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Once there were two brothers….

How many tales have begun that way?

Today’s first reading does not begin with that exact phrase, but it could, for it’s the story of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac, and the theft of his brother Esau’s birthright.

Once there were two brothers….

A few weeks ago, the third season of the FX series Fargo concluded. Fargo is a different kind of television series. It is “inspired by” the Coen brothers movie of that name, but takes from the film, not the exact plot, but rather setting, tone and general theme: The Fargosetting of the upper Midwest, the tone of black humor, and the general themes of randomness and of human beings using their free will for evil, but also in very stupid ways that always end in someone’s death.

Accident, serendipity and just the craziness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time play a huge role in this universe – as they do in life, in my opinion, which is why I am so strongly drawn to the series, I think.

That said, although I enjoyed the first season of the series, I never got around to watching the second – I think it coincided with a busy time of life, and then I never could catch up – but I did watch this recently concluded third season, and, in contrast to some viewers, who saw it as a definite downturn, I liked it a lot – and in ways thought it was stronger than the first season.

I’ll hasten to say that the seasons of this program are not intricately connected – the first and second were, but the third (I think) is a completely different story with different characters doing similar, but different things.

There’s too much going on for review in a single blog post – and you can certainly get that in other places. I suppose what I’ll do then, is just focus on what pulled me into this third season of Fargo. I won’t say, “And why you should watch it,” because people’s tastes vary so widely, I never assume that others will agree with my reading, listening or viewing preferences. And come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t watch it. There. Does that cover my bases?

Fargo was wild and arresting, but as with all wild and arresting creations out there these days, you have to be careful and ask: Is there a point to this, or is it just random visual flailing to get my attention and make me think there’s Something Serious going on here? That happens a lot – in my opinion, it happened in Twin Peaks (the original – didn’t watch the recent reboot or whatever) – and is pretty much the norm These Days, since the norm for quite a bit of artistic energy in the modern era is just about the startling superficial image, and not really about anything – since there’s no substantive Anything for anything to be about.

So with Fargo, I held my judgment until the end. I suspected it was about something real, but I couldn’t be sure if I was being taken for a ride or not until the end. And then the end came, and while it was the most deeply satisfying ending I could have envisioned, like the ending of The Sopranos – it fit. Fargo seemed to me about something real, after all.

And what was it?

It was about all those things I spoke of at the beginning, those matters which fascinate me so much – how we are in the place where we’re in at any given moment, not so much because of our deliberate choices (no matter how much we like to think that’s the reason), but because of chance, accidents and the good and evil that’s happened in the past.

But Fargo was also about the nature of truth – and how much of what surrounds us, and what we construct our lives around is just fable, myth and self-serving lies – but – BUT – truth does exist. There is a true story, and there are, indeed, still small voices in our midst, doggedly witnessing to that truth, usually at a great price.

Fargo begins and ends with interrogations of accused men by government officials.

(My discussion will be as spoiler-free as possible. So if I’m vague…that’s why.)

The first scene of the series us to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A man has been hauled in for questioning. He protests his innocence and indeed maintains, with increasing panic, that he is not the man accused and there is no rational reason to suppose him to be.

Fargo

The government official, cool and calm in his assertions, constructs a narrative, and the narrative is that the man in front of him is guilty. He is imposing a new identity on this man, and this narrative that he is a criminal is now the “truth.” It is now a true story.

The series ends in another small room, decades and half a world away from the first scene. Another government official sits behind a desk facing another accused man. Truth again is the issue, but this time, the dynamic is different. The official and the accused face each other, each maintaining the truth of their stories. Identity is again at the core, but now the roles are reversed. The accused has assumed identities in order to avoid detection of his criminal activities, and the official is maintaining, calmly and coolly, that she knows the truth of who he really is. She knows the true story.

There is only the faintest direct connection between the two scenes – one figure common to both narrative strands – who is, by the way, not physically present in either one. But this character’s existence serves to reinforce that other important Fargo theme of the role of random human connection in the course of life.

In between the two scenes are ten episodes in which characters are seduced by greed, deluded, killed, in which they face the truth and construct more lies, and most of the time face the consequences of their actions as the universe – bizarre and mysterious, but ultimately just, it seems – doles them out.

For the reason the events in that last scene came to the point that they did are this, in part:

Decades ago, someone traveled to Los Angeles with literary and filmmaking stars in their eyes, was exploited and mistreated, and bearing the physical consequences of this mistreatment, decided to leave it all behind, including his identity, and change his name to one he saw on a toilet bowl.

And

Decades ago, two brothers (ah…here we are) watched their father die. One brother knew the real value of the inheritance and tricked his brother into letting him have what was most valuable, traded for what the younger brother thought he wanted and needed at the moment, but was of little value beyond that immediate moment.

And here we are in this moment – dealing with the fallout and making our own present-day choices, carrying that weight.

Given that this is a crime drama, of course the choices are heightened and expressive of the most deadly sins – primarily greed and pride – always pride – here. And you watch fargoalong, filled with dread as characters you know have a glimmer of good in them insist on making decisions that range from the stupid to the short-sighted to just evil.

Along the way, Fargo gives us gorgeous cinematography, memorable images and intriguing metaphors – bridge plays a huge role, and along the way we dip into Peter and the Wolf, and find ourselves in a mystical bowling alley – a la Big Lebowski, but different – and excellent acting. Ewen McGregor plays both brothers, and while some critiqued his accent at times, I thought he was fabulous – the greatest challenge being when McGregor must play the brother Ray pretending to be his brother Emmitt.

Fargo_-_Emmit_and_Ray_Stussy

The central character here, though, is really the villain – one mystery man V.M. Varga, played by David Thewlis, whom some of you might know from Harry Potter – he played Professor Lupin.

In Fargo, Varga is the man in charge of some sort of mysterious global entity that steps in to loan Emmit Stussy – the Parking Lot King of Minnesota – some money. The trouble begins when, seeking to repay the loan, Stussy discovers that he’s been had – that the money was not so much a loan as a buy-in to the company, and bit by bit, Varga and his people are taking control.

How sin begins: We open ourselves up to a bit of shadow, and find ourselves in its grasp.

Varga, played by Thewlis is mesmerizing and -yes – disgusting. The character is bulimic. He gorges himself with all manner of food, methodically and greedily, and then vomits it out. As a consequence, his teeth are rotting away – the work of stomach acid. Food is not nourishment here. It is something else, something to fill need both deep-seated and pressingly immediate, then to be vomited out.

FARGO -- Pictured: David Thewlis as V.M. Vargas. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Varga’s bulimia is echoed in his other actions, as he takes in more and more money, more and more property, and vomits it all out in the form of, first of all elaborate self-justifying tales of false history presented as fact, and secondly, human lives.

This character is, to me, an embodiment of the deadly sins, as he perverts what is good, ingests it, takes it all into himself, but for no purpose except for the consumption, discards it, spews out self-justifying lies, and ultimately rots away.

The villain in the first season of Fargo was named Malvo and was played by Billy Bob Thornton, who is always a pleasure to watch in anything, even when he’s playing a villain. Some critics prefer his villain to Varga, but to me, there’s no contest. Thornton was good, but there was an element of the plot and character that I found so unrealistic – even in the heightened, unrealistic world of Fargo – that I lost interest in him. (If you watched it – I’m talking about the dentist part). Varga was weird and lived on a level of exaggeration, to be sure, but there was, at times, fear in his eyes. He wasn’t invincible.

Which, lest you think this is all about the darkness, is the point. As is the case with every Fargo iteration, the beating heart of the series is a police officer – usually female – who is doggedly and patiently pursuing the truth and believes in justice. Here, she’s played by Carrie Coons (of HBO’s The Leftovers) and the character is certainly more than just a symbol of conscience. It’s her stepfather whose murder sets off another chain of events in the series, and although she is not onscreen as much as other characters, it’s clear she is subject to the same dynamics of the universe as they are: she is in the place she is in, both professionally and personally, because of weird, random things that happened in the past. What to make of it all? What’s the truth? And how do you live with it right now?

 

We like to think that life, as we’re living it, is the result of conscious choices that we and others have made.  We read history this way, don’t’ we? We know how the story ends, so we read it as a narrative with decisions and steps leading up to that ending.

But it’s not that way. The way it is, instead, is a way of missteps and accidents, and while I can know some of it, most of it I won’t know.  We do live in the midst of a narrative, but it’s not because there’s no True Narrative to be known – it’s because we’re too small, as God tells Job, to even begin to grasp it. But someday, we will. We cling to hope that we will, we try to find the True Story as we go, and try not to fabricate too many false narratives on the way.

That mystery and strangeness is at the heart of life, and it’s at the heart of the Scriptures – a messy narrative full of human weakness, a story of God working and ultimately victorious, not just through the saints and their great works, but even through the poor sinners  and their weaknesses, crimes and lies.

 “Are you really my son Esau?” 
“Certainly,” Jacob replied….

****

Note: I have a theory about the connection between the bowling alley and Nikki’s fate – but I’ll wait to discuss it in the comment section at some point. 

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Ah…the weekend. What happened to it?

The younger son had an audition for the honors ensemble/scholarship at his music academy – and emerged victorious, we learned later in the afternoon. So that’s good.

Older son had a job interview in the afternoon, and will have a second when the store manager returns from vacation this week. So that’s very good.

There’s such a need for a change in our educational culture. Well, duh, that’s what I’ve been saying for years, sure, but the whole 16-year old job searching has set my wheels turning again. I really do think that American education is in need of a radical paradigm shift that would make it broadlly acceptable to reach an endpoint of mandatory education at the age of 15-16 again. If *I* were running a high school with a general focus (as opposed to a magnet type school focused on arts or Classics or such), I would design a program in which what we now call freshman and sophomore years would be focused on fundamental, mandatory coursework, and then make any further “secondary” education more like college.  The state says you need two more English classes and a government/econ credit? Okay – do that in a year, and then graduate. That’s fine. Get your classes done, then get off the property and go to your job. You want to be in classrooms all day five days a week for the next two years and stay after for athletic practices?  That’s fine, too. Here are the classes and teams:  go for it.

You find this here and there, and in greater numbers. My nephew is graduating from high school in Florida in June, but hasn’t actually been to a class on his high school campus in a year – he’s been taking community college classes and will have an AA degree as well as a high school diploma when he “finishes” high school  – as well as a lot of experience in his chosen field. It’s such a better model. Really.

Well, anyway.

The rest of the weekend was filled with a birthday party for one of the boys’ friends, and then one of them was invited to spend the day with friends at yesterday’s Indy race nearby, so he did that. 

Sunday afternoon, I walked by the glass patio door, and was startled to see:

I am not sure what drew them. They’re gathered around the top of a storage container that held water from an earlier rain shower – but that meant there was lots of water around, everywhere. I don’t know why this particular spot was so attractive. I’ve certainly seen flocks of birds around here, but I’ve never seen a small flock of a distinctive kind of bird like this just gathered a couple of feet from my house. It was a little strange. By the way, they are Cedar Waxwings. Not that I knew that off the top of my head, of course.

(It’s the kind of thing that I note – when I bother to – on Instagram Stories. Remember, you can only see Stories with the app on a phone.)

Currently reading the new Eamon Duffy book

Reformation Divided  is a collection of essays with my favorite subtext: You think you know this story? Well..you don’t. Try again, and maybe this time use sources more carefully and with less bias.  More when I finish reading.

 

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The Warden is the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, books which are primarily focused on the clergy and their families of the fictional town.

The plot is simple. From Goodreads, because I hate summarizing plots. I must have had a traumatic experience in fourth grade or something.

“The Warden” centers on Mr. Harding, a clergyman of great personal integrity who is nevertheless in possession of an income from a charity far in excess of the sum devoted to the purposes of the foundation. On discovering this, young John Bold turns his reforming zeal to exposing what he regards as an abuse of privilege, despite the fact that he is in love with Mr. Harding’s daughter Eleanor. It was a highly topical novel (a case regarding the misapplication of church funds was the scandalous subject of contemporary debate), but like other great Victorian novelists, Trollope uses the specific case to explore and illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and social morality

Reading Trollope, first of all, will disabuse a reader of the notion that in past eras, clergymen and church affairs were considered off-limits for satire, mocking and criticism. Of course this is not the case, and has never been, but Trollope’s treatment of religion is "amy welborn"particularly instructive because he is so straightforward in presenting the humanity and politics of the world of the church (of England in this case, of course).

The Warden is much shorter than most of Trollope’s other work, and more focused, although the political and journalistic world of London comes under scrutiny as Mr. Harding travels there to make his case. I earlier highlighted Trollope’s evisceration of the press in his chapter “Mount Olympus.” 

I want to highlight just a few quotes from The Warden, passages which I particularly appreciated either because of their insight into human behavior or high satirical quotient. In the first, “the doctor” is the Archdeacon of the Cathedral, who is also Mr. Harding’s son-in-law. He is determined that the threat against Harding’s position is no less than a threat against the privileges of the entire Church of England, and must be stopped.

Having settled this point to his satisfaction, the doctor stepped down to the hospital, to learn how matters were going on there; and as he walked across the hallowed close, and looked up at the ravens who cawed with a peculiar reverence as he wended his way, he thought with increased acerbity of those whose impiety would venture to disturb the goodly grace of cathedral institutions.

And who has not felt the same? We believe that Mr Horseman himself would relent, and the spirit of Sir Benjamin Hall give way, were those great reformers to allow themselves to stroll by moonlight round the towers of some of our ancient churches. Who would not feel charity for a prebendary when walking the quiet length of that long aisle at Winchester, looking at those decent houses, that trim grass-plat, and feeling, as one must, the solemn, orderly comfort of the spot! Who could be hard upon a dean while wandering round the sweet close of Hereford, and owning that in that precinct, tone and colour, design and form, solemn tower and storied window, are all in unison, and all perfect! Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library and that unequalled spire, without feeling that bishops should sometimes be rich!

I love this passage, in which Trollope is taking the language usually used to express how beautiful and orderly church architecture leads the mind to consider the glory and nature of God and turns it around.

A minor character, Sir Abraham Haphazard, will be the defender of the Church’s privilege in the House of Lords, but he is also busy with another cause:

Sir Abraham Haphazard was deeply engaged in preparing a bill for the mortification of papists, to be called the “Convent Custody Bill,” the purport of which was to enable any protestant clergyman over fifty years of age to search any nun whom he suspected of being in possession of treasonable papers, or jesuitical symbols: and as there were to be a hundred and thirty-seven clauses in the bill, each clause containing a separate thorn for the side of the papist, and as it was known the bill would be fought inch by inch, by fifty maddened Irishmen, the due construction and adequate dovetailing of it did consume much of Sir Abraham’s time. The bill had all its desired effect. Of course it never passed into law; but it so completely divided the ranks of the Irish members, who had bound themselves together to force on the ministry a bill for compelling all men to drink Irish whisky, and all women to wear Irish poplins, that for the remainder of the session the Great Poplin and Whisky League was utterly harmless.

Again, great, (if heavy-handed!) satire, not only on British anti-Catholicism, but on the ways of politics, so often centered not on direct discussion of policy, but on misdirection and throwing up false flags for distraction and disturbance of enemy forces.

Having gone through this Mr Harding got into another omnibus, and again returned to the House. Yes, Sir Abraham was there, and was that moment on his legs, fighting eagerly for the hundred and seventh clause of the Convent Custody Bill. Mr Harding’s note had been delivered to him; and if Mr Harding would wait some two or three hours, Sir Abraham could be asked whether there was any answer. The House was not full, and perhaps Mr Harding might get admittance into the Strangers’ Gallery, which admission, with the help of five shillings, Mr Harding was able to effect.

This bill of Sir Abraham’s had been read a second time and passed into committee. A hundred and six clauses had already been discussed and had occupied only four mornings and five evening sittings; nine of the hundred and six clauses were passed, fifty-five were withdrawn by consent, fourteen had been altered so as to mean the reverse of the original proposition, eleven had been postponed for further consideration, and seventeen had been directly negatived. The hundred and seventh ordered the bodily searching of nuns for jesuitical symbols by aged clergymen, and was considered to be the real mainstay of the whole bill. No intention had ever existed to pass such a law as that proposed, but the government did not intend to abandon it till their object was fully attained by the discussion of this clause. It was known that it would be insisted on with terrible vehemence by Protestant Irish members, and as vehemently denounced by the Roman Catholic; and it was justly considered that no further union between the parties would be possible after such a battle. The innocent Irish fell into the trap as they always do, and whiskey and poplins became a drug in the market.

Ending on a far simpler note, I love this tight observation of John Bold, who is pursuing this suit about the hospital, for no particular reason except, as we might say today, “Because Reasons” and with no real thinking through of the consequences to those he is professing to help:

And the Barchester Brutus went out to fortify his own resolution by meditations on his own virtue.

I think that’s a good nudge for a penitential Lenten Friday, myself….

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— 1 —

Well, if you are a Catholic, it’s a bonanza kind of day. It’s First Friday and it’s the first Friday of Lent. Both of the sons I have at home right now go to Catholic schools – one elementary and one secondary – and both will be having Adoration and Stations of the Cross on Friday at school. So tonight, we had a brief talk about how that’s a lot of praying, and a great opportunity to pray for a lot of people.

 

— 2 —

It’s also the memorial of St. Katharine Drexel. I wrote about her in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints:

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

— 3 —

Currently reading:

Barchester Towers

The Unbanking of America

The Astronomer and the Witch. 

— 4 —

The first because I’m on a Trollope kick, and I have to say that I can see why readers pick Barchester Towers as their favorite. It is tight and lively, and not quite the discursive experience as other recent Trollopes I have read like Miss MacKenzie and Rachel Ray.  The characters are quite a bit more vivid and the humor more pronounced. Really, the Stanhope clan and Obadiah Slope are terrific creations.

I had assumed there was a BBC adaptation, so I went in search of one and found that indeed there was – a combined production of The Warden and Barchester Towers featuring lots of familiar faces including, quite memorably, the late, great Alan Rickman as Slope, in his first major television role. It’s hard to think of a more perfect match of actor and role.

I’ve watched bits and pieces, mostly to see Rickman as well as satisfy my curiosity about how the Stanhopes – the family of an Anglican vicar who’ve been living in northern Italy because  the vicar caught a cold of some sort and needed a bit of a rest cure. Twelve years later, they’ve been called back by the new bishop, and between them, Slope, the new bishop and his wife and a host of other characters, sparks are certainly flying, plans are being hatched – and sabotaged. The television adaptation is mildly entertaining, and it’s always fun to see how a good character translates from page to screen, but in this case, reading the book is a far more satisfying experience. The television adaptation can barely skim the surface, and at times does get things wrong.

In the novel, Slope and his sometime ally and sometimes enemy Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s wife, are presented as adherents of the plain, more evangelical wing of the Church of England, people who are appalled that the trains run on the Sabbath and are unimpressed by chanting and other forms of music in the liturgy. In television terms, this gets translated into a kind of rationalism – Slope’s initial sermon, which causes scandal because he takes a stand against high church liturgy – becomes a paean of sorts to rationalism.

So, as I said, I’ve skipped around a couple of episodes, but enjoy the book much more.

— 5 —.

The Unbanking of America?  I read an interview with the author at Reason, the libertarian website, and was intrigued, as I always am, by the thought of someone who presents ideas that are opposed to Conventional Wisdom. I won’t rehash her arguments – simply know that the author is an economist who spent a few months working at both a check-cashing business and payday-loan business, and found that they fill a gap in the financial lives of many that banks just don’t anymore.  It’s like a long Atlantic Monthly or New Yorker article that you can knock off in a couple of hours, and I always enjoy that – grow my brain a bit without too much commitment, and thanks.

— 6 —

Did you know Johannas Kepler’s mother was tried as a witch? I didn’t, and this book is the story of that set of events – as well as a fascinating look at, of course, Kepler himself, and the very lively intellectual world of early 17th century Germany.  I’m just about halfway through and will talk more about it when I finish, but really, if you are even talking to someone who’s all about separating science and religion and who wants to tell you about that glorious time when scientists like Kepler finally busted the superstitious Age of Faith apart, invite them to consider what Kepler (and others) was really about – how he was a profoundly religious man who was all about discovering more about God via studying his Creation.

Oh, and about the witch business – it happened when Kepler was an adult, after he had started producing important scientific work, and when the accusations came to his attention, he rearranged his life to travel back home and work in his mother’s defense.

— 7 —

I was clued into this via, of course In Our Time, which had an excellent program on Kepler which featured the author of the Astronomer book as one of the guests.

Other recent listens have been programs on:

Parasitism – good, but not fascinating.

The Gin Craze – fantastic social history. 

And, just yesterday, a great program on Harriet Martineau, the 19th century British writer. If you listen to any of these programs – try this one first.

Just one note about Martineau. She was a prolific writer, primarily of descriptive and analytical essays reflecting her views on political philosophy and economics. I think it’s accurate to describe her as an early sociologist of sorts.Indeed, she spent two years in the United State and wrote about it – books of which I was vaguely aware, but now have put on the (very long) list.

What might interest you is Martineau’s conflict with Charles Dickens.

She had written for Dickens’ journal called Household Words, but over time, differences between the two developed. Martineau, a devotee of Adam Smith and Malthus, felt that Dickens’ view of what we’d now call the impact of the Industrial Revolution was simplistic, sentimental and uninformed by a coherent political philosophy. She didn’t appreciate his views on women and she was offended by his personal life.

But what caused the final split was Dickens’ anti-Catholicism.

Martineau herself was a strong, unwavering Unitarian, but in 1854, she was surprised that story she had written for Dickens, a story about the sacrifices of a Jesuit missionary, was rejected. As she wrote in her autobiography (written when she thought she was dying…but then she lived for twenty more years, and it ended up, indeed being published after her death.)

Some weeks afterwards, my friends told me, with renewed praises of the story, that they mourned the impossibility of publishing it, — Mrs. Wills said, because the public would say that Mr. Dickens was turning Catholic; and Mr. Wills and Mr. Dickens, because they never would publish any thing, fact or fiction, which gave a favourable view of any one under the influence of the Catholic faith. This appeared to me so incredible that Mr. Dickens gave me his “ground” three times over, with all possible distinctness, lest there should be any mistake: — he would print nothing which could possibly dispose any mind whatever in favour of Romanism, even by the example of real good men. In vain I asked him whether he really meant to ignore all the good men who had lived from the Christian era to three centuries ago: and in vain I pointed out that Père d’Estélan was a hero as a man, and not as a Jesuit, at a date and in a region where Romanism was the only Christianity. Mr. Dickens would ignore, in any publication of his, all good catholics; and insisted that Père d’Estélan was what he was as a Jesuit and not as a man; — which was, as I told him, the greatest eulogium I had ever heard passed upon Jesuitism. I told him that his way of going to work, — suppressing facts advantageous to the Catholics, — was the very way to rouse all fair minds in their defence; and that I had never before felt so disposed to make popularly known all historical facts in their favour. — I hope I need not add that the editors never for a moment supposed that my remonstrance had any connexion with the story in question being written by me. They knew me too well to suppose that such a trifle as my personal interest in the acceptance or rejection of the story had any thing to do with my final declaration that my confidence and comfort in regard to “Household Words” were gone, and that I could never again write fiction for them, nor any thing in which principle or feeling were concerned. Mr. Dickens hoped I should [94] “think better of it;” and this proof of utter insensibility to the nature of the difficulty, and his and his partner’s hint that the real illiberality lay in not admitting that they were doing their duty in keeping Catholic good deeds out of the sight of the public, showed me that the case was hopeless. To a descendant of Huguenots, such total darkness of conscience on the morality of opinion is difficult to believe in when it is before one’s very eyes.

Even worse, at some point later, was the publication in Household Words, of a rabidly anti-Catholic, scandal-mongering piece of fiction called The Yellow Mask. 

The last thing I am likely to do is to write for an anti-catholic publication; and least of all when it is anti-catholic on the sly.

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

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At some point in the flood of Hourly Outrage that is apparently the course of our lives now, it was found necessary for a few hours last week to strongly defend the press.

Ernie Pyle!

Well, yes, thank you Ernie Pyle.

But as most intelligent people know, there is no institution on earth that is 100% noble or immune from human weakness and flaws of all kind. We all do our best, yes, and yes, great good is accomplished by almost every human institution, but at the same time, every human institution operates with the limitations of human weakness and sin.

Of course, we are also in an era in which extreme language is the norm. So that when Trump attacks, which he does using exaggerated and simplistic language, those attacked will inevitably respond in kind.

But guys, about the press…

Think of it this way: consider any area of life in which you modestly consider yourself an expert: medicine, the law, small business, religion, the issues that impact your community, the environment, your favorite justice cause, whether that be pro-life issues or health care or prison reform, or even just What Life is Like in Your Community…

….does the press ever get it right?

Here and there, yes. But as a whole, I don’t know of a person who’s an expert in any field or area of life who feels as if the press “gets” the truth about their area of expertise, and some people even write blogs about it.  (And some people even write chapters in books about it.)

The problem really is just hubris and, in this country, the silly ruse of objectivity. We are so much better off, I do believe, when ideological cards are on the table, and we can sift through reportage and narratives with that in mind.

This is not earth-shaking to anyone, and is offered by way of introduction to a critique of the press that’s over a century old.

I’m reading a bunch of Trollope, and last night finished The Warden. I have several passages I’ll be highlighting in a future post, but given the heated discussions and defenses, I thought it might be worth a reminder that DJT didn’t invent harsh and cutting press criticism. Trollope devotes an entire chapter to dissecting and drilling The Jupiter, a fictional newspaper,and its editor, one Tom Towers.  His focus is on pride and hubris. It’s chapter 14 and you can read it all here:

It is true he wore no ermine, bore no outward marks of a world’s respect; but with what a load of inward importance was he charged! It is true his name appeared in no large capitals; on no wall was chalked up ‘Tom Towers for ever’–‘Freedom of the Press and Tom Towers’; but what member of Parliament had half his power? It is true that in far-off provinces men did not talk daily of Tom Towers but they read The Jupiter, and acknowledged that without The Jupiter life was not worth having. This kind of hidden but still conscious glory suited the nature of the man. He loved to sit silent in a corner of his club and listen to the loud chattering of politicians, and to think how they all were in his power–how he could smite the loudest of them, were it worth his while to raise his pen for such a purpose. He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote, and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them. Each of them was responsible to his country, each of them must answer if inquired into, each of them must endure abuse with good humour, and insolence without anger. But to whom was he, Tom Towers, responsible? No one could insult him; no one could inquire into him. He could speak out withering words, and no one could answer him: ministers courted him, though perhaps they knew not his name; bishops feared him; judges doubted their own verdicts unless he confirmed them; and generals, in their councils of war, did not consider more deeply what the enemy would do, than what The Jupiter would say. Tom Towers never boasted of The Jupiter; he scarcely ever named the paper even to the most intimate of his friends; he did not even wish to be spoken of as connected with it; but he did not the less value his privileges, or think the less of his own importance. It is probable that Tom Towers considered himself the most powerful man in Europe; and so he walked on from day to day, studiously striving to look a man, but knowing within his breast that he was a god.

 

 

 

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— 1 —

Very quick, mostly about what I’ve read recently.

Monday is Presidents’ Day – Kevin Williamson inveighs against it, and I resonate with his inveighing:

The president of the United States is the chief officer of the federal bureaucracy, the head of one branch of a government that has three co-equal branches. Strictly speaking, it is not given to him even to make law, but only to see to the enforcement of the laws passed by Congress (and maybe to veto one here and there) and to appoint appropriate people, like the former CEO of Carl’s Jr., to high federal offices. In the legislative branch, the House of Representatives is the accelerator and the Senate is the brake; the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are pretty much all brake; the presidency is a kind of hybrid, sometimes pressing for needful reform and action, sometimes standing in Congress’s way when it is rash or overly ambitious. The architecture of our constitutional order is a complicated and delicate balance.

 But the president is not the tribune of the plebs. He is not a sacred person or the holder of a sacred office. He is neither pontifex nor imperator. He is not the spiritual distillation of the republic or the personification of our national ideals and values. (Thank God Almighty.) He is not even primus inter pares like the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the Patriarch of Constantinople. He is the commander-in-chief in time of war (which, since we have abandoned the advice of Washington and Eisenhower, is all of the time, now) and the chief administrator of the federal bureaucracy. That is it.

He is not a ruler.

— 2 —

Good stuff from the Federalist on Common Core. A primer, if you will:

As I detail in full footnoted glory in my book out soon, Common Core’s own founding documents specifically invite federal involvement. Its success as a national program is directly attributable to federal involvement in education, period. Common Core’s creators and funders worked hand-in-glove with the Obama administration, right down to transferring personnel and regular alignment phone calls, to impose it upon the nation and link it to every major federal and state education policy (data collection, teacher preparation and certification, school rating systems, curriculum, testing). The new law replacing No Child Left Behind codifies the federal government as the ultimate review board for state testing and curriculum policies, a Clinton-era policy that made Common Core possible.

— 3—

If you are interested in educational issues, and not necessarily from a religious perspective, the libertarian magazine/website Reason looks at the issue of school choice regularly and has a good library of articles, found here. 

My mantra, in case you’ve never heard it: more schools of all different types for all different kinds of students. 

— 4 —

I have so many notes headed “PF” with many words attached, but since every day brings a new development, what I was sure was most important yesterday inevitably fades with the dawn of a new day, every day, without fail.

So I’ll be lazy and offer this excellent analysis of a bit of the current situation from First Things: 

It can be no surprise, then, that the sacraments are under renewed attack. For the sacraments are the means by which the Church is ordered and by which she distinguishes, on a practical level, between good and evil. (What is the point of forbidding the evil of divorce, if not to uphold the good of marriage and its witness to the covenant of our salvation? What is the point of forbidding suicide and euthanasia, if not to uphold the sanctity of life and the good of honoring the Lord and Giver of Life?) The sacraments, of course, are much more than that. They are instruments of grace by which God communicates to us his own life through participation in our Lord Jesus Christ. They are not rewards for goodness, but the means of sharing in the God who is good. That is why they are holy sacraments, and it is their very holiness that makes them the object of attack.

— 5 —.

Earlier this week, I finished La Dolce Vita Confidential – if you’re interested in Italian pop culture and the movies, you’ll enjoy this. The writing was excellent, and Levy does a great job of excavating a cultural moment and helping us see how these moments just don’t happen – there are streams that are flowing that join to make the river…and then disperse again. For just a few years, Italy was everything, and then it was England’s moment and so life goes on.

I will admit that I have never actually seen La Dolce Vita, and will probably remedy that soon. There were a few other films discussed in the book that picqued my interest – for example, this early Sophia Loren-Marcello Mastroianni collaboration called Too Bad She’s Bad. 

— 6 —

There were a few more rabbit holes inspired by the text – various other movies, a purported, but false Marian apparition and this song:

 

Levy just mentions it offhand, as being inspired by the death/perhaps suicide of a Sicilian nobleman, who jumped/was pushed from a building on Via Veneto. I found it mesmerizing and haunting:

Who could it be,
that man in a tailcoat?
 
Bonne nuit, bonne nuit, goodnight,
he keeps telling everything,
the lighted lamps,
a cat in love
that goes by wandering.
 
Now dawn has finally come,
lamps are turned off,
and the whole city
wakes up little by little,
moon has got stuck,
suprised, pale,
it will disappear in the sky
fading away.
 
A window yawns
on the silent river
and in the white light
a top hat, a flower and a tailcoat
float away.
 
Gently floating,
cradled by the waves,
he slowly flows down
under bridges towards the sea,
towards the sea he goes.
 
Who could it be, who could it be,
that man in a tailcoat?
 
Adieu, adieu, farewell world,
farewell to memories of the past,
to a dream never dreamt,
to an instant of love
that will never come back.

…and then further rabbit holes led me to the fact that the singer/songwriter was Domenio Modugno whose main claim to fame was the Eurovision-competing (but not winning) Volare! which we all know from the car and the commercials,  (very funny to watch that commercial and see the boat that’s touted as a fabulous new “small car”) if not from the many covers of the song, including one by Dean Martin, but honestly, take a look at the video, read the borderline surreal lyrics and understand why the Internet is both the life and the death of me.

I think, such a dream
Will never return.
I painted hands and face in the blue
And then suddenly the wind kidnapped me
And I began to fly in an infinite sky.
To fly,
To sing
In the blue, painted in the blue,
I am happy to be above.

— 7 —

Forgive me for repeating this Take from last week…but..it still pertains, don’t you think?

amy-welborn66Lent is coming! Here’s a post from yesterday with links to all my Lent-related material.

The past two weeks, I’ve seen a spike in hits for  this post – and I’m glad to see it.

It’s a 2015 post on one of the most inexplicable post-Vatican II liturgical changes (and..there’s a lot of competition on that score) – the total obliteration of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays – the three Sundays preceding the First Sunday of Lent. So for those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form and some Anglicans, I understand, February 19 is Sexagesima Sunday. From a Dappled Things article I cite in the post:

In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.”

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

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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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