Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

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. 

 

Read Full Post »

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….

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Weekend:

The older one worked a lot – Friday evening, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon into the evening. After working almost every afternoon last week as well, it’s good that he has somewhat of a break this week – not working again until Friday. He seems to be managing it well, though. He’s certainly learning to value free time and not take it for granted.

On Saturday morning, I had a very enjoyable time speaking to women of the diocese of Birmingham at Our Lady of the Valley parish.  I used some stories from the Guatemala trip in the talk, and as I did so, some points really clicked in my brain, so hopefully as the busy-ness of the early part of the week abates, I can move forward on that project with clarity.

"amy welborn"

After a summer break, they were back serving at the Casa Maria retreat house yesterday:

(Again – sorry it’s huge. I wish you could resize videos on WordPress…but you can’t. I don’t think.)

Afternoon: reptiles.

 

This week:  Eclipse Day today – we are staying right here and will just see what we can see (with our glasses!). I was pretty convinced that if I attempted to travel to full totality – even though we had added incentive because Charleston, where my son, daughter-in-law and grandson live is in the path of full totality – what would happen was this: The spot to which I traveled would experience heavy cloud cover and it would end up being clear back in Birmingham.

So we’re here today. Eclipse Education, Eclipse, then a piano lesson. Tomorrow, M is back at the convent, serving for a Final Profession Mass, then to the orthodontist and then on Wednesday I’m thinking “school” will be a little more focused.

All right, let me try to do this: offer some thoughts on some of the books I’ve read over the past ten days.

First was – as I mentioned and posted about – Ride the Pink Horse.  Such an interesting, surprising read.

Then I turned a bit and traveled to somewhere in Illinois in 1918 for They Came Like Swallows.

 William Maxwell is well-known as an editor, but he was a fine writer himself. They Came Like Swallows was the first novel of his that I’d read.

It’s a short, intense book about childhood, the passing of time and grief. In some respects, it reminded me of Paul Horgan’s Things as They Are

I hate to say too much about  the important plot points because while it is clear something is going to happen, the precise nature of the incident is somewhat of a surprise and perhaps shouldn’t be spoiled for future readers.

So what shall I say?

It’s a short novel told, in three sections, from the perspective of three characters (all in the third person) – a young boy, his older, young teen-aged brother, and their father.

The time, as I mentioned, is 1918. The Great War ends during the novel, but something else is brewing, something called influenza. The family at the center is a comfortable, middle class family living in Illinois. The younger boy has an intense relationship with his mother and lives, it seems to him, primarily in reference to her.  Through his eyes, as well, his older brother is a rough figure who cares little for anyone, but when his turn comes around, we see that things are not always as they appear.

They Came Like Swallows is a lovely book with as authentic a representation of the feeling of grief as I have ever read in literature.

A note on the edition I read. Most of you know about the Internet Archive – you may not know that one of the features of the site is a book borrowing service – that is, of books that are still in print. That’s how I read They Came Like Swallows  What I didn’t like was that copyright limitations prevented it being downloaded as an actual Kindle book, ,so it had to be read online, which meant that I couldn’t highlight or make notes. But at least I was able to read it, and for that I’m grateful. It’s very good, beautifully written, sad and true.

Coming attractions:

Frost in May

The Tortoise and the Hare

 So Long, See You Tomorrow

 Time Will Darken It

 The Lost Traveler

 

 

Read Full Post »

How about we just read some books?

I’ve knocked a couple over the past few days, two books of very different genres, but both absorbing in their own way.

And I’m telling you – settling into a book is far less anxiety-producing than settling into social media news opining for the evening. Or even for fifteen minutes. Even if it’s a book about death. Weird.

But try it. It doesn’t make you a bad citizen, I promise.

I have written about Dorothy Hughes before. She is known today to the extent she is known at all, for pulp/crime novels. I initially came across her work via the NYRB reprints line – they have published The Expendable Man, which I wrote about here – and still highly recommend. A while later, I read her most well-known book, In a Lonely Place, made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart, and which I wrote about here.

So, what do we have so far? In the first, a physician falsely accused of a crime. In the second, we’re in the narrative point of view (in the third person) of a probable serial killer. In the third Hughes I’ve read – Ride the Pink Horse, we’re in the head of a still different type of character: a small-time operator and borderline criminal who’s been a part of the circle of a corrupt Illinois senator and who’s trying to settle a score of sorts – or to simply get what he believe is owed him.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Back-Cover

What adds another level of interest and meaning to Ride the Pink Horse is the setting. Sailor – for that is his name – has followed the senator down to Santa Fe for the Fiesta that takes place over Labor Day weekend.  Fiesta provides a fascinating background to the story, a background that reflects a changing understanding of America, insight into the Southwest and, most importantly, a glimpse into a greater, even transcendent reality that pricks at Sailor’s conscience.

The Fiesta begins with the burning of a huge effigy of evil – Zozobra.

On the hill the outsiders played at Fiesta with their fancy Baile but Fiesta was here. In the brown faces and the white faces, the young and the old; capering together, forgetting defeat and despair, and the weariness of the long, heavy days which were to come before the feast time would come again. This was Fiesta. The last moments of the beautiful and the gay and the good; when evil, the destroyer, had been himself destroyed by flame. This was the richness of life for those who could destroy evil; who could for three days create a world without hatred and greed and prejudice, without malice and cruelty and rain to spoil the fun. It was not three days in which to remember that evil would after three days rise again; for the days of Fiesta there was no evil in this Fiesta world. And so they danced.

Sailor is an outsider to this world, and so it’s a convenient way for Hughes to explore the noir trope of alienation, particularly in that post-World War II era.

And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Dellthe cool-of-night smell unfamiliar. What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and it oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. He was shivering as he stood there and he moved sharply, towards the Plaza, towards identity.

For three days, Sailor lurks and waits. Because it’s Fiesta, there’s not a hotel room to be found, so he sleeps where he can. He encounters the Senator and his entourage, with increasing levels of threat and intensity as he demands what’s due him. He discovers another Chicagoan in town – a boyhood acquaintance now police detective, also keeping an eye on the Senator. He forms a friendship of sorts with the man who operates the  Tio Vivo – the children’s merry-go-round –  whom he nicknames (of course) “Pancho.” There is, by the way, a lot of what we’d call offensive ethnic-related language in this book, but it’s all from the brain of Sailor, who uses language like that because that’s the way his character thinks.

Anyway, Pancho is one of a few characters Sailor encounters who hints at a different way. Another is a teenage girl whom he could easily exploit, but doesn’t, and whom, for reasons mysterious to even himself, he tries to help. It’s her storyline that provides the hughes-ridepinktitle – a title which has nothing to do with the dame on the cover of the reissue. What these characters do is  show Sailor glimmers of life as it exists beyond greed and keeping score, either by the peace they’ve made with the limitations of their own lives:

‘Even with the gringo sonnama beetches,’ Pancho said cheerfully. ‘When I am young I do not understand how it is a man may love his enemies. But now I know better. I think they are poor peoples like I am. The gringo sonnama beetches don’t know no better. Poor peoples.’

….or the small acts of goodness they draw out of Sailor himself:

Sailor called to Pila. ‘Ride the pink one.’ He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in Field’s, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop. The music cavorted. Pancho’s muscles bulged at the spindlass. Pila sat astride the pink horse, and Tio Vivo began its breath-taking whirl. Sailor leaned on the pickets. He didn’t know why giving her a ride had been important. Whether he’d wanted to play the big shot. Whether it was the kid and the bright new bike, the bum with his nose pressed against the window looking at the clean silver blonde beyond reach. Whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn’t stone now; she was a little girl, her stiff dark hair blowing behind her like the mane of the pink wooden horse.

Sailor was raised Catholic, by a pious mother and an alcoholic, abusing father. His mother spent her life praying – and how did it help her? In his view, it didn’t.

He hadn’t come here to pray; he’d come with a gun to keep his eye on a rat. He wasn’t going to be sucked in by holiness. He kept his mind and his backbone rigid when the golden censers swung the musk-scented smoke, when the organ and choir blazoned together the O Salutaris Hostia. He got on his knees only because everyone else did, because he didn’t want to be conspicuous…..Sailor slid over to the side pew. A pillar protected him from the eyes of those moving up the aisle. The old men and the little children. The rich and the poor. The alien and the native, the magnificent and the black shawls. The monks and the choir and the Sociedads, a slow-moving, silent procession to the open cathedral doors, out again into the night. Candles flickered like fireflies from all the vasty corners of the cathedral

Now and then, cultural commenters would worry about the appeal of antiheroes Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). What does it Say About Us? Well, what was most compelling to me -and I think to many – was not so much these characters’ dastardly deeds, but rather the possibility that they might turn around – both shows were full of such moments and opportunities, and decisions had to be made in those moments, decisions about whether to be really courageous or continue in your prideful, destructive, bastard ways.

Ride the Pink Horse has that same kind of vibe about it. Sailor didn’t have to be in the spot he’s in, and he still has a chance to move in another direction. Will he take it?

It’s a little repetitious – so not as strong as An Expendable Man, which is still my favorite Hughes so far. But it’s got a great setting, and in that pulp context, effectively examines the notion of conscience, creates a haunting spiritual landscape through which sinful strangers in a strange land choose one path – and not another –  and wow, the ending is just smashing. I gasped. I did.

Well, that took longer than I expected. I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about the other book I read this weekend – They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell, published eighty years ago about events set twenty years earlier than that, but astonishingly fresh and deeply insightful.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Movie-PosterBy the way, Ride the Pink Horse was also made into a film. It’s been released as a part of the Criterion Collection, so…I guess it’s good? But the plot is very different from the novel:

He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. 

…but the discussion at the Criterion site intrigues me…so perhaps I’ll try to find it and give it a go.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

We never refused kindness which might lead to acquaintanceship….

As travel is a topic I’m interested in, as well as being an activity which prompts not a little soul-searching on my part, I found the end of Martineau’s account of her years-long journey in America quite fascinating and even rather moving. I’m going to just reprint the whole passage here – it’s long, but it will save you a click or two.

For previous entries on Martineau see here and here.)

Her way to these final considerations of the value of travel has begun in the graveyard – comparing the American graveyard to European cemeteries, which then leads her to reflect on journeys – mind you, when she speaks of “travel” she is not speaking of If This Is Tuesday It Must Be Belgium – Bucket List Travel. She is speaking of long, slow journeys – slow because that is how one traveled in those days – during which one had ample time to experience new places with new friends.

While writing I have been struck by the strong resemblance between the
retrospect of travel from home and that of life from the cemetery. In
each contemplation the hosts of human beings who have been seen acting,
suffering, and meditating, rise up before the mind’s eye as in a kind of
judgment scene, except that they rise up, not to be judged, but to
instruct. The profit of travel is realized at home in the solitude of
the study, and the true meaning of human life (as far as its meaning can
become known to us here) is best made out from its place of rest. While
martineau retrosepct western travel2busy among strangers, one is carried away by sympathy and by prejudice
from the point whence foreign society can be viewed with anything like
impartiality; one cannot but hear the mutual criminations of parties;
one cannot but be perplexed by the mutual misrepresentations of
fellow-citizens; one cannot but sympathize largely with all in turn,
since there is a large mixture of truth in all views about which people
are strongly persuaded. It is only after sitting down alone at home that
the traveller can separate the universal truth from the partial error
with which he has sympathized, and can make some approximation towards
assurance as to what he has learned and what he believes. So it is in
the turmoil of life. While engaged in it, we are ignorantly persuaded,
and liable, therefore, to be shaken from our certainty; we are
disproportionately moved, and we sympathize with incompatibilities, so
as to be sure of disappointment and humiliation inflicted through our
best sensibilities. In the place of retrospect we may find our repose
again in contemplating our ignorance and weakness, and ascertaining the
conviction and strength which they have wrought out for us.

What is gained by living and travelling?

One of the most striking and even amusing results is the perception of
the transient nature of troubles. The thoughtful traveller feels
something like wonder and amusement at himself for being so depressed by
evils as he finds himself in the midst of long-idealized objects. He is
surprised at his own sufferings from hunger, cold, heat, and weariness;
and at his being only prevented by shame from passing some great object
unseen, if he has to rouse himself from sleep to look at it, or to
forego a meal for its sake. The next time he is refreshed, he wonders
how his troubles could ever so affect him; and, when at home, he looks
through the picture-gallery of his memory, the afflictions of past hours
would have vanished, their very occurrence would be denied but for the
record in the journal. The contemptible entries about cold, hunger, and
sleepiness stand, ludicrously enough, among notices of cataracts and
mountains, and of moral conflicts in the senates of nations. And so with
life. We look back upon our pangs about objects of desire, as if it were
the object and not the temper of pursuit which was of importance. We
look back on our sufferings from disease, from disappointment, from
suspense, in times when the great moral events of our lives, or even of
the age, were impending, and we disregarded them. We were mourning over
some petty loss or injury while a new region of the moral universe was
about to be disclosed to us; or fretting about our “roast chicken and
our little game at cards,” while the liberties of an empire were being
lost or won.

Worse than our own little troubles, probably, has been the fear and
sorrow of hurting others. One of the greatest of a traveller’s hardships
is the being aware that he must be perpetually treading on somebody’s
toes. Passing from city to city, from one group of families to another,
where the divisions of party and of sect, the contrariety of interests,
and the world of domestic circumstance are all unknown to him, he can
hardly open his lips without wounding somebody; and it makes him all the
more anxious if, through the generosity of his entertainers, he never
hears of it. No care of his own can save him from his function of
torturer. He cannot speak of religion, morals, and politics; he cannot
speak of insanity, intemperance, or gaming, or even of health, riches,
fair fame, and good children, without danger of rousing feelings of
personal remorse or family shame in some, or the bitter sense of
bereavement in others. Little or nothing has been said of this as one of
the woes of travelling; but, in my own opinion, this is the direction in
which the fortitude of the traveller is the most severely tried. Yet, in
the retrospect, it seems even good that we should have been obliged thus
to call the generosity and forbearance of our hosts into exercise. They
are, doubtless, benefited by the effort; and we may perhaps be gainers,
the direct operation of forbearance and forgiveness being to enhance
affection. The regard of those whom we have wounded may perhaps be
warmer than if we had never hurt them. It is much the same with men’s
mutual inflictions in life. None of us, especially none who are frank
and honest, can speak what we think, and act according to what we
believe, without giving pain in many directions. It is very painful, but
quite unavoidable. In the retrospect, however, we are able to smile on
the necessity, and to conclude that, as we have been willing to bear our
share of the wounding from others, and should, perhaps, have been sorry
if it had not happened, it is probable that others may have regarded us
and our inflictions in the same way.

Nothing is more conspicuous in the traveller’s retrospect than the fact
how little external possession has to do with happiness. As he wanders
back over city and village, plantation and prairie, he sees again care
on the brow of the merchant and mirth in the eyes of the labourer; the
soulless faces of the rich Shakers rise up before him, side by side with
the gladsome countenance of the ruined abolitionist. Each class kindly
pities the one below it in power and wealth; the traveller pities none
but those who are wasting their energies in the exclusive pursuit of
either. Generally speaking, they have all an equal endowment of the
things from which happiness is really derived. They have, in pretty
equal distribution, health, senses, and their pleasures, homes,
children, pursuits, and successes. With all these things in common, the
one point of difference in their respective amounts of possession of
more than they can at present eat, use, and enjoy, seems to him quite
unworthy of all the compassion excited by it; though the compassion,
having something amiable in it, is of a kindly use as far as it goes. In
a cemetery, the thoughtless are startled into the same perception. How
destitute are the dead in their graves! How naked is the spirit gone
from its warm housings and environs of luxuries! This is the first
thought. The next is, was it ever otherwise? Had these luxuries ever
anything to do with the peace of the spirit, except as affording a
pursuit for the employment of its energies? Is not as vigorous and
gladsome a mind to be found abroad in the fields, or singing at the
mill, as doing the honours of the drawing-room? and, if it were not so,
what words could we find strong enough for the cruelty of the decree
under which every human being is compelled to enter his grave solitary
and destitute? In the retrospect of the recent traveller in America, the
happiest class is clearly that small one of the original abolitionists;
men and women wholly devoted to a lofty pursuit, and surrendering for it
much that others most prize: and, in the retrospect of the traveller
through life, the most eminently blessed come forth from among all ranks
and orders of men, some being rich and others poor; some illustrious and
others obscure; but all having one point of resemblance, that they have2martineau retrosepct western travel
not staked their peace on anything so unreal as money or fame.

As for the worth of praise, a traveller cannot have gone far without
finding it out. He has been praised and blamed at every turn; and he
soon sees that what people think of him matters to themselves and not to
him. He applies this to himself, and finds confirmation. It is ludicrous
to suppose that what he thinks of this man and that, whose motives and
circumstances he can never completely understand, should be of lasting
importance to the subjects of his observation, while he feels it to be
very important to his own peace and state of temper that he should
admire as much and despise as little as reason will allow. That this is
not more felt and acted upon is owing to the confined intercourses of
the majority of men. If, like the traveller, they were for a long time
exposed to a contrariety of opinions respecting themselves, they would
arrive at the conviction which rises “by natural exhalation” from the
field of graves, that men’s mutual judgments are almost insignificant to
the objects of them, while immeasurably important to those who form
them. When we look about us upon this obelisk and that urn, what matter
the applauses and censures of the neighbours of the departed, in the
presence of the awful facts here declared, that he has lived and is
gone? In this mighty transaction between himself and his Maker, how
insignificant to him are the comments of beings between whom and himself
there could exist no complete understanding in this life! But there is
no overrating the consequences to himself of having lived with high or
low models before his eyes; in a spirit of love or a spirit of contempt;
in a process of generous or disparaging interpretation of human actions.
His whole future condition and progress may be affected by it….

The mysterious pain of partings presses upon the returned traveller and
the surviver with nearly equal force. I do not know whether this woe is
usually taken into the estimate of travellers when they are counting the
cost of their scheme before setting out; but I know that it deserves to
be. I believe that many would not go if they could anticipate the misery
of such partings as those which must be encountered in a foreign
country, in long dreary succession, and without more hope than in
parting with the dying. The chances of meeting again are small. For a
time grief sooths itself by correspondence; but this cannot last, as one
family group after another opens its arms to the stranger, and gives him
a home only that he must vacate it for another. The correspondence
slackens, fails, and the parties are to one another as if they were
dead, with the sad difference that there is somewhat less faith in each
other than if they were in circumstances in which it is physically
impossible that they could communicate. To the surviver of intercourse,
in either place of meditation, there remains the heartsoreness from the
anguish of parting; that pain which, like physical pain, takes us by
surprise with its bitterness at each return, and disposes us, at length,
to either cowardice or recklessness; and each of these survivers may be
conscious of some visitations of jealousy, jealousy lest the absent
should be learning to forget the past in new interests and connexions.

The strongest point of resemblance in the two contemplations of the
life which lies behind, is this; that a scene is closed and another is
opening. The term of existence in a foreign land, and the somewhat
longer term spent on this planetary island, are viewed as over; and the
fatigues, enjoyments, and perplexities of each result in an amount of
calm experience. The dead, it is hoped, are entering on a new region, in
which they are to act with fresh powers and a wiser activity. The
refreshed traveller has the same ambition. I have surveyed my
experience, and told my tale; and, though often visiting America in
thought, can act no more with reference to my sojourn there, but must
pass over into a new department of inquiry and endeavour. Friendships
are the grand gain of travel over a continent or through life; and these
may be carried forward into new regions of existence here, as we hope
they may be into the unexplored hereafter, to give strength and delight
to new exertions, and to unite the various scenes of our being by the
strongest ties we know.

Read Full Post »

Well, after several months of dipping, a day or two of  immersion here and there and finally a stint of sustained reading, I have finished Harriet Martineau’s Retrospect of Western Travel.  What a delight.

I had heard of the 19th century writer and early sociologist, but didn’t know much. Then I listened to the episode of In Our Time dedicated to her and I was intrigued, mostly by the fact that she had taken an extended journey to the United States and written about it.

The fruit of that travel is in two works: Retrospect of Western Travel and the more topical Society in America. 

It’s too bad de Toqueville gets all the love, because Martineau offers just as much. Retrospect is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, an astonishing first-hand view of the United States in its early history which includes encounters with most the most eminent personages of the age, from Andrew Jackson to Emerson, from the Beechers to Garrison.

And she goes everywhere.  New England and the Middle Atlantic, all through the South "amy welborn"from Charleston to New Orleans and up to Kentucky, and throughout the Midwest. She covers everything, from a close reading of the political system, to social morays to intellectual and religious life. Her impressions of slavery are particularly acute and impassioned.

Back in March, I wrote a bit about volume 1 – go back and take a look, especially if you want to read about her irritation at this newfangled obsession called a rocking-chair. 

I highlighted so much in reading that I can just skim the surface of sharing what interested me, so skim I shall. Different points will strike different readers. What interests me in writing of this kind are the moments in which I see the present in the past – in which Martineau notices aspects of American society that are still a part of our makeup, in which she happens upon quirks or incidents that might still be familiar to us today. I’m also interested in observations she make that confound our impressions of the past. Don’t look for rhyme or reason in these quotes. I’m just going through what I highlighted in volume 2 – most recently read – as the moments struck me:

At a school program in Cincinnati (a city, by the way, she believed should be nation’s capitol.)

Many prizes of books were given by the gentlemen on the platform; and the ceremony closed with an address from the pulpit which was true, and in some respects beautiful; but which did not appear altogether judicious to those who are familiar with children’s minds. The children were exhorted to trust their teachers entirely; to be assured that their friends would do by them what was kindest. Now, neither children nor grown people trust, any more than they believe, because they are bid. Telling them to have confidence is so much breath wasted. If they are properly trained, they will unavoidably have this trust and confidence, and the less that is said about it the better. If not, the less said the better, too; for  confidence is then out of the question, and there is danger in making it an empty phrase. It would he well if those whose office it is to address children wore fully aware that exhortation, persuasion, and dissuasion are of no use in their case; and that there is immeasurable value in the opposite method of appeal. Make truth credible, and they will believe it: make goodness lovely, and they will love it: make holiness cheerful, and they will be glad in it: but remind them of themselves by threat, inducement, or exhortation, and you impair (if you do any thing) the force of their unconscious affections: try to put them upon a task of arbitrary self-management, and your words pass over their ears only to be forgotten.

(Her comments remind me of the present day in which we think if we just tell children and young people to have self-esteem and believe in themselves!  ….it will happen…)

She often comments on the generosity of Americans:

This account of our three first clays at Cincinnati will convey a sufficient idea of a stranger’s impressions of the place. There is no need to give a report of its charitable institutions and its commerce:  the details of the latter are well known to those whom they may concern; and in America, wherever men are gathered together, the helpless are aided, and the suffering relieved. 

However, she notes as well the “illiberality” of many Americans – by which she means prejudices, and right after this passage, she comments on anti-Catholicism. (Martineau was a Unitarian, and no fan of Catholic practices, but she was also committed to freedom of religion and expression. Although she does infer that one of the reasons that prejudice is bad is that it might just prompt the growth and strength of the object of prejudice….)

The Catholic religion spreads rapidly in many most of the recently-settled parts of the United States, and its increase produces an almost insane dread among some Protestants, who fail to see that no evils that the Catholic religion can produce in the present state of society can be so afflictive and dangerous as the bigotry by which it is proposed to put it down. The removal to Cincinnati of Dr. Beecher, the ostentation and virulent foe of the Catholics, has much quickened the spirit of alarm in that region. It is to be hoped  that Dr. Beecher and the people of Cincinnati will remember what has been the invariable consequence in America of public denunciations of assumed offences which the law does not reach; namely, mobbing.

To more prosaic topic – corn on the cob.

This day, I remember, we first tasted
green corn, one of the most delicious of vegetables, and by some
preferred to green peas. The greatest drawback is the way in which it is
necessary to eat it. The cob, eight or ten inches long, is held at both
ends, and, having been previously sprinkled with salt, is nibbled and
sucked from end to end till all the grains are got out. It looks awkward
enough: but what is to be done? Surrendering such a vegetable from
considerations of grace is not to be thought of.

On New England education, class, and a contrast with Old England:

Their common and high schools, their lyceums and cheap colleges, are exciting
and feeding thousands of minds, which in England would never get beyond
the loom or the ploughtail. If few are very learned in the villages of
Massachusetts, still fewer are very ignorant; and all have the power and
the will to invite the learning of the towns among them, and to
remunerate its administration of knowledge. The consequence of this is a
state of village society in which only vice and total ignorance need
hang the head, while (out of the desolate range of religious bigotry)
all honourable tastes are as sure of being countenanced and respected as
all kindly feelings are of being reciprocated. I believe most
enlightened and virtuous residents in the villages of New-England are
eager to acknowledge that the lines have fallen to them in pleasant
places.

But she has harsh words for Harvard College:

The politics of the managers of Harvard University are opposed to those
of the great body of the American people. She is the aristocratic
college of the United States. Her pride of antiquity, her vanity of
pre-eminence and wealth, are likely to prevent her renovating her
principles and management so as to suit the wants of the period; and she
will probably receive a sufficient patronage from the aristocracy, for a
considerable time to come, to encourage her in all her faults. [Almost 200 years later…has anything changed??!] She has a
great name, and the education she affords is very expensive in
comparison with all other colleges. The sons of the wealthy will
therefore flock to her. The attainments usually made within her walls
are inferior to those achieved elsewhere, her professors (poorly
salaried, when the expenses of living are considered) being accustomed
to lecture and examine the students, and do nothing more. The indolent
and the careless will therefore flock to her. But, meantime, more and
more new colleges are rising up, and are filled as fast as they rise,
whose principles and practices are better suited to the wants of the
time. In them living is cheaper, and the professors are therefore richer
with the same or smaller salaries; the sons of the yeomanry and mechanic
classes resort to them; and, where it is the practice of the tutors to
work with their pupils, as well as lecture to them, a proficiency is
made which shames the attainments of the Harvard students. The middle
and lower classes are usually neither Unitarian nor Episcopalian, but
“orthodox,” as their distinctive term is; and these, the strength and
hope of the nation, avoid Harvard, and fill to overflowing the oldest
orthodox colleges; and, when these will hold no more, establish new
ones.

When I was at Boston the state of the University was a subject of great
mourning among its friends.

Martineau was hard of hearing, and used an ear horn. She visited schools for the visually and hearing impaired in a few cities and observed:

The benevolence which undertook the care of this class of unfortunates,
when their condition was esteemed hopeless, has, in many cases, through
a very natural delight at its own success, passed over into a new and
opposite error, particularly in America, where the popular philosophy of
mind comes in aid of the delusion. From fearing that the deaf and dumb
had hardly any capacities, too many of their friends have come to
believe them a sort of sacred, favoured class, gifted with a keener
apprehension, a more subtile reason, and a purer spirituality than
others, and shut out from little but what would defile and harden their
minds.

Martineau wrote extensively on what she saw in the slave-holding South, but also gives an interesting view of the impact of abolitionist activism in New England, and includes this very wise and still very true observation:

The same delusion (if it be mere delusion) is
visible here that is shared by all persons in power, who cannot deny
that an evil exists, but have not courage to remove it; a vague hope
that “fate, or Providence, or something,” will do the work which men are
created to perform; men of principle and men of peace, like the
abolitionists; victims, not perpetrators of violence.

And what strikes her as one of America’s most telling features?

The only times when I felt disposed to quarrel with the inexhaustible
American mirth was on the hottest days of summer. I liked it as well as
ever; but European strength will not stand more than an hour or two of
laughter in such seasons. I remember one day when the American part of
the company was as much exhausted as the English. We had gone, a party
martineau retrosepct western travelof six, to spend a long day with a merry household in a country village;
and, to avoid the heat, had performed the journey of sixteen miles
before ten o’clock. For three hours after our arrival the wit was in
full flow; by which time we were all begging for mercy, for we could
laugh no longer with any safety. Still, a little more fun was dropped
all round, till we found that the only way was to separate, and we all
turned out of doors. I cannot conceive how it is that so little has been
heard in England of the mirth of the Americans; for certainly nothing in
their manners struck and pleased me more. One of the rarest characters
among them, and a great treasure to all his sportive neighbours, is a
man who cannot take a joke.

Americans love their enthusiasms as well, and for Martineau, these enthusiasms, however nutty they might be,  point to something deeper: an imaginative spirit.

When Spurzheim was in America, the great mass of society became
phrenologists in a day, wherever he appeared; and ever since itinerant
lecturers have been reproducing the same sensation in a milder way, by
retailing Spurzheimism, much deteriorated, in places where the
philosopher had not been. Meantime the light is always going out behind
as fast as it blazes up round the steps of the lecturer. While the world
of Richmond and Charleston is working at a multiplication of the fifteen
casts (the same fifteen or so) which every lecturer carries about, and
all caps and wigs are pulled off, and all fair tresses dishevelled in
the search after organization, Boston has gone completely round to the
opposite philosophy, and is raving about spiritualism to an excess which
can scarcely be credited by any who have not heard the Unknown Tongues.
If a phrenological lecturer from Paris, London, or Edinburgh should go
to Boston, the superficial, visible portion of the public would wheel
round once more, so rapidly and with so clamorous a welcome on their
tongues, that the transported lecturer would bless his stars which had
guided him over to a country whose inhabitants are so candid, so
enlightened, so ravenous for truth. Before five years are out, however,
the lecturer will find himself superseded by some professor of animal
magnetism, some preacher of homœopathy, some teacher who will
undertake to analyze children, prove to them that their spirits made
their bodies, and elicit from them truths fresh from heaven. All this is
very childish, very village-like; and it proves anything rather than
originality in the persons concerned. But it does not prove that there
is not originality in the bosom of a society whose superficial movement
is of this kind; and it does not prove that national originality may not
arise out of the very tendencies which indicate that it does not at
present exist.

The Americans appear to me an eminently imaginative people. The
unprejudiced traveller can hardly spend a week among them without being
struck with this every day. At a distance it is seen clearly enough that
they do not put their imaginative power to use in literature and the
arts; and it does certainly appear perverse enough to observers from the
Old World that they should be imitative in fictions (whether of the pen,
the pencil, stone, or marble), and imaginative in their science and
philosophy, applying their sober good sense to details, but being
sparing of it in regard to principles. This arbitrary direction of their
imaginative powers, or, rather, its restriction to particular
departments, is, I believe and trust, only temporary. As their numbers
increase and their society becomes more delicately organized; when,
consequently, the pursuit of literature, philosophy, and art shall
become as definitely the business of some men as politics and commerce
now are of others, I cannot doubt that the restraints of imitation will
be burst through, and that a plenitude of power will be shed into these
departments as striking as that which has made the organization of
American commerce (notwithstanding some defects) the admiration of the
world, and vindicated the originality of American politics in theory and
practice.

Finally, she has an interesting section on “originals” in America:

There must be many local and professional oddities in a country like
America, where individuals fill a larger space in society, and are less
pressed upon by influences, other than local and professional, than in
Old World communities. A judge in the West is often a remarkable
personage to European eyes…..

….Originals who are so in common circumstances, through their own force of
soul, ruling events as well as being guided by them, yield something far
better than amusement to the observer. Some of these, out of almost
every class, I saw in America, from the divine and statesman down to the
slave.

Martineau ends her book with a remarkable reflection on travel itself, which I’ll share in the next post. 

 

Read Full Post »

— 1 —

Travel is so very strange. You spend weeks or even months anticipating the trip, and then it comes…and then it’s gone. Last week at this time, I felt as if I were in the midst of some epic trek and now…it’s over. And it’s been over for a week. And it feels as if it all happened a few years ago.

I did write a bit about it, as promised – two posts, one on the practicalities of the trip, and the other on the food. 

IMG_0225

We were there….

— 2 —

We’re getting closer to the publication date of my new book, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories. 

Looking good!

— 3 —

What with travel and my older son working in the evenings, we haven’t done much movie-watching recently, but we finally squeezed one in last night: Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which provided some inspiration to George Lucas in the imagining of Star Wars. 

It was mostly enjoyable, but of course not nearly the film that The Seven Samurai is. The acting was not quite as naturalistic, and in particular the female lead screeched her part, and I for one, was very grateful when I learned that the character would be feigning muteness as part of the plot. I do wonder if some of the exaggerated and mannered speech in the film is an expression of some Japanese theater tradition.

That said, the film had an effective and actually somewhat emotional climax – and Toshiro Mifune is always…. a pleasure to watch. That’s what she said…

I really want to watch Stray Dog next. 

— 4 —

Currently reading: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

My son has to read it for school, so I thought I’d take a shot at it, as well, never having read it before. (As with last summer – he had to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I’d never read, and found absolutely fascinating.)

It’s not high literature, but it’s certainly effective – and it strikes me as a good segue into that junior year in which they are doing the later half of both American history and American literature.

And you know someone is a decent writer when he can render an immigrant family’s attempt to purchase a house in such a way that you can’t put the book down until you find out what happens….

— 5 —

Regular readers know of Casa Maria, the local convent and retreat center at which my sons often serve Mass. The foundress of the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word, Mother Mary Gabriel Long, passed away earlier this week. Here is her obituary – I had no idea she and Sister Assumpta Long, OP of the Dominicans in Ann Arbor, were actual sisters.

— 6 —

Cooking: Made this strawberry cake – very simple and very good. 

(I used a springform pan, btw)

— 7 —

I finally figured out how to link Google photos with WordPress, so I’ll be super lazy and finish off these takes with some more pics from the trip:

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: