Monthly Archives: October 2013

Explanation of George Eliot’s phrase “an Italian with white mice”

This pertains to the entry I posted an hour ago. Better read that first!

I love the internet! Sure enough, a Google search for the expression “an Italian with white mice” turned up useful references. At the time in question, around 1830, the English were extremely xenophobic, so just calling someone “Italian” or worse yet “Corsican” would be pejorative, but “an Italian with white mice” probably referred to very poor street musicians, often children, who might exhibit white mice (or a monkey, tortoise or porcupine) while begging. The children were sometimes indentured and may have been “trafficked”, to use a contemporary term for the exploitation they suffered. The phrase also shows up in a novel by Wilkie Collins. So the next time you want to insult someone, say they are no better than “an Italian with white mice”! By the time they figure it out, you can be miles away!


Filling the gaps… “Middlemarch” by George Eliot

Another one of those books I missed in college… A friend of mine discussing “reform” in English politics said I had to read Middlemarch. A few rainy days followed, and before I knew it, I was hooked.

What a soap opera! The fictional “Middlemarch” is a small English town not accustomed to newcomers. Social stratification is very rigid. Eliot follows two sisters (Dorothea and Celia), orphaned and living under the protection of their uncle. They are part of the local aristocracy, just below those possessed of hereditary titles (none of whom actually live in Middlemarch).

The name “Dorothea” jumped out at me. That was my mother’s sister’s name, and I was told it came from a novel. Middlemarch? Quite likely. So where did my mother’s similarly romantic, literary name, Arvilla, originate? Any ideas??

Eliot starts with a discussion of St. Teresa of Avila, a passionate woman drawn to action and extremes of commitment. Middlemarch explores what might happen to such a woman in the England of her time. Dorothea, Celia and their neighbors Rosamond and Mary are her subjects. She also spend considerable time on the men in the community. Each young woman eventually marries.

Dorothea’s first marriage, to a man she idolizes, disintegrates as her husband succumbs to jealousy and suspicion. Dorothea is loyal. Her husband dies. Her sister Celia makes a socially “desirable” marriage and lives a highly predictable life. The widowed Dorothea eventually renounces most of her wealth and marries beneath her station, leaving Middlemarch and finding happiness with a man who lacks “background” but loves her devotedly.

Rosamond marries a newcomer to the community, and suffers great disappointment. Mary “takes in hand” a flighty but kind hearted man who happily steps down a bit on the social ladder in order to join lives with the woman he has loved since childhood.

So much for plot! If this hasn’t been made into a movie or TV series, it surely will be. (I haven’t checked the Internet Movie Database yet, or Sparknotes. I will do so, and may find out that I’ve got it all wrong or missed important nuances… After all, I’ve only read it once, and it’s not a “read it once” kind of book.)

None of the women examined led a life that would qualify her for sainthood. It’s unlikely that St. Teresa herself would have done so in the town of Middlemarch.

Miscellaneous notes… the book is full of unusual words, some archaic, some just obscure. If I had started a list at the beginning, I’d have dozens of find new expressions. Like megrim. Do you know what it means? I do, I looked it up.

There’s an epigram at the start of each chapter, some rather long, and some in foreign languages, not always translated in my (Kindle) edition of the book. Authors include Spenser, Bunyon, Shakespeare and others unknown to me. I didn’t read all the epigrams. I think I’ll go back and check them out. Great project for a future rainy day.

I was amused and puzzled by an expression used to describe a man of obscure or tainted family background. Dorothea’s “undistinguished” husband is described as no better than “an Italian with white mice”. What on earth does this refer to? WHO is the “Italian with white mice”? Will Google solve this one for me? Or Wikipedia?? Or someone who reads this blog post? Could this be one of the odd errors that occasionally show up in a Kindle edition? The expression is used more than once.

I’m glad I read Middlemarch. If I could take just one book on a long train trip, this might be it.

“Sisters” – a documentary film by Carol Rittner

Carol Rittner nearly lost me before the film began by introducing herself as Sister-Doctor-Professor Carol Rittner. That’s a lot of titles… But I’m glad I resisted the urge to exit.

Rittner produced the film “Sisters” in answer to the Vatican “investigation” of American nuns. The investigation is widely referred to as “the new Inquisition”. The nuns (or their leaders) are accused of  promoting “radical, feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” 

The film focuses on five sisters and is told almost entirely in their voices. They discuss their families and childhoods (most went to Catholic schools), their careers, their “calls” to religious community and their spiritual lives. One common thread is social activism. 

The sisters discuss their work with “the poor, the sick and the ignorant”. Nuns have a long history as teachers. I’m used to hearing people speak about “the poor, the sick and the oppressed”, or “…the suffering”. In an article about the movie, the phrase was “the poor, the sick and the uneducated or undereducated”.

There was NO male “voice” in this film. (Men are seen and sometimes heard in the “background” footage of the sisters at work.) Jesus gets only a passing comment. I don’t know if that was intentional. To me, full reliance on the female voice suggest vigorous, conscious feminism, which I like.

The careers developed (sometimes with financial support from their religious communities) by these women are very impressive – ER pediatrician, hospital administrator, college administrator, director of an NGO at the UN and social worker. (Hope I got these right and didn’t leave anyone out.)

In the question period after the film, Rittner was asked how these particular nuns were chosen. It was mostly by word-of-mouth and personal contact. Rittner wanted to include a nun whose ministry has consisted of feeding poverty stricken urban alcoholics for several decades, but the woman was too quiet and self effacing for the movie camera.

The good work accomplished by American nuns is not limited to the USA. Many are involved with projects around the world. I wonder if the male dominated hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church will come to its senses and see these religious communities as assets to be nurtured, not criticized. Time will tell… In the meantime, do see the movie if you have a chance. 

“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver

This book scared me. It’s like “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore which I never read, because of my friend Dick’s reaction, which was simply “I’m scared”. If Dick, a PhD and a clear thinker in the areas of science and public policy, is scared, so am I. And I know a great deal about global warming, so why read the book?

I knew less about the vulnerability of our food supply.

Kingsolver and her family decided to try for one year to eat from within their own county in Virginia. They didn’t go for 100%. Each chose a favorite food to “keep”, and they bought some things like rice, flour and oatmeal that just weren’t locally available.

They took a vacation in Italy. Without these human touches, the book would have been insufferable! Kingsolver certainly has a serious agenda.

Another saving grace is that she emphasized the local Farmers Market as the place where change can start. And I live among a plethora of roadside stands and farmer’s markets! I can buy fresh produce and flowers daily in summer. We argue over whose corn is better, the family around the corner or the farmer I pass on the way to work. I grow my own herbs and sometimes eat my neighbors eggs. What a blessing! Within this county, I can get fish, shellfish, venison and locally made wine. And possibly the best of all onions, something called a “candy onion”.

Will I made some changes in how I eat? Maybe… I hate to give up the distant fruits, like bananas and avocados. 

I originally read this book in July of 2009. Farm stands come and go – the feast continues!

“Playing the enemy – Nelson Mandela and the game that made a nation” by John Carlin, another book about political transformation

Nelson Mandela was only a name to me… After reading this book (which was the basis for the movie Invictus) I’m staggered by the magnitude of what he accomplished. South Africa’s Blacks (80% of the population) suffered some the worst oppression the world has ever known. Apartheid lasted until the early 1990s, then ended without the bloodbath that seemed almost inevitable. Mandela use the force of his personal charm over and over, and it worked. He stuck to his efforts despite grim setbacks, and he had ideas that were creative and surprising.

Where does a leader come from? Why did South Africa fare better than other parts of the continent? Why do other countries suffer so severely and so long?

The “game” in question was a world rugby championship. Rugby was the “white” sport in South Africa, passionately followed by the Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch settlers who speak a form of Dutch as their first language. Blacks were indifferent to it. The mostly white national team (the one Black player was not a South African citizen), the Springboks (I think that translates as gazelles) were competing for the world championship while South Africa was trying to function as a newly united country. Nelson Mandela had been elected President.

Mandela decided to try to bring Black South Africa into the excitement, to get them to support “their” national regby team. It seemed improbably crazy. But he did it. And the Springboks won! South Africa experienced a moment of delirious unity. The problems of integrated South Africa didn’t disappear overnight, but attitudes shifted seismically.

On the way to telling about the big game, Carlin covers a great deal of important history. Tucked in there is an anecdote (credibly documented) that touches me even more than the big game. (I don’t have the book in front of me, only my notes from 2009. See p 151.) An Afrikaner named Eddie was arming and training a militia for the expected race war. He was angry and very, very dangerous. Mandela agreed to participate (I think remotely) in a radio talk show alongside this declared enemy of black South Africans. Eddie spoke first, and he poured forth hatred and fear and anger. Mandela waited. Finally, he spoke. He spoke about Eddie’s concern for the future of South Africa, about his own love for their country, about the things they had in common. He expressed nothing but a positive attitude. He ended by saying “Let’s talk, Eddie”. The outcome isn’t given in detail, but evidently Eddie took at least a few steps back from his furious position. What was this – diplomacy? charm? tact? a miracle? Is there a way we can learn from this?

So read this book! Nelson Mandela is 95 years old now. He’s left a good documentary record, and we can all be inspired by it.

In recognition of the federal government shutdown, day 11 – Reflections on transformation

My review of The Candy bombers got more feedback than anything else I’ve posted here. This shows how hungry we are for TRANSFORMATION, for a way out of this grim stalemate that is hurting so many Americans. I can’t, offhand, find anything else as exciting as The Candy bombers, but I’ve found two more books about political situations (both potentially violent) that came to unexpectedly good conclusions. So stay tuned!

By the way, I’m now shielding myself from ugly reality by reading George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Perfect for a rainy afternoon!

“The Candy Bombers – The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour” by Andre Cherny

Before I write about this book, some personal history…

I spent the summer of 1971 in West Berlin, inside the Wall, working as an intern at the Institute of Nuclear Research (translation approximate). Once, from a train, a Berliner pointed out a big cube of boxes or barrels stacked in a freight yard. It was covered by a tarp. “In case the Russians blockade us again. But we don’t actually know if the food is still good,” he said. That was my introduction to the Berlin blockade and the airlift.

From my point of view, living inside the Wall carried a distinct undercurrent of cold war fear. The Wall was 10 years old and had reached its full physical magnitude (I think). It consisted of…

  • Cinderblock or brick
  • concrete pipe on top mounted to roll so one could not scramble over
  • Barbed wire
  • 25 meter “death strip” raked so any footprint would show and probably mined
  • Guard towers manned by soldiers in groups of three, so one couldn’t hold another at gun point and back across the border into the West
  • And maybe there were dogs

I socialized with an international group of students, and was the only American present most of the time. We all spent time with Germans, mostly but not always younger ones, at our workplaces. We believed that the East German guards at the Wall were under orders to shoot (attempted escapees) to kill, but not to let their gunfire go into the Western zone. I met people who had escaped from East Berlin. It was accomplished by bribery. Physical assault type crossings had become impossible by 1971.

When I was preparing for my summer in Berlin, I read a good deal. I had to stop reading about World War II. I found it too upsetting. I decided to take Berlin as I found it in May of 1971. I had a wonderful summer! Better than wonderful – educational, magical, exciting, enlightening. Every student should be so fortunate.

At some point (after my trip to Berlin) I had read a novel about the airlift, and I was curious to find out if what I remembered from that book (by James Michener? Leon Uris?) reflected a historian’s “reality”. It wasn’t far off. The novelist made it more “exciting” and better organized, and missed the fact that the US military wasn’t enthusiastic about the airlift. They never intended to do what they did, both in terms of magnitude and duration.

The Candy Bombers is a WONDERFUL book. I got a little confused by the number of individuals profiled. Minor quibble…

Context: When Germany was conquered and occupied at the end of WW II, the four allied powers divided the county into zones, with the Russians controlling roughly the northeast quarter of the country. The Russian zone included the capital, Berlin, and that sprawling city was ALSO split into four zones. So the Western powers (France, Britain, USA) controlled the West Berlin “enclave” completely surrounded by the Russian zone, later known as East Germany or DDR.

This arrangement was unstable from the beginning. In June of 1948, the Russians decided to evict the Western powers from Berlin. They blocked all access except by air, expecting the other occupiers to pull out in a matter of weeks. The Western powers, angered by the Russian action, started supplying themselves by air. Somehow, this evolved into an attempt to supply the entire sector with food and later coal. It seemed impossible, and nearly failed. But, probably to the surprise of the Western powers, the Berliners in the three Western zones hated Russia so much that they were willing to starve rather than turn to the Russians for food. The West Berliners and the Western occupiers unexpectedly became allies.

This book contains the sort of climax or epiphany seldom found in nonfiction. The author describes the utter bleakness of November and December, when planes crashed and the weather was bitterly cold and hunger set in. But in the chapter entitled “November” there is a section called “And yet…”

  • “And yet…in later years, Berliners…would (also) remember those months at the end of 1948 as among the most special of their entire lives…” p. 471

Why on earth?? Because the Berliners and Americans found a common cause and fought with all their strength to keep West Berlin from the Russians. Because the airlift caught the attention, first of soldiers and later of American citizens who wanted to feed hungry children. Donations flooded in, and the military went into overdrive, accomplishing a logistical miracle. “Candy bombing”, dropping candy to children, was started by a pilot who fully expected, when identified, to be disciplined for violation of many regulations.

I found gaps in this book, mostly pertaining to the time between the end of the war and the beginning of the blockade. My questions have much to do with the occupation, since I would like to better understand what has happened over the past 15 years in the Middle East.

My main question about the occupation of Berlin is WHAT WERE WE THINKING? How long did we plan to starve the children of Germany? A child’s ration was 200 calories per day.

I have no idea how to ask these questions. I’m no historian, nor even a very serious reader. The author of The Candy Bombers has a website, but I hesitate to attempt dialog.

What happened during the airlift was a TRANSFORMATION. A survivor wrote, “Things turned out in a way nobody could easily believe.”

“Transforming power” is sometimes a secular code word for God. And that’s the core of “liberal Christian” faith, the belief that transformation can happen. The Candy Bombers documents a transformative event of incredible magnitude. Berlin, of course, didn’t stay in the state of “grace” to which the airlift brought it. But the amazing fact of what happened remains.

At the end of the airlift “America’s strength was…an undisputedly moral voice”. My greatest wish for our country is that we might, once again, speak with that moral voice.

I originally read this book in November of 2008.

“Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization” by Nicholson Baker

A friend of mine met Nicholson Baker at a book signing, and mentioned his diversity as an author. Human Smoke is historical, but Baker recently published a novel and has released some “literary porn” (another new genre for me to ponder).

By chance, Human Smoke was handy. I’d started reading it before. This time I powered through it.

First there’s the unusual format. It consists entirely of vignettes, few longer than a single page, most less. Each is associated with a date. NOTES explain the origin of each item. The most common source is the New York Times. A list of references and and index add to the documentation, and I doubt there’s anything in the book that can’t be clearly identified as to origin.

There are no chapters or headings, just 900+ vignettes arranged chronologically. The first is from 1892, the last from December 31, 1941. Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the whole world was at war, but most loss of life still lay ahead.

What does Baker mean by “the end of civilization”? The title might lead you to think he was referring to the death camps, which were just being established when the book ends, but that’s not the main focus of the book. I decided Baker was referring to use of air power, which is one of the things that distinguished WWII from WWI.

The thing about aerial bombardment is that it worked so poorly. Hitting military targets by visual direction was incredibly difficult, so the choice was to desist or to bomb civilians, near military targets initially, then later almost anywhere, in order to “demoralize” the enemy. The extreme came with the use of incendiary bombs to create firestorms. Early in the war, both Germany and Britain expressed reservations about intentionally bombing civilians. Each side blamed the other for changing the “rules”.

Throughout the book, Baker includes statements by and about pacifists, antiwar activists, draft resisters and other nonconformists.

Towards the end of the book, I found this explanation: Four days after Pearl Harbor, the Gallup poll asked Americans if the US should bomb Japanese cities. TEN PERCENT OF RESPONDENTS SAID NO. Bombing should be restricted to military targets. Said Baker…

  • Twelve million people (the 10%) still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deed of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them. It was December 10, 1941.”

This book has been criticized for presenting facts without context. My reply would be that anyone who wants to present a different set of facts leading to another conclusion is free to do so. “Context” can be hard to distinguish from “spin”.

Baker offers this conclusion…

  • I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and the stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.

This book presents a different view from what we usually hear about WWII. As a baby boomer, I grew up with fragmented knowledge of what my parent’s generation experienced. Baker suggests that it was not all “inevitable”. There might have been another path through the dilemmas. We need to ponder this as we face new challenges. We’ve managed to avoid WW III, but the small, undeclared wars have been staggeringly vicious. Is someone out there speaking for negotiation, compromise and humanitarian action?

Book Source – The “Common Reading” selection process

Last Spring (May 7, 2013, to be exact) I commented on the Common Reading program at the college where I work. The Common Reading is linked to the Freshman Year Experience and to a “convocation” held annually early in the Fall semester. 

The convocation was held last week, so the process for selecting next year’s Reading is underway. The list is below. After two years of non-fiction, the committee is looking for a novel. Not a familiar book or author on the list!

1. Me Before You by  Jojo Moyes

2. Equilateral  by Ken Kalfus

3. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

4. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Klein


“Leaving India – My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents” by Minal Hajratwala

This book was a special find because it deals with emigrants from Gujarat, where most of my Indian neighbors come from. I study yoga at a local Hindu temple. Some (older) temple members speak only Gujarati.

This book also deals with a specific caste, the Khatri. There is tangential mention of “Patel” as a caste. It is a very common last name here, usually the most common name among our high school graduates, with 5 or 7 or 9 in a graduating class.

Members of the Khatri caste historically were weavers, but have moved into trade. Around here that means motels, restaurants and a wide range of small businesses. The author of this book is atypical. She is a journalist. Her father was an engineer/scientist, her mother a physical therapist. Their family of four included four nationalities – Indian, Fijian, New Zealander and American, the later two being the birthplaces of the author and her brother. (Possibly some of them have dual citizenship.) The family was in New Zealand at a time when Indians were normally excluded by racial quotas, but Hajratwala’s father had urgently needed scientific skills.

Hajratwala is also exceptional in being openly gay. (I may be jumping to this conclusion. I don’t know the local Gujaratis well enough to be sure.)

I cannot imagine having SO MUCH FAMILY! Hajratwala travels around the world visiting cousins and aunts and relatives by marriage… She records their life stories in vivid detail. 

This is a great book for people adjusting to or curious about America’s current level of diversity, or for anyone with a geographical frame of mind and/or an interest in India. (It says next to nothing about yoga or meditation, which seem to be most irregularly distributed around the Indian subcontinent.) The focus of the book is on individual and family experiences. A little religion, and no politics.

I originally read this in October of 2009. Four years later, I’m still happily going to yoga class at the Hindu temple two or three times a week.