Wednesday, May 31, 2017

My Strange Quest

Favorite Library Notice Ever!

The other day, in search of summer reading, I pulled My Strange Quest for Mensonge by Malcolm Bradbury down from the shelf. If you're unfamiliar with this brief, hilarious novel, here's a funny review to give you an idea of what's in store for the reader. This title came to mind recently, along with other examples of academic satire, and I have also included it on my Eclectic Course of Must Reads.

Adding to the sardonic humor was the post card that fell from the pages, where it has been lingering for the past twenty - eight years. I must have felt back then that it would be an appropriate bookmark -- or perhaps a footnote or an additional very short chapter -- for a book about a quest for a missing author and mislaid manuscripts.
" . . . the death of the Author leads of the rise of the auteur, showing that even in an ungoverned universe there is usually someone in charge. By having the scenery fall down a great deal and keeping other cameras in shot they proved that the films were fictions simply about themselves, and indeed this was a time when all art became about itself, books being about the writing of books and buildings about the building of buildings. Thus architecture became postmodern too and form stopped being a slave to function . . . . All art became a fund of eclectic quotations from all other art and it was clear . . . that we now lived in the age of the imaginary museum, when all styles were simultaneously available" (46).
If Powers of Horror by Julia Kristeva was truly "on a list of books that are so far overdue that it is doubtful they will be returned," where oh where could it have been? Did it ever make its way back home again?

I'm further mystified by own notation, faintly in pencil: "The Death of the Book." Another lost text? A chapter or an article by Kristeva? A confirmation that Powers of Horror was dead to the Purdue Humanities Library? Or was I telling the future?

When I check google / amazon, the most likely possibility that pops up is a book that was published only last summer: The Death of the Book: Modernist Novels and the Time of Readingby John Lurz. Sounds like a good one for the perpetual reading list.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Suggestions for Sam

Wrapped Up Books at Auntie Tina's

"Books are the way that
we communicate with the dead."

Neil Gaiman

from his essay:
"Why our future depends on libraries,
reading and daydreaming"

Playing Chess & Daydreaming in Auntie Jan's Library

"I am not solitary whilst I read and write,
though nobody is with me."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

from his essay
Combining these two thoughts, from Gaiman and Emerson, I love the idea that we are not solitary when reading, because we are communicating with the dead!

When my son Sam asked for some reading recommendations to have on hand, here is the initial batch of titles that immediately sprang to mind:
Take the Cannoli (part memoir, about growing up in the Midwest: Oklahoma, Montana, then Chicago; part American History, tons of wit)
The Partly Cloudy Patriot (how to love the United States of America, even when you're feeling sad and worried)
Assassination Vacation (about Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley)
All three by Sarah Vowell
(see American Historians)

Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation's Capital
by Christopher Buckley

Perfect for airplane reading if you're on your way to Wash DC, or perhaps as a follow - up to your trip. I read it in just a couple days and learned a lot of U.S. history, even though Buckley couldn't resist bragging about being a Republican (after all, he is the son of the late Wm F Buckley, Jr.), plus the occasional sexist innuendo that I could have done without.
(see Highlights 2003)

by Edith Hamilton

(see SSR)

Playing for Pizza
by John Grisham

An American / Italian football novel. In addition to detailed play by play narratives of the game, it is also filled with mouth - watering descriptions of gourmet dining that will have you planning your next vacation to Italy if at all possible.
(see Thanks Dave)

The Last Picture Show
by Larry McMurtry

One of the saddest lines in all of American literature: "He was sweeping . . ."
(also the movie)

And the following from my long-standing
Bright Lights, Big City
Brightness Falls

both by Jay McInerney

The Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint Exupery

Summer’s Lease
by John Mortimer

The Daughter of Time
by Josephine Tey
Sam, here is a close - up of the chess board:

Monday, March 6, 2017

Evening ~ Timing ~ Floating
Poetry by Leonard Orr

by Leonard Orr
Publisher: Cherry Grove Collections
2010, 110 pp., $18.00

In case you have ever wondered Why We Have Evening, these poems by Leonard Orr offer a succession of beautiful reasons. We have evening for finding love and losing it and getting it back again; for breaking and mending and rebuilding, stronger than before; for cloud watching, stargazing, looking at old photographs, collecting rocks, updating our calendars, filling in blanks, marking time.

We have evening for learning lessons from the secret world of insects, more complex than we know:

"They seem so alike to us, these brood - ten cicadas, but
they have their passionate dreams and so filled with hope,
a lesson to me."

~ from "Cyclic" (15)

for reading in bed, in manner of Italo Calvino:

"Would we ever be so used to sharing a bed
we would spend the last half hour
reading our books and saying good night
without making love one more time?"

~ from "Asking" (17)

for joining in with the crowd, on a good day, on the way home:

"Inching along I mouthed to those around me,
'Record high temperature! Not bad!' showing
thumbs up, wanting to celebrate with my community."

~ from "Aftereffects" (21)

for dreaming, uroboros - style:

"You were reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and I was finally asleep. . . . In my dream you were asleep beside me and I was lying on the propped up pillows reading the I Ching and I thought about chance and contingency, randomness and the shaping forces of the universe. . . . I watched your sleeping face . . . In the depth of your sleep . . . you dream you were reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and I was finally asleep."

~ from "Reading" (23)

for contemplating the cosmos, with no heavenly body left unturned:

"Space exploration, what a waste, planet after planet,
the moon and the stars, comets and asteroids,
it is all a black hole, for you are somewhere on earth."

~ from "In Your Absence" (25)

for finishing manuscripts, yours, mine, ours:

"I place your page neatly on top of mine,
tapping the edges to line up perfectly,
taking a pleasure in this, our pages on the desk,
lying there together, glowing warmly, edges
aligned . . . "

~ from "Papers" (26)

for holiday dinners and delicious desserts:

" . . . the Persian eggplant
with tomato and yogurt sauce.

Anticipating your smile, your kiss,
I fill ramekins with whole wheat memories,
bake for an hour and melt dreams in a sweet topping.

I cut a thick slice of evening
and serve it fresh and steaming before you
on a dark blue plate with glazed yellow stars."

~ from "Thanksgiving" (27)

for synaesthesia:

"In your absence I swoon, overcome with synaesthesia,
my fingertips hearing the aroma of the yellow, a scent
of desire, I sniff the red grapes and hear their smoothness . . . "

~ from "Psychosomatic" (28)

for art appreciation:

" . . . just that perspective, all brown toned, pencil,
sepia ink, thousands of wavy lines as the wind
blow through the dry field, the undulations . . ."

~ from "Sun and Wheatfields" (30)

for practicing yoga, even if your mind wanders:

"I am instructed to count, to think
only inhale, only exhale, but my thoughts
sink and rise and search you out . . . "

~ from "Yoga Practice" (33)

for watching the geese fly overhead, like a prayer:

"I hear their foreign phrases
before their milling
gray black figures emerge
emerge from the mist, davening,
a minyan dutifully
gathering to say Kaddish."

~ from "Familiar" (46)

for grieving the death of pet:

"So I knew you would understand that when my sheltie died,
my first dog though I am so ancient, I knew you would not laugh
to know I recited the mourner's Kaddish, though he wasn't
strictly speaking Jewish; still he loved challah and leaped
ecstatically every time he heard the blessing over the bread.

~ from Grieving (54)

And, most importantly:

"This part of the day is to soothe
and calm, to wring out any unpleasant thoughts
to strain out the nightmares through the
holes in the black and blue sky.

That is why each night we have evening.
Unhappy extremes of day or night are wiped
clean . . ."

~ from "Why We Have Evening" (66)

Publisher Cherry Grove Collections
2012, 90 pp., $18.00

Looking for a book to read on a cold dark night when the light of day is hours away? This is it. Looking for some poems to read in the bleak midwinter when the vernal equinox is weeks away? These are they. When a loved one has gone never to return, or you yourself are never coming back. That's the time to read these poems because, as the poet says, Timing is Everything.

A time to be born, a time to die:

"When they approach dying in their mountain fastnesses
the exiles from Tibet have shamans reading urgently,
from long, loose woodblock printed pages, passages
urging the soul not to cling to the useless body, to
give it up, to accept the next phase, the new life. . . . "

~ from "Stubborn Soul" (13)

A time to embrace:

" . . . we turn
over and over in the rain, trying to keep the other dry,
trying to keep the other out of the mud,
trying to breathe deep into the lungs of the other.
How I love you! How I miss you!"

~ from "Cold Outing" (16 - 17)

"We leave only our tiny shadows . . . and jump
into some better other dimension where
everything is the way it should have been,
where there is no Bush administration and
President Gore stopped global warming,
and of course there was no war in Iraq
and everyone likes us. In that we new dimension
we are together every day, we spoon together
every night, not remembering that trillionth of
a trillionth of a second after Big Bang,
our expansion outward, our luminous
numinous bliss."

~ from "They Are Firing Up the Large Hadron Collider" (31 - 32)

A time to refrain from embracing? No! Please, no, not that:

" . . . O love, my teeth rattle with ululations;
how did it happen we are not together tonight?"

~ from "Empty" (70)

"I am the Mummy waiting for
someone to soak those dry leaves so I can
at long last embrace you again after these
twenty - five centuries we have been separated."

~ from "How I've Adjusted" (75 - 76)

The title poem, occurring second to last in the book, warns the reader of leaving things too late. Despite what we've been taught all of our lives, there will not always be time:

"You send note after note after note: Come to me, Love!
I'm ready now!
. . .
. . . Then you learn
I died a decade or two earlier and you didn't
even realize, you heard nothing, your heart
didn't pick it up through the ether. . . . "

~ from "Timing is Everything" (86)

by Leonard Orr
Publisher: Cherry Grove Collections
2015, 92 pp., $18.00

If you would like to be transported by loveliness for an hour or so, might I suggest sitting down with a copy of Leonard Orr's third book of poetry A Floating Woman and listening to Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 -- you can actually do both at the same time (click here to enjoy the Quintet in the privacy of your own home).

I made the connection quite by coincidence a few days ago when I set aside my reading at the behest of my friend Katie to attend a concert of chamber music. Browsing through the program, I came across the following description of the clarinet quintet:
"The work as a whole possesses a unique collection of affects. It is an oversimplification to describe it as melancholy and autumnal, although this is part of the truth; in fact, there is a great depth of sadness in the piece, which may not be felt in every bar but is never far from the surface. At the same time, though, the music is constantly energized by rhapsodic, wild gestures and flickering textures; our tragic hero, if there is one, is driven to wander restlessly, not stay at home."
~ Misha Amory
Had the music reviewer been reading Orr's poetry? It seemed so! Just think "book" instead of "piece," "line" instead of "bar," "poem" instead of "music." I spent the remainder of the concert drifting back and forth in my mind from the sometimes keening, sometimes joyful clairnet to various poetic passages from Floating:

" . . . I swayed
rhythmically forward and back,
though I hummed a tune that seemed
given into my throat from the sun.
Telephone lines above were mandolin strings
I plucked and strummed to reach you
where you were, hemidemisemiquavers
rapidly expressing my Sehnsuch, the notes
floating out over the river where gulls
swooped in to grab them. . . . "

~ from "Rapture" (36)

The poems in this collection follow the mysterious trajectory of a narrator and an elusive lover who float through air, water, dreams, space; appear in photographs and manuscripts; travel highways and byways both real and surreal; wandering at last through your own backyard or perhaps drifting in a nearby marina:

"Perhaps all of this time you have been nearby
in one of those graceful white boats tied to a pier
in what had been our river. The white
sails are furled but can quickly be set
for the winds to take you away. The
anchor can be lifted in minutes, the lines
cast away, should you want a new episode.
The lights of the boats in the river are
festive, the bounce in the tide
matches your heartbeat. You are
here and not here. You are attached
so tentatively you think you are free."

~ from "A Floating Woman" (83)

See More:

Poems: "Past Tense, Future Tense" ~ "Yiddish for Travellers"
"The Loop" ~ "Desperate Times" ~ "Optimist" ~
"Sun and Wheatfields" & "Russian Olives" ~ "Monet's The Magpie"

Links to various paintings by Leonard Orr

Christopher J. Jarmick's review of Why We Have Evening

Facebook commentary and response

And Thanks To Katie!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Short Books for a Short Month

Incredible Brick Sculptures ~ Brad Spencer

Thanks to Chapel of the Good Shepherd for introducing
me to the work of this unique and amazing sculptor!

If you want to make some great artistic discoveries,
stop by the Purdue Episcopal Campus Ministry
and check out the Sunday Bulletins!


Quick Reads for February

1. Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher

Academic humor and satire at its finest. It has been a long time since I indulged, but this one is right up there with Moo, Straight Man, The History Man & My Strange Quest for Mensonge, and everything by David Lodge (not forgetting their forerunners: Hurry On Down & Lucky Jim).

Schumacher has concocted an hilarious set of memos to various nonsensical committees (also businesses and individuals) during a semester given over to a departmental renovation and construction project:

Ted, in your memo you referred briefly, also, to the need for faculty forbearance during what we were initially told would be the "remodeling" of the second floor for the benefit of our colleagues in the Economics Department.* I'm not sure that you noticed, but the Econ faculty were, in early August, evacuated from the building -- as if they'd been notified, "sotto voce," of an oncoming plague. Not so the faculty in English [aka Engli_h]. With the exception if a few individuals both fleet of foot and quick - witted enough to claim status as asthmatics we have been Left Behind, almost biblically, expected to begin our classes and meet with students while bulldozers snarl at the door. . . . While I am relieved to know that the economists -- delicate creatures! -- have been safely installed in a wing of the new geology building where their physical comfort and aesthetic needs can be addressed, those of us who remain as castaways here in Willard Hall risk not only deafness but mutation . . . One theory here: the deanery is annoyed with our requests for parity and weary of waiting for us to retire, has decided to kill us. Let the academic year begin!

Cordially and with a hearty welcome to the madhouse, Jay

*Under whose aegis was it decided that Economics and English should share a building? Were criteria other than the alphabet considered?
(4 - 5)

The absurdity mounts with each passing memo! Just one quick question -- does she really mean "Econ" or does she mean "Finance"? Of course, to fully appreciate Dear Committee you should also take an hour to re - read "Bartleby the Scrivener."

2. The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead
by David Shields

See my recent Fortnightly Post ~ A Date With Data

3. Lolita
by Vladimir Nabokov

See my recent Fortnightly Post ~ Work, Play, Wordplay

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Three Christmases: Barbara G. Walker

Felt Skate, Cowboy Boot, Cowgirl

December's post, Three Christmases,
featured memories from Henry Leslie Smith & Ruth Wolff.
Now for number three:

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:

40 - 42: "I used to be mystified by the slogan, 'Put Christ back in Christmas.' As far as I was concerned, Christ had never been in Christmas very much except as its mispronounced first syllable. At best he was only the infant portion of the formal mother - child symbol, representing the foundation of human -- not divine -- love.

"Had I been aware of the old pagan name of the Yuletide festival, matrum noctem or Night of the Mother, and the meaning of its ancient pre - Christian madonna and child idols, I would have understood more about my own special feeling for Christmas.

"My family treated Christmas as an intrinsically secular holiday celebrating the best in human feelings of kinship, love, joy, kindness, and appreciation of blood bonds without any reference to the Christian myth except for an appearance at church services. Our celebrations had their own rituals, meaningful for us, and a generally Dickensian - English, old - fashioned Christmas atmosphere of indiscriminate goodwill. My mother was the Fezziwig who made it work.

"My mother was the youngest of three sisters, all of whom raised their families within reachable distance of each other in different suburbs of the same city. Consequently aunts, uncles, and cousins were inevitably involved on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve, however, belonged to our household alone.

"Of course the festival began long before that: as soon as we began drawing up lists and keeping secrets, when mysterious packages were hidden away on high closet shelves and when rolls of bright wrapping paper and ribbon appeared. About a week before Christmas my mother and I had a wrapping session. Sitting amid a litter of paper string, tape, tags, cards, and assorted decorations, we happily toiled together for hours over the gifts, remaking prosaic boxes and other objects into things of satisfying, if ephemeral, beauty.

Court Jester and Blue Angels

"The end result was magic: perfectly ordinary things transmuted into shining, dreamlike talismans. . . . There can be no doubt that the gift - giving custom was and is the major source of children's happy memories of Christmas, the custom that fixes it in their minds for life as a benevolent, enjoyable time. Nonetheless, our traditions included much more than gifts.

"The real excitement began on Christmas Eve, the matrum noctem of our pagan ancestors, who revered the mystery of birth above the character of the one born. I would wake on the morning of December 24th with the pleasantly squiggly inner feeling that this would be one of the best days of the year: a day of fun, irradiated by anticipation of the morrow.

"The first project was setting up the tree . . . For a few years when I was very small, I believed that Santa Claus trimmed the tree in the night because it appeared like magic on Christmas morning: a whole fairy - tale world of light and color where an ordinary end table had stood the day before. My parents soon dispensed with Santa Claus, however, and enlisted my aid in building this particular fairy - tale world."

Geisha, Nutcracker, Court Jester
[I would love to simply type up this chapter in its entirety because Walker so beautifully and thoroughly describes the perfect Christmas! I'm sorry to leave out a single detail, though I should probably move along a bit more quickly and gloss over the next few pages, in which Walker describes so many lovely activities and customs, but one in particular that was entirely new for me this year: " . . . lighting the bayberry candles in the bathtub where they could safely burn unwatched all night!]
45- 46: "On the whole ours were typical middle - class American Christmases: 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.' Children were hardly expected to comprehend the improbable doctrine of a woman impregnated by a god without sexual intercourse or to recognize in the resulting infant a future man whose death would be ordered by that same god to induce himself to accept human beings into heaven. Perhaps such doctrines would have strained even the uncritically receptive childish imagination.

"My cousins and I were not burdened by any such incredulities. At Christmas we simply and openly reveled in our childish acquisitiveness and sensual enjoyments, through which, somehow, the festival was transmuted into beautiful memories and tender sentiments, which we carried forward in time to our own children.

Glow - in - the - dark Stoplight ~ A Childhood Favorite

"I suspect that even people who think they put Christ in Christmas treat it, in practice, as a celebration of family feeling, bodily indulgence, and a catering to children's shallow joy. At Christmas most people pity the poor and lonely because they lack material goods and human relationships, not because they lack the salvation supposedly engineered by the Christ child, which was said to belong to all. In this we demonstrate an awareness that Christ is not going to make anyone happy in honor of the season. This responsibility must fall on human shoulders."

47 - 48: "But perhaps the very fact that Christmas has gone secular and commercial is directly related to the practical reality of its more recent implications. . . . Children really are delighted by their gifts. Grown - ups really do enjoy watching their pleasure. The decorations really are pleasant to contemplate. The family feasts really are fun. The warmth of friends and relatives reaching out to one another really exists. Though a Christ child may be taken as mere myth or symbol, children are certainly real and motherhood certainly is, psychologically and physiologically, the fountainhead of love: a fact that stands in need of much wider recognition in a patriarchal and alienated society. . . . Perhaps, after all, Christmas is not about gods or miraculous births or world - saving infants threatening evil kings. Perhaps it is only about people."

Gold Filagree Coffee Pot & Tea Pot

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Three Christmases: Henry Leslie Smith
and Ruth 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 . . .

Friday, November 11, 2016

Narratives of Resistance

Wounded Angel (1903) ~ Hugo Simberg (1873 - 1917)
Museum of Finnish Art, Helsinki

1. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
(first published 1947; English translation 2009)

"But she will keep her self - respect.
Then that will have been her attainment in life,
keeping her self - respect."

In this narrative of heroic resistance to Hitler, Fallada deftly weaves the true story of law - abiding model German citizens Otto and Elise Hampel into a compelling, distressing novel about Otto and Anna Quangel and their small circle of relatives, acquaintances, and co-workers. After the loss of their brother / son, the compliant, unassuming Hampels / Quangels become convinced that loved ones are dying in vain. And so begins their understated project of resistance, scattering postcards throughout Berlin: "German people wake up!" "Hitler's regime will bring no peace." "Hitler's war is the worker's death!" "Free Press! Why suffer war and death for the Hitler plutocracy?"

Their undertaking mystifies the Gestapo for two years (1940 - 42) before they are apprehended and sentenced to hanging. The following passages occur near the end of the novel, when Otto is imprisoned along with the musician Dr. Reichhardt, and they ponder the course their lives have taken and the impact of their resistance effort:

429 - 30: " 'I sometimes think now, Doctor, about the gifts I had no ideas I had. It's only since meeting you, since coming to this death row, that I understand how much I've missed out on in my life.'

'It's like that for everyone. Everyone facing death, especially premature death, like us, will be kicking themselves about each wasted hour.'

'But it's different for me, Doctor, I always thought it was enough if I didn't mess anything up. And now I learn that there are loads of other things I could have done: play chess, be kind to people, listen to music, go to the theater. You know, Doctor, if I were granted one wish before my death, it would be to see you with your baton conducting a big symphony orchestra. I'm so curious to see it, and find out my reaction to it.'

'No one can develop every side of themselves, Quangel. Life is so rich. You would only have spread yourself too thin. You did your job and were a man of integrity. When your were at liberty, Quangel, you had everything. You wrote your postcards.'

'Yes, but they didn't do any good, Doctor! I wished the earth would swallow me up when Inspector Escherich told me that of the 285 postcards I wrote, 267 went straight to him! Only eighteen not handed in! And those eighteen didn't do any good, either!'

'Who can say? At least you opposed evil. You weren't corrupted. You and I and the many locked up here, and many more in other places of detention, and tens of thousands in concentration camps -- they're all resisting, today, tomorrow.'

'Yes, and then they kill us, and what good did our resistance do?'

'Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end. And much more, it will have helped people everywhere, who will be saved for the righteous few among them, as it says in the Bible. . . . As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn't mean the we are alone, Quangel, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.'

'. . . You want to remain brave and strong; everything that keeps you brave and strong is good, just as everything that makes you weak and doubtful, such as brooding, is bad.' "


2. Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen
(first published 1947; English translation 1970, 1979, 2000)

“Really, this people, only yesterday so
intelligent and discerning, seems to have
been overcome by a disease of the mind.
They now believe everything they are told,
provided it is done with sufficient aplomb.”

In connection with Every Man Dies Alone I can't help thinking of the wartime narrative of wealthy landowner Fritz Reck, who -- like the Quangels / Hampels -- found a way, in the midst of despair to maintain his self - respect. Reck's very privileged and well-connected life is somewhat different than most of the WW II accounts I've read over the years. Still, the Nazis got him in the end because he bad - mouthed the government and wouldn't kowtow to the most powerful.

He was a backward looking man with a pastoral vision of cows in the meadow and virgins dancing at the crossroads (Gerry's phrase to describe a similarly misguided perception of Ireland). Of course, he could afford an anti-progressive stance because the old ways had been good to the landed gentry. In that way, I couldn't share his politics, since I usually have to align myself with the working class when it comes to the benefits of revolution. However, I agreed with him and found him wisely gazing into the future when he observed that petroleum and the advent of the automobile (big government, big auto) would ultimately do way more damage to civilization than the abuse of alcohol. If he could see the world today he really would despair. [See "A Horse Is At Least Human" & The Front Porch of My Life]


Gerry shared this book with his father,
who passed it on to his friend and neighbor
James White, who wrote the following response:

"I have always been interested in Germany -- their stamps, language and history. I had never heard of Friedrich Reck -- odd as the diary is a rare interesting account of life and conditions in Germany. It was dangerous to keep such a frank account and took a lot of courage.

I am sure much of the material has been incorporated into the documentaries, such as those frequently shown on aspects of Hilter on Freeview TV, but I have never noticed an acknowledgement of Friedrich Reck.

The heartfelt invective regularly featured against the regime is quite difficult to appreciate -- a bit of flaunting of his classical education and superiority socially and otherwise, so I do not think he exactly qualifies as a saint, although his death was no doubt heroic and honourable.

He was exactly the opposite of what I would support in many ways -- a conservative, a monarchist, an aristocrat, an elitist. It was quite amusing to me that the worst he could say of Hitler was that he had once lived in rented room at an unfashionable address! That is how people not born to privilege have to live while on the way up!

Although he prides himself on the accuracy of his facts, he is quite frequently wrong, as Paul Rubens points out in the notes illustrating the danger of gossip -- even from people who claim to be eye - witnesses. I was surprised at how people in his elevated circles knew of Eva Braun at an earlier date than I thought -- most Germans did not know (or care) of her existence -- and Reck seems to have been in the right place to report at the right time: Munich at the birth of the 'movement'; Berlin and Vienna later; and to have had embassy connections in Russia.

I was pleased to read a little of Sophie Scholl ( mentioned p 178), a young girl (18 or 19, I think) who had converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism and showed the highest moral objections to Nazism -- quite fearless and coherent -- a heroine, a patriot, and a saint which any country would be proud to own as a daughter. Traudl Junge, who was one of Hitler's private secretaries and in the Berlin bunker when he died, said that she had excused herself as too young to see the evil that Hitler was doing to Germany until after the war when she read Sophie Scholl, who was younger than she was -- and knew fully."


3. All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr

Thanks to my friend Katy Bunder for loaning me this book
(and for initially inspiring me -- eight years ago! --
to start a book blog and keep it going).

A novel of and for the senses -- a young French girl named Marie - Laure who cannot see, a young German radio communications expert named Werner, a priceless gleaming jewel that can curse or bless -- called the Sea of Flames, miniature models of complex cities, so many hiding spots, voices from the past. In this dual odyssey of compliance and resistance, of connection and coincidence, of place and time, Doerr brings Marie - Laure and Werner at last to the same Here and Now.

Of the numerous acts of resistance described by Doerr, the most ennobling occurs at Werner's military school when his classmate Frederick declines to participate in the enforced torture of a prisoner who has been tied to a stake on a cold night and doused repeatedly with water until he freezes.

228 - 29: "The water keeps coming. The prisoner's face empties. He slumps over the ropes . . .

The buckets make a muted, frozen clanking as they are refilled. The sixteen - year - olds finish. The fifteen - year - olds finish. The cheers lose their gusto and a pure longing to flee floods Werner. Run. Run. . . .

When his turn arrives, Werner throws the water like all the others and the splash hits the prisoner in the chest and a perfunctory cheer rises. He joins the cadets waiting to be released. Wet boots, wet cuffs; his hands have become so numb, they do not seem his own.

Five boys later, it is Frederick’s turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.

And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.

Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. The upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground. . . .

The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground. 'I will not.' "

When Gerry and I visited the Algonquin Restaurant
in New York City last Christmas (2015), Doerr's novel
was one of the featured reading selections in the window: