where did we go right?

I turned over to Turner Classic Movies: TCM just now to see the last few minutes of The Mouse That Roared, with Peter Sellers. I loved the the book, by Leonard Wibberley, when I was a teenager, and we did the play when I was a drama student at Cascade.

The movie takes some liberties; the Grand Duchess, one of several characters Sellers plays on screen, is a flighty young woman in the book, but an old dowager in the movie.

It’s a very funny premise. At the time of the book and the movie, the Marshall Plan was still fresh in everyone’s memory. The story (and I’m going by the book version here) is about the tiny — and mythical — European nation of Grand Fenwick, more like a small town than a country. Grand Fenwick has fallen on hard times because an American vintner has copied its signature wine, which is its primary export. The leaders of the country note that the United States is quite generous in rebuilding countries it has beaten in war, and so they come up with an ingenious plan: They will declare war on the United States, surrender immediately, and then reap the benefits.

But the plan goes awry. For one thing, the declaration of war gets lost in the shuffle at the U.S. State Department. For another, the somewhat dimwitted patriot Grand Fenwick sends to lead their invasion force is not privy to the real plan; he thinks he’s supposed to win, even though he and his men are armed only with bows and arrows. The invasion force lands in a seemingly-deserted New York during a disaster drill, and blunders onto the campus of Columbia University, where they take as their prisoner an Einstein-like scientist who has invented a terrible new type of bomb – and who has the prototype in his possession. The U.S. government has no choice but to surrender, an outcome for which Grand Fenwick is stunningly unprepared.

It’s the first of a series of books about Grand Fenwick – I vaguely remember reading one or two others but I think the original was the best.

TCM is showing a series of movies tonight about fictitious ruritanian countries. It started with “The Mouse That Roared.” Right now, there’s “Romanoff and Juliet,” about a tiny nation whose vote on a key issue in the UN General Assembly is being sought by both the U.S. and the USSR. But coming up at 10:30 is one of my all-time favorites: Duck Soup, in which Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo lay waste to the fictitious land of Freedonia.


With the play over, I finished up reading Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden, which I bought on sale for Kindle a while back. I started reading it, then had to set it aside because a library book for which I’d been on the waiting list became available, then came back to it, then set it aside again while I was so busy with the play.

It’s a terrific book. As the title suggests, it is not a comprehensive biography of the great author but a look at the last four years of his life. Many readers and scholars over the years, picking up on a certain bitter edge to his writing following the death of his beloved wife Olivia, have painted a portrait of Twain as a completely embittered man during this period, an impression Shelden seeks to moderate, pointing out some of the joys and successes of this period, a period when he was held in great esteem as a beloved national and international figure.

The title, of course, refers to the white suit. If you close your eyes and imagine Mark Twain, you envision him wearing a white suit. But he didn’t begin wearing one (at least not as a year-round trademark) until the winter of 1906, when he appeared before a copyright hearing at the Library of Congress. He wanted to call attention to himself, and believed arriving out of season in white would do the trick. It did. Twain’s purpose at the hearing was to endorse the idea of extending the term of copyright protection. His two surviving children, Clara and Jean, were unmarried, and he hoped that ongoing royalties from his works would help to support them once he was gone.

The book is, in many ways, not only about Twain himself but about his relationships with Clara, Jean and another important woman in Twain’s circle, his assistant Isabel Lyon. Clara was a vocalist who yearned for a career in which she wouldn’t automatically be introduced as Mark Twain’s daughter but would be recognized on her own merits. Jean was an epileptic at a time when treatment for epilepsy was primitive. For much of the period covered in the book she was cared for in an institution, much to her aggravation and her father’s sadness. She longed for independence.

Lyon, the other major character in the book, is unique. She became Twain’s right hand, and personally supervised the construction of the Connecticut home, Stormfield, which Twain dreamed of sharing with Clara and Jean. But in some ways, their professional relationship was not as well-defined as it should have been, and she presumed a personal connection and a responsibility for protecting Twain which got her into trouble. She interfered with Jean’s treatment out of a selfish desire to keep her from being allowed to join her father at Stormfield; having Clara and Jean too close by would have interfered with what she saw as her role as Twain’s protector. Early on, she was driven by a real, intense affection for the beloved author, but she eventually fell in with Twain’s greedy business manager, Ralph Ashcroft, who had designs on Twain’s money.

I can imagine a prestige HBO movie centering around Lyon and her somewhat sad character arc.

Anyway, despite all of the soap-opera machinations, there were joys and triumphs in Twain’s life during his final years – such as an honorary degree from Oxford, a close friendship with a controversial business tycoon, and the joy of trips to Bermuda, where Twain found both physical and emotional rejuvenation. Twain was both working on his own autobiography (some parts of which were sealed up at Twain’s request and not to be published for many decades after his death) and cooperating with his authorized biographer, Albert Paine. He enjoyed encounters with Rudyard Kipling and Helen Keller, among others.

This is a great book, and Shelden has done a terrific job of research while telling the story in a readable and compelling way. I can highly recommend the book.

Book, interrupted

I was in the middle of reading Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden, which I’d bought on sale for my Kindle. A few weeks earlier, with nothing to read, I’d gotten onto the waiting list for a few books at the library lending site for Kindles, and one of them, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers by Nick Offerman, suddenly became available. So I had to put Mark Twain aside and read the Offerman book while it was available.
It’s an interesting book — not for all tastes, and there were a few things that annoyed me, but I definitely enjoyed it. Nick Offerman is a comic actor best-known for playing the taciturn character Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation.” In real life, Offerman — the husband of comic actress Megan Mullally — is an accomplished woodworker. When he goes to visit one of his favorite authors, Wendell Berry, Berry’s granddaughters know him from “Parks & Rec” but Berry’s son knows him from articles he’d written for a fine woodworking magazine.
He’s not exactly like Ron Swanson, but the character drew on certain aspects of Offerman’s personality.
“Gumption” is a series of profiles on people the real-life Offerman admires. The list starts off routinely enough, with founding fathers, Frederick Douglass and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others. But it takes a left turn about the time we get to Tom Laughlin of “Billy Jack” fame, and some of the other honorees range from Carol Burnett to Willie Nelson.
The book is written in a humorous, self-deprecating style (Ron Swanson was never self-deprecating), but underneath the humor, Offerman appears to be deadly serious about some of the qualities he’s trying to highlight. You may not agree with all of them, and some are overstressed, which in some cases may have been intended for comic effect.
There’s an argument about religious proselytizing in the second half of the book that gets driven into the ground to the point of annoyance. Yes, we get it, Nick. You don’t like people telling you what to believe. We also get that many people who identify as Christians don’t seem to have much connection to the actual teachings of Jesus. But aren’t you trying to proselytize people to some (worthwhile) ideas in your own book?
But that’s a quibble. I gave the book a good rating on GoodReads, because I think it’s an enjoyable and provocative read.
I have not read Offerman’s earlier book, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. He makes reference to it in “Gumption” as having been more risqué than the second book.
Getting back to the Twain book (and I have gotten back to it) it’s terrific as well. It’s a biography focusing on the later years of Samuel Clemens’ life, which attempts to moderate the common stereotype of Twain as universally bitter and miserable following the death of his beloved wife Olivia. Yes, he was deeply affected by her passing, and Shelden doesn’t dispute this. But he points out some of the triumphs and pleasures of this stage in Twain’s life, when he was one of the most famous and admired Americans, a sort of beloved national mascot.
The title, “Man In White,” is a reference to the trademark white suit in which most of us imagine Mark Twain. But that suit did not become his trademark until age 71, at the beginning of the period covered by the book. Twain wore it as an intentional attention-getter while testifying, in the dead of winter, before a hearing in Washington on copyright issues, and it worked so well he began wearing it frequently. When he traveled to England to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford, some people wanted to know why he wasn’t wearing the white suit.
I may have more to say on the Twain book once I’ve finished it.

Happy Prime Day, or, Kindle me this

I am an accidental subscriber to Amazon Prime. When I reviewed Amazon’s Fire Phone for the newspaper a year ago this month, simply signing in to the phone with my Amazon account triggered the free year of Prime that Amazon offers as a benefit to purchasers of the phone. Even though I had not bought the phone — and, in fact, it was just a review model which I had to send back to the carrier after a week of testing — the Prime subscription remained.
It’s been fun to have free shipping and some of the other benefits, although I haven’t watched as many Prime Video offerings as I thought I would.
Fortunately for me, my expiration date isn’t until next week, so I was able to look in on the Black-Friday-like savings for “Prime Day” today.
Three and a half years ago, I bought the entry-level, $79 Kindle e-reader. I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it. I’ve read books — more books than I’d have read in that time without the Kindle — and I also have a couple of simple games on it for when I’m crashed on the couch. I just got through teaching Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality in my Sunday School class, and I had the book on my Kindle. I have several Bibles on my Kindle. I borrow Kindle books through the local library. The Kindle has been showing some signs of wear and tear — nothing bad, and nothing that really gets in the way of book reading, but it’s scuffed up some and the down part of the four-way rocker switch is now difficult to press.

So when I checked Amazon very early this morning (I had to be at the paper at 6 a.m., so this would have been about 5:45) and I saw the current entry-level Kindle on sale for $49, I jumped on it without hesitation. The current entry-level model is nicer than mine. It has touch-screen (something that wasn’t offered on the basic model three years ago), it has more storage, and I think it has higher resolution. Because of the touchscreen, it doesn’t even have or need a four-way rocker button.
Tablets are fine, and I can read books on my big new smartphone using the Kindle app if I need to, but a non-backlit e-ink e-reader is much better on your eyes and feels much more like an actual book. It’s better if you read outside (it doesn’t wash out) and it’s better if you read right before bed (there’s research indicating that backlit screens too close to bedtime can help keep you from falling asleep as quickly). It’s just better for reading all around.
Maybe I shouldn’t have spent the money, but being able to buy a $79 e-reader for $49 was too good a deal to pass up. Who knows when or if they’ll offer it again?

blue like jazz

I am going to be teaching a new Sunday School class starting later this month at First United Methodist Church. This is being referred to as a young adult class, since I think some of the people who aren’t currently in classes fit into that demographic, but it’s actually open to anyone who wants to attend. We aren’t actively trying to poach anyone from existing classes.

Rev. Lanita Monroe announced from the pulpit a few weeks back that she was looking for people for several different Sunday School classes, including a young adult class. I’d been feeling burned out, for a variety of reasons, with Sunday School, and I’d been missing it more and more often lately. I now think that might have been a God thing. But we’ll see.

I’m re-reading Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” which I’d used with a previous, now-defunct class and which I’ve chosen to start out this new  class. It’s one of my favorite books, and one I hope will lend itself to some good discussion. But that will depend on who we actually have in the class.

We’ll also need to find someone I can rely on to take over the class on occasion, since I’ll still get called on as a lay speaker from time to time.

“Blue Like Jazz” isn’t like most other Christian books you’ve read before. (It has a cuss word!) It’s not really a narrative, even though it was turned into a movie (more about that in a second). But there are some sort of storylines to it, involving some time Miller, who was already a college graduate, spent auditing classes at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which is considered one of the most-secular, least religion-friendly campuses in the nation. But it’s not really a story of Don versus The Atheists; it’s more a story of Don versus Himself, as he struggles to find his own faith, somewhere between the church he was raised in and the secularism that surrounds him. It’s also the story of Don finding a community of friends who hold each other accountable.

I still remember how I came to read the book. Christianity Today excerpted a chapter from it, in which Don and his circle of Christian friends try to decide what to do about Reed College’s Ren Fayre, an annual festival famous for its debauchery. They ended up building a confession booth – but festival-goers who wandered into the booth were shocked when it was Don and his friends doing the confessing. You really have to read the full story.

This Sunday, I’m going to take the chance to go hear my father preach at Mt. Lebanon UMC before the new class starts.

Oh, about that movie: I haven’t seen it yet. I started watching it one night, while I had Netflix, but I got interrupted and never went back. This is ironic for two reasons. As I said, the book is one of my favorites. And the director of the movie was Steve Taylor. Remember Steve Taylor? The musician I was so thrilled to see performing live in November?

As I said, the movie puts a narrative to a book that doesn’t really have one. It also fictionalizes the story somewhat. In real life, Don Miller was a college graduate by the time he started hanging around Reed College. But the movie version of Don is a fresh-faced college student escaping from a fundamentalist upbringing.

Maybe if the class gels, and people enjoy the book, we can have a party and watch the movie together.

Citation Needed

I took my Kindle with me to Waffle House last night, and since I’m not in the middle of any serious reading right now (play rehearsals are kicking into high gear), I went to see if there was something already in my library, maybe humor or short-form nonfiction, that I could browse through over dinner.

I ended up re-reading some of the entries in “[Citation Needed] 2: The Needening: More of The Best of Wikipedia’s Worst Writing.”

The two “Citation Needed” books are hilarious. They’re dirt cheap for Kindle but also available in paperback. I don’t think I’ve blogged about them before. They’re written by Conor Lastowka and Josh Fruhlinger. Fruhlinger is responsible for one of my favorite web sites, The Comics Curmudgeon, which pokes fun at comic strips on a daily basis.

The concept, based on the authors’ Tumblr of the same name, is simple: the authors present passages from actual Wikipedia entries, each entry followed by the authors’ snarky commentary. The entries might feature tangled syntax, or a ridiculous level of detail about some bit of pop culture minutiae, or  what have you.

My description probably doesn’t do the books justice. Go to the Amazon pages and click “Look Inside” to see samples of the books for yourself.

Whose e-book is it anyway?

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been looking forward to next week’s return of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, the very funny improvisational comedy show.
Just in time for that, Colin Mochrie — one of the show’s regular performers — has published a new e-book, “Not Quite The Classics.”

It’s not a very long book, but it’s quite funny. The premise — inspired, not surprisingly, by an old improv game — is that Mochrie takes the first and last line of some literary classic — “Moby Dick,” “1984,” “Casey at the Bat,” “The Great Gatsby,” and so on — and uses them for a new, humorous short story. Sometimes, the new story references or is a parody of the original from which its first and last lines are drawn; in other cases, it goes off in an entirely different direction. Many of the stories involve some sort of genre parody — hard-boiled detective stories, too-precious fantasy novels, “Downton Abbey” and so on.

The parodies are mostly clever, although a few wander and seem like they’re going to turn out to be shaggy dog stories.

There’s one particular entry that really made me laugh, although to describe it further would almost constitute a spoiler. It ends up being a faux-serious treatment of a beloved character from another medium, although you don’t realize this at first. I e-mailed the great columnist, author and blogger James Lileks to tell him that one of the stories in Mochrie’s book reminded me of my favorite piece from Lileks’ humor collection “Fresh Lies.” I have no idea if he’ll even get the e-mail, much less read the book, and I had to be intentionally vague in order to keep from spoiling the story, so the e-mail probably sounded ridiculous.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the book. If you enjoy Colin on “Whose Line,” it’s absolutely worth checking out.

Dr. Koop

Christianity Today, in the wake of Dr. C. Everett Koop’s death this week, has re-posted a 1989 profile of Koop by its editor-at-large Phillip Yancey. Yancey writes about how Koop, who at the time of his appointment was hailed by conservatives and vilified by liberals, was later hailed by liberals and vilified by conservatives – all the while following his own beliefs as a Christian and a physician.

Some years after that profile, Yancey wrote one of my favorite books, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. The book is a series of profiles of people whom Yancey admired and whose examples had strengthened Yancey’s faith (later editions of the book altered the subtitle to make the book’s content a little clearer). They were honest profiles, not whitewashed, and Koop’s chapter included the scandal which came a few years after the earlier 1989 profile. Koop participated in, and allowed his name to be used for, a medical web site which didn’t disclose that some of its medical advice was advertising-driven.

Koop also testified before Congress about latex allergies without revealing that he’d been a consultant to a latex glove manufacturer; I don’t think this was in Yancey’s book, and I only read about it today.

Black marks aside, however, I think that Yancey’s 1989 profile reveals a man of compassion, principle, and a devotion to honest dialogue. I highly recommend you read it.

The Man Without A Country

TCM just ran a little short subject of “The Man Without A Country” to fill time between two excellent movies, “The Guns of Navarone” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

I hadn’t heard or thought about the short story for many, many years. I think I had it in the back of my head that it was based on actual events, but I see from the Wikipedia page that it’s not, although it was couched in many true-life details to give it verisimilitude. I also see that it was written to rally support for the Union cause in the Civil War. I blame the memory of a 50-year-old man for failing me.

In case you didn’t read this story in school, Phillip Nolan is a fictional character who gets involved with Aaron Burr’s actual attempt to start his own country. When Nolan is arrested and tried for treason, he becomes so emotional during the trial that he loudly proclaims that he wishes he could never hear the name of the United States again. The judge makes that his sentence – Nolan is to be imprisoned at sea on naval vessels for the rest of his life, with his jailers under strict orders never to mention the United States, or anything about it, in Nolan’s presence. Over the years, Nolan develops an appreciation for the homeland he portrayed, although the true extent of his feelings isn’t made known until he is on his deathbed.

Corny? Manipulative? Sure. But also quite moving, and even seeing the moldy old Warner Brothers short just now my eyes welled up a little.

The Sixth Floor

Perhaps the most dangerous and destructive game we can play is “what if?” I ought to know; I’m a grand master. What if I’d gone to MTSU instead of ORU? What if I’d been more diligent about creative writing when I was younger? What if I’d asked out such-and-such a woman (or, more often, what if I’d tried again after being turned down the first time)? What if I’d handled my finances differently? What if, what if, what if? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer, a question that always makes us feel worse about ourselves, a positively corrosive question that we continue to ask even though we know better.

We play “what if?” on a larger scale as well. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is a powerful topic for such speculation, perhaps second only to speculation about what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War. I can recall either a “Twilight Zone” reboot or a “Twilight Zone” imitator in the 1980s doing an episode in which a time traveler attempts to thwart the assassination. There was also a “Quantum Leap” episode that touched on the subject, lent additional interest by the fact that the show’s creator and executive producer, Donald Bellisario, actually met Lee Harvey Oswald briefly when both were serving in the military.

Time travel, in general, has a well-worn genre in the past few decades – providing clichés for “Futurama” to make fun of, more than once. I’m amazed that “Doctor Who” continues to make it interesting and find new things to do with it. Then again, “Doctor Who” – one of my all-time favorite shows ever since my college days – is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. In one era of the show, it’s implied that such-and-such cannot happen, and then in another era of the show, it happens, sometimes without even a token acknowledgement or trumped-up plot point to explain the inconsistency.

I was intrigued when I read about Stephen King’s 2011 book “11/22/63,” but I might never have gotten around to reading it if it hadn’t been for a $3.99 sale of the book on Kindle. It would have been my loss. This was a great book, the kind of book you can’t put down, the kind of book that has you cheering and weeping for the protagonists.

I can’t go very far without spoilers, but I’ll give you the basic premise: divorced and unattached teacher Jake Epping is recruited by a dying acquaintance for an unbelievable mission. The acquaintance has discovered a portal to the year 1958, and wants Jake to go through it, assume a false identity, bide his time for five years, and somehow prevent the Kennedy assassination. But the acquaintance warns Jake that the past doesn’t want to be changed, and that unusual obstacles will prevent themselves. There are also personal entanglements that complicate his mission and leave him unsure in which era his destiny lies.

King somehow manages to make time travel seem fresh and new and real. He sucks you into the story, and once you get going you have to keep going. I had no idea how the story was going to end – and I really cared how the story was going to end.

Sometimes, I think, a fictional “what if” story can be a catharsis, to help us process our own personal “what if” demons.  King’s book took me on a roller-coaster ride, and I’m still not sure about how I feel about it. It’s great writing. I’ve always thought I had a great novel in me if I could just buckle down and crank it out, but I don’t think I could ever produce something in this league. Many of you have read it already, but if you haven’t, consider this my strong recommendation.