Thursday, February 25, 2021

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

 




Jack:  I found Jack a complex but rewarding read. Complex in structure and theme but rewarding and even enjoyable in the way in which Robinson pulled me into the theological and social debates surrounding predestination, common grace, and interracial relationships. Considering the role the church has played in my life and the doubts and struggles I have had surrounding my own faith and life experiences, I could relate to the conflicts between Jack and the church and the theology his father represents. I believe Robinson did a good job getting the reader inside Jack’s mind, showing us his torment and the complexity of his struggle. On the other hand, I thought Della came across a bit flat, which was unfortunate since she was depicted (at least in Jack’s mind) as the epitome of love and goodness. I find Robinson’s wring style very visual, which makes me feel as if I am there, and thus strengthens the story and the conflicts that play out.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Stoner by John Williams

 Ten medieval professors gathered virtually by the flickering light of their department-issued monitors and spoke as to the lifespan of a university faculty member.  Their reviews differed:




Karl:  An unremarkable story about an unremarkable man told remarkably well.

It took me a while to get interested in this book, though eventually I did become engrossed in it. Upon finishing, my regret was that a book this beautifully written was not written about a more substantive topic. Seems like a waste of effort. I don’t think I gained any insight from reading this book, which is always a disappointment. However, as prose, I admire the author’s skill. This is a well told, if not particularly enlightening, story.



and from well outside of the campus boundary:

I am so sorry that I will not be able to join the discussion of your book selection on Thursday. I have an appointment with a retina specialist that took four months to get, and I don't want to have to wait another four months. 

Thank you, Dick, for choosing this book. In my opinion, Stoner by John Williams was the best novel we have read since reading Plainsong by Kent Haruf which Tom selected three years ago. Although I found elements of tragedy and despair that reminded me of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and even in some instances of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, I still was buoyed by the role love played in the relationship between William Stoner and his daughter and between him and Katherine Driscoll. I also found Stoner's love and passion for his work a positive and uplifting force. John Williams is an outstanding writer. The clarity of his prose underscored the intensity of the scenes in this novel as it did in Butcher's Crossing. I believe in many respects Stoner's description of Katherine Driscoll's book defines John Williams' own style: "The prose was graceful, and its passion was masked by a coolness and clarity of intelligence." 

Can't wait to hear what others thought of the book. 

Warmest regards, Jack


 To my way of thinking, Stoner is a very good novel, and I can see why critics, tired of Clive Custler, like and praise it. 

I see it in the tradition of the great American novel, of Henry James, beautifully written in telling, economical prose. The narrator sets a good pace, covering a lifetime in 278 paper back pages, and does so with great empathy for his characters. 

Even Edith, not particularly likeable, is keenly observed. As she comes down for her wedding, "she was like a cold light coming into the room." Later when she and Stoner kiss, "her lips were as dry as his own." 

This is beautiful, clear prose that does not waste words. Thus, as comes next, that short, magnificent summary of all things past and future, when on the train to St.Louis, ostensibly for their honeymoon, "Wm Stoner realized that it was all over and that he had a wife." 

"All over" indeed, so that Edith's later demand for a child has no meaning, either as a sign of intimacy or of love. 

Only one problem: this novel is an absolute downer, the perfect literary manifestation of life as an exercise in quiet desperation. As a teacher I'm still trying to figure out how I'm going to present this novel for its many merits to the young man in the second row, looking sideways at the girl adjusting her sweater. 

How am I going to convince him that this dreary stuff is worth reading? Stoner perfectly demonstrates the dilemma of teaching the Humanities in an era focused on technology and progress. Compared to Stoner, I submit that even differential equations are exciting, and Boolean algebra becomes almost sensuous


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

 'Twas brillig in the slithy toves, and a dozen formerly successful white males, all born within seven years of each other, clustered within the confines of their computer monitors. 'Twas a cold winter day out there in both the Big Duke City and in Guthrie, OK - even California was at 47 degrees - a good day to huddle up with a warm book in front of a roaring (or gas supplemented) fireplace.
The successful ones spoke coherently and offered the following observations re their own achievements. 


Jack:  I thoroughly enjoyed Outliers. It was fascinating to me. I thought it would be another one of those mind-numbing success manuals, but I found it entertaining and thought-provoking. If Gladwell's intent was to make me think about the world a little differently and why certain people succeed, he was successful. A-

Peter:  Subtitle of Gladwell's book is The Story of Success.  Right off the bat my reaction is: Trite. Is there anything we as Americans worship more than success? Well ok, maybe Twinkies, but the suggestion here is one story after another of SUCCESS. Boring. 

Some folks ask, why see "Hamlet," we know how it ends? 

More to the point, Dylan Thomas, "After the first death there is no other,..." death, in effect , but also always the same. 

The Rosetans introduction. Yes, heartwarming, but hardly unique, as it is an example of the Mediterranean Diet we have come to love, and its life style, simply transposed to America. 

Example: My former neighbor, Rena Cavaletti, from a Hornell, NY, railroad family. Went to work as a "soda jerk" at fourteen, at which time by her own admission she started to smoke. She died at age 94, still smoking Pall Mall unfiltered. So was it the Mediterranean diet she had taught me to cook, or the life style of her Italian community in Hornell, or just good genes? Hard to isolate a proximate cause, as Gladwell does, other than by wishful thinking. 

The 10,000 Rule, the Beatles playing for the magic number of hours in seedy clubs in Hamburg. But as Gladwell, and the Beatles themselves, declare, it could not just as well have been the sex and drugs, rather than the long hours, that were the reasons for their success. 

So then the Silicon Valley guys, pioneers of modern information systems, the quintessential trio at the chapter's end to be born within a year of each other. Realizing that knowledge may be conveyed by a binary system and lucky enough to enter this field at a seminal time, they are recognized as its pioneers. But this is just as much a matter of the right place at the right time than of clustering birth dates. And as punch cards with their Honeywell sorters attest, the principal concept and its technology, admittedly in a state of infancy, were already known in the 19th century rug and tapestry mills of England and Belgium, which had mechanized pattern weaving by the same method of punch cards. 

I don't know if this is a quite fair analogy, but let's take an area of somewhat greater consequence to see whether we would ascribe success to the clustering of birth dates of the individuals. In the 19th century Lise Meitner, 1878, Albert Einstein, 1879, Niels Bohr, 1885; and later the youngsters, Werner Heisenberg, 1901, Robert Oppenheimer, 1904, Hans Behte, 1906, Edward Teller, 1908. Throwing out the new kid, Richard Feynman, 1918, the first group clusters within seven years, and so does the later one. Altogether they cluster by birth date across fourteen years. Would anyone--other than Gladwell--ascribe the genius of their formulations to the proximity of their birth dates? A certain group that clusters can become idolized as pioneers. But in the end it remains a matter of advancing human knowledge in which the individual human genius and effort play an admittedly concomitant but also co-incidental probative part. Birth dates by themselves are inconsequential.

Gladwell's allegations do not amount to causality; they remain the "oh-aren't-we-clever" stuff found on the NYT's best sellers.  Grade:  B

Karl:  This book is both interesting and thought-provoking. It’s well put together and the stories in it are fascinating. The writing style is adequate to the task. 

The book starts off talking about real outliers but most of the book is not so much about outliers as it is stories of successful people, hence the subtitle: The Story of Success

The author’s arguments are most convincing when they are data-based. Those where he is extrapolating from one or two examples are less convincing – though still interesting and thought-provoking. 

My biggest criticism with the book is that the author doesn’t give enough credit to success for drive, perseverance, ambition, intelligence, and good old hard work. Though to be fair, he does call attention to all of these things at different points in the narrative. It’s difficult to think that anyone who has read this book can continue to think himself as “self-made.” The author is quite effective in showing that that’s not quite the case, even for folks who are thought of as real outliers. 

Overall, the book accomplishes what it sets out to do – and does so in a credible, easy-to-follow way. A-


and locked well outside the confines of the friendly Zoom video screen:

Mike:  The title threw me a bit, as in my mind “outliers” are statistically questionable outcomes that you throw out of the calculation. An example in the recent election where several polls had Joe Biden leading by 4% to 7%, but one “outlier” had him ahead by 17%. No one believed that poll, and all called it an ‘outlier’. 

The cover of the book threw me a bit also. 

The hockey players all born in January and February reminded me of what my late wife Helen would say about artists. I felt she was very talented art wise, but she would counter, “There are thousands of really good artists out there, they are just not known.” That also reminded me of Dolly Parton who said her siblings sang as good as she did. She was the one who wanted to perform onstage. 

I’m thinking the real secret of success is motivation – you have to be really obsessed with your interest and work hard to get better at it. I was always surprised to hear that Michael Jordan practiced so much – I thought, “Heck, he’s the best basketball player in the country, he doesn’t need to practice, just show up!” 

When Tom and I were teaching at the Air Force Academy, Helen and I had season tickets to the Falcons basketball games. But they were quite boring, and we often got up from our basketball seats and walked up to the concourse and down into the ice hockey arena seats – which were free. And there we noticed a Gladwell Correlation - namely, that five of the Academy's eleven fielded hockey players were all from the litile town of International Falls, Minnesota. Aha! Another criterion for success! (also, that they were all shorter and weighed less than Helen, but she didn't like for me to point out that criteria). 

What upset me the most was the presentation of Rosie, the hard-working non-math individual working with the computer program on slope (as correctly defined by rise over run). The author could have easily mentioned that it takes two points to determine a line and thus the slope of a line, and with the illustrations provided, apparently all lines went through the intersection of the X and Y axis, thus (0,0) was one [of two] points that determined the line we would be working with. 

OF COURSE it is possible to provide a formula for a line parallel to the Y axis. The Y-axis itself has the line formula: X=0 , a completely legitimate formula. Yes, the slope is infinite, but the formula is solid. There are infinite such lines parallel to the Y axis, e.g., X = 2, X= pi, X=.0001.  

My calculated slope for Outliers:  B

Saturday, November 28, 2020

White Guilt by Shelby Steele

On Thursday, 19 November 2020 at 2 pm MST, ten kindly old philosophers gathered around the warmth of their individual computer monitors to discuss how we moved from the 60s to the 20s and never grasped if the direction was forward or backward.  Prof Irons set the dials on the Zoom Machine and Solicitor Simon captured the notes as we derived the formula for settling the racial issue once and for ever. 

  “It is also the formula that keeps black America underdeveloped even as we enjoy new freedom and a proliferation of opportunity. No worse fate could befall a group emerging from oppression than to find itself gripped by a militancy that sees justice in making others responsible for its advancement.”
                                                            ― Shelby Steele, White Guilt  


Introduction

Mike –  I was upset by the rioting in the streets for 100 days. Candace Owens in her YouTube video spoke of blacks eulogizing "the lowest common denominator" (not a correct math analogy) and credited Shelby Steele. Then I heard him speak on TV and Rob obtained The Content of Our Character that had won the 1990 Kennedy Award and the 1991 National Book Critics Award for non-fiction which led me to White Guilt

Shelby Steele was born in Chicago. His grandfather was born a slave. His father was a truck driver and his mother was employed at CORE. He is 75 years of age. He was educated at Stanford, received his M.A. from Southern Illinois, and taught at Univ. of Utah. He received his PhD. in 1974 and turned down tenure at Univ. of Utah. Since 1994 he has been on staff at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. Shelby has a twin brother who also has been affiliated with Stanford and now is assistant dean at Berkeley. 

Peter – The tone is unsparing. Steele has a nice way of expressing himself in logical progression from liberalism to white guilt. The theme seems to be that Steele experienced an epiphany after hearing Dick Gregory in the late 60’s. He stopped driving a bus that revelation. 

Dick- Steele made a big attack on a woman he did not think had sufficient credentials or intellect who suggested teaching a Black Literature course. Steele did a good job on the 60’s. We think of the counterculture but there were also millions of Young Americans for Freedom who followed Goldwater’s form of conservativism, especially on college campuses. I grew up in Utah, so I did not grow up in the 60’s that most of the U.S. youth experienced. 

Mike – Instead of supporting the Supreme Court affirmative action decisions Steele seems to support “We will do it on our own.” 

Charlie – Malcolm X seemed to share Steele’s philosophy. He said, “Screw Whitey, we'll take responsibility for ourselves.” 

Dick -There is a new non-fiction biography on Malcom X that won (or is nominated) for a National Book Award. Self-reliance is good for gifted athletes but not good for blacks in education. 

Tom – He does not dwell on it but Steele favors innovative schooling and schools.  I don’t place all the burden on the black community for education. We need to face up to the problem of educating blacks and other under-privileged youths. We need a national program for education.

Peter – White guilt is for white people because it makes them feel better by doing something and it may foster a change of heart in the black community. 

Mike – Remember the book was written in 2006. Much has changed since then including the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

Dick – “Steele is really talking about White Male Guilt, women are secondary.” American history has mostly been about white men. Tom – “I think Steele mischaracterizes hard work as white supremacist prejudice. Many want to tear down and rebuild the educational structure because it is not working.” 

Karl – "If you have to call yourself a progressive, you probably are not.” 

Mike – We are seeing the breakdown of nuclear families.  The abdication of the nuclear family is one of the most egregious positions taken by BLM, a stated position in their published manifesto which they removed from their website only in Sept 2020 as the corporations started pouring money into them. 

Karl – Candice Owens talks about the breakdown of nuclear families. 

Tom –The evidence is that all families are breaking down. 

Jeff – There is lots of prejudice in Utah and at the core of the Mormon church. Until recently the Church did not allow black priests, until missionaries in Brazil sought to name black persons priests. So, the Church changed its position.

Peter – “There is a moral vacuum due to a lack of commitment to the Constitution.” P. 82 quote puts everything wrong in the U.S. on white guilt. Vacousness in lives is all linked to lack of faith in the Constitution. Steele is saying that democracy is based on the Constitution and our failing is that we have not been committed to the Constitution. 

Jack- White guilt led to lack of commitment to the Constitution. What we have now is a result of the counter culture revolution of the 60’s. Unfortunately, Steele did not offer any solution. 

Tom – My question is, Where do we go from here? 

Jeff - The book made me look at my voting habits. Whites were guilty of racism. Steele says there was no good result from White Guilt. There seem to be multiple solutions – education sucks but some can rise up when given the opportunity to a good education. I met a black theologian at a seminar who told me he was driving his Mercedes home wearing a three-piece suit when he was stopped by the police and made to lie on the ground and was handcuffed in Pasadena, CA. When he asked the police why he had been stopped they told him, “Because you are a black man driving a Mercedes.”   We need to fix systems like that.

Tom – Studies show that racial bias does not play a role in violence against blacks.  I am bothered by BLM’s focus on something that is not helpful like defunding police departments. Instead we should be focused on education, especially in the inner-cities.

Peter – The black community plays on white guilt and that does not help the black community. George Floyd was not a cultural hero because the police killed him.

Jeff – Taking drugs and having a criminal record does not give police a right to kill a black person.

Summaries and Grades 

Karl – This book is several edits short of being a well-written exposé on White guilt and its ramifications. Often the sentence structure is too convoluted to catch the intended meaning without rereading – sometimes several times. That seems unnecessary. 

Also, it is doubtful that the author would do well in a college course on Logic as some of his arguments are extremely questionable, in my view. In addition, he relies on too many premises without supporting evidence. Many, I believe, are suspect. 

Nevertheless, this is one of the most thought-provoking and insightful books that I think I’ve ever read. It took me a long time to read it – in part because of the cumbersome writing style and in part because I had to stop to think about what I had just read. 

Depending on what I read, my reactions can be assigned to one of three categories: 1) Yes, I knew that but I have never or possibly could never have expressed it. 2) Now, that’s really interesting. Makes sense. That helps explain things. And, 3) I don’t buy that at all. Sorry. 

Still, while some of his premises are arguable, most of his conclusions seem sound. Other than the writing style I have three criticisms. One has to do with using Eisenhower as a hypothetical racist early in the book to make his point about the changes in what had been societally acceptable between the 1950’s and the 1990’s. Fair enough. But later on, he seems to take that hypothetical example as if it were real. That, I think is unfair. 

The second criticism has to do with the unending generalization that Whites and Blacks are each homogenous groups – or at least as far as the author’s arguments go. I understand why that was helpful to his theses, but I’m not sure it was necessary – nor do I believe that the author sees the world that way. 

The third has to do with the way the book ends. The last two paragraphs are about the author, not about the problem he has been discussing. I expected a proffering of a solution to the problems he described, but none was forthcoming. That’s a disappointment. 

Were this book easier to read, it could be used in schools – the earlier, the better. I think that would be a good idea. As it is written, that’d be a real stretch. 

The concept of White guilt and its ramifications reminds me of Aristotle. He was a pretty smart guy and he kind of summed up what this book is describing, though in a very different context. Specifically, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” In this book, the vacuum relates to the moral authority of Whites. 

I’d summarize as follows: the book is not particularly well-written nor are the author’s arguments particularly concise, with many being logically suspect, yet it is compelling and definitely worth reading.  Grade:  B+ 

Rob- - Useful book. It creates rhetorical questions as applied to Trump. A stimulating read as was Candice Owens' speech. Lots of work is still needed. It is hard for me to see how Biden can deal with this problem. Grade:  B+ 

Charlie – I agree with much that has been said. I think Steele is correct on the big picture. Unfortunately, his are arguments are convoluted and the book was too long. The big problem with the book is that it offers no solution. Grade – B 

Jack:  I was looking forward to reading Shelby Steele's White Guilt to get another perspective of racism in America, having just read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, but I was disappointed. It was a difficult read for me. I had trouble following the logic of his argument and frequently got bogged down in his use of what I assumed were sociological terms (social determinism, establishment consciousness, dissociation, etc.) even though he attempted to define some of them. 

I did enjoy his personal story of how he experienced America's journey from segregation through the civil rights movement and black militancy to the "Great Society" and affirmative action. I was hoping he would conclude with some suggestions as to how we could best restore the moral authority he claims we whites lost when we acknowledged the existence of racism in our country, other than simply saying we should adhere to democratic principles. When I finished the book, I felt I was left with too many unanswered questions.  Grade: B

Tom – I also agree with most of what was said. It would have been better as a long essay than a book. He was very repetitive but I agree with what he says happened in the last 50 to 60 years. It is hard to look at what is going on in schools and not be depressed if one believes that schools’ job is to prepare students with the skills to perform in college or in a job. If some blacks want to be separate, then they should be able to do so. Grade – A

Dick – I need to get on my soapbox for a moment. There have been lots of negative things said about BLM.  But I want to emphasize that there are two sides to these issues. There are also the militias and Boogaloo Bois agitating and rioting, A lot of the current chaos is coming from the Right. I just want things to be balanced. As for the book, it was way too long, there was no conclusion and no solution offered. As an academic, I also have a negative bias against Steele as a member of the Stanford’s Hoover Institute. Grade – B

Bob Simon – My review is attached. 

Peter – Let me preface what I say with the fact that I started out in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, founded 1960).  Steele cannot be blamed for no resolution.  

In Search of Steele's Thesis:   I agree that Steele's development of narrative is somewhat messy, as human affairs are messy. Within this daunting arena, Steele does his best. If I were to fault him for anything, it would be that he, like many of us, makes race the lens through which he looks at the world. At least our American world. 

Nevertheless here goes: pp. 27 "...white guilt has generated a new social morality in America that made racial prejudice utterly illegitimate."  ...the larger reality is that white guilt leaves no room for moral choice.... It depends on [whites'] fear of stigmatization, their fear of being called a racist. Thus white guilt is nothing less than a social imperative that all whites....are accountable to.... pp. 45 "Unwittingly, this new consciousness came into perfect agreement with the first precept of white racism...that race was destiny ... the same axiomatic truth that the civil rights movement had just won a great victory against." 

And, bottom of the page, is what I see as the foundation of his argument, thesis, if you will: "To up the ante on white guilt this new black consciousness led blacks into a great mistake: to talk ourselves out of the individual freedom we had just won for no purpose whatsoever except to trigger white obligation (it's mine)."

 It's easier to manipulate whites with the race card and win concessions--and hold the moral power of guilt over them--than for blacks to acknowledge the need for their own, individual or personal responsibility and advancement. Maybe a bunch of hooey, but this is what I think he is trying to bring to our attention. That somehow in the mix of it all, both races have lost their way and continue to insist on blundering along.

White Guilt is a hollow argument for both sides.  Blacks use White Guilt to manipulate white culture to get political benefits. Steele provides criticism for both sides.  Grade: A 

Keith:  Eight points to be made. 

1. The greatest racism in American history was the destruction of the Indians. Manifest destiny made them expendable because they stood in the way, 

2. I grew up among many different ethnic groups in St. Paul with lots of diversity. 

3. Nebulous definitions.  The definition of white guilt and racial bias is flexible; i.e. it keeps moving. When a Black pastor was asked, “What should Whites Do?" his answer was, “Just say ‘Amen’”. 

4. Whites see the world by color. 

5. Affirmative action – largely a failure. I attended UC Berkley and saw students admitted with lower standards.  

6. Black leaders share blame for bias because they have not made families emphasize excellence. 

7. The Press is also guilty. Jackie Robinson 

8. White contemporary to club – will Solution – “Americans always want a magic pill.” I think the best solution is to focus on young people. Don’t expect an instantaneous solution. Change will be “glacial and gritty.”
Grade:  C 

Jeff – this would have been better as an essay.  I agree there are places of white guilt but Steele did not take it anywhere.  His arguments are too simplistic. It is not a well written book. WG is mentioned 164 times. I liked How Not to be a Racist better. I actually think putting all whites and all blacks together is racist. Grade:  B- 

Mike – The group exceeded my expectations. I feel better about recommending the book now. I recall in the Portland video seeing a young man throw his body against a fence time and time again during a demonstration. Simultaneously I happened to be watching the episode in Ken Burns’ series on WWII on the assault on Saipan. I was impressed by the same determination by both this young demonstrator and the American soldiers attacking the Japanese fortified position on Saipan’s mountain. 

I am glad we read the book. I liked Steele’s personal stories, such as his trying to become the bat boy for the white team. Grade:  B+ 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Educated by Tara Westover

 In late October, The Last Thursday Literary Illuminati and Associated West Coast Socialists gathered around the warm glow of their erstwhile bright forest green monitors to discuss Solicitor Simon's theory of Worm Creek water feeding into Elephant Butte and the lower Rio Grande Valley, and the benefits of educating the distaff outcasts of the family.  Prof. Genoni was outside scrapping during this time and thus was excused.     

All of the Zoom participants, demonstrating an abundance of caution, wore heavy jackets, work boots and plastic face masks, woolen scarfs, safety helmets, thick glasses, and displayed as little flesh as possible as appropriate for a righteous individual in this day and age.   New members were requested to step up and introduce themselves, and explain why they would want to participate with such a group, and why their entry fee should therefore be waived accordingly.  Solicitor Simon took notes as to arguments and summaries on all sides and they and the resulting grades are provided herewith.  


Charlie – There is a question in my mind as to who was telling the truth about home schooling between Tara and Mom 

Dick – I was from a small Utah town and 30% of my siblings gained Ph.D.'s.  I taught at UNLV with another Mormon, Neilsen, who was always selling stuff. Mormons are usually very industrious and aggressive business people. I am not bothered about religion. 

The book was all about the Mormon Church and the end of times. I am now a Catholic, but my Mormon family is very much into sharing. My niece in St. George, Utah sells ointments and offers Foot Zone (massage of feet) to liberate one’s mind. Mormons do tend to favor Mormons by selling and doing business with each other and are into storing large quantities of food. Often all their contacts are with Mormons, so a very insular group. 

Charlie - Religious fundamentalists all share rigid beliefs and usually live separately in group of religion. 

Peter – I see 2 types of Mormons in this book. The father was a frontiersman, pioneer type of fundamentalist, while Tara was an urban educated person whose Mormonism was all about striving and achieving. 

Jeff – Tara’s story is ingrained in Mormonism. Her family is of fundamental importance to her.  Many Mormons are consumed with success and wealth.  Finances has always been part of Mormonism.

Peter – Mormons have infiltrated many groups like the Secret Service. 

Mike – I think we can generalize here.  Harari says tribalism is a basic human characteristic. Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great has the theme of how religion ruins everything.

DickVirtue is its Own Punishment by Richard Menzies describes three friends’ life stories growing up in Price, Utah, a coal mining town, as a Mormons. Both Richard and I grew up in Price, Utah and attended Carbon Jr. College.  I became a Catholic at the age of 30 and am now opposed to Mormonism, but recognize that Mormonism is still a part of me. I escaped and got an education, which lost me some of the connection I had with my family.

Robert – I suspect that most of our members are persons who strived to get an educaon and that is what unites us. 

Peter – “Books change you.” After I obtained my PhD, I tried to farm with my father-in-law but gave up on farming after a while. It simply did not interest me and often frustrated me, like trying to fix machinery. As I look back on it now I see that my whole language and thinking changed by my education.

Charlie – I grew up in a small town in Northern Louisiana as a Baptist. I went to school and lost touch with the community I had grown up in, also. It was like I joined a different tribe. 

Dick – Any tribe must have a literature by those who left to get an education. 

Bob’s Note – Charlie and Dick’s comments seems to me be the theme of Educated. Tara’s literary effort is her attempt to describe how she left one tribe and joined another tribe.

Jack:  Tara Westover's Educated was difficult for me to read. I read it the first time over a year ago and couldn't finish it. I found it impossible to believe such an intelligent young woman would allow herself to be physically and emotionally abused again and again while at home for 17 years and even for years after she left home. In the second reading I paid closer attention to her struggle to maintain a relationship a daughter would hope to have with her parents and her siblings while faced with an unbelievably abusive environment at home. It appeared as if the conflict between her desire to learn about the world beyond Buck's Peak and her ties to a dysfunctional family that had cut itself off from the outside world could never be resolved and I'm not sure it was. She must continue to suffer psychologically. Westover is a good writer, which played a major role in keeping me interested in a very difficult story to read. I would grade it a C+ because I had to read it twice to get to what I thought was the heart of the story.

Mike:  I could not warm up to Tara.  Is this a chic book? Consider this passage of great personal tribulation:  "My hair band broke.  I didn't have a spare. The wind swept down the mountain, blowing strands in my eyes."

Also: "My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute.  It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs."  I submit this is every child's story.

Chick lit or chick literature is genre fiction, which "consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists"

Karl:  Catharsis. The writing I found to be a little uneven – fluctuating between excellent and merely good. Overall, a very nice effort for a first book. 

I made two mistakes reading this book. The first was, between Part I and Part II, I consulted the Oracle about the author and read some of the Oracle’s offerings. That created some doubt in my mind about her accuracy in recalling the memories she was describing. The second mistake was that I looked up her mother’s business between reading Part II and Part III. That led to more readings and pictures, which again created some doubt. Having had those two experiences before reading Part III, I became very aware each time the author called attention to having some doubt as to the accuracy of her memory in relating certain experiences. I wonder how I would have reacted had I not consulted the Oracle until after I’d finished the book. 

It didn’t help that there was an inconsistency in the description of the family’s financial wealth/ poorness. Early on the author explicitly says that her family wasn’t poor. And it doesn’t sound as if they were. However, twice later in the book she describes her family as being poor. Not any more. Her mother’s company employs either 24 or 30 people (depending on the source) and looks to have done about $12 MM last year and $5 MM this one. (Not sure of the company’s fiscal year definition.) A Google Maps view of the property shows the junk yard, house, many outbuildings, and a very large production facility for Butterfly Expressions, the Westover’s company, not to mention many pieces of heavy equipment. 

The most interesting person in the memoirs, to my mind, was the author’s father. While clearly a religious zealot and survivalist who could not keep from trying to convert everyone around him to his way of thinking, he was apparently – at least, until he got hurt – very industrious and must have had a good local reputation in order to have gotten so many jobs. I am fascinated that his religious beliefs were so strong and unshakable that he believed that they were an adequate substitute for common sense, particularly when it came to endangering his children. And, while he preached endlessly, he didn’t stop his kids from doing what they wanted to do – though he may have imposed consequences if what they wanted to do was in conflict with his beliefs. I’m thinking of Tyler going off to college, Tara singing in the musicals, working at the grocery store, and going off to BYU, none of which he approved of, but all of which he accepted. 

From a newspaper interview with the family’s attorney, who said that the book should be taken “with a grain of salt” the biggest issue the Westover’s have with the author’s description of her upbringing is her lack of acknowledgement of being decently home-schooled. They say, not so. Three PhD’s out of seven children gives their claim some credibility. Also, it came as a surprise to me that Tara’s mother not only graduated from a public high school, but that she also attended BYU (though there doesn’t seem to be any claim that she graduated). 

One of the things I don’t have doubts about is the abuse the author suffered at the hands of her brother, “Shawn.” None of the outside readings I did in the middle of reading Educated created any question about that. After finishing the book, I read some of the reviews of it on Amazon.com – one of which was a very compelling testimony as to the accuracy with which the author described the situations in Part III of the book by her then boyfriend, Drew Mecham. 

To sum up, clearly Ms Westover has psychological demons and I hope that by wring and publishing this book, she has been able to exorcise some of them. And regardless, of the truth or fiction of individual remembrances, she is certainly a remarkable woman.

Rob:  Footnote. I thought the book's title was arrogant: I am educated. You aren't.  A self-appointed Illuminati.

Great discussion

Thursday, September 24, 2020

DiMaggio: The Last American Knight by Joseph Durso

 Eight brave souls donned their masks and entered the 25 pristine acres of the New Mexico Veterans Memorial to discuss the life of The Yankee Clipper and how it was portrayed by Joe Durso, sportswriter.  There they were greeted to the strains of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and wafts of hot dogs, crackerjacks, soda pop, and kettle corn. The lovely Holly Golightly floated away and we were left with the legacy of Joltin' Joe, described by Keith as one of four Herculean Pillars of the Yankees during their 40 year domination of the sport:  The Babe (#3), The Iron Man (#4), The Yankee Clipper (#5), and The Mick (#7).  It didn't hurt to have the Big Apple Media Machine plus Yogi and some colorful managers.  We learned that although the dimensions of the baseball have not changed since 1888, some of the rules have. Not all the players were on the same page:


Mike:  Every book should start with a 'grabber' chapter, something to excite the senses and whet the reader's appetite for what is to come.  What Durso starts with is an ad agency exec wandering into the Bowery Bank and musing over how to give the place a spokesman.  Then he compounds his 'error' by scattering his writing with 3rd grade baseball metaphors:  they made an error; they had strike one; no home run; three strikes.  Great subject, mediocre portrayal, a half-hearted try for high drama that failed.  Joe Durso easily has the worst Wikipedia article I've ever witnessed; his on-line obituary has four times as much information.  Perhaps there is a reason.  B-

Dick J:  This book was good and not so good.  "The Last American Knight" = where did we learn how that title was earned?  I was frustrated with the writing in pages 46 to 67 about what happened after WWI.  This book was padded.  At times it was interesting, but seened to be written quickly.  I have read a negative article on DiMaggio, how he would go to a fancy restaurant in Las Vegas, eat expensive meals, but never paid.  And I don't give a flip about Marilyn Monroe.  I didn't learn much about baseball or Joe DiMaggio.  B

Rob Easterling (by phone via Karl): I had high hopes for this book. I've read and enjoyed several baseball books over the years. But, Chapter 1 in Durso's book discouraged me. It's all about how a NYC bank hired Joe D to shill for the bank. Not at all interesting. Why start with this? Chapter 2 about the DiMaggio family's emigration from Italy to San Francisco was more interesting and a more appropriate way to lead into a hero's life story. The book's subtitle, "The Last American Knight," irritated me more. England might justifiably celebrate knights, but Americans don't. Maybe Bobby Knight. 

The rest of the book was not very interesting. Neither the hitting streak or Marilyn Monroe stories stirred much enthusiasm in me. I've characterized many of the non-fiction books we've read as follows: The author collects a lot of factoids, then struggles to link them -- cut and paste -- . This book falls in that category. 

After I finished the book, I looked up the Amazon reviews, to see if I had missed something important. One reviewer wrote: "To write about Joe DiMaggio you have to write with love and passion for the man and the game. I just never got that feeling reading this book." My sentiment exactly. My Grade: C- 

P.S. This spring I read "Summer of '98," by Mike Lupica. That was the summer of the home run hitters, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Lupica wrote with love and passion for the men and the game, and even more, he shared that love and passion with his sons. I laughed, I cried, I wrote a review. 

One line from the cover flap connects with Durso's book: "Joe DiMaggio talks as he watches the Yankees have the kind of year he always had." 

Karl Irons:  I thought that the point of a biography was to shed insight into the person being written about – insight that hadn’t previously come to light. Not only doesn’t this book do that, it even makes the claim, after 250+ pages that it doesn’t matter. What nonsense!

Not only doesn’t this book fulfill the primary objective of a biography, it is also poorly written in places.  There are too many pronouns, making it unclear at times who is actually being referenced. Thoughts or topics are raised, then not sufficiently explored. Throughout the book labels – adjectives – are applied to DiMaggio, many repeatedly, but in the end, I still don’t know which ones truly apply. That he was tremendously prideful is certain. That he was a great and revered all-around ball-player is also certain. Whether he was any or all of: noble, lonely, selfish, interesting, insecure, elegant, greedy, cheap, a hermit, arrogant, pampered, vain, self-assured, classy, boring, or a number of other labels attributed to him by the author or one or more of his acquaintances, is less certain.

The best parts of the book were the parts talking about baseball. Is there any other sport that has such great stories? Reading those, even the many that I already knew, was enjoyable. It probably wasn’t necessary to go through every single at bat during the 56-game hitting streak, but I did like reading about it. I especially liked reading the stories I hadn’t known, such as Casey Stengel releasing himself, firing himself, then resigning. Terrific stuff.

I haven’t yet decided whether I like and admire Joe DiMaggio the man, which I had hoped I would when I ordered the book. I had known that he played during a time when sportswriters made heroes of certain sportsman while protecting their image when faced with conflicting behaviors. That they made a hero of DiMaggio before he even played his first game in a Yankee uniform, I didn’t know. That Joe D delivered against all the hype is remarkable in that context. That he kept delivering is what earned him the reverential status he still enjoys today.

What I did admire about DiMaggio is that he took his position as role-model and professional sportsman very seriously. The book makes clear that he obviously went to great pains to hone and reinforce that image -- even if it was created by the press prior to him ever being a stand-out baseball star.

But, the paradoxes of the man bother me. How can someone claim not to want to be recognized walking down the street nor want to be surrounded by crowds drive around in a car with the vanity plate: “Joe D”? What did he talk about to his friends? What, if anything besides the sports pages, did he read? Why did he surround himself with friends so different than himself? Was it to divert attention, was it to remind him who he was not or was it something else? Maybe these things aren’t knowable, but after reading a biography, I expect to know whether or not I like the subject of the text. That I don’t, in this case, I see as a deficiency in the effort.  C

Bob S:  What Durso was doing was researching sportswriters comments on DiMaggio and the game.  Thus the book was a tribute to sportswriters.  Something positive:  Joe and Marilyn both came from modest means; thus they understood each other, having climbed to the top.  I felt the same about the book:  I watched TV with my father, an amateur baseball player, but never felt the passion.  I loved Dizzy Dean, Pee Wee Reese, yet overall found the sport rather boring.  A good bio must examine the context within which the subject lived his Life.  This book lacked that.  B-

Jack F:  My enjoyment of Durso's DiMaggio was influenced by the facts that I like baseball and Joe DiMaggio was one of my heroes when I was a kid in the late 40s and early 50s, even though he played for the Yankees and I was a Cleveland Indians fan. I learned quite a bit particularly about DiMaggio's life away from the ballpark. Durso's newspaper writing style was easy to read and I enjoyed his descriptions of specific games. It reminded me of listening to a game on the radio; however, he did seem to wander and repeat himself at times, leaving me to wonder about the chronology and how it fit into the current narrative. Fun read. Would recommend it to my Yankee friends, if I had any.  B

Tom GOn the rules changed to delineate the Modern Era:  in 1893, the distance from pitcher's mound


to home plate was changed from 50 ft to 60' 6" where it remains today.  Ballpark size was open; however new parks had to have 350' down the line and 400' to center.  

From the book, I learned that DiMaggio was painfully, horribly shy.  He did not know hot to handle people (and sports writers).  'The Last American Knight' refers to the last athlete that was poised and noble.  This largely had to do with the era in which he played.  In his era, sportswriters would fawn over these 'heroes.'  I learned a bit:  B

Charlie:  I was prejudiced in that I am not a sports fan.  My choice for a biography would be someone who used their noodle:  was incredibly smart, creative.  An athlete is more instinctive than cerebral.  Reminds me of a Monty Python skit where the sportswriter is interviewing the soccer star after the big game:  "You've won!  How did you do it?"  "I kicked the ball into the net."

I don't like the sportswriters style of writing - athletes are ordinary guys with extraordinary talents.  B

Keith:  the book had too much detail.  I played in two semi-pro games for $5 a game.   B+

Bob S:  I wish to share a baseball experience with you. As I mentioned, my Dad was a pitcher. He grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, There were only a couple of hundred Jewish families in his youth around 1920 but there was an amateur Jewish baseball team and he was their pitcher. 

When I was young, perhaps five or six we went to Lake Worth near Fort Worth where there was an amusement area with rides and games of chance. One of the games was one of those booths with a bulls eye about the size of home plate with a lever connected to a platform where a man sat over a glassed-in tub of water and every time you hit the bulls eye with a regulation baseball the lever would release the platform and drop the man into the water. I would guess the bulls eye was about 40 or 50 feet from the counter where the balls were held. 

Every time you hit the bulls eye you received three more balls. My dad gave the man a quarter and got three balls. I think he only hit the bulls eye once in the first three balls, but then he got the range and started hitting the bulls eye almost every time. After about twenty minutes the man refused to sit on the platform over the water any longer, because he was so waterlogged and dejected. At that point we left the game with about 50 balls left on the counter. 

My Dad had the best eye hand coordination of any one I ever met. I think I have mentioned that he was on the TCU golf team in the late 20's and an NCAA letterman. But his pitching was what I remembered from that evening at Lake Worth.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

 Nine former soldiers of fortune, two bedraggled Caddos, and a lonesome West Pointer zoomed into town on the Curative Waters around 2 pm mountain daylight (aka 3 pm in Guthrie, OK), complete with bullet holes.  Prof Palmer presented the news, including acquiring Hamilton for $7.50 from Disney+. and a promise of Tom Hanks as Capt. Kidd in December.  Prof Irons strung up the telegraph line, and the dime-ahs soon started filling the tin can.  Haina!  the old ones spoke as follows:


Tom:  Based on the comments today, I may be an outlier.  The story was great and the characters were well developed - but I did not like the prose style.  It was somewhat journalistic, and perhaps that was what she was trying for.  Overall, I enjoyed the read.  B+


Jack:  I thought it was well written and a tale well told.  It was a bit schmaltzy, reminding me of Bridges of Madison County and perhaps Plainsong.  There were some great scenes, which pushed it to a B+

Karl:  I enjoyed the story. It wasn’t exactly a “page-turner” but it also didn’t lag.  The writing was inobtrusive – meaning that I really didn’t notice it.  The book was an easy read.  I did find it odd that the conversations, few as they were, weren’t in quotes.  But once I understood the style it wasn’t bothersome.

The characters were well-defined.  The disorientation that Johanna must have experienced due to the upheaval of abruptly being extracted from a known culture to being thrust into an unknown one was dealt with very adroitly.  The growing tenderness of the relationship between the Captain and Johanna was handled well, I thought.

I found a slight disconnect between the abrupt ending in the penultimate chapter – really that last chapter, as the final chapter should have been titled “Epilogue” – and the wrap-up at the end.  It seemed that once the author completed her objective of allowing the Captain and Johanna to remain a team that she was done with the story.  Except that she had loose ends to tie-up.  The fate of the freighters, whether the Captain’s daughters would relocate to Texas, whether his family would ever reclaim their land, whether there would be a relationship with the woman he was attracted to, and how Johanna would fare once the Captain was gone needed to be addressed.  Hence the epilogue/Chapter 22.  It kind of seemed like a cheesy way to end the book, though.  B+

Bob Woods:  I did skim the first few chapters, but teen age grandkids took my month away.  NG

Rob:  I started the book, felt uneasy, and found it schmaltzy also.  I liked the story telling, and liked the way she handled the relationship between the 71-year old man and the 10-year old girl.  I got a lot out of the book, namely the importance of family and politics.  Neat idea to bring these subjects together.  B+

Mike:  If I were to create the ideal book for Charlie Palmer, it would be not much over 200 pages, have a great story, be about Texas, display a sense of humor, and have a great map.  This hit all the marks.

The great battle of Chapter 4 was a high point, even if done up a bit into the George Lucas cliffhanger style.  I loved the coins in the shotgun shells, but ... you gotta suspend a bit of reality for all of this to come together.  Heck, I relaxed and enjoyed it - especially Johanna's dance after the death of the enemy.

The Durand chapter (#14) was a winning microcosm of everything I loved about this book.  The curmudgeon captain:  "Can you read this flyer?  It says I'm going to saw a fat woman in half."  A

Bob SimonA little like Charlie:  I'm also from Texas, and the book portrayed a history of a time in Texas I am not familiar with.  Kidd was a true gentleman.  All of it had historical interest for me:  a solid A.

Charlie:  I liked it; I don't want too much tension, and then have horrible things happen.  This book had the potential for unhappy occurrences, but they did not occur.  I like the schmaltzy stuff.  I did not go through this book with a sense of dread - the author did not disappoint me, and she wrapped it up in a positive manner.  Solid A.


... and from the sorry Caddos who fell off the wagon:

Zoom will not let me back in because I was previously removed by the host. Here is my written evaluation: I really liked the book. I enjoyed it as much the second time as I did the first. It's a great story, well-written, interesting characters, and great description of the scenery. I would recommend it to others. Grade: A 

   -  Dick  J.

Mike..Got knocked off ZOOM,couldn't re-enter. Happens often..Maybe all the cyber-schooling in the hood  [UNM, CNM, APS, ..]. 

Graded on 5 pt. [1=5]..

  1. First impression: 2-Bad title,cover..

  2.Story line:4,, great..Kidd took on daunting task,and he's a truly nice guy..

  3.Writing: 5-lyrical writing engaged all 5 senses..

  4. Best chapter:4..Shootout with "dime" bullets..

  5. Worst chapter 3..Ending too curt, indeed "Let's end this book pronto"...

My average: 3.6, a B+    

               ..keith