All posts by alicemg2013

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Where is the Space Force when we need it?

Just in case you are wondering what extraterrestrials might think about our planet, here’s a quick take on the meaning of human life.

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SOJOURN – A journal devoted to the history, culture, and geography of South Jersey

South Jersey Culture & History Center Logo

In my last entry (which was rather a rant), I commented that my part of New Jersey has been slow to develop an identity, slow to achieve recognition, possibly lacking in self/civic awareness. I’m pleased to announce that this is changing! We are now blessed with a fine academic journal, produced by the South Jersey Heritage and Culture Center at Stockton University.

Sojourn describes itself as a collaborative effort. The presiding genius is Dr. Thomas Kinsella, Professor of British Literature at Stockton University, who supervises an editing internship program for Literature and History majors. Papers are solicited from local historians and other authors. (Academic credentials are not required.) Students edit and format the work. The result is impressively professional. A wealth of maps, portrait reproductions and photographs (both historic and contemporary) make for a high level of visual appeal.

The most recent issue is themed around the American Revolution. Fourteen articles cover aspects of that conflict. I was particularly interested in “When Mad Anthony Came to South Jersey: Civilian Experience during the American Revolution” by retired Stockton University Professor Claude Epstein. He discusses how the military actions in South Jersey stressed and distressed a population that was relatively poor and dispersed. He describes the Revolution in New Jersey as “more of a local civil war with multiple sides.” Not the simple narrative of valiant patriots battling evil Tories that some of us were taught in school!

I checked Sojourn’s “Call for Articles” to consider if I might want to contribute. I’ve lived here 40+ years, which makes me an old timer. Unfortunately, there’s no humor category! I plan to offer my article “Sex clubs, convenience stores and ‘The Wawa Way’” (see blog post dated July 9, 2014). Think I can talk them into it?? I could probably manage to add a few footnotes, if necessary.

Copies of Sojourn are available in the bookstore at Stockton University’s Campus Center, on Amazon.com and at a few local outlets. It would make a nice gift for anyone interested in local history, or having some connection to Stockton University.

Cover image of SoJourn 3.1

The Use and Abuse of Fiction – personal opinion

Why write fiction about real events? Why make up stories about World War II, or Ireland or the Great Depression? Why not stick to imagined worlds, like JK Rowling’s delightful, magic permeated version of England?

Consider the wild popularity of the “Humans of New York” Facebook site. There are SO MANY tales to be told. Why not tell them, as is done with Holocaust survivors and military veterans (to name a few) in oral history projects? I offer The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline as an example of a book written about events that, I believe, have been extensively documented. More about it below.

Sometimes the truth is just too painfully awful to bear.

  • Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, who participated in the battle for school desegregation as a high schooler, is a non-fiction account so harrowing I couldn’t read it.
  • The truth behind Beloved by Toni Morrison is even worse than that portrayed in the book/movie, in which an enslaved woman kills her child to keep him from slavery.

Fiction represents a selection of what is (or isn’t) “meaningful” or important about an era or event. I’m convinced that “meaning” is assigned, not inherent. The meaning that an author assigns to an event may be very different from what participants experienced. If the people are available (or left records), I would rather listen to real voices than read a fictionalized account.

I think fiction represents a consensus (of sorts) on what we are going to remember, emphasize and/or construe about events.

Fiction has its conventions. Usually major characters stay alive for most of the book. I was truly shocked when Vikram Seth killed off a major character in the middle of The Golden Gate. That’s what happens in life, not in novels!

Stephen Dunn (poet and professor) says that southern New Jersey (where I live) “hasn’t been imagined yet”. Very little fiction or poetry about this region has been written. To me, that means there’s no consensus about what we will or won’t discuss about South Jersey. Fiction sets boundaries. No one has decided what South Jersey means.

Means to whom? Our local poet? We the residents? Scholars somewhere else? (Will South Jersey Studies be invented one day?) We will surely choose to keep the sun and sand. What about the past? How long will it take to digest Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson? Will we study slaveholders or the underground railroad?

So how did Peter H Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, (a novel about WWII) decide what (and who) to keep and who to discard? Why did he include ONE historical figure (Rudolf Hess) in this work of fiction?

Maybe studying history is just TOO MUCH WORK, too intellectually challenging. The Orphan Train was selected as a Common Reading (for a college, with the emphasis on the Freshmen) because it was “accessible”. Translate that to mean not too long, not too complicated… (I found it didactic.) Serious study of the events and historical period was apparently not considered. (I get it, but are we underestimating student intelligence?)

I was surprised, when I checked, to find out that I split my reading almost 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction. I thought I was leaning more towards fiction.

I very much enjoy “fantasy” fiction, but I would guess it’s a small fraction of what I read, maybe 10%. I LOVE a good alternative world.

My point? Does anyone else have a problem with fictionalized accounts of real events? Do you worry that you might be misled? That an author might be biased? How should fiction be incorporated into education? If a book pops into your mind when you consider this, I’d particularly like to hear about it.

“One Small Plot of Heaven – Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist” by Elise Boulding

One Small Plot of Heaven: Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist

Pendle Hill Publications, 1989, 216 pages plus bibliography and index. Why did I pull this old book off my shelf? Just looking for comfort, in these difficult times, and remembering Elise Boulding’s husband Kenneth from a lecture many years ago.

This book is a collection of twelve separate speeches and pamphlets. It’s far from coherent, but I’m glad these essays were assembled in one place, for our benefit. I read Born Remembering (third chapter) many years ago with a discussion group.

This time my attention was drawn to two chapters written THIRTY-FOUR YEARS apart, in 1952 and 1989. The essay from 1952 was entitled Friends Testimonies in the Home. My reaction to it was that Elise Boulding set an impossibly high standard for home making and child rearing! I mean, totally out of sight. On a scale of one to ten, my parenting (~1984 to 2010) would have rated about 0.3. When she wrote this essay, three of her five children had been born. Wikipedia describes her as “home maker and activist”. She lived in proximity to other Quaker families and attended a large meeting that provided substantial attention and support to families. A major focus was on how to raise children who would become peacemakers. Motivation, I think, sprang from post WWII international considerations and Cold War fears.

Thirty-four years later, Elise Boulding was looking at a very different world, and her focus was not on international considerations like war but on her beloved Religious Society of Friends. Quakers had recognized some of their failings, including the occurrence of  violence in Quaker families. How could she have missed this, she asks? She admits to “willful blindness” and describes the “strong effort of the will” it took for her to confront the ugly truth. Then she proceeds to offer analysis based on both Quakerism and sociology.

Boulding identifies and describes what she calls a “residue of emotional turbulence” and “the unacknowledged residue of anger” among Quakers. Yes.

The perfect Quaker family is a “fictive reality” (Boulding’s term).

This is an oversimplification. But I know from personal experience that trying to create the “perfect Quaker family” (or marriage, or persona) can lead to trouble.

The essay and the book end with hopefulness. More hopefulness than I can sometimes muster. Guess I better keep the book around, to help me through dark moments.

“The Dream of Scipio” by Iain Pears

I’ve putting off writing about The Dream of Scipio because it is the most challenging work of fiction that I’ve read in years. It was selected as “summer” reading by a book group I attend only intermittently. During the academic year, the group’s schedule often conflicts with mine. In summer, the group reads a long work and gathers for dinner as well as discussion. I looked forward to this event, but was called for a volunteer service project and missed it. Darn! One friend reported that the discussion was good but “didn’t get to the interesting stuff”. There’s so much “interesting stuff” in this book, how would you know where to begin? (Asking the starting question for a book group is a serious responsibility!)

The “dream” in the book title refers to a dream or vision attributed to the Roman general Scipio Africanus and recounted by both Cicero and Chaucer. The dream bears a warning about the perils of vanity and power. (I’m dipping into Wikipedia and eNotes.com for this.)

Iain Pear’s novel has a fixed geographical focus, namely the city and surroundings of Avignon, France. Three historical eras are included.

  • the later Roman empire
  • the fourteenth century “plague years”
  • World War II

Calling this book “historical fiction” is a serious oversimplification.

The novel begins with a suicide by burning. Not for the faint of heart.

I interpreted the book as a harsh critique of the impact of Christianity on the cultures that came before it.

The sets of characters in each era are so strongly parallel that reincarnation comes to mind. Is the “wise woman” portrayed in each era really the same woman, or in some sense an archetype, Sophia the goddess of wisdom?

I plan to reread this book when I can get my hands on a hard copy. The Kindle is not ideal for a book that requires the reader to skip back and forth. It’s not a good book to put down and then pick up two weeks later. I highly recommend reading The Dream of Scipio with a group, so you will have ample opportunity for discussion.

The Frost Place – Museum and Poetry Center, Franconia NH

Growing up, I practiced piano under the sharp eyes of my great grandparents. Their picture hung just to the left of my piano. John and Margaret Lynch were born in the mid-19thcentury and arrived as part of the big wave of migration of the Irish to the United States. I don’t know how old they were when photographed – perhaps in their 50s? John smiled a bit for the camera, but Margaret is serious to the point of looking rather grim.

My sister and I decided to donate the photo to The Frost Place, a small museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, because Frost and his family boarded with the Lynches. John and Margaret are mentioned in Jeffrey Meyers biography of Frost published in 1996. After a few preliminary phone calls and preparation of a gift letter, we drove up to Franconia.

The Frost Place is off the beaten track! My GPS faded. The road is less traveled. Eventually we found a few signs to follow.

The Center consists of the house, a barn fixed for educational use, a trail and (best of all!) a porch. What a view! Part of the house is occupied by an invited “poet in residence” every summer. The public part of the house is beautifully restored.

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Frost has been described as America’s most widely read and most loved poet, said to symbolize “the rough-hewn individuality of the American creative spirit more than any other man”. NYT, announcing Frost’s death, Jan 29, 1963

I love small museums! This is a delightful example of that genre, and well worth a drive off the beaten trail.

The Frost Place Museum and Poetry Center

“Temperament – How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization” by Stuart Isacoff.

Vintage Books, 2003. 233 pages, with illustrations, bibliography and index.

There’s a piano on the front of this book, but it’s funny looking. There’s a black key in the middle, with three white keys on each side, then alternating black and white keys, uninterrupted. Some of the black keys bear distinguishing marks. Who could play this mutant instrument?! What would it sound like?

I play piano, read music competently and occasionally sing in a chorus. I knew a little about the issues involved in piano tuning, but I had NO IDEA how long, convoluted and contentious was the historical path that led to our modern tunings and the pair of scales we commonly hear and employ (major and minor).

I would rate my understanding of this book at about 50%. Isacoff plunges into mathematics (including geometry), Egyptian, Greek and European history (including astrology and alchemy), psychology and philosophy as he discusses how we got to where we are today.

European music was initially greatly influenced by “the ancients”, the Greek philosophers. These were wise men, but some of their ideas about music were out of touch with physical reality, and it took a long time to sort things out. Music inherently requires selectivity. You can’t use every tone, every interval. Why do some tones or intervals sound good, others “dissonant”? Why does music have so much emotional impact? What kind of music is “natural”? Is there a link between music and morality?

Of course I want to hear some of the music referenced in this book, especially the intervals and the infamous “wolf” tones that emerge from certain tunings. Another reason to dig in to U-Tube.

A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times called this book “a whirlwind tour of Western culture’s big ideas…” That sums it up very well.