Diary of an Old Soul by George MacDonald

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the reflective season of Lent for Christians. We always change parts of our house decor for the various seasons, and Lent is no exception. This year we hung a print of a watercolor of a poem by George MacDonald from his book Diary of an Old Soul. MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish preacher, poet, and writer of fantasy. You may have read his stories The Light Princess or, one my childhood favorites, At the Back of the North Wind. MacDonald’s writing (he penned 52 books) was hugely influential on the work of both C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They loved his evocation of the North and all the myth that surrounded it.

Diary of an Old Soul is a collection of 366 sonnets – one for each day of the year – that MacDonald wrote toward the end of his life. I first learned about them through a sad story about Paul Rogness. Paul was a son of Alvin and Nora Rogness. Al was the president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1960’s. Paul had been studying in England. After he had returned to the USA, but before he had returned home, he was killed in an accident. The family found these MacDonald sonnets handwritten in his pockets and later traced them to the MacDonald book. Al arranged for the book’s publication by Augsburg Publishing in 1975, with a foreword about Paul. The poems have old language and sometimes stilted meter, but each one gives you good time and thought for reflection. They are excellent reading for this or any season.

The artist and St. Olaf College art professor Arnold Flaten (1900-1976) was given a copy of this newly published book in 1975. Flaten knew he had cancer and started sketching from themes in the poems and then did watercolors. They are lovely ways to engage MacDonald’s poem. (You can learn more about Arnold Flaten at http://www.arnoldflaten.com.)

I have copies of five of the Flaten watercolors. Here’s the one we put up this year. It’s the poem for January 14 in MacDonald’s book.

MacDonald’s complete title for the book was A Book of Strife in the form of a Diary of An Old Soul. Although the edition I reference is not in print, there are many editions available. I picked this cover because of the picture of MacDonald. It looks like he is flying At the Back of the North Wind!

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

I just finished a six-week study group with people from my church about this powerful book. Wilkerson has brilliantly articulated the powerful history of the layers of our culture and how they continue to pervade our politics and our society. This book is a lot more than just another look at racism. She pulls the curtain back from the real source of white supremacy and gives us all a good look at everything it is.

By using the concept – the reality – of “caste” to define the racial and class divides in the United States, Wilkerson helps us understand the variety of human disparity and dismissive behavior. She spends time comparing with the more familiar caste system of India, and the astonishing parallels illuminate our own situation. “Illuminate” is a good word for this book, for she is indeed shining light where there has been none. Along with India, her comparisons with Nazi Germany are horrifyingly real, and her comments about how Germany has gone about healing from that are important for us.

Although it is an easy book to read as to the actual mechanism of reading, it is not an “easy” book to read at all. Each of the seven sections led me to pause and reflect on where she had directed me. It has made me want to do everything I can to readjust my own thinking and acting and to talk with others about doing the same. I think I have learned more about myself and others in the United States from this book than from anything else. She intersperses her reporting of the history, all deeply researched, with her own experience as a black woman in our society. She is a clear and persuasive writer, and I am grateful for having read this book.

There is so much rich material here it’s hard to pick one selection to share, but I think these paragraphs towards the end of the book will do: [What is called for is] a radical kind of empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is looking across at someone and feeling sorrow, often in times of loss. Empathy is not pity. Pity is looking down from above and feeling a distant sadness for another in their misfortune. Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining how you would feel. That could be seen as a start, but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world we live in. Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it. [p. 386]

Brideshead Revisited

More books and television!

Brideshead Revisited came to the TV screen in 1981. Based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh and starring Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons, it followed Andrews as the flamboyant Sebastian Flyte who befriends Charles Ryder (Irons) at Oxford. The story is funny at times, poignant throughout, and always a bit sad. Ryder is the narrator, and he tells us this story as he gets to know the very wealthy Anglo-Catholic Flyte family and maintains his often puzzling relationships with Sebastian and Sebastian’s sister Julia. His relationship with his very stoic, quite removed father (played by John Gielgud) contrasts sharply with the extravagances of Sebastian and the Flytes.

I write about this here as this is another instance of watching a television series and being drawn to read the novel. I found the series to be quite true to the novel and was glad to get this very British story from both types of media. This also introduced me to the music of Geoffery Burgon. Parts of his Requiem were the sound track for the BBC’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). That TV series drew me to read John LeCarre’s spy novels featuring George Smiley. Listening to Burgon’s music is very soothing in these troubled and unsettling times.

Reading is all about stories. And we can get those stories in so many ways these days. If you’re not acquainted with Brideshead Revisited do read and watch in whatever order! And you might check out Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as well.

Books and Television

I’m sure many of you have been tuning into the recent TV adaptation of James Herriot’s (Alf Wight) All Creatures Great and Small. We’ve watched all the new episodes so far – I guess we have to wait until next year for Season 2. We really enjoyed it, especially the filming of the countryside. The Yorkshire Dales are so beautiful.

I asked my friend Sharon Swanson, who hails from Yorkshire, if she had started watching. She said she is still too attached to the 1978 version, too loyal to Robert Hardy (who played Siegfried Farnon) to start the new one. I was curious, so I’ve started watching the old series. I think it just might be the better one. Certainly funnier from my knothole, and the Yorkshire accents and so on are probably better. The new one has some interesting twists such as more of a back story for housekeeper Mrs. Hall and more drama around James and Helen getting together. However, I watched the first episode of the older one soon after watching the new one and the script was almost exactly the same.

I’ve been trying to remember if I read the books before I watched the TV series. The first volume was published in 1972, so it’s possible. But I think I started reading the books after I saw the first few TV episodes. It all kind of blends together. Sometimes watching a television adaptation of a novel can introduce us to authors we might have missed. Sometimes the television adaptations are of well-loved books. However it happens, being introduced to these stories and authors by whatever means is a very good thing!

There are many editions of the books still available, and each book is delightful in its own way. Here are the titles:

  • All Creatures Great and Small (1972)
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful (1974)
  • All Things Wise and Wonderful (1976)
  • The Lord God Made Them All (1981)

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

When a friend recommended this book to me she said it was about urban foxes in London. “Is it a novel?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. So I got the book and read it and I am so happy I did.

It is indeed about urban foxes in London. The protagonist, Jean, is an American doing research in London. In the course of her wanderings to find the foxes she meets a Ghanaian psychologist named Attila. Attila is a highly regarded international expert on trauma among immigrants, refugees, and war victims. Their two lives intersect in interesting and revealing ways. One learns not only about urban wildlife in the Unites States and in London, but also about the ongoing struggles of immigrant/refugee populations worldwide and the trauma experienced in their families as well. At the end of the book there is a lecture by Attila that is worthy of further thought and conversation about the ways we make assumptions about the experiences of others.

This a really good book, and I highly recommend it! Here also is a good essay by the author about not labeling or making assumptions: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/13/aminatta-forna-dont-judge-book-by-cover

Book Binding

The Seattle Times book person, Moira MacDonald, sent a request out a couple weeks ago for information on local book groups that had been meeting for over 30 years. She got 175 responses! The Faith Lutheran Church Book Group (35 years old this year) sent their information, but didn’t make the cut. So I wrote a piece about the Faith group.

Thirty-five years ago several women who were part of Faith Lutheran Church in Seattle started a book group. Initially the pastor (that would be me) tried to steer the reading to books about the Bible and faith, so the first book group meeting (then called The Women’s Theological Book Study) in May, 1986, was Braided Streams: Esther and a Women’s Way of Growing by Marjorie Bankson. The group soon moved on to novels and other books and became simply known as the Faith Book Group. (It should be noted that the pastor often referenced novels in her sermons!) I can still remember sitting in Eileen Powelson’s living room talking about how to proceed with it all.

What began as a periodic gathering soon became a monthly event with more and more participants. We met in each other’s homes. The discussion was – and still is – somewhat casual. There’s no requirement to have read the book ahead of time, and there is no specific leader who has prepared questions and so on. The group just meets and talks about that month’s book and about their lives. The books to read are selected through conversation and ongoing lists. Everyone agrees on which book should be next, and books are often assigned a couple months ahead.

Early on, a December Christmas book exchange became an annual event. It started as “White Elephant” giving, and there were a fair amount of old nursing books and English 101 texts that made the rounds. But soon the Christmas gifts became a treasured exchange of favorite and popular books. Good-natured trading from the familiar number drawing method of selecting the gifts makes the whole evening lively and fun. One requirement is that, after a book is opened, the receiver has to read part of the blurb on the book’s jacket or back cover. That is always a pretty hilarious way to learn about these books! Over the years the Christmas books have become the resource to select the books to be read in the coming year. A few years ago the group started an annual Spring retreat, an excellent way to be together and, you guessed it, read! (There’s a lot of walking, laughing, talking, cooking, and wine drinking that happens as well.)

Of the books read, some like them, some don’t. Some read them all, some only a few. There might be the occasional disappointment when an offered favorite doesn’t resonate – that happened to me a few times! But whatever the appreciation of the books offered and discussed, the binding together of lives through these words and plots only deepens with each passing year. Sometimes in church we sang a hymn that went like this: Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken. Bind us together, Lord, bind us together, Lord; bind us together in love. This group is bound in their love of the written word, their community, and their shared life experiences.

One of my most powerful memories of this group is from my last year as pastor at Faith. The gathering was in Lynn Krog’s home and I can picture it still. I looked around the room at the women gathered and realized how much each of them had experienced in their life, both joyous and sad, and how, when joined together in their mutual love of reading the narratives of their lives overflowed into the shared narrative of the books. This group is still so dear to me (they let me come at Christmas and at the summer gathering in August) and I am so grateful that it is such an alive and enduring thing thirty-five years later.

And here is Moira MacDonald’s article: https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/books/take-a-peek-inside-the-world-of-longtime-seattle-area-book-clubs/

Winifred Holtby

In an email on an entirely different matter, I was reminded of the wonderful work of Winifred Holtby (1898-1935). She is another who wrote in the 1930’s in England, describing the new and more open world for women after World War I. I first learned of her through the 1979 television adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933). I read Brittain’s memoir right away, and then the next two volumes, the second of which is titled Testament of Friendship (1940) in which she honors her dear friend Winifred Holtby, who died at age 37 in 1935. (Brittain extended her memoir to a third volume, Testament of Experience (1957).)

Like Dorothy L. Sayers and her group of friends, Holtby and Brittain attended Somerville College in Oxford a few years after The Mutual Admiration Society. They also wrote their experiences into the complicated history of war, The Great Depression, and the continued struggle for women to be treated equally. Holtby’s most famous novel, published posthumously in 1936, is South Riding. It won the James Tait Black Memorial prize in 1936 and it was recently adapted for television. Holtby didn’t see the acclaim this novel received because of her death the year before. She was buried in Rudstone in the East Riding of Yorkshire, just steps from the house where she was born. This is engraved on her tombstone: God give me work, till my life shall end And life, till my work is done.

40 years ago one of my mentors, Mary Hinderlie, found me a copy of Women and a Changing Civilization by Winifred Holtby, published in 1935. At the end of her description of needed changes, she writes this: “We might, perhaps, consider individuals, not primarily as members of this or that race, sex, and status. We might be content to love the individual, perceiving in him or her a spirit which is divine as well as human and which has little to do with the accident of the body. We might allow individual ability rather than social tradition to determine what vocation each member of our community should follow. And it is possible that in such a world we should find a variety of personality undreamed of to-day, a social solidarity to-day rendered unimaginable by prejudices, grievances, fears and repulsions, a radiance of adventure, of happiness and satisfaction now only hinted at by poets and prophets.” I think Holtby is describing our same needs today.

The book mentioned in the email that got me here is The Crowded Street and it’s on my list to read. South Riding is the most available, so I recommend that to you all.

The Rise by Marcus Samuelsson

My husband and I both like to cook and we have an extensive cookbook collection. We often buy cookbooks when we travel to remember the places we visited through the food we ate. And we love cookbooks that have stories. In December we saw an interview with Marcus Samuelsson, chef and owner of the famed Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. He was talking about his new cookbook, The Rise. It is an amazing book highlighting the wonderful Black chefs in our country, including our own local Eduardo Jordan owner of Salare, Junebaby, and Lucinda Grains, all very close to our home. We so enjoy these places, and we’ve done lots of take out from Junebaby during the pandemic.

I bought The Rise for Larry for Christmas. Samuelsson includes with each recipe a story of the chef. Each recipe’s heading is “In Honor of (or sometimes in Memory of)” a chef’s name. It makes us feel honored to read these stories and to make this amazing food. We’ve done some cooking from it and really love it. (The cooking part has had its ups and downs!)

This book was just being completed when the pandemic hit. Marcus Samuelsson let José Andrés’ amazing World Central Kitchen team transform Red Rooster into a community kitchen to feed hundreds of people a day. You can learn more about World Central Kitchen here: www.wck.org The story of these last few months infuses the stories of these Black chefs so that we can all enter more deeply into the experience of this time.

Samuelsson writes this at the end of his note at the beginning of the volume:

The Rise was created to highlight the incredible talent and journey of Black chefs, culinarians, and writers at work today; and to show how the stories we tell can help make a more equitable, just industry. I hope this work, and this moment, leads us to raising up Black winemakers, authors, and farmers. I hope it leads to us supporting the next generation of Black chefs and hospitality workers who will change our industry forever. And I hope that this movement becomes a part of a permanent and much broader social change.

So much beauty and achievement has come has come out of tough times throughout history, and it is inspiring to see communities across the globe coming together to care for one another. We also know that the road “back” from the current crisis will be harder for Black people because of the systemic challenges that disproportionately affect Black restaurateurs and creators of all kinds. That’s why it’s so important for everyone to help bring more equity to this industry. …

We are the Black Food Community: Black chefs, Black servers, Black bartenders, Black food writers, Black culinary historians, Black recipe developers. Our food stems from challenged communities and challenged times. It comprises enslavement, poverty, war, yet our food has soul, and has inspired and fed many. We will rise, we will shine, we are survivors.

Black Food Matters.”

(Marcus Samuelsson, The Rise, Voracious/Little Brown and Company, 2020, p. xv)

Angela Thirkell

Today a friend sent a link to a Washington Post article from December 22, 2020, with recommendations from their book people for “light” reading in these tumultuous times. I put the word “light” in quotations because I think that often we dismiss novels that are fun as of lesser value than more “weighty” tomes. I think that’s unfortunate, as these novels are wonderful, revealing, funny, and the writing is usually splendid.

One author that appeared in this list is Angela Thirkell (1890-1961). I listed her in a blog post on June 3, 2019, when writing about authors on my shelves that I’d be happy to read again. Thirkell was English but lived in Australia for a while during her second marriage, and then returned to England. She was a very prolific writer, and her novels, which she sets in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire, are great send-ups of English society between the wars.

There are 29 Barsetshire novels! I haven’t come close to reading them all, but here are the ones that are on my shelf:

  • High Rising (1933)
  • Wild Strawberries (1934)
  • August Folly (1936)
  • Pomfret Towers (1938)
  • Before Lunch (1939)
  • Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940)
  • Northbridge Rectory (1941)

Do enjoy this “light” reading!