Friday, September 25, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Maybe I should call this posting "The Third Monday Barnes & Noble Book Club," because it is this name that brings me to the one above. You see, I belong to The Third Monday Barnes & Noble Book Club in Layton, Utah, and it is in that context that I read the book, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Let's face it, that's not the most virile title for a macho guy --- not that I am, necessarily, and not that there'd be anything wrong with it either way.

Anyway, I have to admit the name of our reading group isn't nearly as classy as The
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is,
though. Truthfully, we are just as humble, though --- possibly more so, but probably a whole lot less experienced with life's travails than the characters in the book. Suffice it to say, however, that we have mostly confined our book club snacks and drinks to items purchased at the snack bar at B&N. However, at Christmas time --- don't tell anyone --- we do sneak in treats. (Carol's traditional homemade fudge and caramel, for instance, can't be beat.) We've never had, or, for that matter never needed to have, a potato peel pie or anything like it, though. Times are different now, in a free world, than they were during WWII under occupation, as in Guernsey.

To a man and woman, we all enjoyed Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows's book about life on Guernsey Island during the Nazi's occupation in WW II. That accord doesn't happen frequently in our book club, and it isn't as if everybody had only kudos for the book, but everybody, on the whole, enjoyed it very much.

Generally, when everybody likes a book being discussed, there's typically not a whole lot to discuss. Not with this one, though. We went on and on, without any stain or stress, contention or strife, as we have had with some of the other recent selections we've read.

Now, let me say some things that I thought stood out in this book.

First of all, let me mention the setting. On a clear day, you can see the coast of France from Guernsey Island, at least you could back then. Yet, as close as Guernsey Island is to France, Guernsey is allied with the British Empire. For me, its setting satisfied all my expectations: the backdrop was unique and, for most in the book club, somewhat obscure, giving it a natural mystique. Now, it wasn't just set in Guernsey Island; it had a dash of London and a sprinkle of other European places, several allusions to America, but mostly, it was just Guernsey Island. As to its historical background, we have the immediate aftermath of WWII, and the characters trying to unpack the meaning of their experiences during the war, especially the tantalizing piece most readers in our group were totally unfamiliar with: the occupation of the Guernsey by the Germans. The cultural attitudes, shaped by the characters' firsthand experiences with war itself, and, for the occupants of Guernsey Island in particular, the experiences of a Nazi occupation enhanced and informed, as well, the overall setting of the book.

Second, its characters. Everyone seemed to love them. Not only that, but everyone seemed to suggest that the characters, though unique and interesting in and of themselves, were not anything like characters we see so often in the mass media, whether on some sitcom on television, or hear about or see on the local or national or even international news, or some guest of David Letterman's. Not an extremist among them, like the literary creation, Robert Langdon, or the impossibly quirky Stephanie Plum --- even if we love those characters in their own right. But these were people we could more easily identify with, who seemed like us, who were thrown into circumstances above and beyond what most of us --- if not all of us --- have experienced or are likely to ever experience. Not celebrities, but just regular, plain folks, trying to cope by finding flavor, by creating a potato peel pie and eating it. And reading. Most of all, by reading. And writing. Communicating. For these characters all write letters and, hence, reveal themselves in a most natural and timely way. That's what people did then. Before telephones, email, blogs, tweets, and texting. But these are letters that are written mostly by more literary-type folks --- folks who love words and their dimensions, who've taken the time and made the effort to not only read but to meet and discuss what they've read.

Let me mention some favorites among the characters. First and foremost, the protagonist Juliet Ashton, a wistful youngish woman --- Isn't she 32? --- who's ready for romance, and who's coped with and helped others cope during World War II by writing columns to bring smiles and laughter to them, but who, thereafter, has decided to move on to something more serious and fulfilling. The book is about Juliet living beyond the war, and trying to satisfy her desire to bring to life the stories of those who found other ways of dealing with stress and strain of war.

Dawsey Adams, the farmer, who loves to farm but also loves to read, especially the essays of the loveable, but long-gone, Charles Lamb. Over against Dawsey, there's the buffoonish and boorish American, Markham V. Reynolds, Junior. What a hoot! There's the religious fanatic, Adelaide Addison, who does her self-righteous part oh so well. Isola Pribby. Sidney Stark. And on and on. And on. Well, truthfully, I grew to know and appreciate them all.

Some memorable lines:

  • Men are more interesting in books than they are in real life.
  • . . . he was a bit too King Lear about the whole thing.
  • . . . scarce as hens' teeth.
  • Am I in love with him? What kind of a question is that? It's a tuba among the flutes . . .
  • No flowers or vines can cover over such memories as these, can they?
  • Adelaide lives on her wrath.
  • . . . she is a woman too good for daily wear.
  • . . . he doesn't have two words to rub together.

One of our members listened to the audio recording of this book, and she loved it. She said that any problem with a lack of uniqueness of the syntax and language of the characters in their letters, as some members conveyed and some critiques have mentioned, was taken care of by the audio work. So you might want to check that out, too.

Anyway, four stars. I'd give four-and-a-half if I could, verging on five.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Knowledge to Give

Lowry scores my highest mark for THE GIVER: a capital A for AWESOME.

THE GIVER appeals to my deepest being, going into emotional depths where I'm most aware, where I experience anger, sadness, and fear but also enjoyment, surprise, and love. Not only that but it stimulates and informs my intellect. It is such a gut-wrenching but ultimately happy story. It makes me --- at sixty-one --- feel like a boy again, a boy who thinks he can make the impossible possible, who might be able to help a dulled humanity feel more fully again. I believe all of existence waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows, evolves and devolves with a slow but ever-present upward spiral. This story addresses one community's wane, its ebb, its devolution. Jonas, as a member of that community, is selected to spend his time learning about his community's state of affairs. Then, as the story climaxes, he makes his choice and acts.

Overall, Jonas is a "chosen" hero --- not unlike one chosen in natural selection --- who's unafraid to explore every facet of being, to admit not just the sensory input, but to experience emotionally as well as intellectually. He's brave enough, in the end, to try to escape the constraints of knowledge and experience that have crept into his community of origin. Such perversions are no less ugly than those of Nazism or those characterized in the great literature of the past--the stories of Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell and others. This story informs those. Here we have a boy who wants to progress on to a new and better life, not just for himself but for the sake of his entire community. He wants them to have it too. He is willing to risk his life for it. For me, this is the purpose of literature, of life. It is man's highest virtue. To do good; to help others. As the boy in Carmac McCarthy's THE ROAD asks, "Are we still the good guys?"

The story makes it clear --- as do all great stories --- that morality comes by experiencing choices tending toward either good or evil and in having the courage to choose that which trends toward good or otherwise suffering tragedy. Jonas isn't ever over-inflated with pride. He retains humility in learning, eventually hoping for a culture beyond his limiting one.

Critics suggest the book's climax presents "a symbolic faux-death event", as if that would somehow be a bad thing. But I don't read it that way at all. Its literal language doesn't so read. Two children literally coast into a more abundant realm, still alive, still aware. Ready to receive and to give.

Further, critics complain that Lowery fails with THE GIVER because Jonas's community isn't based upon a real world of its author, as if a symbolic or hyperbolic one of the imagination is flawed, or somehow a weakness. To the contrary, in the progress of mankind, imagination becomes truth. Or, as in the fanciful words of Ursula LeGuin's character, Genley Ai, truth is a matter of the imagination. What is ultimately in the realm of mankind is what was first imagined well and then subjected to free agents who acted upon it for good.

THE GIVER presents a degenerated human power structure. How or why it has degenerated is not important in its overall scheme. It kills people, the ultimate evil. " . . . twins are being born tomorrow, and the test results show that there are identical." "One for here, one for Elsewhere . . ." This is not ambiguous. It's not an issue of unborn or near dead. It is out and out, clear-cut, calculated murder. It's Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Auschwitz, but on a more massive scale.

At the same time, the human power structure that has chosen wickedness ironically chooses Jonas as the Receiver. There are two things Jonas has that are vital. The first is his ability to choose freely. Everyone has that. All his contemporizes have it and utilize it. The other is knowledge and experience. It is this later that the others are lacking in great measure.

There is no magic in THE GIVER, no smoke and mirrors as some have suggested, but only the issues of knowledge and choice. Every child is born with the ability to choose. Not every child lives with the ability to get the necessary knowledge and experience required to choose well. It seems that to do so, to some degree, we have to be "chosen," and then, even then, we have to choose to Receive it. But ultimately, what is most important, after all is said and done, is to choose to be a giver.


Friday, September 11, 2009


Distractions are a constant irritation.

I expected to get a lot done today. For some reason --- perhaps because somebody had completed a review or something and I got an e-mail telling me about it --- I ended up at Goodreads, and, while there, I decided to look at some of the reviews on The Giver. That led me into a substantial distraction, because some intellectual, a mere twenty-six or twenty-seven-year-old, had done a review giving it just two stars and then telling why. That led me astray. Anyway, I spent most of the morning and some of the afternoon surfing around, not getting a lot done.

Oy vey. Distractions are a constant irritation, but I love them.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I just finished reading The Giver again. It is a powerful book, in my humble estimation. It informs my life. It touches my heart.

Yesterday I listened to the President --- President Obama, that is --- give his speech to students everywhere, encouraging them to work hard and be responsible, dependable, and productive. All right, I think!

I think of the way the world is cast around me by those who have the greatest power to mold it. Primarily, I'm thinking of the media and the rich corporations and individuals who own and control it, specifically, the mass media, who, it seems, always wants to make everything a spectacular competition, pitting two teams against each other --- may the best competitor win. And increase our ratings!

Of course, no matter who the players are, the mass media wants them to be the most competitive with each other. It ups the ante. It increases the viewers. It maximizes the gate. It makes the issue more like the Super Bowl, the final game of the NBA finals. Before his speech, the mass media cast the President's giving it as a competition between extremes: the President, who they characterize as a liberal, and the radical conservatives, who claimed their kids didn't have to listen. (I've got news for them, their kids never have to listen, and most of them don't. They are just like their parents.)

Sometimes these manipulations irritate me to no end. Pitting everything in the extreme doesn't seem to do much to advance the causes that need to be dealt with.

Life in The Giver is supposed to be utopian. Those who govern have total control. Everybody has a job in a field where they are completely capable of handling it and do. There is no disorder. War doesn't exist. Pain is totally relieved. You don't have to make a choice, because it's made for you.

The more I think about it and explore it, the more I'm convinced that the real evil out there is the notion that there is always a black-and-white, up and down, this or that. That is just not how things are. There are gradations in almost everything. And I'm not too sure about the modifier "almost". So you see, I am not opposed to competitions. I love my football and basketball when well matched teams are pitted against each other. I plan to listen tonight to the President on healthcare. Of course, he is pitted as such a liberal over against those ultra-conservatives.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The President Speaks to Kids at School

I had the good fortune today to listen into President Obama as he spoke to kids at a high school --- I think it was in Virginia. I can't imagine why any parent wouldn't want their child to hear his message. I found it inspiring not only for schoolkids but for old men like me too. As a consequence of listening, I decided to make a commitment to myself to do better than I've been doing. Even at my age, there are things I want to do and achieve and places I aspire to be that require my commitment to hard work and my sacrifice of other pleasures.

President Obama cited several examples of individuals who overcame deprivation and difficult circumstances to succeed. Everyone can do better and should. Everyone can have greater respect for others and try to do their best.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Doctorow's Little Brother

If you haven't read Cory Doctorow's novel, Little Brother, you should. It's fast-paced, entertaining --- as in, gauged for those with mild to serious attention deficit disorder --- and it tries to address at least one serious topic: the right to privacy in the United States. As far as a good read over against a good watch, it reminds me of an episode --- perhaps several episodes --- of the television series 24 with Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). It has that verve, that sense of impending disaster, and that sense of this is right and that is wrong.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem to have much gray matter (double entendre intended), including the necessity to negotiate or compromise very much of anything or to see issues along continuums. Of course, to do so would slow things down and make them more cumbersome to read. You would really have to think then, to sort things out as you read along. As it stands, you have to do that after you complete the book, which is okay, but....

The book seems... immature, like both its protagonist, Marcus Yallow, a seventeen-year-old who wants to be a man, but he is never more than halfway there, and its antagonist, the Division of Homeland Security, which Doctorow has acting like a two-year-old most of the time. The setting is the California Bay Area --- mostly San Francisco and the East Bay. The time period is contemporary and into the immediate future, in the aftermath of 9/11 and after President George W. Bush and his cohorts, especially Dick Cheney, have established fear as an element of public policy through Congress's enactment of the Patriot Act. Marcus is a nerd of the first class order, living out his dream as the hero in gaming communities and in all things digital, especially in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, the kind that pisses himself in a crisis and chooses a girlfriend for sex rather than good judgment and brains. A lot like some teenagers, but not all.

Did I enjoy the read? I did. Will I read more Doctorow? Probably. What would I hope for in something new? A little more depth, a little more exploration, a little more analysis of the complexities of issues rather than some icky black and white nonsense. On the other hand, that might slow things and make for a less intense experience. Oh well. Like Umberto Echo says, the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.