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Tuesday, August 20, 2013


SATURDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2013 IS FILLED UP, but we still have openings on 



The Man Who Would  Be King by Rudyard Kipling is the story we will discuss in the morning.  After lunch we will view the movie of the same name.  This story is available in many editions, print, e-books, or online.  It is only 25 to 35 pages long.

This is a one day mini-retreat at Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, 1006 Washington St., Calistoga, CA 94515 707-942-6269  Register for Sunday on the form below.  We have limited space available and we expect this event to fill up soon.  Saturday fills up sooner so if you can make it on Sunday that would be great.  Please register as soon as you can.  Calistoga is a lovely small town at the northern end of the Napa Valley at the foot of Mt. St. Helena.  You are on your own for lunch.  There are many excellent restaurants and delis in town, but no fast food, it’s against the law. 

Plan to arrive around 9am.  We will have breakfast available if you need something to start the day.  We will discuss the story beginning at 10am for two hours and break for lunch.  In the afternoon we will watch the movie and have a short discussion after that.  We will close the day with some cheese and a sip of wine and be finished by around 5pm.

This story, one of Kipling’s best, describes the journey of two half-mad yet determined Englishmen from obscurity in India to divine rule in far-off Kafiristan. They smuggle themselves into Afghanistan, steal mules when their camels give out, trek over vast mountains, and one sets himself up as a god-king of the more primitive locals.  Soon, they are discovered to be only human. A great adventure story.

The movie, directed by John Huston, stars Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, and Saeed Jaffrey.  It received Oscars for Art-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material.

Cost: $30.00 per person.

For a printable registration form to be mailed with a check CLICK HERE.

To register online and pay by credit card through PayPal or by check:

Monday, August 19, 2013


NOVEMBER 2-3, 2013

and new registration deadline:  September 30, 2013

This year, the Great Books Poetry Weekend will be held at Vallombrosa Center in Menlo Park.  It is a beautiful, peaceful, enclosed ten acre site shaded by trees from all over the world.  Every room has a private bathroom:  single occupancy rooms are also available; there are no dormitory-style rooms. 

As usual, we will have our Saturday evening pre-dinner wine and cheese party and after dinner party with interactive entertainment.  All meeting rooms are accessible via 8 stair steps.

The price for the whole package will be the same at Vallombrosa as it was at Westminster last year:  $175.00 per person based on a double-occupancy room, except this year your room will have its own bathroom.  Single occupancy rooms are also available for $189.00 with your own twin bed and your own private bathroom.  Vallombrosa does not give as much of a price break for commuters as was possible at Westminster; regrettably, those not staying overnight will have to pay $154.00 per person.

The registration deadline is somewhat earlier than last year as Vallombrosa has to have payment in full by September 30, 2013 so don’t let this application slip into the lower strata of that paper embankment on your desk.  Send it in now.  More information is available on the registration form on our website or CLICK HERE to go directly to the registration form.  Please note:  The registration deadline for this event has changed to September 30, 2013.  We have a few spots left.

This year's poetry selections:

Saturday Morning:  Proverbs and Axioms:
The Imperfect Paradise by Linda Pastan; The Calf Path by Sam Walter Foss; Proverb by Kenneth Koch; Home to Roost by Kay Ryan; On His Blindness by John Milton; The Lumberjacks by Linda Pastan.

Saturday Afternoon:  Our Animal Nature:
The Owl by Ted Hughes; 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens; The Horses by Edwin Muir; The Centaur by May Swenson; The Fish, The Man and the Spirit by Leigh Hunt; Reading the Body by Jenny Bornholdt.

Sunday Morning:  Men and Women:
The Imagined by Stephen Dunn; Privilege of Being by Robert Hass; Observations by Hilaire Kirkland; Eros Turannos by Edwin Arlington Robinson; Toes by Raymond Carver; Love Songs in Age by Philip Larkin.

                             REGISTRATION DEADLINE

 IS SEPTEMBER 30, 2013

Sunday, June 2, 2013

For Leaders and Readers

For some time now we have been considering creating a means to communicate with discussion leaders in Northern California to support them with ideas about forming and maintaining Great Books groups and provide a forum for leaders and readers to communicate with us and others.  This is in addition to the excellent Leader/Reader Workshop held by Kay White and her crew in March every year.  For several years we have been starting GB discussion groups in San Francisco and they are all doing well.  We now have seven groups where there was one previously, but that is a subject for another article.  We hope what we do here will be of use to discussion leaders and the readers who participate in discussion groups.
Shetland Library/Church

Leaders ask questions to hold discussions.  Readers ask questions of what they read as part of the skeptical attitude they should employ while attempting to understand.  Here is a simple exercise, almost no reading required.  The building in the photo is a library in Shetland in the north of the British Isles.  It used to be a church.  Come up with some questions regarding a church being changed into a library.  I’ll start:  Has the mind of Man replaced the mind of God?  If so, why?  How?  Do Man and God cohabit the building?  How?  OK, so my questions are lame.  Come up with your own.  Write a short story or scenario in your mind and question it.  Use your imagimation.  Einstein reminded us that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Write something down considering the simple idea of a church becoming a library.  In a recent article in The Great Books Foundation Blog by Sharon Crowley titled Does Writing Improve Reading? she relates that William Faulkner was once asked how to improve one’s writing, to which he replied “Read, read, read! Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; . . .”  According to a Carnegie Corporation report, it is also beneficial when learning to read well to write, write, write.  But, that is what the GBF has been doing with the Junior Great Books for decades.  The article is well worth a read.  Click on the underlined title above.

Write something about tne simple idea of a church becoming a library and come up with interpretive or evaluative questions.  Write something using poetry, philosophy, psychology, history, religion, literature, community development, recycling, or sustainability.  Sustainability?  What does that have to do with Great Books?  We will examine that question in the next issue of our GBSF E-Newsletter and this Blog with Sustainable Development: What would Aristotle do?

Whatever you come up with, send it to me and we'll report it.  Just reply to the E-Newsletter or email me at or post it in the Post a Comment section below.

The photo above is from who works, travels, takes photos.  He works on a crew that moves drilling rigs and living quarters around the North  Sea taking photos when he can.  To view an interactive, larger photo in black and white or color, CLICK HERE.  If you click on the photo there it will enlarge for closer inspection.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Weekend of Great Books at Asilomar

(This article is from the Harrison Middleton University Blog.)
Friday, May 31, 2013 at 8:18AM | Alissa Simon (Tutor)

Thank you to Dominique Wagner, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I recently attended the Great Books weekend at Asilomar near Monterey, CA. As it was my first foray into one of these retreats, I thought I might share with you some of the things I found most surprising.

The Participants

I would have expected a lot of educators, mixed in with maybe a few retirees. But this group --some of whom have been in attendance every April for more than 50 years -- was very dynamic in their diversity. Doctors, judges, artists, life-long housewives, business executives, one woman I was convinced I had seen singing & dancing in an old film. There were only two common denominators 1) a love of reading and discussing great books (a given in these circles), and 2) age. My companion and I were by far the youngest in attendance and actually something of a novelty.

Spending the weekend surrounded by these members of the "greatest generation" was amazing. Their collective wealth of experience, the perspectives they brought to their interpretations of the works we studied, even their extensive familiarity with shared inquiry -- they have so much to teach for a group that is not comprised of educators! And they are fun too. You could have knocked me over with a feather when a retired businessman pushing 70 burst into song as he read aloud the part of The Fool in KING LEAR! The wrap-up party showcased wine & the participants musical talents, including a fantastic rendition of "Cabaret." It concluded with a late-night wine & cheese after party that did not end until well after midnight when some other guests of the inn complained about the noise. These people really know how to have a good time!

The Setting

Asilomar is a historic and beautiful facility located on the ocean in Pacific Grove a few miles from Monterrey. It has extensive grounds dotted with small living quarters and conference rooms ranging from intimate to grand. All the meals are included and served three times daily, family style in a large dining hall. It reminded me of my old summer camp, but in a good way. The land directly adjacent to Asilomar holds a very posh resort and golf course (a la The Ritz -- we are in Pebble Beach country after all). So imagine my surprise that the cost for our weekend away, lodging, meals, registration, books, the works, was only about $400 per person. I bet you can't get one night in the broom closet with a stale cracker for that price at the resort next door! Why this retreat and others like it aren't more popular, I don't know!

In conclusion, I will admit that not all of the Great Books retreats are held steps from one of the most beautiful beaches in California. Some might cost more, some may be even less. Not all may boast of such a diverse group of participants (although I bet there are characters a plenty in every setting!). But for sure, several of the regional groups do offer weekends that showcase their respective areas of the country (The Great Books Council of San Francisco, host of Asilomar, offers links to other regional groups on their website I strongly encourage you to get out there and explore these wonderful opportunities, to meet like-minded individuals who want to not only read and discuss the Great Books but share an experience while doing so. I am already looking forward to my next time --maybe I'll see you

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Gold Country Nonfiction Mini-Retreat Report

Yesterday, we had a glorious, warm spring day in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range at the very quiet Mercy Center Retreat.  We were hosted by the Auburn Great Books discussion group with Donna Reynolds providing a delightful, comical musical interlude and sing along of music from the pre WWII period right after lunch.  (Click on photos to enlarge.)
Group 1

Group 2
 In the morning we formed two groups to discuss Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts which mainly covers the period 1933-34 in Germany as Hitler’s Nazi party consolidates its power and control over the German state and its people.  There is plenty of politics here, in Germany and between various power hungry officials, and in the United States, Roosevelt’s administration, the State Department, and in the embassies.  The book relates the activities of William Dodd, newly appointed U. S. Ambassador to Germany, and his fun loving (to put it mildly, this is a family friendly publication) daughter, Martha.  Ambassador Dodd, a history professor by trade, is a misfit as an ambassador and is at odds with those in the Pretty Good Club of officials in the U. S. State Department from the beginning.  He and Martha initially look for some good to come from the Nazis, but they eventually realize (especially after the “Night of the Long Knives" slaughter) that their optimism was little more than hope which is not much of a strategy in opposing the rising evil of the Jew-hating Hitler and his henchmen.  Even after he accepts the judgment of the U. S. Consul Messersmith, who saw early on the danger of the Nazi’s brutal power grabbing, Dodd is unable to convince the State Department or Roosevelt to adopt a stronger, more deliberate stance opposing the Nazi regime.  He is eventually replaced by a more compliant member of the State Department who implements the attitude of appeasement desired by Washington while Dodd returns to the U. S. and engages, as a private citizen, in a strong campaign of lectures and appearances warning of the rising danger in Europe.

Martha Dodd
The side story of his daughter, Martha, and her series of illicit affairs (several going on simultaneously, she was an accomplished juggler sometimes playing one lover against another) with correspondents, writers, Nazi officials, French ambassadorial staff, a Russian spy, etc. is the story of a supposedly intelligent, talented (in more ways than one, she wants to be a writer) young woman with monumentally bad judgment.  After her disillusionment with the Nazis she travels to Russia and begins spying for the Soviets which she continues even after she returns to the U. S.  In our discussion of the book we thought there was not enough attention paid to the relationship and communication between Martha and her father, the ambassador, who seems to have been unaware of her sexual activities while living in the same house.  If you are interested, CLICK HERE for a film depicting 1930’s Berlin including a brief clip that featured Martha Dodd and her friend and likely one-time lover, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl.  The clip is at 09:10 in the film just after the clip of Hitler and Himmler walking at an airfield.  Be sure to click on the opposing arrows symbol at the lower right of the film to view it full screen.

Discussing the film.

In the afternoon, we viewed the film Cabaret.  This is a must see if you haven’t already seen it.  It takes place in Berlin about the same time period as the history book we discussed in the morning.  It won several Academy Awards and there are several narratives within the film that we explored after the viewing.  Besides the story of the main characters there is the anti-Semitism, decadence, high-living, and the propaganda and brutality of the Nazi takeover of Germany as it took place in Berlin and the rest of the country, and some great music and dancing.  All in all, an excellent film.

One comment I heard from several people, and with which I fully agree, was that WWII was avoidable if only the Western Democracies had stood up to the autocrats and dictators that gathered power during the 1930’s.

Many thanks go to Auburn Great Books for their excellent choices of a book and a movie about one of the most important periods of the Twentieth Century that worked so well together and special thanks to Ginni Saunders and Paula Weinberger, our discussion leaders.  Ten of us got together for dinner in Old Town Auburn before heading home, a perfect ending to a great day!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Long Novel Weekend


August 24-25, 2013 at Vallombrosa Center in Menlo Park

The book:  Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Call me Ishmael.  I will be your guide and storyteller on this excursion to the far flung oceans of the world in search of the mighty leviathans of the sea.  We’ll assemble at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford and meet our friend Queequeg the harpooner, then on to Nantucket to sign on to the Pequod, the captain of that vessel, Ahab, bearing a striking resemblance to Gregory Peck.  But, enough for now, I am getting ahead of myself.

Save this weekend,  August 24-25, to discuss a truly Great Book.  We will have three two-hour discussions and Saturday evening we are fortunate to have Professor Samuel Otter of the University of California, Berkeley speak to us followed by a question and answer session.  Professor Otter’s research and teaching focus on nineteenth-century United States literature.  He is a specialist on Herman Melville’s writing.

If you missed last year’s Long Novel Weekend (Dickens’ David Copperfield) don’t make the same mistake this year.  Vallombrosa Center is a quiet, beautiful place with excellent facilities and food.  Join us for a great weekend and great discussions.

For more information and a registration form CLICK HERE.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Great Books Council of San Francisco Annual Meeting and Picnic


Sunday, June 9, 2013, 12 noon to 3 pm
Tilden Park's Padre Picnic Area

Ready for some Barbecue?  I am sure Chef Brent will be manning the grill.  Bring something you like to grill: sausage, fish, shrimp, beef, chicken, pork, veggies, garlic bread, or an ear of corn in the husk or wrapped in foil, delicious.  I like a chicken breast marinated in teriyaki sauce in a zip-lok sandwich bag.  In addition bring your own beverage, paper plate and utensils and a dish to share with four others.  We always have plenty of food so nobody goes hungry.
View of SF and Golden Gate from Grizzly Peak Blvd.  Click on photos to enlarge.
 It’s a good idea to bring a folding chair (to gather into groups for the book discussion), sunscreen and a sun hat.  Laura Bushman, our event coordinator, always manages to order a warm, sunny day with a cooling breeze to go along with the greenery and ambiance of the Padre Picnic area at Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley hills.  CLICK HERE for an information sheet with directions to the picnic area.  CLICK HERE for a park map (Padre Picnic Area is slightly to the upper right of the center of the map).

After a short business meeting,  We will separate into smaller groups to discuss Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.  A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting.  The Sense of an Ending has the psychological and emotional depth and sophistication of Henry James at his best, and is a stunning new chapter in Julian Barnes' oeuvre.

This intense novel follows Tony Webster, a middle-aged man, as he contends with a past he never thought much about---until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance:  one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present.  Tony thought he left this all behind as he built a life for himself, and his career has provided him with a secure retirement and an amicable relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, who now has a family of her own.  But when he is presented with a mysterious legacy, he is forced to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.

“Elegant, playful, and remarkable.” —The New Yorker

“A page-turner, and when you finish you will return immediately to the beginning.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Dense with philosophical ideas. . . . It manages to create genuine suspense as a sort of psychological detective story.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Brief, beautiful. . . . That fundamentally chilling question—Am I the person I think I am?—turns out to be a surprisingly suspenseful one. . . . As Barnes so elegantly and poignantly reveals, we are all unreliable narrators, redeemed not by the accuracy of our memories but by our willingness to question them." —The Boston Globe.

Join us for a fun time in the park and a book discussion.  If you have any questions contact Laura Bushman at

Monday, April 29, 2013

Fourth Gold Country Nonfiction Mini-Retreat

Presented by the Great Books Council of San Francisco
May 11, 2013, Mercy Center in Auburn, CA

The Auburn Great Books group invites you to discuss Erik Larson’s award-winning nonfiction novel of an American family in Berlin during Hitler’s rise.

Larson’s story reads like a thriller with compelling historic detail. In the Garden of Beasts is a vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler’s reign, brought to life through the stories of two people: William E. Dodd, who in 1933 became America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s regime, and his scandalously carefree daughter, Martha. Ambassador Dodd, an unassuming and scholarly man, is an odd fit among the extravagance of the Nazi elite. His frugality annoys his fellow Americans in the State Department and Dodd’s growing misgivings about Hitler’s ambitions fall on deaf ears among his peers, who are content to “give Hitler everything he wants.” Martha, on the other hand, is mesmerized by the glamorous parties and the high-minded conversation of Berlin’s salon society—and flings herself headlong into numerous affairs with the city’s elite, most notably the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy. Both become players in the exhilarating (and terrifying) story of Hitler’s obsession for absolute power, which culminates in the events of one murderous night, later known as “the Night of Long Knives.” The rise of Nazi Germany is a well-chronicled time in history, which makes In the Garden of Beasts all the more remarkable. Erik Larson has crafted a gripping, deeply-intimate narrative with a climax that reads like the best political thriller, where we are stunned with each turn of the page, even though we already know the outcome. ---Shane Hansanuwat

We meet at the Mercy Center, 535 Sacramento Street, Auburn, CA 95603. Check-in on
Saturday, May 11th at 9:30 a.m. Book discussion is from 10 a.m. to noon. Lunch is served on location, and is included in the $35 registration. After lunch, the academy award-winning film, Cabaret, will be viewed and discussed.  The film stars Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, with Bob Fosse directing the film and music. We conclude by 4:30 p.m.

Take this opportunity to see California’s historic gold country when the hills and gardens are at their greenest. Donna Reynolds, Auburn Registrar, has recommendations for local motels and restaurants, and she usually offers a piano medley to our day.

Saturday, May 11, 2013, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm.  Cost:  $35 per person including lunch.  For more information call Donna at (916) 797-8561 or go to .  For a registration form CLICK HERE.