The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

mma1When I first read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, I chirped with evangelistic fervor about the series. But, a few disappointing books cooled that impulse to the point that I quit reading the last three books in this series.

A library hold came available so I read the books out of order. But the 14th book The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon has rekindled my love for the traditionally built Mma Ramotswe and and her quirky assistant, Mma Makutsi. This book might appear to be about a newborn baby, but on every level it is about friendship, about rearranging a relationship that expands from business to personal. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi remind me of Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables.

Any book by Alexander McCall Smith will have his trademark humor. There were three snort-and-holler moments in this book. I don’t want to give them away, but prepare yourself for horse laughs.

Only to the extent that they reveal human nature do I care about the solving of mysteries in this book. No. I read for the gentle wisdom, the poignant words of Mma Ramotswe. She thinks, she ponders, she reflects. Death, sunlight, music, change, marriage, the pace of life, beauty, differences between men and women. And she truly loves Botswana. It’s so refreshing.

I don’t like Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s two mechanic apprentices: Charlie and Fanwell. Their characters are a waste of print. But I was surprised at Charlie’s response to the baby. He admires it, he wants to hold it; his cooing amuses and puzzles the women.

I want to highlight two passages whose beauty astonished me. One is a foot washing scene. Mma Ramotswe visits Mma Makutsi at her new home (she married Phuti Radiphuti) after a heavy rain. Her car gets stuck; she exits the car barefoot and walks through the mud to the front door.

Sidenote: only once have I participated in a foot washing ceremony. It was at a church retreat. The women gathered in a room and each one washed the feet of the person next to them. I felt humble shyness, willing to wash someone else’s feet but reluctant to have a friend wash my feet. It was emotional. It was potent. It was unforgettable.

“Let me wash them, Mma,” she said. “You sit there, I’ll wash your feet for you.”
Mma Ramotswe felt the warm embrace of the water and the slippery caress of the soap. The intimacy of the situation impressed itself upon her; that an old friend—and that was how she looked at Mma Makutsi—should do this for you was strangely moving.

And this short note on reconciliation:

And with that, she felt that most exquisite, and regrettably rare, of pleasures—that of welcoming back one who has left your life. We cannot do that with late people, Mma Ramotswe thought, much as we would love to be able to do so, but we can do it with the living.

Five solid stars and kudos to Alexander McCall Smith.

Flannery in Janu’ry

Flannery child.Flannery O’Connor, from her childhood home (picture by K. Harper)

I committed myself to reading Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories as part of Books and Movie’s “I’ve Always Meant to Read That” challenge. In the past few years, I’ve acquired everything published by Flannery (except for A Prayer Journal, just released in November). The Challenge gave me a needed push to dive in.

It was more a belly flop than a dive. I collared my young friend Matthew, who counts FOC as one of his favorite authors, and asked him why I should be reading this depressing stuff. His answer:

“Every Christian needs to read O’Connor, to get the pettiness and self-absorption out of their systems.”

And, you know, Flannery grew on me. The later stories made more sense, were more accessible. “More mature,” a lit major would murmur, cigarette dangling between his knuckles.

It has been a baptism by immersion. Two things helped me immensely: I read Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, which made me sympathetic to her and helped me to see her vision. I borrowed two audio books, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Every Thing That Rises Must Converge, which included many of the stories in The Complete Stories. I took 4 mile walks, listening and concentrating. When I had the time, I listened and read along.

No question, the girl was brilliant. I felt kinship with the reviews of her first novel. “They all recognized her power but missed her point.” Here’s an example: In one story, a grandfather is confronted with a woman who claims his grandson ran into her and broke her ankle. He replies, “I don’t know him. I’ve never seen him before.” A clear allusion to Peter denying Christ the night before the crucifixion. Sooooo. What does it mean?

Flannery herself described her stories as odd, disturbing, unconventional. And the irony? With Flannery, irony is a contact sport. Wickedly funny. But it seems her goal was to smack us in the face so we would see ourselves correctly. These stories have much more than entertainment in mind.

Now that I’ve read through The Complete Stories, I’m ready to read through Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose and The Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being.

I hoped that O’Connor was filmed giving one of her lectures. I didn’t find that, but I found an audio track of her reading one of her most famous stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” This would give someone a taste of Flannery.

I found it interesting that Flannery substitutes “colored” for the n-word in this reading.

Father Smith, a Scottish Priest

 

Bruce Marshall’s author blurb on the back cover:

Bruce Marshall is a dark, smiling man, fundamentally serious, four-square in appearance, definite in manner. He has a great fund of pity for humble, toiling people whose virtues are seldom proclaimed, a vigorous and delightfully malicious humor, and a savage dislike of bullies, stuffed shirts, humbugs and toadies.

Many of my favorite stories involve priests: G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown; dear Mr. Harding in Anthony Trollope’s The Warden; Father Tim in the Mitford books and Father Tim novels; Brother Cadfael in Ellis Peter’s medieval mysteries; the priest in Jon Hassler’s Dear James.

Father Smith is a Catholic priest in Presbyterian Scotland, a priest who prays daily for Scotland’s conversion. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with such a strong emphasis on Catholic theology, and, at first, I found it off-putting. But I discovered that I appreciated many of this humble man’s thoughts. I think any conservative would appreciate the struggle to hold on to the old ways.

When he had been a boy himself, Father Smith had longed to be grown up, because he had believed that it would be easier to obey our Lord as an adult than as a child, and he had been disappointed when he had found it was more difficult.  

When he was happy, Father Smith always sang snatches from the psalms as he walked the street.

Always remember that you can’t see into other people’s souls, but you can see into your own, and so far as you really know there is nobody alive more wicked and ungrateful to Almighty God than yourself.

Father Smith felt that it was a pity that one ever heard anything at all on wireless sets, because it seemed to him that new inventions were coming out much too quickly, and that if amusements went on becoming more and more mechanized as they seemed to be doing, people would no longer require to use their intelligence to fill their leisure, and literature, poetry, and the drama would be pop goes the weasel per omnia saecula saeculorum…

…and those who weren’t weeping had a great distress on their faces because they knew that a great clumsy slice of man who had known all about God’s mercy would walk among them no more.

The book opens at the start of the twentieth century with the priests wondering how to respond to the first cinema in town. Father Smith baptizes two babies, whose lives we follow throughout the story. When the Great War begins, Father Smith works on the front line as a chaplain, hearing confessions and praying over the dead. His bishop predicts a spiritual revival will come out of the war, but Father Smith finds reality to be much different. What held my attention was Father Smith’s grappling with the tension from the static doctrines of the church and the rapidly changing culture.

I learned a host of Catholic nomenclature: sedilia (stone seats for the clergy), asperges (the rite of sprinkling Holy water), pyx (the container that holds consecrated bread), and pro-Cathedral (parish church temporarily serving as cathedral). 

I wish I could remember who recommended this. I found it absorbing reading, but I have no desire to read it again. The cheerful humility makes me want to explore another book by Bruce Marshall.

Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

 

The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder;
wind, rain, yes.
And Le Chambon was the rainbow.
— Jewish mother whose children’s lives were saved at Le Chambon

 

Let me digress: One habit served me well and introduced me to the story of Le Chambon. I read books with a soft lead pencil in hand. When a word, phrase, sentence or paragraph nudges me, I mark a line in the margin, | .  When I read an unfamiliar word or one I can’t confidently define, I put a √ in the margin. And when I see a reference to a song, a painting, a book title, an event that I’d like to know more about I also use the √. I usually don’t stop reading to look further at the subject. But when I comb through the book a second time, writing down compelling quotes, etc. I will follow up on the check marks.

How did I find Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed?  I had decided to cull out Barbara Tuchman’s sparkling book of essays, Practicing History, from my library, a decision that still gnaws. Before I let it go, I transferred notes to my journal. In an essay entitled Mankind’s Better Moments Tuchman notes some astonishing accomplishments:

the enclosure of the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands adding half a million acres to the country;
the marvel of Gothic cathedrals;
Viking seamanship;
the perseverance of La Salle, who mastered eight languages before he set off exploring;
William Wilberforce’s work to abolish slave trade;
Le Chambon, a Huguenot village in Southern France devoted to rescuing Jews. √ 

Le Chambon? I had heard of Huguenots—French Protestants—but not Le Chambon.


Intrigued, I found this clip on YouTube:

 

 

And I found Philip P. Hallie’s book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The book is essentially a biography of the Reformed pastor, André Trocmé and his wife, Magda. Trocmé’s belief in God was at the living center of the rescue efforts of the village xxi. Le Chambon was a remote mountain village, predominantly Protestant (Reformed and Plymouth Brethren) in a predominantly Catholic country. The Trocmés were unshakably committed to obeying the Sermon on the Mount 28.

In practice this means that the village rescued between 3,000 and 5,000 Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. They kept many Jewish children at a private school; some family groups stayed until they could seek refuge in Switzerland. All the villagers took great risks, but they considered harboring others more important than their own safety.

 

“Look hard for ways to make little moves against destructiveness.”  — André Trocmé

Trocmé attended Union Theological Seminary in 1925 (five years before Dietrich Bonhoeffer was there) and found the Social Gospel too secular, too rational, lacking piety. Like Bonhoeffer, Trocmé lived intimately with those he shepherded.

For the rest of his life he sought another union [an organization he belonged to as a child during WWI], another intimate community of people praying together and finding in their love for one another and for God the passion and the will to extinguish indifference and solitude. From the union he learned that only in such an intimate community, in a home or in a village, could the Protestant idea of a “priesthood of all believers” work. Only in intimacy could people save each other. 57

A recurring motif in the book is that André Trocmé gave himself. He gave himself to his people, visiting them in their homes regularly. He gave himself to his community by his involvement in their lives. When he came home his children rushed him, enveloping him in hugs because he brought himself to them.  Hallie expatiates on this theme in one of the most profound passages in the book:

When you give somebody a thing without giving yourself, you degrade both parties by making the receiver utterly passive and by making yourself a benefactor standing there to receive thanks—and even sometimes obedience—as repayment. But when you give yourself, nobody is degraded—in fact, both parties are elevated by a shared joy. When you give yourself, the things you are giving become to use Trocmé’s word, féconde (fertile, fruitful). What you give creates new, vigorous life, instead of arrogance on the one hand and passivity on the other. 72

At one time, Trocmé is asked whether another group struggling in WWII should practice non-violent resistance. His response was that a foundation first has to be laid before such a tactic can be efficacious. Trocmé, along with Pastor Edouard Theis and schoolteacher Roger Darcissac had poured their lives into resisting evil and teaching their neighbors before such visible means of resisting became necessary.

I tend to look for perfect heroes and tidy endings. I was sad to read that a personal tragedy reduced Pastor Trocmé’s faith and that Mme Trocmé seemed to hold faith at arm’s length even as she worked indefatigably.

Writing about this book brings threads of recent events together: Today, April 9th, is the anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death. There are striking similarities and certain differences between André Trocmé and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I look at the photo of the Trocmés above, Magda Trocmé reminds me of Edith Shaeffer, a different kind of rescuer, who died on April 6th. And finally, the news of Rick Warren’s son’s suicide on April 5th coincides with a Trocmé family tragedy.

Ever curious, I wondered where the surviving children were. I discovered that Nelly Trocmé Hewett, 85, was giving talks last October and is scheduled to speak tomorrow at Macalester College in the Twin Cities. How immensely would I love to be in that audience.

Well, Hello Will Shakespeare

For more than a decade I’ve been thinking, I really want to read through all of Shakespeare’s works. It’s like the idea that someday all my photos will be in scrapbooks. Happy thought. Inspired by my sister-in-law who recently read a whole slough slew of Shakespeare, and suspecting that it would be like cleaning a cupboard—it feels so good that I want to keep going—I plunged into The Comedy of Errors. More on that, later. But it was true: drinking the language was drinking a Caramel Macchiato.  I had to read sections more than once to tease out the meaning, but that was offset by laugh out loud lines and the satisfaction of fitting words.

How many plays did the bard write? Thirty-seven. I’ve read eleven, but I’d like to read through them all fresh again. If I averaged one play a month, I’d hit pay dirt by the end of 2015. I want to read the poems too, but that’s another thing.

Although I own a Complete Works of Shakespeare, I find it annoying. It is formatted in two columns and whenever there isn’t quite enough room at the end of the line the leftover is printed on the line above it. You can get the complete works on Kindle for $1.99, but I don’t want to read from the Kindle. I want an edition with footnotes on the same page, a running synopsis, explanatory notes. I want to converse with Shakespeare via pencil marks in the margin. I want a book for a student. I have a few student editions: Cambridge University Press, Oxford, Modern Library. I’m using my Paperbackswap credits and looking for $0.01 Amazon deals to fill in the gaps.

I’m going to try to read each play in one sitting, with a short intermission if needed. If I saw the play, I would sit through the all the acts in one performance.

Comedies

All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors √
Cymbeline
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merchant of Venice  √
A Midsummer Night’s Dream √
Much Ado About Nothing
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Taming of the Shrew √
The Tempest √
Troilus and Cressida
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Winter’s Tale

Histories

Henry IV, part 1 √
Henry IV, part 2
Henry V  √
Henry VI, part 1
Henry VI, part 2
Henry VI, part 3
Henry VIII
King John
Richard II
Richard III

Tragedies

Antony and Cleopatra
Coriolanus
Hamlet  √
Julius Caesar  √
King Lear
Macbeth √
Othello √
Romeo and Juliet √
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus

In The Comedy of Errors two sets of identical twins converge at Ephesus. They were separated in a shipwreck, and both twins share the same names. The man [Antipholus] and his slave [Dromio] (from Syracuse) are searching for their lost brothers [Antipholus] and his slave [Dromio] (from Ephesus). You can imagine the confusion.

Early in the play these Antipholus-S speaks poignant words of one on an impossible quest:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop…

When Antipholus-S finds his supposed slave, Dromio-E, hasn’t fulfilled the commands he gave him, he begins to beat him. Dromio-E is astonished!

What mean you, sir? For God’s sake hold your hands.
Nay, an you will not, sir, I’ll take my heels.

I find this word play (hold, hands, take, heels) charming. Shakespeare’s rhythms also delight me. Saying the next sentence ten times would not quench the joy it brings.

Dromio, thou Dromio, thou snail, thou slug, thou sot.

When her supposed husband is acting cold and distant, Adriana has some poignant lines. When her sister shushes her, Adriana exposes the discrepancy in how we view trouble, depending on who owns it:

A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we hear it cry.
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain.

This is a comedy, which means there is a happy ending. Everything is sorted out and brothers—two sets—are reunited with much embracing and feasting.

Les Misérables, Quotes from Part One: Fantine

 

It’s been three weeks since I’ve finished Les Misérables. It is so enormous, that I find myself intimidated. I decided to break my responses into bits. One post will be Great Quotes from the Boring Parts; another post on Words I Learned from Les Miz; another, perhaps, on Problems with Hugo’s Theology. After those, I might gird myself with courage and write my response to this masterpiece.

For now, however, I will just shower you with favorite quotes from Part One: Fantine. Read them and you may be drawn to the source. Or not.

…in the remaining time he (Monseigneur Myriel) worked. That is to say, he dug his garden or read and wrote, and for him both kinds of work bore the same name; both he called gardening. ‘The spirit is a garden,’ he said.  P. 33 [Garden, read and write: a life I could love]

The devil may visit us, but God lives here.  p.47 [a great distinction]

With the admirable delicacy of instinct they knew that some forms of solicitude can be an encumbrance. p. 48 [Isn’t this profound? And so true?]

There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion. p. 69 [Monseignor Bienvenu: my favorite character. Name means well + come]

The priest’s forgiveness was the most formidable assault he had ever sustained; p. 116 [forgiveness = assault: intriguing]

She worked in order to live, and presently fell in love, also in order to live, for the heart, too, has its hunger. p.125

Gluttony punished the glutton. Indigestion was designed by God to impose morality on stomachs. p. 136 [Ouch!]

…with the chaste indecency of childhood, displayed a stretch of bare stomach. p. 145 [chaste indecency: another glorious paradox]

‘What’s your little girl’s name?’ ‘Cosette.’ In fact, it was Euphrasie, but the mother turned it into Cosette by the use of that touching alchemy of simple people which transforms Josef into Pepita and Françoise into Silette. It is a kind of linguistics which baffles the etymologist. We once knew a grandmother who contrived to turn Theodore into Gnon. p. 149 [Laugh out loud delight!]

The supreme happiness in life is the assurance of being loved; of being loved for oneself, even in spite of oneself… p. 162

He [Javert] possessed the conscience appropriate to his function, and his duties were his religion; he was a spy in the way that other men are priests.  p. 166 [a chilling comparison]

Curiosity is a form of gluttony: to see is to devour. p. 183 [Guilty as charged]

God moves the soul as He moves the oceans. p.213

 

October Reads

Picadilly Jim  (1917)  P. G. Wodehouse’s descriptions delight: a comfortable stoutness, a face that had been “edited and re-edited” by a boxing career, affected imitation geniuses, the art of raising eyebrows, dazzled by the glamour of incivility. And my favorite from this book: 

…her mouth had the coldly forbidding look of the closed door of a subway express when you have just missed the train. It bade you keep your distance on pain of injury. 

I first met Ogden Ford, “a fourteen-year-old boy of a singularly unloveable type”, in The Little Nugget; the kidnappers are ready at the end of the book to pay the family to take this son of a millionaire back. In Picadilly Jim there is another scheme by family members to get him kidnapped again. The main character pretends to be someone else who is pretending to be himself. Five stars, pure joy.

 

Moby Dick  (1851)  I read my husband to sleep every night with Herman Melville’s classic, in preparation for seeing Jake Heggie’s opera, Moby Dick, in San Francisco. We have officially abandoned Moby as a read aloud together. I plan to continue reading about cetology, or study of whales, and the story of Ahab’s vengeance.   I keep thinking this is a re-read, but I can’t be sure. There are gems, but the pace is slow.

 

Kitchen Sonnets and Lyrics of Domesticity (1931)  Ethel Romig Fuller, poetry editor for The Oregonian and Oregon’s third poet laureate, writes poetry that glorifies the common things of life. She sees cleaning as creating beauty. Fuller sees poetry in hanging the wash on a clothesline, beauty in canning, tidied calm in ironing, and a happy heart in washing windows.  She glorifies the common stuff of life.  A Song of Home speaks of happy hearts and tallying every blessing.  While a few of the poems made my modern head wince, overall I was inspired to devour those dust bunnies in the corners and love the blessing of making a home beautiful.

Are petitions less fervent, if one only asks
As one works, for strength for finishing tasks?

 

Skylines (1952) Ethel Romig Fuller — The poet turns her eye to nature: the rivers, the mountains, the sea, the seasons of life in the Pacific Northwest. Infused with joy and sorrow, she writes of the surgery of grief, a fugutive beauty, of “binning” the summer. 

Sea

Sea is a great hunger pressed
To a full white mother breast,
Where it ravens till the tide
Of appetite is satisfied;
Where it slumbers till the shore
Aches with plenitude once more.

 

Spot the Book Title (2007) Simon Drew — A Collection of Cryptic Nonsense and Pointless Hidden Meanings. A fun puzzle book, so visual that it is hard to describe using only words. Here’s an example under “The Plays of Williams Shakespeare”:  comma + pot of tea + o + carousel + oars.   There is no page at the end of the book with answers. If you must have a puzzle solved, you send a check to Drew’s charity. He explains, “This is not a payment: it is a fine for giving up.” 

My Reading Life (2010) Pat Conroy — He reads, he writes, he journals, he talks, he listens. From the time I could talk I took an immense pleasure in running down words, shagging them like fly balls in some spacious field.  He honors the mother who hungered for art, for illumination, for some path to lead her to a shining way to call her own. She lit signal fires in the hills for her son to feel and follow

I think I like Pat Conroy because we share the same writing weaknesses: sentimental, often disastrously so; I was over-dramatic, showy with adjectives, safe with form, weak on verbs, over-reliant on adverbs. I love his love for words, but ache at the estrangement that still exists in his personal life. One side of me would love to read 200 pages a day like he does, but I would have to isolate myself from people—more than I already do— in order to achieve that goal. 

A Chain of Hands (1993, posthumously), Carol Ryrie Brink — Ironic, on the last day of Daylight Savings Time, with the gripes about the change, to read this phrase: day-by-day satisfaction of daylight and dark. This book only makes sense if you have read several other CRB titles first.

 

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (2008) Maggie Jackson  The premise of this book is simple. The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention — the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. Jackson writes about a culture of skimming, new ways to disconnect from others, attention splicing, the dangers of multitasking, detachment, untethering, outsourcing memory to gadgets. The structure of the book did not make sense to me, but I found much to ponder.

 

The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture (2011)  David Mamet — Conversions fascinate me. “I used to think…” is my favorite dinner party prompt. Mamet, former voice of Liberals, becomes the voice of Conservatives. The chapters don’t appear to build on one another; it feels like reading a collection of essays. Mamet’s Judaism informs his perspective and sits under every page of the book. He is blunt, articulate, and controversial. And he quotes Anthony Trollope.

My interest in politics began when I noticed that I acted differently than I spoke, that I had seen ‘the government’ commit sixty years of fairly unrelieved and catastrophic error nationally and internationally, that I not only hated every wasted hard-earned cent I spent in taxes, but the trauma and misery they produced…