Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club #33 – Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”

BLOG #35, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #33
LOIS LOWRY’S THE GIVER
THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE
August 27, 2014

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In the case of this book, I put the cart before the horse. Connie and I were invited to see an exclusive advanced screening of the upcoming movie, The Giver at the Carefree Cinema in Colorado Springs on the evening of July 31, 2014.

Neither of us had read the book. All we knew was that the book was first published in 1993, and became a Newberry Award winner in 1994. The book has been required reading in a host of schools–especially middle schools–across the country for many years now. Colleges too.

We went into the movie blind since it had not yet been released; not even movie reviews were available yet. We did know, however, that the movie had a stellar cast, including Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Taylor Swift, Katie Holmes, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, and Alexander Skarsgard.

We did know it would be a futuristic movie.

Our hostess was the genial Jane Terry, who explained why each of us had been forbidden to bring any recording devices into the theater. Nor were we to divulge the contents of the film to anyone prior to the movie’s release, or review it before the release date.

Then, the movie rolled. In somber black and white. It took us some time to understand just what it was that we were watching. And what might be significant about the upcoming twelfth birthdays of a group of good friends. At which time, each would be assigned a life profession, hopefully compatible with each individual’s primary interests.

The first jar had to do with the age: they most certainly didn’t look like twelve-year-olds, but rather eighteen-year-old high school graduates! What gives here? But the story-line was so mesmerizing that most of us did willing-suspension-of-disbelief and watched the story-line unroll.

It didn’t take me long to discover we were watching a dystopia, a subject area I was already very familiar with, having written my masters in English thesis at Sacramento State University on utopian and dystopian books. My wife, not having been herself immersed in the genre earlier on, was forced to fly blind into the movie.

Nor did it take me long to realize how eerily prophetic the story line was: too much appeared to either be already reality in contemporary society or be approaching it. Then the story grew darker. But it was still a long time before either the young protagonists or the audience were aware that something awful was happening.

In the movie discussion afterwards, it was noted that the author, back in 1993, had predicted it might become reality in fifty years from then. I declared that it might very well become reality in twenty from now.

But later, I purchased a copy of the book and read it through. I was fascinated. When the movie was released I eagerly read the reviews to see what their take on the movie might be.

REVIEWS

Raymond Flynn (August 15 Wall Street Journal) titled his review “‘The Giver’ and the ‘Totalitarian Instinct.’” Included in his insightful commentary are passages such as this: “As the lights came up after the screening…, my thoughts were on Poland and communism, but soon turned to the broader subject of totalitarian regimes robbing individuals of their God-given rights. So often, one of the first jobs of the totalitarian is to declare that God is dead and that government is the final authority on truth and justice–we see it now in North Korea…. In the movie, we are in a world where all human misery has been eliminated. There is no rage, no war, no wealth and no poverty. But at a cost. There is also no music, no art, no literature, no beauty. And no memory. Just to be safe, all memories are the possession of a lone individual.”

In the August 16-17 Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Wolfe’s review of Jeff Bridges’ role quotes Bridges as saying, “I think it’s an impulse for human beings to want to suffer less, and we’re kind of addicted to comfort at all costs–at least I am. And of course comfort has a price. So the film is asking…what’s the true cost of our comfort, and what are we willing to pay?”

Lisa Kennedy, in the August 15 Denver Post labels the film “a gentle, chilling dystopian primer,” and notes that both recent films Divergent and The Hunger Games owe much to Lois Lowry’s earlier book. The movie “is a class act, the kind of respectable rendering of a literary source we’ve come to expect from Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media, the indie force behind ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ ‘Holes,’ and other engaging family fare.”

MY OWN TAKE

My mind is still at sea with Lois Lowry’s unique approach to the utopian and dystopian genres. George Orwell paints his Stalinist world in bleak gray. Both Freedom and Family are dirty words. Love is an obscenity. Aldous Huxley’s world is closer to ours: Give the world all the sex, sensations, and pleasure it wants–and few will even care that World Controllers make all the really significant decisions, what’s left is meaningless, which is whatever sensation, pleasure, high, or pill one wishes to turn to. Free sex is so ubiquitous it no longer has any meaning, nor do any of the standard building blocks to a great society: God, Love, Marriage, Fidelity, Commitment, Honor, Patriotism, Empathy, Faith, Integrity, Courage, Dependability, Longing, etc.

Lowry’s world is also gray, and is just as totalitarian as Orwell’s and Huxley’s, even though it appears to be benign. All the highs and lows of life have been eliminated. Sex does not even exist, no small thanks to injections and pills. The power of making individual choices is not even an option, not even in careers. Marriage is a travesty, as is “family,” but is instead a mockery of the real thing: catbird egg children (not your own), and celibate “parents” who are not permitted to really love anyone. Puberty is not even permitted to happen. Children happen somewhere off-stage via women who somehow churn out babies from no one is permitted to know where or how. The only learning is standardized meaningless pap. Big Brother–or in Meryl Streep’s case, Big Sister, is omnipresent. Even thought-crime is punishable by death. Unwanted babies disappear. Same with unwanted retirees. All is placid–yet terrifying. All human knowledge is housed in one room, guarded by one person only. No one else must have any access to it–ever.

Nevertheless, I personally predict that society is drifting into Lowry’s orbit: In America, spiritual faith–unless it is of the East or mystical–is routinely ridiculed and disparaged. Marriage (commitment for life) is being reduced to live-in relationships, one-night stands, and meaningless “hook-ups.” Children all too often are merely frisbees tossed between one household to another, with no real home to call their own. Porn of all kind (a la Huxley) is so addictive that real marital commitment cannot even compete. Virtual reality is replacing real reality. The very concept of faithfulness is mocked. The gay lifestyle is all too often replacing the heterosexual; result: androgynous individuals without clearly defined sexual differences. Why spend years studying and learning when you can escape into substance abuse and virtual reality? Boys especially, lacking traditional fatherhood role-models, are bailing out of education at an ever earlier age. College and university degrees are becoming worthless: substituting amorphous masses of meaningless observations for the traditional building blocks of western culture: history, biography, geography; great art, great music, great literature. More and more, one can earn doctorates in areas such as history without taking any history classes. Patriotism is continually ridiculed and downgraded, and is no longer taught in most of our schools. Our democratic way of life is being rapidly subverted by corporations and big money determining election results rather than people-driven elections. Since people are discouraged from reading, elections are now being decided by vicious below-the-belt attack ads that result in more and more cynicism, most terrifying–even in children and teenagers. Big Government is taking over more and more of the decisions parents used to make. Big Governments the world over are discouraging all rural life in favor of megacities that can be more easily manipulated and coerced.

When you add all this up, who is to stop totalitarian systems such as Lowry’s from obliterating what is left of freedom in our world?

That is why everyone–young or old–ought to read Lowry’s book and see the movie…so that course-corrections can be implemented before it is too late. Especially should tweens and teens read the book and see the movie.

The book can be found everywhere. The movie version was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014; the original (1993) was published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. Find a copy and read it.

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WHY SHOULD WE TAKE VACATIONS?

BLOG #34, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHY SHOULD WE TAKE VACATIONS?
August 20, 2014

Why indeed?

This was the question Washington Post columnist Brigid Schulte tackled in her August 10 column in The Denver Post.

Schulte notes that “We Americans work hard. Weekends are more like workends. We sleep with our smart phones. And we think vacations are for wimps. So we don’t take them. Or take work along with us if we do.”

We are indeed a nation of workaholics. Indeed we are the only advanced economy with no national vacation policy. One in four workers, typically in low-wage jobs, have no paid vacation at all. Those who do, get, on the average, only ten to fourteen days a year. Europeans enjoy twenty to thirty days of paid vacation every year.

Terry Hartig, an environmental psychologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, maintains that “when people go on a relaxing vacation, they tend to return happier and more relaxed. . . . And those mellow, good vibes spread like “a contagion’ to everyone you come in contact with. . . . Send everyone away on vacation at the same time [as is true in Europe], and that contagion takes off through the population like a viral happiness pandemic.”

Hartig and his colleagues conducted a major study based on the incidence of anti-depressant prescriptions in Sweden during the years 1993 through 2005. They discovered that the more people took vacations at the same time, the more prescriptions dropped exponentially. True for men, women, workers, and retirees. Since 1977, Swedish law has mandated that every worker must be given five weeks of paid vacation each year (and they may take four of them during summer months. “The benefits,” maintains Hartig, “are huge. Not only is the society measurably happier, but workers are more rested and productive, relationships are closer and people are healthier. And depression is a very costly disease.”

Depression alone costs the U.S. economy an estimated $23 billion a year in lost productivity.

* * * * *

We were not created to run non-stop, but rather to take time off from work at least once a week. Scripture mandates Sabbaths during which we may regenerate. Longer Sabbaths were also mandated periodically. Multiple studies have confirmed one universal truth: Those who work non-stop soon reach the point of diminishing returns. The more hours they put in on the job the less effective they are, the staler their ideas are. So employers who work their employees to death end up losing even more than their employees do.

Furthermore, unless you frequently get out of your workplace squirrel cage, you never gain fresh ideas at all, but merely recycle increasingly outdated concepts and methods.

So back to Hartig who notes that, in Sweden, “It’s like there’s this national agreement that it’s vacation time, and work will be left aside. So instead of working and being distracted and busy, people get outside. They do things they like and enjoy. They see friends, visit their aging parents, or finally have time for that cup of tea with a friend who has been blue.”

* * * * *

America continues to pay a terrible price for our workaholocism. The current epidemic of depression and suicides ought to be a wake-up call for us.

We must take time to live!

The Talleyman Ghost and Other Mysteries for Girls

BLOG #33, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE TALLEYMAN GHOST AND OTHER
MYSTERIES FOR GIRLS
August 13, 2014

N E W S    R E L E A S E

Just out is this, our 88th book. In last week’s blog, I discussed with our readers the three-and-a-half-year fuse that led to the eventual publishing of The Talleyman Ghost and The Secrets of Creeping Desert. How it was thanks to Larry Weeden (Editorial Director ) and Bill Flandermeyer (then bookstore manager) at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs that these two books came to be.

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In this case, our discussion that December 3, 1910 evening centered on the individualized book needs for boy-readers and girl-readers. We concluded that both boys and girls love mysteries. After all, generations of young readers have grown up reading The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery stories. Both Weeden and Flandermeyer urged me to consider putting together mystery story collections for both audiences. Finally, three and a half years later, here they are.

I have raided the entire twentieth century for its most memorable girl-related mystery stories. I chose the very best by popular authors whose stories have stood the test of time; not easy given how few stories survive for two generations. A number of the writers were already familiar to me: prolifically published writers such as Catherine R. Britton, May Hurley Ashworth, Albert Payson Terhune (America’s greatest dog story writer), Augusta Huiell Seaman, Eric Philbrook Kelly (renowned writer of stories dealing with Poland and Europe), and Malura T. Weaver.

It is much more difficult today to choose mystery stories that uplift rather than degrade, that help inculcate values worth living by rather than those likely to darken the inner skies of its readers. Not surprisingly, I discovered that most of the best stories had been written earlier on rather than today.

Since far more girls than boys are enthusiastic readers today, I have no fears for the popularity of this collection.

Over the years it has become abundantly clear to me that, generally speaking, book covers are the determining factors in terms of which books are purchased and which are passed over by bookstore browsers. I’ve been lucky with most of our covers; however, two were just plain awful. Not surprisingly, the sales correlate. I’d guess that 95% of impulse book-buying is almost predetermined by the cover illustrations and graphics.

Which brings me to the covers for Talleyman Ghost and Secrets of the Creeping Desert. When Todd Hoyt (president of eChristian/Mission Books) sent us sample cover illustrations for each book, it gave me a brainstorm: quite a few years ago it was when Kiwanis of Conifer members decided to put most all their fund-raising eggs in one basket. Since Kiwanians recite every week this mantra: “Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world one community and one child at a time,” our only question had to do with how we’d focus our energies. We concluded that it had to do with reading. Reason being that for several decades now our national reading test scores have continued their prolonged death-plunge. Reason being: most parents today are themselves non-readers; consequently there are hardly any books, magazines, or newspapers to be seen in their homes. And gone too, for the most part, is the traditional story hour during which parents read to their children. The results add up to a national catastrophe.

Since studies continue to show, conclusively, that if a child fails to fall in love with reading by the third grade—it’s not likely to ever happen at all, we decided to make addressing that need our first priority. Since I’ve directed our Kiwanis Reading Program since its inception, I’ve been deeply involved in helping to make it happen. We’ve raised over $70,000 to buy books for the students (third-graders, highest priority) in five elementary schools: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jeff elementary schools in the Colorado Front Range. Each year, at our annual reading celebration for third-graders, I personally invite all the kids to attend at Ron Lewis’s barn in Marshdale. We give them a great time, including a chance to personally check out Lewis’s buffalo and elk herds, get their faces painted, get to have one of my books (of their choice) inscribed as a gift from me, and be part of the receiving groups when annual checks are handed out (usually $1,500 or so per school). Last two years, since we have a vibrant homeschooling community here in the mountains, we added them in as well.

So, when the subject of choosing covers for these two books came up, I decided to corral Wendy Woodland, principal of West Jeff Elementary School, and ask her if she thought third-graders would get a kick out of helping to choose two book covers before they were published. Woodland loved the idea. “It would be a real first for them!” was her response.

She felt boys would choose a mysterious-looking cover devoid of frills, and implying overt action. But, as for girls, she prophesied that since they tend to recoil from covers that convey graphic violence, much preferring understated covers that, while they appear mysterious and perhaps mystical, lean toward beauty rather than crude or overt action. “And,” she added, “girls love cursive writing more than block writing. Mark my words, they’ll, hands down, choose the mystical green cover with swirly cursive writing.” She was right: the boys gravitated to the one you’ll see on Secrets of Creeping Desert and the girls almost unanimously chose the one that graces Talleyman Ghost. I can’t wait to show the students these covers this fall when they are fourth-graders.

Here are the chosen stories included in the book:

“The Talleyman Ghost,” by Catherine R. Britton
“The Clock Stopped,” by Mae Hurley Ashworth
“Portia and Xenophon,” by Albert Payson Terhune
“That Darling Chin,” by Grace Lyon Benjamin
“Aunt Honoria’s Legacy,” by Helen Minshall Young
“Butterfly Ranch,” by Mary Beth Oliver
“The Mallory Inheritance,” by Augusta Huiell Seaman
“A Royal Mystery – Unsolved,” by Eric Philbrook Kelly
“The Missing Chessman,” by Dorothea Castelhun
“Wings of the Wind,” by Kenneth Payson Kempton
“Buried Treasure,” by Mabel Cleland
“The Ebony Box,” by Malura T. Weaver

Girls of all ages will revel in this timeless collection. As you’re making up your Christmas stocking list, write down the names of your girls, granddaughters, nieces, godchildren, etc., and have me inscribe the books personally to them. Ditto for birthdays or other special occasions.
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ORDERING INFORMATION

Binding: Trade Paper
Pages: 144
Price: $14.98
Shipping: $4.50

Personally signed or inscribed by Joe Wheeler, if requested, at no extra cost. You may secure your copies from us, so give us a call or email or letter, and we’ll fill your order for you,

Mail your request to Dr. Joe Wheeler, P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.
Or Phone to 303-838-2333.
Or send an email to: mountainauthor@gmail.com.

THE SECRETS OF THE CREEPING DESERT AND OTHER MYSTERIES FOR BOYS

BLOG #32, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE SECRETS OF THE CREEPING DESERT
AND OTHER MYSTERIES FOR BOYS
August 6, 2014

N E W S R E L E A S E

Just out is this, our 87th book. It was born three and a half years ago and contracted for three years ago. Due to unexpected developments, the manuscript was given a three-year-nap. Result: we have a surfeit of books carrying my name out this year; such a thing is not likely to ever happen again. Here’s how it happened.

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The date was Friday, December 3, 2010. Each first Friday of December, for many years now, I spend with my extended family at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. That particular Friday, for the fifteenth Christmas in a row, for morning worship, I shared with them a story included in the latest Christmas in My Heart® collection. The rest of the day, I spent signing books in the Focus on the Family bookstore. As is true with most epiphanies, I never saw this one coming!

As I inscribed the last couple of books, my long-time cherished friend, Editorial Director Larry Weeden, walked in to debrief on my day. As God would have it, then bookstore manager Bill Flandermeyer joined us for the same reason.

After we’d reviewed the events of the day, one of us posed this question (completely out of the blue–no antecedent for it): “When people come into this bookstore, is there anything that many of them are searching for that we don’t have–and they sadly leave without?”

It was a rhetorical question, not one we expected a definite answer to. Instead, without even stopping to think about it, Flandermeyer shot back: “Yes! Books for boys!” He went on to note that buyers young and old (grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, friends, children and teens), found all too few books for boys on the shelves. Then I was put on the hot spot: “What do you have for boys? Can you step in and fill the need?” I had to admit that though almost all of our books would appeal to boys, nothing I had was geared just for boys.

We had also discussed the subject of books that would appeal just to girls. We could all think of available options for them. But the problem was even bigger than that: today, we have a national crisis on our hands that has profound implications for America’s tomorrows. Boys are bailing out of education at an ever earlier age, veering instead into escapist virtual reality–be it video games, texting, alcohol, tobacco, pornography (their options are legion) rather than eagerly preparing themselves for productive adult careers. Since their parents don’t read much themselves, and there are all too few books, magazines, and newspapers in homes today, there are few incentives for their children to read either.

* * *

After I returned home, I couldn’t get the discussion out of my head. Was God directing me to become more pro-active rather than re-active? What could I do personally to help turn the tide? I’ve learned over the years that when God sets you up for action, you don’t have to wait long for His follow-through. In only weeks Dan Balow (the new publisher for Mission Books/eChristian) was in our home, with Greg Johnson (our long-time agent); the agenda had to do with possible book projects I felt strongly about. Fresh in my mind was the discussion at Focus on the Family. I brought it up. The result was a contract for six books, two of which came out right away: Showdown (sports stories for boys) and Bluegrass Girl (horse stories for girls). But not long after, Balow left the company, and we wondered if the other four books would ever see actual publication. Serendipitously, recently Todd Hoyt, the president of the company, reinserted the four titles in the pipeline: Only God Can Make a Dad and A Mother’s Face is Her Child’s First Heaven came out some months ago; and now, finally, here comes our second book just for boys.

In that 2010 discussion, specific emphasis had been placed on my consideration of mystery stories for boys. After all, almost every boy is fascinated by books and stories that incorporate mysteries in the narrative.

So, finally, here they are, the result of an exhaustive search for the most powerful value-based mystery stories I could find. I specifically sought out stories that were compatible with Judeo-Christian values, that didn’t veer into darkness–as all too many youth-oriented mystery stories do today. I searched for stories that were not merely good-reads but would also result in the reader’s positive inner-growth. In the process, I discovered that mystery stories for boys tend to be longer than those written just for girls. Possibly because boys revel in taking things apart to find out how they work. They want to know both how and why. In detail.

By the way, the third-grade boys at Jefferson County Elementary School in Conifer, Colorado helped to choose this cover illustration. More about how that happened in next week’s blog.

So here are the stories:

■ “Jimmy the Sleuth,” by Frank Farrington
■ “Black on Blue,” by Ralph Henry Barbour
■ “The Prisoner,” by Jeannette C. Nolan
■ “Mystery of the Missing,” by Ruth Herrick Myers
■ “Black Canyon Mystery,” by John Scott Douglas
■ “Jack’s Electric Signal,” by F. Lovell Combs
■ “Pluck and ‘Thousand Acres’,” by A. May Holaday
■ “The Egg Mystery,” by Earl Reed Silvers
■ “The Gassoway Goats,” by Ruth and Robert Osborne
■ “Scoop,” by E. Mark Phillips
■ “Four Men In Boats,” by Russell Gordon Carter
■ “The Secrets of the Creeping Desert,” by Richard N. Donelson

For this collection, I drew from the finest mystery stories for boys published during the twentieth century. I was already familiar with many of the authors, for their works were prolifically published by the leading magazines of the time–authors such as Ralph Henry Barbour, Ruth Herrick Myers, John Scott Douglas, A. May Holaday, Earl Reed Silvers, and Russell Gordon Carter.

Next week, I’ll tell you about The Talleyman Ghost and Other Mystery Stories for Girls.

You may secure copies from us; let us know if you wish any of the books to be individually inscribed. They ought to appeal to boys of all ages; they certainly appealed to me. Great stories are enjoyed by the old as well as the young. Get a head start on your Christmas stocking list by gifting a copy of this book to each son, grandson, nephew, godson, or friend.

ORDERING INFORMATION

Binding: Trade Paper
Pages: 174
Price: $14.98
Shipping: $4.50

Personally signed or inscribed by Joe Wheeler, if requested, at no extra cost.

Mail your request to Dr. Joe Wheeler, P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.
Or Phone to 303-838-2333.
Or send an email to: mountainauthor@gmail.com.