The Year in Books

DSC_0543My makeshift stand-up desk for sustained reading

It was a year of Will and Winston. A year of drama, poetry, and history. A year of reading from my shelves, a year of reading aloud until I was hoarse, a year of reading with friends. A year of book podcasts. It was a good year for books.

Disclosure: I turned sixty (the letters aren’t as neon as the numbers). How did that happen? I’m happy to be old, really. But I push myself to get all I can from my remaining years. If I live four more years, I and my siblings will have outlived my folks. (My sister died at 67.) It would be helpful (so I imagine) to know how much time I have left. When will closure come?

How does this affect my reading? I toggle between two options.

1) Reading books to release them from my shelf. These are bookshelves groaning with books I own but haven’t yet read. Not many are books I need to keep. But I can’t let them go unread. I don’t want my books to be a burden on those who survive me.

2) Reading the most excellent books I can in the time I have left. Hence: Shakespeare, Lewis, Chesterton, Burroughs, Trollope, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Undset, Wodehouse. I find that having a big goal prevents me from being sucked into books from Kindle First or Free Kindle books or any vehicle that feeds me mediocre reading.

Back to 2017.

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The Literary Study Bible was my edition this year. Single columns, few cross-references made it a good one for reading.

I joined a group on Facebook group that read all of Shakespeare this year. I listened to Arkangel Audio productions as I read along. I treated this as if I were taking a class, planning three-five hours a week for unapologetic reading time. Daytime reading.  I discovered plays I’d never heard of (Coriolanus) and some I wish I’d never heard of (Titus Andronicus).  Marjorie Garber was a helpful guide. Overall it was a fantastic experience.


I’ve been trying to read from my shelf without being so squirrely that I make a silly vow to not buy a book this year. (ha ha!) One of my first rules for living is: Friends buy friend’s books.

I joined a Seasonal Reading Challenge. Each participant sculpts a list for intentional reading the next three months. In truth, this challenge usually adds more books to my TBR (to be read) list because I get so many enticing recommendations from friends.

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See all those Hank the Cowdog books? I’m reading Harry (Potter) and Hank (the cowdog) and passing them off to eager grandsons.

The other piece is audio books. I looked for audio productions of books I owned but hadn’t read. I discovered the Last Lion trilogy on audio and my husband and I listened together. Fascinating stuff! Then, it turns out that in 2017 three full-length movies were released about Winston. Win!

                   

As to podcasts, my affections have cooled for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s What Should I Read Next? Primarily because her recommendations don’t closely enough match my likes. There were a few episodes I loved. But, honestly, I’m tired of her pitching her own book.

I discovered Circe Institute’s podcast Close Reads where I have found my tribe. I started at the beginning and have listened to David, Tim, and Angelina discuss Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, Wodehouse, Kenneth Grahame, Austen, Marilynne Robinson, and Agatha Christie. I’ll be caught up soon; we start reading Howard’s End in January.

For the two people still reading this crazy long post, here is a link to my Goodreads list which includes fabulous food writing, new fiction, mystery, memoirs, and books on architecture, cultural studies, sailing, shepherding, and art.

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Frederick Law Olmsted

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Morton Arboretum, the closest photo I had to landscape architecture

I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than forty years. — Frederick Law Olmsted

So many surprises in A Clearing In the Distance. Olmsted was an autodidact. A slow starter, a dabbler in disparate enterprises, he kept afloat with his father’s loans. He himself was his father’s ‘Central Park’, the long investment whose glories would become apparent in the future. Fame first came as a journalist. He sailed to China; he bought a farm; he traveled to Europe; he started a magazine; he managed the largest gold mine in California.

It is the breadth of Olmsted’s curiosity that makes his writing compelling.

His genius was made manifest when he, along with Calvert Vaux, created New York City’s Central Park. After that, Olmsted designed other huge city parks, the suburb of Riverside, IL, university campuses, cemeteries, the U.S. Capitol grounds, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Biltmore Estate. I enjoyed reading about the projects he didn’t get: Golden Gate Park, the city of Tacoma, WA.

The ability to think on a large scale, to project himself into the future, and to quickly master broad issues were skills Olmsted acquired while he was directing the United States Sanitary Commission, managing the Mariposa Estate, and chairing the Yosemite Commission. All these projects depended on his ability to digest and organize large amounts of information, and to integrate diverse requirements. All involved planning in time as well as space.

The timing of my reading was delicious! In some ways this is the daylight to the darkness of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. Riis writes extensively about the Children’s Aid Society, started by Olmsted’s closest friend, Charles Brace. Olmsted’s work on Central Park was more civic than aesthetic, giving residents the space to soak up sunshine and fresh air.

Other reading intersections: Erik Larson’s The Devil in White City made me thirsty to know more about FLO. Michael Pollan referenced Olmsted’s ideas in Second Nature. By chance, I’ve landed in books set in the late-19th century. The wider I read, the greater my familiarity grows and the joy of recognition sparks.

Finally, I believe growing up in Lombard, IL, walking through our own Lilacia Park, designed by Jens Jensen, and nearby Morton Arboretum, a 1700-acre tree museum, predisposed me to love this book.

For myself and those interested in cultural history: 5 stars
For those who like biographies, history, and books with an index and maps: 4 stars

A Scrabble Proposal

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By David Harper

I was struggling to find a text that would fit Margaret. My wife read this to me and I’d like to read it to you. Now the Proverbs are difficult, sometimes, to understand. I’ll give you my take on this particular verse.

All the days of the afflicted are hard,
but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.
Proverbs 15:15

You’ve already heard that Harpers like food…and you can tell! But, I think that the contrast here, as it ought to be interpreted, is the contrast of the afflicted in their person, in their soul.

I’m going to apply it to Margaret. She was afflicted and endured many days of difficulty. Difficulty that I don’t know anything about, and most of us don’t. She endured a lot of affliction in her person, but not in her soul. She was a cheerful person. I don’t think I ever heard her complain. She was a joyful person.

I remember when she came out to visit us, she had just graduated [from college] and it was December. She came out to Johnstown and I had gone over to pick her up. She had headaches then. She came to our house, and her headaches were so bad she was continually throwing up. It was that tough.

We didn’t know what to do. So, we took her to our family doctor who was on vacation; he had a substitute who couldn’t get rid of her fast enough. He thought it was bad, and it was. She went to a neurosurgeon in Altoona. He didn’t have any ability or didn’t think he could do anything about it.

So we took her to Pittsburgh to Montefiore Hospital. She was still in pain and they were arguing, as neurosurgeons and neurologists do. Arguing about what kind of tack to go with her. They couldn’t decide because they didn’t know what was going on.

The thing that gave her relief was a spinal tap to take fluid off her spine. It gave her relief for a day or two then they would have to do it again. The rest is the long struggle that she went through. She was afflicted, but I never saw her without a smile on her face.  Even when she was in that kind of pain, I still remember that.

But, she is now with the Lord and none of us would want her back. Well, maybe John would. But I think we all realize she is far better off now.

One of the things we did as a family —the John Harper family is large, in more than one way— as we grew up, part of our time was [living] out in the country. Dorothy, Margaret, and I went to the old Bogan School. That school was a two-room school house with four grades. Did you go too, John? It was a tough go. It was five miles from our house (or so it seemed) and it was uphill both ways.  It was hard! We went to this little schoolhouse and I just think about my mother who for three-and-half-years raised seven contentious children [alone].

Then we went to Bair Lake [Bible Camp] in the summertime, most likely because it was free room and board for seven kids. My dad was the manager of the camp and that’s where we got to know a lot of friends. We were there every summer and enjoyed it. Love for camp came from those days. Even when I was in high school we would go from Chicago back to Bair Lake. When I was in college we would do the same thing: go on weekends. And build things and do things. It was something I really enjoyed and I think all our family did.

One thing I want to remind all of us here, was one of those situations that was not dealt with happily by my sister. One of the services she performed for us brothers: more than once her girlfriends became our girlfriends. She was just a bit miffed about it. I remember that. It didn’t take except for Dan. That worked well. Real well.

One of the things I especially appreciated about Margaret was her happy spirit and this verse reflected that.

She loved food. We all loved food. But she couldn’t really appreciate the other senses of life. Walking around. Getting up. I sit for a while and I get kind of sore. And I think Margaret must have gotten a lot of soreness, too. And I appreciate what she went through to the limit and extent that I can.

I want to tell you about a time that Margaret was in Grand Rapids and was in the hospital. She had just had a number of mini-seizures and she was flat on her back.  I came in to visit her. I’m talking to her. She’s still her joyful and smiling person. Then she told me this thing that stunned me. She told me about this guy, John Walker, who had just asked her to marry him.

I said, really?

Yeah, but I am going to tell him no. (I don’t think she actually told him no, but she was planning on telling him no.)

He deserves far better than me, she said. Of course they became good friends, not only at River Forest, but playing Scrabble. (She could beat me. Whupped me.)

I said, Well, why would you say no?

I can’t give him children. He deserves far better than me. Look at me! I can’t do anything.

Margaret, it’s very clear that John loves you. He doesn’t love your body, he loves you as a person. And if I were you, I would get on the phone and say yes.

The way it turned out is that in Scrabble ‘YES’ is more points than ‘NO’. So Margaret said, I’m going for the big word!

As far as our family is concerned, John is a prince. I could not do what John has done. Over twenty-one years. Truly remarkable. And we thank the Lord for you, John.

A Different Kind of Fairy Tale

Young Margo

By Daniel Harper

Margaret was a complicated person. Now, when someone says that at a funeral, alarm bells should go off inside your head.  But what I mean is that Margaret was a mixture of different characteristics like most of us.  Loving.  Patient.  Stubborn. Funny. Tough. Patient.  Stubborn.

I’m repeating myself. Let’s go back to childhood and try and remember some things about Margaret.

First off she was much older than myself.  6 whole years.  At that age, 6 years seems like an eternity.  Along with Dorothy and David, she seemed much older, cooler, and smarter than I would ever be. She had interests and knowledge I could never match.

But we shared one huge event as a family.  The death of my mother when I was 13. In many ways this shaped all of us because my mom was the anchor of our family and to lose her at such an early age brought many changes.  One random memory from that time is a chicken dinner which Margo prepared. (And maybe Dorothy was involved. I plead teenage male goofiness). This was fried chicken in some kind of cake batter that puffed up as it bubbled in the oil in a cast iron skillet.  We shared a love of good and wonderful food.

Later, she went to nursing school and took her first job at Belmont Hospital. After living in an apartment overlooking the Eisenhower Freeway with all the noise and traffic she moved to 804 S Euclid in Oak Park which was a two flat also known as the Harper Hilton. Two older brothers, David and John, lived in the upstairs flat and Margo along with various roommates lived downstairs.

In 1977 I moved in upstairs and little knew how much Margo would change my life.

Through sheer ineptitude I managed to flip a 3 wheel construction cart on my left foot and was off work for a month or longer. During this time Margo, Bette Unander (now Smillie) and I visited my brother Jim and his wife Kathleen in Portland, Maine.  We took the tour of Boston, parts of New Hampshire, and Maine where Jim and Kathleen gave us a royal visit of that wonderful state.

As I recovered from my foot injury I had time to prepare late night steak bbqs for Margo and Bette when they came home from the 3 to 11 shift.  Our bonds as brother and sister grew especially in the Tuesday night Bible study that met downstairs in their apartment.

At this time I was taking voice lessons, singing solos in a large church choir, and being a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus.  Margo encouraged me in my singing and attended many concerts with our circle of friends, mainly from the Tuesday night Bible Study.

It was during this time that Margo developed severe headaches. While visiting my brother David she had to be taken to Pittsburgh for treatment but the brain tumor was not discovered for some time.

In the early summer of 1979 the pain was even worse and finally she was diagnosed with a severe and dangerous brain tumor which she decided to have the needed surgery at Mayo Clinic.  While she was there she called me and asked if I would give a ride to a co-worker that wanted to visit her for that week in Minnesota.  I gladly agreed and gave Valeri Kijak a ride up to Mayo Clinic. (And my life was changed forever!!)

Margo had many radiation treatments and at the end of those we planned a celebratory lobster dinner (sent by my brother Jim from Maine).  It was during this dinner (ironically before we ate the lobster) that Margo had a seizure.  This was in September of 1979 and for Margaret the prognosis looked very grim. Later, the whole Harper clan all gathered at brother David’s house for Christmas and most of us thought this would be Margaret’s last Christmas.

God had different plans.  For some unknown reason Margo’s body enveloped the brain tumor and stopped its growth.  But the damage from the treatment had taken a toll on Margo’s body.  She was told that from then on her life would be very limited.

She would never work again.
She would never drive again.
She would never live on her own again.

Here is where her stubbornness comes in.  This is where her toughness comes into play.

Margo did all those things.
Work two different jobs.
Buy a new car. And drive it.
Buy a condo on her own.

But.  The damage from the cure was tremendous.  Margo’s body was never the same again. Her amazing piano skills were never the same. She had much difficulty in moving and having the stamina for being a nurse.

God gave Margo a difficult path to walk.

Here’s where we need to learn what Margo knew all those years ago: God’s way is best even when we don’t understand.

Bitterness only eats up those who are bitter.
Each day is a blessing even with all the challenges that Margo faced.

In the midst of this God sent a gift to Margaret in the form of John Walker. John loved Margo for who she was including the physical deficits because he saw the real Margo that was hidden behind those physical problems.

In 1994 John and Margo were married.

We think of fairy tales as the young prince who carries off his young bride in some idealized Hollywood movie. Let me give you another version:

A 40-something cancer survivor meets a young man who sees the fairy princess locked up inside her own body and loves her for who she is.  

THAT is a movie I want to see. John has been a  faithful and loving husband to his bride, Margaret.

In the last conversation I had with Margo a month or so ago she amazed me with her wit and intelligence and I hung up the phone exhilarated and rejoicing in who Margo was. And is. I selfishly would love to have that conversation with Margo again but I know that as of right now Margo is in the presence of her Lord and Savior.

Free from pain.
Free from limitations.
Free from a body that served her well but imperfectly.
And at rest and at peace with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Remembering Glenn Gould

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My new latest ‘thing’ is Glenn Gould. My friend Terri recommended A Romance on Three Legs, I watched this video of the author discussing it, and my mind told myself, “Let the fascination begin!”

I’ve watched videos, listened to CDs, read Hafner’s book and I continue to be mesmerized. The best film so far has been the 2010 documentary, Genius Within . Gould’s music accompanies me while I chop veggies, sweep the floor, write blog posts.

Who was Glenn Gould? He was a Canadian pianist whose ability, style, precision, musicality, phrasing, was simply in a galaxy all his own. Many stories have been told about folks who, having never once listened to classical music, were stunned and converted by some piece they inadvertently listened to on the radio. His playing grabs you.

“You are one of the few authentic geniuses recording today. If you wanted to record the complete works of Alban Berg on a kazoo, I’d gladly do it.”  RCA executive to GG

Katie Hafner’s book focuses on the piano that Glenn Gould played, a Steinway CD 318. It’s a great introduction to Gould, but also a great introduction to Verne Edquist, the blind man who was Gould’s principal tuner. In the video linked above, someone has a question, Hafner can’t answer. She calls Edquist in the middle of Q and A and finds out. The Steinways, a German family who emigrated to America to build pianos, provide an engaging back story.

Gould had many eccentricities, and his life story is ultimately a sad one, leading me to the question, “Is there such a thing as a balanced genius?” He died days after his 50th birthday from a stroke. One ‘tic’ he had was humming whenever he played the piano. I remember attending a concert in 1989 with a pianist who shared this quirk. At the social hour afterwards, I remarked to some bystander what a shame it was that someone in the audience insisted on humming along. “Oh, my dear,” the lady said, “That was our own dear [insert pianist’s name]. She can’t help herself.”

I suppose it can be said that I’m an absent-minded driver. It’s true that I’ve driven through a number of red lights on occasion, but on the other hand I’ve stopped at a lot of green ones but have never gotten credit for it.  — Glenn Gould

Once in a while I try to figure out why Glenn Gould fascinates me. What keeps me looking for more to read, more to watch, more to listen? He is an enigma – charming, yet reclusive, gifted but abhorred performing, confident but lost.  I haven’t come up with an answer yet. But I know I’m not alone. His magnetic pull continues thirty-two years after his death.

The critic Tim Page said that in his last decade, Gould was “no longer just an arrogant, albeit sweet-tempered genius. He became a sweet-tempered melancholy genius.” Today, September 25th, is the anniversary of his birth. Give yourself a gift by listening to Glenn Gould. Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a good place to start.

 

The Walls of Windy Troy

schliemannsexcavationI’m digging through my shelves, reading children’s books that I never got to when my children were, you know, children. One of them is Marjorie Braymer’s biography of Heinrich Schliemann, The Walls of Windy Troy.

This is a story of the rewards and risks of being an autodidact (self-taught scholar). Schliemann, the son of a German pastor, was nineteen, injured and destitute. He embarked on a ship to Venezuela, survived a shipwreck, and landed in Amsterdam.
Ever since he first heard Homer—music with the cadence and swing of the sea in it, language like the beat of armies surging across grassy plains—he was fired up with a burning desire: to find Troy. When told that Troy wasn’t real, just a story, his resolve hardened.

He needed to make money to fulfill his dream. To be a master of men, one has to master their languages. He picked up Dutch by immersion in the culture, then taught himself Spanish, English, French and Russian.

Soon he was reading English novels, always aloud, always in full voice, without stopping to translate. He had discovered this to be a more efficient system than studying grammar. Words and sounds and meanings made connections in his head, and he gradually got the sense of what he was reading. (emphasis mine)

When he struggled with Russian, he made progress by hiring a Dutch student (who knew no Russian) to listen to him read. That busts me up, but he actually learned enough Russian to move to and work in St. Petersburg. He wanted above all to learn classical Greek, but disciplined himself to learn languages that helped him in business first. After he garnered Greek, he added Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Polish, Arabic and Turkish. That accomplishment is dizzying!

002_Schliemann 1890His wealth and international prestige grew to the point that he could travel to Turkey and start digging. Believing in the exactness of Homer’s word, Schliemann chose to ignore received wisdom and broke ground at a site he felt more closely matched Homer’s words.

And, lo, he made epoch discoveries. Did he discover Troy? It’s hard to say. He found layers of civilizations. Initially he made sweeping claims. The science of archeology hadn’t yet been developed; Schliemann’s work destroyed some valuable layers as he dug deeper for Troy. There was not an established protocol for the ownership of the artifacts dug up. He had to learn humility by acknowledging his own errors and asking for help from other scholars. Clearly, his work has added to our knowledge of ancient cultures.

This is an instance where I greatly enjoyed reading a biography written for young adults. For me, this is enough. There are a handful of books by Schliemann and an armload about him, but, in the vernacular of friends declining an offer, ‘I’m good.’

Ruth Reichl’s Mom

“I am so sorry I didn’t pursue a career. In the end it is meaningful work—serving people—that matters most. It is what we are made for.”         — Miriam B. Reichl

I stumbled onto Ruth Reichl (RYE-shell) browsing the stacks at my local library. Her voice captured me, her stories engaged me. One by one, I read her memoirs, trying a few recipes tucked in at chapter ends. You could say that she opened the door and welcomed me into the foodie world. I’m still standing in the vestibule, not sure if I belong here, but it is fun looking around.

August and September are months when I listen to audio books by the dozen while I put up food from the garden. I was delighted to rediscover Ruth Reichl and quickly downloaded Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way . (The title changed to For You Mom, Finally when it was issued in paperback.)

Reichl interprets her mother’s life through the lens of family letters and private notes found after her mom’s death. Miriam (“Mim”) was remarkable: got a PhD in music from Paris when she was nineteen, opened a bookshop in her twenties, formed friendships with famous authors, critics, musicians. Thwarted from becoming a physician, told that she was too homely to attract a husband, bereaved of her sister, a disappointment to her parents, she carries an “unhappiness that is palpable”, sits through years of psychotherapy, tries pharmacotherapy, alienates her kids, spirals into deep depression.

RUTH-REICH-MEMOIR-COVER-TITLE-NOT-BECOMING-MY-MOTHMim’s misery, Reichl insists, stems from the fact that she lacked a career. In the fifties she was one of the smart, competent women twiddling their thumbs. She hated housework, was a dangerous cook, lived in chaos. Out of her extraordinary generosity, the best gift she gave her daughter was permission to defy her. Well, now.

While the sadness clings, I just don’t buy the message. My opinion? Mim was miserable. If she had had a career she still would have been an unhappy career woman.

I applaud when Ruth Reichl in another context says “I don’t think there’s one thing more important you can do for your kids than have family dinner.”  But she strikes out with this book.