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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Great Books in Wine Country 2012

The book and movie:  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Yes, there is still time to register and read the book before the day of the event.  As we were always over full in past years, we have added another day for this Mini-Retreat.  You may sign up for either Saturday or Sunday.  The same event format will be held each day.  We still have some room on either day for more participants, but Saturday is almost full.  There is more room on Sunday.

More information is available below by clicking on a date.  You will be taken to a page with full information on the book and film and how to order the book to receive it right away if you wish.  If you haven't read it before, Huckleberry Finn is an easy and fun read and the film we will view is the 1939 version starring Mickey Rooney.

Click below on the date you wish to attend:

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Long Novel Weekend 2012 Recap

Good discussions, good leaders, good participants, good accommodations, good food, and good weather all combined for a great weekend discussing Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.  This year we met at Vallombrosa Retreat Center in Menlo Park, a very quiet, peaceful setting encouraging thought and discussion.  I must admit that while I missed the remote and rustic atmosphere of our previous LNW location, the availability of private rooms at Vallombrosa is a definite improvement over the dormitory rooms at Walker Creek Ranch. 

The discussion rooms provided had plenty of light and good acoustics.  There is very little walking to do as our rooms, dining hall, meeting rooms, and parking are centralized.  And there is plenty of room to walk, strolling through the lushly landscaped grounds.  Louise DiMattio informs us that next year we have exclusive use of Vallombrosa so we will have room for more participants.

Many thanks go to our leaders who all received excellent ratings: Jennifer Anderson, Chris Hammer, Jim Hall, Louise DiMattio, Rudy Johnson, Claudia O'Callaghan, Sheri Kinsvater and Louise Morgan.  Special thanks to Breda Courthey for being backup leader for all three sessions and for providing Plum Pudding Flambe and sweets for Saturday night.  And a hearty thanks to our event coordinator Louise DiMattio and registrar Tracy Oliver for organizing such a successful weekend.

Anew participant at Long Novel Weekend, Jim Baird, wrote two excellent reports:  A report on the discussions, click here, and a report on the talk delivered by our Saturday evening guest speaker Jane Smiley, click here.

LNW 2012 --- Dickens Weekend

What the heck are we going to talk about?
by Jim Baird

Here’s some math about long novels: An 882-page book like David Copperfield can be read in two months if you have a normal life, one month if you read 30 pages every day (no weekends off), and one week if you do nothing--absolutely nothing--else. All this reading, and the caffeine you’ve probably consumed with it, produces a serious side effect: you’ve urgently got to talk to someone about what you’ve read. No one can hope to process thirty hours of Dickensian England without some help. Like the character of Agnes in David Copperfield, the Long Novel Weekend was there to listen and offer wisdom.

We met Saturday morning, August 17th, at Vallombrosa retreat center, a quiet ten-acre estate in Menlo Park, just a couple of miles from Stanford Stadium. The format was perfect for the kind of discussion we described above. The larger group was divided into six, and we met three times, so two groups combined for each session. Each session was two hours. How far did we get in our six-hours of trading ideas? Thanks to good questions from the group leaders, and equally good answers from everyone, we travelled with David Copperfield from youth to maturity, experiencing Victorian England as eyewitnesses. The following three paragraphs, one for each session, are taken from this writer’s session notes. They represent one listener’s experience and memories, and so they’re limited in scope and somewhat free-form.

Session 1: Chapters 1 to 18 (Saturday Morning)
What does it take to give someone a good start in life? Since David is writing this “autobiography,” we know some things about him right away: he’s survived, and he’s become an accomplished writer. The question is, how did he get there? Who helped him? What shaped him? So many characters appear in the novel that they could constitute the population of a town, and they represent Victorian society, or as much as can be seen from the middle-class boy’s point of view at the center of the story.
Life is full of Murdstones , Steerforths, Uriah Heeps, the people who take advantage of us, maybe wish us harm; It’s a tribute to Dickens’ skills, especially with dialogue, that we recognize these people in our own lives. We all can also think of Peggoty, Betsey, Dr. Strong who provide safety and a sense of family. The one character central to David’s success and survival: Peggoty, who fills the place left vacant by David’s deceased parents. In fact, without the women, David wouldn’t have made it. Family, in all its variety, is perhaps the major theme of the book, and it’s David’s salvation. This novel is optimistic about people. It’s also awfully funny.

Session 2: Chapters 19 to 38 (Saturday afternoon)
David is age 17 and out of school. It’s time to become an adult. Dickens captures perfectly the awkwardness and comedy of a post-adolescent young man trying to figure out the adult world, and getting taken advantage of at every turn. Steerforth is his mentor, a master raconteur and man-about-town, who gets David to host a dinner party and alcohol-fueled trip to the theater, culminating in a funny, classic drunk scene. It’s easy to spot Dickens’ theater training in all this. Here also are the “fallen” women: Rosa with her scar and anger, Annie who is falsely suspected of adultery, Martha who seeks work in London but finds prostitution; Emily, who runs off with Steerforth—he seems to be the main character in this section—after he learned sailing in order to be close to her; he’s a man with some sense of his destructive character, but with no desire to change. Then, unforgettably, we have Miss Mowcher, a dwarf who must be the least-inhibited, most fearless character in the book. There were probably a lot of Mowchers in Victorian England, self-propelled and unconcerned with others’ opinions, bringing life and homemade medicine (and hair restoration) to people.

Section 3: Chapter 39 to End of Book (Sunday morning)
Dickens as theater man again: this section is like the third act of a play. It begins with Dora, who dies a woman-child, like Clara did at the beginning. Traddles comes into his own in this section, a schoolmate like Steerforth, but generous, self-controlled, competent. We see in this section the idea of the “mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart,” a comment of Annie Strong’s that provides an explanation for much of the mischief in the novel. The undisciplined heart, possibly the libido (Freud was an admirer of Dickens), the inner chemistry that, unguided, leads us astray. Dora, childish as she is, has excellent self-knowledge. In a Victorian marriage, unsuitability is the biggest problem; marry an unsuitable person and you’re stuck. But the Micawber’s marriage is an example, and a lesson, in how perseverance can lead on to victory, and that people can change.  We’re not completely the product of our environment. After all, it is Micawber, the deadbeat, who builds the case against Heep, and then goes off to a new life in Australia. A final note: Dickens the novelist, using David’s voice, breaks through now and then to assure his audience that everything is going to work out. For example, Agnes tells David at one point that she isn’t going to marry Uriah Heep. Not to worry, she says; Dickens is telling us the same thing.

There you have it. For those who attended the Weekend, I hope these notes add to your memories. If you couldn’t make it this time, I think you’ll agree that such reading, and discussing, is time very well spent. Heck, let’s do it again next year.

LNW 2012 --- Loving Charles Dickens

Saturday Evening With Jane Smiley

by Jim Baird

It’s Saturday night, and we’ve got a date with Charles Dickens. We’ve read his David Copperfield, loved it, and now it’s time to meet the man himself.  Fortunately, we have a chaperone.  Jane Smiley, herself the author of thirteen novels (one a Pulitzer winner), loves Charles Dickens, too, and knows him well. In fact, one of her non-fiction books is an easy-to-read Dickens biography. She’s the perfect choice to introduce us to this Victorian gentleman.

The evening unfolded this way: some preliminary remarks and background, then questions from the audience. Since this was my first Long Novel event, I got some first-date jitters at this point. Almost nine hundred pages should provide enough material for a thousand questions, but I couldn’t think of even one. Fortunately, some veteran attendees knew what to ask, and Ms. Smiley’s answers were humorous and cogent. Good answers make for good questions, and the ninety minutes were over too soon.
There isn’t space to report all the Q and A, but in the summary below you’ll see a few samples.

To Begin: Some Recommendations
The reader who would like to experience the essential Dickens, and who would like a sense of his development as a novelist, should make it a point to read these titles, in order:

David Copperfield (a comic masterpiece)
Great Expectations (a darker masterpiece)
Dombey and Son (Her favorite)
A Tale of Two Cities (a look at good and evil)
Our Mutual Friend (Dickens’ perfect novel)

For those who would like to read more about Dickens himself, a deluxe edition of John Forster’s early biography—Forster was a Dickens friend and editor—has just been re-issued with period illustrations and engravings from the novels, pictures and material from other books. A really beautiful piece of work. Also, the Oxford Companion to Dickens is a great read. These two titles are a good introduction into the many shelves of Dickens scholarship that have been written over the 150 years since his death (he lived 1812 – 1870).

Some Dickens Facts
As a youngster he was healthy, not a big guy, fun to be around but not malicious, noticeably smart, deliberately informal in his wardrobe. Friends talked about how young Charles would make up his own lingo or pretend to speak as a foreigner, just for fun. He loved words. He would also tell made-up-on-the-spot tales on walks with friends.

 Most of the pictures we have of Dickens show him not smiling, and the same with his paintings. How so? He was known for his good nature and “merry look,” after all. Novelists weren’t respected at the time; in fact the quality of novels written after Walter Scott’s death in 1820 until Dickens got up to speed in 1835 was lousy. Charles wanted to make novel writing “respectable,” so he couldn’t afford to be seen laughing. Dickens’ books marked a turning point, from country settings and themes (in George Eliot, for example) to the gritty urban stuff that’s familiar even today.

Dickens was also a keen observer of people. His parents loved to put on family shows, so he was making up dialogue and coming up with characters as soon as he could walk. This training, along with amazing listening and verbal skills, make Dickens the best writer in English other than Shakespeare at representing people’s speech. We hear actual people’s voices in Dickens.

Questions and Answers
Q.          Was Dora, David’s “child wife,” an autobiographical character?
A.         The character of Dora is a fantasy figure, made up by Dickens. There was, however, such a girl in Dickens’ life, someone he met during his stint as a stenographer at Parliament. He learned shorthand after he left school, and he was pretty good at it, so in his late teens he was hired to record speeches. She was interested in young Charles, and he in her, but her dad was opposed; this young man wasn’t going anywhere, as far as he was concerned, so that was that.

         When the book came out, she remembered him, and got in touch. When they met again, it was a disappointment; she was shallow, a non-stop talker, no longer pretty or young. Interestingly, she re-appears as the character Flora in Little Dorrit, with the traits above, but also with a kind nature, and she’s the wisest character in the book.

Q.         Was Dickens good company?
A.         Yes, as mentioned above, also a great observer and eavesdropper. This began early in life, and he got so good at it that people who met him for the first time felt “scanned,” and “pinned like butterflies.” He was quick to pick up on things, too.

         He would walk amazingly (to us) long distances every day, sometimes as many as 30 miles, and he’d observe and eavesdrop the whole time, getting material for his stories.

Q.         Wasn’t Dickens a kind of provocateur in his time, a troublemaker?
A.         London in 1824 to 1832 was a real sewer, a city of nice enclaves surrounded by filth. Think of Mumbai in India today for a modern comparison. For example, graveyards would overflow with bodies, and nothing was done about it. Dickens was an insomniac, and he would walk all over London at night, and in his walking he saw the horrors and injustice.

         A couple of things from his life helped him see things that other writers, George Eliot for example, never could. First, his family was sent to the poorhouse. They deserved the sentence but the experience opened his eyes. Second, he was sent to work in a blacking factory, putting labels on cans of shoe polish, an experience he never forgot, and that motivated him to find a better life. The other boys at the factory were stuck there; he could have been.

Q.         How did Dickens write? Lots of drafts?
A.         Forster, later his biographer, helped edit the work as Dickens produced it. But since his books were published in serial, the text could be improved before the sections were gathered into an actual book. So, Dickens didn’t have to get things right the first time; he wasn’t a perfectionist.

         However, he did throw himself into the writing. One day his daughter, age 7 at the time, was sick and home from school. She stayed with her dad as he worked, and watched while he would write at his desk, then jump up and go to a mirror, where he would act out dialogue and emotions, then rush back to the desk and write everything down. This was his acting side—he acted in many plays in London—and he let the feelings flow through into his writing. This may be unique to Dickens among English authors.       

Q.          Who was influenced by Dickens?
A.         Kafka and Tolstoy, for example, loved him. But Dickens fell from favor in the 20th century, to the point that his name didn’t appear on an authoritative list of great novelists published in the late 1940s. He was known and remembered at that point as a “children’s author.” As a result of efforts by the UC Santa Cruz “Dickens Project” in the 1960s, his reputation rebounded. Some times when an author dies, people say, “Thank goodness.” They’ve had enough. So, a reputation can fade for a few decades. We’ve seen this happen recently with Jane Austen. In fact, in Dickens time the comeback kid was Shakespeare! For an author, the hope is to stay in print, even digital, so people can revive the work, eventually.

Q.          What about Jane Smiley? Any books in the works?
A.         Always.
She’s got a current project based on her grandfather. It’s about a genius, based on Mare Island when it was still active, who goes wrong, then disproves Einstein.
Also, a kids’ novel about a character who brings horses to California from Oklahoma.
And, a trilogy of adult novels.

We finished the evening with wine and plum pudding. The pudding, fittingly enough, resembled a Dickens novel: large, colorful, and rich.

Great Books in Gold Country 2012

John Adams comes to Auburn

David McCullough’s John Adams was read for the third annual Gold Country Mini-Retreat. It was held at Auburn’s Mercy Center on May 19.  Each year the Gold Country event features a non-fiction book and its movie.  This year it was the first GBSF program we can recall where a biography was featured. 

Bridge on trail at Mercy Center
Thirty-three participated.  They were assigned their own building for the day’s activities. Some guessed this was because Great Books participants tend to be both noisier and more ribald than others at a retreat.

The Mercy Center served an excellent lunch.  Donna Reynolds, coordinator of the event, introduced the afternoon program by singing a rousing patriotic medley at the piano. 

To our friends in Auburn who produce this excellent event every year, we recommend Delanceyplace, a daily email service that features excerpts from non-fiction books.  Delanceyplace may prove to be a source for possible selections for future events.  For more information and a link directly to the Delanceyplace web page click on the name listed in Useful Links at the right of this blog.


I have been receiving daily emails from Delanceyplace for about a year now and, while I don’t always have time to read them, they have proven to be more than just entertaining.  They are often enlightening and can lead me to invest some serious effort following up on ideas, facts, and books presented.  These are especially good for readers of non-fiction hence I recomment subscribing (it's free) to our friends in Auburn who produce the GBSF Gold Country Mini-Retreat every year in Springtime with non-fiction selections.  Here is a brief description from the Delanceyplace web page:

“Delanceyplace is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.”

One of the more interesting excerpts to me was from Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich by Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen about the Louisiana Purchase.  Here is part of the excerpt:

“To pay the purchase price and acquire good title, Gallatin (Secretary of the Treasury) had to pay Napoleon the full price in cash up front.  As a distressed dictator desperate for cash, the little Corsican was not about to ‘hold the mortgage.’  And Gallatin had on hand only about one quarter of the cash needed to make the purchase.  He therefore floated a bond issue through the Dutch banking house of Hope and Company, which promptly sold it to Baring Brothers, a British investment bank.  Alexander Baring worked closely with Gallatin for five months in Washington to finalize the details.  Although the two financiers formed a friendship, the price tag on the bond issue bothered Gallatin.  He realized, however, that the port of New Orleans would increase federal revenues some $200,000 a year.  Moreover, Gallatin and other Republicans must have savored the irony of British investors lending money to vastly increase the power of their former colonies and to replenish the coffers of Britain’s arch enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte.”  So British bankers indirectly financed Napoleon’s war against the British Crown. 

If you wish to buy a book from which an excerpt is featured there is a link to Amazon to do so.  Any profits of Delanceyplace are donated to charity.  It is easy to unsubscribe if you decide you do not want the emails after trying them for awhile.  They use the same e-newsletter service we do, Constant Contact.  For more information and to subscribe click here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Great Books Council of San Francisco Kiva Lending Team

$4,550.00 is the amount that has been loaned to people running their own small businesses around the world by the Great Books Council of San Francisco Kiva Lending Team.  So far we have seventeen members and have made loans to 182 borrowers in more than fifty countries around the world.


Susana Conde was one of the earliest members of GBSF to join our Kiva Lending Team.  So far she has made nineteen loans of $25.00 each to borrowers around the world.  To view Susana’s borrowers click here. 

One of Susana’s loans went to María Teresa, 45, who is married. She lives with her husband and children who are 16 and 1 year old in Guaranda Canton, Bolívar Province, Ecuador. María is a livestock merchant, farmer, and raises animals. Her husband works in construction. Purchases and sales take place in the Guaranda wholesale market. She used the loan to purchase heads of cattle, feed, and seeds for her fields. The loan helped her meet her economic needs and improve her quality of life. Her dream is to buy a piece of land. She enjoys doing household chores.  Maria borrowed $1,000.00 from Kiva lenders, including Susana, and she has paid it all back.

Join us on the GBSF Kiva Lending Team, click here, click on the orange button to join, and make a small loan of $25.00 to a deserving entrepreneur working to make a better life for themselves and family.