1.30.2010

In Other Words, Jesus Schools Buddha

I am forcing myself to finish this little book, The Lotus and the Cross, even though I can't say I like it much at all.  There's nothing wrong with its teaching exactly, but the tone is all wrong somehow.  Buddha is getting schooled (by the Ultimate Teacher, of course), so there's not a true feeling of give and take.  It does not feel like what would actually happen if Jesus and Buddha were to converse; instead, it feels exactly like a Christian author using this "dialogue" as a means to teach believers and non-believers more about Buddhism by showing its weaknesses.  Though it poses as an effort to enlighten, it is still ultimately an evangelical tool.  I don't have a problem with it as a tool as such; however, it is not very good from the standpoint of literature or even thoughtful inquiry.

I did like this passage from Jesus:

         God doesn't respond because someone opens up some new insight for Him.  In persistent, fervent prayer, God prepares the soil of one's heart to make room for the seed of His answer, from which will flower an alignment with His will.
        That's why I often told my disciples to be persistent and pray in faith.  When the seed meets the soil and the season is right, the bloom touches heaven. (47)

1.28.2010

Chloe's Choice

I finished Blue Calhoun last night, and I ended up fairly satisfied with the whole experience despite the desperate situations portrayed.  I acknowledge that I am perhaps irrationally fearful of my children being abused in some fashion; what parent doesn't consider such atrocities with trembling heart?  So, maybe I'm no more uncomfortable than others, but I really have a hard time with fictional accounts of child sexual abuse.  And that kind of abuse encircles this entire novel.  From about halfway through, I had figured out what had happened with Lyn's father (minus the particulars, of course), but knowing it was coming didn't make it a lot easier.  What did help is that we really didn't know Lyn that well other than as the recipient of this "letter."  In fact, until the very end, we didn't know how old she was or what she had experienced much at all.  The not knowing her helped us not to feel her pain quite so deeply.  But I was, in the end, pleased with Blue and who he turned out to be.  You can't call this a "coming of age" novel because the narrative voice was well of age when he started out, but he does manage to grow through the telling of his tale.  Most of us do, I think.

I waited until daylight to consider what would be next, and the first opportunity came today at lunchtime.  Chloe and I were finishing up, so I asked her what she thought I should read.  She promptly hopped down from her stool and joined me at the TBR shelves.  Her first choice?  War and Peace.  And though I love Tolstoy, I'm in the mood to make quick work of some reading right now.  War and Peace is such a long-term relationship.  Since I shunned the largest book on the shelf, she made the next logical assumption and chose the smallest book on the shelf: The Lotus and The Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha by Ravi Zacharias.  I bought this book at Christmastime as part of Amazon's famous 4-for-3 deals, and I'm interested to see what it has to teach me about Buddhism from a Christian perspective.  I continue to be intrigued (although unable to implement it into my life thus far) with the concept of meditation as a way to hear God's still, small voice, so I think this conversation should be a good one.  As a companion to that book, purchased at the same time, I have Therese of Lisieux's Simply Surrender and might make that a bit of an effort after I "listen" to Buddha and Jesus chat it up.  Sounds promising.

1.27.2010

Good Words from Blue

I just sat down to read for a bit this afternoon, meaning to make some serious progress toward finishing Blue Calhoun.  I am fewer than 100 pages from being finished, and I would like to see it on through.  Thus, I was having to make myself not come post when not two pages in I came across an unstoppable passage.  I begrudgingly dog-eared the page to come back to it (I hate to do that - it feels like some sort of permanent bruising to the book) and kept on.  When a page later, another idea knocked me over, I knew I had to come on and post before it got out of hand.

This one (about Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement) is long, but I couldn't let it go:

I don't claim any special credit from seeing well before Kennedy died that we'd do nothing but pour live boys into one vast murderous greenhouse if we chose to fight that far from home.  We chose and fought; and that gave fate a postponed chance to notify us it had never forgot how, a century before, we U.S. citizens exterminated all but the last American Indian (every one of whom were migrant Asians, as we'd forgot).  So numerous thousand boys and girls were blindly poured out till the debt was paid.  Thank Christ, not one of them came from my family.  With civil rights I have to admit that, in the early days of the uproar, I took an old fashioned though genteel view of black people - if they'd been in such hot torment for three hundred years, why in God's name had I never heard an honest moan from one black mouth - not from one that was standing anywhere near me, and I'd stood among them my whole life.
. . . But when I watched the evening news for a good long while and kept on hearing young Reverend King with his gold tongue for bitter truth - still and again in the face of thug cops and Southern mayors my age and station but vicious as jackals - by then I'd slowly figured out what had truly gone down, what my kindly people had stood and let go down down down for endless ages, thinking they were kind when the plain fact was this - very few white trash in hoods and robes had done much worse in the eyes of fate than me, my mother, my dad and wife with our full white hands limp at our sides.  And anyone of us that called himself "Christian" ought to find sackcloth and ashes quick, or better still, a fireproof vest for Judgment Day. (296-297)

I'm still reeling from the passion and truth of this passage.  Price puts so much of the reality of southern racism in plain speech and manages to condemn and excuse simultaneously.  I'm also personally upended by Blue's shameful statement that he had never (until his supper with Dr. Sandra Bedford and her son, Wilkins) "entered a black household to eat their food at their own table" (298) because his realization forced my own identical truth to surface.  I'm still grappling at the slippery edges of what to do with this information.

OK.  Enough typing.  More reading.

1.26.2010

Irving-like Issues

This novel is one of those odd mixtures of pleasure and pain: pleasure at the rhythm and cadence of it, the sheer writerliness of the words; pain at the subject matter.  Where I must marvel here is how successfully Price is making me like Blue Calhoun despite his deep folly.  Where Updike's Rabbit Angstrom thoroughly turned me off, Blue Calhoun has me at least interested in his well-being even if I cannot agree with his choices.  And though I don't buy the whole notion of fate or some other uncontrollable driving force, I believe that Blue believes it.  I like his honesty even though I don't like the callous realities his honesty reveals.

Like this about being a "dry drunk" from pp. 175-176:

Worst of all, though your mind is straight, most of the time you can't even see the people around you - especially the close ones, your wife and children.  You plow right through them like they're clear glass; then they break, to your amazement.  And if they're too strong to let you through, they either crack or hate your shadow the rest of your life.

I also like this part where Blue recognizes the truth of Myra's love (and recognizes his own lack in this department):

You can give a person all your life and not be hungry or bitter or broke - not ever, right on, far as you go.  For that long moment it seemed so fine, so far past me and my pitiful reach, that it cored me out dead hollow again. (236-237)

The problem, of course, is that of John Irving.  Here we have an interesting, complex, finely-drawn character whose actions are unthinkable.  Where do you put the truth about this man and his destructive relationship with a 17-year-old abuse victim?  I have no context within which to place it.

1.22.2010

An Active Care For Language

Although I am still enjoying Blue Calhoun, this afternoon (in fact, this whole day) has found me immersed in educational theory and visions about what practices and programs could best serve our students in their remarkable task of becoming educated adults.  I've been skimming back through an old book I read for fun (I'm such a geek) some years ago called Against Mediocrity: The Humanities in America's High Schools, and I was once again struck by so many truths, especially in this article entitled "On a Background for Teachers" by Peter Pouncey.  In the section entitled "An Active Care For Language," he explains the importance of this element for all teachers:

To know what words mean and to use them exactly is fundamental to any self-knowledge, to any critical sense, and therefore to any education properly defined.  (135)

The fact is that too often we write carelessly, and we read carelessly, and our whole society is the poorer for it. (137)

And this bit from the conclusion by Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, the editors of the volume, knocks my socks off:

As a society, we have understood that every citizen must have the education that is necessary for him to be free, to choose wisely for himself how to live responsibly and well.  Though we have occasionally slipped into the false (if, for the educator, beguiling) supposition that years of schooling alone would bring virtue and benevolence, for the better part of two centuries we have at least recognized that ignorance brings nothing of value to anyone, rich or poor, black or white.  Hutchins, Mann, Dewey, and Jefferson would all have dismissed as arrant nonsense the suggestion that subjects we know as "the humanities" were suited only to the education of elites.  In their day more than we perhaps now realize, the humanities were the essence of all education above the level of basic literacy; and common wisdom recognized that it was by acquiring such an education that the citizens of a democracy could best govern themselves., that the children of the poor might become members of the upper classes, and that the members of a free society could thereby become truly equal. (240-241)

1.20.2010

Blue Calhoun by Reynolds Price

Recently, in an informal essay, a student opened with these explanatory lines:
Writing for me is difficult because I am a southerner.  I struggle with pronouncing my words correctly, because I have a southern language.

The saddest part about that opening is that the poor heart probably believes it.  She thinks that being southern has somehow crippled her ability to deal in words.  At the least, she is willing to blame anything other than her basic ignorance and lack of motivation.

Thankfully, there are ample evidences of great southerners who have overcome this substantial burden and managed to make those words come.  Reynolds Price has long been one of my favorites of those, and tonight, I started his Blue Calhoun.  It is so lyrical, so twangy - the language the verbal equivalent to pinto beans and greens.  Just good and right and home.  I like not knowing the situation yet. I  like being teased a bit with the storyline, and I'm confident that Price will reward my patience. 

1.19.2010

Now That I've Survived the Apocalypse . . .

Remind me never to poor-mouth a noted author's darkness.  McCarthy has indeed created his great masterpiece here, and though it is dark, I remain slack-jawed at the beauty and humanity and grace of The Road.

I finished last night, but I couldn't bring myself to post just yet.  I still feel like I need to reread the ending to get a firmer footing.  So, why don't I do just that?  Please enjoy the music while you wait. . . .
---
Okay.  I've reread and been touched by the hope of it all over again.  The world McCarthy has portrayed is decidedly bleak - to the point where I (like the characters) wondered about the reason for going on at all.  I just couldn't see how it could end.  Not that it needed to end well.  But I couldn't understand the idea of survival simply for the sake of survival. . .with no prospect of improvement.  In the end, though, all I felt was hope.  Even in the loss of life.  Even in the continued uncertainty.  Even though nothing had changed about the future except the boy's companions.  I still felt unbridled hope coursing through those final pages.  And perhaps it was simply because the father was right after all:

Goodness will find the little boy.  It always has.  It will again. (281)

Even though it is not always true, I can't help but be moved by the rightness of it.

1.17.2010

Truth in Fiction

I did go with fiction (super-fiction, I can only hope) in the form of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  I have had this book on my TBR shelf(ves) for awhile, but I've heard some bits from friends that piqued my interest once again.  In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not a huge fan of McCarthy's.  Not out of disrespect for his craft, but because he is so invariably dark in his subject matter.  Thus, the likely reason he has sat on my shelf for about a year or so.

Here's the deal, though:  30 pages in, and I was already blown away, transported, saddened, and impressed.  Now I'm 100 pages in, I still don't know exactly what has happened (though it is totally unnecessary to know the details), and I remain in awe of the vision, craft, and depth of experience McCarthy has created here. 

There are a lot of fragments here, which put me off at first, but I quickly grasped the effectiveness and appropriateness of that writing choice.  It contributes to the desolation of the world this boy and man are attempting to survive.  It also highlights McCarthy's skill that he can write in fragments and still convey beauty and love and poetic truths.

Some of the best bits so far:
This was the perfect day of his childhood.  This the day to shape the days upon. (13)

No lists of things to be done.  The day providential to itself.  The hour.  There is no later.  This is later.  All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain.  Their birth in grief and ashes.  So, he whispered to the sleeping boy.  I have you.  (54)

This is my child, he said.  I wash a dead man's brains out of his hair.  That is my job.  Then he wrapped him in a blanket and carried him to the fire. . . . All of this like some ancient anointing.  So be it.  Evoke the forms.  Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of air and breathe upon them. (74)

There are actually many truths within this fiction (as all good fiction must have), but one truth in particular is really bothering me.  My copy of this book comes with a good-sized gold seal proclaiming it to be a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Good marketing, that.  Surely a Pulitzer Prize winner must be worthy of purchase, right?  Directly to the right of the Pulitzer seal was the smaller but still prominent sticker marking this book as an Oprah's Book Club selection.  The sad truth I'm pointing to here is that the Oprah sticker probably sold way more copies than the Pulitzer Prize.  I'm just saying.

1.15.2010

J'ai finis!

I think I've probably used "finis" as a title before to indicate that I've finished a book, but this time it seemed especially appropriate considering the book was Words in a French Life (link below).  And though I groused about the book in my first post, it wasn't all that bad.  It just wasn't all that good, either.  I do think the petit mots format would work in the daily blog, but compiled in a book, it just didn't really sing for me.  Often, I just couldn't identify with the author, and the special moments she was trying to capture didn't always come across as special.  But, I loved the french lessons throughout and getting to practice my pronunciation.  The biggest frustration came (too often) when the passage would italicize a foreign word as though it would appear in the closing notes with its definition, but it wouldn't be there.  Sometimes, I could remember seeing it earlier in the book, so maybe we're supposed to flip back to find the definition, but that idea seemed completely cumbersome.  Othertimes, I would think I'd never seen the word before.  Most of the time, context would give me enough, but it still felt poorly edited.  Overall, it was an okay read, but it did not live up to my expectations.

Up next will probably be some sort of novel.  I think I need some fiction in my life.

1.10.2010

Now For Something Completely Different

After finishing the Berry the other night (longest 15 pages of my life, though, because I fell asleep about every other paragraph), I was unable to get on Blogger for some reason. I think it is a McCallie network thing because I had no problems once I used the wireless. Anywho, in the meantime, I began the Words in a French Life that I've been so looking forward to. Unfortunately, it has none of the intelligence, wit, charm, or . . . well writing that Berry had to offer. I'm only a short way in, but it is clear that this person (Kristin Espinasse) became a blogger for lack of something better to do and thus, has no particular skill or passion for writing. I am annoyed already. I do love translating the few French passages she provides; it makes me feel accomplished. But she hasn't yet made me feel like her use of the language is getting me any closer to experiencing life in France. Alas.

Since I have nothing to post from the Words, I'll do one more Berry from the last essay. Here he is talking about how we have embarked (as a culture) upon this journey of sexual liberation in which we tell our young people that sex can be safe.

What we are actually teaching the young is an illusion of thoughtless freedom and purchasable safety, which encourages them to tamper prematurely, disrespectfully, and dangerously with a great power.
(142)

Then a bit later,
Because it is so powerful, it is risky, not just because of the famous dangers of venereal disease and "unwanted pregnancy" but also because it involves and requires a giving away of the self that if not honored and reciprocated, inevitably reduces dignity and self-respect.
(143)

I want to remember this for our children.

1.08.2010

Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community by Wendall Berry

In lieu of ordering the latest collection of Berry's essays, I decided I ought rather to read the signed collection I've owned for 10 years without reading. Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community was published in 1993, and I bought it in 1999 when Mr. Berry came to UVA to speak. At least once since then, I have picked it up but paid it little heed. Now that I am finally reading it (and annotating, agreeing with, and admiring it), I can say with confidence that I am only just now really ready to hear what he had to say back then. And even though the essays are dated (which prove him to be incredibly sagacious if not actually prophetic), they are so relevant still today. The first essay/foreward, "The Joy of Sales Resistance," is written in the form of a letter to the reader and had me laughing out loud and nodding vigorously in agreement. I love this comment, which falls under the heading of the political package "Preservation of Human Resources":
See that the schools are run as ideal orphanages or, as ideal jails. Provide preschool and pre-preschool. Also postschool. Keep the children in institutions and away from home as much as possible - remember that their parents wanted children only because other people have them, and are much too busy to raise them. (xv-xvi)

In the first chapter, "Conservation and Local Economy," I loved this closing:
I acknowledge that to advocate such reforms is to advocate a kind of secession - not a secession of armed violence but a quiet secession by which people find the practical means and the strength of spirit to remove themselves from an economy that is exploiting them and destroying their homeland. (17-18)

No surprise that I loved his chapter entitled "Peaceableness Toward Enemies." My favorite is:
War always encourages a patriotism that means not love of country but unquestioning obedience to power. Freedom, of course, requires diversity of opinion. It not only tolerates political dissent but encourages and depends on it. (76-77)

That's enough for today. Will post tomorrow after I finish the final essay.

1.02.2010

Happy New Year!

When the ball dropped on Thursday night, I kissed Joel, crawled into bed, and picked up Ha Jin's Waiting, which has been (ironically) waiting for me through the long month of December. Joel laughed at me for being unable to restrain myself, but I figure it was officially January, so I should take advantage! I finished Jin's rather frustrating book today, and I'm now pondering where to put it: on the shelf or in the McKay bag?

It was a pretty decent novel. The characters were restrained, but as Chinese from the 1950s on, they had to be to be true. I say it is a frustrating book because, again, it had to be. It is about a man waiting 18 years to divorce his first wife and marry another, only to find himself still dissatisfied. He was certainly frustrated, so the reader was as well. I can't say though that I found that frustration to be transcendent in terms of what I could take from the novel. It didn't do much for me. And perhaps the long lapse right near the end couldn't but make it a frustrating experience, but overall, the effect was - as they say these days - feh. Thus the take it or leave it question. And I think I will take it to McKay.

The more important question now is what to start the New Year with? After hearing an interview with him on NPR, I want Wendell Berry's Bringing it to the Table something fierce, but I haven't placed any amazon orders yet. Since I have a collection of his essays that I haven't yet read, I feel compelled to read them first. But maybe a novel would be better? I think I'll go touch the stacks again and see what calls to me loudest. Report to follow.