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

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Cincinnati and the Demographic Transition of Catholicism

 I'm working on an in-depth series for The Pillar on the shifting demographics and geography of American Catholicism, but with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati making news last week with the announcement of its "parish family" plan, which will consolidate the 211 parishes in the archdiocese into 60 parish families which will share priests and other resources, it seemed like a good idea to do an immediate piece on what led Cincinnati to this point. 

It turns out that Cincinnati provides a good microcosm of the demographic changes going on in the American church, and hopefully it sharpens appetites for what it some come.

In 2019, Cincinnati had 211 parishes but only 143 diocesan priests in active ministry, according to data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). That situation, the archdiocese has said, is not sustainable. Its plan is to group parishes together, assign priests to share pastoral duties, and gradually see parishes formally merged.

As the archdiocese begins its project, we at The Pillar found ourselves wondering: Is Cincinnati's dramatic plan for parish closures a sign of what’s to come across the country, or is it responding to a problem unique to the Cincinnati archdiocese?  

We looked at some numbers to find out.

Given its size, the archdiocese has an unusually high number of parishes.

The Cincinnati archdiocese has the eighth-most parishes of any diocese in the U.S. Its 211 parishes follow closely behind Newark (212 parishes), Philadelphia (212), and Detroit (218). 

But while Newark, Philadelphia, and Detroit each have more than one million Catholics, the Cincinnati archdiocese has only 442,000 Catholics.

The disparity between the number of parishes and the number of Catholics is due, in part, to the changing demographics of the region. While the total population of the region has grown over the last 60 years, it is becoming less Catholic. The Catholic population of the archdiocese peaked in 1996 and has been dropping for the last 25 years.  

At its peak, 19% of the region’s population was Catholic. At latest count that number has declined to 14.5%.


You can read the whole thing at The Pillar, and if you're not already a subscribe, if this is the kind of Catholic journalism of which you'd like to see more, I'd encourage you to subscribe.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Conquest and Words: Who is Indigenous?

In a sense "indigenous people" is a weird phrase. Lots of areas have seen multiple waves of migration, conquest, settlement, foreign ruler elites which eventually become just the elites, etc.  Indeed, intriguing genetic and archeological evidence suggests that the "indigenous peoples" of the Americas (who moved into the continents from Beringia around 15,000 years ago) may themselves have displaced a sparser population which had already been in the Americas for 5,000 years or more before that.

I think to a great extent the colonizer vs indigenous concept as opposed to what we more generally see as conquest and migration is based on the "great divergence", the idea that from 1500 to 1900 Europe surge forward and technological, economic, and cultural development such that when Europeans showed up and set up settlements in other parts of the world, they were able to do so in a deeply unequal way.

Thus, the Turks are not seen as having "colonized" Asia Minor and Eastern Europe, even though they did conquer it and install themselves as the ruling elites within clear historical memory. This is seen as a conquest, but not colonization, because the Turks are at some level seen as having been at the same level as the Byzantines, Persians, Slavs, Greeks, etc. that they fought and ruled. 

Nor are the Arabs seen as having "colonized" Palestine, although the Israelis are often accused of having "colonized" the same area when they established political control over the area which their religious forebears had inhabited prior to its conquest by Arabs (and various other intervening conquests and migrations.)

Colonization?

Poland is not usually described as being "colonized" by the Germans, Austrians, and Russians, although Poland was carved up and ruled over by those three empires during the 1700s. And the Poles are not describes as the "indigenous people" of the region, even as they struggled to maintain their language and culture under the rule of other peoples until regaining their own national government after World War One.

And we talk about the "Norman conquest" of Britain (a conquest which resulted in the imposition of a foreign elite which spoke a different language and ran the government for their own ends for hundreds of years until the country gradually blended into one culture) and the Indo European migrations (which in Europe mostly wiped out and replaced the Neolithic farmer populations in the 2nds and 3rd millenniums BC) but not about "Norman colonization" or "Indo European colonization".

The reason that we see these conquests and migrations throughout history is that peoples move, whether seeking new resources or escape from threats. Often they are moving into areas in which some people already exist, and often when that happens they do not treat those others well.

The division between talking about "conquest" versus talking about "colonization" is also not based on the era.  The Ottomans were establishing rule over the Balkans after the European colonies in the Americas had already been been established, and the Great Powers were dividing up Poland after most of the European colonial empires in Africa, the Pacific and Asia were already extant.  

Some have suggested that the "colonialism" versus "indigenous" terminology is simply anti-European bias.  There's perhaps some element of this, but it's worth noting that "indigenous" is sometimes used to distinguish between different non-European populations.  For instance, people talk about the indigenous Malay population in Singapore as opposed to other Asian ethnicities who moved in during the last few hundred years.  There are also European groups which are referred to as indigenous, primarily nomadic groups living in the far north of Europe and in Siberia.  

This, I think, points to what people end up meaning when they contrast indigenous people versus colonizers, which is some sort of distinction of technology which is seen as giving the outsiders and "unfair" edge over the natives. Thus, because the Ottomans are not seen as having a massive technological edge over the Europeans living in the Balkans, we talk about the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, but not the Ottoman colonization, while during the same period we talk about the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas as colonization.  And although no one talks about the Russians "colonizing" Siberia, the UN does describe the semi-nomadic peoples that were in Siberia prior to Russia establishing control over it as "indigenous peoples".  The Russians had a large, complex state architecture and various technical advantages, so they were seen as the outsiders crowding out the "indigenous" natives. 

Characterizing things this way might be seen as unfair, as people have become less comfortable with talking about one culture as being more "sophisticated" or "advanced" than another, even when one has stone tools and the other has firearms.  And yet, I think this hierarchy is clearly implicit in the way that we talk about different historical groups and events.

Of course, another element is that we assign a moral weight to recent historical events (or historical events which are seen as connecting to still-current inequalities) that we don't to others.  Thus, one sometimes hears people claim that the creation of the modern state of Israel was "colonization" and subjugated the "indigenous" Palestinians, but one seldom hears the conquest of Palestine by Arabs in the 600s or by Seljuq Turks in the 1000s referred to in the same moral terms.  Those conquests and displacements are seen as being beyond a sort of moral event horizon, while the actions of the Spanish in the 1400s and 1500s are not.

Seventh Grade Bible Study: Matthew, Chapters 5-6

 More Matthew for 7th Graders: notes on chapters 5 and 6, from the Sermon on the Mount. 

***

Matthew Chapter 5

We keep hearing how great crowds flocked to Jesus to hear him, how he taught and proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom. What was it those crowds were hearing that drew them so much to Jesus? Matthew gives us an example of Jesus’s preaching here in the Sermon on the Mount, three chapters of parables and instructions and prayers and teaching. At the end, Matthew says, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Imagine living in a world where no religion embraced the concept of mercy, and where breaking the religious law could mean death or social disgrace, with no way for you to make things right unless you could afford to make offerings to the temple for sacrifices. Imagine living in a culture where wealth meant that God had blessed you, and poverty was seen as a punishment. Imagine a culture where sickness or disability were seen as curses, and people who suffered were seen as having less dignity. Imagine living in a country that has been conquered, where the ones with the most power are the ones with the most weapons and military strength, and where you and your family are routinely humiliated and taxed by people who hold everything you value in contempt.

Doesn’t sound so different than right now, does it? Now listen to Jesus’s teaching -- God talking directly to us, in the words he wants us to hear -- and see if you hear anything astonishing.

Beatitudes

1: “his disciples came to him”: people who are already followers of Jesus still need to hear his words over and over again.

How does each Beatitude reflect Jesus, who is God himself?

2: “Blessed” -- think of the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women.” “Blessed” means “full of grace”. When we live according to the Beatitudes, we are full of grace.

3: “Poor in spirit”: What does it mean to be poor in spirit? We know what it means to be poor in body, or in possession. How can you have a poor spirit, and why would it be a good thing? And yet it doesn’t mean having no spirit at all, or being a mental slave, because Jesus says that the poor in spirit will be given the kingdom of heaven. Could it be someone who trusts God for all their blessings, instead of relying on their own mental powers (which are themselves a gift from God)? Kind of like the people who claim, “I only believe what I can observe with my senses,” as if their senses aren’t themselves a gift from God.

4: “Mourn”: mourning makes us uncomfortable, because the loss is so big that it’s beyond our power to soothe the pain. It reminds us how small and helpless we are. But Jesus says, “They will be comforted.” By who? By God himself, who knows our pain.

5: “Meek”: Jesus calls himself “meek and humble of heart” in Matthew 11:29. So he himself will inherit the land -- so much for Satan thinking he could tempt Jesus with power! 

6: “Hunger and thirst for righteousness”: Jesus doesn’t say “those who go out and impose righteousness on others”. We are called to long for righteousness, and to practice it first in our own lives. The satisfaction of this desire for righteousness comes from God, not from our own work.

7: “Merciful”: Jesus makes this point in several parables. The measure with which you measure will be measured back to you. First we are given mercy by God -- the necessary starting point! -- and the sign that we have received that mercy and let it work in us is that it overflows to other people. Mercy is an action, not a feeling. We don’t have to feel warm and cuddly to offer mercy. It is enough to be united to Jesus, offering his mercy to others.

8: “Clean of heart”: also translated “pure of heart”. The pure of heart are single-minded, focused on God, and so letting God’s light shine through them like clean glass. Impurities, either sexual or some other kind of sinfulness, cloud our vision and absorb our focus, constantly distracting us from God’s presence. He doesn’t go anywhere when we feel far from him! It is we who pull away from him.

9: “Peacemakers”: Jesus calls to be active peace makers. God has the power to create, and he gives us his own power to make peace in the world, starting with how we treat those around us, whether they’re our family members, our friends, or our enemies. We can make peace by showing mercy, by being clean of heart, by being meek like Jesus himself. Remember, he is God, and what he says is true!

10-12: “Persecuted”: Jesus promises that we will be persecuted if we live according to these beatitudes. He also promises us the kingdom of heaven, which is a pretty huge reward. Do you feel persecuted? Do you feel misunderstood when you try to do the right thing? Jesus is giving us the power to be freed from worrying about what the world thinks of us, because we already know we’re going to be misunderstood. He’s giving us permission and authority not to be afraid of the opinion of others. But also look at what he says: “for the sake of righteousness”. He’s not giving us permission to be a jerk or to push our own opinion on other people, and then claim we’re being persecuted when people don’t like that! We also need to pay attention to the other beatitudes and remain meek, pure of heart, merciful, etc. Everything works together in the kingdom of heaven.

Salt and Light

13-16: Salt preserves, keeps food from going bad, and gives a better flavor. If it doesn’t do those things, what is it good for? (But God can bring good out of all things -- we know that salt underfoot can serve a purpose in cold and icy weather!) 

Jesus calls himself “the light of the world”. And he calls us the light of the world, which means that the light that shines in us is his light. We reveal Jesus to others! If we hide that light because we’re ashamed of it, we are not being true to ourselves or to him. And our good deeds should point others to God and glorify him. Otherwise, they’re like salt that has lost its flavor -- it’s there, but serving no purpose. 

Teaching about the Law

17-20: If Jesus abolishes the law, that mean that the law was bad. He comes to fulfill the law, to show us the deep reality underlying the laws and rules the Jewish people followed. That is why we don’t want to teach people, either by our words or through our actions, to disregard God’s commandments. We want to live so that the underlying truth behind the commandments shines through us. 

Who were the scribes and Pharisees? Religious authorities who seemed to think that just obeying rules externally made them righteous, without letting God’s love shine through them. God gives us his laws, not so that he can ding us when we aren’t perfect, but to guard our hearts and souls (and the hearts and souls of those we live with) as we “grow in age and grace and wisdom” and understand more and more about the rich love of God.

Teaching about Anger

21-26: Here Jesus starts to teach about how the law that the scribes and Pharisees think they’re following so carefully actually reaches into every little nook and cranny of our lives.

This is very personal for anyone who’s ever been angry at their brother! It’s easy not to actually kill your brother. It’s very very hard not to be frustrated with him, or to fight with him, or to see all the things he does wrong and blame him for them. And it’s a reminder to us that we wish people would understand our every little weakness and good intention and be merciful to us, and so we need to extend that same mercy even to the people we think we understand the best -- because God made them and loves them with the same deep love he has for us.

Teaching about Adultery

27-30: We often think that our thoughts are safe because no one can see them. But not only does God see into the depths of our heart (understanding things about us that even we don’t know), but what we think influences how we treat others, even if we don’t realize it. The bond of marriage is sacred, and it’s a great sin to be physically unfaithful. But it’s also a sin to use another person in your thoughts, because each person is made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus uses some vivid imagery to make his point. If it would be better to lose your hand (a major, painful loss) than to risk losing happiness with God forever, wouldn’t it be better and easier to change something that seems so little and hidden: the way we treat people in our minds?

Teaching about Divorce

31-32: Jesus is pointing to something very real and sometimes painful: that the bonds of marriage are real bonds, that create real connections. Even the legal action of divorce cannot sever those bonds, and this is especially obvious when the marriage brings forth new life. (Every child of divorce knows this.) Marriage isn’t something we can put on or off at will, or a legal contract with an escape clause. It is a reflection here on earth of God’s eternal faithfulness to us. 

It’s also something that can be extremely difficult, which is why Jesus gives us the sacrament of matrimony, so that the love between a man and a woman can truly be the love of God, in good times and in bad. 

Teaching about Oaths

33-37: People in the Old Testament took their oaths seriously and thought that they could somehow compel God’s help by making big promises. Only Jesus, the Word of God, can create by his very words! The only time that God gives our human words his own creative power is in the sacraments. Otherwise, we can swear up and down about something and it doesn’t change reality. There were several Old Testament stories about people who thought that their oaths were so powerful that they had to sin to fulfill them (Jepthah and his daughter, Judges), but Jesus tells us to speak plainly and simply and avoid big talk. Otherwise we just sound silly. We can’t make God do anything by swearing big oaths.

Also, swearing implies that we can’t be truthful without being forced to be. Jesus calls us to be so honest and full of integrity that our “yes” means “yes”, without extra words and promises to make it stick.

Teaching about Retaliation

38-42: We often think that we’re standing up for our own dignity by insisting on payback for the ways that we’ve been hurt. But Jesus shows us a new way: the way of love. The old law prescribed “an eye for an eye” because we often have the instinct to lash out harder and hurt the other person more than they’ve hurt us. But Jesus’s teaching is different than just total equality in everything. We are to give, even more than we think we should have to, and that way we don’t rely on our strength and goodness, but on God’s.

Plus, our very cooperation confounds our enemies and forces them to confront themself -- which is always more effective than being confronted by someone else.

Notice that Jesus is calling us to avoid sinning and doing evil to others, not to cooperate in doing evil. There are many ways we can be meek, peaceful, merciful, etc., without cooperating with bad things.

Love of Enemies

43-48: We are called to be “unusual”! Jesus gives us examples of natural behavior: loving your children; loving those who love you. That may not always be easy, but it’s standard human behavior. But God loves with a supernatural love, a love that is deeper than is naturally possible. His love is stronger than indifference or cruelty or hatred. And he gives us this love so that it will overflow through us to others (and from others to us -- have you ever received love and kindness from an unexpected person?). When he says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he’s not telling us to do something impossible. Remember, he’s the Word of God -- what he says literally becomes true. We can only love supernaturally because he gives us that love. And that’s good! It means we don’t have to rely on our own feelings or efforts to drum up love for people who seem unlovable, because all love comes from God in the first place and in the end. 

Matthew Chapter 6

1-4: Jesus just talked about loving our enemies and not just doing loving things for those who love us. Now he’s giving an equal but opposite warning: not to do good deeds just for show. It’s not that we are required to always hide everything we do. But we are required to do it from from love, not for some earthly reward. And there are lots of kinds of rewards: money, popularity, sympathy. God, who sees what is in our heart, can repay us more deeply than anyone on earth can. 

5-8: More caution from Jesus about doing things for show. Again, it doesn’t mean that we’re not supposed to pray in public! We’re not supposed to be ashamed of God. But we also don’t worship him so that others may see us. We worship him so that we (and others) may see him. And he does see us, even if no one else does, because when we are praying in secret, he is right there within us. He knows what we need before we ask because he is always with us. 

9-13: So how do we pray? Jesus gives us a model:

Praise first! Before we ask for what we need and want, we come into God’s presence and give him glory, and that puts everything else into perspective. Our problems aren’t meaningless or stupid, but they also aren’t the only way we relate to God. 

Our Father in heaven: First of all, we acknowledge our unity before God. OUR Father means we are all his children. FATHER means that we are dependent on him, and like him, and that he will always care for us. HEAVEN: He is where we want to be, and when we are truly with him, we too experience a taste of what heaven will be like when nothing separates us from him.

Hallowed be your name: HALLOWED means holy. This is both a statement of fact (your name is already holy) and a hope that his name will be held holy by everyone on earth.

Your kingdom come: Isn’t that what Jesus is always preaching, that the kingdom of God is at hand? And what does he call people to do because the kingdom of God is at hand? Repent. To repent is to turn away from what is wrong, which leads right into the next petition:

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: How can we know that the kingdom of heaven is here, or that we’re working to bring it about? The kingdom of God is where his will is done. We already know that God’s will is done perfectly in heaven; Jesus tells us so in this prayer. But he also tells us that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. We can start to taste the happiness of heaven here on earth. Sounds pretty good!

Give us today our daily bread: Jesus knows that we have bodies, and we have to eat. We need to take care of our physical needs, and the needs of those around us. But first: we’re asking God to GIVE us our daily bread. We don’t magically make it appear by our own power. All good things come from him and are gifts to us. We ask for it TODAY, not for a lifetime supply. Jesus doesn’t let us imagine in this prayer that we somehow control the future. God told Moses his name is I AM: right now, the present (for us); existing eternally outside of time, not bound by our conception of past, present, or future. He gives us what we need, when we need it. Our DAILY BREAD: Our bodies need to be nourished every day, and so do our souls, and God gives us what is right for each day. Some days we need to feel his help more; some days we feel stronger. That’s okay. Each day is different for us and we need God’s grace differently, and he supplies it. BREAD: this means our physical food, but it also points forward to the Eucharist, the food that feeds our souls. His bounty never runs out, even though to our eyes it may look like there’s barely enough to keep us alive. 

Also echoes of Exodus 16: the manna.

And forgive us our debts: We are not just sinners, but also weak. Our entire life is a debt to God. He gives and gives and gives as his free gift, and we are in debt to him not because he’s mean and wants to get things back, but because there’s no way we can ever match his generosity and his graciousness. That’s okay! We can’t be as big as God. But we can let him work through us, as WE FORGIVE OUR DEBTORS. It doesn’t always feel easy. But it’s not impossible. And since we know we have failed God in the past, we pray:

Do not subject us to the final test: Isn’t this a strange prayer? Shouldn’t God know whether we can pass the final test or not (or be strong in the face of temptation, as the more common version of the prayer puts it)? But these are the words of God himself, giving us permission to ask again for his mercy. Even Jesus, the night before he died, prayed that he might be spared, if it was God’s will. We’re allowed to ask for that! Our prayer might not be answered in the way we expect, but God himself tells us to ask him for mercy and help.

But deliver us from the evil one: How much should we focus on the devil and his attacks? Jesus puts him dead last in this prayer. Sometimes people think it’s exciting to think about all the creepy and horrible power the devil has -- look at the popularity of horror movies. But Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned with who is going to be victorious in the end. Does the devil scare you? That’s okay, and Jesus himself gives us permission to pray that we be delivered from him. But he’s very last on the list, and that shows where he should be on our priority list.

Still -- don’t mess with the devil! Halloween is coming up, and people think it’s fun to play games with spiritual powers. Don’t open that door. Keep your eyes on Jesus.

14-15: And what can’t the devil stand? Forgiveness! Our forgiveness comes straight from God. If you’re worried that the devil has a hold on you, pray that you can forgive others. Forgiveness isn’t a feeling, but a choice. It doesn’t mean that you haven’t been hurt, or that the other person is getting off easy somehow. It means you leave them in God’s hands.

16-18: Truly they have received their reward: if you think about it, what could be scarier than the idea of receiving your reward here on earth, with nothing left for eternity? When we do things for show here on earth, we get our reward here on earth. Jesus talks about this in the next section, the idea of laying up treasure in heaven. Here, he’s warning us against doing good things in order to get earthly recognition. Note that he’s not telling us not to do good things! Fasting is good; we know that Jesus fasted. And nothing we do is hidden from God. He sees and treasures every hidden battle we fight. He knows how to truly value our quiet gifts. And his rewards, unlike earthly rewards, last forever.

19-21: What kinds of treasures can we lay up for ourselves on earth? Money, of course; fame; recognition; power; sex; likes on social media. Even the treasure of safety -- of hiding away our gifts or talents because we don’t want anyone to notice us. These things bear no eternal fruit, and they receive no eternal reward. We give our heart easily here on earth, to people or to ideas. How do we lay up treasures in heaven? This is what Jesus has been showing us through the Beatitudes. His whole life is a guidebook for us on how to live in eternity here on earth.

22-23: The eye is the lamp of the body. The eye brings in light to the body; a lamp puts light out. What we look at, what we take into our minds affects the whole body and can even turn our light to darkness. Be careful what you consume! Be careful what you watch and read! Are you taking in good and nourishing books and movies and ideas and conversations that will keep your lamp bright? Or do you consume things that hurt you? Jesus is guiding us to pay careful attention to what we choose to watch and think about.

24: Two masters: who might your other master be? Mammon is a word for money or riches, and we know from above that we can have lots of different kinds of riches. What are you serving? What would you do anything for? What brings you peace and happiness? You cannot serve God and some other thing. 

25-34: “Therefore,” Jesus says, jumping right off the previous statement. How is it that we can stop serving Mammon, whatever Mammon may be? By not being anxious about our lives. Not putting undue emphasis on what we wear, what we eat, all the physical things that are important, but not as important as God. When we put him and his kingdom first, all other priorities fall into line. 

Why? Because he loves us. Look at the extravagant beauty of flowers, or the glorious plumage of birds. And these are things that will pass away quickly, even as we measure time. 

Do we spend time looking at God’s creation? Jesus is almost commanding us to take a walk, to observe all the things that God has made beautiful because he loves beauty, and he loves them. This applies to people as well! Everyone is beautiful because God made them. And he knows what we need, more than we do ourselves.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow”: this is your homework this week. Do not be anxious about tomorrow! Believe that God will send you your daily blessings as you need them, because he loves you so much.


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Immediate Book Meme: Darwin's Reading

I think I've only dipped into MrsDarwin's immediate book meme once or twice, in part because MrsDarwin reads much faster than I do and gets through more books.  However, this time I felt inspired to chime in with my own reading.

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.


***

1. What book are you reading now?

Audiobook:

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 by Chris Wickham

I started reading this because I was trying to decide whether to use it as part of the history/literature program for our sophomore, who will be wrapping up with Roman history in the last third of this year and needs to cover up to about 1000. I won't be assigning it. It's too detailed for that student, but I'm finding the dive into Late Antiquity interesting and I tend to be a completist, so I'll finish it up myself.

Dead Tree Reading:


The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World by Patrick Wyman

I've listened to Wyman's Fall of Rome podcast, and the ancient history seasons of his Tides of History podcast, so I picked up this book both to support the author and because the structure of telling about 1490 through 1530 via the lives of ten individual people sounded interesting.


I picked this up based on recommendations from pre-history resources that I was reading online, and it's a fascinating and slightly offbeat approach to describing what we know of the peoples who lived in dozens of prehistoric sites from the last glacial maximum to shortly before the development of writing, off beat due to Mithen's conceit of having a character, John Lubbock (named after a real life Victorian archeologist) travel through time and see what life was like in each of these sites, while at the same time the narrator is describing the digs and often his personal experiences with them. It's an unusual narrative device for a book which is not by any means light reading.  Mithen is an academic archeologist and this is the kind of book which is readable but very detailed.

2. What book did you just finish?
My finishing of books has been slow lately.  I've been listening to a lot of history podcasts, which has slowed down my reading of audiobooks.  And I just have been short of time for reading hard copy books.  But these are my last two:

Audiobook:


Yes, I'm still working on those novels, and thus still doing research reading for them.  Hart's book is heavier on first hand accounts (mostly British) and lighter on the development of military tactics, but it's definitely a good read for what it's doing.  (My favorite Somme history remains Philpott's Three Armies on the Somme.

Dead Tree Reading:

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Weir's third novel is much more in the vein of his first, The Martian, than his sophomore work, Artemis (which I didn't enjoy much.)  A deep character study it is not, but the main character is enjoyable and it whisks the reader through one well described technical problem after another.  Weir is definitely the kind of novelist you'll enjoy if you liked the early days of hard SF.

3. What do you plan to read next?

The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian

I feel like I've been lacking in fiction reading lately.  It's almost two months since I took a weekend off to read Project Hail Mary.  And the Audible credits have been piling up, so I already queued the next book my in re-read through Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels.  Actually, I'd only made it half way through the series before, so this is the first one that I haven't read before.

August 1914: A Novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

You can see why a massive series of novels spanning the history of WW1  and the Russian Revolution would appeal to me.  Plus, it's Solzhenitsyn.  I've had a copy sitting on my shelf tempting me for a while.  Gotta pick it up.


I may be kidding myself that I'm going to make it through another big history tome not related to WW1 this year in hard copy, but this was the other book that I acquired when I was on my ancient and pre history kick, and I'm curious about it because... well, humanity came out of Africa (and this book goes all the way back to the geologic past) and yet the history of the continent seldom gets covered in any comprehensive fashion.  I'm fairly excited to read it.


4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

This book of interviews with Russians about the waning days of the Soviet Union and its aftermath is fascinating (and depressing) and I keep meaning to finish it but have been in the middle of it for over a year.

Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel

Collected short vignettes written by Babel for Soviet newspapers portraying his colorful and often brutal experiences with a Red cavalry unit fighting in the Polish War against Polish forces in Ukraine and Poland, this was fascinating primary source material and yet somehow it's been sitting half finished on my nightstand for a long time.  It's easy to stop, because most of the stories are completely self contained.  And one doesn't always feel like a pleasant evening's ultra violence.

And of course, like MrsDarwin, I have completely failed to finish:


5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

I always feel like saying I'll read a novel condemns me to not reading it.  Indeed, I'm almost afraid I've cursed the books in question 3 by listing them, so I'll leave it at that.

6. What is your current reading trend?

History which I'm inspired to read by various intellectual rabbit holes.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

The Immediate Book Meme

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

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Because of my reduced access to my laptop now that the kids take classes online/chat with friends/do labwork, and because all of our computers have grown so slow that they're difficult to write on, this post has lingered on the vine long enough that my books keep shifting categories. But this time for sure!

1. What book are you reading now?

Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places, by Margaret Doody.

About the complex meanings behind the names of Austen's characters and places, and the history of names in this period of England. Fascinating, and a great resource for anyone wanting to write about this era.


I'm working through these as I prepare for each chapter of my Seventh Grade Bible Study on Matthew.

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

I just read Beloved (of which more below), so I'm trying some other Morrison to get a feel for her range.


1a. Readaloud

Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

We've just entered the Mines of Moria. (My 15yo daughter: "Wait, all this time it's been a literal mine? I thought you were saying "Minds of Moria".)

2. What book did you just finish?
As I say, this post was so long in the making that a lot of books that were going to be Next reads are now Just Finished.


I found this at the library while looking for something else. I read The Weeping Time, about the largest slave auction in American history, held at the Butler plantation. British actress Fanny Kemble married into the family before visiting the plantation (and later divorced out of it). Her horrified diary and letters and memoir give a window into the appalling culture of the plantation. Novelist Owen Wister (The Virginian) was a grandson of Pierce Butler and Fanny Kemble, son of their abolitionist daughter Sarah.

What Can I Do When I Grow Up?, by The School of Life

Also found on the library shelf in passing. (Folks: go browse the shelves in person.) This is a wonderfully British book from a foundation in London called The School of Life, which exists, I guess, to prepare people for life. The book begins with the commonsense assertion that it's ridiculous that adults will put kids on the spot asking what they want to do when they grow up when most adults don't feel entirely grown up themselves or know what it is that they want to do, even if they have a job. Then it discusses what is a job, what is the purpose of money, what your talents and inclination might point you towards, and examines the universe of hidden jobs that aren't always obvious to the consumer. 

This is the sort of book that I would have devoured devotionally as a child. My own children didn't seem quite as fascinated, but I bought a copy anyway. I made everyone do the exercise in which each person ranks the different kinds of pleasure derived from activities (The pleasure of Order, of Teaching, of Making Money, of Beauty, of Nature, of Technology, etc.) which can clarify why it is you like what you like. 


My daughter with dyslexia had a major reading click this year, and is tearing through books by herself. She's been reading the Penderwicks series, and I've skimmed along with her to refresh my memory. The author is clearly reaching for the easy childhood sibling fun of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit, but there's a odd disconnect in these books, an unwillingness to address the implications or even the existence of modern technology, and piggybacking on a foundation of Christian moral behavior without having to acknowledge that religion exists. 

The author -- and I find this exceedingly problematic -- also ends up excusing some very bad behavior by eliding over real and deep family traumas. This isn't as much in evidence in the earlier books, but I think it's the fourth novel, The Penderwicks in Spring, that has one sister blaming another for the childbirth death of their mother, and the younger sister going into a major spiral of depression and anxiety over it, and at the end instead of arranging for intensive therapy (and possibly hospitalization) for these troubled kids, the adults kind of brush everything off with "I'll try to pay more attention to you all." This is... not okay. These kids are intensely troubled, and the resolution is pretty troubling too.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston was a great student and observer of African-American folkways and cultures, and this story of Janie Crawford, a woman who longs to find true love, is an intense, engaging, and sometimes critical depiction of the vibrant Black culture of the 30s in Florida. 

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Morrison is following a literary path blazed by Hurston, even in her lush emotional writing. (Margaret Atwood's description of  Morrison's "anti-minimalist prose" is no more than the truth.) Morrison is a gifted writer who knows how to highlight the evils of racism with carefully vivid thematic elements. Beloved is a big bruising story of the ghost of a baby girl haunting the home of her traumatized mother Sethe, who has escaped from slavery and doesn't intend to see any of her beloved children forced back into that cruel life.

Morrison chooses the maximal visceral detail to underline the horrors of her story. Many of these I've read about in historical sources, but one major thematic incident is unprecedented in my reading (which is not to say that it is historically unprecedented, but just that I've never seen any documentation of this kind of violation, even in other cruel and oppressive cultures in world history.) It would be as if I wrote a book about the evil effects of Irish oppression on mothers during the Potato Famine and included a vile English landlord who wore a coat made of the skins of Irish children. The history is evil enough without my needing to invent a disgusting event to make it even more gut-wrenchingly gross. But as I say, perhaps Morrison found a mention of this in her research.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik.

I thoroughly enjoyed Spinning Silver by Novik and was excited to read her previous novel. And Uprooted is set in the same kind of world that Novik does so well -- a Grimm's Mitteleuropa of fairytales where magic is woven into the landscape. But where Spinning Silver was so devoid of romantic scenes that you almost wondered how the main characters would deal together, Uprooted features a two-page-long sex scene that makes it, in my mind, a bit much for teen readers -- more so because of fantasy nature of the interaction that doesn't seem humanly true to the awkward nature of first-time intimacy -- nor entirely true to the main character, either. I was disappointed, because it was a strange intrusion into an otherwise-recommendable book. It did make me want to re-read Spinning Silver, so there's that.

I should note that I also thoroughly disliked A Deadly Education, Novik's more contemporary fantasy novel, which did not have any sex scenes. This seems to make me an outlier in my community of reading friends, most of whom loved it. 

3. What do you plan to read next?

I... did not read Moby-Dick, and I no longer plan to read it next.

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik


4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Lost in Thought, by Zena Hitz
I really the concept here, an exploration of why the intellectual life matters to everyone, not just self-styled "intellectuals", but I felt like the book wasn't well-served by the current editorial trend of putting an autobiographical chapter right at the beginning. For all that, I'd like to finish it, and it's on my nightstand on top of everything else.

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Why is this taking me so long? I love it while I'm reading it, but once I put it down...


See above. I will never finish this book.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

I'm sure there's something out there I'm supposed to start, but nothing's leaping to mind right now.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Acclaimed fiction by African-American women.