On Giants' Shoulders

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Is There a Common Thread Here?

I am pondering a question that has haunted me for some time. What is it that is the common characteristic of the writers I like? I am terribly opinionated about authors. There are some others, generally recognized as fine authors by the canon, whom I really don't enjoy. For example, I found Dreiser's Sister Carrie to be flat and unrealistic, Hemingway not generally worth my time, and James Fenimore Cooper a drudgery to read. Yet there are other authors that I gladly read and re-read and re-read yet again. Chesterton, Tolkien (we've literally worn out a whole set of LOTR and had to buy a new one), C.S. Lewis (ditto for being on a second set of Narnia and the Space trilogy needs replacing), Dorothy Sayers, Charlotte Bronte, Hawthorne, L'Engle (on our second copy of a Ring of Endless Light), Alcott (I re-read Little Women and Little Men endlessly in junior high), Christie,Dickens,Flannery O'Connor,some, but not all, of Stephen Lawhead, Michael O'Brien, Jane Austen, Dante, some of Evelyn Waugh, Sigrid Undset, some, but certainly not all of Twain (sorry Atticus!). Well you can sort of see there isn't any particular thread, probably. They come from different time periods they don't all write explicitly Christian fiction, although most of them would be seen as Christian in one sense or another. Now to throw in a couple of oddities, I acually enjoy some, although not all, of Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, and Helen McInnes, none of whom would be particularly linked with Christianity at all. I also like a bunch of other mystery writers, some of whom are pretty explicitly secular.

So why do I like these folks and yet find so many of the so-called greats to be not worth bothering with? Are they all romantics who pit good against evil? Perhaps. Perhaps there really is no thread. Some people would look at my list and see it as not quite high brow enough. If you looked at my book shelves (the fiction ones at least) you would see that they are far fuller of English than American authors. That's partly because the English authors cover a wider span of time, but it's not the only reason. I have simply found fewer American authors that I truly enjoy. There are some pieces of American literature like Catcher in the Rye that I read once (probably for some class or other) and have never picked up again. There are books like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice that I read for the first time as a teenager and have re-read more than once as an adult, finding new things to love each time. Of the American writers that write before 1900 only Hawthorne, Alcott, and small amounts of Twain, would fall into the same category. Even in the twentieth century American short fiction captured me far more than most American novels. Yet I continue to discover, devour, and re-read British, Canadian, and other nationalities fiction.

So those of you who are literary and love people like Hemingway and Twain, and either loathe or love Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, et. al. What do you think? Is there a common thread here? Do I just dislike "guy books," in the same way that I sort of dislike what I see as "guy movies" (which my son by the way tells me aren't just "guy movies" things like, oh say, war movies and a lot of westerns)? It can't be deeply developed and "real" characters or I wouldn't enjoy Chesterton's fiction or Waugh's satirical stuff. It can't be happy endings, because many of the books I'm thinking of don't have happy endings. They certainly aren't all mystery stories.

Do any of you have a similar list? Have you found a common thread. Do you find Sister Carrie to be flat and unconvincing? Are you less than enthralled by Hemingway? Would you avoid inflicting Moby Dick on your teenaged daughter? Would you insist that your kids must read Brave New World, but could skip Catcher in the Rye? Who do you love and loathe and what sort of a must read list would you promote?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

We're Back

Well, what can I say? The conference was every bit as good as I hoped, even better in fact. We had a glorious drive out to Rochester. The sun was shining the whole way. Anna and I had our usual rambling discussions, catching up and talking about all sorts of things Catholic, literary, political, etc. When we'd checked in at the motel we headed out to look for the conference site so that we didn't get lost in the morning. It took us over an hour to find it (3 sets of directions, but none of them were very good, including the one from the conference organizer - and the guy we stopped to ask directions from was really no better). We finally located the college and, after asking directions on campus, the chapel where the conference would be held. We headed back to Henrietta and our motel and unfortunately got off at the wrong exit (East Henrietta Road, instead of West Henrietta Road) and then spent another 45 minutes struggling to find a way back to where we were supposed to be. Finally, we made it back to the hotel. We braved crossing a five lane road on foot to get dinner. Traffic was light, fortunately.

In the morning it took us 12 minutes to get from the motel to the conference. We were there with loads of time to spare and got good seats right up front. Actually they were in the process of putting the chairs up when we got there (the organizer had said we should be there early - I guess his definition of early was different from mine). Getting there early actually wasn't necessary because there turned out to be quite a few empty seats, although there was a respectable turnout.

The program began with a scene from Hamlet by the Brown Bag Players. This was followed by a discussion of Hamlet as a Catholic play by a deacon who is a canon lawyer. This was interspersed with another scene from Hamlet. After a break we were treated to a scene from the Merchant of Venice followed by Joseph Pearce's presentation which dealt mainly with the biographical/historical evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism.

After lunch we had a scene from Lear followed by a historian who spoke on the historical situation in Elizabeth's time (the top down nature of the English Reformation). A scene from Henry IV Part 2 followed, the Dale Alquist who spoke of Chesterton's various discussions of Shakespeare. Another scene from the Merchant of Venice was in there somewhere (but without looking at the program I forget just where it was put in). Then the presentation part of the conference ended with a soliliquy from the Tempest. I think I may be forgetting one of the other soliliquy's, but the program is out in the car and it's raining. They ended the conference with questions and answers, lots of good questions and lots of good answers.

I managed to get books signed by both Dale Alquist and Joseph Pearce. Pearce also took my e-mail address and said he would be in touch because he has some Spanish copies of his books. He wanted me to e-mail him my niece's address so he could send them to her. This was because I mentioned that she was studying Spanish and that I had just sent her a copy of one of his books. Hopefully, he won't forget, Laura. Both of them were fun to talk with. I didn't realize that I've actually been Catholic a whole year longer than Dale Alquist.

The trip back was not so much fun. Anna and I had great discussions again, but it rained the entire way. It wasn't too bad on the NY Thruway, but when we got off and had to travel on U.S. Routes to get to I-87 it was pouring, it was dark, the road was twisty turny and a lot of the time I felt like I was just inching along. There was about 35 miles of this, so it really was a annoying. The rain let up a bit just before we got to Saratoga Springs, but then picked up again when we got on the Northway. It rained pretty hard right through most of Route 4 in Vermont. Of course by that time we were where we at least knew the lay of the land.

Anna's mom met us in the southern part of Rutland and I made it home by about 10:50. We had done the whole trip in just under 36 hours. It was actually amusing at the end. I had tried to call home from Rutland to let them know I was almost here, but no one answered (I figured they were in the barn). Then as I was driving up Plains Road (which you can see from our house) my cell phone rang. It was David wondering how far along we were. I said, "I'm just turning onto Pinewoods Road." I was actually less than a minute from our driveway. The drive back actually took only about 35 minutes longer than the drive out, and some of that could be accounted for by our actually stopping to eat dinner. So I guess that drive in the rain didn't slow us down all that much, it just seemed tedious at the time.

All in all it was well worth the effort. I found a holy card of St. Margaret Clitheroe (something I've never seen anywhere before!), bought a back issue of STAR that I was missing, got a copy of Chesterton's Lepanto with notes and commentary, and a copy of Dale Alquist's book Common Sense 101, Lessons from G.K. Chesterton. I could have bought more holy cards (a bunch of lovely hand painted ones were available) or more books, but I restrained myself. Of course it was helpful that I already owned (or in one case had on order) the majority of the books on the table.

St. John Fisher College looks like a place with a lot of good things going on. The Rochester Chesterton Society is quite obviously a really great bunch of people. Everyone was friendly and helpful, lunch was supplied for a small donation. They really put together a great event. So if you live in the Rochester area and like Chesterton you really should check those folks out. It's obviously too far for us to travel to meetings, but if they put on another event like this I wouldn't hesitate to drive that far again.

So there's my review of the trip. I may give you some excerpts from the extensive notes I took, but not until the rain stops because the notebook is also in the car.

Oh, the one downside, I woke up with a sore throat and the beginnings of a cold this morning. Boo, Hiss as we say around here. So now I'm going to go climb into a hot bath and prepare to get ready for Mass. I hope it's not raining where you are.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Road Trip Ahead

Tomorrow is the day for my long awaited road trip to Rochester, New York for the conference on Shakespeare as Catholic. I am really looking forward to this. I'm not particularly looking forward to 12 hours of driving round trip, but I am looking forward to getting to spend a couple of days with my former student, Anna. I figure that 12 hours of driving plus an evening in a motel should get us just about talked out and caught up.

Anna is one of the few people I know who can enjoy literary discussions as much as my daughter and I do. Sometimes it simply feels like most people just plain don't READ. I mean, really now, how can you not enjoy Chesterton, Tolkien, Benson, Lewis, Alcott, the Brontes, Dante,Shakespeare, and Chaucer. I will admit that Anna didn't love Langland (she may have been a little young for Piers Plowman), but we had such fun discussing all of those and others. One thing I want to ask her tomorrow is her advice about what to teach my current crop of girls next year. It feels like time to go back and do some of the stuff I've done before which they haven't done yet, but I need to know what the best things for them are. Of course I'm being sorely tempted to go in a new direction and do Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Eudora Welty. I could even be tempted to throw in one Stephen King, and simply call the whole thing American Gothic (not that they are truly all gothic - but it sounds good). I could even do a year of mystery and do the really great mystery writers, but my oldest student hates detective fiction. Probably I'll go back and do my classic "Time Out For the Ladies" which included Alcott, one Bronte, Mary Shelly, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and some women poets. I could just add Flannery O'Connor to that mix.

Of course none of this is your standard public school or correspondence school type reading list. They probably will have great gaps in their literary knowledge at the end of the day since we don't use an anthology. However, what they do know about they'll know a LOT about. I've realized of late how great the gaps in my literary knowledge were even after I got a bachelor's degree in English. The renowned authors I'd never even heard of comprised a list larger than the renowned authors I'd read. For example, I'd never heard of the Sitwells, or Roy Campbell, or Graham Greene, or Maurice Baring, or Evelyn Waugh until I read Joseph Pearce's Literary Converts about 8 years ago. I'd heard of Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, but had read only one short story by Joyce. I'd never heard of Walker Percy, never knew Lewis wrote anything other than Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters until after I graduated. The only Chesterton I was exposed to was Father Brown. Even of the "standard stuff" I'd never read Tom Jones, or Frankenstein, or Sister Carrie. A lot of what I did read, I read outside of class assignments. So I guess if I managed to get through a bachelor's degree with gaps that these guys will probably have to settle for some gaps as well. At least we're reading something better than The Chocolate Wars or Jonathan Livingston Seagull (both of which I've seen in public school reading lists in the past 30 years).

I wonder what Karen's Atticus would recommend.

One of the joys of doing this particular tutoring project in these years is that my students are all Catholics. Consequently, we get to discuss the Catholic implications and allusions etc. of all this literature. It's fun when the author is Catholic (even a marginal one), but it's also fun when they aren't. It's interesting to see subtle anti-Catholic prejudices in a book and to discuss how this would have effected the Catholic characters or how it reflected the culture of the period.

Of course the big joy of doing this particular project is that I get to know some really great teenagers. It's nice to be their teacher, then their mentor, and finally their friend.

I'm only taking one Joseph Pearce book along to try to get signed. It seems like it would be really tacky to bring the whole stack of his books I own. I'm just thankful he wrote them and helped my education out. I'm also pleased that he and the other excellent presenters are going to be there. It's a rare treat for us. So road trip here we come.

Laundry Woes

If you would like to hear how to get little polka dots of pen ink out of washed and dried clothing go to my daughter's xanga blog. She tells the story of yesterday afternoon's wretchedness. Super Mommy to the rescue (at least I knew what MIGHT work!) Daughter's blog is Abby Swift on the links at the left.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Breadmakers Caveat

Do not ever leave your bread sponge sitting in the kitchen while you go write a witty book review for your blog. For if you do, that will be the time that Blogger will lock up on you and put two incomplete posts on your blog. You will then have to spend time deleting them and fixing things up. While you do this your sponge will have been rising and rising, then finally overflowing its bowl. You will return to the kitchen to find bread dough on the counter, on the mixer, all over the mixer bowl (a la Lucy Ricardo!). You will then have to punch dough the sponge, and clean up the mess before you can proceed to the next stage of the breadmaking process.

How do I know? Well let's just say that I now have a bowl sitting in the sink soaking bread dough off both the outside and the inside. I suspect that Lucy was a sanguine too!

Yet Another Book Review

For those of you who find my taste in books to be boring or odd, well you might want to skip this post. On the other hand, you might find this particular book more interesting. It isn't lit crit, as the last one was, it's truly applicable to life. It's a book that shows how sometimes we are fellow travelers with people we might not expect.

The title of the book is Crunchy Cons (and no it isn't about granola eating prisoners!). The author, Rod Dreher, is a writer and editor at the Dallas Morning News, and a conservative journalist. However, he's a conservative journalist who wears Birkenstock sandals, shops at a co-op, eats free range chicken, lives in an old bungalow in an older neighborhood in Dallas (not a McMansion in the suburbs) and is as opposed to modern industrialism and factory farming as our current congressman from Vermont (who is labeled independent, but is still pretty much a socialist). In other words, not your usual conservative. A right wing nature lover, is there even such a thing? Well of course there is, despite the fact that neither current political party seems to have a place for them.

I wish I could download a picture of the book's cover for you, but my "techie daughter" just headed off for a job interview and won't be back until this evening. So if you want to see the cover you'll have to go to Amazon or something. It's actually a pretty interesting cover with a picture of an old VW bus with a Republican elephant painted on it and a hand sticking out the driver's window flashing the "peace" sign. Below that it says "How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).

So finally I know what I am: a Crunchy Con. I who spent my twenties and thirties reading both Christianity Today and Mothering Magazine, I who read Francis Schaeffer and John Holt, I who was a La Leche League leader who nursed her toddlers and voted for Ronald Reagan, I who read Mother Earth and Chuck Colson. I who married an environmentalist who also hunts deer and reads Outdoor Life. Here all this time I just thought we were weird, now it turns out there really are loads of other people like us. How cool is that!

Of course I'd actually known there were people like us out there. They were the folks who read Gilbert magazine and hold their noses when voting in presidential elections. I even actually have Crunchy Con friends like my "godmother", Ellen, who raises chickens, burns wood, homeschooled her kids, and is a totally pro-life, charismatic type Catholic who encourages her kids to read great books, not just hagiography. I also have traditional con type friends (although frankly most of them pretty much dropped off the map after I became Catholic), and some liberal friends (who do weird things like raise sheep and spin wool).

One interesting thing about Dreher's book is that he discusses the variety of lifestyles that crunchy cons have. They don't all live on farms, or even in the country. They aren't all Christian, although they do tend to be traditionally orthodox in their religious practices (no Cardinal Mahoney fans in this bunch, but at least one Orthodox Jew). They read people like Russell Kirk and G.K. Chesterton. Dreher is familiar with the distributists and the southern agrarians.

The back of the book has A Crunchy Con Manifesto. This sums up a lot of the ideas the book is supporting (while the book itself includes a lot of real life examples. Here's the manifesto:

1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore we can see things more clearly.

2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.

5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship --especially of the natural world-- is not fundamentally conservative.

6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

7. Beauty if more important than efficiency.

8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

9. We share Russell Kirk's conviction that "the institution most essential to conserve is the family."

It seems to me that many of the blogs I visit daily are on board with this. So I hope that at least some of you read the book and find it as challenging/encouraging as I do. I now have another book to recommend to my twenty-something friends who are disgusted with George Bush, even though they are pro-life, anti-cloning, and pro-traditional marriage.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Going to the Library

One of the greatest pleasures in my life in recent years has been trips to the library of my alma mater. I know that I spent a good deal of time in the library when I was in college (generally reading things that had nothing to do with the courses I was actually taking at the time), but for years it was a closed and locked out place to me. This was actually unnecessary. I hadn't realized that for the paltry sum of $5 I could purchase an alumni card which would unlock the place to me once again. I made this marvelous discovery during the years my daughter was a student there and have regularly availed myself of its treasures ever since then.

The library not only saves me money every year (in books I want to read, but hesitate to purchase), it has also introduced me to books I should never have found otherwise. Despite its purely secular stance, it has a plethora of books by and about Lewis, Chesterton, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Charles Peguy, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc., etc. You get the picture. You won't find much from Ignatius Press and you will have to weed through the debunkers and hostile critics, but there's gold in those stacks as well.

Yesterday I made the trek to Burlington (a 3 hour round trip drive). I was returning a book on Phillip Sydney and a biography of St. Robert Southwell (one of the forty Martyrs of England and Wales). I went intending to pick up one critical study of Flannery O'Connor, one book by Charles Peguy and intending to see what I could find interesting in the Chesterton field (always an interesting place for me to roam). I came home with two critical studies of O'Connor (leaving several others for another time), one book by Peguy, a new book on the history of the Swiss Guard, and 6 books that discussed either Chesterton in some fashion or other. I'm only allowed to take out 10 books at a time and quite frankly since I had to walk clear across campus to get to visitor parking there's a limit to how much weight I wanted to carry. Besides I can go back again next month!

This morning I've been reading the first of those Chesterton related books and I simply had to recommend it to Chesterton and Lewis lovers. The title of the book is G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, The Riddle of Joy. The pieces by Christopher Derrick and Walter Hooper alone make the book well worth reading, but so far I've been interested in every single essay. These are actually papers presented at the 1987 Conference to Celebrate the Achievement of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis at Seattle University and Seattle Pacific University. If you didn't have the opportunity to attend the conference, if you never even heard about the conference, now you have the opportunity to read what those who attended actually heard. Perhaps you aren't the sort of person to attend conferences of this sort. Don't think that means you won't enjoy the essays. They shed light on both authors and debunk a lot of myths (for example that Lewis lost his faith in a good God after the death of his wife Joy). Richard Purtill's description of his experiences with the Catholic Evidences Guild and his analysis of where some Catholics went wrong from the Civil Rights Movement on is fascinating. It also makes one cautious about where we might easily go wrong as well.

As I was flipping through the book before actually setting down to truly read it, I spotted a paragraph that looked interesting. As I read it, I thought, this sounds very familiar. I glanced to the top of the page and saw the name of the author, one of my favorites: Thomas Howard. It's truly eerie how after awhile you've read so much by someone that you can recognize their writing even without knowing that they were the author. I couldn't do that with every author I'm familiar with, but there are a handful that I certainly seem to be able to do this with. Chesterton is one of those, of course, but so is Howard, probably Father Groeschel, almost certainly Scott Hahn amd C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, and Agatha Christie.

Speaking of literary conferences, I'm planning on attending one this month. The Rochester Chesterton Society is holding a one day conference on Shakepeare as Catholic. Joseph Pearce and Dale Alquist are among the scheduled speakers. Rochester is a 6 hour drive away from here (that's one way), but I'm planning on going anyway. I'm taking one of my favorite former homeschooled students with me. Anna and I will go the day before and stay overnight then return home late at night after the conference. Since I'm currently "doing" Shakespeare with my this year's class of homeschooled lit students it seemed a real opportunity I needed to seize. I would love to take this year's students with me, but unfortunately they are tied up with important family stuff that weekend. I'll report back after the conference to tell you how it went.

Oh, I didn't mention that Abby went with me. We spent our time in the car talking about Romanticism, Classicism (I read her Joseph Pearce's essay on Romanticism in the latest issue of St. Austin Review while she was driving), various current expressions of Catholicism, why you don't have to be a rigid traditionalist to appreciate Latiin Mass Magazine, what's wrong with capitalism, whether distributist ideas are practical, and the fact that reading people you think you won't agree with sometimes surprises you (i.e. I've had to totally change my thoughts on Dorothy Day in the past year). Then on the way home we ended up talking about John Dominic Crossnan (because Jim gave Abby a book of his to read - he had to read it for a class) and how you can't treat scripture as JUST metaphor without destroying the meaning. Well, do you sort of get the picture. Do you understand why I love to spend three hours in the car with my daughter? Oh I forgot the discussion about different sorts of intelligences and the ways in which some of us appear to be sports like Calvin O'Keefe. Don't you envy me! Well, if you are homeschooling your own kids and they are getting to the point of discussing things you are probably having similarly interesting conversations. I simply never recall having anything like this sort of conversation with my parents. I did have this type of conversation with my mother-in-law when I first got married, but there haven't been too many people around that I can talk with like this. I thin that perhaps the reason it's so much fun with Abby is that we love a lot of the same authors and that we come at things from similar (although not identical) vantage points.

Anyway a fun afternoon was had by all. Now I want to get back to actually reading The Riddle of Joy. If you can find it at a library somewhere, won't you join me.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Purple Sweater Saga

I imagine that some of you are as tired of the purple sweater saga as I am, however, you might be wondering how it's coming. Well, it's still a continuing saga. I re-dyed it again and while the splotches are beginning to look slightly more planned and it's evening out a bit, it still needs some help. Yeserday I dug through my stash of wool and re-discovered some purple roving that I'd done in the resist of the original dye (this roving is sort of lilac colored, a very light purple). I sat down and spun a two ply yarn out of this that approximated the weight of my original purple yarn. Now I can look at the purple sweater as a sort of tapestry or canvas on which to do some sort of designs in a contrast yarn in duplicate stitch.

Today while I do my grocery shopping etc. I've got to ponder just what sort of designs would work. Shall I do little v's or hearts, or shall I actually do bigger things like a sheep or handspindles (I have graphs for both of those). Since I've never actually done duplicate stitch designs on anything before, this will be a continuing adventure. I am solidly into the "if life gives you lemons make lemonade" stage of this project. I am actually beginning to get a teeny bit excited about what I might be able to do to make this a designer sweater instead of a mistake. I have to say that all of the steaming I've done with this sweater seems to have given it a wonderful texture. I love the way it feels, now if I can just get to where I love the way it looks.

Speaking of purple, I have an adapted version of my favorite poem as a little child. I'm not sure how many of you ever heard "The Purple Cow" (sorry, don't know who the author was) when you were growing up. As the child of a dairy farmer I heard it tons of times. Since I loved purple (this was long before purple sweater issues), it was a real favorite. Of course now we raise sheep, not cows, so I needed an updated version. Here goes:

I never saw a purple ewe
I never plan to see one
But I can tell you certain true
I'd rather see than be one.

I began to make arrangements yesterday to trot my wares out to the Farmer's Market this summer. We're going to have to come up with a name for our enterprise. Do you suppose that the conservative bunch in my family would tolerate my calling it The Purple Ewe? Nah, probably not.

Anyone interested in making crocheted baskets out of spun Easter Grass? That's one thing I'm pondering as a possiblity for this year. I saw directions in Spin-off years ago. Of course maybe I'm just procrastinating about the other stuff I should be doing.