Friday, January 30, 2015

Review of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind

Gone with the WindGone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So, lash me with a wet noodle, but I found this novel kinda awful.

I don't think I've ever read a novel where I disliked every single character, found them all silly caricatures, and framed in a context of naive and displaced nostalgia for a Southern life that was actually quite disturbing and inhumane in spite of its pretenses to gentility and charm.

And, yes, I mean this about every character, including the surreally angelic Melly, the brat Bonnie Blue, and the disturbingly minstrelized Mammy.

I'm a born and bred Southerner myself (if you really call New Orleans southern); and I have to say that if this is the quintessential story of the true South, I say thank God the Yankees won and that this South is gone, for it's a contemptible society, not a quaint one.

But I don't think this picture is really anything like the South - even the South of the 1860s. It's a romance in all respects - a romance of what fantasists might pine for in terms of an identity, but even this romanticized fantasy leaves much to be desired.

I gave it a 2-star ranking instead of a 1-star ranking because I've read worse writing stylistically and structurally; but it's nowhere near what I would consider Pulitzer worthy talent.

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Review of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant FriendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, I don't know that I'd call this a modern masterpiece, but it is a nice read. It's one of those works of fiction that are really more like semi-autobiographical creative non-fiction. It sounds a lot like I would expect Elena Ferrante's childhood and adolescence to have been. It certainly reads that way.

But there is a warmth and ease of story-telling here that I really enjoyed and appreciated. You don't have to work too hard to extract meaning from the story and to be drawn into the storyline.

One of my criticisms, though, is the utter lionizing of the narrator's "perfect" friend, Lila. No one I know is as one/dimensionally smart and accomplished as Lila, the narrator's exceptional friend. Makes me think that the narrator is, herself, in a state of delusion about the special qualities of Lila.  But if this is simply a literary convention, it's quite effective.

A book well worth reading for our Book Club.  And one that propels the reader to want to tackle the next three books in the series.

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Book Review of Julie Andrews Edwards' The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles

The Last of the Really Great WhangdoodlesThe Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's not terrible, as far as children's literature goes. I imagine there's worse. But it's only average. I give it some props for creativity and imagination; but it's really just a weak replica of the combined Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, A Wrinkle in Time, and the Narnia Chronicles. Same basic character types and plot structures, only not nearly as good. I probably wouldn't recommend this in favor of other better children's literature.  Anyway, I read this because it was a Christmas gift from my oldest daughter (who is 16 years old now), and she has memories of our reading this together when she was a little girl. But I'm certain that I never read this before and that she either read this for school or in some other context and is confusing her memories. Regardless, she's promised to read this book, too, as part of our own little book club, so we will end up sharing this reading experience after all. And that's definitely worth the read, irrespective of how good this book is!

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence

The Age of InnocenceThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This niche book is just o.k.  I found it rather predictable.  From the beginning, I thought it an updated and Americanized imitation of Jane Austen and what I like to call the "society" novels.  I haven't ready any Henry James, and my extremely well-read wife tells me that this Wharton novel is more in the Henry James tradition, than in the late 18th/early 19th century British novel tradition.  That may very well be, but still … it's all of a piece with the theme of stifling upper society, semi-aristocratic conventions that stifle passion and love and oppress women.  It's an even greater indictment of this elite environment that the novels seeking to capture its dimensions are basically all the same.  You read one of these stories and you know all you need to know about it.  Any others are just minor variations of the theme.  How dreadfully boring to live in such an environment.  At least Jane Austen, writing some 100 years before, has a bit more humanity in the pages and characters of her stories, as well as moments of surprise that, while not altogether unexpected, are at least simply and refreshingly presented.

When it comes to engaging the richness of the dilemma of social conventions on the lives of women, nothing captures the tragedy of this better than Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina."  And while Wharton's novel was mainly about Newland Archer, it was also just as much about the social and financial oppression of both May Welland and Ellen Olenska.  And Wharton's Ellen Olenska is a pale comparison to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  Now don't get me wrong: I very much liked the Ellen Olenska as a character crafted by Wharton; but my empathy for her and the injustices she suffered didn't nearly touch the depths of emotion in me as did my profound sense of empathy for the character of Anna Karenina.  But, I digress …

This Wharton novel, celebrated (mostly) as a triumph at the moment of its publication, won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Did it deserve this award.  Sure.  It's not a bad novel.  And, to give Wharton some credit, she has a wicked sense of humor and cleverness that peeps through on occasion, especially in the beginning chapters of the novel.  And she is, undoubtedly, very erudite.  So, yes, on these grounds perhaps the novel is Pulitzer-worthy; but I just found the story itself to be weak soup.  In fact, I would say that Booth Tarkington's "Magnificent Ambersons" or even Margaret Ayer Barnes's "Years of Grace" (two other Pulitzer winners that deal with wealth, status, and society, to much better capture the complexity and uniqueness of an "American" version of these themes. And as for a picture of New York society, I'd say even Ernest Poole's "His Family" captures the United States's quintessential commercial city in a much more interesting and complete light.

Anyway … Yes, I liked the novel well-enough.  Yes, I'd rank it Pulitzer-worthy.  But, no, it's not the best of this genre, nor is it the best of the Pulizter winners.  Folks should read it because it's achieved status as a classic of American literature (and does represent one kind of writing); but don't just rest on Wharton for the great literature of her day.  Dig into the literary weeds a bit, and read some of her more obscure contemporaries (and perhaps even her not-so-obscure contemporaries), and I think you'll be surprised at how mediocre this work stands relatively and how lacking it is in capturing the best of what American literature of the day had to offer.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review of Ciszek's "He Leadeth Me"

He Leadeth MeHe Leadeth Me by Walter J. Ciszek
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book had its inspirational moments, and is well worth a read.  But as a narrative, story-telling experience, it was average and suffered some from lack of context, detail, and creativity.  There was also a lot of repetition.  I had no issues with the theology. It was simple, but powerful and thought-provoking.  But as read, it was more tedious than gripping, which is a shame, because there was so much potential for its being a gripping read.  I mean, how often can you get a first hand account of spending time in Soviet prisons and labor camps during some of the worst moments of the Stalinist regime?  And it just did not meet expectations in this regard.  I also found the structure a bit predictable.  Each chapter (titled by a particular concept) started with a short personal anecdote of an experience the author had, and then ended with a didactic bit of preaching about the concept.  The anecdotes were better than the didactic preaching.  But often times the preaching fell flat because there were so many contextual gaps that raised more questions about the how and why he arrived at the revelations of the concept he was preaching.  All that said, I did come away from the book with a more reflective understanding of the Catholic Christian faith and my experience as one of its adherents and practitioners.  Let me end this brief review, though, with one thing that really bothers me about this kind of book.  (Not just this particular book per se, but all those -- including this one -- that fall into this genre.)  These books give the impression that there is something special in an understanding of faith because of his particular experience of suffering and oppression.  That such kinds of experiences provide an insight to faith that one can only get from being so oppressed and abused.  The rest of us have been taught to view such accounts with deference and awe.  But I think there are people who live what we might call "normal" lives in relatively free and open political systems who can arrive at the same revelations from their own particular experiences.  One does not need to be imprisoned by the communists, tortured, starved, harassed, and abused, to have special insight or connection to God.

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Review of Sinclair's "Dragon's Teeth"

Dragon's Teeth II (World's End)Dragon's Teeth II by Upton Sinclair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book (the entire 631 pages of Parts I & II). It is slow-going at first (Part I), but it really picks up in Part II (this book), and is well-worth sticking with it until it does. And once it does, WOW! You just can't put it down. What I think is masterful about this book is that Sinclair manages to describe the horrors of the Nazi rise to, and brutal exercise of, power. The evil and lunacy of men like Goebbels, Goring, Hitler, etc., is not only presented in an unvarnished way, but also with a real sense of disgust and contempt - yet also, amazingly, still finding a way to avoid caricaturizing this brutality and even generating some nuanced picture of a below-the-surface humanity in Nazi Germany in the midst of all this madness through characters like Hugo Behr and Kurt Meissner. Irma was a disappointment in the end, but I think she represented in Sinclair's estimation the reprehensible attitude among many Americans of the day of utter disinterest, or even disbelief, of what was happening in Hitler's Germany in the early years of the Third Reich. Amazing that Sinclair wrote this in 1941/42 and was able to publish this in real time as such a complete indictment of the world's failure to address the atrocities they were becoming aware of. Well deserving of the Pulitzer, in my opinion.

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Visiting Colleges

Well, I have arrived at that moment in life where my kids are looking towards college.  My oldest daughter, whom I affectionately refer to as 'Squirrelly Girlie the Elder," is now halfway through her junior year in High School, which means that over the next 7-8 months she will need to familiarize herself with the college application and admissions process, choose colleges to apply to, and submit applications for admissions and for scholarships.

And given that she has expressed some interest in studying in Southern California, I have taken advantage of my need to visit the Los Angeles area for work to make it also a college visit trip and brought my daughter along.

It has been a very good trip so far -- informative for her, but also interesting for me.  Even though I work at an elite University, it's fascinating for me to see how the admissions process is handled from the point of view of a parent and prospective student going through the process.

Anyway, we've spent the past two days visiting a variety of colleges and universities in the Los Angeles area.  We've been to USC, Loyola-Marymount, Occidental College (where Obama briefly attended), and UCLA (the big state University).  And today (Saturday), our last full day in Los Angeles, we're going to make an unplanned trip out to the Claremont area to see the well-known community of liberal arts colleges that make up the Claremont college consortium (Claremont-McKenna, Pomona, Harvey Mudd, etc.)

It's been a great visit so far, and I hope it has been beneficial for SG the Elder as she starts her foray into the college search process.

GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy - A brief review

OrthodoxyOrthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chesterton is a witty thinker with some interesting and provocative ideas.  When you first start this book, the freshness of his approach is striking and impressive.  But … it gets old, fast.  His excessive use of paradoxical metaphorical writing is clever the first few times you encounter it; but it wears on you the next 5 thousand times you encounter it.  I mean, really, it seems as if every other sentence is some kind of cutesy parallel inversion of some statement or claim.

His turns of phrase and his witticisms are much too clever by half, meaning his overdoing it in this regard diminishes his arguments after a while.

But enough on the overbearing style of his writing, what about the content?  And here I give Chesterton his props.  His defense of orthodoxy is creative and persuasive … mostly.  I think he makes some good arguments, but I think he is his own worst enemy in the sense that by pounding his arguments so incessantly, he inevitably falls into the trap of making the reader think he is slicing and dicing an argument in so many different ways because there is some weakness inherent to it.  And, indeed, I think there are some weaknesses which cause an honest thinker to question the legitimacy of his claims.

For one, the debater's trick he uses to mischaracterize or unfairly pigeon-hole the arguments of his rivals diminishes his own arguments.  He has a tendency to twist his opponents' arguments to mean things that he can argue against, but which are really not the meanings put forward by his opponents at all.  In essence, he is quite skillful at taking incomplete bits and snippets of an oppositional argument and then using them to set up a more comprehensive intellectual straw man that he then beats down.  In a sense, this debating style is quite effective rhetorically, but it rings hollow and disingenuous in terms of its substance.

I could go into detail and give many examples of what I mean by the above critique, but I just don't feel like it's worth it.  Just read the work and you'll get a good sense of what I mean.

And the shame of it is that his core idea doesn't really need all that rhetorical bamboozling and cleverness.  For those who want to find a fascinating debater's defense (and a novel one at that) of Christian orthodoxy, you'll enjoy this read.  But for those who are looking for an intellectually honest defense of orthodoxy, you might find this read a bit problematic and troubling.

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Sunday, January 04, 2015


Have been to a number of movies over the holidays.  I've seen the latest Hobbit release.  I've seen "Into the Woods." And I've seen the latest Hunger Games flick.  Enjoyed them all, but have to admit to being a tad unimpressed with all of them.

The Hobbit finale was just nothing like the book, so I took exception to that.

"Into the Woods" was visually pleasant and I love Sondheim and the lyrical genius that he produces; but this particular show is a tad on the long side and I found myself getting impatient for the ending with about a half hour of the show remaining.  Meryl Streep was, as usual, outstanding as the witch.

The Hunger Games was nothing more than a very long trailer and prequel to the exciting (I hope!) finale.  It leaves one wanting, which is not how I prefer my movies.

I'd recommend them all, as I think they are worth seeing; but don't expect too much of them.

The Constant Care and Feeding of Old Homes

I love our house; but it's one of those old homes (I think it's close to 70 years old).  And this means lots of regular upkeep and maintenance.

Since this is the first winter holiday break I've had in a while that didn't involve traveling long distances or hosting relatives visiting from far away, I've had quite a bit of time to tackle some of those home maintenance duties.

And I have to say that I have been more productive in this regard than I thought I'd be.

Our house is one of those that has wood slats and plaster walls.  And living on a swamp with the earth constantly shifting underneath us means that we're going to have what are known as "settling" cracks over time in the plaster.  And where the plaster cracks, the paint peels.  So, I've been doing some paint scraping of the walls in our living room, puttying over the cracks, and repainting.  At least one of our living room walls (the one with the most visible need of repair) is now looking crisp and new.  So, I'm glad about that.

But I'm even more happy that I managed to get downstairs in our guest room and make some serious headway in doing some of that finishing trim work and painting that has been just crying out for attention for about 8 years now, since I rebuilt the room following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. I just had to caulk some molding joints and do some fine trim paint work between door frames and walls (they're different colors, so it's a painstaking and laborious task).  I also painted three doors in that room which had been working just fine, but which were in the unpainted condition in which I first bought them.  And once I get on a roll with such projects, I tend to just add on other little side projects too.  In this instance, I decided to finally build for the room a desk made from an old door that I've had hanging around.  This involved an arduous process of sanding down the old paint off the door, and then repainting the door a fresh color to fit the room colors.  And it also involved building the frame for the door/desk that I can set it down on.  All of which is now done.  I'm just waiting for the semi-gloss paint on the door to dry and then get a piece of glass to lay on top the door, and I can install the door and have the desk ready to go.   I'll take a picture when it's all said and done (hopefully, it won't be another 8 years down the line!!!)

But this is all just the tip of the iceberg; and I hope to continue slowly, but steadily, working on these maintenance items over the next semester.  I'm horrible about before/after pictures (I always forget to take the "before" pictures); but I'll do my best to document the work visually and share it.

I guess I'm also motivated to do all this work because I'm back on a kind of diet (New Year's resolution) in which I'm trying to control meal portion sizes and I'm trying to wean myself from all forms of sweet and sour junk food -- which means I'm going through some withdrawal right now, and working on these home repairs helps to keep my mind off of my cravings.  I see it as a win-win: I'm committed to being healthier and my home is looking better!

Friday, January 02, 2015

Steve Scalise and His Catholicism

So much has been swirling through my head the last couple of days about Steve Scalise.  I am still trying to process it all and collect my thoughts.  There is just so much about this situation that bothers and concerns me.  I'm likely to post more on this in the future, but one of the things that I want to comment on now is the repeated reference by Scalise to his Catholic faith and its unequivocal stance condemning racism.

The reference to one's religious faith as a moral identity marker, especially among conservatives, is nothing new.  But so often, folks who trot out their faith and wear it on their sleeve are the very people who use this as a bludgeon against the rest of us believers who are reluctant to use their faith in such a ham-handed way.

The reason why I, at least, am cautious about bringing up my religion as a baseline argument for social policy is that I find myself often at odds with my faith's position on a wide variety of social issues.  People like me are often accused by religious purists (and I would consider Scalise to be one of these purists), of being a Cafeteria Catholic, because I don't buy they whole package deal of Catholic teaching on all social issues.

But here we have Steve Scalise using Catholicism as a measure of his morality when it comes to the social problem of racism.  If we were to believe Scalise, we should understand that when he says he abhors racism because his Catholic faith instructs him to do so.  But here's the rub:  the Catholic faith also instructs him to support a living wage, to oppose the death penalty, to condemn the intrinsic evil of torture.  But Scalise doesn't adhere to what Catholicism demands of him in these instances.

Now, it's fine if Scalise himself is a Cafeteria Catholic, rejecting the guidance and instruction of his faith and church on such matters.  Who am I to throw stones here?  But what I would suggest is that Scalise be a bit more humble and equally cautious in using a knee-jerk reference to his Catholicism to prove he is not racist.  It's just not believable.  Perhaps he is a "Cafeteria Catholic" in this regard, too; and speaking to a racist hate group, with a wink and a nod, because he relies on their votes, tells us as much.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Happy New Year! The Huck Upchuck is back!

Let this posting be the first of the New Year's Resolutions that follow:

I resolve:

1. To blog again.  My goal is to average one blog posting per day.
2. To tweet more.  One tweet per day.
3. To read 52 books over the course of the year.  That's an average of 1 book per week.
4. To exercise a minimum of 30 minutes per day, even if that exercise is modest.
5. To write at least 100 pages of a book project (whether academic or fiction).
6. To write 12 poems.  That's an average of 1 poem per month.

There's a lot more I want to get accomplished this upcoming year, but I think I'll just stick with these goals for now.

2015 will be an exciting year.  Squirrelly Girlie the Elder will become a High School Senior and will be  applying to colleges.  (Which means that we'll be visiting colleges.)

Squirrelly Girlie the Younger will become a teenager and will be entering the 8th grade, which means applying to High Schools.

My better two-thirds will be looking to ramp up her pottery business, and I'm on board to help out with that.

I will also likely be going in for another knee surgery (most probably to repair a torn meniscus).  But, on the bright side, I might be able to start playing racquetball again.

Also, I think a lot will happen in the realm of national politics, so there should be some juicy political blogging ahead as well.

And, who knows?  Maybe the Saints will pull their act together and make another run at the Super Bowl.

Stay tuned and visit often.