Hillbilly Elegy

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I finished J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy a week ago; the thoughts it has triggered refuse to settle down and go to sleep. Like a child’s insistent request for a drink, they clamor for my attention.

The title is brilliant, combining assonance with alliteration. Good mouthfeel.

I applaud Vance for his sympathetic description of his hillbilly heritage, defining deficits but not belittling its benefits. I cringed at his candid assessment of his drug-addicted mom. It brought to mind Pat Conroy’s dilemma of writing about family flaws. J.D. shows deep gratitude to his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, who raised him. Mamaw’s mouth reminds me of a friend who calls her child that little sh*t as a term of endearment. I can’t recall reading a book with more casual f-bombs. True hillbilly flavor?

…hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist. This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly.

Vance’s story captured my interest when he was navigating the social world of Yale Law School. That, and his understanding of how he brought his  A.C.E. (adverse childhood experiences) with him into his marriage.

J.D.’s girlfriend called him a turtle: Whenever something bad happens — even a hint of disagreement — you withdraw completely. This echoes my own deep groove, a pattern I had of shutting down instead of working through conflict.  It took a patient and persistent spouse to let go of the fear and learn how to have a good quarrel.

While he outlines the struggles of the white working class, this isn’t a policy book that proposes solutions. But a better understanding of the problems is a beginning.

postscript –  I read Hillbilly Elegy  while the Chicago Cubs were fighting their way to the World Series. They brought up designated hitter Kyle Schwarber. (That’s a great story, too.) I discovered that Schwarber and Vance both grew up in Middletown, OH. I wonder about other similarities.

Come Rain or Come Shine, the Song

I finished Jan Karon’s newest book last night. It undid me. Seriously. I started crying on page 32 and sniffed and sobbed my way through the rest of the book. I loved it. But that is another blog post.

The first thing I wanted to write (in that other post) was how helpful it is to listen to the song Come Rain or Come Shine. Ten years ago I made a slide show for Curt’s Dad and Mom’s 50th anniversary, using Eric Clapton and B.B. King’s version as heard on Riding With the King— a CD which is right up there with A Vaughan Williams Hymnal , Eva Cassidy’s Songbird, Glorious Pipes Organ Music, and Ashley Cleveland’s God Don’t Never Change in my list of favorite albums.

So. In the slide show I matched photos to the lyrics: a picture of Mom and Dad with a mountain in the background when B.B. sings ♪♫♪ high as a mountain ♪♫♪ and Dad in the boat on the Snake River when the King sings ♫♪♫ deep as a river ♫♪♫. I own this song.

Before I could write you must listen to this song and make sure you listen to the B.B. King/Eric Clapton version, I would need to evaluate other covers. You, too, can listen to this song over and over (I stopped counting at 142): just type ‘come rain or come shine’ on the search engine in Spotify.

This song clearly demonstrates the difference between orchestra and band, how the style varies with the instruments, stringed, brass, or woodwinds.

DSC_0409My conclusion: listen to B.B. King and Eric Clapton.

My favorites
— B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Riding with the King (perfection)
— Barbara Streisand and John Mayer, Partners. (same arrangement as BB/EC, I liked the male/female take, a big production, a big YES)
— Willie Nelson, American Classic (Willie brings it! His voice is well-suited for this song. The arrangement is inspired. It’s on repeat.)

Female vocals
— Natalie Cole, Still Unforgettable (clean, upbeat, pure notes, normally I prefer a slower tempo, but gracious, girl’s got pipes, fun cover)
— Etta James, Love Songs, (classic EJ, she sings “unhappy” with conviction)
— Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Here We Go Again (breathy, good blend)
— Robin McKelle (sultry, lots of muted trumpet, brass background, her voice holds up with some sweet high notes)
— Monica Zetterlund, Waltz for Debby (unconvinced until 0:55, then YES)
— Sarah Vaughan, Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi (unadorned vocals, vibrato much, weird end)
— Rosemary Clooney, Jazz Singer (too fast, no nuance)
— Billie Holiday, Love Songs (too nasal, it’s all Billie, but Billie didn’t excel, sigh)

Male vocals
— Frank Sinatra, Ultimate Sinatra (he breathes life into the words, wonder-full)
— Ray Charles, The Genius of Ray Charles  (Ray was great; background oohs were uninspired, not of fan of this slow tempo)
— Jamie Cullum, Interlude (methinks he’s trying too hard)

Instrumental
— David Hazeltine, The New Classic Trio  (jazz trio, wandering, quiet, understated)
— Bill Evans Trio, Portrait in Jazz (piano-centric,
— Beegie Adair, Jazz Romance (elevator music, easy listening station)
— Art Blakey, Moanin’ (upbeat, loud, punchy, and maybe bumpy)

Most hideous:
— Judy Garland, The Essential Capital Collection (the tempo, the pitch, the everything…all. wrong.)
— Chet Baker, Embraceable You (flat, insipid, vacant, absent)

Marcus, Lucian, Justin

DSC_4613Nothing motivates me to read a book more than deciding to give/sell/swap it and someone else wanting it. The mailing deadline puts me into a panic and the book that has been sitting, unread, on my shelf for decades suddenly must. be. read. Stat!

Such is the story of Marcus Aurelius and His Times. I remember the moment it came into my life. I was at the annual book sale at the local university and my friend/former boss — a skeptic who loved to spar with me over existential stuff, until we had to limit those rambling discussions to Thursday, because we did Theology on Thursday — walked up to me and put this book in my hand. Bakker, he said, you need to read this. And since he had very high literary standards, I clicked my heels and bought the book. That was in the vicinity of 1993.

This book excerpts three authors: Marcus Aurelius, 161-180 AD, Stoic   //   Lucian of Samosata, Skeptic   //   Justin Martyr, Christian

As is universally the case, I am astonished at how easy it is to read words from so far back in history. Words that make me giggle aloud:

“Are you irritated with one whose armpits smell? Are you angry with one whose mouth has a foul odor? What good will your anger do you? He has this mouth, he has these armpits. Such emanations must come from these things.”
— M. Aurelius V. 28.

Aurelius advocates a humble approach to life, laced with thanksgiving. I see myself, alas, in the second man of this meditation:

“One man, when he has done a service to another, is ready to set it down on his account as a favor conferred. Another is not apt to do this, but still in his own mind he thinks of the other man as his debtor, and knows what he has done. A third hardly knows what he has done, but is like a vine which has produced grapes, and asks nothing more once it has produced its proper fruit.

As a horse when it has run its race, a dog when it has tracked its game, a bee when it has made its honey, so a man when he has done a good act does not call out for others to come and see, but goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season.”
— M. Aurelius, V.6.

I skimmed the Lucian section but stopped long enough to be enraptured by the phrase “travelers must bedew it [the path] with sweat.”

I was most eager to read Justin Martyr. I’ve read a few early Church Fathers and I declare I find Justin the most accessible. His description of the cross as fundamental to life on earth surprised and delighted me.

The final bonus excerpt from Walter Pater’s ‘Marius the Epicurean’ gave me the most satisfying quote:

“Those august hymns, he thought, must thereafter ever remain by him as among the well-tested powers in things to soothe and fortify the soul. One could never grow tired of them!”

What’s on your nightstand – April 2015

DSC_5007My previous WOYN post showed a (well, for me, at least) pristine nightstand with four books neatly stacked. All but one of those books are still on the nightstand, in the if-I-put-it-there-maybe-I’ll-read-it-next happy thought category.

Random notes:

§  Earthen Vessels is my present read. I’m loving in, but taking it in small bites. It’s about how the body matters in things of faith. Favorite quote so far: Grace is not a technique.

§  See two books with the fore edge showing? One says E.O.C. Library on it? They remind me of a story I have to tell you. We were at a friends’ house for dinner and she had a whole bookshelf of books with the spines facing in and the fore edges out. Whaaaa? I stammered. She laughed and said, I just love the look. Aren’t they pretty? … Have you ever??

§  About those books–one is a Ring of Words, about Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary or ‘the OED’ if you want to impress academic types. I say I want to read this book. I have a son who adores Tolkien, who also has a birthday soon. But. The combo of heavy-words and light-head have put it in the slogging category of reading.

§  The two top on the right are some Alexander McCall Smith books I snatched from the library, part of the 44 Scotland Street series. I love Bertie, the six year old prodigy who only wants to be normal. Lots of laugh alouds.

§  Not shown: the Call the Midwife triology. I haven’t made up my mind since I’ve finished reading them. Big sections are 5 stars and a few places are 1.5 stars. It’s sort of like life: lots of love mixed with disappointments.

§  What’s in me ears? Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. Interesting and enjoyable.

§  Finally, I started reading the Nikon D3100 book. Wow. I’ve had my camera 3 years and this book makes so much more sense now. I’m trying to wean myself off of auto settings and the long lens. This book is a good one to regularly dip into.

Revisiting Medieval Civilization

I read and loved this book about 15 years ago. In a rare act of courage and rationality, I decided to sell it, a proclamation of shelf reclamation. Because, you know, when would I actually read these 624 pages again? Just opening the book and noting my penciled responses ushered in delight and rediscovery, then gnawing regret. I knew I had to pull some long nights and re-read it one last time. And get as much in my commonplace book before the deadline to mail it.

Rereading Civilization brought back all the best parts of home schooling and banished from memory the days of despair, inadequacy, frustration, exhaustion. What I loved was learning history, reading literature, connecting dots — the enlivening of a formerly dead subject.

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Cantor, a Jewish historian from Winnipeg (Winnipeg is a delectable collection of syllables you have to repeat aloud ten times), is a winsome writer. The Civilization of the Middle Ages has been a bestseller for decades because his writing is both interesting and accessible.

I got a sense of the wide sweep of history, but reveled in descriptions like this:

Despite his scholarly achievements, Augustine was no armchair theologian. As a priest and as bishop of Hippo (a fairly poor, undistinguished, and remote town in North Africa), he was deeply involved in the lives and the problems of his flock. What Augustine said about people and God came not only from his multicultural background but from his profound commitment to the needs and troubles of people. This is a rare combination at any time, particularly within the church, whose scholars have usually been cloistered from the life of the community.

One other quote, fodder for thought:

One can posit this rule: The more important your family as the shaper of your life, the more medieval the nature of a society.

There is a bonus in the back. Ten movies that portray the Middle Ages. And *you* can access this list, including his commentary, free! Here’s how: click on the link above, which will take you to Amazon. Click on “Look Inside!” In the box under “Search Inside This Book” type in *film* (don’t type the asterisks). Click on page 567. Or you could check out my previous blog post on Medieval Movies.

Ironically, writing this review made me want more Cantor. I just ordered In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made and I’ve added Inventing Norman Cantor: Confessions of a Medievalist to my wish list!

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The book is chock full of fun facts. Here are some that made it into my journal.

10th century technological advances:
the horse collar,
the stirrup,
water mills,
saw mills
and lateen sails.

The average 11th century knight was 5’3″.

Vassal comes from the Celtic word for ‘boy’.

Three power blocks:
Byzantine
European
Islamic

Both Constantine and Justinian I came from Balkan peasant stock.

The year 400 – at least 80% of the population
never moved more than ten miles from where they were born.
Year 1050 — 80% didn’t move more than
twenty miles from their birthplace.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons