Saturday, December 31, 2016

Three Christmases: Smith & Wolff

A 21st Century Indiana Christmas

Several of the books I read this read this year included lovely, magical, memorable Christmas scenes. Three in particular stood out for me, all from approximately the same time period but celebrated in very different ways, according to economic circumstance.

1. In Harry's Last Stand, Harry Leslie Smith (b. 1923, Barnsley, United Kingdom) recalls a British depression - era Christmas, the last year that his father was physically able to work full - time as a miner:

42 - 43: "Yet despite the cold gloom and half - light of winter, that Christmas (1926) was as close to magical as I can remember from my childhood. We celebrated and defied our poverty, our mourning over Marion and our anxiety for the future with passion and happiness at being in each other's company.

"On Christmas day, my father entertained us by playing carols on the piano while my mother prepared a goose. Our feast had been bought at the expense of my mother's wedding ring that had been put in hawk at the pawnbroker's shop. For a present, I was give a toy train engine that my parents were never able to equal in extravagance during subsequent Christmases. In the years that followed, my sister and I would speak of that Christmas as if we had received the riches of Croesus from our parents, because it was one of the last moments that we remembered our family being truly happy."

112: "And even though times were rough, he [my father] tried to make the most out of family life. I remember the excitement of once seeing a Christmas panto, or going to the seaside with my family. I remember in particular one bank holiday outing to Southport." [Where Gerry and I, along with Gerry's parents, took Ben and Sam several times to see the panto; and Gerry before them; and Gerry's mother before him!]

2. In I, Keturah, Ruth Wolff (b 1932, Massachusetts) writes of a Christmas somewhere in rural America, but not too far from a city, sometime between the WW I & WW II, from the perspective of an orphaned teenaged girl, who has at long last been taken in by a loving, elderly couple:

74: "I shall always remember my first Christmas at the Dennys'. Late in November Mrs. Denny baked her fruitcakes. Candied fruit was snipped into tiny pieces walnuts and hickory nuts we had gathered in the October woods were cracked and shelled; the heavy dough was stirred with big, wooden spoon in an earthenware mixing bowl lined with tiny cracks of age. while the cakes were baking the house was charged with a wonderful spicy odor. Coming in from the cold outdoors and smelling the cakes rising in the oven was to sniff of an exciting time to come.

"Mrs. Wayburn came over to help with the cookies . . . we rolled out the floured dough and cut it in the shapes of stars, wreaths and animals, sprinkling the tops with pink sugar, cinnamon drops and raisins . . . ."

My Pink & Red Sugar Cats from Christmas 2011
Photo ~ January 4, 2012

75: "Reading was put aside as we pored over mail - order catalogues. Mrs. Denny would slyly let Mr. Denny know what she wanted by lingering over a certain page. In the same way he made his desires known to her. . . . The Dennys had bought clothes for me . . . warm dresses, a coat, shoes, three pairs of lisle stockings, underwear, and a green felt hat. The morning the boxes arrived, I tried everything on for Mrs. Denny, who saw that it fit and approved. . . ."

76: "Two days before Christmas, Mr. Denny and I went out to the woods to cut a tree for the bay window in the parlor. There was a light snow on the ground. Mr. Denny whistled as we walked through the snowy woods, his cheeks rosy, an ax over his shoulder. He knew the tree he wanted. He had not taken it the year before, wanting it to grow a bit more.

"Surrounded by the snow, the fir tree stood strong and beautiful in the winter afternoon. Mr. Denny gently touched the feathery branches. I could see he hated to cut it down.

" 'But think of the pleasure it will give us,' he said, having to have a reasonable excuse to take it from its native woods. . . .

" 'I'm sure this tree never dreamed it would grow up to be a Christmas
tree . . . . ' "

78: "After the tree was set up in the bay window, we popped corn, strung it, and wound it around the branches. Mrs. Denny brought out a box of ornaments she kept from year to year, carefully unwrapping them from tissue paper, and Mr. Denny and I hung them on the tree. Last of all, the little candle holders were clamped on the tips of the branches and a red candle placed inside each one. Just at dark on Christmas Eve Mr. Denny touched a match to each candle. When they were all lit the little green tree was more beautiful than it had been in the snowy woods. Its candles burned twice, once on the branches and again in the windows. I thought how proud the little tree must feel standing there with it strings of popcorn, its glistening ornaments, its reflected candles It had come out of the lonely woods where it had been showered by rain, warmed by sun, decked with winter's snow where it had shivered in the sharp cold holding up its branches under the darkest sky. And I felt a kinship toward the tree, its origin shrouded in mystery as my own."

Lights shining twice, on the branches, in the windows!
Photo ~ December 12, 2011

80: "The basement of the church was hung with red and green crepe paper. In the center of the room stood a great tree lighted with white candles. Around it the folk of the countryside gathered and sang carols, while the candles brightly burned and reflected on their upturned faces. The voices rose until it seemed as if the ceiling would be lifted by their joyful praise. around the tree stood men who wrestled with the earth from dawn to dusk, women who spent their lives in hot kitchens, in cleaning big, old - fashioned farmhouses, in rearing children; old folks with lined faces hand relieved of the reins of work; young people who would follow in their parents' footsteps, others who would go beyond the limits of their birthplace to seek their fortunes, who would never spend another Christmas Eve around the big tree at the church; wide - eyed children clinging to grown - up hands, trying to catch the words of the songs; babies soundly sleeping in strong arms."

3. In The Skeptical Feminist: Discovering the Virgin, Mother, and Crone, Barbara G. Walker (b. 1930, Philadelphia) describes the typical middle - class American Christmases" of her youth:

45: " . . . not unique, not sacred, not particularly religious. They could easily be criticized as commercial, and overindulgent. My mother used to say, 'Christmas is for the children.' "

This post, with further excerpts from Walker,
to be continued in January . . .

Monday, October 31, 2016


I like it when I order two new books and the covers kind of go together!
~ Thanks to Ben McCartney for the recommendations. ~
Among other things, this book "tries to unravel the essential paradox of the entire episode: that under - regulated markets ran badly off the tracks and the government rushed in to save the day, yet the government emerged as a villain" (xvii).

I'm surprised that Blinder would find this surprising.

"Can we prevent asset - price bubbles in the future? Here, unfortunately, the answer is mostly no. . . . No, while we may be lucky enough to nip a few bubbles in the bud, we will never stamp them out. The herding behavior that produces them may well be programmed into our DNA" (47).
What? This is supposed to be a book about using your thinking cap! "Herding behavior? Maybe. But, lets be honest, we're also talking about "greed." Instead of blaming "our DNA," how about offering some reality - based suggestions for behavior modification.
from After the Music Stopped:
The Financial Crisis, The Response, and the Work Ahead

Alan S. Blinder, American economist, Princeton Univ. (b 1945)


"Custom was the keystone of life. . . . the underlying deep continuity that represents the nature of England itself. . . .

"The ancient roads, the witnesses of prehistoric life and travel, still persisted in the medieval landscape. But they were joined by other highways in the historical period. Many winding lanes between farmstead and farmstead, many sunken hollow - ways leading to the village, deep - set and drowsy on a summer afternoon, were constructed in the twelfth century
" (7, 119).

from Foundation: The History of England
From Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors
by Peter Ackroyd, British cultural historian (b 1949)

I had seen the photos . . .
always with autumn colors in the background,
as if the school were based not in a town
but in a month, October

from Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn, American author and screenwriter (b 1971)

I love it when my reading material matches my outfit!
~ Panama Bag, Tucson, AZ ~ October 2014 ~

*Ben also recommends the sequel(L)!
And, should you need any help with your reading (R):

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Religion and Politics

Cover photo by Corbis

Continuing last month's focus on politics and religion, here are two more titles, both recommended over the summer by my brother, The Rev. Bruce L. Carriker.

Beginning with Religion:

The Preaching Life
Barbara Brown Taylor
~ (b. September 21, 1951)

53: "Ours is an historic faith. We believe in a God who acts in time, who began acting long before we came upon the scene and who will continue acting long after we are gone from it, which means that our present trust is sustained by memory on the one hand and hope on the other."

56: "The disparity between the vision and the reality was wrenching, like looking at a wasteland through a window painted with flowers . . . the reality had not yet caught up with God's vision, but it would." [As in "Science does have all the answers . . . we [just] don't have all the science."]

57 - 58: "I did not have to settle for memorizing . . . or reciting . . . I could take the text apart and put it back together again without harming it, ask questions and challenge the answers without being struck by lightning. The word of God turned out to be plenty strong enough to withstand my curiosity. Every time I poked it, it poked me back. Every time I wrenched it around so I could see inside, it sprang back into shape the moment I was through. In short, the Bible turned out not to be a fossil under glass but a thousand different things — a mirror, a scythe, a hammock, a lantern, a pair of binoculars, a high diving board, a bridge, a goad — all of them offering themselves to me to be touched and handled and used."

62: "Like a lifeline strung from the beginning of time to the end, [the Bible shows] us a way through all the storms of culture, nature, and history . . . the way to the Word beyond all our words, in whose presence we shall be made eloquent at last."

67 - 68: "There are no solo sacraments. We need one another. . . . If, in touching or being touched by these ordinary things, we believe that we are being touched by God, then we can no longer draw a clear line between the secular and the sacred in our lives. Every created thing is a potential messenger, sent to teach us more about our relationship with God. . . . Sacraments are our road maps home. God may not need them, but we do."

69 - 70: ". . . the word of God calls for a response with some human daring in it."

71: "When I say "We believe . . . " I count on that to cover what I cannot believe on my own right now. When my faith limps, I lean on the faith of the church, letting "our" faith suffice until "mine" returns. Later, when I am able to say, "We believe . . . " with renewed confidence, I know that I am filling in for others who are indisposed for the time being, as they filled in for me. My decision to say the creed at all is a decision to trust those who have gone before me, embracing the faith they have commended to me."

74: "At first it looks like the door out of the church, but as we walk through it we discover that it is the door into the world, where Christ may yet be found and followed."

53: "That is the God who walks toward me in the Bible -- not only the God of the past but also the God of the present and the future."


Moving on to Politics (and Religion):

Not forgetting that in fact, way back in 2012,
my brother suggested that we all read this one!

Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction
David Kuo ~ (June 26, 1968 – April 5, 2013)

David Kuo started working with George Bush (the Second) in 1998, as deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. But not until 2003 does Kuo draw the conclusion that "The president had made great promises but they hadn't been delivered on. Worse than that, the White House hadn't tried. Worse than that, we had used people of faith to further our political agenda and hadn't given them anything in return" (243). Kuo is dismayed by the various so called "compassionate measures" that had hardly any effect, positive or negative, on anyone but somehow made it seem to the religious right that the George W. Bush Administration had just done something generous for his followers.
As for Bush himself, Kuo writes, "I was surprised by the brazen deception and I was crushed by it, too. That same passion for the poor I first heard in Austin was in his voice and in his eyes. But the passion was a passion for talking about compassion, not fighting for compassion" (249).

Kuo's narrative is revealing, but why does it take him so long to realize these truths? How could he remain deluded for so long? If only I could reach back over the years, and share with David Kuo this excellent advice from Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey: "When people show you who they are, believe them." He could have saved himself a lot time.

Last Month's Post:
Harry Leslie Smith (Politics) & Barbara Walker (Religion)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Politics and Religion

We all know that Miss Manners, Linus, and nearly everyone else advises us to avoid discussions of politics and religion, but -- throwing caution to the wind -- here are a couple of eye - opening titles from my more serious summer reading.

First, politics:

Book at amazon
Photo at

I have been a fan of Harry since reading his remarkable 2013 essay "This year I will wear the poppy for the last time." Last month, I took some time to read his Last Stand (you can read it in a day) and felt that I had discovered a latter day Orwell. I like Harry's politics, courage, and honesty in speaking from the heart of a lifetime of experience. I agree when he writes that "It is both anti - democratic and immoral when life doesn't get materially and socially better for the majority. . . . For over a generation, British society worked together for one common aim: measured prosperity for everyone. To achieve it, free health care and education were provided to every citizen to even out the playing field of life" (105, 124).

Any time that "social democracy is placed jeopardy," Harry speaks up on behalf of the populace (155). He is living proof that aging does not lead inevitably to regressive politics. He observes that "Many people who are younger than me presume that because of my age I have a default setting which makes me, among other things, a lover of dogs, suspicious of immigrants, wary of welfare benefit recipients and distrusting of those who possess piercings and / or multiple tattoos" (66). But no! They'd be wrong!

When one of Harry's younger relatives points out that "The world has changed a lot since you were a boy, "Harry draws the opposite conclusion: "Though I didn't want to disagree with him, it seems to me that the problem is that it hasn't changed enough" (72).

Of the elderly, Harry writes, " . . . we are not so different to you. I still have many of your familiar worries, from how to pass the time of day to how to pay my rent. Like everyone else, I grumble about money. I think I have too little; that my pension is shrinking while the cost of living is rising. Like you, I have some regrets. Why didn't I ever learn to swim or speak French? Why didn't I buy that computer stock? Like all of us, I worry about my children, despite the fact that they are halfway along in their own lives" (8).

He provides a voice of reason amidst all the nonsense: "When I watch the news of television -- and it doesn't matter which broadcaster: BBC, Sky, CNN, Fox or CBC -- it all sounds tired, deflated, as if it had been written by a lobbyist or government policy maker. It seems contrived and fake, like the newsreaders are in on a joke that eludes their public. I can be in Yorkshire, Albufeira, New York or Toronto, but the message is always the same: health care is too costly, education must be about job training, immigration is too high [and so forth]. It can't ever be about making a more informed citizen because culture is too costly in a world content with scripted reality television shows and blockbuster zombie movies. . . . I will never understand why the daily rags castigate the poor and label them scroungers with a vigour that should be reserved for corporations . . . Yet these voices that ring so loudly are media creations, and only exist to create discord, mayhem and hatred . . . " (18, 9, 127).

Harry Leslie Smith
follow on facebook ~ listen to interview

Now for some religion:

“The Bible is a human product:
it tells us how our religious ancestors saw things,
not how God sees things. "
Marcus J. Borg

"It is not Christianity, but priestcraft
that has subjected woman as we find her.
The Church and State have been united,
and it is well for us to see it so."
Lucretia Mott

"Whatever the Bible may be made to do in Hebrew or Greek,
in plain English it does not exalt and dignify woman. . . .
we say that these degrading ideas of woman
emanated from the brain of man,
while the church says that they came from God."
Elizabeth Cady Stanton

"In practice the Mother of God or Queen of Heaven continued to occupy the same position in the Christian pantheon as in the earlier pagan one, even when churchmen officially declared her nondivine (though somewhat mysteriously miraculous). Medieval Mariolatry provided some degree of comfort for downtrodden women, although it could not assuage their pain more than just a little, since churchmen declared Mary exempt from the supposed crimes and disadvantages of mortal women. Mary was sexless, sinless, and absorbed in her relational role of mother to the exclusion of all other roles. The God who had impregnated her without pleasure had usurped all her earlier functions, such as creatress, lawgiver, judge, protectress, nurturer, spirit of nature, inventor of the civilized arts. The church insisted that the multitudes who worshipped her as divine were not really doing any such thing, simply because the church had forbidden them to view her as a true goddess."
from The Skeptical Feminist:
Discovering the Virgin, Mother, and Crone

by Barbara Walker

~ also an influential knitting expert ~

Next Month's Post:
Barbara Brown Taylor (Religion) & David Kuo (Politics)

Sunday, July 31, 2016

443 Robinson

"Our moments have blotted out theirs.
Maybe this is a necessary element of domestic living --
maybe it's the only way we can co - exist comfortably
with each other's past lives, each other's ghosts. . . .
it's not really our house at all is it . . .
It's like we're just the top layer.
And one day there'll be another layer right on top of us, squashing us down. . . . There are whole pieces of the past that lie just around the last corner,
closer perhaps then we'd like to think.
We may choose to forget this, but the house doesn't.
The house has seen it, done it, felt it all before."

Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House
by Julie Myerson (23, 16, 46)
~ see previous posts: The Top Layer & Our Island Home ~


Indeed, some talented people
have preceded my family in this house!

Novel by Charlotte S. Scarcelli
Illustration by her friend Marcia Smith - Wood

Seascape by Ralph Scarcelli

Landscape by Ralph Scarcelli

History of Purdue

Purdue interveiw with Robert W. Topping:
"West Lafayette. I lived on Robinson Street. As an aside, I think my dad bought that house in 1911 for three thousand dollars. They recently remodeled it and it recently sold for four hundred thousand. It was a big, big yard.

"Had to walk to school. We walked home for lunch. That’s a long way from up on Grant Street, clear down to Robinson and back."
~ see previous posts: House Sisters & House With A Past ~

Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Sometimes a girl just needs to read a good book!"

" Announces
the Most Well-Read Cities in America"

An exciting headline and an impressive list of cities, but a totally silly ranking system based on sales data. Unfortunately, many of the more popularly purchased titles don't exactly qualify as literature (not even with a small "l" let alone with a capital "L"). They may be marketed and consumed in book form, but Tidying Up? Shades of Gray? coloring books for grown - ups? a Texas barbecue cookbook? C'mon amazon! We expect better! We know how to read!

Books / projects such as these, no matter how interesting or trendy, don't really make a person or a city "well read." But then again as Gilda Radner used to say (Was it Roseanne Roseannadanna? While looking at magazines in the beauty parlor?): "Sometimes a girl just needs to read a good book!"

In fact, the list of "well - read cities" includes some of my favorite spots, although no place that I actually live or have lived. As my friend Katie suggested, perhaps Philadelphia didn't make the list because folks there buy more high-brow books! Could that also explain why Indianapolis made the list but not West Lafayette? To claim a spot on the real list, how about if Amazon tracks down the cities where the most people have read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses, or War and Peace?

While amazon may be tracking all the latest trends, my many well - read friends have given me so many excellent and timeless suggestions that I will never run out of summer reading ideas. I have more than enough to last well into the fall and thru the winter and even into next summer!

Awhile back (I'm always way behind), my friend Diane suggested the following audiobooks for "light" listening while driving or exercising -- complete with her "five star rating system":
J.R. Moehringer

Nicole Krauss

Nick Hornsby

Jonathan Safran Foer

T.C. Boyle

DRY **
Augustun Burroughs

Margaret Atwood

Elizabeth Berg

Cormac McCarthy

Jay McInerney

Alice Hoffman

Sue Monk Kidd

Ian McEwan

Elizabeth Hyde

Kazuo Ishiguro

H. Kimmel

Anne Tyler

My friend Heather's "three best books of Summer 2008":
Michael Pollan
[also recommended by Tammy Knox Sandel]

Anne Cherian

Martin Millar

Latest from Cate:
Mary Hogan

And this from a couple summers ago
Deep South Summer Reading List

Monday, May 30, 2016

Preponderance of War

Two years ago, I was working my way through several books about the Battle of the Little Big Horn. All were of great interest, but what drew all the perspectives together for me was a more recent text that I came across a year or so later. It was late September (2015) in The Wonder Book Store, one of my favorite spots to visit with my sister Peg and nephew Dan in Frederick, Maryland. In keeping with the season, Wonder Book had a display table featuring title after title in various shades of autumnal orange, where I found:
The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn:
A Lakota History

by Joseph M. Marshall III

I appreciated the clarity of Marshall's history and some beautiful expressions of Lakota philosophy. For this post, however, I'm thinking of a most curious rationalization of a community's "need for war." I can't help thinking about the warmongering sentiment of those elders and their apparent readiness to sacrifice their offspring to the gods of war:
60: "The ultimate proving ground was warfare. A man who consistently demonstrated courage and good sense during the stress, chaos, and confusion of battle would likely do the same off the battlefield. Lakota society had long ago learned the necessity of the warrior. Life was not worth living unless you were compelled to defend it now and again, according to many elders."

A month later, when visiting my brothers Dave and Bruce, another echo -- negative this time -- of humanity's "need for war" caught my attention:

The Notebooks of Lazarus Long
by Robert A. Heinlein
"The second - best thing about space travel is that the distances involved make war very difficult, usually impractical, and almost always unnecessary. This is probably a loss for most people, since war is our race's most popular diversion, one which gives purpose and color to dull and stupid lives. But it is a great boon to the intelligent man who fights only when he must -- never for sport."

Then came December (2015) and a somber day for reading
Voices From Chernobyl:
The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

by Svetlana Alexievich
complete with some welcome skepticism of the "need for war":
"And suddenly I catch myself filming everything just the way I saw it filmed in the war movies. And then I notice that the people are behaving in the same way. They're all carrying themselves just like in that scene from everyone's favorite movie, The Cranes Are Flying -- a lone tear, short words of farewell. It turned out we were all looking for a form of behavior that was familiar to us. We wanted to live up to the moment, and this is what we remembered. The girl is waving to her mom in a way that says, 'Everything's fine, I'm brave. We'll win!'

. . . And I imagined myself making that same gesture: we'll win! We're warriors. As far back as I can remember, my father wore military clothing, though he wasn't in the military. Thinking about money was bourgeois, thinking about life was unpatriotic, the normal state of life was hunger, They, our parents, lived through a great catastrophe, and we needed to live through it, too. Otherwise we'd never become real people."

from "Monologue About War Movies"
Sergei Gurin, cameraman
in Voices From Chernobyl (109)

"A feeling of oppression but also of carrying out a necessary task -- that lives within us, the need to be where it's difficult and dangerous, to defend the motherland. Did I teach my students anything but that? To go, throw yourself on the fire, defend, sacrifice. The literature I taught wasn’t about life, it was about war: Sholokhov, Serafimovich, Furmanov, Fadeev, Boris Polevoy. . . .

. . . We already felt like it was wartime. It made a lot more sense when three suddenly appeared lines for bread, salt, matches. Everyone rushed to dry their bread into crackers. This seemed familiar to me, even though I was born after the war. I could imagine how I’d leave my house, how the kids and I would leave, which things we’d take with us, how I’d write my mother. Although all around life was going on as before, the television was showing comedies. But we always lived in terror, we know how to live in terror, it’s our natural habitat."
from "People's Chorus"
in Voices From Chernobyl (140)

[see previous posts "May Day Parade" & "Ammonia Avenue"]


Finally, over Spring Break, I read Chinua Achebe's classic novel of the old world versus the new -- Things Fall Apart. While not quite the same as the "need for war," what I couldn't help noticing in this story of late 19th Century Nigeria was a preponderance of guns. Whatever elements of Western colonialsim the Ibo tribe may have spurned, they did not hesitate to embrace the gun:
" . . . Ezeudu was to be buried after dark with only a glowing brand to light the sacred ceremony.

But before this quiet and final rite, the tumult increased tenfold. Drums beat violently and men leaped up and down in frenzy. Guns were fired on all sides and sparks flew out as machetes clanged together in warriors' salutes. The air was full of dust and the smell of gunpowder. . . .

. . . Darkness was around the corner, and the burial was near. Guns fired the last salute and the cannon rent the sky. And then from the center of the delirious fury came a cry of agony and shouts of horror. It was as if a spell had been cast. All was silent. In the center of the crowd a boy lay in a pool of blood. It was the dead man's sixteen-year-old son, who with his brothers and half-brothers had been dancing the traditional farewell to their father. Okonkwo's gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy's heart." (123 - 24)
Live by the gun, die by the gun. On this day of gun salutes, may I suggest that the "need for war" has seen its day on this planet. It is time to find something else to live for, something else to make us strong, something else to make us proud.