Saturday, November 28, 2020

Big Trouble by Dave Barry (novel #169)

Detective Baker decided that this was probably going to be one of those cases where somebody shoots a gun and nobody ever finds out who or why, which is a fairly common type of case in Miami.

I usually read the classics, and even though there is no precise qualification for that distinction, I think it is safe to say Big Trouble does not qualify – and likely never will. 


Which is not to say it is not a delightful read.


In preparing this review, I realized one of the advantages of reading (and reviewing) dead authors – I never have to worry about them reading my review. I was literally worrying about that the first dozen or so pages of Big Trouble, because to be honest, I wasn’t loving it. I wanted to because I love Dave Barry, who is a Pulitzer prize-winning, humor columnist. He is cheerfully cynical, patently absurd, and endearingly self-effacing. I did not read his column regularly, but whenever I did, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 


But Big Trouble was just a little too cliché – at first – in the character of Puggy: loveable loser, simpleton, loafer, boozer, semiprofessional vagrant. 


But somewhere the story turned, just about the same time Puggy’s day turned. He was having a good day, making $45 easy, by voting at several different polling stations, but later gets beat up, but then gets an easy job and free beer. 


He was drinking his second free beer, feeling better again about how the day was going, except for peeing his pants, when the door opened.


People peeing their pants is a motif Barry uses repeatedly, but in a very tasteful way.


Besides Puggy, there are a pair of likeable hit men (I know, but yeah), maybe due to their utterly detestable target, international arms dealers (also nearly likeable), small time thugs, a couple good cops, a good but incompetently overzealous cop, awkward high school kids, their surprisingly intelligent parents, a dog, a poisonous toad, a python, and no gators (except those associated with the University of Florida).


It’s a marvelous farce. Patently absurd – in Barry form – and yet, just on the cusp of plausible...well at least within sight of being on the cusp of plausible. Great fun, highly recommend it.


My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars


Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Little Good News

How about a little good news?


You are less likely to be the victim of a violent crime in the USA today than a decade ago, or two decades, or a century.


MUCH less likely!


You are also MUCH less likely to be the victim of property crime.


Violent crime and property crime have been in a long steady decline for decades.


Doesn’t feel that way, does it? You probably don’t feel safer. You may be doubting the voracity of my assertions.


Here is the FBI crime data:


The table can be a daunting, if you are not a geek like me who can pore over data like this for hours. In my opinion, the “crime rate” columns are the most telling. They represent the number of incidents, per 100,000 persons.


I know there are skeptics who do not trust the FBI. Sorry, I can’t help you. Live in fear.


But if things are actually improving, why do we FEEL less safe?


There are undoubtedly many reasons. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I can think of two that seem like they might be major reasons.


One: Mass media. It comes streaming into our homes instantly, graphically, and repeatedly every day. If there were a gunfight in Denver 100 years ago, the residents of Chicago might see one newspaper article about it…they might. Today, it will play over and over again for days. This is compounded by the exploding population. 100 million people in 1920, to 300 million in 2020. There will be more crimes, even though the RATE has dropped. All of which is to say, the perception that crime is increasing is an illusion. This is a benign consequence of mass media. It isn’t usually evil intent, it’s just that most of us are not well equipped to put the reporting into proper perspective. My intention is to give a little perspective.


I said I knew of two reasons.


Two: Political Opportunism. There are people on both sides of the political aisle who want us to be afraid. They are villains.


My point is not to bash political opportunists. My point is to give a little hope. Circling back to my opening assertion – crime in the USA is in a long steady decline.


How? Why?


Just my opinion – but I think it has something to do with the brave men and women in blue who lay it on the line every day. This thanksgiving, I am thankful for our Police.


God bless and protect them.


Final thought: this data does not include 2020. There might be an anomalous uptick for 2020. I’m not certain there will be, because again…even 2020 might be a bit of an illusion, that when brought into context may not be quite as bad as it feels.


Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Germinal by Émile Zola (novel #168)

(translation by Havelock Ellis)


Was Darwin right, then, and the world only a battlefield, where the strong ate the weak for the sake of the beauty and continuance of the race? ~ Étienne


Germinal is widely regarded as Zola’s masterpiece. It is set in France during the coal miner’s strike of the 1860s. The principle character, Étienne, is a recurring character introduced in an earlier novel. Étienne is out of work, for striking his supervisor and although he is qualified for more skillful labor, he takes a job as a coal miner. He nearly quits after one day of the back-breaking work, but…


He did not know, but he wished to go down again to the mine, to suffer and to fight.


Étienne is an idealist, and Germinal is the tale of The Bourgeois and Proletariat. I am tempted to say it is the French version of The Grapes of Wrath, but that would be unfair to Zola whose masterpiece was published a half-century before Steinbeck’s. 


Early in the book, I thought I was not going to like it. I thought it was going to be a thesis for communism, portraying the heartless greed of capitalism. But no. Zola humanized both miners and capitalist, showing the very different suffering of each in the elongated strike.


He portrays the long slow suffering of the miners…


Things dragged on; a deep discontent was fomenting in the pit…


against the comfort and sudden plunge to ruin of the capitalist.


These revolutionary dreamers might demolish society and rebuild another society; they would not add one joy to humanity, they would not take away one pain, by cutting bread-and-butter for everybody. ~ M. Hennebeau


Tragedy and ruin:


On both sides obstinacy was piling up ruin: while labour was dying of hunger, capital was being destroyed.


Zola depicts the passion of the Étienne, who was a persuasive speaker, but naive and unprepared for the full toll of suffering a strike would cause.


The mine belongs to you, to all of you who, for a century, have paid for it with so much blood and misery.


And even the stoic anarchist, Souvarine, is given fair voice.


Raise wages – how can you? They’re fixed by an iron law to the smallest possible sum, just the sum necessary to allow the workers to eat dry bread and get children. If they fall too low, the workers die, and the demand for new men makes them rise. If they rise too high, more men come, and they fall. It is the balance of empty bellies, a sentence to a perpetual prison of hunger.


All a compelling struggle, but I didn't love this story, until the end, when lives are imperiled, miners are buried; the bitterness and conflict is forgotten as all sides are united in their desperation to save a few human souls.


…and these two men, with their contempt for each other – the rebellious workman and the skeptical master – threw themselves on each other’s necks, sobbing loudly in the deep upheaval of all the humanity within them.


This was tragically beautiful, and made the whole story worthwhile.


Perhaps Steinbeck learned from Zola – the imperfect ending. There is no happily ever after. Yet, there is hope born of adversity, and bathed in blood, but still…hope.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first time I’ve read Germinal or Zola. Have you read this novel? This author? What did you think? I’ll definitely read more by Émile Zola

Oh and...the author has the coolest name, ermmm, second coolest name in literature (apologies to Italo Calivno for nearly forgetting him).


Other excerpts:


But now the miner was waking up down there, germinating in the earth just as a grain germinates; and some fine day he would spring up in the midst of the fields: yes, men would spring up, and army of men who would re-establish justice. ~ narrative


You will never be worthy of happiness as long as you own anything, and your hatred of the bourgeois proceeds solely from an angry desire to be bourgeois yourselves in their place. ~ Sourvarine


Men were springing forth, a black avenging army, germinating slowly in the furrows, growing towards the harvests of the next century, and their germination would soon overturn the earth. ~ narrative


Monday, November 16, 2020


It is time for the 25th edition of the Classics Club Spin – List 20 books from my Classics Club TBR, the mods pick a random number between 1 - 20, and I have until January 30, 2021 to read the corresponding book. 


I’m hoping for unlucky #13 – Our Worm Ouroboros. I’m not dreading any, but I’m probably least enthusiastic about #16, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. I’ve loaded up with Dickens, the seven remaining works I need to complete all his novels. Besides Dickens, there are four authors whom I’ve read before: Evelyn Waugh, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and John Fowles. I enjoyed my previous reads of these authors, so I’d welcome any of them. But of course, I also love to pick up a “new-to-me” author (especially among the Classics). 


1. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

2. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

3. Sybil, or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli

4. Herzog by Saul Bellow

5. The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

6. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

7. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

8. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

9. The Recognitions by William Gaddis

10. Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

11. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

12. The Adventures of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

13. The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Addison

14. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

15. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

16. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf

17. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

18. The Magus by John Fowles

19. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

20. Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Sunday, November 15, 2020

A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller

A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 is exactly what the title states. The author, an experienced shepherd, examines Psalm 23.


Many life lessons in scripture are based on agrarian or husbandry lifestyles, something I am not familiar with. It can take some extra study then to understand their meaning. Phillip Keller helps lift the veil a bit, on this most precious Psalm, by providing the shepherd’s point-of-view.


Psalm 23 was written by King David. Before he was King, David was a humble shepherd, who understood the intimate relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. This beloved Psalm is short, so before I offer a few comments about Keller’s book, I will cite Psalm 23.


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.1

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.2

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.3

Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.4

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.5

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.6


I memorized this Psalm as a child. It is poetry, and beautiful in that sense alone, but like all scripture it is given instruct the child of God. It portrays, the LORD as the Good Shepherd, which necessarily makes the children of God, sheep. Keller opines: 


…it is no mere whim on God’s part to call us sheep


No whim, but not very flattering. Sheep are selfish, stubborn, defenseless, and stupid, or as the author states:

They require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care.


Keller brings out numerous, subtle nuances of this Psalm that would only be obvious to a shepherd. I’ll just point out a few.


“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures” – sheep will only lie down when they are:  free of fear, free from friction with others of their kind, free from pests, and free from hunger. The Good Shepherd frees his sheep from all of these.


The rod and the staff – not the same thing. The rod was the shepherd’s weapon, and speaks of the Word of God. The staff is used to guide, assist, and occasionally rescue the sheep. It speaks of the Spirit of God. It is also, the one thing that uniquely identifies a shepherd.


…that staff, more than any other item of his personal equipment, identifies the shepherd as a shepherd. No one in any other profession carries a shepherd’s staff.


But the most poignant lesson, that Keller’s knowledge of shepherding revealed to me, is from the phrase “goodness and mercy shall follow me”. Keller pointed out, that a properly shepherded flock will actually enrich their pasture lands, whereas a mismanaged flock will destroy them. The application being that, the Child of God, who is blessed by God, should be a blessing to others. Keller asks some powerful, and convicting questions:


Do I leave behind peace in lives – or turmoil?

Do I leave behind forgiveness – or bitterness?

Do I leave behind contentment – or conflict?

Do I leave behind flowers of joy – or frustration?

Do I leave behind love – or rancor?


A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 is a short and accessible read. It added beauty and benefit to my understanding of Psalm 23. 


Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss - guest review by my Grandson

Titus says Green Eggs and Ham, is a poetic allegory told mostly in iambic tetrameter, consisting of dialogue between two distinct first-persons: Sam and the unnamed antagonist. 


Titus felt that Sam is a guide for the antagonist everyman, akin to Virgil and Dante, albeit on a far less epic stage. Titus enjoyed Green Eggs and Ham – the storybook, not the dish. He felt that the story should be analyzed on at least three different levels: literal, whimsical, and allegorical. He offers unreserved endorsement only for the whimsical.


Titus concedes that the suggestion of consuming green eggs or green ham, is clearly not intended literally. However, he still worries that innocent children might be tempted to dine on green eggs or green ham to their detriment. The author is a doctor after all, and should know these things. Titus understands that Doctor Seuss chose a dish intended to evoke aversion, but felt it could have been safely concluded with an icky, but non-bacterial infected dish such as liver and onions or Brussel sprouts. He further recognizes this could have caused problems with rhyme and meter, but he believes the good Doctor could have risen to the challenge. 


I will not eat liver and onions, 

I’d rather my feet were covered in bunions. 


I will not taste a Brussel sprout

So leave now Sam, get out, Get OUT!


For instance.


Titus enjoyed the whimsical farce without reservation. The poetry was hauntingly beautiful, the imagery stunning, and the outcome triumphant.


And finally, the allegory: wherein Titus feels he must temper his approbation just a bit. He believes the premise: that we should be willing to try new things, that we should not be inhibited by convention – is a laudable sentiment, WITHIN LIMITS. Like so many platitudes espoused today, the notion is worthy, but it can easily be taken to reckless extremes. Indeed, the allegory seems to argue against itself – as consuming green eggs or green ham could easily cause gastrointestinal discomfort or worse. Titus was particularly disquieted when the antagonist “gives in” to peer pressure and partakes of something his conscience was warning against. 


Which is not to say, the allegory is without merit. Titus feels it should be taken as it is: an allegory, suitable in principle, but not an immutable truth, not an absolute edict, and not suitable to every circumstance.


Or even better, read it as just a silly, fun story, with delightful pictures and pleasing rhymes.


Titus give it 3 ½ of 5 Stars


Click HERE for more book reviews by my Grandsons and Granddaughters.


Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne (novel #167)

illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard


…wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.


The House at Pooh Corner is a second volume of stories about Winnie the Pooh and friends IN WHICH Christopher Robin grows up.


The House at Pooh Corner is more of the same – that’s a good thing:  just as sweet, just as charming, all the same characters, plus Tigger. Illustrations again by Shepard, just as delightful, this time in color.


I failed to mention in my review of Winnie the Pooh, that Pooh is a rather prolific poet. I’m not sure there was a chapter in either volume when he does not come up with a poem, song, or “hum” as he sometimes calls them. For a bear of very little brain, he is quite philosophic about his art


“But it isn’t Easy,” said Pooh to himself, as he looked at what had once been Owl’s house. “Because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.


A bit later, Eeyore challenges Pooh’s status as Poet Laureate of the 100 Acre Wood, with a poem of his own he calls POEM. I won’t bother you with the poem, as it isn’t very good, in spite of Pooh’s comment.


“It’s much better than mine,” said Pooh admiringly, and he really thought it was.

“Well,” explained Eeyore modestly, “it was meant to be.”


The reader knows better.


I alluded to the notion that Christopher Robin grows up in this volume. It’s a very vagueish sort of thing, a rather him and hawish thing, a slightly not quite clearish thing, implied in the final chapter: “IN WHICH Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There”. It would leave the reader rather sad except that…


So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.


I give it 4 of 5 stars

These are three of my Grandchildren, as I'm reading to them from The Winnie the Pooh Collection.

Other excerpts:


Halfway between Pooh’s house and Piglet’s house was a thoughtful spot where they met sometimes when they had decided to go and see each other, and as it was warm and out of the wind they would sit down there for a little and wonder what they would do now that they had seen each other.


“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” 

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this…