Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

“Our Good Name,” by Catherine Marenghi. Book Review

May 18, 2022

“We are a nation of immigrants.” Now that I have read Catherine Marenghi, I finally know what that means.

Our Good Name is a meticulously researched and sensitively told story of an Italian family who built one little corner of America. We’re with them. We hear their conversations and feel their joy and pain. With a journalist’s ear for dialogue, a poet’s gift for description, and a historian’s perspective for what matters to community and country, the author guides us through the gardens and kitchens and rice fields of their old world; into steerage on the way to their new world; and among the fields and schools and factories and often-unwelcoming towns and courts of law of their adopted land.

But this is not merely the kind of historical fiction that everyone who wishes to understand America should read. In telling their own stories in their own unique voices, seven of Ms Marenghi’s forebears fashion for us an eloquent prequel to her enthralling personal memoir, Glad Farm.

Our Good Name will touch your heart just as Glad Farm did. It is a fitting and welcome addition to the Marenghi canon.

The Silver Wolf, by J.C. Harvey: Review and Reflection

March 4, 2022

William Tecumseh Sherman, the American Civil War general, famously stated to his men, “War is hell.”

J.C. Harvey

He also wrote to John Bell Hood, an opposing general, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”

That’s right, as far as it goes. But had General Sherman read J.C. Harvey’s The Silver Wolf, he might have suggested to General Hood that “We’ve had it pretty easy here. I’m just glad this isn’t the Thirty Years War.”

Horror and brutality. That’s what I felt about what life must have been like for people like Jack Fiskardo, the hero of The Silver Wolf.  Jacky Colliss Harvey the historian (Red: A History of the  Redhead and The Animal’s Companion, both previously reviewed here) dons her fiction-writer’s hat to tell his tale. As J.C. Harvey, she immerses us in the fog of the Thirty Years War, which ran from the Defenestration of Prague in 1618 to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

The Thirty Years War was one of history’s most devastating, destructive, complicated conflicts, and Harvey doesn’t intend to explain its broad sweep and its historical significance. Though she gives a concise summary in the introductory author’s note, she states that her book’s events

“stand in much the same relation to the events of the Thirty Years War as a tapestry does to its support: in other words, with just enough points of connection, I hope, to bear the weight…I have played fast and loose with documented history, opening real doors onto landscapes and happenings that never existed until I made them up. Then again, all too often, I would hit the horrid truth that no matter what I might create in my imagination, the actual events of the war would be worse: stranger, crazier, even more hideously comic; more incredible, more appalling.”

Fiskardo seems to be part Achilles, part Ulysses, part Frodo, and even part Harry Potter (without the magic tricks.) Harvey models him on the description of one real-life individual, Carlo Fantom, by 17th-Century biographer John Aubrey in his Brief Lives:

“[he] had such skills in the bearing of arms that it was said he had purchased them of the Devil, in especial, that he was a Hard Man, so could not be put down by bullets nor by steel; and that he carried with him always the silver token of  wolf, such as the Hard Men use, so that one may know another…His father was a gentleman-at-arms under King Henry of France and there was much black work, as the soldiers say, in his father’s death, and in his mother’s too.”

This book, subtitled Fiskardo’s War, is the first of a series. Because there are more books to come, I’m not spoiling it for you when I tell you that Jack Fiskardo lives to fight again, and that he has unfinished business to attend to. But many of those whom we meet do not survive, including Fiskardo’s parents. Like the real-life Carlo Fantom, Jack’s father Jean had once been a cavalry captain in the army of King Henry IV of France.

Along the way, we see Jack fighting for his life and barely surviving as a wharf-rat in the merciless port of Amsterdam; learning swordsmanship and horsemanship; dealing with spies and traitors; negotiating his price as he enlists in armies; narrowly escaping death as a town is sacked and burned; and revenge-killing one foe.

Perhaps the author played loose with some of the historical facts and dates, as she stated above, but she lets us know what life must have been like in those times. It’s not just in descriptions of the horrors of combat, and it’s even in the argot-infused soldiers’ conversations.

Consider the motivations of those who took up arms back in those days. They weren’t fighting to save the world for democracy or to rid us of the scourge of slavery. They were in it for the bucks, both their soldier’s pay and whatever they could carry away from villages, cities, and individual homes and farms that ever stood in their path.

The real-life Carlo Fantom fought in the Thirty Years War, then made his way to England to fight in the Civil War.  Here’s Harvey’s description of Fiskardo, showing up as a new recruit in the army of the Empire. Asked what action he’s seen, he replies

“Joined up at Heidelberg in twenty-two. I was a scout.”

“A scout, eh? That’s good enough for me. I pay eight gulden a month—“

“I get fifteen.”

“[The captain] is paid one hundred and fifty gulden a month – as much as any captain in the regiment. But out of that he has to find for his kit, his horses, his four boys, not to mention his pleasures, none of which come cheap…never mind. There’s always some new ruse, to keep his crew’s wages in his hands.  ‘All right, fifteen then, fifteen gulden a month, and you’d better be worth it.’”

I can’t imagine soldiers and officers in a modern army acting this way. But I think that is a good example of one of those real doors that Harvey said she has opened up into landscapes of that hard and brutal world.  We see many more of them.

Here’s a description of a meal at a tavern called The Carpenter’s Hat. “The meal is house-pot, a type of stew – potatoes, onion, shredded cabbage, flakes of fish (today it is salmon, both plentiful and cheap; Zoot runs a thrifty kitchen, as one might expect) – enriched with chicken livers and ground pork sausage, thickened with egg yolks, spiced with mace and sharpened up with vinegar.”

Eww. But I guess a man’s gotta eat. Especially a freebooting soldier of fortune.

How to become a gentleman-at-arms? Harvey covers that too. Jack comes under the tutelage of a Master Nicholas, who “offers tuition in rapier, fauchon, hanger, glaive. The smallest weapon in his armoury, all of which hangs neatly from racks on the classroom walls, is a novelty that fits between the knuckles of the fourth and middle finger; the largest, a Swiss broadsword, has a blade of four feet. Armed with such a weapon, at the height of his stroke a man can attain the velocity of a slash with a throat-cut razor.”

And what about that horror and brutality I mentioned earlier? Just a few examples.

Early in the book, Jack nearly dies at the hands of the gang on the Amsterdam docks. He’s found just in time with “a wound below the arc of his ribs, crusted with pus, like a fissure in a geode.” But he survives.

He also survives a climactic battle when the Swedish army of King Gustavus Adolphus attacks and destroys the town which the Imperial army is occupying.  Harvey’s meticulously researched description of the weaponry is masterful. Her telling of the up-close-and-personal nature of the killing is mesmerizing. Sickening, but mesmerizing.

A colonel Bronheim, already wounded, shouts in despair at his fleeing men. Then,

“At a window fifty feet away, a Swedish musketeer, less hurried than his fellows, takes a paper cartridge from his belt (another innovation, this), opens it with his teeth, tips powder and cartridge straight down the barrel of his musket and thinks, Now then. Let’s see what this can do. There. That fellow, that one bellowing and roaring – how could he miss?

“Kneeling, he balances its barrel on the windowsill. Squeezes the trigger, back, back, ba-a-ack…they’re a novelty, firelock muskets, and none of them quite trusts that the burning fuse, coiled in its iron pincer by the stock, coiled like the smallest, deadliest of snakes, will somehow every time find the touch-hole – and fires. A single shot, a calligraphic flourish of smoke.

“Bronheim, still bellowing, hears the shot that takes him; hears it come in like a hornet for the attack. Feels the course of fire it ploughs through his chest, feels those organs in its path implode.”

I’ll leave it to you to read the book and Harvey’s ever more graphic and gruesome account of Jack dispatching a foe with sword and dagger. But suffice it to say that it might just be enough to turn a guy like General Sherman into a peacenik.

Yes, war is hell. Always was.  

So we know what kind of guy Fiskardo is. He is a Hard Man. He has a silver wolf token.  Whoever it was that killed his mother lost it in the doing of that “black work.” The killer is still at large, and at the end of the book, when Jack is with the Swedish army, he tells his second-in-command as they march into Germany, “He’s there. Trust me. I can feel it in my blood.”

There’s another Fiskardo book coming, and then another. So move over, J.K. Rowling. Here’s J.C. Harvey.

Book Review and Reflection – “American Girl: Memories that Made Me” by Georgia Scott

February 28, 2022

Over the years I’ve become an enthusiastic reader of biography and memoir. Everybody, from the “great” people of history to the utterly on-the-surface-ordinary Joes and Janes, has a story.

There are different kinds of memoir. If I seek out one by, say, Winston Churchill, I’m less interested in the events of his childhood than in getting his take on how he changed the world. It’s a slanted, autobiographical view of history, but still one worth knowing. As Winston once cracked, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

But as author Marion Roach Smith points out in The Memoir Project, memoirs are not autobiographies. Rather, she suggests that memoir is “the single greatest portal to self-awareness…writing about how you grew up to be who you are…little moments, revelatory real events, are what turn and shape our lives.”

That’s what I saw – no, it was actually what I nearly experienced – as I read and then re-read American Girl: Memories that Made Me, by Georgia Scott.

We don’t learn a lot about the author’s life as an adult or about her distinguished academic career. All the book says about her is that she is an author and a poet, whose work includes two collections of poetry and books on British and American literature. It doesn’t mention her three degrees, topped by a doctorate in Jewish studies, her faculty appointments in Michigan, Japan, and Poland, or her nine years of study and writing in London.

You also have to dig around to find that she had a Fulbright Scholarship to teach African American literature in Poland, and that Lech Walesa endorsed her poetry book, The Good Wife, as “a brave and beautiful book.” She read her first published poem for the preliminary talent competition in her state’s Miss America pageant, where she finished runner-up.  She’s done more than sixty poetry readings and performances throughout Europe and America. She lives in Gdansk, Poland.

But if we don’t get Scott’s life story from this book, we do learn what makes her tick, what shaped her life and brought her in Roach Smith’s terms “from what you once did not know (Act One) and what you now know after you’ve been through it (Act Three.)”

Scott grew up in a seaside town near Boston. She dubs it with the pseudonym “Belle Isle.”  The town, the busy street she calls “Wisteria Drive,” and all of the neighbors, family members and acquaintances who segue in and out of her young life are also given pseudonyms.  Local businesses, public figures, and other places retain their real names, so anyone who grew up in “Belle Isle” will instantly recognize them.

Georgia Scott

Reading this memoir is much like reading a collection of poems. The chapters are short; there are 138   of them in the 268-page printed edition.  Actually, there are many echoes from Scott’s previously-published books of poetry sprinkled throughout. She has that knack for observation and turn of phrase that only gifted poets seem to have.

In this way, her book reminds me of Glad Farm by Catherine Marenghi, which I consider the gold standard in memoir-writing. I reviewed it here a few years ago. Its chapters are also short, with 35 of them over 281 pages. Marenghi, like Scott, is an acclaimed and frequently-published poet. Both women, I suspect, would tell you that they prefer writing poetry to writing prose; their love poetry is as provocatively erotic as anything you’ll find in the Bible’s Song of Songs. But when they do write prose, the clever images, similes, and metaphors crop up on almost every page.

For Scott’s writing style alone, her book is a treat.  Here are just a couple of examples of her poetry-in-prose: 

Recalling trips to the beach with her older sister, she writes, “The rules were simple. Never turn your back on the water. Know which way the tide is headed. In or out…When I think back, those tides were like women with different scents and different demands. Low tide was fruity and cool. It took a while to get to her edge. Low tide held back. The onus was on you to go over to her. High tide smelled of heat that built up. It was Chanel No. 5 to her drugstore opposite. She went after you in no uncertain terms.”

In describing her house, Scott takes a single sentence that runs on for 20 printed lines to tell us of all the unique aspects – white columns, hand-painted Dutch tiles, intricate parquet floors, and so on – that were not the reasons that her mother fell in love with the place. Then she pivots to write “No” with three more sentences spanning just two lines. They land like jabs in a boxing ring to tell us why her mother liked the window seat in the front hall most of all.

Severe physical setbacks played a big role in shaping Scott’s attitude towards life and in honing her powers of observation. Relegated to the sidelines for a few years – on crutches, with rheumatoid arthritis as a schoolgirl and six months in a full body cast after back surgery as a college student – she learned some hard lessons and developed a gimlet eye on everyone who crossed her path.

In a blurb on the back cover of the book, she states, “Long periods of convalescence don’t make for an endearing child…your best skills are as transferable as soldier’s ability to kill.”

Sheesh! Here I want to make a side remark. I have to take issue with another thing that she wrote for the book’s back cover. I’ll quote it here first.

“My stillness is not surrender anymore than my silences are. If you think I acquiesce, think again. I am watching. I am listening. I am noting everything down. The transformation of my right middle finger began in those months. The protrusion in the first joint resulted from the pressure of pencils and pens in my hand. Typewriter and computer use have reduced it somewhat in recent years, though not entirely. See. My middle finger is still raised.”

I don’t see that here. Yes, she’s “on” to everybody, and her assessments along the way are appropriately critical. But I don’t see her flipping us all the bird. I see an understanding instead, a willingness to forgive. It may be coming at long last, but it’s there. Maybe you won’t agree with me. But read the book before you decide.

 As the book moves along, Scott’s perspective widens. She becomes more and more perceptive. We see her growing into a worldly-wise adult, from Act One to Act Three, as Marion Roach Smith describes. As a child, she wondered how Perry Mason could be so smart and never see how madly in love with him that Della Street was.  At school, trying to get around in her crutches, she was labeled “diseased” by an older girl. “I learned that a smiling face could carry an insult…she left me with a wariness of my peers. Girls, that is. The boys didn’t bother me at all.”

Her widowed mother became romantically involved with a neighbor, also widowed, and there was one time she saw them kissing, “in an embrace worthy of Rodin.” She’d never seen her mother and father kissing, though. She ran upstairs, cried into her pillow, and rubbed her eyes, “wishing I could erase what I saw.”  

Later, when her mother’s romance ends unhappily, she writes “I don’t remember the last time [he] visited. That’s the problem with real life as opposed to what is made up. You don’t know until after things happen what is important. Sometimes you spot it after. More often not. The domino that topples the rest is lost…The house got quieter without their laughter. Tarantellas became a memory.”

The author’s most distressing memory, the one that “marked my entry into that club of adults that I had wanted to join for so long,” still bothers her. One of the adult children who lived next door, a Korean War veteran, apparently cut himself late one night and bled to death. One of the neighbors came in to help and “did what she could. He seemed alright when she left. But in the morning he was dead.”

Scott tries to make sense of that incident, and can’t. “What was done was done and what wasn’t was never spoken of again. Yet, I never forgot. It was the death that no one could know about. It became ours alone. Like a chocolate heart that is crushed but kept in a drawer because it is all that a lover could give it has been my secret until now. No one is left who can be hurt, I don’t think…The question that has haunted me for years is not to him but to those others who were there with him. One who amused me and one whom I loved. Why wasn’t an ambulance called?”

Act Three, indeed.

Another similarity to Catherine Marenghi’s story is that Georgia, like Catherine, did not come to know “the whole truth” about herself and her family until relatively late in life.  In Glad Farm, we read of Catherine’s discovery of family correspondence and newspaper clippings in an old cedar chest that revealed the details of her parents’ dreams and ambitions, as well as a tragic death that no one ever spoke of.

In Georgia’s case, it takes until the end of the book for us to find out just what she meant to her father, who died suddenly when he was just forty-five.  Fifty years later, one of her sisters told her of the family’s situation and where they had lived in the city, not in the town of Belle Isle, when Georgia was born.  She had never known just how her arrival changed everything. She then, at long last, realizes why her mother had always said, “He loved you all, but you were special.” And that revelation inspired her to write this book.

In an early chapter, Georgia writes, “I didn’t miss my father. That was the awful truth.  A source of guilt, I let no one know and I only realized as a person realizes a staircase is steep. Step by step or in my case, year by year.”

But near the book’s end she is recounting her dreams of her father, dreams in which she never saw his face. It never came into view but stayed a whitish-grey, and, “His voice gave no reassurance. It remained mournful as a foghorn for years. Now he sings. It wasn’t my time to go then, but when it comes, I hope he’s there.”

That brought tears to my eyes.

History I Never Knew: Saint Hildegarde, Sybil of the Rhine

September 22, 2021

Today’s history-I-never-knew blog post is from the annals of religion. Or, maybe it’s from the annals of medicine.  You can decide.

It took almost a thousand years for the Catholic Church to get it right about Saint Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179.) She’s known as “The Sybil of the Rhine” for her poetic prophecies. She was already canonized a saint, but it wasn’t until 2012 that Pope Benedict XVI named the learned Hildegarde a Doctor of the Church. She’s only the fourth woman to be so designated.

Hildegarde of Bingen

I’d say she deserves it. When it came to health care matters, she knew what was good for you.

According to “Drinking with the Saints: A Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour,” Hildegarde was exceptionally wise, “with a keen insight into moral psychology and an avid interest in many subjects, including medicine. An important example of Hildegarde’s wisdom is her high regard for wine and beer.”

In her treatise “Causes and Cures,” Hildegarde’s prescription for treating a sick person is “Cerevisiam Bibat.”

Translation: “Let him drink beer.”

She explains why: “For beer fattens up man’s flesh and bestows a beautiful color to his face on account of the strength and good vitality of the grain. But water debilitates man and, if he is sick, sometimes produces a bluish discoloration around the lungs. For water is weak and does not have a strong power.”

Brilliant. Why didn’t they think of that before? Holy and wise she was, indeed. But medicine was hardly her only subject. She wrote fifteen books and composed dozens of hymns; she is one of the most renowned composers of sacred monophony, which will be familiar to people of my generation as Gregorian Chant.

Hildegarde founded two abbeys in Germany. They were dissolved in a nineteenth-century wave of secularization, but Benedictine nuns later re-established one as Eibingen Abbey. It is also known as Abtei St. Hildegard, and it is a “Klosterweingut,” a monastic winegrowing estate.  They make their own Riesling wine, which is unfortunately not distributed beyond the borders of Germany.

The wine from that abbey has nothing to do with the Blue Nun brand. You may remember how popular Blue Nun used to be, and the radio ads for it by Stiller and Meara. It was called a “Liebfraumilch,” or “Dear Lady’s Milk,” and the nuns in blue habits that are associated with it were garbed in that color as a display of devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Blue Nun was invented in the 1920s by the H. Sichel Schöne Company. The Blue Nun name and labeling was a branding maneuver to help boost exports. Up until that time, German wine labels were printed in a typeface called Fraktur, which was difficult to read. Blue Nun’s simplified visuals and graphics were a welcome change.  The first nuns depicted on the labels actually wore brown habits, not blue ones. But in the United States, even they couldn’t be shown initially because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms prohibited images of nuns.

There’s a Hildegard wine put out by Au Bon Climat winery of Santa Barbara, California, but it has nothing to do with Hildegarde of Bingen. It’s named for Empress Hildegard, the wife of Charlemagne. She lived a couple of hundred years before our admired friend from Bingen. According to the Au Bon Climat website,

“The name Hildegard is a salute to the history of Burgundy and to her husband the King of the Franks, Charlemagne. During his rule in the early 800s the importance of wine and viticulture exploded. The Catholic Church and Charlemagne ruled most of Europe and both were interested in wine and viticulture.  The Church needed wine for the Eucharist and under Charlemagne more and more vineyards were planted in Burgundy. Charlemagne brought civilization and order back after the dark ages. Part of this rebirth was wine production.”

You might have a little more luck obtaining one of two Réserve Hildegarde beers, a blonde and an ambree, from the Brewery St. Germain in Aix-Noulette, France. They make the beers as “a special tribute to Hildegarde of Bingen, who lived and loved hops more than 800 years ago.”

So that’s my story of Hildegarde of Bingen. Kudos to Pope Benedict for his better-late-than-never accolade to her.

And let’s heed her excellent recommendation and raise a stein in her honor: “Cerevisiam Bibamus!”

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.