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Thursday, March 6,2014

Book reviews: Notes from Neil

A Couple of Classics

by Neil Rajala

Thursday, Mar. 6 — The time changes this weekend, can Spring be far behind? As nice as it's been to sit in a comfortable chair reading by the fireplace on these frigid evenings, I'm also remembering how nice it is to read on my sunny back deck, cold drink at the ready and wearing an offensively loud tropical shirt. Here's what we're reading:



ELMER GANTRY

Sinclair Lewis

Movie buffs may remember the film adaptation of this wonderful book, as it won Oscars for its star, Burt Lancaster, and co-star Shirley Jones back in 1960. What you may not know is that the movie was based on a mere 100 pages of Mr. Lewis' nearly 400-page novel. There's so much more to the story, which was considered so shocking when it was published in the 1920s the author was threatened with imprisonment and invited to attend his own lynching.

The book's era was a time in American history when a battle for souls was being waged between ultra-conservative Christian denominations (who also held great political influence) and the rising traveling tent-show evangelists whose motives were often as much financial as spiritual. The clash between the piousness and hypocrisy of the time is captured perfectly in the character of Elmer. His passions for salvation and self-interest are equally strong, but his character isn't sophisticated enough to understand their inherent conflict, and his natural gift for public oratory is a perfect screen for his ruthlessness off-pulpit. He's a rationalizing sinner who can't tolerate sin in others, while fully convinced he's setting an example for his congregation to follow. Mr. Lewis claimed to have visited many towns and cities to listen to people talk while preparing to write Elmer Gantry, and that's the book's other great delight - the accuracy of speech of all levels of 1920s American society, from dirt-poor farmer to wealthy politician - a moving snapshot of a specific era. An undeniable classic.



ROADFOOD: 9TH EDITION
Jane and Michael Stern

Someday the snow will be gone. Someday our temperatures will be above freezing again. And someday, we'll be planning and taking summer road trips again. The Sterns created the bible for finding great eats wherever you go in the USA back in 1977 and this week brings the 9th Edition - the first update since 2011. Pack it in the car whichever direction you're headed, and you'll be able to find the best local restaurants, bakeries and diners, while avoiding the boring, mind- (and taste bud) numbing franchises. Stopping to eat becomes part of your road adventure, rather than a distraction from it. kobo eBook



THE UNPERSUADABLES
Will Storr

When I first picked this book up, I thought it was going to be another "debunker" read, explaining why folks who believe scientifically unsupportable ideas like Young Earth, Holocaust denial, past-life regresssion, etc. are wrong. It turned out to be much more compelling than that.

Mr. Storr traveled the world to meet with the leading exponents of these ideas and found them to be educated, intelligent and charismatic people. His attempt to understand how such people could passionately believe in things that fly in the face of readily available evidence found him not only interviewing the subjects at length, but delving into the cutting-edge of psychology and neuroscience. His research lead him to the ways in which we all err in the creation of our unique internal landscapes that enable us to make sense of the world and our place in it. The similarities, not the differences, between his subjects and what we'd call "normal" people are the surprising key to this fascinating book.

An interesting tidbit picked up from NPR recently: I never knew why the world-famous Book of World Records was associated with Guinness, the venerable Irish brewery. Turns out violent arguments and fights were common in early 20th century Irish pubs, often over matters of disputed facts. The folks at Guinness produced the first volume, and provided nearly every pub in Ireland with a copy as a way to keep patrons calm and drinking, thus increasing the sales of their product. It was a rousing success, and the book became the world standard reference for impressive (and oddball) human achievement.

Until next week,


Neil

NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.

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