The Book Pile: Summer Vacation edition

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Well, Mr. Darcy, I’ve been doing a lot of extensive reading these days.  Summer vacation means that the time usually earmarked for grading gets repurposed for other, more enjoyable pursuits, such as cracking open a good book.  Here are a few of the ones I’ve enjoyed lately.

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The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

This one started off at a very leisurely pace, sort of like a summer afternoon …. so leisurely that at first, I wondered where the book’s sense of urgency was. But I kept going, and before long, the story and characters had me hooked.  Read this to immerse yourself into life in a small  English town at the time of WWI.

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East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood

Sometimes you just want to dive into a thick Victorian saga.  When I’m in that sort of mood, I usually go for something by Wilkie Collins (try The Woman in White if you’ve never read him before).  This time I tried East Lynne, which has all the expected components: English country houses, unsolved crimes, hidden identities, unprincipled rakes, women in a swoon.  Great fun.

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The Devil’s Advocate by Morris West

What makes a saint?  What is the definition of “holy”?  This was a very different sort of novel, about a dying priest who is sent to a small remote Italian village to investigate the life of a dead man who is being called a saint by many.  Each of the people in the village has his/her own memories of the deceased, as well as his/her own motivation for wanting the investigation to proceed in a certain way.  It raised good ethical questions, and provided a lot of food for thought.  If you liked Graham Greene, you  might enjoy this one.

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Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden was an Englishwoman who spent a lot of her early life in India, and this novel is apparently heavily drawn from her own experiences.  It’s the story of a well-meaning English widow with two children who decides to go live in a remote village in Kashmir, seeing it as a sort of Eden in the mountains.  Her optimistic naivete and her inability to honor (or even to perceive) the cultural differences between her family and the villagers leads to conflict and, ultimately, a near-tragedy.  I’d call it required reading for anyone going to live in a different culture, whichever culture it is, because it’s a case study of how even a well-meaning person can really mess it up.  And Godden’s prose is, as always, breathtaking.  This was my favorite of the summer so far.

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Why Bother Praying? by Richard Leonard, S.J.

I heard Fr. Leonard speak at LA Congress last year, and he was wonderful.  I happened to pick this up at a retreat center a while back, and it’s a very engaging book about the many effects of prayer.  There’s wonderful wisdom in here, along with a bunch of memorable personal anecdotes (some of them hilarious) that really ground the book and make it speak not just to the head, but to the heart.

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Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

This was the perfect book to take a long cross-country flight.  The effortless narrative voice and the engaging plot (it’s about a young woman at a professional dead-end who takes a job as a companion to a quadriplegic) all made for a very fast six hours.  That said, I’d have given the book a different ending — if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean — but still, it was an excellent summer read and I can safely say that Moyes has a new fan (and, as my younger son pointed out, only one letter separates her last name from mine.  I love how kids notice these things.)

What are you reading now?  Do tell!

 

Beauty upon beauty

Back home in California after a wonderful week visiting family in upstate New York.  Everytime I’m there, I marvel at the landscape: the lush, green hills; the deciduous forests; the profusion of wildflowers; the calm stillness of Otsego Lake (called “Glimmerglass Lake” by the novelist James Fenimore Cooper).  It’s so different from the ochre summer hills of California.

And as if the usual natural beauty weren’t enough, on Saturday night around dinnertime, we were treated to this:

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When a rainbow like that appears, you just have to stop what you are doing and gaze.  It spanned the lake, brilliant and vibrant, a perfect arch.  And then as we watched, the faint image of a twin rainbow appeared around it (not captured on film, alas).  The colors were so distinct and vivid, so much moreso than in this photo.

It stayed for at least ten minutes, maybe more; I sort of lost track of time.  I looked out from the balcony and drank it in,  not wanting to leave as long as it was there.  And I actually found myself grinning and saying, “Okay, God, now you’re just showing off.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.

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Where are you seeing beauty today?

Hummingbird happiness

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There’s something about a hummingbird. They are quicksilver fast, sprightly, colorful; their little rapidly-beating wings are marvels of aerodynamics.  The sight of one always raises my spirits.

I always used to catch glimpses of them in the backyard, but not nearly often enough.  So I asked for a hummingbird feeder for my birthday, and my husband obligingly picked out a beautiful one and hung it outside the small deck in the backyard.

And I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

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Not once did I see a hummingbird come to the feeder.  The line of red liquid stayed at the same height, never decreasing.

I felt depressed, like a restaurant owner with no customers.  Were we doing something wrong?  Was there some stray cat lurking about the yard, scaring away potential guests?  Throughout the spring, I wondered and looked wistfully at the glass globe I could see just outside the window.

Then – two weeks ago – I was sitting and reading on the deck and all of a sudden I saw it: a small movement up near the feeder.  I froze.

A tiny bird landed on the perch.  It seemed to see me, but didn’t fly off.  I stayed immobile, almost afraid to breathe. It seemed so scrawny and thin, somehow, seeing it up close and not in motion.

As I watched it bent its head and drank.  I was thrilled, even more thrilled than I’d expected I would be.

It buzzed off into the blue sky, and I watched it go.  If it were human, I’d have called, “Thank you for coming! Tell all your friends!”   It was astonishing how happy I felt at seeing my gift enjoyed.  That close contact with the little creature was such a blessing, pure and simple.

It may not have been the first bird to drink there; it’s very possible that others had been there without my seeing them.  But there was such joy in being part of that moment, and in seeing the bird come confidently to the feeder, even with me sitting right there, to drink up.

Maybe this is how God reacts when we stop and drink in his gifts.  Does he feel the same kind of joy when we pause in our busy lives, when we stop flapping long enough to sit down and savor the sweetness of his creation – a summer evening, a bank of honeysuckle, a rainbow, a hummingbird?

I like to think so. I like to think that maybe my own gleeful reaction is a little taste of the delight that God feels when we accept what he offers.  “Thanks for coming,” I imagine God calling as we buzz away refreshed.  “And tell all your friends.”

Starting July 1: 31 Days with one of my favorite saints

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On my fridge, along with pictures of family members and friends, is a magnet of one of my favorite saints, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Why do I love him?  Well, primarily because he gave the world Ignatian spirituality, which is a terrific framework for understanding God.  He also founded the Jesuit order of priests, which gave us Pope Francis.  He is also indirectly responsible for the existence of my favorite publishing house, Loyola Press.

And Loyola’s website IgnatianSpirituality.com celebrates this saint every July, with a month-long roundup of blog posts encouraging us to explore the spiritual practices and ideas that Ignatius helped to bring to the world. From their press release:

Loyola Press kicks off its seventh-annual 31 Days with St. Ignatius on July 1, 2016. This popular month-long celebration of Ignatian spirituality leads up to the feast day of its namesake on July 31.

 Hosted at IgnatianSpirituality.com, 31 Days with St. Ignatius features a calendar of inspirational Ignatian articles by authors such as Vinita Hampton Wright, Jim Manney, Becky Eldredge, Andy Otto, and Mark Thibodeaux, SJ. Topics include the Examen prayer, gratitude, and finding God in all things.

 Readers can continue to explore the rich, 500-year-old tradition of the Ignatian way through complementary posts at the dotMagis blog of IgnatianSpirituality.com. Bloggers this summer will explore ways of encountering God through using the five senses, inspired by the new book Taste and See by Ginny Kubitz Moyer. Featured blog contributors include Moyer; James Martin, SJ; Joseph Tetlow, SJ; Tim Muldoon; Gary Jansen; and Casey Beaumier, SJ.

 Ignatian spirituality is a practical spirituality for everyday life. It insists that God is active, personal, and above all, present to us. Visit http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/31-days-with-saint-ignatius.

Sound good?  Check it out!  I’ll be there!

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What happens when you show your kids your favorite musicals

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I know there are many people in the world who would rather get a root canal than watch a musical.  I know that many folks – even intelligent ones of my acquaintance — have a deep-seated contempt for any movie in which characters suddenly get a manic gleam in their eye and stand up and break into song.  These people think musicals are hokey and lame.  I get that.

But I think they’re wrong.

I’m a musical junkie from way back, somewhere around the time my mom took me to a community theatre production of Brigadoon at age four and I was so enraptured that I wanted to be Fiona for Halloween (“But no one will know who you are,” my mom said.)  Around forty years later, I still adore them.

And it occurred to me recently that since I have two captive audience members here in the house with me (it would be three, but my husband has a means of escape),this summer is a great chance to revisit some of my favorite musicals and hopefully expose my two boys to a little culture.

I started with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which you really should see if you haven’t.  It’s the very definition of “rousing” and “robust” — focuses on seven backwoodsmen in the 1850s, so the dancing is pretty muscular. And the songs are wonderfully catchy.  I thought, “Gee, my boys will love the barn-raising dance scene,” which is justly famous.

What they really loved was the fight scene.  I had to replay it a few times, at their request, all the while adding, “But you know you should never fight people like that, right?  Right?”

“We know,” they said dutifully, eyes aglow as they watched Frank get smacked with a board.

And then we got to the part where the lonely brothers kidnap six girls to marry and bodily carry them off to their mountain hideaway, and I was thinking,  Oh man, I didn’t vet this one as well as I should have.   (“You know you should never force a woman to go with you if she doesn’t want to, right? Or anyone, actually?”) It was a slightly more complex viewing party than I’d expected.

Then I tried Kismet.

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I have to say, I was way more familiar with the music of this show (lovely) then the story (um — a little odd).  I’d seen it long ago but didn’t remember it well, other than that it was an Arabian Nights-type show with a bazaar scene (and several bizarre scenes, quite honestly).  For example, when Howard Keel was about about to have his hand cut off by the evil Wazir, he started singing to it, which led to the following exchange:

Son: Who is he singing to?
Me: His hand.
Son: Why?
Me: That’s what people do in musicals.
Son: That’s weird.

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Next, we tried State Fair by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This one is a sentimental favorite — homespun Americana, telling the story of a lovely and bored-out-of-her-gourd farmgirl who falls for a big-city newspaper reporter.  Her brother falls for a singer who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be married.  And other than a scene or two of drunken behavior involving spiked mincemeat (truly), there’s nothing objectionable here.  Good songs, too, and my kids enjoyed it. (And I didn’t have to say anything like, “You know you should never _______, right?”).

But this whole Summer of Musicals is making me think about them in a new way.   And as I think about which ones to share next, I am realizing that  all of these musicals have some sort of darker element.

Carousel: Oh, the music is so pretty.  It’s one of the most glorious scores. But then there’s that subplot about how Billy hits his wife, and she takes it and makes excuses for it.  I saw a stage production of this years ago that handled that icky part very effectively, but the movie doesn’t, alas.

Oklahoma: Cornfed goodness and a surrey with the fringe on top!  What could be wrong with this? Well, there’s Jud the socipathic farmhand,  who has a stash of girlie pictures in the shed and ends up with a knife in the ribs.

The King and I: Aww, best polka scene ever —  totally sexy in an understated way.  But I still remember being spooked as a kid by the big whip and how Tuptim almost gets thrashed. And concubines and slaves are not exactly light subject matter.

My Fair Lady: I love this musical, so I sort of hate to say it: When you stop to think about it, Henry Higgins is a raging misogynist.  Even worse, he gets rewarded for it at the end.  (In the original play, Eliza leaves him, which I kind of prefer.)

Fiddler on the Roof:  Such great music, but there are all those nasty Russians smashing things.  Pogroms are anything but light fare.  On the plus side, this one might lead to some good conversations about ecumenism.

Brigadoon: I loved the musical when I was a kid.  I think the only objectionable thing about it is the risibly fake scenery.  I may try this one with my kids, with the appropriate fashion warning (“You know you should never belt your pants that high, right?”).

Gigi: A girl is trained to be a courtesan.  I am so not going there with my boys.

The Sound of Music: Major Nazi unpleasantness.  But there’s a triumphant escape at the end, and no real violence, except to the curtains and the Gestapo’s car.

Anyhow, as I run through the list, I just keep realizing how substantial these musicals actually are.  They are not cotton candy fluff, most of them — they address real issues and complex human situations.  I’m not saying they all address them well, but there is much more to these musicals than meets the eye, and I can’t help but feel that maybe there are a lot of Teachable Moments lurking in there.  (So take that, musical detractors!  There’s more to them than relentlessly cheerful people singing and dancing in unison!).

But for our next one, we’ll play it safe and go with The Music Man.  I think I’m on pretty benign thematic ground with that one … at least until we get to the song “The Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me.”

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What’s your favorite musical?  And why?