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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

— 1 —

The big news down here was of course, Hurricane Michael. We were well out of the way of anything except some clouds, but of course the Gulf shore is “the beach” for this part of the country. We’ve never actually been to Mexico Beach, but many people do spend time in that area – and of course many live down there and have seen their lives turned completely upside down in this devastation. I can’t see how an area recovers from this.

Before and after photos here.

 

— 2 —

Reading: A couple of days ago, I read the novel The Last Cruise by Kate Christensen. I had read her The Great Man and thought it was just okay – but this was on the new books shelf at the library, it vaguely appealed to me, and I wanted to have a real book on hand to read one evening as a prophylatic against the temptation of screens, so there you go.

Like the other – it was okay. It kept my interest, and I enjoyed reading about food – from one of the ship’s chef’s perspective – and music, from the perspective of an aging Israeli musician on board. In fact, both of those subplots – about the Hungarian sous-chef trying to figure out his path – and the string quartet composed of one woman and three men, all elderly and all veterans of life in Israel during its formative years, including military service – were absorbing enough. But the rest of the characters were too lightly sketched or too (surprisingly) stereotypical representatives of ethnic groups. I thought she could have done a lot more with the setting and bigger theme – this “last cruise” is on a smaller cruise ship being retired after this voyage, a ship that enjoyed its heyday in the 50’s and 60’s , and the voyage was themed to be a retro celebration of all of that. There was also just a bit too much busy-ness in the plot and honestly, the main female character (not the musician) wasn’t interesting at all.

A lot of readers on both Amazon and Goodreads hate the ending – and so I was prepared to hate it, too, but…I didn’t. When you have a book set on a ship, you’ve got a ready-made metaphor for Life right there, and it just seemed to me that the ending was, if not emotionally satisfying, true to the way that life goes, all of us knocking about on this ship, subject to uncontrollable forces, doing what we can, be surprised by each other along the way.

Some reader-reviewers say that the end is too much like the climax of The Perfect Storm, but since I’ve neither read nor seen it, I can’t speak to that.

— 3 —

Well, we’ve got some canonizations this weekend, don’t we? Romero I get of course, but Paul VI? Really? Well, I take that back. Since I have no illusions about ecclesiastical politics and ideological agendas, sure, I get the push to canonize Paul VI. But…yeah. Tell me about all the popular devotion to Paul VI out there. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

/cynicism.

Well, that’s not honest because my cynicism is never off. Sorry.

Anyway, more important than my snide remarks are the lives of the five other saints being canonized today. Here’s a report.

Blessed Nunzio Sulprizio was born in Pescosansonesco (Italy) on 13 April 1817 and died in Naples (Italy) on 5 May 1836. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI on 1 December 1963.

Blessed Francesco Spinelli, diocesan priest and Founder of the Institute of the Sister Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament, who born in Milan (Italy) on 14 April 1853 and died at Rivolta d’Adda (Italy) on 6 February 1913.

Blessed Vincenzo Romano, diocesan priest, who was born at Torre del Greco (Italy) on 3 June 1751 and died there on 20 December 1831.

Blessed Maria Caterina Kasper, Foundress of the Institute of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ who was born on 26 May 1820 in Dernbach (Germany) and died there on 2 February 1898.

Blessed Nazaria Ignazia March Mesa (in religion: Nazaria Ignazia di Santa Teresa di Gesù), Foundress of the Congregation of the Misioneras Cruzadas de la Iglesia Sisters who was born in Madrid (Spain) on 10 January 1889 and died in Buenos Aires (Argentina) on 6 July 1943.

— 4 —

Samford University, a local Baptist institution, is hosting a conference at the end of the month – on teaching Dante. 

In a 1921 encyclical marking the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death, Pope Benedict XV praised the great Florentine poet as “that noble figure, pride and glory of humanity.” Few writers have shaped the Christian intellectual tradition and imagination more than Dante, this noble figure whose work stands between two worlds, embodying the creative genius of the Middle Ages while anticipating and shaping the Renaissance to come. “Teaching Dante” will bring together more than thirty scholars from across the disciplines to explore effective strategies for introducing a new generation of students to Dante’s achievement and influence.

Hopefully, we’ll get to the free lecture, by Notre Dame’s Theodore Cachey, called “Mapping Hell.”

— 5 —

Next Monday is the feast of St. Teresa of Avila. She’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints, and Loyola has a very readable excerpt here 

(If you would like to read a pdf version, click here.) 

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St. Ignatius of Antioch coming up, too – October 17. Go here to prep for that!

— 6 —

If you don’t come here regularly during the week, check back a few days to the big post I did on our long weekend trip to the Kansas City area. 

 

More travel coming fairly soon: to NYC this time, so stay tuned here and to Instagram for that.

Just a reminder: if you cast your eyes up the screen a bit, you see a couple of tabs up there – and they will take to pages with blog posts focused on those topics: homeschooling and travel. The travel page isn’t complete, but I’m getting there.

Also – I’ve posted some more general interest posts of old to the Medium site. 

 

— 7 —

Coming soon: Posts on Better Call Saul and Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I read on the plane to Kansas City.

Hopefully, early next week.

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

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Is it Thursday already? Well, well. A busy weekend is coming, and it involves travel. You Thursdaymight want to follow on Instagram for a taste. It’s not an exotic or novel destination, but hopefully, we’ll see new things.

Today’s the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, of course. Go here for a mega post with links to some of the many things I’ve written about St. Francis over the years. Bottom line takeaway? Read Francis for yourself. He didn’t write much. It’s all available, free. You might be surprised. 

So, on to the digest routine. Today it will be just reading:

Reading: I finished 1808: The Flight of the Emperor. How a Weak Prince, a Mad Queen, and the British Navy Tricked Napoleon and Changed the New World.  It was a decent, popular introduction to the events, but left me with many questions – there are works out there that go into more depth, but, as  I said, this serves as a good, easy-to read introduction.

(Reminder: I knew nothing about this before a couple of weeks ago, when I listened to a BBC 4 radio program on the creation of the nation of Brazil.)

Short version: Brazil was, of course, a Portuguese colony. In 1807, Napoleon was about to invade Portugal, and in order to save, if not that slip of the Iberian peninsula, perhaps the core and economic engine of the empire, the Royal Court hopped on boats and sailed across the Atlantic to Rio. All of them. Plus thousands of retainers and lesser nobility.1808 brazil They just….left.

It was certainly interesting to read about the stark contrast between aristocratic life in Portugal and the roughness of life in Rio. What’s most interesting though, as it usually is, is the inevitability of the Law of Unintended Consequences – for the ironic result of the decampment was, ironically, the independence of the colony, which came sooner than anyone could have predicted, and probably much more peaceably, because of the presence of the royal family in the land for more than a decade and the continued presence, even after everyone else had returned, of regent Pedro I.

And…then…there are the rabbit trails. My ‘satiable curiosity leads me down many, which is why sometimes it takes me longer to read a book like this than it should. Today’s rabbit trails were all about slavery – specifically slavery and religious orders in Brazil.

Ahem. [Clears throat for rant.]

History. It’s a wonderful thing. Really. What do they say? To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant? Well, not they, but Cardinal Newman, of course.

And I do agree with that. But that doesn’t mean that I also agree with the way that most religious history is presented most of the time by most well-meaning Catholics.

For the truth is, the triumphalist narrative, while not as overt as it was, perhaps before Vatican II, still reigns. That narrative which drains history of complexity and ambiguity and which lives in fear, most of all, of a secularist or (just as bad!) Prog Catholic being able to chortle See! The Church does change! 

And I get it. I taught high school, for pete’s sake.

So what passes for passing on our Church’s history is really a lot of  intense apologetics – much of which is truly quite legit – and parsing to make sure that we all understand that it wasn’t, strictly speaking and properly defined, the actual Church that was responsible for this bad thing or seemed to have maybe perhaps changed. A little bit.

But guess what? That smooth narrative isn’t real, isn’t honest, and, in the end – as we see in the present moment – makes the sins and inadequacies of the Church even more of a shock to the system and harder to deal with and understand – and, I might add – fix. 

So, take slavery. If you have only the most cursory understanding of the Church and slavery – from the sympathetic side – all you have probably heard is Bartolomo de las Casas – Church always taught slavery was intrinsically wrong – everything else anti-Catholic Black Legend Stuff. 

Well, this brief blog post isn’t about theology or ethics, but just history. And to be honest about history demands that we admit that for most of history, the Church did not present a 100% counter-cultural face when it came to the institution of slavery – although one can argue that the Catholic view of the humanity of enslaved persons was counter-cultural, yes. In a way.

I’ll just limit this to sharing what I read related to this very narrow slice of history, a couple of articles digging a little more deeply into various aspects of this issue.

“The Plantations of St. Benedict: The Benedictine Sugar Mills of Colonial Brazil.” 

-Sugar plantations which provided the economic foundation of Benedictine presence in Brazil and which were worked primarily by enslaved persons, as was the the case with most religious foundations in the New World, with the exception of those run by the Franciscans.

The author examines the economics of the system, but also makes some observations about treatment, arguing that the Benedictine plantations treated slaves more humanely than did most others, encouraging marriage and some independent economic activity.

“Slave Confraternities in Brazil: Their Role in Colonial Society.”

This article interested me because I’m particularly curious about how the official Church explained and co-existed with very official slavery. If you care to create a JSTOR account and log in, this article offers another, fascinating layer to the story.

“One of the most important colonial institutions which joined church and society in the Brazilian cities were the lay confraternities which were attached to churches, convents and monasteries. These voluntary associations of laymen and women joined people of all classes and races in common religious activities and social works of mercy. In colonial Brazil there were separate lay associations for different races, although these racially suggested societies might parade together during religious festivals and share side altars in a common church. Free blacks, mulattoes and slaves joined separate religious associations since the white confraternities were very exclusive and discriminatory towards the poorer non-white population. The slave confraternities of the cities of 18th century Brazil were the only lay religious associations in that society which were open to all people regardless of class, race, sex or ethnic background. However as the century wore on some of the black brotherhoods tended to differentiate among themselves according to tribal distinctions, language, social condition and the extent of assimilation in Portuguese America. The larger slave confraternities like the Rosary brotherhood usually had a more diverse membership of free and slave brothers, mulattoes, Creoles and tribal Africans, blacks and whites.”

And finally, some chunks of a book on Jesuit economic activity – chunks because I read it on Google Books, and I only had about 75% of the pertinent pages available to me that way. If you’d like to take a shot at it, go here, and start on page 502. The author lays out – I think fairly – the conflicts within the order about slavery. There were voices opposed to it – powerful ones – but in the end, practical exigencies won out.

(Click for larger version – also go to above link.)

 

 

 

(Some of you might be aware that, of course, North American Jesuits were no strangers to slavery either – a couple of years ago, Georgetown University acknowledged the role that slavery had played in its beginnings – specifically, the 272 slaves that were sold by Maryland Jesuits to get then Georgetown College out of debt.) 

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Jesuits: Rationalizing capitulation to the culture since the 17th century!

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It’s a serious question, and an intriguing one. This isn’t the first time I’ve made this observation. I have no answer – just an observation.

If we critique the contemporary Church for capitulating to culture and powers and principalities – do we bring the same critique to the past? Or do we say, “Well, we have to understand the context – what else could the Church have done? Hindsight is 20/20, you know.”

If we’re super comfortable with the Church integrating certain novel aspects of contemporary culture into belief and practice – do we bring the same approach to the Church’s actions in the past? Or do we say, “The Church was wrong and sinful and should obviously apologize.”

Just something to think about.

 

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MondayGood morning, all. What a weekend. What a week on the horizon. And it’s only going to intensify over the next month before midterm elections hit us, and then we’ll have weeks of sorting through that….

My survival technique? Keep with what you want to follow, but prioritize real life in encountering people face-to-face.  Read old books. Look up and around and out the window. Say your prayers.

Anyway:

Reading:

The Burglar is one of the more astonishing books I’ve read in recent years. Not because it was magnificent, but because it the overall impact was so unexpected. What Goodis was trying to do was so unusual. It’s a book that I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about for a while, nor do I want to put it out of my head, either. It’s giving me much to think about –  mostly about how existential questions get filtered through pop culture in surprising ways.

I wrote about author David Goodis here. The Burglar is also in the Library of America collection, along with Dark Passage. This time, the protagonist is not innocent or unjustly accused – he’s a professional thief – but the novel is really not about his thieving. It’s about why he’s a thief, the sense of honor that binds him to the people he’s with and shapes his life, and ultimately it’s about the source and potential price of being faithful to one’s code of honor.

And because it’s mid-century, and because it’s noir, it’s a bleak, tight work in which we’re pondering a man who’s pondering the cold reality of being, in the end, alone. And dead.

What I can’t stop thinking about is that The Burglar has some fairly Deep Thoughts coursing through it and some evocative writing, all bound up in this package:

amy-welborn

The last two chapters are quite astonishing, really, and I keep imagining the reaction of the reader who picked up this paperback at the five-and-dime, settled down for a pulpy scorcher of a read, and ends up with our protagonist and the young woman he’s bound by honor to protect out in the inky-dark ocean off Atlantic City in an extended scene that is really a metaphor for life’s forces and our choices combining and pulling us down, down, down.

The plot is: Nat Harbin is a professional thief in his early 30’s. He’d gotten into the business when, as a starving teen orphan, he’d been picked up hitchhiking by a pro who had a young daughter. Eventually the pro is killed during a job and Harbin, the girl and two other men gradually form a family of sorts, a family in which each individual has a burglaring specialty. We meet them in the midst of a huge heist of a stash of emeralds from a Philadelphia mansion. What ends up happening is that a dirty cop decides to take advantage of the situation, enlists a woman named Della to ensnare Harbin, all with the end of getting the emeralds themselves.

Along the way, there are encounters that escalate the way they do only in noir and in the movies, life compressed into meaningful gazes across restaurants, quick cab rides and blunt statements of desire. Every time I read a noir novel, I can’t help but hear the male protagonist speak in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. Typical of Goodis, there is also this intense deep-dive into the protagonist’s consciousness, a commitment to show us what it’s like to see, feel and think.

The thing was purely a matter of timing. To know just when to walk out. And he knew as sure as he was sitting here, this was the time to walk out. Right now. To tell the driver to stop the cab. To open the door and slide out, and walk away, and keep walking.

She held him there. He didn’t know how she was doing it, but she held him there as though she had him tied hand and foot. She had him trapped there in the cab, and he looked at her with hate.

“Why?” she said. “Why the look?”

He couldn’t answer.

She said, “You frightened?” Without moving, she seemed to lean toward him. “Do I frighten you, Nat?”

“You antagonize me.”

“Listen, Nat—”

“Shut up,” he said. “Let me think about this.”

She nodded slowly, exaggerating the nod. He saw her profile, the quiet line of her brow and nose and chin, the semi-delicate line of her jaw, the cigarette an inch or two away from her lips, and the smoke of the cigarette. Then he took his eyes and pulled them away from Della, and then without looking at Della, he was seeing her. The ride to the library took up a little more than twenty minutes, and they weren’t saying a word to each other, yet it was as though they talked to each other constantly
through the ride. The cab pulled up in front of the library and neither of them moved. The driver said they were at the library, and neither of them moved. The driver shrugged and let the motor idle and sat there, waiting.

After a while, the driver said, “Well, what’s it gonna be?”

“The way it’s got to be,” she said. As she floated her body toward Harbin, she gave the driver an address.

What’s it gonna be? The way it’s got to be. 

Well.

What are we doing all of this for, this life business? These choices? Ever wonder? Harbin tries to convince Gladden to pursue a plan, even though it might take months:

She stared at the backboard behind Harbin’s head. “Emeralds,” she said. “Chunks of green glass.”

In a desperate situation, Harbin’s dealing with an antagonist who is probably going to kill him if he gets a chance. I was struck by this simple metaphor that succinctly captures an internal dynamic:

There was a sudden hysteria in Hacket’s tone and Harbin grabbed at it as though it were a rope dangling toward him with quicksand the only other thing around.

The dialogue in this moment – actually a dreadful moment – made me laugh out loud. Someone has a clear sense of reality:

As Della walked in, her eyes were pulled to the red on the floor and Baylock’s dead face resting against the shiny red. She turned away quickly from that. She waited until Hacket had closed the door and then she stared at him. Her voice was low and quivered just a little. “What are you, a lunatic?”

Hacket stood looking at the door. “I couldn’t help it.”

“That means you’re a lunatic.” 

And then this, in which our protagonist expresses his essential solitude and the power of the crowd:

“One thing for certain. We didn’t do it. I wanted those three cops to live. I wanted Dohmer to live. I wanted Baylock to live. For Christ’s sake,” he said, and he saw her gesture, telling him to talk lower, “I never wanted anyone to die.” He stared ahead, at the people seated in the pavilion, the people on the boardwalk, and indicating them, he said, “I swear I have nothing against them. Not a thing. Look at them. All of them. I like them. I really like them, even though they hate my guts.” His voice went very low. “Yours too.”

“They don’t know we’re alive.”

“They’ll know it if we’re caught. That’s when it starts. When we get grabbed. When we’re locked up. That’s when they know. It tells them how good they are and how bad we are.”

If you check out other reviews of this book at Goodreads, you’ll find similar reactions.

On the boardwalk, he approached the hotel, he saw the sun hitting the silvery rail that separated the raised boards from the beach. There were a lot of people on the beach and most of them wore bathing suits. The beach was white-yellow under the sun. He looked at the ocean and it was flat and passive, with the heavy heat coming down on it, giving it the look of hot green metal. The waves were small and seemed to lack enthusiasm as they came up against the beach. In the water the bathers moved slowly, without much enjoyment, getting wet but not cool. He knew the water was warm and sticky and probably very dirty from the storm of Saturday night. Even so, he told himself, he would like to be in there in the ocean with the bathers, and maybe he and Gladden would have themselves a swim before leaving Atlantic City. The thought was an extreme sort of optimism but he repeated the thought and kept repeating it as he moved toward the entrance of the hotel.

I was going to take a break from all of this, but then I started Nightfall last night and was reeled in, both by the initial mystery, but also by the very real, affectionate relationship between a police detective and his wife – which warms my heart, but also fills me with dread because I’m thinking this can’t end well, because nothing ends well in this world.

Writing: I worked on the short story all weekend, pulled together some of the travel posts (see the page above) and tried to unravel All the Problems. Strangely, they remain knotted. I’ll be in Living Faith on Wednesday. Go here for that. 

Listening: My son’s jazz teacher gave him “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” to work on, with the Dave Brubeck variations on the same to listen to. It’s a beautiful thing, this Brubeck – he winds through some standard jazz stylings, then works out an invention/fugue type thing and then something that sounds a little like Liszt. So we’ve been listening a lot to that.

 

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Writing/Saying: 

I was in Living Faith yesterday – here’s that entry. 

I’ll be on the Spirit Mornings program on KVSS this morning at 8:40 central talking about the Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols  – the Mondayinterview will probably already have aired by the time you read this, but I’m guessing it will be archived at their page. 

Two other posts published today  – both on St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate. One here and one here. I might have one more coming – not on St. Bernard – so perhaps return for that.

I am speaking in San Antonio on Saturday, so I outlined that talk.

Surfing: Kayak, Google Flights, the Marriott site. Trips west (Kansas) and east (NYC) in the works so far.

Reading: A few things, all over the map.

First, I reread Merton’s little book on St. Bernard, which I mention in one of the posts. You can find the book here, on Scribd. 

This is an excellent New Yorker article on the impact of e-commerce on rural China. Writer Jiayang Fan offers the intriguing observation that in the United States, the Internet had transformed and disrupted commerce, as it has replaced brick-and-mortar stores, but China did not have the same kind of commercial landscape so:

In China, what is sometimes called “the shift to mobile” never happened—hasn’t needed to happen—because the country’s wealth is too recent for people to have been swept up in the PC revolution, the way Americans were. Instead, they went straight to phones, an example of a phenomenon known as leapfrogging, in which non-participation in an older technology spurs early adoption of whatever innovation comes next. Jack Ma, of Alibaba, has argued that the entire e-commerce sector in China exemplifies this pattern: people happily shop online because there haven’t been Walmarts everywhere. In the U.S., “e-commerce is a dessert,” he said. “In China, it’s become the main course.”

And it’s fascinating to read her description of drone delivery – which is extensive and more common by the day.

And then then my main course of the weekend – the novel The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea.  Oh my word, I enjoyed this novel so much. It won’t be for everyone – but what is? That’s why I don’t get into the business of “recommending” books, movies or television shows. People have different tastes, what engages me might alienate you, what absorbs you might bore me. I’m just saying what I’m saying – that’s all.

The House of Broken Angels is the story of an extended Mexican-American family, told via the events of a day or so – the funeral of an elderly woman and, the next day, the birthday of Big Angel, her son – the patriarch of the family. Of course, the narrative flashes back and forth in time within that 36-hour framework, so we ultimately get the gist of this family’s whole story, beginning decades ago in La Paz, in Baja California.

Coming down from Seattle to the gathering is another Angel – Little Angel, the youngest brother of Big Angel, but a son of their dead father by another mother – an American woman named Betty. The two Angels, both broken in various ways, and their siblings, spouses and children embody all the varied layers of immigrant experience and the almost unimaginable distance between the struggle and poverty in Mexico half a century before and the present day, surrounded by English-only speaking, smartphone-wielding grandchildren.

The dialogue is sharp and realistic, both revealing and elusive, just as human language always is. The writing can be gorgeous:

And everyone loved sunsets. The light lost its sanity as it fell over the hills and into the Pacific–it went red and deeper red, orange, and even green. The skies seemed to melt, like lava eating black rock into great bite marks of burning. Sometimes all the town stopped and stared west. Shopkeepers came from their rooms to stand in the street. Families brought out their invalids on pallets and in wheelbarrows to wave their bent wrists at the madness consuming their sky. Swirls of gulls and pelicans like God’s own confetti snowed across those sky riots.

Pulling all of this together is the fact (no spoiler – it’s clear from the beginning) that Big Angel is dying, in the final stages of bone cancer. His mother dies, and his birthday will be the next day, so he’s convinced that this will be his last birthday. So the novel, even as it weaves many stories together, is essentially about Big Angel: his journey, his sins, the gifts he’s leaving and, in the end: his gratitude. For his friend and spiritual advisor, Fr. Dave, a Jesuit priest, has given him small notebooks in which he’s told him to note down what he’s grateful for.

The notebooks had a title: My Silly Prayers…..
marriage
family 
walking
working
books
eating
Cilantro

That surprised him. He didn’t know where it came from. Cilantro? he thought. Then:

my baby brother

Every day, he found his gratitudes more ridiculous. But they were many, and they reproduced like desert wildflowers after rain.

It took me a day or two to get into it, mostly because I found the riot of characters pretty confusing, and had to keep flipping back and forth to establish who was who and who was married to whom and whose kid this was. But when I finally got all of that straight, I couldn’t put it down. It was lovely and wild, jumping back and forth through time and space – which is my experience of consciousness and reality – and hilarious. Loved it.

Watching/Listening: Older son had to work into both Saturday and Sunday evenings, so there was no watching of things, at least by me. Sitting in the living room, reading St. Bernard, I listened to Thelonius Monk. Appropriate, I suppose.

Cooking: A batch of this Mexican Braised Beef, which is fantastic. It’s so simple – I replaced the plain canned tomatoes with Ro-tel or some other tomato/pepper mix. I also don’t have a slow cooker, so it’s all in the oven. Oh, and a batch of chocolate chip cookies. With the ritual burning of the second batch as I wander off and get distracted, of course.

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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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