Heyerdahl is the perfect mix between investigative theoretician and man of action--with an excellent measure of storytelling to season the dish. While...moreHeyerdahl is the perfect mix between investigative theoretician and man of action--with an excellent measure of storytelling to season the dish. While I thoroughly enjoyed the story as Heyerdahl related it, and was terrified by the thought of floating on the open Pacific on a tiny wooden raft, the real value for me was the practical use of such a story to illustrate in vivid terms what is meant by the theological virtue of hope. A difficult task... inspired by evidence and reflection... an tradition of raftmaking handed on through legend... references to a white man from the land of the sun... many naysayers scoffing at the idea... a band of likeminded fellows... daring, fully aware of risks but confident in success... a long and surprisingly easy journey... many experiences of difficulty, but far more experiences of grace... a joyous and festive welcome in a tropical paradise...
Being the third of the books I've read by Cather, I've come to expect a certain ecstatic experience from her work, and Shadows is no exception. In fac...moreBeing the third of the books I've read by Cather, I've come to expect a certain ecstatic experience from her work, and Shadows is no exception. In fact, compared to the other two, the utter simplicity and straightforwardness of the characters and emotions depicted has made this by far the most enjoyable of what I've read (the other two being My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop). There is a rhythm to her composition, in which characters are introduced, back story is discovered, an intensely rich interaction is recounted, and they recede to the background, to be recalled later in an aside. It's a lot like life, actually, if you think about it!
Interspersed within the events of a plot that could not be described as anything but slow, Cather's own wonder at simple folk and the way they "make the common fine" glows with true warmth. The little happenings in the life of a 12-year old Canadian girl and her colonial friends and family are small matters indeed, but Cather managed to infuse them with such grace that one cannot help but be drawn in to the heartfelt joys and sorrows that are the stuff of every human life--and in particular, constitute the life of a civilized colonist on a barren rock in the New World.
It is hard not to let one's heart expand with Cecile's as she hauls her little friend behind her on his sled up the hill and rejoices in her contentment even as she wonders at the possibility of being moved back to France. "Would not her heart break for just this? For this rock and this winter, this feeling of being in one's own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air, like a diver coming up from the deep sea."
Cather's style is always understated, a feature of what I consider to be a particularly romantic style--one that finds in the plodding rhythm of life carved out of the land all the wonder and contentment that any soul could want. Coupled with the French sensibilities of her characters, there is something quite venerable about even the least significant of them. Of course, in this sort of "romanticism" there is very little sentimentality here, and while there is much that is charming, in the end it is the simple matter-of-fact expectation that you, dear reader, will of course be charmed by it all as well that that proved to be what I found most enjoyable.
If you are a "plot" person, stay away from this book, because very little happens. If you are willing to spend a little time in a world that has come and gone but nonetheless abides in each human heart--for now, but a shadow on the rock--then give this one a try.(less)
October 7th is the Church's memorial of our Lady of the Rosary, formerly known as Our Lady of Victory in commemoration of the sea battle between the H...moreOctober 7th is the Church's memorial of our Lady of the Rosary, formerly known as Our Lady of Victory in commemoration of the sea battle between the Holy League and the Turkish navy of Selim II. I had to preach a homily on the day, and I cobbled together some tidbits and second-hand references, with a dash of Thermopylae and Actium to taste; but I felt like a fraud, and decided to read up on the day so as not to mislead anyone as to the true nature of the conflict. A friend's recommendation led me to Beeching's excellent telling, and I blew through it on a train ride to Chicago. Stirring, indeed!
I was corrected on several points, the most important of which being a less dramatic difference between the forces of the Christian and Turkish navies. The battle was more equal than I'd been given to believe; though the Turks were nearly always victorious at sea, and the whole of Christendom was indeed on the line. The Holy League was an alliance between the Catholic states of Venice, Genoa, Spain, and the Papal holdings--France and the Protestant nations tended to ally themselves with the Turk on the policy of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Beeching gives a helpful background to the main generals of the battle, including Don John of Spain (half-brother to Philip II) and Ochiali (admiral of the Turkish navy). The narrative provides a great window into the brutality of life in the 16th century, in which galleys were manned by slaves taken in village raids and chained to oars where they would eat, sleep, and defecate. In a sense, our present freedoms are built on the gravestones of the nameless hordes who slew and were slain in the battles of yesteryear. I am grateful for a taste of this forgotten struggle.(less)
This review only covers the "Life on the Mississipi" portion of this edition.
A great book of memoirs of Twain's years as a steamboat pilot on the Miss...moreThis review only covers the "Life on the Mississipi" portion of this edition.
A great book of memoirs of Twain's years as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, before levees and dredging and electric lights to guide boat pilots on their frequent voyages up and down the river. After becoming a famous author, Twain returned to the Mississippi (incognito at first) to learn how much things had changed in the 20-odd years he'd spent since his tour of duty on the river. The pilots of his day had to memorize 1,200 miles of twisting, turning, ever-changing river so as never to put their vessel in danger of sinking or running aground, and they had to be able to do so in all weather, at all flood levels, and all times of day or night. Such expertise perished with the proliferation of railroads, having been rendered unnecessary, and so Twain's remembrances are bittersweet as he recounts the most memorable of the many thousands of hours spent behind the ship's wheel mastering the art of piloting. Along with his many stories of life on the river and the outrageous personalities encountered along the way, he recounts his memories of the many river towns and how changes in commerce and even in the riverbed itself influences the communities that were nourished by the steamboat.
An excellent bedtime read that managed to hold my interest throughout--even the appendix of a few Native American myths that he'd overheard among his fellow passengers. If you enjoyed Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea, this one's less polished, but of the same genre and style. (less)
When reading historical novels like this, I've found they take a while to pay off. This can go one of two ways: one, you keep waiting for things to ge...moreWhen reading historical novels like this, I've found they take a while to pay off. This can go one of two ways: one, you keep waiting for things to get interesting, and they don't, but you have enough of the book read to keep telling yourself there might be a really great ending, and you finally turn the last page to find that there's nothing more to read. Two, there's an authorial flourish at the end that imbues the whole thing with an unexpected profundity and weight. What's incredible about this book is that it really does feel like the former until the very, very, very last page--a quite incredible and highly effective conclusion that brought me to tears and made me realize how much I really did care about the characters Ms Beckett had crafted. A good portion of the book tends to be a little too heavily philosophical/political, and it comes off at times as if the author is having a conversation with herself; the arguments and controversies lack sufficient grounding in the characters to be convincing. she has done her research, however, and I certainly did learn a lot. My encouragement to readers attempting this one is that they do persevere to the end, and you may discover some things about Max and his comrades that their chronicler couldn't possibly tell you:
that with their bones they left much more, left what still is The look of things, left what they felt
Well, coming to the Middle East, I can safely say I knew nothing of the history of the Israeli State beyond the fact that it existed and mostly Jewish...moreWell, coming to the Middle East, I can safely say I knew nothing of the history of the Israeli State beyond the fact that it existed and mostly Jewish people ran it. Staying here in Bethlehem for over a month meant we got a great deal of the Palestinian perspective on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but as far as the events that led to the creation of the State of Israel and the circumstances under which the Israeli Army eventually occupied those territories, no one was able to fill me in. This book happened to be on the shelf in the retreat center, and so I sank my teeth into it--and it's a fun book to read, that's for sure. Less a plodding chronicle than a look at what happened from the perspective of eyewitnesses on the ground and in positions of diplomatic and political responsibility, the authors manage to craft a narrative that is quite gripping.
It is most definitely written from the Jewish perspective, though a great deal of the research comes from Arab sources from within the city during the years and months leading up to the outbreak of armed warfare in 1947-8 and the creation of the State of Israel by a U.N. Mandate (known among the Palestinians as "the catastrophe"). There is no doubt that there were acts of tremendous bravery and outrageous barbarity on both sides, especially in the months leading up to the withdrawal of British forces. The siege of Jerusalem put the 1,500 residents of the Jewish quarter of the Old City through starvation and the prospect of instant death at the hands of Arab artillery shelling the skyline for over a month. An estimated 750,000 Arabs fled their villages before the advancement of the Israeli army and were confined to refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, many of which exist to this day. Atrocities on both sides fed the righteous fury of disciplined soldiers and terrorists alike, and reading about the mutual slaughter carried out in a city revered by three world religions is one of the most frustrating and sickening accounts of armed conflict I've ever come across. Yet pinning the contradictions and insanity of these conflicts on religion alone would be inaccurate, as it would be more appropriate to assign them to religion taken captive by political ends.
The book concludes with the armistice of 1948 and the assassination of 4 of the 5 Arab leaders involved in the conflict (presumably by other Arabs indignant at their failure to follow through with their intention to resist any peace plan that included the UN Partition plan that allowed an Israeli State). Much has intervened since then to create the state of affairs that now obtains in this region, but I'm a little better equipped to understand what drives the passionate struggle for independence and statehood on both sides of the wall. (less)
Good Lord.... it's left me crushed. Olav and the destruction and misery he sows is one of the most fascinating and memorable characters I've ever come...moreGood Lord.... it's left me crushed. Olav and the destruction and misery he sows is one of the most fascinating and memorable characters I've ever come across in literature. I find myself wanting to pray for him at Mass, like I'd heard the tragic story of my taciturn grandfather for the first time. Except he never existed beyond Undset's imagination--and now mine.
I won't say more. This, friends, is literature.(less)
I'm not sure I could've picked a book more contrary in style and tone to the seven-volume Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Where King is elaborate a...moreI'm not sure I could've picked a book more contrary in style and tone to the seven-volume Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Where King is elaborate and at times overpowering in his imaginative vision, Undset is so spare in her narration that her characters are almost always surprising me with their words and actions. I once heard Cormac McCarthy's writing described as 'biblical' for its laconic tone, but in comparison to Undset, McCarthy comes across like a high school girl journaling about her sorrows (with all due apologies to high school girls... seriously, though. Get over it). And it works for Gunnar's Daughter, it really does. It's an earlier work than Kristin, and that's clear without much of a question. Yet the genius of that later masterpiece is already shining here. As ridiculous as any comparison between Undset and King is (I'd hate to imply that I'm considering as of the same caliber), it really gets at what I love about Undset's writing. Which is not to say I did not enjoy my time spent in King's world--not at all. But as I walked beside Roland of Gilead and his band of gunslingers, my heart was elsewhere. I was measuring them against a middle-aged Norwegian woman living in separation from the father of her eight sons, waiting to find in their story of multiverses and fusion of technology and magic the same contentment-in-mysteriousness that captivated me in Undset's fjords and saeters. Much like the accursed Ljot of the story I've just read, the happiness and rest I found with them only provoked the recognition that they were only a substitute, an adulteration, of what I'd known before. (less)
This being the second time through Cather's classic, I had much more to learn. Composed in the style of three triptychs, it really does read like a se...moreThis being the second time through Cather's classic, I had much more to learn. Composed in the style of three triptychs, it really does read like a series of stained glass windows lining the walls of the Santa Fe cathedral. A friend remarked that this was more like a collection of short stories that happened to be about the same few people, and I think he got it right on. Latour is a distant figure ("un pedant") that we only come to know through his dealings with the people and priests of his new territory. By the end of the novel, as he reminisces about his life and the lives of those placed alongside and within it, the tone shifts from adventuresome to a kind of bright melancholy, if such a phrase could be used. There is sadness in Latour, but sadness born of God--a love for simple people and their self-effacing customs, simple beauty, and the fact of the mingling of his soul with the strange faraway land he meant to Christianize. That, in the end, was what was most priestly about him, I think--the embrace of all within a wide but determined heart, pressing it to himself as he trod on his way to God. Anyone who gives themselves away so completely cannot but be deeply invested in the people and places they serve, and there is no shame in the quiet sadness that comes in the evening of life, when it is time to part from it all--and therefore from oneself.
As the Archbishop lay there on his bed in Santa Fe, his soul straining back to the day when he and his comrade Vallaint first stole away from their homes in France to serve the missions in the New World, the words of encouragement he spoke then on his lips again, I envied him his hard and toilsome life. I envied his total commitment to something far beyond himself, something that required privation and sacrifice in order to pursue to fulfillment. I envied him his life poured out in those rocky mesas and drafty hogans... and the devotion that carried him along to the very end of his task. Noble is too small a word.(less)