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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

No cute name. That part’s already bored me.

But here we are – Wednesday:

 

Reading:  I finished I Was Dancing last night – and no, I wouldn’t recommend it. Reminder: The author is Edwin O’Connor, author of two highly acclaimed mid-century novels: The Last Hurrah, about an Irish-American politician (made into a film starring Spencer Tracy) and The Edge of Sadness, which won the Pulitzer in 1962, and which was amy_welbornrepublished by Loyola Press a few years back as part of the Loyola Classics series, which I edited. Ron Hansen wrote the introduction for that edition.

I Was Dancing tells the story of one more older man facing choices and acceptance of change and decline. This one is much shorter than the other two, and when I finished it, I thought, well – that book was essentially four or five conversations. Maybe more, but that’s it. The plot is focused: an elderly former vaudeville dancer/comic, on the road for decades, returns to his now-married son’s home to retire. We meet him on the day his son’s ultimatum comes to bear: after a year, today’s the day you have to move on and out to the local retirement home.

And so the conversations – mostly between Daniel (the father) and three of his friends, whom he gathers during the course of the day for support and, more importantly, as his audience. The four – Daniel, his shyster fake-physician, a man abandoned by his wife for another entertainer, and a priest – engage with each other mostly, it seems, for the purpose of applauding each other’s rationalizations of failure – the exception being the priest who is a barely tolerant cynic.

“Well it takes all kinds,” Father Feeley said. “Humanity in its infinite variety. Most of it highly overrated. And most of it capable of anything. A boundless capacity for lunacy, deceit. It all matters very little. In the long run.”

The final section of the book is, of course, a conversation – a terrifically long one in which Daniel and his son Tom hash out all their mutual resentments and anger. I…skimmed it, hoping for some subtlety or layers, but they were not to be found.

So – maybe ninety minutes of my life? Not a waste – there were some amusing exchanges and I liked the priest character. I also learned a bit about what doesn’t work in storytelling – always good to learn more about that.

Watching: I discovered that through my free YouTube TV trial (we cut the cord and have been experimenting with various free trials of streaming services – accessibility to football games being the primary concern) I could access a free trial of AMC Premiere – through which all ten episodes of Lodge 49 are now available. The YouTube TV free trial runs out today (we’re not going to renew it – we bought an antenna and are going back to SlingTV, which carries NFL Network – not carried on YouTubeTV – and the antenna brings in all our local channels fine) – so I decided to try to watch as much of Lodge 49 as I could squeeze in, just to see if my initial positive feelings would hold up. They sort of do – there’s nothing off-putting in the three or so episodes I watched, but the narrative thread seems to have loosened a bit and I don’t feel driven to binge any more tonight – I’ll just wait for the rest to air weekly.

Some thoughts on the whole cutting-the-cord thing. The only reason we have anything at all is because of sports. My older son watched college and pro football  – an old post on why this is not a problem for me – and then college basketball. The beauty of streaming is not only is it cheaper than satellite (or cable) but also that it’s so easy to turn services off and on. No one has to come out to your house and install anything, there’s no equipment to return. We can have a streaming service until the end of March Madness – and then boom, discontinue it – probably this time, forever, since he’ll be going off to college next year.

I’m actually glad the YouTubeTV turned out not to be our best option (it was recommended by all kinds of people, including the guy in line behind me at FedEx as I returned the satellite receiver  two months ago) – but I hate giving that Google/YouTube corporation $$. I mean – we’re all complicit and wrapped up in all sorts of evil corporations, but if I can avoid handing them money – I certainly will.

Eating/Cooking: Not much on that front. My younger son had an orthodontist appointment yesterday, and will be in a heap of discomfort for a couple of days – so the menu will consist mostly of mashed potatoes and pudding.

Short post today. Time to work on another Tech Week post, get that out and then return to some other kinds of thinking/writing.

Image: The Appian Way, Rome. 

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— 1 —

First, take a look at this. It might have appeared on your social media feed as it did mine. It’s singer Alfina Fresta, who has spastic dystonic tetraparesis. She is supported here by Stefania Licciardello, president of the Neon Cultural Association, which offers performers with and without disabilities the opportunity to perform together. 

It’s lovely. It’s what the world should look like: no one invisible, mutuality and support simply a way of life.

— 2 —

Last week, I linked to Emily Stimpson Chapman’s moving post on the adoption process. Well, earlier this week, Emily and Chris’ son Toby was born. As Emily says in her post: We have been snuggling non-stop ever since and are completely in love. Continued prayers are greatly appreciated, though, both for his birth parents and for this little guy, who is going to have a rough few days as some bad stuff works its way out of his system.

— 3 —

I read a most unusual book this week. It’s called Raising the Dad. As you can tell from the listing, the reader reviews don’t average out very well, but I liked it. It was nothing like I expected. The premise is that a father long believed dead is revealed to be alive. Consequences ensue. Going into it, I’d assumed that the dad had been, I don’t know – off in Italy or in Tahiti for thirty years and reappears, but that’s not it at all. This particular plot point might stretch credulity, medically speaking, but I went with it, and found it quite thought-provoking.

Without spoiling much, I’ll just say that the novel challenges, in an unusual and unexpected way, the contemporary assumption that only lives that embody certain qualities are worth living, and that the only meaningful relationships we can have are with fully conscious individuals.

Worth a look.

— 4 —

Speaking of books – I finished writing one this week. Actually, just today (Thursday). I’m ecstatic and relieved. Can you feel it? See, it’s not due until January, but I was determined to get it done before my 8th grader started back to school.  This might be my last “free” year for  few years, since we are probably going to home/roadschool high school with this one. I didn’t want to spend the first part of the (school) year working on a project that is more of an assigned thing rather than one that’s more dependent on my creativity, when I’ll actually have time and space to Think.  Yes, the words I bring to this project are my own and are far from formulaic (I hope), but still – there’s a template, and my job was to fill it in.

Not that I turned it in. It could be published right now (with some editing…I guess…), but it will be better if I let it sit and come back to it with, as we say, fresh eyes. So I’ll do that – let it sit until December, open it back up, hopefully not weep from despair, do some edits and tightening, add any new good stories that have popped up, and ship it off in January.

And in the meantime, I sent a file of the manuscript 1) to myself – since my main file cabinet these days is my email and 2) to my daughter, just in case. 

— 5 –

Morbid? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as “prepared.”

With, I admit, a dose of superstition.

For you see – and may remember from previous posts – before I go on big trips, I always send my adult kids very detailed itineraries, along with my attorney’s information, health and travel insurance information, passport copies and so on. We now call it “The Itinerary of Death.” As in “Mom’s going to Japan – she should be sending the Itinerary of Death soon.”

The motivation is twofold. Yes, I want as little trouble as possible in case something happens. Mike didn’t have a will, and that was a mess. My dad had a will, but was unprepared in other ways when he died, and as the only child and executor, I was left to straighten it out. I want things to go easily for those I’m leaving behind – especially if it happens suddenly.

Secondly, yeah, I’m superstitious. As in: If I overprepare, nothing’s going to happen. 

Obviously, that’s not going to work forever. But I’ll keep trying.

— 6 —

Speaking of books – look!

I finally got my copies!

You can find it at the Loyola site here and Amazon here, and hopefully at your local Catholic bookseller soon, along with all the rest of the Loyola Kids books – a great matched set to gift your local Catholic school and parish – every classroom needs a set, don’t you think?

I’ll write more about the book next week. 

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort.

— 7 —

No family travel or movie-watching this week. One kid did a youth group paintball excursion, while the other went with a friend to a water park, so at least some people got out while Mom was feverishly, obsessively finishing a project that isn’t due for five IMG_20180726_222819.jpgmonths. (Oh, did I already mention that?) The older one worked several evenings, and the younger one did watch a couple of movies on his own, but again – I was in here, writing, checking off a box, writing some more, checking off  another box.

(I am a fairly disorganized, reactive, INFP, come-what-may person in general, but when it comes to this kind of project, I am very, very organized – I make a schedule, I write that schedule out, and stick to it. Simply put: I want to keep projects like this in their proper place in my life, freeing myself up to be all drifting and meditative for the rest of the day. Boxing this type of work in a strict schedule is the way to make that happen.)

I did watch, late one night, a bit of Lost in Translation. I’d seen it in theaters when it came out, and recall liking it – and had intended to rewatch it before we went to Japan – I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. I do like Bill Murray in almost anything, but wow, this film struck me as so simplistically racist and willing to exploit stereotypes. Yes, the scene in the beginning  where the commercial director goes on and on for a while, a speech which then the translator says to Murray comes down to “look to the right” – was funny because it echoes my experience in convenience stores, where the cashiers just talk and talk in a way that seems almost ritualistic, and really, all they’re saying is, “Thank you, and here’s your change.”

But I ended up only watching half of it. I was so deeply annoyed at the Scarlett Johansson character for being so helpless and unadventurous, I couldn’t stand watching her any more.  There’s also a way to capture that fish-out-of-water experience without resorting to stereotypes, and Coppola didn’t do it here.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Are you interested in the dynamic between the French Third Republic and Catholicism as played out in colonized lands?

No??

Well, too bad.

This week’s meaty read was An Empire Divided by Stanford historian J.P. Daughton. I’ll just borrow a summary:

Between 1880 and 1914, tens of thousands of men and women left France for distant religious missions, driven by the desire to spread the word of Jesus Christ, combat Satan, and convert the world’s pagans to Catholicism. But they were not the only ones with eyes fixed on foreign shores. Just as the Catholic missionary movement reached its apex, the young, staunchly secular Third Republic launched the most aggressive campaign of colonial expansion in French history. Missionaries and republicans abroad knew they had much to gain from working together, but their starkly different motivations regularly led them to view one another with resentment, distrust, and even fear. 

In An Empire Divided, J.P. Daughton tells the story of how troubled relations between Catholic missionaries and a host of republican critics shaped colonial policies, Catholic amy-welborn5perspectives, and domestic French politics in the tumultuous decades before the First World War. With case studies on Indochina, Polynesia, and Madagascar, An Empire Divided–the first book to examine the role of religious missionaries in shaping French colonialism–challenges the long-held view that French colonizing and “civilizing” goals were shaped by a distinctly secular republican ideology built on Enlightenment ideals. By exploring the experiences of Catholic missionaries, one of the largest groups of French men and women working abroad, Daughton argues that colonial policies were regularly wrought in the fires of religious discord–discord that indigenous communities exploited in responding to colonial rule. 

After decades of conflict, Catholics and republicans in the empire ultimately buried many of their disagreements by embracing a notion of French civilization that awkwardly melded both Catholic and republican ideals. But their entente came at a price, with both sides compromising long-held and much-cherished traditions for the benefit of establishing and maintaining authority. Focusing on the much-neglected intersection of politics, religion, and imperialism, Daughton offers a new understanding of both the nature of French culture and politics at the fin de siecle, as well as the power of the colonial experience to reshape European’s most profound beliefs.

Does it seem obscure? Perhaps – but then consider this. It’s a story of men and women in various lands living their lives of administration, mission, and whatever daily pursuits are theirs. They’re doing what they’re doing in a certain context that they both create and by which they are created.

Which is exactly what you and I are doing, and someday, someone will write a history of, say, the interplay between Christianity and the United States of Trump or Obama or in the context of early 21st century globalism, and while it might seem an academic question, you see now that it’s not – for it’s where you’re living and all of what’s swirling around in the air is shaping how you and I think about everything, including faith.

That’s why history interests me so much. I’m just taken up with curiosity about human motivation and choices and the dynamics that move us in one direction or another – as individuals and en masse. I’m the person standing at the edge of the crowd studying everyone and (probably) eavesdropping. Reading history is just staring and eavesdropping from a distance, therefore much more politely.

And as regular readers know, I’m particularly interested in histories that promise to bust up a narrative and question received wisdom. Those are my favorites.

An Empire Divided does some of that. What Daughton takes on is the tendency of historians of colonialism and imperialism to at best misunderstand and at worst ignore the role of missions. He hones in on three areas in order to make his case: Indochina, French Polynesia and Madagascar.

Some of the interesting and important points:

  • The Third Republic was, of course, anti-Catholic and the conflict between the Church and the Republic tends to define late 19th century French history. This conflict culminated in early 20th century laws that severely limited the Church’s role in French society. The fascinating irony, as Daughton points out, is that even as Republicans were fulminating against the Church at home, abroad, they were finding that their imperial aspirations were deeply dependent on….Catholic missionaries. C’est un problème!
  • For, of course, French Catholic missionaries had been present in these areas before French administrators. Their presence was vital in helping the French colonizers establish their foothold and often in keeping peace. And of course, it was mostly Catholic male and female missionaries who ran the schools, hospitals and orphanages. So the rabidly anti-Catholic French Republicans found themselves in a bit of a quandary out in the field.
  • How they dealt with this was largely dependent on the political winds back in France. At times there was an understanding relationship, but at times, things went south – as they did in Polynesia, when eventually, the government took over all the Catholic establishments and kicked the missionaries – mostly religious women – out of their roles. Another point: the stronger the role Freemasons had in local government, the greater the hostility to the Catholics was – not surprisingly.
  • In Madagascar, the situation was made even more complex by the presence of Protestants. This was fairly convoluted, and related to the earlier presence of the English on the island before the French took it. English Protestants and Quakers had great success in evangelizing Madagascar before the French decided they wanted it. Their continuing presence contributed to tensions which French Protestants thought they might help alleviate – but as it turns out, no one on any side wanted them. Of course the French Catholic missionaries (mostly Jesuits) didn’t want them around. Most of the time, the French administration didn’t want them because they suspected them of being allied with the English (which the French Protestants vigorously attempted to dispute, consciously aligning themselves with French Revolutionary and Republican ideals) and even the English Protestants didn’t want them because their ministry was mostly with indigenous peoples hostile to French rule…so more French speakers, no matter how Protestant, wouldn’t help. Quite interesting.
  • The other major thread running through the narrative focuses on the impact of French Republican ideals and practices on Catholic missions. For the first part of the period, Catholic missionaries saw their role as purely religious, with no connection at all to French aims, not even culturally. The French were constantly irritated with the Catholic missionaries in Indochina and Polynesia, for example, because they balked at teaching the indigenous peoples French. The narratives that the missionaries provide for this period are focused on matters of salvation and moral life and are at the very least, indifferent to colonizers and at most extremely hostile to them and the destruction and harm they brought to the people whom they were serving. (This is a common theme in mission work, and a tension worth remembering.)

So:

Sisters, however did not see officials or the effects of colonialism in such benign terms. Envisioning their schools as sanctuaries from corrupting colonial influences, teaching sisters were critical of official policies contemptuous of the administration, and disdainful of the colonial expansion that brought white men in close proximity to their girls. More than a love or a hatred of all things French, Catholic sisters instilled in their students of French men

amy_welborn8

 of all kinds: merchants marines colonists and officials. In missionary sisters’ eyes, the very administrators who came to inspect their schools were symbols of moral debauchery that quite literally threatened the lives of their students….Though teaching sisters were practical and inexpensive, officials’ particular esteem for them became increasingly fraught with paradox…

…Nonetheless, just as republicans in France were calling for the “separation of Church and schoo,” administrators in Polynesia (and elsewhere across the French empire) were asking missionaries to play an important role in civilizing colonial subjects. (143-44, 150)

  • But over time, in almost all cases, the French Catholic missionaries shifted their tone and began to present themselves as part of the French colonial enterprise to the world. Mostly, one can assume, for reasons of self-preservation.
  • Daughton’s evidence for this is in the voluminous and popular magazines and almanacs published by French missionary societies, which over time began to present missionary efforts as an important and necessary element of the light that France was bringing to a darkened world.
  • But then, of course, irony of ironies – how it all worked out:

Across the former colonial world, the most imposing structures — be it in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, or in the port of Papeete — are often the spires of the century-old French churches. Today, in many regions of the world once under the French flag, Catholicism has often endured and even flourished where liberal, republican ideals have faded and where French has become an archaic tongue. Considering how deeply religion shapes people’s lives and defines their communities, the most profound legacy of French republican imperialism may well be, ironically, Christianity. (266)

Finally, Daughton points to an apostolic letter of Benedict XV, Maximum Illud, published in 1919 to help Catholics refocus on mission aims in the wake of the devastation of the Great War. There’s a section he takes to be a reference to the direction French missions had been taking over the previous two decades:

  1. It would be tragic indeed if any of our missionaries forgot the dignity of their office so completely as to busy themselves with the interests of their terrestrial homeland instead of with those of their homeland in heaven. It would be a tragedy indeed if an apostolic man were to spend himself in attempts to increase and exalt the prestige of the native land he once left behind him. Such behavior would infect his apostolate like a plague. It would destroy in him, the representative of the Gospel, the sinews of his love for souls and it would destroy his reputation with the populace. For no matter how wild and barbarous a people may be, they are well aware of what the missionary is doing in their country and of what he wants for them. They will subject him in their own way to a very searching investigation, and if he has any object in view other than their spiritual good, they will find out about it. Suppose it becomes clear that he is involved in worldly schemes of some kind, and that, instead of devoting himself exclusively to the work of the apostolate, he is serving the interests of his homeland as well. The people immediately suspect everything he does. And in addition, such a situation could easily give rise to the conviction that the Christian religion is the national religion of some foreign people and that anyone converted to it is abandoning his loyalty to his own people and submitting to the pretensions and domination of a foreign power.
  2. We have been deeply saddened by some recent accounts of missionary life, accounts that displayed more zeal for the profit of some particular nation than for the growth of the kingdom of God. We have been astonished at the indifference of their authors to the amount of hostility these works stir up in the minds of unbelievers. This is not the way of the Catholic missionary, not if he is worthy of the name. No, the true missionary is always aware that he is not working as an agent of his country, but as an ambassador of Christ. And his conduct is such that it is perfectly obvious to anyone watching him that he represents a Faith that is alien to no nation on earth, since it embraces all men who worship God in spirit and in truth, a Faith in which “there is no Gentile, no Jew, no circumcised, no uncircumcised, no barbarian, no Scythian, no slave, no free man, but Christ is everything in each of us” (Colossians 3:12).

 

It’s clear, not just from this slice, but from the rest of Catholic history as well, that even those most dedicated to the Gospel face the tension of how to do that, as Pope Benedict XV says, within the context of their terrestrial homeland. The pressure to conform to this world and to allow the priorities and values of the principalities and powers to define us is always – always present and powerful, and we are fools to ignore it and worse than fools to be complacent, let down our guard and assume that we are beyond all that in this present moment.

Now, missionary histories were rewritten to show the triumphs of republican colonialism. The readiness and speed with which missionaries reconfigured their venerated spiritual traditions are evidence of the power of the modern nation-state – especially through the experience of colonialism – to demand patriotic conformity from all quarters of the population, even traditionally nonnational organizations like Catholic missionary orders. Within a few fleeting years Catholic missionaries found it impossible to see their work in purely spiritual terms. The politics of religion in fin-de-siècle France required missionaries to work for their patrie on earth or else risk giving up their service to their God in heaven. (256) 

 

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Monday morning catching up

First of all, I’m in Living Faith today – go here to check it out.

If you’ve landed here because you read that entry and want to know more about the trip – click here. It will take you to the pertinent blog entries.

IMG_0170

The boat on the day mentioned in the story in Living Faith. 

All of this just might prompt you to think…wait. Didn’t she say she was going to publish an e-book about that Guatemala trip?

Why yes, yes she did. And it’s still sitting there, three chapters in. The thing is, things keep popping up. So, for example, over the next two weeks I have three fairly large pieces of a bigger project due – the due dates are spread out over six different days, but I have to keep a steady pace of five chunks of it a day in order to keep up.

(Started this post  Sunday morning. Guess what happened….everyone ended up gone all afternoon…I finished every bit of this week’s material. Freedom!)

Plus this other ongoing project, not due until next January, but again, one I need to do in chunks right now or else I’ll be sitting there in December, regretting my life.

So, let’s catch up via my favorite – bullet points.

  • Still here, still overseeing the end of someone’s junior year in the brick and mortar Catholic high school, and homeschooling the 7th grader. Come back tomorrow for a post on Homeschooling the Last Few Weeks of Seventh Grade When the Kid is Going Back to School For Eighth Grade and No One Really Cares Any More.

 

  • There have been no – as in zero – out of town adventures lately, and there won’t be any for a few more weeks. There is just too much stuff every weekend, and we are reaching Peak Piano – and have tossed in jazz piano lessons and pipe organ. And when there’s not a piano thing, there’s an altar serving thing or something else.

 

  • But there are travels on the horizon. I’ve not yet committed to tickets, but we are indeed going to Japan this summer – probably in June. So I guess I’d better get on that, eh? (The thing is – ticket prices tend to stay steady for that route and don’t fluctuate at this point – so I’m in no hurry.)

 

  • Recent viewings:

Aside from the video game Fortnite, the majority of screen time around here over the past few weeks has been devoted to the four seasons of Jeeves and Wooster starring, of course, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I had my 13 year old read a couple of the stories a while back, and thought he might enjoy a look at the series. Ra-ther!

It does get a bit repetitious: Bertie is attempting to flee the clutches of some female and one of his aunts, something must be stolen, and Jeeves fixes it all. But oh, my, at almost every step of the way it’s so beautifully done, with plenty of silly yet sharp satire of the useless English ruling class, and Laurie and Fry fully inhabit their roles and are just a joy to watch.

My older son said, “Mom, you’re kind of like Jeeves. When you talk, it’s like you’re agreeing with us, but underneath, you can tell you think we’re kind of dumb. And you solve everyone’s problems.”

Very good, sir.

One of our favorite elements of the show is how they used Laurie’s musical talents and have Bertie regularly tooling around at the piano (which he didn’t in the Wodehouse stories), usually singing popular novelty songs of the period, with Jeeves passing through the background rolling his eyes.  So now I have a 13-year old who’s got “Nagasaki” memorized (speaking of Japan) and thanks to Bertie Wooster, was introduced to “Minnie the Moocher” and has become fascinated with Cab Calloway.

This might be one of my favorites – it’s enjoyable as it is, but even more so if you’ve watched the entire episode, of which it’s the end – it’s sort of like one of the Lost endings that just gets you with music playing over an ensemble scene. Except this wraps up an episode centering on an African totem, mismatched couples and (of course) attempts to steal said African totem – but it’s still a nice moment.

The main theme to the show is also wonderful – quick, jazzy and interesting. I found a duet version that we’ve been playing around with.

Once I get the current batch of work done, I have some shows I want to try out. I did watch The Letdown it’s a 7-episode Australian show about new motherhood starring the quite wonderful Allison Bell, who also co-created it. I watched it because it features Celeste Barber  in a supporting role– the comedian who is famous right now for her #ChallengeAccepted Instagram account in which she, er, recreates the poses of models from the perspective of a real, non-model person. She’s hilarious – and currently on her first US tour. Anyway, she’s in it, so I tried it out – and enjoyed it quite a bit. (language alert, etc)  It’s darkish comedy – along the lines of Catastrophe, but it’s that edge that makes it real and relatable, and with enough unexpected turns to keep it interesting – the instigator of the lactation sit-in, it turns out (for example), wasn’t kicked out of the cafe because she was breastfeeding, but because she never bought anything and gorged on their free wi-fi. The next-to-the last episode which takes Audrey (the main character) on a weekend journey with her aging hippie mother to visit her horsewoman mother was a succinct, moving and true exploration of the complexities of motherhood: mothers making their choices so often in reaction to the way they were mothered end up simply on the very same road, despite themselves.

There’s even the slightest bit of a Catholic angle and as seems to be so often the case with these shows, even though the characters usually fancy themselves above and beyond religion and even though religious practice is just there and not presented as anything particularly true, what always ends up happening is that as the non-religious bump up against the religious, it’s the former that end up looking foolish and in a sort of denial, protesting far too much. Interesting.

Anyway, if you wouldn’t be offended by language and some frankness – check out The Letdown on Netflix.

Reads:

I’ve read several books over the past couple of weeks, but none have really stuck with me. I’m going to try to make this quick:

  • Anatomy of a Miracle started out promisingly and indeed offered a compelling narrative at first, and one that was – in terms of the Catholic stuff and regional quirks – accurate to the level of painstaking. But then the novel took a rather predictable turn that left me saying well of course that’s his issue  – bored and skimming the last few chapters.
  • The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Tom Rachman, who wrote a novel about expat journalists in Rome that I sort of liked. But I should have remembered that I didn’t like it that much and maybe thought twice about spending the hours I did reading this. It had a structure that was either intriguing or irritating – I can’t decide. Centered on a young woman coming to grips with a quite unusual childhood, I suppose I would conclude two things: first, the reason for the upbringing was not as compelling as we’re led to believe early on and secondly, the nature of certain relationships are withheld from us in a way that ultimately comes off as coy and manipulative. If this main character didn’t know who these people were and only gradually discovered it, that would be one thing – but she knows all along, and we’re only told halfway through the book – maybe further. Bah. That happens? You feel manipulated when the narrative eye is hers.
  • I liked Memento Park the most, and I’d recommend it. It’s also about an adult trying to understand his past, this time a C-list actor with Hungarian roots. He’s challenged in his self-understanding by news of a painting that, it’s said, his family has a claim to, a claim that is possibly traceable to the Nazi era. The novel is short, but complex, with a definite, if subtle spiritual subtext.

I’m back on non-fiction now, reading a book that would probably bore the heck out of you, but is right up my alley. It’s called An Empire Divided – 

Between 1880 and 1914, tens of thousands of men and women left France for distant religious missions, driven by the desire to spread the word of Jesus Christ, combat Satan, and convert the world’s pagans to Catholicism. But they were not the only ones with eyes fixed on foreign shores. Just as the Catholic missionary movement reached its apex, the young, staunchly secular Third Republic launched the most aggressive campaign of colonial expansion in French history. Missionaries and republicans abroad knew they had much to gain from working together, but their starkly different motivations regularly led them to view one another with resentment, distrust, and even fear. 

In An Empire Divided, J.P. Daughton tells the story of how troubled relations between Catholic missionaries and a host of republican critics shaped colonial policies, Catholic perspectives, and domestic French politics in the tumultuous decades before the First World War. With case studies on Indochina, Polynesia, and Madagascar, An Empire Divided–the first book to examine the role of religious missionaries in shaping French colonialism–challenges the long-held view that French colonizing and “civilizing” goals were shaped by a distinctly secular republican ideology built on Enlightenment ideals. By exploring the experiences of Catholic missionaries, one of the largest groups of French men and women working abroad, Daughton argues that colonial policies were regularly wrought in the fires of religious discord–discord that indigenous communities exploited in responding to colonial rule. 

After decades of conflict, Catholics and republicans in the empire ultimately buried many of their disagreements by embracing a notion of French civilization that awkwardly melded both Catholic and republican ideals. But their entente came at a price, with both sides compromising long-held and much-cherished traditions for the benefit of establishing and maintaining authority. Focusing on the much-neglected intersection of politics, religion, and imperialism, Daughton offers a new understanding of both the nature of French culture and politics at the fin de siecle, as well as the power of the colonial experience to reshape European’s most profound beliefs.

 

Why is that fascinating to me, and a book I pick up more eagerly than I do most novels? Well, because it’s history – and a chunk of history that’s new to me, and I’m always up for that. It’s also in the broader genre of Ah, you thought you had the general gist of things – like colonialism and Catholic mission? Well, let me tell you something….

More when I finish it.

Now to finish this and get ready to answer the phone to do a bit of radio – I’m about to be on the Sonrise Morning Show to talk about St. Catherine of Siena – this piece in particular. 

 

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I’ve been posting a lot of pre-owned content lately, but believe me, I have an excuse!

It’s called work. I’m involved in a project that, while not the most taxing in the world, does gobble up my free time in the very early mornings and later evenings, as well as another ongoing project that I’m still not settled into, and that is taking up a bit more mental space than I thought – once I do settle, I’m hoping I can spend about 15 minutes a day on it over the next few months. But I need to get this Other Thing done first – and the final deadline for the last section of that is in early March, so….

Brain is in Occupied Mode for the moment.

But a few notes, completely random, but mostly reading-related.

  • What am I reading? I realized with dismay that it had been a while since I had actually finished reading a book. I discovered a Trollope that was left hanging, and then The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers that I got 2/3 through and then there’s that Vietnamese priest book I started a few weeks back. Seriously, one of my Lent disciplines is to begin reading books and finish them. 
  • What I have finished, though, are books “for school.”  I had my 13-year old read The Lord of the Flies and read it along with him  –  a book as fascinating and depressing as it always is. Having recently finished watching Lost, we were both struck by some parallels and, we suspect, inspirations for the series in the book.
  • The very brief passage that struck me with the most force comes at the very end (spoiler alert!) in the scene in which the children are discovered by the British naval personnel. If you recall, the major conflict in the book has been between Ralph, the boy who attempts to hold on to civilization for as long as possible, and Jack, the leader of the choir boys who battles to assume leadership on the island, driven by a hunter’s bloodlust. Jack, through most of the book, is painted as a powerful, almost mythic figure. All the other boys come under is power and, as the book rushes to an end, Ralph is racing for his life from Jack and those under his sway.
  • But then at the very end, the point of view shifts, and we see the entire situation  from the perspective of the newly-arrived adult. He asks who had been leading the boys. Ralph quickly says that he was. And then:

A little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his
red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist,
started forward, then changed his mind and stood still.

  • I have read that sentence over and over, trying to absorb the power of the shift in point of view and what it tells us about what’s real, what we think is real, and what’s really real.
  • Other readings with the homeschooling 7th grader: Before Lord of the Flies, he read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – see appropriate Chesterton quote here. 
  • The next “school novel” is on a somewhat lighter vein – he suggest Murder on the Orient Express, and I had no problem with it. He started it today, so the “school” part of the reading involved an introduction to the genre of detective fiction (which interests him because he’s just started watching Sherlock), Agatha Christie’s life, and then some history and geography inspired by the first three chapters of the book – here’s an excellent page of chapter-by-chapter annotations, and really, take a look. When a kid reads Murder on the Orient Express and goes on all the rabbit trails inspired by it, look at what he can explore: the geography of the Near East, as well as the area covered by the train route, as well as the history of the period in that area – a time in places like Aleppo and Kirkuk very different from our own.
  • Short story read on Monday: “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” – by Stephen Crane. Emphasis on the humor in the story as well as the story as a metaphor for the changes then occurring in the West.

Poems read over the past couple of weeks:

  • “Do not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
  • “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
  • “The Lake Isle of Innisfreee”
  • “The World is Too Much With Us”
  • “Miniver Cheevy”
  •  “Fern Hill”

 

For his own, individual reading, he’s tearing through Dune. I gave him the first volume for Christmas, he read it, then read Children of Dune over a couple of days (it’s much shorter than the first) and is about to start Dune Messiah. 

  • Older brother has just started The Great Gatsby for school, so I’m reading that, too – can I admit that this is the first time for me?

Guys, I went to high school in the 70’s. We read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for religion class, for pete’s sake.

In case you think this business of “Mom reading along with school assignments” is weird and just too helicoptery for words, please consider:

  • like to read and talk about books. It’s what I do. 
  • Talking about books together is a good thing. Talk about books with your spouse, your friends, your kids, your book group, strangers on a plane – it’s all good, it expands your brain and your experience a little bit, every time.
  • Go see The Commuter – the latest Liam Neeson-as-unlikely-hero film.  Okay, forget I said that. Don’t go see it because it’s just barely okay, but it has a sweet – and actually crucial –  plot point related to Neeeson and his high school son’s school reading assignments.
  • So yeah, maybe if you read along with your kids’ reading assignments, you too can be a hero on a commuter train….

 

 

 

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 [Insert ritual apologies for negligent posting here]

— 1 —

What are my excuses?

  • Holiday & family – all of them at one time or another. #Blessed!
  • Homeschooling
  • Recovering from one project
  • Gearing up for another…or two.
  • Pondering Stuff. Really trying to get that Guatemala e-book finished.
  • A news cycle that is impossible to keep up with
  • Widespread insanity that would take 28 hours a day to address.
  • Wrestling with the temptation to do just that – to add one’s voice to to the cacophony, to come up with the Hottest Take of All.
  • Deciding that it would be better to talk with the kids, do stuff with the kids and read books instead.
  • Lost. But not for too much longer! Season 6 is almost halfway done. It will be sad when it’s over, but also somewhat of a relief. It’s kind of exhausting.
  • Planning travel. You know that was in there – obsessively Kayak-ing, AirBnB-ing and TripAdvisor-ing always puts me into radio silence elsewhere.

 — 2 —

That said a few links and notes. First a link: From Aletia, a nice piece on Rorate Caeli Masses. What rot to discourage, get rid of or outright suppress such traditions. In the name of..who knows what. So pagans and the National Council of Churches would like us more? Bah. 

First of all, since the Mass is normally celebrated right before dawn, the warm rays of the winter sun slowly light up the church. If timed correctly, by the end of Mass the entire church is filled with light by the sun. This speaks of the general theme of Advent, a time of expectation eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Son of God, the Light of the World. In the early Church Jesus was often depicted as Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun,” and December 25 was known in the pagan world as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). Saint Augustine makes reference to this symbolism in one of his sermons, “Let us celebrate this day as a feast not for the sake of this sun, which is beheld by believers as much as by ourselves, but for the sake of him who created the sun.”

Connected to this symbolism is the fact that this Mass is celebrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, often referred to by the title “Morning Star.” Astronomically speaking the “morning star” is the planet Venus and is most clearly seen in the sky right before sunrise or after sunset. It is the brightest “star” in the sky at that time and heralds or makes way for the sun. The Blessed Mother is the true “Morning Star,” always pointing us to her Son and so the Rorate Mass reminds us of Mary’s role in salvation history.

Secondly, it echoes to us the truth that the darkness of night does not last, but is always surpassed by the light of day. This is a simple truth we often forget, especially in the midst of a dark trial when the entire world seems bent on destroying us. God reassures us that this life is only temporary and that we are “strangers and sojourners” in a foreign land, destined for Heaven.

— 3 —

To prove how tardy I am in these takes, here’s a link from 11/21 – a wonderful homily from Fr. Roger Landry on the Feast of the Presentation, reflecting not only on that feast, but on its traditional association with contemplative religious:

But Zacchaeus didn’t care. He wanted to see the Lord and none of these obstacles was going to stop him. His example challenges each of us to consider what is the extent to which we go, what trees or obstacles we’ll climb, in order to see Jesus more clearly. Are we capable of being accounted fools for Christ for following those means that others might consider silly if they will bring us into greater relationship with Jesus? Contemplatives are those who seek to overcome all obstacles to come to be with Jesus, to be perpetually looking at him who is passing by. Monasteries are like great tree houses in which they can be looking out for the Lord and praying for all of us. Similarly, Zacchaeus is a model of immediate receptivity. Jesus said to him, “Come down quickly,” and that’s precisely what he did. He didn’t delay. He received Jesus into his home in a consequential way, doing reparation for whatever wrong he had done in a super-compensatory way. God wants our quick response as well. And when we welcome him, we welcome the salvation that the Savior brings. Contemplatives show us the priority of this welcome!

— 4

I am usually the curmudgeonly skeptic when it comes to tech in the classroom, but this looks quite interesting:

The game provides far more interactivity than is possible by listening to a traditional lecture or reading a text,” said Susan Sutherland, lecturer at Texas A&M. “It delivers a tangible way for students to not only recognize works of art, but to explore the context in which they were created. As students are immersed in the game, they build strategic thinking skills and gain knowledge to motivate them to keep playing and learning. The goal of the class is not only to increase their knowledge and have fun playing the game, but to spark interest in further research on the Medici, or perhaps even to go to Florence to see the art and architecture that they have studied!”

— 5 –

Current reads:

  • The Yearling – I’m (re)reading this along with my son. I haven’t read it since I was about 12 years old, an experience that had quite an impact on me. I loved the book, was thunderstruck by the end, and sobbed, probably for days. As I re-read, I understand the book’s appeal to me, aside from what would appeal to anyone: the lush, precise descriptions, the humor, the humanity. It’s the fact that Jody is an only child and feels that only-ness quite deeply, yearning, as he does, just for something living to call his own and care for. Yes, I can see how that would appeal to only-child me.
  • If you’ve never read The Yearling, give it a try. It’s not a young children’s book, although strong readers can certainly enjoy it. It won the Pulitzer Prize, for heaven’s sake.
  • I grabbed a  copy of The Nine Tailors in the “free” bin at Second and Charles. I had probably read it as a teen – I think I read all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels then – but it has been a while, and it’s a pleasure to  be back in that world, even as all the bell-tolling business is certainly impenetrable to me.
  • Today on the “new” shelf at the library I picked up The Leper Spy, which was an interesting, if padded account of the life of a Filipino woman who did some important espionage work for the Filipino Resistance and the Americans during the Japanese occupation. It is one of the books that would have done just as well as a long-form magazine article, but because those sorts of things have no home anymore, a book it is.
  • Joey Guerrero was in her early 20’s when she contracted leprosy. The hook of the story is that she used her condition as an asset in resistance – she was able to move about among the Japanese occupiers, gathering and passing along information, because the Japanese would go out of their way to avoid being close to her.
  • The book, however, is odd. Perhaps because there is not enough detail on Joey’s wartime activities, the author has to basically offer us a history of World War II in the Philippines to give us enough for a book. Which is fine, for those of us who don’t know a lot about it. The problem though, is that since the actual Joey Guerrero-in-wartime material is so sketchy – seriously, maybe ten pages out of the first hundred – the reader is left wondering if this person really merits a book-length treatment. That’s why I think a shorter account would pack a bigger punch.
  • It was definitely worth a couple of hours of my time, though – more worthwhile than scrolling hopelessly through the news online! The author treats Joey’s deep Catholic faith with great respect, although right off the bat he gets the definition of the Immaculate Conception wrong, and honestly, when that happens, it makes me want to toss the book right there because, really? Can I trust you at all now? But I forged on, hoping that was just a blip. But can we put it in some Manual of Style somewhere? THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION ≠ VIRGINAL CONCEPTION OF CHRIST, PEOPLE.
  • The latter part of the book tells an interesting tale, as well, for after the war, Guerrero eventually made her way to the Carville, Louisiana facility for Hansen’s Disease patients – and the story of her fight to enter the country and stay here is instructive, particularly considering contemporary immigration debates.

— 6 —

One brief jaunt this week (although it’s Thursday night as a write this, and Friday usually sees Jaunts – go to Instagram Stories to follow whatever might happen in that regard) – to Red Mountain Park,  a vast tract of land that is slowly but surely being developed with trails, adventure areas, and highlights of the mines that once were active there.

Frank Gilmer and John T. Milner founded the Oxmoor Furnaces and opened Red Mountain’s first commercial ore mine in late 1863. This mine became known as Eureka 1 and is located on Red Mountain Park. In 1864, Wallace McElwain built the Irondale Furnace (Cahaba Iron Works) and supplied it with iron ore via tramway from the nearby Helen Bess mine. Union troops, led by General James H. Wilson, destroyed both furnaces as they swept through Alabama late in the war. These early furnaces laid the foundation for future growth and prosperity. Soon enough, the “secret” of Red Mountain would be a secret no more.

The last mine closed in 1962.

This time we headed to a newly -developed section, containing a recently re-opened mine entrance and, for some reason, giant Adirondack chairs.

 

 

The photo on the far right was taken through a grate. Don’t worry. You really can’t go in the mine. 

 

— 7 —

Advent family devotional! Get it instantly! For .99!

St. Nicholas day is a few weeks away….and don’t forget Bambinelli Sunday!

 

St. Nicholas pamphlet. 

St. Nicholas Center website. 

Looking for Christmas gifts? Try here!

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For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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This is a reprint from last year. Haven’t changed my mind on any of it – so here you go. 

I spent some time today reading about and trying to sort out St. Rose of Lima.  I knew the basics that most of us know, and not much more: mystic, extreme ascetic.  When I was a girl, I remember reading about how she drove her metal-spiked crown of thorns into her scalp. That was, not surprisingly, my main takeaway.

So today, I decided to dig deeper. I read through most of this 19th century biography – a translation into English from French. I read what chapters I could (the first two) of this reassessment and psychological unpacking, and finally settled in a more comfortable place than either of those with a chapter from Four in Heaven (1962) by British author Sheila Kaye-Smith.

What to make of her, the first saint of the Americas, this young woman who engaged in such extreme mortifications that even some of her contemporary confessors and other observers, including her mother,  thought she was going too far?

It might be tempting for us moderns to dismiss figures such as Rose. She was, we might gently suggest, mentally ill.  She was a victim and product of a guilt-ridden Catholic culture who could not simply accept the grace of God, but thought she had to abnegate herself in order to merit it.

But we shouldn’t do that. It is not helpful or right, in a Catholic context, to be so dismissive. Nor is it necessary to uncritically embrace all the hagiography. We must also always remember that in the Catholic view of saints, we bring two perspectives: to imitate st. rose of limaand to admire. We are not called to imitation of every action of every saint, because we live in different cultures, with various personalities. So not feeling the pull to jam a crown of metal thorns into our scalps should not cause anxiety. It’s okay.

In thinking this over, this struck me: it seems to me that even the saints who pursued extreme ways of personal asceticism did not indicate that everyone do the same.

St. Catherine, in her many letters, does not advise her correspondents that the solution to their spiritual problems was to live as she did, on a single grain of rice a day and sleeping on a board (when she slept). There might be a call to change, to repent, and perhaps to embrace some small mortification, but mostly what we read in her writings, at least, is an urgent invitation to realize how deeply Christ loves us and to live in that light, not the darkness the world offers.

They seem quite aware of the uniqueness of their own path, and do not suggest that theirs is the standard by which all others should be judged. In fact, the saints seem to take the opposite tack: as stubborn as they are about their own mortifications, they tend to keep them secret as much as they are able and are uncomfortable with “followers” who are following them rather than following Christ.

In trying to understand St. Rose, these thoughts come to mind.

She sensed a call to belong to Christ alone. In her culture and her family circumstance, she had to go to extremes to make sure that was clear to everyone and she would not be forced into marriage. Perhaps you can see this as manipulation, or you can see it as a strong rejection of the world in a most personal way.

It is interesting and important to note that hardly anyone knew of these mortifications during her life. The people of Lima who flocked to her funeral by the thousands certainly did not – they came because this young woman radiated the love of Christ.

 

St. Rose would say that her mortifications were in fidelity to her call to conform herself completely to Christ. Christ sacrificed himself. Christ’s supreme act of love was his Passion and death.  Many of us think of this call differently today: to accept what sufferings happen to come our way in a sacrificial spirit, in imitation of Christ, rather than to create them ourselves. Perhaps the experience of St. Rose can expand our own approach by helping us understand that living as a disciple does, indeed mean conforming ourselves to the Crucified Christ, accepting that the Cross will be a part of whatever path we follow, but that if we do find ourselves conforming to the world instead, it is time to take action and be more intentional – to make sacrifices in addition to accepting them as they come.

I also wondered, based on the minimal reading I did on this, if perhaps Rose knew herself and we should trust her. Perhaps she knew that she had a tendency to vanity. Perhaps she knew that even if she gave up marriage and lived as sort of anchorite, intensely focused on Christ, that she would still draw attention and that attention, even if it is directed at spiritual rather than physical beauty, would be a temptation to her. Perhaps her extreme mortifications were directed at keeping herself conformed to the humble Christ in the most radical way, a way that she knew, for herself, would be at risk as people were drawn to her. Perhaps she wanted to keep herself radically open to Christ in her physical weakness so that she would always remember it was Jesus, not her, that the people of Lima desired and sought.

I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

It comes down to this. Different culture, but same Jesus, same faith. We are tempted to dismiss it, but that’s not Catholic. Instead, we dig deeper, realize our own cultural limitations, and listen. Because, you know, she’s not wrong.

It’s a mystery, but suffering can be beneficial and bear tremendous fruit. She’s not wrong.

Christian discipleship is about conforming ourselves to Christ. She’s not wrong. 

The world is beautiful (Rose grew flowers!) but can stand between us and God if we don’t know how to love properly.  She’s not wrong.

“Success”  in the spiritual life can lead to an inflated sense of self and hubris.

She’s not wrong.

*****

Unrelated: Today you can find me in Living Faith.  (and yesterday, too, if you go back a day)

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