Vol. 4 No. 1
Winter 1999

Reading Matters

publication of the SAN FRANCISCO GREAT BOOKS COUNCIL

 

Letter from the Presidentv

Dear Friends and Fellow Readers,

    We had hoped that by press time the Great Books Foundation (GBF) would have a new president, but the decision won’t be made until January. This position may not seem important to some of us outside Chicago, but I am convinced that it is. GBF should use its base in the schools and among adults who read and discuss great literature to help lead a resurgence of high culture in this country.  The Foundation should establish itself in the public consciousness at the top of the pyramid of the burgeoning book discussion movement and help it to rise in quality both as to method and reading matter.  This requires a national president of great competence and vision.

Expansion Succeeding

    Our strategic planning, along with the special relationship we have enjoyed with GBF in the past year, is yielding visible dividends. All of a sudden, six new groups are in various stages of formation. The area representatives recruited under the strategic plan are playing key roles in starting new groups.

We will be discussing Homer’s Odyssey at the Kerr Campus of UC Berkeley, a new site for us that will hold many more participants than Ralston White, always sold out.

Still Needed

    We need an area representative for San Francisco.  We need someone to handle publicity for us, so that great programs like October’s  “…and Justice for All” draw the hundreds of participants they deserve rather than just a few dozen.   We need to keep our web page up-to-date and make our program decisions early enough so that we can publish an annual events calendar in the fall.

    Things are moving!

                                                    -- Rick White

On the Air! Radio Show is New But Scary Way to Get Members

Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Great Books held a discussion of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” on Janine Sternlieb's evening radio program   “A Novel Idea”, which is a radio book club.  And what a novel idea for attracting new members! Jim Carbone says that publicity was important.  "We mailed about 80 notices to our mailing list and the Press Democrat carried announcements the week before the program.  There were two calls resulting from the mailing, and two new members resulting from the show.  The show airs 7 p.m. monthly on KRCB Radio FM 91.1 in Rohnert Park.

Very Cozy Discussion

"It was wonderful! I was petrified...scared to death…this was crazy!" said Barbara McConnell, who led the discussion.  "It was hard not to see someone’s face as they were talking." 

Linda Coffin, who volunteers at the station, was the Great Books member who suggested the show and who screened the incoming calls.  The studio was small, so the discussion was limited to four people, the radio host, and Barbara.  Participants were Jim Hall, Jim Carbone, Victoria Loufakis, and Diane Perez

 “Barbara was adroit, artful, and provocative,"  says Jim Carbone.

 Plays are good for discussion, said Barbara, because you can talk about characters. Barbara started with “Who was the strongest character, and why do you feel that way."  One caller, Trish O’Malley, listened to the discussion and said that she had played the part entirely different.

What an innovative way to share the Great Books experience.

Asilomar Selections Announced : Shaw, Saramago, & Aristotle

Nancy Wortman announced the selections for the Asilomar weekend, which will be held April 7 to 9 next year. The readings are:  Novel--Blindness by Jose Saramago; Play--Saint Joan by G. B. Shaw; Essay-- Ethics selections by Aristotle.   The poetry committee will meet in December to select poems. [Editor’s note:  As coordinator I promise at least one classic]

New council vice-president Brian Mahoney says; “There is so much to discuss, it’s going to be incredible.  I’m starting to write questions for leading.”

Portuguese writer Jose Saramago won the 1998 Nobel prize for literature.  The novel is about a community where all but one person suddenly go blind. One reader who posted a review on Amazon said, “It took me to the depths of human evil and the height of goodness.” (Elke Speliopoulos)

Based on the Amazon.com reviews of actors who enjoyed the part, St. Joan is one of Shaw’s characters who overpowers his philosophizing.

The Chair of the Asilomar committee is Brent Browning, and the indefatigable registrar is Jimmie Faris.  

Odyssey (and Iliad) featured in   “New” Novel Weekend

“ I stayed up all night reading it,”  says Brian Mahoney of Robert Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey.  “I started at 6:30 p.m. and I finished at 4 in the morning.”   Chair Rudy Johnson says, “The more I work with it, the more excited I get.  This is something I really want to do.”

 The Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey will be the reading for the June 24-25, 2000 Novel Weekend. Almost everything is new for next year’s event starting with the date.  Because the new location is only available in the summer, the Novel Weekend moved from November to June.

Rudy Johnson, a member of the Pleasanton group, heads the new committee.  Catherine Sugrue will retire from the job. 

The new location at the Clark Kerr campus of UC Berkeley has been reserved for 72 people, compared to about 50 at Ralston White, which usually had a waiting list.  Kyra Hubis once said she became registrar to be sure of getting in.  The new registrar is Anne Norman. Kyra will assist Jimmie Faris with Asilomar registration.

Novel Weekend, cont.

The Odyssey idea came from some members of the Pleasanton group who said they wanted a chance to do a careful reading of Homer. “We will read the Iliad, too” says Rudy.  “That way, it will be fresh in people’s minds.”   And it will be a legitimate rather than an “outside reference.”   Of  Fagles’ translation of the Iliad Brian says, “I read 400 pages of it on Thanksgiving.”

Classicists Clash

Thomas Hare, author of “Remembering Osiris” told Rudy that there is a furious debate in academia about the importance of the Greeks to our culture.   The anti-Greek view is that they were racist, sexist slaveowners whose importance has been blown out of proportion.

For the pro-side, Rudy recommends  “Who killed Homer”, a book by Victor Hanson and John Heath, subtitled “The demise of classical education and the recovery of Greek wisdom.”

A Sentimental Journey: Frost at Breadloaf

By Jan Fussell

I wish you could see the photo of Larry pointing toward diverging trails, with a sign between them with the words from "Road Less Traveled" posted.  It is on the Robert Frost Inspiration Trail a few miles from the Breadloaf campus, near Middlebury, VT where we attended a conference marking the 125th anniversary of Frost's birth.

Frost spent more than twenty summers there. He bought a farm, loaned the main residence out to friends and camped out in a little hunting cabin up the hill.

The conference was held by the Robert Frost Society, which includes scholars, poets (e.g. Kinnell, Wilbur, Bob Pack) and fans like us.  Also attending were New Englanders who appreciated Frost's regional aspect, including locals who had known Frost.

Some highlights:   Jay Parini speaking on the Frost biography he published last spring; Galway Kinnell reading; and an English woman showing slides of Frost's years getting started on her side of the Atlantic.

    Best of all was the ambiance.  Breadloaf, a tiny extension of Middlebury College, is centered around an old roadside inn.  Breadloaf is almost exclusively used for a summer program, which attracts some of America's best writers. Some of the finest moments of the weekend were standing outside our cabin in the autumnal Vermont landscape and reciting Frost poems with a small group of fellow devotees.

SAN FRANCISCO GREAT BOOKS COUNCIL: Roster of Groups, 1999-2000

 

 

Meeting Place

Contact

Phone

Meeting Time

Readings

San Francisco

 

 

 

 

35 Fairmont Drive, Daly City

Duke Edwards, Secy

(415)285-8409

3rd Sun, 8pm

Love&Marr*

Presidio Library, 3150 Sacramento

Nancy Wortman

(415)566-1392

Last Tues, 7:00pm

GB Selections

Marin County

 

 

 

 

Falkirk Mansion, 1408 Mission Av, San Rafael

Roy Harvey

(415)383-1319

1st Thurs, 12:30pm

Old Series 1

Jewish Comm Ctr, 200 No. San Pedro, SR

Alex Appel

(415)459-4784

2nd, 4th Weds, 10am

Liv wi Past*

W. America Bank, E. Blithedale Ave, Mill Vly

Marjorie Scott

(415)388-2490

Alt Thurs, 8pm

Love & Marr.*

Mill Valley (younger adults)

Dave White

(415)381-5330

3rd Sunday, 5pm

LP & OC*

College of Marin (Emeritus progam)

Don Polhemus

(415)897-8687

2nd&4th Tues,10am

Clshs of Culture*

Belvedere./Tib. Library, 1501 Tiburon Bl., Tib.

Chuck Auerbach

(415)435-4746

2nd, 4th Tues, 1:30pm

See Note 3

Sonoma County

 

 

 

 

Copperfield Bookk Store, 138 N. Main St.,

Barbara McConnell

(707)829-5643

2nd Tues, 7:30pm

Old Series 3

Sebastopol

 

 

 

 

Borders Bookstore, Santa Rosa

Jim Carbone

(707)541-0800

1st Tues, 7pm

Old  Series 5

Barnes & Noble Bookstore, Santa Rosa

Jim Carbone

(707)541-0800

3rd Tues, 7pm

Iden / Self Resp*

San Mateo County

 

 

 

 

Homes in the Belmont Area

Phyllis Stephens

(650)593-8688

3rd Thurs, 7:30pm

Iden / Self Resp*

Pacifica Book Company

Janis Alger

(650)738-9000

New -- Call for info.

 

South Bay

 

 

 

 

Oak Rm Clbhse, 1600 Sand Hill Rd, Palo Alto

Elsie Taboroff, Coord

(650)493-8629

2nd Weds, 8pm

Order & Chaos*

Homes in San Jose area

Carol Telfair, Secy

(408)371-7618

2nd, 4th Tues, 10am

See Note 1

Unitarian Fellowship, Saratoga

Margaret Howard

(408)741-1219

Alt Mon eves

Pol,Ldrshp,Jstc*

Willow Glen Area, San Jose

Madge Nash, Secy

(408)269-9288

1st Thurs, 7:30pm

LivPast* &Note2

Los Altos

Jean Packard

(650)941-7033

New -- Call for info.

To be decided

East Bay

 

 

 

 

A Berkeley Home

Bob Calvert

(510)524-9874

3rd Tues, 7pm

See Note 1

500 Blk, Sta. Barbara Rd., Brk. (block residents)

Rick White

(510)527-3762

3rd Weds, 7:30pm

Order & Chaos*

Albany Library

Lucy Fields

(510)526-8752

3rd Tues, 1pm

Order & Chaos*

 

Gail Overstreet

(510)525-6405

 

 

Homes in El Cerrito and Berkeley

Kay Marks

(510)232-3767

3rd Thurs, 7:30pm

Order & Chaos*

Homes in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties

Catherine Sugrue

(925)935-3275

One Fri/mo, 1:30pm

Love & Marr.*

 

Stana Hearne

(510)339-9028

 

 

1st Congr. Church, 1912 Central Av.,Alameda

Susan Foreman

(510)522-7243

4th Thurs, 7pm

Parent & Child*

Orinda Comm Ctr, 26 Orinda Way

Jack Frankel

(925)254-7499

Alt Weds, 7pm

50th Anniv.Seq.*

A Home in Castro Valley

Estelle Raderman

(510)581-7891

1st Thurs, 7pm

Order & Chaos*

Fremont Main Library

Paul Bonaccorsi

(510)793-6326

Alt Mons, 7:30pm

Old Series 1

Borders Books, Pleasanton

Brian Mahoney

(925)460-5017

4th Tues, 7:30pm

AltOld&50th

Homes in Walnut Creek

Patrick Fleming

(925)933-2189

2nd Mon, 8pm

Iden / Self-Resp*

Stanley Dollar Clbhse, Ivy Rm, Rossmoor, WC

Frances Owre

(925)280-0916

4th Fri, 1pm

Old Series 2

Gateway Clubhouse, Acorn Room, Rossmoor

Ted/Joanna Kraus

(925)939-3658

4th Mon, 7pm

50th Anniv. Ser*

Stanley Dollar Clbhse, Card Rm. #l, Rossmoor

Dick Merritt

(925)935-3350

4th Mon, 10am

Order & Chaos*

Sacramento Valley / Foothills / Sierra

 

 

 

 

Davis Community Church, Davis

Suzanne Allen

(530)758-8601

Weekly, Tues 10am

Clshs of Culture*

Homes in the Sacramento Delta

Yvonne Pylman

(916)744-1354

2nd & 4th Tues, 10am

Iden / Self Resp*

Arcade Library, 2443 Marconi, Sacramento

Beatrice Petrocchi

(916)487-9060

1st, 3rd Weds, 7pm

Old4, Par Chld*

Hart Senior Center, 915 27th St., Sacramento

Walt Wiesner

(916)422-7737

1st Tues, 1pm

Old Series 4

Belle Cooledge Library, Sacramento

Tom Slakey

(916)455-7186

2nd, 4th Weds, 7pm

Old Series 4

Fair Oaks Library, 11601 Fair Oaks Blvd., F.O.

Jim Vasser

(916)638-0740

1st, 3rd Weds, 7pm

Old Series 4

El Dorado Hills (young mothers)

Jan Whitfield

(916)933-9218

1st Thurs, 7:30pm

classic novels

Auburn area

Martin Taylor

(530)885-3414

2nd Tues, 2pm

Liv Past*

San Joaquin Valley / Foothills / Sierra

 

 

 

 

North Fork Library & Private Homes

Beverly Rosenow

(559)877-4292

4th Weds, 7pm

Old2,LovMar*

Hanford area

James Leonard

(559)584-5376

2nd Tues, 7:30pm

Iden / Self Resp*

Merced Public Library

Laurie Nelson

(209)383-9054

2nd Thurs, 6:30pm

Intro to GB,Vol.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Note1: Var. classics & current selections.   Note 2: "Art of the Personal Essay."

Note 3: Par & Chld + Norton's

*50th Anniv Series  **Full wheelchair access

 

 

Anthol. Short Stories

 

Version:11/29/99

For further information, call Rick White at (510)527-3762

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Donate Old Great Books

Grace Apple Dennison wants to create an old Great Books Series library. Grace has found a library that will shelve the old series for her, if they are unmarked.  “That is unlikely,” says Grace, so she hopes to create a revolving collection where the books go from one group to another, never resting in someone’s garage.  If you are interested in receiving books for your group, or donating books to the library, call Grace at (650) 992-1980.

Bookstore Venues:  All Pros, No Cons Say Several Groups

How do you get a meeting place at a bookstore? “Jim Carbone and I just went over and asked,” says Barbara O’Connell, leader of the Sebastopol group.  “We went to Copperfields and met the brand new manager, Trish O’Malley, who turned out to be one of the call ins to our radio show.

The Pleasanton group meets at a Borders bookstore.  Brian Mahoney says  “People in the store stop and listen to the discussion. It’s more open to the public.  Book shoppers can join in if they want.”  The atmosphere is somewhat more formal than meeting in members’ homes, Brian adds. 

Bookstores Benefit

The bookstore needs to get something out of it, says Barbara McConnell. First, the group buys the books from the store.  “We called the Foundation in Chicago from the Copperfields manager’s office,” she says, “and found that unsold volumes could be returned by the store as long as they hadn’t been opened.”

Jim Carbone reports that Barnes and Noble has noticed increased traffic and book sales from Great Books discussions in Santa Rosa.  Jim has organized two groups.  Santa Rosa One–Northside meets at  Barnes and Noble and has a roster of 57, with an average participation of 20.   Jim is planning another group at this location.  Jim likes the publicity provided by the store through their in-store publications.  And the meeting is announced over the public address system just before starting.

Santa Rosa Two--Southside will start at Borders in December.  Jim says management is welcoming, the manager is joining, and that the group was announced in Borders monthly calendar.  "They’ve even offered us coffee from their café,” says Jim.

“Our Mutual Friend”  Depth Debatable, Darn Good Plot

By Mary Wood

Sitting by the fire in an old mansion, watching TV while it rains—that was the Ralston White novel  retreat weekend in Marin.  Dickens' “Our Mutual Friend” was the book and the TV selection.  Registrar Kyra Hubis brought the BBC TV production tapes, and many people stayed up until midnight to watch 6 hours of video.  Catherine Sugrue, who headed the weekend committee, said she loved the book.   “I don’t know about depth, but it was great reading, a real honest-to-goodness story.”

At first Rick White thought the book transparent, but at the prediscussion, led by Tom Cox   and Barbara McConnell, leaders developed questions that dug deeper.  Kathleen Conneely felt the characters lacked depth, but added: “They are fascinating. All those lovely names! But mainly Dickens is a social critic.”

Weekend leaders were Louise Dimattio, Tom Cox, Bob Notz, Dean Tinney, Jimmie Faris and Roy Harvey, Rick White, Jim Stabenaugh, Lou Alanko, and Catherine Sugrue.

Plot Summary:  No-Way

People groaned when I asked them to tell me the plot of the 800-page book.  “To start with,” said Kyra, "there are two heroines—thus, at least two love stories. And there is mistaken identity."  Hal Hubis added, “It’s about money, class, and character.” "I heard the novel was dark,” Rick White said, "no, dirty as the muddy River Thames and the dust mounds (English garbage heaps) are important. Kathleen Conneely said participants agreed that the most interesting character was the schoolteacher, Bradley Headstone.  I’m on page 184, and he hasn’t shown up yet.  So far I find the book dark, sentimental, funny, and charming.  

Book vs Movie:  Dickens and Dorian Gray, White and Cox

Rick White said that seeing the "Our Mutual Friend" TV series first gave him a pictorial view when reading the novel.  Rick liked the series so well he suggested the book for Ralston-White. “The book was even better,” he said. “They were so different.” Of the TV show, he says several characters, especially the villain, were magnificently done.  One of the ingenues was less beautiful than she should be, and one of the actors not nearly handsome, attractive, or personable enough to sweep a young woman off her feet. Rick felt that in focusing on plot, the TV series left out some interesting characters and important scenes.

Sound as Well as Sight

Tom Cox highlights the audible in the playing of Chopin's 24th D minor Prelude as the movie background of “Dorian Gray.” He writes:  “There is no more wicked and exciting piece of music, and it fits perfectly that first dive off the platform of respectability into a sea of perversion.

“One point for the book is, oddly, the puerile disquisitions of Lord Henry and Dorian into those psychic shallows Dorian dives into. They reflect--perhaps better than Wilde  intended--the superficiality of the characters, their ideas of art and society, and the novel itself.

“To the film's credit, the tawdry thought represented in the book was faithfully sustained in the making of it; the product is "no better than it should be." It is little more than a pretty melodrama hung on the visual: light, camera angles, cuts, and special effects (for example, the Albright Brothers' progressively degenerated image of Dorian, which was at one time the rave of Hollywood).  Film and our fascination with human motion command our attention, but with a different part of the brain. Images cause no introspection; and regardless of the actor's ability to depict emotion, film fails when compared to print, in conveying philosophic concepts.  The irony is that the book did not put up much of a fight. The Artist’s agony over whether to confine his to the Moral or to go for broke, as Wilde did in Dorian, is toyed with, in a manner like a dinner-table conversation in the upper echelons of that society.

            “All that being said, I prefer the movie.  Movies are great at depicting the cheap and the tawdry, arousing forbidden urges, and manipulating bathos--which this one does, to the nines."

Dorian Gray, cont.

The Chopin Prelude?  It grabs me still--hearing it, I want to race out and do something wicked and rebellious. If only I were as pretty as Dorian, and if only there were wicked and rebellious things to do, anymore.

Area Coordinators Introduced at Annual Meeting/Picnic

A day in the country—that was the annual meeting at the Cheese Factory in Petaluma. There was a great discussion of the “God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy, along with a barbecue, lots of food, and good company, 

Brian Mahoney was elected in absentia as Vice President.  Fortunately he agreed to take the job, writing, “Based on the evidence that vice-presidents of the country do not become president, I accept the position.”    Remaining in office were Rick White, President, and Grace Apple Dennison, Treasurer.  Erma Browning is past president.  The secretary job is vacant.

Rosemarie Hitchens was introduced as the new publisher of Reading Matters, replacing Rick White.  Mary Wood remains as its editor.  The area representatives are:

Lou Alanko:         Alameda and Contra Costa

Jim Carbone:        Sonoma County and North Coast

Erma Browning:  Santa Clara County, Central Coast

Dick Stephens       San Mateo County

Roy Harvey and Shirley Mortensen: Marin County

Beatrice Petrocchi:             Sacramento & Vicinity

Beverly Rosenow:              Fresno & Vicinity

Area coordinators will be the liaison between clubs and the Council. Rick has been acting as the sole coordinator since the death of Laura Holt Rubin. Before Laura, Jan Fussell held the job until she moved to Wisconsin with her husband Larry. 

Coordinators Already at Work

One way to find new members is to get a copy of Adult series sales invoices from Chicago Great Books. Lou Alanko says she has identified 12 people that she plans to call that aren't in groups.

Beatrice Petrocchi has found a group that has been meeting in Walnut Grove for many years.  They were “joyous” to hear about the council.  For a Sacramento group that she found, she recruited a volunteer secretary for the leader. 

Jim Carbone has started several groups in Santa Rosa.  Erma plans to set up a luncheon for the group leaders in her area.

Oakland Group Now East Bay

It used to be the Oakland group, but now members are from all over the East Bay:  Danville, Pleasant Hill, Martinez, Fremont.  “People move”, said group administrator Stana Herne, a member since 1968, “but they want to stay in the group.”  Catherine Sugrue, who leads the group, said that Edith Ham founded it about 40 years ago, and led it. After Edith’s death about 10 years ago, I volunteered to lead once and I'm still leading.

The group meets in members’ homes and shares the workload.   “Whoever is holding the meeting sends out directions and announcements of the meeting date, time, and place,” says Stana.

And the group keeps a tradition.  “After the discussion,” says Gay Linehan, “we have tea and cookies or cake.”   Says Stana, “It is a very disparate group whose members have different attitudes and viewpoints." 

Synchronicity: Great Books and Orinda Community Center

In Orinda, Jack Frankel provides the leadership, and the Orinda Community Center provides the publicity. Jack runs the Great Books as a 7-session class fall, winter, and spring.   The center, which sponsors many classes, advertises the class in its brochure, is right off the freeway, and has parking.

            To get space at the center, the group meets every other week, resulting in a cohesive group.   There’s a core of members, says Jack, with a few leaving and a few new signing up every session.

Jack got the Great Books bug at the University of Chicago, which he attended when Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins were there.  He came out to California, and when he retired six years ago he decided to start a group. Because he didn’t want to meet in members’ houses, he approached the Community Center, which had compatible courses.  One of the recreation directors is Jack’s direct contact with the center. 

No Registration Woes

The center handles registration, but does require a $15 registration fee.  The books are extra, and Jack puts Chicago's 1-800 number in the course announcement so that participants can order their own.

Jack would be happy to talk to anyone who would like to set up a similar group and would like more details. He can be reached at (925)254-7499.

"…and Justice for All" Event Draws Participants

Preservation Park, Oakland, was the setting for  "…and Justice For All," a Great Books event organized by the Pleasanton Great Books Group.  The event, held in October recognized the 50th anniversary of the issuance by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A convenient setting, the Park is only 4 blocks from the 12th Street BART.  The park preserves old homes, some originally located there and some moved to the site.  A beautiful fountain that once graced a mansion creates a centerpiece for the square. A guided tour of the Park by Don Tyler, a history teacher who volunteers for the Oakland Tours Program, closed the day.

 The tour included a short walk over to the First Unitarian Church where local writers including Jack London used the library.  Isadora Duncan’s first performance took place there. 

Many Volunteers

Co-chairs of the event were Ross Flewelling and Sandra Marburg  Brian Mahoney opened the event in absence of mini-event chair Ross Flewelling, who, with Sandra is moving out of the area.   Brian introduced the committee co-chairs Sandra Marburg, Jim Frair, Lou Alanko, Steve Doherty, and Leona Billings. Leading the discussions were Catherine Sugrue, Wallis Leslie, Steve Doherty, Rudy Johnson, with backups Lou Alanko, and Brian Mahoney.    After coffee and pastries in the Ginn House, the groups adjourned to breakout rooms in another house.  Lunch at Oakland’s famous French-Vietnamese restaurant Le Cheval was a pleasant break between the two sessions. 

Pleasant Surprise

Most Great Books events are run by a committee of the council.  The  Pleasanton group sponsored the event, said Ross in order to feature nonfiction, reach out to the community, and develop new event locations.

Brian adds the group wanted to support the Great Books Foundation by putting on an event connected with the book “…and Justice for All,” which was published by the foundation and the Foreign Policy Association as part of the Association’s headline series. The 80-year old Foreign Policy Association also publishes the “Great Decisions” briefing book and sponsors discussions.

 

“…and Justice for All” Thoughts on Human Rights

By Seymour Collins

 “We are not fighting for integration  Nor are we fighting for separation.  We are fighting for recognition as human beings.  We are fighting for…human rights.”

Speech,  Black revolution New York, 1964   Malcolm X

Two dozen of us white folk, no minorities as far as I could determine--unless you subscribe to the notion that women are a minority group--thought the subject of Human Rights sufficiently worthy of discussion to meet on a beautiful Saturday in October.

We read our Declaration of Independence in which 11 complaints against the King of Great Britain were asserted in evidence of his absolute tyranny.  If I substituted Congress, half of the complaints would apply today. We read the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen written only 13 years after our own.

 The Reality

As we talked my mind wandered to Bosnia, India, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Alabama.  Places where people belong to the wrong group; the wrong religion; the wrong race--where people just don’t belong.  Places like Ireland where the Protestants and the Catholics still kill each other, only not as frequently as they used to; Israel where the Palestinians and the Jews each wait for the other to light a match to a firework;  China where the term human rights is incomprehensible to the government.

Some participants felt the progressive measures in the UN Declaration were working.  I looked at the women: did they believe that they were regarded as equals with men?  Didn’t they have some small reservation about inequality of pay for like work; the almost automatic suspicion of the legitimacy of a claim of rape; and the apparent continuing denial of easy, free, and total access to the male domain in politics, business, industry, the world in general?

In John Locke, who influenced the drafters of our Declaration, we read that all men are naturally in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.  And he also wrote that…God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men.

In a striking contrast to Locke, Hannah Arendt wrote about “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man."  The French Declaration claims, she says, that the Rights of Man are inalienable, irreducible to and not deducible from other rights of law.  But as no authority was invoked for their establishment; Man is both their source and ultimate goal.  These rights are meaningless when Man becomes stateless, no longer a citizen of a country.  Herding a people into ghettos and concentration camps cuts them off from the world of the living, and deprives them of all rights.  Man has no rights…anywhere… if he has no state. We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.

Richard Rorty, in  “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality," discards the idea of Plato and Nietzche that rationality is what makes us special.  A pragmatist, he holds that Man wants to substitute hope for knowledge. Rorty asks, what sort of world can we prepare for our great grandchildren?  We differ from animals, he writes, because we can feel for each other more than they can.  He proposes “a sentimental education” which would enable us to see the similarities between ourselves and people very unlike us.  Then we would   understand the other fellow and get along.

The Serbs and the Croats have been living alongside one another for a thousand years and more…you would think that by now they would understand the other fellow.  And the Jews in Germany lived alongside tormentors as they did in Poland and in Russia and elsewhere and they may even have traded sad sentimental stories before they were slaughtered.

Declarations or Action

I don’t know that one document can identify human rights and also describe how to secure and preserve them.  Part of the answer may be in making grand declarations; but part may be in action: the nations of the world condemning misdeeds and using economic sanctions against the bad guys. Or maybe we recognize the eternal truth that might makes right: “ Stop killing one another or we will kill you.”

Human rights are ignored or challenged by some governments…even those that are members of the United Nations.  People are oppressed, and people die as a consequence.  And during the six hours that we met for discussion on that special Saturday afternoon, the population of the world increased by about 50,000 people.

Do those words we discussed, written so grandly, reach those who will not hear…And do they, I wonder touch those who are more comfortable with the scatological vernacular of places like the streets of Watts?

God Of Small Things: A review

By Kathleen Conneely

The plot is laid bare in the opening chapter, which chronologically is the end of the book.  The author goes back and forth in memory with quick shifts from present to past time.

                Rahel, who is from an aristocratic landowning family, returns home to India to a landscape in ruins.  Rahel has left a failed marriage to an American and several years in a wretched low-level job at an all-night gas station.  Her return unites her with her twin brother Estha after 23 years of exile and separation.  The memory of death lingers over Ayemenem House, taking the twins back to the funeral of their cousin Sophie Mol.

                The motivating force behind the narration is the search for answers to the tragic events that occurred 23 years ago, when Rahel, Estha, and Sophie Mol were young children.   The catastrophe resulted in childhoods lost, lives ruined, and the family ripped apart.  As memory returns again and again in the course of the twins’ first day back in Ayemenem house, the twins learn to see themsleves once more as “joint identities" and to remember Sophie Mol’s drowning—and another death, the brutal killing by the police of Velutha, the Untouchable, whom the twins had loved—and betrayed.

God of Small Things, cont.

The surprising ending is the first love-encounter between the twins’ mother and Velutha.   It is a moment filled with lyricism and sensuality as well as premonition of sufferings to come.

Dualism

The author refuses to allow the reader to view the characters or events from any single vantage point.  To emphasize this, two’s are repeated throughout the book:  the twins, the joint identities,  two separations and two reunions, two tragic deaths, two religions—the Syrian Christians and the Hindu; two cultures—the English and the Indian, two communist parties in India, Marxist and Maoist; two wife beaters, two jealous characters, and so on.

                And two themes:   “…they all crossed into forbidden territory."  Every time a member of the family marries outside their culture, there is disaster.  This is the small world.  The second theme is the larger world outside of the family, the tragedy brought about by the rigidities of India’s caste system.

 Caste and Status

Caste and status run throughout the novel.  The reader is shocked that the twins’ grandmother could remember a time in her childhood when Paravans (Untouchables) were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves. 

The Kochamma family are Syrian Christians, a religious group who form only 20% of the population in Kerala.  The Kerala community reacts violently to the love affair across the caste lines, despite the fact that the woman involved is Christian, and therefore supposedly without caste, and despite the fact that her brother is an Oxford-educated communist.

Here are Roy’s memorable and insightful words about the caste system:  (referring to the police and their brutal treatment of Velutha) ”…these were only history’s henchmen…impelled by feelings that were primal…feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear—civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness, and…Man’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify.”

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