Anthony Wayne: Daring Boy

I stumbled across a used book in a library clearance sale; “Anthony Wayne: Daring Boy.” It was part of a series called “Childhood of Famous Americans” and I think many were written by an author named Augusta Stevenson. I’d guess they are about 60-70% fictional and definitely reflect a 50s worldview; but I really enjoyed these books as a kid, and now I’m enjoying re-reading the Anthony Wayne one with Cole.

The other one I remember reading was Sam Houston: Boy Chieftain.

The pattern, in those books anyway, is that a boy with promise gets into tough situations, shows pluck, courage, and ingenuity and saves the day; goes on to be Famous American. Sort of a Horatio Alger thing, I guess.

Captain Stormfield Arrives at Heaven

I can’t remember if I’ve recommended Mark Twain’s short story, “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” before around here, but if not, I highly recommend it. Today, it was prompted by a post of Tipsy’s touching on the relationship between God and the world.

That reminded me of Captain Stormfield’s arrival at Heaven. He had been racing a comet which took him fairly far off course, causing him to arrive at Heaven by the wrong gate; causing much consternation for the Heaven bureaucracy that has to make arrangements for an entire universe worth of arrivals.

I lit. I drifted up to a gate with a swarm of people, and when it was my turn the head clerk says, in a business-like way -

“Well, quick! Where are you from?”

“San Francisco,” says I.

“San Fran – WHAT?” says he.

“San Francisco.”

He scratched his head and looked puzzled, then he says -

“Is it a planet?”

By George, Peters, think of it! “PLANET?” says I; “it’s a city. And moreover, it’s one of the biggest and finest and – ”

“There, there!” says he, “no time here for conversation. We don’t deal in cities here. Where are you from in a GENERAL way?”

“Oh,” I says, “I beg your pardon. Put me down for California.”

I had him AGAIN, Peters! He puzzled a second, then he says, sharp and irritable -

“I don’t know any such planet – is it a constellation?”

“Oh, my goodness!” says I. “Constellation, says you? No – it’s a State.”

“Man, we don’t deal in States here. WILL you tell me where you are from IN GENERAL – AT LARGE, don’t you understand?”

“Oh, now I get your idea,” I says. “I’m from America, – the United
States of America.”

Peters, do you know I had him AGAIN? If I hadn’t I’m a clam! His face was as blank as a target after a militia shooting-match. He turned to an under clerk and says -

“Where is America? WHAT is America?”

The under clerk answered up prompt and says -

“There ain’t any such orb.”

“ORB?” says I. “Why, what are you talking about, young man? It ain’t an orb; it’s a country; it’s a continent. Columbus discovered it; I reckon likely you’ve heard of HIM, anyway. America – why, sir, America – ”

“Silence!” says the head clerk. “Once for all, where – are – you – FROM?”

“Well,” says I, “I don’t know anything more to say – unless I lump things, and just say I’m from the world.”

“Ah,” says he, brightening up, “now that’s something like! WHAT world?”

Peters, he had ME, that time. I looked at him, puzzled, he looked at me, worried. Then he burst out -

“Come, come, what world?”

Says I, “Why, THE world, of course.”

“THE world!” he says. “H’m! there’s billions of them! . . . Next!”

That meant for me to stand aside. I done so, and a sky-blue man with seven heads and only one leg hopped into my place. I took a walk. It just occurred to me, then, that all the myriads I had seen swarming to that gate, up to this time, were just like that creature. I tried to run across somebody I was acquainted with, but they were out of acquaintances of mine just then. So I thought the thing all over and finally sidled back there pretty meek and feeling rather stumped, as you may say.

“Well?” said the head clerk.

“Well, sir,” I says, pretty humble, “I don’t seem to make out which world it is I’m from. But you may know it from this – it’s the one the Saviour saved.”

He bent his head at the Name. Then he says, gently -

“The worlds He has saved are like to the gates of heaven in number – none can count them. What astronomical system is your world in? – perhaps that may assist.”

“It’s the one that has the sun in it – and the moon – and Mars” – he shook his head at each name – hadn’t ever heard of them, you see – “and Neptune – and Uranus – and Jupiter – ”

“Hold on!” says he – “hold on a minute! Jupiter . . . Jupiter . . . Seems to me we had a man from there eight or nine hundred years ago – but people from that system very seldom enter by this gate.” All of a sudden he begun to look me so straight in the eye that I thought he was going to bore through me. Then he says, very deliberate, “Did you come STRAIGHT HERE from your system?”

As with just about everything Mark Twain wrote, particularly – in my mind – his short stories, it’s worth a read. In this one, he pretty deftly skewers the cartoon version of heaven that seems to have currency among the rank and file, if not the deep thinkers.

Unbroken

I just finished Lauren Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It was a very good book, telling the story of Louie Zamperini, who ran in the 1936 Olympics. While he was training for the 1940 Olympics, World War II broke out. He then became a bombardier whose plane went down over the Pacific. After subsisting for 47 days in a raft, he was picked up by the Japanese Navy and endured a harrowing existence as a P.O.W.

It’s just a gripping story.

A Voyage Long and Strange

I recently finished the newest book by Tony Horwitz entitled A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. Horwitz has unexpectedly become one of my favorite authors having developed a style of writing that is part history, part travelogue. Typically, he’ll explore a historical topic by going to the place where some historical event happened, telling you about his encounters with some of the locals and telling you about the historical event. He’s done that to one extent or another with Captain Cook, the Australian outback, and the Confederates.

In this book, he takes a closer look at the events in North America before the Pilgrims set up shop. He describes his inspiration for the book as being at Plymouth Rock when he overheard that tourists would ask questions like, “Did Columbus drop off the Pilgrims in the Mayflower?” he laughed, but then realized that his own knowledge of pre-Pilgrim America wasn’t all that extensive. Columbus – Pilgrims – Squanto – Thanksgiving – something was going on in Jamestown. The book takes a look at Leif Erickson and the Vikings, Columbus, Coronado, DeSoto, some French colonists, Jamestown, and wraps up with the Pilgrims, including some lesser known facts — such as that Squanto was originally captured as a slave and dragged to England. He made his way back. Meanwhile, the area where he used to live was decimated by disease. When the Pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock, they had a settlement already cleared by natives who had died off and the assistance of a native who already knew English.

All in all, a good book. Horwitz plus early American history is a decent combination. However, the book doesn’t display as much of Horwitz’s humor and wit as many of his other books. That might have something to do with the subject matter. A lot of that early history is fairly grim — the Spaniards were particularly brutal when they hit the shores.

Casual Reading

Normally I only post about a book that I’m reading when it has some substance to it. I’d hate to create the impression that I’m some kind of book snob, so I thought I’d mention that The Brothers Karamazov got a little heavy for me at about page 300. I put it down in favor of The Destroyer #111 Prophet of Doom. I’ll pick up Dostoyevsky again sooner or later, but sometimes a guy just needs a little mindless fun. The Destroyer books certainly fit the bill: super assassins save the day, repeatedly.

Into the Wild

I took a break from the Brothers Karamazov to read Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild. The two books have some similar themes related to the passions of youth and the need of the young to find meaning in the world. Krakauer’s book is about Christopher McCandless, a suburban youth raised in Annandale, Virginia, near D.C. I’m only half way through the book, but so far, McCandless strikes me as almost a caricature of youth. He is strong-willed, refusing to take direction from authority. He is idealistic, railing against the hollowness and materialism of American existence.

After graduating with a high grade point average at Emory University, he donated about $24,000 he had in his name to a charity and began tramping around the country. He cut off contact with his family and adopted an assumed name. After a couple of years, he hiked into the Alaskan wilderness near Denali with minimal gear. He didn’t bother with a map of the area. He ended up dying, most likely of starvation, in the summer of 1992 about 20 miles from the Denali National Park’s highway.

Of more interest to me in Krakauer’s book is the way Krakauer dealt with some similar impulses and the lessons he learned after living to tell the tale. Krakauer made his way up to the Stikine Icecap in the Alaskan panhandle region to climb the Devil’s Thumb.

In any case, it seems that for most people, the passions of youth cool down over time. Krakauer talks about it. Dostoyevsky talks about it. In particular, I remember in college getting unusually angry over a passage in Catcher in the Rye to the effect that an immature person can die for a cause, it takes a mature person to live for a cause. For some reason, I had an emotional response to the minimization of the value of going out in a blaze of glory for some cause or another. Older, possibly wiser, and certainly more mellow, I have come to agree with the proposition about the value of living for a cause rather than dying for it.

This has been Stream-of-Consciousness Theater.

The Brothers Karamazov

My current literary effort is to re-read The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Of the literary classics I had to read in high school, this one was probably my favorite. However, it’s not light reading, so I have picked it up a number of times since then without much success. This time, I’m about 300 pages in, so maybe I’ll finish it. I’m happy it was assigned in high school, but like so many other books of this caliber, a lot of it was wasted on a 17 year old.

I am, however, at a point in the book that decidedly was not wasted on me when I was a kid. One of the characters, Ivan, spoke about how the young have to wrestle with the great, momentous issues — the existence of God, the meaning of life, etc. Once you’ve aged, it’s apparently easier to focus on the more mundane problems of making things work here on earth. In the book, I am in the middle of Ivan’s lunch conversation with his brother Alyosha: The Grand Inquisitor and the conversation leading up to that conversation. The Grand Inquisitor is a story that Ivan shares with Alyosha about Jesus coming back to earth, briefly, much to the consternation of The Grand Inquisitor at the height of the Spanish Inquisition.

During the conversation leading up to The Grand Inquisitor, Ivan shares some items in a catalog of horror stories he has collected wherein adults torture innocent children. He describes a lord who sets a pack of hunting dogs on an eight year old because the boy accidentally hurt the lord’s favorite hunting dog. He describes rampaging Turks who like to torture children in front of their parents. And, he describes “disciplinarian” parents who beat their daughter half to death, then throw her in the outhouse to cry it out, crying in particular to “sweet, gentle Jesus.” Ivan then goes on to posit that, maybe in the end God’s plan will become evident to all. Everybody will be in harmony and will finally understand why all the pain was necessary. Consequently, all will be forgiven. The mother of the boy killed by the Lord’s hounds will forgive the Lord, etc.

But, Ivan asks Alyosha (his spiritual brother), if Alyosha was creating a world where all could be perfect, but first Alyosha would have to torture the girl and allow her to cry out in the stinking, freezing outhouse to sweet, gentle Jesus, could he possibly use the girl’s tears as the foundation to his master plan? Alyosha allows as how he could not do it.

The subject of original sin comes up somewhere during this discussion. And, I recall reading the book in high school, becoming even more pissed off at the theologians who conjured up original sin as justification for the existence of the suffering of innocents and an excuse for them to go to hell absent proper clerical intervention.

Next up, as I mentioned, is The Grand Inquisitor. Perhaps I will have more to say on that later. But, generally, it tells a story of the Grand Inquisitor lecturing Christ for his refusal of the Devil and his three temptations in the desert – the temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. By giving people freedom instead of the various types of security offered by these things, Christ has chosen poorly. Fortunately, in the opinion of the Inquisitor, the Church has come along and provided the appropriate types of security. For the moment, it occurs to me that we have recently seen the temptation of people to reject freedom in favor of the illusion of security under “strong” leadership. This is not a new thing. Freedom is hard.

A last concept I’ll mention from the book is Fyodor Karamazov’s statement that he never hated anybody for what they had done to him. He always hated them for something outrageous he himself had done to them. Once he had done something to them of which he was ashamed, he’d make up reasons to hate them and continue to treat them horribly.

Under the Banner of Heaven

Some vacation reading I have done was Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. It examines the case of Ron and Dan Lafferty’s murder of their sister-in-law and baby niece as a jumping off point to take a look at Mormon history and Mormon fundamentalism particularly and to thereby examine some aspects of religion generally.

The Laffertys seemed to have grown up as pretty solid mainline Mormons. They converted to Mormon fundamentalism in part because of a conviction that the abandonment of polygamy by the mainline Church was contrary to the revelation of Joseph Smith about the sanctity of plural marriages. One thing led to another and they wound up killing their uppity sister-in-law and her toddler daughter because God told them to.

Krakauer speculates that some of the fundamentals of the development of the Mormon religion probably parallels the development of other more “major” religions. The difference is that due to its recency, the rise of Mormonism is better documented than the rise of Christianity or Islam. Like Joseph Smith, Mohammad and Jesus were probably charismatic individuals with odd ideas and claims to a direct link to God. Men who seemed peculiar to most, but by virtue of their extreme charisma were able to convince a non-trivial number of people of the truth of their odd ideas. The oddities of Mormon belief are not inherently less believable than some of the oddities of Christian belief, for example. The Christian oddities are simply older and more familiar. Transubstantiation – the Catholic idea that bread and wine are literally turned into Christ’s flesh and blood or even the idea of a Virgin Birth don’t generally make most people bat an eyelash. But, it’s pretty easy to get people to raise their eyebrows at the Mormons’ sacred underwear.

In case any of you are looking for a book to read, I’d recommend Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.

Outback books

Oddly, it appears I have a real love for books about American men pushing middle age heading out into the Australian outback. I wouldn’t have even thought this was a genre. But, I’m currently reading and enjoying a second book on the subject. The first was Tony Horwitz’s One for the Road wherein Horwitz hitchhikes all over Australia. The current one is Roff Smith’s “Cold Beer & Crocodiles: A bicycle journey into Australia” wherein Smith, as you might guess, rides his bicycle around Australia counterclockwise.

Heat and flies seem as constant as the friendly strangers with coolers of beer in their trucks. I think I’m getting to a point in my life where I can start saying for certain there are things that I’m never going to do, even things that seem pretty cool. Wandering into a lonely Australian bush pub by myself is probably one of them. So, I guess I’m living vicariously through guys like Horwitz and Smith. Maybe one of these days, I’ll at least make it to a place like Perth or Darwin or Broome. For the time being, I think I have a hangover just reading how much beer is routinely consumed in that part of the world.

Book Meme

Swiped from Lemming’s Progress.

Bold = books you’ve read
italics = books you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole or wish you hadn’t.

1. The Davinci Code (Dan Brown)
2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3.To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
(I have a daughter named Harper Lee Masson, if that tells you anything.)

4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)

(I was a huge Tolkien fan. When the movies came out, I couldn’t believe how much detail I remembered from the books, seared into my memory from multiple readings, mostly as a teen.)

8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13.Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
17. Fall on Your Knees(Ann-Marie MacDonald)
18. The Stand (Stephen King)
(I read this one in something like 2 days one college summer. I know I read one day from about 10 a.m. until 4 a.m.)

19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling)
20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
21. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
(I know this one is supposed to be a classic, but to me it was basically “Holden Caulfield is a whiny little brat. The end.”)

23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
[Read more...]