Steven Riddle: October 2006 Archives

Three Cheers for Octoween!



My enthusiasm for cephalopods unbounded.

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Via The Western Confucian

from "Regeneration"
David Warren

We could bore each other weekly with anecdotes from the papers to illustrate what I mean. The tabloids seemed to exist to remind us of the depravity to which humans are capable of sinking, but so now do all the papers in the broadsheet universe. Let me utter the single word, “Madonna”, to assure my reader that I am not overstating the depths we have excavated. Let him simply walk along an urban street, and observe what is for sale in the video shops and elsewhere, to be reminded of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim. Or more subtly, let him examine the wayward design, and shoddy quality, of almost every item for sale in a shopping mall.

And yet, such things have become invisible to many, if not most, who are younger. They never saw anything better, they never heard of it from their parents. They have been propagandized in school, to condemn uncritically anything from “the past”, and yet taught nothing about it. “Freedom” has been defined for them, as freedom from the good, the true, and the beautiful. Their own innate desire to do good, to be honest and brave, is twisted towards the strangest postmodern ideals, so that -- let me give just one clinching example -- the postmodern adolescent thinks wearing a condom is virtuous, whereas chastity would be cheating.

The rest here

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Prayer: The Beginner's Trials


Those interested in deepening their prayer life might benefit from picking up Hammer and Fire by Fr. Raphael Simon. In addition to the normal tips and hints one might receive in the course of reading about prayer, there is a depth of understanding about the various trials and tribulations of the person beginning to walk in the way of deeper prayer:

from Hammer and Fire
Father Raphael Simon, O.C.S.O., M.D.

Trials are to be expected by anyone who undertakes seriously to make a half-hour of mental prayer, or two periods of prayer, daily, particularly the trials of distraction and discouragement. The human mind has a capacity to wander without realizing that it is off the point. Thus during mental prayer it may happen that we have spent several minutes thinking about some happening of the previous day or even counting the panes of glass in the church where we are making our meditation, before we realize that we are off on a distraction. As in the cases of temptations to impurity and for the same reason, responsibility only begins when we realize with what our mind is occupied, and that, in this case, it is a distraction. Consequently our prayer has not been interrupted at all, since our intention to pray has remained. Without irritation, gently and peacefully, we should bring the mind back to the subject of our meditation, and as often as necessary. . . .Sometimes we may spend the entire time of prayer in returning to the subject. But we need have no misgivings or feel discouragement; our time has been well spent in the sight of the Father, we have been exercising our will to pray all the time and hence have, indeed, obtained the merit of prayer, if not its refreshment. . . .

[I]ndeliberate distractions are of no consequence, and should not be a source of concern or disquiet. . . . They not impair the value of our prayer. . . .

We do not have to have beautiful thoughts and sentiments in order to pray well, nor do we need to keep up the pace set by an infrequent excellent and "fruitful" half-hour.

From time to time I need these sane reminders that what may seem to be distraction may in fact be the purpose of that evening's conversation. In any conversation, we start a one point and end up winding endlessly (if we are engaged with a good conversationalist) to come to a completely unexpected endpoint. As we start to talk to God, the overfullness of the conversation and the desire to say everything and include everything tumbles out of us and jumbles up the deliberate "purpose" we have established for our conversation. The car needs repair, the house needs repair, one of the children is having trouble at school, there are groceries to buy and errands to run. . . and while these are not necessarily the matter for meditation, they are the facts of a straightforward conversation with God. These are concerns that we can bring to Him, and so this early stage of our conversation will be akin to an adult conversing with a five-year-old--there will be unexpected pause, odd turns in the exchange and sometimes complete flustration. On the other hand, it is all in the desire to talk with God and God will give us the strength to return to the conversation if we do not discourage ourselves.

So, distraction can be a problem, or it can be merely another route to where God would have us go--because He is Lord even of distractions--He knows who we are and what deeply concerns us--and He knows what He wants to touch and give us peace about. So accept the distraction, offer it to the Lord and attempt to return to the point. And if not, then engage God about what is driving you to distraction. Whatever you do, remain faithful to the time of prayer and the rewards will be very great indeed.

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Being the second book in the series by Joseph Delaney.

In case you couldn't tell, I was so enthused by my first encounter with Thomas Ward, Apprentice Spook, that I went right on to my second. And this was no disappointment--every bit as creepy, perhaps creepier, and deepening the questions of what it means to believe and how belief manifests itself.

More, we discover family secrets that make Thomas Ward the perfect defender against the dark.

The Bane is a spirit of such malignity that it was once worshipped as a God and given the sacrifice of the sons of the king of the Little People. The last of these sons imprisoned the Bane in the crypts beneath Priesttown and was subsequently done-in by it.

The present Spook's brother is attacked and killed by a malign boggart and the Spook (Gregory) goes to Priesttown for the funeral and to at last face down the bane. And the rest of the story ensueth.

The writing is crisp, taut, easy to read. The plot unfolds with small surprises and large and we learn more and more about this semi-medieval world.

Elements that may cause some Catholic discomfort--a malign Quisitor whose primary preoccupation is getting more and more money through the accusation and execution of the innocent; however, he remains completely blind to the real evil surrounding him--possibly because he is participating in it. There are also a few false priests. But never is the Church qua Church attacked nor is faith considered a bad thing. The lead characters are uncertain of their own faith and uncertain about the existence of God, sensing that there probably is one, but not believing that He is most perfectly revealed within institutionalized religion--although even that is a very soft position.

So, while I really enjoy these, and they are written for a quick-reading YA audience, I would caution any adult thinking of presenting these to children to read them carefully first to discern if there are elements that might be disconcerting or misleading. Nevertheless, recommended, certainly for adults. (Not because of content--there are no "adult" situations in the books.)

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I really want to like the books of Thomas Cahill. Really. A lot. But he insists on making it impossible.

In his most recent endeavor, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, he takes a delightful subject matter--the importance and supreme significance of the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe and tops it off with a "sauce agendaise."

In a chapter titled "Love in the Ruins: A Dantesque Reflection," Cahill launches into the the Spong-like "The Church must change or die." Married priests will supposedly solve the pedophilia problem (this has been shown unlikely by innumerable sources and statistics, including the fact that a large number of active pedophilic predators are married people with a good family life). That while the Church fostered all sorts of things he sees as positive, it was not the hierarchy of the Church, which was essentially useless, but the lay people. And so on.

Likely I'll read the remainder of the book anyway, but given his record in previous performances, I felt that I needed to seek out the agenda first and attempt to defuse it so that I might enjoy the remainder of the work. This Mr. Know-It-All tells us that the future of the Church lies in "The only hope is for an uprising of laypeople who refuse to be disfranchised serfs any longer, led by sincere movements like Voice of the Faithful and CAll to Action, which will remove the only power the laity can now claim, the power of the purse, from clerical hands." Then we get this delightful tidbit:

"(The Catholic Church in the United States may be doomed in any case, unless the episcopate as a whole resigns, divesting itself of is gorgeous robes and walking off the world's stage in sackcloth and ashes. For the bishops who now hold office are surely impostors.)"

Hardly encouraging for the rest of the book--nevertheless, there is always something worthwhile that comes from reading the books, and with diligent sifting, one can separate the fact from the agenda once the agenda is clearly identified. Hildegaard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena as protofeminists and who knows what else.

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Humor in Middlemarch


Because I'm having it delivered section by section and reading only a small amount in a day, I'm able to pause over things that I might otherwise bound over in order to get to the next page. I can see the virtue and delight of serialization. Now let's just see if I can make it to the end of the book.

Given how badly I expect everything to turn out for everyone, it's very pleasant to have a reasonably light introduction to the matter:

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

"Is any one else coming to dine besides Mr. Casaubon?"

"Not that I know of."

"I hope there is some one else. Then I shall not hear him eat his soup

"What is there remarkable about his soup-eating?"

"Really, Dodo, can't you hear how he scrapes his spoon? And he always
blinks before he speaks. I don't know whether Locke blinked, but I'm
sure I am sorry for those who sat opposite to him if he did."

"Celia," said Dorothea, with emphatic gravity, "pray don't make any
more observations of that kind."

"Why not? They are quite true," returned Celia, who had her reasons
for persevering, though she was beginning to be a little afraid.

"Many things are true which only the commonest minds observe."

"Then I think the commonest minds must be rather useful. I think it is
a pity Mr. Casaubon's mother had not a commoner mind: she might have
taught him better." Celia was inwardly frightened, and ready to run away,
now she had hurled this light javelin.

At this point the exceedingly self-absorbed and tedious Dorothea has received and accepted an offer of marriage from the wan, grey, and spindly Mr. Casaubon. The name is like one of those out of Fielding and makes one wonder, what is so "bon" about this particular "Cause." Indeed one could see embedded the French phrase "cause si bon." Yech!

Dorothea richly deserves Casaubon; however, poor Mr. Casaubon has not, to this point, done anything that seems to merit so stringent a disciplinary measure. Dorothea, puritan shrew-in-training, seems likely to make things unpleasant for all.

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How to Study

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Via Sirus a translation by Brother Kenney of a letter of St. Thomas Aquinas to Brother John on how to study.

One point that keeps surfacing for me, and one that is so very difficult to gauge:

Do not spend time on things beyond your grasp.

How do you know if it is beyond your grasp until you've tried to grasp it, and by then you've already spent so much time on it that it seems a shame to give it up.

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In sharp contrast to the last review, Joseph Delaney's The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch delivers an enormously satisfying reading experience. While it is marketed in the Teens/Young Adults section, it is pretty strong stuff--when I turned it over to Linda to read last night she read the first few pages and then said, "I can't read this at night, it gives me the creeps."

In this series we will follow the adventures of Thomas Ward, seventh son of a seventh son and now apprentice to "The Spook," whose valuable, but grossly undervalued service to the community, is reaching an End. Thomas Ward is the last apprentice.

In this first book of the series, we see Thomas apprenticed and watch as he learns about Ghasts, Ghosts, Boggarts and their binding, and Witches. These latter are not the airy-fairy wiccan, dance around the circle and everybody be happy Witches. These are the blood and bone witches of English Folk and Fairy Tales. These are the witches that would stuff Hansel and Gretel in the oven without a second thought. These are the witches who sour milk and carry away babies in the night--witches who are buried upside down so they have less traction to climb out of their graves. In other words--really, really scary witches.

Delaney takes the stuff of folklore and turns it into a compelling story in a quasi medieval time. I thoroughly enjoyed this first book, and plunged through its three-hundred plus pages in a matter of hours. I've already purchased the second and am halfway through that.

There are some disturbing elements--a hint of anti-clericalism, but given the circumstances of the time and events surrounding, hardly surprising. I'll watch this strain and see if it develops. It looked like it might veer off into virulent atheism a la Pullman in this second book, but instead treads a careful line of not much liking the strictures of institutionalized religion, while not denying that there is a God.

So, at the end of this first book we discover that the Dark is getting stronger and the apprenticeship of Thomas Ward is all the more necessary. With the dark rising there must be those who are fit to meet the challenge of it. And that cautionary note is salutary in this day and age when the Dark has changed its overt form and rises in the form of all sorts of seeming goods--stem-cell research, extracting vital information from prisoners, bringing democracy to the world. These things are not in themselves bad, but there can be bad means of bringing them about (embryonic stem cells, torture, unjust war) that we must be willing to identify and fight. The first lesson of an apprentice is to learn when we are awake and when we are dreaming.

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Dr. Illuminatus: The Alchemist's Son


I post this review to more-or-less warn prospective readers to give this one a pass. The series may improve, but this was a spindly skeleton of a novel with a poorly sketched set of central characters and actions that were episodic to the point of disappearing. Booth appears to have reacted to the accusations against Rowling and her "witchcraft" by going out of the way to point out the Christian roots of alchemy--even to giving a mini-lesson on the Blessed Raymond Lull, the First Doctor Illuminatus, whose work spawned that of the Lullists--alchemists who gave rise to the title character in this work.

As I said the story is solid but so skeletal as to deprive the reader of any real pleasure in perusing it--everything moves so rapidly that by the time you get to the end you've spent only ten minutes reading it because of the time-dilation effect. Unfortunately, that means disjointed plot elements, poor characterization, and poor description. I'm hoping Mr. Booth improves the quality for the next entry in the series. These could stand to be easily about one-and-a-half to two times as long.

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MamaT's Homeschool Contribution


MamaT posted a link to Pachelbel's Canon, a piece Sam is currently learning for a future piano recital.

Here's my response to MamaT:

Dear MamaT,

Thank you! You just contributed to a homeschool lesson about why it's important to practice your piano. Sam loved that piece and he's learning it on piano now. I pointed out to him that once he learned enough piano playing and theory he'd be able to build his own Canon.

"And my own music?"

"And your own music."

"And other people would play it?"


Thanks again MamaT.

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Credibility Gap


Nonsense like this completely undermines the credibility of real arguments against involvement in Iraq.

According to the hyperbole: "Armies claiming to bring prosperity have instead brought a misery worse than under the cruellest of modern dictators."

Misery worse than Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the two Kims? Really? Worse than that of the Rwanda Genocide. Worse than Saddam's genocide and rape rooms? Heck, misery worse than the entire province of Banda Aceh after the Tsunami. Please, get the rhetoric under control.

I have no problem with rational, real, and measured accounts of what is going wrong in Iraq. I have no problem with criticizing policy. But I have a real problem with the chronological memory of people who would say that this is worse than The Cultural Revolution. That people are more miserable here that they were in, say, Pol Pot's Cambodia. How is anyone to be persuaded to the real urgency of a situation when you start your exposition with this kind of nonsense?

There are many reasonable and rational ways to say that you think that it is not only a bad idea but that it is immoral and out-and-out evil. This particular way does not further the cause.

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I've given some thought to a numerical rating system for book reviews. And I may try to implement it.

But in the course of thinking about it, I thought also how the system suddenly shifts when one book intrudes that stands so clearly above all the rest.

The case in point--of recent date I've read a number of really interesting, good, fun books:The Thirteenth Tale and The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop among them--both of which in my system I would have given a 9 out of 10.

Problem is, along comes a book like The Road and all that's left is 10 out of 10, and that hardly seems adequate because it towers above these bon-bons as the Rockies do above the surrounding plains--or as China's karstic mountains do around the surrounding countryside. They don't exist in the same mode of being. So what does one do to emphasize the utter necessity, beauty, and power of The Road in comparison? Well, I'm doing it now. 10 out of 10 on the Tolstoy scale. Whereas Buzbee and Setterfield are 9 out of 10 on the Crichton-King scale. A different mode of existence. (And by the way most Crichton books rate about a 5 on the later scale, most of king somewhere in the 6-7).

And I do have to point out that my scale would probably be likened to geometric rather than arithmetic. So perhaps the 10 stands, understanding that the 10 is the exponent of an underlying positive integer greater than 1.

Nevertheless, this was just another clever (or perhaps not-so-clever) way of saying--read The Road--it's powerful and it's beautiful. Read it, please. Write to me and tell me how I need to say it so you'll try it. It isn't easy going, but it's a fast read and a powerful one. See what good, if idiosyncratic, prose can do.

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The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

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Before I start, let me post a hypersensitivity alert--this was, overall a very fine book. But what you're likely to read about more than anything else are my quibbles with it because he managed to push two hot-buttons in one slender volume.

The book is both a personal history and a history of bookselling at large. I shared an excerpt that has provoked in everyone who has heard it the same reaction--"That was me!" And the book is fascinating with bits and pieces and insights into the bookselling world. The memoir material really appealed to me. The data on how much money various parties make from the sale of a books was also fascinating. The tale of how booksellers were once book printers and in the course of time became book printers again, was fascinating.

Indeed, except for the two points I'm about to grouse about, most of the book was fascinating and rewarding. The last chapter lagged a bit, but even it had some fascinating anecdotes about unique bookstores.

Okay, my two gripes--the two hot buttons. The hoary old "repression of the Middle Ages" big-bad Catholic Church nonsense makes its customary appearance. One would have hoped that with a person so enamored of books, he would have taken the time to disabuse himself of the pervasive anti-Catholic bigotry and diatribe that informs most of our Elementary School educations. Ah, but not so. While there may be the merest of nods toward the scriptoria--the Church was the means of repression. Works it did not care for were not tendered to all and sundry. Essential knowledge was locked away, while the enlightened Islam shared all. Balderdash! The western world has what it does of age old Classics because of the scriptoria--not because (or at least not solely because of) Islamic preservation of the classics. But to treat Buzbee fairly, he does go on a bit about the wanton destruction of the library at Alexandria.

The second point that set me off, but which is at least merely a disagreement of degree not of kind, was his rant and rage at "censorship" and his exaltation of the Bookstore as the defender of the free exchange of ideas. In this case he picked the cause of Salman Rushdie and that marathon readings of the utterly unreadable The Satanic Verses that occurred in bookstores around the world after the fatwa against Rushdie was issued. In the course of which we have the usual defense of The Anarchist's Cookbook and the obligatory slash at Lofting's Dr. Doolittle (with perhaps a good deal of justification). He also attacks The Patriot's Act (not necessarily a bad thing). However, perhaps it is only me, but I could care less if the FBI wanted to spend long office hours poring over the lists of books I check out from the library or get from bookstores. And I doubt the FBI is particularly interested. This is one of those matters like confession, where you go in thinking you've got about the most shocking thing in the world to tell the priest, and the poor man on the other side of the screening has to prop his eyelids open just to keep awake long enough to give absolution. I'm not defending the Patriot Act's carte blanche to invade the privacy of the individual in this way. But I can't get too worked up about it. After they've gotten through the four-thousandth checkout of Howl's Moving Castle (book and film) or the thirty-thousandth romantic thriller (Linda uses my card as well) they'll be needing something stronger than the freeze-dried coffee they're eating to keep them awake. I don't quake in my boots at the prospect of someone reading my reading list. Can't say I'm particularly fond of the notion, but I don't get all worked up over it either. And perhaps it's good that some people, like Buzbee get all in a froth over it--I'll leave it to him.

However, the right to the free exchange of ideas is not unlimited. In my mind there is no question that The Anarchist's Cookbook falls squarely into the domain of things that should never have achieved print and whose eradication from print would not be a great loss to the ages. The free exchange of ideas does not reach to pornography, pedophilia, and perversions. No one needs to know much of what is laid out in the works of the Marquis de Sade. Free exchange and protection thereof does not mean that we do not discriminate and choose to class come ideas as not worthy of furtherance. And this is where activists begin to lose their minds. They are indiscriminate in the demands for protection--and frankly I'm in favor of some forms of government censorship. I don't think a criminal should be able to profit from his memoirs or from his artwork. I don't think society needs a flood of pornographic images and semi-pornographic images to prove that it is open to the exchange of ideas, etc.

So, now I've belabored my points, spending all these words on what may constitute a total of ten pages in an otherwise very worthy book. So my advice, if these things bother you, skip those pages and continue on the other side. The book is well worthwhile, you'll learn a lot and you'll have a good time doing it. My suspicion is that for most of St. Blog's, you'll see yourselves in several different places throughout the book. Highly recommended despite my blathering. (8-9 out of 10)

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Retraction: Karen Valentine

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Now boys and girls, it's time for everyone's favorite segment of the show in which Steven is required to eat crow. This week's session is Karen Valentine.

I was thinking over what I had said a while ago about Karen Valentine and realized that I had made several errors and hasty decisions and judgments regarding her work. The particular book I was reading was The Haunted Rectory, one I had picked up with the hope of a frisson of delight during the Hallowe'en season. Perhaps part of the reason for my hastiness is that the frisson was a long time coming--in fact, as far as I read it never really did. Whatever the cause, let me explain why I think I was in error. In the course of the work Ms. Valentine introduces us to a character who seemingly blithely had determined in the course of a possibly invalid marriage to a previously divorced person that they would have no children of their own in the course of the marriage. And to the point of the book I had gotten (and that point in the marriage) they had lived true to that determination. This set off the usual alarm bells that can be overly sensitive in those of us who have emerged from that mindset and have determined to entertain that idea no more.

So, where's the error? (1) It is inappropriate to attribute to an author the feelings, idea, or thoughts of any one or any aggregate of the characters they present. Were I to be consistent in this condemnation, I would have to throw away half of Flannery O'Connor, most of Graham Greene, and all of Walker Percy, amongst others. (2) It is inappropriate to assume that the author condones the attitude of the characters, even if there is considerable sympathy on the part of the author for the individual. Once again, consistency would force me to abandon Endo's Silence, Greene's The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair and many other worthy works.

Why the error? It's a curious thing--I am less tolerant of this type of thing with regard to my light reading than I am with my "literary" reading. Stuff I read for entertainment must reach higher standards than stuff I read for edification. Part of the reason for that is that I leave much of the critical apparatus and defensive shields out of my light reading. The shields are down so bad ideas have greater influence than they might otherwise have. (This explains, in part, my reaction to The Devil's Advocate.)

I have always been a reader. Fiction is subversive. It shapes the way I view the world in ways far more profound than any piece of nonfiction (other than the Bible) has ever done. Hence, greater caution is required with fiction than with nonfiction. Nonfiction invites skepticism and challenge--fiction invites intimate conversation.

So, I made a blunder, overreacting to a piece of fiction; and that blunder unfairly maligned an author about whom I should have better remained silent. What's done cannot be undone, but at least I can say that it was done in error and one needs to judge each work individually. I sha'n't return to The Haunted Rectory for a great many reasons, and I wouldn't recommend the work; however, I shall attempt other works. Ms. Valentine's writing is stronger and less inclined to some of the sappiness inherent in Jan Karon's work. I like her tight style and the lack of sentimentality that I found in her work. She reminds me more of Philip Gulley than of Jan Karon, and so while all three present a kind of idealized community, I prefer the presentations of Gulley (Quaker) and Valentine than that of Karon.

So, Julie, take that book off the bottom of your stack and put it back on the list. Be vigilant, but enjoy the book. You read quickly enough that Ms. Valentine's novel won't take more than two hours out of your hectic schedule, and it might well be worth it. Sorry for the faulty guidance and next time I'm not talking about a specific work, I will endeavor to be more careful. My apologies to all and most particularly to Ms. Valentine.

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Our Lady of Kibeho


Western Confucian has a series of links to the apparitions of Our Lady in Rwanda--Our Lady of Kibeho. Some of these links seem to overstate the case in saying that the "have been officially recognized" by the Church. In fact, the local Bishop has determined that there is evidence that these apparitions may be real and has not discouraged devotion and pilgrimage--but that is not the determination of the entire Church and one must be exceedingly cautious. However, they immediately appealed to me even as I await the solemn judgment of the Church in the matter.

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Look! Look! A St. Blogger's Book


Because Mrs. Nancy Brown was gracious enough to stop by, leave a comment, and an address whereby I might find her, I discovered that she has out (or will have out shortly) A Study Guide to G. K. Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi. If this is cover proof, we may soon see the book. Go, admire, ooh and aah, and wish Nancy the best on her new publication!

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Middlemarch Revisited

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This is the woman that George Eliot wants us to sympathize with, or at least accept as the heroine of our novel:

from Middlemarch Chapter 4
George Eliot

Dorothea laughed. "O Kitty, you are a wonderful creature!" She pinched
Celia's chin, being in the mood now to think her very winning and
lovely--fit hereafter to be an eternal cherub, and if it were not
doctrinally wrong to say so, hardly more in need of salvation than a squirrel.
"Of course people need not be always talking well. Only one tells the
quality of their minds when they try to talk well."

. . . .

"_Fad_ to draw plans! Do you think I only care about my
fellow-creatures' houses in that childish way? I may well make mistakes. How can
one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty

No more was said; Dorothea was too much jarred to recover her temper
and behave so as to show that she admitted any error in herself. She was
disposed rather to accuse the intolerable narrowness and the purblind
conscience of the society around her: and Celia was no longer the
eternal cherub, but a thorn in her spirit, a pink-and-white nullifidian,
worse than any discouraging presence in the "Pilgrim's Progress." The _fad_
of drawing plans! What was life worth--what great faith was possible
when the whole effect of one's actions could be withered up into such
parched rubbish as that? When she got out of the carriage, her cheeks
were pale and her eyelids red. She was an image of sorrow, and her uncle
who met her in the hall would have been alarmed, if Celia had not been
close to her looking so pretty and composed, that he at once concluded
Dorothea's tears to have their origin in her excessive religiousness.
He had returned, during their absence, from a journey to the county
town, about a petition for the pardon of some criminal.

What a dreadful, supercilious woman--unfortunately, from all signs, she has her comeuppance shortly, and it is like to be as dreadful as a woman who thinks of her sister as a squirrel.

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The Road Redux


I know, I wrote too-long a review yesterday, and I now intend to add to it.

While I said yesterday that one should not view The Road as an allegory, I do think that it falls squarely in the realm of symbolic novel. The landscape, events, scenery, and even some of the people are more symbolic than realistic and as symbols they speak of a great many things:

isolation, desire, loneliness, despair, depravity, sanctity, love, divinity, life's journey,

among others. The richness of the symbolism and of the narrative and, as I pointed out yesterday, the Godot-like dialogue and description all move toward several symbolic ends--all of which, surprisingly are warm, humane, and good. The apparent nihilism of the surface is resolved into the order and beauty of human love, the transcendent note that stems from Divine love and through which the book triumphs even in bleakness.

I don't know how often I will be rereading this book, but it can bear the weight of a great many rereadings and always yield fruit. Because the author is not too didactic either way, it is entirely possible to give the book a deeply Christian interpretation and to bring the symbols and actions into a conformity with the Christian understanding of the world.

Once again I encourage everyone who is strong of heart to take the journey and find out what The Road is all about.

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"So Long Self"

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In the car, I tend to listen to a Christian Music station. I don't much like it; however, if I'm going to hear words coming out of Samuel's mouth I'd rather they be "Holy, Holy, Holy" than "I'm as good once as I ever was." Given the dearth of classical music and even of classic radio, it's either CDs or Christian music or silence, and a car is never silent.

So, I was listening this morning as I came into work and I was really surprised by a very pop-py, kicky sixties-mod Beatles invasion-rock piece by a group called Mercy Me. For a moment I forgot I was on Christian Radio and was just really enjoying the music, and then I paid attention. I was stunned by the subversiveness of the lyrics and how I was drawn into this very anti-secular song. This is the power of Christian art--it creeps in under the radar and wallops you. A perky, Petula Clark tune becomes an anthem to immersing oneself in Christ and putting on the "new man." Cool.

Note: For several days I had the wrong title in the header. I thought I fixed this yesterday (10/26) but it appears to have failed. So, trying again.

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The Road

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The Road is a new book by Cormac McCarthy. Let's start with an understanding. This is the only Cormac McCarthy book I've been able to make it through. People talk about his stirring and poetic prose, and I see in it a kind of warped and arrogant Hemingway. I am put-off by his eccentric use of superposed punctuation (he refuses either quotation marks or apostrophes for the most part--although he does use them when contracting a personal pronoun and a verb--never when contracting a verb and a negative). I'm disinclined to force myself through long passages of dialogue that do not have any markers indicating speaker so that one must read them time and time and time again to make sense of them. This doesn't charm, nor is it innovative, or even really interesting. I have always interpreted it as the boorish imposition of an author who can't be bother with conventions because he thinks he stands above them. It's a childish form of rebellion.

Now that I've gotten through the truth in advertising preamble, we can get to the core. The Road is one of the most harrowing, profoundly moving, profoundly beautiful stories of the reality of being human that I've had privilege to read in many years. The prose contains all of those eccentricities I despise, and yes, they did occasionally make it very difficult to read; but the destination was worth the journey.

Don't get me wrong, while you can read it very fast, the journey is very, very difficult. The Road hasn't much of a plot. A nameless man and his nameless son are traveling south in late Autumn and early winter seeking the southern coast. Their journey is through a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland in which nothing grows, not trees, not grass, nothing. Marauding troops of cannibals patrol the roads capturing anyone unwary enough to be out and taking them away to by systematically hacked to pieces and eaten--a fate made more horrible by the fact that there is no refrigeration so the people must be kept alive to endure their fate and feed their captors.

This is the landscape of The Road. And what is most interesting about it is that the author doesn't even drop a hint of how this happened. It is utterly irrelevant to his point. And what is this point? That's a really good question. I won't claim that McCarthy is writing a Christian apologia, but there is an interpretation of this nameless man and nameless son that falls into a very Christian way of viewing things. Now, we must avoid the danger of allegory because this novel is far richer than the simple explanation I will offer. There are a great many things hidden in its depths, and I hope to go back and explore them once I have come out from under its spell. (I do have to say that I read this over the course of two days, reading late into the night one evening and finally setting the book aside. That night I had the most unsettling dreams of being part of the onset of this apocalyptic world.)

Here is one way I could read this novel. The road is about the saving power of love, of human love for one another which is a sign of divine love, and sometimes the only sign. The devastated wasteland is the world we wander through. For some it is stripped down to these basics--there are two kinds of people--"the good guys" who do not eat people, and those who do eat people. We night view the cannibals as people who have objectified the other. People are no longer people in their eyes. But they remain people in the eyes of the son of this man, a boy who witnesses many horrors, who prays before consuming food found in a deserted bunker,

from The Road
Cormac McCarthy
(p. 123)

Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldnt eat it no matter how hungry we were and we're sorry that you didnt get to eat it and we hope that you're safe in heaven with God.

The tenderness of this boy, who has every reason to abandon his humanity and to turn to serve himself is heartbreakingly beautiful, just as is the steadfast love and loyalty of his father.

The Road contains the desolate wasteland of life in which we are pounded down and pounded down and pounded down until nothing remains and it tests each person's humanity. You could read this as a story of a man nearing the end of life when everything is bleak and grey. All around are people who would eat him alive if it would further their cause, take everything and think nothing of it. And yet he has one person with him who keeps reminding him of the beauty of humanity. And the two of them are "each the other's world entire." And finally, all we can do is go as far as we can go and trust the ones we carry along to the hands of others and hope that they will continue along. And so this story goes.

The depth of the love and compassion expressed here are hard to express outside of the work itself. They stand in stark contrast to the world of the novel, and hence the necessity for this unexplained world, this bleakness without break--this eternal and abiding absence of hope except the hope the two have together because they are two and "each the other's world entire."

And do we want a Christian message?

from The Road
Cormac McCarthy
p. 155-156

There are other good guys. You said so.
So where are they?
They're hiding.
Who are they hiding from?
From each other.
Are there lots of them?
We dont know.
But some.
Some. Yes.
Is that true?
Yes. That's true.
But it might not be true.
I think it's true.
You dont believe me.
I believe you.
I always believe you.
I dont think so.
Yes I do. I have to.

Childlike trust because there is no other choice. But more than that, the first part reminds me of Casting Crown's hit, "If We Are the Body." As Christians we hide from one another. How many Christians do you know in your office who proclaim their Christianity? How often do I proclaim it outside of places I know it will be accepted? We are the good guys, and we're hiding from one another because we are afraid of those who would use us--those who would consume us without a second thought--and so our light is hidden under the bushel basket.

Again, I know nothing of the spirituality of Cormac McCarthy. I will not say that there is an overt Christian message meant to be read in this book. However, there is a strong whiff of the Calvinist about his worldscape and his view of the utter depravity of most of humankind. The elect are few, but they are always around, ready to step in as needed.

In the words of Ely the strange man they meet who wanders the Road and claims to be ninety years old,

There is no God.
There is no God and we are his prophets.
I dont understand how you're still alive. How do you eat?
I dont know.
You dont know?
People give you things.
People give you things.
To eat.
To eat. Yes.
No they dont.
You did.
No I didnt. The boy did.

This Estragon and Vladmir dialogue pervades the book, but its rhythms and meanings sink in and you become aware of the hidden streams.

Simply, powerfully, idiosyncratically written--brutal and beautifully humane and loving I cannot recommend this book highly enough. However, be aware--it is very strong meat and very difficult going. It may trouble you for many days after you put it down. And that is precisely how I know it was worth having read it. (And perhaps someday I'll take the time to produce a review from this incoherent ramble--but for now, let this stand--the recommendation of one who cares very little for the style and the work of the author, but one who was for a few days at least transformed by his presence.)

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Writing to a friend regarding the adage that "His grace is sufficient":

We have an insufficient understanding of the term "sufficient." Because the common usage has come to mean "just barely enough to cover it," we tend to look at "His grace is sufficient" as a kind of wary half-promise.

But the real meaning of "His grace is sufficient," says nothing about the amount of it nor its efficacy. What it says is that it is His grace alone--entirely and only. His grace is sufficient in that nothing need be added to it and we only need a kind of meta-desire for it to be effective. We need to want to want to want to want to cooperate, and His grace makes it possible step by step.

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The Eucharistic prayer and symbols are enormously powerful. When the priest mixes water into the wine and says the prayer over the mixed elements, we are to begin to understand a great mystery.

I thought about this while at Mass the other day. When we are in Christ, we are like the chalice of wine and water--a great majority of divinity with our small humanity enfolded within. However, we are a living water. Most of us prefer to stay in the vessel from which the water is poured. If a drop or two of wine should enter that water, so much the better, we wouldn't mind at all. But to become utterly transformed, utterly surrendered, utterly other--for most of us that is a terrifying prospect. We would pray that He would mingle a little divinity with our humanity, while devotion to Christ constantly reminds us that "I must decrease that He might increase." We abandon our preferences for the faults of humanity in assuming the divinity we are meant to be. In some mysterious way we participate in divinity--I can't explain it, but Tom at Disputations might be helpful in understanding this. I only know that it has been taught faithfully by the Church through the ages. In some way we are divinized in our surrender. IF we surrender.

(Note: Post has been changed to accommodate comments received that pointed out a serious error. Hopefully the change does not significantly interfere with lucidity; however, even if it does, it is better than promulgating error.)

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Beware of Karen Valentine

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Karen Valentine writes a series of novels that supposedly play a Catholic Riff on the Jan Karon theme. Small town in some cold northern place with a Catholic Church and some wacky characters. Malheureusement I discovered too late that Ms. Valentine is more Episcopalian than Catholic, apparently culturally Catholic but buying in to all of the secular truths some kinds of Catholics hold dear. As I have a wide tolerance for diversity of opinion, I don't know why it bothered so much except that it resulted in the books not feeling particularly Catholic. Her Catholicity was essentially indistinguishable from liberal Episcopalianism at least on the matter of contraception, and perhaps other things as well and so it deprived me of a sense of what a Catholic Mitford might really be like. So I warn all potential buyers--beware--know what you are buying. Caveat emptor; caveat lector.

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Diwali and Me


Or, what I can learn about Christianity from my Hindu neighbors.

Saturday was the celebration of Diwali, which is the Hindu "New Year" after a fashion. And our local newspaper had a featured book by a local Hindu author about the HIndu pantheon. It had reviews by three Hindu teens, and what one of them said was provocative and interesting. I paraphrase, but the essence is interesting: "I wish the author had taken greater pains to point out that Hindu is not a polytheistic religion. All these faces of gods are the face of the One God."

I found that fascinating. So too a critique of Christianity from a Hindu perspective I read sometime back: The trinity was never a problem for Hindus to comprehend, merely the stinginess of a God who gave only one avatar.

God prepared us for the revelation of Himself in the truths that the Hindus grasped long ago. They great each other with "Namaste." a salute to the God within each person. Indeed, the Holy Spirit dwells within each person and Jesus makes His home with anyone who will invite Him in. The divine in the other is something that the HIndu know well and respect, respect for the most part better than most Christians.

So, a belated Happy Diwali to my Hindu neighbors. May the year be bright and prosperous and lead you all to a closer walk with the One God.

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In the category of preaching to the converted:

Each book of the Harry Potter series is imbued with great Christian lessons. We might argue over Rowling as stylist or Rowling as successor to Tolkien and Lewis or Rowling as literature; however, to the reader who has spent any time with the books, Rowling as devout and informed Christian is nowhere in doubt. Each book teaches something about the believer in Christ and how that believer behaves in certain circumstances.

The particular event of interest occurs at the end of the fourth book of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It is spectacularly portrayed in the movie, and caps the book off with a scene horrifying, dramatic, and stirring. Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory have both touched a device that transports them to a place where the bane of the series Lord Voldemort await the arrival of Potter. Upon arrival, Cedric is summarily dispatched and Harry's blood is used to revivify the skeletal, embryonic Voldemort.

Then ensues the duel in which Voldemort attempts to finish off what he began so many years ago--the death of Harry Potter. The two engage.

Now the remarkable instance--in the course of the engagement Harry sees Cedric, Harry's mother and father, and (in the book, if I remember correctly) a whole host of those whom Voldemort has killed over time. Harry's mother tells him, "We can only give you a little time." The host descends upon Voldemort giving time for Harry to run to Cedric's body and transport the two of them back to Harry's world.

If, in this instance, we allow Voldemort to stand-in for sin, which, as we know from St. Paul leads to death (hence the derivation Vol-de-mort or "flight of death"--which will have several meanings in the series) we can see the communion of the Saints as it works. We engage in a battle with sin, temptation. We are the combatants. The fierceness of the battle and our faith summons help from Heaven's throneroom, the Saints, who engage through prayer the powers, principalities, thrones and dominations, that trouble Heaven and our own world. As Harry's mother advises, they can only give respite, it is up to us to flee from sin--but they can and do intercede for us providing the out--we can escape if we move away (of course aided by the Saints and God's will).

This image is reinforced later when Dumbledore, unpacking the experience for Harry, reminds him, "You know, we can never bring back the dead." Harry doesn't seem to understand this for what it means, but it is very clear to the reader that we cannot bring back the dead because, in fact, they never leave us. They are a cloud of witnesses gathered about us thickly and participating in every event of our lives--those tied to us by blood, most fiercely, but aided by all the warriors of Heaven (It is my hope that, undeserving as I am, the chiefest of those warriors is the Holy Mother of God and the Great Redwood of God, St. Therese.)

Thus, embedded, entangled, and completely blended throughout her series of novels, Rowling gives us lessons and views of how Christianity really operates. "But no one ever goes to Church or prays, or anything Christian." And of course, as anyone knows, that is less than nothing as an objection because the same holds true for both Tolkien and Lewis, her forbears in the art of bringing the truth of Christianity to the unsuspecting reader.

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The Deception of Parliament


Don't miss the discussion of the subtleties and dangers of Parliament as revealed at Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog. To wit:

Parlement Journale, Parte the Firste: Decepcioun!

O straunge worlde, for the dayes are fulle of selcouthes and no thyng is as it semeth. Alwey in my fantasie syn ich was a yonge man, ich thoghte Parlement to be a grete and noble assemblee, wher the wisdam of the reaume was spoken in the presence of oure sovereyn kynge for the sake of the commun good. But al thing in this worlde adoun is lyk vnto a cake fulle of beares– on the outsyde, it appeareth delicious and plesaunte, but inside yt is crawlinge wyth beestes that wisshe to clawe thee to deeth. For nowe ich see that Parlement is fulle of thretes and secretes, and matirs derke.

On Sundaye night, the daye bifor the grete openinge of parlement, ther was a speciale recepcioun for folk lyk myself who had come to parlement to speke for the shires. Yt was held in the halle of the exchequer, wyth the tables of rekynynges laden wyth metes and drinke. Michel de la Pole, the Earl of Suffolk and Chancellor of the reaume, frende of Kyng Richard, was ther, and he did shake the handes of al who were presente, and callid vs by oure names and bad vs drinken depe of the ale and maken murye. He yaf vs alle small billes, the whiche contayned the poyntez which we were to speken of for the good of the reaume, and he avised vs to keep the smalle billes secure.

The small billes were covered wyth thys text:

Whanne a felawe comoner of parlement or a cronicler or othir member of the media doth aske yow of the business of parlement, ye shal saye the following

[and later]

“Fayre mayde, mene ye the meetinge at the exchequer wher the talkinge poyntez weren yiven vnto vs?”

“The, uh, talking points. Yeah, exactly. Good. I’m the handmaid for Quelquechose. He was at the meeting and he, uh, well, he got a little drunk.”

“Goddes curse on men who are dronkelewe and guzzleres of ale,” ich sayde, and then burpid in a maner uncouth and my face wexed reede wyth shame. And yet the fayre wenche spoke further.

Oh, the horror, oh the shame.

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A Beautiful Prayer


For whatever reason, I was attracted to this Middle English version of The Cloud of Unknowing and found therein a really beautiful prayer for all those who seek to live the will of God.

Goostly freende in God, I preie thee and I beseche thee that thou wilt have a besi [earnest] beholding to the cours and the maner of thi cleeping [calling]. And thank God hertely, so that thou maist thorow [through] help of His grace stonde stifly agens alle the sotil assailinges of thi bodily and goostly enemyes, and winne to the coroun [crown] of liif that evermore lasteth.

I don't know why I find it so moving, except to think--in the communion of the Saints, I am blessed by the prayer of a person who so long ago wrote these words and who lives now in this world through them even as he pleads before the throne of God for all those who read them. One of the great mysteries revealed by God and constantly spoken of by the Church stands open to me here in a way that it does not when I read some other things. Odd--but perhaps it is the touch of that which is almost foreign, but still remains within the grasp of those who wish to understand it. The language is not my language and yet, it is close enough to know and alien enough to suggest another time, another world, another way of being.

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Did I Write This Book?

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from The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
Lewis Buzbee

Many years later, a stray memory helped me find another childhood root of my passion for bookselling. One of the true pleasures of my elementary school life was Scholastic's Weekly Reader, a newspaper distributed free to classrooms around the country. It featured brief articles on current events, sports, and nature, along with jokes, puzzles, and cartoons. The Weekly Reader was a wholly satisfying reading experience, who joy was, in part, the unexpected ownership of the publication; I was stunned to be allowed such a privilege. The ultimate delight of the Weekly Reader, however, lay in ordering and receiving my very own books from a catalogue appended to the newspaper. This catalogue, as I remember it, was four pages on newspaper stock, two-color printing with black-and-wite photographs of the books' covers. On Weekly Reader days I'd spend a good deal of our reading hour--languorous late afternoons of twenty-two buzzy, dreamy heads bend over words, the teacher nearly asleep--scanning the catalogue, looking for standout cover art, titles that promised magic, mystery, sometimes war. When I finished my first go-through, ritual dictated I return to the first page and slowly read each synopsis, weighing the many possibilities.

By dinner that evening, I would have made my choices, the three or four books I was allowed at twenty-five or thirty-five cents each, the latter more expensive because thicker. I'd mark the order form with the thickest of X's, so there'd be no mistakes, cut along the dotted line, and put it in an envelope with the coins my parents helped me count out. The next day I'd clank the order on the teacher's desk, then wait for the books to arrive. And wait. Four to six weeks is several eternities for a nine-year-old.

Precisely: accurate in every detail.

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More Middle English


Just a sampling from the relatively easy to read Stanzaic Life of Katherine:

Incipit vita sancte Katerine virginis.

He that made bothe sunne and mone
In hevene and erthe for to schyne,
Brynge us to Hevene with Hym to wone
And schylde us from helle pyne!
Lystnys and I schal yow telle
The lyf of an holy virgyne
That trewely Jhesu lovede wel -
Here name was callyd Katerine.

I undyrstonde, it betydde soo:
In Grece ther was an emperour;
He was kyng of landes moo,
Of casteles grete and many a tour.
The ryche men of that land
They servyd hym with mekyl honour.
Maxenceus was his name hotand,
A man he was ful sterne and stour.

The actual text which can be reached through the site referenced below has glosses on the difficult words to get you started.

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The Stanzaic Morte Arthur


from "The Stanzaic Morte Arthur"

Til on a time that it befell
The king in bed lay by the queen;
Of aunters they began to tell,
Many that in that land had been:
"Sir, yif that it were your will,
Of a wonder thing I wolde you mene,
How that your court beginneth to spill
Of doughty knightes all bydene;

A rough paraphrase--while the king and queen were in bed the queen said, "Hey Bozo, your court is becoming completely worthless, empty of worthy men. They're becoming a bunch of slackers."*

This little passage reminded me of the Horslips album The Tain which is a modern musical transcription of the Tain Bo Cuailgne--a little song called "The War Between the Sheets." The following gives the start of that little discussion in an English translation of the original book. (If you can, listen to the song, gets to the point a lot faster.)

from "The Cattle Raid of Cooley

ONCE of a time, that Ailill and Medb had spread their royal bed in Cruachan, the stronghold of Connacht, such was the pillow-talk that befell betwixt them:

Quoth Ailill: "True is the saying, lady, 'She is a well-off woman that is a rich man's wife.'" "Aye,that she is," answered the wife; "but wherefore opin'st thou so?" "For this," Ailill replied,"that thou art this day better off than the day that first I took thee." Then answered Medb: "As well-off was I before I ever saw thee." "It was a wealth, forsooth, we never heard nor knew of," Ailill said; "but a woman's wealth was all thou hadst, and foes from lands next thine were used to carry off the spoil and booty that they took from thee."

Not so was I," quoth Medb; "the High King of Erin himself was my sire, Eocho Fedlech ('the Enduring') son of Finn, by name, who was son of Findoman, son of Finden, son of Findguin, son of Rogen Ruad ('the Red'), son of Rigen, son of Blathacht, son of Beothacht, son of Enna Agnech, son of Oengus Turbech. Of daughters, had he six: Derbriu, Ethne and Ele, Clothru, Mugain and Medb, myself, that was the noblest and seemliest of them."

And so on. . . (for a complete English translation see here. Oh, and yes indeed, the English "Cooley" is a rough guide to the pronunciation of the insane orthography employed by the Erse.

The point is that bardic traditions appeared to borrow just about anything they could find laying around. Thus the Arthurian Mythos seems to be a rather patchwork collection of French, German, Welsh, Irish, English, and any other traditions that happened to be available to the wander Scop, Bard, troubadour. And as anyone who has done more than scratch the surface can tell you--the Arthurian tradition has a lot of traditions--from the Fisher King to Nimue.

That said, return for a moment to "The Cattle Rain of Cooley." Note the Queen's name, here render Mebd, but often transliterated Maeve, or by Shakespeare's time Mab. This is the Queen he had over the fairies, but note that she has nothing whatever to do with the fairies in the course of this story.

And while I'm on tradition--you might want to look into Alexander McCall Smith's newest book which is a series of stories in the Dream Angus (oar Oengus) tradition.

Okay, didn't really say what I started out to, but then no one really wanted a lot of talk about the Stanzaic Morte Arthur anyway, did they?

* For those who care, a glossed version might be:

Til on a time that it befell
The king in bed lay by the queen;
Of adventures they began to tell,
Many that in that land had been:
"Sir, if that it were your will,
Of a wondrous thing I wolde you tell,
How that your court beginneth to empty
Of doughty knightes all completely;

(I only changed the words that might be difficult. If you're interested find here the Complete Stanzaic Morte Arthur, and here a list of other interesting Middle English Texts on-line including Middle English lives of Katherine of Alexandria (their spelling, not mine) and Margaret of Antioch.

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St. Therese is often noted as having said that we do not need to seek out mortifications, they are there in abundance in everyday life. And yesterday's gaffe with the World Series is just one case in point.

Also yesterday, I was reminded of the dreadful shortcomings of what was really, relatively speaking, a fine education. I discovered amidst the fuss and flurry of a bunch of research the Sarmatians and their near cousins the Alani and the the Narts.

When we think of the corners of history that we individually know so little about, it is really a prompt to humility. Sometimes it may seem like we are at the helm--but the reality is most of us are belowdecks and struggling just to keep dinner down.

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I'm guessing from a post on Roz's blog that Detroit won the world series. So my congratulations to all those Detroit Fans--Roz, Goodform, etc.

Now for a bit of embarrassing revelation--I didn't even know the series was going on until I glanced at her blog a week ago and then I divined only that it involved Detroit and somebody else. Talking to someone of Saturday night, I had no idea that the last game was being played.

You know, if it doesn't involve water (or books) it just doesn't seem to impinge on my consciousness at all. I suppose I should be chagrined and shame-faced over this, but I just can't muster up any shame. Never have paid attention and at this late date, doubt that I shall start.

But that doesn't stop me from congratulating all of those to whom it did matter.

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Epic and Magnificent

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from "Descent of the Goddess Ishtar into the Lower World

To the land of no return, the land of darkness,
Ishtar, the daughter of Sin directed her thought,
Directed her thought, Ishtar, the daughter of Sin,
To the house of shadows, the dwelling, of Irkalla,
To the house without exit for him who enters therein,
To the road, whence there is no turning,
To the house without light for him who enters therein,
The place where dust is their nourishment, clay their food.'
They have no light, in darkness they dwell.
Clothed like birds, with wings as garments,
Over door and bolt, dust has gathered.
Ishtar on arriving at the gate of the land of no return,
To the gatekeeper thus addressed herself:

"Gatekeeper, ho, open thy gate!
Open thy gate that I may enter!
If thou openest not the gate to let me enter,
I will break the door, I will wrench the lock,
I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors.
I will bring up the dead to eat the living.
And the dead will outnumber the living."

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For Me Later, and for You Now


Of it pleases you:

The Celtic Literature Collective--sounds a bit pre-Berlin Wall, but looks like there is some good material. Part of the The Academy for Ancient Texts--I won't vouch for the translations as I haven't spent any time with them, but I offer the resource--the Welsh Text list looks quite fine.

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A New Hymn for Bibliomaniacs

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I suppose I'll have to compose it. After all there are so few of us but we are so much in need of something that brings our distinctive voices to the Church setting.

"One day within your scriptorium
heals every day alone,
O Lord, bring me to you library."

Yep, those of us who take great comfort in the word may be few in number, but we have several venerable lines of work to indulge in.

Someday I may reflect upon the great comfort books can bestow. Coming to this realization brings home one point of Poe's "The Raven"

"Eagerly I sought the morrow,
vainly I wished to borrow,
from my book surcease of sorrow,
Sorrow for the lost Lenore."

Books as class IV addictive substances. Yep. For some of us they should come with warning labels and then, perhaps, only by prescription.

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Reading List

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The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee--The siren song for bibliomaniacs. This man truly understands booklust and all things bookish.

Doctor Illuminatus: The Alchemist's Son by Martin Booth.

Hammer and Fire Fr. Raphael Simon O.C S. O.--A book worth reading and rereading is worth reading slowly--perhaps it might sink in.

And on the e-book front--A Study in Scarlet--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle--As with many boys I discovered the charms of Sherlock Holmes early on in my literary excursions. I was deceived into thinking this a youthful infatuation and have not been back to visit in lo! these many years. I thought it time for a return, and the return is delightful. I am amazed at how very good it actually is. Doyle's prose, composed largely in the Victorian era, is not prone to Victorian excess but seems more influenced by the cadences of American writers at the time. When I read Doyle I do not hear Dickens, but more William Dean Howell, or a more serious Mark Twain. (Mind you, there's nothing whatsoever wrong with Dickens; however, his prose his fine for him and not for anyone else.)

And I have a slew of others (see Buzbee's book for the explanation of this phenomenon).

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Sta. Teresa de Avila

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The Carmelite Saints have it a little rough this month, but as I said of St. Therese, I am sure that it is with the greatest possible pleasure that Sta. Teresa de Avila cedes her place in the calendar to our most Precious Lord and His feast--for without His, she would have no place at all.

Nevertheless, her family and friends all remember her, and plead for her intercession today--some for headaches, some for help in their prayer lives, some for needs unknown. Freed of presiding over a Feast Day for her family (you all know how Thanksgiving can get) she has more leisure time to intercede for those of us most needy.

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The Theocons

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By some odd quirk of fate or the publishing business, I received earlier this week a copy of Damon Linker's The Theocons. (How ironic that it should come shortly after TSO featured my a quote about politics and Chilton's Manuals in his "Spamming the Globe.") While there may be cordial disagreement about the quality of Dr. Gould's book (I stand by my recommendation), I doubt that among most St. Bloggers there will be much doubt about this one.

It is difficult for me to review because it stands so diametrically opposed to the way in which I see things. I am not an ardent fan of Richard John Neuhaus's politics and societal views--nor am I a particularly scathing critic. And one must try to be fair in evaluating a work sent for review.

However, I must say that this lived up the metaphor I proposed. With the precision of a Chilton's manual we get trotted out one after another the hoary old stories of Bush's "stealing the election." The horrendous Supreme Court Judicial Activism--which amounted to saying that the constitution of a state when it affects matters Federal must be observed and cannot arbitrarily be set aside.--sneaks aboard to provide a sidelong slap to the conservatism who oppose judicial activism. We get the Rooseveltian mythos of the absolute separation of Church and State--something the founders never envisaged or at worst did not codify as this book claims.

You name the trope, Linker trots it out. But there is a remarkable twist in this plot. All of this insidious wheeling and dealing is laid at the feet of the 60s leftist activists turned constitutional subversalists, Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. And these clever, clever people early on forged a "deal" with Evangelicals to subvert them to their insidious purposes--to wit, to assure that abortions really do become rare, to protect the institution of marriage as we know it, and to inject some sense of morality into secular politics. All of which, we know from Linker's careful tutelage was absolutely forbidden by the Founding Fathers.

The book is far too easy to take pot shots at, and I should feel ashamed of the paragraphs above, but I do not. While Linker has some interesting arguments, none of them are particularly compelling. While I agree with some of the points he has to make about some of Neuhaus's, Weigel's, and Novak's positions, I find the idea of an insidious Catholic plot to subvert the American Government too ludicrous for words. Was this book deliberately planned to be released around Guy Fawkes day? Because it is in the spirit of the Gunpowder plot and other such trumped up nonsense that this book makes its points. Anti-Catholicism is alive and well and, unfortunately, relying on exactly the same old arguments it always has--plot, conspiracy, and subversion.

Let's take Linker's "clincher argument" from the very last chapter.

from The Theocons
Damon Linker

Which brings us back to the problem of religion in a free society--and to the political and social arrangements the American founder proposed to mitigate and manage it. Under our system of government, religious believers are required to leave their theological passions and certainties out of public life, but pace the theocons, this requirement does not amount to an assault on religious freedom. On the contrary, it is the precondition of religious freedom in a pluralistic society. The privatization of piety creates social space for every American to worship God as he or she wishes, without state interference. In return for this freedom, believers are expected only to give up the ambition to political rule in the name of their faith--that is, the ambition to bring the whole of social life into conformity with their own inevitably partial and sectarian theological convictions.

I'll let you parse how completely disallowing any vestige of the moral opinion that comes from religious conviction from our public life is not a restriction on the exercise of the franchise for religious. If one followed this logic strictly, one would be compelled to vote only for those with agnostic or atheistic convictions, and issues of import, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must necessarily be left out of the equation. I suppose Linker does not see it as at all problematic that only believers are expected to live in a society in which they can have no say about its direction, because that say will inevitably be formed from fundamental moral and religious convictions. Despite what he seems to imply, all of the world's major faiths do have at heart a shared set of convictions (along with a good many disparate ones) that would form the nucleus of a sane and sober society. According to his argument here, we are only asked to completely eschew any thought of acting on those convictions in return for being able to practice a progressively more restricted faith.

Linker's book is remarkably well written--and if you're inclined to partisan diatribe that lacks any sort of comprehensive focus other than fear of faith, you might find it entertaining. Myself, I was intrigued by two points, one of which is patently none of my business. The first, why is the inevitable shift in the conservative direction after four decades of Rooseveltian unleashed social reconstruction seen as anything other than the rightward swing of the pendulum after social engineering: it is a fundamental rhythm of societies? Neuhaus alone could not engineer the victory of George Bush. The Red State/Blue State phenomenon is not an illusion, it is a representation of the fact that the center has shifted back to the right in a very predictable and ordinary rhythmical shift in society. It is entirely possible that it has reached its apex and with the elections ahead we may see it shift the other way, though I tend to think that we are at the maximum disequilibrium phase and will be for a while. Right now the pendulum is all potential energy driven to the right.

The second question is how a young man who worked with First Things for some time came to divest himself of any shred of the faith and morals that he must once have had. Now we have "a woman's right to choose" and those standing in the way of "productive medical research." I've no idea what could provoke such a change, and I'm not sure I wish to know. another good mind has taken a wrong turn and rather than lavishing our time worrying about Mr. Dreher and his difficulties, we might do well to direct our prayers Linker-ward, for he has lost his faith in a thunderbolt like, "I saw Satan falling from the sky. . . "*

As to recommendation: this book falls into the category of "know your enemy." It is salutary to be aware of the type and amount of poison spewing forth from this froth of belabored and misrepresented arguments. The writing is fine, and even individual points are fine, but the frothing conspiratorial implications of the work suggest a foment that has the liberal world chasing its tail and wringing its hands, wondering when wife-swapping will be back in vogue and we can return to the carefree-days of protectionless sex. As I said, I used toothpicks to prop my eyes open to read what I could--but that isn't a reflection on the writing at all--that is my own limitation. In fact, the writing qua writing is splendid, with the smooth polish of the accomplished propagandist. This may be a name to watch among those opposed to the return to reason of society. Recommended for those whose minds are engaged by this--but for most of us, it is likely merely to be an experience in queasiness.

*Lest this be misconstrued--I use the quotation not to speak of Mr. Linker himself, but of the suddenness of the change in mind--or the seeming suddenness. Obviously, we have no right to make any judgment regarding persons at all--and one must assume that Mr. Linker's arguments and statements are all made in good, if malformed, faith.

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A Samuelism

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This evening I asked Samuel to describe to me the Platonic solids and tell me what shapes made up their faces.

He paused for a moment and then said, "Concrete."

Laughed so hard I nearly had cider come out my nose.

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And this. . .


The War of the Wenuses--Charles Graves and E.V. Lucas.

Is it satire? Is it parody. I can't rightly say; however, when you start like this:

No one would have believed in the first years of the twentieth century
that men and modistes on this planet were being watched by intelligences
greater than woman's and yet as ambitious as her own. With infinite
complacency maids and matrons went to and fro over London, serene in the
assurance of their empire over man. It is possible that the mysticetus
does the same. Not one of them gave a thought to Wenus as a source of
danger, or thought of it only to dismiss the idea of active rivalry upon
it as impossible or improbable. Yet across the gulf of space astral
women, with eyes that are to the eyes of English women as diamonds are
to boot-buttons, astral women, with hearts vast and warm and
sympathetic, were regarding Butterick's with envy, Peter Robinson's with
jealousy, and Whiteley's with insatiable yearning, and slowly and surely
maturing their plans for a grand inter-stellar campaign.

and go on to do this:

Then came the night of the first star. It was seen early in the morning
rushing over Winchester; leaving a gentle frou-frou behind it. Trelawny,
of the Wells' Observatory, the greatest authority on Meteoric
Crinolines, watched it anxiously. Winymann, the publisher, who sprang to
fame by the publication of _The War of the Worlds_, saw it from his
office window, and at once telegraphed to me: "Materials for new book in
the air." That was the first hint I received of the wonderful wisit.

It is, at least, amusing. Meteoric crinolines--who'd'a thunk it?

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Some Antique Travel Books


The On-Line Books page has a number of interesting travel books by Lucas and Hutton.

E.V. Lucas

A Wanderer in. . . .

Ravenna: A Study
Florence and Northern Tuscany with Genoa
and it's American Counterpart.

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For the Love of Sheer Oddity

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Gadsby:A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E” by Ernest Vincent Wright

And boy, a myriad circumlocutions must find ways into such work that it may avoid utilization of so important a part of our syllabary.

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The Amish Schoolhouse


This struck just the right tone for me.

The Amish planned to leave a quiet pasture where the schoolhouse stood.

This strikes me as the almost perfect Christian attitude toward the whole thing. It is not dimissed, it has wounded the community, but the memory of it is abolished entirely from the Earth. For a pacifist people, the Amish have an aggressive way of correcting the wrong and setting things right. The Earth shall claim the memory of this horrendous deed and no shadow of it shall remain.

Now, were this Hollywood, we'd set it up as a stop on the tour, complete with chalk outlines and occasionally touched up blood stains. Remarkable how the sensibilities of the two societies differ. Remarkable, and encouraging. The Amish have made a strong positive statement and witness in their actions. God bless them and visit them with comfort in this time of loss. May the families be healed and the communities be restored.

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A Salutary Notion of Religion

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Once again, George displays her brittle but piercing humor:

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

Why did he not pay attention to Celia, and leave her to listen
to Mr. Casaubon?--if that learned man would only talk, instead of
allowing himself to be talked to by Mr. Brooke, who was just then informing
him that the Reformation either meant something or it did not, that he
himself was a Protestant to the core, but that Catholicism was a fact;
and as to refusing an acre of your ground for a Romanist chapel, all
men needed the bridle of religion, which, properly speaking, was the
dread of a Hereafter.

What a remarkably draconian view of the role of religion--to instill dread--that's certainly the road to relentless charity.

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Wisely Shown--George Eliot


As George Eliot demonstrates succinctly, even detachment can become an attachment:

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

"I think she is," said Celia, feeling afraid lest she should say
something that would not please her sister, and blushing as prettily as
possible above her necklace. "She likes giving up."

"If that were true, Celia, my giving-up would be self-indulgence, not
self-mortification. But there may be good reasons for choosing not to do
what is very agreeable," said Dorothea.

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The Catholic Home

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Meredith Gould's book is a delight from start to finish--stuffed full of lore and "tradition builders" this is perfect for families who are trying to give the Catholic Church a more solid presence in their homes. This is specifically a domestic compendium and it is about making the home Catholic through traditions--feasts, decorations, rites, rituals, and prayers.

What I liked about the book was the sheer breadth and length and width and height of the numerous suggestions. Not into reciting the entire Daily Office--that's okay, start with something less and work your way up. Don't have much time--recite the Angelus or the Regina Coeli. The book is truly Catholic in its embrace of traditions.

Let's face it, being Catholic there are going to be suggestions that you won't like. It's not your style, not your way, doesn't sound right for you, supports causes you don't care for. All of these are legitimate reasons to reject one or more ideas. But the advantage of such a book is that if you don't like the suggestion in paragraph one, there are usually five or six other suggestions that you could take up. And I don't think Gould's point is that we should stuff ourselves with externals. Rather, I think she celebrates the Catholic faith embracing all traditions and encouraging Catholics of whatever stripe to take up and celebrate tradition.

The book has several major sections--starting by celebrating the liturgical seasons, Gould moves on to daily devotions and honoring the sacraments. Her suggestions ring true and right for family celebrations. She suggests praying the Rosary at home with faithful friends. At one point she lists ideas for starting family devotions:

-Lighting a candle and praying for others (intercessions).
-Reading the Psalms, readings, and Gospel du jour.
-Learning more about the saint du jour.
-Praying the Lord's Prayer.
-Praying the Profession of Faith.
-Praying the Rosary (see Appendix B).

These are all simple and straightforward suggestions for families that have "lost" their traditions and don't know how to pick them up again, or for families, like my own, that never had any Catholic traditions and wonder how to go about making a more Catholic household.

What is so wonderful about the work is that Gould never seems partisan or heterodox. Everything she suggests increases reverence for the Church, the Sacraments, the rich traditions of Catholics the world over, and God himself.

And throughout there is a sense of warmth, humor, and sheer down-deep humanity that makes the book an engaging delight.

Whoever is still ambulatory after lighting candles, eating prodigious amounts of fish, and reading from Luke gets to put baby Jesus in his Nativity scene crib. If you have kids, you have a couple of options. You can foster their sense of mystery by doing this while they sleep, so they wake up to baby Jesus. Or you can foster their sense of belonging to the Body of Christ by allowing them to tuck baby Jesus into his manger. (Don't forget the crib atop your Jesse Tree!).

And then she mentions the Feast Day of Adam and Eve.

There's noting radical in the notions Gould articulates, nothing startling or noveau or earth-shaking. But there are a plethora of them, and they provide many opportunities to reflect upon the Catholic Church and how to make it concrete, most particularly for the little ones in the family. Little suggestions, like the one above help so much to encourage parents to think about ways that the Catholic Faith can be fostered in the domestic Church. And that, I think, is Gould's main point. Not that you should follow all of her suggestions or regard her work as a new Gospel, but rather that each family should forge for itself the traditions that both bind the family together and help to bind the family to the Church. After much else is forgotten, the cookies, the pretzels, and the small things done around Christmas time remain so that if children stray away, there are these small concrete reminders, these stores of memory that will serve to call them back Home to the Holy Mother of us all, the Guardian and constant Defender of the Faith, the Holy Catholic Church. And that is what Gould's book reminds us of constantly.

Highly recommended for all who are seeking ideas about how to celebrate their faith in their life at home.

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The Thirteenth Tale


"Last night I dreamt of Manderley again. . ."

That's what Diane Setterfield's new, much-hyped book reminded me of--vaguely. But then, that book (Rebecca) was born of the same passion that fuels this book, Jane Eyre. Although there is little enough romance in Setterfield's book, the atmosphere is thick with Jane. A governess, a ghost, feral twins, a burning house, a story untold, a story everyone wants to know about.

Indeed, even the name of one of the Major characters, Vida Winter, is meant to conjure the great old days of the suspenseful Gothic, and by that, I do not mean women in flimsy gown fleeing huge castles, but rather the brooding and dark repressed family histories--Poe Gothic, not Victoria Holt (although there's nothing wrong with that either.) Vida Winter is the author of a great many well-admired books, the first of which "Thirteen Tales of . . ." had only a single print run because a mere twelve of those tales made it into the book. The first print run became a fabulously rare collector's edition because they were recalled and mostly destroyed. Afterwards it became Twelve Tales.

Our heroine is the daughter of an antiquarian and rare-book dealer who is consulted by Ms. Winter to write the author's biography. She goes out to the present residence on the moor and hears a tale of twins, topiary, ghosts,murder, and insanity--all the ingredients for a good winter night's read.

While the book is a trifle of a story, a delightful bon-bon, a mere confection--it is a confection superbly prepared by someone who loves books and loves story and knows intimately how to tell a ripping good yarn. While I was trying to decide whether or not to be disappointed by the book, the writing weighed in and tipped the scales, heavily in the book's favor.

Why disappointment? Really no good reason except that it was not the book I would have written. The author made some story choices I would not have made in the tale veered off in a direction unexpected. But then, when looked at from a distance, each of her choices were the right ones, and each of mine, while making a book more to my taste would have produced the usual mishmash of rubbish that has defamed the Gothic name since Jane Austen took on Ann Radcliffe in Northanger Abbey.

But the final decision--if you love good fiction--get it, read it. You won't be sorry. Highly recommended.

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Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was known, until recently for most of us by a handful of ghost stories reprinted in anthologies--most particularly "Shadows on the Wall" and "The Wind in the Rose-Bush."

While this site might not be "The Complete Works," there certainly is a large collection of the novels and short stories of this neglected writer. Go and sample--start with the stories mentioned.

It is interesting to me that she is collected with Sarah Orne Jewett, another writer of short stories whose talent has too long been neglected or ignored. I suppose Edith Wharton and Willa Cather overshadowed these writers. But if they are writers of the second rank, it goes to show how far the second rank has fallen in our own time. Would that my own meager talents were the equal of these.

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Office of the Dead

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I changed my morning routine this morning and offered the Office of the Dead. A little autistic boy, 5 years old, got away from his family while they were bring groceries in from the car. He liked to run, and he liked water. Unfortunately, where I live, there is no shortage of drainage ponds and other holes filled with water. He found one of them and it took searchers two days to find him. All of this happened within two blocks of where I live.

I am certain of God's mercy, and I hope with perfect assurance, that this small child now sees clearly for the first time ever. But I offer the office for him and for his family. Please join your prayers to my own for the comfort of the distressed family, so sore-wounded by the loss of a child. It never fails to send a shock right through me.

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Linked Verse, Ended

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My thanks to everyone who contributed to this wonderful experiment. There were a small number of entries, but we got from it three interesting poems that would not otherwise be.

Linked verse is a kind of word game. It served as a sort of community building exercise among the poets of the Japanese Court. Of course, there was oneupsmanship and all manner of odd exercises that go with poets writing poetry together; however, it is an elegant and charming way to introduce the poetry shy into the art of poetry and to give the participant some sense of the diffiuclty of composing images in few words.

Everyone who chose to partipcate did a magnificent job of fulfilling the object of the exercise and producing their links. Thank you so much. I emjoyed, as well, watching the verse grow from its separate pieces and influences.

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On Parsifal

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A remarkable non-analysis from John Runciman in Wagner.

"PARSIFAL" (1882).

This disastrous and evil opera was written in Wagner's old age, under the influence of such a set of disagreeably immoral persons as has seldom if ever been gathered together in so small a town as Bayreuth. The whole drama consists in this: At Montsalvat there was a monastery, and the head became seriously ill because he had been seen with a lady. In the long-run he is saved by a young man—rightly called a "fool"—who cannot tolerate the sight of a woman. What it all means—the grotesque parody of the Last Supper, the death of the last woman in the world, the spear which has caused the Abbot's wound and then cures it—these are not matters to be entered into here. Some of the music is fine.

I'd like to know more about how Wagner used this legend contrary to its orirgin. I've never watched it, but have long admired some parts of it. I should think that Tristan und Isolde would be far more problematic.

From Richard Wagner, Composer of Operas by the same Runciman:

The whole affair is a spectacle which I must say is disgusting to healthy minds. The insinuations are frightful. Consider, reader, seriously for a moment: Parsifal—Siegfried grown to manhood—knows and cares nothing about womankind. As soon as he knows what a woman is he revolts, learns through that knowledge and by his acquaintance with suffering—acquaintance, I say, because he himself has never suffered—that there are two cures for all the woes of humanity. Discard women and pity the men. The thing is absurd, and suggests that the mighty genius was on the verge of imbecility. But the desire to please mad Ludwig accounts for it all in a very undesirable fashion.

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Be sure to check below this first post for additional posts. This is being kept high up on the list so that people will continue to add and admire the works of others. Autumn Brightness is really taking off, and we've even had an adidition to "Autumn? What Autumn?" thanks to Mrs. Darwin.

While it is more usual to assemble linked verse one contribution at a time, because so much good was offered and so much that will work together, I have assembled the following offerings.

The next step is to choose a strain (please indicate in your contribution) and add the next link in the verse.

To be faithful to the authors--I removed additional indications of break as they are not usual part of the linking. In one case I made a plausible edit, in another requested an author's permission to add to the contribution.

Now I present my compilation and ask for the next contributions. The fun of linked verse is to wrench the poem out of the direction it was going and give it a new heading that still makes sense. I hope these do that so far.

Autumn Brightness

Fall fell in one night
cold crept in, painting the sky,
summer's cessation

The calendar page rustles
Smoke in the rain wind wakes me

One last cricket song
Train whistles while gutters drip
Dark night but cheerful

Now grass is dry from summer
Heat lingers on golden hills

As our summer ends
We wait for the winter rain
But first the wild fires

fires that burn in falling leaves
in leaves in swirls underfoot

Cool in the nostrils
Running loose on the wet grass
Fall remembers me

The sounds of dried leaves crunching
The smell of hot dogs cooking

Cheers from the home crowd,
On a crisp fall afternoon:
Football has returned!

Winter grey-brown sea begins
to limn the shoreline--salt frost

Birds return, ibis
once again strut and pluck lawns--
bold October looms.

Seeking porchlights, out past dark
Muffled laughter, running feet

Tennis-shoed pirates,
Princesses, ninjas and ghosts;
Ding-dong: Trick or Treat!

Blue Angels each October,
While the ocean turns cooler.

Fog in the morning
Near the sea, sunny afternoons,
November fireplaces.

Autumn. Poor Souls Purgatory
Reminds us of death decay.

But my Spirit rises
As I see resurrection
In luminous leaves.

dewdrop on red leaf fallen
in the early autumn grass

color surprises
morning's brightness magnified
with a trace of chill

Autumn Bleakness

Fall fell in one night
cold crept in, painting the sky,
summer's cessation

I am her friend and lover
waking to her misty dawn

prayers spill from mouths --
cloudy little pools of hope
lost as the day warms

Like grey leaves, our lives grow dim.
Will we see the winter's birth?

Drive, work, a pay stub:
These define life's borderlines.
Happiness eludes.

To be found again in sweat
Spent for love without reward.

O little bold squirrel,
You cross the road fearlessly,
But brother lies dead

Autumn? What Autumn?

Fall fell in one night
cold crept in, painting the sky,
summer's cessation

But not all is quiet,
with the children who are working together
to create a puzzle picture
while Mama writes a poem.

Images alive become
Images living in words.

Happy laughter rings.
Mama pauses, wishes she
Could find the camera.

Note this last strain is a more avant-garde form in which the more or less thirty-one syllables are used at the poet's command. A much more challenging linkage.

Remember, to add on--2 7-syllable lines, and a 5-7-5. So, overall you have: 7-7-5-7-5--thirty-one delectable little syllables to share autumn where you are.

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The Terrors of Fiction

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It is probably different for other writers, but where I feel most vulnerable, most at stake, and most exposed in writing is in fiction. A step I took recently just brought home how true this is for me.

Poetry is almost all artifice. It is so highly stylized and smoothly polished that the personal element is nearly thoroughly disguised. What the reader is exposed to is sheet artifice, verbal fireworks, or highly compressed verbal energy. The poem may explode, it may inflate, it may do any number of things--it may reveal personal moments, but they have been sharply curtailed by the point and purpose. My poetry exposes me to almost no risk. Does anyone really think that Alan Ginsburg is one tenth as interesting and lively as his poem "Howl" would have one think? And what of Keats and Blake? Even Sylvia Plath, whose poetry was intensely personal manages to set the personal at a great ironic distance most of the time (read "Lady Lazarus" or "Daddy." The poet is not on display there--the language is.)

Non-fiction poses few hazards because you pick and choose what you write about in such a way that you reveal what you care to reveal, which means, in essence, you reveal nothing at all. The intimate memoirs, the auto-biographies, the telling personal exposes--all tell you exactly what the authors would have you know about themselves.

Fiction, on the other hand, is dangerous. You pick and choose your stories. You write your story lines. But there is always the danger that the story will get away from you--that you will stand exposed because you have pressed yourself out of it the way you do in a poem. Fiction is a case of "give 'em enough rope." Nearly every author stands exposed in his or her fiction. The interesting fact is that they do not stand exposed in the way most people think they do. The narrator or events is almost never the author. But there are undercurrents, little things that even in the fourth, fifth, and sixth drafts of a work the author doesn't notice--but these tell-tale signs are there for any astute reader to observe and decipher. Or so it seems. The likelihood that anyone will intrude upon the correct understanding of a personal symbology is infinitesimal. But because fiction is the telling of tales, and the details of the tale almost dictate themselves, and because there is refinement, but not refinement of the type that goes into poetry, and because there is selection of detail, but not of the same type that goes into nonfiction prose, each chose lays bare something of the author who penned the work.

Or so it seems to me. But then, that may be the result of the fact that fiction has led me far closer to the truth than either nonfiction or poetry have ever done. Poetry has brought me into the halls of beauty and nonfiction into the realm of sheer skepticism; but fiction gets in under the radar and I find myself "surprised by joy" and awakened to the reality that lies under the event. And this happens whether or not the author intended for it--I see a small glimpse of eternal Truth in every well-crafted piece of fiction. And, perhaps circularly, this may be because of the sacrifice the artist makes in laying him or herself bare in such a way. The defenses are still locked in place, but like a fence now, their outlines are observable and a fence can be scaled, pulled down, or dug under.

Whatever may be the case, my fiction is one place where I feel terribly exposed. And that, for the most part, is why none of it shows up here, nor is ever likely to. Eventually, I hope it will make it into print, securely bound behind the paper covers of an anonymous book--a entity I formed, but which now has a separate life. But all of that is about courage.

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Humor in Middlemarch

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One doesn't often see comment on the vein of rich and ironic humor that pervades much of the early part of Middlemarch, just as, again, humor is not much of a discussion in the work of Hawthorne. And that is a shame, because while this humor, in both cases, is not of the laugh-out-loud variety, it provides a certain warmth and atmosphere that makes reading the books pleasurable.

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

And how should Dorothea not marry?--a girl so handsome and with such
prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her
insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a
wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her
at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune,
who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer
and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the
Apostles--who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of
sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken
you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her
income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of
saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself
in such fellowship.

Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of
society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane
people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at
large, one might know and avoid them.

The last sentences of each of these two paragraphs have a certain humor, admittedly somewhat bitter, but not actually biting, that can engage the reader fortunate enough to find the strain and continue.

Humor, and a sense that an author has some knowledge of the matter, are prerequisites in fiction. No work of fiction can be entirely successful without some sense of humor. Even Dante showed it, although maliciously, in some of the people and punishments in Hell and Purgatory. In fact, it is the absence of this strain that tends to make Heaven such a ghastly bore in comparison to the other two works. The author is so overwhelmed by his experiences that, while he continues to compose amazing poetry, he simply isn't engaging at the same level as he is in the other parts of his masterpiece.

Humor stems from a sense of displacement, it is, in a sense, an ultimately Christian virtue. Humor often results from the juxtaposition of impossible events, from the use of a word in two or more ways, from the sudden and unexpected. These are the deep seams of humor, the understanding that things are not as they seem, that we are not what we seem, and that ultimately we are not really where we belong. The recognition that where we belong is infinitely better gives rise to deep strains of humor.

It may also give rise to deep strains of sadness or despair of the human condition. By far a less "likeable" result of the realization. And sometimes, to the untrained eye, they are nearly indistinguishable. I think particularly here of the works of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy--both fundamentally humorous and joyous, but if one were to read only "The River" for instance, one might be left wondering whether or not Flannery O'Connor had any faith whatsoever. And I am witness to the fact that the hilarity of Love in the Ruins bypasses the majority of readers, who see instead the darkness that the humor masks. The inability to apprehend an author's humor can make of reading an unbearable toil. Probably the reason I find most nonfiction reading neither illuminating nor particularly informative. Most political books inspire me the way Chilton's manuals do. Most works of science are long, dry treatises with nothing of appeal to anyone seeking the imagination behind them. This is the particular skill of the popularizers, and the particular pitfall. They bring into sharp life and relief the humanity and the reality behind the discoveries. For a prime example of their effectiveness compare Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science with the prose of Peitgen and Richter's The Beauty of Fractals . (I just looked that one up on Amazon and was astounded at its price-tag--$84.00--I'm certain I paid nothing like that for it--I bought it as a grad student and wouldn't think of spending that kind of money on a book at the time.)

Humor then, a Christian virtue stemming from the recognition of the anomalies resulting from our pilgrim status, is one essential for readable fiction. In the case of Eliot, it is subdued and distinctly bitter. In Hawthorne's case, similarly, subdued, but more ironic than bitter, and sometime laugh-out-loud funny if you are paying attention. Like the "clown scenes" in Shakespeare's tragedies, the humor need not be pervasive, merely present. It is ultimately inviting and welcoming to the reader.

Humor, in literature, as in life, is an essential ingredient for success.

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Bible Translations (One More Time)


The best advice for one seeking a translation of the Bible to study or to pray from is to use the one that motivates you to read.

TSO finds motivation in a translation that can be quite beautiful. It goes to show how different sets of words reach different people and there is utility in translating again and again, even though the Bible has been translated a great many times. Who knows who might be brought into the fold by a new translation?

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Shrines: Images of Italian Worship


(Book available October 17 ) With photographs by Steven Rothfeld and text by Frances Mayes, this is one of those slender and lovely gift books that you give to people who liked Under the Tuscan Sun or whose blogs feature devotional art or pictures of Italy.

The small fragments of text by Frances Mayes (after the introduction) neither help nor harm the momentum of the book. Her name is there to capitalize on the Italian (particularly Tuscan) connection, and her thoughts about the subject of the photographs are neither deep nor stirring. However, the photographs are fascinating and lovely. The one gripe I have is that they are not better identified on the page. I'd like more information--where in Italy, Instead in the back, we get thumbnails of the photographs with a location like "Tuscany." I guess I can understand that in a way, because you wouldn't necessarily want to encourage increased traffic along some of the lanes and road you see pictured.

The theme of the book is "shrines" in the lower-case meaning of the word--personal, small devotional sites, intimate spiritual places made public so that in some small way you share your devotion with others. There are about 100 images of shrines of all sorts--from frescoes or murals on the walls of what look like apartment buildings, to little boxes that look like those information pamphlet boxes you can find at the entrances to some state and national parks where there are not a lot of facilities, to small holes in the brickwork, to constructed house-front decorations.

Two photographs I found particularly interesting and moving. One of them shows a close-up of what looks like a cranny in brickwork. Within this small space are four figures--a small crucifix, tilted to the back so the upper beam is resting on the brickwork in the back, and to its right, a small figurine of Mary and two containers of slightly different size of Lourdes water--now empty. All three images of Mary came from the shrine at Lourdes. This small grotto, remembering the larger grotto, is just a little insight into the necessity of devotion among the people who made it. A shrine composed of three cheap, plastic images of Mary in a grotto the size of one brick is somehow a moving testimony to the love shown to the Blessed Virgin, the impulse to adore.

The image that most caught my eye, because of my past associations and my love of Mary, Star of the Sea, was a small shrine that decorates the front of a townhoouse, store, or apartment building. It consists of a small altar formed of a kind of coquina with enormous Triton and Strombus shells. Above it is something that looks like an abalone shell, topped in turn by an image of an anchor formed of cockles or oyster shells. This anchor is flanked by two encased panels that are filled with what appear to be images of the Most Pure Heart of Mary--the Immaculate Heart. Above these, the main image, housed in an ornate frame of scallops and cockles--a small alabaster, or marble image of Mother and child, recessed in a light blue grotto. It's so completely out of place in this small alley or street, and so wonderfully conceived that it really captured my eye and my imagination. This is the kind of grotto I would like to dedicate to the Blessed Mother, were I in the business of doing so.

And this last thought brings out one of the poignant touches of the book--these are a commonplace in Italy. Perhaps not everywhere, but they can be encountered with some frequency. Except in the more Hispanic neighborhoods near me, there is nothing like this in the American Way of devotion. In fact, most of the little shrines pictured in this book would likely be removed as eyesores or nuisances in most communities in the U.S., and I include heavily Catholic communities in that description. We are almost embarrassed by our devotions, it seems. And we have lost the good sense of Chesterton--"if it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly."

A recommended gift-book for the right recipient. Lovely pictures, unobtrusive text. I would like to note that editors might want to consider adding descriptions if this goes into a second printing.

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Views of Books


I'm only about 30 pages into Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale and know that it is one of those books wherein I will want to call in sick and nestle down in bed all day to finish it. Probably won't do that, but will definitely spend some time this evening, perhaps a lot of time this evening, enjoying the book. The prose is clean and clear and the voice just right. More than that it is already a little eerie and it is a lot respectful of those whose lives are deeply and marvelously enriched by books and reading.

I'll report more when I finish, but I expect this to be one of those books that simply wows me, leaving me nothing to say except--get it, read it.

Just an enticing sample:

from The Thirteenth Tale
Diane Setterfield

Miss Winter's house lay between two slow rises in the darkness, almost-hills that seemed to merge into each other and that revealed the presence of a valley and a house only at the last turn of the drive. The sky by now was blooming shades of purple, indigo and gunpowder, and the house beneath it crouched long and low and very dark. The driver opened the car door for me, and I stepped out to see that he had already unloaded my case and was ready to pull away, leaving me alone in front of an unlit porch. Barred shutters blacked out the windows and there was not a single sign of human habitation. Closed in upon itself, the place seemed to shun visitors.

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St Teresa and Middlemarch

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Yesterday, being a Sunday, one of the great Carmelite Saints rightfully surrendered her place at the table to her big Brother and Lord and so got mere mention within the Eucharistic Prayer. And I'm certain she was delighted at the honor of being able to surrender place to the One Whom she loved more than all else.

But one other great Teresa is celebrated this month, and I've long meant to comment upon this introductory passage to Middlemarch. I am reminded because I chose Middlemarch as my Daily LIt selection. Thanks to MamaT and TSO for bring it to my attention and then reinforcing the marvelous idea. To sink for five or ten minute a day into a classic--everyone can do it, and, in the case of lengthy books, it may be the only way to get completely through them.

from Middlemarch "Introduction"
George Eliot

Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious
mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt,
at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some
gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning
hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom
in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila,
wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already
beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape
of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That
child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning.

Theresa's passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were
many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant
girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed
from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which
would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with
the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in
the reform of a religious order.

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Linked Verse


I want to encourage everyone to continue to contribute. We've had several really nice additions to the "brightness" thread over the past few days from people who very modestly say "We're not poets." The reality is that every person is a poet from birth--we just have it drummed out of us as we study the mind-numbing nonsense that most people consider literature classes. We won't all produce world-class poetry, but as children of that greatest Poet, we each have our own voice and charms. The constrained form of the linked verse also helps in versifying--it gives strong rules that help to guide the writing in distinct ways. So all you not-poets out there, abandon your inhibitions, drop your protections, and give us some linkages to our verse. So far, Autumn Brightness is a pretty good read, and give a nice sense of the diversity of Autumn around the country.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Steven Riddle in October 2006.

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