Monthly Archives: May 2021

“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day (Everyman's Library (Cloth)) by Kazuo Ishiguro (2012-10-02)

This is a quiet, ruminative book set in England in 1956. Mr. Stevens is a butler. He has devoted himself to professionalism in providing service to an aristocratic household. He is aging and EVERYTHING is changing around him, forcing him to reexamine his work and his relationships.

England in 1956 resembled America in 2021 – recently traumatized and socio-politically divided. Why has so much changed so quickly? What is the essence of Englishness? Of American identity? What are the flaws of the system, and how may they be addressed? Issues of gender and social class abound in The Remains of the Day.

The plot covers only a few days, recorded as diary entries by the protagonist on a brief journey. It’s hard to comprehend the limitations Stevens lived with, despite his steady employment and relative financial security. There’s a romantic plot line, but it is so understated it barely exists.

In addition to analyzing his professional and personal life, Mr. Stevens tries to come to terms with a troubling aspect of England’s history, namely the complex interactions between Nazi Germany and some British aristocrats. American is presently trying to come to terms with its racist past.

The Remains of the Day has so much “atmosphere” that you could read it as a comedy of manners if that is your choice. But there’s much more going on.


“The Sacred Harp – 1991 Edition”

The Sacred Harp

If you’re going down an internet wormhole, choose a nice, cheerful one! There’s plenty on the web to send you off on depressing topics – war, racism, mental illness. Today I’m wandering through articles on vocal music and American heritage.

I encountered the Sacred Harp tradition in the early 2000s, at a Quaker weekend retreat in Pennsylvania. I took a workshop called “Shape Note Singing”. It was led by a no-nonsense man who arranged us into a choir, passed out hymn books and led us using very simplified conducting.

The music on the page, however, was a puzzle to me! The notes were round, square, triangular or diamond shaped! Everything was in four part harmony. We weren’t performing or rehearsing, we were simply singing! Those experienced in Shape Note singing could pretty much get it all right the first time. I struggled, substituting la-la-la for the words, but it was fun. 

Later I bought myself a copy of the The Sacred Harp and a few CDs. 

Musical recordings were first made about 160 years ago. Before that, you could only hear live performances. Imagine how precious they were!

Musical notation made it possible to share music with those who couldn’t hear it live, and even those who had no instruments. A tune can be conveyed by solfege, the use of syllables to convey intervals. You know, do-re-mi. Multipart music requires something more complex, hence musical staffs with notes and symbols. Shape note singing somewhat resembles the widely used modern staff notation. It’s an American system used mostly for four part vocal works. 

Sacred Harp music is religious. In the book, it says

“…music (is) the greatest art and science to attract the attention of mankind since the advent of the human family into the world. God himself, in the beginning, set all things to music, even before man was made…”

Music is mentioned in the Old Testament almost 4000 years before Christ. Great events have long been celebrated with music. The term “Sacred Harp” refers to the human voice, the free gift given to all of us.

Sacred Harp music is participatory. You attend a “singing”, not a “concert”. At, I found singings listed at many locations. Nothing in NJ, but three locations in Pennsylvania. Outside the US, events are held in six different countries. If you get an opportunity, try it!

State College (PA) Sacred Harp all day sing, 2011

“Like the Willow Tree – The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce – Portland, Maine, 1918” by Lois Lowry

Like the Willow Tree : Portland, Maine, 1918(CD-Audio) - 2011 Edition

This book, part of the “Dear America” series, was written for children ages eight through twelve, and was originally published in 2011. It has been republished because it deals with the impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on families. I found in slightly didactic, but didn’t stop reading.

Eleven year old Lydia and her older brother Daniel are suddenly orphaned by influenza, which could kill in less than 48 hours. Their nearest relative (an uncle) is unable to care for them, so they are taken to the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake. 

Historical background: The American Shakers were a Utopian religious sect. Committed to celibacy, the communities grew by accepting converts and fostering orphan children. In 1918, their numbers were declining, and there were more female than male Shakers. In addition to farming, they manufactured high quality furniture, wooden boxes, herbal remedies and clothing to support themselves. 

Lowry paints a positive picture of Shaker life at that time and place, and the fictional Lydia could certainly have faced far worse circumstances. The big shock for her was the almost total separation of the sexes in Shaker life. Lydia couldn’t visit freely with her brother. She adapted quickly to the Shaker lifestyle of simplicity, hard work, good food, worship and joyful singing. Daniel, however, ran away, leaving Lydia afraid for his safety. He returns during a blizzard, when the community needs help. An epilogue suggests Lydia left the community to marry at age 23, but Daniel was a Shaker all his life.

Only a few Shakers now survive, but “Requirements for Membership” are posted on their website. I found a news article suggesting a new member may join the group. Sabbathday Lake has become a retreat center, and is supported by an active “Friends of the Shakers” organization, consisting of people who value the spiritual and cultural heritage of Shakerism. Their worship (absent Covid) is open to all. I would like to visit them. 

“Son” – part 4 of “The Giver Quartet” by Lois Lowry

I discovered Lois Lowry when I worked as a substitute teacher in my local K-8 school district. A substitute doesn’t do grading and administrative work like a regular teacher, so during my “down” time, I read whatever was around. Later, I made a conscious decision to keep reading Young Adult fiction, in order to know what my teenaged friends were enjoying. I categorize these books as fantasy because of their (unexplained) supernatural elements.

The Giver grabbed my attention. 

The setting of The Giver is dystopian, a community where contentment is achieved by conformity and the suppression of emotions. The Giver is the first in a four book series. Son is the last, and I found it satisfying. It portrays personal growth and the (endless) battle between good and evil. Great plot! Half way through Son, I realized I had NO IDEA how the book would end.

An aspect of this book that I liked was its emphasis on preparation. If you are determined to do something difficult, can you prepare? Two contradictory scenarios play out. In one case, a young woman trains for years in order to surmount a physical/psychological challenge. Another teenager invests his time and effort in building a boat. Total failure. Soon after, he faces his enemy hastily and poorly prepared, but triumphs in a contest of wills. 

Lois Lowry wrote more than forty books, some of which have been adapted to film or stage, and The Giver was made into an opera. (I can’t imagine this.) I look forward to reading her memoirs. 

“Final Say – How a self-taught linguist came to own an indigenous language” by Alice Gregory

Penobscot Bay

Published in The New Yorker, April 19, 2021

This article came out RIGHT after I read Dickon Among the Lenapes! It centers on Carol Dana, who was born on Indian Island, Maine, in 1952 and now holds the office of “Language Master” for the Penobscot Nation. I Googled the term “Language Master”, and found it to mean either a recent software offering or a very archaic term for a male language teacher. So the Penobscot use of the term is new and possibly unique. Why is it needed?

The “self-taught linguist” of the article’s title is Frank Siebert (1912 – 1988), self-taught anthropologist, ethnographer, bibliophile and cranky eccentric, who documented and analyzed the Penobscot language for decades. He was so certain of his scholarship that he once corrected a tribal elder on a point of grammar. (This was neither forgotten or forgiven.)

This article had an additional subtitle: “How to save -or steal- a language”. In what sense did Siebert “own” the Penobscot language? His books (he collected avidly) and papers, auctioned off after his death, generated twelve million dollars which went to his two daughters. Siebert’s Penobscot collaborators and hosts received nothing.

The Penobscot language was declared “dead” before 2000, meaning there were no more speakers for whom it had been a first language. Many Penobscot had been educated in the infamous Indian boarding schools, where only English was permitted. Carol Dana understood the spoken language because she remembered hearing her grandfather tell stories. She and the tribal leaders are committed to bringing back the spoken language and publishing the legends. It’s a complex, long term project.

A language is so much more than grammar and vocabulary. In Penobscot culture, certain stories belonged to certain families, who could grant or withhold the right to share them. Certain stories were restricted by gender. Some were only told during a certain season. Who regulates such uses? What happens when the situation is subject to intellectual property law?

Appointing a “Language Master” is only one of many steps (some controversial) taken by the Penobscot leadership to revive and protect their language. A University of Maine scholar commented

“if…we had never been forced to unlearn our language, we wouldn’t have to this sort of precious relationship with it.” 

American law and culture have some catching up to do. I hope Alice Gregory (who has covered a variety of interesting topics in The New Yorker) will continue to write about this in the future. 

“The Indians of New Jersey – Dickon Among the Lenapes” by Mark. R. Harrington (Jiskogo)

The Indians of New Jersey: Dickon Among the Lenapes

This book was published in 1938. It’s about half fiction and half ethnography. The combination works! Amazon lists it as being for ages 9 – 12 years, but I wouldn’t call it a children’s book. 

The plot… In 1692, an English ship bound for the Jamestown, Virginia, colony (established only 5 years previously) is struck by a storm and young Dickon is washed overboard near what is now the New Jersey shore. He is found by the native Lenape residents and taken to Turtle Town on the western (Pennsylvania) bank of the Delaware River. 

Dickon fears for his life, but the village leaders decide he is human (not a demon!) and keep him alive. His initial status is that of a slave or servant.  He is handed over to an old woman who lives alone. She is good natured and instructs Dickon in both Lenape language and a wide variety of skills and chores that are important in the village. Dickon and “Granny”, as he thinks of her, become close, and when she dies, he grieves. 

Eventually, Dickon is formally adopted into the community, which numbers (I think) fewer than 100 people. He lives in Turtletown for about two years, before being “rescued” by an English ship.

One thing to keep in mind is how badly the English Jamestown colony was doing at that early date. They were starving on land that supported the native population in good health, and their understanding of the original culture was minimal.

I wondered, as I read descriptions of hunting, gardening and wood gathering, if the Turtletown community described was pushing against its ecological limits.

Dickon Among the Lenapes book is wonderfully descriptive, enhanced by numerous drawings (by Clarence Ellsworth) and maps. Supplementary material includes introductions from 1938 and 1963, plus ten pages of commentary on the Lenape language, with vocabulary. The 1963 introduction was written by Rutgers University scholar Mary Gaver. The curious reader is directed to the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton and institutions in New Brunswick and Newark.

Harrington, who died in 1971, wrote as follows: “To The Survivors and Descendants of the Lenape Who Unfolded to Me Their Heritage, This Book is Affectionately Dedicated”. He names two Lenapes and one Seneca who assisted him in his research and writing. I was surprised that the two Lenapes did not live on historically Lenape land, but rather in Oklahoma and Canada. In addition to the Lenape name “Jiskogo”, Harrington was given names by three other tribes. His field work was extensive and very thorough. 

Harrington wrote a second novel describing Dickon’s further adventures among other tribes in the Iroqois Confederacy. I hope to find a copy.