Sep 11 2017

Things Read Over the Weekend: Vikings, Dickens, Russia

pencil shavings

Things Read Over the Weekend

Famous Viking warrior burial revealed to be that of a woman,” by Jamie Seidel, News.com.au, September 10, 2107.

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How guest Hans Christian Andersen destroyed his friendship with Dickens,” by Vanessa Thorpe, The Guardian, September 9, 2017.

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Girls and Men: On Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘The Unwomanly Face of War‘,” by Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Rosochinsky, Los Angeles Review of Books, September 8, 2017.

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Traveler Restaurant: this small-town Connecticut restaurant gives each diner a free book from its vast library,” Atlasobscura.com.


Jul 17 2017

Working With Wilder: Reflections on Mark Athitakis and “The New Midwest”

Athens

Working With Wilder: Reflections on Mark Athitakis and “The New Midwest”

It is evident after reading The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2017) that Mark Athitakis has read a lot more books on the Midwest than I think I’ll ever be able to get around to, so I am somewhat hesitant to comment or critique his book too much. But when it comes to the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder I think I can offer some constructive reflection linking both authors.

The Little House books are some of the earliest books I remember my mother reading to me and my siblings in the mid-1980s. So I found it a little strange to encounter Athitakis’ confession that he was “conditioned to think” of the books as “written for girls,” (p. 37).

Yes, the characters of Laura, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Nellie are all girls, but I never felt the books were “girly” or “sissy” or what have you. But on the other hand, I get what Athitakis is getting at. I wasn’t quoting passages from the books and the television show in the locker-room after football practice.

I’m pretty sure that, even in “the late 1970s and early 1980s,” when he was growing up, Mr. Athitakis doesn’t mean he was conformed to believe all fiction written by women was therefore written for women. I don’t think he was taught that in school, nor do I interpret him as saying that he did. But, what is an interesting question, is whether he (and I and others of our generation) grew up assuming that when fiction prior to the 21st century contains females as its principle characters, did (and do) we initially assume such fiction was written more for women than for men?

Upon some reflection, the question doesn’t pan out. Think about it. I’ve never heard of a male reader characterize Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) as a “girly” book, nor have I ever heard of girls complaining that Rowling’s Harry Potter series were too “manly” to be read. My mother’s favorite book by Wilder is Farmer Boy (1933), which is a retelling of the boyhood of Wilder’s husband Almonzo Wilder. Perhaps gender is pretty arbitrary.

But what about when the author, particularly for a children’s book, is a woman and the principle character happens to be a girl? Are there examples in this context that have traditionally not been considered too feminine for male readers from the last 300 years?

On this issue I must confess I’ve never been impulsively tempted to read Little Women (1868) (or Little Men for that matter). Super-reader Andrew Lang once confessed in Adventures Among Books (1910) of his childhood love for Brönte’s Jane Eyre (p.10). And, if we accept the experts general agreement that fairy-tales were originally and principally told by women to children, then one can say Charles Dickens’ confession of his desire to marry Red Riding Hood counts as an answer in the affirmative to the proposed question above (see “A Christmas Tree” (1859)).

The Midwest: a dream by David Lynch #bookshelf #books #Literature #midwest #twinpeaks

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Athitakis’ comments (pp. 37-38) on the plotlessness of Wilder’s first book Little House in the Big Woods (1932) is an important observation. As Laura Wilder said later in life:

For years I had thought that the stories my father once told me should be passed on to other children. I felt they were much too good to be lost.

And so I wrote Little House in the Big Woods.

That book was a labor of love and is really a memorial to my father. A line drawing of an old tin type of father and mother is the first illustration.

“My Work.” A Little House Sampler. By Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. Edited by William Anderson. Lincoln, NE. 1988. NY: Harper Collins. 1995.  176–77.

But one should compare and contrast the sixth book in the Little House series The Long Winter (1940), whose narrative is strongly plot-driven–yet also full of psychological stress and spiritual strength to endure a fierce series of blizzards in the winter of 1880-81, strangely not unlike Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), although it takes place not in the Midwest but in Colorado, and Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002), a novel of the Northwest but one that starts out in Midwest Missouri.


Jan 15 2016

A SECOND LOOK AT FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Reviewing 5 Books by 4 Authors

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Part of any spiritual discipline, however, is discovering—repeatedly—that one had it all wrong. You both knew and did not know.

––Gregory Bateson [1]

The anthropologist Bateson, an avowed atheist, was fond for chiding that supernatural things and miracles are but “a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.” [2] I’m not sophisticated enough to argue for or against that last statement, but the above quotation gives the book reviewer an apt starting point because one can apply Bateson’s words to the act of reading. Let us ask, for each of the five books under review: as a reader what did I get wrong––what did I wrongly assume to be true going into the initial reading?

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming? I assumed there would be some everyday-life sentimentality––I did not expect to encounter mysticism—and when I did I found it difficult to hold my attention. I struggled to empathize with experiences of the numinous recounted in this book, such as dreaming of conversing with ghosts. For I’ve never had a mystical moment—as occurs sometimes in this and in Dreher’s other work How Dante as well as (in passing) in the angelology and demonology of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim. Even when I was a regular churchgoer, neither in the loud churches nor quiet churches, neither in the black churches, white churches, or Latin American churches I visited—some of which were full of people with spasms, the shakes, speaking in tongues, shouting out loud like Paul Stanley, some bellowing with Bach from an organ, some full of smoke from incense and candles, I never experienced the coincidence-that-wasn’t-really-a-coincidence like Dreher relates:

Despite these very different approaches to faith, we had independently developed interest in the patterns that God uses when He communicates to us. We both believed strongly in meaningful coincidences, which the psychiatrist Carl Jung called “synchronicities.” Ruthie called them “seven-oh-nines,” after a remarkable set of coincidences that happened to her after [her husband] Mike went off to war an event that tested Ruthie faith. [3]

Yes, I am usually interested in what Jung, the godfather of Neognosticism, has to say, and I’ve listened to the Sting and the Police and still dig that tune, but on the other hand, I cannot ignore Emerson’s words:

Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false…. Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one … And the mystic must be steadily told, — All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it. [4]

I can confess to experiencing moments where I felt like was in the right place doing the right thing at the right time, but there was nothing transcendental about it—and I certainly feel I’d be lying if I labeled those experiences as mystical.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about How Dante Can Save Your Life? While not quite anticipating Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (1922) or C. S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941), I mistakenly expected to encounter the same kind of rigorous writing style I’ve found on Dreher’s blog these past few years. There were no berserking blitzkrieg of quotations accompanied by Rod’s infamous “read the whole thing” blurb. Instead, I found in How Dante a restrained and simplified style––one not dumbed down, but distilled.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about La Divina Comedia? If you start to read commentary on Dante you’ll soon get engulfed by diagrams and charts and maps of the Afterlife. So what surprised me on first read was the dreamy ease of it. Much like Proust, the places and transitions from one place to another did not feel to this reader like the rigid levels, the strict layers, the definite hierarchies and inked schemata from centuries of scholars. Nor did reading the Comedia and imagining the visuals the poet supplies feel like playing a video game with stringent leveling of worlds and platforms, nor the way the audience encounters the station stopping “blocks” in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953) (a fellow Louisianian author of Dreher’s) even if Dante has rendered a systematized thought behind it all.

La Divina Comedia is, however, the first epic I’m aware of to be told entirely as a dream, which was a common medium for storytelling and poetry in the Middle Ages. In Dante there are seemless fade ins and fade outs from one place to another, but these moments are not quite as lacking in transitions as, say, Yellow Submarine (1968), or even the radical, random juxtaposition found in the work of David Lynch––Dante was certainly not a Dadaist.

Structurally, I see Dicken’s Christmas Carol (1843) as an inverted Divine Comedy: the Ghost of Christmas Past represents Paradiso, the Ghost of the Christmas Present represents Purgatorio, The Ghost of Christmas Future, Inferno—a Christian theme, a Christian dream, all told in one night.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about Why Place Matters? I expected more references to contemporary politics as well as the application of specific and emerging technologies. Overall this anthology is very studied and astute—but it contains no author imagining or proposing radical change, no deeply inspiring vision like a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley might expect to be pitched. In that sense, the book is very conservative. Most of Why Place Matters involves case histories and diagnoses for the increasing lack of relevance of place in American culture, but few (if any) prescriptions are proposed. This remains a banal charge against many modern nonfiction books. Probably the most blatant example in Why Place Matters of this pattern of theory overriding practice can be found in Mark T. Mitchell’s essay “Marking Places: The Cosmopolitan Temptation.”

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about Elmer Gantry? I got two things wrong: (1) I was mistaken that Gantry has no adversaries when his co-minister Sharon Falconer does in fact function somewhat as his antagonist. He doesn’t know what motivates her. He seems to shake off or ignore her proclamations about being Joan of Arc reincarnated because he stays prostrate, in ardent awe of her. So Sharon is Elmer’s Beatrice: “Always, in every high-colored mood, she was his religion and his reason for being.”[5]

(2) I thought Elmer Gantry, as the character of the evangelical minister, wanted––as he does in the 1960 movie based on the book––a rock-n-roll lifestyle of women and whisky, but Elmer only wants the attention and influence that comes from making people feel good.

Finally, I really identified how he can’t wrap his mind around the necessity in Christian ministry for a minimal amount of mysticism. After Elmer had successfully lay-preached, and is soon to graduate from seminary, he is informed that he still needs a Call:

He saw himself as a white-browed and star-eyed young evangel, wearing a new frock coat, standing up in a pulpit and causing hundreds of beautiful women to weep with conviction and rush down to clasp his hand.

But there was one barrier, extremely serious. They all informed him that select though he was as sacred material, before he decided he must have a mystic experience known as a Call. God himself must appear and call him to service, and conscious though Elmer was now of his own powers and the excellence of the church, he saw no more of God about the place than in his worst days of unregeneracy.

He asked the president and the dean if they had had a Call. Oh, yes, certainly; but they were vague about practical tips as to how to invite a Call and recognize it when it came. He was reluctant to ask Eddie––Eddie would be only too profuse with tips, and want to kneel down and pray with him, and generally be rather damp and excitable and messy.

The Call did not come, not for weeks, with Easter past and no decision as to what he was going to do next year. [6]

Later in the chapter, Elmer has deacons and elders circle around and pray for him to have the Call. But nothing happens. So Elmer sneaks off and gets “only a very little bit drunk” before deciding himself that he’s been called to the ministry.

 

 To be continued….

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NOTES

[1] Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005. 105–06

[2] Nachmanovitch Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 117.

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. 72.

[4] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Essays Second Series. 1844.

[5] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter XIII,” 190.

[6] Ibid, “Chapter IV,” 62-66.