Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review of Marilynne Robinson's "When I Was a Child I Read Books"

It’s tempting to say that as an essayist, Marilynne Robinson is a great novelist. Of course, no matter what the first clause of the sentence is…Robinson would still be a great novelist. Her 2004 novel, “Gilead” won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and sold a whole lot of copies. And I liked it, a lot. 1980’s “Housekeeping” and 2008’s “Home” are also great works of fiction.***** Some of the essays in this collection are bring history, theology and insight together and allow the reader (at least me) to look at things in a whole new way. And some of the essays have the air of an academic journal that is only read when it’s assigned. My favorite essay in the book is the last, “Cosmology” which begins puzzling on how Edgar Allen Poe in his work, ’Eureka’, seemed to anticipate 20th century physicists ideas about the Big Bang. She uses this as a starting point to assert that the human mind has tools beyond science to consider the big questions of life. She bemoans that students rely only on the theories of Darwin and Freud to understand the human condition. She argues that not only does that limited perspective lead to a poorer life, it leads to poorer fiction.***** I appreciated her defense of great Christian leaders of American history, such as Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, whose intellectual, social and moral achievements are belittled by modern historians who have different theological perspectives (or believe mistakenly believe they have no theology.) As the father of a Knox College student, I was happy to read Robinson give honor to many of the small Midwestern colleges that stood up for the rights of women and enslaved African Americans. (This in the essay, “Who Was Oberlin?”)***** But there were essays that made intellectual leaps and bounds that I couldn’t follow. Maybe it’s because I’m not bright enough (certainly well within the realm of possibility) but I think Robinson at times leaves dots disconnected.***** And there are times where I think she just gets things wrong. In the essay, “Austerity as Ideology”, she ponders Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain Speech. She seems to argue that the speech hurt the tender feelings of Joe Stalin, still hurting for WW II, and was the reason for the Cold War. No where in the chapter does she talk about the military aggression of the Soviet Union, or their oppression of the people of Eastern Europe (let alone the slaughter of their own people.) She seems to subscribe to a moral equivalence between the East and West of that period that strikes me as morally bankrupt.***** In the same chapter, she frets about those that call for austerity in government budgets, that might cut education budgets. (She seems to feel academics are holy creatures that never waste money.) She seems to think the two wars of the Bush and Obama years were the only budgetary challenges of the 21st decade and yet she never mentions vast majority of government spending goes to entitlements.***** Marilynne Robinson does have a great mind, but at times I think she buys into the group think of the academic world. But in the area of the church and theology, she fights the received Ivy League wisdom and come up with true and powerful thoughts. Reading everything Robinson writes is a worthy endeavor. But it would probably be best to start with the fiction.***** (And frankly, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t at least one chapter about what she read as a child. Was she more of a May Alcott or Ingalls Wilder fan?)

Monday, July 23, 2012

"Get a Life, Cat!" on "The Dark Knight Rises"

Just what the world needs: someone else writing about the new Batman movie. Even before violence in the real world merged with the fantasy world, an amazing amount of media coverage went to the film that completed the acclaimed and money making trilogy. ****** So instead of the Batman, I’d like to write about Catwoman. (Okay, I’ll say this about “The Dark Knight Rises”; rarely does the third film of a trilogy that begins with two classics match its predecessors – I’m looking at you, “Return of the Jedi” and “Godfather III” -- but this film does.) ****** In previous incarnations of the Catwoman character, the focus was often on the wives’ tale of a cat’s nine lives. In the campy 1960’s TV series “Batman”, it was a running gag that every time Catwoman “died”, she would come back again – often played by another actress. Julie Newmar, Lee Meriweather and Eartha Kitt all took the role, a droll in-joke that suggested a completely new life for the character. (Part of the joke was that Batman never noticed the complete change in his nemesis’ appearance.) ***** In the 1994 film, “Batman Returns”, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Selina Kyle, an office worker who falls from tall building, suffers a psychotic breakdown and becomes Catwoman. In 2004’s “Catwoman”, Halle Berry begins with another name for her alter ego, Patience Phillips, a graphic designer, but a brush with death (drowning) leads her to a new life as Catwoman. ***** In the new Christopher Nolan film, Anne Hathaway again has the identity used in the DC Comics, Selina Kyle. She also has the occupation Catwoman was known for in the comics, thief. She has a long criminal record and the law is closing in on her. ***** Selina wants one thing more than anything else, something that came easily to all the previous incarnations of Catwoman but not to her: a new life. All her criminal endeavors center on finding the Holy Grail of the Gotham criminal class, “the Clean Slate.” “The Clean Slate” is a computer program that can allegedly wipe out all computer records for a person through out the world. ***** Selina explains to Bruce Wayne why she needs this program. Even if she should leave Gotham to build a new life, “any twelve year old with a cell phone” could find her out. All she wants is a new start. And ironically, she seems willing to commit the most vile of acts to be seen as innocent. ***** She isn’t the only one in the film that wants a fresh start. The film’s chief villain, Bane, wants to destroy the city of Gotham so there can be a fresh start. It all recalls that sad quotation from the Mai Lai massacre of the Vietnam war, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” ***** What Selina Kyle wants is what we all want at some time, a fresh start, a new life. And some of us have been willing to lie, cheat and steal, if necessary, to get it. But we can never achieve such a thing on our own. ***** Fortunately, such a new life is achievable, but only through the grace of God. Psalm 51:7 tells us that God can wash us “whiter than snow.” I Corinthians 5:17 tells us that anyone who is in Christ, “is a new creature; the old has passed away and the new is come.” In I Peter 1:23, we are told we have been “born again, not as perishable, but imperishable.” ***** Selina Kyle’s search for a new life was for me a highlight of The Dark Knight Rises, especially as a reminder of the new life God has promised us. ***** The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13 for violence, language and intense situations.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


(This skit was published by Lifeways, over ten years ago, so I'm hoping they won't get to hyper about the copyright.) Cast: The Smith Family (Bill, the father; Betty, the mother; Katie, the daughter and Ingmar, a foreign exchange student) The Jones Family (Joe, the father; Judy, the mother and Fred, the son) xxxxxxxxxx Setting: two families with picnic baskets and coolers, all dressed for picnic, though exchange student may be oddly dressed xxxxxxxxx BILL: Hey Joe! Happy Fireworks Day! xxxxxxxxx JOE: Happy Fireworks Day right back at you! xxxxxxxxx (Everyone wishes everyone else a “Happy Fireworks Day!”) xxxxxxxxx KATIE: Joe, Judy, Fred, I’d like to introduce you to our new foreign exchange student, Ingmar. xxxxxxxxxxx (Jones all greet Ingmar, “Good to meet you”, “Welcome to our country”, etc.) xxxxxxxxxxx BETTY: It’s wonderful that you could get together with us for this Fireworks Day Picnic. Ingmar, being from a foreign country, has never celebrated Fireworks Day, so maybe you could help us explain to him what it’s all about. xxxxxxxxxx JOE: Well, first of all, the important thing about Fireworks Day, is that you get the day off work. xxxxxxxxxxx FRED: And I get out of stupid summer school. xxxxxxxxxxx JUDY: If you had done your math homework like I told you, you wouldn’t need to be in summer school. xxxxxxxxxxx BILL: But Fireworks Day is much more than about getting our school and work. For instance, there are all the great traditions. xxxxxxxxxxx JUDY: Yes, every year we get together with friends and family and have a big picnic, because holidays are all about family. xxxxxxxxxxx FRED: Don’t listen to them, Ingmar. The really cool thing about Fireworks Day is the fireworks. You’ve got to love the explosions and noise. Really loud noise! xxxxxxxxxxx KATIE: And when you watch the fireworks, you have to sit there and say, “Ohhhhh”, then “Ahhhhhhhh” and then “Ohhhhhhh” again. xxxxxxxxxxxx INGMAR: I must admit, I am confused. In my school back home, we learned about this day, July 4, and that it was called Independence Day. And that today was the day when you celebrated the beginnings of your nation. That today you took time to remember your freedom and liberty and those who made great sacrifices to obtain it. xxxxxxxxxx KATIE: Yeah, I hear that’s what we used to do. But it’s boring to spend time on that history stuff. xxxxxxxxxx BILL: And some people have different opinions on freedom, liberty and all that stuff. xxxxxxxxxx JOE: And nothing brings down a holiday like politics. xxxxxxxxxxx JUDY: Except maybe religion. xxxxxxxxxxx BETTY: That reminds me of something I’m looking forward to. This year we can show Ingmar how we celebrate all of our holidays, like Turkey Day and Bunny Day and even my favorite holiday. xxxxxxxxxxx INGMAR: What holiday would that be? xxxxxxxxxxx BETTY: Why Presents Under the Tree Day, of course.

Monday, July 2, 2012

THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY #2: THE HAUNTED HALL Chapter 13 “Larkland Remembered”

Plot synopsis: The Partridges play at Larkland again and are fabulous. Duke and Indian become friends again and attend the concert. But Duke rides off at midnight. Turnbull is back at the sanitarium and has decided to take up the guitar, making music rather than fires. As the Partridges ride home, Laurie sees a cute guy at a gas station that reminds her of Duke. The family rides home, content that the trip was worthwhile in spite of the hardships.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Character Development: Laurie keeps a diary (in fact, this adventure was “Something for all the diaries in the universe. And then some.”)xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Contemporary Social Issues: Soda Issues (How far we have come, but at the time, Shirley could buy a soda with just one coin. What kind of coin we are not told.) xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Hip Slang: “Party pooper” and “Yessiree”. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Contemporary Pop Culture References: Once again, the family sings “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”, bringing the novel full circle. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Favorite Passage: Again, not just a sentence, but a paragraph that praises the musical excellence of the Partridges. “That night under the stars before the same vast assemblage, the Partridge Family went on again, doing their thing and making their wonderful sound. If anything, it was better than the night before. The country air vibrated with happiness. The Partridge Family created a musical masterpiece of timing and rhythm. The voices, the guitars, the drums, and the tambourines were all inspired. The Festival responded with another avalanche of acclaim.” xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Conclusion: And so we end this minor classic of the Family Rock Band Novelization Genre. And I’m ticked. The cover said “rock’s coolest supergroup invades a mansion filled with ghosts” and yet there was not a ghost to be found: just stupid taped recordings of spooky sounds in one room of the mansion. Biggest supernatural tease since the first season of Scooby Doo. Still, a salute to author, Michael Avallone. (If you enjoy Mr. Avallone’s work, you may wish to seek out his novelizations of “Hawaii 5-0” and “The Man from Uncle” that may be found at Amazon.com.)


Plot Synopsis: Shirley, worried about Laurie, receives a phone call from Laurie telling here she has lost the two men in her life. Shirley had heard from Reuben about Jerry Jingo, but Laurie tells her that Duke and Indian are in jail and she was being held as a witness. Shirley agrees to pick Laurie up. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Character Development: Tracy assumes that if Mom is upset it is because of Laurie. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Relevant Social Issues: Court System (In 1970, even as prominent a celebrity as Laurie Partridge could not easily talk or buy her way out of legal entanglements.) xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Hip Slang: None xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Contemporary Pop Culture References: Monopoly (other Partridge kids playing game) xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Favorite Sentence: “Now you tell me where you are this minute or I’ll never let you out of the house on your own again. And I mean it, young lady!”

Sunday, July 1, 2012

THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY #2: THE HOUNTED HALL Chapter #11 “Rock Time in Larkland”

Plot Synopsis: Jerry Jingo and the Partridges perform at the Larkland Rock Music Festival. The Partridges are a sensation. Larkland Chamber of Commerce somehow managers to get the Partridges motel rooms for the night. Before and after the concert Laurie ponders whether she would rather end up with Jerry Jingo or Duke. The next morning, as Laurie window shops in Larkland, she hears on the radio that Jingo was struck with appendicitis and had flown to the Hollywood to be treated. Duke then surprises Laurie, riding up on his motorcycle. But as Laurie chats with Duke, Duke is attacked by Indian. Laurie screams.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Character Development: It apparently takes very little encouragement from a man for Laurie to start planning out a life with him; matrimony, kids and all. Before concerts, little Tracy silently mouths the words to the songs (which is interesting, because on the show, she never seemed to be singing along.) xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Relevant Social Issues: Medical Care (Jerry Jingo must really be frightened about the medical care in Larkland if he is willing to fly all away across the country to be treated for appendicitis in California.) Concert Financial Management (Somehow, Larkland’s financial model allow them to put on a free concert. Woodstock even charged $18 in advance and $24 at the door for a three day concert. But, of course, that festival had different acts everyday, but apparently the Partridges were going to play every day at Larkland.) xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Hip Slang: “Now sound” xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Contemporary Pop Culture Reference” At the festival, “The Loving Six” plays “Worry Me Baby” and a Sammy Davis Jr. song is heard on the radio. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Favorite Passages: (Sorry, too much good stuff) “The Partridge family was gathered on the tip of the fifty acres of Larkland dedicated to the Festival. A sea of faces was visible as fare as the eye could see. And the Partridges, ready in their matching costumes of open vests, ruffled shirts were nervously pawing the dusty ground like excited show horses. They’d played before huge crowds before, tough crowds, but nothing could be tougher than this. Their real audience – that had created them. Here were the young people who had made the Partridge Family and its kind of music their thing. “ “The air was throbbing with the impact of thousands of young souls responding to the four-beat beat.” “Jerry Jingo had already been on. Singing and talking the songs that had made him famous and helped him to a fabulous movie career. The crowds worshiped him. In his tall Stetson and fine dungarees and buckskin shirt, he had brought the house down. If there had been a roof, it would have caved in from the thunderous ocean of acclaim washing in from the audience. Jingo had hit the jackpot on the applause meter.” “They (the Partridges) sang “Lonesome Lonely Me” and it never ever sounded better. Not in a million times of performance or plays on juke boxes. It had a now sound, a great sound, an almost uniquely new sound. The crowd sensed it, loved it, and they let the Partridge Family know they knew it. Larkland’s fifty acres literally exploded with applause. The very skies seemed to open up and rain down thousands of whistles, screams, shorts and tears of happiness and joy. There was no doubt it – Larkland loved the Partridge Family!” “Appendicitis – gee, that must hurt!”