Saturday, February 13, 2016

What We're Reading: Augustine's World

Augustine: Conversions to Confessions

by Robin Lane Fox

There were two books that I read in my high school days that left a lasting impression. They were not the usual assigned “classics” like Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, or To Kill a Mockingbird. One of those books was Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the book that defined the character and methods of historiography in the Western World. The other was The Confessions of St. Augustine. I was a serious young man. In looking back, it seems a disparate, perhaps antithetical, pairing. Thucydides’ history was notable in that it was one of the first to banish the agency of the gods in explaining the political affairs of men, while Augustine’s book was an extended paean to a personal God, one whose hand he discerned in the critical moments and movements of his life.

Bob Dylan’s song, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” led me to the Confessions. It was the lingering memory of Confessions that caused me to pick up Fox’s book. Readers who are looking for a sympathetic spiritual or reverential treatment of Confessions should know before investing time in this 657-page book that this is not what Augustine: Conversions to Confessions is about. This is not hagiography. Fox tells readers that he does not share Augustine’s Christian faith, and in fact some readers may find few passages mocking and irreverent in their tone. Fox is a classical scholar, and his exposition here is distanced and erudite. He does not try to recreate the compelling elements of Confessions, the extraordinary power of Augustine’s artful intimacy with the reader or the powerful vision of the beneficence and love of God he presents to his readers. Fox’s book is a secular reconstruction of Augustine’s intellectual and religious development, a tracing of the road that led to the meanings and form of The Confessions. It is an account in which the religious and philosophical currents of the time rather than the action of the Holy Spirit, as Augustine attests, explain the experiences and course of Augustine’s life. In the instances in which Augustine finds the intervention of God in his life, Fox is apt to offer alternative explanations, ones that have more to do with the social context of the world in which Augustine lived, and with practical and worldly motives. We get a detailed look at Augustine’s life, his family, and his early career as a rhetorician and teacher.

St. Augustine (detail) from an early Renaissance
portrait by Antonello da Messina, 1472
Although Fox is interested in contextualizing Augustine, in having us understand the world in which he lived and that formed his thought, this is, in its own right, a fascinating story; Fox’s scholarship is exemplary. His account confronts some common religious and historical simplifications and misconceptions. We are reminded that the major tenets of Catholicism were ideas that developed over the course of centuries from the time of Christ, the Apostles, and Paul. Fox gives us an interesting portrait of Catholicism in the ancient world. It was an odd hybrid of Christian beliefs and vestiges of pagan traditions, with local cults of martyrs and raucous festivals that celebrated their feast days. The classical world did not end one night and the Christian era begin the next morning, the demarcation we project so readily on the ancient past. Augustine’s world of the late 4th Century was a world of fluid and fervid intellectual and religious currents. In the Romanized world of North Africa, where Augustine was born, there was a major split in the Catholic Church. It was not based on differing theological points, but rather on conflicting claims as to which party represented the true lineage of the faith. In addition to this long-term schism, Manicheanism, with its assertion of the dualism of good and evil, was a powerful alternative to Christianity. In fact, for 11 years of his life, Augustine was a Manichean. Fox gives an extensive and detailed explanation of Manicheanism and examines its place in Augustine’s thought and spiritual development. Classical paganism, too, was still a strong and viable faith and practice. And the tradition of classical Greek and Roman learning, particularly the thought of the Platonists, greatly influenced contemporary thought and religious belief. Fox explores the impact of all of these on Augustine’s ideas and faith, and shows how they inform the thought and structure of the Confessions.

St. Ambrose by Francisco de Zubarán, 1626.
Ambrose was bishop of Milan, and was Augustine’s
Christian mentor and baptized Augustine.
Augustine had travelled from North Africa to
Milan to advance his career as a teacher
and rhetorician.
Augustine: Conversions to Confessions does a remarkable job of tracing Augustine's intellectual development and the origins of his theological innovations. But the thing that is attractive about Confessions, the sense we get of Augustine’s spiritual and emotional life, is missing. We don’t get a sense here of the emotions that drove the thoughts. Fox looks in great detail at the role of sex in Augustine’s life; in fact he believes that Augustine’s “is not a conversion to Christian faith….It is a conversion away from sex and ambition.” It is never clear, however, why the turning away from sex to celibacy was important in Augustine’s emotional or intellectual life. What compelled this? What ideas or contemporary context made this seem the necessary path to an understanding of God and a closer relationship with God?

St. Monica by Benozzo Gozzol, 1464.
Historically, Monica’s ascendancy in the
hierarchy of Catholic saints had everything
to do with Augustine, her famous son.
Today, a densely populated and largely
agnostic city on the western coast of
the United States bears her name.

There is the sense in reading Fox’s book that Augustine’s internal struggle is one that takes place in a psychological prison of his own making, that it is not an existential task still common to us all. We do not have the introspective conversations with ourselves that Augustine had, we go through neither the self-doubting nor arrive at the certainties that animated Confessions and made it such a compelling text for generations of readers. We live in a different world. As Mark Lilla wrote in his review of Augustine in the New York Times, “We traded pious self-cultivation for undemanding self-esteem. But is love of self really enough to be happy? You know the answer to that, dear reader. And so did Augustine.”

Friday, February 12, 2016

Guest review: For bibliophiles!

I just finished this charming book and want to recommend it -- to everyone!

The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George

Every so often a truly enchanting book comes along -- and The Little Paris Bookshop is one such treasure.

Jean Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his tiny bookstore aboard a barge on the Seine, Monsieur Perdue dispenses the right book to mend broken hearts and souls. But the one shattered heart he can't mend is his own.

A lost love has built a wall around Monsieur Purdue. When cracks begin to appear in that wall, Purdue unmoors his floating bookstore and sets off on a journey of redemption through the waterways of France into the heart of Provence. Will he find the soul balm to heal his broken heart? He's accompanied on his quest by a young bestselling author with a severe case of writer's block, and an Italian chef searching for love.

In addition to this charming tale and love letter to the power of books, the author includes a few recipes from the Provence region (the Lavender Ice Cream, sounds yummy!). Be sure to check out Jean Perdu's Emergency Literary Pharmacy at the back of the book. Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren, for example, is an effective remedy against acquired (rather than innate) pessimism and a fear of miracles (singing in the shower is one of the book's side effects).

I highly recommend this book. A must-read for every bibliophile.

Louise Paziak worked in the Publicity department of Burbank Public Library, from which job she is now retired (and free to read at will!). She is also Aunt Agatha of Death in the Stacks, her mystery blog.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What we're reading: Historical mystery

I have read and immensely enjoyed all of Kate Morton's books (The Forgotten Garden, The Secret Keeper, The House at Riverton, The Distant Hours), and The Lake House is no exception; but you have to be in a certain mood to read them.

There are two things about them that can either please or frustrate: She goes into an incredible amount of detail, painting word pictures of such depth and color that you can smell the lavender and feel the sparkle of sun on your skin, which is a good thing…if you have the patience to sit back and enjoy it. And she draws out the mystery in each book to practically the last page, by jumping again and again from past to present to past just at the moment when you think, Finally! I'm going to find out something significant! which again, makes the payoff even better, IF you are willing to wait for it.

This one takes place mostly in Cornwall (a bonus for me, as I love anything set in that magical land). The story from the 1930s is of a young girl and burgeoning writer, Alice Edevane. One idyllic summer, Alice's only brother, one-year-old Theo, disappears during the family's elaborate annual Midsummer's Eve party, and his tragic loss shatters the family dynamic, sending them off on their own paths, some never to reunite.

The story in the present day is of a detective on the London police force who is escaping a recent disgrace by visiting her grandfather in Cornwall. She is curious about the old, neglected estate she comes upon during one of her morning runs, and when she discovers that the disappearance of young Theo has never been solved, she decides that bringing this cold case to a conclusion will nicely distract her from the problems that exiled her to Cornwall. But Alice, now an elderly and successful mystery writer, isn't willing to let Sadie Sparrow delve into a past that Alice is afraid will reveal secrets from which the remainder of her family won't recover.

I liked this story a lot, but I must admit that this time I grew weary of Morton's technique of drawing things out by the time the payoff finally yielded itself. Also, the ending was a little too perfect--I was simultaneously immensely satisfied and completely skeptical of its probability. So, four stars instead of five. But still, a winner.

Editor's note: In addition to offering this as a hardcover in the New Books section, Burbank Public Library carries it as an audio book and as an e-book.

Monday, February 08, 2016

This week at the library...

Buena Vista branch, 6:30 p.m.

Twilight Cinema presents...
Twelve people have walked on the moon, but only one man – Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – has ever walked in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers. Guided by his real-life mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), and aided by an unlikely band of international recruits, Petit and his gang overcome long odds, betrayals, dissension, and countless close calls to conceive and execute their mad plan.

123 minutes / rated PG

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

The club will discuss The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor, in preparation for his visit to the Buena Vista Branch on Thursday night (see below).

This book club is for registered teens only. To be placed on the waitlist, please email

Buena Vista branch, 4:00 p.m.

Family Films presents...
Upset about moving from the big city to a small town, young Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) finds a silver lining when he meets his beautiful neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush). The teen is surprised to learn that Hannah's mysterious father is R.L. Stine (Jack Black), the famous author of the best-selling "Goosebumps" series. When Zach accidentally unleashes the monsters from the fantastic tales, it's up to Stine, his daughter and Cooper to return the beasts back to the books where they belong.

104 minutes / rated PG

Buena Vista Branch, 7:00 p.m.

The club will discuss Splintered, by A. G. Howard, another in the Alice in Wonderland-based books.

This book club is for registered teens only. To be placed on the waitlist, please email

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

Pianist Michael Motilla performs live music for three delightful silent films:
Joys & Gloom: Her Minute (1921, 4 minutes)
Won In a Cupboard (1914, 15 minutes)
One Week (1920, 25 minutes)

Buena Vista Branch, 7:00 p.m.

Meet the author of the Looking Glass Wars series, and Hatter M graphic novels, Frank Beddor!

Tea party treats will be served during the book discussion, and books will be available for purchase and signing.

Special additional guest, new YA author Eric Laster!

This program is for teens in grades 6-12 only.

Come in your best Alice cosplay. We'll have a
fashion show!

Central Library, 3:30 p.m.

All materials are provided, and no registration is required.

Central Library, 10:00 a.m.

For children ages 2-14 and their families. Children under 9 years must be accompanied by an adult.


Preschool Storytime:
Tuesday 10 a.m. Buena Vista
Wednesday 10 a.m. Northwest
Thursday 10 a.m. Central

Toddler Storytime:
Wednesday 10 a.m. Buena Vista
Friday 10 a.m. Central, 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Buena Vista

Friday, February 05, 2016

What We're Reading: For Veterans and Active Duty Military

The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today
by Bryan Dowries

I first heard about Bryan Doerries’s “Theater of War” project when the library hosted a talk by David Morris on his book The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In his exploration of PTSD, Morris made connections between the experience and emotions of warriors depicted in ancient Greek literature and those that face modern soldiers. He mentioned the Theater of War project. As Tim O’Brien observed in reviewing The Theater of War, the ancient Greek tragedies embodied important understandings about “warfare and human values and the desperate moral and psychological struggles that soldiers still undergo today.” Morris expressed interest in the ideas about psychological healing that were explored in Doerries’s project, and related those to his own therapeutic experiences. Now Bryan Doerries, the creator of the Theater of War, has written about the origins of the project and gives us examples of how his translations and performances of ancient Greek drama have been applied, and to what ends, in military, prison, and healthcare settings.

A bust of Giambologna, 1570, after the
Greek original by Antigenes.
This book about the program Doerries has developed should be of interest to veterans as well as to active duty military. The "Theater of War” has performed at a number of military-sponsored venues, and Doerries describes how the performances have worked at these events, how they connect to the audience and how they spark discussion about the kinds of issues that are usually subjects of taboo and stigma, especially among active duty military. This is particularly the case in discussing “moral injury,” the anger and psychological problems that come when soldiers are asked to do things that they feel go against their personal value system, interfere with their loyalty to their fellow soldiers, or constitute some sort of betrayal by their military and political leaders. These often involve issues of military command, and so it is difficult to discuss or address them among active duty soldiers. Doerries believes that the plays resonate with soldiers because they were written for an audience of soldiers. Sophocles, for example, had been an Athenian general, and two of his plays used by Doerries, Ajax and Philoctetes, indicate his understanding of the some of the traumas soldiers face. When he wrote his plays, Athens was perpetually at war. Military service was universal for all men. The audience in the amphitheater would have had generals sitting in special seats at the front, and men of various lower ranking military units sitting behind them.

Ajax with the body of Achilles, from an
ancient Greek vase. Ajax felt he was unfairly
cheated of the honor of receiving Achilles'
armor, the source of his deep aggrievement
and dishonorable actions that lead him
to take his own life.
One of the most illuminating things about The Theater of War, something that should be of interest to students of Greek tragedy as well as to contemporary dramatists, is that the performances Doerries has re-staged have given him new ideas and insight into why Greek tragedy was written and how it functioned in Greek society. There is more to it, he finds, than Aristotle’s famous formulation of tragedy providing a catharsis of the “pity and fear” he said it was designed to arouse. Doerries believes that the performance of Greek tragedies functioned socially, providing a safe venue in which to bring up issues that could not be discussed in other settings, and that by doing so Greek dramatics provided a therapeutic outlet, one in which the psychological burdens of war became communally shared among soldiers and among the populace at large. They were written and performed to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” In Greek society, they were part of a public ritual that served to reintegrate those who had borne the battle back into their society. They were rites of recognition as well as reconciliation, public art that expressed an understanding by that society of what a soldier had been asked to do on their behalf and the resulting wounds and suffering, a sharing of the burden that was designed to ease the reintegration of the soldier back into civilian society.

David Morris felt that the lack of effective rituals of this sort in our own society had a lot to do with the prevalence and severity of PTSD and the problems of readjustment that a veteran soldier faces. And unlike the society of ancient Athens, where military service was universal, we live at a time when military experience is shared by only a small fraction of our population. It may be not a matter of us not having rituals, but rather that the ones we have are ineffective and, in fact, destructive. I could not help think, while reading The Theater of War, about Ben Fountain’s caustic depiction of one such “ritual” for a group of hero soldiers at Cowboy Stadium in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a deeply satirical look at what has gone awry, of the profound nature of the disconnect in the relationship between those who serve and the rest of the country.

Philoctetes by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1852.
On the way to Troy Philocotetes was exiled
by his fellow soldiers on the island of
Lemnos because of a terrible and incurable
wound to his foot.
Doerries has expanded his performances of ancient Greek tragedies to other contemporary venues fraught with the tensions of alienation and moral challenges--to prisons and to medical and elder communities where there is conflict over the nature of end-of-life protocols. All of these issues have contexts that are unique to our times, whether it is the nature of modern warfare and contemporary social ideas about military service, current debates about the nature of our justice system and incarceration, or the way new technology raises moral questions for us about medical issues concerning life and death. But what The Theater of War shows us is that there are things that remain timeless and universal about these issues, things that are constant because of our nature as human beings. And one of them, one that we seemed to have forgotten, is that the suffering of others is made more bearable for those who suffer when we are willing to share in that suffering. Heraclitus said that “War is the father of all,” but as Doeries shows us in The Theater of War, it is art that can do much to heal the wounds.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

What we're reading: Dark humor

Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh, tells the story of a week in the life of 24-year old Eileen Dunlop, a secretary at a boys' juvenile detention facility outside Boston in the 1960s. Eileen lives at home with her alcoholic father, a retired policeman, who she takes care of after her mother dies. She has been planning her escape from home for months, but can’t quite seem to muster the energy to put her plan into motion. Then a beautiful new teacher appears at the prison and shines her light on Eileen, only to entangle her in an outrageous crime. 

Although Eileen becomes involved in a crime, the book is actually more of a character study than a crime drama. Eileen is a sad-sack, but an incredibly funny one. She is attracted to the absurd and grotesque in life, at one point proclaiming she has memorized where every smooshed bug and smeared booger are in every library book she has checked out. Rather than get the exhaust fixed in her car, she plots her trips around how far she can get before she passes out from carbon monoxide poisoning. She keeps all of her drunk father’s shoes locked in the trunk of her car so he can’t leave the house and cause trouble, only throwing a pair up onto the porch on Sunday mornings so he can attend church. He does nothing but insult her, but she seems to revel in his attention.

For most people in these circumstances, leaving would seem like a no-brainer, but for most of the book Eileen seems unwilling to leave, simply out of spite for everyone who questions the way she lives. At once hateful and endearing, she is a complex character who is so perverse that you can’t help laugh. Some might find it depressing, but if you have a dark sense of humor, this is quite an enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Laura M., reference librarian

Monday, February 01, 2016

This week at the library...

Central Library, 6:30 p.m.

The club will discuss Nos gloires secrètes by Tonino Benacquista.

Buena Vista Branch, 7:00 p.m.

The club will discuss Good Omens,
by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. 

This club is for registered teens only; to be added to the
wait list, please email

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

Join us for another session with instructor Noah Fontana.

In this class session, we will concentrate oncomposition. We will cover the basics of arranging the visual elements in a work of art to tell a specific message. We will discuss such topics as the rule of thirds, how to use a viewfinder, and negative space.

Space is limited. Supplies are provided. You must sign up to reserve a spot. Call 818-238-5562 (Laura or Joan).

Central Library, 4:00 p.m.

Family Films presents…

Upset about moving from the big city to a small town, young Zach Cooper finds a silver lining when he meets his beautiful neighbor Hannah. The teen is surprised to learn that Hannah's mysterious father is R.L. Stine (Jack Black), the famous author of the best-selling "Goosebumps" series. When Zach accidentally unleashes the monsters from the fantastic tales, it's up to Stine, his daughter and Cooper to return the beasts back to the books where they belong.

104 Minutes / Rated PG

Buena Vista Branch, 6:30 p.m.

Everyone is invited to a reception honoring the winners of the 2016 Photo Contest. Doors will open at 6:30; awards presentations will begin at 7:00 p.m.

Then on FRIDAY, the photo exhibition will be open for viewing at the Central Library in the auditorium. The exhibit will be up through Saturday, February 27, and can be viewed during regular library hours, except when the auditorium is in use. Please check the library calendar for the auditorium schedule.


Preschool Storytime:
Tuesday 10 a.m. Buena Vista
Wednesday 10 a.m. Northwest
Thursday 10 a.m. Central

Toddler Storytime:
Wednesday 10 a.m. Buena Vista
Friday 10 a.m. Central, 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Buena Vista

RHYTHM & READING for Preschoolers:
Thursday, 1:00 p.m., Buena Vista

MUSIC & MOVEMENT for Preschoolers:
Saturday, 10:15 a.m., Central Library