Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Apologia pro Lameness Mea

Well, I haven't touched Newman in a couple of weeks. I'm trying to pack up my household these days in advance of our move the week of Christmas. Where is everyone else? Do you want to continue with Newman after Christmas, or should we throw in the towel on him and move on to Melanie's pick, which will undoubtedly be more readable?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

More Notes on Newman

Newman is my nightcap. I pick up the book after the kids have gone to bed and promptly fall to sleep. But I have made it up to his Religious Opinions of 1841-1845, and feel like I have a better acquaintance with Newman the young man. He portrays himself, not as a genius, but as an impassioned defender of truth willing to risk offending people, a courage I often lack. I wonder how it felt to realize you have been a catalyst of a major historical event.

Some quotes that stuck out to me:

From 1833 to 1839: Since our parents are converts, among our extended family are various differences in matters of faith. Some relatives share the opinion of Dr. Hampden: “'Religion is distinct from Theological Opinion’” and that “‘theological propositions’” (dogma and doctrine) are not to be confused with "‘the simple religion of Christ.’” Newman’s response “While I respect the tone of piety which the Pamphlet displays, I dare not trust myself to put on paper my feelings about the principles contained in it; tending as they do, in my opinion, altogether to make shipwreck of Christian faith.”

Is this an attempt at ecumenism or unity?: “A further motive which I had for my attempt was the desire to ascertain the ultimate points of contrariety between the Roman and Anglican creeds, and to make them as few as possible. I thought that each creed was obscured and misrepresented by a dominant circumnambient ‘Popery” and ‘Protestantism.’” He did not succeed, for this is still a problem today, as evidenced by my own family.

Then I skipped to the back of the book and found these:

From Note A on Liberalism:
“Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.”

From Note G on Lying and Equivocation: This is good for parents:

“Almost all authors, Catholic and Protestant, admit, that when a just cause is present, there is some kind or other of verbal misleading, which is not sin.” Then he explicates the difference between just cause and the kind of verbal misleading or silence, which could be a mortal sin, calling to mind Endo’s book.

My book also has as an appendix Newman's list of English saints arranged according to their feast days and then again chronologically, which is interesting. It stops at the 15th century.

The Sunday meditation in Magnificat was from JHN’s sermons:
“If, indeed, we listen to the world, we shall take another course… We shall have a secret shrinking from the Church’s teaching. We shall have an uneasy, uncomfortable feeling when mention is made of the maxims of holy men and ascetical writers, not liking them, yet not daring to dissent. We shall be scanty in supernatural acts, and have little or nothing of the habits of virtue which are formed by them, and are an armor of proof against temptation. We shall suffer our souls to be overrun with venial sins, which tend to mortal sin, if they have not already reached it.

I say, that we must not only have faith in the Lord, but must wait on him; not only must hope, but must watch for him; not only love him, but must long for him; not only obey him, but must look out, look up earnestly for our reward, which is himself.” He goes on about being detached from the things of the world, and making Christ our only object of faith, hope and charity, as he evidently did himself, to turn his back on his position of rising attention in the Anglican Church. A good reminder when I have such a hard time making even tiny sacrifices.
Yesterday I stumbled across this information on a course in Art, Beauty and Inspiration, at Maryvale, the institute near Newman's Birmingham Oratory from a link from another good blog by former DRE of a former church we used to go to - great for education ideas.  Want to find time and money to go to England for 3 weekends and enroll?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Newman Fisks it Here

I've only been able to get as far, so far, as the Newman/Kingsley correspondence, and while reading it I was thinking of what someone mentioned down below in the comments: how like a blog exchange this is. Kingsley's ill-considered, intemperate rant is exactly the sort of thing one might read online (minus the elevated language and complex grammatical structure), and Newman demolishes him in the comments box. But what caused me to laugh out loud, and made several other mothers waiting outside dance class glance at me oddly, was Newman's fine fisk of Kingsley's "apology", in which Newman gives a side-by-side comparison of what Kingsley says, and what the British reading public will take him to mean. I suddenly imagined a Fr. Z-style fisking, with the emphases in black and the comments in red.

Mr. Kingsley's Letter Unjust, but too probable, popular rendering of it

Mr. Kingsley's Letter
I. Sir,-In your last number I made certain allegations against the teaching of the Rev. Dr. Newman, which were founded on a Sermon of his, entitled " Wisdom and Innocence," preached by him as Vicar of St. Mary's, and published in 1844.
2. Dr. Newman has, by letter, expressed in the strongest terms his denial of the meaning which I have put upon his words.

3. No man knows the use of words better than Dr. Newman; no man, therefore, has a better right to define what he does, or does not, mean by them.
4. It only remains, therefore, for me to express my hearty regret at having so

2. I have set before Dr. Newman, as he challenged me to do, extracts from his writings, and he has affixed to them what he conceives to be their legitimate sense, to the denial of that in which I understood them.
3. He has done this with the skill of a great master of verbal fence, who knows, as well as any man living, how to insinuate a doctrine without committing himself to it.
4. However, while I heartily regret that I have so seriously mistaken the sense

On the more serious side, I was reflecting that many people wail that public discourse has become more debased over the years, yet Kingsley's shrill Know-Nothing-ism rather proves that the haters will always be with us. His expanded set of accusations, What, Then, Does Dr. Newman Mean? don't serve to vindicate him. As I was reading his quotations from Newman's sermon, I found myself nodding in agreement with Newman's interpretations.

On Kingsley's accusation of Catholics all being loose with the truth, and the throwing around of the term "Jesuitical" -- I remembered something that a professor of mine had spoken of when we were reading MacBeth. He had some interpretation of the porter's speech that proved that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic which was based around the porter's references to equivocation:
Knock, knock! Who's there, in th’ other devil's name?
Faith, here's an equivocator that could swear in both the
scales against either scale, who committed treason enough
for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O,(10)
come in, equivocator.
This was supposed to be a reference to those Catholics who were ambiguous or "equivocal" about their Catholicism when questioned so as to keep undercover during the horrible persecutions of the sixteenth century (the standard execution for a priest was being drawn and quartered, after God knows what other tortures). The Jesuits were especially noted for encouraging this kind of nicety with language, and heck, they still retain that "equivocator" image to this day.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Observations, random

Did it strike anyone else that Newman completely omits to do what no modern spiritual autobiography would dream of leaving out, i.e., providing a justification for his belief in God? These days, no-one leaves this step out. Do they?

How different the modern mind from the Victorian, even though those fellows often seem very modern in the sense of being scientific and materialist.

I also find the first chapters hard going. So much special knowledge required! I'd heard of Pusey et al, but have no intimate knowledge of what they were about.

Lastly, when I read the Thirty-Nine Articles (a long time ago) they struck me as completely Protestant in nature. It surprises me that Newman can see them as interpretable in any other sense. In any case this has interesting parallels to debates about how the American Constitution should be interpreted!

According to wiki, Newman's original conversion to Christianity from a nominally practising family was to a Calvinist persuasion. I'd very much like to know what dissuaded him from this position, since I am myself of a Calvinist bent.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On first opening Newman

My copy of Apologia arrived today, and so, excited to have a package, I jumped right in, although I haven't gotten far. I scored a Norton Critical Edition for $1 plus s/h, and the foreward already got me thinking about a couple of things:

First, although I knew Apologia was originally published as a response to Kingsley's polemical pamphlet, I hadn't ever really thought about the reality of pamphlets, nor that they were written in 7 different parts plus an appendix over a period of about 8 weeks.  It struck me that these pamphlets must in some regards have been a prototype of blogging: relatively brief and unpolished, reactive, cheaply and quickly dispersed through word of mouth.

Second: Like some bloggers, Newman apparently felt his original tone was a little too strident. This Norton edition contains both the 1886 "definitive" edition, in which Newman edited out Kingsley's name, deleted some of his refutations, and softened his tone, and the 1864 original Parts 1 and 2, so the reader can compare N's more immediate reaction with his reconsidered argument.

As a part of my work/study program as an undergrad, I worked for a while for a professor who was a Newman scholar.  My job was to transfer her notes on index cards to a Microsoft Word table. (Someone probably eventually had to transfer that table to something more advanced like excel...)  The cards contained mostly one or two words and annotations where these words appeared in various texts.  So you'd think I'd be more familiar with Newman, but mostly I just know the names of his books, a little bit of an Idea of a University, and some of the vocabulary words he uses.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Incomplete Timeline of Spiritual Events in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England and Environs

It's no exaggeration to say that England was in the throes of a religious crisis in the 1850s. Here's a brief timeline, just to suggest the social context for Apologia:

1830-33: Geologist Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology shows that the earth is much older than previously thought.

1833: Newman, Keble, and Pusey begin publishing "Tracts for the Times," a series of pamphlets advocating the return of ritualism and sacramentalism to the Anglican church.

1835: German theologian David Friedrich Strauss publishes Das Leben Jesu, a revisionist work about "the historical Jesus," which scandalizes Europe, and is translated as Life of Jesus in 1846 by avowed atheist George Eliot.

1840s: Under the direction of Pusey and Newman (not yet a Catholic), Anglican religious communities make their first appearance in Britain since the sixteenth century.

1845: Newman's conversion.

1850: Pope Pius IX restores the Catholic hierarchy, which had been dismantled in the reign of Elizabeth, to Great Britain, an act popularly decried as "Papal Aggression." In response, the newly-created Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman of Westminster is burned in effigy, and hostile crowds stone Catholic churches and hold "No Popery" demonstrations. Parliament passes the Ecclesiastical Titles act, which imposes a fine on any non-Anglican bishop who took a territorial title.

1854: Pope Pius IX promulgates the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

1858: Apparitions at Lourdes.

1859: Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species.

1864: Kingsley's polemic against Newman appears in Macmillan's Magazine.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Working on it

Ashamed to admit that I'm only about thirty pages into "What, Then, Does Dr Newman Mean?" Kingsly is putting it to Dr Newman for promoting such absurd acts of Popery as promoting the miraculous doings of St Walburga. Kingsly seems very angry by this point in the exchange, and I can't figure out exactly what's causing his rancor, as I thought Dr. Newman's side of the exchange very gentlemanly. I'm curious, Pentimento, about your observations on Victorian manners.

Looking forward to Newman's response.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Hi all. It appears that it's my turn to choose a book, so, for November, I would like to invite you all to read Aplogia pro Vita Sua, by John Henry Cardinal Newman, with me (soon to be Blessed; he's to be beatified in 2010). As everyone here probably knows, Newman was an Anglican priest and a prominent English public intellectual who converted to Catholicism in the 1840s, and his Apologia is his spiritual autobiography, undertaken in response to public criticisms made of him by the Protestant minister, novelist, and promoter of the Victorian concept of "muscular Christianity," the Rev. Charles Kingsley.

Let me know if you're game.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Peace or Prosperity?

Just finished reading the part where Ulf advises Kristin to tame Erlend on the squandering of his property. He's just sold off a portion of his land (which was promised to her at her betrothal) in order to purchase another ship. Kristin refuses to do anything, because she and the children have just recovered from sickness (when Orm was lost), and Erlend had spent so much time by her bedside proving to her that he still loves her. There's peace in their marriage for the first time in years, and she doesn't want to sully it by scolding him over his poor decision-making. She's become aware that her husband is not respected by his peers, but she has made a bargain with herself: For the moment, she's chosen peace in her marriage over prosperity.

For conversation's sake, do you think this is a fair bargain? Should she be more concerned at this point about the futures of her children, and say, what they should eat next winter, or about keeping peace in her marriage?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Obligatory Wife Post

Well, it's almost November and we've been pretty quiet on the Kristin front, so I'm going to jump in. It's not fresh in my mind anymore, but here are my jumbled thoughts.

I didn't like Kristin until The Wife. All through The Wreath she made one bad decision after another, and she was really getting on my nerves (to be honest). Then in The Wife she really started to try and reclaim her dignity and do things right. I loved the way she started setting Erlend's manor to rights and how she wouldn't let the servant girl talk about the obvious pregnancy. I really thought I was going to find my Kristin groove.

And then Erlend finds out about the pregnancy, and we're back to square one with these characters. Perhaps Kristin thought that marriage, far from her family, would be a fresh start with a clean slate, but the reality is that choices have far reaching consequences. Some consequences, however, can be extended by long memories. Kristen's ability to carry paper over years was impressive, and more than once I wondered how this marriage could last, given her unwillingness to forgive. And I do say "forgive", regardless of her pilgrimages or prayers, because her constant need to throw her wrongs in Erlend's face (and I didn't even like the guy!) shows that she is still bitter. I believe it was in this book and not in The Cross in which once again she slaps him with accusations in a fight and he says, "Jesus, Kristin, have you been thinking about this for fifteen years?" And that's the fight that provokes him to go off with the other woman, which leads to Erlend's downfall, and the fateful turn in the family fortunes for the worse.

(Ragnfrid held onto her sin for years and years, but I suppose the difference there was that Lavrans wasn't involved in her wrong (or in any wrong, ever?). She can't cast it up to him, though of course her initial attitude toward him later influences his attitude toward her. It was not mutual, and therefore not marriage-breaking.)

I know there are so many themes in The Wife, and so many episodes (the beautiful pilgrimage, anyone? The childbirth scene?) that cry out to be discussed and savored, but what I'm left with after a month or two is the corrosive effects of unforgiven sin -- mutual unforgiven sin -- and how that sin eats away at the foundation of a marriage and, acid-like, weakens and disfigures all it touches.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I STILL haven't received my copy of Kristin Lavransdatter and now wonder if I should pursue a refund from Adoremus books or let them keep my $15 as a donation to their worthwhile service.  The book may yet show up on my doorstep after making stops at our 2 forwarding addresses, if the post office is still keeping up with that. In the meantime, I thought I'd interrupt the "discussion" with a plug for 2 books I've been reading: Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding - not Catholic, but an absorbing story of a big family preserving its identity while opening up to newcomers, through birth and marriage. Only read anthologized Welty in college and thoroughly enjoyed this reconnection with her work, despite its slow beginning. Anyone have any thoughts on Welty?

The other book I picked up in a free bin somewhere: an old edition of The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Maria von Trapp's autobiography is similar to the movie but strikingly different in some ways - for instance, their escape from Nazi Austria was not quite so dramatic.  Interesting to note that the Calvinist home school catalog Vision Forum carries this book and a number of von Trapp family recordings and even a Maria von Trapp doll, even though the book is full of descriptions of Catholic traditions and beliefs. This wouldn't be notable, except for the fact that the catalog has a large line of Reformation celebration books. Makes me wonder if somewhere down the line, some of the Trapps left the Catholic church. At any rate, I brought up the book here because it reminded me of the discussion of classical music on Pentimento's and Betty's  blogs.  Here was a family who began their career singing for small home concerts and parties. Their career became professional after the family fortune was lost in the bank crash during WWII.  So perhaps the loss of independent, hereditary wealth also added to the loss of the intimacy with classical music once enjoyed by a greater percentage of the population. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wanna talk about Lavrans?

I love Lavrans, but does he seem a little too perfect? Is he really surprised that his wife wasn't a maiden when she married him? Can he really NOT be the way she wants him to be towards her in the bedroom? If our understanding of God is represented in our understanding of fatherhood what is Undset's view of God?

Sexless and naive. Yet hard-working, virtuous, kind to the weak, skeptical of frivolity. Though he does get drunk a lot.

In any case, I think it's interesting that all the sex in the book is hidden from Lavrans, but no one else.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter on Film

Has anyone seen the Kristin movie? Didn't think it was worth the time. Yet apparently it was a big hit in Norway. Did I miss something?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

October book

Are we moving on to Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thoughts on The Wreath and relationships

You know how there are those girls who read the Twilight series, and then fall into the Edward camp or the Jacob camp? Well, I'm in the Simon camp. I love Simon. And perhaps that colors my impressions of Kristin throughout the book and the trilogy. Erlend is just not my kind of guy, which makes it even more incomprehensible to me that Kristin throws Simon over for him. There are some books in which I can about foolish relationship choices and feel objective or remote from the situation, but I had a very strong negative reaction to Kristin's rejection of Simon. I disliked her so much by the end of the book that I had to go ahead and read the rest of the trilogy, to get the full perspective on her.

(Caveat: my husband is much like Simon. So I'm a partisan.)

I'm reminded of a quote from C.S. Lewis's Perelandra, which I'm dredging up from memory: God can bring good out of evil, but it is not the good that He originally intended. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that though the rest of the trilogy, Kristin and Erlend go on to live a rich life together and do love each other very much. And looking at their children, one can indeed see the good that sprung from the seed sown on rocky soil. But this false beginning stains Kristin and Erlend's happiness, and creates an internal conflict that time and again surfaces and leaves destruction in its wake.

There are two kinds of couples, I think: those whose drama is external, and those whose drama is internal. Kristin and Erlend have internal drama -- strife between them, driven by their own anger or bitterness at each other. My husband and I will never be a good subject for a novel or a movie because any drama in our lives is driven by external circumstances (finances, job, whatever) but doesn't pierce through to the heart of who we are as a couple, and so doesn't create conflict between us. Kristin and Erlend have this conflict built into their very identity as a couple, not just because they sin (who doesn't?) but because they persist in that sin and allow it to define how they interact with each other and with society. I found it telling that at first Kristin longed for a pregnancy as a sign of their commitment to each other, a real bond that would cement their love and stand as a signal to the world that they had were committed to each other, come what may; but when Kristin finds herself pregnant right before the wedding -- the true sign of their commitment before God and before medieval Norway -- the pregnancy is a wedge and a mockery and is a chain rather than a bond.

Remember how that pregnancy results -- Erlend doesn't take Kristin's refusal seriously. He's become accustomed to her acquiescence in sin and pleasure. What started off with such high-minded sentiments (see Betty's post below about rationalizing sexual sin) has come to this -- a not-quite-rape that results in what will soon be a very public shame. The time of "getting away with it" is over, and the toll on their relationship will last a lifetime. Forgiveness and mercy are available, but it will be very hard to break out of the pattern of spiritual rationalization and rejection of mercy that Kristin is establishing now.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rationalizing Sexual Sin

"You musn't grieve over this sin. It's not a great one. God's law is not the same as the law of the land in this matter. Gunnulv, my brother once explained it all to me. If two people agree to stand by each other for all eternity and then lie with each other, they are married before God and cannot break their vows without committing a great sin. I would tell you the word in Latin if I could remember it--I knew it once."

So says Erlend, comforting Kristin for giving up her maidenhood. The first line of defense when one commits a mortal sin, is to find some way to rationalize and downplay the gravity. We have committed to each other for all eternity. Yet Kristin has the sneaking suspicion that Erlend has used this rationalization before with someone else.

I love how Undset nails this argument, which is so typical as a specifically Christian line of defense. Reminds me of the John Donne poem, The Flea: "Where we almost, yea, more than married are." We are in a committed relationship, we're more in love than most married people, heck, we ARE married....Except we're not.

I'd love to point you all in the direction of this blog post at Halfway to Normal and see what you think, particularly about this quote from an ex-Catholic in the comments:

"I don’t see a need for abstinence from premarital sex–-unfortunately, many Christians seem to take the idea that an unmarried union cannot be fully committed. I think this may relate to the fact that they believe the ceremony itself instills the couple with a special “grace” or “blessing” that no unmarried couple can get from God. I highly disagree with that, but then again, I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore. I think if you really think something fundamentally changes about your relationship when you have a Church ceremony, then you’ll be pro-abstinence. If you don’t, you won’t see the difference. But it’s extremely dangerous to think that the ceremony can fix or increase a commitment that’s broken or lacking before marriage. Please think about the message THAT sends to your children. Please think about the potential heartache when they find out it’s not true."---Genevieve Charet

As a parent, I feel like I tread a fine line in helping my kids avoid the painful fallout of sexual sin, while at the same time, preserving them from feelings of oppressive sexual shame--the kind of shame that causes disconnect between body and soul--where the right hand no longer sees what the left hand is doing.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Shoeblogging Anyone?

I love the scene were Kristin and Ingebjorn go into town dressed in their convent garb and end up buying shoes. I think this is the scene where I first started relating to Kristin. When I lived with the Consecrated RC women, my fellow co-workers and I would run errands for them. TJ Maxx was on the way to the post office, so we'd frequently stop in to replace our nylons, but more than once, I'd find myself lagging in the shoe department. On impulse one day, I bought a pair of high heels. Loved them, but knew, as soon as I walked out of the store, I'd made a mistake. They were too expensive. The heels were too high. But I went back to the house and put them on. Within minutes, the balls of my feet were so sore, I could barely walk. For the rest of the year, they were known as my penance shoes.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Redeeming the first 100 pages of Kristin

The first time I read Kristin Lavransdatter, I almost put it down. The plot felt so, so slow. My sister said, "Just keep going until she gets to the convent. Then things get interesting." So I held on until the convent, maybe even skipping every other word until I got there. But I was glad I did, and didn't stop reading Sigrid Undset until I'd made it through all three volumes of Kristin, The Master of Hestviken series, Jenny, Gunnar's Daughter, and several history books on Medieval Norway (beating a good thing to a pulp).

It's interesting though, having been through all of that, to revisit these first 100pages. I think I get what Undset is trying to do with all of these childhood scenes. On one hand, the book is an epic, following the span of Kristin's life, from age seven through death. But the scenes Undset chose to reveal in her childhood, set up the big themes of the novel.

First, we know how much she loves and respects her Father, and how much everyone else respects her father. She grows up in this confident manhood that sets up the foil to her prospective husband, but that's sort of the "duh" aspect of these pages.

There's a scene that I've always glossed over, the one where she and Arne and the neighbor kids play priest, and they dress a piglet in a Christening dress. They are in the middle of mocking the young bride (Kristin) for conceiving her piglet during Lent when the actual priest comes along and punishes them (quite harshly in my opinion). For days after that, Kristin is unable to look her friend, Arne, in the eye. Kristin has this childhood piety, now wounded with her first inkling of sexual shame.

It flows so naturally into her first experiences of darkness and evil, when she goes up in the hills with her father, hearing stories about all the wild people that live in the woods, and then she sees the vision of the lady. I've always wondered who the woman was... Fru Aashild? A vision of her future self? A hallucination? Everyone else takes it so seriously.

Then there's the beautiful scene with Brother Edvin, when she begins to understand God's mercy: "There is no one, Kristin, who does not love and fear God. But it's because our hearts are divided between love for God and fear of the Devil, and love for this world and the flesh, that we are miserable in life and death....It was because of God's mercy towards us that He saw how our hearts were split, and he came down to live among us, in order to taste, in fleshly form, the temptations of the Devil..."

Brother Edvin seems to sum up Undset's philosophy and the gist of the whole book in those two paragraphs. Kristin has a heart divided, beginning from the age of accountability, and on to her death. But she always loves God.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Kennedy Connection

I just finished reading The Secret History. Or re-reading I should say since I have the vaguest memories of having read it years ago. And though I know we're already turning towards Kristen, I just had to jump in and write up a few impressions.

One thing that struck me was the Corcorans "mysterious affinity with the Kennedys". Perhaps especially with Ted Kennedy's death being all over the news this week, it jumped out at me that Bunny was described as being "built on the Ted Kennedy model, much heavier, with little round features being bunched in the middle of their faces."

I was thinking along those lines when I came back and read Otepoti's protest: "Also, these kids are supposed to be Catholic. Where's the guilt? Where is the acknowledgement that the Church has a mission to harness and control SPECIFICALLY the forces and passions which run amok here?"

It didn't quite strike me the same way perhaps precisely because here I am in Massachusetts, land of the Kennedys, where about 50% of the population claims a Catholic identity and yet for a majority of them their Catholicism is in name only and does not really form their moral compass. Here was Ted Kennedy known primarily as a Catholic statesman and yet a champion of the pro-abortion cause.

So I thought that perhaps Tartt had merely drawn the Kennedy connection with the wrong set of characters. It isn't the Protestant Corcorans who are most like the Kennedys to me but the Catholic members of the club who seem detached from the guidance that the Church should be providing in their lives in precisely the way I see so many Catholics here in New England.

On the other hand, I'm not entirely convinced that that is deliberate on Tartt's part. Because she kind of seems to bring up the Catholicism as a bit of color and then drops it again. It feels like it should play a larger part in the novel somehow.

Skipping Forward

I received my copy of Kristin Lavransdatter yesterday (I clicked through and bought the copy Otepoti suggested) and started to raise an eyebrow at the thought of reading the whole thing this month while getting anything else done, when I realized that it was a three-in-one volume. Ah, of course!

I opened up the book and there was the intro, and the forward. Now, I'm a sucker for an intro and a forward, and I nearly always read them when provided. But this time I'm going to force myself to start reading the actual text. I don't know nothin' about Kristin Lavransdatter, and I want to preserve my tabula rasa so that I'm chewing on the author's words. Anyone ever read a forward or a summary and developed the wrong impression of a book and read the whole thing looking for some event or theme that didn't turn out to be there? Or had a book turn out to be completely different from the impression you'd formed of it -- while reading the introductory essay?

I read Silence under the impression that somewhere in the book I was going to be subjected to a gory episode of torture because of some passing reference I'd read years ago. And so my reading of the whole was colored because I was constantly on the lookout, and shying away from, this imaginary torture scene. I've heard Kristin Lavransdatter (I've had to go through my post and correct the three different spellings of the last name -- tough stuff!) praised to the skies, so I'm prepared for excellence, and I don't think that the book will let me down. Is it better to go into a book with no preconceived notions? Is that even possible?

Anyone want to share their best (or worse) book misconceptions? Does anyone else impulsively read the forwards of books?

Anna Petersdatter und Eleanor Iainsdatter

Why, yes, of course I have some pictures. Why, I'd be delighted to show them to you. (I just knew you were going to ask...)

Eleanor May Begg, 22 August, 8lb 11oz, born at her home in Christchurch. This was taken on her first day.

Her mother is my daughter Anna, 23 (even though she looks about 16.)

Everybody blow them a kiss, now -


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Beginning Kristin

Ok, folks, I just took the book out of the library, and I assume it's the trilogy, because it runs to 800 pp. So I think, what with


and all,

(pauses and waits for cries of "No! Really? You look MUCH too young to be a grandmother!" - but not a sausage)

that reading the first volume only might be a realistic target for one month.

I've started reading it, and apart from the strange new nomenclature, it reads pleasantly and easily, which is a relief, because I am such a lazy reader, and rarely move out of my comfort zone. Would anyone be up for a rereading of the Moomin books after this? Cause they're the only other works of Northern literature I've read...

Best to you all

Thursday, August 20, 2009



I'm the next book chooser, and I'm thinking about this one:

Dean Hudson at Inside Catholic says:
"I'm not sure if there is a greater Catholic novel than Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter. If there is, it's probably her other medieval epic, The Master of Hestviken, but I still prefer the more accessible Kristin."

Sounds interesting.

If you've read it before, would you like to read it again, or have you squeezed all the juice out already?


Saturday, August 15, 2009


And on the Corcorans in our current read, this account of a bereaved mother rings more true than the account of Bunny's mother:

"A long time ago, I attended the funeral of a teenage boy who died the way Wade Edwards [John and Elizabeth's son -- RD] did, in a car that flipped badly and killed him quickly. I remember standing at the burial site, under a hot Los Angeles sun, a large crowd of us waiting for the parents to arrive. The cortege turned in through the gates, snaked up the winding road, and pulled up to where we were gathered. For a long time nothing happened, the car doors all stayed closed, and you realized--in a misery of embarrassed voyeurism that occluded even the sadness--that a drama was going on inside the car containing the mother, that getting her to stand out in the sunshine with us was going to involve someone persuading her to allow her son to be dead.

At last the car doors opened, and you felt you should look away, but that wasn't right either, and so you watched, and it was a bad thing. At first, the procession faltered forward. The family made it down to the graveside, and a rabbi spoke. The pine box was lowered into the ground and the time came for the boy's brother to spade the first shovel of dirt onto the coffin, and that's when things fell apart. I'd known the boy well--he had been a student at the school where I taught English--but I hadn't loved him. In fact, I had never loved anyone yet, because I was years away from having a child of my own, and until you've done that you're just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it's the right name for a feeling you've had.

Things fell apart when they tried to spade in the earth, and there was screaming and titanic grief, and you were in the position of watching someone being forced--physically forced--to bear the unbearable. At last it was done, and the family stumbled back up the hill to the air-conditioned cars with the liveried drivers, and the mother collapsed into one car, and the door was shut solidly behind her, sealing her into her shadowed madness. "

"Shadowed madness" - yup. This is the real reaction to death, rather than that offered as the Corcorans'. It's the difference between badly-imagined fiction (possibly because the author at this stage in her life had no experience of bereavement) and the bottomlessly awful real thing.

(This account is drawn from an article by Caitlin Flanagan, via Rod Dreher's blog.)


On the subject of films, I thought "Bella" was even better than "Juno". It lacks the wry wit of "Juno" but has real warmth. It is adamant that good things can come from shaky beginnings, and that in no way is the conception of a baby a disaster.

BTW, as a non-American, I'd be interested to know if Sarah Palin's "Bristol situation" affected your opinions of her.

Why do Classicists insist on wire rim glasses?

I have never met a Classicist who did not dress in the tweeds and glasses. And I wonder, why is it not a toga? They seem more interested in emulating the characters of Brideshead Revisted than Homer.

My book arrived...I'm reading with anticipation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

Betty suggested I introduce myself to the group, so here goes...

I was born and raised in Austin, Texas, the oldest of four children. I received my BA in English at the University of Dallas. In 2000 I moved to Massachusetts to get my MA in Literature (focus in Irish Studies) at Boston College.

For complicated reasons I settled in Salem, MA, where I met my husband, Dom, at Mass one Sunday. We married in 2005 and now have three children: Isabella, 3; Sophia, 17 months; and Benedict, 1 month. We also have a baby, Francis, who miscarried at about 10 weeks. In November we took the plunge into home ownership and moved to the other side of Boston in the process.

After I got my MA, I taught composition and literature for a while at local colleges. I gave that up after I got pregnant and have been enjoying the unemployed life ever since. (I won't say I don't work, though I do try to avoid it whenever possible.)

As a former teacher, I'm very opinionated about education, which is why I plan to homeschool our brood. If they hadn't invented homeschooling, my life as a mother would be one long fight with educational professionals who just don't get it and aren't as qualified to teach my kids as I am.

As you might suspect with two degrees in literature, I'm a bookworm. Nuff said.

I stumbled into blogging more or less by chance, never intending to have an audience beyond family and friends. (Which is why I don't use pseudonyms for myself or the kids; that ship sailed long before I really thought about all the possible ramifications.) I've been wonderfully surprised that my blog has been the vehicle for meeting all sorts of new friends. Some of whom, like the Darwins, I've even had the pleasure of meeting in person.

Thanks for letting me be a part of your group, I look forward to meeting everyone and engaging in good conversation about good books.

And now the baby is awake and needs his diaper changed, so I'l just have to leave it at that.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Finally, a SH post

I'm glad you've jumped in and started posting. Even though I stayed up late reading, I just couldn't get enough computer time to write anything until now..

Anyway, I have to state upfront that I have a fondness for The Secret History because it's one of the very first books my husband and I read together, freshman year of college. To me it's one of those college nostalgia novels, along with Brideshead Revisited (another early read with my husband), so perhaps my view of it is wrapped up in those memories. I'm glad to hear fresh takes on it.

Something that rang true for me at the very beginning of the book was Richard's desire for beauty in the midst of ugliness. He's very drawn to superficial beauty, it's true, but there's also a deeper longing for something true and permanent. I think he mistakes the elegance and erudition of his little coterie up at Hampden for something truer and more beautiful than it turns out to be. Both my husband and I come from rather lower middle class economic backgrounds (though our parents were immensely more cultured and educated and loving than Richard's parents were) and so we connected with his upward longings and his class insecurity. I don't know whether you could really pass yourself off as being from a rich family if you had never lived in that world, but all the characters were such liars that they seemed to accept other people's lies. A lot of the tension in the section before the murder comes from Bunny's tendency to pick apart people's lies in a particularly malicious and public fashion.

Julian seemed like a kind of Dr. Frankenstein character to me. He loves molding these minds and pontificating on "the sublime", but he's completely out of touch with reality, or with the implications of anything he's teaching. He's happy to encourage the students to recreate the Dionysian rituals, but once there are actually serious consequences to those actions, it's clear that he doesn't really believe in what he's saying. He's a very cold manipulative character who doesn't really care about anything but himself, and the students don't realize it until it's too late. In a sense he's like the character in The Brothers Karamazov who talks about how anarchy and murder is all fun and games, and then is horrified when someone takes him seriously and acts in a way that has real and ugly consequences.

Gotta run now because my girls are spraying whipped cream in the kitchen...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Send Me Back to Bed

Mmm. Well. I had some problems with the book. I feel it would be twice the book were it half the length. Maybe this is because I've been feeling my mortality this week (I've had the 'flu), but to me it was like War and Peace with only one battle scene. Just not enough plot to carry the weight of pages. And since the major plot point was given in the first page, there was no narrative tension.

And I have so much stuff left to read in what's left of my life!

I do find, when I flick back through the book (which admittedly I read through a haze of Amoxycillin, Ventolin, Flixotide, Paracetemol and Premonition of Death) that I find something to enjoy on every page.

But I'm past the age when to travel happily is better than to arrive!

Another problem I had was with the basic premise. It seems to me that classicists of all people, or anyone with a passing knowledge of the Bacchae of Euripides, or indeed anyone who's read the novels of Mary Renault, might suspect that the divine frenzy could turn to custard.

Also, these kids are supposed to be Catholic. Where's the guilt? Where is the acknowledgement that the Church has a mission to harness and control SPECIFICALLY the forces and passions which run amok here?

Also, the character of Julian. What is he there for? When I read he was running an Exclusive Class for Top Brains, I thought we'd stumbled into a Svengali/Trilby set-up. Or Pygmalion with Richard a Galatea being brought to life. Or a sinister recruiter for the Illuminati or Freemasons. But no - he's there simply to receive Bunny's post-mortem accusation and then, apparently, do nothing about it. Not even swear the kids to being better people for the rest of their born days.

And I was a bit embarrassed by the Epilogue, which told me lovingly what happened to all the minor characters, because I hadn't realized I was supposed to care about them. I feel like you do when you arrive at a party and you find it's someone's birthday and you haven't brought a present.

One part that I thought could happily be cut was the take-down of the Corcorans. It may well be that death is a time when the most painfully conventional and banal instincts take over. However, I simply don't believe that any parents behave like this in the loss of a child.

I was gripped by Richard's winter sufferings in an unlined room. I stayed one winter in an unlined room in a Dunedin student hovel, and contracted the chest troubles which plague me to this day, and which no doubt account for my jaundiced view of "Secret History."

So, as I say, lots of good things, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

Now, challenge me or shoot me down or tell me that I'm obviously still sick and send me back to bed...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

And another thing

So last night my husband and I watched Juno. I'd heard mixed reviews, but found myself loving it. Yes, it's crude, and the potential adoptive father was smarmy, but I loved June's parents and her comments on pregnancy. I thought it was a great pro-life witness, but would you encourage your teenagers to watch this? Any thoughts?

Late night reading - Spoiler alert!

So I should probably wait to post this until someone else opens the conversation, but I'm going to forget my thoughts if I put it off - even though just like Mrs. Darwin mentioned in her email, The Secret History keeps your eyelids peeled. When I started the book last week, I wasn't immediately drawn in. Richard is kind of an offputting narrator. But then I hit the exciting part, and stayed up until 3 am reading the middle 300 pages – just one more section, just one more page, just one more… I was standing in the bathroom because my husband had just come home from a 10 day trip right in the middle of phase 2, and I really meant to go to bed after he fell asleep. The last time I stood to read for so long was either Alice MacDermott’s After This, another bittersweet tale of people bent on self-destruction, or Harry Potter 7. Reading that late at night made me feel almost like I was in a drunken stupor mixed with some kind of after midnight high – a part of the drug and alcohol paranoia infused mood of the book.
Even though I couldn’t put The Secret History down, I’m still not sure I’d list it as a favorite, or even vigorously recommend it, even though I liked it. The characters were interesting, if a little inconsistent, the plot was gripping, the descriptions vivid. But such a downer. I keep asking myself if there is a redemptive moment. I loved the descriptions of the classes with Julian, and wish my Program of Liberal Studies seminars had measured up to something so intimate. But I couldn’t buy that these were undergraduates. Maybe I don’t know enough ennui-filled rich people. For awhile I thought there might be a Twilight twist: These 5 students are actually centenarian vampires and Julian is their leader! So the actual secret seemed a little mundane: oh, just a gruesome bacchanalian murder, nothing paranormal, except the bacchanal itself, I guess. But once I gave up the vampire theory, I enjoyed the book more.
Some quibbles: My suspension of disbelief was tested if this is not supposed to be fantasy: Would Dr. Roland and Julian really have been so clueless? Would Richard really have been able to pass as a rich Californian if his background was as bluecollar as he claimed? I didn’t buy that he was able to fit in so quickly. And I felt like I had to revise my mental image of Charles, Henry, and Francis a couple of times.
I wanted more about the bacchanal. Fascinating idea. And I liked the idea that they had to actually believe for it to work. But I thought at one point Henry said something about telling Julian all about it, but at the end Julian apparently didn’t know anything.
Did it seem like it was better for Bunny to be alive than dead? Did Henry really want to kill Charles? At one point I suspected Henry of having a deeper strain of evil, when he is hiding Camilla and sending Richard and Francis on his errands. But is he actually good at heart, just ensnared by his lies? And does Richard sometimes seem the least noble of them all? A dissembler, a hanger-on, a loyalty-shifter?
What I liked was the depiction of the escalation of the wages of sin. They keep falling deeper into darkness. Sin begets sin. Was there a point where they could’ve stopped the descent and turned away? Maybe the scene at the very end where Francis and Camilla and Richard go to the Ash Wednesday service? Are they all lost souls at the end of the novel? Sunk in perpetual alienation after sharing an intimacy most people don’t experience? Could love save any of them?
For some reason Henry’s statement about how the bacchanal freed him from his intellectual impotence, how he was able to discover a life of action w/o thought, struck me: I think sometimes I share that tendency to overanalyze, to fret something to death so that I can’t act on an impulse, or even act on a conviction. But Henry's final act seems almost a condemnation of action. Both extremes come off as dangerous.
I'm sure I've missed some things. Really enjoyed reading this. Didn't do any digging on the author, other than to notice she went to school in Mississippi before moving north, and what Mrs. Darwin said about her being Catholic. I wonder if when she wrote this book, she saw something appealing in the idea of being a part of a mystery, even though it has a destructive side. Do you think she idealizes the classical mindset, with its ideals of beauty, honor, loyalty and nobility in the person of Julian, whom all the students love like a father, but then realizes his shortcomings? His inability to love the actual person, only the ideal? He doesn't have the kind of personal love that Christianity could inspire? I wish there were a little more at the beginning to show that relationship. The students say they love him, but I didn't really see it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Start your reading engines...

Betty has kindly reminded me that I'm up next in the selection rotation, so here it is:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is a Catholic author who turns out a novel once every ten years, for a grand total of two books. The Secret History was her debut novel. I read it eight years ago, and certain passages and images still float up to the top of my consciousness from time to time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Thoughts on Silence

Ironically - or providentially?- the priest at Mass today spoke about the need for silence in our noisy world. But this was not what Shisaku's Silence is about. Darwin, if I had read your post before, I might of said, beware, this is a frightening book, but now I see you've already read it!

So the silence of the title isn't the quiet, listening silence our priest was advocating, but the silence of Christ in the face of fear and distress. This book is a frightening one because of the inhumanity of the Japanese rulers, the mistakes of the priests, but mostly because of God's unwillingness to speak so we can hear: We are all like Thomas who want to touch and see and hear God. How do we sustain our faith in his absence? And do we have the fortitude to suffer with and for Christ? The perseverence of the persecuted Japanese believers in the face of martyrdom also speaks a condemnation: would I be silent or speak up for God? Would I perform a physical action like spitting or trampling on an image, convincing myself that it doesn't mean anything about my faith, in order to save my life? Even though our faith believes in incarnation and that actions and words have eternal significance? Does the Fr. Rodrigues really hear Christ say, "Trample" - is the humiliation of his renunciation his true path to salvation, rather than success at his mission and dying a martyr's death? Does the priest convince himself that he will renounce his fall later, like the slinking Kichijiro who follows him around, or does he accept his humiliation? Or would I have the humility to accept humiliation? How do the priests stand to watch the suffering of their converts?

In the forward and in the book, mention is made of how Christianity didn't suit the climate of Japan. But the author remains a Christian and writes of his beliefs - did the blood of these martyrs feed his faith? How else then can Christianity take root? I just read in The Seven Story Mountain about how difficult it is for Christianity to take root in India because of the comfortable living of the missionaries. That is not the case here. Missionary work is not my calling, I like to think, but perhaps I'm sticking my head in the sand. I also don't like to think that suffering is my calling.

Time for bed. I did skim the last 2 books of the Aeneid. Got to love the warrior girl, Camilla?, and her tribe. The men don't seem to surprised by her; I seem to think scenes like this one kind of derail feminist theory, because here are women doing what they want or think they should do and not being berated for it. And there are all these powerful queens around.

But the final battle seems kind of disappointing. Aeneas barely defeats Turnus after the goddesses get out of the picture. What kind of heroic founder is Aeneas after all?

Other thoughts?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Chomping at the bit

I really have a lot to say about Silence now that I've finished it. I LOVED it. Maybe it wasn't the most well-written novel in the world, felt translated, which it was, so I guess I can't fault it, but I thought it had a lot of juicy nuggets on the faith, and what exactly missionary work is and should be. I can't wait to talk about it--which I can't say about Aeneid. If no one minds, I'm not going to post again on Aeneid, because I think everyone's done with it, and frankly, I don't have time at the moment, hence the hurried nature of this post.

Anyone finished reading Silence?

Tap! Tap!

This thing still on?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Scared of Silence

I hope it's not breaking protocol for me to post about Silence before our good hostess does. I think that part of a discussion of books can involve confronting one's prejudices about a book, and so I'm going to confess that I'm rather afraid of Silence.

Years ago, Before Children, I worked at Barnes and Noble as a shelver. (This was my day job, you understand; in the evenings I was a production assistant and assistant stage manager at a theatre, although I was coming to the realization that being pregnant and stage managing were not really compatible occupations.) One morning I was shelving fiction, and one of the books on my cart was Silence. I considered it a perk of the job that I could flip through books pretty much at my leisure as long as I got the work done, and so without knowing anything about the book I paged through Silence.

I won't give any spoilers here. I can't; it's been so long and I glanced through it cursorily enough not to have a great grasp of the plot or recall much aside from a few incidents that struck me. But I've avoided the book ever since. The blurb on the back will tell you that the book is about the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan. I don't want to confront that. I don't want to think about suffering, or martyrdom, or scariness. Many novels have frightening content, but I can block it out as not affecting me. Suffering for the faith, not so much. That's one of the reasons I've never re-watched The Passion of the Christ -- it's too intensely real for me to bear.

I'm glad that Silence is the chosen book, because now I'll have to read it and see what it's really about. Perhaps it won't be frightening at all; perhaps I'll cry as I read. But at least I'll stop judging the book by its cover. It's time to grow up.

The Next Book!

Any day now, I'm going to post my parting thoughts on the Aeneid...any day now. And if anyone else has parting shots, I mean thoughts, to make, please do.

Until then, Emily, who does not have regular access to a computer asked if I'd let everyone in on the next book. So here it is:


Just kidding.

"Silence" by Shusaku Endo

I'm really looking forward to this one, though I would also have enjoyed Merton or Greene. But Greene says of Silence: "In my opinion one of the finest novels of our time." Not a bad blurb, that.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Next Book

I have a hard time being a benevolent dictator because I'm so indecisive. I really want to read Mr. Blue, like Pentimento suggested, and a David Lodge book, but since we moved out of our house on Saturday and won't be moving into a new house until after 4th of July, I'm stuck without an address to mail an Amazon order to, and without a library to visit. I did stick Heart of the Matterand The Seven Story Mountain in my car reading bag. Any votes for those?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

General Business

I was thinking that we should go ahead and choose another book. Emily is next alphabetically. And actually if you all have ideas in mind for your selections, why don't we go ahead and lay out the upcoming reads, so if people need to sit out a book, they can go on to the next one when they get a chance.

I'm thinking we should wrap up the Aeneid within the next two weeks--if we even need that long.

I didn't find much that grabbed me in Books IV and V. They did some olympics and burned their boats and set out again yadda yadda.

I was in Texas visiting with Ruedebac and my brother, and we laughed a bit about how after all Aeneas has been through when he arrives in Carthage, and he's so tired, and his friends are all dead, his feasting and story telling still goes on for something like 200 pages. And everything he does is everything that Odysseus did on the way home from the Trojan war as well. Is Virgil just trying to prove that Trojans do it better? (sounds like a condom ad).

Anyway, someone pick a juicy book for our next read.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Aeneid: The Long-Awaited Sequel to the hit Iliad!

Okay, if I don't just sit down and write something now I'll never get around to posting on the Aeneid. I have this mental block in which I think if I don't have a chunk of time, I can't write anything. (Not to mention that one of my girls has already deleted this post once.) So here are some toss-out thoughts:

I tend to think of the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Aeneid as a whole -- a boxed set of classics, if you will. But the Aeneid is an outlier, written almost a millenium later, written as a sequel to the epics that had already achieved legendary status. Imagine someone nowadays writing a sequel to Romeo and Juliet in which Count Paris goes on to found another dynastic family to challenge the Montagues and the Capulets -- and it was as good as Shakespeare's original. That's a silly example, of course, but I think it roughly sums up the challenge Virgil faced. Dr. Wikipedia doesn't give me much information about what Virgil's contemporaries thought about the Aeneid, but it seems to have been well-received in its day. Virgil desired it to be burned after his death, but Augustus disregarded this instruction and had it published.

Having a daughter named Julia, I enjoyed Virgil's ad hoc etymology of the Julian dynasty, tracing it back to Aeneas' son Ascanius, or Iulus. Virgil seemed to be linking the name Iulus to Ilion, and therefore directly connecting Rome to Troy. I don't know if that's a scholarly analysis or just me jumping to conclusions, though.

My favorite passage of the Aeneid is in Book III when Dido is wandering the palace, mad with love for Aeneas. She retraces all his steps:
    Afterward, when all the guests were gone,
    And the dim moon in turn had quenched her light,
    And setting stars weighed weariness to sleep,
    Alone she mourned in the great empty hall
    And pressed her body on the couch he left:
    She heard him still, though absent -- heard and saw him.
    I remember reading this on break from college, 18 or 19, laying on the the bed my loved one (now my husband) had slept on while visiting my family. And I felt it, ladies, I felt Dido's pain.

    Monday, June 8, 2009

    I Am A Bum

    Okay, I think I'm going to have to sit out the Aeneid. A couple of writing projects have come up for me - not, alas, paid ones, but they always say that if you can't find work in your field, you should volunteer in it to burnish your résumé (I don't really think of writing as my field -- teaching music is -- but I've done a lot of scholarly writing on music in the past few years, and I'm hoping to teach on the academic level, so I suppose it's part of my field). So, can I jump in for the next book possibly? I'm such a bum.

    Monday, June 1, 2009

    Some quick notes

    Glad to see this officially started. I have to admit, I've been struggling to stay awake while reading also, but I think it's because I have yet to pick up the book before midnight. We are less than 2 weeks before our move so this may be it for awhile, but Otepoti and Betty have me thinking . . .

    I was happy to see Otepoti's reference to "Carthago delenda est" after we just finished up our Latina Christiana II - I didn't encounter Virgil until college and then it was in a seminar where the point was to read the text, not research it. So just lately the kids and I have been reading "Famous Men of Rome" and they just love the story of Cato the elder ending every speech with "Carthage must be destroyed" and then they love the story of its destruction even more - the more blood the better they enjoy Latin. So I'll miss homeschooling because my education will be cut short. The point of this is that the story in context of when it was written is another story interesting in itself in addition to the story of the fall of Troy and the founding of Latium. Poor lovely Dido. One of things I always found discordant in feminist theory is the fact that there are these strong queens of ancient history - Hatsheput, Dido, Cleopatra, then skip to Elizabeth and Victoria, Catherine the Great... - but the contemporary historians make no great commotion about them being women. Or am I missing something? Is Carthage emasculated by having a female leader? but this is secondary...

    As is my second train of thought - I keep thinking about what somebody - Joyce? - calls the anxiety of influence as I'm reading this time around. The kids and I read a kids' version of the Odyssey a couple years ago, so I'm reminded about how history is retold by victors/losers. For some reason these postmodern fractured fairy tales come to mind where the wolf gets a chance to tell his story: his excuse for being wicked. In this case it's the excuse for being so stupid about the Trojan horse. What an unbelievable trick, and yet both the losers and the victors have it in their version of history.

    As for the poetry, so far one of the most wrenching scenes for me has been the story of old Priam berating the son of Achilles for his ignoble killing of Priam's young son before his father's eyes. So the old man straps on his armor and dies in battle. Is he foolish, leaving behind his wife and 100 daughters, or noble? There are so few stories of nobility today - and is nobility a Christian virtue? Has it faded as we have grown in humility? How many kids want to be a martyr any more? I'm not sure that I could die for Christ; on the other hand, I was about ready to chase down a car today that came careening around a corner and almost hit my kid, and I spent the next half hour daydreaming about the fist fight that might have ensued if the teenaged driver had gotten really offended by my weak "Slow down!"

    And then Aeneas: Like Elizabeth, I find it hard to love a man who is telling a story about the gruesome death of all his comrades and the burning of his town, while he alone survived. And yet, what a pitiful state to be in, and certainly someone has to save the genes. But then, we all want to tell our side. There was a book out not too long ago that I read several reviews of (being in a military town) by a lone surviving SEAL who was involved in a catastrophe in Afghanistan where a military SNAFU left this group underfire and the backup couldn't get them out. I can't remember the details, only the tone of this guy who saw his guys killed because their support got called off or something like that. Aeneas obviously was preserved to fulfill a great destiny, but is his story something of an excuse or an apology?

    Sunday, May 31, 2009

    Otepoti's POV Books I and II

    Tena koutou (hello all).

    An interesting sidelight to the Aeneid publishing history is that Virgil asked for it to be destroyed after his death. Good thing it wasn't, then, but it's intriguing that he either thought so little of it or somehow felt it might damage his lasting reputation. Perhpas he was a little ashamed of commercialization?

    Like you, Elizabeth, I was struck by the lines where Aeneas implores his mother the goddess to show herself clearly. Book I 407ff:

    "Must you too be cruel? Must you make game of your son
    With shapes of sheer illusion? Oh, why may we not join
    Hand to hand, or ever converse straightforwardly?"

    When we take this line in conjunction with Paul's speech to the Athenians - "Men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious," etc. referring to the altar of the Unknown God, we can see how blessed we are to know to whom we pray because in His mercy, He revealed Himself.

    The other aspect of Bks I and II that has intrigued me is the framing. Not just the opening, "I sing of arms and the man", etc, but the whole Fall of Troy narrated as a flashback by Aeneas to the court of Dido. I wonder if this device had ever been used before? (Has anyone read the Odyssey recently?)

    Then again, there's Aeneas' emtional reaction to seeing the fall of his friends depicted on the temple wall. I was trying to think of a modern analogy, and I think it might be like a 9/11 survivor seeing footage replayed over and over on the television stations of a not particularly friendly foreign power.

    With the Dido narrative, we could be aware of contemporary Roman attitudes to Carthage - "Carthago delenda est," etc, in the way this foreign power appears in the story.

    Lastly, I don't think we should worry about ripping through this in a hurry. Although written in literate times, I suspect it was primarily intended to be read aloud to a group. So in hurrying through, we're not doing any violence to the original intention. I think! Comments? Questions?



    Saturday, May 30, 2009

    The far...Books I and II.

    My reading is definitely slower going than I thought it would be. In fact, not since I was taking ambien in my late pregnancy has anything had such a soporific effect on me--not because it's boring, but because it's hard. I read a page or two, and think, wait a minute, "I think someone's life just came and went in those two lines back there."

    So I was having a little trouble putting this into context at first. Is it to be read as a history, as myth, as politics, or as poetry? I finally decided I needed some help, and looked it up in my Reader's Encyclopedia, which says it was commissioned by Octavius Caesar in order to justify the lineage of the Roman people back to Iulus (Aeneas's son), and glorify their Trojan heritage. Not to undervalue the poetic aspect of the writing, while a lot of it reads like, "and then I did this, then this, then this," there were a few lines here and there that rang out as beautifully significant to me.

    So Book I finds Aeneas fleeing Troy with a group of followers. With the help of his mother, Venus, he finds his way to Carthage where Queen Dido welcomes him and falls in love with him. We find out in Book II all that came before his arriving in Carthage, how they fall prey to the Trojan horse and Troy burns, how he carries his father and his young son out of the burning city, and how his wife mysteriously died as they were fleeing. I found it useful to read the Wiki article on The Aeneid to make sure I was following the plot. Because I think what's most challenging in the reading is the jumping back and forth between the mortal dramas and the divine dramas.

    There are almost two plots going at once. The plot of the gods has Juno upset that Aeneas will eventually overthrow her cherished minions, and Venus appealing to Jupiter to make Juno leave off her dear son. I loved the familial drama of the gods: a mother's love for her son, a father's (Jupiter) love for his daughter (Venus). When Jupiter calms his daughter he lets her know that Aeneas will be fine, "Unfolding secret fated things to come--" (ll. 260). I couldn't help comparing: "Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed-- ... "

    Aeneas does seem to pre-figure Christ somehow, to at least be a manifestation of the longing for a Messiah, a child of the gods, intent on his mission, a man apart, who will save the good lineage, and set the foundation for a victorious people. All that said, Aeneas is a little flat. He shows familial loyalty to his father and family, and he is dedicated to carrying on his race, which I suppose is necessary for the poem to do what it was commissioned to do. But as a hero, I'm not really feeling the love for Aeneas.

    The one I love is Juno with her "eternal inward wound," her frustration of having to deal with these people over and over again, ("Give up what I began? Am I defeated?" ll. 36-37), and her feeling unappreciated, ("Who adores the power of Juno after this or lays an offering with prayer upon her altar?" --ll. 49-51). Hits a little too close to home.

    So actually, this is mostly book I for tonight, but I've got to go to bed. So what do you think? Of course, for me to enjoy reading this book, I have to put it into the context of Christianity and motherhood. I find it encouraging, at least, that humanity has felt these emotions since the beginning of time.

    Also of note: Aeneas's frustration with his mother for appearing to him under a disguise, making sense of the actions of a hidden god.

    Monday, May 25, 2009

    How Far Are We?

    I'll be away this week in New York City to collect my degree, so I'll be behind the rest of us a little.

    Saturday, May 23, 2009

    More on Catholic Fiction -- well, theistic fiction . . .

    Anyway. I was reading Peter Kreeft when I woke up this morning, because I checked this book out of the church library, and I have to read it and give it back. At least, I have to give it back, and it seems stupid not to read it while I'm at it.

    So as I was reading the Catholic-fiction criteria here just now, this observation of Kreeft's came to mind (though I had to think a while before I remembered where it came from, despite having read it only an hour ago):

    Atheism cheapens the world, cheapens life. To see this, just compare atheist fiction with theistic fiction. Belief in God does not squash man; it raises man to a divine image. Heroism grows only in the sunlight of a divine sun. Squash the ceilings down low, and we stoop. In classical Greek drama, in Shakespeare, man is great because he breathes the air of the absolute. In Faulkner, Gide, Sartre, Camus, Beckett, and nine out of ten lesser twentieth-century writers, man is "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" because he is a cosmic orphan. His universe is man-sized, not God-sized . . . Life in that world is a meaningless flicker of a candle for a few between the cold and barren darkness of two eternal nights. (from Making Sense Out of Suffering

    I wonder about Faulkner -- I'm not sure all his work fits this framework which Kreeft proposes. That is, I'm not sure it's all as atheistic in its outlook as The Sound and the Fury. Then again, I'm not sure it's not. But generally I think Kreeft is right, and one dividing line is that between the novel of the hero and the novel of the anti-heroic ant-on-the-surface-of-the-naked -globe-which-is-all-there-is kind of protagonist.

    A novel which keeps swimming to the surface of my mind is Willa Cather's O Pioneers. But I think I need more coffee, and more time, before I talk about it. We're supposedly going to a historical re-enactment day at Kings Mountain down the road, but nobody seems to be making gestures in that direction right now . . .

    Friday, May 22, 2009

    I'm Kate.

    Hello all.
    I'm Kate. Mother of two little rascals (one and three). There seems to be a Texas connection as well as the Catholic. So my claim to that thread is that I married a Texan after I met and fell for him at UD. We actually left the state for a couple of years, only to be called back about two years ago. I am very much at home here. Interestingly enough, my entire family (less one brother and his wife and girls) have immigrated to Texas from our original roots in the midwest. I think most of my siblings stayed after their time at UD (Does anyone know the Stirtons??)
    Anyway, my life has been filled with typical at-home stuff. I'm attempting the beginnings of home-schooling by formally teaching my son to read. My social outlets are sometimes more bountiful than I desire them to be (which is ironic, b/c I was completely isolated in those few years out of state and praying for good friends). I'm always looking for ways to be productive and in particular, prevent getting stupid for lack of brain usage. So thank you for this lovely group.
    Oh- just a disclaimer: My husband just took a job in which he will be working out of an office at home. I might be a crappy contributor until I get the whole "keep a handle on the children while Daddy tries to work" thing down. I have a feeling that the amount of noise that I've learned to block out may not impress clients on the other end of a phone conversation. I'm also new to blogging. I'll try to keep up.

    On Catholic fiction

    What a great - limitless? - way to start off the discussion!

    To jump in: Like Betty, Heart of the Matter remains indistinct in my memory, as does Greene's Ugly American, even after seeing the Michael Douglas movie, but End of the Affair makes my heart stretch just thinking about it. Because it is a love story and I'm a sucker for romance, even though we tease our mother mercilessly for crying at the drop of a hat? Because Greene was able to describe someone in love with God without dripping pablum? (Arguable? Because the one in love with God is the Other, not the Me voice?) Because Bendrix holds on to his agnosticism, like Waugh's Charles Ryder, despite being insanely jealous of God? Because he's friends with his mistress' husband, maybe the greatest miracle in the book? Love it. (But also haven't read Heart of the Matter recently. Add that to our list!) But compare to the Great Gatsby - the protagonists are profoundly human, stuck in their littleness, Gatsby revealed to be especially pitiful - so a Catholic reader might take away from this story a revelation about disordered love leading to a rejection of grace, or maybe something about how the soul yearns for transcendence through love, but by translating that desire into a yearning for material prosperity instead of for redemption, it leads to death.

    So you can spin a Catholic reading of any text (or feminist, or socialist, or deconstructionist, or whatever), but, to add to Otepoti's list, Catholic fiction also will be
    • universal (acknowledging the fundamental dignity of every human being, a part of which is the mimetic desire of the human soul, in which we mirror the Creator by creating imitations of reality - Aristotle, Aquinas, JP II)
    • incarnational (acknowledging the reality and beauty of the material world and God's hand in creating it and in lifting up the human body by taking it on) and therefore also be
    • sacramental: (acknowledging that things and people can be vehicles of grace and/or that there exists an analogy between natural and supernatural (Alan Tate), the extraordinay and the ordinary (George Weigel), the visible and the invisible (Joseph Conrad) “The real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that.” (Flannery O'Connor))
    • a fall/redemption story, even if incomplete (no sinless literature of a sinful humanity - John Henry Newman; man as a wayfarer to God, instead of lost/encultured - Walker Percy)
    • and that redemption occurs through sacrificial love
    • not preachy, but revelatory (a la Flannery O'C again ) (Longinus in “On Sublimity”: “the combination of wonder and astonishment always proves superior to the merely persuasive and pleasant.” ) (Ron Hansen: we wordlessly "ingest" metaphors of the good, the noble; the power of the parable)
    (Hmm, the list kept growing. I once wrote a paper on this, so I peeked at my list of quotes, and couldn't pick just one. Know some other good quotes to add? Here's one more, from Chesterton who has a quote for everything: “The fact that novels are narratives about events which happen to people in the course of time is given a unique weight in an ethos that is informed by the belief that awards an absolute importance to an Event which happened to a Person in historic time. In a very real way, one can say that the Incarnation not only brought salvation to mankind but gave birth to the novel. ... Every artist feels he is touching on transcendental truths, and the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it.” )

    Not sure if "Protestant" fiction would be substantially different. Is there a conversation somewhere about authors whose work reveals their Protestant upbringing? Is there really a significant dichotomy between Catholic/Protestant fiction written by practicing/believing Christians (as there would be between that written by agnostic/atheist/nominal/fallen away Christians).

    Thursday, May 21, 2009

    Graham Greene

    Otepoti, I haven't read The Heart of the Matter. But I wonder if The End of the Affair, which seems to me profoundly Catholic, would count, because I'm not sure it fits into your definition, and it ends with the narrator essentially cursing God. But it's very much about the mystery of God's mercy, I'd say.

    Wednesday, May 20, 2009

    Towards a definition of Catholic fiction

    MrsDarwin, I'm interested in your definition of Catholic fiction - perhaps we could work towards a group definition of what such a genre should contain, and then what works we think qualify and why.

    I'll kick off with:

    1. Catholic fiction upholds the dignity of the person.

    2. Catholic fiction upholds the reality of the Moral Law.

    Hmm, actually I'll stick my neck out and say that those two points comprise a definition, with the dramatic power of the fiction coming from the interaction between the Moral Law and the person.

    If memory serves, though I haven't read it for many years, I'd say that Graham Greene's "The Heart of the Matter" most exemplifies this definition of Catholic fiction.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009

    MrsDarwin takes a bow

    I wasn't born in Texas, and I don't know if I got here as soon as I could, but here I am now. Near Austin, to be precise. Texas is too big to just be "from Texas". I don't claim to be Texan, though -- my heart is in Ohio.

    I've always been a reader, though I don't know if I can claim to have always been a thinker. During my sophomore year at Orthodox Catholic U, a professor broke up an argument I was having with another Honors student about what we thought each other thought about our current reading selection. "Can either of you back up your position from the text?" he asked. The novel concept of having to confront an author's thought, as opposed to my own washy first impressions of a book, set off electrical connections in my brain that are still sparking today.

    Having spent most of my academic career in the theatre, I love the dramatic sweep of fiction: the subtext, the tactics and intentions, the objectives and super-objectives of the characters; the directorial sweep of plot and theme and mood; the interplay of details and universals. And I love "Catholic" fiction, which I feel too tired to define precisely right now. I just know that it doesn't leave me beating the book against my head, whining, "But none of it was true!"

    I'm married to the brilliant and perfectly compatible Darwin, and we have four children under 8 (three daughters with vast amounts of energy, and a small boy who is made of cute). We're cradle Catholics trying to raise another generation of "good kids". Having felt we were vastly qualified to parent and homeschool by dint of being oldest siblings and having been homeschooled ourselves, we're only now coming to the realization that just maybe we're in way over our heads, and then some.

    And now my brain is shutting down, so I'm gonna leave it at that.

    The Early Years

    I guess I talk about myself on my blog a lot too, though I never really know how it reads. My sister can tell you if it's an accurate portrayal of the real me.

    I live in a small town just a few miles from the small town in which I grew up, but I like what Sally said: those few miles relieve me of a lot of baggage. So I'm the one of my siblings who never really left home, the one living thirty miles down the road from Mom and Dad. I guess I left home for college and a couple years after that, then got married and settled down with my husband somewhere between his parents' and mine. I used to be afraid of spending the night at friends' houses--would always call in the middle of the night for my mom to come pick me up. I'm that much of a homebody. I still don't like to sleep in beds that aren't mine. These details feel sort of ironic because I'm the Marianne to Emily's Elinor.

    Actually, I guess I did have a couple whirlwind romances with the wrong guy before my family set me up with my very phlegmatic husband. Now Emily is the one traveling all over the country making friends with interesting people.

    When we were little, Emily's friends would come over to play with her, find her reading a book in the blue wingback chair, then come play Barbies with me. I didn't really like reading when I was growing up. In fact I'm not sure I understood any books I read until after college. I just carried books around to act like I was reading them. Crime and Punishment lasted all the way through my sophomore year of high school. I did just re-read it recently, understood it completely, and didn't like it.

    What I always wanted to do, actually, is write. But since I didn't read, it didn't go well in the early years. I think it was after my first baby that something clicked in my head and I didn't have to re-read sentences over and over again for things to sink in. And since I had no time for writing, nor did I have anything to say, I put that aside for awhile in order to read. Reading quickly became my guilty pleasure.

    Which brings me to now. I'm writing again, which is good, and I'm still reading a lot, but in the past year, since I started blogging, I've been doing so much of it online. I really am beginning to notice a concentration lag. So I'm looking forward to disciplining myself to sit down with real paper books, and to fill in all those gaps in my education from when I wasn't paying attention to what I read. Also, if you guys are game, I might throw some of my writing out for feedback--to find out why it's being rejected.


    Since I talk about myself a lot on my blog, I'll just write a brief outline here. I recently moved to Appalachia after having spent most of my life in New York City, a move that was simultaneously soul-sundering and a huge relief. I'm a classical singer, research scholar, and teacher, but, these days, mostly a mom. In an odd way, I feel like my life is just starting now.

    I love to read, and usually have a half-dozen books going at a time, few of which I ever finish. This is a bad habit held over from writing my doctoral dissertation. When I take books out of the library, I'm more inclined to finish them, since there's a built-in sense of urgency, but unfortunately my local library doesn't have everything in the whole wide world, as the New York Public Library does -- one of the things I miss the most about New York -- so I order from used book sellers online a lot and then let the books languish in various places around the house.

    I don't know many people in my new town yet, and don't know how to drive (I'm taking lessons), so I'm fairly isolated. In a way that I never expected, some of the most congenial, gemütlich, and copasetic people I've ever known - mothers, intellectuals, and women of faith all at the same time - I've met through my blog. So I'm delighted to be reading among friends and fellow believers.

    About to change my display name

    I thought of using "Laboure" (my patron saint) as my handle - but I'm opting instead for the street on which she lived.

    I've pretty much summed up myself already - I'm young and as a result my bio is neither extensive nor interesting. But I'll elaborate where I can. After college, we moved Way Up North while my husband went to law school, then back south after he finished. I've always lived down here (except for a European semester in college), so I constantly missed the sun and sky while we were away. And if my gratitude at having them back did not bake away in the Texas summer last year, I don't expect it to do so this year either.

    I did a year of law school, too, but I like regulation and order too much to appreciate the legal education/profession, the point of which is to manipulate regulation and order. (This was a huge epiphany to me during our first semester in school. But most people to whom I've explained it since seem to find it obvious, so probably I should have known from the beginning that it wouldn't be the best grad school endeavor.)

    So I quit school and started my current job of child-having and -rearing. Which, ironically, is even further from order/regulation... but still I'm (usually) happy with my chaotic life with my boys. I still miss school, though, and I'm hopeful that this group will be a fulfilling source of structured study. I enjoy always having 'something' that I'm working on, and so I'm also looking forward to RFB as an ongoing project that doesn't involve anything spread out across the living room -nothing but me with my book, anyway- which I think my husband will appreciate as well.

    My son is hungrily whining in my face requesting a snack. This most likely will need to be an evening project for me.

    Betty's Sister

    This is going to be fun!

    Since my name is on the list as Emily, I guess I'll forego the pseudonym and stick with that. I'm older than Betty by a small margin and so got the top bunk growing up. Now I'm happy to cede to her, as I can't make decisions anymore. I daily referee arguments about who's touching whom and whose stuff and try to teach math facts in between the arguments presented by the offending/offended parties. Perhaps the last big decision I made was four years ago when I decided to home school after feeling like I was spending too much time arguing with my children about doing their homework. Now I'm thinking about giving up home schooling next year because I spend too much time arguing with my children about doing their homework. But I still like reading kids' books and don't like the idea of paying tuition, so I'm foregoing decision making for the moment. Somehow in the last four years, my oldest reached adolescence and my youngest, added to the mix halfway through, also reached pre-adolescence and fights with me about jeans, sunglasses, and nailpolish. In between those 2 are 4 others, the gender breakdown being 4 boys and 2 girls. My second to youngest may be Evel Kneival reincarnated. Like Sally, we also have a menagerie, but not so exotic as hers: a dog, 2 guinea pigs, a rabbit and a hermit crab, who shed 2 days ago and hasn't moved since. We killed off a few other species before settling in with these.

    Currently we live in the southeast in a large military town (do I need to be secretive?) and we are moving in a month to the deep south to a small military town, even if we can't sell our house. My heart lies in the midwest, although one of the blessings of moving around has been making wonderful friends each place we've lived. I still have fondness for my alma mater back in the heartland, where I grew to love my faith and my husband, even though it has been under attack lately for betraying its heritage.

    What else? I'm excited about this online reading group because I'll be leaving behind 2 book clubs here, one big C Catholic, one little c. I need a little discipline to return to good/great books, instead of reading just fine books. And I'm happy to have already learned something - where the name Otepoti orginates!

    Monday, May 18, 2009

    My Dog Wants Me to Go To Bed

    Well, he's tired. And he hates going anywhere without me. Whine, whine. Significant yawn. Whine.

    In addition to the dog, I have a lovely husband, four lovely children still living and schooling under my roof for some years to come, a rabbit, a fish, a plastic file box full of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and a kind next-door neighbor who teaches kindergarten and has amassed a motley collection of former class pets, including Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which are the gift that keeps on giving.

    I live in a small Southern town which I did not grow up in and am therefore at liberty to love without a lot of baggage. It's pretty here, and quiet, and we're happy.

    I've had the distinction of being married to a Methodist minister, an Anglican priest, and a Roman Catholic lay theologian; interestingly enough, they're all the same person.

    I'm looking forward to reading and book talk -- after a lifetime of bookwormdom, I'm finding these days that I really need somebody to make me sit down and finish a book that maybe isn't Pride and Prejudice for the bazillionth time. Although I'd be perfectly happy to read Pride and Prejudice again, too.

    God bless you all,


    Otepoti is where I live

    I've never lived anywhere else. I'm forty-eight now, so barring fire, flood or earthquake, I expect I'll finish my days here, in a university town in the South Island of New Zealand.

    You won't find "Otepoti" on the map, though, not unless you luck on a Maori language resource. You'll find it as "Dunedin". (I once tried to join the Dunedin Gardening Club. But I couldn't. It was in Florida. I live in the other Dunedin.)

    I'm married and have six children, three grown and gone, and I've resigned myself to waving the other three goodbye when they grow up, too - nobody gets work in Dunedin anymore. I'm a grandmother twice over, and I can't believe how quickly that happened - nine months was a lot longer when I was young. I'm accelerating towards old age, and it's not God's waiting room I'm heading for, but God's photo finish.

    I'm looking forward to this reading group very much.

    Nga mihi ki a koutou katoa, i te ingoa o tou tatou Ariki, ko Ihu Karaiti.

    Greetings to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Welcome To Our Project

    If you would like to leave a little bio as your first post in order to help us know each other better, I think it would be fun.