Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Kindly do not outsource the needful

Oh you guys, this is why we should not rely on the University of Google to supply us with knowledge. Here's a result from a google search on an NFP question:
after 5 and a partly days of bleeding browny red stuff (light, used panty liners) will i ovulate? i missed two pills thats why i get this bleeding.
i hold cramps at the moment but the bleeding have stopped.
what are the likelihood of me person pregnant if i have unprotected sex past i missed my pills?
It is concrete to utter exactly if you will ovulate and if you will obtain pregnant. The solitary point specifically for sure is that here is no track to know for sure. It is possible that you will ovulate and you could attain pregnant. In adjectives prospect, you probably will not, but it would be best to use a backup method until you are through your subsequent cycle.
I am almost ashamed to admit how Darwin and I howled. Running health info through a translator may not lead to accurate information, but it's right up there with the high comedy.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Baby Bootcamp

All right, son, down for ten.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Narrow Atlantic

UCLA professor Peter Baldwin pens an interesting priece for the UK's Prospect in which he argues that the differences between the US and Europe are not as great as is often claimed. Baldwin's point of view strikes me as left of center, but his argument (mainly a comparison of statistics to see how the US really measures up to various EU countries on questions like poverty, education, environmentalism, etc.) is fairly non-ideological and the overall result is interesting.

Left open ended (though he provides a few thoughts on the matter) is the question of why both Americans and Europeans like to perceive such strong differences between themselves, and what exactly that means about the two cultures.

Orphan Openings: NFP edition

"Come on upstairs with me," she said dryly.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Orphan Openings: Corporate Edition

The human mind is a creature not easily deflected from its current path by a change in circumstances, especially one that takes place in such a short period of time that one can hardly convince oneself that it could be truly consequential. It had been a mere twenty minutes between when Sarah's work was interrupted by a young man who said, "Sarah Wolfe? Could you come down to see the director in Conference Room A for a moment," and the present moment in which she found herself walking across the parking lot with a folder under her arm marked "Severance: Wolfe, Sarah".

That such a brief and low-voicedly polite exchange -- The company is grateful for your twelve years of service. This bears no reflection upon your performance. If you will sign this release, the company would like to offer you eight weeks severance and two pre-paid sessions with a certified career coach. -- could mark a major turning point in her life seemed impossible.

Her mind continued on the track from which it had been so abruptly distracted. Jeff in distribution would have to be called about those processors. Sales would have to be informed of the lead time change. Too much of the morning had been spend on cleaning up messes that could easily have been avoided -- she would need to craft a new PowerPoint about the detailing the standard operating procedures for commodity procurement and emphasizing the importance of obeying them.

And yet little jarring details stood out as she crossed the parking lot. The light was wrong, neither lunch-time glare nor the sinking sun a the end of the day, but bright mid-morning. The rows of cars stretched on unbroken and silent. The lot was full, everyone at their desks. And the street beyond was quiet. All these betokened that the natural order, long reliable, had suddenly been thrown off its course. And her parked three-series, when she reached it, had changed form -- looking no longer like a badge of success but rather like a payment due on the twentieth of every month.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Classicist's Memorial Day

As MrsDarwin mentioned, we've been listening to an audio book of Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Iliad while driving in the car lately. By chance we heard one of my favorite sections of the Iliad this weekend, and it struck me especially on this weekend when, in the American civil calendar, we recall those who have served our country and especially those who have died in its service.

One of the things one quickly notices reading acient works is how many of the oldest works that survive, from a range of cultures, focus on war. The Iliad and Odyssey, of course. Gilgamesh and Beowulf both focus on great heroes who struggle to defeat supernatural monsters. The Nibelungenlied centers on an extended feud that becomes a veritable bloodbath. Etc.

Some might observe, somewhat cynically, that this is simply because all of these originate in cultures ruled by warrior elites, and that it was natural for this audience to patronize storytellers to fill their leisure hours and equally natural that their favorite topic should be the exploits of their own kind. This may be true to an extent, but I think there's an explanation rooted much more deeply in human nature than that. So much of our greatest fiction, today as in the ancient world, centers on conflict, violence and death because these things bring the ordinary dramas of human life into much greater urgency and import. A man may go to work every day because he wants to provide for and protect his wife and children, but if the day comes when he's summoned up to risk his life in battle to protect them, the sense in which he is ready to sacrifice himself for them is thrown into sharp relief. Similarly, the terrors of war make all the more precious the blessings of peace. In Homer, this is often expressed through extended references to times of peace, juxtaposed with the incredible violence of bronze age battle. For example:
There the screaming and the shouts of triumph rose up together
of men killing and men killed, and the ground ran blood.
As when rivers in winter spate running down from the mountains
throw together at the meeting of streams the weight of their water
out of the great springs behind in the hollow of the stream-bed,
and far away in the mountains the shepherd hears their thunder;
such, from the coming together of men, was the shock and the shouting.
(Iliad 4: 450-456, Lattimore trans.)

Though overall I didn't love the book, I was struck by a similar example of war's power to make us long for peace in Ian McEwan's Atonement where he has something along the lines of (quoting from several years memory, since I don't have the book at hand): How many thousands of children were conceived in mind on the roads to Dunkirk, as countless men offered God their bargains: "I'll marry her as soon as I get home. And buy a cottage, and take care of her, and stay home at nights, and we'll have three children and take them to church every Sunday, if only you'll let me reach the sea alive."

This section comes from Book 6 of the Iliad, as Hector returns briefly from the field of battle to the city to ask the women of the royal household to offer sacrifices to the gods that the Trojans will be successful in the current battle. Before going out again to fight, he seeks out his wife, who has been watching from the walls.

Keep in mind as you read it, as the Greek audience would also have known ahead of time, that before much longer (though not this day) Hector will indeed be killed in battle, and that when the city is taken his young son will be hurled from the walls of the city to his death, and Andromache made a slave and concubine to the son of Achilles, the man who had killed Hector.
Hector left the house by the same route he’d come,
through the well-built streets, across the mighty city,
and reached the Scaean Gates, beyond which he’d go
out onto the plain. There his wife ran up to meet him,
Andromache, daughter of great-hearted Eëtion,
who’d included a large dowry with her.
Eëtion had lived below forested Mount Placus,
in Thebe, king of the Cilician people. She’d become
married wife to Hector of the shining helmet.
Now she met him there. With her came the nurse,
holding at her breast their happy infant child,
well-loved son of Hector, like a beautiful star.
Hector had named him Scamandrius, but others
called him Astyanax, lord of the city,
because Hector was Troy’s only guardian.
Hector looked at his son in silence, with a smile.
Andromache stood close to him, weeping.
Taking Hector by the hand, she spoke to him.

“My dear husband, your warlike spirit
will be your death. You’ve no compassion
for your infant child, for me, your sad wife,
who before long will be your widow.
For soon the Achaeans will attack you,
all together, and cut you down. As for me,
it would be better, if I’m to lose you,
to be buried in the ground. For then I’ll have
no other comfort, once you meet your death,
except my sorrow. I have no father,
no dear mother. For lord Achilles killed
my father, when he wiped out Thebe,
city with high gates, slaying Eëtion.
But he didn’t strip his corpse—his heart
felt too much shame for that. So he burned him
in his finely decorated armour
and raised a burial mound above the ashes.
Mountain nymphs, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus,
planted elm trees all around his body.
I had seven brothers in my home.
All went down to Hades in a single day,
for swift-footed lord Achilles killed them all,
while they were guarding their shambling oxen
and their white shining sheep. As for my mother,
who ruled wooded Thebe-under-Placus,
he brought her here with all his other spoils.
Then he released her for a massive ransom.
But archer goddess Artemis then killed her
in her father’s house. So, Hector, you are now
my father, noble mother, brother,
and my protecting husband. So pity me.
Stay here in this tower. Don’t orphan your child
and make me a widow. Place men by the fig tree,
for there the city is most vulnerable,
the wall most easily scaled. Three times
their best men have come there to attack,
led by the two Ajaxes, the sons of Atreus,
famous Idomeneus, and Diomedes,
Tydeus’ courageous son, incited to it
by someone well versed in prophecy
or by their own hearts’ inclination.”

Great Hector of the shining helmet answered her:

all this concerns me, too. But I’d be disgraced,
dreadfully shamed among Trojan men
and Trojan women in their trailing gowns,
if I should, like a coward, slink away from war.
My heart will never prompt me to do that,
for I have learned always to be brave,
to fight alongside Trojans at the front,
striving to win fame for father and myself.
My heart and mind know well the day is coming
when sacred Ilion will be destroyed,
along with Priam of the fine ash spear
and Priam’s people. But what pains me most
about these future sorrows is not so much
the Trojans, Hecuba, or king Priam,
or even my many noble brothers,
who’ll fall down in the dust, slaughtered
by their enemies. My pain focuses on you,
when one of those bronze-clad Achaeans
leads you off in tears, ends your days of freedom.
If then you come to Argos as a slave,
working the loom for some other woman,
fetching water from Hypereia or Messeis,
against your will, forced by powerful Fate,
then someone seeing you as you weep
may well say:

‘That woman is Hector’s wife.
He was the finest warrior in battle
of all horse-taming Trojans in that war
when they fought for Troy.’

Someone will say that,
and it will bring still more grief to you,
to be without a man like that to save you
from days of servitude. May I lie dead,
hidden deep under a burial mound,
before I hear about your screaming,
as you are dragged away.”

With these words,
glorious Hector stretched his hands out for his son.
The boy immediately shrank back against the breast
of the finely girdled nurse, crying out in terror
to see his own dear father, scared at the sight of bronze,
the horse-hair plume nodding fearfully from his helmet top.
The child’s loving father laughed, his noble mother, too.
Glorious Hector pulled the glittering helmet off
and set it on the ground. Then he kissed his dear son
and held him in his arms. He prayed aloud to Zeus
and the rest of the immortals.

“Zeus, all you other gods,
grant that this child, my son, may become,
like me, pre-eminent among the Trojans,
as strong and brave as me. Grant that he may rule
Troy with strength. May people someday say,
as he returns from war, ‘This man is far better
than his father.’ May he carry back
bloody spoils from his slaughtered enemy,
making his mother’s heart rejoice.”

He placed his son in the hands of his dear wife.
She embraced the child on her sweet breast, smiling
through her tears. Observing her, Hector felt compassion.
He took her hand, then spoke to her.

“My dearest wife,
don’t let your heart be sad on my account.
No man will throw me down to Hades
before my destined time. I tell you this—
no one escapes his fate, not the coward,
nor the brave man, from the moment of his birth.
So you should go into the house, keep busy
with your proper work, with your loom and wool,
telling your servants to set about their tasks.
War will be every man’s concern, especially mine,
of all those who live in Troy.”

Having said these words,
glorious Hector took his plumed helmet in his hands.
His beloved wife went home, often looking back,
as she went, crying bitterly. She quickly reached
the spacious home of Hector, killer of men.
Inside she met her many servants and bid them all lament.
So they mourned for Hector in his own house,
though he was still alive—they thought he’d not come back,
he’d not escape the battle fury of Achaean hands.

[Iliad 6:390-502 from Ian Johnston's online translation of the Iliad.]

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ida and the Missing Link

If you follow science headlines at all, you have doubtless heard about Ida, the diminutive 40 million year old primate who was unveiled to the world this week with nearly unprecedented publicity. Google even got into the excitement with an Ida-themed Google header.

So, what's so special about this find? Is it the "missing link" in human evolutionary history as many mainstream news headlines have suggested?

Well, to the extent that "the missing link" is coloqually used to refer to the most recent common ancestor of humans and chimps, not even close. Ida is more than four times older. Any most paleontologists still aren't sure that the species she belongs to is in our line of ancestry at all. This graphic from the New Scientist shows visually what's being argued about here. What is very much news here is that Ida may help answer some questions about the very, very early history of primates, when the ancestors of modern apes, monkeys and humans were diverging from those of modern lorises and lemurs. However, that's not as exciting a story, so the media seems to be blunding about in the fashion they often do in reporting any specialized field.

The other thing that's incredibly exciting about Ida is that she is an unusually well-preserved fossil, which among early primates is especially rare. (Given that good fossilization requires being quickly covered in fine sediment somewhere like a gentle river, you can see why tree dwelling creatures wouldn't get the treatment very often.) Ida was covered, immediately after her untimely demise, by solf volcanic ash which left a fossil which is 95% complete, fully articulated, and includes prints of her fur and organs.
The precise composition of the volcanic deposits in which Ida was found even allowed preservation of her soft tissue. “You can see the fur, the ears, all of the gut contents [leaves and a fruit], all the fingertips and toes,” Smith says.

Smith and her colleagues were able to guess Ida’s age based on the fossil’s teeth. “She was just turning over and replacing her baby teeth in the front of her face, and the molars were coming in the back,” Smith says. Because Ida had many teeth forming at the same time, Smith thinks the primate must have grown up fast, developing much quicker than a human would. Ida died before she was 1 year old, Smith and her colleagues suggest. Comparisons with a similar animal, the squirrel monkey, led the researchers to guess that Ida might have lived for 15 or 20 years had she not met an early demise.
This has allowed us to get an unusually accurate view of what this early primate looked like. She's rather fetching, really.

The full paper on her (from which that sketch comes) can be found here.

Seven Quick Takes

Thanks as always to our hostess Jen.

1. I was seduced into buying two mangos by their lush colors nestled in among the pineapple and the papayas. But you can't judge a book by its cover or a mango by its skin. They smell so vile -- sweet plastic rot -- that it was difficult to even bring myself to cut them up. Not for myself I did this; my daughters begged for a taste. I gagged my way through peeling and slicing the noxious fruit only to have it refused by each girl in turn.

2. Let the vocalizing begin! The baby, all of eight months now, has begun to express his moods by declaiming at me. The other day he sat disconsolately in his high chair and sadly pronounced, "Blab blab WAB blab. Muh muh muh." Then he solemnly picked up a spoon and carefully whapped himself in the face.

3. We've been listening to The Iliad in the car, and it strikes me how much easier it is to follow the flow of Homer's poetry hearing it rather than reading it. The narrator is George Guidall, who has a mellifluous voice and a sound dramatic instinct. Even my girls are following along -- they cheer whenever Agamemnon comes on the scene because they think he has a funny name.

4. And speaking of the Iliad, Darwin and I are agreed that it would make an awesome anime series. Lots of violence, weird supernatural stuff, emphasis on honor and battle, and an episodic structure. Picture wide-eyed scantily-clad goddesses and Achilles with long flowing blond locks and a big honking sword and you're all set.

5. We had the roof replaced this week. Yay new roof. Thanks to Opinionated Homeschooler for taking us in for two days and showing us a good time while we hid from the noise.

6. "If you were stuck on a desert island and could take only one thing, what would it be?" We were discussing this around the dinner table, and people had varying answers: books, gadgets, etc. I turned to my seven-year-old and asked, "Eleanor, what would you want if you were stuck on a desert island?"
"A boat," she said, without looking up from her plate.

7. Pentimento has an excellent post on love and unconscious prejudice.
I never met anyone who was openly racist or anti-Semitic until I was an adult. My mother told me which neighborhood children's parents had signed a petition asking a moving family not to sell their home to a black family; I didn't play with those children. So it had never occurred to me how prejudiced I actually was. I did catch glimpses of my own intolerance occasionally, usually on the subway: in the South Bronx, when I was pregnant, I witnessed two mothers get into a fight in front of their children before a cop stepped in, and was horrified; another time, also in the Bronx, when I was coming home from my teaching job and reading a dissertation source in Italian, and was annoyed by the loud revelry of a drunken Puerto Rican man sitting across from me, I decided that the people with whom I rode the train did not share my values.

It's easy to assume, though, that those of your own group do share them. But here, I've come to see that my "group" is not defined by my race or ethnicity. And I'm saddened by the repulsion and fear I reflexively feel towards those who seem not to be like me in ways that are vaguely menacing.

This is something that I've been thinking a lot about lately: how to love as Jesus would love. And specifically, how to respond in love to behavior I find appalling. How to hate the sin and love the sinner -- really.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

MrsDarwin in a nutshell

This is a short biography I wrote recently (and late at night) for a literary project.

I wasn't born in Texas, and I don't know if I got here as soon as I could, but here I am now. Near Austin, to be precise. Texas is too big to just be "from Texas". I don't call myself Texan, though -- my heart is in Ohio.

I've always been a reader, though I don't know if I can claim to have always been a thinker. During my sophomore year at Orthodox Catholic U, a professor broke up an argument I was having with another Honors student about what we thought each other thought about our current reading selection. "Can either of you back up your position from the text?" he asked. The novel concept of having to confront an author's thought, as opposed to my own washy first impressions of a book, set off electrical connections in my brain that are still sparking today.

Having spent most of my academic career in the theatre, I love the dramatic sweep of fiction: the subtext, the tactics and intentions, the objectives and super-objectives of the characters; the directorial sweep of plot and theme and mood; the interplay of details and universals. And I love "Catholic" fiction, which I feel too tired to define precisely right now. I just know that it doesn't leave me beating the book against my head, whining, "But none of it was true!"

I'm married to the brilliant and perfectly compatible Darwin, and we have four children under 8 (three daughters with vast amounts of energy, and a small boy who is made of cute). We're cradle Catholics trying to raise another generation of "good kids". Having felt we were vastly qualified to parent and homeschool by dint of being oldest siblings and having been homeschooled ourselves, we're only now coming to the realization that just maybe we're in way over our heads, and then some.

And now my brain is shutting down, so I'm gonna leave it at that.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Children of the Corn

Here to the north of Austin, we live in an odd patchwork of new neighborhood, business parks and shopping malls interspersed with open fields. Cattle graze in the field next to our supermarket, and corn grows cross the street from our bank.

Seeing the orderly fields of corn, I'd never realized that corn represents an intriguing mystery in regards to plant evolution and the history of humanity's interaction with the plants we live off of. First domesticated in Central America around 7000 years ago, corn as we find it today is a domestic-only plant in that it is virtually incapable of reproducing in the wild.

One of the characteristics of corn that makes it such a useful crop is the incredibly high return of kernels harvested to kernels planted. Biologically, one of the reasons for this abundance is that unlike other grasses which have been domesticated as agricultural grains, the corn cob forms halfway down on the plan, closer to sources of water and nutrients, and thus the plant is able to put more energy into seed growth. In other cereals, the seeds are at the very top of the stalk, at the plant's farthest extremety.

Another great feature of corn is that the cob is covered by a husk, which largely protects the grain from pests. It pretty much requires a creature with opposable thumbs to get the husk off, which means you loose less of the grain prior to harvest. Plus, the kernels are well-rooted into the cob, as compared to grains like wheat where the ripe seeds can easily fall from the ear of grain.

However, all of this -- particularly the firmness of the kernels in the cob and the husk covering it -- means that if there are no humans to harvest the corn, very, very little of it will succeed in naturally reseeding. If a cornfield were abandoned before harvest and you returned in five years to see if any wild corn was left growing, you would probably find few to no corn plants.

This means that corn as we find it today must be biologically fairly different from the corn ancestor which Central Americans first found in the wild and domesticated. The predominant theory out there is that corn is descended from the grass called teosinte which is found in Mexico even today, but the differences between the two plants are extensive, though there is enough genetic similarity to make it pretty clear they are related. Teosinte grains is far out on the extremities of a banching stalk, the grains are covered by hard outer covering (like the chaff of wheat), the grains are not strongly rooted in a cob-like structure, and they are not covered by a husk that remains closed.

The National Science Foundation has a nice comparison here:

The prevailing theory at the moment is apparently that teosinte underwent a series of major mutations during a very short period of time which resulted in the corn we see today. I find that a bit unsatisfying, since series of major, conventient, stable mutations are hard to come by. Thus I was interested to find this article about Prof. Mary Eubanks of Duke University, who has been working on the theory that corn as we know it today is the result of multiple hybridizations between teosinte and another wild grass called tripsacum. She's developed a hybrid of tripsacum and modern corn which exhibits many of the properties of the ancient ears of corn dating back 5000+ years that have been found in caves in Mexico. Apparently she has pretty decent genetic evidence for this as well by now.

While I'm not remotely an expert, I must admit to finding the hybridization explanation somewhat more convincing on the face of it than the sudden large mutation explanation. And I had never realized that corn was so interesting.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Picturesque and Primitive

From last weekend's Wall Street Journal, an article on the not-yet-crowded heritage treasures in the world:
As dawn breaks on top of a mountain near the China-Vietnam border, hundreds of water-filled rice terraces reveal themselves, clinging to the mountainside in geometric patterns in every direction. The rising sun, reflecting off the water, turns some of the terraces bright shades of orange and gold. Then solitary figures appear, black against the rising sun -- peasants with their water buffaloes hitched to wooden plows.

It's one of the most spectacular sights on earth, and local tourism authorities have capitalized on it by building a series of viewing platforms and a big parking lot. But this morning, three cars are parked there and only six people are on the mountaintop, including one woman, from the region's Hani ethnic minority, selling boiled eggs.

From the Grand Canyon to the Tower of London to Angkor Wat, 878 places around the world have been named World Heritage sites by the United Nations, through its Unesco agency. Each year, the World Heritage Committee names some 20 new sites, whose unparalleled cultural or natural significance makes them "irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration." The designation brings benefits including advice and sometimes funds to help protect the historic, artistic or natural treasures at each site. But fame has its price, and in this case it's the inevitable arrival of tourist crowds, souvenir sellers and exhaust fumes, which can undermine even the most impressive place.

If ever a site deserved World Heritage designation, Yunnan's Hani Rice Terraces would be it. China proposed them for consideration last year, but they haven't been selected yet -- making them a tourist's dream, a majestic setting to view and photograph without a tour bus or trinket seller in sight.

Now I've got to say, this sounds to me like a fascinating a beautiful sight. Not only because of the fascinating geometry of the rice terraces -- like a real-life topo map -- but because it presents a view, to my mind both beautiful and inspiring, of how thousands of human beings have interacted with this area over hundreds of years. These rice terraces are not mere abstract shapes nor are they done for the purpose of artistic expression (though the result is aesthetically attractive). Rather, they represent the collective striving of many individual farmers over many years to provide food for their families. These shapes represent hundreds of years of men and women giving their energy and sweat to provide for their families. And out of it all emerges an order which in a sense expresses the human urge to go out into the world and subdue it in order to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. It is a concretization of the drama of survival -- and a far more attractive one than an overpass or a silicon chip factory.

And yet, much though I would find it fascinating to stand where this picture was taken and look out over the rice terraces, there's something that disturbs me a bit about the idea of preserving this area as a world heritage site. One of the things that is so beautiful about this vista is that it is a living landscape: well kept rice fields, farmers and their water buffalo already at work as the sun rises. And yet, the fact that it is a living landscape means that there are thousands of farmers living at levels barely above subsistence, grinding out a living with primitive technology.

I'm glad that this view is still beautiful, and I don't necessarily like the idea of the overlook being crowded with fast food restaurants and trinket sellers -- and yet the fact is that these farmers' children would be better off in many wells selling trinkets and owning fast food stands than they are now wading through rice fields with water buffalo. And yet, maintaining the view would mean keeping them in the fields while someone else made a better living selling stuff to tourists from the developed world who want to come look at some primitive beauty.

The modern developed world is not necessarily attractive -- though it includes un-thought-of beauties like anti-biotics, hot showers, and houses with a floor rather than dirt -- and there's a certain picturesque quality to a life lived "more in touch with nature." However, being in touch with nature is often a romantic way of describing being in the dirt, and hungry, and prey to sickness and backbreaking work. We should be careful about wanting to see that perpetuated on people who might prefer economic development to an undeniably beautiful view.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Orphan Openings: A Search for the Worst Pun

Looking back on the years she'd spent with Alastair, it was hard for Melanie to feel regret. At first the only basis for their relationship had been the similarity of their dietary restrictions; but with time, affection and opportunity, even a small similarity can be built into a substantial edifice in Aphrodite's honor. Even with her painful awareness of what had followed, Melanie could not help but see their love as having been a many-Splenda-ed thing.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Spartans on a Plane

And now, for your TGIF delectation: United 300.

Having recently seen 300, I have to say that this is just funny. Beverages, monitor -- you know the drill.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Book Review: The Death of a Pope

Out today from Ignatius Press is The Death of a Pope, a new novel by Piers Paul Read, a mainstream novelist (his survival novel Alive about a rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes topped the New York Times bestseller list when it came out 25 years ago, and was later made into a film) who has also written both fiction and nonfiction on Catholic themes. He wrote a popular history of the templars a few years back, and On the Third Day, a thriller about the discovery in modern Israel of a crucified skeleton that some allege to be proof that Christ did not rise from the dead.

I had not read any of Read's previous books, but when Ignatius emailed me and offered me a review copy, the premise of the novel sounded interesting and I could not resist the lure of a free book. However, I did not initially expect much of it, my idea of modern "Catholic thrillers" having been formed by the likes of Pierced By A Sword, whose prose style treads that delicate line between incompetent and downright laughable.

However, I need not have feared. Read's prose is deft and indeed literary, though the modern device of using present tense narrative to convey immediacy is not necessarily my cup of tea. Those inclined to literary snobbery will not find themselves holding their noses as they read this novel by any stretch. The less pretentious reader will enjoy the fast-paced plot, which whisks him from a terrorist trial in London, to the refugee camps of Uganda, the chemistry labs of Cairo and at last to the 2005 papal conclave.

Juan Uriarte is an former Jesuit, who left the priesthood 20 years before in order to join the FMLN guerrilla army and fight the El Salvadoran government. Now he works for Misericordia International, a Catholic charitable organization which among its other work is helping to provide medical aide to refugees in Sudan and Uganda. We first meet him, however, in a British court, where he stands accused of having contacted members of the Basque ETA and the IRA with an eye to purchasing sarin nerve gas. The Crown alleges that he was doing this with an eye towards some terrorist attack. Uriarte claims that he never intended to use it against other humans, but rather against the horses and camels of the Sudanese militias who are slaughtering the refugees his organization is trying to help.

The ex-priest manages to escape conviction because the jury does not consider it beyond a reasonable doubt that he had terrorist intent, and so begins an increasingly fast paced search for the truth about Uriarte's intentions, as the Polish-English Mi5 agent who originally brought him in and a female reporter who finds herself attracted to Uriarte's passion for those suffering in the world both seek to understand what is really going on. Along the way we meet the reporter's uncle, a traditionalist English priest with friends in Rome; and a papabile Dutch cardinal whose one great fear is that his brief and unsuccessful pass at a fellow seminarian will be revealed to a media already ravening after the clergy abuse scandals that had rocked the US and Europe.

This is clearly an insider view of Catholicism, not the sort of outsider sensationalism so often found in movies and thrillers. Read's characters have the strengths and weaknesses of their types. Though I'd certainly take Read as being more on the traditional (or at least orthodox) side of the spectrum, his traditional Catholics are not saints, nor his progressive Catholics devils.

One of the things I found both interesting and realistic about the book is that while the thriller plot itself is brought to a close, and disaster averted, none of the characters actually have a fully accurate understanding of what's going on. They successfully uncover and thwart the plot despite some basic misunderstandings in their theories.

The Death of a Pope is an enjoyable and fast-paced read. If you're looking for a fun summer read, with a Catholic backdrop, you could do far worse. For my own part, I think I'll be looking up a few of Read's other novels.

On Meeting Bloggers

As MrsD mentioned, we had the pleasure of dropping in to hobnob with several of our fellow wizards in the blogging world during the recent Darwin family travels. At various points in the Great Ohio Trip we spent time with:

Fr. Fox
Jay Anderson
Betty Duffy
Rich Leonardi
Scott Carson

And on previous occasions we've had the pleasure of meeting:

The Opinionated Homeschooler
The Bettinellis
Cranky Conservative (and the missus)

(My apologies to whoever I have forgotten. It wasn't intentional!)

Even in our increasingly wired culture, there's still a slightly spooky air to the statement, "I'm getting together with someone I met online." Not only does it make it sound like one of you has a greater than average chance of being a serial killer, it has a certain antisocial ring to it, suggesting that one spends most of one's time in a basement, smelling of old socks and lit only by the glow of the monitor. I must admit, I'm rather cautious to admit to non-blogsphere people that I originally met some of my friends and coworkers through blogging. "We knew each other in Catholic circles" tends to be my way of explaining it away.

Yet for all that I am hesitant to admit to seeking out chances to meet those we interact with online, I've found it to be a universally positive experience. Admittedly, the etiquette of meeting for the first time someone one has talked to for years can be a little awkward at first. But modern social relations are nothing if not challenging from a social custom point of view. (How as poor MrsD to navigate the traditional "nice girls don't kiss on the first date" stricture when we were both car-less freshman on the same college campus? Our first "date" was a number of months after we started "going out". But I digress.)

For me, the reason why meeting bloggers is so enjoyable is because one has already been able to find out a great deal about the other person through a less socially threatening medium. I am, by habit, a very cautious conversationalist. For all my online opinionating, I'm very hesitant to bring up politics or religion or indeed my more unusually interests in history, literature and languages with people I don't already have some indication would be interested and congenial. Indeed, I usually stick to discussing with people mostly those things in which they have already stated an interest. This leads to safe and low conflict conversations, but with other people who are equally careful in their discussion habits, it can result in never getting too far into any topic.

However, reading what someone else has written over the course of months or years (and reading their comments on my own writing) provides enough of a layer of familiarity that it seems possible to discuss a wide range of topics without too much fear of either alienating (or boring) the other person, or needlessly exposing myself to disapprobation. In effect, the blogsphere acts as a social sifting mechanism. It allows us to form sub-communities of people with at least a certain level of common interest and acceptance. And this commonality makes much more interesting conversation possible. And it also gives one enough information about the specific person to know of possible shared interests, or areas where one ought not to throw one's elbows around. (So for instance, I know not to issue any smack talk against rap when visiting with Jenn and certainly not to bring along a pet scorpion, lest she feel the necessity of instigating a throw down.)

For all that blogging is often knocked as one of the lower forms of communication, in my more self congratulatory moments, I like to imagine the blogsphere as a sort of modern equivalent to the 18th century coffee house culture. Not only did different coffee houses in the great cities like London and Paris and Vienna have different characters (in some people congregated to discuss business, in others philosophy and politics, in other literature, in others science) but there was a thriving genre of one to two sheet daily papers put out by individual writers or writing teams which were distributed to the coffee houses and served as both reading material and conversation topics. Addison & Steele's The Spectator was one of the early successes in this genre, and Samuel Johnson's The Rambler was a late one, but there were many others -- less successful and less remembered. At one point Boswell writes about his wonder at seeing Johnson dash off an issue of The Rambler in one sitting, longhand, and send it off to the printer without revisions. If only my own unrevised (or even revised) writing could be of such value.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Orphan Openings: Cooking Edition

[It's time for a new feature on DarwinCatholic, and since we're much better at starting things than finishing them, the task of writing openings for fiction that we have no intention of completing seems an obvious one for us. We can promise many more, but for the quality improving, I cannot speak.]

Working in the hot kitchen often made Gertrude cross, and so it was with her stores of patience already depleted that she discovered that her husband, so often obstinate in life, refused to fit into the cauldron unless completely deboned and sectioned.

And now for something completely different...

The Nietzsche Family Circus:

Believe me! The secret of reaping the
greatest fruitfulness and the greatest
enjoyment from life is to live dangerously!

Still alive, kinda

Sometime this week we will resume posting in a semi-regular fashion. Today, however, we are still recovering from our 23 hour roadtrip on Saturday. Family togetherness, y'all!

Our thanks go out to all the wonderful bloggers we were privileged to visit during our trip:

Fr. Fox
Jay Anderson
Betty Duffy
Rich Leonardi
Scott Carson

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Conservative Catholicism and Liberal Islam

I just finished reading Thomas F. Madden's Empires of Trust: How Rome Built--and America Is Building--a New World, and I'm planning to write a couple posts shortly reviewing the book and the ideas it presents. As a prelude of sorts, however, I'd like to revisit some thinking I did a while back:

A month or so ago I finally had the chance to read Steven Vincent's account of life outside the green zone in post-war Iraq: In The Red Zone. It's a very fair book, and worth a read whether you support the war in Iraq or not. The author, since then killed in Iraq by militants, was a New York art reporter who watched the attacks on 9-11 and supported the Iraq war. Having supported the war, he felt like he should go over and see what was really happening over there. The book has the advantage of being writing from a culture writer's point of view rather than a political writer's. And although Vincent starts out as an enthusiastic supporter of the project, he ends unsure whether it's possible for democracy to flourish in Iraq. (I'd be curious to read later work by him and see what he thought of the elections and the provisional constitution, both of which post date his book.)

This reminded me of my long held intention to read more about Islam, so I pull off the shelf the copy of Living Islam (now apparently out of print) by Ahbar S Ahmed which I'd bought on remainder some nine years ago and had been meaning to read ever since. Living Islam is half cultural history, half apologia (think a very, very light weight version of Letters To A Young Catholic with lots of pictures and basic intro information.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Happy birthday to the best sister ever (except for my other sister)

In honor of my sister Elizabeth's birthday, here's the gist of the mostly-impromptu toast I offered at her wedding along with my younger sister Anna (we divvied up duties as the matron and maid of honor):

As I look around at everyone having a great time at the reception, I'm so impressed at how Elizabeth organized this whole wedding. All the organizational skills in our family, those genes bypassed me and went straight to Elizabeth, and there was nothing left over for Anna.

As I watched Elizabeth tonight on the altar, praying during her wedding ceremony, it struck me for the first time: she's not just my little sister anymore. She's a mature, gentle, gracious woman, fully capable of planning out almost every detail of this beautiful wedding, and she'll be a wonderful, loving wife to Eric. And a wonderful mother to my future nieces and nephews, of whom I expect plenty.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Having a Great Time, Wish You Were Here

MrsDarwin here, just now surfacing to say that the wedding was the most beautiful I've ever attended, bar none. The day was a superlative. Even nature cooperated -- there was 70% chance of showers, but instead the day was overcast and the light diffused, making for some marvelous pictures in the park. My sister was the most radiant, lovely bride, and the wedding mass itself went without a hitch. Many thanks go to the celebrant, Fr. Schnippel, who recognized us as The Darwins even though we were in our street clothes.

And the reception was about the most kickin' event ever. Good food, good company, old friends, and several special live performances made this the best reception in the history of receptions. The bar has been set high for any other wedding I attend from now on, because I'll be thinking, "How does this compare to the Egan/Wolf wedding of '09?"

As the groomsmen were all standing around the parking lot of the reception hall, waiting for the ladies to arrive for pictures, they were talking about needing an omen for the day. At that point, one of them looks up and says, "Look, a hawk with a snake!" Sure enough, there was a hawk circling above them with a snake in its beak. Anyone want to read the entrails and interpret for us?