Come Rain or Come Shine, The Book

I once prayed, Lord, please let Jan Karon live long enough to get Dooley and Lace married. The answer to that prayer was a whelming flood; I started crying on page 32 and sniffed and sobbed my way—punctuated by laughs—to the final page. Redemption, benediction, healing, holy amazement, connection. Reading this brings the satisfaction of resolution, the “two bits” after the “shave and a haircut”.

Weddings are my thing. Joyful solemnity, giving, sharing, joining, celebrating, laughing, crying, hugging, singing, dancing, rejoicing, thanksgiving. I love a good wedding and I’ve been to a few profoundly remarkable ones.

There was joy in the air; you could sniff it as plain as new-cut hay.

The focus of Come Rain or Come Shineis on the month before and the day of The Big Knot. Dooley and Lace want a small, intimate ceremony at Meadowgate Farm. Karon enjoys poking fun at the myth of a ‘simple country wedding.’  There are obstacles and annoyances. There are secrets and surprises. There is the unrelenting pressure of diminishing time to get the place wedding-ready.

DSC_0964The main character is Lace Harper. Her journals reveal her heart, her hopes, her fears, her loves. She wants to find a wedding dress for under $100; she is thankful for the callouses which document her hard work. She wants to get it—this whole starting a new family—right. I appreciated the ways Dooley and Lace honor the memory of Sadie Baxter (benefactor) and Russell Jacks (Dooley’s grandpa) in their wedding. Fun stuff: there is a Pinterest page for Lace Harper’s wedding!

Jan Karon and Wendell Berry are both skilled at portraying a community where giving, helping, and reciprocating are the norm. In their novels they don’t cover up the hurts, the anger, the tensions, the troubles. Weddings can be awkward with family drama. Karon handles the presence of Dooley’s birth mom, Pauline Leeper, in the same room as his siblings with utmost care. There is no easy resolution, no instant reconciliation, just baby steps, tiny beginnings towards the on-ramp to healing.

I connected with this book in many ways. This summer we went to a small, simple country wedding (see picture above) in a pasture. My son and daughter-in-law have a wind storm and fallen trees in their wedding story, too. I know what it is to be gob-smacked by blessings, reduced to silent tears of joy. Live music is the best for dancing the night away. I love the song in the title.

‘Why can’t life always be lived under the stars,’ she said, ‘with great music and family and friends?’

♪♫♪ Come Rain or Come Shine ♪♫♪ is a standard (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics Johnny Mercer) that has been covered by scores of recording artists. I used it ten years ago when I made a PowerPoint slideshow for Curt’s folks’ 50th wedding anniversary. In the course of my work, I listened to B.B. King and Eric Clapton on endless repetition. And I can honestly say, I never tired of it. But there are so many recordings of this song, that I put my listening of them in this post.

This book.

I finished it last night. I started it again this morning.

And Some More Bookish Questions

DSC_0245Sherry at Semicolon posted this fun meme this morning. Here are my answers (today).

1. What propelled your love affair with books — any particular title or a moment?
I grew up in a book-saturated home: books in every room, books in front of every face; never a day without books. Books were not allowed at the dinner table, but most of us tried at one time to hold a compelling book in our lap, under the table, and keep reading. It was inconceivable to grew up a Harper and not love books.

2. Which fictional character would you like to be friends with and why?
Laura Ingalls Wilder was my first fixation and she remains with me, especially at this time of the year. Yesterday, I was making a year’s supply of fire starters (dryer lint stuffed into egg cartons with melted wax poured over it) and thought of Pa and Ma’s preparations for winter. (OK, I missed the word fictional…give me a pass, please?)

DSC_65453. Do you write your name on your books or use bookplates?
All but the best books I read are on a rotation: in the house, read, out of the house. When I write my name I always write it in pencil. I’ve found that the book I love today and think I’ll keep forever might get the boot in ten years.

4. What was your favourite book read this year?
Carol Montparker’s memoir, A Pianist’s Landscape. Here’s a sample. I think an essential mark of an artist is how he or she recovers from a mishap.

5. If you could read in another language, which language would you choose?
Not just one. I’m starting to twitch from the demands of decisions. I’d love to read my father’s Greek New Testament with the cranberry cover. I’d love to read the Latin books on my shelf. I’d swoon if I could read a French book aloud with exquisite pronunciation. And why not Russian? Or Arabic? Or Portuguese?

6. Name a book that made you both laugh and cry.
Jan Karon’s return to Mitford produced loud guffaw-laughs, ugly cries, and everything in between.

7. Share with us your favourite poem.
That f word is making me crazy, even with the charming British spelling. Gerard Manley Hopkins Pied Beauty. Billy Collins The Lanyard . To snort with laughter at his Litany….And you are certainly not the pine-scented air. There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air. There is Wendell Berry’s Manifesto with those last two words: Practice resurrection.

But in this moment, my mind goes to Michelangelo’s LXXIII.

Well-nigh the voyage now is overpast,
And my frail bark, through troubled seas and rude,
Draws near that common haven where at last
Of every action, be it evil or good,
Must due account be rendered. Well I know
How vain will then appear that favoured art,
Sole Idol long and Monarch of my heart,
For all is vain that man desires below.
And now remorseful thoughts the past upbraid,
And fear of twofold death my soul alarms,
That which must come, and that beyond the grave:
Picture and Sculpture lose their feeble charms,
And to that Love Divine I turn for aid,
Who from the Cross extends his arms to save.

I love that old translation, but I have a newer one tucked into the page. Which one do you prefer?

Unburdened by the body’s fierce demands,
And now at last released from my frail boat,
Dear God, I put myself into your hands;

Smooth the rough waves on which my ship must float.

The thorns, the nails, the wounds in both your palms,
The gentleness, the pity on your face—
For great repentance, these have promised grace.
My soul will find salvation in your arms.

And let not justice only fill your eyes,
But mercy too. Oh temper your severe
Judgment with tenderness, relieve my burden.

Let your own blood remove my faults and clear
My guilt, and let your grace so strongly rise
That I am granted an entire pardon.

Please join me and link to your answers (or just write them there) in the comments. If your time is limited, take just one question.

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!”

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Public_transport_in_Gaborone(Public transportation in Gaborone, Botswana – photo Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander McCall Smith did a good thing when he crafted the character of Mma Precious Ramotswe. In each book, she is consistently the kind, traditional, perceptive, tender-hearted, contented woman I’ve come to regard as my friend.

And yet, he doesn’t filter out all the unsavory aspects of Botswana life. In this 12th book of the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, we see a young mother who treats her children with utter indifference, cattle killed, a menacing man and a cowed woman.

I recently finished The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the twelfth book. I’m reading them out of order, according to library availability.

The title of the first chapter is The Memory of Lost Things; could it be an allusion to Proust?

As with every book in this series, I care about Mma Ramotswe’s culture ten times more than whatever mystery needs to be solved. There’s a dig at mobile phones, complainers, fathers who don’t take responsibility for their children. On the plus side is Mma’s abiding love for her late father and for her ‘late’ tiny white van, her compassion for those who suffer, the poetry of night sounds, her gratitude for Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, her encouragement to an undeserving recipient, and the joy of an abundant wedding feast.

There is a tender moment between two bereaved women. I have a late baby, Mma. It is a long time ago. ~ I have a late child too, Mma. McCall Smith understands the permanence of grief. Almost every book has a small reference to the baby Mma Ramotswe lost.

In the end Grace Makutsi marries Phuti Radiphuti, which means she will never have to ride in public transportation again, and she can indulge her love of loud shoes. The wedding doesn’t have the prominence that the title gives it, but that’s OK.

Here is a quote to whet your appetite.

Nowadays, people are always thinking of getting somewhere—they travelled around far more, rushing from here to there and then back again. She would never let her life go that way; she would always take the time to drink tea, to look at the sky, and to talk. What else was there to do? Make money? Why? Did money bring any greater happiness than that furnished by a well-made cup of red bush tea and a moment or two with a good friend? She thought not. 230

 

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.

England, Goudge, the Eliots

101_4570Elizabeth Goudge’s Eliot Family Trilogy?

First, it is English: paragraphs of appreciative comments on the comfort of tea; gallons of hot tea consumed; nine variations of rain—slanting, gentle, white, solid, gloomy, light, windy, misty, sparkly; logs added to warming fires; imaginative children; a country vicar; the pronoun ‘one’ put to good use (Eustace—dreadful name! One thinks at once of a parson’s dog-collar); ditto for the adverb ‘rather’ and the adjective ‘dreadful’ (Ben says it’s dreadful. They’re trying to do a telescoped version of ‘The Wind in the Willows’, and it won’t telescope.)

Then, it is Elizabeth Goudge. I find Goudge in a category of her own. She is spiritual, at times mystical, fantastical (Faerie, but just in cameo appearances), romantic in the sense of the woods being infused with symbolism, almost medieval.

But her characters deal with modern problems that most authors of her genre would avoid. One man falls in love (inexcusably, I’d say: one must recognize boundaries) with the wife of one of his relatives. This complex relationship is the focus of her first book, but isn’t completely resolved until the third. Goudge’s parents have favorite children. Some of the marriages lack love. One character’s violent past is haunting.

There is a strong sense of place. Damerosehay, a large eighteenth century house purchased by the Grandmother, home base for the Eliot family, is the focus of book one. The Herb of Grace—a Pilgrim’s Inn, where sojourners stay on pilgrimage to a sacred place—is more ancient, with deep history in its walls. George and Nadine’s restoration of this Inn is the focus of the second book. The third book adds Lavender Cottage, a small place where Margaret and Lucilla can retire.

Her themes resonate with me: determined contentedness; work as a sacramental offering; the mystery of small joys; beauty indoors and outdoors, interior and exterior; the inscrutable connection between twins; aging, grandparenting, and above all else, relinquishment.

“Relinquish.” It was a good word. It suggested not the tearing away of treasures but the willing and graceful sacrifice of them.     The Bird in the Tree

The twins mimic a blend of The Wind in the Willows, medieval crusaders, and pirates:

“Scrooge, scrabble and scratch.” repeated Jerry. “For the glory of God, my hearties. For the glory of God.” Pilgrim’s Inn

Hilary, wounded in the first world war, is stable, sensible, lovable.

Nevertheless, the tea was what he wanted. Heat, he thought, there’s nothing like it. All the best symbols have to do with light and fire and warmth. The Heart of the Family

Hendrickson has recently reissued the trilogy.
            

I took the top photograph at Shere, a picturesque English village. While I was in England, I darted into used bookshops looking for treasures. It is thence I found a first edition of The Herb of Grace (the English title for Pilgrim’s Inn), my favorite of the three books. I’d like to give away this book that has given me much pleasure. (It’s the first time I’ve used this widget. I hope it works.)

a Rafflecopter giveaway Congratulations, Di! You won the Herb of Grace book.

*It occurred to me that my definition of ‘treasure’ might not jive with yours. Here is a picture of the book. It is not a pretty book, but I love the inscription in the front “Jeanette Pound 1950” and I like old hardbacks.

DSC_8686

20 Feet from Stardom

20FeetFromStardom Backup singers are like ghost writers. The invisibles.

20 Feet From Stardom tells the story of some of the legendary backup singers you’ve never heard of. It’s a poignant story, told with bursts of beguiling harmonies, of the different mindset of the backup singer who goes for the blend and the lead singer who basks in individuality. And the near impossibility to move from the back to front and center.

Where did the backup singers come from? Most of them were pastor’s daughters who grew up singing melodies, harmonies, and call-and-response, in church. Music was their oxygen. They didn’t require written music; they could hear the chords in their head and make magical tones singing together.

A few quotes:

Stay cool.
Stay humble.
Stay beautiful.
Do the work.
— Merry Clayton

It’s more than leaning on your talent. You gotta be disciplined. You gotta get up in the morning.
— Tata Vega

Real musicians—there’s a spiritual component to what they do that’s got nothing to do with worldly success. Their music is much more an inner journey. Any other success is just cream on the cake. There’s this idea that you can go on American Idol and suddenly become a star; but you may bypass the spiritual work you have to do to get there. And if you bypass that, our success will be wafer thin.

— Sting

Fun catch: Ashley Cleveland, my walking partner (by me listening to her CDs, we’ve never met) has a cameo appearance at 87:14.

Meet and Greet Redux

DSC_5237After writing about the sweet ceremony of greeting guests on Downton Abbey, I read this opening paragraph of Elizabeth Goudge’s The Bird in the Tree.

Visitors to Dameroeshay, had they but known it, could have told just how much the children liked them by the particular spot at which they were met upon arrival.

If the visitor was definitely disliked, the children paid no attention to him until Ellen had forcibly thrust them into their best clothes and pushed them through the drawing-room door about the hour of five; when they extended limp paws in salutation, replied in polite monosyllables to inquiries as to their well-being, and then stood in a depressed row staring at the carpet, beautiful to behold but no more alive than three Della Robbia cherubs modelled out of plaster.

If, on the other hand, they tolerated the visitor, they would go so far as to meet him at the front door and ask if he had brought them anything.

If they liked him they would go to the gate at the end of the wood and wave encouragingly as he came towards them.

But if they loved him, if he was one of the inner circle, they would go right through the village, taking the dogs with them, and along the coast road to the corner by the cornfield, and when they saw the beloved approaching they would yell like all the fiends of hell let loose for the afternoon.

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.

Alan Bradley and Bill Bryson

Alan Bradley and Bill Bryson

Alan Bradley, left; Bill Bryson, right.

It would have made a great story. If only the facts would cooperate.

Last night I finished listening to Bill Bryson’s book about Australia, In a Sunburned Country. I listened with joy to his elegantly turned phrases, self-deprecatory humor, and characterizations of the people and landscape. His dismay at the treatment of aborigines provoked me to care, too. At times Bryson’s tone veers to the suburbs of crass, and he inserts a few liberal rants, but overall I liked it very much.

As it happens, I also finished Alan Bradley’s latest Flavia de Luce mystery, Speaking from Among the Bones.  Because it’s how I’m wired, I read through the acknowledgments, and there two thirds down the page were these sentences: Family, too, have been there to wave flags and shout encouragement at every way station, and I’d like to especially acknowledge …Bill and Barbara Bryson

What? Bill Bryson in Alan Bradley’s family section? Crazy!  I skipped out of bed to explore this connection. Alas, Bill Bryson, the author, is married to a Cynthia. Bill’s father, William, is married to an Agnes Mary. I can’t detect anything other than coincidence in the names.

My favorite excerpt from Bryson’s book is his description of how he sleeps:

I am not, I regret to say, a discreet and fetching sleeper. Most people when they nod off look as if they could do with a blanket; I look as if I could do with medical attention. I sleep as if injected with a powerful experimental muscle relaxant. My legs fall open in a grotesque come-hither manner; my knuckles brush the floor. Whatever is inside—tongue, uvula, moist bubbles of intestinal air—decides to leak out. From time to time, like one of those nodding-duck toys, my head tips forward to empty a quart or so of viscous drool onto my lap, then falls back to begin loading again with a noise like a toilet cistern filling.

And I snore, hugely and helplessly, like a cartoon character with rubbery flapping lips and prolonged steam-valve-exhalations. For long periods I grow unnaturally still, in a a way that inclines onlookers to exchange glances and lean forward in concern, then dramatically I stiffen and, after a tantalizing pause, begin to bounce and jostle in a series of whole-body spasms of the sort that bring to mind an electric chair when the switch is thrown.. Then I shriek once or twice in a piercing and effeminate manner and wake up to find that all motion within five hundred feet has stopped and all children under the age of eight are clutching their mothers’ hems.

Flavia’s humor is dry, more inclined to make me smile in appreciation than to laugh out loud. And tucked in unexpected places the whiz kid chemist wonders about life.

How odd, I thought: Here were these four great grievers, Father, Dogger, the vicar, and Cynthia Richardson, each locked in his or her own past, unwilling to share a morsel of their anguish, not even with one another.

Was sorrow, in the end, a private thing? A closed container? Something that, like a bucket of water, could be borne only on a single pair of shoulders?

 

Edit: I received a gracious and funny email from Mr. Bradley confirming that his Bill Bryson is not the American author Bill Bryson.