Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kindle reading at Airports

Want an impetus to read all those books that have been accumulating on your Kindle?  Spend hours waiting for your flights at airports.  The last two weeks I have been traveling to Europe and back with my new husband, Josh.  Thanks to layovers, long flights, cancelled flights, more layovers and rescheduled flights, I had quite a bit of time on my hands.

That's where a Kindle really comes in handy.  I read seven books, five of which I am going to review in this post.

The first book I read was during our layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, and flying across the Atlantic to Ireland.  It was the perfect prelude to our vacation.  Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad describes Twain's own travels to Germany (our final destination) and all the idiosyncrasies of German culture from an American's perspective.  He describes university life at Heidelberg, with the customs and practices of students (they enjoy dueling and have their own prison for miscreants), Wagnerian Opera (he doesn't hide his distaste for what he considers a lot of incomprehensible screaming), the various Germans he meets while he floats along the Rhine, climbs the Alps, and tries to communicate in very bad German.  His funniest chapter is devoted to "That Awful German Language" in which he describes how miserably different German is to English and how long it would take an American to master the German language ("about thirty years").  Twain enjoys mocking other people but he balances it out by mocking himself just as much.

After a couple of days in Dublin, we rushed to the airport at 3
am only to discover our 5:45am flight had been canceled.  Over the next ten hours, in between dozing and conversing with Josh, I read a enjoyable book titled, The Best American Humorous Short Stories, by various authors of the nineteenth century.  Most of the authors I had never heard of but a few like O Henry, Bret Harte, and Oliver Wendall Holmes were familiar to me. It also includes Mark Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Much of the interest I had in these stories was the time period in which they were set (post civil war).  Some would seem antiquated to a twentieth century reader but I found them funny and many of them endearing.  One such story was about two boys who try to court the same girl but haven't got the nerve and WI Lampton's How the Widow Won the Deacon.  In this story, a widow finally wins a man over by sacrificing her dignity by jumping out of his wagon as he races his horse against another man's in order to lighten the load.

By the time I finished that book we had finally arrived in Frankfort and were on the boat, floating down the Rhine River.  We spent most of our time in Germany biking down the Rhine  and visiting the medieval towns there.  After spending an afternoon in Worms at the Nibelungen Museum I spent the evening on our boat reading The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous.  I want to do full justice to reviewing this book, so I'll save my comments for the next book review post.

Two more books I read while we were in Frankfort and while spending a long, uncomfortable night back in the Dublin airport.  They are by R.C. Sproul.  The first was Five Things Every Christian needs to Grow.  The five things are:  Bible Study, Prayer, Worship, Service and Stewardship.  My own beliefs most closely align with Reformed Theology so I found a lot of useful insight in Sproul's discussion of these various topics and how to implement them in your life.

The other book by Sproul was The Prayer of the Lord.  Here Sproul takes the reader step by step through each statement in the Lord's prayer, what they mean, and how to use each in sentence personally when applying it to our own prayers.

One last book I read on the flight back across the Atlantic was by Ralph Adams Cram:  Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories.  This collection, while written by Cram, are based on stories he heard during his world travels.  They include a demon possessed house in Paris, the wandering spirit of a nun in Italy and a horror tale told by a Swede that is worthy of Lovecraft.  Interestingly, Cram was a theologian a hundred years ago, so while his stories are interesting they are from a perspective that the supernatural and evil are real, unlike Lovecraft who attempts to apply naturalistic causes to the horrific beings he creates in his stories. 

One final book I read from Charlotte to Dallas was A Confession by Leo Tolstoy.  This book also deserves a longer review so I will wait to post it as well.

Next post I hope to have photos of our Honeymoon trip to an 1830 log cabin in central Texas and also our trip to Europe.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

This is the first book I've ever read by Anthony Trollope and I thank Brian Joseph at Babbling Books for his interesting reviews of other Trollope novels which propelled me to download many of his works from Kindle (they're free!)

The Eustace Jewels is my kind of story in that it is not propelled by any profound plot but rather by the characters and the psychology behind what makes them tick.

The story starts out with a young girl, Lizzie, who is both neglected and spoiled by her dissipated father who dies greatly in debt,  in no little part to the jewels and clothes he bought for her.  He spent money but no time with Lizzie and when he dies, she is left alone while still a teenager.

An aunt takes her in, not out of pity or affection, but out of a sense of duty.  At least that is what the third party narrator of the story clearly states.  As I came to discover, the narrator misdirects.  He says one thing but shows another.  As I got to know the aunt through out the story, I came to the conclusion that the elderly woman was not so mean as hardened by the rough hand life had dealt her.

That is a common theme in The Eustace Diamonds:  how people survive when their prospects are bleak.  Trollope, through his third person narrator, shows how different people handle the cards they've been dealt.

First, Lizzie who, as I mentioned, has been orphaned and taken in by her crusty old aunt.  Lizzie's feelings toward her father are never described, but she hardly knew him.  She has nothing but contempt for the woman who keeps her from being a penniless orphan, calling her "the vulturess."

It should be mentioned that Lizzie is very beautiful and she does not reach twenty before marrying a rich baronet by the name of Florian Eustace.  He is young but sick with tuberculosis, a condition which is exacerbated by his wild and reckless lifestyle.  The reader finds him in the grave not a year after his marriage to Lizzie.

What Lizzie felt about Sir Florian isn't made known either, although the Sir Florian discovers on his sick bed that Lizzie lied about her feelings for him and just about everything else about herself.   Even though, Lizzie's attachment to the count appears largely to be mercenary, through out the book she exerts a lot of energy sentimentalizing her marriage and her late husband's adoration for her.  But what the reader is made to understand is that Lizzie is a great liar.  We also know that her motives are ulterior.  I believe today psychologists would label her with a narcissistic personality disorder.

When her husband dies, Lizzie is left property in Scotland, four thousand pounds a year (over $500,000 today), and a necklace made up of diamonds worth 10,000 pounds (you do the math).  

Or so Lizzie, now Lady Eustace, claims. The lawyer representing the Eustace family, is of the opinion that the diamonds cannot leave the estate, therefore while they are hers to wear during her lifetime, she may not sell them.

This is a problem for Lizzie because she did not learn the virtue of good financial stewardship from either her father or her husband.  The story's backbone is this contention between Lizzie and Mr. Camperdown, the Eustace attorney.  All sorts of things happen to the diamonds as Lizzie travels with them on her person, not trusting them to a bank or a jeweler.  Each episode makes Lizzie's character clearer to the reader.

Lizzie is a young widow and doesn't really need to marry for money, but she is a great romantic and also opportunistic.  A young man, Lord Fawn, comes to court her.  Lord Fawn, we are made to understand, is not the brightest of bulbs in the room, nor does he have much of a spine.  He is a man with a title but no money.  He must marry money to make a living.  Lady Eustace is rich and pretty to boot.  When he proposes, she accepts, not out of love, mind you.  She wants the title she would acquire by marrying a Lord.

Unfortunately for Lord Fawn, he soon finds he has engaged himself to a woman he didn't really know.  He afterwards is informed of Lady Eustace's shady character through one of his sisters.  When he learns of the necklace scandal he repents of wanting to marry her.  He tells her so.  Enraged, Lizzie refuses to release him of his promise.  

To make things more uncomfortable for Fawn, Lizzie's cousin, Frank Greystock, has taken her side and helps blacken Fawn's character about town (both are lawyers in Parliment.)

Frank Greystock is an intelligent young man who decides to marry for love rather than for money and, even though his family is against it, engages himself to a penniless governess, Lucy Morris who lives with Lord Fawn's mother and sisters.

But this is where things become complicated.  Fawn made a mindless blunder and he doesn't know how to honorably, or even legally get himself out of it. The engagement remains in limbo for most of the novel.

Frank Greystock, on the other hand, clear-sightedly obligates himself to Lucy, a young woman, as we shall see has all the strength of character and honesty and dumb love as any virtuous woman of the 19th century.

Frank, in his noble efforts to defend his cousin ends up spending a lot of time with her.  A naive thing to do on his part, because Lizzie doesn't just want a title, she wants an adventure.    That Frank really has no money, doesn't matter to her, neither does the fact that she is still engaged, at least tenuously, to Lord Fawn.  She brazenly flirts with and manipulates Frank and gets him in all sorts of incriminating situations, some of which, if they were found out, would give Fawn more than enough grounds to break off the engagement.

One would think that Frank would be revolted at his cousin's intentions.  Not only is he not, but he ends up spending most of his time with his cousin and doesn't see his Lucy for months.

This is what I find fascinating.  We're made to understand that Frank is a good man, with a strong and noble character.  He certainly views himself that way.  Fawn is a weak man, though of good moral character.  Frank despises Fawn for how he believes Fawn is treating his cousin.  Yet he doesn't seem to be aware of how he is treating Lucy.

What strikes me the most about Lizzie is that she has no friends.  She has companions, all of whom need her to financially support them.  She has a live in companion, Miss Macnulty, who puts up with all sorts of verbal abuse because she would be living on the streets if not with Lizzie.

There is also a Mrs. Carbuncle and her niece, Lucinda.  They have no money either, but because they are a part of society, they make the rounds of rich people's houses and attend all the best parties and look the part of rich Americans.  Mrs. Carbuncle is a strong, determined and heartless expert at extracting money from people, helping to increase her friends' debts while never diminishing her own.

Her primary objective in the novel is to marry her niece off to a rich man and rid herself the financial burden she causes, as well attaining a secure income for herself.  Mrs. Carbuncle treats Lizzie the way she treats everyone else and when they finally part ways, Lizzie is several hundred pounds the poorer.

There are many aspects to this novel and the commentary on Victorian life that I noticed.  First, there seemed to be a class in English society during the 19th century that was rich, but had no money.  Trollope never explains how they got rich or became poor, except that some of them got there by extravagant lifestyles they could not afford. There were people that were actually rich and stable such as Lizzie's brother-in-law, John, but their part in the novel is peripheral.  

Another observation is on the corrupted and ungodly reasons just about everyone had for marrying.  I know this is not a new theme and one that has been elaborated on from Jane Austin to Downton Abbey.  Still, it is amazing to me how the church was an established part of English culture as the Hindu religion is part of the Indian identity.  Nevertheless, it seems to be delegated largely as a cultural practice rather than a personal one.  

Everyone was a member of the church of England.  No doubt it would be shocking if one wasn't.  But Trollope shows what an empty ritual it is for most of his characters.  On the one hand, Lord Fawn is a cad if he breaks his promise to Lizzie, but no one questions taking vows before God and man with someone you couldn't care less about.  Marriage is reduced to a business transaction.  The fact the Frank's family and all of Lucy's friends find their engagement unrealistic and impractical because all they have is love to recommend it, highlights this point.

On the one hand, I ask myself is Trollope trying to convey an accurate or holistic picture of Victorian society or is he merely accentuating the worst of it?  If so, why?  Do bad characters create more interesting plots?  Or is this all he saw of the culture he lived in?  That would say more about the social circles he associated with than Victorian culture as a whole.

If, in fact, Christianity had become largely a cultural practice rather than a personal, meaningful belief and practice, I can understand how this paved the ground for Nietzsche, Freud, and other secular humanists.  When Nietzsche had the mad man in Thus Spoke Zarathustra say, "God is dead,"  he was not commenting so much on reality as he was saying how Christianity in Europe had deteriorated to the point of meaninglessness.  I think this is what the mad man means when he says, "We have killed Him."

The final thing I noticed is how the British leisure class not only disobeys Biblical truth in spirit but also in practice.  St. Paul said, "If one doesn't work, he doesn't eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10) England and all of Europe had created a whole society where a group of people had all the money without earning any of it.  They inherited it and, as is usual in such cases when one doesn't work for what they get, they squandered it.

Hence there developed a class of "poor rich" people.  These people were in dire straits because their particular class didn't allow them to work (except maybe in Parliment) and furthermore, they were expected to maintain their place in society by spending money they didn't have to keep up appearances.  I would very much like to know how this class system developed and how it led up to the current socialized states that now exist in Europe.  A state which, ironically, has produced a leisure class at the other end of the class spectrum.  The end result is the same:  people living off the earnings of others. 

The end of the story sees Lizzie finally abandoned by all her friends and relatives.  Her reputation becomes so infamous that Lord Fawn unequivocally withdraws his attachment.  Frank comes to his senses and returns to Lucy, begging her forgiveness, and we already know about Mrs. Carbuncle.  There's more characters and sub plots but I don't want to give everything away.

Lizzie finally meets a man who has absolutely nothing to recommend him and she knows it.  She knows he is shady, greedy, mean, out for her money, and a liar.  He's a clergyman no less, but I guess that is consistent with the social commentary Trollope is making about the church. 

Lizzie sees this man clearly, but she doesn't think clearly.  She has lived in a fantasy world and plans to stay there.  In this man, she tells herself, she has finally found her corsair.  Here the story ends and we will have to imagine the rest.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Churchill: A Biography by Roy Jenkins

Winston Churchill is one of the giants of the twentieth century.  I've heard and read about him all my life.  He's always been a figure that fascinated me and whom I admired.  So it came to me that I needed to buckle down and read a good biography of him.  Where did he come from?  What made him great and how exactly did he run England's government so that they successfully, with the US and Russia, won WWII?

Jenkins biography successfully answers all of these questions and more.

I realized that I knew very little about the man other than the famous photo of him glaring out of the picture with a cigar clenched between his teeth and that he was Prime Minister during WWII. 

I think I had projected too much of my American culture on him.  I assumed he came from an ordinary family, was a self-made man who had the brilliance and daring do to get his country in and out of a war, coming out on top.

Nothing of the sort.  Churchill was born into aristocracy.  His mother was an American, Brooklyn born and raised, nee Jeanette Jerome.  Considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, she married Lord Randolph Churchill, becoming Lady Randolph Churchill.

His mother took away any notions I had that aristocracy equated noble and honorable moral standing.  According to Jenkins and other sources, she had numerous lovers while married to Lord Randolph and, after he died, she married another man who was the same age as her son, Winston.

 She had little to do with his upbringing (who has the time with an active social life?) yet he idolized her.  As an adult he kept up a faithful correspondence with her until her death in 1921.  She encouraged his  prodigious writing and the publishing of his books. 

Churchill was 66 years old when he became Prime Minister the first time and had quite the adventurous life before that.  He fought in the Boer War, became a prisoner of war, escaped and continued to fight.  No one can accuse Churchill of lacking courage.

It was that kind of strong willed and determined character that got him into Parliament where he held several different offices, ultimately becoming Prime Minister.  That and his blinding wit.  Churchill's speeches are still legendary. 

Jenkins describes his complicated relationships with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. The descriptions of how the three of them carefully negotiated and danced around each other in order to defeat the Germans is very interesting.  It was strange to read about England's Prime Minister and America's president wining and dining such a tyrant as Stalin.  But I guess it's easy to judge through the lens of time.

Churchill's relationships with Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were equally interesting. He worked most closely with Roosevelt, briefly with Truman during and after WWII, and as much as he could with Eisenhower-who didn't care for him- during the Cold War.  In a nutshell, he was thrilled with none of them but wasn't stupid.  He needed them and they needed him as well, although Eisenhower was fairly indifferent. This was largely due to irreconcilable differences concerning nuclear weapons and their place as a war deterrent. 

The book is forty-six chapters long broken up into six parts.  It includes his personal as well as his professional relationships.  Churchill seems not to taken after his mother.  He was a devoted husband and father until his death in 1965.  He loved to vacation in France.  He made many friends in Parliament and also enemies.  His parleys and repartees to his political adversaries are good fun to read.

He is most known for rallying the English spirit by showing the gumption and backbone Chamberlain never possessed in dealing with Hitler.  He had the foresight to see through Hitler's rhetoric of "mutual peace" and understand his real malignant intentions, unlike most of the Western world that was bent on appeasing him.

Churchill ran and won Prime Minister once more in the 1951.  He stayed involved in Parliament and public life even after a series of strokes up until his death in 1965 at the age of ninety.

Jenkins' writing is in a flowing, novelistic style.  It contains a lot of information and it took me a while to read the book because it's so jam packed with detail.  It is only in one volume and is 912 pages long.  I've seen other biographies that are in three volumes.  I'm curious what they could possible include that Jenkins didn't because his biography is so thorough.  Part of me wants to read them to see how they compare.  The other part of me doesn't feel I have the time.  It took me over a year to read this single volume biography.

One thing I didn't know before I read this book was what a prolific writer Churchill was.  I have since bought his History of the English Speaking Peoples (which is in four volumes). Now that I've finally finished Jenkins' book I plan to climb that mountain.  I'll probably have a review ready in a couple of years (insert sarcastic laugh here).

All in all, I liked this book and, though a bit of a slog to get through, it is still a worth while read for anyone who is interested in WWII history and specifically of one of the greatest Prime Ministers (according to Jenkins, the greatest) in English history.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Outwitting History by Aaron Lanksy

Once again I must thank Zohar at Man of la Book  for reviewing a book I read based on his review of it.

Outwitting History is about a young man, Aaron Lansky,  who after graduating college in the early eighties developed an interest in his Jewish heritage and learning Yiddish.  This yearning led to a life long quest to collect as many Yiddish books as possible and save them from destruction and the Yiddish language from obsolescence.

Lanksy narrates in first person his mission as he and friends rush around the New York City area saving Yiddish books from garbage dumpsters, dusty attics, and even fisherman wharfs.  As his objective to save the literature of a dying language becomes known, requests start pouring in from around the country and even the globe to come retrieve Yiddish books from certain oblivion.

Lanksy describes the people who want to give him their books: elderly and from a bygone era.   They welcomed him and his friends into their house and forced traditional Jewish food on them.  He and his friends found early on that there was no such thing as picking up the books and immediately leaving.  There was a ritual of hospitality to be performed.  

As Lansky and company ate, these old people from an old country and dying culture regaled them with their stories.  The stories they told held a common theme:  Holocaust, pogroms, losing everything, displaced, learning to start over again in a new country.

Preserving Yiddish is a life long career for Lansky.  He fears that the language and the culture is disappearing.  His hope is to interest young Jewish people in learning the Yiddish language, and to be able to read the millions of Yiddish books he has helped collect and preserve over the last thirty years.

I would have liked a little more information on the books.  He spends minimal time describing the content of the books, although he lists many of the authors.  I gather that much of it is literature and folk lore.  I would be interested in reading English translations of them.

Of course, the argument brought up in the book is that translations are unreliable and books should only be read in their original language.  Be that as it may, realistically, if the books are going to be more widely read they need to be translated into vernacular languages.

A couple of things interested me that perhaps gave me insight into the Jewish mind.  Or least Aaron Lansky's mind.  He believed the only true culture of the Jews was the Yiddish culture.  Yes, Jews may have their roots in Judeasm and religion, but it's the Yiddish language and old European culture that produced it that defines Jewishness today. He describes  Jews that don't conform to this doctrine as "assimilated".

This brings up a provocative point.  Who has the authority to define others?  Must everyone of a certain ethnic background march in lockstep to a prescribed way of life or be considered outcast?  It seems to me that today there is a pervasive movement in many arenas, not only Jewish, but black and Hispanic communities and also the feminist movement where a certain group of individuals claim authority over the others of that category and take it upon themselves to narrowly define that culture or people group.  Those who don't conform are labeled traitors.

Another thing I found interesting was how the Jews who came to the United States from Europe were such loyal adherents to the Socialist and Communist ideologies.  Apparently after being thrown out or escaping from Soviet countries they wished to mirror the political pardigm of the countries they left.  I guess they don't see that the political structure of their home countries might be the reason they had to leave.

I wish Lansky had spent more time making real life individuals out of the people he writes about rather than lumping them all together as a single type.  I also wish he spent more time describing the individual books he was saving rather than lumping them all together as a type as well.

One final thing I took away from Lansky's book was the value on literature and reading that seems to be an integral of Jewish culture.  This is an attribute which causes me to hold Jews and Yiddish culture in great respect.

I wish Aaron Lansky success in preserving Yiddish literature.  May his efforts bear fruit in the next generation.

Further links:

Yiddish Book Center

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Barcelona Third Day Gaudi Park

Our final day in Barcelona, we discovered that taking the bus is dirt cheap.  We used our passes and took one all the way to Gaudi Park.  This is where Gaudi and another man had planned a neighborhood.  In the end, all the exists there is Guadi's art and the house he lived in until his death.

Really, his art speaks for itself.  It is so unusual, almost as if Gaudi had glued shards of broken pottery together.  Yet there is order and beauty in what he made.

The following photos are of Gaudi's residence.  Below is his bed.

In his room he had a place for his own private worship.  Gaudi was devoutly Catholic and it is impossible to separate his art from his intense and passionate religious beliefs.

The outside of his house.

And we come at last to the end of our trip.  Twenty-one days in Europe.  When will that ever happen again?  

I'm glad you asked.  It just so happens that I will be spending my honeymoon biking along the Rhine River in Germany this July.  Hee....hee...hee... Stay tuned....

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho

I love Japanese Haiku and ordered this book thinking I was getting a collection of Haiku.  While there is no shortage of Haiku in the book, it is actually a travelogue that Matsuo Basho recorded through his companion secretary, Sora,  about his travels across Japan on a spiritual journey.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is considered the greatest of the Japanese haiku poets.  Zen Buddhism was a leading influence in the school of poetry he founded. According to the back of the book, these travel sketches are his bid to "discover a vision of eternity in nature and the ephemeral world about him."

Basho's poetry is beautiful.  The imagery of nature it creates evokes a sense of peace.  His elegant writing enables the reader to vicariously experience his observations as he wanders through forests, up mountains, visiting Buddhist shrines and friends.

Stretching by force
The wrinkles of my coat, 
I started out on a walk
To a snow-viewing party.

Deep as the snow is, 
let me go as far as I can
Till I stumble and fall, 
Viewing the white land scape.

I am a visual person and it's hard for me to imagine what people write or say.  That is probably why I enjoy stories with character studies or that explore ideas with minimal descriptions.  The people in the books I read always are faceless.  That makes it all the more remarkable that Basho's writing communicates clear pictures in my head of what he himself saw and experienced.

Searching for the scent 
Of the early plum, 
I found it by the eaves
Of a proud storehouse.

Poems composed in a field: 

Dyed a gay colour
My trousers will be 
By the bush-clovers
In full bloom.

In mid-autumn
Horses are left to graze
Till they fall replete
In the flowering grass.

Bush clovers, 
Be kind enough to take in 
This pack of mountain dogs
At least for a night.

I have studied Buddhism, but my fiance, Joshua,  explored Buddhism before becoming a Christian.  I was curious about what attracted him first to Buddhism and how he later came to embrace Christianity. 

For Josh, Buddhism touched upon the truth that the world is  transitory and the desires of the world an illusion.

But when rockets were flying over his head in Afghanistan, Josh realized that Buddhism did not provide the answers looming death demands.  He came to the conclusion that Christianity provides answers not only to the meaning of life, but hope after death.

How Buddhism stands in stark contrast to Christianity struck me when reading two incidents recorded in Basho's book.  Towards the end of the book Basho attends a shrine before embarking on his return journey. There he meets two prostitutes.  They are also trying to find their way home.  Each night they sleep with different men in order to pay for their journey. The two women approach Basho and beg him to let them follow him.  With tears in their eyes they say to him:

If you are a priest as your black robe tells us, have mercy on us and help us to learn the great love of our Savior.

After a moment's thought Basho replies to them:

I am greatly touched by your words, but we have so many places to stop at on the way that we cannot help you.

After he leaves them, he thinks of a haiku and has Sora write it down.

Under the same roof
We all slept together,
Concubines and I-
Bush-clovers and the moon.

But the incident that upsets me every time I think about it is one on which he writes at the very beginning of his journey.  He comes across a small child, standing by himself on the road, crying.  He has been abandoned by his parents.  The wailing of this child moves Basho to share some of his food with him.  But he walks away, saying to the child, your cries must reach heaven.  Only heaven can hear you. 

And on he continues with his journey, leaving the child alone on the road. 

I know that Buddhism requires emotionally detaching oneself to this world, but I can only view such indifference to a helpless child's desperation as cold-heartedness on the lowest reptilian level.

It renders all his beautiful words and exquisite imagery hollow.  He enjoys nature and ponders eternity, but refuses to offer hope or assistance to desperate women or an abandoned child?
It calls to mind the final judgement in the last verses in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter  25:

43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  (From BibleGateway, ESV)

I hope to collect more books on haiku.  I can enjoy the poetry even if I can't accept the religion behind it.

Portrait of Matsuo Basho from the Osaka Museum

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about one of their writers from the fifties.   Maeve Brennan wrote a series of articles for their paper called The Long Winded Lady:  Notes from the New Yorker which has been compiled into a book.  The article compared Brennan to James Joyce in her ability to capture the essence and flavor of her native Ireland in her stories.  In fact, the writer of that article quotes several Irish authors who considered Brennan as taking up Joyce's mantle.  This piqued my curiosity and as a result, I've bought a few of her books.

The first one I have finished is called The Visitor.  The story is told in third person from the view point of the protagonist.  The story begins with a young lady on a train.  She is heading back home to Ireland.  The woman, Anastasia King,  has been living with her mother in Paris for the past six years.  Now that her mother has died she is returning home to Ireland to live with her grandmother.

When she arrives at her grandmother's house she comes to know that her grandmother doesn't want her there.  The story unfolds slowly like a blooming flower on a timed camera.  Bit by bit, the reader becomes aware of the facts.  Anastasia's mother deserted her father who died broken-hearted.  Anastasia, at the age of fourteen, chose to leave with her mother.  They both stayed in Paris until her mother's death.

The grandmother cannot forgive her daughter-in-law.  She does not want her granddaughter there as a sore reminder of painful circumstances.

But more than that, the grandmother wants simply to live in the past.  She's kept her son's room as a perpetual shrine to him. 

Through glimpses of conversation both present as well as remembered conversations, we come to understand that the grandmother wielded a lot of influence over her son.  She viewed her daughter-in-law as competition and was careful to hold her in contempt.  Her son took his cue from his mother and treated his wife contemptuously as well.

Anastasia's mother comes across as delicate and extremely sensitive.  Eventually she runs away to escape her mother-in-law's dominion. 

Even so, no one is caricatured.  The grandmother is a human being with several sides to her rather than simply an ogre. She is not heartless.  She cares about her granddaughter and will always provide for her.  But she wants her to return to Paris.   I can't judge her bitterness.  If someone left me without bothering to contact me for six years until they had no other place to go, I would be a little hesitant to welcome them back into the fold as well.

This raises a question, however.  Was Anastasia really so self-absorbed?  She was very young when she left with her mother.  Did her mother hold some kind of sway over her that prevented her from contacting her father or grandmother?

While Anastasia wanders around her hometown, and going to church she sees her mother.  She sees her walking near her.  She sees her kneeling in the church in a pew in front of her.  Is she mentally unstable?  Is she seeing a ghost?  Because the story is narrated from Anastasia's point of view, we don't know.

Throughout the story, the Irish culture permeates each page.  Reading the book, one has entered into Ireland, into an Irish family-at least one from the 1930's.  One sees how the Catholic faith is a strong, integral part of the culture.  How family relations affect each life.

There is a side story of a family friend whom Anastasia visits.  This woman, Miss Kildare, tells Anastasia her story.  She spent her entire life caring for her sickly mother.  She met a man and fell in love with him but her mother refused to sanction the marriage.  So they never married but they did continue to see each other in secret.  The man even gave her a ring.

Tragically, the man is killed and the woman, with no one else in her life, cares for her mother until her death.  Miss Kildare is now elderly and sick  but with no one to care for her.  She knows she is about to die.  The woman asks Anastasia to place on her finger- after she is lying in her coffin- the ring the man gave her.

The Visitor story is really about human loneliness.  Brennan shows four different women and their loneliness: Anastasia, her grandmother, the family friend and, indirectly through Anastasia's reflections, her mother. Each has different reasons for being lonely but the result is the same.  At the same time each woman possesses a spirit that refuses to be defeated.  It turns what might otherwise be a dreary story into a sweet, melancholy one. 

I agree that Brennan is able to capture the Irish spirit through her writing. Even though she died unknown, her work is making a comeback.  I look forward to reading other books by her as well.