Monday, July 16, 2018

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill


Source of book: Audiobook from the library

There has been a trend over the last, say, 40 or so years, to turn tropes on their heads. One of these has been to repurpose - to redeem, so to speak - the Witch. No longer a byword for evil of the worst kind, a menace to children, in league with the devil, she is at minimum more complex and human. In many cases, she is the greatest force for good in a community.

There is a lot of truth to this transformation. An honest analysis of the history of witch burning - and let’s call it what it is: murder - reveals that “witches” generally fell into two categories. The one was the elderly woman with no relatives to defend or avenge her. She was viewed as a drain on the community resources. Rather than support her (say, through the poor laws), it was easier to imagine her malignant and murder her. Not a particularly savory human trait on display there.

The second sort of historical “witch” is even more intriguing. Throughout history, there have been women who refused to kowtow to the patriarchy, who served as the physicians of the community, healing with pharmaceutical herbs, providing contraceptives (and yes, abortifacients too - this was all women’s work for millennia), delivering babies, and so on. One can trace these sorts of women (very often called “wise women”) from the dawn of human history to modern times. The Florence Nightingale sorts who stood up to chauvinist doctors and provided far better care than they did. Although nursing is no longer a solely female profession, it is still the nurses - not the doctors - who do the hard work of medical care.

Sadly, the “wise women” always existed in uncomfortable tension with the patriarchal powers of society. So, from time to time, one would be murdered as a “witch.” That way, the balance of power could be maintained, and the healers would live in fear, and thus stay in their place. Several of these women are mentioned in Uppity Women of Medieval Times - success and popularity were dangerous to women. 



I start off with this, because The Girl Who Drank the Moon is one of those books in which a witch is a healer. (Although the best, for my money, is still Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series - they are a great crash course in ethics for kids.) This book is also quite political - in a good way - without being particularly didactic.

The setting is a rather dystopian society. The Protectorate is a city with a problem. There is a witch living in the forest, and she will destroy the city unless a baby is left for her in the woods each year - presumably for her to devour. This belief is fostered by superstitious stories passed from generation to generation. But it is also enforced by the powers that be: the all-male council of elders, and the all-female quasi-military force. (They are kind of a cross between nuns and ninjas…) So, every year, the youngest child in the city is brutally ripped from his or her parents, and left to die in the forest. Thus, the witch is appeased, and the city lives another year.

But this is not, of course, the reality. There actually IS a witch, but she is rather puzzled by the whole “abandoned baby in the forest” thing. She comes every year, takes the baby, and places it for adoption with a family on the other side of the mountains - communities for which she serves as healer and therapist. Sure, she probably should have inquired as to why they were abandoned, but the Protectorate was obscured in a fog, both literal, and magical (a fog of sorrow.)

This goes on for some time - 500 or so years - before things change. First, Xan (the witch), takes a shine to a particular baby, Luna, and accidentally feeds her moonlight instead of starlight, which “enmagicks” her. At the same time, Antain, a young man who is expected to eventually take his place as an elder, is traumatized by Luna’s abduction. Her mother refuses to peacefully surrender the child, instead going mad in the aftermath. She is locked in a tower, and Antain is haunted by the scene. He investigates, and is cut on his face by a flock of paper birds created by the mad woman. He eventually marries, and his child in turn is due to be sacrificed.

In the meantime, Luna has grown up raised by Xan, a primeval swamp monster named Glurg (who is a sensitive poet, and may be both one with creation and its creator - it’s a paradox to say the least), and a pocket sized dragon. Xan locks her magic inside her, lest she hurt someone or herself (which is a legitimate fear), until she turns 13. In that way, Luna’s discovery of her magic self is connected with puberty - and is just as awkward.

As the book proceeds, the mystery of the past unfolds. All of the characters - not just Luna - has some part of their memories locked away. Their sorrow, in particular, cannot be recalled. As the fog lifts - literally and figuratively - a past tragedy is remembered. And it becomes clear that the real power behind the Protectorate is a “sorrow eater,” the evil counterpart to the Witch, who lives on the pain of others.

There are some pretty heady political lessons here. How does oppression work? Why do people tolerate it? How is blind allegiance created? How are people prevented by fear and violence from thinking for themselves? And, of course, the necessity of the good people of the world to challenge not just the status quo, but the powers of hate.

There are some interesting things about this book that I think make it better than average. First, the author is pretty good about showing, rather than telling. The beliefs of the Protectorate are revealed through a series of “fairy tales” told to children. These open the book, and recur throughout at crucial junctures. Also in this vein, the author allows the full horror of the child sacrifice to be felt. Nothing graphic, but it is clear that the Elders believe that the child is eaten by wild animals - and that they perpetuate the sacrifices because they know it maintains them in power.

I also appreciated that the book is told from various points of view. And they are all sympathetic in some way. That includes the point of view of Sister Ignatia, the villain. Barnhill makes it clear that she too has her hidden pain, and came to be who she is because her own trauma.

That said, it is the trajectories of Sister Ignatia and the chief Elder that are by far the most chilling part of the story. Both of them are so wedded to their power that they cannot, even at the end when their powers have been stripped, repent. They end their days in confinement, cut off from nearly all human contact, their pride having sentenced them to their own private hells. They cannot even admit that they were wrong, which is one thing that the better inhabitants of the book are willing to do. I do not pretend to be an expert on the afterlife, but this kind of matches my own (tentatively held) belief: there are many who, given the choice of repenting and apologizing as a condition of eternal life in the presence of God, will instead choose annihilation rather than bend. (For many from my own time and country, they will choose to not exist over having to be equals with brown-skinned people - I’m looking at you, Phyllis Schlafly…) I say this, not because of theology, but because of psychology. (And yes, I think C. S. Lewis was highly perceptive about this.)

One final thing merits some praise for this book. The ending is set up perfectly for the good people of the story to exact justice. Or revenge, perhaps. But they don’t. It is enough to stop the bad people from hurting everyone else. Mercy and grace are extended to all. Even the chief Elder and Sister Ignatia. But they cannot accept that grace, and choose their own annihilation. At the end of the story, I was strongly reminded of the ending of Les Miserables. Javert too cannot accept grace, because he refuses to extend it. And, like so many of Victor Hugo’s heroes, the heroes of this book become so much more heroic because of the grace they extend.

I found this book fascinating. Those who know the Western fairy tale tradition will find all kinds of “Easter Eggs” within the story. Likewise for those who know their Bibles. Obviously, Fundies will clutch their pearls at the idea of the opening of the Gospel of John being repurposed as an explanation as to how the primordial Chaos (the “bog monster”) became the world and the creator and the poem and the poet and everything. But for those not so obsessed with doctrinal purity, this mythology will, like fairytales and myths and allegories and parables around the world and throughout history, be another way of thinking about truth - a poetic and figurative representation of some deeper truth about reality - and ourselves.

Overall, a better than average book, with memorable characters, a good story, and thoughtful explorations of deeper truths. 


***

Oh yeah, this is the Newbery Award winner for 2017.

***

I first read this poem in high school, and it has always stuck with me.

After the Battle by Victor Hugo

My father, that hero with the sweetest smile,
followed by a single hussar whom he loved above all others
for his great bravery and his great height,
was riding, the evening after a battle,
across the field covered with the dead on whom night was falling.
He thought he heard a weak noise  in the shadow.
It was a Spaniard from the routed army
who was bleeding, dragging himself by the road.
groaning, broken, ashen, and more than half dead,
and who said, "Drink! Drink, for pity's sake!"
My father, moved, handed to his faithful hussar
a canteen of rum that hung from his saddle,
and said, "Here, give the poor wounded man something to drink."
Suddenly, at the moment when the hussar bent
leaning over him, the man, a kind of Moor,
seized a pistol that he was still gripping,
and aimed at my father's forehead crying "Caramba!"
The bullet passed so near that his hat fell off
and his horse shied backwards.
"All the same give him something to drink," said my father.

 



Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cocktail Time by P. G. Wodehouse


Source of book: I own this.

A trip to the beach. (Okay, a trip to the beach to run the world’s greatest 10 kilometer footrace...blame my wife for getting me into running again, and into this race in particular.) Anyway, a trip to the beach requires a propper beach read. And yes, I know I am probably not the sort of person to ask for recommendations - after all, I once tackled Camus on a beach trip - but I do think that it is difficult to do better than Pelham Grenville Wodehouse for the occasion.

I am a big fan of P. G., and have been ever since my high school violin teacher’s husband gave my brother and I some of his old books. (We were his favorites, I think, because we were always happy to discuss Dickens and other Victorian authors with him. I also credit him with introducing me to Anthony Trollope.)

I have read quite a few of Wodehouse’s books over the years. Even though I am not a golfer, his golf stories are most hilarious, and one can usually count on his books to be entertaining, witty, and utterly ludicrous. In any event, here are the books I have reviewed on this blog, along with an introduction to the author himself:


***



Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, the fifth Earl of Ickenham - known to Wodehouse fans more jovially as “Uncle Fred” - is one of Wodehouse’s most delightful creations. An older man, usually tied down by his far more sensible wife, he is a force of nature, a “chaos muppet” of the first water (to use a favorite Wodehouse expression), and a good example of what Psmith might have become given enough age. Wherever Uncle Fred goes, expect the unexpected, the crazy, the bizarre - and the hilarious, of course.

I first experienced Uncle Fred in Uncle Fred in the Springtime, which I read a few years back. He combines the intellect of Jeeves (and the ability to, well, fix things) with the exuberance of Psmith. And perhaps the aversion to battleaxe females of Bertie Wooster. In any event, he is a lot of fun. I understand that David Niven once played him. This sounds promising...

In this book, it is Uncle Fred who starts a whole cascade of crazy events, with a simple amusement. While out at the legendary Drones Club with his nephew Pongo Twistleton, he hears of a marvelous idea: shooting hats off using a slingshot and a Brazil nut. He immediately borrows one, and shoots off the hat of Sir Raymond Bastable, a rising barrister and possible future member of Parliament. “Beefy” Bastable and Uncle Fred also are old acquaintances. Bastable has no idea who did the dirty deed, but suspects the “young people” he sees laughing at him. Burning for revenge, he is given an idea by Uncle Fred, who suggest that someone with actual writing talent would write a scathing novel. Bastable takes this as a challenge, and writes “Cocktail Time,” a novel filled with sex, scandal, and a vociferous denouncement of the younger generation. He submits it under a pseudonym, and, after many rejections, it is published.

It remains mostly unknown, until, by chance, the daughter of a bishop is caught reading it, he denounces it from the pulpit, and the rest is history.

Except for a big problem. It isn’t the sort of novel that an aspiring member of parliament wishes to be known for writing. Enter Uncle Fred again. For a small fee, Bastable’s doofus nephew, Cosmo Wisdom, agrees to accept “credit” for the novel. But Wisdom owes a gambling debt to an American con man and his intimidating wife - and they quickly realize there is a deeper pocket they can plumb. Things get, um, complicated really fast.

Before things are wrapped up (with no fewer than four marriages), we meet a potty old literary agent - given to knitting and forgetfulness, a battleaxe housekeeper, Bastable’s sister - who resembles a white rabbit, a letter everyone wants for different reasons, yet another butler (of course), and a novelist who can never quite make ends meet. For someone of Uncle Fred’s resourcefulness, this is, of course, just an epic challenge. Between his imagination, his ability to impersonate, and his epically cool demeanor, everything comes right in the end, to great hilarity. (Well, except for the con man and his wife. After all, the “goodness and light” that Uncle Fred has to spread around has its limits, and someone is bound to be left out.)

Wodehouse is so epically quotable. I literally wanted to just reproduce a few chapters. But I did select a few of the best quotes to share.

The whole Britishism affect is hilarious. Not that any of the Brits I know really talk like this. But one can certainly imagine the denizens of the Drones Club doing it. How about this opening exchange?

“Yo ho,” said the Egg.
“Yo ho,” said the Bean.
“Yo ho,” said Pongo. “You know my uncle, Lord Ickenham, don’t you?”
“Oh, rather,” said the Egg. “Yo ho, Lord Ickenham.”
“Yo ho,” said the Bean.
“Yo ho,” said Lord Ickenham. “In fact, I will go further. Yo frightfully ho,” and it was plain to both Bean and Egg that they were in the presence of one who was sitting on top of the world and who, had he been wearing a hat, would have worn it on the side of his head. He looked, they considered, about as bumps-a-daisy as billy-o.

And, soon thereafter, the topic of the Brazil nut catapult comes up.

Lord Ickenham was intrigued. He always welcomed these opportunities to broaden his mind and bring himself abreast of modern thought. The great advantage of lunching at the Drones, he often said, was that you met such interesting people.
“Shoots Brazil nuts, does he? You stir me strangely. In my time I have shot many things - grouse, pheasants, partridges, tigers, gnus, and once, when a boy, an aunt by marriage in the seat of her sensible tweed dress with an airgun - but I have never shot a Brazil nut. The fact that, if I understand you aright, this stripling makes a practice of this form of marksmanship shows once again that it takes all sorts to do the world’s work. Not sitting Brazil nuts, I trust?”

Sir Bastable is decidedly NOT amused by the incident, of course. And he, like many a codger, would prefer that all those annoying young people stay off his lawn.

What had occurred, it was evident, had been one more exhibition of the brainless hooliganism of the modern young man which all decent people so deplored. Sir Raymond had never been fond of the modern young man, considering him idiotic, sloppy, disrespectful, inefficient and, generally speaking, a blot on the London scene, and this Brazil nut sequence put, if one may so express it, the lid on his distaste. It solidified the view he had always held that steps ought to be taken about the modern young man and taken promptly. What steps, he could not at the moment suggest, but if, say, something on the order of the Black Death were shortly to start setting about these young pests and giving them what was coming to them, it would have his full approval. He would hold its coat and cheer it on.

It occurs to me that Wodehouse was a solid 50 or 60 years ahead of our modern era, when the older folks seem to make dissing the Millennials (and whatever the heck my children will be called as an epithet…) But Wodehouse is indeed timeless for many reasons. Here is another. I remember as a kid the clergy of that time getting their panties in a complete knot over The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie which was mediocre at best, and would have died an obscure death had they not rescued it from oblivion by their vehement protestations. In this case, the Bishop of Stortford sees his daughter reading the book - at a particularly racy spot - and then, well, Wodehouse describes it thus:

At twelve-fifteen on the following Sunday he was in the pulpit of the church of St. Jude the Resilient, Eaton Square, delivering a sermon on the text “He that touches pitch shall be defiled” (Ecclesiasticus 13:1) which had the fashionable congregation rolling in the aisles and tearing up the pews. The burden of his address was a denunciation of the novel Cocktail Time, in the course of which he described it as obscene, immoral, shocking, impure, corrupt, shameless, graceless and depraved, and all over the sacred edifice you could see eager young men jotting the name down on their shirt cuffs, scarcely able to wait to add it to their library list.

This success, naturally, leads to the press wanting to know the real identity of the obviously pseudonymous author. And thus is set in motion the rest of the plot.

 I also have to quote Uncle Fred in a passage involving Albert Peasemarch. Said fellow is an old friend of Uncle Fred from the war. He is wealthy enough, but bored with idleness, so he takes a job as butler for Sir Bastable. He plays the part well, but this irritates Uncle Fred.

“Now listen, Bert. This ‘m’lord’ stuff. I've been meaning to speak to you about it. I’m a lord, yes, no argument about that, but you don’t have to keep rubbing it in all the time. It’s no good kidding ourselves. We know what lords are. Anachronistic parasites on the body of the state is the kindest thing you can say of them. Well, a sensitive man doesn’t like to be reminded every half second that he is one of the untouchables, liable at any moment to be strung up on a lamppost or to have his blood flowing in streams down Park Lane. Couldn’t you substitute something matier and less wounding to my feelings?”

It is this sort of thing that keeps me returning to Wodehouse every year. How about another? The senior (in many ways) literary agent of the publisher that takes on Cocktail Time is Mr. Saxby senior. He has taken up knitting - in a very serious way. As in, he rambles about turning the corner on a sock, and is constantly involved in making sweaters for his grandchildren.

Old Mr. Howard Saxby was seated at his desk in his room at the Edgar Saxby Literary Agency when Cosmo arrived there. He was knitting a sock. He knitted a good deal, he would would tell you if he asked him, to keep himself from smoking, adding that he smoked a good deal to keep himself from knitting.

My wife is seriously into knitting as well - she’s really good at it. So I have to tease her with this one. The knitting keeps coming up throughout the book, usually in hilarious fashion.

Another thread is Lewis Carroll’s most famous book. Several characters are compared to those from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from Bill the Salamander, to the White Rabbit - who is the pattern for Sir Bastable’s widowed sister Phoebe.

One final line, which is so Wodehousian, fans will recognize it anywhere. Sir Bastable is about to reconcile with his old flame, Barbara Crowe (who is the real power at Edgar Saxby.) He discusses this with Uncle Fred, who has done his best to orchestrate the reconciliation.

“And what steps do you propose to take?”
“I’m going to tell her I’ve been a fool?”
“Doesn’t she know?”

I definitely laughed at that one. Actually, I laughed at a lot of this book. It is classic Wodehouse, with a twisted plot, goofy and memorable characters, and a witty and razor-sharp, yet good natured sense of humor. I recommend books to people all the time. Wodehouse is one of my most regular recommendations. Don’t expect profundity. But humor is indeed the hardest genre to write, and beneath the hilarity often lurks the germ of the truth we don’t want to acknowledge. If you haven’t discovered P. G. Wodehouse, by all means give him a try. If you have, well, he was prolific, so grab another of his books as a summer read.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Swing Time by Zadie Smith


Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This is my first experience of Zadie Smith. She is a British novelist, born to a Jamaican mother and a white father. From the first page, her British background was obvious. (It took me a minute to remember that “estates” are what we Americans call “apartment complexes.”) Although I certainly have read a lot of British literature over the years, I haven’t really read modern ones. (Unless Waugh counts as “modern”) Although I did read Black Swan Green a few years back, that one was rural. Certainly, I haven’t read any modern British literature with an urban setting. One of those weird gaps, I guess. 

 Zadie Smith

Anyway, Swing Time is set mostly in London and Africa, with a few episodes in New York and other big cities. While the novel is not autobiographical, the unnamed narrator is very similar to the author in biographical details. The black mother, white father, a love for tap dancing, and a complex set of half-siblings are the most obvious. The narrator’s childhood friend, Tracey, is also a bit of Ms. Smith. Although the colors of her parents are switched, she looks a lot like the narrator. Except she is actually talented at dancing, while the narrator is mediocre. While the narrator’s mom is literate and socially ambitious, her father is a plodder, content to work for the postal service. Tracey’s dad is not in the picture (and it is implied that when he does show up, he sexually abuses her.) Her mom is what we would call “white trash” here in the United States: vulgar, overweight, uneducated, tacky - and looks down on the narrator’s parents as much as they look down on her.

The book is written in such a way that you have to piece the timeline together as you go. It keeps switching between the narrator’s childhood and her adult life, and the prologue starts near the end of the story, and isn’t actually explained until near the end. It is a bit disorienting, and you really have to pay attention to narrative details or you miss how things tie together. I think this contributes to the feeling I had that the book was more of a series of episodes than a narrative with an arc and direction. This isn’t meant to be a criticism. If anything, life itself tends to be episodic rather than fit a neat arc. I was reminded a bit of David Copperfield, which also followed a character through his youth in a series of related, yet disconnected episodes. In a way, this very style is an assertion that life isn’t neat, people aren’t simple categories, and events take their own directions, not the ones dictated by artistic considerations.

The basic plot is as follows (spoilers, so skip if you prefer):

The narrator becomes friends with Tracey after they meet at a dance class. They don’t have that much in common, but are the only non-white kids there, and they at least share a love for dance. Later, they drift apart after Tracey gets into a dance-oriented school on scholarship, and the narrator takes a more academic route. They reconnect a few times, but find they have less in common than they thought. Tracey gets some professional dance roles, but never makes it big. Instead, she ends up a lot like her mother, with some kids with different fathers and no real direction to her life.

The narrator, on the other hand, disappoints her mother with mediocre results in school, and a low paying job at the fictional equivalent of MTV Britain. Then, she happens to meet Aimee, an Australian pop megastar (probably patterned after Madonna), who hires the narrator as a personal assistant. She spends the next decade plus at this job, before events cause a shattering break near the end of the book, and the narrator finds herself without a job, having essentially devoted all her time to Aimee. During their time together, Aimee decides to build a girls school in Africa (the place isn’t named, but is probably Gambia.) This turns out to be a bit of a failure because of Aimee’s failure to listen or understand the real needs of the community. As I said, it kind of meanders, just like the narrator tends to drift without a purpose.

The strong point of the book, on the other hand, was the well-drawn characters. The narrator is at the center, obviously. It is odd that her name is never given, even by the other characters. But perhaps not knowing makes it easier to imagine oneself in that place. The narrator’s parents were recognizable people - I’ve met a few like them. I suspect there might be a bit of Smith’s parents in them. They certainly explain how the narrator came to be who she is. The psychological interplay of the characters is quite true to life.

I also thought that Tracey and her family were intriguing. There are a lot of people like them in my part of the world too. I thought the author was perceptive about a couple of things. First, she gives a rather positive picture of a loving (if not always put together) single mother. Tracey’s home is challenging, but her mother is actually a better mother on balance than the narrator’s distant ice-queen mother. Poverty and occasionally questionable decision-making do not overwhelm what is essentially a happy home. In my work in juvenile dependency proceedings, I see the dynamic that Tracey and her mom face. Poverty leaves one with a low margin for error, and thus there is social worker involvement, and more judgment than assistance.

The other thing, though, that the author also gets right is a kind of defensive superiority complex - a defense mechanism against feelings of inadequacy. We all fight our insecurities in our own way, and Tracey’s mom does it by lording what she feels is her superiority over others. It is the flip side of the coin of the narrator’s mom, who goes full on Tiger Mom on the narrator.

There are a few great lines in the book that I want to mention. One is a description by the narrator of her time at the TV station. She doesn’t fit in culturally, both because of her race and because of her background. She is into the old dance musicals, not her own era of music.

In the great piles of glossy magazines, also freebies, left around the office, we now read that Britannia was cool -- or some version of it that struck even me as intensely uncool -- and after a while began to understand that it must be on precisely this optimistic wave that the company surfed. Optimism infused with nostalgia: the boys in our office looked like rebooted Mods -- with Kinks haircuts from thirty years earlier -- and the girls were Julie Christie bottle-blondes in short skirts with smudgy black eyes. Everybody rode a Vespa to work, everybody’s cubicle seemed to feature a picture of Michael Caine in Alfie or The Italian Job. It was nostalgia for an era and a culture that had meant nothing to me in the first place, and perhaps because of this I was, in the eyes of my colleagues, cool, by virtue of not being like them.

The narrator’s taste, throughout, is always toward an older period.

            But elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.

Another great line comes from Fern, one of the guys who makes Aimee’s Africa project work as well as it does. He is a sympathetic character, as one of the genuinely good-intentioned people in the book. He is also more perceptive than most of the others.

“No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.”

This one is so true. Aimee’s biggest problem is her wealth, which allows her to both dictate her life, and assume that everyone else can do so too. In her view, differences in outcomes “were never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality.” This attitude, too, permeates a lot of middle to upper class whites I know. It is darkly amusing when they complain that poor people can’t budget - when they themselves have far greater incomes and piles of debt. The margin for error is just greater for them…

There is another perceptive observation, this one by the narrator, about her experience in Africa, while visiting the site of a slaving prison.  

All paths lead back there, my mother had always told me, but now that I was here, in this storied corner of the continent, I experienced it not as an exceptional place but as an example of a general rule. Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power -- local, racial, tribal, national, global, economic -- on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even at the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere. The world is saturated in blood. Every tribe has their blood-soaked legacy: here was mine.

Sad, but undeniably true. And true in our time, where children are sacrificed to power and tribalism.

One final quote is on the topic of the narrator’s mother. After a lifetime of trying to make her daughter into the sort of world-conquering superwoman that she envisioned, she is obviously disappointed.

I wondered if some similarly chilly epigraph existed for me: She was not the best daughter, but she was a perfectly adequate dinner date.

It’s the little bon mots like that which add sparkle to this book. Overall, I found that it was hard to put this book down. Good writing, human characters, and a tendency to bestow grace on even the most flawed people in the story.



Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck


Source of book: I own this.

Tortilla Flat was Steinbeck’s first real success. Set in Monterey, California, and telling a story of people on the edges of society, it is in many ways a precursor to Cannery Row, which shares many of its themes and elements. However, it is not quite the same book, despite the similarities.

The particular characters that Steinbeck creates are all “paisanos.” Which is a mix of Mexican, Spanish, Native American, and Caucasian - people who have occupied California since long before it became part of the United States. Not quite as aristocratic as the Californios, the great Mexican-Spanish landholders and luminaries of the Spanish and Mexican periods. Well, not even close. By the time this book is set, they were more like the typical Californian drifter sorts who worked when they had to, and not when they didn’t. In this sense, they are strongly related to Mack and his buddies in that latter book.

In Tortilla Flat, Danny is the leader of the pack, and is intentionally written as a (literally) poor man’s King Arthur. He inherits two houses from his grandfather, in the part of Monterey known then as Tortilla Flat - which is not flat at all, but a hillside - but is the home of the paisanos and other down-and-out sorts.

The story starts off with Danny. He inherits, and gets drunk. Then, he starts collecting friends - the various knights of the Round Table, so to speak. They too share Danny’s love for leisure, companionship, and as much red wine as they can purchase, barter, or steal.

Danny is the rich man, naturally, as he has two houses. Well, until Pilon (the smartest of the bunch) and Pablo (not so much) accidentally burn down one. This saves Danny the trouble of charging rent, which is never, ever, paid.

There are a host of crazy characters in this book. Pilon is the philosopher. Danny the ringleader. The Pirate as the one productive (and mentally challenged) member of the group. Jesus Maria and Pablo as sidekicks. Big Joe as the brawn of the outfit. And the various women and ordinary townspeople who inhabit their world. 

 The Pirate and his dogs. 
Illustration from the 1942 edition
by Ruth Gannett

In the end, like the Round Table, the group disintegrates, and Danny dies under circumstances which show the depression and mental breakdown that Arthur undergoes at the end of his life.

It is hard to know exactly what to make of this book. On the one hand, like Cannery Row, which is a more focused book (in my opinion), it is full of interesting and amusing incidents. On the other, it indulges in some kind of unfortunate stereotyping of Mexican-Americans. The group lives to get drunk and sit around shooting the bull. They steal anything not bolted down. The women seem to get pregnant by multiple men, and be sexually loose at most times.

So, it’s complicated. That’s one reason that I find Cannery Row to be the better book. It lacks the racial issues, and seems to have a more coherent story arc. However, even in this early effort, Steinbeck shows his skill at writing. Whether or not you like the stories he tells (and I know people who hate Steinbeck), it is hard to ignore just how skilled he is at telling them. Every book I read of his, I marvel at how compact yet evocative his descriptions are, how he can take a single sentence and make a world of it, and how he never feels wordy or long winded. It is a totally different style from other favorite authors: very American, very modern, and more terse. But it is great writing indeed.

Just a few lines that are worth mentioning. The paisanos are talking about Cornelia, who is a bit wild, but always has masses sung for her father - who appears to have been even wilder. Pablo questions whether these masses are effective.

“That soul will need plenty of masses. But do you think a mass has virtue when the money for that mass comes out of men’s pockets while they sleep in wine at Cornelia’s house?”

“A mass is a mass,” said Pilon. “Where you get two-bits is of no interest to the man who sells you a glass of wine. And where a mass comes from is of no interest to God. He just likes them, the same as you like wine.”

I’m not convinced Pilon is right about the second part, although he certainly is about the first. And I think he is right that the purveyors of the Religious-Industrial Complex don’t give a rat’s rear end about where they get their political power or money from as well. As the last election has proven.

Steinbeck was not a fan of religion. (And honestly, although I remain a committed Christian - a follower of Christ - I am not either these days. Here in America, it has become a strong force for evil, sad to say.) Here is another perceptive and sharp-edged barb.

It must be admitted with sadness that Pilon had neither the stupidity, the self-righteousness, nor the greediness for reward ever to become a saint.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire many of the saints. The writers of the New Testament. Saint Francis of Assisi, many of the women. But particularly for our modern “saints,” it does seem to require greed, self-righteousness, and willful ignorance. I’m not as cynical as Steinbeck, but damn it’s hard not to be right now. (I’m thinking of how everyone I know who defends breaking up immigrant families and criminalizing those who come here fleeing violence and poverty - and there are more than I expected - claims the name of Christ. Mostly Evangelicals, but a Catholic here and there too. And every last one of them white... it’s been a hard month.)

I should also mention the hilarious treasure hunting chapter. Like the hunt for the grail, it ends with disappointment, but in a humorous way.

Anyway, I still think this isn’t Steinbeck’s best book, but it is still a worthy read. I admire his idea: King Arthur set among the marginalized. Already, he shows a knack for characterization and vignette which would truly flower in his later works.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Library by Stuart Kells


Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Plenty of the books I have read over the years have been impulse reads. The library (sinister institution that it is) has a new books display as you walk in, and books (sirens that they are) call to me. I pick them up, and I end up reading stuff that was not on my list. Oh well. Such is the life of a bibliophile.

This book was one step removed from that. My eldest daughter saw it on the new books shelf, checked it out, and read it. And told me I should read it. And seriously, who can say no to that?

The Library isn’t a history of libraries, exactly. It is more like a series of interesting stories about Western libraries since the great library of Alexandria. It is a book about book collectors. It tells of how famous libraries came to be, from Roman times, to our own times. It has its tragedies: books destroyed by fire, flood, mold, insects, and war. It has humor and skullduggery. It has book thieves along with collectors (often the same person.) It has copyists, artists, printers, and more. It has mentions of Terry Pratchett and Umberto Eco. And Doctor Who.

Stuart Kells is apparently an authority on rare books. His official professions are “author” (of course) and “book-trade historian,” which is as specialized as it sounds. And he loves books. Dearly. His passion and affection shine through on every page. I can certainly sympathize. I have a decent library of my own. (Yes, we have a whole room dedicated to it. My wife found our current house, and when we walked through it intending to make an offer, we both thought “library” when we entered the room, which was - at that time - desecrated with a giant television.) Not that our books actually fit in the library. We have bookshelves elsewhere too. And our kids have books. I haven’t counted or catalogued them, but between all of us, we are certainly north of 2500 volumes - and possibly over 4000. (See below.) This would make ours a rather large library by medieval standards, if fairly small by 19th or 20th Century measures. Like the older tradition, though, ours are mostly used books. We have painstakingly collected them at thrift stores, at library sales, at used book stores, and off Ebay. These days, we mostly limit ourselves to hardbacks, due to limited space. But our library is a lovely thing, and our happy place.

Trying to summarize this book is impossible, so let me just hit a few fun highlights.

Our word “library” comes from the Latin “librarii,” the scroll copyists who worked off of the author’s manuscript. So, a collection of scribes gave the name to the place where books were kept. But libraries weren’t just for reading or copying. Originally, they were where books were translated. The Alexandria library made the attempt of translating works from around the known world. One of the major works that resulted was the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which is the bible that Christ would have known.

Since the dawn of the modern era - which brought both the printing press and (eventually) widespread literacy - libraries have grown exponentially. Leibniz (co-inventor of calculus) worried as early as the late 1600s that at the rate books were being written, whole cities would be filled with books. A generation earlier, Thomas Coryat said “methinks we want rather readers for bookes than bookes for readers.” If only he had known. It is kind of ironic that today we do the same thing, whining that nobody reads anymore, which isn’t true. (Especially ironic coming from Baby Boomers, who read less than their children and grandchildren.) Worldwide literacy is at an all-time high. While discernment about sources continues to be an issue, we are in the golden age of books. At least until the next one.

Speaking of interesting quotes, there is a conversation between Henry James and Edith Wharton that is fantastic. There is a chapter devoted to naughtiness of various sorts, particularly erotica, which has existed since humans learned to draw. So has censorship, and keeping the sexy stuff out of the reach of plebeians has long been a priority. Wharton mentioned the kind of novel “that used euphemistically to be called ‘unpleasant.’”

“You know,” Wharton told James, “I was rather disappointed; that book wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.” James replied with a twinkle, “Ah, my dear, the abysses are all so shallow.”

This is why I love Henry James.

Speaking of naughty stuff and censors, there is a mention of a book from the Puritan era which is housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library. I mention it solely because of its marvelous and descriptive name:

A Just and Seasonable Reprehension of Naked Breasts and Shoulders, Written by a Grave and Learned Papist by Jacques Boileau.

You can read it in translation here, if you wish. Clearly Modesty Culture™ is nothing new, and has generally be driven by dirty old men.

Irony abounds in the history of book collecting. In describing the Pierpont Morgan library (which is, to say the least, ostentatious), the author points out that in a prominent place over the fireplace hangs Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s tapestry, The Triumph of Avarice.


The final chapter of the book concerns the future of libraries. The idea of the public library isn’t new. Ancient Rome was full of them, and emperors from Trajan to Augustus supported them. (Even if the books contributed were generally plundered from conquered nations…) The Middle Ages were “dark,” in part because literacy declined precipitously, and libraries were placed under lock and key. The Renaissance revived the idea of the public library, open to those who could read and wished to. During the Victorian Era, Anthony Panizzi, librarian of the British Museum, expressed the goal of public libraries eloquently:

I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry, as the richest man in the Kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that Government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect.

Sadly, this goal has become unpopular in our day. Libraries, after all, cost money, and don’t yield obvious economic rewards. Government services in general are under attack by a Right Wing increasingly opposed to the very concept of the Common Good.

Here in Kern County, we have had ongoing attempts over the last few years to privatize the library system. (Fortunately, a neighboring system to the south already tried it, and just went back to a public system. This failure has helped us turn the tide.) The nadir of this discussion was when our former District Attorney actually said that she thought that every library in the County should be closed before her office lost one cent of budget. This despite the fact that our spending on libraries is far below other California Counties - and we haven’t opened a new library in decades despite doubling in population. (We depend on oil and agriculture for our tax base - when gas is cheap, our budgets suffer…) This shortsighted viewpoint is what those of us who love our libraries are up against. Rather than being seen as a vital public service - the sign of a healthy society - libraries are viewed as an expendable drain on the budget. It isn’t just here in the United States either. As the author points out about his native Great Britain:

Today Britain’s public libraries are caught in a downward spiral of reduced funding and the de-professionalization of library services.

This is the heart of the privatization debate. For-profit companies promise to lower costs. How does one do that? Buildings and utilities cost the same for everyone. So, buy fewer books? Reduce hours and close branches? Or, what is usually the plan: fire the professional librarians and hire glorified store clerks to do the work. That’s what de-professionalization means in practice. The library ceases to become a learned place, and becomes a glorified WalMart. Fortunately, our community has fought back, and our libraries remain public.

This is a fascinating book for those who love books. And if you don’t love books, then, you probably aren’t reading a book anyway…

***

How many books DO we have? I did a rough estimate by measuring “shelf-feet,” then multiplying by the average number of books per shelf-foot. By the way, when I say “shelf-feet,” I do not mean that we have that much in shelving. We don’t. We have stuff double rowed on shelves, stuff in boxes, and stuff waiting to be read on tables and nightstands.

By my count, we have roughly 360 shelf feet of books. I counted a few shelves containing different sizes of books, and think that 12 books per foot is a reasonable average. That would give us around 4300 books. If we go with larger average size - 10 to a foot - you end up with 3600. Which is still a lot. Hi, my name is Tim, and I’m a bookaholic…

 This is about 72 shelf feet of books - my prettiest ones. I built the shelves, and 99% of the books are used book finds.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare (Theatricum Botanicum)


By my count, I have seen 27 of Shakespeare’s plays live. That leaves me 11 to go. It will probably be more difficult to see those, as I am getting into the back catalogue. (Also not helpful is that the Utah Shakespeare Festival is doing the Henry VI plays this year and next, and, while my wife will be able to go, it’s not really feasible for the kids and myself to do so - it will probably be a while before they return to them. Possibly decades. Oh well.) Still, I have managed to add a few more obscure ones over the last few years. I also plan to see the plays I have seen again - the kids have only seen some, and will appreciate them differently as they get older as well. Shakespeare has something new to say each time - he never gets old.

Coriolanus is one of those rarely-performed plays. Every year, we check to see what the local colleges and small theaters are doing. But we also keep our eyes on a few others in Southern California. One of those is Theatricum Botanicum. This quirky outdoor theater has a habit of performing lesser-known works, along with their continually-running version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A few years back, that included All’s Well That Ends Well, and Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid. When I saw that Theatricum was doing Coriolanus, I knew we had to go see it.

Coriolanus is not a particularly well known play. Many are at least familiar with the name, however, because of Beethoven’s fantastic overture. (See below.) Coriolanus was written right after the great tragedies, and it does suffer a bit in comparison. The characters are less fully realized, the protagonist is unlikeable, and the theme fell a bit flat at the time. It is not Shakespeare’s finest play - but it still has a lot to offer.

First, what is this play about? Like Julius Caesar, the story is drawn from Plutarch’s Lives. As with the other, Coriolanus quotes Plutarch (as translated by Sir Thomas North) nearly verbatim in places - North’s language was plenty poetic. However, unlike Caesar, there was probably no real life Coriolanus, at least as described by Plutarch. By that time, Coriolanus was more of a legend in the vein of, say, Robin Hood. He served Plutarch’s purpose by serving as a counter-example to the Greek Alcibiades.

In the story, Coriolanus (real name: Caius Marcius) is a war hero of Rome back in the early days. Rome was a mere city-state at the time, in perpetual war with its immediate neighbors. The previous monarchy had been recently abolished, and Rome was ruled by the Consuls, joint rulers appointed by the Patrician aristocracy. Marcius wins a famous victory (despite questionable judgment), and is expected to be one of the next Consuls as a result. But he has to win the approval of the commoners - the Plebeians.

Therein lies the problem. Marcius (now dubbed “Coriolanus” - the site of his victory), hates the rabble, and thinks he shouldn’t have to kiss up to them. After all, he deserves what he gets - he has bled for Rome. Things do not go well. Although he gets the vote, his condescension sours many on him, and the newly appointed Tribunes (representatives of the Plebeians) stir up the people against him. A cool-headed Patrician, Menenius, is able to prevent a lynching, but with a promise that Coriolanus will appear in person for a proper trial on the charges of treason (for his threat to strip the Plebeians of their liberty.) Coriolanus is spared the death penalty, but is banished. He sulks off, eventually joining forces with Rome’s biggest rival, and leads an army to sack Rome.

He is persuaded to come to terms of peace by his mother, but is then killed by his rival.

That’s your basic plot. However, as is typical for Shakespeare, the real action is in the psychology.

Coriolanus, like many a tragic “hero,” is undone by his fatal flaw of pride and arrogance. (Hubris, to use the Greek term.) It isn’t difficult to see how Coriolanus became the way he is, though. His mother, Volumnia, is the dominating figure of the play. She has raised Coriolanus to be a war machine, eager for glory in battle, and full of pride. He is, so to speak, the perfect Spartan - which is not a compliment. Early in the play, an exchange involving Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia is telling. Little Marcius Junior has been seen tormenting (and eventually tearing apart with his teeth) butterflies. And Grandma says he is just like his dad. Isn’t that nice?

Because of this upbringing, Coriolanus cannot find empathy in himself. He obsesses over his honor, and his rights, and cannot see other perspectives. This is particularly obvious in his approach to the common people.

At this point, a little background is also helpful. (Special thanks to Isaac Asimov’s delightful book on Shakespeare for the information.)

The Plebeians weren’t just the underclass. At the time of the founding of the Roman republic, they were made up of the peoples that the city-state of Rome had conquered. The “true” Romans were the Patricians, and the others were the Plebeians - the ones who did the dirty work of growing the food, serving as foot soldiers, and other lower-status jobs. The Patricians literally depended on the Plebeians for survival, while resenting them as “inferior” foreigners. The Plebeians weren’t too thrilled about the state of things either. Under the monarchy, they enjoyed some degree of protection. Not so much in the early Republic, when the Patricians reserved for themselves virtually all of the economic and political rights. The Plebeians were expected to render military service without compensation for the damage caused by war or absence to their farms. If they couldn’t pay debts, they ended up as slaves.

This was not, shall we say, sustainable. The Plebeians rose up and demanded representation. Which they got, in the form of the Tribunes. This wasn’t true political equality, but it was a start, and the Roman Republic survived (as have many modern democracies) by granting political rights to a greater proportion of the people.

Coriolanus is not a fan of these reforms, to say the least. He complains (and is overheard) that by granting the Plebeians rights when they demand them, they have made a mistake. Better, in Coriolanus’ view, to have used force and violence to beat them into proper submission.

Shakespeare’s handling of this idea is fascinating. Coriolanus is believed to have been performed, not at the Globe, but at Blackfriars, which was a smaller theater. Crucially, ticket prices were high at Blackfriars, so the audience was exclusively aristocratic - no commoners to contend with. This was also around 1609 or so, when King James I was on the throne. Students of history will recall that James was a big proponent of the Divine Right of Kings.

So, Shakespeare writes a play to be heard by the nobility at a time when monarchical power was on the rise. And he writes...this. Sure, there are some mean jabs at the riff raff. But overall, the theme is a rather pointed jab at aristocratic arrogance and violent suppression of dissent. Shakespeare had some huevos.

In addition to his arrogance, Coriolanus suffers from a lack of self control, and a lack of an inner life of the mind. He reacts rather than think. He cannot control his mouth. He cannot see other perspectives at all. This makes him vulnerable to manipulation by his rival and enemy counterpart, Tullus. He is also manipulated by his mother. And also by the Tribunes, who know just how to push his buttons.

As I noted, this isn’t Shakespeare’s finest tragedy. But it actually has aged pretty well. (In many ways, better than The Merchant of Venice.) In fact, I think it resonates better in our time than in Shakespeare’s. While by his day, England was at least a fledgeling constitutional monarchy, it was far from the democratic nation it would later become. Or even the limited monarchy with significant freedoms it would become 80 years later after the Glorious Revolution. Shakespeare was looking ahead in many ways, as well as backwards to an earlier experiment in democratic government.

There are a few facets here that also seem particularly applicable to today. I think the recognition that the Patrician/Plebeian dispute was in part racially driven is interesting. In our own times, there is a common and egregious error made when speaking of our own political divisions: Trump voters are not the lower income classes. Rather, they are - statistically - above average in income, and, most importantly, overwhelmingly white. They are the Patricians of our nation, used to having  particular status and dominance, which they saw threatened by a black president and erosion of their privilege. And the Trump sorts are similar to Coriolanus, raging that they are not given the respect and status they believe they deserve by right of birth. Trump is no military hero. (He has succeeded at the American version though: he is rich. We worship money rather than glory.) However, like Coriolanus, he scoffs at protesters, and calls for violence to teach them gratitude. Rather than listen to the voices of the true Plebeians, they call to burn the political and social institutions to the ground in revenge. It’s something to think about.

Also thought provoking is a line near the very beginning of the play. The “First Citizen” is leading the rabble in a demand for the Patricians to share their grain hoards with the Plebeians. He seeks confirmation that they are united in their purpose:

You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?

This gets to the heart of it. Death by violence sucks. Death by starvation or privation is, if anything, worse. Particularly if you are watching your children die. Coriolanus fails to understand this. He figures he can just increase brutality until he gets submission. But humans will fight for their lives, and for the lives of their children. And the degree of brutality and hate necessary to keep them down will only increase, eventually to the breaking point. Our own Right Wing would do well to remember this, and seek rather the path of reconciliation.

I do want to mention a few lines. Coriolanus isn’t full of zingers like the best known plays. But it has some good lines. Unsurprisingly, in a tragedy, often the lines that stand out the most are the humorous ones. Unlike Richard II, which has zero comic relief, Coriolanus does have some moments of mirth.

One came fairly early in the play. Coriolanus’ mother and wife are talking about his imminent departure for the war. Mom is ecstatic: he will win more glory! Wife, not so much, as she is worried he might get himself killed. So, she decides not to leave the house until he returns safely. Mom retorts:

You would be another Penelope; yet, they say, all the yarn
She spun in Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths.

My wife is a knitter (and a really good one.) I did give her a snarky glance at this line, though.

The second great humorous moment is at the opening of Act II, Scene III. The Tribunes have just finished their plot to stir up the crowd against Coriolanus. Three random citizens (Citizens One, Two, and Three) are joking about upcoming speech by Coriolanus as he tries to win their support.

First Citizen
Once, if he do require our voices, we ought not to deny him.

Second Citizen
We may, sir, if we will.

Third Citizen
We have power in ourselves to do it, but it is a
power that we have no power to do; for if he show us
his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our
tongues into those wounds and speak for them; so, if
he tell us his noble deeds, we must also tell him
our noble acceptance of them. Ingratitude is
monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful,
were to make a monster of the multitude: of the
which we being members, should bring ourselves to be
monstrous members.

First Citizen
And to make us no better thought of, a little help
will serve; for once we stood up about the corn, he
himself stuck not to call us the many-headed multitude.

Third Citizen
We have been called so of many; not that our heads
are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald,
but that our wits are so diversely coloured: and
truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of
one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south,
and their consent of one direct way should be at
once to all the points o' the compass.

Second Citizen
Think you so? Which way do you judge my wit would
Fly?

Third Citizen
Nay, your wit will not so soon out as another man's
Will; 'tis strongly wedged up in a block-head, but
if it were at liberty, 'twould, sure, southward.

I certainly snorted at this one. But take a second look. Shakespeare’s “fools” are never as foolish as they might seem. These commoners are far more self aware than Coriolanus. They actually speak pretty knowledgeably about the interaction of sentiment and duty, of custom and its breaches. They know that if Coriolanus plays his part: talks of his sacrifices for Rome, shows his scars, and asks nicely for support, they would be breaching etiquette to refuse. They also are keenly aware of his condescending attitude, though, and consider alternatives. Again, unlike Coriolanus, they are also aware of the weakness: they don’t coordinate and act together all that well.

Plus, as is well proven by research, puns are associated with intelligence - and this trio comes up with three good ones. (Or bad ones, take your pick…) Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer in the English language (or any language perhaps) in history, was a fantastic punner, and given his love for puns, placing them in the mouths of the commoners was a sign of his respect. And that “blockhead” one. Dang, that’s good.

It is worth mentioning a bit about the production. Theatricum is a mostly professional group, with at least half of the actors in any production members of the Actors’ Equity Association. However, their stuff always feels a bit quirky, rather than slick and mainstream. (Particularly intriguing was their version of All’s Well That Ends Well where they cast African Americans as the aristocrats, and whites as the servants. Since the play is about a cross-class romance and “bed-trick,” this made for some uncomfortable and thus perceptive frisson.)

This production was no exception. The theater is outdoors, and makes use of the topography of the canyon. In this case, various members of the large cast ended up on the roofs of the buildings - including the sound booth - and occupied the space all around the audience. It did make one feel in the middle of the battles, and also part of the Plebeian multitude.

As usual, the cast was excellent; professional, emotive, loud enough for the venue, and invested in the characters.

I specifically want to give props to certain characters. David De Santos was outstanding in the title role. His was not a sympathetic character, but he inhabited it in a highly believable way. His was no caricature, but a real - if flawed - human. I loved his rage and pride. I think the term “brutally handsome” applies here as well. 

 David De Santos as Coriolanus
(Publicity photos by Ian Flanders)

Opposite De Santos, as the leader of the rival tribe, was Max Lawrence, a regular at Theatricum, who showed real chemistry with De Santos. The two of them are mortal enemies, frenemies, and worthy foes in the militaristic tradition. It was easy to see both as the sorts that would inspire their troops on the battlefield.


Max Lawrence (center) as Tullus Aufidius

Ellen Geer played Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. And she owned the part and the stage whenever she was on it. Between the creepy Oedipal stuff and the malicious edge, she made sure the audience knew she was the fulcrum on which the play turned. 

 Ellen Geer as Volumnia and Michelle Wicklas as Virgilia

The two Tribunes, played by Tim Halligan and Alan Blumenfeld, were also perfectly cast. As petty demagogues, playing at populism while failing to anticipate its risks, they had the proper snide and unctious vibe. I felt like I knew them: you find their sort in every HOA or small town city council. (Blumenfeld was phenomenal last year as Shylock - I could watch him in any part.) 

 Tim Hallihan (left) as Junius Brutus and Alan Blumenfeld (center) as Sicinius Velutus

One final actor deserves special credit. Melora Marshall played the moderate politician Menenius. She has been in every Theatricum production we have seen, playing a rather astonishing variety of parts. In this one, the part has been switched to a female part. However, in past productions, she has played a male part with such veracity that my kids were fooled. In another, she filled in as an understudy, and I couldn’t imagine a better job. Seriously, I would pay to see her in anything. Humorous or serious, small part or large, male or female. She is simply a good actor who can command the stage in any role. 

 Melora Marshall (center) as Menenius

Coriolanus runs the rest of the summer, and I highly recommend seeing it if you get a chance.

***

For those who care, Shakespeare plays I have seen live at least once:


Still to go:

Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, Henry VIII, King John, Measure for Measure (I’ve at least read this one…), Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, and Troilus and Cressida.  

***

Beethoven for the win. This was actually written for Heinrich Joseph von Collin's version of the story, not Shakespeare's. But few if any care about Collin's version. The harmonic language in Beethoven's version is fascinating - particularly in the middle section, which departs from the root key in a long digression which is only brought back to the center by creative and unexpected paths. Enjoy. 




***

Also, Cole Porter gives a mention to this play…

Monday, July 2, 2018

Wisdom Versus Theonomy: An Example From My Experience


I have written over the last couple of years several posts on the topics of the Culture Wars™ and the interpretation of scripture. You can even go back to a post I consider one of my best: What I Mean By “Fundamentalism.” From Domestic Violence to human sexuality, I believe there is a foundational problem at the heart: American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists (increasingly indistinguishable) have a toxic and harmful approach to the bible.

Theonomy. Which in essence is treating the bible like an infallible rule book - a Torah for our times.

With the theonomic approach, the bible is weaponized - used to harm people. It is wielded primarily against modern ideas and discoveries, whether in science or in human rights. And it is wielded consistently against certain types of people: the most vulnerable. It is used to keep women and minorities “in their place.” It is used by powerful (usually white) men to exert control. It is used to keep cultural change of all kinds, but particularly the egalitarian view of human rights, at bay. (I’d love to write a whole post about this.) Not only does the theonomic approach result in this sort of weaponization, the more committed a group or denomination is to theonomy, the more retrograde and abusive it will be. (See, for example, the cultic groups my wife and I were raised in.)

In contrast, I believe that the bible is a deeply human book, rooted in the times in which its books were written, expressing multiple (and conflicting) viewpoints, messy and beautiful at the same time, and absolutely terrible as a rule book. Peter Enns (who deserves tremendous credit for essentially “saving” the bible for me) suggests an alternative: The bible is a book of wisdom.

In this post, I want to explore an example of the difference between treating the bible as a rulebook, and treating it as a book of wisdom.

Let’s talk about Titus 2 and gender roles.

***

One of my least favorite “proof texts” is the following (KJV, because that is the one that is preferred by most Theonomists):

But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine:
That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience.
The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things;
That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,
To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

Much, much hay has been made of “keepers at home,” and what it means. You have whole organizations centered on being “Titus 2 Women,” and a movement (in which my wife and I spent time in our teens) focused on keeping women out of the workforce and in the home as full time wives and mothers. (More about this later.)

The reason for this, in my opinion, is a misuse of scripture - an approach which is guaranteed to result in imposing the culture of the past on people in the present.

***

The Theonomic Approach

Here is how the Theonomist looks at the question:

In the nearly 70 years since the 1950s, there has been a significant shift in culture. Previously (in their view), women - at least white, middle class women - did not work outside the home. Rather, the husband was the sole breadwinner, and the wife devoted herself to domestic duties: childcare, housework, entertaining, and so on.

A variety of things led to a change. Feminism insisted that men and women were equal, and that women were thus entitled to political, social, and economic equality. It was thus unjust to relegate women to unpaid (and often undesirable) domestic duties, making them dependent on males for their very survival.

Economic changes returned our society to how it has been for most of human existence: both spouses need to work in order to provide sufficient income in most cases. Only the select men with above-average income plus benefits can afford to have a wife out of the workforce. (This has, of course, been the state of affairs for low income women throughout history. And particularly for non-white women in the United States.)

In any case, the Theonomist sees change, and decides to look at the bible to arbitrate between the past and the present.

The Theonomist then examines the bible looking for a rule. What is God’s will for women? Is it to work outside the home or not? VOILA! Titus 2 and a wonderful catchphrase: “Keepers at Home.” This has the wonderful advantage of requiring no historical context, and can be wielded as a weapon against modernity and cultural change. As a bonus, it reinforces their view of middle class (and white) people as more godly.  It’s perfect!

Problems with the Theonomic approach

Right at the outset, a problem appears: the rule only “works” for a very limited class of people. Namely, those with enough money to survive on one income.

The Theonomist cares not. Reality, and whether something “works” is irrelevant. We obey God rather than culture, and if the bible says it, then it is truth, reality be damned.

Therefore, those who follow the “rule” - families who live on one income while the wife stays home full time - are now “godly” or living the “biblical” lifestyle. And those who don’t are “evil” and “godless” and “giving in to culture.”

How big of a problem is this? Well, it pretty much excludes low income people from “godliness.” It also excludes, for example, African American slaves, who had no choice to even set up households, let alone one where the man earns the bread and the woman stays at home. (I believe this is a feature, not a bug, by the way. One of the reasons why “traditional” gender roles are popular is that they make wealthier whites the “godly” people, while relegating the poor, and brown-skinned people to a subhuman, “ungodly” status.)

This also defines “godliness” as something that is unavailable to most people worldwide - a non-working wife is a luxury that most people around the world do not have, and most people in history have not had. It has historically been available only to the rich and privileged. Thus, the great colonial powers get to feel more “godly” than everyone else.

In a nutshell, the Theonomic approach fails the test of universality. It can only be considered normative if you equate wealth and privilege with “godliness.” 

 This is a significant part of what the Culture Wars(TM) are about...

The Wisdom Approach

Here is how I believe the Book of Wisdom approach would look at Titus 2. First, you have to read the entire book. (It’s short - it will take you only a few minutes.) The author (whether you believe it was St. Paul or not) is addressing a specific problem, in a specific place, at a specific time in history. If you don’t take that into account, you miss the point.

Clearly, the Cretans were behaving badly. Getting into pointless arguments, forcing purity rules on others, getting drunk, and making a bad name for themselves among the non-Christians of their society. Hmm, that actually sounds pretty relevant today. But not the way Theonomists think.

The author therefore has some instructions about how to fix the problem. Focus on good doctrine, stop arguing about rules, but focus on living upright and kind lives. Do good things, stop quarreling and - I think this is the most important part: behave in a way that gives Christians a good, rather than bad, reputation.

All those admonitions as to how to behave are connected to that central idea. Don’t get a reputation for having out-of-control, drunken, disruptive members. Don’t get a reputation for quarreling with the authorities and your neighbors. (Wow, modern Evangelicals don’t believe that one anymore. At all.) Young women should not stand out for the wrong reasons, but should be doing good works within the cultural framework they are in.

Now, just a word here: “keepers at home” is a terrible translation, and like most terrible translations, politically motivated. Better ones I have seen are more along the lines of “managing their own households” - something implying not a withdrawal from earning income, but one of minding their own business and finding productive work.

I am reminded of II Thessalonians 3:11-12, where busybodies are urged to mind their own business...and get a job. I think the two passages relate to each other - there is the common theme of staying out of other people’s business, not being disruptive, and finding whatever good work is available in your situation and doing it.

So, Theonomic Approach: Q. “Should women work outside the home?” A. [usually] “No.”

Wisdom Approach: Q. “What wisdom about how we should live in our culture can we find in this passage?” A. “Don’t cause trouble, quarrel, force rules on others, fight with your neighbors, and bring disrepute to Christ. Instead, find good things to do and do them.”

Huge difference.

***

How this might apply to our own times

I have thought about this quite a bit, because of how my wife and I have experienced this. You can read a bit about Amanda’s miserable experience in Jonathan Lindvall’s cultic home group if you like. Unfortunately, that was not the end of her difficulties regarding her career. Certain extended family has never been okay with her decision to work outside the home, and she has taken a lot of disdain and shaming for doing so. Never mind that the two of us determined that splitting the breadwinning and household/childcare duties was better for us and our family - God clearly said that women were to be “keepers at home,” and anything less than that was sinning. The bible was weaponized against us.

I believe this was totally a unnecessary conclusion to draw from scripture - but it is the most likely result from the Theonomic approach. Alas, this wasn’t just an academic theological argument. It involved our real lives, and the unnecessary tension caused by it irreparably damaged relationships.

So I want to look at this in light of our own culture and times. Rather than looking to Titus 2 for a weapon to use against Feminism and women who work outside the home, what if we instead looked at the bigger, wisdom-based picture?

Let me say at the outset that I am NOT saying that there is anything wrong with stay-at-home moms. We all make choices for our families based on our individual circumstances, and I have no interest in getting all judgy about your particular choices. I assume that you made them for good reasons personal to you. (My one pushback here is that I wish stay-at-home moms were more honest about the fact that this option is only available to them because of their privilege.)

But.

I think one of the more poisonous things about Evangelical/Fundamentalist subculture is an idol-worship of stay-at-home moms - and by implication, idol-worship of men with wealth. A woman’s “godliness” - indeed her worth - is dependent upon her husband’s income. It ties one’s spiritual status to one’s ability (and willingness in some cases) to comply with 1950s white middle-class cultural preferences. This is, I believe, wrong. And also, I believe it violates the spirit of Titus 2.

After years of having stay-at-home moms look down their noses at Amanda for having a career, say snarky and passive-aggressive things to her whenever her job comes up, and living with damaged family relationships because of this issue - I have the following to say:

Many (not all) stay-at-home moms would be better following the wisdom of Titus 2 if they were to stop meddling in other people’s families, get off their butts, and go get a job. Then they wouldn’t have time to bother people who do things differently.

I firmly believe that, if the author of Titus were to walk into our modern Evangelical subculture, that would be the advice. Stop quarrelling with those outside your subculture, stop this Culture War™ nonsense, stop fighting about purity rules and gender roles and otherwise disgracing our faith. Instead, go get a job. Find something useful and good to do that will take all that extra time off your hands. Something that will cause those outside your tribe to see your good works and praise God.

That is how the Wisdom Approach might look at Titus.

***

This is just one example, from a limited area. However, I can think of a number of other areas in which the Theonomic Approach is leading to terrible and cruel results. I already mentioned the question of divorce. Rather than trying to compile comprehensive rules about when one can and cannot divorce, the wisdom approach would take into account our modern realization that women aren’t congenitally inferior, and are not the chattel of men. Then we can discuss how to protect the abused, not send them back for more abuse.

Instead of trying to squeeze a literalist interpretation of Genesis into our public schools, perhaps we might embrace the insights of science as part of God’s wisdom - and take seriously the spiritual truths from the creation story instead. Rather than spending endless time and effort trying to decide exactly what we can and cannot do with our genitals, we might acknowledge the role of misogyny in sexual taboos, and look for wisdom for how to use our bodies in loving, not violent or hurtful ways. Instead of arguing about exactly what women should be “permitted” by men to do in the church, family, and society, we might each of us focus on how we can use our gifts for the benefit of all - and encourage others to do so. Instead of picking fights with our neighbors about why we can’t serve them, or which holidays matter most, maybe we could spend our time in loving our neighbors and bringing honor to our faith through our good deeds.

***

Oh, and one more since I wrote most of this: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions weaponizing Romans 13 to justify separating children from their families, criminalizing those who seek asylum in our country, and forcing them to choose between losing their children, and withdrawing their request for refuge.

Hey, notice that it isn’t the wealthy whites this is directed against? Of course not. The Theonomists always weaponize scripture against the vulnerable. That’s the whole point. To quote The Bard:

But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil;
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of Holy Writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

(Richard III - as he commissions a pair of murders to slaughter children…)