Saturday, December 27, 2014

December reading: The Oxford book of Ghost Stories, Are Women Human? A Jane Austen Education, Aesop's Fables, Dear Donald, Dear Bennett, Arthur Rackham

It's the end of the year and I have six books to review.   I have to drive to Florida tomorrow and I want these books shelved.  So here's a synopsis of each one.

The first one is a biography of one of my favorite illustrators.  I have a collection of fairy tales, Aesops's Fables and also an edition of Dicken's A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Rackham.  I read in his biography that C.S. Lewis loved him so I splurged and bought this book because of all the large prints of his illustrations.  Rackham illustrated Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland plus numerous fairy tales and other stories of the fantastical.  He often caricatured himself as a goblin or other weird and wonderful character in the illustrations he painted.  This book gives the usual biographical information:  where he was born, grew up, got educated, who he married, what children he had and how his career developed. 

In Dear Donald, Dear Bennett we have the letters of the two men who founded the book publishing company, Random House.  Donald Klopfer joined the Air Force and served overseas.  Bennett Cerf stayed home and ran the business while maintaining a constant correspondence with his partner and friend throughout the war.  The letters take place during WWII and show the profound affection and friendship these two had for each other.  The homesickness and concern for safety is only glimpsed and immediately laughed off but show the real concern and love these men had for each other. Through all the joking, jibing and detailed accounts of how their books were selling we learn a lot of about shrewd business acumen and how professionals were able to maintain a life long friendship while building a publishing empire during dark years.

Aesop's Fables are famous and after rereading them I appreciate why.  These stories are mostly told through animals but the morals are perspicacious.  The brief stories use a couple of formulas.  An animal, often a predator like a wolf or fox, tries to trick a goose, sheep or other potential prey to come into reach so they can devour them.  Of course they don't admit that.  They coach it in terms that indicate they "care" about them and wish to help them.  Depending on the story, the animal doesn't buy it or is deceived.  Each way a moral is told at the end.  Another type of story is one where might makes right whether you like it or not.  This is often illustrated through a lion who demands his unfair share of the spoils, even if another animal has worked for it.  If the weaker animal protests, he's killed.  This isn't moral, just an observation of life.  Another type is an animal acting foolishly by thinking too highly of himself, only to be humbled.  This edition is beautifully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

This is mostly a delightful book.  William Deresiewicz intertwines his own life story and how his view of life and relationships were altered by reading the novels of Jane Austin.  He left his angry, pretentious "I'm an angst filled college student who only reads Vonnegut, Mailer, and any other dark, modern realist type author" attitude and began to emulate the charm he saw in the characters of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northhanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.  He came to understand that true love isn't a feeling but an act of the will and the fruit of a committed relationship, that what really counts isn't the loud and bombastic but in the little details of the every day, that real friendship can't be qualified by a bank account, glamor, sophistication or living in a cosmopolitan city. He studies each character in the novels and shares his own insight, which I enjoyed reading.  My only complaint is that he doesn't understand the important role sex has as the final and ultimate act of intimacy that defines marriage.  He delegates it to something on the same level as table tennis and insists that if Austen were alive today she probably would too.  So as charming and witty as I found his writing I wonder if he truly got Austen after all.

  This is an old favorite that I've read countless times for the past twenty years.  It's been a cold, rainy December so what better than to curl up with a hot cup of tea or coffee and read?  This anthology spans about a hundred and sixty years.  Some stories are scarier than others but all are flavored with the English culture-whether Victorian, Edwardian, WWII, or more modern.  They offer a nice spooky experience -whether on the English countryside in a haunted house or in the city being stalked by a murdered victim the protagonist thought he had left behind in his past.  Authors included are Sir Walter Scott, J.S. Le Fanu, F. Marion Crawford, Bram Stoker, Henry James, H.G. Wells, W.W. Jacobs, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, E.F. Benson, W. Somerset Maugham, John Buchan, Edith Whaton, Walter de la Mare and an especially disturbing psychological one by Charles Willams.  These aren't the only authors but probably the best known if you're a ghost, vampire or horror story connoisseur. 

And finally, a short work by Dorothy Sayers. 
Sayers was the only woman admitted into the Inklings and was great friends with C.S. Lewis.  She is mostly known for her Lord Wimsy Detective Stories and her translation of Dante's Inferno

This was a great book which contains two essays that Sayers gave concerning how women are viewed by both men and women.  The biggest thing I got out of her commentary -which is filled with rapier wit I might add- is that both male chauvinism and militant feminism have got it wrong because they insist on classifying women as a gender rather than as individuals.  I love music, art, math, engineering etc..because I'm a person who does so, not because I'm a woman.  There's interests and abilities I share with women, but there's many things I also share with men. In some ways Sayers is obviously speaking from a bygone time viewpoint.  The modern man wouldn't dare speak outside the politically correct dictates that today's culture imposes on him.  And personally I'm sick of being viewed as disadvantaged or as a victim because I'm a woman.  I find that just as demeaning and limiting as old fashioned chauvinism.  Until our work is seen as good work and not women's work (i.e. women's literature, women's art, a woman doctor, a woman scientist) women haven't really overcome bias.  

 Sayers also pointed out something I had not previously considered.  That men have stolen much of women's work because a lot of what is in the context of professional business was originally organized in the home (think the Proverbs 31 woman).  Business transactions, organizing agriculture, managing households became paying jobs outside the home, leaving women little else but cooking and cleaning.  Those things can be dull, although the raising of children never can be if you put your heart in it.  But I'm with Dorothy Sayers, I celebrate my life-not as a women but as a child fearfully and wonderfully made by God. 

That's it for this year.  I'll see you all in the next.  Have a wonderful holiday and many blessings to you all for the upcoming year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner translated by Benjamin A. Smith

I'm noticing that a growing trend among Christians is to forgo the celebration of Christmas.  I once belonged to a church that gave the holiday barely a nod.  No carols, no advent, a scant Communion service on Christmas Eve.  More than one friend informed me that the holiday has become too secular, too materialistic and its practices are more pagan than Christian.

This was all surprising, even shocking, to me because I grew up in a family that attended a church where the entire church year was celebrated.  Advent started the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was the day we put up the Christmas Tree, Nativity set, and all our other decorations.  Each Sunday we lit the advent candles, read the scripture for that week and sang carols.  We weren't taught to believe in Santa Claus, but we didn't care because presents are presents and coming from our relatives rather than the Jolly Old Elf was just fine with us.

After I left my parents' home I came to realize that not everyone was raised as I was.  This caused me to reevaluate my own customs and traditions.  Why do I celebrate Christmas?  There's no mandate in the Bible for it.  The only occasion that is explicitly called on to be remembered is the Lord's Supper and Christ's death and resurrection.

So why do we celebrate Christmas?  Are most people actually celebrating the Mass of Christ?  Why put a tree in our house and cover it with ornaments?

Because of my questions I have been researching the origins of many church traditions.  During this Christmas season I read a book about the Christmas tree.

Bernd Brunner is a German freelance writer who, according to the dust cover inset, "explores the intersection of cultural history and the history of science."

In Inventing the Christmas Tree, Brunner traces all the threads back to the earliest records of people decorating trees and keeping them in their houses.  The earliest record is 1414 in Estonia where a tree was set up in front of the town hall for a dance.  Another is in 1419 where the Freiburg Fraternity of Baker's Apprentices saw a tree decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel in the local Hospital of the Holy Spirit.

At first the Church prohibited the cutting of trees for Christmas, but eventually the nobility and bourgeoisie began the practice of putting trees up and decorating them with presents in the form of cookies, nuts and fruit.  Later, the poorer classes also began to put trees in their houses as well.

The Evergreen was chosen because of its perennial greenness.  Greenery was celebrated prior to the Christmas tree or even Christianity.  The ancient Romans also celebrated with greens.  Still the color represented a belief in the eternal.  Eternal life, the immortal soul.  Candles were added as "stars".  This symbolized the Holy Spirit or the light that came into the darkness (John 3:19).

What I didn't know was that for many years Christmas trees were considered Protestant (the Luther tree) and even into the late nineteenth century Catholic aversion to Christmas trees was so strong they called it the "Tannenbaum Religion".  In 1909 two Benedictine monks spoke of the "fraud of the Tannenbaum tradition" in their Lexicon for Preachers and Catechists.  Anti-tree sentiment eventually lessened and I daresay that today there are as many Catholic households that contain Christmas Trees as Protestants in the United States.  It is still uncommon in Catholic countries.  In these countries small Nativity sets predominate.

Tree decorations also changed through out the years.  At first they were adorned with candles and all sorts of edible goodies such as sweets and fruits.  Sugar cookies were shaped to look like knights, birds, hearts, flowers or pretzels.  By the nineteenth century decorations with Christian symbols became common.

Silver thread also adorned the trees, some say this was to represent snow, others say angel hair, still others as a reminder of summer or of the threads that were woven into church vestments in the Middle Ages.

The final section of the book describes different tree stands, the practice of putting presents under the trees and the different sort of trees people choose to best represent their families beliefs and needs.

The book is illustrated with Vintage post cards of the turn of the last century.  All in all a very charming book.

So should we celebrate Christmas?  Are we celebrating the pagan past?  Are we being greedy for presents (I plead guilty on that one), has it become too secular?

I can only answer for myself.  I am an old fashioned traditionalist.  No one has to celebrate Christmas if they don't want to, but as for me and my house we will remember the birth of Christ through our cultural heritage and traditions.  Merry Christmas and God bless you all!


Monday, December 15, 2014

The Seven Good Years and other stories of I.L. Peretz translated and adapted by Esther Hautzig


This book is a collection by one of the master Yiddish writers, I.L. Peretz.  I love folklore and don't have many of the Jewish culture.  This book was adapted for children but they bring to life the culture and the plight of the 19th century European Jew.  

Most of the stories deal with a man and wife with their family dealing with dire poverty in a European village.  Often a supernatural being, an angel, the prophet Elijah, a magic Rabbi or elderly, pious lady who is now dead comes to visit and rewards the family's piety with gold, money or prosperous circumstances.  

Sometimes they are tested as in The Seven Good Years.  A man, Tovye, is very poor but meets Elijah, who gives him seven years of plenty.  Tovye laments to his wife what does it matter to be prosperous for seven years when they will only return to poverty afterwards.  His wife, Sarah, insists that they be grateful for what they have now and not worry about what comes next.  At the end of the seven years, Tovye find that his wife has been a wise and good steward with their money and saved up so they still have good fortune.

The stories show the mettle and inner strength of these families as in Peace at Home.  Chaim is only a porter with no money but he and his wife, Hannah, still adore each other and don't consider their poverty.  When Chaim asks the Rabbi what he must do to enter into paradise, the Rabbi gives him several instructions:  Learn the Torah, read the Talmud, pray ardently- all of which Chaim insists he is unable to do.  The Rabbi says he must then serve water to the scholars.  Chaim is delighted!  This he can do.  The Rabbi says that he will then be able to enter paradise.

But what about Hannah? Chaim wants to know.  The Rabbi informs him that Chaim's wife will be his footstool in heaven.  Chaim returns home, throws his arms around his wife and insists that she will never be his footstool.  God will allow them to be equals in heaven.

I find this story interesting because I ask myself, is Peretz denying the authority of the Rabbi?  Or can Rabbi's teaching be questioned, unlike the Pope's who Official Catholic doctrine asserts is Christ's spokesman on earth? I'm not familiar enough with Jewish custom to know.  It would seem that Peretz certainly feels the injustice of so unfair a proclamation.  Of course, as a Christian (and a woman) I have Galatians 3:28 to fall back on (God is not a respecter of persons, all are one in Him.)

Every story seems to contain a test for the protagonists.  In their harsh circumstances will they fall  into temptation or rise above it and do the right thing?  The supernatural visitors are not known until afterwards, thus invoking the lesson that we do not know who is watching us so don't be good for the praise of others but because it is the right thing to do.

One story I found disturbing was The Poor Boy.  A beggar boy approaches a man at a soup kitchen for a little change in order to pay for a night's shelter.  The man harshly turns the boy away.  He hasn't hardly any money for himself.  Then he is plagued by guilt.  He searches for the boy but can't find him.  The man argues within himself.  He should have helped the boy. No! He shouldn't, the boy will never learn to help himself.  He hasn't any money, he should trust God's provision and give what he has.  He even begins to regard himself as the murderer of the boy because of his neglect.  Back and forth he debates.  Finally he returns to the soup kitchen where he is again approached by this poor child.  He gives the boy a ten cent piece.

The next day the boy asks again and this time he turns the boy away.  He leaves the soup kitchen ashamed of himself.  He remembers his late grandfather's words:  "He who is not pious lives with heartache and dies without consolation."

All of the stories end with some kind of moral.  Since none of the stories sugar coat the hardship the families endure, the message must be to find that inner strength that will see one through to be good and moral no matter what.

This differs somewhat from the Christian message which states "Through Christ I can do all things Who gives me strength (Phillipians 4:13)." These stories seem to indicate that the Lord rewards those who do right, but without an intimate relationship with Him. 

The stories are illustrated with the soft charcoal drawings of Deborah Kogan Ray which give them an added poignancy.  A very nice collection of interesting stories that provide an insight into traditional European Jewish culture.



Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Moritmer


Years ago I used to watch the BBC series Rumpole of the Bailey on PBS.  I think my favorite part was the theme music by John Horovitz.  Rumpole had his own charm, however.  He was the underdog in a system filled with twits and crooks.  Even though he usually comes out on top he goes through a lot of twists and turns to get there.  Of course, there'd be no story if he didn't.

And that is what holds the viewers' and readers' interest.  Not the plot, they're simple enough, but the sparring of wits between Rumpole and the other casts of characters, some who give as good as they get.  I find this far preferable to other British comedies, where, as funny as the heroes (Little Britain) and heroines (Catherin Tate) are, the objects of their wit are little more than cardboard stage props who stare blankly as they are used as a verbal punching bag.  This is true of the first couple of seasons of House.  Hugh Laurie's character got zinged as often as he zunged.  This is not true of later seasons, hence my loss of interest in the show.

But back to the topic at hand.  At one of the many book fairs I'm addicted to attending, I found a novel of Rumpole, so I dug deep into my pocket for a quarter, paid the grateful library staff member ("Our wing of President biographies is saved!") and took it home to read.

What I liked:  The writing.  John Mortimer is as fluid a writer as I've read.  Reading the book was like riding a inflated innertube down a semi-rapid river.  Funny?  Yes.   Satirical?  Very.  I have no idea whether Mortimer's parody of a judicial system run by power grabbing simpletons is accurate (he was a barrister for a while) but it certainly is scathing.

I also like Horace Rumpole.  He is not the all wise oracle who sets the rest straight.  He's really not all that scrupulous himself.  He prefers to make little money getting petty crooks, whom he knows are petty crooks, out of jail, to advancing to circuit judge or something his wife ("She who must be obeyed") and friends would like to see him do.  His reasons are apparently that the judicial system is a group of dishonest power mongers.  Him?  Why he'll just stick to rescuing guilty car thieves and house burglars because he has his self-respect to preserve, or whatever internal reason motivates him.

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror was  written recently after 9/11 and Mortimer no doubt wished his writing to be current and relevant so he decided to write a book about a Pakistani living in London who is accused of terrorism.  I suppose Mortimer's point is to calm everybody down,  to stop looking at our eastern brothers and sisters as dangerous world up-heavers.  The problem is he uses such annoying stick puppets to do it.

Everyone in the book knows this man is a terrorist.  Why?  Because he's from Pakistan, doggone it! From Rumpole's wife to the other lawyers, the judge... EVERYbody knows this man is dangerous because aren't all swarthy members of the human race dangerous? This is the pugnacious attitude everyone character in the book except Rumpole adheres to. The only clear head is Rumpole who chooses to defend the man.

The tale weaves in and out and takes the reader down a pretty good path of uncertainty.  Is the man a terrorist?  Isn't he?  You just don't know till the very end.  The plot development is very good and if the supporting cast could have been portrayed as rational human beings I could have enjoyed the story far more than I did.  As it is I was left with a fifty-fifty feeling that I'll pick up another Rumpole book.

There are hundreds of Rumpole books and Mortimer eventually earned himself a knight hood.  I'd like to read some of his earlier works and see if they contain the same politically correct slant or not.