Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Books, Music, and Divine Inspiration: A Reflection on Madeleine L’Engle

August 16, 2020

Author Madeleine L’Engle

One good thing about this infernal shutdown…you can find a little more time for the reading that you’ve always meant to do but somehow never got to.

That’s what happened with me. I re-read A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007). But before doing so, I wanted to read its prequel, The Small Rain, which was written 37 years previously.

I had intended that this blog post be just a review of those two books. But it’s turned out to be a little more than just that. It morphed into a reflection on Madeleine, one of my favorite authors. And I’ve got to make full disclosure about Madeleine L’Engle. I start every day with her.

Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections is a fixture on my morning reading table.  It has 366 entries, all of them excerpted from L’Engle’s literary career that included 60 books along with poetry, journals, and speeches.  She was a devout Anglican, so it’s not surprising that Glimpses has both overtly theological musings as well as some less-direct but spirituality-filled thoughts for the day.

L’Engle was a woman of deep religious faith. But her writings communicate her messages without being the least bit preachy.  And reading her every morning has been, I’ve found, is as good a morning prayer as any I’ve ever made.

Here’s just one sample of religion in L’Engle’s writing. I don’t know about you, but I find things like this spiritually nourishing, and I don’t feel like I’m being preached to.  This is from her book Camilla:

“Listen, Camilla Dickinson, do you believe in God? Tell me about your God. What kind of God do you believe in?”

“Well,” I said at last, “I don’t think it’s God’s fault when people do anything wrong. And I don’t think He plans it when people are good. But I think He makes it possible for people to be ever so much bigger and better than they are. That is, if they want to be. What I mean is, people have to do it for themselves. God isn’t going to do it for them.”

As part of my morning ritual, I also read a daily entry from The Book of Common Prayer and a page or two from one or more of the books of advice and meditations for those who’ve lost a loved one. These latter books were given to me by some kind friends after Mary Ellen, my wife of nearly 44 years, died in December of 2019.

When I told a friend that I’d just finished two books by Madeleine L’Engle, and that they’d given me a tremendous appreciation for the power of music and what it really takes to be a musician, he said that he thought L’Engle only wrote children’s books. Not true, but understandable that he’d think this way.

The book that made her reputation was A Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962. It won the Newbery Medal, the highest award for children’s literature.  But L’Engle had a hard time finding a publisher, even though she’d already done some well-received books for young adults. The knee-jerk knock on “Wrinkle” was that it was too religious. Fortunately, her agent approached John Farrar of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He was a churchgoer, so he published the book and it “paid for the rent in the offices” according to an article in the New Yorker.

One of the 26 publishers who rejected “Wrinkle” told L’Engle’s agent that he might be turning down Alice in Wonderland.  Indeed he was. The book has never been out of print and has sold more than six million copies.

L’Engle didn’t want to be known as a writer of children’s books. Whenever that label came up in conversation about her work, she’d say to just “write your story,” and not try to target a young audience.

Newlyweds Madeleine L’Engle and Hugh Franklin, 1946. She became a renowned author and he a star of stage and screen.

In addition to knowing her music and her theology, L’Engle is well acquainted with both church politics and the world of show business, both concert music and the Broadway stage. She was librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on New York’s Upper West Side.  The Cathedral is the site of A Severed Wasp. She was married to actor Hugh Franklin (1916-1986), who starred as Dr. Charles Tyler in the long-running TV soap opera All My Children.

Just an aside here…Religion is good business, in my humble opinion. People want it. They may not be official, practicing adherents to any of the major churches or confessional faiths, but they want it. They want to know that they’re part of something much larger than they are. They want to know that their lives have meaning in the “whole vast configuration of things,” as George Bailey put it.

The movie version of Wrinkle, a 2018 production that starred Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, was a disaster.  Don’t bother with it.  On “Rotten Tomatoes,” 191 of 300 people rated it “rotten.” The site’s overall rating was 26%. The summary blurb concluded that the film was “wildly ambitious to a fault, and often less than the sum of its classic parts.”

Duh. What do you expect when you cancel the core value, the religious sensibility?

But I’ve digressed. Too much, as usual. Now to the books that I’ve just finished.

The Small Rain – Lengle’s first novel written in 1945, is about the youthful trials of Katherine Forrester.  The title comes from this anonymous poem fragment that dates back to the Middle Ages:

“Western wind, when wilt thou blow,

The small rain down can rain?

Christ! That my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again!”

The book ends with her being sent to a boarding school in Europe to study piano with Justin Vigneras, the one teacher who inspired her during her boarding school days in America. Her father, divorced and remarried to a Broadway actress, is a composer. Her biological mother is a famous concert pianist.

Katherine aspires to be as good at the piano as was her mother.  As most coming-of-age books seem to be, there’s much autobiography here.  It includes difficulties in being accepted by peers, youthful angst, boarding schools, living for a time in Greenwich Village, a less-than-idyllic home life.  There are overbearing teachers, lecherous guys, and betrayal in an early love affair.

One of the poignant passages about love is this one. The speaker is another professional pianist who once fell madly in love with Katherine’s mother:

“I believed in her right from the first night I met her, in May, in a small café under the chestnut trees. Beautiful and romantic. Only she never fell in love with me. I was desperately in love with her. It’s a strange thing, how you can love somebody, how you can be all eaten up inside with needing them — and they simply don’t need you. That’s all there is to it, and neither of you can do anything about it. And they’ll be the same way with someone else, and someone else will be the same way about you and it goes on and on – this desperate need — and only once in a rare million do the same two people need each other.

“Those are cheerful words, aren’t they, child? But I’m afraid they’re only too true.”

When we come to A Severed Wasp, Katherine Forrester Vigneras has retired from a distinguished career as a concert pianist. She has returned home to her New York roots, and she’s had a request to give a benefit concert for Saint John the Divine Cathedral. The requester is an old friend, Felix Bodeway, who has retired from his post as Episcopal bishop of New York.

Felix was a character in The Small Rain.  It is hard to imagine him as a bishop in any church. He had been “that lightweight young man she had known a half century ago when they were both living in the Village.” Still, she was open to his approach and wondered “if he would still awaken the long-ago pain which has been part of the past to which Felix belonged. But so much deeper pain had come in the intervening years that all she felt was a vague nostalgia for her youthful anguish.”

The book gets its title from an excerpt from George Orwell: “[A wasp] was sucking jam on my plate and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him.”

As the book progresses from that initial meeting between Katherine and Felix, we learn the stories of their lives in the intervening fifty years.  She, now widowed, had married Justin Vigneras in France just before the war broke out.  The Nazis captured them in Paris. Both survived, although Justin was maimed in Auschwitz. Unable to play piano or to father children, he became a composer.  It’s a mystery, not solved until the end, just who was the father of their two children, and just who was that severed wasp.

There is a wealth of detail about Katherine’s preparations for the concert, which she’ll give on the cathedral’s Bösendorfer piano.  Some person or persons does their best to sabotage things, attempting intimidate Katherine by sending horrible things to her in the mail and by breaking into her apartment and slashing an irreplaceable painting.

Felix’s successor, Alwood Undercroft, the new bishop of the Episcopal diocese, bears a strong resemblance to the German army officer who was Katherine’s captor during her imprisonment throughout the war.  There’s also a long-standing postwar friendship and counseling relationship with Wolfgang von Stromberg, a Catholic cardinal whom she and Justin knew as Wolfi.

All in all it’s an entertaining and absorbing tale that succeeds in delivering its moral lessons while, as a blurb on the back cover states, it “weaves the world of music and the international concert stage, the claustrophobic life of a great cathedral close, and aspect of the threatening street life of New York.”

I won’t spoil everything by telling you how the mysteries and questions get answered. But because the title of the last chapter is “Music in the Cathedral,” I guess it’s okay to say that she does go forward with the benefit concert after all.

It’s at the end of the book and at several points in the book that the author’s love of music, and of its awesome power and beauty, shine through. I could appreciate this part even though I know nothing about the musical pieces she cites – or how, for instance, her getting up in the middle of the night and soothing herself by playing Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier must have sounded and felt.

At such places in the book, L’Engle’s words call to mind many of her meditations that I read daily in Glimpses.  She sees God’s handiwork everywhere – clouds and galaxies up above, oceans and streams and sun-warmed rocks and insects here below. To inspirations like these, I can relate.

And though I have no artistic talent, I can also relate to the words of Bishop Undercroft, spoken to Katherine at a welcoming dinner:

“I am often awed by the artistic temperament. It sometimes seems to me to be a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling, and the bright angel dominates, out comes a great work of art, a Michelangelo David or a Beethoven symphony.”

As for the musical life of the book’s protagonist, this is a memory of her husband that comes back to her when she’s playing The Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the Prelude and Fugue, before she can return to bed:

“Justin had turned to composing as well as nurturing Katherine’s talent, maturing her, expanding her, never forcing or manipulating, but helping her serve the gift for which she had been born.”

I’ll close by quoting the last couple of paragraphs of the book. I suspect that this feeling of Katherine’s is one that’s felt by many performing artists as they take the stage. It’s something that I’ve never felt and will never feel, but that’s okay too. I did so vicariously as I put this book down.

“Katherine…glanced once more at all those people she’d known for only a few months. Between them all they held a great many secrets. Between them all they had worked out as much peace as the human being is likely to have.

“She turned her mind away from them and focused it on music. The rustlings in the stalls and throughout the crowded nave stopped, and there was anticipatory silence.

“For Katherine, as she held her hands over the keyboard, there was nothing but the piano, and she and the sensitive instrument were no more than living extensions of each other.

“When the music had fully entered into her, she began to play.”

Book Review and Reflection: John Tesh’s “Relentless”

April 7, 2020

A little more than seven years ago I took my wife Mary Ellen and our son Matt to a John Tesh Christmas concert in Boston.  It was a fun night out, listening live to a guy whose life seemed to be just one fabulous success after another.

I posted a couple of pictures and clips from the concert on Facebook. To my surprise, most of the comments were snarky and negative. They weren’t so much about his music as they were ad hominem. People just didn’t seem to like him.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s easy to envy the world-traveling, jet-setting John Tesh – handsome, self-assured, undoubtedly filthy rich and married to one of the world’s most stunning women. He had the perfect life.  Jealousy of such folks often emerges as dislike or disdain. I get that.  It was probably in play here.

But I think that the real reason for the bazoos and catcalls was John Tesh’s religious faith. He is not at all bashful about proclaiming the role of God in his own life, in that of his wife, and in their life together. Nowadays, religion isn’t cool. Talk about religion makes people uncomfortable. I get that too.

I suppose if you really feel that way, it would be hard to persuade you to read Relentless: Unleashing a Life of Purpose, Grit, and Faith.  But I would urge you to read it anyway. It’s both a memoir and a self-help book. It’s the story of his life and a manual-by-example for personal success and fulfillment.  It shows the often harsh realities and the roles of luck and timing for those trying to make it in the broadcast media. It’s also an easy read – I did it in two days.

Yes, there are spiritual musings, scriptural quotes, and tidbits of pithy advice sprinkled throughout. But it never gets didactic or preachy. Tesh is a thoroughly likable guy, and reading his book was like sitting down with him for a few hours and several beers –just letting him do the talking and call it as he sees it.

Early in the book, he remarks that he gives the same career advice to anyone who asks: “Find the thing you want to do, or the broad area you want to be in, choose the path of least resistance, and plot a course for your way in.”

Connie Sellecca and James Brolin, her co-star in the popular television series “Hotel.”

It’s not as if he did it that way all the time, however. There were just a few occasions he planned things, like his sending a tape to CBS in New York and getting an audition after just a year as newscaster at a Nashville TV station. He got the New York job and was the youngest news reporter on the staff at age 24. Much later in life, when he wanted to return to his musical roots, he burst onto the concert scene with a daring and self-financed venture, John Tesh Live at Red Rocks.

On many other occasions, he was just in the right place at the right time. And he put into action another bit of advice: “Be Found Ready.” He was a film editor at a TV station in Raleigh when, one day, the news anchor was abruptly dismissed. He had never been on a news set, but he donned a borrowed sport coat and got through his first newscast.

He was on the air four months, then got recruited to a station in Orlando. Another four months and a Nashville station came calling and doubled his salary. It was at that time that newsrooms were evolving into folksy, friendly places where the on-air personalities would banter and socialize as they delivered the broadcast. Pat Sajak was the weatherman at the Nashville station.  The milieu was perfect for Tesh. Right place, right time.

As a tv journalist in New York, Tesh impressed people with his street reporting, covering such gritty matters as the perfidies of South Bronx slumlords, crooked cab drivers who swindled out-of-town visitors, riots and looting during a citywide blackout, the plight of New York’s homeless, and the Son of Sam serial murders.

That work of six years positioned him for another shifting trend in the broadcast field. CBS Sports had new management in 1981. They decided that they wanted to inject some civilian news seriousness into their sideline reporting.  He was hired by the newly minted executive producer, Terry O’Neil, who had just come over from ABC. Tesh called O’Neil his CBS Sports godfather.

A personal aside here. In 1971, fresh out of Boston College, I was a finalist for a dream job at ABC Sports. I flew to New York and interviewed for the position of sports researcher for the 1972 Olympics in Munich.  That job went to Terry O’Neil, and it launched a great career.  Good for him, bummer for me.

Tesh took the sports job and trotted the globe for five years before another change in CBS Sports management forced him out. But he’d already been approached by the producers of Entertainment Tonight. Out on the street again, he called them and got a second audition. That landed him a ten-year gig as co-host of Entertainment Tonight with Mary Hart.

Lest you think that Mr. Tesh’s career was nothing but peaks and no valleys, you should know about his two biggest blunders. Monumental screw-ups they were indeed. But give the guy credit – he bounced back each time.

Late in his junior year at North Carolina State University, he’d finally found his stride. He was a popular and successful walk-on player on the soccer team. He’d taken a radio-tv elective and decided to change his major from textile chemistry to communications. But he was past the official deadline for drop-add, and one professor refused to sign the permission slip.

Tesh was talked into forging the professor’s signature, got caught, and was tossed from school. He lived in a pup tent in a local park for months, pumping gas and working construction.  His personal phone number was the park’s public phone booth.

Tesh, Sellecca, and Gib Gerard, her son by her first husband, in a promotional shot for “Intelligence for Your Life.”

Desperate, he made an audition tape, won over the receptionist at a local radio station, and pitched himself for some entry-level job. Any job would do. And he got in the door. For four hours on Sunday mornings, he could play the station’s religious tapes. But then someone left, and he was doing weekend newscasts.  His chosen career was underway. Again, right place right time.

An even bigger blunder came many years later. He actually got a date with the ravishingly beautiful actress, Connie Sellecca. And then he stood her up. He didn’t show for their Friday rendezvous in Palm Desert, California. He went drinking with the boys instead.

Almost astoundingly and after many rebuffed approached and phone calls, she agreed to meet him for dinner.  And, unusual for a first date, their lengthy conversation turned to religion and spirituality. She was a devout Christian and an ideal match. They clicked right away.

It’s fair to say that religious faith has been the bedrock of their married life together.  It saw them through Tesh’s two battles with stage-three prostate cancer.  It impelled them to support and join Operation Blessing in its relief of tsunami victims in Sri Lanka. It has been a constant theme in their Intelligence for Your Life shows on television, radio, and podcasts.

So – it’s hard not to like and admire John Tesh. I thought I knew about him before I read the book. I didn’t know the half of it.  And I do think he’d be an ideal guy to sit down with and have those several beers.  If you can’t arrange that, read his book.

Book Review: “Beyond the Flight of the Arrow” by James Bradford Taylor

August 1, 2019

Author Brad Taylor

Sometimes, you just want to escape. Get away from here. Have a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure in a far-off land.  Meet your childhood hero or the girl of your dreams.  Tell their story – no, live in their story the way you imagine it was in days of old.

Here’s one way to do it. Make this book by James Bradford “Brad” Taylor part of your summer reading list. Take it to the beach, willingly suspend your disbelief, unsheathe your trusty sword, and offer battle to the forces of evil.

The book, Taylor’s first, is an autobiographically-flavored fantasy fulfillment.  As the book’s hero, Andrew “Finney” Jackson, he is a cinema owner who gets the chance to prowl around the offices and warehouse of a long-dead Hollywood movie mogul.  He falls down some cellar stairs and is transported, Twilight-Zone fashion, back to Sherwood Forest, where his adventure begins.

As a lad growing up in Winthrop, Massachusetts, Brad Taylor stoked his imagination with one of the town’s biggest and best-organized troves of DC Comic books.  Superman and Batman were staples, but he was also a big fan and authority on the likes of Green Lantern; Hawkman; Green Arrow and Speedy, and just about anyone else who was good enough to make the roster of the Justice League of America.

Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, 1938

When Brad outgrew the comic book heroes and began to notice girls, he developed a “thing” for Olivia de Havilland. She played Maid Marian in the 1938 film “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” with Errol Flynn in the lead role and other familiar names like Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Alan Hale in the supporting cast. It was the first color film by Warner Brothers studios.

I don’t think it’s revealing too much about the book to say that our hero Finney falls in love with Maid Marian, rescues her, kidnaps her for ransom, but ultimately doesn’t wed her.  He points out that she always went off with Errol Flynn, so he lets Robin Hood marry her in the end.

The book’s subtitle is A Fantasy Adventure Concerning Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, and One Finney Jackson.  Nope.  It should be something like An Adventurous Story of Unrequited Love for Olivia de Havilland by One James B. Taylor.  But that little misdirection notwithstanding, I have to give Brad credit for honesty about his feelings for Olivia. Who among us did not have such fantasies as we stumbled through adolescence? I recall similar crushes that I had on Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova, and on Katharine Ross as Elaine Robinson.  (Now I rather dig Mrs. Robinson. But I digress.)

Here’s what Brad/Finney had to say after initially encountering Maid Marian in boy’s clothing, disguised as a page, and being the first of the Merry Men to recognize that she was a woman:

“Not only was she a woman, she was incredibly beautiful as well. How did I know this ‘page’ was a woman? Well, when you have seen one of the most beautiful women in the world, you don’t forget her face, even if the next time you see her she’s dressed as a boy. Yes, I had seen this woman before. Not once, but many times.

“She had made the biggest impression on me, however, when she co-starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood as Maid Marian, for this ‘page’ riding on the trail below us was none other than Olivia de Havilland…Perhaps it would be more correct to say she was the living, breathing image of Olivia de Havilland; for Robin was the exact double of Errol Flynn, yet he was Robin Hood and not an actor…

“When I was twelve years old I first saw The Adventures of Robin Hood on television, and I fell instantly in love with Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. It was my first adolescent crush, and I never really got entirely over it…To me, the beauty of Olivia de Havilland was perfection in every way with her dark hair and those eyes of hers. Those eyes! Has any of God’s creatures ever possessed such eyes?

“She could only be mine when I saw her in The Adventures of Robin Hood; and then she always went off with Errol Flynn…This time, though, I was in a position to determine whether there could be something between us in reality. As far as I was concerned, there would be.”

Well, there is something nice that develops between our hero and the lovely woman. They become good buds.  But that’s all. Along the way Robin stumbles badly and for a while seems most unworthy of her. Our hero Brad/Finney becomes of the realm’s premier swordsmen. He seems to emerge as a contender for Maid Marian’s heart.  However, as previously noted, Robin and Marian eventually wed.  Though the author refashions parts of the Robin Hood legend and rewrites some of the script of the Errol Flynn movie to suit his fancy, he leaves the legend’s essentials intact.

During his daring escapades, Brad/Finney also gets in some commentary on the history of the period. In the movie, King Richard the Lion-Hearted (a big misnomer, actually; he was a nebbish) the scummy Prince John was not yet on the throne of England. Robin Hood and his boys robbed from the rich, gave to the poor, stymied the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and kept Prince John off the throne.

In this book, John has been the king for sixteen years. And it’s Brad/Finney who intervenes with the Archbishop of Canterbury and brings about King John’s reluctant signing of the Magna Carta.

Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Claude Rains as Prince John in the 1938 film.

Robin has already told his new recruit to the Merry Men the truth about the present and previous monarchs of the realm.

“A woeful reign it has been for his subjects. He taxes everyone heavily. And those who cannot pay in gold must pay in crops. It was a foul wind that blew that accursed Norman [Gisbourne] to England’s shores seven years ago. Until then King John wasn’t so bad, but Gisbourne’s intrigues have made everything worse. The King is his puppet.”

That latter story isn’t history, because Sir Guy is fictional; he’s simply a villain who shows up in most of the retellings of the Robin Hood legend.  But by that point of the book we’re beyond letting facts get in the way of a good story.

At the end, before he’s whisked back to the present, Brad/Finney gets to kiss Marian, the bride, at her wedding. But just prior to that little wish-come-true, Robin Hood gives him a small stone, a talisman, which had been a gift to him from Little John.

“It signifies a great friendship,” Robin says. “There are only two things on earth that go beyond the flight of the arrow. One is the love that comes once in a lifetime between a man and a woman. The other is friendship between two men that no force on earth can overcome.”

I’ll raise a tankard of Sherwood Forest’s finest ale to that one.

Book Review: The Animal’s Companion

May 8, 2019

People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story

By Jacky Collis Harvey

Author Jacky Collis Harvey

When you read a book by Jacky Collis Harvey, you learn a lot. And with the way she writes, deeply researched and with wit and erudtion, you also have fun as you learn.

Bonus: you also get to know Jacky as a person, because she puts so much of herself into her books. Reading her is like a leisurely date with a new, intriguing friend at the Dog and Duck, or maybe afternoon tea at the Savoy.   When you’re in such a setting with an interesting woman, the best thing to do is to sit back, let her do the talking, drink it all in, and go home wiser and happier.

Jacky’s first book, reviewed here, was Red: A History of the Redhead. There’s no need to tell you the color of her hair, which placed the chip on her shoulder and the flash in her eye.

Her newest work is The Animal’s Companion: People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story.  Ms Collis Harvey is one such companion. She loves animals. With passion and appreciation.  She prepares the reader for what’s coming when she writes, in the introductory chapter,

“As I look back, all of the most important lessons in my life were taught by animals: the realities of love and loss and the impenetrability of death, which could take a warm, breathing living flank and overnight turn it into something lifeless, cold and solid; the imperatives of sex; the largeness of care and responsibility…Growing up a redhead made me bold; but it was growing up with animals that made a liberal out of me.”

Okay, Jacky, so tell me more about yourself and those animal friends.

Here’s one passage that I loved; I felt myself shivering in the cold right alongside the author, and feeling her primal fear:

“…if you are a woman. The psychological effect of walking with a big dog padding along obediently beside you is intoxicating. The world opens up, no matter how timid by nature you may be yourself…Fergus, my wolfhound, and I used to set off into the murk of winter fields and winter evenings without hesitation. And then one particular evening, he off his leash and me holding a flashlight rather than a burning brand, Fergus saw something at the side of the fields that caused a growl to rise from within his chest that was both the deepest and most horripilating sound I have ever heard an animal produce. It was like listening to the ominous drawing-back of the sea before the crash of some terrible wave. My own hackles were up at the sound of it, never mind his. My nerve ends soaked with adrenaline in nanoseconds – the kind of atavistic response you forget the human body is still capable of producing.”

Later on in the book, after telling about the ways that literary and historical luminaries, like Samuel Pepys, King John, Plutarch, Elizabeth Barrett and Alexandre Dumas cared for animals, she relates how she unhesitatingly ponied up £3,000 for emergency medical care for her cat, Miss Puss. The cat made it and lived another seven years, though it cost what she said was “more money than we had in the world” at that point.  In declaring that the little creature’s emotional value to her was far beyond any vet’s bill, she speaks for just about all people who have pets of their own.

Each of the book’s chapters deals with a different theme in the life of humans who love animals: Finding, Choosing, Fashioning, Naming, Communicating, Connecting, Caring, Losing, and Imagining. Her own anecdotes, observations, and philosophical musings crop up frequently, but not so much that the book seems to be about her. She strikes a nice balance and re-introduces the reader to many familiar names of animal lovers from history, literature and art.

The 26,000 years in the book’s subtitle refers to the approximate age of the fossilized footprints of a boy and his dog in the Chauvet cave, rediscovered in France by archaeologists in 1995. That, the author maintains, is the oldest known evidence of a human as an animal’s companion.

Federico Gonzaga: “notoriously bad husband material.”

That’s a great answer for Final Jeopardy, so keep it in mind. But more amusing, and an example of Collis Harvey’s fine eye for history that we can relate to, is the story behind Titian’s painting of Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Federico was on the make and targeting Margherita, heiress to the Marquis of Monferrato. Problem was, as Collis Harvey relates, the Gonzagas were “notoriously bad husband material,” and the heiress was hesitating.

So what to do? Commission a painting of yourself with a cute, fluffy little dog, looking longingly up at you while extending a supplicating paw. The little dog is there “to say that she has nothing to worry about, that as a husband Federico will be both faithful and protective…to reinforce the message that he was benevolent and trustworthy, neither of which in fact was true.”

Readers also hear from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Renoir, the Book of Job, Alfred Hitchcock, Friedrich Engels, A.A. Milne, William Blake, Lord Byron, and Horace Walpole.  All in all, this book is a delightful romp through the ages. It even feels that you’re taking that romp in the company of your own beloved pet. Several times along the way I felt the presence of my sweet golden retriever Molly, who’s been gone from this earth for more than a decade.

Yes, we do learn great life lessons from our dealings with animal friends. Those intertwining lives can also bring broader lessons for society as a whole. In the final chapter, after discussing animals’ rights and reminding readers of Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering writings on the rights of women, Collis Harvey muses,

“What was once, in its demand for equality and respect, the cutting edge of social change is now a given across most of the planet (and will get all the way there too)…We are coming to recognize that we cannot claim rights without also granting them; not insist upon them for ourselves without acknowledging them for others.”

Good thought. Good lesson. Good book.

How to Think: Book Review and Reflection

November 17, 2017

Alan Jacobs

Well, I guess that a book with such a title would strive to be that most-clichéd of written works: one that is “thought-provoking.”

Okay, mission accomplished, Alan Jacobs.  But for me, the book is better described as “introspection-inspiring.”

The book’s subtitle is “A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.” I read a Wall Street Journal review of it a few weeks ago and was intrigued. The review didn’t lead me to believe that it was a self-help book. Rather, it held out the promise that How to Think would give the reader a measured and sober understanding of the causes and cures for the vast chasm that divides the left and the right in America’s body politic.

You can get a good deal of that understanding from this compact (156 pages) book by Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University. You’ll probably recognize attitudes and tactics from both your side of the political divide and the other side. You might even acknowledge the existence of your side’s version of the “RCO” — the “Repugnant Cultural Other” who inhabits the far shore (but who actually might be your next-door neighbor or long-time friend.)

Corollary to that will likely be a realization that you and those on your side are somebody else’s RCOs. It is, as he puts it, a “profoundly unhealthy situation.” Duh.

So, why is it this way nowadays? And is there anything we, as individuals, can do about it? If not to change the world (we can’t), then at least to chart a course through calmer waters and steer between the Scylla of the alt-left and the Charybdis of the alt-right? That we can do, and this book is a helpful guide.

Groupthink

Early in the book, Jacobs gives the example of people’s attitudes towards “The Puritans.” For the most part, to be called “puritanical” is to be insulted. Puritans are rigid, authoritarian, judgmental—right? Jacobs cites writer Marilynne Robinson, who states that this easy characterization is a “great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without the knowledge or information about the thing being disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.”

Emphasis mine in that last sentence. I think Jacobs gets it about something, a phenomenon that’s common in these days of social media, the era of the knee-jerk retweet and the forwarded-without-thinking disparagement.

We all want to belong to a group or a community, and that’s usually a positive thing. No man is an island, and so on. But a problem crops up when the group exists primarily to exclude and denigrate others. Those who belong get their comfort and feelings of safety and power from belonging. But that belonging exacts a price, both from the individual person and from the wider society.

Jacobs mentions the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a card-carrying, insult-hurling member of the Westboro Baptist Church. She goes through a gradual and wrenching transformation when she encounters and is willing to talk to one of those RCOs. In the case of the Westboro crowd, the RCO is a gay guy – and she eventually sees his humanity and leaves the Westboro cocoon and her old comrades-in-arms behind.

This is an unusual example, but it’s proof that the battle lines in today’s culture wars aren’t permanent, that there’s hope. Jodi Picoult tells a story of such a transformation in her novel Small Great Things.  In that fictional account, the convert is a pickup-driving, tobacco-chawing racist who eventually come to see the loving decency and professional competence of a black nurse who has cared for his child. The guy sees the light; his wife remains behind.

Both the real person and the fictional person cited here experienced a loss: of group security, of friends, and of family members. Whether it was truly a net loss, in either case, seems unlikely, because new affiliations await those who are willing to change their minds and evolve.

These experiences also both predict the final words of Jacobs’s book, Item 12 on his “Thinking Person’s Checklist.” He writes, “Be Brave. “

Yes, it does take more than a little courage to be open to the possibility of modifying your views at the risk of distancing yourself from your fellow travelers. Not everybody is up to it. Jacobs says as much near the end of the book:

“You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you: the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position.”

There are many pithy examples and light-bulb-inducing “Oh, of course” explanations sprinkled throughout the book.  I’d like to cite just a couple that struck me as particularly relevant.

C.S. Lewis and the Inner Ring

It’s not surprising that Jacobs turns to C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and many other works of Christian humanism, for an erudite and prescient look at what’s become of much of our society. Lewis delivered a lecture titled The Inner Ring at King’s College, London, in 1944. I remember reading and re-reading it a few years ago, and I thought it was spot-on even then.

“…you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring… And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems,” Lewis told students more than 70 years ago.

And he continued,

“And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world…I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. ..of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

In applying the notion of the Inner Ring to present-day social affiliations and communities of interest, Jacobs offers the following observations and advice:

“…once we’re part of an Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post-hoc rationalizations that confirm our identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those Outside…Smart people have a problem, especially (though not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize anything.”

But he does offer some hope to those who try to do better, suggesting,

“You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup…If you have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.”

And Now for Some of my Most-Admired Friends

As for the “introspection-inspiring” that I mentioned up front, I‘ll give this last example because I can relate entirely to Prof. Jacobs’s feelings.  I, like him, hold rather passionately to a set of beliefs and attitudes. Not all of those who are dear to me and whose friendship I treasure share those beliefs. In fact, we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum on some important cultural and political matters.

Of his friends, Jacobs writes,

“Over the years, I’ve had to acknowledge that some of the people whose views on education appall me are more devoted to their students than I am to mine; and that some of the people whose theological positions strike me as immensely damaging to the health of the church are nevertheless more prayerful and charitable, more Christian, than I will ever be. This is immensely disconcerting…Being around those people forces me to confront certain truths about myself that I would rather avoid; and that alone is the reason to seek every means possible to constrain the energies of animus.”

Bingo there, Alan. I’m glad you brought that up, and put it as you did. It’s nice to know that someone else feels as I do.

I can think of several people whom I respect and admire greatly, for things like their love for others, their worldly wisdom, and their just plain personal class. I wish I were more like them. But I know I’ll not be voting like them either, or trying to bring them around to my points of view. Not long ago, I was reminiscing with one of them about our many years of friendship. She remarked that it was good that we never tried to make it as a couple because we’d probably have ended up trying to kill each other.

Anyway, I liked this book. And perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I also like to think that I’m the type of person for whom the book will work. If you do decide to read it, please let me know if you think the same way.

Book Review and Reflection: The Book of Separation

October 25, 2017

I’m not Jewish.  I’ve never been through a divorce. And I’m not a woman.  But I can certainly relate to author Tova Mirvis and her life story, as told in her latest work, The Book of Separation.

The book, Mirvis’s fourth, tells of her journey toward ending both her first marriage and her life in Orthodox Judaism. That all-encompassing religious community both enfolded and protected her even as it constricted and repressed her throughout her youth and early adulthood.  Many of us, I’m sure, have felt and grappled with fears, misgivings, and doubts similar to those that Mirvis recounts.

As the book begins, she is standing alone, before the panel of bearded, black-garbed Orthodox rabbis who will rule upon the legitimacy of the get, the divorce document that, by Jewish law, can only be issued by the husband. It’s a dramatic scene. As one who was brought up in old-time, fire-and-brimstone Catholicism, I can only imagine how I would have felt if I’d stood before a phalanx of black cassocks and Roman collars to take my leave of my own Church.

I probably would have chickened out. She didn’t. But she must have considered it many times. As she stated in those first few pages, “If you left, you were in danger of losing everyone you had loved. If you left, you were in danger of losing yourself.”

Mirvis did leave, and she did lose a lot. But she gained and learned much too. I daresay she will bring to mind, in many readers, a raft of similar emotions and memories and should-have-dones – particularly if religion was a defining factor in their lives.

Did you ever feel, for instance, as she did one Rosh Hashanah when, as she remembers looking at the hats of the ladies in synagogue,

“I tried to pray, but my mind kept wandering. Under all these brims and bows, what were people really thinking? Did any of these women ever worry, as I did, that too much thinking might unravel their lives? You were supposed to believe that this way of life was the only true one…Yet along with the actual rules, there was another set of laws, equally stringent yet more unforgiving, enforced not by a belief in God but by communal eyes that were just as all-seeing and all knowing. Inside my head, a voice constantly whispered, What will they think?”

Well, I had learned that my religion was the one true faith as well.  My mind also used to wander as I sat through all those masses and novenas and parish missions and Stations of the Cross. And back then, I would have dreaded the mere thought of facing the opprobrium of parents, clergy, and my Catholic community if I’d voiced my own growing doubts.  I do have a few friends who did boldly voice their own doubts, early in their adult years, and in hindsight I wish I’d had their courage.

I also once lived in fear of the same God about Whom Mirvis expressed her nagging doubts: “”Did I believe in a God who cared about the smallest details of what I ate and what I wore – God the Scorekeeper, God the Punisher, God the King?”

With such passages, Tova Mirvis surely touches some raw nerves and long-buried feelings. Her readers who have ever struggled to strike a balance between God’s message and God’s earthly, self-designated messengers will probably nod in agreement and recognition.

Much of the book chronicles Mirvis’s passage through everyday life: education, marriage and family, friendships, religious practices, and eventually the harsh realities of drifting further away from spouse and community. Along the way she also explains many of the reasons behind Jewish rituals, the rich tapestry of tradition that has distinguished that remarkable people for millennia and will continue to do so.

One of the story’s turning points calls to mind another famous Jewish author – another who was divorced and remarried – Midge Decter. She once said, “Nerve is one thing all writers need.” Mirvis showed the requisite nerve when she spoke, and stood her ground, at a cultural conference run by a large group of Orthodox rabbis.

That occasion was, she noted “the last time I considered myself still inside.” She would not make her writing conform to their rules and demands.  “I didn’t believe their rules contained the ultimate truth…it wasn’t just about writing honestly and freely, it was about living honestly and freely…I was no longer willing to pretend in order to belong.”

Stepping to the outside of the Orthodox community did, as expected, sever friendships and bring rejection and avoidance. The author missed being inside that old community, especially on occasions like Shabbat. One consolation was her knowing “there are other kinds of communities that I can eventually build for myself – smaller maybe, less all encompassing, ones in which I won’t have to cede my independence in order to belong.

There is a telling observation Mirvis makes near the end of the book. Her children have come for the weekend. Her son Noam, who has remained Orthodox, asks her to unscrew the refrigerator’s light bulb so that it won’t go on – one of many Shabbat practices that Mirvis no longer follows.

She gladly agrees to honor his request, noting “I’m doing this, and other actions like it, to help Noam be part of this world that he is choosing. And doing so comes not only in the broad strokes and large proclamations about love and respect but in each of the minute actions – not just God, not just sin, lay in the details, but love lived there too.”

Yes, it is the little things. God and love both are to be found in the details of our everyday lives.

Another heartening passage comes late in the book when Mirvis returns to the scene at the beginning. She’s alone with that formidable panel of senior rabbis. They’ve examined the get, the divorce document whose official name is sefer kritut, a book of termination, of rending, of separation.

The document, written in Aramaic and dated 5772 from the creation of the world, is in order.  In keeping with ancient rite, the senior rabbi folds it up tight and drops it into her cupped hands. She must signify acceptance – clasp the get to her bosom, turn, and walk from the room. When the door closes behind her, the divorce takes effect.

They summon her back into the room, where one of the rabbis takes the document, draws an X on it, then tears it up so that no one could ever examine it and find an error. It’s over.  After the rabbis recount some of her future obligations and she’s about to leave, the head of the court looks her in the eye.

She says, at that point, that she was steeling herself for rebuke. That’s another thing I can imagine doing. In fact, I’d be expecting to hear that I’m bound for the outer darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

No such rebuke happened. Instead, the man tells her a story. The Talmud, he explains, said that the Temple altar weeps when a man divorces his wife. There was once a rabbi who went through a divorce; his students were confused and puzzled that it could even happen.

“Better the altar should weep than should I,” came that divorced rabbi’s reply.

With that, the senior rabbi tells Mirvis, “It’s a new beginning. Go forth, become the person you need to be.”

That’s wise counsel for anyone, of any age, of any religious faith. And this is a book I’d recommend for anyone of any age, gender, or faith as well.