Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Notes: January 15-21

In the very early days of our marriage, I declared to Jason that we should have a little bunny for our apartment.  He reluctantly agreed, and we brought home a speckle-headed Holland Lop that we named Specklehead.  Then, a few days later, I said that it is not good for rabbit to be alone, and could we not just buy him a little friend?  So, back to the pet store we went and brought home with us a big, black Holland Lop that we named Al.  Al had distinctly amorous intentions toward little Specklehead, but, as we were hip, swinging city dwellers in Southern California, we just attibuted his lustful advances to the fey zeitgeist of the time and laughed it off.  It will not surprise Bob Tarte -- or anyone else who reads this -- that, a few months later, Specklehead had a litter of kits.  And, it will surely not surprise anyone that, within six months, we had seventeen rabbits living on our apartment porch.  Jason was bitter.

How bitter, I did not realize until I got Sadie a little, brown Holland Lop for Christmas in 2009.  "Oh, don't get a rabbit," Jason moaned when he saw me looking at breeders on-line.  For some reason, I thought he was comically grousing and did not take it seriously.  But, when Kona the Bun chewed all the buttons off of his TV remote control by January 2010, I learned how seriously he had meant his original protest.  And that led to a serious row.

Last summer, I approached this fiery volcano of anti-bunny sentiment with a bold plan.  If, I said, we could get Kona a little friend -- and neuter him (Kona was already spayed) -- I would happily move the rabbits outside, and they would never again cross his threshold or nibble on his entertainment enablers.  To my surprise and gratification, he agreed.  Mr. B was located, purchased, and shorn of his manhood; placed in a roomy hutch-with-a-run combo in the backyard within the confines of an arranged, but celibate, marriage, he and Kona got along swimmingly from the first and have lived in happy, mutual-face-licking harmony ever since.

This is a long way of introducing a book filled to the brim with charm, humor, and poignancy. Bob Tarte's foray in the perils of pet ownership really began with the acquisition at his wife's behest of a rascally rabbit named Binky.  Fast forward through the addition of parakeets, parrots, and dove and even more rabbits, and Mr. Tarte arrives at his book's eponymous position: Enslaved by Ducks.

Truly, if you like animals or have ever had a pet outside the cat-and-dog realm, I cannot think how you would not be enamored of this book.  If you have a reluctant -- nay, embittered and oppressed -- spouse whom you have lured into your animal-keeping web, then you must read this book.  It is told almost exclusively from Mr. Tarte's point of view, as he drags his feet and mutters under his breath down the road to lagomorph lodging and fowl husbandry.

But, my favorite person in the book is Bob's wife, Linda. She is the one who oh-so-gently pushes and advocates for the expansion of their animal overlords.  She is the one who constantly uses the phrase that I thought was mine exclusively: a little friend.  Every animal needs a little friend; and, spineless but resentful Bob eventually bows to her will. 

Linda never really comes out of her shadowy supporting role in Enslaved by Ducks.  When I first started reading the book, I thought that her desire for animals was a substitution for a longing for children.  Dammit, Bob, I thought; get on the ball and give this poor lady some babies before she overruns your house with rabbit pellets.  Then, in further reading, it dawned upon me that this couple was a lot older than I had originally thought.  Linda seems to have already had children by a previous marriage.  So, I let Bob off the hook there.  What the reader does find out of Linda just makes her seem like the sweetest lady ever -- with a generous, loving nature that seems simply to need a much larger outlet than even her doting, grousing husband.  I think that, despite the abundant birds and buns, Mr. Tarte lucked out.

Anyway, lots of laugh-out-loud moments and some poignant parts make for an altogether satisfying and undemanding read. Quack!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Notes: January 8-14 (B)

Infuriating book!  I was met to the left and to the right on every page, it seemed, by ideas and actions with which I strenuously disagreed!

Scott Miller's The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century is a skillfully-woven tale that, indeed, incorporates the threads of socialist/anarchist terrorism, the burgeoning American imperialism, and the presidency and assassination of William McKinley at the turn to the 20th century -- or, as Miller terms it, "the dawn of the American century."

All in all, I am more glad to have read the book than I was ever glad during the reading of the book.  The whole Spanish-American War was depressing, and the anarchists at home and abroad who fulminated so obnoxiously against decency, morality, and civilization were disgusting. But, the history is sound, and I now know more than I ever thought I would about the birth of American empire and the utter contemptibility of Emma Goldman, Albert Parsons, et al.

I could go on and on about how much I hated the anarchists, but maybe some other time in some other post.  I just saw the anarchist symbol spray painted on the stone address marker of a house on our street last week, and that, combined with my already hostile view of all graffiti and people who constantly bitch, made me not in the least charitably inclined toward those vile turn-of-the-century malcontents while reading The President and the Assassin.

A completely satisfying book, overall; having read it, I came away thinking that I've gotten as good a grip on the events and personalities that led to the assassination of a decent man and an earnest president as ever I'll find in a single volume.  Now, I have read books on every presidential assassination except for John F. Kennedy's.  And, somehow, his -- the most controversial and conspiracy-theory laden of all -- is the one least interesting to me.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Little Moral Lesson in Latin

I printed this story from the National Latin Exam's site.  It was part of last year's exam for beginning students of Latin, of which I am one.  Last night, I had a jolly time translating it and answering the questions.  It's a cute story, so I thought I'd post it here, with my translation.

A Slave, a Cook, and Their Master
Rūfus erat servus bonus et in agrīs semper labōrābat. Nunc servus post magnam vīllam cum equīs habitat. Dominus et līberī in magnā vīllā habitant. Dominus est poēta optimus et multam pecūniam habet. Rūfus equōs dominī cūrat. Sed dominus est vir sevērus et Rūfum nōn laudat. Dominus in culīnam intrat et clāmat, “Parā mihi cēnam!” Coquus est in culīnā et cibum parat. Coquus magnam cēnam laetē parat. Cēna est optima. Rūfus ad iānuam culīnae ambulat et cibum videt.

Servus Rūfus cibum nōn habet. Rūfus culīnam intrāre timet. Coquus rogat, “Exspectāsne, Rūfe, cibum?”  “Ubi est cēna mea?” dominus in trīclīniō clāmat.
Coquus dominō cēnam dat.
Dominus clāmat, “Da mihi vīnum!”
“Quis est in culīnā?” dominus coquum rogat. 
“Rūfus ad iānuam cibum exspectat,” coquus respondet.
“Vocā Rūfum!” dominus clāmat. “Nōs servīs cibum iam dedimus!”

Dum dominus cēnam cōnsūmit, coquus Rūfum vocat. Dominus multum cibum habet sed Rūfus nūllum cibum habet.
Dominus clāmat, “Cūr octō equōs meōs in agrīs nōn cūrās? Cūr cibum exspectās? Nōs servīs cibum iam dedimus.”
Rūfus respondet, “Quod ego equam gravidam heri cūrābam,cēnam nōn habēbam. Hodiē ego equōs īnfirmōs cūrābam et iterum nōn ēdī.”
“Sed quis octō equōs meōs nunc cūrat?” dominus rogat.
“Hodiē sunt decem equī, domine,” Rūfus respondet. “Heri equa geminōs peperit. Geminī erant īnfirmī et ego eōs cūrābam. Hodiē decem equōs pulchrōs habēs!”
“Tū es bonus servus!” dominus clāmat. “Tū numerum equōrum meōrum auxistī. Ego tibi cibum laetē dō, quod tū bene labōrās.”

My Translation:
Rufus was a good servant and was always working in the fields.  Now, he lives behind the large estate house with the horses.  The lord and his books live inside the large house.  The lord is a great poet/playwright and has a lot of money.  Rufus cares for the lord's horses, but the lord is a severe man and does not praise Rufus.

The lord enters the kitchen and yells, "Prepare me dinner!"  The cook is in the kitchen and prepares the food.  The cook happily prepares a large meal -- the meal is the best!  Rufus walks to the kitchen doorway and looks at the food.

The servant, Rufus, does not have food; he is afraid to enter the kitchen.  The cook asks, "Are you waiting for food, Rufus?"

"Where is my dinner?" the lord yells from the dining room.  The cook gives the lord his dinner.

The lord yells, "Give me wine!" "Who is in the kitchen?" the lord asks the cook.

"Rufus is waiting for food in the doorway," the cook replies.

"Call Rufus in here!," the lord yells.  "We have already given our servants food."

While the lord is eating his meal, the cook calls Rufus.  The lord has a lot of food, but Rufus has no food.

The lord yells, "Why did you leave my eight horses in the fields without care? Why do you wait for food?  We have already given our servants food."

Rufus replies, "When I was caring yesterday for a pregnant mare, I did not have dinner. Today, I had to care for weak horses, and again I did not eat."

"But who is caring for my eight horses now?" the lord asks.

"Today, you have ten horses, master," Rufus replies.  "Yesterday your mare gave birth to twins.  The twins were so weak that I had to care for them.  Today, you have ten beautiful horses!"

"You are a good servant!" the lord exclaims. "You have increased the number of my horses.  I will happily give my food to you, because you have done good work."

Question 40 on this exam was as follows:

40. The lesson illustrated by this story is A) good work brings rewards B) secrets are hard to keep C) beware of strangers bearing gifts D) a simple life is best

I think we can all agree that it is "A."  Now, wasn't that a cute story?  Didn't you like how the lord was always yelling?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Notes: January 8-14(A)

Alan Jacobs is one of my favorite American writers.  His biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian, is a thorough delight, and his exploration of the curse of Adam, Original Sin: A Cultural History, is as engaging as it is informative. When I saw this latest book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I ordered it immediately, without really reading to see what it was about.  Alan Jacobs writing about reading?  My cup runneth over! 

Let's see:  I found this slender volume a quick and enjoyable enough read; but, I do not think that it was written for me.  It really is about reading in this age of manifold distractions; but, I do not have that problem.  In fact, I am sure my husband would say that he wishes I were more able to be distracted from reading.  In the chapter, "Quiet, Please," Mr. Jacobs writes about the trials of the intellectually ambitious lower classes in England who wished to better themselves through books, and how difficult it was even to find a quiet space to absorb the written word.  Mr. Jacobs quotes as follows: So many [scholarship boys from poor families] learned the early habit of working with the wireless on and the family talking, of building a cone of silence around themselves. I could completely relate to that.  My cones of silence are wide and tall and virtually soundproof when I'm lost in a good book.  So, a distracted reader I am not.

Mr. Jacobs is also adamant that our reading choices not be directed by prescript Lists and Authorities that tell us what we must read to be cultured, intelligent, and whole.  He stresses the direction of Whim -- our internal resonance with the materials that fill our soul -- over that of Authority.  Very well and good.  I read almost exclusively by Whim; however, I keep revisiting books and genres that I think I ought to like or at least be familiar with, even though they drive me nuts (I'm thinking here mostly of that ponderous and portentous collection of pressed wood pulp that is Russian Literature*).  Ought I to give these trials and forays up once and for all, Mr. Jacobs?  Not so fast.  He later writes about the need to continually revisit books you could not at first get a handle of until you have that lightbulb-over-the-head moment and get them.  I shudder that he used as an example of such readerly tenacity his struggle over the years to appreciate the great G.K. Chesterton.  How could anyone have to force themselves to read Gilbert Keith?  Especially someone who loves C.S. Lewis as much as Mr. Jacobs obviously does?  I cannot dwell upon that without getting a wee bit depressed, so I'll trot along to the happy conclusion that, all of a sudden, while re-reading The Man Who Was Thursday, Mr. Jacobs got it.  Well, at least sort of.  So, I guess I cannot justify throwing Fyodor, Leo, and Boris into the recycling bin quite yet.  Though I want to.  Only like all the time.

Speaking of recycling bin, I was a little sad that Mr. Jacobs's effusions on the pleasures of reading did not include the pleasures of reading book books.  He seems a devotee of Kindle, and he also seems to spend a lot of reading time looking at other various screens.  One of the great pleasures of reading is the physical book, I think.  Not that I haven't waxed rhapsodic on this enough, but I just want to state once more for the record that nothing, nothing could ever replace for me the pleasure of holding a physical book.  The position of my hands when I read is one of comfort and joy, and not one that I can duplicate with one hand behind a screen and the other on the page-forward button.

There are some funny parts where Mr. Jacobs quotes Harold Bloom (disapprovingly, yet lovingly) as that eminent critic gleefully bashes the Harry Potter phenomenon.  And there is some very good stuff about engaging with books through marginalia.  The chapter, "Judge, Jury, and Executioner," was convicting to me, because I have nothing but absolute confidence in my own ability to judge and make pronouncements about what books are worthy, and Mr. Jacobs seems to imply that I ought not be so full of myself.  He also wants me to slow down when I read; but, I do not see that happening.  I savor what needs savoring (and mark what needs revisiting), but whole works are seldom so full of the tasty bits.

So, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, was not a book written for me.  And it is not the book I was expecting it to be, but that is not the author's fault.  What I was really hoping for was the kind of book that leads me to want to read what the author loves.  I wanted to know what this very good and thoughtful writer, Alan Jacobs, reads that transports him beyond the wily fingers of distraction.  But, I did not get a sense of that at all.  In fact, he seemed almost hesitant to write about the books that fulfill his Whim, lest he shuffle unwittingly in the realm of Authority.  Maybe it is because I am older than the college students who often seek his guidance, but I do not think he could unduly influence me.  I just want to read about what he likes to read, and then, maybe, find someone whose work I had not heard of or yet considered.  That's all.

*This does not include Chekhov, to whom I am devoted. 

Monday, January 09, 2012

Another Reason Homeschooling Rules!

Sadie was up before I was this morning to read the next book in the Sisters Grimm series.  I wandered into her bedroom to check on her about half and hour ago and got the "Sshh!" with the raised index finger before I could say much of anything.  I backed out silently.  Just passed by her door a minute ago, and she is hunched, crossed-legged on her bed, still reading away.  And, this can be the Monday morning routine because we homeschool.  Why not let her revel in the realms of imagination fully, blissfully before coming back down to common earth to do math and cursive and Latin?*  Don't you remember -- you bibliophiles out there who had to "go to school" -- those days when you were cruelly ripped from your journeys of fancy and plopped unceremoniously in front of a bowl of Cheerios, then marched off to the dull greyness of institutionalized education?  I surely do.  Nothing is as magic as time truly lost in a book -- that time we carve out for ourselves to read simply because we want to.  Now, to a certain extent, Sadie can continue the magic as long as she needs to, without any artificial timetable imposed.  We're living the dream, baby!

*Not that there is anything "common earth" about Latin, which is the most awesome subject ever!

Book Notes: January 1-7

 American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857 by Sally Denton was a compelling read about an horrific chapter in early LDS history.  A wagon train of about 140 emigrants from Arkansas was passing through Utah territory en route to California when, in a shocking and senseless attack, a group of Mormon militia (some disguised as Indians) slaughtered nearly all of them -- sparing only around 17 children under the age of eight.  Almost as impossible to fathom as this massacre was the incredible early history of the LDS church as written by Ms. Denton.  If you have a generally favorable view of Mormons, as I do, you will realize when reading this book, how different that religion is as practiced today from its founding.  Brigham Young comes off as a real piece of work -- manipulative, paranoid, slick, and shady.  Every religion (every culture or political cult, as well) has incidents in its past both painful and embarrassing.  That the LDS church has emerged from the murky cultishness of its 19th century roots and is now a mainstream part of American life is a testament to a people of general good-will and strong virtue.  I disagree with much of their religion (obviously, as I am an orthodox Christian), but I cannot disagree with the utter pleasure I have had in the company of most of the adherents to that religion.  I just felt like I had to add that, in case anyone passing along in the cyber-realms would think that my looking askance at the founding of the LDS church was an indictment of the church as it stands and functions today.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard was my first finished read of 2012 -- and what a great way to start off the new year!  Do you know anything at all about the too short presidency of James A. Garfield?  I did not.  Nor did I know anything about the man himself.  This book is not a complete biography by any means.  It follows a brief, pre-presidential sketch with the excruciatingly drawn-out tale of his demise.  But, there is enough here of the man Garfield to make a sensitive reader weep buckets at those "saddest words of tongue or pen": what might have been.  My dad suspected elements of hagiography, but I think not.  It is possible that such a man as Mr. Garfield could become president of a grateful nation almost entirely through no effort or desire of his own, simply on the strength of his own virtues as recognized by an eager country, right?  At least, I want and need to believe that it is possible.  And what a man!  The villainy of the piece is distritbuted between the would-be assassin -- insane and unscrupulous self-aggrandizing nomad, Charles Guiteau, and the team of doctors -- led by the overly-confident, backward-looking, self-aggrandizing celebrity surgeon D. Willard Bliss -- who actually had the greater hand in his death.  Interwoven in the tale is Alexander Graham Bell's quest to invent a non-invasive method for detecting the location of a bullet inside a body.  This book is a pleasure to read.  I wept buckets.  I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that the GOP convention of 2012 has the same unexpected and highly delightful results as that of 1880 -- that is, pulling out of the shadows a man or woman of true integrity and vision to lead the ticket, for the destiny of our republic.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Imaginary Jesus

"Can I ask you a question?"

I sighed and closed my Bible. "Yeah."

"Why does your Jesus still wear a robe?"

"What do you mean?"  I looked at Jesus, who had reentered the cafe.  He flashed me a quick grin, which I took to mean he had taken care of the parking ticket, and sat down at a table across the cafe, by the window.  Meaning I was stuck here with Pete the Christian.

"What I mean is, here's God, the creator of the universe.  He becomes a human being and lives on Earth for thirty-three years.  He completely assimilates to human  culture.  Wears our clothes.  Wears a body like ours.  Eats our food.  But, here he is, two thousand years later, and he's still wearing robes and a sash.  Seems like he might put on a pair of jeans every once in a while.  They're great inventions, jeans."

I watched Jesus thoughtfully.  "That is weird.  I guess I never thought about it."

Pete leaned in close, and I could smell the overpowering aroma on his breath when he said, "Let's go ask him about it."

Matt Mikalatos, author and protagonist of the "not-quite-true story," Imaginary Jesus, then walks across the Red and Black Cafe in downtown Portland, with the rough and tumble Pete, to confront his Jesus -- a sash-and-robe wearing, perpetually bemused sort of deity with impeccable personal hygiene.  It's only when Pete punches this Jesus in the face, and Jesus skedaddles out of that cafe at godspeed, that Matt begins to wonder if he really is the real Jesus.  Pete ought to know; he is the Apostle Peter, and he's met the real Jesus.  So, the two give merry chase to the impostor at the very beginning of this gem of a book that confronts in an hilarious and heartfelt way the believer's lifelong quest to get past the constructs and wish-fulfillments that are our imaginary Jesuses and to the reality of the Christ.

Mr. Mikalatos has covered nearly all the imaginary Jesus bases here.  You'll find, among many others,  Political Jesus, Testosterone Jesus, Magic 8 Ball Jesus, Works-Only Jesus (no mouth), Faith-Only Jesus (no arms), Free Will Jesus, Meticulous Jesus, Hip & Groovy Portland Jesus, and you even catch a glimpse of shadowy Mormon Jesus in the conversations between Matt and LDS Elders Laurel and Hardy (he thanks them in his acknowledgements, so I'm not sure whether they are realio-trulio or an extended joke -- but, either way, how delicious!).  Of course, he missed my favorite imaginary Jesus, Justine-Centric Jesus, which is the one I conjure all the time who is almost exclusively interested in me -- my comforts, my troubles, my petty concerns, and, lastly, a wee little bit my salvation.  But, all these artificial filters through which we pour our own prejudices, pleasures, and world-views to get a handle on a integrated picture of a tame Jesus are as amusing as they are convicting.

The work of two men kept running through my mind as I read Imaginary Jesus (it took me less than three hours in one evening -- quite the speedy read!).  The first was my beloved and revered G.K. Chesterton, who is the father of Christian paradox and has given me the gift of reconciling the often disparate notions of the Trinity.  This is the ability to say, "Yes, that is True, and that is True as well," when grappling with the Infinite and Holy mystery.  And, the second man was the singer/songwriter Bob Bennett, who has written one of the best songs about this Glorious Paradox of Christ called "Both Things."

Oh we are living in our contradiction/But our questions are always "either/or"
To this convenient fragment of fiction/God answers with "both, and" and "more"

Whether Lamb of God at Eastertide/Or the Savior that Christmas brings
Jesus the same yesterday, today, and forever/ Is Both Things
~from Christmastide, 2009

Christ is our Both, And, and More.  And the imaginary Jesuses we construct -- and I think we all do, because we must -- because we are, on this side of the veil, human and frail and finite and fickle -- cannot diminish Him, but can be impediments to getting nearer to the One we need.  But can an imaginary Jesus serve a purpose, or is he just an illusion of the devil?  I think, and I write this tentatively, because I am unsure; but, I think that there is a purpose to imaginary Jesuses, simply because they can be little scratches that open the path to the heart of Christ.  They become dangerous only when they become the end of our search, not the beginning.  Because, if your Jesus is a holy, white flame whose name you can barely whisper because you are face-forward on your knees before Him, then that is a true part of Jesus, but not the real Jesus.  And, if your Jesus is a warm embrace whose name you cannot refrain from repeating in delirious joy, then that is a true part of Jesus, but not the real Jesus.   The challenge and charge of our lives, I think, is to recognize when we have distorted Him into someone He is not, or into someone that only captures part of the Truth.  And then, to fall anew upon His grace that is our only hope of communion with Him -- world without end.  Amen.