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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Some Reading

And Also: Clint Eastwood has suggested that Gran Torino will be his last film as an actor. Well, either way, it was a superior work, including his direction and even his woeful singing of a few verses of the song at the end. We like his old angry man who finds a connection with a Hmong family next store in large part because we like and know him, but the film works on its own merits. I thought the ending was better than we might have expected. The actress who plays the teen daughter next store who knows how to handle him is also a find.

Though not an Incredibles fan, I am a fan of the voice of the daughter -- Sarah Vowell, who provides analysis of the day on public radio with the distinctive somewhat whiny (and/or creepy) voice of hers. In a sideway association she might appreciate, it seems fitting someone some supportive of the written word would have such a last name. I read a guest column she wrote in the NYT some months back, and it fit her usual slightly skewered progressive views of things, and suggests her skills in that format. I'm not sure how good Vowell handles long form, though am interested in her latest work on the Puritans.

I wanted to wait until obtaining the audiobook version of Assassination Vacation because listening her voice would be half the fun. [The local library system doesn't have it for some reason, so I did not get it until recently.] A few years back, I saw/heard her on C-SPAN promoting the book. It sounded like an amusing take on history, focusing on the three 19th Century (counting McKinley, killed in 1901) presidents who were assassinated, providing some interesting tangents to the main events and her own experiences (with sister, small nephew, etc.) looking at the various landmarks and such. Vowell also considers current day parallels (c. 2005), including how both Iraq and the Spanish-American War were optional and based on dubious claims.

Some over at Amazon don't like these latter details, in effect suggesting there was some sort of false advertising or something. This includes those who simply didn't like her anti-Bush comments, which were sprinkled around, but not shoved down our throats repeatedly. Why is the book called an "Assassination Vacation," if it was not supposed to be in some fashion an expression of her personal experience? The book was not meant to be a formal impersonal history, and history is in part studied to learn lessons applicable to the present. The Founding Fathers, for example used history a lot for lessons on present activity. I understand that some people might not be in the mood for her book, but it annoys me when they attack it on false pretenses.

The audio has various guest voices to handle various quotes she provided of historical figures, some choices rather interesting -- why exactly is Conan O'Brien on hand to voice repeat assassination witness Robert Todd Lincoln (the guy even was still alive when President Harding died prematurely, albeit of natural causes) or Jon Stewart as President James A. Garfield? How about Steven King as Lincoln? A bit of an inside joke of sorts, perhaps as a small way to promote the audiobook. Putting aside nuts like Charles Guiteau ("I didn't kill Garfield! I just shot him!"), they did it remarkably straight, though it is hard to listen to Stewart and not hear a bit of whimsy. Anyway, it doesn't add too much to the proceedings, but not a bad touch.

Vowell is inherently goofy, which is probably a good way to handle history and life in general. As to the book, mixed bag. Hearing about Garfield's lesser known love of reading or how his killer was associated to a 19th Century free love community (which didn't much love him) and so forth provides some interesting material. The aside on Hillary Clinton's predecessor William Seward's Alaska connection, down to some strange totem poles, suggests some of the details that fascinate her, but might bore some others. It starts well with many details about the Lincoln assassination, so much that I wondered when we would get to the others.

We hear more about a marker in honor of Garfield than his last days (e.g., was he conscious much of the time? if so, what did he do or say? the book notes at one point it looked like McKinley might survive ... I didn't know he lingered at all). By the time the book honestly seemed to ramble on about Ted Roosevelt, I was a tad bit bored. And, then she has an extended discussion on certain types of monuments and a closing bit that is supposed to tie things together that really was tedious. One criticism from mixed reports at Amazon was that the book could have used some more editing. On that, I agree. Also, she seemed to rush the second two presidents some, or (to the degree the audio was abridged) the editors did. Since we already know so much about Lincoln, this is unfortunate. And, it ended on a weak note.

Limited recommendation. I enjoyed Converting Kate more overall. Partially inspired by her own life, but putting things into the life of a teen, Beckie Weinheimer's first novel concerns a fifteen-year-old girl who finds the faith of her mother's strongly conservative church no longer works for her. The tipping point was the death of her atheist father, who the mother has lost faith in some time before, leading to their divorce. The danger of rushing into marriage out of love without hooking up as friends too is a lesson of this rewarding book for teens that adults might enjoy as well. As one writer of "young adult" fiction once wrote:
I like to think that I write about young people but not exclusively for them. Down with distinctions. … well written stories that happen to be about the young can and should be read without apology by adults. If I have, so far, written primarily about young people, it is probably because in my life adolescence is inescapable. Two adolescents are permanent residents [1980] of my house. I taught for many years in a public high school. My own childhood and teenage years stand out in sharp focus for me, most of the time, than more recent stages of my life. Finally, I like young people enormously. I hope I convey that, above all, in my books.

-- Robin F. Brancato

One of the book's messages is that it might be better to not be so sure about things, something Kate learns from the experiences in her new school far away from her old home. These experiences of high school life ring true, including the many sides of the students there. The book is also to be honored for addressing the touchy area of religion, highlighting in part the path to a successful religious group for teens. Some are in awe of the size some evangelical churches, looking more like malls than anything else. But, perhaps some think religion is too small a part of life, something to do for an hour, the rest to be used in other ways. Successful communities know what their people need.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

I Corinthians 13 is an important part of the book as well, though its version (KJV) translates "love" (RSV) as "charity."* This is a notable difference; the two words not really the same. The latter translation is important also in that a favorite cousin of Kate is named Charity. The book highlights the "for now we see through a glass, darkly" (my RSV translation says "in a mirror dimly," less poetic) verse, which (as does her mom) originally emphasized that believers in Christ will at some point truly understand.

We often, for good or ill, supply different meanings to what we read than the authors did themselves, so it is okay if some readers favor the doubt. This is reflected in a Jewish parable. A group of rabbis dispute a point and God butts in. This doesn't go over that well. God gave the Torah to the Jews, now it is their turn to interpret it. God laughs; his creation has him beat. For good or ill, even true believers must admit that the meaning of the Bible is left up to them, if only as the receivers of God’s word. They who are still like children here on earth, children who have problems processing things.

Well, the part about thinking like a child is quite believable. That might explain some things said these days by people who one might think would know better.


* "Charity" does come from a word that means "love" and my Merriam Webster's even talks about its connection to "Christian love," but of course, the word "charity" now has a different connotation in most cases.