Showing posts from December, 2008

Books Reviewed in 2008

Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans
Kate O'Brien, Without My Cloak
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics
David Liss, A Conspiracy of Paper
Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall
Kate O'Brien, The Ante-Room
Justine Picardie, Daphne
Terry Burnham & Jay Phelan, Mean Genes
Henry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom
Ruth Adam, I'm Not Complaining
Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
William F. Loomis, Life As It Is
Nadine Gordimer, The Lying Days
Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought
Bill McKibben, Deep Economy
Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Street
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Beatrix Lehmann, Rumour of Heaven
Kate O'Brien, Mary Lavelle
Kate O'Brien, The Land of Spices
Daphne Du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë
E. Arnot Robertson, Ordinary Families
Naomi Mitchison, Travel Light
Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation
Dorothy Canfield, The Brimming Cup

Reading Journal: "Bridge of Sighs"

Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs. Vintage Books 2007. Paperback edition 2008. $14.95 ($16.95 Canada). 642 pp.

Coming in right under the wire, one of the best novels I've read in 2008: Richard Russo's big, big-hearted, and engrossing novel of art, love, and the American dream. Set on familiar ground in the snow-covered terrain of Upstate New York, in the fictional north-of-Albany town of Thomaston, Bridge of Sighs begins as Louis Charles Lynch, known as "Lucy," sets out to tell the story of his ordinary life as a son, friend, husband, and successful neighborhood grocer. It doesn't sound like terribly compelling material, but it is. Russo's novel explores and illuminates the complexities of class and race, art and life, love and hate, security and risk, in a story that's both heartbreaking and life-affirming.

Lou is sixty years old, looking back and trying to find "the pattern in the carpet," the common threads that make sense of his life. He ha…

This Old House, Part II

We returned from Solbakken to find that Charlie had removed the old upstairs bathtub and toilet. We are temporarily a one-bathroom family again, as we were for our year in England. In the photograph above, you can see the hole for the toilet drain in the foreground, and then the space where the tub used to be. The bathroom was evidently once a closet, or perhaps even part of the upstairs hall that was framed in to make a bathroom. On the far wall, behind the framing for the tub, you can see the old blue-gray wallpaper and the oak baseboard that runs throughout the house. On the left-hand wall, you can see insulation. Here, the lath had rotted away because of water leaking from the shower. It's a good thing we're having this work done!

Charlie tells me that the date stamp on the tub was October 1929. The bathroom was originally constructed as the country crashed into the Great Depression. It's being deconstructed and remodeled in the midst of another economic crisis …

Solbakken 2008

The North Shore of Lake Superior. December 27, 2008. After the freezing drizzle.

We've just returned from our second annual post-Christmas ski vacation at Solbakken Resort, just outside of Lutsen, Minnesota, on the north shore of Lake Superior. The skiing this year wasn't wonderful. The weekend featured two days of freezing drizzle and melting temperatures, followed by a hard freeze. The result was very fast conditions on the newly-groomed cross country trails. Here is a pictorial account of our Sunday morning ski around the Massey Loop in the hills above Lake Superior.

Before setting out.

The beginning of the ascent. Lake Superior is in the background.

Clara, before the first of at least a dozen falls.

Smooth skiing on freshly groomed tracks.

The descent.
This is what the landscape looks like when you have completely lost control and are about to execute a falling stop.

This is what you see when you have crash landed at the bottom of the hill and are flat on your back wondering…

Favorites of 2008

2008 was the Year of the Herniation. I spent the end of January and most of February in a prone position, recovering slowly from a herniated disk in my neck. This was followed by the slow but steady development of an inguinal hernia that culminated in surgery in late July. All of this bed rest meant that I had plenty of time to read. I read 40 books in 2008. My favorites were Naomi Mitchison's Travel Light and Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices.

The great but neglected Irish novelist Kate O'Brien was my great literary discovery of 2008. In her novels she skillfully and sensitively explores the tension between the demands of a strong traditional religious faith and the ordinary lapses and compromises of a life in the world, the tension between the coldness of renunciation and the heat of passion. Her books are about the struggle to love with the heart as well as the spirit, and to live a life that's rooted as well as flowering.

My great musical discovery of 2008…

"How to Greet the Spring"

M.F.K. Fisher begins her chapter on cooking with canned fish with a Japanese haiku:
Young leaves everywhere;
The mountain cuckoo singing;
My first Bonito!Before World War II, many of the cannery workers and fishermen on the west coast were Japanese. With the outbreak of the war, the Japanese were herded into interment camps, both in the United States and in Canada. But for Cannery Row in Monterey, California, the war brought a final boom, as the the demand for canned fish rose. By the end of the war, the bay had been overfished, and the canneries fell into decline—even as they were being memorialized in John Steinbeck's 1945 novel Cannery Row.

Fisher laments the early wartime situation. "Now," she says, "...with all the waters of the earth troubled and suspect, fish as a food has become a rarity. Even the gulls are starving, and the fishermen are fighting or in prison camps..." (Six decades later, of course, the oceans are even more exhausted: overfished, ove…

Reading Journal: "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution"

Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007. Now available in paperback at River City Books.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States found itself in the midst of a financial crisis. In order to pay its army during the war, Congress had issued bonds. Cash-strapped soldiers—most of them farmers—quickly sold the bonds to speculators in exchange for cash. In an effort to pay interest on the bonds, states levied taxes which fell most heavily on the poor farmers who had sold the bonds in the first place. Taxes had to be paid primarily in hard money, which was in increasingly short supply as their massive trade imbalance with Europe drained gold and silver from the states. The farmers, who risked losing everything to the tax collector, demanded that the states print paper money. The holders of government bonds (investors like Abigail Adams) insisted on interest payments in hard money, fearing that paper money would…

This Old House, Part I

A special weekend post that will stun the entire blogosphere...

Our upstairs bathroom is directly above the front entryway of our house. A couple of months ago, we noticed that, due to loosening of the tiles in the upstairs shower, water was seeping down the wall in the front stairwell and staining the ceiling above the front entryway. We called our favorite contractor, Charlie Legare, who beautifully remodeled our downstairs bathroom about five years ago. Today, Charlie came and tore out the ceiling above the front hall, and discovered numerous ugly problems.

In this first photograph, you can see the extensive water damage from water seeping through the cracks in the tile and running down the wall and into the space between the upstairs floor and downstairs ceiling. The darker areas are, in fact, still wet and spongy. The bathtub/shower is directly above them. During the demolition, Charlie found wadded newspapers and old towels that previous owners had crammed into the space und…

"How to Cook a Wolf"

For yesterday's dinner, I made one of my favorite recipes from the New Recipes from Moosewood cookbook, Creamy Fish Chowder, served with Squash Rolls. All of the ingredients for the chowder came from Just Food Coop, including the fish (inexpensive tilapia). A perfect meal for a winter evening with a big snowstorm on the way and a new load of firewood stacked in the garage. After dinner, filled with good chowder, I read M.F.K. Fisher's tips for making an good and economical soup.

My bedside reading lately has been Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf (1942), a book of recipes and reflections on how to cook and live well during wartime rationing. "Now, of all times in our history," she writes, "we should be using our minds as well as our hearts in order to live gracefully if we live at all." The book, written in her characteristically tart and opinionated style, is full of practical tips (for example, how to save bacon grease and use it in place …

Virago Secret Santa

Today is international Virago Secret Santa Day. Yesterday evening, members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group living in New Zealand and Australia started opening their packages. Today, the Christmas cheer spreads west across the globe. Last month, I sent a package off to Oxfordshire, and this morning I opened a package from my Secret Santa in Columbus, Ohio. The cornucopia of books includes two hardcovers of novels by Dorothy Canfield (The Bent Twig and Her Son's Wife), a Virago Modern Classic (Mary Lavin's The House on Clewe Street), and a beautiful Persephone Book from London (Edith Henrietta Fowler's The Young Pretenders). I am overwhelmed by my Secret Santa's generosity. Christmas has begun the best way possible—with books.

In the photograph above, you can see the lovely cover of the The House on Clewe Street (1945), with the characteristic Virago Modern Classics green. In the old days (the 1980s), Virago chose wonderful artworks for the covers …

James Madison, Classicist

The conclusion of my two-part series on James Madison's Federalist 18 is now posted on EcBlogue. WordPress, however, is being irritating, so you may receive a Page Not Found error.

Project 1929

1929 was, as we are now acutely aware, the year of the great stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. It was also a banner year for literature. 1929 saw the publication of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's One, and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel, and many other books both famous and forgotten. Over on LibraryThing, I've accepted an invitation to join a group called "Project 1929." Members of the group will devote some of their reading time in 2009 to books published 80 years ago. Many thanks to Paola for the invitation, and to Carolyn for the brilliant idea. A spreadsheet listing books published on 1929 can be found here.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. To mark the occasion of his 80th birthday, I'll be starting "Project 1929" next month with two books published in 1929 by women closely associated wit…

Happy 233rd Birthday, Jane Austen!

image from the JASNA website


There are fires burning in both wood stoves this evening as the temperature falls from a daytime high of -1°F to a low somewhere in the double digits below zero overnight. Today was the coldest December day in Minnesota since 1996. The graph above, from the Carleton College weather station, shows the fifty-degree drop in temperature from a high of about 40°F at noon yesterday, to around -10°F at noon today.

See also Griff's post on LocallyGrown, with a photograph of the sun dogs visible in Northfield this morning. Something I missed by huddling inside in my pajamas.

The Federalist Spin-off

In Federalist 18, James Madison shows off his classicist chops with a dissertation on the ancient Greek confederacies known as the Amphictyonic League and the Achaean League. Because of the classical subject, I've decided to spin off my post on Federalist 18 to EcBlogue: A Classics Blog. The post will be a two-parter. Part one, which discusses Madison's sources for his discussion of the ancient confederacies, awaits your perusal.

Eating Local: Federalist 17

Recall these words of the Anti-Federalist George Clinton:
The strongest principle of union resides within our domestic walls. The ties of the parent exceed that of any other. As we depart from home, the next general principle of union is amongst citizens of the same state, where acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, nourish affection, and attachment. Enlarge the circle still further, and, as citizens of different states, though we acknowledge the same national denomination, we lose in the ties of acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, and thus by degrees we lessen in our attachments, till, at length, we no more than acknowledge a sameness of species.In Federalist 17, Hamilton returns to this argument, and (perhaps surprisingly) embraces it:
It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighborhood, to his neighborhood than to…

Citizen Journalism

Since January 2008, I've been a member of the board of The mission of isto be "an electronic commons that strengthens the fabric of community in the greater Northfield publishing stories and event listings from any and all members of the community and providing access to existing community resources and online content from local citizens and organizations." Anyone in the Northfield area who has a story to share or an event to promote can publish directly to, provided that a few simple guidelines are followed.

Since its inception in the 1990s, has evolved into more of an electronic community bulletin board than an outlet for the reporting of local news. A few years ago, Griff Wigley, one of the founders of, spun off to create his own group blog, LocallyGrown, which—along with its companion radio show and podcast—does feature hard news and commentary about local issues. Earlier this year…

"The slimie kisse" (Bonus Herrick)

Here, with its original seventeenth-century spelling, is Robert Herrick's poem "Kisses Loathsome," in which he expresses his distaste for sloppy kisses:
I abhor the slimie kisse,
(Which to me most loathsome is.)
Those lips please me which are plac't
Close, but not too strictly lac't:
Yeilding I wo'd have them; yet
Not a wimbling Tongue admit:
What sho'd poking-sticks make there,
When the ruffe is set elsewhere?My late father-in-law was a scholar of seventeenth-century English poetry, but in his copy of The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick (Oxford 1915), there is a question mark beside the last lines of this poem, and the words "poking-sticks" and "ruffe" are underlined. What is Herrick talking about?

A "ruff" is a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century collar, as seen in this detail from Frans Hals' Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull (1611). The elaborate folds in the ruff were made using a special iron called a "poking-stick.&qu…

"Thus Times Do Shift"

Robert Herrick was obsessed with the passing of time and the shifting of the seasons. Herrick was a Cavalier poet, a supporter of King Charles I who spent the years of the English Civil War awaiting the restoration of the monarchy and of his own fortunes. In the "Argument," or introductory poem, that opens his collection Hesperides (1648), Herrick wrote: "I sing of Times trans-shifting." An odd word, trans-shift, that only Herrick uses until the invention of the automobile. He uses it once more in a poem "On himselfe"::
Live by thy Muse thou shalt; when others die
Leaving no Fame to long Posterity:
When Monarchies trans-shifted are, and gone;
Here shall endure thy vast Dominion.The Roman poet Horace was popular in the seventeenth century—Herrick himself was sometimes called "the English Horace"—and Herrick absorbed from Horace two of his most memorable poetic notions: this notion that poetry endures when all other things pass away (aere perenniu…

First Ski

Boot Cam.

This evening, Clara and I went out for a sunset ski, my first time on skis since before I was felled with a herniated disk in my neck on January 20. We were on the trail a few minutes before sunset. The sky above the prairie was the tenderest baby pink and blue. The prairie grasses, tall above the three or four inches of fresh snow, seemed to hold onto the light and glow palest gold. Above it all floated the cold, waxing moon.

Federalist 16

As we look forward with enormous expectations to the inauguration of President Barack Obama, perhaps the key idea in Federalist 16 is expressed in the words with which Alexander Hamilton leaves the reader: "It would be idle to object to a government, because it could not perform impossibilities." But for the nineteenth century, the most important idea lay in Hamilton's insistence that the government of the United States not be compact between individual states, but that it "carry its agency to the persons of the citizens."

This was a crucial distinction. In his famous "Reply to Hayne" in January 1830, Daniel Webster said: "This leads us to inquire into the origin of this Government, and the source of its power. Whose agent is it? Is it the creature of the State Legislatures, or the creature of the People? If the Government of the United States be the agent of the State Governments, then they can control it...; if it be the agent of the People…

Classics Blogging

For those of you who are interested in Greek and Roman classics, jump over to the new classics group blog, EcBlogue, which launches today with my long-winded idea dump about economic thinking in Sophocles' Antigone. Think of it the final paper I would have written if I were one of my students in Greek 304. We're hoping, with a little more practice, to hit upon the right tone for a blog aimed at an audience of students, scholars, and enthusiastic amateurs. If you fall into one of those categories, and would like to contribute to the blog, there's information on how to sign up as an author on the About page. The blog is the brainchild of my wife, Clara Hardy, a Professor of Classics at Carleton College.

Publication Alert: Two Small Encyclopedia Entries

SAGE Publications has recently announced the publication of the SAGE Encyclopedia of the Social and Cultural Foundations of Education, edited by Eugene F. Provenzo, which includes my brief entries on "The New England Primer" and "The Boston Latin School."