Monday, June 30, 2008

This Side of Paradise. F. Scott Fitzgerald.

New York: Charles Scribner's Sons
1929 (1948)

Why read it? Novel. The contrast between the superficial college kid whose main interest was flirting with girls as he attends Princeton and world-weary, cynical, regretful, not-yet-thirty-year-old after serving as an officer in France during WWI. The novel is remarkable for its honest and detailed descriptions of the early "Jazz Age," the "Lost Generation." The book established Fitzgerald's reputation.

Some ideas or quotes for discussion:
"Experience is the name so many people give to their mistakes." Oscar Wilde.

"I've got an adjective that just fits you--one of his favorite starts--he seldom had a word in mind, but it was a curiosity provoker, and he could always produce something complimentary if he got in a tight corner."

"The chief characteristic of the big man seemed to be a great confidence in himself set off against a tremendous boredom with everything around him."

About Rosalind:
"But all criticism of Rosalind ends in her beauty."

"When I meet a man that doesn't bore me to death after two weeks, perhaps it'll be different."

"You've made me talk about myself.... That's against the rules."

"Men aged forty-five know life and are so adorably tired looking."

"I have to be won over again every time you see me."

"Clever men are usually so homely."

About Amory:
"Probably more than any concrete vice or failing, Amory despised his own personality--he loathed knowing that tomorrow and the thousand days after he would swell pompously at a compliment and sulk at an ill word."

"He began for the first time in his life to have a strong distrust of all generalities and epigrams."

"He found something that he wanted...not to be admired...not to be loved...but to be necessary to people, to be indispensable."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Twelve Moons of the Year. Hal Borland.

New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Why read it? Each Sunday, Hal Borland published essays on the editorial page in the New York Times on the seasons in Connecticut where he lived. He wanted to show New Yorkers that there was life outside of New York City. These essays are beautifully written short gems with not a word wasted, describing the changing seasons in rural New England. He expresses the spirit of the seasons using all of the senses. His essays in the book, one for each day of the year, are "sheer celebrations of life."

The following sentences taken from the essays for each month of the year should cause you to recall your own memories of each season.

January: "January can be cold, raw, bitter, icy, edged with a wind that chills the marrow and congeals the blood."

February: "We can split atoms, send rockets to the moon, fly faster than sound, but we still can't subdue a blizzard."

March: "March means maybe, but don't bet on it. There are no rules for March. March is spring, sort of, usually."

April: "By April you begin to see the buds against the sky."

May: "May is apple blossoms and lilacs, and if any other month can surpass that combination we have yet to learn its name."

June: "The world is new and young in the June dawn, fresh and sweet and almost innocent."

July: "By the first week in July the day lilies at the roadside and the brown-eyed Susans in the old pastures splash the countryside with Van Gogh orange."

August: "August comes with hot days, warm nights, a brassy sun, and something in the air, perhaps the season itself, that begins to rust the high hung leaves of the elms. The night still twinkles with fireflies but the day's heat lingers and the air has a dusty August scent, the smell of languid summer."

September: "September comes, and with it a sense of autumn. Summer thins away."

October: "October...crisp nights, mild days, and the whole satisfaction of ripeness and achievement. October is the glory and the magnificence of the year's late afternoon."

November: "November is simply that interval between colorful October and dark December. The owls are the voices of November nights...a chilly sound, a dark and frosty sound that hints of ice and snow...a fireside sound, one that goes with wood smoke and sheltered evenings...winds that rattle the latch. November brings long, chill nights of glittering stars and restless whispery leaves."

December: "December...winter's moon with more than fourteen hours of darkness to rule in cold splendor. Behind the vanished complexity of leaf and blossom is the greater complexity of their source.... Those stark winter trees...are already budded with next April's leaves...the ultimate riddle of complexity, for it is the root of life itself."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The True Believer. Eric Hoffer.

New York: Time Incorporated
1951 (1963)

Why read it? Hoffer has thought deeply about mass movements and seems to put those thoughts on paper in a random fashion. What's missing is transitions from one paragraph to another. However, the ideas from paragraph to paragraph are connected. The reader has to make the connections. In Hoffer's opinion, "True Believers" are frustrated people who seek to lose their personalities in a cause, any cause, for which they are willing to do anything, even give their lives. Hoffer explores the many implications of this type of personality.

Ideas and quotes from the book for discussion:
"Hoffer's hero is the 'the autonomous man,' the confident man at peace with himself, engaged in the present.' "

" 'The true believer'...begins as a frustrated man driven by guilt, failure and self-disgust to bury his own identity in a cause oriented to some future good."

"...spoiling the present with dreams of the future."

"In our world, frustration is the inescapable and unendurble fate of the many; they can break away from this fate only by losing themselves in causes, ends, and movements greater than themselves."

"Key terms, 'frustrated' and 'mass movement' seem to depend on each other."

"The fanatic who dies for a cause is willing to sacrifice others as well as himself for his truth."

"There is nothing that a fanatic will not do to achieve his goal; the end justifies the use of any means."

"Thus in the end...the movement is an instrument of power for the successful and an opiate for the frustrated."

"Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalist, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Time Present, Time Past. Bill Bradley.

New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Why read it? Bradley wrote this book and others in order to become a Presidential candidate in the year 2000 election. Of course, he didn't achieve his goal of becoming President, but his book offers a view of some of the issues future Presidents need to consider: the need to renew people's faith in the government, the problems of racism, uniting the many cultures in our society, urban education, the use of downsizing to increase corporate profits and the nature of politics in the 21st century, among other issues. He wants to use Presidential power to alter the national self-perception.

Bradley's biggest problem, from my point of view, was his inability to speak effectively in public. The same situation could apparently be true in 2008's Presidential race with the eloquent Obama vs. the soft-spoken McCain. Bradley's monotone and lack of apparent enthusiasm put audiences to sleep, a serious problem in the age of television. Perhaps if people had been able to focus on Bradley's ideas and not be distracted by his method of presentation, things might have turned out differently for Bradley and for America. Reaching Americans through books certainly did not work.

Ideas and Quotes from the Book for Discussion
Bill Bradley sees Americans as losing sight of the nature and purpose of America.

In emphasizing individuality, we lose a sense of our common humanity.

The cure for racism, Bradley says, is to see people as individuals, not as stereotyped members of minorities and special groups.

When Bradley hears Americans' stories, he tries to determine the big issues behind the story.

The CIA's mission is counter to America's ideals.

Rarely does TV news make the human spirit soar.

On his wife's breast cancer: will today's chemotherapy go down in history as useless as bloodletting was centuries ago?

The goal of most political campaigns is to reduce a political opponent's career to a few negative events.

Shift the tax burden to unnecessary consumption.

Bradley reviews his practice of walking the beaches in the summer to meet the pubic and to ask, "What's on your mind?" "What do you want me to know?" "Anything you want to ask me?"

"The act of writing has always been a method of clarification for me, a way of getting down to how I really feel about an issue, a decision, a place, a person."

"Thinking about events you have experienced, and developing perspective about them, in some ways, completes them, and finding the words to express that perspective brings about a sense of closure."

Americans need to learn to abandon the fast pace and take time to reflect.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White Hourse. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

New York: Houghton-Mifflin Co.

Why read it? When one member of his staff said he had had no training for the office that JFK was appointing him to, JFK replied that he too had had no training in how to be a President. They would both have to learn on the job. This book, together with Theodore Sorenson's Kennedy tells the reader what JFK learned about being President.

Some Ideas and Quotes for Discussion:
People who worked with JFK soon realized that they saw only limited views of his total responsibility as President. Even RFK, looking over his brother's papers after the assassination, was amazed at the number of issues he did not know about.

JFK had his critics. Eleanor Roosevelt on JFK's silence on McCarthy: he knew what courage was, but he didn't have it.

Characteristics of JFK: impersonal attitude toward issues. Readiness to see views and interests of others.

JFK often improvised in his speeches, even abandoned them, forcing reporters t listen to the speech or file a second report, different from the prepared speech that had been distributed.

Why did he want to become President? Presidency is the center of the action. Enabled him to get things done.

JFK was the only one in his family who liked to read. His memory of what he read was photographic. JFK did not read for distraction; no time to waste. Read for information, comparison, insight and joy of felicitous statement.

Liked quotes that distilled the essence of an argument.

JFK agreed with Falkland: when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.

JFK would not yield to the popular voice; hoped to guide and anticipate it. Knew that things cannot be forced from the top.

JFK was not sure he was a good politician because he saw right on both sides of issues. His view on politics: no friends or foes, but colleagues and you better not alienate any of them.

JFK agreed with Liddell Hart: Never corner an opponent; help him save face; put yourself in opponent's shoes; see through his eyes; avoid self-righteousness, which is self-blinding; keep cool; have unlimited patience. Try to replace conflict with cooperation.

View on government: must do things that private capital won't because of low return.

Castro is not the fundamental problem in South America; must attack the underlying problems of poverty and hopelessness.

JFK's philosophy: After disaster, no recriminations and help bring the situation back. From the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he learned never to rely on the experts. However, failure at the Bay of Pigs brought success in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Believed that every military conflict should not be a moral crusade with unconditional surrender.

"The Peace Corps' only job...was to help people help themselves...with little recognition or reward beyond their own sense of achievement and growth."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tender Is the Night. F. Scott Fitzgerald.

New York: Charles Scribner's Sons

Why read it? Novel. The theme is dependence. Nicole is a wealthy mental patient who is desperately in love with and dependent on her young psychiatrist, Dick Diver, whom she marries. As she achieves mental stability and emotional Independence, he deteriorates because he has become dependent on her. She leaves him for a man who will be her lover and her caretaker, and Dick begins an irreversible decline into alcoholism and dissolution.

This theme of superior, successful individuals who help dependent people gain a foothold on success and then themselves deteriorate as they become dependent, reoccurs in literature and film. Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie is an example and so is the film A Star Is Born. What makes Tender Is the Night poignant is that the plot and characters seem to resemble the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author, and his mentally disturbed wife Zelda and their lives in the "Roaring '20s."

Some Ideas and Quotes to Discuss
"I am a woman and my business is to hold things together."

"The fine quiet of the scholar which is nearest of all things to heavenly peace."

"Naturally Nicole, wanting to own him, wanting him to stand still forever."

"It had been a hard night but she had the satisfaction of feeling that whatever Dick's previous record was, they now possessed a moral superiority over him for as long as he proved of any use."

"We get a lot of understanding at the end of life."

"I never understood what common sense meant applied to complicated problems--unless it means that a general practitioner can perform a better operation than a specialist."

"Dick's bitterness had surprised Rosemary, who had thought of him as all-forgiving, all comprehending."

"Why, I'm almost complete. I'm practically standing alone, without him."

"And the old little wish that she could tell Dick all about it faded quickly."

"Good-by my father--good-by, all my fathers."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Blithedale Romance. Nathaniel Hawthorne.

New York: Literary Classics of the united States, Inc.
1852 (1983)

The purpose of this blog, "Book Club Prep," is to suggest some books to read and discuss in book clubs. I will suggest both contemporary and classic works, will tell why I think the book is interesting and will include some ideas and quotes from the book to start the discussion.

Why read it? A novel. My favorite Hawthorne romance/novel, but the critics don't think so. Good blend of realism and romance (not the love kind, but the kind with improbable events). Timely in that the novel deals with the theme of feminism: beauty and brains vs. beauty and submissive. Which does the male take every time? Beauty and submissive. Narrator has a surprise at the end.

Blithedale, a Utopian community, is modeled on Brook Farm, the Transcendentalist experiment at West Roxbury, Massachusette, in which Hawthorne had participated ten years before he wrote the novel. Miles Coverdale, the narrator, is a coldly inquisitive observer; in revealing his knowledge of the other members of the community, he reveals himself.

Zenobia, a dark, queenly, intellectual woman, is in love with Hollingsworth, an egotistic reformer who plans to convert Blithedale into an experiment in prison reform. He has all the energy and fire of reformers, reminding me of Barack Obama. Priscilla, a pale, innocent girl, fallen under the evil influence of the mesmerist Westervelt, has performed as the Veiled Lady. She is the stereotype of the pretty, clingy thing, who is subservient to men, in contrast to Zenobia who is a strong woman. Zenobia loves Hollingsworth, but Hollingsworth loves Priscilla because he cannot brook the intellectual strength of Zenobia and wallows in the unquestioning adoration of Priscilla.

When Hollingsworth admits his love for Priscilla, Zenobia drowns herself. Hollingsworth, shocked by the experience, abandons his schemes and becomes dependent on Priscilla for strength. Another example of the "Star-Is-Born" theme in which the man is dominant and weakens to become dependent on the woman.

In showing how men fall for the pretty, clingy females like Priscilla, and are afraid of the strong, intellectual females like Zenobia, Hawthorne reveals himself to be a feminist long before feminism became popular. But his narrator is not. He admits in the end that he has always loved Priscilla.

Some Ideas and Quotes to Discuss:
From Hawthorne's preface: "His [the author's] present merely to establish a theater, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures of his brain may play their phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives."

"The greatest obstacle to being heroic, is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one's self a fool; the truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom, to know when it ought to be resisted, and to be obeyed."

"One felt an influence breathing out of her [Zenobia], such as might suppose to come from Eve,when she was just made, and her creator brought her to Adam, saying-- 'Behold, here is a woman!' "

"The fantasy occurred to me, that she [Priscilla] was some desolate kind of creature, doomed to wander about in snow storms...."

"How can she [a woman] be happy, after discovering that fate has assigned her but one single event, which she must continue to make the substance of her whole life [while] a man has his choice of innumerable events."

Of Hollingsworth: "...those men who have surrendered themselves to an over-ruling purpose...have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience."

"She [Priscilla] met with terrible mishaps in her efforts to milk a cow; she let the poultry into the garden; she generally spoilt whatever part of the dinner she took n charge; she broke crockery; she dropt our biggest pitcher into the well; and...was as unserviceable a member of society as any young lady in the land."

"...a man cannot...more effectually show his contempt for a brother-mortal, nor more gallingly assume a position of superiority, than by addressing him as 'friend.' "

"...Hollingsworth's heart is on fire with his own purpose, but icy for all human affection...."

"Zenobia, besides, was fond of giving us readings from Shakespeare, and often with a depth of tragic power, or breadth of comic effect, that made one feel it an intolerable wrong to the world, that she did not go at once upon the stage."

Zenobia: "It is my belief--yes, and my prophecy, should I die before it happens--that, when my sex shall achieve its rights, there will be ten eloquent women, where there is now one eloquent man."

Zenobia: "Thus far, no woman in the world has ever once spoken out her whole heart and her whole mind."

Zenobia on Priscilla: "She is the type of womanhood, such as man has spent centuries in making it."

"I see through the system [of reform].... There is not human nature in it."

"...and happiness (which never comes but incidentally) will come to us unawares."

Hollingsworth: "Be with me...or be against third choice for you."

"It was a woeful thought, that a woman of Zenobia's diversified capacity should have fancied herself irretrievably defeated on the broad battle-field of life, and with no refuge, save to fall on her own sword, merely because Love had gone against her."

"It is nonsense, and a miserable wrong--the result, like so many others of masculine egotism--that the success or failure of a woman's existence should be made to depend wholly on the affections, and on one species of affection; while man has such a multitude of other chances, that this [Zenobia's suicide] seems but an incident."

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Great Crash: 1929. John Kenneth Galbraith.

The purpose of this blog, "Book Club Prep," is to suggest some books to read in book clubs. I tell why I think the book will be interesting to read and include some ideas and quotes to start the discussion.

The Great Crash: 1929
John Kenneth Galbraith
New York: Time Incorporated
1954 (1961)

Why read it? Because if contemporary bankers and financiers had read it, the great housing bubble of the 1990s and 2000s might not have happened.

Speculation was the cause of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, buying stocks with a percentage of the cost, the stocks becoming then collateral for the rest of the purchase price. However, the stock market crash contributed to, but did not cause the Depression--failure of the economy and unemployment were the cause of the Depression. The economy crashed along with the stock market, but the crash of the stock market did not necessarily cause the failure of the economy and its resulting Depression.

In the stock market crash of '29, selling seemed to become an unstoppable epidemic, beyond any one's control, a form of mass madness.

The only assurance against another stock market crash is to read the history of the Crash of '29.

Ideas and Quotes from the Book to Discuss
"This book is meant to be a history of the 1929 Crash; it is not meant to predict the next one."

"...the overwhelming, pathological desire to sell."

"Sermons suggested that we deserved what was happening because we wanted to be rich and had lost our spiritual values."

"The stock market crash can be explained. The Depression that followed cannot."

The people's lack of money to spend and the government's insistence on a balanced budget were two contributors to the Depression. "The balanced budget was a straitjacket on government spending."

"Clerks in downtown hotels were said to be asking guests whether they wished the room for sleeping or jumping." [It is a myth that the stock market crash of 1929 led to a wave of suicides. Suicides were actually higher when times were good. What did increase was the discovery of embezzlements after the crash because people had embezzled to put the money in the stock market with assurance that their profits would enable them to pay it back. With the crash, there was no money to pay back.]

"They, the experts, said nothing, but they said it well."

"The cliche that by 1929 everyone was in the market is far from the literal truth.... In later years, a Senate committee investigating the securities market undertook to ascertain the number of people who were involved in securities speculation in 1929. Only one and a half million people out of a population of approximately 120 million...had an active association of any sort with the stock market."

"One justification for the no-action meetng is that ideas were exchanged--but nothing was done. 'No-business' meetings give the impression of action because of the importance of the people in attendance. 'No-business' meetings attended by important people in a variety of fields have become an institution of government."

Friday, June 13, 2008

Best Nature Writing of Joseph Wood Krutch.

New York: Pocket Books

Why read it? a thoughtful analysis of nature in the twentieth century and man's relationship to it. A celebration of all living things. With nature becoming a series of statistics and abstractions, Krutch calls for a return to personal experience with nature. Krutch tries to awaken in us our sense of wonder at the miracle of nature and living things.

Quotes and Ideas to Discuss
"Life will outlive man."

"Red and green are primary colors in nature, the red of blood and the green of chlorophyll."

"Most insects never see their children; in fact, they are dead before their children hatch."

Tennyson: "Nature cares about the type, not the single individual."

"To be an animal is to be capable of ingenuity and of joy."

"Animals may not understand words, but they understand the emotions with which they are expressed, many shades of emotion."

"The killer for sport prefers death to life, darkness to light; he gets nothing except the satisfaction of saying, 'Something which wanted to live is dead; there is that much less vitality, consciousness, and, perhaps, joy in the universe; I am the spirit that denies.' "

"When a man wantonly destroys one of the works of man, we call him a vandal; when he destroys one of the works of God, we call him a sportsman."

In biology class, "we are taught to dissect the lower animals but don't study them as living beings."

"According to a theory at least as old as Immanuel Kant, a purely aesthetic experience is possible only in the presence of something which provokes no reaction other than contemplation."

In response to Monument Valley: "Statistics mean little because the imagination does not take them in."

"Evolution implies the growing complexity of things previously existing in simpler form."

"Nature loves the race; man loves the individual."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Intro to Blog. Strictly Speaking. Edwin Newman.

The purpose of this blog is to provide brief book reviews and quotes from the book for discussion in book clubs. Each blog will feature a different book, either nonfiction or fiction. The blog will have two sections: a brief summary of my reasons for reading the book, entitled, “Why read it?” and a second section listing quotes or ideas from the book for discussion.

Readers can suggest books for me to review and include in the blog.

Readers can also respond to the ideas for discussion. Or they can write their own “Why read it?” and suggest ideas and quotes from a book that they have read, and I will publish them, with attribution. My whole purpose is to draw people into reading and discussing the ideas in books.

Sample blog:
Strictly Speaking; Will America be the Death of English?
Edwin Newman
Indianapolis/New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

Why read it? If you love a good “rant,” this book is one of the better ones on a topic that everyone loves to rant about—the American language. From the cover: “Newman’s wry eye focuses on the sorry state of the English language as a reflection of the sorry state of society. If words are devalued, he [Newman] argues, so are ideas and so are human beings. He rejoices in language that is lucid, graceful, direct, civilized. He urges us to be careful about what we say and how we say it.

“ ‘Most of us will never speak succinctly or concretely; we may, however, aspire to; for direct and precise language, if people could be persuaded to try it, would make conversation more interesting, which is no small thing; it would help to substitute facts for bluster, also no small thing; and it would promote the practice of organized thought and even of occasional silence, which would be an immeasurable blessing.’ ”

Mr. Newman was a network newsman. This book was made into a relatively short video documentary. The audiences to whom I showed it loved it for the same reason that they loved the book: they both reminded the audience or readers that we can consciously think as we speak, choosing words to express our ideas with precision.

Quotes or Ideas for Discussion:
“Harry Truman used to say ‘Irrevelant’ and stress the third syllable in ‘incomparable’; but Mr. Truman never had any trouble getting his points across.”

“Television exalted the picture and depreciated the word.”

“The prevalence of ‘y’know’ is one of the most far-reaching and depressing developments of our time, disfiguring conversations wherever you go….”

“A ‘serious crisis’ is the only one to have and so are ‘true facts.’ ”

“No practice in Washington is more beloved than that of attributing statements to sources who cannot be named.”

“Politics has a way of bringing on meaningless language.”

“There is no way to measure the destructive effect of sports broadcasting on ordinary American English, but it must be considerable.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” “It’s a bad scene.” How does that grab you?” “Just for openers.” “It’s a fun idea.” “Fantastic.” “It’s the ‘in’ place.” “Is he for real?” “Back to square one.” “That’s the name of the game.” “Who’s counting?” “Bottom line.” “Wild.” “Would you believe?” “Out of sight.” “Lots of luck.” “What can I tell you?” “What have you done for me lately?” “…is alive and well.” “It’s a whole new ball game.”

Can you add to this list of overused expressions? RayS.

I truly hope that this blog will assist people who engage in book club discussions by providing summaries of my favorite books and ideas from the books for discussion. And for those thinking about organizing a book club, you might consider using the format of this blog as a way of organizing your book club. Hope to hear from you. RayS.