Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Shakespeare & Company

We all assign meaning to our special places. It may be associated with some event, some person, some memory. Not so long ago I received an e-mail from my cousin and attached to it was a series of photographs of Paris by night. One of these photos brought up one of my special places. So, come with me, and I’ll show you.
First, we take the Metro to the San Michelle. At Place San Michelle we stop for a few minutes at the little café on the corner. Let’s pretend it’s late November and this year’s Beajolais has just been released, and there is a nip in the air. One of the wonderful things about Paris is that you can sit at a table in a café as long as you like, and nobody will bother you not even the waiters. As we sit and enjoy our glass of wine we watch the people and smell the river which is just across the way, we feel the gentle warmth of the heater.
After we finish, we will walk just a short way to the Rue de la Buchene to Shakespeare and Company, Paris’s foremost English language bookstore. We go across to number thirty seven and are greeted by a young person with either a British or French accent; it doesn’t matter because they will be friendly. The first thing we notice is a fire ring in the floor where at one time a fire must have been built to warm the place or to cook something, or both. Like any other bookstore, except for the sham bookstores in the mall, there are too many books for the space. The walkways between the shelves are narrow and poorly lit. The smell of paper fills the air, and when you move a book the dust tickles your nose. The French do not have music in their shops, so the only thing you hear is the other people moving around and a snip of a conversation here and there.
This is not the original Shakespeare and Company. In 1919, Sylvia Beach, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey, opened up a bookstore that would specialize in English and American books. For the next twenty one years the store became the premier salon for the writers and artists of the Lost Generation. Almost any one of note came to the shop, Hemingway, Juan Gris, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and many more.
Not only did Sylvia Beach provide a venue for them to meet, she also became somewhat of a patron to some. It was her support that allowed James Joyce to write Ulysses. She provided him with monetary support and published the first edition under her name with her money. As a reward in 1922 Joyce signed with another publisher leaving Sylvia holding the bag. She was able to recoup some of her loss by selling the original plates. If you are lucky you can still find a copy printed with those plates.
In 1940 when the Nazis moved into Paris, Shakespeare and Company disappeared in one night. The shop was closed and the books were hidden in an apartment. Sylvia Beach never reopened the book shop. In 1951 it was opened by another owner.
If ever you are in Paris, you must stop in.

Au Revoir

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Franny and Zooey
A novel (?) by J.D. Salinger

Review by:
Fred Shira

I read all of Salinger’s work, he was not that prolific, back in the 1960’s for a couple of reasons: one, it was the hip thing to do, and two, it was the hip thing to talk about when trying to pick up girls. “Have you read such and such by Salinger; isn’t it just great. How he speaks to our inner being”. Inner beings were a big thing in those days. This was in Washington D.C. where the wide eyed girls from across the country came to find husbands.
I have wondered why Salinger became such a hermit, living a life way out of the public eye. Maybe it was because of his books. The Catcher in the Rye is a good book and should be required reading for all fifteen year olds. Maybe the roar of the literary dollar harkened to him to keep writing and we, little intellects as we are, will keep buying. When ole’ J.D. passed away I thought it might be a good idea to reread some of his work, so I rummaged through the boxes in the attic and found a copy of Franny and Zooey thinking this would be a good place to start, now I think it is also a good place to stop.
Franny and Zooey is a snapshot of two characters looking for a story. It is divided into two sections appropriately named, first Franny and then Zooey. It’s not a long book, a mere 202 pages, and it could probably be pared in half by taking out all the superfluous descriptions and verbiage padding.
The first section finds us at a New England college on the day of the big Yale game. Franny, a spoiled little rich girl, comes to town to meet her boy friend whose main concern is a paper he wrote about Flaubert for an English class and is disappointed that no one wants to read it. The first scene is set with Lane, that’s the boyfriend, sitting on a train platform waiting for Franny to arrive. He is wearing a Burberry raincoat. I have to wonder if Salinger got a coat for the product placement.
After Franny arrives they go to a restaurant where the conversation turns to snails, how they are so above everyone else and chicken sandwiches. Franny relates to Lane that she has read a book about a monk who went around saying the “Jesus Prayer” like a Buddhist mantra. She plans to follow suit to find true enlightenment. Franny then refuses to eat the chicken sandwich which Lane cajoled her into ordering, and then she faints. End of story number one. The one point of tension is when Lane hints that they may have sex if he can find a back way into the Franny’s room.
The second story is Zooey. After Franny comes to she goes home to the home of her parents in upper east-side Manhattan. He we meet the Glass family which dominates Salinger’s later writings, as a matter of fact all his writings, except for Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. We learn that there were seven Glass kids. They were all contestants on a radio quiz show, “It’s a Wise Child. All gifted. Zooey is a TV actor who criticizes everything and everybody he comes in contact with.
The first half of the story is a dialogue between Zooey and his mother, who he calls Bessie, in the bath room. Poor Zooey has to take his bath hiding himself behind a curtain while his mother sits and smokes. Salinger sets the scene for us like he is being paid by the word. He even goes so far to describe every item in the medicine cabinet. Bess wants Zooey to bring Franny out of her doldrums and make her eat some chicken soup, Jewish penicillin, even though the Glasses are Catholic.
The second half of the story is a very long diatribe where Zooey tries to explain the essence of Eastern mysticism with Franny laying on the couch lamenting the fact that in her four years of college she has only heard the term, “wise man” once, and that was pertaining to some guy who made a lot of money, such a Philistine.
To make an overly long story short; its girl has a spiritual crisis, brother helps her understand, girl gets better. The only real action in the story is that everyone is always lighting cigarettes, except for Zooey who smokes cigars, and moving ashtrays around. Smoking was very chic in the fifties when this story was set.
Perhaps there is more to this story when you look deeper. Does the name Glass signify some sort of transparency? Does Zooey go through some sort of metamorphous when he returns to his room and changes his sweaty shirt? Do the two older brothers, Buddy and Seymour stand for some abstract spiritual power figures? This could all be so, but the book is too droll to think that much about. When it’s finished you just want to put it back in the box in the attic,
Maybe Salinger should have followed the lead of Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell and wrote one good book then quit.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review/Essay "A Case for Christ"

The Case for Christ
By Lee Strobel

A review by Fred Shira

“Whatever gets you through the night”

To quote Tennessee Williams from his play, Suddenly Last Summer: he writes in the tragic voice of Catherine, “We are all of us children in a vast kindergarten trying to spell God’s name with the wrong alphabet blocks”.
Lee Strobel makes no attempt to deceive us with his title, The Case for Christ. He sets forth with lawyerlike precision an argument for the existence of Jesus Christ as presented to us in the four gospels of the New Testament. Strobel, a professional journalist with legal training and experience covering criminal cases for the Chicago Tribune, builds his case with a collection of interviews with some of the world’s most highly reputed biblical scholars. But like any good trial lawyer he hand picks his experts to elicit the answers he needs to advance his theory ignoring those that will refute his theme.
There is no mention of the Nag Hammadi Gospels, the scrolls that were discovered in a cave in 1945 that have been authenticated by the most reputed biblical scholars. These document the fact that there were other gospels as well as those included in the New Testament. Even the Bible tells about seventy apostles, not just twelve. During the first few centuries there were several competing sects for what was to the be the true church. Orthodox Christianity became the strongest movement edging out the others, except for a couple that still survive today: the Coptic Christians of Egypt, and some of the branches of the Eastern Church. The Roman Church was further strengthened during the reign of Constantine; the emperor allegedly gave the power of the Empire to the Church in Rome: “The Gift of Constantine”. Although this was later proven false it did put in place the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold, makes the rules”.
Strobel submits his case to us in three sections with fourteen postulates each requiring that you accept the gospel writers as definitive sources of history. He pays little heed to the fact that the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are self evident with little or no outside confirmation.
In the first section, “Examining the Evidence” Strobel takes down a winding path of assumptions and questionable logic. His first hypothesis is that the Gospels as recorded were handed down to the writers by eye witnesses, and that there were other witnesses to make certain of the accuracy; therefore the stories could not be corrupted by legend. The Gospel of Mark was the first written, and most scholars have concluded that at least six authors made contributions. Mark was written about 70 CE which would have been some forty years after the death of Jesus. Now if you consider that forty years had passed and that the life span was probably around fifty years, or so, the life spans stated in the Bible do not stand-up against biological fact. With fifty years the normal there is little chance that there were many, if any, dependable eye witnesses. In his book, Who Wrote the Gospels, Randel McCraw Helms predicts that there were at least five transitions through the oral phase before they were written down. When you consider the mythology that has grown up around 9/11 in just a few years, it makes any historical approach to the Bible suspect.
Strobel assembles his proposition much like an artist who chooses to fill in the negative space around a painting to reveal the central object. In order to find the clear and truthful picture you need to arrange all the negative space components leaving out none and adding nothing that should not be there. Not only must you have faith in the picture you also must have faith in the artist’s intentions of portraying the truth. Therein lies the quandary: what do you accept at face value and what do you question? Strobel suggests that we use simple logic to determine the truth; however, logic and reason are the two biggest enemies of religion in general, and orthodox Christianity in specific. All religion is a construct, that is, it is an idea without any clear proof of fact. It has no empirical basis in reality; we can only know it by what someone else has told us. We can not smell, nor see, nor hear, nor taste, nor can we have a tactile experience with religious thought. We have no a priori relationship with religion; that is, we are not born with a concept of God. This must be learned. A child only knows, “Jesus loves me, yes I know because the Bible tells me so”. Remove the Bible from the argument and there is no argument.
Throughout the entire book Strobel cites “The Jesus Seminar”, a group of 150 biblical scholars who have worked collectively over the past twenty-five years to explore the life and times of Jesus and place him in an historical context. Of course, their conclusions run counter to those of Strobel; therefore, he denigrates them at every turn. This is much like miscoloring a portion of the negative space.
The two seminal questions in the second section, “Analyzing Jesus”, are: was Jesus the Son of God, and did he know it. How do you answer such questions? Here all we can do refer is to the New Testament. Is the Bible a textual history or an edited amalgam of the pieces and bits gathered to support orthodox Christianity. If, in fact, there are answers to the questions, the starting point for discovery would possibly be in the deep corners of the Vatican library. Strobel quotes a Biblical scholar, Dr Carson, “So part of Christian theology has been concerned with not ‘explaining it all away’ but with trying to take the biblical evidence and, retaining all of it fairly, find ways of synthesis that are rationally coherent, even if they’re not exhaustively explanatory”. Thus like any good prosecuting attorney, set the answer then construct the evidence to reach that conclusion.
The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of orthodox Christianity. If the resurrection were proven false then the whole of western religious thought would crumble bringing down with it a good deal of western civilization.
First what do we know from actual historical records about the crucifixion of Jesus. We now that a person called Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, tried, beaten, made to carry a heavy wooden cross through the streets to Calvary Hill. There he was nailed to the cross members and raised above the ground then his feet were nailed to the upright member. After six hours Joseph of Arimetheia received permission to remove him from the cross if he were in fact dead. We know that his side had been pierced by a roman spear, to what extent we can only guess. After he was removed to a crypt owned by Joseph of Arimetheia his wounds were dressed and he disappeared sometime in the night. That is what we know. All the rest is faith, believing with no guarantee. Stobel presents us with a story founded in biblical references and logic. Here again it become incumbent on the reader to believe or not believe at his own volition.
The great American thinker and psychologist William James ended his essay, “The Will to Believe” with a quote from Liberty, Equality, Fraternity written by Fitz James Stephens.

“What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? … These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. … In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark … If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that too is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man think otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of good courage.’ Act the best, hope for the best, and take what comes… If death ends all, we cannot meet death better”.

In the final analysis all we can do is find someway of thinking, some method of ontological perception, that helps us get through that long, dark metaphysical night.
To further paraphrase William James, we will not know the answers, if in fact there are answers, until the back cover is closed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Owain’s Own
By John Corns
Review by
Fred Shira

The Owain referred to in the title Owains’s Own refers to the hero of Welsh folklore, Owain Glyndwr, anglicized by William Shakespeare, Owen Glendower who in the fourteenth century was born into an aristocratic family that lived and owned property along the Welsh and English border. After the death of his father, Owain was sent to London to study law. While in London he witnessed the failed Peasants Revolt of 1381 when they rose up seeking to abolish serfdom. In 1383 he returned to Wales, established himself as a country squire, and started what was to be a large family.
In 1401 Owain broke away from England and, along with his followers, crowned himself Prince of Wales. From 1401 to 1412 he was involved in the popular Welsh Revolt, Glyndwr Rising or the Last War of Independence. With the loss of several battles and the shifting of English politics, he simply disappeared from the history books leaving his later life to the imagination of the historians. But, from this lost rebellion Owain Glyndwr galloped into Welsh mythology and the history books.
There have been roughly 65,000 books written about the Civil War. They have covered every battle from nearly every perspective. There are books on sex during the Civil War and cook books from the Civil War. I sometimes wonder if there is a receipt for cooking corn bread on a rifle ram; this was very common place.
John Corns is a retired Army General with a deal of combat experience during the Viet Nam war. He brings that experience to his story. One of the most interesting things about this story is that it tells us something about a part of the war that has not been over written: the war in the Appalachian Highlands of what was then Virginia. In comparison to the great battles of the war this section of the country witnessed only minor skirmishes; albeit if any battle can be considered minor when brave men fight and die.
Owain’s Own is a chronicle of the life of James M. Corns from his days as a young man in Wales through his experiences in the war to his ultimate end. In the mid-nineteenth century James, call Jamie, lives with his parents on a farm in Wales. The farm was owned by an absentee owner who could simply throw the family off the farm at any given whim.
Here’s an interesting note: In mid-century it became very fashionable for the London gentry to clear their farms and make them into hunting preserves. The Crofters (farmers) of Scotland had been on their farms for generations when they were simply turned out with no where to go. Harriet Beecher Stowe the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly that heralded the mistreatment of the slaves of the US South wrote how wonderful it was to go to the hunting preserves: a bit of irony here. Many of the Crofters settled in Nova Scotia.
Jamie and his friend, virtual brother, Gareth, left for America leaving behind a cloud of rebellious activity. Upon leaving Jamie’s father counseled him to go to American and own land: land where he could not be expelled simply by caprice. He and Gareth land in Philadelphia where Jamie finds employment in the construction business. He learns the trade of masonry and grows to own a contracting company of his own. He falls in love and marries but at the expense of his friend, Gareth. After some difficulties with his business he moves to Virginia with a short stop over in western Pennsylvania at his wife’s parents.
In Virginia with the help of an uncle he acquires a small farm and begins a new life and expands his family. Things go along fine until Virginia’s secession from the Union and war breaks out. Jamie feels that he should serve to protect his land, and he believes in the Southern Cause. He serves loyally and fights bravely and is promoted to the rank of colonel. It is during the war that he begins to experience problems with him family. He is ambivalent about his duty to his soldiers and his wife and children. His reason for joining becomes clouded with the separation of West Virginia. Is he still protecting his land from the Union when it is now part of the Union? This becomes a very interesting point. In 1861 after a dubious election and a questionable interpretation of the Constitution western Virginia is formed into a separate state: West Virginia. As you can imagine this would have put the men who joined the confederacy into quite a quandary. Just where do they stand. A good question for the historians.
John Corns gives us a very good compelling look at the history and geography of the mountains of West Virginia. He writes a love story like a historian lacking the florid language of a poet, but none-the-less he spins a good tale.