The Approaching Storm

german-wine_2492047kNora Waln’s book, The Approaching Storm: One Woman’s Story of Germany, 1934-1938 is a portrait of a culture. I read it to get insight into the Nazification of Germany from a ground level view. Waln, a Quaker pacifist, and her husband moved to Germany for his musical studies. They had extended visits throughout Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Much about the culture was winsome. Here, regarding music:

It was usual to see people whose hands were callous with toil playing musical instruments. No gathering was without its song. They scattered music over their great river, over their wine-clad hills, and along their forest ways. (p.53)

About books:

I had entered Germany with the feeling that these people had no money for luxuries, and I had not yet learned that among vast numbers of them a book is not counted a luxury. I had never heard anyone express surprise on learning that a person had gone without meals or material things to buy a book. (p.118)

By far, my favorites passages were about the vineyards. If you’ve read Wendell Berry you will appreciate this. There were pages about tending vines, cultivating soil:

A vineyard keeper worthy of his title has his wood lot for poles, his field for potatoes, his orchard of fruit trees, his stabled cows, his dwelling house, and his vines. He eats bread of his wife’s making which is baked in the village oven, and the fire is banked over Sunday. His laundry is rubbed clean at home, rinsed in the clear waters of the Ahr, and bleached on the grass. He walks without arrogance but with self-respecting dignity. And, Protestant or Catholic, he brings his children up to earn their keep, pay their debts, revere God, and love the Fatherland. (p.151)

Beautiful roads:

The Germans build well. The roads are not ugly scars across their land they are things of beauty, exciting in their charm. They are invisible a short distance off; then one comes on them—silver ribbons. No telegraph poles, advertisements, rows of refreshment stands, gasoline stations, or ugly houses line their banks. (p.138)

I needed the review of the Reichs:
First Reich (Deutsche) the Holy Roman Empire established by Otto the First 962-1806  Second Reich (Second) Otto von Bismark, Hohenzollern Kings of Prussia 1862-1918
Third Reich (Drittle) National Socialist government, the Nazis

Wien_-_Stephansdom_(1)I learned about a cathedral to Saint Stephan in Vienna, the “Stefansdom”.

The Stefansdom has been raised in the same way [as Mongolian prayer mounds]. It is a heap of gifts to God. Each generation has made its offering in the fashion of the time—Romanesque, Gothic, baroque, and nineteenth century. Each piece is beautiful. (p.263)

But then she describes Hitler’s rule. It was impossible for a young boy to escape being in Hitler’s Youth. While they were often given extra latitude (Hitler had read and enjoyed a previous book Waln wrote) they saw the troubles their friends experienced. Soldiers were optimistic and accepted injustices to themselves with a spirited defense of the army.

One story about a Christmas dinner captured me. The hosts guests included  Christians of Jewish descent. The maid and butler made a brouhaha, refused to serve the Jews, and quit in the middle of service. The hosts refused to let their friends leave and carried on amidst their own embarrassment.
Waln said that she was so traumatized in 1938 that she was unable to write.

I’m glad I read this book. Most of my questions weren’t answered, but one thing was clear. Most citizens were in denial as they gave up freedoms one by one.

Reading Year in Retrospect

DSC_1833“I am an inveterate browser of people’s bookshelves, always curious to see what other people have been reading, and which books they choose to display. but I am equally curious about the manner in which they array them. Are their books neatly aligned, like the leatherbound books in the Levenger catalog, or do they teeter on the shelf at odd angles?”  — David Levy in Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital AgeI love looking back at my reading year, and yet I also shrink from the raised eyebrow of my inner critic. Deciding on categories and distributing my titles in those gives the same thrill that I get in organizing my books. This is my reading year in retrospect.

My own Book of the Year? It’s a tie! N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent was both the slowest and most profound read. I read it aloud to my husband a page or even a paragraph at a time. But reading through Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence was also deeply satisfying. (confession: I have 60 pages to finish)

This Rich & Wondrous Earth Linda Burklin (life in boarding school)
When a Crocodile Eats the SunPeter Godwin (living in Zimbabwe)
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild Lawrence Anthony (animal conservation)

Over the Gate Miss Read (cozy read)
Lark Rise to Candleford(trilogy) Flora Thompson (a portrait of a culture)
Lady Anna Anthony Trollope (novel of a marriage)
Cousin Henry Anthony Trollope (a study of a guilty conscience)
Tyler’s Row Miss Read (not my favorite Miss Read)

The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith Bruce Marshall (story of a Scottish Priest)
Father Hilary’s HolidayBruce Marshall (priest gets involved in political intrigue)

Death by Living N.D. Wilson (memoir/family heritage/travelogue/random thoughts)
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community Dietrich Bonhoeffer (crammed with good stuff)
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert Rosaria Butterfield (unusual story)

From Dawn to Decadence Jacques Barzun (500 years of cultural history, EXCELLENT) Scrolling Forward David Levy (e-book or bound book debate, written a decade ago)

Early American
Rip Van Winkle & Other Stories Washington Irving (some classics improve as we age)

Fit to Burst : Abundance, Mayhem, and the Joys of Motherhood Rachel Jancovik (wise)
Real Marriage Mark and Grace Driscoll (yes and no: all the stats got old)

Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed Philip Hallie (5K Jews saved by people of Le Chambon)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog Muriel Barbery (postmodern novel, quotable sections)

First Family: Abigail and John Adams Joseph Ellis (very enjoyable read)

Kid Lit
Anne of Green Gables L.M. Montgomery (priceless)
Anne of Avonlea LMM (sad to lose Matthew Cuthbert)
Anne of the Island LMM (away at school)
Anne of Windy Poplars LMM (winning over the Pringles and Katherine Brooke)
Anne’s House of Dreams LMM (early marriage, bereavement)
Anne of Ingleside LMM (a houseful of kids and dear Susan)
Rainbow Valley LMM (add the Meredith kids to the Blythes: delightful)
Rilla of Ingleside LMM (I love Rilla; more Susan; a great view of WWI at home)
Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (12 short stories, Anne is just a cameo)
Further Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (includes a delicious story of a revival meeting)
The Story Girl LMM (she can make a story reciting the multipication tables)
The Golden Road LMM (a hilarious mistaken identity story)
Kilmeny of the Orchard LMM (a mute girl plays the violin)
Emily of New Moon LMM (appeals to all aspiring writers)
Emily Climbs LMM (word lovers will love Emily)
Emily’s Quest LMM (overcoming obstacles to writing)
The Blythes are Quoted LMM (more short stories)
Charlotte’s Web E.B. White, (classic, test-drove with a grandson)
Island Magic Elizabeth Goudge (Guernsey family, classic Goudge)

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers Maria Augusta Trapp (must read for S o M fans)
God’s Arms Around Us William Moule (heart-pounding tale of family in WW2 Philippines)
Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism Temple Grandin (she translates autism)
The End of Your Life Book Club Will Schwalbe (terminally ill mom and son read books)
A Little Moule History William Moule (life of a vagabond adventurer)
Appetite for Life Noel Riley Fitch (bio of Julia Child)
The Bookseller of Kabul Asne Seierstad (daily life in Afghanistan)
The Alpine Path LMM (frustrating in its brevity)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie Alan Bradley (I ♥ Flavia de Luce)
Speaking from Among the Bones Alan Bradley (another Flavia book)
Chop Shop Tim Downs (Bug Man is a forensic entomologist)
First the Dead Tim Downs (almost had a heart attack reading this)
Less than Dead Tim Downs (difficulty breathing while reading this thriller)

Twelfth Night W. Shakespeare (mistaken identities)
The Tempest Shakespeare (full fathom five thy father lies)
The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare (TWO sets of identical twins)

Little Black Sheep Ashley Cleveland (the gift of willingness)
Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk Heather Kopp (story of addiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot (spellbinding story of HeLa cells)

TV Reading (one-night read without substance)
A Lancaster County Christmas Suzanne Woods Fisher (English stranded with Amish)

Shadow of the Silk Road Colin Thubron (China-Turkey by one of my fave travel writers)
In a Sunburned Country Bill Bryson (winsome writing…mostly)
Stephen Fry in America Stephen Fry (witty, sometimes coarse flyover)
Roads : Driving America’s Great Highways Larry McMurtry (he drives the interstates)

The Whistling Season Ivan Doig (the Wendell Berry of Montana)

What have you been reading?

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which allows me to buy perhaps one or two new books a year. But I’m thankful if you decide to buy a book through the links.)

The Best Book of 2010

In July I began reading Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World. Thirty pages in I knew this book was extraordinary. At one point in the middle of the night I got up and Googled Josip Lasta, the protagonist’s name, convinced he was a real person.

When I finished reading it, I couldn’t stop discussing it.  I gave copies to friends. But I shrank from writing about Island.  It is a big book in every sense of the word. How can I express its power in a short review? A friend read it and said, “It changed my life.”  Island of the World has 18 reviews on Amazon; all are 5 stars.  Laura, whose review began with these words “Best book ever.”, bought every book written by O’Brien after reading this.

So what is it about?  Light and darkness, loss and blessing, deep interior wounds, survival, sanity after trauma, crucifixion, resurrection.  Grief mingled with inexplicable joy.  All condensed in the life of a single Croatian man named Josip Lasta. 

Yet there is a difference between insightful commentary
about culture and the actual creation of culture.

I am intrigued by the cultures portrayed in O’Brien’s book: the rustic mountain village northwest of Sarajevo with an interdependent community and a faithful priest; the heady high culture of academia discussing philosophy and experiencing art; the tight grip on the edge of sanity, clinging to a vestige of humanity in a labor camp; the incremental rebuilding of a life in an Italian hospital; the life of a solitary janitor in New York City. 

If he had been given a choice, would he have chosen to be
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? Never.
It was given. It is gift and cost–and in time the cost may
become entirely gift. It is hard to know if that will be the
end of all this striving, impossible to guess when the next
blessing or blow will fall.

I had read a third of the book when I saw a young man, a friend and former student who shares my love of reading thick, chunky, excellent books.  I stopped him as he walked by my office and told him about Island. Scott listened with interest and thanked me.  I made him wait while I printed out the synopsis from Amazon.  Two days later he was killed in a car accident.  The printout was on his nightstand.  Reading this book in the throes of grief impressed its words on my soul. This book is unforgettable.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect that Michael O’Brien is my new Wendell Berry.  That is the highest compliment I can offer. 

Get this book.  Burrow into it.  It will change you.

Friends’ reviews:  Laura, Janie  Another review: Rabbit Room

I added a post of quotes from this book here.

I love this book so much, I want one of you to win a free copy. 
Enter a comment and I will have a drawing.  Let’s say December 4th. 
Post a link, tweet about it, email a friend (and let me know you did)
and I’ll enter your name twice!
You can have choose between paperback or Kindle version.
International entries are welcome.

The Abolition of Britain


But I think it is important that Anglophiles, especially those
in North America, begin to understand that the imagined,
ideal Britain which they have treasured for so long has
been swept away and is being replaced by an entirely
different country-a place of shrinking liberties, of
increasingly arbitrary authority, of bad manners and
violence, of illiteracy and ignorance, of cringing conformism.
As the culture disintegrates, the physical, political,
diplomatic and military entity formerly known as
Britain is also breaking up, and is likely to be
incorporated into a new European superstate.

Any Anglophile will say his or her love began with British literature: Austen, Tolkien, Trollope, Pym; Thackeray, Herriot, Chesterton, Milne; Lewis, Eliot, Stevenson, Read; Bronte, Wodehouse, MacDonald, Grahame.  Page by page we are drawn to the customs and manners and mores of Britain.  We take trips to find the Britain of our literature. We search for pockets of preservation, places that match the geography of our imagination. 

If you want to hold on to that Britain, if a look at modern reality will dispel your dreams, stay away from this book.    

A nation is the sum of its memories,
and when those memories are allowed to die,
it is less of a nation.

What Morris Berman does in The Twilight of American Culture–describes what he calls a cultural massacre in America–Peter Hitchens does in The Abolition of Britain.  Hitchens outlines the changes that have taken place within one generation, between the death of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 to the death of Princess Diana in 1997.  Morris’ view is from the left; Hitchens’ is from the right.

The face of Britain has undergone radical plastic surgery
so that it can no longer recognize itself in the mirror.

Hitchens recapitulates themes from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death; the decline in literacy, curiosity, imagination, and the ability to think for oneself. He examines the effects of television and computers, the decline in education, the rise in divorce and single parenting, the ignorance of history, the rejection of great literature, the loss in one generation of religious sensibilities.  

Anyone trained from his earliest years in the television
habit is likely to become extremely passive,
because his ability to imagine, to hold conversations,
to think without prompting, has already been
weakened and withered.  He does not need them.

We welcome into our homes the machines that
vacuum the thoughts out of our heads
and pump in someone else’s.

Blunt as his brother Christopher, but conservative and unrepentant of his politically-incorrectness, Hitchens exposes the inconsistencies and unintended consequences of present policies.  One weakness I see in this book is that Hitchens ignores the failures of the British Empire; there is a reason that it came down. While he decries the direction England is going, he doesn’t delineate a solution.  As a journalist, Peter Hitchens’ thoughts are accessible at his blog.  A few random quotes from the book:

The universal conscription of women
 into paid work has emptied the suburbs…

Home death is becoming as rare as home birth.

…fewer and fewer children have two parents,
and where more and more women are
married to the State.

The most significant change for the majority
is that life is no longer so safe, so polite or
so gentle as it once was.

Inventory and Evaluate

As we approach the twenty-first century,
popular culture is taking the lead
in establishing a sensibility,
not of intense involvement,
but of cool detachment.

~  Kenneth A. Myers, AGCaBSS

sen•si•bil•i•ty   The quality of being affected by changes in the environment
                  Acute perception or responsiveness toward something.

I can’t forget the frustration I felt whenever I talked to a certain childhood friend.  She never really focused on my eyes, but looked hither and yon.  Dialog was always staccato as she interrupted me and interrupted herself – on the slightest pretext.  I never felt like she was actually listening to me.  For me, my friend is the prototype of the detached style of communicating which, today, is the norm.  Face to face conversations are punctured by incoming text and incoming calls, our own personal version of “breaking news.” 

Sensibility is the key word in Myers’ final chapter, Where Do We Go From Here?  We are urged to not be dominated by the sensibility of popular culture (self-centered, obsessed with the new, immediate, sensuous, spectacular) but to build a culture of transcendence (truth, goodness, beauty, permanence, long-term rewards). 

Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

But what does that look like?  Because these are wisdom issues there isn’t a clear-cut method of evaluation.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a weekly pop culture weigh-in that would indicate our over-consumption? Even that wouldn’t measure how we are being affected by the technology or if we were deliberate or thoughtless in our engagement.   

Like so many areas in life, we need reminders.  It was a wake-up call for my husband and me on our last family backpack that 85% of the conversation revolved around quoting movies and television shows.  Where we used to sit around the table and talk (!) we often stand around the screen and show each other the latest You-Tube wonder.  We voice our concerns to our grown children; they make their own choices.  

Our rule with television has always been that people are more important than programs.  If someone stopped by for a visit, the TV went off and we focused on people.  What message does it send when you visit someone, they look over and say hello and then turn back to the tube?  I think we need to train our children in the etiquette of cell phones.  Do you take a call anytime?  How can we use technology in a way that doesn’t separate real life relationships?

Here is my own pop culture checkup:

•  Blogging  I started blogging in 2005 to stay in touch with my son at college.  Blogging in 2009 has nothing much to do with communicating with my family (I think my brother is the only family who might read it); but I enjoy the connections across the country.  Has my family benefited or suffered with my blogging time?  I am guilty of neglect.
•  Facebook  I joined Facebook because that is the medium my kids prefer to communicate the stuff of their lives. Face it: I like Facebook!  It can be trite, it can be banal.  But I do like the way I can check in my friends overseas, see pictures of my grandson, eavesdrop on clever repartee and see small segments of friends’ lives.  It eats time like Godzilla eats women.  (does Godzilla eat women?  I really don’t know!)
•  Movies and DVDs  I love Netflix.  It allows me to be more deliberate in my viewing (I detest roaming the aisles of Blockbuster wondering what to watch) and gives me access to films which are out of the mainstream, particularly indies and foreign films.  I find it really helps to dovetail our movies with our studies.  In the winter we get one-at-a-time unlimited; in the summer we switch to the $4.99 plan. 
•  Telephone  We have Caller ID but still take blocked calls.  Getting on the National Do Not Call list was the best phone decision we’ve had.  We also have Call Waiting, but it serves to tell us someone else tried to call.  I call back after the current phone call is completed.  We decide to take or not take a call during dinner on a case-by-case basis. 
•  Magazines  I’ve become more suspicious of general magazines.  We take World and Cooking Light.  There are several I would enjoy but their ephemeral nature and my to-be-read pile push me toward books.
•  Newspaper  If I lived in a metropolitan area, I could very easily see myself immersed in the daily reading of the paper.  The ephemeral nature applies here, too. Our local paper lets me know who died and what’s on sale and can be read in ten minutes. 
•  Television  If I wasn’t married to my husband this would be a problem.  If it didn’t take up so much time, I could lose myself in the baseball season.  I really hate being in homes where the TV is on during every waking hour.  I cringe at the thought of TV being the default noise in the home. 
•  Radio  I enjoy streaming classical stations on the internet.  I could devote hours to Pandora or  When we take car trips we usually listen to a bit of talk radio. 
•  Cell Phone  It’s become a badge of honor, a matter of pride to see how long we can go without getting one.  The great thing about this medium, unlike Facebook, is that I can connect with people with cell phones without needing one myself.  I can think of a dozen great applications for cell phones, they just don’t apply to our family.  If we had a daughter driving, she would have a cell phone faster than you can say Verizon Wireless. 

I don’t expect your list to remotely resemble mine.  But I do believe it is a good thing to think over the reasons why you do or don’t use the technology available to us.  Inventory and evaluate.  One thing is clear to me.  If I don’t want to be distracted, I need to turn the computer off.  We use the computer for school, but there is much we can do before we turn it on.  I lose/loose my focus too easily with it. 

There are many spin-offs of this discussion.  How important is it to have a pulse on popular culture?  Is it necessary to read best-sellers and watch top shows in order to have “talking points” with our neighbors?  Where is the balance?

Why I Am Hopeful

Andy Crouch nails it in this essay,
Why I Am Hopeful,
another blessing of receiving the free weekly newsletter
Books & Culture.
“We often seem incapable of seeing ourselves first as gardeners:
people whose first cultural calling is to keep good
what is, by the common grace of God, already good.
A gardener does not pull out weeds because she hates weeds;
she pulls out weeds because she loves the garden,
and because (hopefully) there are more vegetables or flowers in it than weeds.

This kind of love of the garden
—loving our broken, beautiful cultures
for what they are at their best—
is the precondition, I am coming to believe,
for any serious cultural creativity or influence.

When weeds infest the garden,
the gardener does not take the opportunity
to decry the corruption of the garden as a whole.
She gets patiently, discerningly, to work
keeping the garden good.”