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Demythologizing the Past

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 05/16/2010

As I’ve said before, many atheists spend far too much of their reading time confirming their atheism. My attitude is: If your freedom from faith is so shaky that you’ve got to pore over every godless screed available through Amazon, you’re probably still a believer deep down.

Assuming, though, that you’re really interested in expanding your mind (instead of just sponging up a few facts to use in your next losing debate with a theist), you might want to pick up a decent novel. A well-written piece of literature forces the skilled reader to see the world through others’ eyes: those of the characters and, ultimately, the author.

What better way to find oneself in a different time and a different place and a different mindset than to pick up a historical novel? Unfortunately, the majority of books published in that genre are drivel. Far too often, the writers of so-called historical novels do some cursory research and then chug out predictable potboilers peopled by wooden characters that display feelings and motivations reflecting the stupidest modern-day sensibilities. The dialogue in those books is a weird combination of modern English usage, even slang, and a few old-fashioned words ludicrously sprinkled in, usually inappropriately, for colo(u)r. Long paragraphs are devoted to “period” details about clothing, food, architecture, transportation, you-name-it — encyclopedia articles that add nothing except tediousness. Picking up such a book is like being around an annoyingly precocious child determined to tell you what he or she has learned in class today. But by far the worst thing about those third-rate novels is that they almost always include a bogus romance as the main event, as if the only thing a reader could conceivably care about history is whether some bland boy and some drab girl succeeded in hooking up. Yuck.

Because I’m a lover of both history and literature, when I do come across a historical novel that I like, I tend to get excited about it. And I can’t resist sharing my enthusiasm. Right now, I’m working my way through two — two! — historical series, both of which I’m happy to preach about (although I promise not to ring your doorbell at seven in the morning).

The first series is Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire, a seven-novel jaunt through American political machinations, starting in revolutionary times and ending in the 1950’s (although a very short section of the final book takes place in the year 2000).

It’s an oversimplification to say that Vidal sees the long story of the United States as a continuous chain of contests between various Machiavellians vying for power. The writing is far too rich to reduce it to a mere hook for a theme. Still, the author does deconstruct our nation’s history, cutting ruthlessly through its sacred bull. The real characters who march in and out of these books are not the same figures you learned about in high school. Oh, they have the same names, all right, but Vidal brings them to life, sometimes shockingly so, often through hilarious dialogue. Over and over again, he records ironic interchanges between people you thought you “knew.” Whenever a real person is involved in a conversation, very little is “made up;” Vidal quotes actual words written or said by the individual taking part. Even those personages for whom Vidal seems to have great respect — Lincoln is a good example — are demythologized.

I can’t quite figure out how the author manages to suck the reader in, but I found myself turning pages eagerly to find the answers to questions like: Will Aaron Burr be found guilty of treason? Is Lincoln going to be assassinated? Who the hell will win the 1876 presidential election? Yeah, I already knew what was going to happen, but Vidal transmutes foregone conclusions into page-turners loaded with intellectual suspense. That’s great writing.

The second historical series I’m making a pitch for here are the Flashman books, all twelve of them, written by George MacDonald Fraser. These were originally brought to my attention by Postman, who delivered the good news in this comment.

Flashman began his literary life as a bullying character in Tom Brown’s School Days, a preachy 19th-century novel for boys, teaching them how to grow up to be fine upstanding Victorian men. Fraser takes the book’s most interesting character, who was likely not to grow up to be a model English gentleman, and examines his life. The adult Flashman is a coward (he calls himself a “poltroon”), a womanizer, a liar, cheat, racist, sexist, and xenophobe. But somehow, he becomes an unlikely star in just about every war fought by the English-speaking peoples of his time.

The conceit of the novels is that Flashman, looking back from old age, has chronicled his life in “packets,” sheaves of remembrances that relate self-contained episodes. The main character screws his way around the world, showing up to play reluctant “hero” in such places as Afghanistan, India, North America, China, the Crimea, and Madagascar, to name just a few venues in which he appears. Fraser, the “editor” of Flashman’s memoirs, helpfully supplies footnotes, appendices, glossaries, and maps.

The series was begun in 1969, near the tail end of James Bond’s original burst of popularity. So it’s possible to read the novels as tongue-in-cheek adventure tales, a la Ian Fleming. Or you could read them as satirical send-ups of military reminiscences. Certainly, each book contains a few history lessons, although you’d have to be a very serious dullard, indeed, if you opened these volumes merely to learn something.

MacDonald’s skill is in creating a believably unbelievable character who, by all rights, should be hateful to nearly every reader. The fact that we find ourselves rooting for him again and again must be related to our human DNA: we’re genetically programmed to be fascinated by hedonistic scoundrels. (Think of all those real-life lying, cheating bastards who keep us spinning through the news cycle.)

As Vidal does, MacDonald manages to un-deify some of the demigods of the past. He also introduces us to real characters whose actual words and actions seem too far-fetched for fiction. (MacDonald uses many of his notes to tauntingly tell the reader “Yep, that’s true. Gotcha!”)

Both series of novels contain plenty of treasures for cynics. The authors tell us, again and again in dozens of ways, not to take for granted anything that we’ve “learned.” Yes, both Vidal and MacDonald seem to say, textbook history may well be written by the victors. But there are always a few skeptics who joyfully refuse to get taken in by the propagandistic claptrap. Nothing in this world should be accepted unquestioningly, should be so sanctified that it can’t be reflected in a satirist’s funny mirror.

Remember: freethinking is not limited only to the subject of theology.

Narratives of Empire
Washington, D.C.
The Golden Age
The Flashman Series
Royal Flash
Flash for Freedom!
Flashman at the Charge
Flashman in the Great Game
Flashman’s Lady
Flashman and the Redskins
Flashman and the Dragon
Flashman and the Mountain of Light
Flashman and the Angel of the Lord
Flashman and the Tiger
Flashman on the March

Posted in Books & Bookshops, It's History | 45 Comments »

The Ultimate Interactive Experience

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 04/12/2010

I get so tired of frequenting blogs that make the same points over and over and over again. Yeah, I get it. Republicans are all bad. Religionists are all dumb as rocks. Cats are the cutest things on Earth.

Of course, if I cared to, I could widen my scope and look for other kinds of writing on the Web: Democrats are ruining the country. Atheists are spawns of Satan. My child said the brightest thing yesterday. Here’s how I like to liven up my scrapbooks (one word: sequins), or cook meatballs and spaghetti (the secret? matzo meal!), or conquer the stock market (tip: start with plenty of your ancestors’ money).

Obviously, as a semi-frequent poster myself, I’m not condemning blogs. And I ought to point out that my favorites are quite interactive. Feel free to leave a comment if you disagree.

But no blog, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, is the ultimate interactive experience. No sirree, Bob! (If you’re one of my few fans not named Bob, I apologize for addressing you incorrectly. But at my age, I tend to call everyone Bob, because (1) some days I can’t even remember who I am, (2) a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, provided you’re not allegic and (3) it’s much easier to type than Zacjarias Aacharias Zacha$&^mmmmm Bob. See? Also, it makes no difference if you pronounce it frontwards or backwards.)

Anyway, interactivity is not normally something that I crave, because in order to be “inter,” I also have to be “active,” which I’m not. The truth is: I’m usually perfectly happy to sit and stare at the TV. Sometimes I even turn it on.

But yesterday, almost as if the event had been planned by my subconscious, I was given the opportunity to engage in an exciting experiment in telepathy. I must confess that it was difficult for me to tell if I was detecting thoughts generated only by the engine, or if I actually did understand what the other people involved were thinking and feeling. But the — what? I guess it was a game, in a way — was totally engrossing. In just a short time, I had “visited” quite a number of exotic places, not all of which corresponded with any reality of which I was previously aware. That’s probably because none of the places I “went” to had a C.S.I. unit or a newscrawl.

It’s almost impossible to imagine an activity nowadays in which you don’t have to do any clicking. (e.g. My wife sends me email to remind me to take out the garbage.) But one of the most amazing things about the whole interactive incident yesterday was that I didn’t have to press a single button, even though some of my buttons were pressed.

So, if you’ve casually skimmed this far — and you are skimming, right? — you’re probably asking yourself: “Self, how come this idiot doesn’t have any links, or polls, or videos, or something, anything, to do here? F’cryinoutloud, there’s not even a cool image I can download.”

Well, here’s the ultimate interactive experience. It’s called reading a novel. Oh, I can imagine many of you godless heathens saying

A novel? What’s the point of that? When I bother to read at all, I dig into non-fiction. I mean, it’s crucially important for us atheists to learn everything we can about evolution, and the Euthyphro dilemma, and the differences between Southern baptists and those other baptists who come from the North, East, and West. In order to win our compulsory daily arguments with religionists, we have to be totally clued in to history, and astrophysics, and mob psychology, and environmental science, and exactly what Richard Dawkins said about the Pope. We must bone up on our theological argumentation skills, heighten our knowledge of comparative religion, and hone our ability to come up with sarcastic spellings like ‘Jebus’ and ‘the Bibble.’ Who has time for some stupid story that isn’t even true?

(Judging from your own words, I can tell you’re an opinionated S.O.B. Aren’t you? It’s no wonder that the most popular kids in school won’t give you the time of day. Of course, another factor may be that kids aren’t taught how to tell time any more. Sheesh! We old farts learned how to do that as early as — judging by my watch — 8:45.)

My advice to you is: Set aside some time each day for reading fiction. I’m not suggesting that you spend hours poring over inane romance novels, or dismissible science-fantasy, or predictable mysteries, although there’s, ahem, nothing wrong with doing that. (Confession: I really think there is, but I recognize that my elitist prejudices have no place in modern American discourse.) In any case, those genres usually (not always) are represented best in movies and TV shows.

What I’m recommending is: Pick up a classic once in a while. Or a contemporary novel written by an author who has something new and different to say. Find a writer you like who seems to be speaking directly to you, who arouses both your intellect and your feelings, who doesn’t want to waste time talking to you unless you’re willing to take an active part in the conversation. A writer who brings characters to life, characters who reach out of the book and forcibly drag you into their world, characters you’d recognize instantly if you met them in the street, even though they probably don’t look anything like Lexington native George Clooney or anyone else you’ve ever seen.

That’s the ultimate interactive experience. I look forward to getting your recommendations (no Proust or Ayn Rand, though, please). If you’d like, I’ll even respond with a few of my own.

Posted in Books & Bookshops, Freedom from Faith, Random Rants | 39 Comments »

In Kentucky, We Call It “Litta-chur”

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 04/07/2010

April is the cruelest month — unless you’re a poet.

Limerickers, clerihewists, haikuans, parodisiacs, doggereleers, and versifiers of all kinds, have good reason to celebrate, for we are now well into National Poetry Month.

What does that have to do with atheism, you might well ask? Basically, nothing, except that some of our language’s most celebrated poets were skeptics. Herewith, a small sampler of excerpts:

Percy Bysshe Shelley
How calm and sweet the victories of life,
How terrorless the triumph of the grave!
How powerless were the mightiest monarch’s arm,
Vain his loud threat, and impotent his frown!
How ludicrous the priest’s dogmatic roar!
The weight of his exterminating curse
How light! And his affecting charity,
To suit the pressure of the changing times,
What palpable deceit! — but for thy aid,
Religion! but for thee, prolific fiend,
Who peoplest earth with demons, Hell with men,
And Heaven with slaves!

Matthew Arnold
“Christ,” some one says, “was human as we are;
No judge eyes us from Heaven, our sin to scan;
We live no more, when we have done our span.”

Algernon Charles Swinburne
Since man, with a child’s pride proud, and abashed as a child and afraid,
Made God in his likeness, and bowed him to worship the Maker he made,
No faith more dire hath enticed man’s trust than the saint’s whose creed
Made Caiaphas one with Christ, that worms on the cross might feed.
Priests gazed upon God in the eyes of a babe new-born, and therein
Beheld not heaven, and the wise glad secret of love, but sin.

Emily Dickinson
“Faith” is a fine invention
When gentlemen can
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency.

Edgar Lee Masters
And it will be some centuries before it becomes an accepted understanding
That Jesus had no mind capable of doing good for the world.
While possessing power to put Socrates and men like him aside
So that they could do little for the world.
That this has been so and is yet so is just as mysterious
As the so-called problem of evil can be to any mind.
For no one can explain why Athens, which was indeed a city set upon a hill,
Did not last forever for the benefit of all climes and peoples;
And why Jerusalem, a village of demons and camel dung,
Became the shrine of the world
Whereto men make pilgrimages to see the place where Jesus died for men.
While few are interested in the jail where Socrates gave up his life
Rather than surrender his freedom to think.

Langston Hughes
Go ahead on now,
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson,
And big black Saint Becton
Of the Consecrated Dime.
And step on the gas, Christ!

Don’t be so slow about movin!
The world is mine from now on —
And nobody’s gonna sell ME
To a king, or a general,
Or a millionaire.

Robert Frost
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? —
If design govern in a thing so small.

Also on the atheo-poetic front: Despite its blatantly anti-theistic content, and largely due to the votes of my readers (for which I’m grateful, although not eternally), my poem “Horton Hears an Evangelical” has been named the winner of the Silly Poetry Contest.

Posted in Books & Bookshops, Freedom from Faith, From Bad to Verse | 10 Comments »

Horton Hears an Evangelical

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 03/02/2010

[Note: A couple of years back, I posted the following pseudonymously on my previous blog. I’d like to acknowledge authorship under my real name, so I’m republishing this piece here on the appropriate date: Dr. Seuss’s birthday.]

In a place known as Whoville the folks got distraught
When Horton the elephant said what he thought.
“The oddest of oddities isn’t as odd
As people believing that there is a god.”

The Who Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists
The Who Vegetarians, Wiccans, and Nudists,
The Who Presbyterians, Baptists, New Agers:
All spread the sad news on their cell phones and pagers.

A Who Evangelical fell to his knees
And he said, “Oh no, Horton! I beg of you, please!
We always have liked you. We all think you’re swell,
And we can’t stand the thought that you’re headed to hell!”

But Horton just laughed and he wiggled his trunk.
The bible to him was a big bunch of bunk.
He meant what he said and he said what he meant,
“Religion is silly a hundred percent.”

The Who Evangelical let out a snort in
A very snide way most insulting to Horton.
“You say you’re an atheist? Here’s what we’ll do —
For we all know that atheists are anti-Who —

We’ll drive you from Whoville; we’ll send you away.
Or else we will force you to worship and pray.
A person’s a person, no matter how small,
But an atheist isn’t a person at all!”

But Horton just laughed once again even louder
And told all the Whos he would not take a powder,
Nor worship some stupid nonsensical being
That no one was hearing and no one was seeing.

“I will not be threatened,” he said. “It’s not funny.
I won’t trust your god with my flag or my money!
I will not allow him to influence science.
An elephant thrives on his own self-reliance!”

The Who Evangelical said, “My dear chap, sure
You think you’re so smart, but just wait till the rapture.”
The anti-Christ’s coming and then you will find,
That your friends are in heaven but you’re left behind.

“We cannot allow that to happen to you,
Because, after all, Jesus loves ev’ry Who.
You must accept God for the good of us all.
A person’s a person no matter how small.

“And though you’re no Who (you are just a big elephant),
God loves you, too. What you are is irrelevant.
He can destroy us if someone’s defiant.
A sinner’s a sinner no matter how giant!”

The Whos approached Horton, began to surround him.
If some of the Whos had their way, they’d have drowned him.
Some others thought maybe they might build a fire.
And stoning was mentioned among the Who choir.

But Horton was huge and avoided the crunch of them,
Picked up his foot, and then stepped on a bunch of them.
Hoping survivors would give up their mission,
The elephant told them about superstition:

“The oddest of oddities isn’t as odd
As people believing that there is a god.
There isn’t a heaven, or hell you should dread.
A person’s a person — until he is dead.”

Posted in Books & Bookshops, Freedom from Faith, From Bad to Verse, Seriously Silly | 15 Comments »

Biblical Literacy: “I Thought I Would Go With That”

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/09/2010

Yet again, somewhere in the United States, a band of ignorant theocrats are trying to pull a fast one on slow children. This time, they’re in — where else? — Kentucky.

I didn’t even have to open my daily rag today to find the following headline, because it was on the goddamned front page, above the fold:
Bill would let schools teach Bible literacy

The three Democrats who are proposing this momentous educational reform do, of course, go through the motions to appease the few Kentuckians who have actually read the First Amendment. The sponsors claim that their class would

teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture.

Contemporary? Usually, these kinds of god-pushers make a vague, passing reference to the totality of Western Civilization, and how it’s impossible to understand history and literature without having some familiarity with the bible. That argument probably holds some water, because our culture is swimming in Christian references.

But here in Kentucky, even that lie isn’t necessary. When asked about — as the Lexington Herald-Leader so tendenciously put it — potential “criticism from those who would favor the teaching of other religious texts, such as the Quran,” the bill’s primary sponsor, state senator David Boswell, said:

Since the Bible has played such a big role in our literature, I thought I would go with that.

His response makes it sound as if Boswell, with the innocent aim of expanding our students’ vistas, sat down and made a fair-minded list of literary pros and cons, with columns headed “the Bible,” “the Quran,” and maybe even “the Vedas,” and “The Mahayana Canon.” Eventually, to his complete surprise, he exclaimed, “Well, would you look at this? Christianity wins!” But, of course, that’s wholly shit.

So is it even remotely possible to have a religion-neutral class on bible literacy? O me of little faith; I doubt it. Not here in Kentucky, anyway, where the bible-thumping is loud enough to drown out all other thought.

But at a bare minimum, public schools should be forced to adhere to the following rules for such courses:

  • God must always be referred to as “the god character in this section.”
  • No events in the bible may be taught as fact or truth.
  • A teacher of the course must not, either explicitly or implicitly, endorse the content of any biblical passage.
  • Morally abhorrent sections of the bible must be liberally included in the course.
  • For every passage of the bible covered, the teacher must relate it to either an important historical event or literary work to which the verses act as a reference.
  • The teacher must point out parallels to biblical stories in other works of mythological literature, as well as in folklore and fairy tales.
  • The teacher must refer to the “unknown author” (small “a”) of each book or passage studied, and analyze the writing critically in the same way that other texts would be treated.
  • For all quotes, incidents, and story fragments discussed or assigned, the teacher must use a textbook or other reference work, not his or her own personal copy of the bible. The volume used must not have been issued by a publisher specializing in religious materials nor by the theological arm of an allegedly religion-neutral publisher.
  • For comparative literary purposes, the teacher must point out obvious discrepancies between biblical accounts (i.e., the two conflicting versions of the creation of humans, the differing lists of Jesus’s genealogy).
  • No teacher of the course may wear any religious item of clothing or jewelry, or emblazon any public or personal object (including his or her car) with a phrase in praise of any deity.
  • No teacher of the course may attend any outside religious services at which a student in the class might make an appearance.
  • No teacher of the course may refer to his or her own religious beliefs, either directly or indirectly. Nor may the teacher allow classroom discussion in which students talk about their own religious beliefs.

While I’m on the subject, I’d also like to address the age-old mantra that the bible should be taught as great literature. Yes, there are some beautiful passages and interesting turns of phrase in various books, and any cultured person should recognize them. But students should be reminded repeatedly that the bible is a centuries-spanning anthology of books, each of which has been translated, perhaps inaccurately or misleadingly, from ancient languages.

And a lot of the bible is just inartistic crap. Could anyone read the dry-as-the-desert rulebooks Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and not be bored out of his or her mind? The first book of Chronicles is loaded with yawn-inducing lists. Dull minor prophets like Obadiah and Haggai? Who would even look at them today if they were collected in any other volume? The Gospel of Mark is mediocre writing at best. And some of those epistles, like Titus and Philemon, are on a par with junk-mail solicitations.

I’d normally be the last person to criticize school systems for trying to teach ineducable louts about important cultural achievements. I recognize that the bible is certainly one of those. Clearly, though, it’s by no means the only one. Nor is it the most important, unless you already come to the table with a predigested notion that every word was inspired by you-know-who. Lots of the bible is tiresome and/or repugnant — badly written, morally reprehensible, logically muddled, unhistorical hogwash. If our goal is to civilize our kids, we need to expose them to Greek philosophers, Shakespeare’s plays, Beethoven’s symphonies, Rembrandt’s paintings, and the actual texts of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. They may be shocked to learn that the latter contains a little something forbidding the government from establishing religion.

If the bill-sponsoring god-pushers from Kentucky were completely honest — which they’re not — they’d also be making a fuss that public school students are taught next to nothing about Greek/Roman mythology, world drama, classical music, fine art, and the history of science. Shouldn’t those subjects be mandated in the public schools as well?

So why are they worried specifically about biblical literacy? Anyone who spends even a small amount of time reading the drivel in newspapers and magazines, in best-selling novels and current biographies, and — yeah — on most blogs, anyone who cares at all about the written word, knows that many Americans are inept at communicating or understanding ideas in any form longer than a twit’s tweet. What we really need to teach students in this country is just plain old unadorned literacy.

Posted in Books & Bookshops, First Amendment, Freedom from Faith | 12 Comments »

Pun Formation

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/06/2010

Tomorrow is unique in that it’s both Charles Dickens’s 198th birthday and the XLIVth Super Bowl.  It’s a little-known fact that my favorite novelist was, himself, an ardent fan of the NFL. Dickens seems to have begun a number of works about America’s most important pseudo-religious holiday, although he fumbled before they reached completion. Nevertheless, here are some excerpts:

first sentence from A Super Bowl Carol
Bronko Nagurski was dead, to begin with.

from A Tale of Two Super Bowl Cities
It was the best of bowls, it was the worst of bowls, it was the age of defense, it was the age of offense, it was the epoch of sportscars, it was the epoch of gumbo, it was the season of motor oil, it was the season of seasonings, it was the spring of Brees, it was the winter of Manning, we had everything riding on the Saints, we had all our money on the Colts.

from David Copperbowl
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my office pool, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, the final tallies must show. To begin my story with the beginning of my bet, I record that I selected the dreaded 9-2 on the 100-square sheet. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

from Oliver Twit
The evening arrived; the fans took their places around the football-field-sized TV. The host, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the wings table; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him, at the chili tureen, at the chips-and-dips trays, and at the deli spread. The beer was served out; and a long toast was said by those rooting for each team. The game commenced; the nuts and pretzels disappeared; the fans whispered each other; and winked at Oliver; while his neighbors nudged him. Loser that his team was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the couch; and advancing to the host, empty plate in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

“Please, sir, I want some more nachos.”

from Great Expectorations
In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials — satins, and lace, and silks — all of purple, yellow, and white. Her shoes were oddly matched, one with purple buckles, the other with yellow. And she had long yellow braids depending from the top of her head, but her hair was white. Her face was painted so that the right side was a jaundiced yellow, and the left, a bruised purple. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had a horned helmet before her on the dressing table, and with her headpiece some flowers, and a Prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

“Look at me,” said Miss Vikishfan. “You are not afraid of a woman whose team was robbed, are you boy?”

last sentence from A Super Bowl Carol
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, Go pass Us Every One!

I, myself, don’t care much for football. But I’ll probably grab a few handfuls of Little Doritos at halftime, and listen to The Old Who-riosity Slop.

Posted in Books & Bookshops, Seriously Silly | 7 Comments »

All of ‘Em

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 01/16/2010

Katy Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
Sarah Palin: I’ve read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
Katy Couric: What, specifically?
Sarah Palin: Um … all of ‘em.

Glenn Beck: Who’s your favorite Founder?
Sarah Palin: Um … well … all of ‘em.

Wallberg: I’m delighted to have Sarah Palin with me tonight as my guest on “Book Blather.” Ms. Palin, as most of you know, is the titular author of …

Palin: Well, if I may interrupt you for just a minute here, if I may. I don’t think most Americans care whether a person is titular or not. Here in this great country of ours, God gave men and women the same wonderful freedom.

Wallberg: Yes, well, thanks for coming to discuss books, Ms. Palin.

Palin: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Because I love books. I even wrote a book because I love ’em so much. It’s called Going Rogue and you can buy it on your computer or in a book store or at WalMart or even some gas stations. That’s how much I love books and magazines. And newspapers, too, and uh-huh. Greetin’ cards. I think all Americans understand me when I say that we are a greetin’ card nation, because all of us do love to receive. In the mail. Y’know. Christmas and birthdays and such. Greetin’ cards.

Wallberg: Yes, getting a card is nice.

Palin: And it’s, I think, fundamental to the American way of life. Our freedom to send each other little poems on Christmas and Easter and. Oh, all kinds of occasions.

Wallberg: Well, let me ask you, since this is a program about books. What’s your favorite novel?

Palin: Um … all of ‘em.

Wallberg:Every novel ever written is your favorite?

Palin: Well, of course, I do like some better than others. But they’re all my favorite, really.

Wallberg: Can you name one novel that you like better than others?

Palin: Well, I’d rather not single out … of course I really enjoyed readin’ Going Rogue. Which I also wrote.

Wallberg: What about novels by some other authors, besides you?

Palin: Y’know, I also liked readin’ The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, which I didn’t write, but I feel I coulda, because I agree with everything in it. And it’s about a great American who had lots of … um … wit. And wisdom, too. Somebody wrote it whose name I forget for the moment but it doesn’t matter because it’s mostly filled with stuff that Ronald Reagan said. So, really, it’s like he wrote it. And he was a great American who loved freedom only somebody else typed.

Wallberg: Those books you mentioned aren’t novels.

Palin: Oh, you want me to name a novel?

Wallberg: Here, I’ll help you. How about Huckleberry Finn? Or Moby Dick? Or The Sound and the Fury?

Palin: So you’re talkin’ about schoolbooks?

Wallberg: Well, any novel.

Palin: I’d have to say that one of the novels I like best is Goodnight Moon,  because I tell it to Trig and Trapp and it helps put ’em to sleep. So it works, which is what good ol’ American know-how is all about. But I think stayin’ awake is OK, too, and many of the people I respect most, like George Washington and Ronald Reagan. They stayed awake when they could.

Wallberg: Let’s forget about novels, shall we?

Palin: To answer your question. I could never forget about novels because all of ‘em are my favorite. But you betcha.

Wallberg: Let’s move on then. How about Shakespeare’s plays? Did you ever read any of those?

Palin: Um … all of ‘em.

Wallberg: Even The Two Noble Kinsmen? Nobody reads that one.

Palin: You’re tryin’a confuse me, arencha? If it’s one of ‘em, I read it.

Wallberg: And do you have a favorite?

Palin: I’d have to say … um … all of ‘em.

Wallberg: Well, do you prefer the tragedies, or the comedies, or the histories?

Palin: Y’know, Larry, I prefer … um … all of ‘em. Because every freedom-lovin’ American has to deal with tragedy and comedy and history in their own life. In my own experiences, for instance, I’ve had to deal with tragedy, which was losin’ the election to Barack Obama. But I also like comedy, I Love Lucy and such. But I think we Americans can learn most, mostly, from the histories.

Wallberg: I take it you’ve read all of Shakespeare’s history plays?

Palin: Yup.

Wallberg: And I suppose it might be too much to ask for you to name a favorite?

Palin: Oh, they’re all really good. Maybe I like the one about George Washington a little bit better than the others because he was a great Founder and a great American.

Wallberg: Is that the one where the main character says, “To be or not to be?”

Palin: You’re tryin’a to trick me, I think. So no. George Washington didn’t say that. He said, “I chopped down the cherry tree.” Maybe he said “I choppeth downeth the cherryeth tree-eth,” because that’s how  people talked in Shakespeare’s day, y’know? But it still means the same thing in plain English or Shakespeare’s Latin or whatever. Which is chop, baby, chop. And that’s why most of your socialists and commies and atheist liberals find it hard to understand those Shakespeare books. Because they have good old-fashioned language and family values.

Wallberg: Do you have any other favorite Shakespearean quotes.

Palin: Well … um … all of ‘em. But maybe I also liked it a lot when George Washington said “God bless America.” Which I know God does,  because we’re his favorite country.

Wallberg: I thought he loved all of ‘em.

Palin: Well, maybe he does. But the best places in the world are our small towns here in the U.S.A, where the people are hard-workin’ and patriotic. Like Wasilla and many others. So I’d have to say that God maybe likes us a little bit better than Russia or Afghanistan or Eye-Rack. Or even London and Asia and any of those other foreign countries. Because they don’t love freedom and God the way we do. And that’s why I wrote Going Rogue. To resonate with people who want to resonate with my great vision for America.

Wallberg: Could you share with our audience any final thought about books?

Palin: Gee, I have so many thoughts, I can’t really name a favorite. I like all of ‘em. Maybe, if I hadda pick one, I’d tell people to buy Going Rogue. Or, for any great American who loves freedom and doesn’t like to read, watch me on TV.

Wallberg: Why don’t you just remind the folks what network you’re on?

Palin: Um … all of ‘em. Aren’t I?

Posted in Books & Bookshops, Idiots, Pop Culture | 19 Comments »

Read the Book While You See the Movie

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 01/10/2010

Every now and then I get tired of being curmudgeonly, so I  try to take a few hours off from grumbling. This is tougher to do than you’d think, because sometimes the only way I know I’m really alive here in Lexington is to feel cranky.

But on these mellow occasions, I do make an attempt to relax my mind, not burdening it with any cantankerous details whatsoever. That may be easy for some of my butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-heads fellow Kentuckians, but it’s no easy task for me. Still, tomorrow is my birthday, and I’m gettin’ old.  So, just for tonight, I didn’t want to have to rev myself up to my usual level of orneriness.

Instead, my wife and I spent some time reminiscing about the good old days. The good old days — which, really, weren’t that great unless you liked French-cut canned stringbeans — were back when only birds tweeted, back before anyone who wasn’t a pie-maker ever thought about a blackberry, back before “iPod therefore iAm.” We certainly had no such thing as Google, where every factual error in the world can be summoned within seconds. In those days, people found information by reading books. I’m not kidding. We turned pages with our — yuck! — fingers.

Of course, that’s an outmoded procedure nowadays, but my wife and I are kind of outmoded ourselves. So, even though each of us can do esearch with the best of them, we still often find ourselves racing to our bookshelves whenever we’re hungry for tidbits of information. You can’t teach an old dog new nitpicks. That’s why it takes us about a week and a half to get through a 90-minute DVD.

To be more precise about the reason it takes us so long: It’s because we’re Lookies.

The original Lookies were a couple of friendly question-mark-shaped children in the 1950s who urged kids to nag their parents for the World Book Encyclopedia. Their motto, as I remember it, was: “We never guess; we look it up. ‘Cause we’re the Lookies!”

I’ve been a Lookie all my life, and so has my ladylove. Years ago, when we first combined living quarters, we sat our two reference collections down and promised that we’d show no favoritism. But now, ages later, we still don’t trust each other’s books.

“What does ‘heuristic’ mean?” she might ask, peering at me above the top of her magazine article.

“I’m not sure. Let’s look it up.”

“Use my dictionary.”

“Mine’s better.”

“Well, it’s my word.”

Our Lookitude really flourishes, though, when we’re watching a film. As we were earlier today.

“What city is that?” asks my wife, while the camera pans down on the opening shot.

“I’m not sure it matters to the story,” I answer, scanning Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, an edition of which I always grab before pressing Play. You never know what kind of film-knowledge emergencies might come up.

“Of course it matters,” she says. “It’s not just some vague place. We’re supposed to recognize those buildings. What does the book say? I see palm trees. It’s probably Miami or L.A., don’t you think?”

“There’s a street sign,” I point out.

“I missed it. Stop and hit reverse. Let’s see it again.”

Meanwhile, the film’s narrator is telling us, “The sun rose that morning over …”

“Stop that damn thing for a minute!”

“C’mon,” I complain. “He just said it was Minneapolis.”

“I don’t care what he said, but I think you’re hearing things. There aren’t any palm trees in Minneapolis. Even you know that, right? Go look up ‘palm’ in my botany encyclopedia.”

“Maybe it was an unusually warm summer,” I suggest. “Let’s just watch the movie.”

My wife leans over and grabs the remote from my hand, frantically hitting pause. “Wait a second. Wait a second. What else took place in Minneapolis? I’m thinking of something but I can’t zero in on it.”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'” I say.

“Oh, yeah, right.” We both sing “Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take …”

“You know when Mary Tyler Moore really made me smile?” My wife tosses her imaginary hat into the air as she gets up to walk over to one of our 3,000 bookcases. “I wanna find something in Total TV. Just bear with me a second. Go pee or something”

“I don’t have to. Can’t it wait till after the movie?” I ask.

“This is gonna drive me crazy through the whole thing. When we were singing about Mary Tyler Moore, it reminded me of when she was married to Dick Van Dyke. And I suddenly can’t remember their last name. Aha! Here it is! Petrie!”

“Yeah,” I say, “like the dish we used to make gunk in during high school biology. Now you’ve got me curious. Who’s that dish named for? You think it’ll be in one of the desk encyclopedias?”

“I bet it’s in mine.”

“Mine’s better. Hold on, while I check in my office.”

“I’ll go look in mine.” Both of us call out, almost simultaneously, “J.R. Petri, German bacteriologist.” Then, as she heads back to the living-room, she hollers, “OK, I’m ready to watch the movie now.”

“No, no. Not yet,” I holler back. “I wanna see something. I’m checking Nobel Prizes for Medicine in The World Almanac.”

“What year?”

“I don’t know. I graduated from high school in ’65, so it had to be before that. Just shut up and let me do some serious research here.”

About fifteen minutes later, I march into the living-room, triumphantly.

“Did you find out if he won a Nobel Prize?” my wife asks.,

“No, I got sidetracked. But y’wanna hear something weird! We were just talking about Dick Van Dyke, and I was looking up awards given out in 1965, right?” She nods. “Well, guess who won the Miss America Contest in 1965!”

“No clue,” she says.


“I can’t. Now you’re holding the movie up.”

“Vonda Kay Van Dyke!” I say. “Isn’t that a strange coincidence?”

“What the hell kind of name is Vonda?”

“It’s a variant of ‘Wanda’ and it means ‘wanderer.’ I knew you’d want to know, so I looked it up.”


“In What to Name Your Baby.”

“What are you doing with that?”

I shrug. “It was on sale at Barnes and Noble. I couldn’t resist. You never know what kind of information …”

“That reminds me,” she says. “Remember ‘The Wanderer’?”

“Yeah, yeah. I figured you’d ask so I looked in The Encyclopedia of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Dion sang it in 1962.”

“Not that wanderer,” she says. “A different wanderer. I was thinking of some opera character. Where’s my opera handbook?”

“I’ll go look in mine, too,” I suggest.

Five minutes go by.

Siegfried,” she calls. “By Wagner,” I respond. “The Wanderer is Wotan,” she calls. “Leader of the Norse gods,” I answer.

“Yeah. By the way, my stylebook right here says not to confuse ‘Norse’ with ‘Norwegian.”

“You know who I picture when I think about Norwegians?”

“Garrison Keillor,” she answers.

“Hey, that’s amazing,” I shout. “Minnesota.”

“Minneapolis!” we both cheer.

Finally, having come full circle — at least for the time being — we head back to the couch to unpause the movie. And to breathe a sigh of relief after a job well done.

Nobody ever claimed that being a Lookie was gonna be easy.

Posted in Books & Bookshops, Google, Old Movies | 7 Comments »

You Take the Haiku and I’ll Take the Lowku

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/31/2009

Yesterday, a fellow geezer reran an old post of his, in which he tried his hand at writing haiku. Seeing his effort, I was very glad I didn’t have to study that poetic form back when I was in school. Because – please excuse me, all my Japanese readers – I just don’t get it. Confining oneself to seventeen syllables in a poem is too much like tweeting.

Anyway, most of the verses that I like best are really wordy. You’re not surprised, right?

So I began to wonder: What would have happened if some well-known Western poets had haiku-ed? Well, for one thing, the Norton Anthology would be a lot shorter. But would students have been stuck memorizing the following?

William Shakespeare
Shall I compare thee
to a summer’s day – or not?
That is the question.

Andrew Marvell
Had we time enough,
I’d enjoy your run-around.
But we don’t. Let’s screw!

William Blake
Tyger burning bright,
Your symmetry frightens me!
Who made thee, ol’ puss?

William Wordsworth
When you get lonely,
Picture daffodils dancing.
Believe me, it works!

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Listen, pal, am I
supposed to be all impressed
by this dumb statue?

Edward Fitzgerald
A book, some nice wine,
a little bread, and – yeah – you.
Oy, I’m in heaven.

Edgar Allen Poe
So this bird flies in,
and starts squawking “Nevermore.”
And then … phhht … I’m dead.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Listen to me, kids.
Forget that Harry Potter.
I’ll tell “Paul Revere.”

Robert Browning
That’s my last duchess,
whom I had killed because she
smiled at ev’ryone.

Rudyard Kipling
Boots, boots, boots, boots, boots,
Din, Din, Din, Din, Din, Din, Din.
Goddamn these hiccups!

Ernest Lawrence Thayer
Yay! Casey’s at bat!
Hit it out of the ballpark!
Why’d you strike out, jerk?

T.S. Eliot
Why don’t those women shut up
and pass me a peach?

Dorothy Parker
Men won’t make passes
At near-sighted young ladies
who don’t wear contacts.

Robert Frost
Two roads through the woods?
Yikes! Decisions, decisions.
I’ll just flip a coin.

Ogden Nash
This will be haiku,
these seventeen syllables.
(OK, so maybe it’ll take me more, like, say, forty syllables altogether, to make this swill be my coup.)

There will be no test on this, so have a Happy New Year!

Posted in Books & Bookshops, From Bad to Verse | 11 Comments »

Cull Me Ishmael

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/29/2009

When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.
Desiderius Erasmus

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
Dorothy Parker

My alleged friend Srsny gave me nervous palpitations yesterday by sending me a link to a New York Times blog post called “Books You Can Live Without.” A number of litterateurs were asked to identify those volumes that they might cull from their collections if they found it necessary to thin the herd. I’m glad I wasn’t asked, because I’ve been going into a bibliophiliac panic just thinking about it.

As Srsny knows, my household is the repository of about approximately 3500 books. When my wife and I moved from Florida to Kentucky, I packed about 70 big boxes of just my own literary possessions, and another 40-odd of my wife’s. In the process, I did manage – reluctantly – to get rid of some duplicates, and to give away a few blatantly false “true crime” collections. But, basically, I kept everything I had. My little home office looks like a Barnes and Noble, only without any shelves for mugs or totebags.

My wife and I share almost everything we own, but not our books. She has her dictionary; I have mine. If we’re arguing about the definition, spelling, or usage of a word, we have to look it up in both places to see if the authorities concur. Neither of us thinks the other’s atlases are credible, because mapmakers have been known to be wrong. Both of us possess our own copies of the Peterson and Sibley guides to Eastern birds, so we have to check four sources whenever we spot an unfamiliar guest at our feeder. Why four? No offense, but we don’t trust one another’s books. Aside from redundant reference books, the only other volumes found in both our collections are The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Eloise, and our 2002 stocking-stuffer twin copies of Leonard Maltin’s 2003 Movie Guide.

We have a strictly hands-off policy when it comes to our partner’s books, except during research emergencies and packing crises. Needless to say, even though I’d love to get rid of some of her sillier tomes, I would never dare to deep-six anything from my wife’s collection. She, likewise, intolerantly tolerates my dumbest books.

Obviously then, if there’s any culling to be done, I’ll have to hunt through my own shelves. To remind myself in the future of that possibility, I’m listing fifteen books that I conceivably could bear to toss into the literary trashbin.

1. Moby Dick
Despite starting this book seven or eight times, I’ve managed to remain Moby Dickless for the first sixty years of my life. The only way I can see myself finishing it is if someone happens to give me a harpoon for my birthday.

2. The Lord of the Rings in one volume
You’re not getting to be a hobbit with me. Fantasy is supposed to be fun, not pretentious, pseudo-religious claptrap. The only cool ring cycle is the one by Wagner.

3. Any one of my many Perry Mason mysteries
Every few years, when I go into a long-lasting funk, I fight my way out of it by reading about twenty Erle Stanley Gardners in a row. They’re all pretty much the same, except that the names are changed; the minute I close one of these books, I forget who the murderer was. So why shouldn’t I just read the same book twenty times?

4. Chess: 5344 Problems, Combinations and Games
Chess is not a good game for a person who has no spatial sense, so why would I think I’d be able to master it when I can’t even put my socks on frontwards? I’ll stick with Scrabble, where the worst thing you can do is place one of your tiles upside-down.

5. The Hero With a Thousand Faces
And not one of them interesting.

6. The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins is a great science writer, and has penned a number of excellent books for the intelligent layman (my favorite is The Selfish Meme). He can also chug out essays of great charm and literary merit (like the ones collected in Unweaving the Rainbow). But there’s nothing in this book that I hadn’t thought of myself at least forty-five years ago, when I was a skeptical teenager. The author’s thesis: it’s ridiculous to believe in any gods. Yup. What else is new?

7. A Concise History of Kentucky
The first paragraph of chapter one should give you an idea of how sophomorically written this book is: “One meaning of the word frontier is a border between places. But those borders can be very different at different times.” Passing itself off as a work of popular nonfiction for adults, this is essentially a textbook aimed at people who, although they themselves may be very different at different times, all read at a fourth-grade level. 

8. The New York City Cab Driver’s Joke Book, Vol. 2
I’ve taken thousands of rides in New Yawk City cabs, and not once has a driver told me a joke. Which is a good thing, because he would have lost his tip if he’d come out with some unfunny drivel he’d found in this paperback. Ten years ago, my son gave me this book as a birthday gift. We’ve both outgrown it now.

9. Match Wits with the Harvard MBA’s
The cover blurb says it all: “Test your financial savvy! You can win a bundle – or lose your shirt!” Now that we’re all shirtless, I don’t think a Harvard MBA has any information of value to offer me.

10. 100 Incredible, Provocative, and Fascinating Real-Life Cases: You Be the Judge
OK, I will. This book sucks.

11. The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche
I picked up this book used, and the choice of excerpts is fine. But there are a few things wrong with my particular volume besides the coffee stains and roach droppings. The bottom quarter of page 246 is blank. To tell the truth, I can’t really see myself curling up with Leibnitz, anyway, but if I did do so, I’d want to hang on his every word. There’s something else annoying about this copy, even worse than the missing paragraph. The previous owner chose to write pithy comments in the margins. I’m not convinced that “Meditations on First Philosophy” is helped by observations like “I agree,” “SO true,” or “right!!!!!!”

12. Profiles in Courage
In the current political climate, the title of this book makes me want to scream. Any senator writing a similar book today would have to call it Profiles in Getting Elected. Of course, my howling impulse isn’t eased any by the knowledge that John Kennedy wrote no more of Profiles than Sarah Palin did of Going Rogue. Still, as the titular author, JFK accepted a Pulitzer Prize for the work – having courageously paid ghostwriter Ted Sorensen to keep his mouth shut.

13. The Great American Bathroom Book
Been there, done that.

14. The Armchair Angler
That’s right, 400 pages of essays about fishing. I bought this when I was researching an article I wrote in the mid-90s about catching snook in Tampa Bay. That was the first and last time I communed with my inner Opie. I know that many people find fishing relaxing, but to me it’s an activity for the brain-dead. And really, how lazy do you have to be to just read about it?

15. Leonard Maltin’s 2003 Movie Guide
It’s seven years out of date, f’chrissake. My wife and I need to buy ourselves two copies of the newest edition.

Posted in Books & Bookshops | 6 Comments »