Sunday, September 25, 2016

First lines: August edition

Here are the first lines of some of the books I read during August (yes, I know it's the end of September - I'm just trying to get caught up).  

With the library “Bookshelf Bingo” program to spur me on, I read ten books, which makes it sound like I was lolling around doing nothing but reading.  Looking back, it’s clear that some of this material was pretty bleak, but thankfully three of them were children’s books.

Book #1 (for the bingo square “Novel with a two word title that doesn’t begin with “The”, “An”, or “A”)
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, shipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. 

Book #2 (“A best novel of  the 20th century, chosen by Modern Library”)
All this happened, more or less.  The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.  One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.  Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war.  And so on.  I’ve changed all the names.

Book #3
Zoe Chambers eased the Monongahela County EMS ambulance to a stop next to a heap of dirty snow.

Book #4
Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.

Book #5
After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?”  The Lord said, ‘Judah shall go up.  I hereby give the land into his hand.”

Book #6
In a smallish London suburb where nothing much ever happened, my family gradually became the talk of the town.  Throughout my teens, wherever I went, I would always hear the same question, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

* * * * * * * *

Here are the titles and authors.

Book #1
Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.  We read this for book club.  I love this book!  Steinbeck gets it just right – presenting his characters with humor, but without mocking them.  And there are frogs!  My husband is big on the book club snacks pertaining to the book.  We wanted to get chocolate frogs, but they were too expensive.  But since we had book club on my birthday, we had birthday cake.  It was a perfectly lovely way to spend my birthday.

Book #2
Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The children's Crusade : A Duty-dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut.  Difficult topic.  Great writing.  The story is not told sequentially, which normally drives me nuts, but it works in this case, and seems appropriate.  It is good I did not read this earlier in life, because it would have disturbed me so much that it would have prevented the main points from getting through.  It was a struggle to read this right after Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, because of the frequency, arbitrariness, and distressing occurrences of death.  And so it goes. 

Book #3
Circle of Influence by Annette Dashofy. This is a murder mystery that takes place in Pennsylvania.  It was a bit too nerve-wracking for me (other people might call it a good page-turner), but I liked the main character.

Book #4
Coraline, by Neil Gaiman
For a children’s book, this one was awfully creepy.  Excellent writing.  This was recommended by Younger Daughter.

Book #5
Judges (The Bible).  This book contains several gruesome stories which should not be read by children.  Kids, go read Coraline for a good scare.  The main point of Judges seems to be that the people just can’t resist doing evil.  And evil, nasty things happen.   

When I was a child I was fascinated with the story of Samson, which I read in a sanitized version in a picture storybook.  That version left out the part where Samson visits a prostitute.  Samson is kind of like The Incredible Hulk of Bible times, crashing around, tearing down buildings and slaying thousands with the jawbone of an ass.  The biblical text passes no judgment on him for any of that stuff, but, boy, does he get in trouble for hanging around with Delilah.

Book #6
Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math, by Daniel Tammet.
“Like works of literature, mathematical ideas help expand our circle of empathy, liberating us from the tyranny of a single, parochial point of view. Numbers, properly considered, make us better people.”  I found this book fascinating, since it sits at the junction of philosophy and math.  Includes one of my favorite math concepts, Riemann sums, as applied to history.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Open House observations

Last night we attended our last high school Open House.  This is the event where the parents wander helplessly through their kid’s schedule, attending class for 12 minutes each.  We saw awesome classrooms and teachers.

This awesome classroom is not at our high school, but at one of
our local universities.

Quote on the wall (pick from more than 35 quotes!): 

            A crocodile cannot stick his tongue out.

This was the only one I could read without putting on my distance glasses.  This classroom also had a clock which had the names of Shakespeare plays substituted for the numbers.  It’s always time for Shakespeare! There were lots of posters on the wall referring to Irish writers.

Organic Chemistry
Poster on the wall, featuring a drawing of an otter:

            Do as you otter: wear safety goggles.

There is a plastic fruit hanging from the projector above us.  Younger Daughter tells me that is the “Lone Pear.”  There is a gigantic slide rule hanging in the back of the classroom, just to remind us how far we have come, I guess.

There are a lot of posters of the brain in this classroom, because it is also used by the psychology teacher.  At the front of the room, attached to the wall, there is a collection of sock monkeys.  A box of Mini-Wheats cereal is affixed somehow to the chalkboard.  Younger Daughter tells me the teacher often uses snacks to make points about economics.  What is your Marginal Oreo Utility?  If you have already eaten ten Oreos, how much would you pay for the eleventh Oreo?  When I took economics it was all about widgets, and there were no Oreos in sight.  Once again, the upcoming generation wins over my generation.

There is a nice collection of old license plates adorning the walls.  No quotes, but a few posters showing how physics and sports are related.  The teacher has a square meter built out of four meter-sticks bound together with duct tape.

Creative Writing: Poetry
There is a poster at the front of the class with this written on it:

            Sorry for your luck! 
Any questions? 
- Mr. [Teacher]

Also there are a number of posters of The Boss around the room.  Being taught poetry by a no-nonsense Springsteen fan is going to be good for my kid. 

AP Biology
We missed class, but ducked in just as the presentation was ending.  There was a huge number of posters of animals all over the classroom.

Physical Education
My husband attended this class while I went in search of the bathroom.  The kids are going to learn golf, badminton, and boating and water safety.  (The previous sentence was brought to you by the Oxford comma.)

This room was positively overtaken by cartoon characters all drawn on graph paper.  That’s good, because the color scheme of the room was that certain shade of puke green that many of our high school’s classrooms seem to feature.   The only quote I saw was this one from Yoda:

            Do or do not.  There is no try.

I'm not sure I agree with Yoda.  It might be a good quote for math class, but not so much for high school in general.  By that time, though, it was far too late in the evening to have a philosophical dispute.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Jesus in the City

Last Saturday I spent the morning wandering around the city, while Younger Daughter was at a science workshop.
The workshop took place on the campus of a Catholic high school.  In back of the beautiful and rather Hogwartish main building, there is a statue of Jesus.

Jesus, football field, and construction cranes.
You can tell it is him because of that special hairdo and bathrobey garment.  In good Catholic fashion, Jesus has a sacred heart. This sacred heart imagery is a bit alarming to Presbyterians, who don’t often wear their hearts on their sleeves.  Everything decently and in good order, folks.  But this Jesus wears his heart on the outside, exposed to everything. 

And yet, isn't that where it should be?  On his chest, right in the center. Out there to directly see and absorb the sadness and joy, heartache and exuberance, pain and contentment of us all.

This Jesus statue has his hands raised.  This would traditionally be a gesture of peace and good will.  This troubled world needs some peace and good will, and soon. 

That heart!  Out there!
Thanks be to God for that.
But these days, I think Jesus might be saying with those raised hands, “Would you all just calm down and listen?! Sit down, everybody, and see if you could start actually listening to each other.  You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.  When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves.”   
Crappy photo of the Holy Spirit Byzantine
 Catholic Church, taken with my phone
I walked around town a bit more, and saw another image of Jesus.  This is the Holy Spirit Byzantine Catholic Church.  

A better image I stole from the internet
There’s an awful lot going on in these images.  Lots of shiny gold, planets, water, trees, mountains, a lot of dudes (in those bathrobes, again) – 12 prophets and 12 disciples – a huge amount of birds, and no women.  I didn’t spend any time contemplating this Jesus.  (I didn’t notice until now the depiction of God the Father actually as an old guy with a beard in a blue robe!  That’s just so 16th Century!) 

I guess I’m glad this Jesus is in the city, too, because it’s the Jesus of the shiny, beautiful world that could be (although for Chrissakes could we add some women, please?).  There is peace and order here, perhaps some exhortation and pointed discussion, and joyful bright colors and sunbeams.  A new heaven and a new earth.  This Jesus could be saying, “Soon I will wipe every tear from your eyes. There will be no more death —tears gone, crying gone, pain gone. I’m making everything new.”

My encounters with Jesus prompted me to pray for peace, whatever that means.  You may say that puts my heart in the right place. But I ask myself, what I have done lately for peace, other than pray for it?  Yes, I’ve donated some money to various groups that I hope and pray will be effective at bringing some peace and justice where there is none.   Yes I will vote in the election.  Yes, I try to be pleasant to my elderly relatives. I feel otherwise helpless to do anything, being rather removed from the middle of the fray.

(Note: my musings on what Jesus might be saying include passages from The Message, Matthew 5 and Revelation 21.)

( Also, please excuse the terrible photos.  It was a poor day for photos and I didn't have my camera, just my phone.)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Let's hope that it's fiction

Last month one of the books I read was Coraline, by Neil Gaiman.  It's a superbly-written book, but shudderingly creepy for a children’s book.

This month I am reading a far scarier book - The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. 

The book starts in June 1940, with Charles Lindbergh, famous airplane pilot and isolationist, running as the Republican candidate in the presidential election against Franklin Roosevelt.  The book is a fascinating mix of actual history and historical fiction. Here is a quote from page 6:

… Lindbergh …. expressed quite openly his high regard for Hitler, calling Germany the world’s “most interesting nation” and its leader “a great man.”  And all this interest and admiration after Hitler’s 1935 racial laws had denied Germany’s Jews their civil, social, and property rights, nullified their citizenship, and forbidden intermarriage with Aryans.

Lindbergh really did say things like that.  

I am finding this book (copyright 2004) has a lot of parallels with current events.  

In Roth's book, Lindbergh wins the election. Very scary.