Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"George Eliot in Love"

Brenda Maddox, George Eliot in Love.  Palgrave Macmillan 2010. Hardcover. 222 pp.  $25.

George Eliot was born Mary Anne Evans in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, in 1819.  She was a brilliant but unattractive girl. Her father adored her, but her mother thought she was ugly. Even when she was the most famous novelist in England, her ugliness was the first thing people remarked upon when they had met her.  Henry James called her "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous" and a "great horse-faced blue-stocking."  Even her obituary in the Times called her ugly.  Throughout her life, she suffered from a lack of self-confidence, and from poor health, and from an aversion to having her photograph taken.  When she was a young woman, men (like Herbert Spencer) fell in love with her intellect, but were repulsed by her looks.  When she finally settled down happily with ugly George Henry Lewes (nicknamed "the Ape"), Spencer piggishly published an essay on "Personal Beauty" in which he seemed to describe George Eliot's face as the paradigm of ugliness.

As a girl, Mary Anne (or Mary Ann, or Marian) was first drawn toward evangelical Christianity, and aspired toward sainthood.  She later lost her faith, and became notorious for living in sin with another woman's husband.  She had sympathies with Positivism, but in the end settled down, in good English fashion, to attending the Anglican church without believing a word of it. She was complicated.  She had a brilliant mind, and was the most successful novelist of her time, and lived for twenty-five years with a married man, but she was essentially conservative. She rejected the idea of giving women the vote, and was lukewarm at best in her support for women's higher education.  Her brilliant novels often disappoint modern feminists with their message of female self-sacrifice and domesticity.  Some women fell madly in love with her (at her funeral, one of them knelt down and kissed her coffin), but she preferred men.
  
Brenda Maddox's brief biography is a fresh, fluid, and sympathetic introduction to George Eliot's life.  It ably captures the contradictions in Eliot's life, the brilliance and insecurity, the ugliness and beauty, the rebellion against social norms and the essential conservatism.  It suggests how George Eliot's own life—her childhood and family, her deep need to be loved, her struggles to find a place for herself in a man's world—informed her fiction, without reducing her brilliantly complex novels to veiled autobiography.  Maddox writes so fluently and well that I read the book in two sittings.  She has an ear for the telling anecdote and the pointed quotation which makes her biography of George Eliot both entertaining and informative.  

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Solar Power and Flossing Monkeys

Will is leaving on Monday for his year in Lopburi, Thailand, as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. Lopburi Province lies about 150 kilometers north of Bangkok, and is known among tourists primarily for its monkeys—the crab eating macaques who infest the city of Lopburi.  Recently, researchers have observed the monkeys using human hair to floss their teeth, and teaching their young how to floss.  Here's a video:

Lopburi is also slated to be the site of the world's largest photovoltaic (solar) generating plant. Construction of the massive 158 megawatt solar array begins this month.  The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a $70 million (USD) long-term loan for the project. 

According to a report in Thailand's Pattaya Daily News, "ADB Vice President for Private Sector & Co-Financing Operations Lakshmi Venkatachalam stated that the Thai government’s clear and attentive policy promoting alternative energy sources and the great potential of the nation were the main reasons behind the ADB decision to help in funding the solar project."

Friday, July 30, 2010

Reading Journal: "The War That Made America"

Fred Anderson, The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. New York: Viking, 2005.

This year is the 250th anniversary of the end of the French and Indian War, the war that left Great Britain in control of Canada and brought to a close the conflict between Britain and France over disputed territory west of the Allegheny Mountains.  1759 was the annus mirabilis for Britain, the year in which British forces defeated the French in engagement after engagement over several continents, and took control of Québec in the decisive battle on the Plains of Abraham.  In Britain and her American colonies, that battle made a national hero of General James Wolfe, who fell on the Plains of Abraham as his troops were surging to victory.  The war also gave Britain's American colonists a keener sense of their own rights as British subjects, and set the stage for American independence.  

The French and Indian War began in 1754, when a 22-year old Virginian militia officer led a small detachment from his regiment into a lopsided 15-minute engagement with French troops in southeastern Pennsylvania.  The officer was George Washington.  

Fred Anderson's book, published as a companion volume to a PBS series, is a first-rate introduction to the French and Indian War.  Anderson is excellent at revealing the motivations and understanding the actions on all three sides of the conflict: the French, the British, and the Indian.  His writing is clear and engaging, and the text is well-illustrated.  This has to be the best general introduction to the French and Indian War for the general reader.  But for readers who want a more in-depth study of the war, with footnotes, Anderson is also the author of the magisterial Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Vetch

The flowers are a little past their peak, and have begun to produce miniature pea pods, but the drifts of purple and white flowers in the Upper Arb are still beautiful on a sunny Sunday morning.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Salmon with Chu Chee Curry Sauce

In a medium saucepan, gently heat 1/4 of a 14 oz. can light coconut milk, whisking in 2 teaspoons each Thai red curry paste and Thai chili paste until dissolved. Add the rest of the can of coconut milk, 2 tablespoons fish sauce and 2 teaspoons palm (or brown) sugar.  Simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat.  Serve over grilled salmon, with rice, and garnished with Thai basil leaves and a slice of lime.
  
This is a slightly reduced fat version of Fried Salmon with Chu Chee Curry Sauce from Khamtane Signavong's Lemongrass and Sweet Basil: Traditional Thai Cooking (Interlink Books 2005), substituting grilled salmon for salmon fried in oil, and light coconut milk for coconut cream and coconut milk.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reading Journal: "The Curate's Wife"

E.H. Young, The Curate's Wife. Virago Modern Classics 1984. Originally published in Great Britain in 1934.

A cursory examination of my bookshelves reveals several novels, all written by women, with titles like The Curate's Wife, The Rector's Daughter, Her Son's Wife and The Optimist's Daughter—in other words, novels whose titles are taken, not from a woman's name, but from a woman's relationship, as wife or daughter, to a man.  

Jane Austen's novels—inevitably, we come back to Jane Austen—are essentially Regency coming-of-age stories.  They're about how Catherine Morland or Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse grow up, find themselves, and find romance into the bargain.  The novels end with a marriage—but don't go any further to imagine how that marriage is sustained over the years that follow.  

In so many of the great Victorian novels, the marriage plot is given an extra twist, and becomes a remarriage plot.  An unsuitable first marriage—David Copperfield to Dora, Dorothea to Casaubon, Helen Graham to Arthur Huntingdon, Mr. Rochester to the mad woman in the attic—is set up as an obstacle to the two true lovers.  We do see husbands and wives working hard at their relationships, or resigning themselves to relationships that don't work at all, but the death of one spouse usually brings resolution.  The novel ends with a marriage after all.  The first marriage is only a test, or in David Copperfield's case, a kind of toy marriage.  

The Curate's Wife is a sequel to Jenny Wren—a novel that takes its title from the female protagonist, Jenny Rendall, a self-centered girl struggling to find her place in the world.  It's a kind of coming-of-age story. Jenny's sister, Dahlia, marries the dull, earnest, and thoroughly smitten Rev. Cecil Sproat, and becomes the eponymous curate's wife.  Her story is more about how relationships are sustained.  It's a novel about marriage—not marriage as a happy ending, but marriage as a career.  

"It has to be a career," Dahlia says, "not just the happiness you think it will be, or the unhappiness it may turn out."  

At the same time, Jenny, who has remained unmarried, finds herself in a Jane Austen plot—so much so that Austen's own Lady Catherine De Bourgh makes an unexpected comic appearance in the novel.  E.H. Young acknowledges her own deep debt to Jane Austen, while at the same time acknowledging that there is a real story beyond the happy ending.  

Also, unlike Austen, Young acknowledges that her men and women are physical beings who experience sexual attraction and long for physical intimacy.  The most unsympathetic and maladjusted character in the novel is a woman who "would never forgive [her husband] the physical intimacy of their youth," and has been left with "an unacknowledged, unreasonable feeling that she had been insulted."   In a way that seems remarkable for 1934, E.H. Young acknowledges that a healthy sexual relationship is an important part of a successful marriage.  

Blogging on Blog Divided

Today I published my first blog post for Blog Divided, a community blog that focuses on the history of the period from 1840 to 1880—the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods. The primary purpose of the blog, and of the House Divided Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, is to provide resources for classroom teachers to explore this period in American history.  I've been asked to provide blog posts on the Greek and Roman classics in the education and culture of the period.  

Here's my first post.  From now on, my posts will be aggregated over in the right sidebar.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Civil War Naval Cannon in Waconia, Minnesota


This naval cannon, located in City Square Park, was cast at the famous Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia in 1846.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

History Trivia Quiz #1

Name five Civil War generals who served, either before or after the war, as college presidents. Also give the names of the colleges. (Answers in the comments.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mapping the Civil War

Last night I finally came to the end of a long and hard-fought campaign. I finished reading The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. I might not have fought through to the end had it not been for the reinforcement of a good atlas. Much of the book is a description of the movement and positioning of troops, and of the territory over which they passed. Like Grant's army, I started to get bogged down in the bayous around Vicksburg. Here's a representative passage:
Lieutenant-Colonel [James H.] Wilson of my staff was sent to Helena, Arkansas, to examine and open a way through to Moon Lake and the Yazoo Pass if possible. Formerly there was a route by way of an inlet from the Mississippi River to Moon Lake, a mile east of the river, thence east through Yazoo Pass to Coldwater, along the latter to Tallahatchie, which joins the Yallabusha about two hundred and fifty miles below Moon Lake and forms the Yazoo River.
This is much easier to follow on a good map, such as the map that Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson produced.


To guide me through the hard terrain of Grant's Memoirs, I relied on the National Geographic Atlas of the Civil War: A Comprehensive Guide to the Tactics and Terrain of Battle (256 pp., $40). The atlas begins with an essay on the importance of cartography in the Civil War. "Southerners," the essay concludes, "had the advantage of fighting this war largely on their own soil, but that was offset as the conflict progressed by the superior mapmaking resources of the North." The Union armies had to penetrate deep into Confederate territory, and face an opponent who was familiar with the lay of the land, so mapmakers like Wilson were essential to the Union's success. And the maps they made continue to be essential for those attempting to follow the movements of the armies a century and a half later.

The National Geographic Atlas is full of colorful, easy-to-read large format maps, most of them either contemporary or produced soon after the war. Some of the most remarkable maps are those produced by Robert Knox Sneden, a Union soldier, mapmaker and painter who produced a remarkable illustrated diary, much of it composed secretly while he was being held in Andersonville Prison. The diary was rediscovered in 1994, and currently resides in the Virginia Historical Society. Go here to see Sneden's map of the investment of Petersburg, one of the maps included in the atlas.

Another atlas that I occasionally consulted was Aaron Sheehan-Dean's Oxford Concise Historical Atlas of the U.S. Civil War (112 pp., $25). This is a small paperback book with maps produced by the author using GIS and Adobe Illustrator. For a reader attempting to follow the movements of Grant's army, the Oxford atlas falls short. Its strength lies in its inclusion of data maps that illustrate census data such as agricultural productivity in the United States at the outbreak of the Civil War. These maps are often surprising. For example, the map of agricultural productivity shows that, although the South is generally thought of as agricultural and the North as industrial, the North actually generated more agricultural wealth in 1860. Wheat produced by free labor was more lucrative than cotton produced by slaves, and the North produced more commodities for home consumption, while the South relied too heavily on staple crops for export. These maps, and the accompanying text, are extremely useful in providing some socioeconomic context for the war, but the actual battle maps are disappointingly lacking in detail.

For the neophyte like me, I would recommend the National Geographic Atlas. It's beautifully illustrated, easy to read, admirably comprehensive and, at $40, reasonably priced for such a large and well-illustrated book.

Friday, July 2, 2010

MCA Results: What Do They Mean?

Yesterday, the Minnesota Department of Education released the results of the spring 2010 MCA tests (MInnesota Comprehensive Assessment). The MDE's official press release begins with the teaser: "Data reveals success of strong high stakes graduation requirement."  The press release goes on to tout improvements in test scores over previous years.  

Northfield schools continued to score higher than the state average, while schools in Faribault generally fell below the state average at each grade level, despite improvements over last year. Unsurprisingly, Faribault's superintendent, Bob Stepaniak, is "frustrated," and Northfield's superintendent, Chris Richardson, is "encouraged." 

What does this mean?  What does it mean that Northfield outperformed a school district only fifteen miles away? 

Part of the answer surely is in demographics.  Faribault has a higher percentage of "free and reduced price lunch" students—a measure of poverty—than Northfield.  In Northfield, the median family income is $61,000; in Faribault, it's not quite $50,000. Socioeconomic factors certainly have an impact on standardized test scores.  These factors are largely outside the control of the school districts, and are not taken into consideration in determining whether districts are making "adequate yearly progress" toward a goal of 100% proficiency in 2014.

Behind the aggregate numbers are individual students, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, each with individual needs.  As Northfield superintendent Richardson told the Northfield News, "The best information...lies below the surface of the data.  Parents and educators...will learn much more by looking at individual students' data, considering the areas in which they performed well and struggled."

Let's imagine an average 4th grade classroom.  The state average in reading is 72.5% proficient. As you can imagine, there are all sorts of scenarios by which a classroom might be "average." With twenty students per classroom, the numbers might look like this: 10 students at 90% proficiency; 5 students at 70% proficiency; 5 students at 40% proficiency.  Half the class is very high performing (90%), a quarter of the class is about average, a quarter of the class is well below average.  The significant information here is not the aggregate score (72.5%, the state average), it's the performance of the individual students. What can the teacher do to continue to challenge the students at 90% and to improve the outcomes of the students at 70% or 40%? This, not the aggregating of numbers and the making of graphs, is the real challenge for educators.  How do you help real students who are more complex than mere numbers?

Iv'e plugged in some simple numbers in a small sample size.  Imagine the situation in a classroom of 30 or more in the Faribault Public Schools.  The challenge becomes even more daunting.

The aggregate data fails to see students as individuals, and the determination of whether schools are "failing" or "succeeding" fails to see that data in context.  I would much rather see the data put in context, and used to provide targeted instruction for individual students, than used in aggregate as a simplistic and decontextualized  method of determining whether schools are "passing" or "failing."  

To me, the aggregate numbers mean little.  More important is how the school works with each individual student to assess and address his or her strengths and weaknesses.  Assessment results should be part of a feedback loop that provides information to teachers to help them target their instruction. Those results should not be part of a system of punishment and reward.  

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Popcorn Theory of Economics

A conversation at ARTech Charter School between two middle schoolers:

Boy: Why is popcorn sold at movies?

Girl: They sell popcorn to make you thirsty, so you have to buy a large drink, which makes you have to pee, so that when the DVD comes out you have to buy it to see the part of the movie you missed while you were in the bathroom.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Reading Journal: "Jenny Wren"

E.H. Young, Jenny Wren.  Virago Modern Classics 1985.  First published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape Limited, 1932.  

Comparisons to Jane Austen are inevitable.  "Jane Austen" becomes a kind of shorthand for an English novel that concerns itself primarily with the lives and relationships of women, and in particular their pursuit of husbands.  Jenny Wren centers on the lives of two sisters, Dahlia and Jenny Rendall, who live with their mother in the upscale suburb of Upper Radstowe, where the widowed Mrs. Rendall keeps a boarding house. The girls' father, Sidney Rendall, was a scholar who married below his class, and his younger daughter, Jenny, has inherited his cultured distaste for her mother's rusticity.  She dreams of marrying a squire—and when she actually meets one, she hides the shame of her mother's origins, and the deeper shame of her mother's affair with the farmer Thomas Grimshaw.  

Like Jane Austen, E.H. Young has a a subtle sense of humor, a satirical attitude toward the British class system, and a beautiful prose style.  Like Jane Austen, E.H. Young explores the conflicts between the inner lives of her characters and the external reality in which they are forced to live and interact with other people.  Jenny, with her prejudices and her self-absorption, is in many ways an unsympathetic character, but Young is interested in exploring the ability of people to love each other despite, and perhaps even because of their flaws.  One of the most affecting aspects of the novel is the relationship between Louisa Rendall and her daughters: Young beautifully renders the ways in which their antagonism—Jenny's  shame, Louisa's resentment—shades into loyalty and mutual affection.  

Unlike Jane Austen, E.H. Young is acutely aware that her characters possess physical bodies, with all of the desires or aversions that accompany those bodies.  In her longing for intimacy, unfulfilled in her unequal marriage to Sidney Rendall, Louisa has an extramarital affair with Thomas Grimshaw.  The pious young curate, Cecil Sproat, discovers, in his attraction to Dahlia, that he can be motivated by concerns of the flesh as well as by concerns of the spirit.  Miss Morrison, a spinster who would have been more at home in a novel by Barbara Pym, comes to realize that, having entirely repressed her sexual nature, her charm even for a pious curate is incomplete.  Sidney Rendall represents mind and spirit; Louisa Rendall represents sexuality: the question is whether Jenny and Dahlia can reconcile both sides of their inheritance, and express them in a healthy and fulfilling manner in their own lives.  

E.H. Young writes beautiful sentences, many or which are like short stories in themselves. Here, for example, is a description of Miss Morrison, who comes to board with the Rendalls: "Here was the desired respectable spinster, without the fussiness Dahlia feared: here, also, was money punctually paid, but Miss Morrison's desire to be at home in Beulah Mount, to be sisterly with her young hostesses, sympathetic with their mother and comradely with Mr. Cummings, to assert, by practice, her belief that all was right with the world, had the nature of a lesson disguised as a play."

I wish I could regularly write sentences that say so much, so flowingly, and that come around to such a witty and astute summing up.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Recommended Poet: Alexandra Teague

Alexandra Teague, Mortal Geography.  New York: Persea Books, 2010.  Winner of the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry.  88 pp. $15.

In poems about teaching English to immigrant students, Alexandra Teague beautifully explores the intersection between language and experience. In my favorite poem from her debut collection, "English Fundamentals," Teague observes a student diagramming sentences with colored markers.  She writes: "She has given me/grammar as a stained glass window..." Where another poet might compose an ars poetica, Teague creates an ars grammatica, seeing significance of grammar as a means of fashioning meaning and beauty out of one's experience.

She also writes about relationships, about art (Georgia O'Keefe, Frida Kahlo and Edward Hopper all inspire her poetry), and about the human body.  What she knows, and what her poetry skillfully conveys, is that there is more than one way of looking at anything—even a poem. One poem is titled "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Poem"—but every poem seems to offer alternate paths to meaning.  In "Two Drafts Written After a Fight," for instance, the poet shows how the placement of punctuation, a slight change of emphasis but not of wording, can change the meaning of a poem entirely.  

I first heard of Alexandra Teague on Poetry Daily, where I read her poem "Adjectives of Order." It was like hearing a really great song on the radio and wanting to buy the entire album. More of her poems can be read online at her website, but I recommend finding a copy of her book so you can explore more of her "mortal geography." 

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reading Journal: "Every Man Dies Alone"

Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone.  Brooklyn, Melville House.  Paperback.  539 pp. (with afterword).  $16.95.  Originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein in 1947.

Rudolf Ditzen was an alcoholic and a morphine addict.  He was also, under the pseudonym Hans Fallada, a brilliant and popular author, who was intermittently in and out of favor with the Nazi authorities.  He had come under suspicion when his 1932 novel Little Man, What Now? was made into a film by Jewish producers.  But his 1937 novel Wolf Among Wolves attracted the favorable attention of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, who pressed Fallada to write an anti-semitic novel.  Eventually, Fallada snapped from the pressure and ended up in a Nazi insane asylum. After his release near the end of the war, he sat down and feverishly composed the novel Every Man Dies Alone in a space of just twenty-four days. The novel is a masterpiece: a vivid depiction of life in Berlin under the Nazis, a detective story, a story of resistance, an affirmation of goodness and humanity in the face of overwhelming evil.
  
The story revolves around Otto Quangel, an austere carpentry shop foreman, and his wife Anna, who resist the Nazis by writing anti-Nazi postcards and dropping them in office buildings around Berlin.  Most of the cards are immediately turned in to the Gestapo.  The center section of the novel follows the efforts of Gestapo inspector Escherich to track down the writer of the postcards.
  
The conventions of the detective novel generally ally the reader on the side of the detective rather than that of the criminal.  In this case, those conventions place the reader in an uncomfortable position.  It's hard to resist the patient and methodical Escherich, who has a job to do and who does it well.  But, of course, he's working for the Gestapo, and the criminals he seeks are not criminals at all, but ordinary decent people determined to stand against the evil of Nazism.  But it's difficult for a reader not to fall into collaboration with literary convention. 
 
Fallada's novel skillfully places the reader into a world turned upside down, in which the goodness and decency are criminalized, and the murderers are in charge.  He makes the reader wonder, "What would I have done?"  The novel brilliantly and disturbingly recreates the fear and suspicion that gripped wartime Berlin, and the arbitrariness of evil under the Nazis. Fallada's characters are all brilliantly realized, from the craven informers to the brutal thugs to the ordinary decent people whose plain humanity becomes heroic.  

Fallada's writing is clear, calm, often wryly humorous.  He never seems to raise his voice or become emotional, but his words are compelling and their impact quietly devastating.  I found the novel nearly impossible to put down.  Michael Hofmann's translation is astonishingly good. It captures the film noir feel and sound of Fallada's world, the patois of drunks and swindlers and Gestapo thugs, and the unsentimental striving of good people to hold onto their humanity.  

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sensitive

Me: You're so sensitive.
Her (pouting): Don't call me sensitive.  It hurts my feelings.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Reading Journal: "The River of Doubt"

Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey. Anchor Books 2005. Paperback. 416 pp. (with notes and index). $15.

It was a day or two before Christmas, and my son still had to find me a present, so he did the best thing he could possibly do. He walked down to Monkey See, Monkey Read, where Jerry had the perfect suggestion: Candice Millard's gripping account of Theodore Roosevelt's 1914 expedition down a previously uncharted tributary of the Amazon, the River of Doubt. Millard, an editor for National Geographic, delivers a perfect mix of biography, natural history, and adventure as she chronicles Roosevelt's fight for survival on the deadly river.

In 1912, Roosevelt was disenchanted with his Presidential successor William Howard Taft and the Republican party's abandonment of his own progressive principles. He decided to make another run for President at the head of the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. In a crowded field (Taft, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Debs), Roosevelt split the GOP vote and helped send Woodrow Wilson to the White House.* At loose ends, and suddenly a persona non grata with his former party, Roosevelt decided to fulfill a childhood dream of being a real explorer. So he set out on a poorly planned expedition down a mysterious South American river that exposed him to piranhas, cannibals, malaria, and a life-threatening infection that nearly ended his life.

Millard knows how to create suspense and a sense of the dangers that beset Roosevelt's expedition, without sacrificing historical or scientific accuracy. My only qualm is that she occasionally seems to anthropomorphize the menace of the Brazilian rain forest. For example, she writes: "Yet the same evolutionary competition that filled each branch, shadow, and muddy puddle with an unparalleled diversity of living things also ensured that those forms of life were virtually invisible to Roosevelt and his men. Those glimpses of activity that they did manage to see, moreover, were often calculated for the specific purpose of confusing and misleading them. Rarely in the rain forest do animals or insects allow themselves to be seen, and any that do generally do so with ulterior motives" (emphasis added). The attribution of calculation and ulterior motives to nature seems to me to misrepresent the mechanism of natural selection. But perhaps this is a minor criticism in the context of a true-life adventure story that aims to give the reader a vivid sense of the danger that surrounded Roosevelt and his men on their descent of the River of Doubt.

Millard tells a thrilling story, and as always, Theodore Roosevelt emerges as a compelling, larger-than-life figure.

*The story of the 1912 election is well told in James Chace's 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election that Changed the Country (Simon and Schuster 2004). It was Chace who suggested to Millard the idea of writing about Roosevelt's expedition on the River of Doubt.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reading Journal: "Sheppard Lee"

Robert Montgomery Bird, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself.  New York Review Books Classics 2008.  Originally published in 1836.  Paperback.  425 pp.  $16.95.

Sheppard Lee has been left a prosperous estate by his father, but soon manages to lose most of it. Out of sheer laziness, he watches his 40-acre farm go to ruin, and he allows an unscrupulous overseer to cheat him out of the rest of his patrimony.  He's reduced to digging for Captain Kid's gold, which according to local legend has been buried somewhere on his farm.  While he's out digging in the middle of the night, he stumbles upon the dead body of a wealthy Philadelphia brewer who's been hunting in the area, and he discovers a new way out of his difficulties.  He wishes he could trade places with the brewer, and—before he realizes what's happening—his soul passes out of him and reanimates the brewer's body.  This begins a picaresque series of adventures in which Sheppard Lee passes from body to body in search of happiness.

He discovers that every body, no matter how well-circumstanced it appears from the outside, carries with it its own pack of troubles.  The wealthy brewer, for example, suffers from gout and a shrewish wife, which combine to drive Sheppard Lee in search of another dead body to reanimate.  What most of the secondhand bodies have in common is that their owners live off inherited wealth, or speculation, or credit, or the prospect of inheriting or marrying well.  No one seems to do an honest day's work.  No one is as fortunate as he seems from the outside.
  
Eventually, the Sheppard Lee ends up in the body of Tom, a slave on a Virginia plantation.  The modern reader will find this section the most troubling.  Tom has a kind, paternalistic master who requires little work from his slaves and smilingly allows them to cheat him at every turn. As Tom, Sheppard Lee finds some provisional happiness—until an abolitionist tract falls into the hands of the plantation's slaves, and foments a bloody insurrection.  This section has to be read in the context of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831, and the subsequent suppression of "incendiary" abolitionist publications by the post office in 1835.  At the time, abolitionism was still out of the mainstream, and even opponents of slavery like John Quincy Adams worried that their tactics would lead to bloody slave insurrections.  

Bird depicts the slaves, in easy and comfortable circumstances under a kind-hearted master, being stirred to a murderous frenzy by a pamphlet. In his previous incarnation, Sheppard Lee had been destroyed by a false story, and Bird is fascinated with the notion that stories—rumors, lies, false promises, uninformed public opinion—can come to have the force of fact.  But the modern reader can't help but find his depiction of slavery highly objectionable. 
 
The novel was originally published in 1836.  In that year, President Jackson had issued the Specie Circular, an executive order requiring purchases of government land to be paid for in specie.  This caused the state banks to start hemorrhaging gold and silver.  At the same time, he had withdrawn federal funds from the Second Bank of the United States, which damaged credit by taking federally-backed paper currency out of circulation.  Meanwhile, speculation in public lands in the west reached a fever pitch and finally collapsed, leading to bank failures, record high unemployment, and a five-year long depression.  

Bird's novel is a kind of extended parable on financial speculation, as Sheppard Lee speculates on various incarnations in the hope of improving his financial condition and his stock of happiness.  Along the way, he learns that appearances are deceiving, and that happiness can only be purchased with the specie of honest hard work.

Illustrations by Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854).

Difference

Lydia weighs 88 pounds and Michelle weighs 67 pounds—

"Clouds are made out of water," she says, staring out the window.  "So are humans."

"Are we clouds?" I ask.

"No.  We're too heavy."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day at Target Field

The Twins blanked the Orioles on Sunday afternoon behind a strong performance by pitcher Nick Blackburn, who was backed up by three-run innings in the third and fourth.  In the third inning, the Twins roughed up the O's starter, Brian Matusz, with five straight hits, and finally chased him from the game in the fourth.  The final score was 6-0.  


During the seventh inning stretch, the Northfield High School choirs sang "God Bless America" from the roof deck in center field.  The arrangement was by the choir's director, Dwight Jilek. On the radio, Twins announcer John Gordon enthused, "Well, 'God Bless America' was sung by the Northfield High School choirs, and boy did they do a good job."  Our son Will was singing in the tenor section, and Clara and I were sitting in field box in the corner of left field—where we couldn't see the the choir on the jumbotron, but where we had a great view of every catch made by Delmon Young in left and Denard Span in center.  


We drove up to Minneapolis early, parked far from Target Field in the nearly deserted Leamington transit hub ramp near Orchestra Hall ($5), and walked up Nicollet Mall and 7th Street to the field.  Not at all a bad way to do it.  Target Field itself is beautiful—from the real grass to the great views both of the field and of the city of Minneapolis beyond.  Our tickets weren't cheap ($32), but it was worth the price for a great Mother's Day outing, and our first experience of outdoor Major League baseball in Minnesota. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Word Problems: Subtraction

Nicholas weighs 6 pounds—

“Who’s Nicholas?” she asks. “Why is he so small? Is he a baby? That’s small for a baby. I weighed more than that when I was born, and everyone said I was a small baby.”

She stares out the classroom window. Her attention seems to lengthen the further it wanders from the sheet of word problems on her desk.

The girl weighs 98 pounds. The bird outside the window weighs almost nothing. The wind ruffles its black feathers.

“I can’t stop looking at it,” she says.

See how the wind tosses the branches of the tree, and how the bird holds on, and even opens its beak to sing.

I may not be the best person to tutor her in math. I also would rather sit and watch the black birds in the tree outside the window. Now there are two birds, now one bird, and now that bird is gone.

“I can’t stop looking at the place where it used to be,” she says.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reading Journal: "The God of the Hive"

Laurie R. King, The God of the Hive.  Bantam 2010.  $25.  I read the novel in Advance Uncorrected Proofs, through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

In The Beekeeper's Apprentice (1994), Laurie R. King introduces readers to Mary Russell, a fifteen year old girl walking the Sussex downs with her nose in a text of Vergil.  On her walk, she stumbles upon "a gaunt, graying man in his fifties" who mistakes her for a boy.  The man is Sherlock Holmes, who has retired from detection to become a beekeeper.  Inevitably, Russell and Holmes are drawn into an adventure together, and a new detective partnership—and a new detective series—is born.  In the course of ten books, Russell and Holmes solve crimes, escape death, engage in espionage, revisit the scenes of canonical Holmes adventures (such as Dartmoor), develop a close intellectual affinity, and get married.
  
That marriage, between partners separated by nearly forty years, is one of the improbable elements in the Russell-Holmes series that Laurie R. King somehow manages to make work. The novels are for the most part not standard cosy murder mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein, with a body and a slow process of working out the problem. They are more thrillers, or "novels of suspense," than mysteries, and Russell and Holmes occasionally do more spying than detecting—thanks to King's transformation of Holmes's older brother Mycroft into the prototype of the British spymaster.  But King is also playfully aware of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle standing in the background, and for Holmes enthusiasts there are plentiful references to the detective's earlier career.

In fact, The God of the Hive opens with Russell fleeing from danger with Estelle Adler, the daughter of Damian Adler, who is Holmes's son by his former nemesis, Irene Adler (introduced in the Conan Doyle story, "A Scandal in Bohemia").  My progress through the opening chapters of the story was slowed by the fact that The God of the Hive is, in fact, a sequel, picking up the action where it was left at the end of the previous Russell and Holmes novel, The Language of Bees.  It would be best to read the two books in order, but King does a good job of bringing the lapsed reader like me up to speed.  (I had only read the first six of the nine previous novels in the series.)

Most of the novel follows the attempts of Holmes and Russell to keep Damian and Estelle safe from a madman out for their blood.  Along the way, a dangerous plot involving Mycroft Holmes develops.  For most of the novel, Russell and Holmes are forced to separate: Holmes is on the run with Damian and a feisty, red-haired Scottish doctor; Russell is on the run with Estelle, an American pilot, and a mysterious Lake District woodsman.  In King's skilled hands, all the moving parts fit together to create a highly satisfying and suspenseful entertainment. 

The novel is set in 1924, soon after the election of Britain's first Labour government.  In the background of the novel is a sense of political and social change.  Holmes, who was at home in the London of the 1890s, has begun to find the City in many ways unrecognizable.  He and Mycroft are beginning to feel their age as a new generation comes to power.  King is fascinated with the contrast between Britain's rural and pagan traditions and its busy urban modernity. In the end, it's a case of Puck versus the bureaucrat.  

Seasoned readers of the Russell-Holmes series know that Mary Russell speaks several languages, including Hebrew, and has an uncannily accurate throwing arm that allows her to bean six villains in the head with heavy stones in the middle of a pitch-black night.  Russell herself is the most improbable of the improbable elements in the novels.  But King makes her work, and makes her hold together these wild tales of mystery and suspense—and even has a little fun at the expense of her improbable creation.  In one of my favorite bits of dialogue in the novel, Holmes is talking to the Scottish doctor, and mentions his wife.

"She read theology at Oxford," he explains.  
"Of course she did," the doctor replies.  

Russell, like much of King's marvelous series, is too good to be true.  Fortunately, she's fictional, and keeps coming back for more skillfully written and highly entertaining adventures.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Reading Journal: "Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts"

Carl J. Richard, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. Paperback. 202 pp. (with index). $16.95.
Dr. Willard entered largely into the field of ancient history, and deduced therefrom arguments to prove that where power had been trusted to men, whether in great of small bodies, they had always abused it, and that thus republics had soon degenerated into aristocracies. He instanced Sparta, Athens, and Rome. The Amphictyonic league, he said, resembled the Confederation of the United States; while thus united, they defeated Xerxes, but were subdued by the gold of Philip, who brought the council to betray the interest of their country...

Mr. Randall said [that] the quoting of ancient history was no more to the purpose than to tell how our forefathers dug clams at Plymouth; he feared a consolidation of the thirteen states.

(from the minutes of the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, January 1788)

For a brief period in the late eighteenth century, the United States passed through an awkward and fascinating neoclassical age. Most of the the Founders, like Adams and Jefferson, were exceptionally well-educated in the Greek and Roman classics, and looked to the ancient world for guidance in setting up their own experiment in republican government. Jefferson established Greek and Roman architecture as the primary model for public architecture in the United States; poets extolled the new nation in neoclassical epics that strove to rival Homer; and politicians—particularly Federalist politicians—quoted the classics as precedents for their own positions on contemporary issues. This neoclassical period was short-lived, however, as American politics and culture became increasingly homespun and democratic. Although classically educated Federalists like Dr. Willard carried the day in 1788, it was men like "plain Benjamin Randall" who came to dominate a more democratic American society. But the influence of the classics was undeniably significant for the founders of the American republic.

A few years ago, I taught a course at Carleton called "America and the Classics." One of the difficulties in teaching the course was that most of my students did not have a particularly strong background in the classics, which made it difficult for them to understand the classical references made by the Founders. What, for example, was the Amphictyonic league that Dr. Willard talks about?

Carl J. Richard's new book, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts, does admirably what I tried to do in the first half of that course. In eight lively and thorough chapters, he provides a crash course in Greek and Roman history, and then briefly discusses some of the lessons that the American Founders drew from that history. For a reader with little grounding in the classics, this book provides an admirable introduction, with chapters on ancient Sparta, Athenian democracy, the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, the rise of Rome, the fall of the Roman republic, and imperial Rome. Each chapter focuses primarily on the ancient background, but concludes with a brief examination of the lessons the Founders drew from that ancient material. Readers who want a more in-depth exploration of the influence of the classics on the Founders can then turn to Richard's The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard University Press 1994).

I'm currently assigning the book as the textbook in the version of "America and the Classics" I'm teaching for the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium. My students, most of whom are in their seventies and eighties, have found the book fascinating and highly readable.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

To Whom It May Concern

Note: It's been a while since I published any original poetry here. Since it's National Poetry Month, here's the poem I wrote when R— F— asked me for a letter of recommendation.

To Whom It May Concern:

Imagine, sir or madam,
the world you would create
if you could people it
from your imagination.
What fantastics
your friends could be!
What impossibilities!
How you would love
and envy them for being
what you could only imagine!
But sometimes the world as it is
brings forth such prodigies
(although prodigy is a word
she might herself disclaim)
that any madman such as myself
would be proud
to claim them as figments:
as soon as you meet her,
you feel a piece of the imaginary world
falling into place, becoming real.


© 2010 Rob Hardy

Friday, April 16, 2010

Reading Journal: "Empire of Liberty"

Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic 1789-1815.  Oxford University Press, 2009.  778 pp. (including index). Hardcover.  $35.00.

In a recent revision of the state standards in social studies, the Texas Board of Education removed Thomas Jefferson from "a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th and 19th century."  As the New York Times reported, "Jefferson is not well-liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term 'separation between church and state.'" If the conservative members of the board had read Gordon S. Wood's remarkably thorough and balanced history of the early Republic, Empire of Liberty, they would have known that in the early nineteenth century, Jefferson's notion of "a wall of separation between church and state" was popular among the growing evangelical denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, because it severed the connection between the the former established churches, the Congregationalists in New England and the Anglicans in the South, and political power. Evangelicals were, in fact, among Jefferson's most enthusiastic supporters.  But as Wood writes: "It was not enlightened rationalism that drove these evangelicals but their growing realization that it was better to neutralize the state in religious matters than run the risk of one of their religious opponents gaining control of the government." 

Wood's book, the latest volume in the magnificent Oxford History of the United States, beautifully elucidates the complexities of American politics and culture in the crucial years 1789 to 1815, when the young United States was struggling to survive and to define itself as a nation.  The book is a perfect antidote to those who seek to make history a vehicle for promoting their own narrow political ideology.
    
Wood's thorough treatment of Jeffersonian Republicanism, for example, shows that Jefferson was at the same time an aristocratic intellectual and a fervent champion of the common man; he was an agnostic who had a strong following among evangelical Christians; he was an ideological proponent of limited government who, through the Embargo Act, was responsible for a breathtaking expansion of Presidential power; he was a fiscal conservative who paid $15 million for the Louisiana Territory; he was a prophet of freedom and equality, and an owner of slaves; he wanted America to remain primarily rural and agricultural, but through his embargo he hastened the development of American industrialism.  

History is seldom as simple or as ideologically straightforward a narrative as our politically motivated "standards" attempt to make it.  Any serious student or teacher of American history will benefit from Wood's admirably balanced account.  The book covers the Presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, with thorough and lucid treatments of religion, slavery, the position of women,  diplomacy, economy, Western expansion and relations with native Americans, and artistic and literary culture.  Running through the entire book is the story of the declining influence of the aristocratic Federalists and the rise of a more democratic society, which in the North especially led to the remarkable expansion of commerce and to the beginnings of a middle-class culture that was distinctively American.

Wood, a distinguished historian of the early Republic and a professor at Brown University, writes clearly and cogently, and his volume (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year) is a worthy companion to the other volumes in this series.  (See my reviews of Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom.) 

Final note: Thomas Jefferson, who spoke of separation of church and state, as President regularly attended church services that were held in the House of Representatives.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reading Journal: "When Everything Changed"

Gail Collins, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (Little Brown 2009).  471 pp.  (including notes and index).  Hardcover.  $27.99.

Gail Collins is one of the most consistently thoughtful and entertaining op-ed columnists at the New York Times, and she brings those qualities, along with an impressive amount of research, to the story of the women's movement from 1960 until the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.  I was born in 1964, a few months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which included an amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person's sex.  Although I had lived through much of the history covered in Collins' book, I found that I really knew very little of it.  I knew about Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, of course, but I new nothing about many of the "ordinary" women whose persistence and courage helped to bring about such remarkable change in American society over the past half century—women like Lorena Weeks, the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against her employer, Southern Bell, that struck a major blow against sex discrimination in the workplace.  Nor did I know about the bill, cosponsored by Walter Mondale in the early 1970s, that would have provided universal free or subsidized childcare for American workers.  The bill passed both the House and Senate with bipartisan support, only to be vetoed by President Nixon at the urging of conservative staffers led by Pat Buchanan, who feared the bill would lead to "the Sovietization of American children." Collins is a lively writer, and her combination of archival research and oral history presents a colorful picture of the period. When Everything Changed is a fast, captivating, and often inspiring read.  

Note: One of the lesser-known heroines of Collins' book is the late Republican state Assemblywoman from New York, Constance Cook, who introduced the first state law legalizing abortion, in 1970.  The law became the model for the decision in Roe v. Wade.  Constance Cook represented Ithaca, New York, and was a familiar name when I was growing up in her district in the 1970s.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Suspended Animation

In Robert Montgomery Bird's 1836 novel Sheppard Lee, the title character (and narrator) discovers that he possesses an unusual ability: he is able to make his spirit leave his body and reanimate the body of another person who has recently died. In the third section of the novel, his current incarnation, a wealthy businessman, pulls a drowned young man from a river and wishes to be in the young man's place—he would rather be drowned than suffer the torments of gout and a shrewish wife.

Almost immediately, his wish is granted—although, at first, he thinks he might have ended up in hell. He smells whiskey and tobacco smoke, and perceives a group of "devils" gathered around to torture him:
One of them, and I took it for granted he was the chief devil, stood by me, pressing my ribs with a fist that felt marvellously heavy, while with the other he maintained a grasp upon my nose, to which ever and anon he gave a considerable tweak; while another, little less dreadful, stood at his side, armed with some singular weapon, shaped much like a common fire-bellows, the nozle of which he held at but a little distance from my own.
As he begins to revive in his new body, he overhears a conversation among the "devils":
"But," continued the same voice, "we'll never finish the job till we roll him over a barrel. He'll never show game till the water's out of him."
Another voice replies: "No rolling on barrels," it said, "nor hanging up by the heels"—(hanging up by the heels! thought I)—"it is against the rules of the Humane Society..."

In the early nineteenth century, the Humane Society referred not to an animal rescue organization, but to a society (in the words of the Philadelphia Humane Society, founded in 1780) "for the recovery of persons apparently drowned, and other cases of suspended animation."

The first humane society was founded in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1767, and local societies soon sprang up in London and in various communities in America. The societies published manuals for distribution that described the proper methods of resuscitating drowning victims, including the use of a hand bellows to force air into the lungs—and, strangely enough, to force tobacco smoke into the rectum. The stimulant qualities of tobacco were thought to promote resuscitation.

The state of the body of a drowning victim, apparently dead but capable of being resuscitated by the proper methods, was called "suspended animation." As one writer put it in 1807: "The body, during this temporary suspension of animation, resembles a clock: upon its pendulum being accidentally stopped, its works are not mutilated or shaken out of their proper places, but are competent to renew their functions the moment the former is touched by some friendly hand."

The medical literature in both Britain and America from the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries is full of treatises on the causes of "suspended animation" and proper methods of resuscitation. In America, one of the earliest such treatises was David Hosack's An Enquiry into the Cause of Suspended Animation from Drowning; with the Means of Restoring Life, published in New York in 1792. Dr. Hosack is especially concerned to combat "that most pernicious practice, rolling the body upon a barrel, and holding it up by the heels..."

Robert Montgomery Bird was himself a physician, and was undoubtedly familiar with the medical literature on suspended animation, such as Hosack's treatise. (Hosack died in 1835, the year before Sheppard Lee was published.)

The image above is of a smoke enema kit assembled by one of the early nineteenth-century humane societies. It has been suggested that the phrase "blowing smoke up one's ass" is derived from skepticism about the efficacy of smoke enemas.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Reflections

This morning, the reflections on the water of Spring Creek, near the entrance to the Lower Arboretum, reminded me of a classic photo that my fellow Northfield blogger, Penny Hillemann, posted on Penelopedia two years ago (May 2008).  The Siberian squill is beginning to bloom along the banks of the creek.  On this date a year ago, Mary Schier, at My Northern Garden, blogged about seeing the first budding squill of the year.  If nothing else, our blogs may provide a kind of phenological record of the changing seasons here in Northfield.   

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reading Journal: "Balancing Act"

Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy, Balancing Act. Penguin India/Zubaan 2009. 236 pp. Available on Amazon.com.

I met Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy at Oberlin College in 1985. Reading her excellent first novel, Balancing Act, it’s impossible for me not to feel the powerful presence of an old friend. I feel in her writing the same humor and quirky intelligence that drew me to her a quarter century ago, the same enthusiasm and passionate sense of the beauty and wonder of the world. It’s difficult not to see Meera herself in her narrator, Tara Mistri. Tara shares some of the essential features of Meera’s curriculum vitae. Born in India, she trained as an architect in the United States, and interrupted her career to become a stay-at-home mother. But this trajectory in life, from career to full-time parenthood, is familiar to many women—and to some men—and many readers who have never met the book’s author will see their own stories reflected in Tara’s struggle to reconcile motherhood and career. As Meera explained to me, “While the details may differ, in spirit the stories is the same.”

Tara has a handsome and successful husband, a beautiful home, devoted friends, and two adorable and adoring children. But she’s still haunted by the might-have-beens of her earlier life as a promising young architect. She’s occasionally visited by a yakshi, a Hindu fertility spirit with feminist sensibilities. With yakshi urging her to resume her career, and mounting resentment toward friends who seem to regard her as no more than a perfect housewife, Tara sends out her resumé and lands an interview with an architecture firm. But Tara learns that going back to work isn’t necessarily the answer to her dilemma, or the way to find balance and satisfaction in her life.

Architecture is central to the novel, both as Tara’s chosen field and as a metphor for creating balance and structure in one’s life. Tara is obsessed with the Salk Institute in nearby La Jolla, designed by the Estonian-born architect Louis Kahn. The Salk becomes Tara’s icon as she attempts to construct a coherent life for herself as a feminist, an artist, and a mother. It seems to represent both balance and contradiction, the inspiring and the pedestrian, the ordered and the chaotic—the material of both art and life. In the novel, the Salk is likened both to a monastic cloister and the sort of building that might contain dentists’ offices. It’s both transcendent and mundane, like life.

The book is teeming with ideas, and the author’s intellect is apparent on every page, but the novel not merely cerebral. Every detail of Tara’s life as mother is beautifully and authentically rendered. You can hear the laughter of the children on the playground, see the Cheerios and juice boxes, feel the urgency as Tara rushes to turn off the television before Barney comes on. Every detail of Tara’s world rings true.

After our paths diverged in the late 1980s, Meera went on to Columbia and the University of Virginia, to work as an architect and a new life as a stay-at-home mother and writer. I went to Brown University, was employed briefly as a professor of classics, and became a stay-at-home father and writer. I’m happy our lives finally converged again in this wonderful novel.

For a set of images of the Salk Institute taken by Carleton College professor emeritus of art Lauren Soth, click here. Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Patrick Ganey for arranging to have a copy of the novel sent from India before it became available on Amazon.com.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"A Wretched Man"

Note: Below is a reposting of the feature I wrote for Northfield.org on the new novel A Wretched Man by Northfield writer R.W. "Obie" Holmen.

Northfield writer R.W. “Obie” Holmen’s newly-published novel, A Wretched Man, begins with a vivid evocation of the landscape of the ancient Middle East. Readers are often surprised to learn that Holmen has never visited the Holy Land, and that the landscape he so brilliantly evokes is the creation of the writer’s imagination, assisted by some meticulous research.

Holmen began working on his novel almost four years ago. He was interested in writing a historical novel about the Apostle Paul, a complex and controversial figure who, in Holmen’s view, was responsible for much of the development of early Christianity. Holmen spent three years researching the novel, working to get the history, the characters, and the setting “as realistic as possible.” At the same time, he worked at “honing the craft of being a storyteller.” Holmen, a former trial lawyer with a B.A. in history, had to learn how to write fiction.

As a novice fiction writer, Holmen found the classes and community at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis invaluable for helping him learn the craft of fiction. Taking classes at the Loft was, Holmen says, “a first-rate experience.” The Loft also brought him into contact with the writer Kate St. Vincent Vogl (author of Lost and Found: A Memoir of Mothers), who worked with Holman as an editor and writing coach. Vogl read Holmen’s draft and came back with “notes on virtually every page” that helped him “color between the lines” and add to the depth of his characterizations.

A draft of the novel was completed in the fall of 2008. Holmen worked with Vogl in the first months of 2009, and in May 2009 was ready to beginning working with Bascomb Hill Publishing Group, a small publisher in Minneapolis.

The past year has been spent producing and marketing the book, something that’s entirely different from the creative process of writing, but which Holmen still finds exciting. Now that the book is in print and available in bookstores and online, Holmen has a pair readings and booksignings scheduled in Northfield—at Monkey See, Monkey Read on Tuesday, April 20 at 7:30 pm, and at the Northfield Public Library on Saturday, May 15 at 1:00 p.m. He’ll also be Paula Granquist’s guest on ArtZany, her arts program on KYMN radio (1080 AM), on Friday, April 16, at 9:00 a.m.

The early reviews of the novel have been excellent. Barrie Wilson, a theologian at York University in Toronto, says Holmen's novel "opens up the reality of the world of Paul and his contemporaries in a way no other work does." Rev. Jeffrey Bütz, a theologian at Penn State, calls the book “a stunning fictional account of the early church that reads like real life.” He calls it “a story that will both shock and inspire any Christian who is truly searching to find and follow the historical Jesus.”

But Holmen insists that his novel is “historical fiction, not Christian fiction.”

At the center of the novel in Paulos, the Apostle Paul, and his struggle against James, the brother of Jesus, to define the message of Christianity. It was Paul, Holmen says, who insisted upon the divinity of Christ, and who began to shape many of the “rituals, symbols, and myths” of Christianity. Holmen is also interested in understanding what lay behind Paul’s attitude toward homosexuality, since Paul’s writings has historically provided much of the Biblical support for “gay bashing.” Holmen’s conclusions are compelling and controversial.

Obie Holmen grew up in Upsala, Minnesota, attended Dartmouth and the University of Minnesota, served in Vietnam, and worked as an attorney in St. Cloud for twenty years before his retirement in 1999. He and his wife recently moved to Northfield, attracted by the community’s rich intellectual and cultural life. Obie remains active in the Lutheran church, and writes a regular blog, Spirit of a Liberal, that explores religious issues from a progressive standpoint.

R.W. Holmen’s A Wretched Man is available locally at Monkey See, Monkey Read, the St. Olaf Bookstore, and the Carleton Bookstore. Holmen will be reading and signing books at Monkey See, Monkey Read on Tuesday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m., and at the Northfield Public Library on Saturday, May 15, at 1:00 p.m. You can view a "trailer" for the novel here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring Biking Obstacles

The bike trail under Highway 3, Riverside Park, linking to the bike and pedestrian bridge to Sechler Park.

Flooded.

The roads aren't in any better shape.
Eighth Street between Water and Division Streets.


Two New Online Publications

Two of my very brief essays were published online this summer. The first was the essay " Telephone ," which appeared in June in t...