Monday, November 24, 2014

Book review: The Complete Thérèse of Lisieux

Have you ever wondered what childlike faith looks like in an adult? Sometimes I wonder how a middle-aged adult like myself can “go back” to such simple trust. The Complete Thérèse of Lisieux, translated and edited by Robert J. Edmonson, helped me see a beautiful example grounded in a beautiful, biblical understanding of God—fear of the Lord based on tender, intimate love. I recommend reading this book in quiet surroundings at a pace that allows pondering.

I’m not even sure why I bought this book. I am not Catholic. I pray to Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Spirit and find no biblical basis for praying to saints. But in fifth grade I chose Therese as my Catholic confirmation name after Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux. I have no recollection why. Perhaps it was that curiosity that led to the purchase in Paraclete Press’ bookstore on Cape Cod. After reading the book, I still do not remember what possessed my fifth-grade mind to choose Therese, but my adult faith was enriched by reading about this humble saint.

The Complete Thérèse of Lisieux consists not only of Thérèse Martin’s autobiography “The Story of a Soul,” but also of her prayers, letters, and poems, as well as “Remembrances of Thérèse by the Sisters of the Lisieux Carmel,” her convent. Appendices include French and English versions of the childhood poem that inspired Thérèse’s being known as “the little flower,” a list of important dates in her life, and photographs. The book is a lovely collection. Thérèse’s pure devotion to Jesus is palpable on these pages.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My review of Jan Karon's Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good

If you liked Jan Karon’s earlier Father Tim novels (Mitford series), you’ll probably like her newest, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good. In this story, Father Tim and his wife Cynthia are back in Mitford, which, as usual, suffers the same modern-day troubles (like economic recession, illnesses, accidents, political strife) towns across America suffer. And as usual, Karon presents human foibles and frustrations with humor. The usual Mitford personalities are there, a little older now, some wiser, some not. Like Karon’s earlier Mitford novels, this novel is a series of vignettes, and a fast, enjoyable read.

I had only one difficulty with this story: I found it hard to follow. I never had that difficulty before, so maybe it’s just that I’m older and less able to keep track of multiple characters. Or maybe I missed a Karon book that might contain missing links. I thought I’d read them all, but maybe not. Or perhaps when Karon included a backstory reminder, I lost track of the current thread. I don’t know. I still very much enjoyed the book; I’m just not sure I got all of it.

Some might see another negative in that the story seems too idyllic. I wondered about this myself. Earlier novels in the Mitford series did seem to have more sinister evil-caused tension in them. This novel’s characters face plenty of challenges like personality clashes, health threats, rebellion, addictions, and floundering. Several of these situations create significant suspense. So the story is not without its representation of our fallen world. And I concluded that in fact, this story is not TOO idyllic. Here’s why.

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good shows, as does Charles Sheldon’s 1896 novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, what Jesus might do if He lived in Mitford, or my town, or yours. Not that Father Tim is perfect. But he obeys how Jesus taught us to live, he musters courage to confront and go out of his way for others, and he gives credit to God. The “Yeah, right, who would do that?” part of me wants to call this story too idyllic, because I know I don’t do what Father Tim does. But the “Oh, this way of living is God’s best desire for us” part of me is humbled to see Father Tim’s example.

We humans long to belong. We long to be understood. We long for people to see our hearts with God’s love and to show us mercy. It’s a kind of heaven on earth, a foretaste of real heaven, and a picture of God’s love for us. In that, the novel does give us an idyllic picture, but it is not TOO idyllic. It is possible. It is true. It is the earthly love God had in mind when He gave us His commandments. In Somewhere Safe, the weekly newspaper, Mitford Muse, has a contest themed “Does Mitford still take care of its own?” I felt inspired seeing all the ways it still does.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Come, Tell Me How You Live ~ my review

In her Foreword, Agatha Christie Mallowan cautions the reader not to expect grand revelations in her archaeological travel journals, which have been compiled into the book Come, Tell Me How You Live. She says it is only “everyday doings and happenings.” Grand revelations they may not be, but what fascinating, delightful stories! When I finished reading this book, I just wanted to read it all again.

Although Christie’s husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, and his crew sought artifacts from 4000 B.C. civilizations and earlier, Christie’s diaries of their digs illumine Middle Eastern civilization in the 1930s and 1940s. Her stories show acceptance, good humor, cleverness, and curiosity regarding Syrian, Armenian, Turkish, Serbian, and Arab cultures as well as frustrations of their conflicting religious beliefs and primitive living conditions. Furthermore, the reader gains a clear understanding that Christie loves these people despite difficulties of living and working there for months at a time. In her words, “For I love that gentle fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life; who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, and to whom death is not terrible.”

I marveled at Christie’s pluck and aplomb facing dust storms, scorching desert heat, cockroaches, mice, bats, no plumbing, no roads, and unreliable vehicles, among other obstacles. I enjoyed the frequent humor in her descriptions and laughed out loud at some stories. Her observations of the people on their archaeological teams as well as the locals they encountered fascinated me; she showed such acceptance and good humor. Even when the British visitors clearly knew they were being taken advantage of by local authorities, they just grinned and aimed for win-win solutions. I so enjoyed going along on Christie’s happy, sporting adventures.

The only downside to this book is its lack of maps. Today’s maps don’t show relevant towns and boundaries from 70 years ago. Also, Christie often refers to routes, rivers, and tells (such as Tell Halaf and Tell Brak, mounds indicating ancient villages) that I’d like to be able to picture. Photos of people, places, vehicles, and operations would also have enhanced my experience.

Come, Tell Me How You Live is itself a lively, entertaining sociology-anthropology study. Christie's joy in being among Middle Eastern peoples is evident.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Grateful shout-out to friends accommodating unfamiliar diets

You know who you are. Friends and family who have for nearly 30 years graciously cooked and baked gluten-free for me. Each time you did it, I hope I said THANK YOU in capital letters. Today I am saying THANK YOU!!! in bold capital letters with three exclamation points. Why?

Because today I baked paleo desserts for a friend whose family follows a paleo diet for health reasons. Paleo concepts are foreign to me. Eliminating four gluten-containing grains, no problem—I just substitute other grains. But paleo-diet followers use NO grains.

So I experienced what you probably did when you entered the whole new world of gluten-free food for my sake. Except three decades ago, celiac discussions and gluten-free options weren’t as popular as they and paleo ideas are today; and the Internet didn’t make finding special-diet recipes so easy. So you had it much harder than I did today. Nonetheless, I might have identified with your time and emotional investment.

Step 1: Research. What is gluten? What is gluten in? What’s a paleo diet? What’s paleo-okay, and what isn’t?
Step 2: Find safe recipes.
Step 3: Worry about causing health problems for gluten-free/paleo person. Check with person about recipe ingredients.
Step 4: Buy special ingredients, if necessary.
Step 5: Put all ingredients on freshly cleaned kitchen counter. Feel anxiety about dish’s unfamiliar taste and texture. Will people like it? Feel additional anxiety remembering my own early gluten-free flops.
Step 6: Whip it up, pop it in the oven, and pray. Jump for joy when it looks fairly “normal” coming out of oven.
Step 7: New worry: What if the non-special-diet people eating it won’t like it? Bake “regular” pumpkin bread. For extra insurance, send husband to store to buy a second nonpaleo dessert.

After paleo carrot cupcakes and cinnamon apple cake came out of the oven, I wanted to make frosting for them, so I began Steps 1 and 2 above to find paleo frosting options. But I had too many questions and yuck-factor feelings. Two cups of palm shortening? You’ve got to be kidding. (I couldn’t get lard out of my mind.) After several hours of vacillating—to frost or not to frost?—I chickened out altogether. I brought my plain offerings to the meeting, where I learned palm shortening is not as yucky as lard seemed to me and got hints as to how the paleo-eating family typically makes frosting.

We live and learn. I now look forward to trying other paleo recipes once in a while. But the first time sure was nerve-racking. Did I mention my increased gratefulness to those of you who have accommodated my dietary needs?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Monet's Masterpiece

Whizzing through countryside just northwest of Paris, glimpsing the serpentine Seine looping through flower fields, I thought, “No wonder young Claude Monet wanted to live near these paintable landscapes.” In fact, views from the train between Normandy and Paris are what inspired Monet to live in picturesque Giverny, where he could, in effect, create an outdoor studio of gardens and ponds. Of course, he painted en plein air throughout Europe, but his home and gardens became a major muse for Monet and a magnet for other artists.

May 2014 marked my third visit to Giverny. Sadly, the town becomes ever more touristic and commercial. Happily, the gardens remain delightful, if overwhelming. On each visit, I have sat on a bench with pen in hand. Words, don’t fail me now; help me capture this beauty. But no words came. So then I snapped some photos. And I include a few here. But trying to convey the scope and depth of beauty here by showing you a flower photo is akin to saying, “Here’s a picture of the world” and showing you a photo of an ant. Upon entering Monet’s garden, my vision went into kaleidoscopic overload mode. Then I stopped to appreciate.

First the eye takes in myriad hues. Fuchsia foxgloves, cerise poppies, cobalt columbines, blushing pink peonies. Then textures. Spiky allium balls, fuzzy iris beards, velvet rose petals. Then layers. Pansies tucked into poppies, salvias hugging shrub roses, apple trees espaliered along a split-rail fence. Wait, notice shapes. Ruffled scallops, whorled wisps, fat, thin, tapered, round. Oh, and levels. Short, medium-high, tall, some trained to grow up and curl over arched arbors and cascade down from tall iron umbrellas. Colorful choruses of flowers sing their glory in dense, jumbled, spilling masses; yet a pleasing order pervades the setting. Monet’s pink stucco house provides solid backdrop. Garden arbors and umbrella tuteurs are the same bright green as the shutters of Monet’s open windows. Wide, pebbled paths perpendicular to the house stripe through flower beds.

Design detail is masterful, polychromatic palette at once calming and vibrant, scope too grand to take in from a single vantage point. One is left with many beautiful impressions. I wonder if this place is, in fact, Monet’s living, breathing masterpiece.

I haven’t even mentioned Monet’s lily pads, pond, and gently arching green bridge. Also clearly designed for beautiful impressions, they are across the road from the gardens.

If you’re a Monet fan and would like to view the world’s largest collection (more than 300) of Monet’s paintings and learn more about the progression of his style, visit the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. Before Monet’s mentor, Eugéne Boudin, taught him to paint with oils, he was known to have a natural talent for drawing caricatures of his teachers and other locals in his childhood town of LeHavre. I enjoyed seeing some of these funny drawings at the Marmottan.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Our Wild Ride, Aller-Retour (Round Trip) Paris-Giverny

Fred threaded our Paris CityVision van around double-parked trucks, pokey Peugeots, and parked Renaults down serpentine streets and back alleys. When I say “threaded,” I mean we wove in and out. Do not conjure images of granny painstakingly poking needle in lace doily. We flew like a Star Wars rocket might “thread” a narrow opening between cliffs, its pilot not hesitating for a moment as he avoids danger after danger.

Our van rumbled rapidly along cobblestone streets as we encountered obstacles like two different public demonstrations that diverted traffic. Fred detoured often, darting down whatever alley he thought might be faster. He changed lanes as freely as if riding one of Paris’ bazillion scooters, though never driving on sidewalks as scooters sometimes do. In fact, Harley-Davidson, Indian, Piaggio (Vespa’s manufacturer) and Honda motorcycle dealership signs whizzed by in our peripheral vision. If we’d been poodles with our curly heads in open van windows, our floppy ears would have sailed behind.

Even on the Île Saint-Louis, Fred barely had time to recommend Berthillon, the best ice cream in Paris, before we had blown past the shop. On one boulevard we and other tourists in our van noticed what looked like a cathedral, Gothic shoulders shrugged up skinny between two storefronts. I wanted to see its name, but only had time to read Venite Adoremus (Come let us adore Him) carved above the church door. Traffic moderated around the Arc de Triomphe so we could glimpse its carvings, and we stopped at a red light on a bridge that allowed us a nice view of the Tour Eiffel.

Another red stoplight in a densely populated neighborhood bought me a moment to notice a scene I might call typically French, because in my opinion, the French are good at relaxing in the midst of hard work. From the second floor of an ornately carved, triangular apartment building emerged a slender young man with ebony, chin-length hair. As he stood on an impossibly narrow black wrought iron balcony, he slowly dragged on a cigarette and exhaled in leisurely fashion. Lounging against the creamy limestone building, the man coolly observed pedestrian chatter, rubber-tired bumpy rumblings, and chaotic buzzing of life from his perch above it all.

Another scene Paris is famous for is embouteillages (traffic jams), and this was the first one I could marvel at from inside a vehicle. I had gotten to trust Fred’s living out his apparent dream of being a race car driver, so wasn’t paying attention to how the jam happened. Suddenly, at a major intersection, our van was in a mess of stopped cars. We were pointed toward a pont (bridge) over the Seine, and the four cars on our van’s four sides were perpendicular to us, parallel to the river. Maybe 20 cars were woven as tightly as bamboo strands of a bistro chair. It was a mystery to me how we would extricate ourselves. I don't remember hearing anyone honk a horn. Unflappable Fred asserted our van a few inches at a time, and the other drivers did the same—equally boldly. Calm chaos no longer seems an oxymoron.

And it really didn’t take long for all the cars to clear the intersection. Granted, an embouteillage is probably motivated by impatience and greed, rather than surviving wartime scarcity. But still, it reminded me of débrouillardise (resourcefulness) shown by World War II French Résistance workers when rubber became unavailable—they laid wine corks all around their bicycle wheel rims so they could still ride their bikes without actual tires.

Outside the city, our van rocketed out of gray- and sand-colored shapes and rumbling sounds to silently speed north through rolling green hills with vast fields of yellow colza (canola) flowers. Every vista included a curving stream or grand river. Fred said they were all the Seine River. Legend has it that the Seine loops lazily through the Giverny area because the river was so charmed by the countryside’s beauty, it devised a way to stay there longer. In fact, the river curves so often because the area’s soft limestone erodes easily as water flows through. Fred pointed out limestone cliffs in the distance.

On our way back from Giverny, Fred took us through the village of La Roche-Guyon, where Nazi field marshal Rommel headquartered in a castle on one of those cliffs just before D-Day. At road level, caves in the limestone cliffs were used to store military supplies. We wound through other sleepy villages, one even with a thatch-roofed house.

I was grateful for tranquil time in the country, including Claude Monet’s greatest masterpiece—his gardens—but soon we were back in Paris for another spin around the Arc de Triomphe rond-point (roundabout) and more fearless-flying adrenaline rushes. At 7 p.m., when Fred deposited us outside our apartment, we thought, “Now that wild ride was a grand tour!”