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Little Books

August 19, 2022

The Little Guide to Dolly Parton: Unofficial and Unauthorized (OH!, 2022)

Back in the 1970s, Sharon and I were planning a trip to Europe for the summer before I started teaching at Wheaton. I was finishing up my stint as director of an NEH-funded program at Vanderbilt, where, as a newly minted PhD, I was doing some teaching. And Sharon was secretary to the music school at Peabody, across 21st Ave from VU. No kids yet, so we had some extra cash and freedom to make the run abroad. I needed to renew/update my passport, so I found my way to an upstairs studio in Hillsboro Village, whose sidewalk-level sign advertized passport photos. As I turned into the doorway, I found myself face to face with Dolly Parton, who’d just come down the stairs from where I was going. So I stepped aside in awe.

BTW, you often have this sort of encounter in the Nashville area, where, for instance, I passed Chris Kristofferson in the airport, stood in line for popcorn behind Wynona Judd, boarded a plane with Jerry Reed (and, on another occasion, Cowboy Troy), preached at a church with Josh Turner in the congregation, and sat in on a taping of the Johnny Cash Show at the Ryman Auditorium, (with Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, Louis Armstrong, Glen Campbell, and Peggy Lee on the show). Sweet!

But Dolly is something special. Her “Coat of Many Colors” brings me to tears, and her duet with Kenny Rogers (“Islands in the Stream”) was the soundtrack for my season of dry-walling in the room we built on to our little house in Wheaton. I can sing parts of “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “9 to 5,” whose lyrics I referenced in my SBTS course on work and leisure. And now folks are telling me I should visit Dollywood on my next trip to the Gatlinburg area.

I couldn’t resist buying this little book ($8.95) for its buffet of around 200 Dolly quotes. A fair number are sub-Christian (“My weaknesses have always been for food and men—in that order”;  “I’m a vanilla sinner—too bad to be good and too good to be bad.” There’s a nice selection of recollections of her humble beginnings over by the Smokies (“Our house had running water, if you were willing to run and get it”; “I grew up poor, so poor my daddy paid the doctor who delivered me with a sack of cornmeal.” And those of us who do a bit a writing can appreciate her saying, “When it’s more than I can stand, I just get my pencil and guitar out and I start writin’.” She’s also one for proverbs: “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one”; “I always just thought if you see somebody without a smile, give ‘em yours”; “Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” As for style, “I never let a rhinestone go unturned!”; “I would never stoop so low to be fashionable; that’s the easiest thing in the world to do. I don’t like to be like everybody else”; “I look just like the girl next door . . . if you happened to live next door to an amusement park.” And yes, she comments on her physical assets: “I was the first woman to burn my bra; it took the fire department four days to put it out.” As for the tabloid press, “It could be worse. They could tell the truth about me.” And for her tombstone, “You think she’s here—but she ain’t.”

Well, I left out the worst (where her snappy remarks on ethics and theology are seriously messed up) and I went for short quotes, when many are two and three times as long. But you get a good glimpse at remarkable fixture, whose voice is also unmistakable—one of those like Willy Nelson’s, Johnny Mathis’s, and Aretha Franklin’s. You hear it; you know it; you like it.

Recipes Every Man Should Know by Susan Russo and Brett Cohen (Quirk, 2010)

I thought this book would be more basic, the sort of thing you’d put in the hands of a freshman headed off to college to live in an apartment with some other guys. Maybe how to scramble eggs, make mac and cheese, and grill some burgers. As for my own forays into the culinary arts, my performance was very low rent—as a 19-year-old, summer youth director at FBC Camden, Arkansas (cereal; TV dinners, especially Salisbury steak and Mexican); as a pre-marriage grad student at Vanderbilt, where I ventured into Chef Boyardee pizza and spaghetti sets, with Campbell’s soup (at 17 cents a can) a mainstay. But the Russo and Cohen book had much more exalted things in mind, e.g., jambalaya, with 15 ingredients (andouille, deveined shrimp, flat-leaf parsley, yellow diced onion, etc.) with cooking transitions of 5, 7, 5, 20, and 5 minutes, as the ingredients are browned, boiled, covered, simmered, and such. Whew! All well and good, but as my wife said, this is basically a cook book with the “every man should know” added as a hook in the title. And really, should every man know how to prepare “Sexy Strawberries Zabaglione,” “Lobster with Beer and Butter Sauce,” and “Fool-Proof French Toast”? Yes, French toast, but is it really that hard to mess up French toast so that you would need this sort of vigilance?

Don’t get me wrong. There are many good things that commend this book, and yes, the writers try to “put the cookies on the lower shelf” for guys starting out. There’s a nice illustrated guide to kitchen tools (one each flexible and nonflexible spatula), a glossary for procedures (e.g., ‘Dredge’: “Before cooking coat a food in ingredients such as egg, bread crumbs, or flour.”), and a list of toppings for burgers (e.g., avocado, pineapple rings), fish (whether Piccatta, Salsa, or California Style), and pizza (including [no thank you] “eggplant, roasted red peppers, spinach, and tomatoes”). It features a metric conversion table and a steak, internal-temperature chart (rare, well-done, etc.) Of course, this “Billy Baptist” could have done without the guide to martinis. But again, a decent book, which could have just as well be named Recipes It Wouldn’t Hurt for Folks to Know.

William Shakespeare: Famous Last Words, by William Shakespeare (Insight/Tiny Book, 2019)

I’d already decided to do a Browsings entry on little books when I came across this extremely little one in Landmark Booksellers in downtown Franklin, TN. Landmark is a great source for all things Southern, including Civil War material (cf. the Battle of Franklin) and the writings of the Agrarians at Vanderbilt, including John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, contributors to I’ll Take My Stand. But they cover Western culture in general, including Shakespeare, as this tiny volume demonstrates. And the entries are

 “Slave, thou hast slain me. Villain, take my purse. If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body. And give the letters which thou find’st about me to Edmund Earl of Gloucester. Seek him out upon the British party. O, untimely death! Death!” (Oswald in King Lear)

“O, here will I set up my everlasting rest, and shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh . . . Here’s to my love! O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.” (Romeo in Romeo and Juliet)

“Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads, stain all your edges on me.” (Coriolanus in Coriolanus)

A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse! (Richard III in Richard III)

More elegant than Jeff Foxworthy’s, “You might be a redneck if the last words of a close relative were, ‘Hey y’all, watch this!”

Town & Country’s Manner & Misdemeanors: Notes on Post-Civilized Society (Sterling, 2016).

I’m enjoying this book more than I should. It’s collection of often shameless, ironic observations and commendations written for godless socialites by their cultural scribes. Last night, I finished one on “elegant expletives,” which ends with the sentence, “If you have mastered the art of cursing like an elegant sailor, you will always have a place at my g*****n [my italics] table.” Before I laid it aside on my beside table and turned off the light, I also read the piece suggesting that it was important to include singles in your dinner parties to keep the conversation fresh (“Odd One In”). The night before, I’d read one that brought back to mind an issue we faced with church outings in Chicago, where we took our evangelical college students to the art gallery run by one of our members, and to galleries in its River North neighborhood, knowing that some of the renderings would be embarrassing (“That’s Awkward!”). And also one on the charm, expectations, and protocols surrounding swag gifts at special events (“Confessions of a Bag Lady”).  

The essay that got me hooked a month or so ago was called “The Me Diet,” a snarky take on the things we’ll throw our money at. Here are a couple of sample sentences: “Back in the 1930s, socialites were smitten with their psychiatrists, a new sort of doctor whose brilliance was signaled by his inability to find anything you told him uninteresting.”; “Amid such uncertainty it’s easy to see why people warmed to the idea of having their own food arbiter, someone whose judgment was rendered sound by the fee it commanded.”

Flipping through the book, I see a variety of tasty pieces, including one on Schadenfreude (“The Sweet Smell of Failure”) by Joseph Epstein, whom I had the pleasure to talk too several times when we both lived in Evanston; one on what it takes to get your kids into elite private schools (“What Makes the Rich Beg?”); and one on how “the new world of competition dining, where the agony of getting a reservation only makes your meal taste better (“The Hunger Games”).

“Dance First. Think Later.”: 618 Rules to Live By, by Kathryn and Ross Petras (Workman, 2011)

Well, it was a catchy title, but what a disastrous “rule to live by” (compliments of Samuel Beckett, who calls this “the natural order”). I figured the book might contain the collective, self-destructive maxims of romantics, hedonists, antinomians, and such, but I was surprised to find an intriguing and sometimes gratifying mix, including these:

#73  If everything is under control, you are going too slow. (Mario Andretti, Race Car Driver)

#81 Always give an autograph when somebody asks you. (Tommy Lasorda, Baseball Manager)

#122 Tip generously. You go around only once, and tipping generously is a meaningful way to improve your own quality of life. (Danny Meyer, Restauranteur)

#125  If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you. (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Writer)

#139 Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.  (Dr. Seuss/Theodore Geisel, Writer)

#142 Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ‘em, “Certainly, I can!” Then get busy and find out how to do it. (Theodore Roosevelt, Statesman)

#150 Don’t ever ask anyone for an opinion of your performance. They’re liable to tell you. (Jerry Stiller, Comedian)

#161 A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be. (Wayne Gretzky, Hockey Player)

#176 Be aware that most people are operating on a very condensed version of the Ten Commandents: the part about murder. (Mark Bricklin, Journalist)

#236 The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up. (Mark Twain, Writer)

#242  You gotta try your luck at least once a day, because you could be going around lucky all day and not even know it. (Jimmy Dean, Sausage Mogul/Country Singer)

#258 It’s possible to own too much. A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure. (Lee Segall, Businessman)

#264 Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful. (Ann Landers, Advice Columnist)

#286 You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you. (Eric Hoffer, Longshoreman/Philosopher)

#362  Call home at least once a week. (John Grisham, Writer)

#367  Everything considered, work is less boring than amusing oneself. (Charles Baudelaire, Poet)

#369  Save yourself several thousand dollars and start flossing like a maniac now. (Callie Khouri, Screenwriter/Director)

#539  You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out. (Warren Buffett, Financier)

#568  Nothing in life is “fun for the whole family.” (Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian)

Introducing Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide, by Stuart Sim and Borin Van Loon (Icon, 2012).

This book is part of a series, with other volumes devoted to such topics as Buddha, Feminism, Fractals, Keynes, Linguistics, and Foucault. It’s filled with dramatic, sometimes wacky, illustrations, supported by about 150 words per page, much of the text appearing in conversation bubbles. It moves fast and covers scads of personalities and concepts and movements, leaving you dazed as you try to sort things out. The overall impression it gives (or I get) is that critical theory is an all-out assault on Judeo-Christian/Western Civilization, adept at deploying smoke and mirrors to gain power advantage for its favorite groups of the aggrieved. I’ve heard it said that the Arab street has no epistemology, no critical filter on what they hear to excite them. Critical theorists, in contrast, could be said to brook no epistemology. They insist on brazening and bullying things out there, ignoring canons of verification and falsification. It’s a hot, nasty mess, given cover and respectability by the professorial and administrative denizens (with special honors to HR and DEI officers) of godless academia. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay there, but finds its way into the minds, hearts, and actions of “sensitive” Christians, looking for the next victim with which to empathize and for which to abuse their “less Christlike” co-religionists. 

It more of an annotated bibliography, with a snapshot of around 250 people and notions helpfully listed in the index, from Absolute Spirit to Zizeck. And the glossary provides about 70 short definitions, from Alienation to Writerly fiction. As you turn through the roughly 160 pages of text, you find quick takes on everything from Zhdanovite Socialist Realism to Bakhtin’s Dialogic Meanings to the Structuralist Marxism of Althusser to Anti-Oedipus and Schizoanalysis to Gynocriticism. Each of these would take a book or meaty article to grasp (and those are often cited), but you only get 150 words in this case. And they’re so often pretentiously cryptic. So I welcomed the sentences, “Lacan’s work is notoriously difficult to interpret. But, as one participant in his famous series of seminars in Paris in the 1950s remarked, no matter how obscure he may be, Lacan nevertheless ‘produces resonances.’” Well, yes, there’s a heap of resonating going in among critical theorists, must not much clarity or plausibility. 

A delicious feature of critical theory is its tendency to devour itself. When you’re always digging for the oppressive sub-text, you’re bound to find it in subsequent attempts to identify it, so that the deep insight is trumped by an even deeper, insulting insight . . . and so on. And, mirabile dictu, a conservative can find some comfort in their anti-traditionalist smear job on the power elite and their linguistic protocols and silences, since now that the speech-code, trigger-warning, cancel-culture, wokeists are ruling the roost, they appear as the systemic oppressors whose language games can be unmasked. 

The Judeo-Christian tradition is one that aspires to truth. Critical theory is obsessed with empowerment, the truth be darned. And a walk through this book provides an impressionistic view of the mental, spiritual, and social wreckage which that obsession has wrought.

Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint: 1990, 2010, 2011)

Wendell Berry is something of a cult figure for those who romanticize the localized and natural things of life. He popped up in the McGraw-Hill textbook on environment ethics I was nudged to use as an adjunct at Elmhurst College. It featured a selection from his The Gift of the Good Land, identifying him as “a contemporary Christian scholar who bases his environmental ethic on the Bible . . . a novelist, professor and farmer.” He’s pushed “sustainable agriculture” and spoken and/or acted out against the Vietnam War, the death penalty, and the coal industry. In recent years, he’s sounded some curious notes on the status of homosexuality and gay marriage. (Union U. professor Jacob Shatzer, my colleague on did a fine analysis of these developments.

This little book offers two essays, the first in the title (1987), the second, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” (1989). I’d read the first one (versus computers) years ago, but I was surprised on this reading that it was such pious nonsense. Here and there he says something compelling, e.g., regarding the fellowship he has with his wife as types up his pencil-crafted manuscripts on a 1956 Royal typewriter. Nice. But when he gets into desiderata, e.g., new technology should cost less than its predecessor, you have to ask if the introduction of the typing machine in the 19th century meant savings to the pencil/pen authors of that day. And when Berry hates on electricity since it comes from coal, you wonder if he sticks with kerosene lamps and candles. (Maybe he does.)

This book reprints letters to the editor which were generated by the anti-computer piece’s appearance in Harper’s, letters whose objections are often well taken. Reading Berry’s retorts, I was in for a second surprise—his utter lack of charity toward the correspondents, his willingness to insult them, his putting their words in the worst light and his own in the best. He could have said something like, “Of course, I’m grateful for technological advances, including the vehicle that carried my manuscript to the post office, and I realize that there are tradeoffs in all industries and human enterprises, but I wanted to raise the question of whether we should give in to undiluted enthusiasm for computer technology.” But all we get is snark and bile. Not impressive.

The second essay is more reasonable, though it too spins off a hyper-sensitivity to criticism. He picks up on a feminist objection to his wife’s typing out his manuscripts, as if she’s being exploited. He pushes back by arguing that marriage is “a state of mutual help,” rather than

a ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests much be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.

Great writing.

He goes on to say that the feminist drive to get wives out of the home into the workplace is wrongheaded. And, along the way, he takes shots at “macho men” and the “industrial economy.” While he grants that he uses a chainsaw and a car and air travel, he heaps contempt on them. (“I am, however, still in bondage to the automobile industry and the energy companies, which have nothing to recommend them except our dependence on them.”) Really? Nothing else to recommend them? How about the stewardship of your time in getting from place to place? How about making good use of an amazing resources the Lord has given us in creation? And what’s wrong with dependence-based value? Would you say that CAT scans and pasteurizers and printing presses have nothing to recommend them but our dependence on them? So what? And does he have airplanes quite right? (“ . . . nothing to recommend them but speed; they are inconvenient, uncomfortable, undependable, ugly, stinky, and scary.”) Well, yes, air travel, especially in the age of COVID, has been irritating, but so has every other way of getting to distant places, and, as one who has literally flown around the world, give me fifty hours on a jet (with reclining seats, lavatories, meals, movies, and reading lights) instead of Jules Verne’s 80 days of peril. And should Berry ever decide to join his church on two-week mission trip to a region virtually bereft of gospel witness, he might think twice about devoting 12 days to travel, with only two left for witness.

I know Berry is widely adored in evangelical circles for his simple, wholesome life choices and advocacy, and his zeal in ranking down the hurly-burly and alienation of the industrial revolution. But I scarcely get it. I guess I’ve been expecting something more along the lines of a C. S. Lewis or an Annie Dillard, but his invective and hair-trigger blowback reminds me more of a Richard Dawkins or a Donald Trump. I enjoy a literary contrarian or provocateur, whether Martin Luther or a Roger Williams, but if you wield a poison pen, you need set your sites on a beast worth killing and not just one who needs a leash.

Pentecostalism: A Very Short Introduction, by William K. Kay (Oxford, 2011)

After a couple of years of COVID closings and restrictions, I was finally able to use my alumnus library card to get back into the Vanderbilt Library. Actually, I had to get a new one, and, to see if it worked, I grabbed several from the carousel loaded with a hundred or so from this OUP series. The whole collection, to date, includes such titles as Ancient Warfare, Cryptography, Fashion, Stuart Britain, Paul, and Nothing. (Yes, “nothing,” as in, perhaps, Being and Nothingness, by Sartre; or maybe the “null set” in mathematics; or even the metaphysical status of holes and cracks, which involve the absence of matter.) In the preface, we read that there are 740 Pentecostal denominations plus scads of Pentecostals in mainline and independent denominations.

A brief turn through this brief book reminded me of Pentecostal/Charismatic markers in church history, such as John Wesley’s report that he “felt [his] heart strangely warmed” and the Azusa Street revival (1906-1912) in Los Angeles. One of the new things I learned was that Oneness Pentecostalism, representing about 10% of today’s Pentecostals (what the author describes in terms of modalism and “Jesus-focused Unitarianism”), grew out of a California camp meeting dispute in 1913, where the attendees differed over what to say during baptism by immersion. I also came across Nicholas Benghu (1909-1986), the grandson of a Zulu chief, who came to be known as the “African Billy Graham.” He’d established 50 churches by 1959, and 20,000 attended his funeral. He joined the South African Assemblies of God, and his preaching was so powerful that crime would drop by as much as one third in some areas in the wake of his ministry.

Tracking on up through Smith Wigglesworth (one of my favorite names; a Yorkshire plumber who became an evangelist), Oral Roberts, and Pastor Cho of Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, we find ourselves at Hillsong and even Sarah Palin. A lot shoehorned into this little book, written by William Kay, Professor of Theology at Glyndwr University in Wales.

The Order of the Day, by Eric Vuillard, transl. by Mark Polizzotti (Other Press, 2017)

I can’t remember where I read a prompt to get this book, but I’m glad I bought it. It tells how the German titans of industry were co-opted by Hitler, and the cutting prose is right on. Vuillard speaks of the first time Goering met with them: “Suddenly, the doors creaked, the floorboards groaned; sounds of talking in the anteroom. The twenty-four lizards rose to their hind legs and stood stiffly.” Among the lizards were Gustav Krupp (steel), Georg von Schnitzler (dyes, chemicals), and August Rostberg (potash and oil), and one with the improbable name, Hans von Loewenstein zu Loewenstein (mining). Today, we know their companies as BASF, Bayer, Agfa, Opel, IG Farben, Siemens, Allianz, and Telefunken.

Vuillard tracks them and other of Hitler’s dupes and stooges on through the war, where some of them “employed” Holocaust Jews. At war’s end, some showed up in the Nuremberg trials. He also chronicles the way in which Hitler put his compliant officials in place in Austria before his invasion in March of 1935. (I was surprised to read that the Anschluss was an embarrassing mess since a bunch of German vehicles, including tanks, broke down on the way. Crowds gathered in the Austrian towns to greet them were kept waiting and waiting.)

Vuillard is culturally savvy, weaving references to philosophers (Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling) and composers (Haydn and Britten) into his narrative. And he covers the pathetic Brits, with Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, encouraged by Lord Halifax, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who observed at the time, “Nationalism and Racialism is a powerful force, but I can’t feel it’s either unnatural or immoral,” adding later, “I cannot myself doubt that these fellows are haters of Communism, etc. And I daresay if we were in their position, we might feel the same.”

Vuillard pulls no punches in his highly readable and informative account of the nasty doings by and for Hitler and his vile crew.