Friday, January 23, 2015

History, House, and Hot Green Tea

I can tell I'm a little bit tired. I almost started this post with the line, "Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and become a history teacher." Then I started chuckling, because of course I am a history teacher, although like so many other roles in my life, it's one that's sort of snuck in the back door. I've taught eight years of history to my homeschooling daughter, and I've taught church history, in one form or another, to adult learners for about a decade now.

I've always enjoyed history, but it's really been in the past fifteen years or so that I find myself reading history just for the sheer love it. History and biography have become some of my chief reading pleasures. And though I have favorite eras (the early 20th century is my absolute favorite) I can chase down rabbit trails from all sorts of time periods. It doesn't take much to get me started on a history trail these days. My current pleasure is early New England history. I'm reading Nathaniel Philbrick's book The Mayflower and the Pilgrims' New World. I confess I'm reading it in its "adapted for young people" version, partly because at only 338 pages plus index, it's shorter than his Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. I'm beginning to wish I'd picked that up (it won the National Book Award) but given that I'm having to read in the cracks and crevices of a heavy work schedule, the shorter adaptation is probably better right now. It's also helping me prep for upcoming lessons with S on King Philip's War. Added to which, I'm thinking I may use this particular book on S's high school reading list. (Gulp. Yes. You saw those words correctly. High school reading list. It's coming sooner than you think....)

Although I love reading history and biography any time of year, I'm especially fond of reading them in winter. I have all sorts of coping mechanisms for getting through winter. This year, in addition to good history, those coping mechanisms include multiple episodes of the television show House (D. and I just finished the first season -- how we are enjoying Hugh Laurie's performance!) and lots of cups of hot green tea (decaff). Between history, House, and hot green tea, I think it's quite possible that I may make it through the next two months of cold weather.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New Scott Cairns Poems at Books & Culture Today

January is one of my favorite months for poetry. Despite one of the busiest work and school schedules I can almost ever remember, I'm both reading and writing it a good bit this month.

Today, as the snow pours down, I was so happy to see that there are two new Scott Cairns poems posted at Books and Culture today. You can find them here.

I've only had time for one reading so far, but I love these lines:

What recourse has the weary pilgrim save
to stand before that endless beckoning,
to draw his every scattered member into one,
to draw, and so be drawn?


"to stand before that endless beckoning...."  yes.
  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Farewell to Adam Dalgliesh: A Review (of Sorts) of P.D. James' The Private Patient



My plan to read P.D. James’ last Adam Dalgliesh novel at a leisurely pace failed. Partly it was because of me (I cannot seem to read mysteries in a leisurely fashion) and partly it was because of James. Although I can understand that her methodical, detailed scene setting is not everyone’s cup of literary tea, I find it enormously comforting. The older I get, the more I recognize the pure delight I find in a well-constructed sentence or paragraph.

James did not write page turners. She doesn’t cram her plots with non-stop action. Her prose is complex and she makes you work for everything: an understanding of the mystery, an understanding of her characters. I once compared her, in a review, to Jane Austen, not because they plowed anything like the same territory, but because the way they relentlessly plow the small bit of terrain they stake for themselves feels similar. The little bits of ivory they carve are different bits, but the carving techniques look alike.

There are times when James’ love of detail does seem to get in the way of her unfolding story, or at least provide a puzzling sense of unevenness to the book. In The Private Patient, the 2008 novel that turned out to be her last novel featuring Adam Dalgliesh, there’s a scene not far from the end that almost made me laugh because it felt so typically (and endearingly) the kind of scene she loves to write.

Dalgliesh has solved the murder, more or less, but feels unsatisfied with the confessed motive of the killer. In the interest of learning more of the truth, he seeks out information from an elderly solicitor whom he believes can provide him with that information. It turns out that the man can do just that – in fact his part in the underlying reasons behind the whole recent tragedy turn out to be deeper than maybe even Dalgliesh expected – but what’s interesting is the way James goes out of her way to paint a portrait of this  admittedly minor character. She’s perhaps twenty-five pages from the end of the novel (and there is a definite sense throughout the book that the 88 year old James knew it was probably her last Dalgliesh novel) and yet she makes the reader linger in the man’s room, giving us revealing glimpses of his character in his possessions, his view from the nursing home window, the dance of his conversation with Dalgliesh (in which he reveals some, but not everything, that Dalgliesh wishes to know). 

We don’t need to know all this about the solicitor. We’re never going to see him or his room again. And yet James delights in giving us the details, in creating a portrait of a character who essentially has a walk-on role. One wonders sometimes why she persists in doing this. I think a lot of it seems to be pure pleasure from the creation and exploration of character, but at least some of it can be chalked up to her desire to show that all human beings, not merely the ones in “starring roles,” are important and complex. Indeed, she shows us time and again that for Dalgliesh himself, a dedication to solving murders only makes sense if one believes that all murders are equally shocking because each one robs a unique and equally valuable person of a life. Sometimes one life may look more important or valuable on the surface, but in the end, either all lives are precious or none are. At least that’s what I think AD thinks. (He may be a gentle sort of agnostic, but he’s still the son of a vicar, and it shows through in the fundamentals.)

Contrast her delving into the conversation with the solicitor in his highly detailed lodgings with the three pages or so she devotes in the final chapter to the wedding of our hero, Dalgliesh, to his beloved Emma – Emma whom we still feel like we barely know, Dalgliesh who wore his widower-sorrow deep for book after book. She tells us very little about the ceremony itself, though she chooses a few deft details. She provides our entire glance at the wedding through the perspective of two more minor characters, friends of Emma with whom we’ve spent relatively little time. She gives no lines at all to either Dalgliesh or Emma. The lines she gives to Emma’s friends are partly borrowed from Jane Austen (another wedding with another Emma). We see the bride and groom almost from afar, like we’re looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Sweetly, I think, our last view of Dalgliesh is when he turns from the altar and holds his hand out to Emma with a smile. It’s a lovely last gesture for her stalwart, reticent detective, leaving the reader with the satisfied realization that the private, emotionally buttoned-up Dalgliesh has finally opened himself back up to life and life. Given that the reader is given precious few insights into Dalgliesh’s emotional life throughout the series (think Darcy or Captain Wentworth) as tiny as the motion is, it feels almost huge for James.

James’ own love of Austen was such that I think the comparison of Dalgliesh to some of Austen’s heroes is appropriate. What’s fascinating, however, is that unlike Austen, who never gave us much insight into her heroes’ inner lives because her books are primarily about heroines, James does. But almost all of it comes through watching Dalgliesh at work. We know him as a professional, as a detective mostly (and a poet secondarily) and the ground she plows with such precision and detail is the world in which Dalgliesh works. If we know anything about how AD feels about life, death, love, marriage, loneliness, death, or the human condition, we know it from the way he conducts investigations, treats suspects, looks at the body of a victim, asks questions, and treats colleagues. It hardly ever comes through what he says directly, though sometimes, especially in the later books, we’re privileged to be given some of his thoughts.

In the end, I think James fought hard against turning Dalgliesh into any sort of typical “hero,” romantic or otherwise, which may not have endeared her to a wider readership (not that she needed one!) but I think ultimately kept the books more interesting. This may be why she resisted giving much detail to the romance she finally let him be involved in for the last few books, though one gets the sense that she was too fond of him as a character to let him stay the reticent and lonely widower of the early books. She resists letting him fall for Kate, the woman he works so closely with for years, though she finally let us see in this last book what a deep place he will always hold in Kate’s heart – and vice versa. Yes, AD writes poetry, and he occasionally has to do heroic type things like rescue people from dangerous situations, but really he’s a very ordinary man, albeit a highly intelligent one, who is doing the best he can at a job he loves but sometimes finds difficult and painful. Does that make him a hero? Maybe, in a very real and human sense. All I know is that, despite sometimes feeling like I never got to know him as well as I kept hoping I would, I’m going to miss him.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Thankful Day

After the exhausting week and the icky Saturday (which probably came through loud and clear in my curmudgeonly post yesterday) I just have to say how thankful I am for this Sunday. The temperatures moderated into the low 30s, which did wonders for my morale.

Morning worship was lovely, infused with a lot of music that paid tribute to the late Andrae Crouch (an amazing gospel singer and musician who passed away last week). D and I both dearly love Andrae's music, and our family has been praying for him for quite some time in his recent months of illness. I loved the fact that our congregation is Anglo-Baptist (grin) enough that today we got to celebrate Andre's legacy, especially with the final rollicking strains of his "Soon and Very Soon, We are Goin' to See the King."

Sunday School and missions committee meeting were both full of challenges, but today challenges felt good, as did loving and serving as wholeheartedly as I could. Despite my inadequacies everywhere, God's love sure does make up for all I'm not.

A walk home in those more moderate temperatures, fifteen minutes of pure quiet to enjoy before the rest of the fam got home from grocery shopping, and a lunch made of fresh strawberries, Robert Frost poetry, and time with my 12 year old -- thankfully in much better space herself today! -- were also blessings. D. had to go back to work (it is, after all, still January) but S. and I proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon baking bread after she built a quick snowman on our sidewalk, courtesy of the slight melt that had come to the snow mountains.I snuck in a little bit more reading on Charles Marsh's new biography of Bonhoeffer, and even managed the first chapter of my new P.D. James.

I know I may rue the fact that I didn't work on deadlines today, but sometimes rest, in all sorts of forms, is even more important. Very thankful for this day!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Last Dalgliesh

Normally a trip to the library is one of my favorite things, especially in the depths of winter (I know, it's not even mid-January, but it's starting to feel like the depths)! Today was one of those cold, raw, January days that not even a library trip could seem to brighten.

It may have been because I spent half an hour or more hunting for a missing library book that's overdue -- and I still haven't found it. This is a book D. checked out several weeks ago, which has been renewed all the times it can be. We've searched all the usual and unusual places for it and still can't find it, which is driving me that batty. (It wasn't even that good a book.)

It may have been the argument that S. and I got into on the way to the library. The sweet girl (still sweet, but very almost-adolescent) loves to argue and provoke arguments with me right now. Today she decided to get frustrated at me for having read too many books to her over the years. (Apparently, I have always read "the long ones" out loud rather than leaving her to read them on her own, and she's suddenly decided that bugs her. But basically all I have to do right now is breathe too loudly and it bugs her, so I'm trying not to take it too personally.) It also bugs her that that I tend to tear up over sad scenes or endings of stories. I got so frustrated today that I basically threw up my hands, apologized for having spent so many years reading good literature to her, and told her that if she wants to opt out of family reading time at night, she can feel free. I don't think she will, but the whole argument tasted so sour in my mouth that I didn't have much heart to go perusing the shelves at the library, the place where we've found so many wonderful books over the years for our family read-aloud times.

Then there was the fact that I felt like I wanted a mystery (I've been working a ton, and mysteries are some of my favorite bits of fluff-reading) and headed to the shelves to pick up a P.D. James, my stand-by in recent years. Only to recall that I have only one P.D. James mystery left to read. I have reached the last Dalgliesh. Somehow the melancholy feeling that accompanied picking up that final book just seemed to fit this whole day.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Gregory of Nyssa on the Mystery of the Human Person

I've begun doing daily readings from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary. This is a daily reading book that my husband used and enjoyed last year and has now passed on to me. (He loves books that provide daily readings, and I'm in the throes of ordering a couple of such books for him...late this year...thanks to an Amazon gift certificate we received for Christmas.)

One of the things I always enjoy about reading the church fathers is the recognition that I'm listening to a faithful voice from a very long time ago. We are connected across the span of time because of our shared faith in Christ, and that connection runs deep. At the same time, a remarkable amount of distance exists because of the very fact of so much time between the writer's life and my own -- though sometimes I'm amazed that it feels smaller than I think, because so much about being human stays the same. Still, I love that the "clean sea breezes of the centuries" blow between us, as C.S. Lewis puts it so beautifully in his encouragement to read old books (which you can find in his introduction to Athanasius' On the Incarnation). I need those breezes. I need perspectives significantly older than my own.

I love that the ancient writers often have a healthy and wonderful sense of mystery about the human person, something that I think we've lost a little bit in our efforts to understand, explain, and control so much in a time when science holds sway. This isn't, by the way, an anti-science polemic. I love the fact that we've been given minds to ask questions and that, in our curiosity and our yearnings to know more, we've learned so much about the world over the years. It's also fascinating to me that the more we learn, the more we still have to learn. The complexities of life are so rich and full, we can never get to the end of knowledge.

Still, there's a humility and a wonder in some of the church fathers that's just so refreshing. This week the breviary has been focusing on excerpts from Gregory of Nyssa's The Creation of Man. I got a chuckle when I read this line:

"The Apostle Paul says 'Who has known he mind of the Lord?' (Rom. 11:34)...To this I would add, 'Who knows his own mind?'

Gregory goes on to reflect on the fact that not only is God's nature beyond our comprehension, but that we, made in his image, are also pretty incomprehensible. In other words, I think he's saying that we shouldn't be too easily frustrated by our own complexity and how hard it can be to understand our own selves (and others). Our very complexity is part of our reflection of God's nature, which is even more unfathomable (again, in a deep, good, mysterious sense) than our own. Our intellect "remains a mystery" he says, and he doesn't seem all that worried about it. Our mind "has many parts and many components...How does it comprehend knowledge? How are its different elements brought together? The mind is a single entity, not a compound. How it is divided among the various senses? How does this diversity in unity arise? How unity in diversity?" (Hint: he sees in this mysteriousness our resemblance to the Trinitarian God.)

I love that Gregory asks questions that are still, for all our advances in science and medicine, still being asked. I love that he seems genuinely serene as he asks them. And not just serene, filled with wonder and amazement before the mystery of human beings who are made in the image of God who is also mystery, beyond our comprehension, and yet willing to reveal himself, to draw near and make himself known.

(Funny p.s.: my spellchecker suggests the word "humanitarian" in place of "Trinitarian" ~ apparently the latter is not in its dictionary. And it suggests "patriotic" for "Patristic.")


Monday, January 05, 2015

President #1: George Washington

My foray into the life and times of Harry Truman has made me pick up a book that my dad loaned to me a few years ago (and recently told me I should just go on and keep!): David Rubel's Mr. President: The Human Side of America's Chief Executives.

This is a coffee table kind of book published by Time-Life back in 1998. But sometimes a coffee table book is just the kind you want to pick up and dip into. I value this one all the more because my dad has annotated the table of contents, which simply listed each president by name next to the page numbers on which they're profiled. In his clear, firm hand-writing, Dad added the number of their administration and the years they were in office. He even added chief executive #43 and made a space for #44, though I don't think he got back to the book after Obama took office. I'll add him and make a space for #45 in a couple of years.

Every profile includes a portrait (painting or photo), a synopsis of the president's administration, snippets about the president's background, hobbies, family life, and occupation, a profile of the first lady, major political events that occurred on his watch, a timeline of different cultural events that took place during his administration, and a sort of "bubble-gum card" sidebar with the president's major stats such as birthplace, date of death, and political party. It's a nice reference book to have on hand for the mid-grade years.

I've been reading "at" this book for some time, but today I decided to just pick up and start at the beginning...a very good place to start, as they say. That meant I spent about ten minutes reading up on George Washington, the man who would rather have stayed a farmer than become president. He had a vision of America as a "great agricultural empire stretching west to the Mississippi River and beyond."

He's a fascinating figure really: strong and persuasive enough to help mold the beginnings of our government, detached enough to walk away and head home to Mount Vernon after eight years in office. I liked hearing about his humility -- he thought Adams and Jefferson were both a lot smarter than he was, which the author said was true, but then added this great quote from Jefferson about Washington: "His mind...was slow in operation, but sure in conclusion." Maybe not a bad thing.

Fun fact: one of the major political events during his tenure was the founding of the first national bank. Up until then, there was no standard American currency. Pounds, kopeks, and pesos were all in circulation. (Pounds and pesos I get, but kopeks?)

Also interesting: when western Pennsylvanians complained about the whiskey tax and started a rebellion, Washington led a 15,000 man army into Pennsylvania himself. This was in 1794, again during his administration. A little hard to imagine in my lifetime...a president riding at the head of the troops, I mean, not western Pennsylvanians kicking up a ruckus.