A Good Short Story is Hard to Find (unless you’re reading Flannery O’Connor)

A couple Wednesdays ago, I ventured to the far north side of Indianapolis to attend a “book discussion group’ (is there a difference between that and a book club?) meeting at the Carmel Public Library. The book to be discussed was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find and other stories.” Up until a few weeks ago, the only O’Connor I had read was the famous title story, which seems ubiquitous among the many short story anthologies that I’ve read. Viewed by itself, that particular story is pretty strange, and if I were left with that as my only exposure to O’Connor I would much likely have an altogether different opinion of her than I do today.

Reading a collection of her stories taught me that the morbidity I encountered in A Good Man is Hard to Find is part of her writing style, and the more stories I read, the more I got used to it and began to expect how the stories might turn out. A common theme is that many characters generally begin pretty sure of themselves and their view of the world, which later becomes shattered by degrees or sometimes in one fell swoop. This collection contained ten stories, primarily in the 12-20 page length, with one longer one of about thirty-five pages.

I learned also, that O’Connor was a master of the simile, sometimes “one-liners” and sometimes a bit more lengthy. A few favorite examples:

“(he was) frail as a dried spider”
“(they were) as silent as thieves hiding.”
“(his) stare seemed to pinch her like a pair of tongs.”
“his knees worked like old hinges.”

“The graduates in their heavy robes looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being sweated out of them.” “She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.”
“His mind had frozen around his grandfather’s treachery as if he were trying to preserve it intact to present at final judgment.”
“(his eyes) were alert but quiet…as if they belonged to one of the great guides of men. He might have been Vergil summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante…”

Aren’t those great? I also enjoyed some of the names that she assigned the characters, which often reflected their natures. There may for instance be found among them a Mrs. Hopewell, and a Mrs. Cope. Other names are less thinly veiled, like a Mr. Shiftley, who is indeed “shiftless.”

All in all, I enjoyed the stories and the discussion. Though a large group (nineteen!), every one was well behaved and willingly listened to the opinions of others. I learned that they meet the first Wednesday of every month, and I hope to “go back for more.” They’re next reading the best selling novel, Cutting for Stone, and I’m already about a hundred pages into that one (I’m reading it concurrently with my own book club’s August book, The Historian, and, at this point anyway, Cutting for Stone is “winning”…)

One other quick note regarding something that reading O’Connor has made me think of: the author lived a relatively short life, dying when she was only 39, and the body of her work consists only of two novels and two collections of short stories (of which – the latter format – she is widely recognized as one of the masters). I thought that, unlike many other favorite authors, her “oeuvre” is manageably finite. I.e. One could read all she wrote and even become an “expert” or scholar of her work much more easily than other more prolific authors.

How about you all? Have you experienced Flannery O’Connor’s stories? What do you think of them?

P.S. I just realized I didn’t even talk about the omnipresent religious themes in her work. I suppose that would have to be a topic for another, much longer post… 🙂

below: Flannery O’Connor’s trademark bird…

Ignorance, Misrepresentation and Censorship

I’ve been wanting to write this post for over a week now, ever since I first heard the news story  that Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five had been removed from the reading list for a high school English class in Republic, Missouri. But, just as I don’t like to talk when I’m angry, I also don’t like to write when I’m angry. Well, I’m still angry, but I’m going to write a post anyway. 🙂 I’d like to say, too, that what finally lit my fire to do so was remembering another “Great moment in Censorship”: the 1985 “PMRC” senate hearings about labeling the content of certain music as objectionable and providing parental warning stickers. One hero of those hearings was the “relatively unobjectionable and mainstream” singer John Denver, who I’m sure many thought would come down on the side of the conservatives.

Denver dashed those hopes early by saying, “May I be very clear in that I am opposed to censorship of any kind in our society or anywhere else in the world.” As the moral watchdogs cringed he also explains why censorship occurs inthe first place, saying that “censorship occurs where some are afraid of the consequences of an informed and educated people.” Words to remember. A YouTube search of “PMRC hearings” will lead you to some great, inspirational video of artists eloquently defending their work and freedom of speech.

Anyway, to get back to the present day… In a nutshell, the Republic, Missouri story is that a “concerned parent” (who reportedly home schools his own children) complained about some of the reading material in the Republic High School curriculum, specifically that it contained too much foul language, sexual themes, and taught principles contrary to the Bible. I was able to find the Original opinion piece written by the concerned parent, Wesley Scroggins (pictured at the link below), which likely is different from the “official complaint” (if there was something that formal). It may be found online here There were three books targeted by Scroggins’ rant, and I’ll quote in full the paragraph that deals specifically with Slaughterhouse Five:

“In English, children are also required to read a book called ‘Slaughterhouse Five.’ This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The ‘f word’ is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.”

Now, language is a beautiful thing, and the older I get the more I come to appreciate it. When writing or speaking, choices are inevitably made in how to describe things to convey the message you wish. In this light, I find Scroggins’ paragraph regarding Slaughterhouse Five and his choices regarding the language he uses both illuminating and irritating.

First, right off the bat he tells the readers that “children (CHILDREN!) are required to read…” One could also have just as readily said “students” are required to read, but the word “students” sounds a lot less “innocent” and “impressionable” than children. There is irony here too. In Chapter One of the book (which, for the record, is in fact subtitled “or The Children’s Crusade”) Vonnegut explains how he visits the home of Bernard O’Hare, a former war comrade and encounters hostility from O’Hare’s wife who, knowing Vonnegut is working on his book about the war, says “You were just babies then! But you’re not going to write it that way, are you? You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.” The “babies upstairs” referred to are Vonnegut’s and O’Hare’s children. One other thing Scroggins and the school administrators who “caved” to his pressure could consider: countless thousands who fought in the war described by Vonnegut in this book were young enough to be students at Republic High School. Is being old enough to fight and die in service to the country “age appropriate” while reading a book that is anti-war is not?

Second, I find it somewhat amusing that he refers to the work in question as “a book called Slaughterhouse Five.” To me, this is like saying to somebody, “I read a book (or saw a movie) called Gone With the Wind the other day.” When you say it that way, it sounds like you assume the audience has never heard of it. (or, maybe the writer had never heard of it and feels it needs to be couched in this language). If either are true in this case, it’s a shame. Slaughterhouse Five repeatedly makes lists like “The 100 Greatest novels of All Time” and the like. In spite of its renown, either Scroggins was ignorant of the book, or he insultingly assumes his readers are. I suspect some, maybe including him, might be insulted if I referred to Republic as “a town in a state called Missouri.”

Third, the choice of words is significant in the sentence “there is so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush in shame.” There is a lot of foul and obscene language in the book. Probably just the right amount to tell the story. Right or wrong, soldiers (and sailors, as he points out) tend to swear a lot. The writing wouldn’t ring true if there were a bunch of “gosh darns” and “son of a guns” in there. Scroggins’ choice to use “profane” may be telling here as well, since it implies a debasement or defilement of that which is considered holy. I admittedly don’t know the motives behind Mr. Scroggins’ complaint, but wouldn’t be surprised if this is where the heart of the matter lies.

Fourth, he invokes the forces of wild hyperbole when he says, “the f word is plastered on almost every other page.” I’ve read this book a couple times and, though my memory is sometimes poor, I didn’t remember it as THAT rampant. SO, I’ve started reading it again. I’m up to page sixty (of 213 pages in my edition), and there have been two “f-bombs” dropped so far. Maybe things will pick up, but “almost every other page?” Come, now. Oh, and I should add that it’s not “plastered” either. It is not bold-typed or a larger font, or italicized either. It looks like all the other words. Such an exaggeration is either deliberately misleading or indicates an unfamiliarity with the text. Both are irresponsible in this case.

Fifth, he characterizes the content of the novel as including “naked men and women in cages together so others can watch them having sex.” Literally, this one is ALMOST correct. Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack (and that’s ONE man and ONE woman, not “men and women”) are kept in a cage in hopes that they will “mate” and have children. What Scroggins doesn’t include is the context (a favorite tactic used by those whose strategy is to mislead). Billy & Montana are kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians (aliens) and kept in something akin to a zoo exhibit on the planet Trafalmadore. In that context, the content sounds a lot less salacious, doesn’t it?

Lastly, what I suspect bothered Scroggins the most, is the content of “God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.” I think Scroggins is here referring to a section of Chapter Five, where a (fictional) science fiction book by Kilgore Trout titled “The Gospel from Outer Space” is being discussed. The POINT of this passage was that readers of the gospel knew that Jesus was the “Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe” and thus thought, “Oh, boy – they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!” and that the “message” could easily be misinterpreted as “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.” In the alien version of the gospel, Jesus really was a nobody, and that god “adopted the bum” as his son to show people that they couldn’t even torment a bum who has no connections. This is hardly the assumption of content that one would make in reading Mr. Scroggins’ paragraph, is it?

Also, in the original opinion piece, published in September 2010, the three books are referred to (in the title) as “Filthy Books Demeaning to Public Education.” Boy, those that fancy themselves watchdogs of public morals sure love that word, filthy, don’t they? There’s irony in its use here, too. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five, is At one point described as not looking like a soldier at all and, instead, looking like a filthy flamingo. Curiously, if you are to look the word up in Merriam Webster’s dictionary – at least in my edition – the usage example given is: “The filth of a slaughterhouse…” But that’s just a coincidence… In my opinion, what’s demeaning here isn’t three “filthy books,” but rather a self appointed moral watchdog who has the gall to presume he knows what’s best for the rest of us and our children.

I have been somewhat gratified to see that many responses to this story condemn the decision (school, superintendent Vern Minor removed two of three challenged books from the curriculum, citing age-appropriateness as the reason. He even says about Slaughterhouse Five, “Im not saying it’s a bad book.” Well, thank you for that at least…) and also it has caused me – and hopefully many others – to give this book another look. I’m sure Vonnegut would be happy about that. He would also be happy that The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is giving away free copies of slaughterhouse Five to those students in Republic who want to “read it anyway.”

I have made no mention about the other two books attacked by Mr. Scroggins, and I feel bad about that, but one other defense of them can be found here.

Well, that’s about it. Rant over. Thanks for listening, though. 🙂 Is anyone else aware of this story? Any personal experiences with censorship that you’d like to share?

New Book: Christopher DiCarlo’s “How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass”

Although not too keen on the title (which the author told me was an intentional attention-grabbing ploy), I purchased an advance copy of this book last night, when I went to hear the author (who – to me anyway – looks kind of like Leonard Nimoy’s younger brother!) speak about it. It was an amazing an enlightening couple of hours for me. Indianapolis was fortunate enough to be the first stop on his promotional tour for the book. You couldn’t tell, though, as his presentation was fluid and seemingly already well-polished. Below are some reviews of this book (copied from Amazon) that should give you an idea of the subjects covered. I’m sure this one will hijack its way to the top of my TBR list over the next few days…

Reviews on Amazon:
“Faulty reasoning is frustrating and has become ubiquitous—astonishingly even in academic circles. Do your part to help stem the tide of pseudoscience and other breathtaking absurdities by reading and enacting the shrewd ideas of How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass.” –Brian Alters, PhD, author of Defending Evolution

“This is a wonderful introduction to the art of thinking. DiCarlo is to be commended for presenting philosophically challenging material in an engaging and accessible manner, while demonstrating both the relevance and the moral significance of critical thinking. It is well designed to prepare the reader to be ‘a really good pain in the ass,’ and to convince you that this is a good thing to be.” –John Teehan, professor of religion, Hofstra University, author, In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence

“Chris DiCarlo’s How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass, is certainly different from your typical logic book. For one thing, it ranges from Aristotle to Steven Spielberg to Shakespeare to Tom Nagel to…well, you get the idea! Anyone who reads through this book is going to emerge with a broad education, and with a solid acquaintance with a great many principles of elementary logic, plus an introduction to epistemology, the philosophy of religion, and a lot more (including, recent and prominent findings in evolutionary biology and biosociology drawn from serious sources). DiCarlo combines real erudition with a very down-to-earth, upbeat expository style, which should attract many readers.” –Jan Narveson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, philosophy, University of Waterloo

“Lively and entertaining in an informal but important manner, this work on critical reasoning should be read by students in all fields.” –Michael Ruse, director of the program in history and philosophy of science, Florida State University

“A perceptive, incisive critical thinker is the very best pain in the ass there is. This book is DiCarlo’s enlightening master class in critical thinking, couched in language any curious reader can profit from. From an introduction to formal logic that everyone can understand to a guide to the big questions about knowledge, meaning, ethics, and purpose in life, it’s all in here—buttressed by exemplary unpackings of religious, paranormal, and pseudo-scientific bunkum.” –Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief

One wonders if reading a book like this would make any impression on an individual like Todd Burpo, the author of the book in my previous post.

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“I Was Not Entertained!” Todd Burpo’s “Heaven is for Real”

(below: Russell Crowe – Maximus – asks the famous, “Are you not entertained!?” question in the movie Gladiator)

I’d been hearing about this book for awhile, and I had also noted that it was number one on the Non-Fiction best seller list a couple weeks ago (#2 this week). I ‘dismissed’ it and didn’t particularly want to read it. Then a friend read it and loved it and, when I expressed my default approach of skepticism, said, “just read it.” I rarely refuse a friend’s request to read a book (as I hope someday they may return the favor – or already have in some cases) so I did.  Briefly, the book details the story of a family whose little boy, Colton, undergoes an emergency appendectomy just shy of his fourth birthday.  In the months and years afterward, however, he begins to share ‘stories’ of an ‘out of body'(?) experience during surgery which leads his family to believe he actually visited heaven during this time.

First let me just say I’m delighted that Colton’s health crisis had a happy ending. He seems like a caring, compassionate boy. Indeed I found the first 1/3 or so of this book to be pretty good. Who cannot empathize when seeing an author’s loved one suffering or in pain and watching him as he tries to do everything he can to help him. My hopes were with the family the whole way in that I wanted Colton to get well and be out of danger. There are some disturbing aspects of this part of the book too, though, including an initial misdiagnosis by a local doctor (that seems inexcusable in light of the fact that the Burpos explicitly told him of a family history of appendicitis) and an egregious decision by the Burpos to drive three hours (!) with a clearly very, very sick boy instead of a local emergency room (where they feared they’d have to wait for three hours anyway). But Colton survives in spite of these potentially deadly mistakes being made. Even though there was no “suspense” for me regarding the outcome since I knew the premise of the book, these early chapters were quite gripping.

But the book loses me quickly after that. Predictably, credit to Colton’s recovery is assigned to Burpo’s friends praying for him, and even to his father’s own angry prayers to God during a time of crisis. Credit is NOT given to the medical professionals who worked hard to save Colton. Their years of training and medical school work is seemingly not appreciated. Indeed, when the medical bills come in, Burpo makes it VERY clear that, faced with more bills than they could pay, they would definitely still write their monthly tithe check (because, “God gave me my son back.”). I realize this is not an uncommon approach, but I feel it is disrespectful to those PEOPLE who have a hand in patients’ recoveries.

At almost every turn, Burpo makes disproportionate leaps of faith whenever Colton says something about his experience. One of my ‘favorites’ is when he tries to get Colton to tell him which side (right or left) of God’s throne Jesus stands on. Burpo eagerly awaits an answer thinking, this is it; this will be the final confirmation that his experience was real (if Colton gets it right). Now there’s some pretty rigorous scrutiny for you – a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right even if someone guesses randomly(!!) Sadly, this is the low level of skepticism with which all of Colton’s remarks are regarded. To me, Colton’s dad hears what he wants to hear and in the context of a predetermined belief he has.

Another example: “There’s just no way he could’ve known.” (about his mom’s prior miscarriage) Really? NO way? Here’s one possible way. Maybe Colton ay some point overheard his parents talking about the miscarriage when they were unaware of him being, say, outside their bedroom door. Maybe he heard his mom and dad talking and his mom crying late at night and goes to investigate. He hears the word “miscarriage” and knows this word somehow causes his mom to be sad. Suppose the next time at Sunday school he asks innocently, “What’s a miscarriage?” and a well-intentioned adult tries to explain it to him. Unlikely? Absolutely. But is it more likely something like that happened or that he undergoes a true supernatural journey where he sees (and not coincidentally, I presume) Jesus and other characters he’s heard about by being immersed in the world of faith in which he is raised?

I find off-putting as well the inclusion of the “true picture” of Jesus in the appendix of the book. Ever since Colton’s revelations – sorry, I couldn’t think of a better word – it seems that, whenever a depiction of Jesus is presented to his parents, it has become a standard routine for them to ask him, ‘Is this what he looks like?’ and there is always some detail wrong. Wrong, that is, until he sees a drawing done by another child who claims to have had a similar experience. Case closed, I guess. Burpo’s treats this as another “confirmation” that Colton’s experience was literally real. As far as I am concerned, if heaven IS for real, it’s not real “just because” of stories like this one… It’s the same old story of “extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence,” and I don’t think it’s been provided here.

There are reportedly more than 1.5 million copies of this book in print now. A related article from the New York Times can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/12/books/heaven-is-for-real-is-publishing-phenomenon.html

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August Reading – The Month Ahead

Hard to believe that it’s already August(!) but… I must not dwell on that while there is plenty of reading that needs to be done :-). I am keeping up a five books per month pace so far this year (36 completed thus far), and I luckily have several books that are partially read that will make it easier to get five done this month. Here’s a recap:

Already started:
We Make a Life by What We Give by Richard Gunderman – this collection of essays on philanthropy (by a former college roommate no less) is taking me awhile to get through. Each essay, though they only average about 10-14 pages, takes me an Hour or so to digest fully since they are so thought provoking. I think I only have about 7 more to go though and fully hope to add this to the completed list this month.

A Good Man is Hard to Find (and other stories) by Flannery O’Connor. I’m reading this for a book discussion this week up at the Carmel Library (north side of Indianapolis). I’ve only got about 75 pages to go and hope to wrap it up tonight. I spent some time yesterday reading a little biographical info about O’Connor too, so hopefully I won’t be the biggest ignoramus at this discussion meeting… 🙂

Book Club books:
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This is the reading selection for my primary book club (meeting 8/25). It’s one I picked and have wanted to read for quite awhile, but the reviews I’ve seen on goodreads.com have been a little mixed, and I worry that either I (or worse, the other members of my club) won’t like it. It’s a bit longish too, but the one fellow book clubber who’s read it swears it’s a fast read. We’ll see.

“A Book to be Named Later” by Kurt Vonnegut. I missed the last Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meeting, which was “just” a continuation of June’s discussion anyway, so I’m not sure yet what the next selection is. A strategically sent email or two should yield me the answer soon, though.

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov. I enjoyed his autobiography so much last month that I went and read Foundation immediately after (it’s a short book). Foundation and Empire is the second book of the original Foundation trilogy and I’m sure I can make room for it is month.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope. I need to get back to my mini-project of reading Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels” – especially if I’m to “keep up with the Joneses” (actually “the Anas” since my blogging colleague, Ana the Imp, is reading his Palliser Novels…) http://anatheimp.blogspot.com/2011/07/vixens-tale.html

What Else? Well, I simply must get back and caught up on my “Project: Deal Me In” and read a bunch of designated short stories. (as usual I’ve fallen woefully behind in a project, both in its execution and its record keeping) I’m sure there may also some random, wild card books that will pop up – as they always do. And of course I’m always open to SUGGESTIONS FROM READERS too. Got any? Even if you don’t, I’d love to hear what you’ll be reading in August…

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