't talk to each other, or even their spouses, about their deepest failings, insecurities, dreams and hopes.  It's hard to argue that he is wrong.  He envisions a recovered spiritual culture of men supporting one another and mentoring the next generation.  It would be fascinating to hear what Dr. Crabb thinks of these ideas today.

1939 is a sweetly written introduction and homage to the world of the late 1930s as  exemplified by 
the World's Fair in New York City.  A fictional love story attempts to set the mood and tone, but somewhat distracts a dedicated nonfiction reader like me.  The book does a nice job of communicating the "feel" of the culture of the time, which trusted authority almost implicitly, had no hangups with self-doubt about America's greatness, and believed almost religiously in the promise of science and technology to deliver us from evil.  My  teen daughter and I read this book together, a practice I heartily recommend with good books.  Incidentally, the author was a victim of the anti-tech Unabomber,  about which experience he has written extensively elsewhere.
Tam Blake & Co. is a nice companion to Albion's Seed, which turned up in my last post.  It's nowhere close to that book in intellectual heft, but it does present extensive and entertaining anecdotal descriptions of the Scots Irish in America.  I can't let this review pass without offering you a single gem that outshone everything else in the book (though I still recommend the entire read):

"Montgomery's Highlanders were formed in 1757 and went to America to fight against the French in the Seven Years War during which both France and Britain ruthlessly used the Indian tribes against each other.  The Highlanders patrolled in small, mobile units, criss-crossing the tricky terrain around the Great Lakes and skirmishing with Indians and French.

"Several soldiers of the regiment fell into Indian hands, captured in an ambush.  One of them, Allan Macpherson, witnessing numbers of his fellow prisoners dying under torture and preparations having been made to start on him, signaled that he had something to communicate.  An interpreter was brought, and Macpherson explained that if his life was spared he would communicate the secret of an extraordinary medicine, which, if applied to the skin, would deflect the strongest blow of a tomahawk: he offered himself for the experiment.  Intrigued, the Indians agreed to his request and he was allowed under escort into the woods to collect plants which he then boiled into an ointment.

"Macpherson rubbed his neck with the juice and lay his head on a log, inviting the strongest man to strike him.  The Indian, leveling a blow with all his might, cut with such force that the head flew off a distance of several yards.  The Indians were astounded at their own gullibility, and the skill with which the prisoner had avoided a lingering death.  The story of Allan Macpherson became a legend in the Indian lodges."

I don't even care if the story isn't true.  It is one to be remembered.

Every few years I read a "business" book.  This is generally a good one, though like so many books it's twice the length it needs to be.  But people won't pay $24.95 for a long article, so authorial effort and careful typesetting give you a full 223 pages.  

Here's something to ponder -- would you pay MORE for a heavily edited version of a book that you "need to read" but don't really want to, that would allow you to pick up the important ideas in half the time?  Not exactly a "Cliffs Notes" version, which would be too short and even less fun to read, but something that condenses 223 pages to, say, 75?  I think I might.  Clearly, this is an idea for nonfiction, not literature, though I can think of one or two novels that might benefit from such treatment.

Anyway, there is really only one takeaway from this book.  Surely that doesn't surprise you!  Whatever you do, figure out what the most important thing is for you to do in a given meeting, day, week, month, or year, and make darn sure you do that thing.  Don't let all the distracting things that you have to do get in the way.  Do the ONE THING first, then you can do some of the other things if you have any time left over.  The author makes a compelling case that this is what really successful people do. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Brave New World

When I read George Orwell's 1984 in high school at the height of the final phase of the Cold War, I remember hearing about arguments over whether Orwell's vision or Huxley's vision in Brave New World had turned out to be more on target.  A case could have been made at the time that the Huxley's vision matched the free world while Orwell's matched the communist world, but there were problems with that approach.  But from the perspective of 2014, it seems clear that we are well down the path toward Huxley's vision, at least where ISIS and the Taliban aren't running things.  But that isn't particularly brave, and it's not really even new.  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

So this explains a few things I've been wondering about . . . .

Lengthy, but a fantastic read for anyone who wants to understand American culture(s) or "folkways", as the author calls them.  Surveys four colonial American cultures and compares them to the specific regions in Britain in which they originated.  The Puritans from Massachusetts (predominantly from East Anglia), the Cavaliers and their servants in Virginia (south and southwestern England), the Quakers in the Delaware Valley (the North Midlands), and the borderlands (think Scots-Irish) people who filled in the backcountry from Western Pennsylvania through Appalachia to parts of the deep South (from north Britain and south Scotland; hence the "borderlands" terminology).   Fischer examines ways of speech, dress, marriage, childrearing, religion, architecture, food, government, war and violence,  courtship, magic, death and sex, among other things, for each of these people groups.  He concludes  that each of these easily identifiable American cultures are traceable directly to the  regions of Britain from which their originators predominantly came.  Except that "traceable" is too soft a word.  In example after example, the author shows that  many of the American regional attitudes in these areas are identical to, or very nearly so, the regional attitudes from the corresponding parts of Britain.  

The pressing urgent business of the moment prohibits more than one example, but it's a good one if you're familiar at all with rural Southern speech in the United States:

"Scholars generally agree that this language [i.e., American 'backcountry' speech] developed from the 'northern' or 'Northumbrian' English that was spoken in the lowlands of Scotland, in the North of Ireland, and in the border counties of England during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.  Every vocabulary word which we have noted as typical of American backcountry speech also appears in word lists collected in the English border counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland during the nineteenth century.  W. Dickson observed, for example, that man was 'the term by which a Cumbrian wife refers to her husband,' as in 'stand by your man.'  He noted that honey was 'a term of endearment expressive of great regard' in the English border counties, northern Ireland and the southern lowlands.  Dickson and others recorded in Cumbria usages such as let on for tell, scrawny for thick or misty, cute for attractive, nigh for near, fixin for getting ready, and lowp for jump, hoove as a past participle for heave, and lang sen or langseyne for long since.  This emphatic double negative had long been common in border speech.  One Northumbrian gentleman wrote to another, 'I assure your honor I never sold none.'"  --page 654

Impressive to me is that, while I am unfamiliar with some of these words in everyday Southern speech (scrawny, lang sen and hoove), are so familiar that I was barely conscious of their regional characteristics (honey, cute), and others clearly are associated with my region's dialect (nigh, fixin, let on).  Oh, and you can just guess which of those words had a hard time making it past spellcheck, which was evidently designed by an "expert" on English grammar who shared the attitude of the speech scholar cited by Fischer who described the accent of the Scottish lowlands as "nothing more than a corruption of that which is now spoke . . . in all the northern counties of England."

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Recommended by a good friend.  Actually, a gift from a good friend.  Does a good job drawing the reader in, telling the story from Death's perspective in the context of Germany  starting to lose World War II.  Didn't do a lot for me, but it was a #1 New York Times Bestseller and is now a "major motion picture," so a lot of folks really liked it, evidently.

This book was originally published in 1906 under the title, "The Cynic's Word Book," a title which I think I prefer.  I don't think I'm a Victorian holdover, I just don't see a devil enjoying cynicism the way Bierce does.  For a devil, cynicism would be a tool, or even just a normal way of seeing the world.  The truth is that cynicism stings because it throws light on the dark corners of human nature while pointing the way directly to how things really ought to be and how people really ought to behave.  

For example, Bierce defines "penitent" as "[u]ndergoing or awaiting punishment."  So the cynic rejects the concept of repentance, replacing it with mere regret -- "I'm sorry I got caught."  This kind of commentary is very useful to those who practice, or seek to practice, repentance, because it reminds the practitioner that one's own motives are not always obvious or intuitive, not even to oneself.  So I'll seek to repent to my sins, but I will do so humbly, with the realization that my repentance, like my conduct that led to my need for repentance, will be imperfect and incomplete.  And I will repent for that, too.

But enough of the attempt to draw moral insight from this snicker-inducing piece of entertainment.  This must be the most quotable book in the world.  Therefore, here are just a few of my favorites:

INTERPRETER, n.  One who enables two persons of different languages to understand each other by repeating to each what it would have been to the interpreter's advantage for the other to have said.

KILT, n.  A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

LAWYER, n.  One skilled in circumvention of the law.

MARRIAGE, n.  The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.

OVEREAT, v.  To dine.

TELEPHONE, n.  An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.

UN-AMERICAN, adj.  Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.

YEAR, n.  A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

Orphaned Generation

Good reading.  Not enough people reading it.

Why Books About Cities Matter

This is a good book, though it covers matters already addressed by numerous authors, from Tim Keller on.  But if you want an introductory read to the evangelical rediscovery of the city, this is a great place to start.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Repent or Burn

I've heard about the Great Fire for years but never had a chance to dig into it.  This book is a fine introduction.  I won't go on about it but will offer this one little scene from the procession to the gallows of the man who confessed to starting the fire (although he probably didn't do it):

"A wax effigy of the Pope, containing a number of trussed live cats, was paraded through the streets ahead of the slow procession and then set alight.  The terrible screeching of the animals as they perished in the flames served only to delight the mob further.  Shaking with terror, Hubert [the condemned man] slumped deeper into the bottom of the cart as it rumbled toward Tyburn."

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Cider Insider

A pleasant and interesting little read.  Written in 1973, and you can tell that Mr. Orton was getting on in years when he wrote it.  But it sounds like making your own cider is pretty easy, so maybe I'll give it a try!

I found this book at my in-laws on our last visit.  When I return it, I will pull out these gems for my mother-in-law's entertainment:

"[Cider making at home] is a job better for two people than for one.  I can do it, and have done it, alone in my kitchen, but it is easier with my wife helping.  It also goes faster and is more fun.  After all, one of the great and noble functions of womanhood is to stand by and hand things to men to work with."  --p.65 (emphasis added)

"It is a telling comment that old-fashioned rural women had few cookbooks but cooked far more than their contemporary descendants who, these days, collect shelves of cookbooks but have little time for cooking.  In early times, women had not succumbed to the magic lures of golf, club life, social service, and other extracurricular activities, nor had they been obliged to act as chauffeurs for their children.  They had time to cook at home." --p.74

Sunday, July 28, 2013

American History

This is a big statement, but at least in my reading experience, this is THE definitive survey of the history of the land that is now the United States.  Johnson's humility in titling it "A History" instead of "The History" is admirable.  Starting from the earliest period of (recorded) exploration in the 15th century, the masterful historian Paul Johnson takes the reader on a fast-moving yet detailed adventure through the story of America, ending in the late 1990s during the Clinton Administration.  Johnson's prose is intelligent but pleasant and easy going, he has just enough of a critical tone to keep things interesting, and his eye for little-known, illustrative and memorable detail cannot be beat.  For example, did you know that Calvin Coolidge was sworn into office as President after Warren Harding's death at Coolidge's father's farmhouse in Vermont, with the oath administered by the senior Coolidge?

The length of this book may appear intimidating at nearly 800 pages.  If so, treat it as a collection of books.  There are just a few lengthy chapters, each covering a historical period.  Just read one, then set the book aside until you're ready for another.  Which will probably be within just a few days.

Then go read Johnson's other magnificent works.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

What a Nickname

This was a quick but interesting read.  A 1907 biography for young readers of Alexander Mackay (pronounced "Mack-i"), the first Christian missionary to Uganda, one of a small group who responded to the public invitation by Henry Morton Stanley (the British-American journalist who "found" Dr. Livingstone in Africa) for Christian missionaries to go to Uganda after Stanley spent several weeks with Uganda's King Mutesa.  Stanley told the king all about the "white man's religion" of evangelical Protestant Christianity, and the king greatly desired Christian teachers for him and his people.

But all did not go smoothly.  Suspicion, shifting allegiances, exploitation (of the missionaries by the Ugandans), Islamic influence, royal succession issues, a murdered bishop, torture and burning of Ugandan converts, periodic danger of arrest and summary execution, and unrelenting hard work by the missionaries in a culture where men customarily avoided all work unless they were slaves (hence the Ugandans' nickname for Mackay, which translates "White Man of Work"), broken up only by intermittent bouts of "fever", make for an interesting story but an exceedingly difficult life.

Taking the gospel to a non-literate people with no previous exposure to Christianity and deeply ingrained habits of violence and avoidance of physical labor would be an unimaginable challenge.  Probably much more difficult than Mackay and his friends could have guessed.  But their faithfulness is admirable.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

A Good Tree Produces Good Fruit

This is a very good book.  When it comes to people changing, I tend toward skepticism.  It's difficult for people to change, and in my experience many do not, at least not for the better.  But this book does a good job of explaining that, while change may take place within, it is not from within, but from without.  The message of the whole book is captured in one paragraph on page 189:

"As we say yes to the Holy Spirit, his living water produces new Fruit in our hearts: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  These character qualities aren't an ideal standard that God holds over us.  They are gifts the Spirit produces in us.  This change within us changes the way we respond to the things around us . . . .  And this is the Fruit that results: Kind people look for ways to do good.  Patient and faithful people don't run away when people mess up.  Loving people serve even when sinned against.  Gentle people help a struggler bear his burden."

It's a frustrating process, because "working hard at it", at least directly, doesn't really work.  I can't truly be more patient with my children by willing myself to do so, though I might outwardly succeed in reigning in my impatience for a time.  But it would be wrong to say that my problem is that I express my impatience rather than controlling it.  My problem is that I am impatient, even though God has given me all that I need.  The only solution is to let the Spirit produce patience within me.  I can only pursue it indirectly by making use of the means of grace God has made available.  This is the meaning of not pursuing good works "in my own strength".  I have to let the Spirit change my motivations rather than trying to short circuit the process by directly changing my outward behavior.  This is difficult to remember and difficult to wait on, particularly if you struggle with impatience!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Apparently the kids at West End High School just weren't checking out this first (English 1963) edition of Planet of the Apes often enough to keep it on the shelves.  Too bad for them, as it was a good read, but good for me, who found it at Reed Books in Birmingham.  The plot was changed up a bit for the movie, but each have their high (and low) points.  And Zira and Cornelius come through intact in both versions.  

Just as interesting as the story, though, was learning a bit about its author, Pierre Boulle.  We learn on the cover that he is also "author of The Bridge Over the River Kwai".  Who knew?  None of the dozen or so people who has seen my copy of this book since I purchased it, at any rate.  But it turns out there are some similarities between Apes and Kwai that I wouldn't have suspected.  Think about it -- both involve the "good guys", with a focus on one or a very small group of good guys, being brutally imprisoned by enemies from an alien culture, with whom it is very difficult to communicate.  But in both stories, the prisoners persevere, overcome obstacles, convince their captors to cooperate with them, at least to a degree, and achieve some kind of escape or possible revenge or justice at the end, only to see how hollow it really is.  (The book version of Apes has no Statute of Liberty at the end; the eponymous "Planet" really isn't Earth after all, though the end of the story is every bit as soul-crushing as Charlton Heston on that beach.)

So how did Boulle come up with these themes for his novels?  Turns out he had a pretty interesting story himself.  But first, check him out doing his mid-century French intellectual look:

The inside back cover fills in the essential details of M. Boulle's life:

Of course he wrote peacefully in a converted windmill near Paris.  Wouldn't you?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Woe to Live On

Several years ago, I read a review of the film "Ride With the Devil" in a decidedly Southern partisan newsletter of some kind.  I wasn't a subscriber, and I think the copy I saw was a photocopy someone mailed to me anyway, and I may not even have seen the title of the newsletter.  But the review made the film sound worthwhile, even though it did rather poorly when released.  A couple of years later, I found the DVD on sale on a rack in the convenience store down the street, surrounded entirely by Spanish-language movies, pro wrestling DVDs, and straight-to-DVD junk.  So I took it home and found it to be every bit as worthwhile as the review had suggested.  Good enough, in fact, that I wanted to read the novel on which it is based.  That's where the acquisition got interesting.  

It turns out the novel, "Woe to Live On", was one of Daniel Woodrell's early novels, and the value of the first editions had run up considerably.  Woodrell, of course, is the author of "Winter's Bone", the story of life and meth labs in the Ozarks that was made into a successful and award-winning film a year or two ago.  He's written several other acclaimed novels also set in the Ozarks where he lives.  
My wife went hunting online for a reading copy of the novel.  She noticed that all the first editions for sale were pretty pricey, but then she found one, I think on ebay, in good condition for FIVE DOLLARS.  The only one I can find online today is priced at $2,399!  I think that's probably overpriced to a significant degree, but all in all I'm pretty happy with my wife's online shopping skills.  
There is some irony in my joy over this great bargain on a novel whose story carries with it so much pain, sadness and despair.  The story is about Missouri bushwhackers (think "The Outlaw Josey Wales") during the US Civil War.  Their existence, tactics and treatment given to and received from their enemies were appallingly brutal.  They fought for the Southern cause, but were motivated as much or more by personal animosity, revenge, greed and a corrupt sense of honor.  Like any good story, there are elements of hope and redemption, but at the cost of great suffering and loss.

One scene sticks with me.  It's in a scene that appears in the book and the film, though the actual lines are only in the film.  The main characters are enjoying a peaceful dinner in the home of a sympathetic supporter who has already lost his son in the war.  They are living in a cave on his farm where they are "holing up" for the winter until they can fight again in the spring, so the proper dinner in his home is a very special treat for them.  They are discussing the cultural differences between the two sides in the war.  The farmer who is helping them, Mr. Evans, explains it this way: 

Mr. Evans: You ever been to Lawrence, Kansas, young man?
Jack Bull Chiles: [scoffs] No, I reckon not Mr. Evans. I don't believe I'd be too welcome in Lawrence.
Mr. Evans: I didn't think so. Before this war began, my business took me there often. As I saw those northerners build that town, I witnessed the seeds of our destruction being sown.
Jack Bull Chiles: The foundin' of that town was truly the beginnin' of the Yankee invasion.
Mr. Evans: I'm not speakin' of numbers, nor even abolitionist trouble makin'. It was the schoolhouse. Before they built their church, even, they built that schoolhouse. And they let in every tailor's son... and every farmer's daughter in that country.
Jack Bull Chiles: Spellin' won't help you hold a plow any firmer. Or a gun either.
Mr. Evans: No, it won't Mr. Chiles. But my point is merely that they rounded every pup up into that schoolhouse because they fancied that everyone should think and talk the same free-thinkin' way they do with no regard to station, custom, propriety. And that is why they will win. Because they believe everyone should live and think just like them. And we shall lose because we don't care one way or another how they live. We just worry about ourselves.
Jack Bull Chiles: Are you sayin', sir, that we fight for nothin'?
Mr. Evans: Far from it, Mr. Chiles. You fight for everything that we ever had, as did my son. It's just that... we don't have it anymore.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

A Thoughtful Analysis

The cover says it all, though the chapters on the nine myths of parenting flesh things out pretty well.  It's easy for some parents to obsess over every detail of their parenting, worrying that their children will fail in some area or have lifelong problems because of a parent's misstep along the way.  Ironically, for some parents, their embrace of Christianity makes the problem worse instead of better, since now their parenting and their children's lives take on self-consciously cosmic dimensions.  It ought to be precisely the opposite case, of course.  Jesus paid the penalty for our poor parenting just as much as our other sins.  We are free to raise our children with love and the joy of the gospel.  But that's easy to say and hard to remember.

On the other hand, some parents, Christian and otherwise, may tend to fall off the other side of the fence and fail to "parent" enough.  I probably lean in this direction.  It's 2:30 in the afternoon and my youngest is still in her pajamas.  I did feed them, at least, but nothing particularly healthy.  It wouldn't matter, as they wouldn't eat anything particularly healthy, anyway.  And I don't really feel guilty about any of this.  So I endorse this book, but perhaps personally I need a book pushing me in the other direction!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

American Temperance Roots of Church Attitudes on Drink

I've had this book for several years, but it's never jumped off the shelf at me when I was looking for something to read.  But then a friend asked me about the historical roots of the Southern Baptist tendency to oppose alcoholic beverages, and I realized I didn't know nearly enough about the topic.  Here's the slightly edited text of an email I sent him after getting through this book, addressed at his question (though that's not the focus of the book, which is more of a straightforward academic history of the temperance movement in American in the first half of the nineteenth century):

Why don't Southern Baptists drink?  It's a leftover of the temperance/prohibition movement.  Nothing more.

There have always been special groups or people who abstained from fermented beverages for a time or completely.  For example, those taking the Nazirite vow described in Numbers 6 would abstain from wine or anything containing grapes or grape products.  But these have typically been temporary arrangements or isolated orders that didn't attempt to impose their practices on the world at large.  That began to change in England and the United States (and possibly other places as well) in the first half of the 19th century.  In the US, the "temperance" movement got its start in New England in the 1830s and 1840s.  (The movement carried little influence in the South until after the Civil War.)  Initially it seems to have been supported primarily by conservative "establishment" types concerned that their political influence and leadership was waning.  They decided that the growing presence of hard liquor, or "ardent spirits" as they referred to it, was the cause.  Wine and beer were ignored, and even with liquor, total abstinence was not the goal, but temperance in its use.  This initial movement didn't get very far, but by the 1850s a newer version of the temperance movement led by reformed drunkards and others who weren't necessarily part of the ruling establishment began to take off and meet with great success.  In the first stages of the movement, the emphasis was on getting individuals to reform their behavior and practice temperance or abstinence when it came to liquor.  Only later did the emphasis move to ALL alcoholic beverages, emphasizing "tee-totalism" and also seeking legislative support.  For several years, the battles were fought at the local level, with emphasis on "no license" strategies where few or no licenses would be granted to liquor sellers.  But eventually the temperance movement sought statewide legislation, and their first success was in Maine.  "Maine laws" followed in several other states, but when the promised rewards of prohibition (more productive society, a lighter tax burden for supporting the poor) didn't pan out, states began weakening and eventually eliminating much of these laws.  Temperance and "prohibition" lived on at the local level until the movement got going again in earnest in the early 20th century.  By that time, police forces and the federal authority had been professionalized and expanded to the extent that prohibition laws could actually be enforced, and the 18th amendment outlawed alcoholic beverages nationwide between 1919 and 1933.  Americans are more familiar with the 20th century prohibition experience, and the popular understanding that prohibition gave us cocktails, jazz, organized crime and NASCAR aren't too far off the mark.

So WHY did the temperance movement take off the way it did?  Was it ever an explicitly "Christian" movement?  Yes and no.  It appears that the movement was generally motivated by secular concerns, but Christianity, even evangelical Christianity, is pretty well caught up in everything that happened in early 19th century America, so it's hard to say.  What seems to have happened is that multiple factors combined to make liquor and drunkenness more common, more dangerous and more burdensome to society than it had been previously.  Some of those factors include:

1.  The beginnings of industrialization.  Workers in an agricultural economy have more freedom to drink, both on the job and off, without bad consequences.  Workers in 19th century factories full of dangerous machinery tended to get into accidents when they drank on the job, so factory owners and others interested in the welfare of those workers (either out of general humanitarian concern, Christian love or just because injured workers cause lost production time) were generally supportive of temperance.

2.  A culture soaked in alcohol.  Yes, there's lots of drinking in America today.  But in a "public" sense, not as much as there once was.  In the early 19th century and before, there was a strong connection between elections and alcohol.  Most candidates and political parties would "treat" voters with free drinks at the polls, which themselves were often set up in taverns and inns.  In addition, there were almost no public events or accommodations that did not offer or involve alcohol.  So, for example, for the habitual drunkard, it was a little harder to avoid than it is now.  Also there weren't a lot of alternatives.  Except for some special occasion luxuries like chocolate (which Americans consumed as a beverage in the 18th and early 19th centuries), before refrigeration, you had fresh milk, water, and alcoholic drinks.  Maybe some tea or coffee, too, but no "soft drinks" or fruit juice at all.

3.  Alcohol = 19th century Gatorade.  It was popularly believed that "ardent spirits" were a necessary and proper restorative for a laborer's strength after several hours of hard work.  This is why "grog rations" (mixture of rum and water) were handed out to sailors everyday.  They were handed out to farm workers and other laborers, too, and workers would sometimes strike if they didn't get their rations. Does item #1 begin to make more sense now?  "Drinking on the job" didn't have a bad connotation to it the way it does now.  Instead, it was an EXPECTED part of the job.

4.  Nativism.  It doesn't look like this was really a big motivator for temperance, but temperance and nativism were definitely fellow travelers for a time.  Waves of whiskey-swilling Irish immigrants and beer-drinking Germans posed new challenges for the temperance movement and made easy targets for temperance advocates.

5.  "The American Way, 19th Century Style".  I don't know what else to call it.  Americans -- certainly the economically successful ones, but plenty of others as well -- thought of America as a land of economic opportunity, where hard work, industry and thrift would make you a success.  Many temperance advocates themselves had little experience of alcohol but plenty of experience with hard work and self control.  They generally credited these qualities for their success and assumed that many of the poor were poor because they were lazy, stupid and easily tempted to drink and general ruin.  Therefore, it was an easy step to conclude that, if you removed the temptation of alcohol, the tax burden (for example) of taking care of the poor would drop by a huge amount.

6.  Economic change and dislocation.  Industrialization was occurring, cities were growing, change was happening.  It was easy for some to blame alcohol for bringing about undesirable change.  It's difficult to quantify or even document this point, but there was a lot of social upheaval at the time, and it makes a degree of sense.

In any case, there was a great deal of overlap between the temperance movement and the evangelical churches.  Shared leadership, even shared techniques.  For example, temperance meetings featured "revival style" speakers giving personal testimonies of their salvation from drink.  But temperance and evangelicalism were not the same thing.  At times, temperance leaders didn't like "the preachers getting involved" because they suspected the preachers of just trying to use the temperance organizations to drum up converts for their churches.

There were early calls for churches to eliminate wine and use grape juice for communion, but they were mostly ignored, probably for the practical reasons of the unreliable availability of grape juice in an age before refrigeration.  But that changed by the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to a Methodist dentist:

"Back in 1869, dentist Thomas Welch was elected Communion steward at the First United Methodist Church, Vineland, N.J. He objected to the use of wine for the sacrament and refused to touch it. Meanwhile he heard of Louis Pasteur's new method of killing bacteria in milk ('pasteurization'). He decided to try applying the same principle to preserving the juice of grapes unfermented.

"Dr. Welch, his wife, and son Charles gathered grapes from their trellis, washed and cooked them, and squeezed the juice through cloth bags. He poured it into bottles, stoppered them with cork and wax, then boiled them in water to kill any yeast in the juice that would start the fermentation process. It worked!

"Welch asked his church to substitute his new 'unfermented wine' for the traditional Communion wine. At first the elders viewed his suggestion as 'an unacceptable innovation,' but he convinced them. Word spread. Temperance-minded churches begin asking for Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine. Thousands sampled it at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. That year, young Charles left his dental practice to market the family juice full time."

(from a Christianity Today article, 2003)

In conclusion, Southern Baptists (and many other evangelicals) don't drink because the churches from which their churches descend adopted the beliefs and practices concerning alcohol of a mostly secular social movement started and run by Yankees in the 19th century.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

I'd been meaning to get around to Catch-22 ever since my father explained to me the meaning of the title phrase as used in everyday conversation.  That was about 30 years ago.  So I'm a little slow in following through on my personal goals, but I think I deserve points for perseverance!  Besides, a lot of things happened in those 30 years.  

Thirty years is a long time to wait to read an acknowledged masterpiece.  It tends to produce overly large expectations.  Although I encountered several laugh-out-loud, read-them-to-whomever-you're-in-the-room-with passages, there were large stretches where you could see the intended humor, but it seemed dated or too contrived to be worth the effort.  Regarding the latter, most of the material on Milo Minderbinder comes to mind.  

The whole book can be summed up as cynicism taken beyond absurdity, placed in the context of World War II.  That yields a good dose of humor and some interesting logical outworkings (the real "catch" is that a bomber crewman can be taken off of flight duty if he is insane, but a desire to be removed from flight duty is conclusive evidence of sanity, and no one who is willing to fly -- who by definition is insane -- ever requests removal from duty), especially regarding the mindset and bureaucratic reality of an organization as large as the United States military.  But it also yields a dark presentation of the human experience as nothing but a series of one small, meaningless farce after another, adding up to nothing.

John Yossarian, the anti-hero of the novel, reminds me of Harry Flashman of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series (I've reviewed at least one of the Flashman novels in a previous post).  Both men, having ended up in the military, are thoroughgoing cowards when it comes to the battlefield, though recklessly fearless when it comes to the conquest of women.  (Flashman outdoes Yossarian in the latter field, but chasing women seems to have been somewhat less scandalous in Yossarian's world, meaning a full-fledged pursuit of it by Yossarian would make him "fit in" with his contemporaries in a way that only separated Flashman from his Victorian-era compatriots.  And Yossarian was determined not to fit it.  But I think I have figured out why I like Flashman, and don't like Yossarian.  It's because Flashman at least understands that his cowardice and carnalism are weaknesses not to be admired.  He may even classify them as sins, though he sees no hope of reformation or redemption.  But Yossarian views his cowardice as the perfectly rational, even morally obligatory, response of a good man to an absurd universe and all it demands of him.  His fleshly pursuits are just another way to pass the time.  Yossarian is a jerk, if a clever and sometimes sympathetic jerk, especially given the absurd nature of his world.  

I know, I know -- who am I to be so dismissive of such a classic work of 20th century American literature, and to favor Flashman over Yossarian?!?  But that would be to argue from authority, expertise, and agreed-upon standards.  I don't think Yossarian would go for that.

More science fiction!  Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greats of the genre, though this is only the second or third of his works that I've read.  I was always more of an Isaac Asimov fan.  But that's probably just because I discovered Asimov first, and at a time when "Arthur C. Clarke" was so directly identified in popular culture with "2001: A Space Odyssey" and little else.  And 2001, for all its merits, had relatively little appeal to a teen who had been so heavily influenced by Star Wars.

This is a good read.  Knowing the end is coming in a few hundred years through our sun exploding, Earth sends out "seed ships" to colonize other worlds so humanity won't be wiped out.  These ships take hundreds of years to reach their destinations, whereupon robots terraform the new planets and raise the first generation of humans who will occupy them.  The story here is about one final seed ship that carried adult humans away from Earth at the last possible moment before destruction, and what happens when that ship visits a seedship world several generations after its development.  Clarke tells a good story and pulls in various elements of modern thought -- environmentalism, a scientific modernist take on religion as a primitive and (mostly) destructive force but one for which there is some home, the hard science of space travel, contact with alien intelligence, and plenty of others.  

And hey, as the cover says, it's a "New York Times Bestseller", so you can't go wrong!

Every once in a while you come across a book that explains why certain aspects of the world work the way they do, or why certain people behave they way they do, and it enlarges your worldview.  The Big Test did that for me.  It turns out that the reason my parents were so concerned about how well I did on standardized tests, the reason I received academic scholarships to attend college, and the reason I'm in one of the "elite" professions today (as characterized by Mr. Lemann) is that a bunch of upper crust New Englanders thought the world should work this way, and set about making it do so about 75 or 80 years ago.  As a Southerner, I'm continually disturbed to learn how much of my life is shaped by what Yankees thought it should look like, but there it is.  Of course, it didn't work out exactly like Lemann's "Episcopacy" wanted it to -- whereas they sought to pull up promising candidates into the national elite by identifying intrinsic abilities through standardized testing, expecting those candidates to respond with gratitude and devote their lives to public service, it turns out that Americans can see opportunity when it presents itself, and most, having come from non-privileged economic backgrounds, have chosen to take what's been given to them and build good economic lives for themselves and their children.  Along the way, there's probably been not insignificant impact on the US economy and standard of living, but that's beyond the scope of this book's analysis.

Lots to say here.  This is a top ten read on my lifetime list.  I'll have to come back to it later when I have more time.  Suffice to say, if you haven't read this book, you need to.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Catching Up

This one goes on the lifetime top 25 list. Others have sa
id some of the same things, and sometimes others have been easier to understand, though that might be due to translation issues
(Ellul wrote in French!). But the fact that Ellul saw and said these things so thoroughly in post-WWII France gives him an edge others lack. This one's worthy of a lengthy review that I am not worthy of writing.

Read all the Ellul you can.

All of the Walker Percy novels I've read seem to have the same basic story. The main character is a man, usually young, who is functioning but slightly alienated from his society. He seems to sense that the reigning assumptions of his culture are insufficient and unsatisfactory, but his thinking is blurry enough that he can't get much farther than that. So he tries to think throughout most of the novel but can't. Fortunately, events unfold in such a way as to show him that, though the answers he seeks may never be disclosed to him, a healthy and satisfactory life is possible and worth pursuing. Another way to say it, at least the way I perceive it, is that he finally "grows up" or "gets with the program".

It's a good story, and Percy is a first-rate writer, so I'll read more. But I admit to some frustration with his characters that they can't see more clearly and get on with the business of living, building and creating. This may be what Percy intended; I'm not sure.

A light read but worthwhile if you have or spend much time with young children. And it won't take up too much of your time.

This was my first adventure with Hemingway. Maybe I should have started with one of his novels instead of this "experiment" of his of telling the true story of his African safari at the height of the Great Depression. (By 21st century political correctness standards it seems a little heartless to go on safari in the middle of the Great Depression!) Hemingway's sparse writing style didn't grab me the way it does others, though I am willing to recognize that may be in part because now, to a degree, everyone writes the way Hemingway did, or tries to, mostly because of his influence.

I read this one as part of a book club. We plan to discuss the book at a special zoo event. With an open bar that Hemingway would at least appreciate.

Fantastic. A great companion to Paul Johnson's Modern Times but with a spotlight on the battlefields of the Cold War. Fascinating history you won't know about unless you've read multiple histories on this period and topic. Stone is a terrific writer as well; you get his wit and opinions but, I think, in a way that doesn't unnecessarily offend those who may take issue with his assessments of, say, Jimmy Carter.

Probably the biggest takeaway for me is just how close much of the Cold War struggle was. At various stages, things could have turned out very differently, and much worse for humanity.

Gotta read some hard sci fi every once in a while. Benford can be a little slow at times and, from my perspective, get a little bogged down in the hardness of the science. But he thinks big. Very big. Here he takes us to the literal end of the universe and tells a good enough story that we forget how long a trip it's been.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

19th Century Venture Capital; or, Dr. Crippen's Fantastic Adventure in Smoldering Passivity

Erik Larson must be really indecisive. He has a habit of writing "two books in one", alternating between seemingly unrelated stories from one chapter to the next. But like good sitcom plots, they come together in the end in a way that, even if clearly foreshadowed all along, are interesting and satisfying none the less.

Thunderstruck is a combination entrepreneurial business development story -- Guglielmo Marconi's obsessive creation of a successful "wireless" company, utilizing family wealth connections (his mother was a Jameson, of Irish whiskey fame) and venture capital methods barely distinguishable from modern practices -- and true crime novel. The true crime is that of Dr. Hawley Crippin, who would be in the running for the title of Most Passive-Aggressive Husband in History. Dr. Crippin, who worked for and was often handsomely compensated by various patent medicine companies, was short, wore thick glasses, and was henpecked to a remarkable degree by his larger-than-life but weakly talented singer-actress-wannabe wife. He eventually formed a connection with his secretary and decided to stand up to his wife once and for all. He appears to have hit her over the head to kill her, then dismembered her corpse in a most horrific manner. Her skin and organs were found buried in Crippin's basement a few months after her disappearance, but her head, hands, feet and all her bones were never located.

By the time these portions of her remains were located, Crippin had fled London with his secretary, who was dressed as a young man. The fugitive couple was already aboard an ocean liner to America when Scotland Yard figured out what was happening. But by a combination of faster ships, the wireless technology that Marconi had sold to the shipping lines, an alert captain, and a press that knew a good story when it saw one, the whole world watched a police chase worthy of O.J. Simpson that went on for nearly two weeks. In the process, people began to realize that wireless technology might be useful for more than keeping ships at sea informed on the news of the day.

The Crippen story is gripping stuff, but I've never been much of a true crime fan. Maybe I'm too cynical, but I'm never that surprised by the depths to which fallen man will sink. Although I've never been a big reader of business stories, either, the Marconi tale really drew me in, perhaps because of Larson's talent for pulling together the hard facts of wireless technology with Marconi's sad personal story and the business impacts of the social norms among scientists of the day. (19th century scientists tended to hold the pure pursuit of knowledge above crass business interests, preferring free disclosure of scientific discoveries, and looking down on types like Marconi, who wasn't formally schooled as a scientist and who preferred to guard his trade secrets from his competitors.)

If you're pressed for time, just read the Marconi chapters. The Crippen story is easy enough to piece together in the end.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

A Typical Day

As all studious job seekers know, the smart candidate will be ready with questions of his own for the interviewer, at least at the appropriate moment. It shows interest in the job and the organization, and is an opportunity to demonstrate you've done your homework, usually by not asking a question the answer to which can be found on the organization's web site. A frequent question I hear in these interviews is, "What's a typical day like for you?" I never know how to answer, as every day is different. Some are ho-hum, nothing surprising, nothing unusual, no meetings to go; just answer a lot of emails and review a few documents, pushing the paper forward. Other days are filled with dread, anxiety, stress or regret, as the case may be, depending on what's happening. And plenty of days feature joy, satisfaction in a task well done, or a sense of achievement (usually when a large invoice payment comes in, but as often when a client seems genuinely grateful for quality service). I usually just say "Lots of emails and phone calls, some stress, some good things, but usually something pretty interesting."

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov's days were quite different from mine. First, each day was all too typical. Essentially, every day was the same for the ten years of his sentence in the gulag. Get up early, don't get enough to eat, cold all the time, long days of hard physical labor, often bordering on futile, and being alert on ways to cheat the system all the time, just to be able to stay alive. The sense of something akin to hope, but not hope -- maybe resigned determination to stay alive -- pervades the book, all the way down to the reason he's there in the first place. As a solider in the Red Army on the western front, Shukhov was captured by the Germans, but then managed to escape with some fellow prisoners. On the way back to the Soviet lines, some of the escaped prisoners were shot by Red Army fire before they could be identified, and only Shukhov and one other made it in. Whereupon they were promptly arrested and accused of being spies for the Germans. Shukhov, sensing he'd be shot if he didn't confess, "confessed" to being on a secret mission for the Germans, and immediately was sent to one of Stalin's work camps in Siberia. For ten years.

I understand this was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's first novel. It's a good place to start for the great project of reading Solzhenitsyn. Its great irony for me is that this novel, unlike his later work, was warmly welcomed by the Soviet establishment when it was first published in 1962. Khrushchev, you see, was on his kick to tear down the image of his predecessor, Stalin, and this book was a tremendous tool for demonstrating the inhumanity of Stalin's system. But all too often, the problem with using a great artist's work product as a tool to advance your political agenda is that the artist won't cooperate in the long term, or at least won't continue to cooperate once your agenda moves in a different direction, as the Soviet establishment later saw in the case of Solzhenitsyn.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Redemption Through Baseball

Any Southern literature worthy of the name includes at least four of the following characters: the misfit ex-con, the corrupt politician, the idiot, the fallen woman with a heart of gold, the preening preacher, the grasping merchant who nearly controls the town, the drunk. This book has them all, some in multiples, with a one-armed leftist baseball coach and farm co-op manager, several Native American cattle rustlers, a Black Muslim, pro- and anti-Castro Cubans, a lesbian ex-wrestler, and a parole officer with no sense of humor thrown in as well.

Written and set in about 1980, the book is the story of Hog Durham, starting with his release from prison for three robberies of the same liquor store (he actually committed only one of them, but he did rob a bank, but they didn't get him for that, but that's another story that shows up later). Hog is an experienced cattle rustler, and a strong hitter, but he's turned 30 and doesn't have much baseball left in him. In other words, his prospects are decidedly dim. But he's recruited by Lefty, a one-armed former major leaguer and former college professor given to left-leaning projects, to play first base for a new semi-pro team in The Dixie Association, a league with teams spread all over the Southeast. The team moves into a former Arkansas state home for fallen women, in which three of the women remain.

The story is fairly predictable from there -- the team's chase for the pennant, Hog's halting attempts at a committed relationship with Pansy, one of the fallen women who remained behind at the former state home, and Hog's difficulties staying clear of the legal system, which seems to be firmly committed to destroying his life. But this predictable story is extraordinarily well told, and the large number of characters and subplots (did I mention the Cubans? and the idiot? and the grasping merchant?) keeps the reader going.

For me, a special treat was the technical discussion of baseball strategy. Not because I care all that much about baseball, frankly. I don't follow it, and I quit playing at age 15 because I'd never been very good at it and I'd found other interests. But after reading this book, I finally understand the strategy of the game, and the technical distinctions between the fastball, the slider, the curve and the spitball. In my little league days, my understanding of offensive strategy didn't get much past "try to hit the ball," and I somewhat doubted whether those "trick" pitches were real at all (they certainly didn't show up in most of our little league games!). The author does a great job of giving the reader the player's feel for the strategy of the game without getting bogged down in technical analysis that is offputting to the lay reader.

A word of caution -- Hog and his teammates on the Arkansas Reds (did I mention the Communist subplot?) are at the bottom of society, and the author doesn't bother to clean them up. At times, Hog and the other players seem to represent fallen men left entirely to their own devices, whose interests are confined to whoring, drunkenness, fighting and talking about same in crisp, crude terms. Hays reads a little like Flannery O'Connor but without the sense of tragedy and futility associated with sin in her writing.

On a personal note, I read this book as part of the only successful book club I've ever been a part of. A local group of guys read the novel, brought the author to town for a discussion (he's alive and well and teaches at a college in Arkansas, and is a former minor league baseball pitcher), and hosted him for the Rickwood Classic in Birmingham, a "retro" game held once a year in the 100-year-old Rickwood Field, the oldest ball park in America, where the teams wear uniforms from past decades. The Birmingham Barons lost in extra innings, but that didn't seem to matter. It was a good day at the ball park.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hard Science and Tall Tales

I've always admired Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of novels for covering such a long span of human history -- as much as 10,000 years, as I recall. Stephen Baxter expands that number by two orders of magnitude, covering five million years of human history, or at least history after the beginning of humanity (hint -- humans may not necessarily be around forever, at least in this universe!). Using wormhole and, later, string theory to explain interstellar ship technology, Baxter tells the story of a humanity that accidentally discovers that its home sun, and its entire universe, is doomed to an early death just a few million years away. How the main characters manage to be there at the beginning and the end of this five million year adventure is difficult to explain. Let's just say that when you combine advanced alien technology, time travel, and hard-wired human determination, such things are possible. If, perhaps, a little creepy when you read about what 1,000-year-old humans look like.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

They Should Have Called Him "Fleshman"

This, the second in the Harry Flashman series, covers Flashy's adventures with (or, more properly, against) Otto von Bismarck on the continent. Secret adventures, of course -- you didn't read about any of this in your standard history texts. That's because all of Flashman's deeds are recorded only in the Flashman Papers, discovered years after his death in an attic, and published mostly in the 1970s.

Of the three Flashman novels I've read, the first (Flashman, which covers Flashman's origins and the British withdrawal from Afghanistan) is by far the best. But be forewarned: Flashman is no ordinary hero. In fact, he is, by his own admission, "a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady." Most of the humor arises because virtually no one in Flashman's life recognizes any of these characteristics. It's just you, the reader, who are let in on the big secret that this glamorous Victorian soldier decorated for bravery and accomplishment is a complete and utter coward, whose chief interests in life are protecting his own skin, chasing women, drinking, gambling and letting others take the fall for his actions. Occasionally, another character in the novels sees Flashman for what he is, but the secret never gets out, either because that other character soon dies (though not usually at Flashman's hand; he's not that brave!), lacks the credibility to make a charge against Flashman stick, or has his or her own reasons for keeping quiet.

Parts of these novels are unreadable if you have any moral sensibility if you don't consider it an exercise in seeing deep into the human heart. Even then, it may be questionable as a worthwhile selection. And the sensitive soul will feel for Flashman's many victims, particularly the women he runs over (or at least most of them). But I'm easily drawn in by something that makes me laugh, and these novels certainly do that.

I've recently been thinking that Flashman personifies, if only in a coarse or parodic manner, a central critique of postmodernism -- that most of the explanatory myths people rely on to explain themselves to others are essentially lies, and relationships are really about power and exploitation. (I realize I'm pulling a thread out of the postmodern ball of twine and running down the road with it, but just go with me here.) I suppose a softer way of reading Flashman is that he is just the ultimate illustration of Victorian hypocrisy, an Eminent Victorians in historical fiction, but I was never fully convinced by that attack on the Victorians, as every age and culture has its share of hypocrisy. The postmodern critique carries a little more weight, though of course it has its own problems.

So if you like your historical fiction with a good dose of humor, deep hypocrisy and a frank look into the mind of a man who sees no reason to seek anything beyond his own immediate pleasure, the Flashman series might be for you. Just recognize that we all have a Flashman inside us, and try not to let yours gain the upper hand.

Monday, May 10, 2010

One More Thing

Oh, and possibly this is the only book I have ever bought on the strength of a blurb on the cover:

"I laughed, I cried, and then I read the book."

--Steve Martin

The Road to Mediocre

As a lifetime Monty Python fan (the author being one of the Pythons), I'd hoped for more, frankly. There are a few high notes in this "post-modem novel", mostly involving the quotes at the beginning of each chapter, including this gem:

"Where's the tea strainer?"
"It's his day off."

--Ancient British joke
But that was a lot of pages to read just for this joke, memorable though it is.

There are two spacefaring comedians, one with an ex and a daughter, a robot with academic aspirations (he writes the history of comedy in his head and publishes under controversial circumstances as academia doesn't treat robots as eligible for publication -- kind of like conservatives, I guess), and a diva of sometimes mildly entertaining characteristics. And the diva's husband, and some revolutionaries, and . . . well, it took me a while to get around to reviewing this one, and I've probably forgotten some important details. Lots of talk, some of it on target, about the nature of comedy. But much of it not that . . . funny, somehow.

Eric Idle is one of the funniest people who have ever lived. Or at least in the twentieth century; it's hard to judge before that since you've really got to see -- or at least hear -- humor to appreciate it, outside of the narrow speciality of comic writing, which is a wholly different medium from standup and sketch comedy, where Mr. Idle's talents shine. As this book demonstrates.