Thursday, April 30, 2015

SENSE & SENSIBILITY by Joanna Trollope and EMMA by Alexander McCall Smith

As long as Jane Austen fans don't take themselves too seriously, they may find themselves enjoying books in The Austen Project--rewrites and updates by best-selling novelists of all six Austen novels. So far three have been published:

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, British author of contemporary and historical fiction

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, Scottish author of many series including The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency and 44 Scotland Street

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, Scottish author of 27 crime novels (so far)

Still in preparation is Pride & Prejudice by American novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, and still to be assigned are Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

I've read the first two.

I always enjoy Joanna Trollope's domestic adventures of mildly troubled middle-class English suburbanites, so I looked forward to her rewrite of Sense & Sensibility. So did the book group at my church. We were somewhat disappointed.

The assignment is admittedly difficult: how do you bring people living with 19th-century inheritance laws and outdated courtship practices into the 21st century? Trollope stayed close to Austen's story, updating it with automobiles and electronic devices, but her characters were still stuck with 19th-century ideas and behavior. No doubt she was doing as she was told, but if she had allowed herself to stray further from Austen, her book might have been less anachronistic and more believable. If you're not already a Trollope fan, don't start here.

McCall Smith, on the other hand, did not trouble himself about anachronism (or even chronology, as it happens: the age difference between Emma and Mr Knightley varies wildly from page to page). Facing the same problem that stymied Trollope--how to portray 19th-century dilemmas in 21st-century garb--he mostly just makes us laugh. Mr Woodhouse is a hilarious neurotic and food faddist. John Knightley is a smart-mouthed London photographer. Mrs Goddard ("Mrs God") bakes cakes with funny ingredients. Mr Elton marries an Edith Piaf impersonator (who can't pronounce "Piaf"). Frank Churchill pretends to be gay.

Jane Austen's story is very much present, and you'll enjoy this book more if you're familiar with it. But mostly this is a book for McCall Smith fans, of which I am one.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Freedom, security, and flagrant misquoting in Baltimore

Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake raised an important issue in her comments to the press Saturday night. Unfortunately, her point was drowned out by certain pundits who either totally misunderstood or cynically twisted her words in order to mount a diatribe against her.

Here is her complete answer to a reporter's question:
We've had these types of conversation before, and I've made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act, because, while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to deescalate, and that’s what you saw.
That is, if you protect peaceful protesters, you're going to be inadvertently protecting the thugs as well. (Yes, she did call violent protesters "thugs.") It isn't easy to balance freedom and safety.

That isn't how the usual blowhards read her words, however.

Glenn Beck opined that "during a recent press conference, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake confirmed that the protesters were being given 'space' to 'destroy.'”

Fox News changed her words into “I wanted to give space to those who wished to destroy,”

Rush Limbaugh--after changing the punctuation in what the mayor said so that half of the disputed sentence made no sense at all and the other half said the opposite of what she meant--suggested that Rawlings-Blake is "probably a racist."

Rawlings-Blake was not amused.

The thing is, Rawlings-Blake was discussing something that should be very important to all Americans, whatever our political leanings, and it's a shame her point was lost in the uproar:

How can we guarantee First Amendment freedoms, which include free speech and "the right of the people peaceably to assemble," and at the same time assure public safety?

As the mayor pointed out, "it's a very delicate balancing act." If we allow people to gather in a public space to express their anger, some of them just may go out of control. There may even be a riot.

But would we really rather have a government that prohibits public demonstrations in the name of law and order, and backs up its prohibition by preemptively sending in the National Guard? (Do the words "Kent State" ring a bell?)

A lot of Americans complain that their freedom is being infringed when they are required to wear motorcycle helmets or register their guns or remove their shoes at the airport, even though such regulations are intended to keep them safe. Some of these people can get pretty mad at the government. Do they really want the police or the military to forcibly keep them from getting mad in public?

Obviously (at least to anyone with a sense of punctuation) Mayor Rawlings-Blake chose freedom, even at the risk of disruption. The results were more than messy. But would it really have been better if she had tried to shut down freedom in the name of security? And what do you suppose would have happened then?
I'm new to the Baltimore area, and I have no personal experience of the decades (and even centuries) of strife that have led up to this month's conflicts. If you'd like to look at the Baltimore situation through genuine Baltimore eyes, read Baltimore native Ta-nahesi Coates in The Atlantic, "Nonviolence as Compliance," or Baltimore native Rafael Alvarez in USA Today, "Baltimore Is Broken, But It's Home."

Friday, April 24, 2015

Today, even better 50 years later

David recently posted this picture on Facebook along with a line from the 1964 hit "Today" (New Christy Minstrels): "I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine."

I love that song even more than I did fifty years ago, but for different reasons.

Back then it was a sweet love song for the uncommitted. I was 16, living away from home for the first time, falling in love every week (not that the lucky guys were aware of this), living on the edge (if hitchhiking in Italy counts), and thinking I might spend the rest of my life wandering the world. I had no trouble with the line from the second verse, "I'll be a dandy, and I'll be a rover..." As far as I was concerned, "Green, green, it's green, they say, / on the far side of the hill," and I was goin' away to where the grass was greener still.

"Today" is still a sweet love song, but if a million tomorrows haven't all passed away, 18 or 19 thousand have. Now I'd just as soon skip over that second verse and go right to the third:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine,
I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine. 
I can't be contented with yesterday's glory; 
I can't live on promises, winter to spring. 
Today is my moment and now is my story. 
I'll laugh and I'll cry and I'll sing ... 

A few blossoms are still clinging, but people my age had better not live on promises of future springs. And if we're contented with yesterday's glory, we become awful bores. Today is our moment, and now is our story. Let me suggest a rewrite of verse 2 for those of us who came of age in the 60s:

Though now we're grandparents, we still can be lovers.
You’ll know who we are by the songs that we sing. 
You’ll feast at my table, I’ll steal all the covers, 
Who cares what tomorrow shall bring?

Or we can just sing another 60s song, one that hit the charts right about when David and I got engaged:

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Heidi's guide to inner peace

Are you sometimes
       perturbed by politics?
       terrified about terrorists?
       concerned about climate change?
       overwrought with offspring?
       hyper about health?
       frightened about finances?
       annoyed by alliteration?

Back in 2001, my daughter Heidi read a book that explained how to deal with these (and all other) alarms. She then emailed me a short review of what she had learned.

The world hasn't gotten any easier to live in since then, so I pass her review on to you. Read it. It could change your life.
Just don't worry about anything. It's no big deal. Really. Not in the grand scheme of things.

But if you do worry about something, don't worry about the fact that you are worrying about something. Just let the feeling of worry wash over you, because it is natural to worry.

But if you do worry that you are worrying about worrying, please do not worry about it.

Developing inner peace and the ability not to worry is a process, and in a process sometimes you have to take a couple steps backward in order to take a couple steps forward. So obviously you will backslide and worry about worrying about worrying about worrying about worrying about worrying about worrying.

In other words, the way to inner peace is to accept that you really won't have any, and then all of this won't bother you at all, unless it does sometimes, because it's only natural.

So don't let it get to you. When it gets to you.
If you feel you need additional clarification, please check out this Bobby McFerrin video:

Monday, March 16, 2015

The patron saint of bloggers

[Rubens, St. Sebastian, c. 1614]
Various patron saints of bloggers have been proposed--for example, Ste Thérèse de Lisieux, St François de Sales, St Augustine of Hippo, and my second choice, St Expeditus--but none of these get at the heart of the blogger's experience.

I nominate St Sebastian. 

Anyone who's ever blogged knows about the slings and arrows of outrageous comments. Those arrows didn't kill Sebastian, however. He kept right on speaking his mind, and was eventually clubbed to death for his efforts.

I'm not complaining about any arrows whizzing in my direction. None are in the vicinity, since I haven't written anything about sex, religion, or politics (or the heady brew comprising all three) for months.

I've watched as arrows have temporarily downed friends, however.

I'm not talking about polite disagreement. Differing opinions, charitably expressed, are the lifeblood of civil discourse. Even opinions based on misinformation and lies can be part of civil discourse (who among us has never been misinformed or deceived?), if we--bloggers and blog-readers alike--are willing to change our opinions as the evidence requires.

I'm talking about rants, name-calling, snarkiness, and personal attacks. The pain they inflict is real, even if the shooters are obviously ignorant or unhinged (as nearly all of them are).

I'm grateful to the many bloggers and columnists who continue to write well-researched, thoughtful, non-hysterical opinion pieces. I'm especially grateful to those whose search for truth and wisdom occasionally leads them beyond party orthodoxy--whatever their party--thus laying themselves open to all those archers with personality disorders.

If you intrepid bloggers need a saint, Sebastian's your man. But perhaps you are a saint, willing to take the arrows as an unpleasant side effect of speaking truth. Thank you.

And may God protect you from the clubs.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: My Year in Books

[A wall in my office]
I started keeping a reading list in 1997 when I began commuting by train to work. I've been keeping a list ever since.

Because I rarely remember what I've been reading once I've gone on to the next book, the list comes in handy whenever someone asks, "So, have you read any good books lately?"

Yes, of course. Here is a short list of my favorites from this year, in order from the ridiculous to the sublime:

What I read

Jeanne Ray, Calling Invisible Women, is a delightful comic novel in which a middle-aged woman becomes literally invisible, and her family doesn't notice. The author, a retired nurse, is author Ann Patchett's mother. She was in her 60s when she wrote her first novel, Julie and Romeo. I love Patchett's novels, but Ray's are more fun.

Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (newly published in paperback) is a comic novel likely to appeal to my friends in the book business and other bibliophiles. It features a curmudgeonly bookstore owner, a publisher's sales rep, a book tour that goes hilariously wrong, and a precocious child who loves to read.

Laura Lippman has written a slew of detective stories based in Baltimore, my new home. I began reading her in Illinois in preparation for my move and kept on reading her once I got here. Lippman's detective, like Lippman herself, formerly wrote for the Baltimore Sun; her books might appeal to readers of Sue Grafton's alphabet series.

When a new Baltimore friend told me Lippman is married to David Simon, creator of The Wire, I ordered a copy of his nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. First published in 1991, Homicide reads like fast-paced detective fiction. This means I do a double-take whenever I hear the name of Jay Landsman, my local police captain, the real-life son and namesake of one of the book's main characters who was transmuted into a fictional character in The Wire.

If you are planning to visit me, however, and want to bone up on Baltimore, it might be more reassuring to skip Lippman and Simon and go directly to Anne Tyler. Before moving here, I reread my old favorite Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Once installed in Baltimore, I got a review copy of Tyler's forthcoming novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, which takes place in a Baltimore neighborhood only 10 minutes from my house. I love Tyler for her unsentimental yet kindly way of describing family life. And even though all her books are set in Baltimore, her characters do not generally get murdered.

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers, is a fascinating collection of articles about probably the most important female 19th-century religious leader and reformer you've barely heard of--unless, like me, you were raised Seventh-day Adventist. Here's my review in the September/October issue of Books and Culture.

Finally, here's the book I've recommended to more people this year than any other: Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande, a surgeon, has written an impassioned plea for how end-of-life medicine and end-of-life care in general should be practiced. Gawande is also a regular contributor to New Yorker magazine, which tells you something about the quality of his writing.

Why I read

Like everyone else I read Marilynne Robinson's Lila, just as in earlier years I read Housekeeping and Gilead and Home. Robinson is brilliant at character portrayal, and she knows how to turn a phrase. She's also gifted at stuffing her books with Christian theology and still gathering accolades from the New York Times (by Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce, no less). I recommend her to all my friends whose brows are higher than mine.

But I guess this year I was just more interested in invisible middle-aged women and the floundering publishing industry and my present life in Baltimore and my past life as a Seventh-day Adventist and my future life as it winds down. Which leads me to think about the books I've loved at any given time.

2014 was stressful: I sold a house I'd lived in for 26 years, moved into an apartment, bought a house, moved into it, and lived through renovations. In the midst of all that change, I preferred books that closely connected to some aspect of my life--past, present, or future.

In more humdrum years, I've chosen books that took me out of my environment and introduced me to new times, places, and ideas. Three years ago when recovering from open-heart surgery, I read dozens of completely mindless but diverting mysteries.

I thought I just liked to read, but apparently I also use books as therapy. (I'm sure there's a reason that no matter what kind of year I've had, I adore Harry Potter.) What books did you read this year? Do your selections say anything about the kind of year you had?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet

You really ought to subscribe to Books and Culture: A Christian Review. Do not be afraid. It's definitely not Christian™ (the armed and smarmy brand of contemporary American Christianity that, sadly, has given a venerable word a bad name). Rather, it's classically Christian, mere Christian in the C.S. Lewis sense, philosophically Christian with no alarming political agendas--a bimonthly collection of some two dozen well-written, thoughtful book reviews and cultural commentaries, mostly by respected (but not fusty) academics and a few by people like me.

Such a fine journal can't survive without paid subscribers, of course, which is why most of the articles are behind a paywall. I'd like you to be able to read my latest review, though, so I'm going to post it here in hopes that it will inspire you to check out the contents of the current issue and then to click the "subscribe now" button, or perhaps to endow B&C with a substantial legacy.


Ellen Harmon White: 
American Prophet
Oxford University Press, 2014
400 pp., $34.95

A Prophet with Attitude 

On Ellen Harmon White and Seventh-day Adventism 

Many decades ago my six-year-old daughter Heidi came home from church and announced, "I'm not going back to Sabbath school ever again." "And why not?" I asked. "Because they don't teach the Bible there. They just teach Ellen White," she said.

This was awkward, because her father was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor at the time, and many Adventists consider White a prophet of near-biblical standing. We compromised. She would go to her father's church service on Saturdays, but on Sundays she could attend Sunday school at the Presbyterian church down the street.

Heidi didn't know how lucky she was: her kindergarten class was only listening to endless stories about White's childhood. By contrast, her sister's primary class was pretending to escape pretend end-times persecution by fleeing to pretend mountains. Molly, 8, may not have realized that this dramatized apocalypse was based on White's writings, but she happily joined her sister at the terror-free Sunday school.

I sympathized with the girls. A scrupulous and studious child, I was immersed in White's writings throughout 17 years of SDA education. I knew that for some children, her books should come with trigger warnings, and I was relieved when my family joined an entirely different denomination a couple of years after the kids' defection to the Presbyterians. So when I learned through Facebook that a consortium of scholars—some of them friends and former classmates—had published a book called Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, I picked it up with reluctance.

I'm glad I got past my initial hesitation: it turned out to be an engrossing study of an era, a church, and an indomitable woman I didn't know nearly as well as I thought I did. The book will no doubt interest current and former Adventists, but even those who aren't sure who White was may find it fascinating. Adventists are everywhere: there are 18 million of them worldwide (and only 15 million Mormons). They have made major contributions to American culture: corn flakes, veggie burgers, so-called creation scientists.

More important, at least to history buffs, White's story is the story of 19th-century America in microcosm. Unlike tendentious pro- or anti-Adventist literature, Ellen Harmon White sets its subject squarely in her historical and social milieu: a time of religious barnstorming, racial conflict, institution building, and geographical expansion; a time when reform movements in health, education, care for the poor, and women's rights proliferated. This was the environment that formed White, and that White in turn helped to form.

With a foreword by Duke University historian Grant Wacker, the book has 18 chapters and 20 authors—"Adventists, ex-Adventists, and non-Adventists"—all of them scholars and most of them university professors. Often such an erudite lineup results in a densely unreadable or, at best, uneven book. Not here. The editorial team has gathered and shaped a group of clear, interesting writers who avoid academic jargon while looking at White under different aspects.

Jonathan Butler's opening chapter, "A Portrait," sets the stage with a biographical and cultural summary. Born in 1827, young Ellen Harmon was caught up in the Millerite movement that expected the Second Coming in the mid-1840s. Greatly disappointed when the Lord didn't show up on schedule, she became "the fragile trance figure of a motley group of ephemeral millenarians," Butler writes. Braving sexist opposition, marital problems, financial crises, ill health, and widowhood, she would eventually "be transformed into the full-fledged, incredibly forceful prophet of a viable and durable church," a woman whose "lifetime of longing for another world placed its indelible and historic mark on this world."

If White had stuck to preaching and writing, evangelicals might have accepted Adventists as eccentric fellow travelers. But White claimed to have visions directly from God. This seems odder today than it did in her era. White's religious experience, writes Ann Taves, was "shaped by the visionary culture of shouting Methodism," a prominent hyper-emotional stream of early American revivalism. The challenge for White and her followers was to distinguish her experiences from those of other seers, whose visions, White asserted, were neither God-inspired (as religious visionaries claimed) nor due to natural phenomena (as mesmerists believed): they were satanic deceptions aimed at destroying faith in Christ. White did not deal with "false prophets" gently: Ronald Graybill reports that, "confronted by a young woman she believed was having a 'false vision,' she recommended getting 'a pitcher of cold water, good cold water' and throwing it 'right in her face.'"

Many of White's visions concerned the behavior of individual Adventists, families, or congregations. After having such a vision, White would write a letter to the offender(s), "expressing her convictions and persuading [them] to change their attitudes and habits," writes Graeme Sharrock. These letters, called "testimonies," were widely distributed, and many were eventually published. This did not necessarily please their original recipients. Her late-1860s spate of testimonies against "solitary vice," for example—some of which named names—may have won her more readers than friends.

Other visions helped to set directions the SDA church would take. Ronald Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin describe White's 1863 vision about health: "God showed the thirty-five-year-old prophetess the evils of medicinal drugs, alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, meat, spices, fashionable dress, and sex and the benefits of a twice-a-day vegetarian diet, internal and external use of water, fresh air, exercise, and a generally abstemious life style." Health reform, medical missionary work, hospital building, and education for the health professions all have become hallmarks of SDA practice.

White's enduring influence depends primarily on her writing. The author of 26 books—one of which, Steps to Christ, has sold twice as many copies as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—she also wrote pamphlets, articles, and letters totaling some 70,000 typed pages. Theology was not her strong point, but everything she spoke or wrote was built on her conviction that Jesus would soon return. The faithful would then spend 1,000 years in heaven before coming back to a re-created earthly paradise. For White, as for John Milton, both paradise lost and paradise restored were literal. The Genesis creation story was to be read as history—six 24-hour days of work followed by one 24-hour day of rest. To understand the story any other way, she believed, was to weaken the argument for seventh-day Sabbath observance. Evolution was a lie promulgated by infidels; Noah's flood, not geological ages, explained the fossil record. If this sounds familiar, it's because there's a direct line from White's teaching to that of an early 20th-century SDA convert, George McCready Price, and from him to the "creation scientists" that still exist today—though few of them worship on Saturday.

Much of White's writing was heavily edited, ghosted, or borrowed without attribution. White, whose education ended at third grade, did not see this as a problem. Some of her contemporaries did. But in the early 20th century, Adventism, like much of the rest of conservative Christianity, was moving toward fundamentalism, and Adventist leaders who believed that White's words were practically inerrant managed to suppress the critics' objections. From the 1930s to the 1970s, "the 'practical inerrancy' perspective rose to a position of orthodoxy," say SDA professors Paul McGraw and Gilbert Valentine. And then in the 1970s an assortment of Adventist writers uncovered the suppressed documents, researched White's sources, and argued that her theology was faulty. All hell broke loose.

My daughters abandoned Sabbath school in the late 1970s, and our family began attending an Episcopal church in 1981. We avoided most of the acrimony briefly described in the last chapters of Ellen Harmon White. I can't evaluate McGraw and Valentine's assertion that "early twenty-first-century Adventists appeared little concerned about her words at all," though they are surely right in noting that "divergent perspectives on the role and authority of the Ellen White writings continue to compete in the church." While many SDAs, like the contributors to this book, now hold a nuanced view of their church's prophet, some of the church's top administrators are actively promoting a 1950s-style fundamentalism. Personally, I like George Bernard Shaw's description of another visionary, Joan of Arc:
There are people in the world whose imagination is so vivid that when they have an idea it comes to them as an audible voice, sometimes uttered by a visual figure. … The test of sanity is not the normality of the method but the reasonableness of the discovery … . But she was none the less an able leader of men for imagining her ideas in this way.
Whatever else she may have been, Ellen Harmon White was "an able leader of men" who deserves to be more widely known. This book is a welcome step in that direction.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.