Award Winner · Drama · Fiction · In the Library · Julia P · Quick Read! · SCC Book Club

Clybourne Park | by Bruce Norris

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
(Faber and Faber, 2011, 210 pages)

Today was the first Between the Covers book club discussion for the Fall 2015 semester and Clybourne Park was the title we talked about. This was the first time Between the Covers read a play and it made for a unique reading experience. Like most people, the only real experience I have with reading plays is in the classroom setting. It’s not a genre I think people frequently pick up because, by it’s very nature, a play is meant to be seen as a performance. That being said, I still enjoyed the experience of reading this piece by Norris.

Clybourne Park is something of a follow-up to Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun. The play is set in two acts and each act is set at a specific time. Act 1 is set in 1959 and Act 2 takes place in 2009. Act 1 is set in the home of a couple who is getting ready to move and whose house has been sold (unbeknownst to them) to a black family – the first one in the Clybourne Park neighborhood. This brings up some issues with members in their community who don’t want to see this “change” in the neighborhood take place.

Act 2 is set in the same home 50 years later and it becomes clear that the demographics of the neighborhood have changed. Clybourne Park is now predominantly black. There is a white couple looking at purchasing the original house, tearing it down, and building a new one in its place. This brings a new set of issues that still follow racial lines – now what’s at play is the beginnings of gentrifying the neighborhood.

Clybourne Park brought up a lot of issues that I think would make for some great discussions. While it dealt with serious topics, there were still moments of humor and a few times when my jaw dropped. The play won the Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award. If you haven’t read a play before (or since you were a student somewhere) I recommend giving it a shot and seeing how you feel about it. Some people find it harder to get into, but I felt like it lent a different sense of immediacy to my reading experience. I enjoyed it.

I’d definitely recommend going to see the Center Stage performance on campus. They’ll be performing the play September 30-October 4. Tickets are free for SCC students with an ID!

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Andrew S · Essays · In the Library · Non-Fiction · Translated Work

Notes on the Death of Culture | by Mario Vargas Llosa

Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society
by Mario Vargas Llosa; translated by John King
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 227 pages)

The word “culture” gets used in all kinds of ways in today’s culture (see what I did?). Precisely which “culture” is Nobel Prize winning novelist and essayist Mario Vargas Llosa lamenting the death of in this book of critical essays? He speaks not of culture in the broad sense, that is, “as a mere epiphenomenon of social and economic life,” but instead “as an autonomous reality, made up of ideas, aesthetic and ethical values, and works of art and literature that interact with the rest of social existence, and that are often not mere reflections, but rather the wellsprings, of social, economic, political and even religious phenomena” (14). Vargas Llosa is presiding over the funeral of the sort of culture that T. S. Eliot warned was slipping away in 1948 with the publication of his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Eliot, with his conception of “higher culture” is a conversation partner for Vargas Llosa throughout the book.

For Vargas Llosa, higher culture has been all but lost in the thicket of what he calls a “civilization of spectacle.” This civilization, defined as it is by celebrity obsession, reality TV, and professional sports, continually and publicly lays before us the crassest elements of our existence in the name of entertainment. This makes the importance of privacy a constant theme for Vargas Llosa. The privacy of our information, of our sex lives, and of our religious faith are essential to a society in which art and literature can flourish. As he sums it up, “with the disappearance of the realm of the private, many of the best achievements of humanity deteriorate and become degraded, beginning with everything that has safeguarded certain forms including eroticism, love, friendship, modesty, good manners, art and morality” (152).

The critiques of Notes on the Death of Culture are well formed and eloquently articulated. Vargas Llosa’s warnings regarding the consequences of the loss of private information in a digital age, occasioned by an essay lambasting Julian Assange, are particularly important. That said, there is a grumpiness and nostalgia that characterizes these essays. This leads me to suspect that Vargas Llosa’s negative views of contemporary culture, as accurate as they are about its more detestable elements, are at least to some degree a result of being out of touch with the better developments in the various societal and artistic arenas that he critiques. I very much enjoyed these reflections from an eloquent curmudgeon, even if I don’t entirely trust them.

Cats! · Fiction · Jean R · Mystery

The Litter of the Law | by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown

The Litter of the Law (Mrs. Murphy, #21)

The Litter of the Law by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown
(Bantam, 2013, 256 pages)

The Litter of the Law by Rita Mae Brown and her feline co-author, Sneaky Pie Brown, is another book in the Mrs. Murphy Mystery Series which began in 1990. In this book, the main character, Harry, her husband, Fair, her two cats, Pewter and Mrs. Murphy, and her dog, Tucker, are all out for a nice fall drive in the Virginia countryside. The group spots a scarecrow that doesn’t look quite right and goes to investigate. The scarecrow is a dead accountant dressed to look like a scarecrow. And so the mystery begins. Harry along with her animal companions decide to investigate. During the course of the investigation, another death occurs. Are the two deaths related? If so, how and why did they occur?

I have been reading the Mrs. Murphy Mystery Series for several years. In recent years, the series seems to be teaching lessons as well as solving a mystery. In The Litter of the Law, Brown discusses the issue of Native American rights (or lack thereof) in the state of Virginia. While I no longer enjoy the series as much as I once did, I do continue to pick up the books from time to time to see what is happening in Harry’s life.

Biography · Heather D · In the Library · Non-Fiction · Sports

Molina | by Bengie Molina with Joan Ryan

Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty
by Bengie Molina with Joan Ryan
(Simon & Schuster, 2015, 259 pages)

I love the game of baseball and am a die-hard Cardinals fan so as soon as I saw the book Molina I knew it was a must-read for me. I was expecting to read a lot about baseball with a touch of Bengie Molina’s personal life. It was the complete opposite and I was wonderfully surprised.

It was enlightening to see Bengie not just as a World Series Champion (twice) and a Gold Glove winner (twice) but as a real human being. He goes into very vivid details of the triumphs and struggles he has endured in his personal life as well as in his baseball journey. Growing up in the Molina house meant that your life revolved around baseball. Bengie’s father, Pai, was a terrific athlete himself. As the boys (Bengie, Jose, and Yadier) grew older, Pai was their coach in little league and taught them everything he knew of the game. Along with teaching them the rules of the game, he taught them the rules of life which were all about love and respect. Bengie, Jose, and Yadier have taken these lessons to heart and they have led them to great accomplishments on and off the field.

Molina has a very close relationship with his parents, Pai and Mai, and his brothers, Jose and Yadier, whom he talks so highly of and tells some wonderful stories about. Reading this book you can see just how humble the Molina family is. The sacrifices made by Pai for his sons and the love, respect and support that they all show for each other is nothing short of inspiring. I think what amazed me the most was the fact that Bengie does not credit himself for any of his accomplishments but rather gives it all to Pai, Mai, Jose, and Yadier.

I highly recommend this book. You don’t have to know a lot about baseball to appreciate the compassion that this family shows towards one another and the desire to chase their lifelong dreams. Anyone who chooses to read this book will be touched.

Thank you to Bengie Molina for sharing such intimate details of your life with us so that we can come to know and love the three Molinas behind the mask! 🙂

Andrew S · Non-Fiction · Philosophy · Religion

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor | by James K. A. Smith

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith
(Eerdmans, 2014, 152 pages)

Jamie Smith describes his book as, on the one hand, “a book about a book – a small field guide to a much larger scholarly volume,” and on the other hand, as “a kind of how-to manual – guidance on how (not) to live in a secular age” (xi). The book that Smith refers to is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), the magnum opus from one of the most important contemporary philosophers. Taylor’s book is an attempt to both define the different senses in which our period in history can be called “secular,” as well as to offer a historical narrative that makes sense of how we have arrived at what Taylor calls the “immanent frame,” a social space which defines reality within the natural order without appeal to the transcendent or to God.

One of the major goals of A Secular Age is to show that this “immanent frame” is a construct rather than purely natural. That is, it is not simply an inevitable byproduct of scientific progress. It is not necessarily an obvious, unsentimental, or realistic reading of the world, but rather, a particular construal of or a “take” on the world. Taylor wants to show that the world can also be plausibly read as part of a transcendent reality, a reality which makes sense of more traditional spiritual or religious beliefs. However, for Taylor, we cannot simply revert back to a premodern “enchanted” world. Even for those with religious or spiritual leanings, the “immanent frame” is the inevitable starting point, a shared set of assumptions.

Smith does an excellent job of summarizing and explaining Taylor’s ideas. His main goal is “concise commentary, identifying the thread and logic of Taylor’s argument in a condensed form” (xi). As he identifies this thread, Smith also attempts to give a sense of the “feel” of Taylor’s arguments. That is, he incorporates references to modern literature and music that express the loss or “malaise” of our disenchanted age. Sometimes these references work effectively, and other times they come off as a bit trendy or trite. Pop lyrics are quoted alongside classic literature in a way that could easily date the book. I really love Smith’s work, but this is one consistent feature of his books that is mildly irritating.

While his main task is appreciative summary, Smith also picks up and comments on some of the theological implications of Taylor’s arguments. Where Smith offers critique of Taylor’s project, it is usually from this more explicitly theological stance. One other very helpful feature is the glossary of Taylor’s unique terms like “Age of Authenticity,” “immanent frame,” and “immanentization.” Taylor’s effective and descriptive use of terminology combined with Smith’s concise definitions really help to keep the main features of the book’s expansive argument in view.

Compared to much philosophical writing, Taylor is actually quite readable. However, the length of A Secular Age means that many who could benefit from its insight might not tackle it. I have read portions of the book, but I have never attempted to make my way all the way through its nearly 900 pages. For those, like me, who appreciate Taylor or are curious about his unique take on secularization theory, Smith’s book is an invaluable resource. Even those who have read A Secular Age would benefit from Smith’s critical engagement and the literary parallels that he draws.

Andrew S · Non-Fiction · Religion

Meeting God in Mark | by Rowan Williams

Meeting God in Mark

Meeting God in Mark by Rowan Williams
(SPCK, 2014, 86 pages)

Mark is the most concise of the four Gospels. In this respect, the brevity of Rowan Williams’ reflections on the book are particularly appropriate. Meeting God in Mark was originally delivered as a series of Holy Week talks at Canterbury Cathedral in 2010, and they have an appropriately devotional quality to them. As Williams states it, the goal of the book is “simply to offer suggestions for a slow reading of what notoriously feels like a rushed and packed text” (vii). This is not a full commentary, but rather, a brief reading of the major themes of the Gospel.

Williams discusses the historical claims regarding Mark’s authorship, the relational nature of Jesus’ recorded miracles, and the abrupt ending of the author’s account of the Resurrection. Williams emphasizes the fact that the miracles recorded in the book are not a simple display of power or a way for Jesus to prove a point. Instead, they are expressions of his compassion towards people in need. Another major theme, and one that has characterized much of Williams’ work, is the difficulty of speaking in a meaningful way about divinity, especially the incarnate divinity to which Mark claims to bear witness.

As with everything that he writes, Williams combines concern for historical and scholarly accuracy with spiritual wisdom and sensitivity. He manages to provide a reading of Mark that is a product both of genuine scholarship and of pastoral concern. Meeting God in Mark is an excellent resource for those interested in the themes of Mark’s portrait of Christ and in the unique place it holds among the other Gospel narratives.

Fiction · Julia P · Mystery · Page-Turner · Thriller

Dark Places | by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
(Broadway Books, 2010, 350 pages)

I impulsively grabbed this off the shelf at the library to see if I would like some of Flynn’s earlier work more than I liked Gone Girl. I was surprised that I got as engrossed in this book as I did. The thriller/mystery genre isn’t really one I pick up often, but Flynn had me intrigued to see where the book would go.

Libby Day’s family was killed in what many believe to be an act of Devil worship when she was just a little girl. The youngest of four, Libby’s older sisters and mother were brutally murdered. Her older brother, Ben, was charged with the crime and put in prison.

Libby had a rough time growing up and now she’s an adult who can’t seem to bring herself to want to find a job or to commit to much of a life. She lives off money that was raised shortly after the murders but now the money is running out. This need for funds leads her to a group called The Kill Club. The club is obsessed with murderous crimes and some members are willing to pay to get a chance to meet and ask Libby questions.

The members of The Kill Club intrigued by Libby’s case seem convinced that Ben isn’t really the killer. With their funding Libby is willing to look into the case again and see if there was something, or someone, that was missed. Maybe her memory of the night is less clear than she thought it was…

If you’ve read Gone Girl and then pick up this title there’s no question that Flynn has a knack for creating unlikable female characters. Libby isn’t really someone you like, even though you’re hoping that she’ll find answers to her family’s tragic past.

If you enjoyed Gone Girl I’d recommend looking into Flynn’s backlist. This was an entertaining read, especially if you’re interested in thrillers and mysteries. I’ll be curious to see if I like her first novel, Sharp Objects.

You can check out other reviews of this title from Theresa and Sadie.