"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Short Story Review: “Grandfather and Grandson,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The short story is a remarkable art form.  It is not the same form as a novel, the short story hypothetically being just shorter novel.  No.  It is distinct and perhaps one day I’ll put together why; though it uses many of the same elements as the novel, I believe it is a separate medium.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, worked in both mediums.  I’ve never read any of his novels (if anyone can recommend one, please do), but his short stories are of the highest caliber.  Singer, though he had emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1935 (and thereby as a Polish Jew surviving the holocaust) wrote his works in Yiddish , though fluent in several languages.  Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of central and Eastern Europe.  Today I believe it is limited to the Hasidim and Orthodox Jewish communities.

“Grandfather and Grandson” is a wonderful story which brings the reader into the Hasidic Jewish world of Reb Mordecai Meir.  “Reb” in Yiddish is a title of respect equivalent to “Mister” and does not imply the man is a rabbi.  .  It does not seem to say (unless I missed it) that Meir is or is not a rabbi, but he is most definitely an extremely religious man.

Reb Mordecai Meir was a small man with a yellowish-white beard, a broad forehead, bushy eyebrows, beneath which peeped a pair of yellow eyes.  On the tip of his nose there grew a little beard.  Wisps of hair stuck out of his ears and nostrils.  In the course of time his back became bowed and he always looked as if he were searching for something on the floor.  He didn’t walk but shuffled his feet.  All year round he wore a cotton caftan with a sash, low shoes, and a velvet hat over two skullcaps.  He spoke in half sentences, only to the initiated Hasidim.

[Excerpts taken from The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1982.  “Grandfathers and Grandsons” is translated by Evelyn Torton Beck and Ruth Schachner Finkel.]

I worked through college in a supermarket in a Hasidic community, and I have most definitely seen older Hasidic men just like that.  And yes, the really religious hardly ever talk to the non-Hasidim.  I used to think they were just snobs, but as you’ll see from this story speaking to non-followers of the Torah is defilement, an act causing impurity. 

Even among the Hasidim, Reb Mordecai Meir was known as an impractical man. Though he had lived in Warsaw for years, he was not at all acquainted with the streets of Warsaw. The only road he knew was from his home to the Hasidic house of prayer and back. During the year, he occasionally traveled to the Rabbis of Alexandrow, but he always had difficulty finding the trolley to the railway station, changing cars, and buying tickets. In all this he had to be assisted by the young men who knew their way around. He had neither the time nor the patience for such externals.

At midnight he arose for study and prayer. Very early each morning he recited the Gemara and the Tosephot commentary. After that came psalms, more prayers, delving into Hasidic books, and discussing Hasidic matters. The winter days were short. Before one had a bite to eat and a nap, it was time to return to the study house for evening prayers. Even though the summer days were long, there were not enough of them. First it was Passover, then the Feast of Omer, and before you could turn around it was Shevouth. After that came the seventeenth of Tammuz, the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, the nine days of refraining from meat, and then the Tishe b’Av, the Sabbath of Comfort. These were followed by the month of Elul, when even fish in water tremble. Later there was Rosh Hashanah, the ten days of Penitence, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, the Day of Rejoicing in the law, and then Sabbath of Genisis.

As a boy, Reb Mordecai Meir had already realized that if one wanted to be a real Jew there was no time for anything else. Prasied be God, his wife, Beyle Teme, had understood this. She never asked him to assist in the store, to concern himself with business, to carry the burden of earning a living. He seldom had any money with him except for a few guldens which she gave him each week for alms, the ritual bath, books, snuff, and pipe tobacco. Reb Mordecai Meir wasn’t even certain of the exact location of the store and the merchandise sold there. A shopkeeper had to talk to women customers and he knew well that it was only one short step from talking, to looking, to lecherous thoughts.

The street on which Reb Mordecai Meir lived teemed with unbelievers, loose women. Boys peddled Yiddish newspapers which were full of mockery and atheism. The saloons swarmed with ruffians. In his library, Reb Mordecai Meir kept the windows shut, even during summer. As soon as he opened the transom of the window, he immediately heard the playing of frivolous songs on the gramophone and female laughter. In the courtyard, bareheaded jugglers often performed their tricks, which he felt might be black magic. Reb Mordecai Meir was told that Jewish boys and girls went to the Yiddish theater where they made fun of Jewishness. There emerged worldly writers, writing in Hebrew and Yiddish. They incited the readers to sin. At every turn the Evil Spirit lay in wait. There was only one way to defeat him: with Torah, prayer, Hasidism.

What an amazing characterization.  If I were to use a Catholic analogy, Meir lives a monk’s or some other religious recluse’s life, but within a surrounding city teeming with elements that penetrate into his spiritual cocoon.  What I find fascinating there is how Singer slights Meir as “an impractical man” and yet is sympathetic toward him by showing his desire to be “a real Jew.”  The details support both those authorial stances, but ultimately we have to look at Meir as someone has isolated himself, and though we can sympathize with his holiness, we can see the detriment to those around him.  Meir is not a monk or some unconnected recluse but has a family.  The world will attempt to break into the cocoon.

As an aside, I found that passage remarkable for how similar a devout Jew’s life is with a devout Catholic.  A priest’s life is not that much different in reverential behavior, though a priest is engaged with the society at large and would not have built such a cocoon. 

And so life goes on.  Meir’s only living child, a daughter, Zelda Rayzel, dies.  His wife becomes melancholy, even complains to God, and finally dies as well.  He sells his store, arranges for a cook and house cleaner, and so resolves to complete his living days in full faith.  The cocoon is now complete.  If you look at the story as structured in what in classical music is called Sonata-Allegro Form, theme A is now complete.  Meir and the building of his cocoon is theme A.  The contrasting theme B disturbs the equilibrium.

One summer morning, while reading The Generations of Jacob Joseph, he dozed off and was awakened by the sound of knocking. He opened the door and saw a young man without a beard, a head of long hair over which he wore a broad-brimmed black hat, in a black blouse tied with a sash, and checkered pants. In one hand he carried a satchel and in the other a book. His face was pale and he had a short nose.

Reb Mordecai Meir asked, “What do you want?”

Blinking his widely separated eyes, he stammered, “I am Fulie…You are my grandfather.”

Reb Mordecai Meir stood dumbfounded. He had never heard the name Fulie. Then he realized that this was most probably the modern variation of the old Jewish name Raphael. It was Zelda Rayzel’s eldest son. Reb Mordecai Meir felt both pain and shame. He had a grandson who tried to imitate the Gentiles. He said, “So come in.” After hesitating a moment, the boy came in and put his suitcase down. Reb Mordecai Meir asked, “What kind—is that—?” and pointed to the book.


“Of what use is that to you?”


“What’s new in Slonim?” Reb Mordecai Meir asked. He didn’t want to mention the name of his former son-in-law, who was an anti-Hasid. Fulie made a face as if to indicate that he did not fully comprehend his grandfather’s question.

“In Slonim? Just like everywhere else. The rich get richer and the workers get nothing to eat. I had to leave because…” and Fulie stopped himself.

“What will you do here?”

“Here—I’ll look around—I’ll…”

Well, a stutterer, Reb Mordecai Meir thought. His throat scratched and his stomach started to turn. It was his daughter Zelda Rayzel’s son, but as long as he shaved his beard and dressed like a Gentile, what would he, Reb Mordecai Meir, do with him? He nodded his head and gaped. It seemed that the boy took after the other side of the family with his high cheekbones, narrow forehead, and wide mouth. His bedraggled and famished appearance reminded Reb Mordecai Meir of the recruits who starve themselves to avoid conscription.

“Wash your hands. Eat something. Don’t forget you are a Jew.”

“Grandfather, they don’t let you forget.”

And through Fulie, we see the outside world force its way into Meir’s cocoon.  Fulie is obviously running from some trouble in his home town.  We learn he is a socialist or possibly communist agitator.  He is passionate, carries a gun, and is an ideologue.  He stays with the grandfather for an indefinite time, the grandfather allowing him only reluctantly.  Their lifestyles do not mesh well and they reach a point where they barely speak to each other, each just carrying out their personal business.  Until one day, and there we start the development section. 

The Sabbath meal was prepared by another neighbor. Reb Mordecai Meir lit the Sabbath candles himself. He ate at the table alone, in his threadbare satin coat, worn-out fur hat, chanting Sabbath chants, dipping a piece of hallah into the glass of ritual wine. The boy (which was what Reb Mordecai Meir called Fulie) didn’t show himself on the Sabbath. The neighbor’s daughter brought in rice soup, meat, carrot pudding. Reb Mordecai Meir half sang, half moaned.


If the old rabbi were still alive, Reb Mordecai Meir would have gone to live with him. But Reb Henokh was dead. The new rabbi was still a young man who cared more for the young Hasidim than the old. It was whispered that he was learned in worldly affairs. Many of the older Hasidim had died out and no new ones joined.

One Sabbath day, when Reb Mordecai Meir was sitting at the table murmuring, “I shall sing with praise,” he heard the crack of a gun and a hideous scream. In the courtyard there was a din. Windows were thrown open. The sound of a police whistle pierced the air. A neighbor came in to tell Reb Mordecai Meir that the “comrades,” the strikers, had shot one of their own, a bootmaker who was said to have denounced them to the police. Reb Mordecai Meir trembled.

 “Who did it—Jews?”


“Yes, Jews.”


“It is the end of the world.” And Reb Mordecai Meir immediately regretted his words. It was not permitted to be sad or utter words of despair on the Sabbath.

There is no need to outline the story development further.  I don’t want to spoil the denouement for readers who haven’t read it, and there isn’t much to gain from going further.  The characters, the themes, and the conflict are enough to give a full description of this story.  However, the final paragraphs are important to capture the full pathos of Meir’s life.  After some calamitous event, Meir is being taken to the police station. 

It was not customary to say Kaddish without a quorum or for someone who had not yet been buried, but Reb Mordecai Meir knew that he had little time left. He mumbled the Kaddish. Then he recited a chapter from the Mishnah which he knew from memory. “At what time is it permissible to recite the Shema in the evening? From the time that the priests enter the Temple to eat their food offerings. So sayeth Rabbi Eliezer. And the sages say: Until midnight.”


“Hey, you, Jew, old dog, who are you talking to, your God?” the policeman asked. Somehow Reb Mordecai Meir understood these few words. What does he know? How can he understand? Reb Mordecai Meir defended him in his thoughts. Since no evil can come from God, those created in His image can’t be completely wicked. He said to the policeman, “Yes, I am Jew. I pray God.”

Those were all the Gentile words Reb Mordecai Meir knew.

And so the recapitulation brings us back to the impracticality of the man—he’s wondering back to pre-destruction Temple rules while facing police actions against him—and the identity of his Jewishness through his deep faith.  But now this is a different man.  His compassion has spread out to his very different grandson and even the Gentile man who has just insulted him.

What makes this story so well told is the clean and clear structure, the distinct central characters of the Grandfather and Grandson, and the super rich detail of the world of a devout Hasidic man.  There is no free e-text of the story, but if you can find it, it’s well worth reading.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Blues Tuesday: Howlin Wolf, Smokestack Lightning

A hypnotic back rhythm, a harmonica to carry the melody, and one of the greatest, most original voices in all the blues, Chester Arthur Burnett, otherwise known as Howlin Wolf playing my favorite of his works, "Smokestack Lightning." 

According to Wikipedia, Wolf said the song was inspired by watching trains in the night: "We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning."

Whoa, oh, stop your train
Let her, go for a ride
Why don't ya hear me cryin'?
Whoo hoo, whoo hoo

Lyrics credit to DigitalDreamDoor.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Matthew Monday: Email Exchange

The following is an exchange of emails between me and my wife last Thursday.  I was at work at my computer when I saw her email flash up.
From: Mrs. Manny
Sent: Thursday, January 24, 2013 3:42 PM
To: Manny
Subject: Matthew

Hip Hip Horray!!! Matthew finally pooped on the potty!!!!!

From: Manny
To: Mrs. Manny
Sent: Thursday, January 24, 2013 3:44 PM
Subject: RE: Matthew

I don't believe it!

From: Mrs. Manny
Sent: Thursday, January 24, 2013 3:46 PM
To: Manny
Subject: Re: Matthew

It's true!! I was upstairs cleaning and when I came down he said he pooped. I was very skeptical but I looked in the potty and there it was!!! Big hugs and kisses, high fives and dancing. Now I have to buy him a toy since I promised him.

LOL, he finally did one in the potty.  It's been a struggle. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Notable Quote: William Faulkner

Here's a new feature to the blog, an interesting quote.  I'm going to start with one of my favorite authors.

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.
William Faulkner

Whenever you hear some college professor or literature student talk about the meanings, historical context, and social impact of a work, remember that is all secondary, or even terciary.  First and foremost a work must come alive; it must make you see the setting, the characters, the actions, the motivations, and through seeing it make you believe it is reality.

Image courtesy of Famous Authors.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Faith Filled Friday: Two Testaments

If you want to read a beautiful story, read this, though you won't be able to comment.

If you want to read a horrific story of someone's personal abortion, read this, but it's rather graphic.

The sadness that is abortion, and the beauty that can be otherwise.

Whatever your politics and whatever you may want the law to be, choosing life is not something you will ever regret.

Picasso, Mère et enfant au fichu (Mother and Child with Shawl), 1966

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Blues Tuesday: Billie Holiday, "God Bless the Child"

It may not be a perfect fit, but I still offer this song in my regular Tuesday blues music in memorial to this horrific day in our nation's history. 

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own

It's been forty years.  May God help us in changing hearts and minds.  And may God bless all those poor children who were denied the most basic possession, life.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Matthew Monday: Matthew & Mommy at the Orphanage

This was taken during our bonding period at the orphanage in Shymkent, Khazakhstan in May or June of 2010.  Matthew is about eight or nine months old there.  I post this because when I had Matthew out today he had a winter hat on with a strap just like that.  Only thing today he was chewing on the strap.  They keep the babies dressed really warm at that orphanage.  It was already warm inside the room.  My wife probably wishes he would listen to her now as he is there.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Earl Weaver, RIP

Earl Weaver was the manager of the baseball team the Baltimore Orioles when I was a boy, my favorite sports team.  He managed from 1968 to 1982, and then briefly again in 1985 to 1986.  My earliest baseball memories probably date to 1970 when I was eight years old, and by 1982, when he really retired, I was 20.  I can’t tell you enough how I loved that team over those years.  My childhood was wrapped up with them, and Earl Weaver was probably the most important reason why they were great over those years. 

 Yes, they had fine ball players.  You can’t win without fine ball players.  But Baltimore is a small market city, and to capture talented players you have to spot them ahead of the big cities.  Earl could spot talent, and I think one of his greatest gifts was to put together a plan that optimized the talent he had.  You could build a team of all superstars but if they can’t play together it won’t win.  Earl put together teams piece by piece and somehow managed them into a harmonious unit.

He was way ahead of his time in using statistics.  Today the league keeps statistics on everything, every matchup, every situation.  Back then they didn’t.  Earl kept his own statistics.  He would keep the numbers (on index cards if I remember correctly—way before computers) how every one of his players hit against all the pitchers and how his pitchers performed against every hitter in the league.  Everyone today goes through those statistics on a daily basis.  And Earl revolutionized platooning.  It was occasionally done back then, nothing like today.  In the early 1980s, Earl matched a platoon of Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein, two average ball players in their own right, in left field.  But teaming them as a platoon, Roenicke hitting against left handers and Lowenstein against right handers, they performed at a superstar level, combining for 45 home runs and 140 RBI in 1982.   Today every team looks to platoon players for results like that.

But I guess the single thing that made Earl famous was his fiery temper on the field.  A really nice man off the field, a gentleman actually, he would go ballistic if he felt an umpire made the wrong call against his team.  He would argue at length and if the umpire made some snide comment Earl would light up.  I don’t really know if his ire consciously poured out or if he just lost personal control.  When he argued he would kick dirt, tap the umpire’s forehead with the bill of his cap, then turn his hat around so he could plant his face up against the umpire’s face and yell.  He was a character.  He was probably ejected more than any other manager of his time, and there were fines and suspensions.  But his players loved him because they knew he backed them up.  And of course the fans went wild.

Earl was the winningest manager of his time, and fifth of all time.  His secret?  Pitching, defense, and a three run homer.  He never cared for bunting and base stealing.  The fourteen years from 1969 (his first full season) through 1982, he won the division title six times, the American League Pennant four times, and the World Series once.  And even when they didn’t win the division, they were only within a handful of games from first place.  Actually the year after he first retired, 1983, the Orioles went on to win the World Series.  That was still his team.  Not bad for a small city team.

 Well, Earl passed away yesterday, and with it a bit of my childhood.  You can read about his passing here.

Here’s a nice little video clip on Earl from the documentary on the history of baseball:



Hall of fame Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer played for Earl all those years. 

"He was part of a great franchise," Palmer told USA TODAY Sports. "We had a special group and Earl was our leader. He wasn't a warm and fuzzy guy, but Earl got us to those World Series." 

Thanks for those childhood memories.  Rest in peace Earl.

Stan Musial, the great St. Louis Cardinal outfielder, also passed away over the weekend.  His era was before my time.  I never saw him play, but his hitting statistics are remarkable, and I’ve never heard an unkind word about him.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Current Read: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton (Blog Part 1)

This is a current read and I’m about three quarters of the way in at this point.  What a remarkable little novel.  I can only describe it as a mix of a thriller and an intellectual comedy.  The work was published in 1908 and deals with the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th century that were trying to overthrow European countries through terror.  Actually in 1917 they were successful with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  But the motive of these “terrorists” of their day—terrorists because their signature act was a bomb—was to undermine the authority of the state.  They were usually associated with a left wing agenda.  Perhaps the best novel ever written on this cultural phenomena that I am aware of was the year before in 1907 by Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent.  That novel is certainly more tragic; Chesterton’s is more satiric.
Gabriel Symes is an undercover policeman who is drawn into a secret anarchist society when he befriends a member named Lucian Gregory.  Both are poets, Gregory a poet of anarchy, Symes a poet of law and order and respectability.  They start with a debate on who is the true poet.

Gregory resumed in high oratorical good-humour. 

"An artist is identical with an anarchist," he cried. "You might transpose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a few shapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway."

"So it is," said Mr. Syme.

"Nonsense! " said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox. "Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for, that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!"

"It is you who are unpoetical," replied the poet Syme. "If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!"

"Must you go?" inquired Gregory sarcastically.

"I tell you," went on Syme with passion, "that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hair-breadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word 'Victoria', it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed 'Victoria'; it is the victory of Adam."

Gregory wagged his heavy, red head with a slow and sad smile.

"And even then," he said, "we poets always ask the question, 'And what is Victoria now that you have got there ?' You think Victoria is like the New Jerusalem. We know that the New Jerusalem will only be like Victoria. Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt."

"There again," said Syme irritably, "what is there poetical about being in revolt ? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I'm hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is -- revolting. It's mere vomiting." 
-From chapter one.

You can see why I say this is an intellectual satire.  They continue on in this fashion until Gregory not knowing that Symes is a policeman invites him to an anarchist rally.  The purpose of the rally is to hold an election for one of the seven governing seats of the society (the Central Anarchist Council), each seat named after a day of the week and this seat up for election is the seat, “Thursday.”  Gregory is running for the seat and gives a rather uninspired speech as a platform offering.  Still he is expected to be confirmed but when it is asked if anyone objects to Gregory being elected, Gregory Symes speaks  up. 

"Yes, Mr. Chairman, I oppose."

The most effective fact in oratory is an unexpected change in the voice. Mr. Gabriel Syme evidently understood oratory. Having said these first formal words in a moderated tone and with a brief simplicity, he made his next word ring and volley in the vault as if one of the guns had gone off.

"Comrades!" he cried, in a voice that made every man jump out of his boots, "have we come here for this? Do we live underground like rats in order to listen to talk like this? This is talk we might listen to while eating buns at a Sunday School treat. Do we line these walls with weapons and bar that door with death lest anyone should come and hear Comrade Gregory saying to us, 'Be good, and you will be happy,' 'Honesty is the best policy,' and 'Virtue is its own reward'? There was not a word in Comrade Gregory's address to which a curate could not have listened with pleasure (hear, hear). But I am not a curate (loud cheers), and I did not listen to it with pleasure (renewed cheers). The man who is fitted to make a good curate is not fitted to make a resolute, forcible, and efficient Thursday (hear, hear)."

"Comrade Gregory has told us, in only too apologetic a tone, that we are not the enemies of society. But I say that we are the enemies of society, and so much the worse for society. We are the enemies of society, for society is the enemy of humanity, its oldest and its most pitiless enemy (hear, hear). Comrade Gregory has told us (apologetically again) that we are not murderers. There I agree. We are not murderers, we are executioners (cheers)."

Ever since Syme had risen Gregory had sat staring at him, his face idiotic with astonishment. Now in the pause his lips of clay parted, and he said, with an automatic and lifeless distinctness --

"You damnable hypocrite!"

Syme looked straight into those frightful eyes with his own pale blue ones, and said with dignity --

"Comrade Gregory accuses me of hypocrisy. He knows as well as I do that I am keeping all my engagements and doing nothing but my duty. I do not mince words. I do not pretend to. I say that Comrade Gregory is unfit to be Thursday for all his amiable qualities. He is unfit to be Thursday because of his amiable qualities. We do not want the Supreme Council of Anarchy infected with a maudlin mercy (hear, hear). This is no time for ceremonial politeness, neither is it a time for ceremonial modesty. I set myself against Comrade Gregory as I would set myself against all the Governments of Europe, because the anarchist who has given himself to anarchy has forgotten modesty as much as he has forgotten pride (cheers). I am not a man at all. I am a cause (renewed cheers). I set myself against Comrade Gregory as impersonally and as calmly as I should choose one pistol rather than another out of that rack upon the wall; and I say that rather than have Gregory and his milk-and-water methods on the Supreme Council, I would offer myself for election -- "

His sentence was drowned in a deafening cataract of applause. The faces, that had grown fiercer and fiercer with approval as his tirade grew more and more uncompromising, were now distorted with grins of anticipation or cloven with delighted cries. At the moment when he announced himself as ready to stand for the post of Thursday, a roar of excitement and assent broke forth, and became uncontrollable, and at the same moment Gregory sprang to his feet, with foam upon his mouth, and shouted against the shouting.

"Stop, you blasted madmen!" he cried, at the top of a voice that tore his throat. "Stop, you -- "
-From chapter three.

That is just good and funny.  As it turns out the undercover policeman Symes is elected to the society as one of Council members, the man who was Thursday. 
So Symes sees first hand undercover the workings of this seven member council and their plans to blow up the president of the French Republic.  I won’t say the dynamics of the satire are along the lines of Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies, but they are not far off.  I wonder if the writers of the Pink Panther movies had this novel in mind.  Symes is not a bungler like Clouseau, but each of the characters has those kinds of moments.  At times you will laugh and at times smile.
As you can see, the characters are not quite two dimensional but not truly three dimensional either.  But good satire rests on characters being a little flat.  I have to say that for a subject that can easily sink into cliché, Chesterton is incredibly imaginative, especially with his plotting.  Events move rapidly with a good humor beat.  There is wit at every turn and below the satire there is real penetration into societal issues.

I’m going to leave it here.  There will be more in the near future.

Excerpts are indebted to Literature Network, where you can also read the novel as an e-text.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Faith Filled Friday: Mother of Sorrows

Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrow) by Dieric Bouts, 1480/1500.

Hail Mary, full of grace, pray for us and all those little ones prevented from being born.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book Excerpt: Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations by Martin Goodman

One of the regular features I intend for my blog is to post an excerpt or two from something I’m currently reading or have read and is on my mind for some reason.  This will be the first excerpt.

Now I usually juggle three or more reads at the same time.  I am not a fast reader.  I usually like to savor sentences and paragraphs, so I tend to slow down and admire how the writer may have just phrased or embellished or develops a moment or a passage.  Slow reading means I tend to be with a work for a while, and in order to not get bored with it I need to pick something else up.  I guess it soothes some latent attention deficit disorder that I might have.

One of the works I’m currently reading is a history of the relationship between ancient Rome and ancient Jerusalem.  Let me add that I am an ancient Roman history buff.  I have read a bit on the subject, and while I’m certainly no expert, I would have to say I’m more knowledgeable than the average person.  I find ancient Roman history—from the Republic to its fall to the early empire to the height of the majestic years of the empire to the crises years to the regrouping of the fourth century and then its final fall in the west.  It’s over eleven hundred years from 753 BC to 476 CE filled with many fascinating figures. 

This is the work I’m reading. 

Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, by Martin Goodman, Vintage Books, New York, 2007.

The book examines the cultural, political, and religious conflicts that ultimately led up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the consequences for the Roman and Jewish cultures afterward.  So not only do I get to learn more about the ancient Romans, not only do I get to learn about the great Jewish culture of the time, I get to understand the events and circumstances surrounding Jesus, the apostles, and the church fathers of the first century CE.

The author seems particularly qualified to write on the two cultures.  Here’s an inside the cover bio blip: 

Martin Goodman has edited both the Journal of Roman Studies and the Journal of Jewish Studies.  He has taught Roman history at Birmingham and Oxford Universities, and is currently Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford.  A Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1996.  He is editor of The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, which was awarded a National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship in 2002.  He lives with his family in Birmingham, England.
I can't quite judge the work as a whole yet.  I'm about a quarter of the way in.  But the prose is clean and clear, the book well organized, and the claims well substantiated. The author seems to really focus on minute details and then expand them to flesh out their total significance.  While the author doesn't offer suspenseful narration, it's quite convincing as a scholarly work that engages those interested in that history.

I offer this excerpt from a section describing the general tolerance of Roman authority to local customs of the subjugated cultures.

In general, the Romans were happy to allow their provincial subjects to continue to live in their idiosyncratic ways. The tolerance of the state in allowing provincials to retain non-Roman lifestyles is all the more striking when the Romans knew well the practical advantages which would accrue to the state from cultural change. The historian Tacitus claimed that his father-in-law Agricola spent the winter of 78-9 CE during his governorship of Britain attempting “to induce a people, hitherto scattered, uncivilized and therefore prone to fight, to grow pleasurably inured to peace and ease.” This was achieved, according to Tacitus, by encouraging the building of temples, marketplaces and large houses, and by promoting the Latin language and wearing the toga, leading on to “the amenities that make vice agreeable,” such as baths and banquets. As has long been noted, so conscious an imposition of Roman culture by a single governor in so short a space of time could not possibly work, and Tacitus is not in this instance to be trusted. Nevertheless, a long-term policy along the lines ascribed to Agricola would have been perfectly sensible and feasible, and if urbanization in Roman Britain was slow and patchy over the first two centuries CE, as can be amply demonstrated from the archaeological evidence from numerous sites, this was the result of the policy not being followed even though Romans knew it might have worked. In other words, the normal attitude of the state to the provincials was laissez-faire.

But laissez-faire did not imply that in the eyes of Romans all cultures were equally valuable. Romans were not racially prejudiced in the sense of believing some peoples were inherently inferior, but they had a clear notion of the barbarian as the opposite to civilized society and outside bounds of true humanity. The whole concept of the barbarian, borrowed from its original Greek use where it denoted those who spoke languages other than Greek (thus, ironically, including the Latin-speaking Romans), provided a useful mechanism to distance the acceptable culture of the civilized metropolis from its implied antithesis. Barbarians could occasionally be held up for admiration by the cynic deploring the decline in Roman morals; hence the praise of aspects of simple German society in the Germania of Tacitus. But more often the barbarian was seen as benighted, rescuable (if at all) only by incorporation into the civilized world of Rome.

 -pp 148-9

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Blues Tuesday: Eva Cassidy, "Wade In the Water"

This is not quite a blues song but a Negro Spiritual, song by a wonderful voice who unfortunately died way too young, Eva Cassidy.  It's usually arranged with a jazzy/blues back rhythm.

I post it honor of this past Sunday being the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  This was actually played at my mass Sunday as the offertory hymn, though not as jazzy as this recording.  Our music director played it on the piano, and she gave a fairly good rendition.


You don't believe I've been redeemed,
Wade in the water
Just see The Holy Ghost looking for me
God's gonna trouble the water

Monday, January 14, 2013

Matthew Monday: Future Biker

This was taken 23 months ago, almost two years ago, Matthew putting on his tough biker face.  Don't mess with his dinosaur rider...lol.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Faith Filled Friday: Adoration of the Magi

This past Sunday was the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration of the day the Magi arrived to the Christ child.  This week’s FFF I am going to post discussion of a modern representation on the Adoration of the Magi subject. 

In her fine blog, Simcha Fischer asks whether there are rules for art when engaging a religious subject.  In particular she explores this contemporary painting by an artist named Tai-Shan Schierenberg, strangely titled, “The Adoration of the Magi.”


I agree that the fact that it’s not three exotic men in a barn setting does not disqualify it as religious art.  Contemporary art, as in art from every age, can update the details of the subject to fit it to its time and place.  But then she pushes further:

But what happens when we not only update clothes and hair and remove the easily-recocognizable symbols, but go a little further? This, I argue, is what artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg has done in "The Adoration of the Magi," and I believe that he's made a work of art which is not religious at all, despite its title. It's a good piece, but it's secular. Why? Because of where the focus is.

What is missing clearly is the Christ child.  She continues.

So let's look at this "Adoration of the Magi." Is it a problem that these "Magi" are not kings or wise men, that they're not even all men, that they don't have historically accurate clothes or hair, or that they don't show any signs of bearing gifts or of having traveled afar? Not necessarily. These departures from more traditional art may irritate or perplex you, but they aren't enough, in themselves, to disqualify this painting as religious art.

The reason I call it a secular painting is because it kind of . . . doesn't have God in it. The Magi's faces take up most of the canvas; but that's not what I mean. I mean is that this painting is about the "Magi" themselves, and not about God. A depiction of the Adoration of the Magi might have all sorts of elements in it, but it absolutely must contain at least an indication that what they are adoring is God. This is what is lacking in this picture, and that is what makes it not religious art.

You can tell by the shadows and highlights that the light source is above and to the right, out of the frame. As I've discussed before, what light is doing in a painting is -- well, enlightening.  In a traditional piece of art depicting the Magi, the light would be emanating from below, from the Christ Child, or from above, from the divinely-appointed guiding star. In this painting, there is a significant break: the light -- late morning sunlight, from the looks of it -- is from above, from behind the faces, and to the viewer's right. And it's pretty clearly just the sun. Why this innovation, if not to make a point?

 And her final point is:

But what is the expression on their faces, as they look at him? They are withholding judgment. Their oddly prominent lips are closed and at rest, without anything to say. This is not a meaningless, mute painting, though. It portrays very poignantly the religious experience that so many modern people have: they have come to see what the fuss is about. And there it is. They look at God, and they don't know what to think.

These are modern magi: exceedingly clean, healthy, and decent, confident but courteous. But do they adore? I don't see it. I don't think they see God, at all.

This is how I commented.



I did not read the comments section, so I don’t know if I’m repeating someone else’s thoughts. I’m only addressing your understanding of the painting. You might be right, but there is another way to look at it. It could be that the “Magi” are experiencing a profound religious experience. In the biblical story all the Magi know is that a king will be born in Bethlehem. They do not know that this king will be transcendent and divine. When they get there their experience is profound, penetrating to the soul. The biblical story doesn’t go into detail, only that they “prostrated” themselves before our Lord. The question is what did this profound experience constitute? Did they suddenly realize their whole lives have been working toward the wrong end of holiness? Is their new life, after the epiphany, a burden now after new knowledge?

This is not unprecedented. Read TS Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.”
There is burden in the journey and there is burden in their new life. It is a realization of a new cross they have to bear. Here’s the last stanza:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Now getting back to the painting. It depends on whether the artist is being cynical in the title with “Adoration” or whether “Adoration” is encompassing a deeper, total Truth that projects toward the crucifixion. The shadows can suggest that and can suggest the burdens of their personal sins and the cross they now will bear.

Anchoress also cited Simcha’s blog, and had her take on it, agreeing with Simcha. 
In my response to Anchoress’s blog, I also said this:

 Let me also add that the Christ child is clearly implied between the painting’s title and the focus of attention. So God is not necessarily absent. He clearly is not, and sometimes things are more powerful if they are offstage. A traditional painting of the Epiphany has the child as the center, and clearly the subject. Here for better or worse the subject is the soul transforming experience of the Magi.

One of the meanings of “epiphany” is this:
a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.
The painting captures the sudden epiphany of the magi.

So it comes down to these questions.(1) Are the facial expressions of the Magi revealing indifference or a soul transforming moment which point to the crucifixion?(2) Is the artist being cynical with the title or do we take him at his word? (3) Is the painting a better painting with or without the Christ child present? (4) How would you assess (poor, mediocre, good, great) the painting? and (5) Is this a religious painting or not?

I don't profess to be an expert here. Simcha's and Anchoress's reading are certainly possible. The facial expressions can point to anything. If you ask me, that is the failing of this painting, the fact that it's so ambigous on the very foundation of its subject. Personally I think this is a mediocre painting at best.

What are your thoughts?



Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My 2012 Reads


“My Old Man,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.

“The Locked Room”, a novella from The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster.

The Good Soldier, a novel by Ford Maddox Ford.

“Moon Lake,” a short story by Eudora Welty.

The First Book of Samuel, a book from the Old Testament, KJV translation.

“Sorrow-Acre,” a short story by Isak Dinesen.

The Quest for Shakespeare, a biography of William Shakespeare by Joseph Pearce. 

“King Lear,” a play by William Shakespeare.

“The Altar of the Dead,” a short story by Henry James. 

“La Vita Nuova,” a short story by Allegra Goodman, from The Best American Short Stories of 2011 collection.

The Confessions, a spiritual autobiography by St. Augustine of Hippo.

“Big Two-Hearted River Part I,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.

“Big Two-Hearted River Part II,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.

“Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?” a short story by Gene Wolfe.

The Second Book of Samuel, a book from the Old Testament, KJV translation.

Treasure Island, a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.

“The Jelly Bean,” a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

“Flowering Judas,” a short story by Katherine Anne Porter.

“The Secret Garden,” a Father Brown mystery short story by G. K. Chesterton.

“Innocence,” a short story by Sean O’Faolain. 

The First Book of Kings, a book from the Old Testament, KJV translation.

“O City of Broken Dreams,” a short story by John Cheever.

“A Fifty-Year-Old Man,” a short story by Shusaku Endo. 

“Youth,” a short story by Joseph Conrad.

Why Read Moby-Dick? a non-fiction work by Nathaniel Philbrick.

“Send My Roots Rain,” a short story by Edna O’Brien.

Leaves of Grass: The Death-Bed Edition, a collection of poetry by Walt Whitman.

“Playland,” a short story by Ron Hansen.

“Credences of Summer,” a long poem by Wallace Stevens.

“The Pit and the Pendulum,” a short story by Edgar Allen Poe.

“The Loveliest Rose in the World,” a short short story by Hans Christian Anderson.

The Second Book of Kings, a book from the Old Testament, KJV translation.

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, an autobiography by Clarence Thomas.

“The Ivory Acrobat,” a short story by Don DeLillo.

Moby Dick, a novel by Herman Melville.

“Hamlet,” a play by William Shakespeare.

“A Simple Heart,” a short story by Gustave Flaubert.

My Antonia, a novel by Willa Cather.

The Gospel According to Luke, KJV & NAB translations.

The Hobbit, a novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” a Sherlock Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

“The Undefeated,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.

Five novels, a novella, four book length non-fiction works, two being autobiographies, a couple of hundred pages through the bible, most of it through the dreaded historical books, two plays, 23 short stories, two works of poetry, one being a major tome, the other a six page length poem that I consider comparable to a short story length work in fiction: actually an outstanding year for me, roughly one book length work, two short stories, and one other medium per month.  I had a few long business trips this year and the air plane is great for catching up on reading.  Plus if you don’t turn the TV on in the hotel room there isn’t anything to do but read.

Last year I had read essays by Emerson and Thoreau, and this year I wanted to complete the American Transcendentalism with Walt Whitman.  And boy did I complete it.  I read without skimming or skipping the 500-plus page Death-Bed Edition of Leaves of Grass.  Now I can say I really have a feel for Whitman.  I meant to blog about it, but unfortunately I never got to it.  What I should do is go back through my highlighted poems and margin notes to refresh my memory and then blog.  Here’s the bottom line: Whitman is not Shakespeare, cannot turn a phrase with the great poets, but is a very important poet.  Besides being the progenitor poet of American English, as say Dante is of Italian or Shakespeare of English, his break with traditional poetic form revolutionized poetry.  Modern poetic free verse starts with Whitman.  Plus Whitman is an enjoyable poet.  He doesn’t confuse the reader with esoteric affairs.  Sure there may be some biographical details that would help the reader, but he fills you in enough to get most of the meaning.  He amplifies and is the opposite of a minimalist; he’s abundant and gives freely.  And he has such a sense of kindness and good will toward all.  I actually wanted to give him a hug at one point. 

I also completed the anti transcendentalists side of the American 19th century Romantics with Melville and Poe; I read Hawthorne last year.  Moby Dick ranks with the very top handful of great literary works, and I put out a blog on it a month or two ago, so there isn’t much more to say here.  Actually I’m realizing now that between Leaves of Grass and Moby Dick I covered the bedrock of the American language.  Sorry to you Mark Twain fans, but Melville’s work transcends.  I guess I’m kind of cheating if I claim to have completed the anti transcendentalists by covering Edgar Allan Poe with only one short story.  The thing is that I’m just not an admirer of Poe.  Take the story I read, “The Pit and the Pendulum.”  Poe puts you into an intense existentialist situation, makes you magnificently feel the gravity of the situation, walks you toward a resolution, and then resolves it by some out-of-left-field outcome that seems to trivialize everything that happened.  The story would have been great except for the last few paragraphs, and then it seems like a hack finish.  Was there some sort of point between medievalism and the enlightenment?  And if so, just because you throw it out at the end without it being integrated does not make it aesthetically sound.

The novels I read were all excellent reads.  I was blown away with My Antonia and I blogged about it a few weeks ago.  The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford is a great work, and I think this was my third time reading it.  I just took a peak at the Wikipedia entry, and it does not do it justice, and I’m not sure I can do it justice either in this short space.  Suffice it to say that Ford in his telling of this simple story line—and it is simple once you unfold the time line—creates the perfect aesthetic representation of the collapse of European society.  Look at the date the novel was published, 1915, so it was written as Europe entered catastrophe.  WWI had just started, but led to the war (in Ford’s view, I don’t necessarily agree with it) is inherent self destruction, psychological repression, and a resulting modern society that is structurally askew.  He compares society to a minuet on the surface but underneath a “prison of screaming hysterics.”  In the story he weaves so subtly motifs of psychology, religion, and history, not just recent history but going back to the Middle Ages, but his greatest creation is the unreliable narrator, which creates the instability of the story, which in turn reflects the instability that was Europe.  That is an incredible aesthetic accomplishment.  Besides that, what I realized on this reading was that Ford’s prose here is the best of his era of all the British novelists.  I’m fairly knowledgeable on the modern (WWI to WWII) British novel, and I love the prose styles of DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Evelyn Waugh, and George Orwell, all great stylists in their own right, but Ford’s prose here is the tops.  He’s exquisite, rhythmically beautiful, flowing with music as if it were a minuet itself.  And that too aesthetically complements the central theme.  It’s an amazing work.

The other novels on my list were fine reads also, though not great novels.  I read Treasure Island after being swamped and weighed down with Whitman and St. Augustine, who’s Confessions turned out to be a lot more philosophical than I thought it would be.  I just needed something light and refreshing and this most definitely was it.  Plus Stevenson was a fine prose writer himself.  I had read an abridged version as a teen and thought I knew the story, but there was more to it than I either remembered or was included in that abridgment.  It’s got great characterization; an aspiring writer should study how Stevenson creates the distinctness of each character.  I read The Hobbit because the movie just came out, and I wanted to have it read if I were to go to see it.  This was another fun read, rich in detail and lots of humor.  Though intended to be a children’s book, it does have profound themes, and it’s very well crafted.  I’m not much on fantasy or sci-fi or whatever The Hobbit’s genre is, but it’s most definitely worth reading.  I can see how Tolkien, though he doesn’t break into the great writer category (mostly because of the genre), does come close, and I can see why he has such a following.  The Auster short novel was, like the other Auster works I’ve read, engrossing.  However I just don’t know what to make of them.  “The Locked Room” is the third novella in his trilogy, and I had read the first two a couple of years ago, and then I misplaced the book, and never read the third.  That was a shame because the three works are interconnected and would have been best to read them sequentially.  And then the book popped up out of nowhere (yes, my study room is a mess) to my surprise.  Auster is worth reading but it always feels like one has entered a skeevy world and needs a shower after.  I do love the New York City references and locations since I can identify them.

Why Read Moby Dick is not worth reading.  It does inspire to read the classic, but I’m not sure Philbrick, who by the way is a historian and not a literary critic, really understands the work.  While he pulls out some nuggets of observation he completely misses some of the big themes, and his obsession of linking the work to the Civil War, which was ten years in the future from the publication, is suspect at best.  The Quest for Shakespeare is actually a biography but one whose focus is to pull together all the evidence for Shakespeare being a Catholic.  That Shakespeare was possibly a Catholic is a long standing notion, but I’m not aware of any work until this one that pulled together all the evidence.  I came away convinced he was, and like the author, Joseph Pearce, we both started out not thinking so, but when you look at the amount of evidence—though no smoking gun link—the odds are he had to be.  For instance his parents were fined as recusants—people who refused to join the Church of England, as was Shakespeare’s eldest daughter when she was an adult.  Shakespeare’s mother’s side of the family had actual subversives and I think Shakespeare had at least one cousin executed.  Shakespeare’s best friend in playwriting, Ben Jonson, was jailed as a Catholic at one point.  There’s even more than that.  I should have taken notes.  Perhaps I’ll re-skim it and put together a blog on it.  The book is well worth reading whether you’re convinced or not.

The other two non-fiction works were both autobiographies.  St. Augustine’s Confessions—I think technically the first autobiography ever written—is a classic work.  I loved the actually biographical parts, but mostly those were touchstones for his going off into philosophical and theological discussions, and that was too analytical for me.  But I’m glad I read it.  The Clearance Thomas (the Supreme Court Justice) autobiography is also an engaging read.  I loved his stories of growing up a poor black in the south raised by his grandparents—and so the title of the book.  The grandfather, though flawed, was an amazing man, a true Conservative in his core, and it took Thomas decades to understand him and come around to his thinking.  If you want to go beyond the cliché of only rich people are Conservatives, read this book and you’ll understand where our thinking comes from.

My Shakespeare reads were both re-reads, so I have not progressed on my pursuit to complete his opus.  I’m still at 26 read of the 36 plays.  My goal this year was to come to a resolution on "Hamlet."  I’ve argued it’s a flawed play, and there are major critics that would agree with me—I’m not pulling that out of the air.  I had some theory last year that if you read it besides "Lear" and "Macbeth" you’ll see how the structure falls into place.  I don’t even remember the theory, so that went nowhere, but I did warm up to the play more so.  The central spine of the play (the revelation of Hamlet’s father’s murder and the searching for the moral justification for revenge) does hold together, but really, why are the relationships with his mother and Ophelia part of the play, and why did the play within the play to catch the King’s reaction have to be so elaborate?  It’s these damn digressions that seem unjustified.  But I’ll concede that I’ve evolved and can say the play is not flawed, but perhaps sloppy.  I consider "King Lear" the greatest play ever written, and I’m never sorry to read it.  If I had a week left to live and was down to my last read before I go to that great library in the sky, it would be "King Lear."  I don’t think any literary work captures the totality of humanity as Lear does.

It’s a pleasure to read such a wide range of short stories.  This year I decided to include some genre stories: mysteries (Arthur Conan Doyle and GK Chesterton), sci-fi (Gene Wolfe), and folk tale (Hans Christian Anderson).  They were fun but uninspiring.  Eudora Welty, who I have hardly read anything from, blew me away with her story “Moon Lake.”  She can write and has such a southern lady’s genteel touch.  A group of young girls, about the age of first puberty at summer camp and one drowns.  I might have ended the story a little differently, but no complaints in the way Welty ended.  Henry James’ “The Altar of the Dead” is one of those classic stories that everyone should read.  It’s James at his best, and if you don’t want to read one of his lengthy novels, then this story is for you.  I read it many years ago, and it did not disappoint as a second reading.  It took me three or four starts to get into Katherine Ann Porter’s “Flowering Judas.”  It’s so tersely written that I was confused with who was doing what.  Once I understood it, I realized what a little jewel of a story this is, condensed like a poem.  I decided to read Shusaku Endo’s “A Fifty Year Old Man” because I was fifty years old last year, and that’s as good a reason as any.  He really captured a melancholy of a receding life.  Hopefully my life is not receding though this darned sinus infection is still bothering me.  Ron Hansen’s “Playland” captured a time and place in the past, and the characters felt so very real.  The four Hemingway stories were all very good.  He’s at his best in that form.  I had previously read the first three listed, and the two parts of “Big Two-Hearted River” are established classics, but it was the last story, read on New Year’s Eve as we waited for the New Year to ring (yes, we have no social life), one that I had never read before, that most impressed me.  “The Undefeated” is about an aging, washed up bull fighter trying to still earn a living from the craft he knows and trying to keep his dignity as he realizes his skills have diminished.  I loved it.  All year long I thought the top prize of the short stories I read would go to “Moon Lake,” but in the end it was the great Gustave Flaubert who had the best story.  I read “A Simple Heart” the first time about thirty years ago, and the only thing I could remember was that it was about the life of a simple peasant woman and it had brought tears to my eyes.  So I figured let me read it again, and now that I’m a gruff, insensitive old-timer I could just go right through it.  Well, I was sitting at the window seat of an airplane while reading the ending and I had to turn my face out because my eyes were welling up.  It just goes to show how some stories of heroic lives just turn me to mush.  If I had felt Flaubert was just playing with my heartstrings, I would have shrugged it off, but the authorial restraint was perfect.  That’s one of those stories that need to be studied.  It wins top prize for 2012.  The other stories ranged from average to good except for O’Faolain’s, “Innocence,” which I thought was not very good.

So what are my plans for the coming year?  Well, I’ll continue with my long standing goals, that is reading through the Hemingway short stories, reading through the King James Bible (I really don’t care for that translation but anyone who considers themselves well read in English literature must do that at least once), and through 19th century American classics.  OK, I’ll go back to some more Poe.  I’ve decided to read Life on the Mississippi for Twain, since I’ve always wanted to read that, and Washington Square for Henry James, since it’s not one of his long novels and since Washington Square is a location in lower Manhattan that I’m familiar with.  For my Catholic classic, I’m going with Sigrid Undset’s biography of St. Catherine of Sienna, since I want to read Undset anyway.  For poetry I’m thinking of going back to Dante’s Divine Comedy, but reading it fast and not worrying about the scholarly footnotes, and I’ll see which of Shakespeare’s plays I’ll get to.  I do want to read something by Steinbeck since I haven’t in decades and I must read more from non-English writers, just not sure what yet.  I spent a few months this year going through Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, and I do have a good biography I want to match up with it.  And then of course as many short stories—the mother’s milk fiction, if you ask me—as I can squeeze in.  Overly ambitious?  Probably, but better to plan that way.