Sunday, December 27, 2015

“Clarissa; Or, The History Of A Young Lady”

In 1962, a columnist in the Florence, Alabama, Times wrote that “the longest popular novel ever published was ‘Clarissa Harlowe,’ turned out by Samuel Richardson in 1748. It ran to 984,870 words.” Proust wrote more, but the Penguin Classics print edition runs to 1500 pages of footnote-sized print, so it’s big.

Three years ago, your Biblio File columnist embarked on a journey to read that big book. I was intrigued by a study, published in 1994 by Chico State University English Professor Lois Bueler, called “Clarissa’s Plots” (out of print but available in selected libraries). Bueler contends that Richardson’s novel blends three kinds of plots, the Tested Woman Plot, the Don Juan Plot, and the Prudence Plot.

The plots thickened, indeed. But to appreciate Bueler, I had to read Richardson. Almost a thousand days ago I signed up for email excerpts from Daily Lit (, which has recently experienced technical issues). Every day, in my inbox, a thousand words of Clarissa. Which seemed fitting, since the book is an epistolary novel, told entirely in letters, mostly from near-saintly Clarissa Harlowe and her best friend, Anna Howe; and Robert Lovelace, a dashing rake and his best friend John Belford, a fellow libertine who would undergo an extraordinary “amendment” of his life.

Unwilling to marry the disgusting-but-rich Roger Solmes, Clarissa is duped by rival suitor Lovelace, runs away with him to avoid imminent violence, and is taken to a safe house. Which turns out to be Lovelace’s favorite brothel. She is drugged and raped, shunned by family and friends, and, mortified beyond measure, prepares for her death. Tragedies abound, even among the virtuous.

Richardson’s is a tale of moral instruction “in an age,” he writes, “given up to diversion and entertainment.” But his characters live, and breathe, and capture the heart. The action moves slowly (the great Dr. Johnson wrote: “if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself”) but is perfectly suited to bite-sized email. 

The last letter is dated December 18. And so the novel ends, and with it, the year. It is hard to say adieu.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"Hard And Clear"

Write about the hard things, Ernest Hemingway advised, and write clearly. When Jim Coons joined the pastoral staff at Chico’s Bidwell Presbyterian Church, he brought comfort and spiritual challenge to those under his care. When he was diagnosed with colon cancer he became the one who needed comfort.

A year later, “just before Christmas 2009 I was told that I was N.E.D. (No Evidence of Disease).” The story is told, through posts he made on the site, in “A Line In The Sand.” He wouldn’t let cancer define him.

But in the summer of 2010 his father died, from cancer, and in November he faced the news that his own cancer had returned. This would be the last battle, played out over the next five years in honest and eloquent CarePages entries now edited into book form.

“Hard And Clear” ($9.99 in paperback, self-published through Amazon CreateSpace) is the voice of Jim Coons, a husband and dad who tells it like it is. “While I still hold to the conviction that cancer doesn’t have the right to define me,” he writes, “it does, like a glacier, shape who I am and who I am becoming.” Cancer is “scarring and shaping me” and yet “I am still just Jim, a beloved Child of God.”

When a young friend died in 2013, Coons wrote: “I have concluded that it’s not supposed to be this way. But the truth of the matter is that it is this way.… We feel the pressure of our sadness and grief while at the same time the injustice of the world presses in on us too. I feel like I might just pop. This is exactly the place that the power and presence and goodness of God meet us.”

His last entry was in March of 2015, from Lake Tahoe: “God of all comfort and praise here I come, ready or not, exploding on the gates of heaven to sing and praise, rest and sleep, smile and rejoice, to dream once again.” He was at home when he died on Holy Saturday, April 4, 2015.

Because of Christ’s coming, he is now truly at home. And the fishing is great.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

“Lessons In Belonging From A Church-Going Commitment Phobe”

Erin Lane, who has friends in Chico, “works for the Seattle-based nonprofit Center for Courage and Renewal as an assistant program director for clergy and congregational leader programs.” She’s also a millennial (a generation “born between 1982 and 2004”) who has struggled with how to be part of a community, especially a local church.

Out of her experiences has come “Lessons In Belonging From A Church-Going Commitment Phobe” ($16 in paperback from InterVarsity Press; also for Amazon Kindle). “Mine is a story,” she writes, “of trying to belong to the church, to my husband, friends and strangers, too. It’s a story about enduring community when it’s awkward, when small talk suffocates and the preacher gives bad sermons and the suffering of others is intrusive. It’s about choosing to trust people, not because they’ve earned it but because you want to.”

She writes about “the rituals of belonging in a particular iteration of mainline, evangelical, American Protestantism. Although my experiences are unique to me as a woman, a white person, an introvert, a Midwesterner and a millennial, I hope to offer some insight into broader patterns of belonging,” especially “what it tells us about the God who has the audacity to call us ‘my people.’”

She spent her time in graduate school “speed dating” local churches, but nothing clicked. And, “being married to a pastor, I had withstood more than a few of Rush’s job interviews and was left scratching my head at the politics of it all.”

And yet: “It’s hard to call the church out when we’re not faithfully under its shelter. … If we want the church to be a place where we no longer feel like strangers, we need to take ownership for the ways our actions—and our inability to belong—have made it harder for others like us to find their home there.”

Drawing on her early family experiences; her time with Rush in North Carolina, where he worked at one church and she attended another; and her often fragile attempts at belonging, Lane finds the urge to “be” carries with it a deep sense of “longing.”

“Homesickness,” she writes, “is our spiritual condition.”    

Sunday, December 06, 2015

“The Rise And Fall Of Our Youth”

Weldon Shaw spent twenty-five years with the Department of Corrections, twelve of them “as a Gang Investigator inside the prison walls and on the streets.” Now retired in Corning, he writes that in his interviews with gang members he always asked “what made them go down the criminal path in life.”

Though he maintains that “no matter what a person’s upbringing is, the path a person takes in life is solely determined by them,” he has identified negative social factors that make raising good kids especially difficult.

His thoughts are distilled in “The Rise And Fall Of Our Youth” ($17.99 in paperback from Library Tales Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle; more at

“I am just an old-fashioned guy,” Shaw writes, “I want you to have the feeling we are just two people sitting at the kitchen table having a conversation about what is wrong with society.” And he finds plenty wrong. The political system is corrupt (he praises Donald Trump), youth are “blinded by media illusions,” the education system isn’t teaching the basics, parents are over-protective, gang pressure is destructive.

“In my opinion racism has been all but wiped out in the United States. … Do not let vices like the term racism hold your child back. You as a parent should want more for your child than you had. Push them to achieve their goals in life. Do not let outside people influence their lives by giving them excuses to fall back on if they at first do not succeed.”

What about young adults “shacking up”? “I know as far as a religion goes, it is not acceptable, and I too was raised in religion. But if I was asked what I felt about it, I would say this: young adults of proper age should live together for at least six months before they enter into marriage.”

In the criminal justice system, he’d like to see misdemeanors “drop off a person’s record after so many years” and the abolishment of plea bargains which in some cases enable the District Attorney to “win” even if the case is not strong enough.

Plenty of controversy in these kitchen table musings.