Tag Archives: Boston

“The Bostonians” by Henry James

I read this book because it was on the discard pile IN MY OWN HOUSE. And “it’s a classic”.

That said, I liked The Bostonians well enough to finish it. It is a slow read, and I enjoyed that. I feel like many modern novelists tear along at a great pace, and sometimes life is not like that.

I will admit that I cheated, checking out the last chapter to find out the ending, then went back and read the remainder. But I do that more and more frequently – so many books, so little time…

This book has a reputation as one of the earliest “lesbian novels”. I decided NOT to look at commentaries or even the preface, but to read it on my own terms.

So what do we have? It’s a love triangle, set in Boston after the Civil War, when social activists (reformers) were turning to the plight of women as a new challenge after the end of slavery. Serious and idealistic Olive Chancellor becomes obsessed with young, beautiful Varena Tarrant, who comes from a “lower” rank in society and is possessed of an unusual gift of rhetoric, which she is happy to employ in the service of the women’s movement. Together these women plan to emancipate women and elevate society.

A distant cousin of Olive’s appears on the scene. His name is Basil Ransom. He comes from a Mississippi family that has lost everything in the Civil War, and his attitudes about the issues of the day are unapologetically old fashioned. He falls in love with Varena, but never hides his disapproval of the social changes Olive and Varena support. Nonetheless, he wins Varena’s heart. We learn less about Ransom than about the two women.

The final scene, when Ransom steals Varena away just before she is scheduled to address a vast crowd of eager Bostonians, must be the inspiration for the last scene in the movie “The Graduate” and the well known song “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson”! Yes, Ransom dramatically saves Varena from a life and cause she no longer wants. Dustin Hoffman or his scriptwriter certainly must have read The Bostonians.

I couldn’t resist checking on the term “Boston marriage”. It is not used in the book and does not seem to have originated with Henry James. In addition to long term co-habitation by a pair of women, it implies financial independence.

I enjoyed The Bostonians but doubt I will read more by Henry James. A few years ago, I was supposed to read The Turn of the Screw for a book group discussion, but I think I used Spark Notes.

“Crow Hollow” by Michael Wallace

I don’t know how this book got onto my Kindle. Well, technology just gets the better of me now and then! Fortunately, Crow Hollow was a good read.

Crow Hollow is set in colonial Massachusetts, which sounds like a dismal place, although the food was better and more plentiful than that available in England then.

Several historical shifts are in play. The King of England wants to reassert his control over Boston, Connecticut and Rhode Island. And the previously congenial (or at least tolerant) relationships between colonists and the indigenous population are strained by (guerilla) warfare, misunderstandings and greed.

The protagonists are an agent of the King and a young widow who survived months of captivity with the local Abenacki tribe. She believes that her daughter is still alive, adopted by an Indian woman.

This novel is fast paced and includes adventure and romance. Good beach reading!

There is food for reflection in the descriptions of the “praying Indians” and their long period of peaceful coexistence with the colonial settlers, who would probably not have survived without the their help. I can’t help but wonder, what if? What if colonial and indigenous people had continued to live comfortably in their parallel communities? What if the indigenous people had not be driven from New England? I don’t know the answers, but there’s a good deal more history available than was hinted at in my high school American History class.

Take back the streets! (Pitney Road)

Municipal planners will tell you that a “road” and a “street” are two different entities, despite the interchangeable use of the terms, along with a multitude of other synonyms like “lane”, “drive” and “way”. The difference is summed up as follows: a road is for cars, a street is for people.

I accept this distinction. I live on a road. People (except in their cars) venture onto it at their peril. Where can I go to experience a “street”? In Egg Harbor City, I can at least wander from restaurant to Library to hardware store. Some effort has been made to soften the hardscape with trees and a bench or two. There’s a pub. Let’s call Philadelphia Avenue 15% “street”. Much better than 100% road!

The two big cities I know best (Boston and Philadelphia) have sections where the streets are alive. Alive! Often these are the areas popular with young adults. Lively streets provide shopping and entertainment. There are opportunities to “see and be seen”. You might run into a friend. A street is public, social space.

My Quaker meeting is located on a road – no doubt about it. Pitney Road is, at times, annoyingly busy with cars and a tad dangerous. But we put the “street” back into Pitney Road on Saturday morning with our annual fundraiser. Who would have thought heirloom tomato plants would be so popular?

For a few hours, our part of Pitney Road became “people territory”. Cars slowed down! “Meet and greet” became the order of the day. Joggers and dog walkers materialized. The merits of “Rutgers” tomatoes were debated, the Spring weather analyzed, summer plans discussed.

The tomato plant sale was a successful fundraiser, but better than that, we hosted a neighborhood social event! We turned Pitney Road into a STREET for a few hours. Thanks to ALL for a great Saturday morning!

“Margaret Fuller – A New American Life” by Megan Marshall

It’s been suggested that I should consistently provide the following:

  • Published 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages (text) + 95 pages (contents, illustrations, prologue, epilogue, notes, index).

It’s been over a week since I posted about a book. That’s a long time for me! The reason is that I found a book that took some time to read, and it amply rewarded my effort.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850, living in and around Boston, then New York City and finally spending four years in Europe.

SPOILER ALERT! The circumstances of Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850 were shocking and very sad. If you want to read her life story in proper order, stop now, read the book and then come back and consider my reflections.

Margaret Fuller was born just over 200 years ago. A very bright first child, she was initially educated by her father, who intended to convey to her “everything” he had learned at Harvard. She soaked it up, and later, deprived of any opportunity for college, became her own teacher of classics and languages, setting very high expectations for herself.

At the age of 25, Margaret’s father died and she took responsibility for her mother and several younger siblings. Fear of poverty shadowed her life. But Boston was in a state of intellectual ferment (the so-called New England renaissance), and Margaret, both well educated and outspoken, found a place among the Transcendentalists and other writers and thinkers of the day.

Margaret edited the new journal called The Dial and published a book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is considered the first classic of the American feminist movement. Working for the New York Tribune, she became the first American full time writer of book reviews.

Margaret’s burning wish to travel to Europe was finally fulfilled when, at the age of 36, she accepted the position of governess in a Quaker family that toured England, spent some time in Paris, and then went to Italy.

In Rome, Margaret’s life took a turn that her New England friends and family would not have expected, and, indeed, she told them nothing about it for many months. She fell in love, bore a child, and married. Before her infant was a year old, revolution broke out in Italy. Margaret was firmly on the side of change, hoping for democracy and reform. Her husband fought in the defense of “free” Rome and Margaret worked as a nursing volunteer in a makeshift hospital.

The revolution failed, and Margaret, with her husband and child, made plans to return to Massachusetts, where she expected to support her family by writing.

Unable to afford travel on a passenger liner, they embarked on a freighter that accommodated a few passengers. Bad luck plagued the trip. The ship’s captain died. In inexperienced hands, the ship ran aground near Long Island (NY). Some crew and passengers survived, but not Margaret, her husband or their child.

What impressed me about Margaret Fuller was the way she threw herself into the issues of her times. She wrote about race, prison reform and education among many other topics.

This book by Megan Marshall is right in the “sweet spot” between popular and academic writing. This is biography at its best. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in feminism and/or American intellectual history.

“The Boston Girl: A Novel” by Anita Diamant

This novel tells the story of a woman’s life, in the form of reminiscences shared with an adult grandchild. Addie Baum is born in Boston into a Jewish immigrant family that is having terrible difficulty settling in American. The year of her birth is given as 1900. My own grandmother, Anna S, was born in Boston, in 1891.

Addie Baum has two sisters. One jumps into American life wholeheartedly, angering her parents and almost losing contact with Addie. The other sister is frail and anxious – in modern terms, seriously traumatized and depressed. She eventually takes her own life. Addie, much the youngest, has the advantage of being sent to school and finding a “settlement house” where she is befriended and learns to cope with America and understand Boston. Nonetheless, her family forces her to drop out of school.

The best part of this book is its vivid description of Addie’s life from her early teens until she meets her husband. Immigrant life is terribly hard. Addie’s mother miscarries on the boat to America. Her parents fight all the time, her mother being convinced that everything was better in the “old country”. Poverty renders their lives miserable. Addie’s father takes refuge in religion, spending as much time as possible studying and praying in his synagogue.

Reading this book made me realize how little I know about my grandmother’s life. I was told she spoke only German until she started school at age 5. I don’t think she finished high school. I know she worked in a sweatshop – the evidence was always before our eyes. Two joints of her right forefinger were missing, severed by a stamping machine in a sweatshop. Family myth asserts that she started saving money as soon as humanly possible so her children could be more educated than she had been and avoid the fate of factory work. All three of them avoided the factory assembly lines, but only one, my mother, was educated beyond high school.

The author’s main “message” in this book is that the past was not BETTER. Often it was worse than the present.

This book is somehow lacking in narrative drive. Maybe this is what happens when an author has a message and a plot in mind and then writes a book around them. The alternative is the Stephen King approach – create your characters and turn them loose! Let them surprise you! (See blog post December 21, 2013.)

More quibbles… Once again I ask, “If a person or historical period is so interesting, why fictionalize it?” (See blog post December 6, 2013 about the novel Orphan Train.) I suspect that writing fiction is easier, and the author can slant the work according to his or her (contemporary) biases.

I wonder if Diament consulted too many experts while writing this book, leaving me feeling the lack of a distinct “voice”. I read her highly popular, earlier novel The Red Tent and had the same reaction to it – good, but somehow not as “great” as many people seemed to find it.

One (tangential) reason why I read this book was because the title reminded me of Nat Hentoff’s lively memoir (published in 1986), Boston Boy, subtitled growing up with jazz and other rebellious passions. No resemblance. Hentoff wrote voluminously on music and American politics. At age 89, he is still writing! Check him out!

Keep The Boston Girl in mind for a rainy afternoon or boring wait during travel. It will keep you occupied, but not make you miss your plane!

“The Path Between the Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879-1914” by David McCullough

I spent weeks reading this book (with a few fiction side trips) and it was well worth it. It took me a while to realize McCullough was the author of the wonderful book on the Brooklyn Bridge I read fifteen years ago. That was way before anyone talked about “creative non-fiction”, a genre I’m not clear about. Seems to mean non-fiction that is not serious enough for an academic journal. I read LOTS of it.

McCullough is at the head of the class in creative non-fiction. His mixes history, science and technology with wonderful clarity. In his book on the Brooklyn Bridge, he explained “the bends”, an illness that previously had me baffled. He included plenty of medical science in Path Between the Seas. 

I’ve put the Panama Canal on my bucket list. My father took our family to see the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway when I was nine. Fascination with “big engineering” is in my blood.

Takeaway messages:

  • Sometimes people and governments can get together on a big project that isn’t a war. Easy to forget in these troubled days. (I am talking about ISIS and Ebola.)
  • Even when people work together on something positive, bad things happen along the way. Racism and exploitation of labor were “business as usual” during the construction of the Canal.
  • You don’t always have to know where you are going in order to get there.
  • Yes, you get unexpected benefits from forcing technology.

McCullough is especially interesting when he writes about scientific facts that are known but not applied. Most of the “science” necessary to prevent “the bends” was available at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built, but it wasn’t applied to what was then called “caisson sickness” and people suffered and died unnecessarily. Applying knowledge of mosquito biology, etc., to control malaria wasn’t easily accomplished.

Most interesting oddball fact? McCullough says that banks of the Culebra Cut, where the Canal passed through the highest mountain peak, had not found their “angle of repose” when he wrote the book in 1978. In other words, that part of the Canal still suffered from landslides! I wonder what has happened since.

Now that we are facing accelerated sea level rise (due to global warming), what engineering projects will we decide to undertake? In the developed world, we can pick and choose. The city of Boston (I learned at a recent conference) intends to sit right there in the path of disaster, hardening their infrastructure and maybe imposing minor zoning changes. They’ve got lots of engineering expertise (MIT? Harvard?) and lots of money. I expect Boston to survive, but what surprises may happen along the way?

What will happen to my other favorite sea level town, tiny Chincoteague, Virginia? They already withdrew once – some of the houses there were moved from Assateague Island, which was de-developed/depopulated after a major storm in the 1940s. What will it take to save Chincoteague? Stay tuned. I plan to visit there shortly.

What will happen in the developing world? What will be saved? We are already hearing of “climate refugees”. Some of them will not be able to return to their now unsafe flood ravaged communities. I read that India is reinforcing its border with Bangladesh to keep out illegal immigrants. For now, I’m categorizing this as a nasty rumor…

I ramble…

Who else writes creative non-fiction really well? Jon Krakauer comes to mind.

I recommend Path Between the Seas.

Celebrating the Season

I set a personal record over the Christmas holiday – I participated in “religious” events at six different locations during a two week period! (I didn’t plan this.)

The Saturday before Christmas was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. A friend organized an event based on the labyrinth, a tool for walking prayer/meditation from the Christian traditions of Europe. Our labyrinth was outlined with CANDLES. This was a first time, seat of the pants, open-to-the-public event. I helped with the set up, in a field next to the local volunteer fire hall. The organizer picked a spot and started to lay out the labyrinth pattern with cord. We helpers opened white paper bags, put in sand and tea lights (votive candles). The afternoon was breezy, and we worried that a strong gust of wind could disrupt the whole project. By 5 pm we had done what we could (assembled over 500 luminaria!) and scattered for dinner. When we returned, the wind had dropped, it was still warm for December, and the candles were being lighted. I was the first to step into the labyrinth, and I wondered what would happen if I made a mistake and led the whole line astray… But the candlelight was bright enough for me to see the cord on the ground. When I reached the center and started back out, I relaxed. Friends and neighbors were walking quietly, happily… We had been encouraged to concentrate on renewal and transformation. Celtic music added to the atmosphere. Emerging, I stood and absorbed the sheer beauty of what had been created. The candles flickered warmly. The labyrinth was a circle of light in a dark, quiet night. I was reminded of campfires I have enjoyed, but the candles cast a much gentler light. I could look up and enjoy the stars. For an event that only been very casually advertised, a good number of people came, maybe 75. And many more said they wished they had known about it, or that it had fit their schedules.

The next day, the Sunday before Christmas, I was in my usual place, at the small Quaker meeting I have attended for many years. Our worship is unprogrammed and based on silence. Nobody has to create an Order of Service or write a sermon. I always enter feeling expectant, because I don’t know who may speak or what subject may arise. We have our “customs”…

  • allow silence before and after each spoken message,
  • speak only once (unless you really MUST),
  • listen carefully (because you may hear the word of God).

Yes, people did speak. No, I’m not going to tell you what they said. After worship, we shared a potluck brunch. That’s as close as we came to a Christmas party this year. Simplicity.

Then I hit the road, fetching up in Boston in the company of family. On Christmas Eve, I wanted music, and the rest of my family was ready for food and TV or games. They walked me to Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church near Boston’s Public Garden, then left on the T (subway). The Church wasn’t open yet, so I strolled the upscale neighborhood, encountering the homeless as well as well as the wealthy.

Half an hour later, I settled into a box pew at the Arlington Street church, holding an unlighted candle. I grew up a Unitarian Universalist. Arlington Street, like the church of my childhood, is a relatively formal place. The service I attended was listed as a “family” event, and the families were there. So was a live lamb! The children were delighted. The service consisted of familiar readings and familiar music. The candles were lighted starting from the front of the church, and the lights were dimmed as the candlelight spread. We sang Silent Night in the darkened sanctuary. It was as magical as the evening services I remember from my childhood. As I left, the grandmother who had sat behind me apologized for her grandchildren’s “noisiness”, but I assured her I enjoyed their presence. They were much too cute to be a nuisance.

Next I went to an even bigger, cathedral sized church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, two blocks away. Again I was pleasantly greeted and provided with an Order of Service, which looked really long and included Communion, open to all. We sang and read our way through the Christmas story. There were a few unfamiliar hymns – which surprised me, since I sang in choirs for years and know the Protestant hymnology well! We stood for every single hymn. The program said “stand as you are able” and I thinking about staying seated as my knees accelerated their protests. The officiants sometimes chanted, and there was a “gospeller” who sang and chanted from the Bible. Then came the special event that caused me to pick this church over other options – Bach! This church has a resident instrumental ensemble and a professional choir. The music, performed in setting not significantly different from the churches Bach wrote for, was ethereal, glorious, sweet beyond words. I closed my eyes and thought about angels. 

When I left the Episcopal church, I considered returning to Arlington Street, which offered TWO more services featuring the Boston Gay Men’s Choir, a group with an excellent musical reputation. However, my family was keeping dinner warm for me, so I jumped on the T and headed for Allston. I had enough music in my head to satisfy my Christmas cravings.

Another Sunday came around… I was in Connecticut with my sister and her husband. They have two church affiliations, and we settled on “his”, a small Lutheran church in Hartford. Attendance seemed light, but the Pastor smiled and assured us that the turnout was excellent, as the preceding year’s Sunday-after-Christmas service had been attended by only eleven people! I looked around. There were at least 22 of us there, maybe even 33. I felt welcome and important. Our singing sounded strong for our numbers. The lay readers were teenagers. Usually coffee follows the service, but someone forgot. No coffee. As a member of a tiny congregation, I feel sympathy with this kind of screw up. Besides, Grace Lutheran has an astonishing record for feeding people. They serve dinner every Friday night to ANYONE WHO WALKS IN THE DOOR. The neighborhood is mixed. Some people are hungry. Some are lonely. Church members join in. When I visited a year ago, 25 or 30 people turned up. Many were “regulars”. The food was great.

And my sixth experience? This morning (as on most Saturdays) I went to yoga class at my local Hindu Temple. Because of the severe cold, we practiced, not upstairs in the usual drafty space, but downstairs in the sanctuary. This room, which might be 10% of the Temple, houses the gods. There are about 15 of them, of varying sizes, dressed in glorious colorful fabrics. Since my last visit to the sanctuary, the names of the gods have been posted. I practiced in front of Mma Sarasvatri. I used to think of the gods as “images”, but I’ve gradually learned they mean something more to the worshippers. Each god is a channel. When you look at a god, he or she LOOKS AT YOU. It’s a relationship. The sanctuary (in addition to being well heated) is a lovely place to practice yoga. A mantra runs on a continuous tape. Listening carefully, I think I was hearing 10 syllables, but I don’t know what it means. The room smells faintly of incense. Temple members come and go, performing their devotions. I relax, and leave feeling as if I have been on a vacation. I go to a distant country without buying an airline ticket. Thank you, Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple, for making us welcome!

So,,, tomorrow I will be back at Quaker meeting, with music and ceremonies in my head. I will think about the people I visited, and wish them well.