Sunday, December 27, 2009

Crime Fiction by James and Grafton: Night and Day

(Reflections on two detective novels: THE PRIVATE PATIENT by P. D. James (Vintage Paperback 2008), and U IS FOR UNDERTOW by Sue Grafton (Putnam, 2009))

Whodunnit is almost beside the point by the time we get to the ends of these novels, and good thing, too. We love an intriguing situation, we love atmospherics, we love characters that we can despise whole-heartedly, and we love to anticipate a confrontation. Best of all, investigation provides urgency for the exercise of unearthing the past. While both novels have these characteristics, they are night and day: James is grim, autumnal, dark. Grafton's tale of crime has its share of ugly behavior, deception and death, but its outlook is sunny.

In THE PRIVATE PATIENT, it’s victim number one whose past pulls us in. A notoriously ruthless investigative reporter, single and successful, Rhoda Gradwyn carries a deep scar across her face from an incident of parental brutality. She tells her high society plastic surgeon that she “no longer needs” her scar. We know from the novel’s first sentence that this decision will cost her her life, and we even know the date of her murder. As we learn more about her past, and as she begins to anticipate change, it’s a little as if we were to be told that Ebenezer Scrooge will die on Christmas morning on the cusp of a new life.

James has said often that her process of writing a novel begins with a place. Here, it’s an ancient manor house in the country, where druids’ stones mark the boundary, where the surgeon has set up shop for his more private and wealthy clients. For some characters, it’s a place to hide; for others, its past is an obsession; of course, there’s money and inheritance involved, too. James soaks the place in atmosphere, as several characters hear the shriek of some meadow creature being found by some night time predator, and others tell of the supposed witch who was executed on those druids’ stones. She builds suspense very well in a chapter where two women search a building for some sign of a young man who’s missing, as they, no less than we, gradually come to realize that they’re liable to find a corpse. They do, in a memorably horrific context.

Sue Grafton said in an interview recently that she begins at least some of her novels with a social problem in mind. "T" began with the notion of elder abuse. For "U," she started with the phenomenon of grownups who claim to have just remembered sexual abuse from childhood. A boy who once cried “wolf” gets detective Kinsey Millhone into an investigation of the past, and her ambivalence about him keeps this novel rich in possibilities and ambiguities.

Grafton is using elements recently used in others of her series. “S is for Silence” also alternated chapters in the present (ca. 1987) with chapters decades before. “T is for Trespass” gave us chapters from the bad guy’s perspective. And Grafton took us into the time of extreme social flux, 1967-1968, in “Q is for Quarry.”

Grafton once again mines that Summer of Love and strikes gold. We get the social milieu of suburban parents, imbibing martinis at the yacht club. We get their incredulity when their clean – cut college drop out son arrives with an appalling hippy girl friend and her two children, parking their ratty school bus in the back yard to freeload. It’s those two children who become most vivid to me. Their story is ancillary to the main narrative, but I found myself most interested in their progress. I was rooting for the grandparents to save those children from their clueless, self-indulgent parents – who call themselves “Creed” and “Destiny,” their daughter “Rain.” After a day with his grandmother, the boy “Shawn Dancer” has his eyes opened to what he’s been missing. It’s also very real of Grafton to show us how the boy also never lets go the lie that his mother loves him.

Aside from the story itself, I enjoyed once more how Grafton weaves a texture with parallel plotlines and shared themes. A guilty man feels the “undertow” of his past, and literal undertow took one of the past characters out to her death. A climactic scene takes place on a promontory formed by undertow. A continuing subplot in the series involves Kinsey’s own abandonment by family in her childhood, here made to parallel the virtual abandonment of the little girl “Rain.”

I devoured this one in a single weekend, half of it late on a Saturday night.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Night Music and South Pacific: Revelatory Revivals

(Reflections on the revivals of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, directed by Trevor Nunn, currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York, and of SOUTH PACIFIC, directed by Bartlet Sher, playing at the Lincoln Center's Vivien Beaumont Theatre.)

Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Keaton Whittaker in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Joan Marcus, photo

At fifteen, I turned down a chance to see A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC when it was on Broadway the first time. I've regretted it ever since. Around the same age, seeing SOUTH PACIFIC at a dinner theatre, I judged it harshly for alternating cute numbers with tediously earnest ones. This past weekend I saw the first Broadway revivals of both shows, and I'm ready to right some old wrongs.

Stephen Sondheim's score for NIGHT MUSIC intricately weaves horizontal elements of melody and story with vertical elements of rhyme and character in ways that inspire awe, not to mention laughter and satisfaction. Most astonishing is the intersection of three distinct musical numbers, "Now," "Soon," and "Later" early in the show.

Sondheim's work fits in neatly to the work of his original collaborators Harold Prince and Hugh Wheeler. Together, they chose the waltz itself as a metaphor for the show, and everything happens in threes, not just the meters of the songs. Besides that suite of three numbers to introduce the Egerman family, there is the opening waltz that gives us a visual preview of the story, as couples flirt with third parties and change partners. Two characters sing of a third (Fredrika and Mme. Armfeldt comment on the "Glamorous LIfe" of Desiree, who duets with Fredrik about his wife; Carl-Magnus sings of his mistress Desiree and his wife Charlotte; Charlotte sings to Anne about Carl-Magnus; Fredrik and Carl-Magnus sing of Desiree). Soloists sing of three lovers ("Liaisons" and "The Miller's Son"). The summer night smiles three times, for three sets of characters - the young, the fools, and the old.

The standout song, "Send in the Clowns," is the exception, being the only song in NIGHT MUSIC for one character to address another directly: "Just when I'd stopped / Opening doors / Finally knowing the one that I wanted / Was yours...."

How director Trevor Nunn handled that number shows how he achieves fine effects through elegant simplicity. He and his designer David Farley presented all the action within a demi-lune of cream - colored panels, mostly covered with smokey mirrors. Panels could open outward to suggest walls, or they could slide to reveal countryside. Only once, a panel opened to reveal an ante room beyond the one that we could see, and it's for the climactic scene when Fredrik knocks at the door to Desiree's bedroom, intending to tell her that he will leave her. Before the final verse, he rises, turns his back on Desiree, and exits, closing that door behind him.

Nunn also re-imagined the opening sequence of numbers, downplaying the comic operetta elements to highlight the mood of Sondheim's haunting "Night Waltz." Henrik in dark shadow sustains the first pitch on cello at stage center, and the voices of the quintet float in from offstage before we see the singers. As other characters enter in shadow, the Quintet sings, "Remember." It merges into the aforementioned "Night Waltz," before the lights come up full for the first time on the words "Bring up the curtain, la - la - la," for a rousing finish.

In the compressed space of this setting, the vocal Quintet doubles as scenery. They are the acting company with suitcases and trunks, riding with Desiree on trains and arriving at stages in "The Glamorous Life." They are servants standing by in Madame Armfeldt's chateau. At the first word of the song "Remember," the baritone and the mezzo stand behind Fredrik and Desiree, identifying their reminiscences with Fredrik's and Desiree's. In fact, the quintet is dressed and groomed to resemble the lead characters whom they shadow at various times.

Musically, the cast possesses fine voices that seem to handle all the demands of their parts effortlessly, and listening to them is pure pleasure. A salon ensemble of eight covers all the layers of the score so well that I did not miss having a full orchestra.

Dramatically, the actors don't blend so well as their voices do. Leigh Ann Larkin as "Petra" literally sounded some jarring notes in "The Miller's Son," when she purposefully distorted ends of phrases in some kind of exaggerrated mockery of the higher classes. Ramona Mallory would seem to have been born to play "Anne," being the daughter of the original cast's "Anne" and "Henrik," but she, too, seemed to exaggerrate the extremes of her character without giving us the center.

She could take lessons from Aaron Lazar, who plays another character who bounces comically between extremes. But Count Carl - Magnus doesn't seem cartoonish, as Lazar always made clear the character's thoughts and feelings, even in the transition between, "I'll kill him! / Why should I bother? / The woman's mine!"

Angela Lansbury earns the star on her dressing room door in the role of Madame Armfeldt. She gets double the laughs on some Wildesque epigrams by suggesting punchlines before she even completes the sentences. Pause for laugh; complete the joke; pause for bigger laugh. But she seemed truly affectionate for her granddaughter "Fredrika," played believably by young Keaton Whittaker, and sincerely tender reminiscing about the duke "who was prematurely deaf, but a dear." In an interview, Lansbury comments that Mme. Armfeldt is shaken when she sees her daughter in love, an experience that the elder woman never has had. Over the course of the drama, Lansbury conveys increasing frailty, confusion, and awareness of her profound loneliness.

On the spectrum between those actors whose characters seem real, and those who seem to be auditioning for their parts, the leads Catherine Zeta - Jones as "Desiree" and Alexander Hanson as "Fredrik" are close to the real end, best when they're joking with each other. Best of all is the moment that provokes "Send in the Clowns," when, mid-smile, Desiree realizes that Fredrik is rejecting her.

At the very end of the show, a reprise of the Night Waltz, each character is with his or her true romantic partner -- and Nunn adds little Fredrika to Fredrik and Desiree to complete a family. It's fitting, it's warm, and isn't it rich!


Photo: Sara Krulwich, NY Times

In Bartlet Sher's production of Rodgers' and Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC, songs I've known and even sung since adolescence suddenly connected to each other in that same vertical - and - horizontal way that I've admired in NIGHT MUSIC. If the waltz is a central metaphor for ALNM, the isolation of "islands" is the metaphor for all of SOUTH PACIFIC.

The set is a vast sandy beach rising to a dune upstage. Beyond that is the image of blue water, blue sky, and, sometimes visible through a mist, the island of Bali Hai. The characters Nelly and Emile sing of each other in parallel verses, isolated. The signature songs "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Bali Hai" are about crossing a distance, water or "a crowded room" to connect with a special someone, a special island. Even the children's ditty "Dites - Moi" echoes the same theme. Nelly sings of her "faith in romance" despite what everyone else says, and Cable sings "My Girl Back Home" about his alienation from his old life. Far from being cute, the song "Happy Talk" is painful to watch, as Bloody Mary is desperate for Sgt. Cable to commit himself to her trusting daughter Liat. He expresses his anger at the social forces that would make misery out of her life with him in America -- and anger at himself for not bucking those forces -- in the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." It links musically and thematically to the next song, Emile's "This Nearly Was Mine." Both songs are in three-quarter time, each sung in turn by a man who has missed an opportunity to connect to "his special island." By the end of the two songs, they are two guys with nothing left to lose, and they are motivated to risk their lives on their mission to the island.

Like all the classic musicals, this one has its older couple (Nellie and Emile), its young couple (Liat and Cable), and its comic Luther Billis. All their stories converge on a distant island where the US armed forces can spy on Japanese movements to turn the failing war effort around.

Famously, there's also the theme of artificial barriers to connecting. That's not only the divide between "white" and "colored" on which the stories hinge, but also the class tension between the enlisted men and the officers. In the larger context, the second act's show - within - a - show, featuring the 20s pastiche number "Honey Bun," becomes not a mere comic relief, but an emotional moment when such barriers drop.

While I enjoyed the entire show, it was the very first scene that captivated me. The setting was simple, an inner and outer wall of slatted blinds between the viewer and the shore, and some furniture. For a stretch of fifteen minutes or more, the setting doesn't change, but the story moves forward and moves deep, too. The children's "Dites-Moi" leads to the entrance of Nellie and Emile. Actress Kelli O'Hara, whom I saw in this same theatre in THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, shows Nellie's enthusiasm, humility, sensuality, reticence all at the same time, different emotions shimmering like an opal in her face, her eyes, her hands, and her voice. As "Emile," Paulo Szot was more steady, and clearly focused on winning Nellie. "Cockeyed Optimist" blends into "Twin Soliloquies" which lead naturally to "Some Enchanted Evening." I'd have been happy enough if the show had ended right there.

Bonus photo: The marquee of the Walter Kerr Theatre as the "Blizzard of 2009" began. Photo by my friend Suzanne Swann.

Monday, December 14, 2009

RED ORCHESTRA Plays; No One Listens

(reflection on RED ORCHESTRA: The Story of The Berlin Underground and The Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler, by Anne Nelson, Random House, 2009.)

This chronicle of heroic risks taken to undermine Hitler's regime by a group of artsy - lefty friends and acquaintances, tragic as it is, verges chapter by chapter on black comedy.

The Red Orchestra, a term for a very loose group of Communists who opposed Hitler, fought him with mimeographed sheets of information, plus radio broadcasts of useful information about troop preparations on the Russian border. Gullible Stalin swallows Hitler's assurances that reports of his gathering troop strength on the Russian border for attack (including intelligence from members of the Red Orchestra) were all "foolish rumors" (178). When Stalin's faithful Communists send him intelligence via radio, their equipment is faulty, and no information gets out.

Through it all, there are men and women who disappear, who die in torture, officially suicides in custody or victims of accidents. When the loose circle of friends is finally caught, it's through bungling of Soviet "professionals" (262).

Trying as early as 1933, Ambassador William Dodd couldn't alarm an American journalist who wanted an interview with Hitler because "the facts of perfect order and absence of crime in Germany" made some "well - to - do Americans" eager to try having "a sort of Hitler" in the states (108). Dodd abhorred the Nazis, but he saw favorable press for them in the US, including a favorable view of the Hitler Youth. The "America First" movement made the Roosevelt administration leery of strong anti - Nazi rhetoric or action (124). 22,000 American Nazis rallied at Madison Square Garden in February 1939.

Most foolish of all are the dictators Hitler and Stalin. A German officer writes to Hitler in horror at "atrocities and abuses" in Poland, receiving Hitler's response that "You can't wage war with salvation Army methods" (180). Hitler is shown to be stupid in most things, but right often enough, with an early "string of victories" (240) to appear prescient. He's anything but. Hitler interrupts his invasion of the Soviet Union, postponing it to winter -- obviously a stupid choice -- in order to punish Yogoslavia for its disrespect of Hitler's representatives (193).

I confess that, reading this book over several months, half a chapter here and there, I lost track of who was who. The bravery and futility of it all, along with stupidity at the highest levels -- these are what I take away from the book.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

JAYBER CROW, part II: Deep Rivers

Illustration is a detail from the front cover of the book as displayed on

Even before the first page of JAYBER CROW, Berry pays homage to Mark Twain. In a "NOTICE" that parodies Twain's warning at the top of Huckleberry Finn, Berry exiles to a desert island anyone who attempts to "deconstruct or otherwise 'understand'" his novel. Cognizant of the risk, I proceed with my second reflection on it. (See Part I, "More Fun in Port William KY".)

That warning isn't the only nod to Twain, here. Like Huck, Jayber is witness to, and sometime participant in, slapstick pranks and incidents involving a plumber's plunger, a drunk’s confrontation with a truck, a ferry boat on ice, and a blind man's opportunistic dog. Jayber comments that knowledge of a town -- including that of "unauthorized" familial relationships -- comes to a barber the way stray cats come to a barn (94).

The river runs through Berry's novel, as the Mississippi runs through Twain's, becoming something more than a backdrop. Like Huck, Jayber lives his earliest years at a landing on the river. During his travels as a young man, he glimpses a whole house floating in the flooded river, reminiscent of Huck’s encounter with the "house of death.” Unlike Huck, who heads West in the end, Jayber follows the river back to his point of origin, to stay.

Jayber reflects often on the river itself. Is the "river" the water? the ditch in the earth etched by the water? the landscape that the river creates? Doesn’t a river embody time and memory (24)? Finally, Jayber decides that Port William is "a little port for the departure and arrival of souls" (301). The river’s beauty, unaffected by the trashiness of speedboating tourists who are "in an emergency to relax" (331), is that the river "keeps to its way" (310).

There's a theology implicit, here, as in all of Berry's works that I've read. Unlike those other works, there's some explicit theology, too, thanks to Jayber Crow's stint at a preachers’ college, ended when he loses his feeling of being called. "I assumed that since I didn't have the religion of Pigeonville College,” Crow tells us, “I didn't have any religion at all" (68). But a new theology grows on the foundation of the old one, beginning where the Bible does, in a chaos of deep waters and darkness. While the river floods, he feels the longing to return home “rising" in him like the water.

Working his part-time position as sexton to Port William’s little church, Jayber keeps to himself a theology that turns that of the preachers on its head: “They [have] a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works.” He doubts that any of the hearers of those sermons believed what they heard.
The people who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of the children.
The preachers themselves, he observes, would be invited to dinner after their world-condemning sermons, and they would eat good food with “unconsecrated relish” (161). (I should add that Jayber’s theology strikes me as perfectly Episcopalian.)

Jayber’s world has its saints and its devils, too. A central figure in this novel, a sort of Beatrice to Jayber’s Dante, is the girl Mattie Keith, glimpsed through the barber’s window as she walks home from school, often in the company of her popular classmate Troy Chatham. Not just because of jealousy, Troy comes to embody for Jayber everything wrong with the world we live in, everything that pulls Port William apart. Former high school basketball star, Troy “was all show, and he had the conviction, as such people do, that show is the same as substance. He didn’t think he was fooling other people; he had fooled himself” (177). Mattie’s father Athey Keith is set up as his son in law’s opposite: “There was never much room between what he said and what he thought,” and he operates his farm on the principle, “Wherever I look.. I want to see more than I need, and have more than I use.” Troy, enamored of expensive new machinery and agri- business says instead, “Never let a quarter’s worth of equity stand idle. Use it or borrow against it.” Troy exhausts his credit while he exhausts his father – in – law’s land (179) all in a futile effort to “make something of himself.”

Near the end of his story, Jayber Crow admires the Branch family: “The Branches seemed uninterested in getting somewhere and making something of themselves. What they liked was making something of nearly nothing.”

That strikes me as Jayber’s ideal, and Wendell Berry’s, too. The author has made a world out of nearly nothing, and he has not seen the need to go anywhere else to find stories worth telling.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Wendell Berry's JAYBER CROW: More Fun in Port William, KY

(reflections on the novel JAYBER CROW by Wendell Berry.)

Stories by Berry, and a novel of his that I've commented on here at this blog, have been beautiful, funny, thought-provoking, occasionally annoying when Berry turns his characters into mouth pieces for his political views. But JAYBER CROW is the first book that struck me as "fun."

Small town barber Jayber Crow is a kind of priest. In the town of Port William, KY, invented by Wendell Berry to be core of his stories and novels, others are the creators and shakers and prodigals; bad boy Burley Coulter is a prophet, and Mat Feltner is a kind of judge. But Crow, handling the heads and locks of the male population for decades, noticing some "unauthorized" family relationships among boys and men of different families, is a kind of father confessor and, as part - time grave digger, he even administers some last rites.

His story, contrived to make him both an orphan and a boy dedicated to the Church, takes him through orphanage and educational institutions, through flood and voyage, to Port William, where Burley Coulter is the first person he sees.

From then on, he's witness to and party to the horse play and bad behavior of the male half of the population of small town Port William, KY.

As observer and ex-religious, Jayber Crow is an enthusiastic convert to Burley Coulter's idea of "The Membership," a tight bond of personal responsibility for each other that characterizes the best people in Port William.

I made enough notes about themes in this book, and techniques in this book, to have two or three more commentaries.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


(reflections on John Berendt's MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL.)

When you visit a city that you've seen in a movie, there's this effect that the sights are somehow more real for having been on the screen. The same holds true with cities you've seen in your mind's eye through reading. I read that idea in Walker Percy's novel THE MOVIEGOER, set in New Orleans, and my first visit to that city was enriched by the meta-New Orleans of Percy's telling that I carried around with me to each location. I say "enriched," but it also probably falsified the experience, too. Was I walking around like Dorothy in Frank Baum's original book, seeing Oz through emerald-colored lenses?

The same effect obtains in Savannah GA, now that I've seen it in some movie clips, and I've read about it in John Berendt's MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL.

Nothing in Berendt's work of creative non-fiction tops the author's evocation of Savannah as he first glimpsed it around the year 1980 (a year when I visited it, myself, as a college student). He's listening to the radio, driving the highway south from S.C., when...

Abruptly, the trees gave way to an open panorama of marsh grass the color of wheat. Straight ahead, a tall bridge rose steeply out of the plain. From the top of the bridge, I looked down on the Savannah River and, on the far side, a row of old brick buildings fronted by a narrow esplanade. Behind the buildings a mass of trees extended into the distance, punctuated by steeples, cornices, rooftops, and cupolas. As I descended from the bridge, I found myself plunging into a luxuriant green garden. (28)

Deftly, he introduces us to characters who introduce us to the city, and that city is itself the main character. "We have a saying," one character tells him.

If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, "What's your business?" In Macon they ask, "Where do you go to church?" In Augusta they ask your grandmother's maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is, "What would you like to drink?" (31)

We learn the history of the place, how it was once a place of importance to the world, site of the first steam ship to launch into the Atlantic back in 1819, site of America's first golf course in 1796, and a key location in the Civil War. But the boll weavil and industrialization stripped Savannah of its main source of wealth and its labor force. Hard to reach by train or plane, the town is "gloriously isolated" (29) but also insular.

While living in Savannah, author Berendt stumbled into a salacious criminal trial: Jim Williams, leading figure in restoring Savannah to tourism-worthy architectural glory, is on trial for killing the young hustler who sometimes lives with him. Berendt uses this story as his scaffolding to show behind - the - scenes rivalries, sniping, back-stabbing, corruption, and flamboyant behavior of Savannah's eccentrics.

In the end, I'm afraid that the goodwill generated in the first half of the book is all but depleted by the end, though Berendt tries to liven the proceedings with some scenes of voodoo in Bonaventure Cemetery, that eponymous garden.

Happily, I finished reading the book while I was actually in Savannah, enjoying its sights, imbibing its almost Mediterranean sense that real life is what happens after work, when you're with your friends at some table, drinking and dining. But that may have been my colored glasses.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Wendell Berry's HANNAH COULTER: Love as a Place

(reflections on HANNAH COULTER, a novel by Wendell Berry (Shoemaker Hoard, 2004).)

Having enjoyed Wendell Berry’s collection of stories THAT DISTANT LAND, I grabbed the first novel of his that I could find. The story of Hannah Coulter intertwines with those of families and places familiar to me from the stories: Burley Coulter and his brother Jarrat, the Feltners – for whom I feel the greatest affection – and good old Wheeler Catlett, whom I remember as a young man. That’s how it feels when all the fiction of the author is cross-referenced.

Good thing, too, because I doubt that the novel could have much meaning or interest for someone not already immersed in Berry’s fictional world of Port William, Kentucky. The aged widow Hannah Coulter looks back on her life, and remembers with gratitude or at least with forgiveness the adults who raised her, the two men she married and lost, the friends, the children and the grandchildren. There are incidents and incidental pleasures in the book.

One scene is memorable as a staged event, and meaningful as a metaphor that extends throughout the book. Hannah’s first husband Virgil Feltner, home on leave before being shipped out to the battle that will kill him in 1944, takes Hannah to a spot where they imagine the home that he’ll come back to make for them. He sets stones at the corners, lights a fire, and cooks dinner. “We lived the dearest moments of our marriage in that dream house, in the real firelight, under the real stars” (48).

Throughout the novel, Berry develops the metaphor of love as a place. Walls, gardens, fields, fences are part of it. One grows within such a place. One is comforted there: the Feltners are her “refuge” when their son leaves her a widow; her second marriage to Nathan Coulter is a long process of turning a ruined farm into a beautiful place. There’s pain when children and grandchildren leave, and satisfaction when one returns.

Berry overlays another idea on the metaphor, that of “the membership.” Bad boy Burley Coulter, a grinning joker when we first see him in THAT DISTANT LAND, now is a kind of grinning, singing prophet, even delivering a mock sermon on “the membership” (133). It’s community with memory and responsibility, to be contrasted sharply with “organization” or employment.

The home that Hannah and Nathan make for themselves and their family is one focus; others surround that place in concentric circles; and many leave. Death doesn’t take one away, but the false promise of “a better place” through education, “development” and travel strips Port William of its characters and its special character. By the end of the novel, there’s little left of Kentucky that the interstate highway hasn’t turned into “the same ugly splatter of motels, filling stations, fastfood places, liquor stores, and shopping centers that you will find everywhere else” (175), sights I passed in a car myself just yesterday, with this book sitting on the back seat of my rental car.

Berry makes the experience of World War II a part of his metaphor. Hannah loses one husband in that war; she discovers only after Nathan dies just what he must have kept inside all those years after he fought at Okinawa. Berry’s gruesome account of an ordinary soldier’s experience has its effect, but it makes its strongest statement when he describes Okinawa, pre – war, as an island of small farming communities where people were “peaceable and courteous, hospitable and kind” in “a land of song and dance”: Port William in the Pacific. They hadn’t caused or invited war, the battle was an accident, and the armies of “ignorant boys killing each other” passed “like a wind-driven fire over the quiet land and kind people. I knew then what Nathan knew all his life: It can happen anywhere” (172).

As I read, I thought a little of Faulkner, who also dwelt in an imaginary place over decades’ time, and achieved a similar depth. It’s been three decades since I read any Faulkner, during which I lived in his home state. I suspect that his attitude towards his people is less generous and admiring than Berry; Faulkner might say that Berry has idealized his people.

I also thought of D. H. Lawrence, in those passages of his books in which he was most annoying. He created real – seeming characters, working class, involved in the real world, and kept imposing on these stories long passages of high – sounding abstract statements about life, love, passion, a man and a woman, the future, and fate, and who knows what – all else. Berry has a tendency to do that, too.

I am very pleased to have read a portrait of Berry by poet Donald Hall that compares him to D. H. Lawrence, because I sensed a connection between Berry and Hall. Seeing that Berry acknowledges “Don Hall” for reading a draft, I’ve discovered on – line that the two have known each other since 1963, and have been close friends and readers of each others’ works – in – progress since 1975. The poem by Donald Hall that I love above all his others is a very Berry-like anecdote in verse, telling how a farmer’s cows got loose one fall night, how folks in the New Hampshire neighborhood gather to round them up in the dark, and how Hall’s memories of them stretch back decades. In it, Hall notes that a farmer and his grown teenage son, walking home together, un- self-consciously hold hands. The poem encapsulates themes of Berry’s, the “membership” and its rarity now, and an all-encompassing love in a place. (Link to my reflection "Night of the Cows"). 

Follow a link to the article by Donald Hall, “The Best Noise in the World” (referring to Wendell Berry’s laughter) in WENDELL BERRY: THE LIFE AND WORK, by Jason Peters, here.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Linda Pastan's LAST UNCLE and My Last Aunt

(reflections on poetry by Linda Pastan, collected in THE LAST UNCLE.)

Blanche Frisch Maier, my aunt Blanche

I packed Linda Pastan’s collection THE LAST UNCLE for the trip north for my aunt’s memorial. A couple of years ago, Aunt Ginny died, and Aunt Harriet died in February, so Blanche is my last aunt. I’d read Pastan’s book a couple of times, so maybe my fingers knew where to look, but it seemed that every page I turned to was analog to what I was seeing and thinking.

“After a Long Absence, I Return to a Site of Former Happiness” (p.61) is an apt description of any visit I’ve ever made to the home of Aunt Blanche and Uncle Jack. For others, it’s a grand old house; for me, it’s a personal Garden of Eden. It's where she and Uncle Jack raised eight children, their six cousins, and occasionally three cousins visiting from far away (my brother, sister, and me); and where she hosted thousands for a perpetual open - house "Monday night dinner" throughout her adult life. I sat last night in Blanche’s garden for the first time without Blanche, and thought, with the poet, “This is what the world will be / without me,” and would have to agree that this knowledge does not make me want to write a “poem of affirmation” without “a shadow of self-pity.”

On the road, I saw “the same green road signs / the numbered highways / of home” while “the radio blares familiar music” (“Wherever We Travel” p. 54). With Tennessee mountains in front of me, I opened to this line:
I always take a book along
raising it between my eyes and
whatever landscape I've come
so far to see -- blue mountains...
For Pastan, the last uncle has “pushed off” as on a boat, and “locked the doors behind him / on a whole generation” leaving “us the elders now / with our torn scraps of history” without a map "on the shore" of the new century (29). In another poem, Pastan remembers her mother’s long illness, like Aunt Blanche's, and “wanting her to flee that ravished flesh / but willing her to stay” (28).

Spoke to my Dad about memories going back to his teen years, when Blanche was like an older sister to him and Mom. On the thirtieth anniversary of her father’s death, “March 5,” Pastan regrets not having asked her father more. Looking at her own grown children, aging as I and my cousins have done (all of us within one to ten years of sixty, older than my grandmother was when I was born), Pastan writes, “Ask me, I want / to tell them. Ask me now” (23).

Pastan’s collection CARNIVAL EVENING includes another one that came to mind: “Cousins,” which begins
We meet at funerals
every few years – another star
in the constellation of our family
put out – and even in that failing
light, we look completely
different, completely the same.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hemingway's Hemingway in Paris

(Reflections on A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway, Scribner, 1992.)

For Hemingway’s memoir of Paris in the 1920s, he casts himself as straight man in a cast of eccentrics, holy fools, and parasites. A man’s man, honest, lean, tough, discerning, loyal beyond the call of reasonable duty: “Hem” doesn’t go a page without bolstering this image of himself. Ironically, what I take away from this memoir savors of the experience of listening to the gossip of catty Southern women. They affect regret and sympathy while they recount embarrassing details with prurient delight, just for the sake of honesty, you understand, and they tack “well, bless his heart” at the end to make it all right.

The egregious example is the portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Alcoholic, hypochondriac, self-deluded, hen-pecked, sissy, pampered, affected, and rude to waiters and mechanics, Fitzgerald gets two chapters of ridicule from patient, long-suffering Ernest – with one chapter building to FSF’s insecurity about his masculine “measurements” -- and all of two sentences about the excellence of THE GREAT GATSBY.

Along the way, Hemingway also dismisses a character by saying that her idea of a great writer was Henry James – the artist whose works I spent two years plumbing. He tells us how Ford Maddox Ford smelled, how Gertrude Stein debased herself in such a way that he couldn’t bring himself to listen to her – but he could bring himself to write about it in a book for generations to read. He does have praise for a prolific writer I’ve enjoyed, whose name seems to have dropped off the list of must-reads, Georges Simenon ( 27).

About himself, Hemingway modestly mentions very little about his own writing and successes, and he shows three weaknesses three times: Gambling on horse races, allowing loyalty to friends to distract him from work, and having an affair with one of the rich people he disdains in the final chapter.

Accept his self-serving self-portrait, however, and the book is a pleasure to read and may even be worth re-reading in its new “restored” edition. It opens with Paris at its worst: cold, rainy, smelly, dirty, crowded. But Hemingway soon finds a good café where he can work, and we begin to get the picture of Paris that I’ve always cherished, a place where affairs of the heart , pursuit of art, and appreciation for good food and drink comprise the whole of life.

I was intrigued by his writer’s advice to avoid adjectives, to write until one knows what’s coming next, and by his reference to something he learned about writing from Cezanne’s paintings, something he couldn’t put in words. But he learns from Cezanne at least this, that “true sentences” are not enough (13).

Beyond this, there’s the appeal of nostalgia, as Christopher Hitchens so accurately describes it in his ATLANTIC MONTHLY review:

Most of all, though, I believe that A Moveable Feast serves the purpose of a double nostalgia: our own as we contemplate a Left Bank that has since become a banal tourist enclave … and Hemingway’s at the end of his distraught days, as he saw again the “City of Light” with his remaining life still ahead of him rather than so far behind.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

That Distant Land by Wendell Berry: Our Town, Now

(Reflections on THAT DISTANT LAND: The Collected Stories of Wendell Berry. Counterpoint Press, 2004.) Photo Shared via AddThis

Having read this collection of stories, I now possess the collective memory of (fictional) Port William, Kentucky. I could walk you from the house above the main street, where, in 1888, very young Mat Feltner watched his mother care for a man beaten up in a drunken brawl in town. We could make our way down past the other twelve buildings or so to the spot where the grown up Mat learned that his father had just been shot dead (1912), and on to the Coulter place, home of his father’s killer, where Mat as an old man will take a tour of the boundaries of the farm and relive his life – before collapsing into his final illness (1965).

There’s humor and joy to remember, too. Go east on that same road and you’ll see the old school house where 8th grader Burley Coulter improvises some poetry at the open house, and where much – beloved Ptolemy Proudfoot, “large, physically exuberant” bids very high on the cake baked by the tiny school mistress, a woman so high above him in his own estimation that he couldn’t communicate his admiration for her any other way. There’s the school mistress’s first swallow of whiskey. And her second, third, fourth, and at least a fifth, too. There’s the trip that Tol and his wife took in their car with young Elton Penn the driver, having only a vague idea of where they were going.

I can’t think of any event in the stories that happens inside the church, but there are many that parallel the stories and parables of the Bible. The story “Watch With Me” alludes to Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, but it’s the tale of the lost sheep – a daft neighbor with a gun – and how all the men in the vicinity leave their work to track him at a respectful distance for over twenty – four hours to prevent him from doing harm to himself or to others. A more subtle version of the same story is “Thicker than Liquor,” in which newlywed lawyer Wheeler Catlett foregoes an evening at home to rescue yet again his useless Uncle Peach from the throes of another binge drinking episode in town in 1930. There are several versions of the Good Samaritan. There’s the prodigal son, returning from World War II on foot (“Making It Home”).

I can tell you something of the rhythm of work in this agricultural community. There’s the daily cycle of milking and feeding and pasturing and bringing in, and the yearly cycle of building up stores of grain and dried meat for the winter months to feed all the lives that depend on the farm family. There’s the intense working of rows of tobacco when the plants ripen. There’s hauling to market. The unpredictable but never – ending round of repairs on fences, rooves, pens. There’s the hunting that interrupts the farming, ‘cause, when your dog has treed something, you don't want to disappoint him.

What comes through most strongly in these stories is built into the organization of the book: connectedness. It’s a small town, and it’s a tight community. People take responsibility for others. They remember each others’ pasts. They check up on each other in time of flood, in time of illness.

Until the last phase of the book brings us to the 1970s and 80s, “the city” is a place to visit, associated in these stories with hurried, thoughtless people, contemptuous and contemptible. It’s a place of vomiting, confusion, and double-dealing. Only in that last phase of the book, Port William seems to have passed away, and the outside city world has intruded. In those last stories, the few who remember the town as we now remember it, band together in a futile effort to keep the City’s and the Government’s hands off. There’s a remarkable story in which the family and friends of Burley Coulter band together to fend off the agents of the State so that he can die in familiar surroundings. A couple of these pieces start as stories but disappoint when the elements of story turn out to be pretense, window-dressing for tedious diatribes against American consumer culture and government intrusion in private life.

Was the typical small town in west Kentucky peopled by such strong, loving, gentle, hard – working, hard – fighting, amazingly forgiving, people? Wasn’t TOBACCO ROAD about just this sort of place? That was written by a disdainful man. Wendell Berry looks lovingly, admiringly, at a kind of life long gone. It’s not just nostalgia: these qualities of work, integrity, respect for others’ privacy, and communal responsibility aren’t dependent on a place and time.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Leadership in a Church: Message for bulletin

(I wrote this as part of a promotion for our church's upcoming "Ministry Fair" when adults sign up for groups and classes.)

Do you know anyone at St. James who should be a leader?

You probably know someone who leads without being “in charge.”

That’s the kind of leader that God intends for every member of the Church to be. God’s intention shows as early as Exodus, when He promises to make a kingdom of priests. Jesus says leaders are those serve others, and calls all of us to be leaders in that way: Whoever would be first must be last . . . ; You also are to wash one another’s feet…; Do you love me? Feed my sheep… . Paul develops a metaphor from Jesus, that the Church is Christ’s body, and he tells how every member of that body has different functions and gifts – of service, teaching, mercy, and giving aid. [New associate rector Wallace Marsh] preached his first sermon on living into our baptism from the text, There is one body and one Spirit, one faith, one hope, one baptism [but] each part, working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. Early this summer, Karen compared faith to a dance – something we each could do in private, but, she reflected, it loses something without other dancers, musicians, and spectators.

I know such leaders in our Church. What moved them out of the pews and into active involvement with the church? They’ve answered at retreat and on our Facebook discussion page. For many, it was a personal invitation as simple as, “You should join us as an usher.” For others, it grew out of involvement in a study group. All tell how the Church became more important to them as they became more important to the ministry of the Church. I spoke to cooks, money raisers, “fun” organizers, altar guild, lectors, chalicists, finance experts, a librarian, a teacher, volunteer gardeners, prayer group participants. Many serve on the Vestry.

Do you know anyone at St. James who should be a leader?
How about YOU?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ice Glen: A Play about Poetry

(reflections on the play ICE GLEN by Joan Ackermann, directed by Ellen McQueen for the Essential Theatre Play Festival at Actor's Express Theatre, Atlanta.)

By the end of act two, I was glad that I'd stayed. Characters from the play have stayed with me, too, in the days since I saw the show.

The synopsis tells us that the story concerns a reclusive poet who refuses to let an intrusive publisher print three of her poems in his magazine. Already, we're thinking of reclusive Emily Dickinson and Henry James of THE ASPERN PAPERS. I'm afraid that, by the end of act one, the story did not seem to have developed far beyond its original premise. We do meet other characters, because the recluse lives in a large New England home with a charming widow, whose late husband was evidently very generous about adopting guests. There's Denby, a "slow" but endearing boy - man of indeterminate age. There are two servants, wise and wise - cracking in a way that's familiar to us from old plays and ARTHUR. It was all well done.

But it all seemed as if the characters were just filling the time that passed between confrontations of poet and publisher, and those all rehashed the same material: You can't have my poems, you arrogant man. To tell the truth, I was annoyed at the poet, who asserted a lot without using her supposed gifts to express what the poems mean, or what words mean, or what publication would mean.

Act Two benefits from the choices made by the widow, whose desire to be desired by the visiting publisher provided comic moments of social misunderstandings in act one. A confrontation between her and the publisher is the prize scene of the play, and earned applause when I saw the show. The poet gets to let loose in a sort of fantasy game played with Denby. By the end of that act, the audience was feeling warmly towards the characters, and satisfied with the movement in the script -- the melting of the emotional ice that encased act one.

The playwright has thoughtfully strung images together as motifs that relate to the all - important poems that we never hear. There's the shadowy bear whose claw marks we see on the poet's face at the start of the play, but whose existence may be imagined or metaphorical. He's tied in with the shadowy late master of the house. Many references to coldness and ice that lasts even in summer (in the ice glen) relate to the publisher's icy insensitivity.

The production that I saw was peopled by very personable actors who made their characters appealing -- though it was hard to like the poet and publisher until late in the second act. Overhearing conversation in the parking lot, I found that I wasn't the only person to wonder at at accents. Denby seems East European in his look and accent; Mrs. Roswell the maid is Scottish or Irish; Mrs. Bainbridge speaks cultivated New England; Grayson the Butler sounds British. The poet Sarah Harding sounded American with a little bit of drawl.

Then there were anachronisms. The clothing seemed Edwardian, but the dialogue refers reverently to Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot, and their high reputations date from the mid-20s at the earliest. By that same time, Emily Dickinson's poetry had at last been discovered after some thirty years in print. So why isn't the obvious connection made?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Summer at Church: Message from the Senior Warden

(I am currently Senior Warden at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA. This is reprinted from our newsletter.)

Picture: a logo that I designed tying the summer sun to the scallop shell, traditional symbol of St. James.

There are blessings in summer church at St. James. Nine o’clockers are bumping up against the eleven fifteen crowd, and we like it. We share one bread, one cup. Then Bay hosts us at coffee hour in the Parish Hall, where we catch up with people we’d lost track of. No hurry: we still have an hour of mild summer morning awaiting us when we leave. Hallelujah!

In other seasons, we pass each other coming and going at the church all times of day, all days of the week. We study, discuss, pray, sew, sing, cook, eat, plan, account, volunteer in the office, visit shut ins, arrange flowers, garden, rehearse, meditate, exercise. Oh, yes, and we worship, choosing a service from Wednesday, Saturday, and three times on Sundays. With 400 regular communicants, we are the size for what the Alban Institute calls a “multi – celled church,” where lay leaders do what the priest in any clergy – centered church can only dream of achieving. Then summer comes, and the pace at St. James slows.

What Jesus said about summer vacation isn’t recorded, but he did say that you can’t grow grapes if you lop the branch off the Vine. “I am the Vine,” he explained, “and you [plural] are the branches.” Did he mean that we branches can connect to the Vine staying home Sundays, praying alone, reading books by C. S. Lewis? That’s what “being the church” means for many who say they “don’t like organized religion.” But as our Rector recently reminded us, life in the Spirit is like dancing: you can do it in private, without partners or witnesses – but then, what’s the point?

Summer also begins with the season of Pentecost, when we especially remember the church’s mission to be Christ on earth. He rose and left us behind to complete his work. Now, it’s up to us with the Holy Spirit to be Jesus in the flesh to each other and to the world. Away from the funny, fractious, needy, giving, old and young people at our church, we permit Jesus little opportunity to work on us in any unexpected way, and we have little opportunity to be Jesus to someone else.

So let’s make St. James a part of our own personal summer renewal. Let’s make that “small church” experience something we look forward to. Let’s make it a part of our summer routine to catch up with people during breakfast at St. James, partake in summer discussion groups, worship (join our summer choir!), and stay for coffee hour on the shady loggia. Out of town, we can read our clergy’s daily devotions and “This Week at St. James” (subscribe to both via our web site, if you don’t already get them by email). We can keep up with the daily lectionary and prayer. We can make St. James’ Day July 25 - 26 a great homecoming.

All summer long, let’s build up the spiritual energy to do Christ’s work through St. James during the rest of the year.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Church Stewardship Campaign, circa 1600

(Reflections on REVOLUTION IN GENEROSITY: Transforming Stewards to Be Rich Toward God, Wesley K. Willmer, editor. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008; and THE WISDOM OF RICHARD HOOKER, selected and edited by Philip B. Secor, and Lee W. Gibbs, Bloomington IN: Authorhouse, 2005.)

The editor of REVOLUTION IN GENEROSITY asks rhetorically, “Is it possible that our checkbooks are a better measure of our spiritual condition than the underlining in our Bibles?” The chapters take different approaches to hammering the idea that what we do with our money shapes us. I found that same idea, without the hammering, in a book of writings by an Anglican rector, circa 1600.

In REVOLUTION, Craig Blomberg writes in chapter two that wealth is commended in the Bible, but that it is also seductive. He dismisses the often-used guideline of ten percent, on the grounds that the tithe was a relic of the Kingdom of Israel, where it was a tax by a theocratic state – not a willing donation at all. He mentions that he has personally devoted fifty per cent of his annual income to the church without diminution of living standard. Does he imply that anyone giving ten per cent is therefore seduced, and anyone giving less than fifty per cent is therefore not quite as mature in their spiritual journey as he? He wouldn’t say so.

Another chapter by Walter Russell tells of signs along the “road to generosity,” and concludes with four “road blocks.” One of these is of particular interest to me, as I’ve been looking for connections between my own church and Generation X. Russell hears the excuse, especially from Gen X-ers, that they don’t want to give money to the church because of “disillusionment” with the institution. Russell counters well, with Jesus’s approval for “the widow’s mite” given to the temple that he himself condemned for corruption.

The “revolution” referred to in the title comes down to turning a “transactional” view of giving money to the church into a “transformational” one. Transactional givers attach strings, want their names on things, want to dictate how the money is spent, want to remake the beneficiaries of their largesse as Andrew Carnegie proposed making the world better in his Gospel of Wealth – described early in the book as a Darwinian alternative to Christian stewardship. But a transformational giver hands money over because of the change it makes in him.

Richard Hayne recommends that those of us charged with soliciting donations should be purposefully vague about specifics, which would be “transactional” by giving a quid pro quo. Instead, we should focus on the “vision” of the church and the opportunity presented for the giver’s own spiritual development.

Every writer cautions against using “non-Biblical” slogans to promote a giving campaign; against using fear (“give or these programs of the church will suffer”); and against promising God’s reward to any individual giver.

The more I read, the more I had a sense of déjà vu. If you don’t give enough, you’re not mature; you’re seduced by your money; you’re (by implication) not “really” saved. It’s an echo of the Puritan fear of not being “elect,” and it’s a whole line of discussion rejected by Richard Hooker, intellectual father of the Episcopal Church in the time of the first Elizabeth. There’s also, in this book, the implication that giving is a way to buy spiritual growth, “transforming” the giver. Of course -- of course! -- the authors wouldn’t agree, and that’s why they say it so many different ways, because they’re convincing themselves. Hooker, in his time, had to answer that kind of thinking, too, which his contemporaries condemned in the Roman Church.

I laid aside Willmer’s book and instead studied a biography of Richard Hooker by Philip Secor, and leafed through the alphabetical compendium of Hooker’s writings that Secor published with Lee W. Gibbs.

Here’s what Hooker writes about stewardship:

“We know that God Himself has no need of worldly goods. He takes them because it is good for us that He do so.”


“[Whatever we give] we should remember that our gift is not only a testimony of our affection for God but also a means to maintain our religion, which cannot endure without the help of such temporal support.”

I’d say, between Hooker’s two statements, we have Willmer’s book minus the implications of guilt. That second statement also cuts through all talk of programs, “vision,” mission statements, and what the church is doing with the giver’s money. The church’s worth is inherent, and its need is evident.

Episcopalians have been ridiculed for their “middle way,” but in the writings of Richard Hooker who defined that “via media,” we have clear common sense and generosity of spirit, focused on the central fact that God loves us and wants us to grow.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Michael Chabon's Sherlock Holmes: Short, Sweet

(Reflection on THE FINAL SOLUTION, novel by Michael Chabon. Harper Collins Perennial, 2004.)

Richly textured, but also light and touching, THE FINAL SOLUTION gives us a nine-year-old Jewish refugee in England, his parrot who does all the talking, and an old, old man who, though never named, is clearly Sherlock Holmes.

The texture is made up of layers. There's a plot: who stole the boy's parrot? Did the Preacher's son kill the Preacher's lodger? Why doesn't the Jewish boy speak? Why does the parrot sing out streams of random German numerals? Each character's own memories and feelings are made real for us, too, each character being a mystery to the others. The old man's well - known past makes background for the whole novel, and provides reflection on age and life's meaning. The World War going on in the background adds a level of suspense and possible connection to the parrot.

Chabon uses a technique of Henry James, simultaneously describing a physical object and using it as a metaphor. For example, the preacher Mr. Panicker drives old Holmes through bombed - out streets of London while ...
contemplating the bombed - out house of his life as a man. His vacant marriage, his useless son, the eclipse of his professional ambitions, these were the shattered windows, the scorched wallpaper, and twisted fauteuils of wreckage; and lying over all of it like a snowfall of ash... was the knowledge of his own godlessness, of his doubt and unbelief. (106)
And, like the city, his faith collapsed at the impact of a bomb, "like all bombs a chance and mindless thing," the murder of his lodger.

For another example, we see the old man Holmes keeping bees, harvesting their honey. This hobby of his tells us about him, and connects to the ordered world of the Victorian Beehive that was now passing with the Blitz.

No parody, no mere pastiche, this very brief novel also holds a surprise at the end. It's not just the solution to the mystery, but emotion and affirmation.

What a sweet, rich, thought - provoking book. It makes me want to read more by Chabon. And it makes me want to dig my collected Conan Doyle out of the basement.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Updike Variations

(Reflections on MY FATHER’S TEARS and Other Stories, by John Updike.)

Bach revisited the key of G hundreds of times, and he re-used the technique of fugue at least as often, and we admire him all the more for it. So let’s enjoy the nuances and variations and techniques that Updike uses masterfully in MY FATHER’S TEARS, a new collection of stories written mostly in his final decade of life.

We’ve been here before, to the old home in rural Pennsylvania where Updike’s hapless dad, bitter mother, and disappointed maternal grandparents raised the boy John. It’s the base for early novels THE CENTAUR and OF THE FARM, for his late novel VILLAGES, and for dozens of stories, poems, and reminiscences in between. The same house appears several times in this one collection, though Updike substitutes other names for his own: Craig, Daniel, Lee, Jim. I suspect that he chose to draw each character as a new one so that he could dismiss all the details except the one that he wanted to highlight, preserve, and appreciate. For example, “The Guardians” describes that household in order to reach a particular connection between memory, DNA, and life after death.

Updike’s number one motivation in writing these stories in his last years, focusing so much on replaying some of his greatest hits, has to be legacy. He dedicates this collection of last stories to his grandchildren, but each story is dedicated to appreciating a certain moment, a certain person, a certain nuance in memory. Of course, the fact that each memory is now refracted through a few additional decades of life and through increasing sense of disorientation and fading abilities adds a new layer to old events.

In other places, Updike revisits scenes of other novels. His novel COUPLES (1968) was wonderful for immersing the reader in the world and mindset of suburban couples circa 1963; more than once, in this new collection, Updike deftly compresses that novel’s world and even some of its incidents into just a few sentences. Here’s one example:

Cocktail parties were lethal melees, wherein lovers with a murmur cancelled assignations or agreed upon abortions. Craig could see in his mind’s eye, in an upstairs hall, outside a bathroom, a younger woman coming at him . . . . (“Personal Archaeology,” 22)

One story, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” deals with September 11, 2001. Updike was visiting his daughter’s apartment across the river from the twin towers, and he witnessed the day’s events from her patio and her television set. In this story, he imagines other peoples’ perspectives on the event, including one of the terrorists’, taking care to imagine as honestly as possible how the experience refracts through their religious worldviews.

Another, “Outage,” amusingly imagines life in a small community when a storm approaches and the power goes out. The narrator, advanced in age, at loose ends for the day, feels with everyone else a suspension of the usual rules and an opening up of possibilities.

Some of these are more like poems than stories, or even like music. The title story is a chain of remembered incidents related to tears. The final story, “The Full Glass,” which I presume to be Updike’s valedictory statement, connects incidents by a theme, the narrator’s deep sense of gratefulness for life.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Sondheim's ROAD SHOW Arrives at Last

(Reflections on the original cast recording of ROAD SHOW, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, production directed by John Doyle.)
Photo by Joan Marcus,

Small changes make a big difference in ROAD SHOW. What a relief!

Three times I saw an earlier version of this show in Chicago, back when it was called BOUNCE. I wrote then that the fault was in our expectations. Couldn’t Sondheim and Weidman be allowed to write the kind of integrated story - and - song musical comedy that Sondheim’s contemporaries were writing in the 50s when he wrote his first draft -- shows like BELLS ARE RINGING, MR. PRESIDENT, LITTLE ME, and WILDCAT? Considering the techniques that Sondheim has developed in the interim, and considering all the shows in which he and his collaborators integrated story and song with theme and form, the honest answer is – Sorry, Steve, no.

The new version, judging by the recording and pictures, is much tighter. Gone is the peppy overture, gone is the cheesy "afterlife" that framed the show. Instead, we see Addison Mizner at the moment of his death, surrounded by stacks of crates containing the possessions he piled up and discarded in his life -- and people are stacked up on those boxes, too, the people of his life that he discarded. Naturally, he would be thinking back on what his life meant, and all the voices from his past sing a witty and light number about "Waste," as in, his life was such a waste of potential.

The next scene takes us, without a change of scenery, to his father's deathbed. The father imagines a "road" of opportunity (with many other cliches all treated straight in music that's solemn Americana, a la Aaron Copeland), advising his boys to go forth and achieve. That means, of course, to pile up all those crates. So, we're two songs into the score, and plot, character, theme, and visual presentation are all connected. Now this is the Sondheim we love.

For the rest of the recording, we detect the influence of director John Doyle, who tends to blur lines where Hal Prince, director of BOUNCE, sought high contrast and sudden shifts. Wilson’s choices seem less capricious, more calculating. Events told in the present tense for BOUNCE are recast as memories in ROAD SHOW, most happily in “That Was A Year,” a retrospective on Wilson’s New York career that was originally staged as a cross between the Marx Brothers’ stateroom scene and a Keystone Cops’ chase. Because director John Doyle seats the entire cast on stage throughout the show, characters sing to each other across the years and appear in each others’ songs.

One totally new song deserves close attention, “Brotherly Love.” All of us who saw BOUNCE complained of one essential question unanswered, "Why does Addison keep allowing Wilson to take advantage of him?"  At the end of BOUNCE, Wilson demands that Addison admit “I love you,” and he finally does – but even singing fortissimo, with violins rising behind him, the actor couldn't make us believe it. For ROAD SHOW, could Sondheim write a song to make us believe it?

Sondheim is at his best in tight corners such as this. SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE’s second act was flopping with audiences and frustrating the actors until, following a long interview with “George” actor Mandy Patinkin, Sondheim wrote a heart – breaking and lovely song called “Lesson Number 8” that pulls together elements from Act One, everything the character feels about himself, the themes of the entire show, making a religious statement about the art and the purpose of life – all in a basic AABA form, around sixteen lines long. PASSION’s audiences laughed when they were supposed to be crying, and even someone so sympathetic as I wasn’t convinced by the handsome young man’s sudden realization that “no one has loved me as deeply as” the disturbed woman who has stalked him for the last ninety minutes. Then I saw the play with a new introductory verse to the song that begins, “Don’t you see what she’s endured?” and it all made sense. There are famous stories of how he brought entire shows into sharp focus by adding “Comedy Tonight,” “Send in the Clowns” and “Rose’s Turn” (with Arthur Laurents).

So here, he has to write a song that expresses the brothers’ relationship. I’d heard that the two sing it, uncomfortably wrapped together in a single sleeping bag in a freezing tent. I expected a long song about relationships, and brothers, and how their identities are wrapped up in each other… etc. Sondheim goes exactly the other direction. He never sings about the relationship, but only describes vividly a single moment in memory. I’m guessing that John Weidman wrote a bit of dialogue, something like, “Remember that time when I was sick, and everyone else left, and you took me up to the roof to see fireworks?” While younger brother Addison gets a bit sentimental, older brother Wilson claims he doesn’t even remember the incident. They have a meeting of minds near the end, and Wilson, uncomfortable, makes a joke of it – “brotherly love,” he says, and backs off. It’s done quietly, with just a few rhymes to mark the progress of the story. It’s very satisfying, and it does suggest, finally, an emotional reason for Addison to follow his brother through life. (I am reminded of a very different song that Sondheim brought to the wider world’s attention, “Riddle Song,” by Adam Guettel, in which two adult brothers also sing about a boyhood memory instead of singing about their love for each other.)

This show leans heavily on Sondheim for the kind of number that might be trademarked as “a Sondheim Sequence.” These are numbers like “A Weekend in the Country” in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, or the opening sequence of INTO THE WOODS that run through scads of plot in just a few funny verses. Here, Sondheim’s songs “Addison’s Trip” and “That Was A Year” and “Boca Raton” cover years of time, get laughs, and build to big finishes.

Many critics have cited standout ballads, but not the one that I love most. They like the love song “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” which I admire for how much Sondheim gets from so little – making only minor changes in that title phrase, sung all on one note while the harmony shifts. They like Isn’t He Something?” the elegant, eloquent expression of the mother’s preference for her elder boy – sung to the younger brother. But it’s “Talent” that I’m crazy about. The young man Hollis sings of his boyhood, and how he wowed his elders with drawing, writing, and composing:

So many talents.
Wasn’t I blessed?
All of them good,
A few of them better,
None of them best.
Just enough talent to know
That I hadn’t the talent.
So I put my dream
And my self – esteem
To rest.

Has Sondheim, or anyone, ever captured an entire life so wittily? But that's just the introduction. Great song, good show, now worth seeing again in its new form.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Growth in Mainline Protestant Churches: Thinking Out of the Big Box

(reflections on Laurene Beth Bowers, DESIGNING CONTEMPORARY CONGREGATIONS: STRATEGIES TO ATTRACT THOSE UNDER 50. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2008.)

Laurene Beth Bowers, a pastor for twenty – six years in a congregational church, often asks questions about church to “post – modern” people, defined as those who are technologically and culturally up to date probably under age fifty. They say that God is everywhere, but that churches “think they have a monopoly on God” (46), that churches “only want my money” (15), and that church is a place for “everybody’s grandmother” (46). Yet she also hears that they’re interested in going to some church if they can find one, and, yes, they admit sadly, they do “need a grandmother – like person.”

The core question of Bowers’ book is how to reach that kind of post – modern believer. More broadly, she wants to replace the perception of church as “one more thing to do in an already busy week” with the notion of church as “the grounding base that energizes us to be involved in everything else we do during the week” ( 47).

Her solutions do not include modernizing the service to make it “glitzy" like the big box churches that measure "growth" in numbers. She would look for other ways to measure growth.

For Bowers, a church that does not generate energy for service both inside and outside of the church is “depressed”. Chronic symptoms of depressed congregations include “constant anxiety about money, fear of losing long-term members by taking a stance” on controversial issues, and what she calls “multiple hat syndrome” where the same people head all the committees. When efforts to “contemporize” the services fail to draw “the crowds,” a depressed church blames the pastor or the denomination (19).

She sees one “window of opportunity” in the postmodern believers’ interests in “spirituality.” While postmoderns think of “religion” as something preached by authorities, they like “spirituality,” which encompasses for them Eastern traditions and social causes. Far from being non – religious, she says, they are extremely interested in what the church can offer, but put off by the church they see on TV and in town. They like ritual, and come to have a child baptized, by which they mean “blessed.” They’ll come for a wedding or a funeral. Bowers disapproves of how, burned by couples who showed up for a baptism and then disappeared, some churches deny rites to non-members. She thinks a better approach is to group such people with each other in a seminar or cell, so that they come to the rite already part of a group with whom they have much in common ( a child, a new marriage ).[Read about another take on "spirituality" by Richard Rolheiser.]

Perhaps the central idea of her book is her understanding of “church.” Church should be more than a school where the pastor teaches, more than a country club where the pastor is a sort of activity director, and more than a service organization such as the Kiwanis club (46). She writes:

We embrace a relational theology through which being a disciple of Jesus means that we have signed up for service to be an instrument of God’s blessing through each other: We believe that God’s intervention can only happen through a human agent. (48)

This service to each other can take place, she says, in “designer cell groups” of kinds based on a common interest or common stage of life (56). She makes a side note about youth groups that function as mere social “fun” groups. “An indicator of a church’s emotional health is the functioning of its youth groups. …An effective youth minister is one who does social activities in order to … provide a place where the youth can openly share their faith and practice doing so in order to evangelize other youth.”

By “Evangelism,” she does not mean “selling” the church but simply sharing our defining moments of faith. She cautions against merely “being warm and friendly (like every other church)” to those who step through our doors on their own, because such people are already a “certain personality type.” A sign that says, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is outdated. She recommends charging the congregation with inviting a diversity of people in, and she recommends service to the community. Building a Habitat House, for example, she found many curious about what had motivated her church members to come out and to do the work (62).

She recommends improving the church’s “curb appeal” (65-67). Where a “modern” member sees “beautiful and traditional,” a post-modern person sees “old fashioned.” Have members list the church’s artworks, furniture, relics in categories for “keepers” and “discardables.” The middle category was for any physical object that excited debate, and the agreement was, “We’ll put it away for a year, and if anyone misses it, we’ll restore it.” In the places of these objects, she suggests bright colors, artwork produced by members of the congregation (maybe in rotation through art workshops).

She cautions against letting visitors observe how things are done before getting involved, and she also cautions against involving them in committees where there are “a few positions open.” Instead, she says, ask, “What do you believe you have to offer us?” and put them onto it, or offer a way for newcomers to discern their particular gifts. A survey is one way to start, but may reveal a person’s interest more than a person’s gifts (81). A striking example of “gifts” is a talent for “visitation.” She recommends training for visitors who may end up dealing with people who are depressed or dependent or abused (81).

In every case, Bowers recommends that the pastor distribute “power” and “energy” away from herself to cells and the talents of the congregation – precisely what we at St. James discussed in our Vestry retreat.

She also means for the church to be reaching out even when members, scared of shrinking resources, say, “Shouldn’t we take care of our own?”

She says that postmoderns expect a diverse congregation, and will be put off by a homogeneous one. She explicitly recommends taking a stand for inclusion of gays and lesbians. In a digression about critics who charge that this is to deny Scripture and core beliefs, she argues the opposite, that the critics are citing authorities who themselves have misunderstood poor translations of Scripture (39).

She writes that, if a church is to attract anyone, its worship should be a source of energy to “handle life’s challenges,” to “heal traumas,” and to “work for social justice” (29). Her emphasis here is on liberation more than theology. “Social justice” for her means assisting the “have – nots” in assailing the “power structures” that keep the “haves” in dominance over the “marginalized” (88). Later, she denies all “dualism” dividing the world between “us” and “them” (116). I guess dualism is okay for her if it’s from the point of view of “have nots.” Leaving aside liberation theology, she makes the point, “While we may not all agree on what causes those social issues, we are likely to agree on a method of intervention”(86).

CABARET by Atlanta's Lyric Theatre: Still Fresh

(a reflection on the production of CABARET, book by Joe Masteroff, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, original production directed by Harold Prince.)

Seeing CABARET for the first time in thirty years, I was struck as I had not been before by the power of the "book" songs.

The show is famous for its creators' new approach to musical theatre, using the songs of performers in the "Kit Kat Club" to comment on developments in the story. The creepiest example is the song that follows a heart - breaking scene in which a German woman rejects her beloved Jewish suitor because of the Nazis' growing influence. That's the cue for the Emcee to dance with a gorilla (it's in a tutu) while singing, "When we go walking together, I hear society moan / But if they could see her through my eyes, / Maybe they'd leave us alone." The title number is ironic, sung by a woman deluded in thinking that she has a future as a singer in Berlin, singing "No sense permitting some prophet of doom / to wipe happy smiles away! / Come to the Cabaret!"

But there are songs for other characters that express the same attitude. The aged landlady sings a good - natured song about why she'll take in an impecunious young American for half the usual rent, "The sun will rise, and the moon will set / And you learn how to settle for what you get... " This song, like many of the others, employs a dissonant interval (here, a rising major 7th) that alerts the audience to danger in a conventional attitude.

Another example is the young man's haunting song to the cabaret girl Sally: "Why should I wake up? This dream is going so well!" But the storyline is telling him to wake up. He and the other characters dismiss the rise of the Nazis as "politics," irrelevant to their daily concerns.

Near the end, the elderly woman confronts the young man. He has told her that she "can't" let other peoples' prejudice stop the marriage. She tells him that she's near the end of her life, and all she wants is to live peacefully, and she stands to lose everything if she associates with a Jew in the new political climate. "Go on tell me," she sings, "I will listen, what would you do if you were me?" The tune drops by the interval of a major 7th, the same distinctive interval by which her first song rose. That's got to be a musical metaphor to mirror the way that she has now progressed from insouciant apathy in her first song to bitter resignation in her last.

Bob Fosse's movie of CABARET escapes the back - and -forth, real life v. cabaret pattern that grows tiresome in the Broadway show. But Fosse jettisoned most of the "book" songs to do it, and they are underrated treasures.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Stretch the Sketch: TRADIN' PAINT

(reflection on TRADIN' PAINT by Catherine Bush. Produced by Theatre in the Square, Marietta, Georgia. Directed by Jessica West)

Photo: Kate Donadio as Lucky, Chad Martin as Skeeter, Eric Mendenhall as Coty, and Veronika Duerr as Darla.
Source: MJ Conboy

"I just hope my past history ends real soon," says the character Darla Frye near midpoint of TRADIN' PAINT, a play by Catherine Bush.
Truly, by midpoint, I felt the same way as Darla: I was getting a bit tired of character's "past histories" exposed in stand up comedy routines.

By then, she has already made the first step out of thirty years of passivity and self - deprecation by enrolling in an adult GED program, and the play is about to stretch the bounds of comedy sketch territory.

If her story weren't packaged as an extended comedy sketch about NASCAR culture, it's doubtful that Theatre in the Square would have been packed with laughing adults. A flag man lectures us on NASCAR for any "Yankees or atheists" in the crowd; Darla's dimwit boyfriend Coty relives his gridiron agonies with the Polka, NC "Dots"; and we get a lot of jokes about the play's fish out of water, a black gay English professor and NASCAR afficionado whose name is a joke straight out of the index of the playwright's American History textbook: Halley Smoot (one letter off from the infamous tarriff).

Just when I was afraid that I was in for a couple of unpleasant hours a la the predictably snide GREATER TUNA the characters begin to interact in dialogue, bumping up against each other. That's what "tradin' paint" means in NASCAR lingo, we're told.

The sketch format gives Playwright Bush a lot of flexibility. In Act One, we meet Lucky Tibbs, self - confident, competent, and tough -- everything Darla is not -- and she treats us to "the condensed version" of her courtship of racecar driver Skeeter Jett. In Act Two, Darla confronts all her demons, as well as God and Dale Earnhart. Darla confronts Coty, Coty confronts Lucky, and the coming together of all these characters touches us as much as stand - up cartoon cut - outs of act one can.

It's a great pleasure to watch, and the sketch format is a good one to emulate, though I don't think I need to see something like it again any time soon.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Poet Todd Boss: Story and Rhyme

(reflections on YELLOWROCKET, first collection of poems by Todd Boss. See

While Todd Boss’s rhymes jump out at unexpected places, his persona lays back to appreciate or figure out what’s up. It’s a pleasing juxtaposition, like finding mint chips in your vanilla shake. I know from reading the sometimes snarky commentary in the journal POETRY that rhyme and narration are both scorned by a large segment of the “poetry community,” and the pleasures of this book make those self-righteous critics look as foolish as vegans at a barbecue.

Boss organizes this collection almost in the shape of a novel. Part one is memory of parents, grandparents, farmland. Part two focuses on a pivotal event, a storm of July 15, 1980 “Still the single worst natural disaster in Wisconsin state history” his note tells us in the appendix. Part three gives us turbulence of another sort, between husband and wife, with some ups and some violent downs, characterized by “Don’t Come Home” words more damning than I hate you, he says. Part four seems to be about waiting and a need for reconciliation. Five brings us home, with tributes to “Things, like dogs” that are glad to see us in the morning, and a poem about a sleeping son, leading to part six, which brings us to appreciation of nature, his “joy doubled” by perceiving that his young daughter perceives it.

That middle section of conflict is certainly the sharp center of the book, but not its best part. She throws clothes down at the poet, “Tangled Hangers and All,” and she floods the kitchen to make a point, and it’s all effective in the way that staged confrontations in movies are. I’ll remember these poems about conflict, and the ones about the aftermath – such as “Six Nights in a Hotel” that seem to chronicle the man’s exile after being told not to come home, beginning with the very simple and effective lines…
My wife and I

a mile apart
All of these poems take off from narrative events, such as a waitress’s mistaking the poet for someone else. He uses the occasion to think that he has become someone else, and, by placing the poem at the end of this section, Boss strongly suggests a transition from conflict to renewal of relationship.

But other parts of the book feel less stagey and more substantial. I never had two grandfathers, I never lived on a farm, but Boss’s memory of sitting with his grandfathers as they played cards is so vivid and rich that I’ve appropriated it.
they often held me on their laps,
their arms about me, so I could see
their hoards. Their buckles poked
and I fiddled with their braces.
I studied their hewn and stubbled

He puns on the suits of the cards a few lines later as he reflects, “I had no words / for how it felt to sit so intimate with kings, their hearts, their diamonds / fairly dripping through their knuckles / when they dealt.” As usual, he slips in some rhyme, here “felt” and “dealt,” and earlier, “braces” and “faces,” an effect rather like the pleasure of turning up a card that fits the hand.

I wonder what would be lost if Boss put rhymes at the ends of lines? End rhyme has that satisfying feeling of word and idea clicking into place, giving any couplet a feeling of inevitability and unassailability. He does it occasionally, as in a witty epigram called “Wish” from that turbulent middle section of the book:
You’ve never not been negative,
I wouldn’t know you if
you weren’t. You never wish
but in the subjunctive,
candles to the frosting burnt.
He could have written out the lines in a quatrain to emphasize the rhyme, but it’s strong enough. He certainly seems to have stayed up all night to find sound – related words, and a couple of the poems here seem to be more about sounds than sense (such as “Ere We Are Aware”). I suppose that Boss prefers to follow the internal logic of each poem’s content, using rhymes for incidental emphasis, rather than to let rhyme shape the piece.

A couple of poems stand out for opposite reasons. “She Rings Me Up” strikes me as a stand up comedy routine, as the comedian plays the innocent guy who believes that he’s picking up on flirtatious vibes from a grocery store clerk. He pretends not to get what’s happening, while we can all figure it out. This same persona is Boss’s throughout the book, but here’s the egregious exaggeration of it.

“The Day is Gray and the Lake” develops a conceit with impersonal but alert interest: the day is the work of “the maker” who “can’t make up his mind, always fussing.” The lake “shifts, mercurial, / like modeling clay, / the million thumbs / of wind at work upon it.”

I heard Todd Boss read a new poem on the NPR program “The Splendid Table,” concerning the taste of freshly harvested apple pieces, enjoyed all the more because he shared them with his father, sitting silently during a break in their work, on the back of a pick up truck. He admitted that he moved to the city as soon as he could, and spent a decade denying his rural past. Now he embraces it.

The poems are richer for the background story.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Swedish Detective Wallander: One Step Behind

(reflection on ONE STEP BEHIND by Henning Mankell, translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg)

Reading for the first time from this highly - acclaimed series, I'm struck by the extent to which the detective novelist's job is simply stringing the reader along. I could be irritated by that, or I could enjoy the experience: I haven't decided which reaction I'm feeling.

There is some admiration of how he does tease us. We know in the first chapter everything we'll ever know about the personality and motivation of the murderer; only his name is withheld. He shoots three young adults while they indulge in a midsummer night's dress - up fantasy. While Detective Kurt Wallander and his team look into the disappearance of those three young adults, we wonder, when will Wallander figure out what we already know? Later, when we know where the murderer is lurking, and what he is planning, then there's page - turning suspense. That's a good thing, and it kept me up reading past midnight.

Meanwhile, however, we do have irritating iterations of the phrase, "something was not right," as Wallander can never seem to put his finger on the source of his intuitions. If he did, gosh, the novel would be over in two chapters. Even the detective's mid - life health crisis is drawn out so long that it wears thin: okay, Wallander, you have diabetes. So?

The Martin Cruz Smith books set in Russia, and Walter Mosley's books set in the same streets as Raymond Chandler's LA give us a strong sense of alien, beautiful, intriguing settings. Sweden seems to be a place where everything is within an hour's drive, and where two murders in a summer is enough to get the national news media up in arms about lawlessness. I'm willing to revisit Mankell's Sweden, but it made a bland first impression.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

REVERSE MENTORING by Earl Creps: It's Not Just About Technology

(Reflection on a book by Earl Creps, REVERSE MENTORING: HOW YOUNG LEADERS CAN TRANSFORM THE CHURCH AND WHY WE SHOULD LET THEM. Leadership Network Publications, 2008)

"Words don't stick" for our younger church members, not the way they did for those of us who are Boomers or older.

For Creps, information came in words, and these were mined with great effort and skill in hard - to - reach sources, to be mulled over in essays, with all these words to be kept in files and notebooks as treasures, and their possession gave a person authority. That's certainly the way I've always thought of words and information. And the subject that I teach in middle school, History, is based on that model.

But for those raised on the internet, information is no treasure, but a utility as easy to turn on and off as water. It's there to download anytime; no need to treasure it or to keep it.

Then there's the issue of "playlists." Boomers were raised on radio, while younger members take for granted that they can instantly choose their music, tv shows, and anything else. The typical church experience for them is "too homogenized," one size fits all, like radio. They want their own playlist.

So what are People of the Book supposed to do, especially in our liturgical church that proudly preserves its texts and rehearses them every time we meet? How can we draw younger members into an experience when they balk at lectures and three - point sermons?

The first step, according to Creps, is simply to ask for their help. First admit, "I'm not cool," and ask, "What is that? Who is that music group? What matters to you?" He suggests a number of models for doing this formally, and strongly suggests that church leadership should approach this informally, over a long period of time, meeting at coffee houses, getting help with technical things, meeting two (young) on one (older).

Creps admits that this generational conflict has been around "since the Tower of Babel," and he describes the show-down brewing between current "Gen - Xers" and the even younger "Millennials" (i.e., those who grew up watching 90210 on TV or Dawson's Creek). His Gen - X youth leaders complain that "Millennials" can't do anything, and that they are "immune to instruction" unless it's a humorous video or else "about me" (119).

Creps also seems to have forgotten earlier manifestations of the hunger for "authenticity" for which he admires his younger colleagues. When Boomers were in High School, it was the hunger for "relevance" and it re-shaped the curriculum. A generation earlier, folk music was "authentic" (and Peter, Paul and Mary were "too commercial"). In years before that, the badge of authenticity was whether one appreciated be - bop. So I'm not too impressed with a huge chunk of this book.

But he does put his finger on some issues to be aware of:

- Boomers, like every generation before them, are afraid that they will be "ignored to death" (81).

- Relationship is more important than information; leaders should begin with the idea that they won't just present and guide, but will learn from those they lead (124) and very few churches have a coherent strategy for doing this (152).

- God conveyed his lessons by sending a human being -- texts came after. A young audience wants to know what the Kingdom of God means to the ones presenting the lessons and sermons; Greek roots and quotes from authority don't carry weight with them (137)

- "engagement" of the younger audience isn't about information, even if it has pictures, but about asking questions and telling personal stories... as Jesus must have done when he told parables that had no easy interpretation.

- Our younger members are also largely ignorant of the overarching story of God's purpose in the world. Creps likens the typical young person's experience of a sermon to his own uncomfortable lack of comprehension when he watched the second movie in the LORD OF THE RINGS cycle without being familiar with the books or with the first movie.

Ideas for St. James: "iPod byGod?" Some kind of mentoring by young members re: technology they take for granted... Wiis and iPods etc.

Borrow Creps' idea of sending text messages to the preacher during the sermon for review later... just to get fleeting impressions of how the message is getting across, and to keep young ones engaged.

Some kind of shadow Vestry -- commitment by Church leaders to meet with pairs of younger members regularly.