Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Back in the 80s, I served a stint in a national chain bookstore, now gobbled up by a larger chain. Bob the manager and I became good friends and frequently recommended books to each other. He urged me to read Olive Ann Burns’ Cold Sassy Tree, but I skimmed through the book and never started it. When a good friend in my book club picked it as the April read, I finally gave in and read it.

I should have listened to Bob all those years ago, because this is a really delightful story. It has humor, pathos, philosophy, kindness, meanness, charity, and downright stinginess. In short, this is a story of a typical Southern, small-town America in 1906.

Cold Sassy, Georgia -- 90 miles from Atlanta -- is a sleepy town filled with gossip, coexisting churches – Baptist and Methodist – and three communities of residents. The town people, led by Rucker Blakeslee, who owns a “brick store” and his family consisting of two daughters and their husbands. The older daughter, Mary Willis, is married to Hoyt Tweedy, and they have a son, Will, and a little “red-headed girl,” Mary Toy. The younger daughter is Loma, married to Campbell “Camp” Williams, and they have a son, Campbell, Jr.

The town has a mill, and the workers – referred to as lint heads – live in mill town. Many of the workers in the mill are children. Some of the mill children attend school until they are old enough to go to work. The townies look down upon the mill town residents.

The third community consists of the African-Americans led by Loomis, who does odd jobs for Rucker and his family. Queenie is a cook and housekeeper for Hoyt and Mary

Crusty old Rucker is a skinflint of the first order. He keeps his wife Mattie Lou in a house with no electricity, no running water, no phone, and a privy in the back yard. He is full of “cracker-barrel, common sense wisdom.” Rucker says, “When you don’t know which way to turn, son, try something. Don’t jest do nothin’” (315). Hoyt works at the store along with Campbell. Rucker says, “Camp was born tired and raised lazy” (22). Fourteen-year-old Will also works at the store, has chores around the house and barn, and does things for his Grandma. He rarely has a moments rest and has to beg for a day off to go fishing. Will is Rucker’s favorite.

Then Rucker hires the beautiful Miss Love Simpson as a milliner for his store. Love came down from Baltimore, and was immediately branded a “damnyankee,” and tongues began to cluck.

The first two-thirds of the story are slow paced with a good measure of country humor. Loma wants to join a group of traveling actors. Rucker says, “Loma, I ain’t a-go’n let you do it. Ain’t no tellin’ what kind of life you’d live with them kind-a folks.” She stomped and cried and carried on something awful. “I wish I was a boy so I could go off on my own!” “I wish you was a boy, too, but you ain’t,” Granpa retorted, “and you ain’t go’n be no actress, neither. So hesh up” (17). A curmudgeon he was, but he had a soft spot when a friend or a member of his family needed help.

The last third of Cold Sassy Tree takes a surprising and emotional turn. I was completely absorbed near the end, and the last sentence on page 391 brought a tear to my eye. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/25/12

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Over the years, I have informally surveyed my students for the titles of books they read for fun. Lately, a frequently mentioned work is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. In fact, so many students mentioned it, I decided to buy a copy. When the film version came out to rave reviews and record-breaking ticket sales, I decided it was time to find out what this adventure story had to offer. Collins has written an exciting and riveting tale of a dystopian America.

The back story is a bit vague. Some sort of revolt resulted in a horrific crushing of the populace. The country, known as “Panem,” was divided into 13 districts, and all but one submitted to the harsh rule of “The Capitol.” Most of the wealth, technology, food, energy, and health care was concentrated in this district. The district which refused to submit was obliterated. Each district also had is specialty. District 12, known as “The Seam” produced coal. Stealing coal resulted in a death penalty. The residents scrabbled for food, and hunting in the surrounding forest – patrolled by hovercraft – was strictly forbidden.

Katniss Everdeen lives with her mother and younger sister, Prim. Her mother is a skilled “healer” and has developed a following. Katniss’ father was killed in a coal mine explosion, and she helps feed the family with illegal hunting.

The Capitol runs the “Hunger Games” as entertainment. All aspects of this ultimate reality show are televised 24 hours a day as long as the game lasts. Each district holds a lottery to choose two “tributes” – one male and one female – to enter the arena and fight for survival. Only one of the 24 tributes selected can emerge the victor. As the story opens, the lottery for this year’s games has begun. Twelve-year-old Prim, in her first year of eligibility, has been selected. Katniss steps forward and volunteers to take her sister’s place.

Tributes are scrubbed, polished, and dressed in fantastic costumes for their TV introduction. An interview process allows them to demonstrate their skills, so an appropriate tool awaits them once they are released into the arena. Their appearance determines how many “sponsors” an individual tribute can garner. These sponsors donate money, which can then be used to deliver items needed by the tributes.

Collins has woven a taut and breathtaking story of survival, where cunning, treachery, brutality are the main keys to survival. Some of the tributes are much better fed, clothed, and equipped. In fact, contrary to rules, tributes from these districts are trained for the games. Few districts have the means to prepare its tributes, who are immediately swept from their homes with only the briefest of goodbyes and taken to the preparation center.

I sense several layers to this allegory, but I will leave each reader to determine what these thinly veiled clues reveal. This trilogy could rival the Harry Potter series in popularity. Since the film release, I have seen copies slipping in an out of backpacks and purses all over the place.

Unlike J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume story of the boy-wizard, which began in relative innocence, but slowly became violent, Hunger Games starts with a high level of intensity almost from page one. While it may be too intense for some pre-teens, those youngsters raised with fantasy video games, will most likely enjoy the story. My next step is to see the film version. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/15/12

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki

I own a couple of dozen books about Buddhism. I enjoy reading about the four noble truths [Life means suffering; the origin of suffering is attachment; the cessation of suffering is attainable; and the path to the cessation of suffering], the teachings of Buddha and Zen Masters, and the many riddles used in instruction; however, I have not read anything by Suzuki. But when I read that this book by him was challenged at the Plymouth-Canton school system in Canton, Michigan in 1987, I decided to purchase it. The book-banners explained their decision by stating, "this book details the teachings of the religion of Buddhism in such a way that the reader could very likely embrace its teachings and choose this as his religion." I agree it is a thorough and well-written survey of the history and philosophy of Buddhism, but I completely disagree that this – or any book – could turn someone away from sincere and deeply held beliefs. If this book turned anyone any which way, it was because the reader had some doubts about those beliefs.

Zen Buddhism has not convinced me to embrace Buddhism as a life style. Still, many of the ideas are appealing. Introspection, respect for all sentient life, non-violence, and moderation – among other ideas – are things practitioners of any religion can easily embrace.

According to the author’s note, Suzuki, who lived from 1869 to 1966, was born and educated in Japan. He lectured extensively throughout the world and taught at Columbia University. He influenced many of the great thinkers of the 20th century, including C. G. Jung, Aldous Huxley, and the Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton.”

Suzuki begins with a discussion of the “sense of Zen,” and notes that “Hebraic and Greek traditions are profoundly dualistic in spirit. That is, they divide reality into two parts and set one part off against the other. The Hebrew tradition divides God and creature, the Law and erring members, spirit and flesh. The Greek, on the other hand, divides reality along intellectual lines,” … [making] “reason the highest and most valued function” (x). The bedrock of Buddhism, however, lay in the idea of “favoring intuition over reason” (x).

Suzuki then outlines a detailed history of Buddhism from its origins in India through China, and to Japan. He then focuses on several varieties of Zen whose adherents practice meditation in an attempt to develop “a new viewpoint on life and things generally” (98). According to Suzuki, “Zen is a matter of character and not of the intellect” (114). Furthermore, he writes, requires something inwardly propelling, energizing, and capable of doing work” (111). I see this “inward force” as faith.

Zen, on the other hand, “gives life to the intellect … by giving one a new point of view on things, a new way of approaching the truth and beauty of life and the world, by discovering a new source of energy in the inmost recesses of consciousness, and by bestowing on one a feeling of completeness and sufficiency” (132).

Suzuki then gives a guide to practical instruction in Zen, Zen and the unconscious, lessons in the koans, or riddles, used in instruction, the role of nature, a survey of existentialism, pragmatism, and Zen, and finally, notes on painting, poetry, and the tea ceremony.

I highly recommend this book to any reader who has ever had any curiosity about Zen Buddhism. I tried, but failed to find anything that cannot fit within the confines of most organized religions. The only drawbacks are the Chinese and Japanese names, which can be confusing. I am moving this book to my desert island shelf. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/14/12