Books Archives

In which we take a dandelion break and remember the 1980s

The 1980s was a bipolar decade for me, as I attended high school (the worst of times) and college (the best of times) in the 1980s.

I recently discovered the newly-released five volume set of Bloom County: The Complete Collection and checked out a few volumes from the library.

The Bloom County comic strip originally ran from 1980-1989. If one ever desires to revisit the 1980s in such a way as to laugh at the pop culture icons, politicians and other absurdities of that era, Bloom County is the way to go. The books have margin notes written by Berke Breathed to explain the forgotten pop culture references. He also dishes some fun behind-the-scenes dirt.

When I was in college everyone was into Bloom County, it seemed, and Opus T-Shirts and stuffed toys were everywhere. During the 1985-86 academic year my roommates and I taped every Bloom County strip from that year to the back of our apartment door.

While paging through the volumes I was happy to be reminded of the dandelion break (click image to see larger version):

And reaquaint myself with Binkley’s closet of anxieties:

Plus the many other story lines, such as Opus’s nose job.

I also like the lyrics to the song The 1983 Blues, which appeared in one of the Sunday strips:

Oh mama, got dese eighty-three blues,
The days are dull, can’t find the fuse.
Preppies! Punkies! No friends o’ mine!
I think I’ll tie-dye my Calvin Kleins.

Yeah, we’ve lost the beat, Jack Kerouac!

Help us, Elvis, please take us back,
To when a “Cool Cat” would never mean
Garfield locked in an ice machine!

Black Panthers! Libbers! A campus to seize!

Now that’s what we need plus a hippie or three!
Yet Valley Girls sit on our cultural turf,
Gross me out, baby! Gag me with a smurf!

So mama help me, I’m losin’ all hopes,

Bob Dylan’s at home a-watching the soaps!
Can’t say much for my G-G-Generation…
The Times; I wish they were a-changin’!!
After that reminder of Valley Girls and Smurfs I think I need a Dandelion Break now.


If you’re ready for a tour of the “great beery, NASCAR loving, church-going, gun-owning America that has never set foot in a Starbucks,” and learn why they tend to vote for rich Republicans, then I urge you to read Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War by Joe Bageant.

Even if you’re not ready for such a tour I recommend you read the book anyway because it will challenge you, regardless of what your political beliefs are (he disses Democrats as often as he does Republicans), plus he’s a compelling storyteller. You’ll find yourself getting caught up in the stories of the people he knows in Winchester, like Dottie. (Here’s an excerpt I typed up from the book that will introduce you to Dottie. It’s long but I hope you’ll read it.)

The author grew up in a redneck family in Winchester, VA and returns to this community in his late 50s after a 30 year absence. He observed the  ways his working class family and friends had been “degraded and devalued” by the same forces they vote for in the voting booths (i.e. the working class tends to vote Republican). He wrote this book in 2007 to describe how his neighborhood in the richest nation on each is having a hard go of it.

Here’s just some of what you’ll learn from the book:

  • Why the working poor kid themselves they are middle class. (p. 5)
  • The real definition of “working class” (it has nothing to do with income or the color of your collar). (p. 11)
  • The role revenge against upper class snobbery plays in the voting preferences of the working class. (p. 14)
  • The only two American presidents who campaigned for universal health care (shockingly, both of them were Republicans). (p. 25)
  • How small businesses aren’t the bedrock of democracy you might think they are and why they are really “small feudal systems ruled by local networks of moneyed families, bankers, developers, lawyers and merchants.” (p. 44)
  • The difference between rednecks and white trash. (p. 70)
  • How getting a lousy education and spending a lifetime pitted against your co-workers in the “gladiatorial theater of the free market economy” allows working people to accept America’s wars without a blink. (p. 71)
  • Where the dreams of the working class go to die. (p. 73)
  • The #1 mistake the left made in dealing with the dissatisfaction of the working class and how the right swooped in and and tapped into working class dissatisfaction with great effectiveness. (p. 81)
  • How rich Republicans are able to connect with the working class on the working class’s own turf. (p. 84)
  • The true source of working class anger (hint: it has very little to do with abortion, gay rights or other political issues). (p. 89)
  • What happens when we stand by and “watch the humanity get hammered out of our fellow citizens, letting them be worked cheap and farmed like a human crop for profit.” (p. 91)
  • Why nobody but the soldier’s family and church gives a hoot when a working class soldier dies in a war. (p. 94)
  • The new terms of discrimination and how they are all about homes, vacations and private education. (p. 103)
  • What “white trashonomics” is and why it never works out. (p. 104)
  • Why the biggest organized racket in the US is the dream of owning one’s own home. (p. 106)
  • Why gun ownership touches the lives of most heartland voters even more than gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action and animal rights. (p. 132)
  • Think we need more gun control? You’ll rethink that when reading how poor women benefit the most from concealed-carry laws. (p. 135)
  • The real problem behind crime and how to whack the crime rate without hysterical “crime is caused by guns.” (p. 135)
  • Why the “theology of despair” is so seductive and how it is shaping the spirituality of millions of Christians today. (p. 166)
  • Why the most obvious class indicator in America is religious belief and how religious zeal is concentrated in lower class and working class whites. (p. 182).
  • The significance of one of the least understood political events in America: the conversion of millions of people from apolitical Christians into Christian political activists. (p. 188)
  • The main difference between Republicans and Democrats. (p. 260)
  • The two things our culture is based on. (p. 262).

Well, I could go on, but I hope that’s enough to interest you in the book. The most upsetting chapter for me was the one on health care. It was troubling to read about how nonprofit hospitals are the largest generator of bankruptcies. They tend to channel their profits into more buildings instead of reducing medical costs and care for the poor and drive small town hospitals out of business. Dottie makes an appearance in this section as well.

Anyway, this book is the best book I’ve ever read about class in America. Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There is a close second.

I’ll close with this poignant question Bageant asks:  “If the left is not about class equity, what is it about?”


“We know so little about even those who are closest to us. We know so litle of what really goes on in other people’s lives.” – Ginerva in Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch

I went on the other day about Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series of novels, but should also mention that she wrote many books prior to Starbridge.

Until recently, I had never read any of those books, for fear they wouldn’t be as substantive and enthralling, and I didn’t want to be disillusioned. I finally manned up and started reading Wheel of Fortune last week, as many Howatch fans consider this to be her best pre-Starbridge novel.

Her earliest works are “gothic” novels, followed by the family sagas such as Wheel of Fortune. There’s a clear demarcation between these works and the Starbridge series because, according to her Wikipedia page:

Howatch found herself “rich, successful, and living exactly where I wanted to live,” but feeling a spiritual emptiness which she ascribed to “trying to hold my divided self together” and questioning her life and what she should do with it…

She experienced a spiritual epiphany, and concluded that she should continue to write novels, but to “set forth my discoveries in the light of faith, no matter how feeble and inadequate my beginner’s faith was.”

The Starbridge novels sprang from that and this is why they feature clerical figures, but, make no mistake, they don’t at all fit into the Christian fiction category in the Family Bookstore sense of the term and most readers of that sort of fiction would be put off by these novels.

Anyway, back to Wheel of Fortune, which could just as easily be called Wheel of Misfortune, as it details the trials of a rich family during the span of a few generations. It’s a 1000 page novel and I didn’t notice until I was about 20 pages in that the copy I was reading was volume 2 of that novel and began on page 474. Oops. That says something about Howatch’s storytelling, that I was able to begin reading halfway through and immediately be swept away by the story.

A Facebook friend posted this Flannery O’Connor quote yesterday and I thought it tied in well with Howatch:

There is something in us as story-tellers that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance of restoration. The reader looks for this motion, and rightly so, but he has forgotten the cost of it. His sense of evil is deluded or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. He has forgotten the cost of truth, even in fiction.

Howatch tells the Wheel of Fortune story from the perspective of several characters. You’ll be reading along and then suddenly it will be another character’s turn to pick up the story where the previous character left off and you’ll be all, “No! I was having fun reading from this character’s perspective!” Inevitably the next character is someone who was portrayed negatively by the previous character and, inevitably, when you start seeing the story from their own perspective, you’ll start liking them and be surprised at how insightful, charming and empathetic that character can be, even though the previous character may have portrayed them negatively.

The quote I put at the top of this post from the Wheel of Fortune reflects this and is what I consider to be the main theme of the novel: “We know so little about even those who are closest to us. We know so little of what really goes on in other people’s lives.”


Being read by Susan Howatch novels

The best books are the ones that read you more than you read them.

That is how I feel about the English novelist Susan Howatch’s novels, particularly her Starbridge series (here’s a chronological list of her Starbridge series that I posted on Amazon several years ago).

It is also why I’ve read through the series three times and will re-read it again this summer. There aren’t any other works of fiction that I revisit in this way.

The last time I re-read the series I finished the last novel in a tiny cabin on Lake Michigan, shivering under the covers because it’s always freaking cold on Lake Michigan, even in the summer, and I was in the throes of the worst allergy attack of my life, as the buildup of dust and mold in the cabin from the winter was too much. The Claritins and Benadryls I popped like candy didn’t bring even the merest edge of relief, but even in that state Howatch’s storytelling kept me riveted.

The Starbridge series is a fictionalized account of some of the main players in the Church of England in the mid 20th century. That probably sounds like it would be a snooze, but it’s not.

For example, if I were to write a six word story of the first book in the series, Glittering Images, it would be: Bishop or whore? Hard to tell.

Scandals involving bishops are one of life’s constants, so it gives  Howatch plenty of material to work from. The other day I read a comment thread on a blog in which someone said it’s better to be a whore than a bishop, because being a bishop has a corrosive affect on one’s personality and at least a whore is honest about what she does. There’s some wisdom in that. Power is corrupting.

Another six word story for the book could be: Image was everything. Until it wasn’t.

She uses psychology and theology to strip down the characters and get past their glittering images. As one Amazon reviewer said, reading the book was like being in her own counseling session. Another reviewer said, “With elements that would appeal to those with an interest in mystery, romance, Jungian psychology, or the spiritual life, this volume will fit well on many and diverse readers’ shelves.”

This article by Charles Howard goes into more detail about Glittering Images and how it deserves a place of prominence on his university office book shelf over his academic tomes.  I also like how he ties it in to helping students find their true identity and vocation, which is timely for me as my oldest daughter graduates high school in a week.

Throughout the series you meet a variety of characters, not just clergy. There’s an atheist lawyer, a gay prostitute, a lonely single female cook who attaches herself to the leader of a healing center, which is operated by social workers, psychologists and a priest. And many more characters.

The occult, ghosts and poltergeist activity are featured in one book. A main theme throughout seems to be that healing is a process and the reader can usually identify with at least one of the struggles a character is going through.

Much to my dismay I had heard rumors over the past few years that Howatch isn’t going to write again. This post, including the comments section, confirms that. Alas. It also gives a nice summary of each of the Starbridge books. So if you’re looking for some books to read you, there you go.


Your Vocation

As individuals we are not meant to be well-balanced, sober servants of collective values. We are not meant to be sane, safe or similar. We are, each of us, meant to be different…

The shape and character of our vocation may change at different developmental stages. We have not just one life, but many lives to live, and in the course of however long we are privileged to live, many tasks, many vocations.

Personality, or personhood as Jung might define it, is not found in adjustment to external expectations, but in serving one’s calling in the context of our environment. This may bring one to an individual experience of being ‘misjudged, derided, tortured, and crucified.’

No wonder vocation is seldom served. And yet, and yet, something in us always knows better. Something in us, no matter how much we flee it, summons us. We may avoid it all our lives, but deep down, something knows. It knows us whether we wish to know it or not. There is no escape from this knowing though much of contemporary Western culture is a flight from knowing what, inescapably, we already know.

We will be most nearly real when we serve our vocation. We will not be spared suffering, but we will be granted a deeply felt sense that our life is right, even when suffering isolation and rejection.

That deeply felt sense of what is right for us… is how we can find it is we are to do with this precious and fragile gift of life and transcendent reality we are summoned to serve. This sacrifice of the ego will constitute our greatest gift to the world.

The sacrifice of collective acceptance, which individuation demands, is redeemed by our bringing a larger person back to the world, to our relationships and to our dialogue with mystery.

–James Hollis in Creating a Life (p. 109-111)


Happy Birthday Beverly Cleary!

Today is Beverly Cleary’s 95th birthday. Her books, especially the Beezus and Ramona series, have been very popular with my daughters over the years.

When I was a kid the Runaway Ralph book was my favorite. The idea of a mouse who rode a motorcycle was compelling to me.

The New York Times posted a profile of her today. I especially like this part:

How does Cleary explain her popularity? “I wrote books to entertain,” she told me. People often asked what she was trying to teach in her books. She would reply, “I’m not trying to teach anything!” This was the same attitude she had when she was first reading. “If I suspected the author was trying to show me how to be a better behaved girl, I shut the book,” she remembered.


An only child, whose parents were forced to sell the family farm, Cleary was painfully shy. Troubled at school and beset by bad teachers, she didn’t learn to read until the third grade. Though, as she remarked tartly in our conversation, “My mother always read to me, so why should I learn to read?”

What ultimately drove her to write for children, she recalled, was a book she noticed when she had a job in a children’s bookstore in the 1940s. In it, a puppy said: “Bow-wow. I like the green grass.”

“No dog I had ever known could talk like that,” Cleary said. She wondered once again, as she frequently had while working as a children’s librarian, “What was the matter with authors?”

Her conclusion: “I knew I could write a better book.”

I let my youngest daughter take a personal day off from school today, so as to give her have some down time away from both her sisters and the classroom. I’m now going to see about reading some Runaway Ralph to her, in honor of Beverly Cleary.


The #1 Medicine For Improving Pretty Much Everything About Your Health

Imagine you could lose weight… have control over your anxiety and depression… prevent dementia and other debilitating side effects of aging… improve your brain power at any age… all without taking meds or making trips to the doctor.

Well, you can, says John J. Ratey, M. D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

Yep, you guessed it. Exercise is the best medicine.

If an inexpensive pill came out on the market that could do all that, with no negative side effects, we’d probably be all over it.

But the word “exercise” can tend to make one recoil. It’s work, after all.

I spent most of my adults years thinking exercise was good for cardiovascular health, maybe losing a few pounds or at least preventing future weight gain, replacing fat with muscle, and that’s about it.

As it turns out, those are probably the least of the reasons you should exercise.

The Mind-Body Connection

Dr. Ratey says “exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.” This is based on hundreds and hundreds of research papers published within the last decade.

He has chapters devoted to how exercise helps with learning, stress, anxiety, depression, ADD, addiction, hormonal changes, and aging. I’ll focus on just three of these in this post.

Anxiety: Nothing To Panic About

A group of cardiologists took psychiatrists to task in a 2004 New England Journal of Medicine article for failing to note that exercise is an additional means of treating anxiety.

These doctors said: “Exercise training has been shown to lead to reductions of more than 50 percent in the the prevalence of the symptoms of anxiety.”

Dr. Ratey says there’s nothing wrong with taking medicine, but if you can achieve the same effects through exercise, you build confidence in your own ability to cope.  “Teaching the brain that we can survive is crucial to overcoming anxiety.”

Depression: Move Your Mood

A landmark study in 1999 at Duke University found that exercise worked even better than medicine over the long term.

Dr. Ratey says:

Unlike many anti-depressants, exercise doesn’t selectively influence anything – it adjusts the chemistry of the entire brain to restore normal signalling.

It frees up the prefrontal cortex so we can remember the good things and break out of the pessimistic patterns of depression. It also serves as proof that we can take the initiative to change something.

Aging The Wise Way

Getting old is unavoidable, but falling apart is not. Exercise is one of the few ways to counter the process of aging. According to Dr. Ratey:

The major implication is that exercise not only keeps the brain from rotting, but it also reverses the cell deterioration associated with aging.

Here’s how exercise helps keep you going when you’re old:

1. It strengthens the cardiovascular system.

2. It regulates fuel (keeps glucose levels from skyrocketing).

3. It reduces obesity.

4. It elevates your stress threshold (i.e. combats the effects of too much cortisol, which brings on depression and dementia).

5. It lifts your mood.

6. It boosts the immune system.

7. It fortifies your bones. Did you know more women die every year from hip fractures than from breast cancer? Eek.

8. It boosts motivation by increasing dopamine, which in turn guards against Parkinson’s.

9. It fosters neuroplasticity, which improves your brain’s ability to learn, remember and execute higher thought processes.

Mental exercise is just as important for the elderly. Dr. Ratey mentions an ongoing study of several hundred nuns over the years in Mankato, MN. These nuns challenge their minds constantly with mental puzzles, public debates about issues, keep teaching long past retirement age, etc. Many of them live to be one hundred or more. They all donate their brains to science after they die. Here’s what Dr. Ratey says about one of the nuns:

The interesting thing about Sister Bernadette is that she scored in the 90th percentile on cognitive tests right up until she died, but when her brain was examined postmortem, it showed massive damage from Alzheimer’s disease… In other words, she should have been utterly lost to the ravages of dementia. Yet despite the damage in her brain, she remained mentally sharp.

So what types of exercises are the best medicine according to all these studies? I’ll write a post about that soon. In the meantime, feel free to read the whole book and find out.


My 12 minute ultramarathon

I read Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner this weekend and could hardly put it down. I’m always drawn to stories about running, probably because I’ve always been scared of running.

I suppose that fear originated in elementary school, where we had to do 12 minute runs every year. Even though we worked up to the 12 minutes gradually in the preceding weeks, I never had the stamina to run 12 minutes without stopping. That, plus having to do it in the gym, crowded by other students, many of whom seemed to run effortlessly, made it the opposite of fun, as did the switch the teacher would flick at us if she saw we were being sluggish.

After one of those 12 minute runs my teacher the next period was so alarmed by my flushed cheeks she wondered if I should go to the nurse’s office and possibly be sent home. From that point on I believed that I just wasn’t cut out for running, that maybe something was wrong with my body in that regard.

Then came junior high and the basketball team. I loved basketball but the brutally long stair lap workouts dehydrated me to such a point that it damaged my body and I had to quit the team.

I had to confront my running fear yet again in high school as the track coach approached me every year and asked me to join the team because he thought I had the right physique for hurdles. When I found out the practices included long grueling runs, I had flashbacks to the 12 minute run and the basketball stair laps and declined.

I happily never had to confront running again, until last summer when I discovered barefoot running. Although I only ran short sprints, I found it very energizing – and painless – to run in bare feet on grass. But I still wasn’t convinced my body could handle anything more than sprints.

In UltraMarathon, Dean Karnazes said his high school cross country coach told him after he won a big race, “If it feels good, you’re doing something wrong. It’s supposed to hurt like hell.”  In the middle of a 100 mile ultramarthon a few decades later, an Indian chief told him, “Pain is the body’s way of ridding itself of weakness.”

This reminded of what author and Jungian analyst James Hollis says: “Surely one of the most telling tests of our lives is whether we are living in a way which is driven more by challenge than by comfort, one which asks more of us than we had planned to offer.”

So I’m going to try to run my own “ultramarthon” – a 12 minute run. Following this 9 week guide, and using a treadmill, I should be able to run 12 consecutive minutes in five weeks. We’ll see.


Six Word Story #35 plus a book recommendation

75. Divorced. Their history was history. – Six Word Story #35

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says before you write a novel you should come up with a situation for the story. The situation is best described in a “What if… ” statement in a sentence or two. He says don’t bother writing a story until you have a good situation.

For The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a novel I read recently, the situation is: “What if a wealthy 78-year-old man divorced his 75-year-old wife after almost 50 years of marriage?”

This situation intrigued me so I decided to read the book. Also, it’s set in Connecticut and I knew reading it would make me feel wistful for New England (in my 20s I lived in Massachusetts for four years) and I felt like revisiting New England in that way. Plus it’s February so I was in the mood for a book that wasn’t minds-on but that wasn’t mindless chick lit either.

Here’s a front page review the New York Times gave of the book and explains the Jane Austen type elements of the book, which give it a lot of charm. As the review says, “Schine is perceptive, and even breathtaking, in her observations.”

Now if only I could go visit New England again for real. Someday, I hope.


We’ve become a nation of Madame Bovarys

I don’t normally get too worked up by statements like these: “No other institution has been so brutally attacked by the Romantic imagination as marriage and the family, an assault that continues unabated in popular culture today.”

Sure, there are attacks against marriage and family, but I figure a lot of these “assaults” are more of an inside job than an outside job.

But the writer who said the above statement cited the book Madame Bovary, so that caught my eye and I couldn’t help but pay close attention to what he said (the essay is long and kind of a snooze except for the Madame Bovary part).

As you may know, Madame Bovary was written by Gustave Flaubert in 1856 and, like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, details the life of a happily married woman who gradually becomes unhappy, falls into adultery, and meets with a most unhappy end.

In this Touchstone magazine article, Nathan Schlueter says the five features of “Romantic Escapism” portrayed in Madame Bovary are reflected in modern marriage (both in the men and the women) all too often:

1. Disordered Imagination – Art and media have an impact on our imagination and Flaubert shows how the romantic novels of the day shaped Emma Bovary’s disordered imagination:
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And she tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

2. Itinerancy – Emma Bovary quickly became bored married to a country doctor and thought happiness awaited her in the city.

I love this line: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.”

Who hasn’t experienced some level of itinerancy, whether in making frequent moves for one’s work, or in smaller ways, by taking lots of vacations, switching schools, churches, neighborhoods, houses all in the pursuit of greater happiness.

3. Consumerism – Today advertisers and marketers lure us into new identities by giving us an endless array of goods and, until recently, sub prime mortgages and easy credit made it too easy for people to live above their pay grade. It was no different in Emma Bovary’s day:

Emma lived all absorbed in her passions and worried no more about money matters than an archduchess.
4. Adultery and promiscuity – Eventually Emma Bovary only felt alive when in the throes of an affair, but then came the inevitable: “She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.” Oops.

5. Existential escapism – Such escapism sometimes ends in suicide, as in the case of Emma Bovary. As Schlueter said:

Like the Romantic heroines who have gone before her (Dido, Iseult, Juliet), Emma finds in her death by suicide both the liberation from and the consummation of her Romantic desire. Yet her dying words suggest that this end is anything but Romantic: “God it’s horrible!”
The presence of any one of the above in a relationship is a red flag. When there are 4-5, well, the relationship is pretty much toast, I suppose.

So what’s the antidote to this Romanticism?

It’s not realism, says Schlueter, which is just as bad as Romanticism. “What is required is a truly realist imagination, one that captures and reveals the extraordinary quality of ordinary life.”

In other words, the capacity to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

What is wanted… is a poetry rooted in the romance of domesticity, which reveals the real beauty of ordinary life within limits and shows the dignity of what it means to be what Wendell Berry calls a “placed person.”

I do take issue with Schlueter on one point, near the end of his essay, where he disagrees with a father who advised his newly-married daughter to keep her job, “just in case.”

Schlueter seems to think this implies a lack of trust in her spouse but apparently he’s oblivious to the economy and the need for most people to have two incomes. There are times in most marriages when one person is underemployed, unemployed, going through a midlife crisis, etc. and the other has to pick up the financial slack. That point reminded me why I don’t read Touchstone magazine much. :D

But I am going to reread Madame Bovary again soon, as those quotes reminded me how wonderfully pithy Flaubert can be. I’ll also try to be more grateful that I’m a “placed person” and remind myself and my girls more often to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.