Gleodileg* Jolabokaflod!

This year, my family celebrated Christmas on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving. We approach the holidays “creatively” and have previously celebrated Christmas at times ranging from Black Friday to The Day Itself. Thanksgiving and Christmas were combined about 15 years ago, when it became clear that gathering TWICE was simply impossible.

A designated “game master” defines our gift giving arrangement. This year my niece organized a combination of “Secret Santa” and “Jolabokoflod”. Jola…what?

Here’s an explanation of this popular new holiday tradition

This is how it worked for us. Each of us sent a (private!) message to the game master, listing:

  • a book we wanted
  • a favorite genre or author
  • a pet peeve (I nixed historical fantasy fiction)
  • OR our willingness to let Santa choose

SOMEBODY heard that in Iceland on December 24, families exchange books and spend the evening reading and drinking chocolate, or possibly eating chocolates. So we also submitted our chocolate preferences – dark or milky, soft or chewy, favorite brand… Turns out caramel sea salt/dark chocolate is the winner. Ghirardelli was the most popular brand. Seventeen family members participated.

Here’s the outcome:

We didn’t photograph the chocolate. Use your imagination!

*In case you are wondering, I used GoogleTranslate to approximate “merry” or “happy”. I wish you a Gleodileg Jolabokaflod! You can pronounce it any way you like.

I already finished reading my gift book. Stay tuned for a review!

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“Bohemian Rhapsody” by 20th Century Fox et al

Bohemian Rhapsody poster.png

I don’t go to the movies very often, so I find our family tradition of a movie after Thanksgiving dinner exciting! Ten years ago, a dozen of us would troop out to the latest Harry Potter movie or Lord of the Rings extravaganza. Now, tastes are more sophisticated and wider ranging. Luckily, a multiplex theater offers something for everyone. This year, five of us decided to see “Bohemian Rhapsody” while others went to “Fantastic Beasts”.

I hadn’t paid much attention to what “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about. Music, right? Well, I’ve managed to miss a good deal of popular music and popular culture over the past few decades, but it turned out I did recognize more than a few of the band Queen’s iconic, blockbuster songs.

I had totally missed out on Freddy Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara), the lead singer of Queen. What talent and creativity! Mercury is played by Rami Malek, who rose to great challenges in portraying the complex, conflicted genius.

I can’t pass critical judgment on this movie… I have no idea what a “biopic” should be like.  (Wikipedia provides links to dozens of reviews and related commentary.) But I enjoyed it very much, and plan to look back into the music of Queen and the Live Aid concert (which I DO remember!) that serves as the climax of the movie.

“What Hath Got Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848” by Daniel W Howe, part of “The Oxford History of the United States”

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday I spent many hours in the car, driving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then to a suburb of Washington DC and finally home to New Jersey. Recorded books make grueling trips bearable! My fellow traveler is working his way (selectively) through The Oxford History of the United States.

The Oxford History (conceived in the 1950s and published starting in 1982) will eventually consist of 12 volumes. They are not strictly sequential. (Some deal with a topic rather than a time period.) We are making no effort to read them in order. My husband began with The Republic for Which it Stands, covering 1865 to 1896 (Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age”). Then we jumped back in time to What Hath God Wrought.

Initially, this book was going to be titled Jacksonian America. Wow! I didn’t realize how much there is to hate about Andrew Jackson! His attitudes toward African Americans (enslaved or free) and native Americans were ugly. The rest of the world was turning it’s back on the “peculiar institution”. How would America move forward? The US was on shaky moral ground.

Taking a step back, the value of this book is that it shows how unprecedented and experimental the newborn United States was. The future success of our country was by no means assured.

Okay, I admit to having slept through a good deal of the recorded text, but it didn’t matter. What I learned was interesting! Consider, for example, the role of violence in civic life. Why so many riots? This book was published in 2007, but it has a remarkable amount to say about politics and behavior in 2018.

Three issues in this book that particularly engaged me were

  • the abolition movement
  • “Indian removal”, as in The Trail of Tears
  • women’s rights, especially suffrage

Sometimes supporters of these movements aided each other, and sometimes they found themselves at cross purposes.

When I’m on the road, I often need music or conversation, but well written history also makes the miles roll past. Previously I’ve read popular books about World War II. Shifting towards these more scholarly works has been worthwhile.

Memories of high school English with Mrs. Gerhardt (1964-65)

One day my sophomore English class convened to find, on each desk, a blank piece of paper. Our teacher wore a serious expression. “Today is lottery day”, she announced. We silently shuffled our mental files, arriving quickly at Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery that we had read earlier in the year. We looked at Mrs. Gerhardt inquiringly. She told us to turn over our papers – she had one, too. A young woman had the black spot. Another pause. Mrs. Gerhardt crumpled her paper and threw it at the chosen victim. We followed suit, littering the classroom.

There was a collective sigh… Release of tension? Discussion followed. The “victim” was asked how she felt. “I knew you wouldn’t really hurt me.” My high school did not protect us from controversial and potentially upsetting literature. Wikipedia tells me that The Lottery (published in 1948) was so unpopular and notorious that it was banned in some jurisdictions, and Jackson received hate mail. Some would define the theme as “it can’t happen here”.

How many teachers can teachers can plan a class that you remember FIFTY YEARS later? Mrs. Gerhardt was a wonderful, stimulating teacher. She took us seriously as readers and writers.

Sophomore year was reserved for American literature, with the usual deviations. Every year, we read one play from Shakespeare (sophomore year, maybe it was MacBeth), worked our way through a grammar text identified only by the name of the author (Warriner), and gobbled up vocabulary from a book calledWorld Wealth. We got SO good at grammar and vocabulary! That left at least 70% of our classroom time for other pursuits.

What did we do? We read! Sometimes we read plays. I was cast as the mother in Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Two boys with theatrical inclinations performed Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. And once each semester, we had a “Folk Day”. We prepared and shared whatever we wanted, so long as it had some relationship to American folk culture. This was in the day of the “hootenanny”, of folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary, of Bob Dylan. Folk Day was wildly popular. A friend and I sang an old English folk song, a love ballad, accompanying ourselves with guitar and recorder.

Searching for something that didn’t require a partner, I stumbled on the book Over Their Dead Bodies – Yankee Epitaphs and History by T Mann and J Green. Great! It qualified for Folk Day. But I had a problem. One of the epitaphs struck me so funny that I couldn’t read it aloud without cracking up. I de-sensitized myself by repeating it over and over, until I could recite it with a straight face. This planted it permanently in my brain:

Under the sod and under the trees

Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.

He is not there, there’s only the pod.

Pease shelled out and went to God.

Really?! Was the author kidding us? Has anyone else got such a silly bit of drivel stuck in his/her brain from decades ago? Please share under comments. Using Amazon, I confirmed that this book was published in 1962. Used copies are available! Genealogy fans take notice.

I already wrote about the journals Mrs. Gerhardt required of us. See my blog entry of July 8, 2016. Fifty years of my journal writing has been consigned to a reliable archive.

Another activity from sophomore English was the Book of the Month competition. I think it actually happened four times a year. This wasn’t just an oral book report. You had to “sell” your book as the “best” book, make everyone want to read it. The class voted, and two books (there were two sections of Honors English) would be posted as winners. Once I went all out. I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, and plugged it as exciting and patriotic. And I won! But the other class, in a fit of mischief, all agreed to vote for someone who did a terrible job on a perfectly awful sounding book. Mrs. Gerhardt, offended, posted my name and winning title/author in lonely splendor on the classroom bulletin board.

Rest in Peace, Mrs. Gerhardt! You enriched our lives and kept us busily occupied through a year of adolescence.

If YOU had a wonderful teacher in high school, please share!

“The Fly Trap” by Fredrik Sjoberg, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

Published in 2004. Translated from Swedish in 2014 by Thomas Teal. Paperback by Vintage Books, 2014. 278 pages.

The Fly Trap by [Sjöberg, Fredrik]

This cheerful book delves into two of my amateur interests, entomology (the biology of insects) and art history (with emphasis on art theft and forgery). I hang out with entomologists, and visit art museums casually.

The Fly Trap is both memoir and biography. As Sjoberg’s personal memoir, it is the first volume of a trilogy. The next two books are The Art of Flight (2016) and The Raisin King. One reviewer suggests that these three books might also be categorized as travel, natural history, popular science or even poetry.

The “fly trap” of the title is a collecting device used by entomologists and called the Malaise trap. It is named after it’s inventor, Rene Malaise (1892 – 1978). According to Wikipedia, Malaise was an eccentric Renaissance man, and little was written about him before Sjoberg produced somewhat biographical this book.

Sjoberg is described (by Wikipedia) as

  • entomologist
  • literary and cultural critic
  • translator (If you are Swedish, do you have any choice?)
  • author

Malaise was

  • entomologist
  • explorer (Siberia)
  • art collector
  • inventor
  • geologist (one time defender of the Lost Continent of Atlantis)

With a mix like this, the book was bound to be interesting. It is enhanced by Sjoberg’s whimsical, non linear style. While studying Malaise, Sjoberg “caught” the art collecting passion, described in the book’s final chapter.

I pay attention to authors mentioning other authors. In one chapter (entitled “Slowness”), Sjoberg mentions (at least) three authors:

  • Lars Noren – Czech born French writer, still living
  • Milan Kundera – Swedish playwright, still living, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • D H Lawrence – English, 1885-1930, best known for Lady Chatterly’s Lover

I recommend this book if you like the out of doors, natural history and/or bugs. Also books, art and travel.

“Faith and Practice” by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends

Publication history:

  • Adopted 1955
  • Fifth Revision 2017
  • Ninth Printing 2018

310 pages, including:

  • Foreword and Preface
  • detailed information on sources
  • biographical information on authors, of which there are >125

Genre: Book of Discipline/DIY (religious life)

Faith and Practice starts with a disclaimer. The reader is admonished that the book is “a guide, and not a rule…”

There’s so much included in Faith and Practice. I refer to it frequently, but the closest I ever came to a complete and careful read-through was when I was planning to be married in 1979. I’m sure I skipped a good deal. Investments? Someone else can decide. Committees? Are they mandatory? There have been many changes since 1979, but the book is only a little thicker. Certain newer concerns have emerged, like environmental stewardship.

Why did I put “DIY” above, marking this as a do-it-yourself book? Because Quakerism is do-it-yourself religion! We do not ordain or employ ministers, pastors, priests, etc. There’s no centralized authority, like a bishop. We share responsibilities. Occasionally we hire people to perform services, like a secretary or custodian or landscaper. But our religious life is what WE make of it.

My favorite part of Faith and Practice (judged by how often I read it) is the Queries. A query is a question addressed either to the individual or to a group of Quakers, a meeting. (A meeting is a Quaker congregation.)

Sample Queries:

  • For the individual (from the 10th Query, Ministry of Outreach): How do I share my spiritual life and experience with others?
  • For the Meeting (from the 11th Query, Education): What does our meeting do to support and improve public education?

Obviously, there are no “right” answers!

The Queries are written to be pondered. They are grouped into 12 sets, so a person or meeting may consider them over the course of a year. But in practice, there’s plenty of skipping around! A concern for social justice may lead to review of the 9th Query, Equality and Justice.

I just looked up Faith and Practice on Amazon. The book I have here in my hand is not listed. Too new! It can be ordered from Quakerbooks.org. The versions on Amazon are obsolete or come from Quaker organizations outside the Philadelphia area, like Baltimore Yearly Meeting or Britain Yearly Meeting. Each is a Book of Discipline assembled by Quakers.

But, oh no! WHAT’S THIS??? “Amish Romance Onmibus (Amish Sweet Faith Boxsets Book 7)”. Amazon, how could you do this to us? To the Amish? Quakers and Amish are NOT THE SAME!! Don’t get me wrong. We admire the Amish. We hope they like us. We share a commitment to peace, a concern for simplicity. BUT we came from different places, at different times. Quakerism emerged in the 1640s in England, the Amish in the 1690s in Switzerland. Quaker historical documents are in English. The early Amish spoke German and they still use it sometimes. Both groups are derived from “mainstream” Christianity. Each was in some sense schismatic or dissident. (I wonder what the Amish think of these romance novels!)

But Amazon should know better! Wikipedia is quite clear. I must find a way to educate Amazon.

And I must spend some time with the new Faith and Practice, reading and thinking…

“Having Our Say: Women of Color in the 2018 Election”, a lecture by NJ Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver

Personal note! Living near a college (in my case, Stockton University) is an advantage. Something is always happening. In the past few weeks, I’ve attended three lectures. Unrelated to the University, I stepped out for one speaking engagement. I will blog about all of this. Stay tuned!

Institutional note! FIFTEEN years ago Stockton University initiated the Fannie Lou Hamer Human and Civil Rights Symposium. What a great program! Every Fall, a distinguished guest speaks about RIGHTS. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was an amazing example of a person who acted to expand human rights in our country.

Now to discuss the event and the featured speaker. Sheila Oliver was preceded by about 45 minutes of music, dance, welcome and introduction. It was interesting to note which earlier civil rights leaders were mentioned in either the introductions or Ms. Oliver’s presentation:

  • Shirley Chisholm
  • Coretta Scott King
  • Angela Davis
  • Mary McLeod Bethune
  • Eleanor Roosevelt

The auditorium was dark, so my note taking was limited. Ms. Oliver pointed out that in this election cycle, many women are choosing to run outside of the two major parties. The importance of state legislatures (when the US House and Senate are polarized and paralyzed) was emphasized.

I’m always curious how a leader is shaped by her education. Ms. Oliver mentioned A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens) and The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck) as foundational for her, and also recommended Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, by S and E Delany.

Ms. Oliver was not long winded, but many students left before the Q/A period. Maybe shorter preliminaries would reduce this attrition?

The panel assembled for feedback and discussion was distinguished. I won’t try to cover everything said. The standout was Christabel Cruz of the Rutgers Center for American Woman and Politics. Emerging leader! She was the youngest panelist and the first (only?) speaker to address discrimination against the LGBTQ community. She is energetic and articulate and exactly the right person to reach out to millenials. After all, this event was intended to engage STUDENTS. I hope Ms. Cruz stays in New Jersey.