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

The Best of My Reading Life: 2016

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Here are this year’s favorite books in quirky categories, along with sample quotes.

Hello, Again (the second time together)

               

Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. ATGiB

I love mankind, he said, but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular. TBK

Think Tanks (books that made me pause and ponder)

                  

We’re happiest when we’re absorbed in a difficult task, a task that has clear goals and that challenges us not only to exercise our talents but to stretch them. tGC

Work is necessarily toilsome and serves someone else’s interest. That’s why you get paid. SCaS

Franklin could never see chaos without thinking of order. BF

Waiting is the primary recreation of Russia. You could try getting used to it. tFT

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Where Have You Been All My Life? (a book I wish was available years ago)

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We spent that midsummer reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the backyard, and I will always remember my surprise when the children laughed in the right places. MM

Sweet Comfort (sure, they’re about food, but the prose is delicious)

             

And, please—enough with the supposed health concerns. I mean, it’s not as though the obesity epidemic was caused by overconsumption of duck legs. NK

It is my most religious belief that a recipe is just a story that ends with a good meal. tPCC

But cooking is a way of paying attention, of really being in this world. When you look closely at a mango and inhale its scent, everything else stops. Life feels rich and easy. G-FG&tC

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Cover Story (the cover drew me in)



In Scotland, one does not ‘mend’ anything or ‘fix’ it in any way. One ‘sorts’ it.
CtN

 

Core Strengthening (soul-building books)

     

Over and Over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy. MOC

The opposite of a slave is not a free man. It’s a worshiper. TRoG

Upper Story (two memoirs and a history a cut above )

               

Rome is a broken mirror, the falling strap of a dress, a puzzle of astonishing complexity. It is an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface. FSiR

At Yale, many of my friends had never spent time with a veteran. In other words, I was an anomaly. HE

Fear settled over the men like silt in a tide. DW

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For the Children (for me, too…my husband & I are reading HP series for the first time)

                    

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. HPG0F

Books can ignite fires in your mind, because they carry ideas for kindling, and art for matches. LB&BB

Whatever it means to be friends, taking a black eye for someone has to be in it. WW

(Amazon affiliate links included: thank you!)

A Story of Dutch Resistance

Judging by the cover, this looked self-published (it’s not); my expectations were minimal. I was pleasantly surprised by the writing, and found the story of Everett De Boer’s family’s work with the Dutch Resistance compelling. Journey Through the Night is four volumes (written in Dutch 1951-1958, translated in 1960) published as one.

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The De Boer family is likeable. The architect father has pluck, the mother is kind-hearted, oldest son John is capable but inclined to hesitate, and impetuous Fritz can’t keep out of trouble; the other siblings have cameo roles. They are Christian — the winsome kind whose faith is more acted upon than spoken of, not off-putting.

What impressed me most in a world of checkpoints, false IDs, and fascist occupation was the advantage of being relaxed and calm, casual and nonchalant. Terror is perilous.

The De Boers had recently read Isaiah 16:3 Hide the outcast, don’t betray the fugitive, when a young man knocks on their door, seeking refuge. A procession of Jewish families and resistance fighters are hidden and helped. Such a small thing, and yet it changed the course of war: simple courageous people opening their homes and risking their lives for all kinds of strangers.

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What I discovered while reading this book:

DKW cars (Dampf-Kraft-Wagen = steam-driven car) photo courtesy of Wikipedia

 

The Dutch National Anthem —another example of music bolstering courage

“OSO!” (Orange Shall Overcome) the slogan of the Dutch Resistance (here’s a link to learn more about the Dutch Resistance)

The Dutch writer Anne de Vries is a male. (Rainer Maria Rilke comes to mind as another writer with a conventionally female name.)

Favorite quotes:

No one could stop the course of the sun,
and no one could stop the course of God’s justice – not even Hitler.
 

True during war or peace:

Don’t let impatience make life miserable for you.

 

I highly recommend this to readers who liked Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and Anne Frank’s Diary.

Sailing Alone Around the Room

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In my ideal life, I would keep poetry on my nightstand. In my perfect life, I would read it regularly. Sailing Alone Around the Room  had been ensconced there nine weeks;* when I ran out of renewals I started reading.

Humor, the deep-from-within-the-DNA-funny, permeates this poetry.

The first poem places a neighbor’s dog in a Beethoven symphony,
while the other musicians listen in respectful 
silence to the famous barking dog solo, 
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

The poems centered around music (and their abundance) delighted me.

I swooned reading Sunday Morning with the Sensational Nightingales that spoke of the power of gospel music on the radio to create a minor ascension. I’ve been in the car, I’ve been transported. I could hear the overtones; I became a church lady with a floppy hat and matching pumps calling out, “Yes!”

I was pleased to learn a new form of poetry (I won’t mention the name); I did a search to read more. Then I roared with laughter. The joke’s on me — this is a parody! It was a small consolation that book reviewers and other poets also missed the satire.

Another tickle, this in a title:
Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty,
I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles

Collins always surprises me. He twists words, insisting I see life from a changed perspective.

* How it got there: reading Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility  made me curious to see Walker Evan’s photography. In my library’s poetry section was Something Permanent, Evan’s photography paired with Cynthia Rylant’s poems. While my fingers trailed the bindings, I saw Billy Collins. Like ice cream, there’s always room for Billy Collins.

The title reminds me that I still have Joshua Slocum’s 1900 book, Sailing Alone Around the World, on my To Be Read shelf. And also William F. Buckley’s sailing books. Also unread.

The Comfort of Bach

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Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. 1. That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death —
not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,
who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins
and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil;
that he protects me so well
that without the will of my Father in heaven
not a hair can fall from my head;
indeed, that everything
must fit his purpose
for my salvation.
Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life,
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
— The opening of the Heidelberg Catechism


When I ordered My Only Comfort on 1.1.16 I had no idea that my sister would die two weeks later. All I knew was that this book scratched two of my favorite itches: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Heidelberg Catechism. Margo’s death and my grief are inextricably knit into my response. A Bachophile, she listened nightly to a ‘Bach’s Variations’ CD as she fell asleep.

There was no way I could simply read this book. I was compelled to listen multiple times to Bach’s chorales, cantatas, and arias while Stapert explained the structure and form, exposed the chiasms, and pointed, whispering See what he did there? I switched from being a reader to becoming a student, immersing — bathing in Bach. I discovered a whole realm of YouTube videos that opened up a kingdom of sublime, profoundly sad, and intensely joyful music.

“Over and over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy.”

“The heaven-haunted music I hear in Bach can be found in any of his instrumental genres — suites, sonatas, concertos, fugues — as well as in his church music. But, of course, in his church music, words can lead us to places where there is likely to have been a special intention to try to capture something of what ‘ear has not heard’ and make it audible.”

My current favorite aria is from St. Matthew’s Passion.

The translation for Enbarme dich —
Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears!
See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly.
Have mercy, my God.

Reading, studying through this book was one of the most profoundly comforting experiences of my life. Bach’s glorious music pierced me, the beauty often leveling me to sobs. But after the leveling was a lifting: it refreshed my spirit.

Hence, I have resolved two things:

1. To read the other four books Calvin Stapert has written. (Haydn, Bach bio, The Messiah and Early Church Music await me.)

2. To systematically listen through Bach’s canon. I’m not sure how I will sort this, but there are too many wonderful pieces I have never heard. Simply working through the cantatas might be a starting point. I don’t care about BMW‘s; it’s BMVs (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis — a number assigned to each known composition of Bach’s) for me! Do you have any ideas?

I could easily begin again at the beginning of My Only Comfort for a second harvest. I probably won’t right away, but the book will remain on my shelves (the highest compliment I can give these days).

Shop Class as Soulcraft

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Ken Myers at Mars Hill Audio Journal introduced me to Matthew Crawford, calling Shop Class as Soulcraft a hymn to the virtues of what he [Crawford] called manual competence and a lament for the decline of honor accorded to work with one’s hands.

My husband, a former high school shop teacher, captivated from the first page — bemoaning the disappearance of shop classes from our common education — kept interrupting my reading of another book to share a paragraph of this book. Thus, he convinced me to read it myself.

Crawford has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago, but when he’s not writing he makes a living as a motorcycle mechanic. (While this is a rare combination, I know several carpenters who are conversant with Kierkegaard and Heidegger. My husband can weld an axle and ask compelling questions.)

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Crawford’s book is part social history, part philosophy, and part memoir. The altitude of some of the metaphysical  musings were beyond my reach but within stretching distance. The history of transition from craftsmanship to assembly line and the degradation of blue collar work was absorbing. His personal ‘education of a gearhead’ was fun and fascinating reading.

Crawford laughs at the cubicle culture with teambuilding activities and speech codes. He urges learning a trade even if you go to college. Reading this book inspires me to pick up a shovel and dig in my garden.

If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it. And in fact this is the case: to really know shoelaces, you have to tie shoes.

 

 

 

Call the Nurse

Combine James Herriot, John McPhee, Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging with a dash of Call the Midwife. Mary J. Macleod moved her family from southern England to become a district nurse on an island twenty miles long in the Inner Hebrides. She, along with a 70-year-old doctor, provided medical care for all the inhabitants in the 1970’s. She writes with a clear-eyed, unsentimental, but affectionate voice.

The book is a series of vignettes: like a gurgling stream it ambles along, making it an satisfying read in pockets of time. Macleod worked (tending elderly, administering daily injections, attending to medical emergencies) with her patients in their homes. She was called at all hours and had to traverse a mountain or be taken by sea in a boat. She cared for people from newborns to octogenarians, many who spoke only Gaelic.

This book taps into three fascinations: island culture, self-sustaining lifestyle, and Scotland. I have been on two islands in Scotland, which is knowledge enough to be dangerously ignorant. To protect the privacy of the inhabitants, Macleod calls her island Papavray. This fired my curiosity, sending me to Google to unsuccessfully tease out the island’s true name.

The best thing? The author wrote her first book (of three now published) in her 80’s. It fuels my hope. Check out her Facebook page.

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Photo taken from Iona, a small — but important — island on the western coast of Scotland.

The second best thing? This book is $.99 on Kindle today.