Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Comparative Review

While I usually like to review books as they stand on their own, I have a pair of books that beg to be compared/contrasted.  I have embarked on a mission to read more of the “classics” and not just current fiction and non-fiction--I blogged my way through Gulliver’s Travels and enjoyed the journey.  My next endeavor is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

I found two different books I thought would be helpful in my quest:  The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman and How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster.  While they do have different foci (or focuses--you can choose), both of them discuss a wide range of canonical (a lot of educated people agreed these were worthwhile) texts.  They also have different formats but my goal was to learn more about the classic books and how to read them without getting lost, bored, or comatose.

The Western Lit book does have a wider-ranging scope in terms of timeline, spanning the beginning of written stories and ending in the 20th century with William Faulkner.  How to Read Literature takes the approach of different plot devices and how to read the bigger picture.  What I found the most interesting is each author’s voice and approach to the subject matter.

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines seemed to me like talking to someone who teaches and enjoys literature and does his best to want you to understand and like it, too.  It was a fairly easy read that still had very interesting content that really made sense and stuck with me.  With just the short introduction, Foster lets you know what he’s doing and how he does it; memory, symbol and pattern are just the mechanics and what follows tells you how these tools are used in understanding stories.  Each of the chapters is a digestible bite of information with lots of examples.  Foster even discusses how the same type of symbol can be used in different ways.  For example, Chapters 2 and 3 discuss eating.  However, Chapter 2 is entitled “Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion” and Chapter 3 is “Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires”. He brings you out of the actual symbol of eating and into the bigger picture; is this an example of people becoming closer together because they are sharing a meal or is it an example of an unhealthy relationship which drains the life out of another character?  He also explores the Bible and religious connotations, violence, weather, flight, illness and my favorite, irony.  With each section, he brings a lot of examples from different types of stories to support what he’s talking about.  Books are not the only focus, either, he uses short stories, poems and even movies to make is points.  By the time I was done with the book, I felt excited and ready to work on a new book and actively look for the bigger meanings.  According to the bio, Foster is a professor at University of Michigan at Flint and if I were in the area, I’d take a class from him in a heartbeat!

Now, the Western Lit Survival Kit:  An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner has a completely different tone and doesn’t address irony directly, it employs it liberally throughout the text and dares you to identify it.  The book does what is says and traces the accepted canonical literature from Homer through the 20th century and discusses the general age, the specific authors and chosen texts from each one.  While the sections are informative and contain all the information needed to identify and follow the texts, the major component I wasn’t happy with was the embedded sarcasm.  While I do like irony, sarcasm and the odd cutting remark, this entire book was rife with all of these.  This was less a guide to take you through the literature of the ages and introduce you to great authors and more an inside joke for people who have already read most of the literature and are ready to make jokes nobody else understands.  For the books discussed that I had read, I could understand and almost enjoy the cutting style of writing but for the rest all I could think of was: why did she [Newman] even major in English if these are all such awful books.  I don’t even want to read any of these (except for Gargantua and Pantagruel which was written by a monk in the Renaissance and apparently is a marvel of humor scattering material about theology, natural science and more throughout a story mostly consisting of potty humor, sex and drunkeness.  I am intrigued by how this might be depicted in such a distant society) supposedly classic books.  If you have read many of these books, you will probably enjoy the humor found in these pages.  One helpful tool I did find was the somewhat qualitative measurement of each set of titles according to the importance of the book in the canon, its accessibility for readers, and measurement of fun-ness.

What a difference between two authors discussing literature!

Now, as a post script:  Both of these authors devote chapters to Shakespeare who is reported to be the best of everything when it comes to stories, literature, humor and drama.  Being a modern citizen of the U.S., I have found that Shakespeare requires a lot of work and only some things are worth the effort.  However, I am encouraged by a few helpful tools.  For one, I saw the recorded version of the on-stage production of the Reduced Shakespeare Company which manages to touch on every Shakespeare title in a lively and hilarious 1.5 hours.  And, my next endeavor to introduce the style of Shakespeare to my kids is a book I thumbed through at the airport bookstore: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher, “Verily, A New Hope”.  I’ll let you know how that goes when we’re done!

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Captain’s Log

Star Date:  Coupla’ weeks ago
Earth:  Palau and Yap
Jo in Palau

A colleague from PIU and I had the opportunity to travel for the school for a week and a half at the end of March.  Jo Romaniello is a licensed marriage and Family Counselor who lives and works in California.  We2 have been blessed with her call to yearly ministry here at PIU.  The other “we” that is blessed is our family as for the past two years “Nonna Jo” has been able to stay with us for her 2-3 month sojourns.

So it was with both professional interest and girlish glee that I looked forward to traveling with my great friend to neighboring islands.  Jo was the impetus and the reason for the trip--I was just able to tag along and the be the “tech geek” for the week.  Jo offered seminars in Guam, Palau and Yap on a narrative approach to connecting with people through stories.  It was very interesting to hear about it and practice in the different venues.  She was also able to offer some much needed sessions on stress and balance for the participants in Palau.  In all, each of the sessions was well-received.

Now, I have to admit--and those of you who know me will agree--I don’t travel well.

First of all, it’s hard to drag me out of my rut at home.  It’s my rut and I like it, otherwise I wouldn’t have carved it in so deep!  Also, my relationship with new foods is like teenage BFFs; love/hate.
But the worst thing is the prospect of not having a decent cup of tea (I drink tea like other people drink coffee).  I have been able to overcome some these difficulties with a carefully planned strategy.

1.  I make my own instant (or camp) oatmeal.
    Take 1 sandwich-sized ziplock bag and add 1/2 cup of oatmeal; 1 TBS dry milk, 1 tsp. brown sugar, 2 TBS pecans, 1 TBS sliced almonds, 2 TBS dried cranberries.  Voila, healthy breakfast/snack/lunch, just add hot water or cold milk.

(Think I’m a genius, yet?) 

2.  I stock up on high protein granola bars and energy bars.
3.  I pack small boxed milks.
4.  I pack an empty travel mug packed with baggies of raw sugar and tea bags.

Clothing is secondary to these other necessities.  All I need is access to hot water!

(Yup, certifiable genius all right... or maybe just certifiable.)

Jo looked on all of these elaborate preparations with interest.  She wasn’t sure what to make of them but she was game to try.

Now, after all that, the question is:  how did we fare?

Pretty well all around.  Palau is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.  I believe it is a place in the world set apart by God to exhibit the wonders of his creation.  We weren’t able to visit the Rock Islands on this trip but did go to a spectacular waterfall and did some simple snorkeling by a hotel at the beach.  We also were blessed by our hosts and their generosity in opening their home.

Lessons learned:  I can survive a cold shower every day in a tropical place that has little AC and hot water is something provided mainly by hotels.  And my iPad doesn't go through withdrawals without WiFi--but I might.

This was a small pool fed by a natural waterfall!
Yap was a totally new experience for me.  An island close to Palau in distance but very far in many other respects.  It’s almost like stepping back in time but it is definitely like putting your “busy” clock in slow motion.  Again, we were blessed with family time with the pastor and his family who were visiting for Easter weekend.  However, I did feel like Po from Kung Fu Panda 2 when we go to where we were staying (at 4:00 in the morning) and I stood at the bottom looking up “at my old enemy... stairs.”  The terrain was pretty rugged and then we found out that along with no hot water, we also weren’t supposed to drink the local water or even brush our teeth with it.  Yikes!  But we enjoyed the people and my iPad was relieved when (ironically) the teaching facility had pretty good WiFi.

Lessons learned:  I’m glad I pack my own oatmeal!  (Jo agreed)
Yap Island

All around I’d saw we had a blessed trip and were able to bring some skills to folks who were receptive and appreciative.  It was worthwhile week and a half.

My family’s adventure while I was gone, though, is a story for another day...

Monday, 18 March 2013

Gulliver's Travels, Part IV and Final

        It's finally time to say "goodbye" to Lemuel Gulliver.  This final entry is partly synoptic and partly interpretation with a dash of opinion thrown in.  I hope you enjoy the recipe.

        Well, our intrepid traveler is at it again.  He is home for only 5 months before he leaves his family... again.  And his wife is pregnant... again.  It has an interesting parallel to the multiple deployments of military members over the past 20 years.  The only thing is that Gulliver is not driven by any other purpose than to satisfy his own itchy foot.

        After the usual contrived episode to get him to the place of his new adventure, he encounters 'animals' which are repulsive to him on any number of levels.  They are sporadically hairy and foul of manners and habits--these details come into play a little bit later.

        Gulliver then comes into contact with the rational ruling population which look suspiciously like horses.  This horse race (heh, heh, no pun intended, maybe) is called "houyhnms" and the spoonerism-like pronunciation is related to 'human' in a somewhat obvious way.

        The houyhnms are as surprised to see him as Gulliver is to see them but he doesn't learn the reason until later.  First he must spend time mastering yet another language, this one based on neighs and snorts.

        For me, I admit, this is where the enjoyment of the story, and the satire, wanes.  As Gulliver describes the supreme rationality and capability of the houyhnms, he simultaneously degrades his own race.  This is mirrored in both the description of humans to his master (who only sees them from his knowledge and perception) and the discovery that the repulsive creatures Gulliver took an instant dislike to are humans, after a fashion.  It's as if all the ugliness of sinful human nature is worn on the outside and dominates the minds of the 'Yahoos' without the veneer of civility.

        It's not just that he takes every opportunity to praise the emotionless rationality of the houyhnms or that he describes the antics of the wild Yahoos in such a negative light that decreases my enjoyment.  It's Gulliver's overwhelming contempt for human life after he returns to his home.  He describes his hatred and disgust for the creatures (even his own family) but he spends the next few years only tolerating them rather than trying to help them understand his new-found zeal for rationality.

        This is where a single reading will not suffice to unpack everything that Swift is trying to say in regards to human nature, passions and the role of rationality in relationships between people.  Or even a divergence into how true converts should be expected to act when confronted with their old life.  Or something completely different.  Or a combination.

        Which leads me to ask you, my reader, how deep do you think we should go?

        Does this book beg a 2nd, 3rd or more reading?

        Does every--or even, any--book deserve that much work?  What would make you decide to give a book a subsequent or more reading?

        Then, how much interpretation do you think comes through the author's intent?  The reader's experience?  Culture or upbringing?  And the ultimate question:

How do you decide if it's worth the extra effort for you?

Next up in the reading list:  The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (no relation)--on AUDIO!

After that:  Information:  A History, A Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (Geek Book Alert)

Next classic:  Up for suggestions.  Peruse the Great Books library list here and give me some options.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Traveling with Gulliver, Part 3

Let's see... I don't want to ruin any parts of this that you haven't read and I also don't want to bore you with too many details.  I think what I'll do is discuss the chapters/scenes in order with my favorite observations along with the descriptions (this is by no means comprehensive so if I miss your favorite scene it's unintentional).  Are you ready?

Chapter 1

     It's only been two months at home before Gulliver leaves again... he seems to have a most understanding wife.  And this is after he makes a fool of himself at his homecoming from stooping down to hug everyone because of the difference in perspective from his journey to Brobdingnag, land of giants.
     However, leave he does and promptly encounters pirates, AAAARRRGHHH!  The episode with the pirates really only acts as a vehicle to get him to his next fantastical journey but does have a surprising amount of detail about a Dutchman pirate who exhibits pure nastiness.  This does lead to him being marooned on a boat which he rows to a set of islands and shows us his camping skills with gathering dry seaweed and plants to start a fire and roast eggs he finds.

Chapter 2

     Now, after enjoying the first episode of Survivorman:  Marooned on the Rock Islands, I was distinctly underwhelmed by the floating island if Laputa. The description of the mechanics of the island didn't interest me but the mention of the people is amusing.  It's here that Swift begins his lambasting of education, science and learning.  It's not so much the acquisition of knowledge that Swift finds so pretentious--it's the single-minded pursuit of reason and science at the expense of common sense and practicality that he finds offensive.
     Needless to say, he finds the Laputans to be a party to this difficulty and leaves when he can without being rude.  Of course, he is still able to learn yet another language in this short time.

Chapter 3

     This short chapter is heavy on the physical description of the island and how it moves.  If you like descriptions heavy in the manner of geometrical concepts and the physics of magnetism, you'll enjoy this.  If you;'re not, feel free to skim.  This also talks about the kings interesting and ultimately ineffective way of disciplining his people.

Chapter 4

     Gulliver seems content to leave Laputa and he travels to Balnibarbi and there are more and more examples of his opinion of the uselessness of the pursuit of pure science.

Chapter 5

     This has got to be my favorite part of Book III; the description of the Grand Academy of Lagado (Gulliver moves to and from so many places, it's hard to keep up with him).  Here the ridiculousness of "pure" and "theoretical" science is spotlighted.  From the filling of a dog's lower digestive tract with air to relieve cholic (and killing it in the process) to the blind artist endeavoring to paint by identifying the colors by smell, taste, and feel, to the professor who made his students eat the inked parchment with their lessons; this discourse abounds in absurdities.  Even more outrageous is when I think that not very much has changed in the last several hundred years.
     Oh yes, the last part of chapter 5 describes a mechanism that reminds me of the old theory; "If you put 1000 monkeys in a room with 1000 typewriters, for an infinite amount of time, they will produce the works of William Shakespeare."  What do you think are the chances of that?

Chapter 6

     Swift devises an ingenious way to settle political arguments within this Academy and, if the debaters survived, it might actually work!  There are some more gross-out bits before a stop at code-deciphering fun before he is ready to leave.

Chapters 7 and 8

     While waiting for an opportunity to travel home, Gulliver takes a short trip to Glubdrubdrib.  The most notable thing to me is that he enjoys and encourages the Governor's use of necromancy (the art of speaking to the dead).  In light of Swift's support of the Christian church, the willingness to call up a vast number of historical figures from the dead is surprising.  It makes me think that his faith his superficial--more a dictate of how-to-live values than an internalized belief.  Funny now curiosity can overcome scruples.

Chapters 9 and 10

     Gulliver travels to yet another land to discover the same level of intricacies in a court setting as he's found before--just different behaviors.  Now, beyond the Governor's palace and necromantic arts, we find Gulliver in Luggnagg expounding to the locals about the beauty and opportunity of being immortal, many of these individuals reportedly living in that country.  He is in for a rude awakening when informed that immortality does not equal youth and vitality--just long life and continuous aging.  That uncomfortable thought is still not brought to bear in most current literature.

Chapter 11

     The end of Book III finds Gulliver sailing to Japan and back to England and his family.  Where, after a 5 year 6 month absence he describes his family as "in good health".

I'm interested to see where Book IV carries our intrepid traveler.  If you're reading along with me, let's take it easy and give ourselves up to two weeks to finish.  Let me know if you are enjoying our journey in the comments below.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Footprints or Preservation?

Are you a Footprint Leaver?  Or are you a Preservationist?

This can be somewhat of a hot topic (believe it or not) between readers who like to write in their books and readers who like to leave them unmarked.

Mr. Adler, mentioned in a previous post, encourages us to interact with the book by underlining, making margin notes and writing your insights.  This engages more senses to improve the learning process.  Also, old and rare books are increased in value if people of the times wrote in the book--it becomes a piece of history.  In other words, they are leaving their footprint on the book for others to follow.

On the other hand, if anybody has tried to read a used textbook with rampant and gratuitous highlighting, underlining that goes through the words and awkward phrases in the margin, you see not everybody who leaves a note in the book is as historically valuable as we would hope.

Of course, any of you taken to task by the teacher for writing in your middle school textbook will know there are others out there who are rabid preservationists.  Those who leave the book in mint condition as long as possible.  Some go so far as to alter their reading stance in order to contort around the book so the spine doesn't actually bend.  Not everyone is that bad, though.

On the other hand of that, books can often be a fluid commodity.  They pass like dollar bills from hand to hand and shelf to shelf.  If every person felt compelled to note in the book, there would be no more room left for the text! 

Who is right?

My answer:  Nobody... or Everybody

It really is a personal preference.  It can also be different for the different types of books you read.  A fun fiction book might not need too much attention.  An exegetical text might beg more interaction when you are analyzing a passage of scripture.

My personal preference is to sticky-note the book as much or as little as I want.  That way, I can take notes and interact with the text but also take them out eventually if I want to hand the book on to someone else.  I also figure that what I have to put down in the margin isn't so intellectually stimulating that someone 150 years from now would want to read it.  

No matter what you decide, the idea is to immerse yourself in the book and enjoy the experience.  However, this little video covers the how-to-mark-a-book style (with the option of sticky notes) in a very nice way.

Happy reading!

*The Preservation Faux Pas video was featured on www.ala.com (the website for the American Library Association).  The How to Annotate a Book I found from searching on YouTube.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Gulliver's Travels, Part 2

After the well-known voyage to Lilliput, Lemuel Gulliver is content to stay home with his family for only 2 months before he set out again.  Just as the narrative started, I found myself thinking, "I need to search for sailing lingo just to follow this".  Then one of the few, but pertinent, footnotes in my edition pointed out that a section is taken from a Mariner's Magazine published around that time.  It is purported to be almost verbatim.  Funny that nowadays we call it plagiarism and back then it was to enhance the technical feel of the book.

Gulliver is then stranded in a new land where, as luck would have it, everyone and everything is 12 times bigger than he is in complete inverse proportion of him to the Lilliputians.  The interesting thing is how the perspective and observations change from one extreme to the other.  Not just the comical descriptions of the land and people (although the horror Gulliver expresses at seeing the wet nurse expose the tools of her trade when suckling a child is truly hilarious) but the whole manner of observing as from the outside in (Lilliput) to inside out (Brobdingnag).  Here is where the true satirical luster of Swift's writing shines.   The sheer audacity of the facetious writing is amazing.

There are some dry political/governmental descriptions that I had to gloss over (not being my field of interest, I didn't want to drool on the pages with boredom) but the depiction of the English/European people given by the king at the end of chapter 6 is definitely worth a read and the beginning of it is given at the end of this post. I think you will find it as true and pertinent now as it was then.

My favorite thing to note is Gulliver's ego unchanged throughout either of his adventures.  He is adamant that anybody who agrees with him is clever and intelligent but those who disagree are ignorant and wrong-headed.

Have I convinced you to get your own copy, yet?  I'll be working part 3 next, join me on my journey through the classics.  If you're not keen on Gulliver, consider Darwin for our next adventure.  Or, suggest something different, let me know!

This is the king holding Gulliver in his hand to deliver his opinion of the European people:
"My little friend Grildrig [Gulliver's name in that country], you have made a most admirable panegyric upon your country.  You have clearly proved that ignorance, idleness and vice are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator.  That laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them.  I observe among you some lines of an institution, which is its original might have been tolerable, but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions."

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Working my way through the Classics

     While I am an avid reader and have some literature training in my background, I am not what I would consider well-read in the classics.  Pretty  much anything written before the 1900's is out of my realm of experience.

I am determined to change that!

     About a year ago I read a wonderful book entitled How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler.  If you haven't heard of it, this isn't a typical high-school level book on how to read for meaning or learning how to "read between the lines".  It is an eloquent monologue on the importance of reading for understanding, how to read different types of books (from Pythagoras to Aquinas to Swift) and how to incorporate all of that information into a usable base of knowledge from which to approach any thought-provoking problem.

     Having read How to Read a Book, I cannot escape the notion of reading all the "Great Books".  Why are they called that?  Because Adler coined the term and then edited the first edition of a series of broad-ranging texts from the earliest manuscripts until the middle of the 20th century.

     Michael Owen.  He is the other reason my curiosity was peaked and my determination solidified.  Mike is both a friend and a colleague at PIU.  He not only went through a Great Books program in college but he used the wisdom he gained from that to marry his wife, my friend Samantha (see, education is useful in real life if you use it right).  We have had some fascinating discussions and he has brought some really interesting insights to bear that have been directly influenced from the reading, discussion, and learning he'd gleaned from going through these timeless works.

     So, now I have the tools and the determination so I've had to decide where to start.  Yikes!  There's so much to choose from, how do I decide?  Well, I went through my bookcase at home (o.k. one of about a million bookcases we have, what can I say?) and found quite a few classics that we have been given or collected through the years.  So, I picked one I am familiar with but not published too far in the past to be incomprehensible (I hope). I also chose a satirical book being an avid fan of that type of humor. What did I choose?

     So, being steeped in colloquial and idiomatic American English, I thought this would be a refreshing start into my journey through the classics.  The language is familiar enough that I don't feel I have to decipher it to get the meaning and the plot style is still very similar to books published today.  Also, I am a fan of historical romance novels (you may gag but it won't change my opinion) so some of the English history of that time is familiar (romance writers really do their research despite what you may think). 

     The first thing I noticed, is that there is no dialogue written.  It is all recalled from the narrator's experience and he does not give voice to individual conversations choosing, instead, to filter all things through his own recollection--we are left to decide how accurate each of these recollections may be.  With some modern books being more dialogue than description, this is an interesting change.

     Now as to the story, I am 1/3 of the way through the travels and Gulliver has just left the island of Lilliput.  I have seen one or two film adaptations of this story (although not the most recent Jack Black version) and this is the most often depicted part of the story.  I am pleased to say that I have enjoyed the story much more than the movie versions because the medium of video has to rely on visual experiential scenes to tell the story (this is not to say that film doesn't have impact or is inferior, I am just stating that they are different mediums and it can be difficult to transfer from one to the other).  The text is much more cerebral and the irony of reading about the absurdities of court life as seen from an outsiders point of view is very funny but also poignant because the charades and dramas are what were real life for many people.

     Now, I don't want to spoil the story or give away plot points but I do want to encourage those of you who haven't attempted to explore the classics to give them a try.  I'll chronicle some of my observations of Gulliver's Travels while I read through it, and maybe you can read it at the same time and see if you agree or disagree with what I say.  After Gulliver, I'm not sure where I'll venture.  Maybe Darwin because, believe it or not even after a Bachelor's degree in Biology, I still haven't read On the Origin of Species which I believe as an instructor is a sad lack in my earlier education.  What do you think?  Comment with suggestions for my next classic or email me.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

2013 Bible Run... Done!

It's over!  The 2013 PIU Bible Run went as planned and now we're all recovering.  

     For those of you who don't know, this is a major event hosted by PIU, this being the 2nd year in a row that we've held it.  It involves churches from all over the island, the Guam Police Department, all the village Mayors' offices, the Guam Running Club (this year), publicity, news releases, t-shirts and graphic design, run day logistics and many volunteers along with our dedicated faculty and staff. 


     That is a lot over Christmas and New Years, directly following the end of a hectic semester.  Times are ripe for frustration, impatience, and just plain grumpiness.  I admit that I did feel some of this leading up to and including some time during the run.  But it was eclipsed by the excitement of the people who were all eager to be a part of an island-wide proclamation of our uniting faith in Christ.  That is more than enough to drag even a dedicated grump out of the doldrums!

     I also realized that my favorite part of the run was the praying.  Not just joining in the prayers but, to my extreme fascination, my comfort level in praying aloud in public.  Being from a conservative background, I always try to be a good Lutheran and we only have things written down (yes, sarcasm for you uninitiated)... but I really didn't ever practice or feel comfortable with spontaneous prayers in groups of people.  My time here at PIU has really overcome that and I not only was able to participate but also enjoy the opportunity to pray with fellow believers on the side of the road, in the heat of the day, uniting our faith.  What an awesome experience!  The Lord be praised!!

Members of the Southern team

Thursday, 3 January 2013

2013 Bible Run Around the Island!

Mark your calendars!  January 5th, 2013 is the second Bible Run Around the Island presented by Pacific Islands University.  Participants join in by relaying 2 copies of the bible along routes that cover the perimeter of Guam.  Everyone who supports this endeavor is encouraged to pray for the island of Guam, especially the village they are passing through, the people and leadership of the island.  We seek to proclaim that Christ is Lord and join as many people and churches as we can across the island.  Please see the PIU website (www.piu.edu) for more information on how to support the Bible Run whether or not you are on the island of Guam.