Saturday, November 30, 2013

What You See In The Dark

Book: What You See In The Dark
Author: Manuel Munoz
Edition:  ebook
Read: Nov 2013

479 pages
Rated: 2 1/2 out of 5

There are three main stories in this book. First is Teresa, who was left alone at 17 when her mother deserted her to find her father. She meets Dan Watson and the two of them become an item until she is murdered.

 The second is Arlene, whose son escorts Teresa around Bakersfield. Dan is Arlene's son. Through the murder, she realizes what it means to lose a child.

Lastly there is the Actress and the Director who comes into Bakersfield for a short scene shot.  Not much is said about either of them, except the Director reappears 20 years later as a has been.

The first line gives a good idea of Munoz's style. It is one which relies on being indirect. Which this can get your attention, making you wonder what is coming next. But after going through a hundred pages of this, you wonder if when you will get some meat, something which you can enjoy.

Munoz does know Bakersfield of the 50's and the area pretty well. He also does describe it well, with the seasonal drifts of people in and out of the area, the type of people who inhabited the city. 

Probably the one reason why I would say to read the book is to raise the question about how you look back on your life once the excitement is over. One can never know what is important right now, only when you look back at a life lived.

  Some people say this book is a mystery/thriller. I think it is more of a book of introspection by the characters and by extension the author. I could never really enjoy the book. I do not think it was because of Munoz' lack of writing ability, but more from the voice he used and how he constructed the stories. It read more like several short stories cobbled together than a story with a unified theme. Sometimes this approach can work, but not this time.

Good Quotes:
  • First Line:  if you had been across the street, pretending to investigate the local summer roses outside of Holliday's Flower Shop, you could have seen them through the cafe's plate glass window, the two sitting in the booth by the window, eating lunch.
  • Last Line:  You wanted that girl to see something and there was no going back once she did.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Book: Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
Author: Ann Lamott
Edition: eBook from Library
Read: October 2013
275  pages
Rated: 2 1/2 out of 5

This is Ann Lamott's journey from hedonism to a person who is a seeker. The form of spirituality she ends up embracing is a liberal form of Christianity. The book recounts her family's relationships-both father and mother; her descent into drugs, alcoholism, and sex. She describes her rescue-not so much of intervention, but stumbling onto caring people. This is told with her typical flow of words, which carry a certain amount of grace in them. She does not hide her struggles-either past or current as of the writing of the book. But the book does not end at conversion, but talks about her continued struggles with living, and living a life of faith.

There is certain similarities between Traveling Mercies and Cheryl Strayed's book Wild. Wild talks about a woman who is tied to a destructive lifestyle-she knows it is destructive and still continues on with it. Strayed looks to a cathartic trip along the PCT to change her-and this is where the similarities end. As far as the book is concerned, Strayed does not struggle, but seems to slide along. With Lamott on the other hand, you can feel her struggles and her desire to change. Lamott found people who could help her get to a place where she would change--that is the grace she talks about in other books. Strayed does not find that grace in her book.

The very first paragraph is Lamott's best of the book. It gives an overview of her movements towards a place of safety and faith. It shows how a faith can be arrived at not only through a leap, but a series of erratic steps. Ones which she describes as like a frog going from lily pad to lily pad.

She talks about her early influences, which seems like this is what brings her back to faith. There is her Catholic friends, not perfect by any stretch, but the environment was one which wrapped her imagination with the images with spirituality. Her grandparents being Presbyterian missionaries to Japan. But as a counterpoint, her parents hostility to anything Christian.

Along the way, she has a high school English teacher who over the summer becomes a Christian. Many of her students convert-this is a widely liked teacher. But Lamott is consistent with her parents beliefs-only fools have spiritual beliefs, especially Christian ones. Still a germ of a seed was planted. Then in college, she takes a class where the professor teaches out of Kirkegard and the story of Abraham and his son. Some place in there Lamott understands she now has some belief in a god. So her Jewish friends arranges a bat mitzvah. But this is a conversion of the head, not the spirit. Her life continues on with the drugs and sex.

And as she descends into the gutter and insanity, she comes into contact with a couple of churches. The first one, the preacher makes time for her and listens to her. Not speaking deep words, but reassures her that  it is not she who needs to be good to have God come to her, but it is God which is good. The second is a run-down, black Presbyterian church, St Andrews. The singing first draws her in. Then the people's caring and reserved nature win her over. Finally she understands the message-it is God that is good.

But her life is not perfect then. It is one which she gets pregnant two years afterwards. She still has problems with  drugs and alcohol. Then her best friend has cancer and dies. What kind of Christian life is this? Isn't everything to be better by becoming a Christian-this is my question, not hers. Lamott only relates her experience. We  still need to work through our problems. But now it is with God's help.

One of the most telling lines in the book occurs on page 16 where she says ... I wanted to be loved and so I stood around silently, bursting with hope and secrets and fear, all skin and bone and eyes, with a crazy hair crown...  Later on she says this same thing, in a different way, if I could just do a little bit better, I could have the things I longed for--a sense of OKness and connection and meaning and a peace of mind... These are the basis for where she went later where she chase after drugs, sex and alcohol. Do these things really fill that kind of hole? Or do they just numb the feeling of emptiness? I think Lamott's ultimate answer is they numb the soul.

One of the stories Lamott relays is the question from her bat mitzvah, do they camp? The answer was no, because it is dangerous outside of the home-wolves and soldiers. It is this larger thought. It is hard to go on this life alone; you want your family, your extended family. It is this circle of faith which allows you to confidently navigate the turmoil which life presents us. We all need this being surrounded or we shrink down into a vegetable, unable to face the world. This point is reinforced later where Lamott tells a story her new pastor, Veronica, tells. The story says how Veronica was lost, a policeman found her. Once they got to her church, she had the policeman let her out because from the church, she could find her way home. This is how the church is to function-a place where you can find your way home.

She has an interesting thought-Jesus is like a cat following her. If you reach down and pick it up; if you open the door; if you feed it--it is now yours and you cannot get rid of it, it stays forever. (62)

Grief is one of those things which has punctuated Lamott's life. There is her father dying from a horrible brain cancer. Then her good friend Pam who also died of cancer. Around the same time, her boyfriend left her as well. How do you deal with this? Lamott relates the despondency, the depression of this time. While she does not have "answers", she does have a profound conclusion: ... I've discovered ... is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it. (80)This is something to think about, rather than trying to hide grief under a bucket.

Her faith tends to be on the simple side. And I count that to be a big plus-after all, it is those who are child-like get to see the kingdom. She talks about when she needed to make a decision concerning an activity of her son, there are two prayers she is well acquainted with: "Help me! Help me! Help me!" and "Thank You, thank you, thank you." This is much better in my mind than a women who Lamott knows whose morning prayer is "Whatever" and the evening prayer of "Oh, well!"  The there is the prayer of her son to his mom, "Pleeeeeeasssssse!" But she moves beyond this and gives a lesson of walking in faith. Her pastor Veronica talks about when she prays she prays that there will be a spotlight, just one step ahead of her. This is where she is to step. Faith is only going to the next step, not knowing the end game.The other advice was from a pastor when Lamott was considering an abortion: get quiet for a moment; think about what you are about to do; if you feel relief, pay attention to it. If you feel grief, listen to that.

Random Thoughts:
  • What does God smell like? We get a description of what he looks like, sounds like feels like. But no smell's like.
  • Tools life with: friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty
  • A friend of Lamott's lives a disease-threatening life. He has cancer.
  •  the gift of failure
  • Lamott's most spiritual truth: that even when we are sure that love can't conquer all, it seems to anyway. (293)

She mis-attributes two lines from a Henry Vaughn  poem to George Herbert. But the quote is very appropriate for her conversion:
by Henry Vaughan

UNFOLD ! unfold !  Take in His light,
Who makes thy cares more short than night.
The joys which with His day-star rise
He deals to all but drowsy eyes ;
And, what the men of this world miss
Some drops and dews of future bliss.

    Hark ! how His winds have chang'd their note !
And with warm whispers call thee out ;
The frosts are past, the storms are gone,
And backward life at last comes on.
The lofty groves in express joys
Reply unto the turtle's voice ;
And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of His love appear !

Sometimes you get put off on a first reading of a book and miss certain things. As I was rereading the book to finalize my review and thoughts I saw things which I missed or skipped over the first time. Particularly towards the last, she talks a lot about living her life amongst the struggles to be a follower of Christ. Now there is no way her following Christ resembles mine. But I do not think that I have a monopoly on that-I am not the Way, only trying to follow the Way.

Still, when  I have read other books by Ann Lamott. I find her writings tend to be somewhat akin to a candle drawing a moth, me,  towards it. The moth may understand that he really is not interested in the candle, but is attracted anyway. With her other books I have thought why am I reading this, then suddenly there is a spark and I see why I should read the book. In Traveling Mercies I did not see that great attractive light.

I know that many others have seen that spark in this book, been inspired. So I suspect this is just one of those books which was not written for me. But one thing which this book does do is to give you hope. Hope that as you go through this life, not all is lost. If you can get that much out of a book, you cannot say the book is bad.
New Words:
  •  Cheever people
  • Oedipal (81) form of Oedipus
  • Jocasta (81) mother of Oedipus
  • tchotchles (119)  nicknack or trinket
  • zaftig (158) of a woman : slightly fat in an attractive way : having a full, rounded figure

Book referenced:
  • Kierkegaard, Soren  Fear and Trembling
  • Faulkner, William  Light in August
  • Lewis, C.S Mere Christianity

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: My coming of faith did not start with a leap but a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another.
  • Last Line: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
  •  I was raised by my parents to believe you had a moral obligation to try to save the world. (10)
  • (Referring to a Catholic Church)  it was like a religious bus station. (13)
  • Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. (59)
  • ... I've discovered ... is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it. (80) 
  • Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue. Eugene O'Neill from the Great God Brown, Act Four, Scene One (128) 
  • I know nothing, except what everyone knows - if there when Grace dances, I should dance. W.H. Auden from Collected Poems
  • I do not at all understand the mystery of grace-only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.
  • we are only as sick as our secrets. (215)
  • families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness. (245)
  • I was desperate to fix him [her son], fix the situation, make everything happy again, and I remembered this basic religious principle that God isn' there to take away our suffering or our pain, but to fill it with his presence... (268)

Table of Contents

Overture: Lily Pads 3
1 Mountain, Valley, Sky

Knocking on Heaven's Door 59

Ladders 68

Mountain Birthday 79
2 Church, People, Steeple

Ashes 91

Why I Make Sam Go to Church 99

Traveling Mercies 106
3 Tribe

Fields 117

Forgiveness 128

Grace 138
4 Kids, Some Sick

Barn Raising 147

Tummler's Dog 155

Hearthcake 161
5 Body and Soul

Gypsies 171

The Mole 177

Thirst 184

Hunger 190

The Aunties 199
6 Family

Mom 209

Dad 221

Sister 229

Baby 238
7 Shore and Ground

A Man Who Was Mean to His Dog 247

Into Thin Mud 257

Altar 266

Acknowledgments 273


Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Congressional Record: The Memoir of Bernie Sisk

Book: A Congressional Record: The Memoir of Bernie Sisk
Author: Bernie Sisk
Edition: First Edition
Read: November 2013
259 pages
Rated:  3 out of 5


This book is in an interview format. A.I. Dickman from the UC Davis oral history office was the interviewer. There are five parts, with each part starting off with a bit of background, followed by several sections of interviews. It looks like the words in the interviews were pretty much non-edited. The five parts include:
  1. Down Home Years (In Texas)
  2. California, Here I Come (His time in California and running for Congress)
  3. Mr. Sisk Goes to Washington (Mostly about water)
  4. Order in the House (the 1970 Legislative Reorganization and other misc areas of interest)
  5. Congressional Perspective   (after finishing his service)


Interesting thoughts on the House Reform (pg 130)  His take on things was that Congress had become more and more entwined in its own rules that it was a Herculean task to get through any legislation of importance. The process for updating the rules was long, but they were able to obtain close to universal ascent from both Democrats and Republicans. You wonder what could be done in today's environment, where it seems like both parties go out of their way to antagonize each other, and get nothing accomplished. There seems to be more emphasis on scoring points than working for the good of the US.

Concerns about the debt, which at that time was $800 billion, (pg 132). With the debt climbing above $2 trillion, what would Sisk say about today's debt. He was concerned about the debt we had incurred, that it was more like a war-time debt than a peace time one. Would he see that the Great Recession was such that it was a national emergency? Or would he be more concerned about the longer term impact our current debt would have?

Sisk as a person who could bring people together (pg 138) It looks like there was only a few people which Sisk could not work with. That is amazing considering he was in Congress for something like 26 years. That is not to say he did not oppose and was not opposed in some of the legislation brought forth. But it speaks more to his wiliness to get things done rather than it has to be done his way.

I don't think any of us has a right to block or destroy the rights of others to cast a vote or state a position on an issue. (pg 140)

I just don't think we should have discriminatory laws-mean and women ought to be treated the same.  This was in regards to Social Security (pg 175) I wonder what he would have thought about our rights for everything situation these days.

What was the Board of Education with Rayburn, Truman, Johnson, and McCormack? (192) See Wikipedia on Sam RayburnRayburn was well known among his colleagues for his after business hours "Board of Education" meetings in hideaway offices in the House. During these off-the-record sessions, the Speaker and powerful committee chairmen would gather for poker, bourbon, and a frank discussion of politics. Rayburn alone determined who received an invitation to these gatherings; to be invited to even one was a high honor. On April 12, 1945 Vice President Harry Truman, a regular attendee since his Senate days, had just arrived at the "Board of Education" when he received a phone call telling him to immediately come to the White House, where he learned that Franklin D. Roosevelt was dead and he was now President of the United States.

How to get knowledge of a bill? (197) There are now apps and the web which we can interrogate. In Sisk's days it would be the Congressman's office which tracked down legislation.

Outdoorsman-picture in Evolution Valley (247) Bobbye Sisk Temple says her father loved to go uop to the mountains.

  If you are looking for a well-written account of B.F. Sisk's actions in the House of Representatives and his life, this is not it. But if you are looking at what the man thought and why he did things, this book gives you a pretty good idea. Through the efforts of Sisk, water for farming was brought to the Valley. This book shows from Sisk's perspective how this was done.

Just from this, reading the book would be good for anybody in the region. But what about nationally? Sisk was the type of man who got along with others. He was able to make friends, even with those where there was opposition. What he could not stand was those whom would not keep their word, who proved to be untrustworthy.

Consequently Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House came to have confidence in him. Sisk would serve on serve on several important committees, including the House Rules. From here he was able to affect  most legislation over the committee. Hence his influence in Washington was more than just just a congressman from the San Joaquin.

Notes from my book group:

Each year our book group has a night with a live author. We were able to have B.F. Sisk's daughter with us, Bobbye Sisk Temple and her husband Martin Temple. It was a delightful evening where Bobbye provided background about both the book and the man. The background and  questions I had set up included:

Introduce Bobbye Temple
Bobbye Sisk Temple:

Daughter of Bernie Sisk
Married to Martin Temple
Member of the Central Valley Political Archive


B.F. Sisk In Memoriam from the October 30, 1995 Congressional Record by Mr. Radanovich. The last part, which was a quote from the Fresno Bee is meaningful:

`His number one thing was to take care of the constituents. He never held himself out to be a world leader. What Bernie had, that very few folks have, was the ability to disagree with you without making you angry.''--Gordon Nelson, Sisk's former administrative assistant.

  • First, who edited the book?
  • This book was one which I learned a great deal about the area and its history. I enjoyed reading and seeing names I knew about from news reports—jr high and high school and some in college. One thing which I was thinking as I was reading this book, it could have used an editor. How would you have edited the book, while retaining your father's flavor?
  • If I am computing the ages correctly, you would have been in your early twenties when your father ran for Congress. What was it like? Were you campaigning with him? Sounded like your Mom was not happy about him running, but you and your sister were.
  • At the last of the book are pictures of your father in the back-country around Evolution Valley and Lake. I did not get the impression he was really a back country woodsman. But he did enjoy being up in the mountains sometimes. Was this something which came on later in life? Or was it something which was pushed out.
  • Several years ago, this group read King of California by Mark Arax. Are you familiar with this book? What would B.F. Sisk have thought of the book? The book talks about how the big farmers, particularly cotton controlled the formation of the water projects. It sounded like your father was looking at how to help make the Central Valley an economically viable place. How influential were people on the west-side on your father?
  • Your father was one who worked together with others to make things happen. Obviously that is not happening in Washington, or Sacramento, now. Would he have a place in the discussions going on now? Or would he have been more of an outsider? How would he have worked with the divisiveness of our era?
  • In the book, B.F. Sisk was concerned about the size of the national debt. Enough so, he opposed Phillip Burton on many things. How would he have thought about the debt today? Would be have thought it way too big? Would he have considered some of the alternatives of allowing the nation into a deeper recession as viable? …
  • I like the statement he makes in pg 141: I don't think any of us has a right to block or destroy the rights of others to cast a vote or state a position on an issue. This seems like in stark contrast to today where people on the left and right are more concerned with control than rightness. He does go on and talk about the need to make sure what is being done is right for the country.
  • On pg 175, he states. I just don't think we should have discriminatory laws-mean and women ought to be treated the same. In this case he was talking about Social Security. How would he have viewed the expansion of civil rights coverage?
  • Do you know anything about the “Board of Education” on pg 192?
  • It sounded like Sisk encouraged his constituents to contact his office. Is this still prevalent today?

 Good Quotes:
  • First Line: We all know that Congressman Sisk is too humble to mention his own achievements. - From Justice Andreen's Mark 30, 1978 testimonial dinner for Congressman Sisk
  • Last Line: There were times when I felt we faced unjust criticism, but that is part of the price you pay as a public servant.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Prophet

Book:  The Prophet
Author: Khalil Gibran
Edition:  iBook from Google Books
Read:   Sept 2013
 62 pages
Rated: 1 out of 5

Almustafa is able to return to his home city. As he is about to return, the residences of his current residence asks him to expound on a variety of themes-wealth, marriage, love and other items.


When I was in college, this book was popular, even among Christians. For so reason, I never read it. That is until I walked the John Muir Trail. I decided to read The Prophet. Finished it a month later. 

So what is my impression? Well, not much. If you read the Bible, hear sermons, and generally look for good teaching, you will find the same themes. Even better, these items will go deeper than Gibran does. So, I do not have too much to say about this book, except to say others saw more than I do


Good Quotes:
  • First Line:  “ALMUSTAFA, the chosen and the beloved, who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship that was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth.”
  • Last Line:  And when all the people were dispersed she still stood alone upon the sea-wall, remembering in her heart his saying: A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me”



Book: Youth
Author: Isaac Asimov
Edition: Gutenberg eBook
Read: June 2013
56 pages
Rated: 3 1/2 out of 5


Two aliens have landed on a planet where this teenager has picked them. Aliens had an arrangement to meetup with two of the adults on the planet, but the boy and his friend have ideas of using these aliens to runaway and join the circus. The story takes centuries, if not more, after an atomic war has taken place.

what would you do if two aliens landed on our planet?  As an adult, we might, if we are good, hand them over to authorities to talk with the or scientists to learn about them. An euntraporneir might look at how to exploit these beings. Instead of adults finding them, what would two young kids do? Figure out this is their way of joining the circus. Obviously, the exploitive side of things.

Of course, are these aliens intelligent? What consists of intelligence? If they cannot communicate with you, how do you judge that question.

The adults who are looking forward to the visit of these aliens are having a discussion on if change is good. One's position is that without change, we head towards stagnation and eventual  ruin as things progress to a final conclusion-think the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. But the flip side is that change brings about tension and war, things to avoid. Which is better-oblivian through destruction or through stagnation?

And then there is the question about how we should treat alien species when we find them. There will be a certain amount of fear. But Asimov's solution is to treat them how we would want to be treated. Also treat the young well is part of his answer.

 A short story which reveals how we look at those who are different. It is a good, quick read, well worth the hour or so of time read it. While not providing any new thoughts or questions, you do get to look at questions from a different perspective. As one reviewer noted, Asimov likes to give you a surprise twist to a story. But it is also noted that some of the story gets contrived while trying to accomplish this.  Youth provides the same type of twist which Asimov is known for.

Good Quotes:
  • First Line:  “Red and Slim found the two strange little animals the morning after they heard the thunder sounds.”
  • Last Line:  “His red tentacles, which gave him his nickname, quivered their regret at lost opportunity to the very last, and the eyes at their tips filled with drifting yellowish crystals that were the equivalent of Earthly tears.”
  • “It is only in old age that change is unwelcome,... and races can be old as well as individuals.”   Page 13
  • “An old man sleeps in the sun and his days are peaceful and unchanging, but each day finds him nearer death all the same”.  Page 13