A couple of weeks ago we finished Lost in Shangri-La: An Oral History of Saint Anselm Abbey. (Just kidding.) We actually finished Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II. I must say that it is unusual for us to read a real-life thriller, but this one was effective even for monastery table-reading. American service men and women are lost in a hidden valley after a plane crash in Dutch New Guinea during the second world war. Despite some gruesome reading about deaths and gangrene in the early stages, the rescue itself amounts to a considerable page-turner.
Appropriately enough we have been reading Lenten-themed books at table this season. What could be more Lenten than a book entitled “To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience” written by a towering figure in studies of the Rule of Saint Benedict, Adalbert de Vogüé? This French Benedictine distinguishes between the monastic practice of abstinence (abstaining from particular types of food, say, red meat) from that of fasting (pushing back the time for the first and perhaps only meal of the day). Living as a hermit, the French monk has adopted the latter practice in his own personal observance, and in this book champions that practice against the modern monastic practice that focuses on abstinence.
There is something strange about reading at table during meals a book about fasting. I’m not sure if the prior’s choice of the book was ironic or inspirational. Despite its seeming inapplicability to the monastic life as it is lived here at Saint Anselm, the care with which de Vogüé treats the practice historically is edifying and worthwhile, even when your idea of fasting consists of eating shrimp scampi on Ash Wednesday.
Manifesting a bit of a French bias, De Vogüé locates the root cause of the modern day aversion to Benedictine fasting as the introduction to the European continent of the Anglo-Saxon custom of breakfast. Yes, breakfast is the culprit. I believe the movement to reintroduce the monastic fast will not arise from Manchester.
Our Advent reading began with Fr. Michael Casey’s Grace: On the Journey to God. Michael Casey, OCSO is well known to our abbey, having spoken to the monastic community here. We are also very familiar with some of his previous writings. I would like to single out his Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict, one of the best explorations of Benedictine spirituality. His individual essay, “the Virtue of Patience in the Western Monastic Tradition” (Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 1986; reprinted in The Undivided Heart, 1994) is also very fine.
At the beginning of Advent we finished reading American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley.
The book closely tracks Kennedy’s career and involvement with the race for space. With his death the book effectively ends, which relegates the fulfillment of his pledge to have a man on the moon by the end of the decade (and of course return him safely to the earth) to the epilogue. JFK’s career is interestingly paired with Werner von Braun’s, who not only worked on rockets for NASA, but also for Nazi Germany during World War II.
This was our second book in the last ten years on the space program. Recall, Craig Nelson’s Rocket Men, which we read way back in 2010.
Two weeks ago we finished If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years by Christopher Benfey. One surprising feature of this biography is that Rudyard Kipling was actually in New England for a good portion of this time, not so far away from Saint Anselm, given that he was living in Brattleboro, Vermont, in view of Mount Monadnock. There he wrote The Jungle Book! His time in America also led to the writing of the poem “If” and the novel, Captains Courageous. He arrived in the US in 1889.
The set-up of the book at the beginning is quite well done, as is the section on the writing of The Jungle Book, especially in the comparison of its human protagonist, Mowgli, with the later works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose central character was the famous Tarzan. However, this work on Kipling, while quite good, at times does not lend itself well to table reading. Its style may just be too literary.
At the end of Why Read Moby Dick, Nathanael Philbrick recounts the story of how Herman Melville’s friend, Nathanael Hawthorne, had written a campaign biography for the presidential candidate Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne and Pierce had been friends since their college days at Bowdoin. Someone quipped that the Pierce biography was Hawthorne’s greatest work of fiction.
Two weeks ago we finished reading Nathanael Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick. We have read Philbrick before at table, notably, Mayflower. This new book, a short quick read even at table, is an encouragement for you the reader, yes you, to read Moby Dick.
You will see if you keep following this blog that this is the first of three consecutive American literary books we are reading.
Two weeks ago we finished Amy Bass’s One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together. Bass tells the story of the Somali refugees who moved to Lewiston, Maine and how the Lewiston High School soccer team, on which were many Somali students, won the state championship in 2015.
The book essentially tells two stories. For those of us with Franco-American ancestry, Bass’s material on the parallels between the arrivals of the French Canadians in the nineteenth century and that of the Somalis in more recent decades is quite illuminating. As the author writes, “It is an old story; there are just new people living it.” (p. 47)
The second story is a more sports-oriented narrative about the championship season, and how the students on the team, the Blue Devils, became united enough to win the big game. Some of the more interesting material here concerns the different style of overall play that the Somali students brought to the game in Lewiston.
The author, a graduate of Bates College, has a fair amount of local history including an echo of the famous Lewiston boxing match in 1965 when Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston. Ali at the height of the tensions between the Somalis and some native Lewistonians in 2003 stated that “fighting racism… was a ‘greater contest’ than the one he’d fought against Liston.” (p. 67)
Over Lent and well into the Easter Season we read Elizabeth Seton: American Saint by Catherine O’Donnell. St. Elizabeth Seton lived in the Baltimore area in the years of the early American republic. In her early adult life, once her husband had died, she yearned to live with the Ursulines in Canada. However her saintly work took place in the USA.
Just as we broke for the Lenten season, we were reading Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. Perhaps the most significant fact to learn from this narrative is that the sinking of the Lusitania (May 1915) preceded America’s entry into World War I, by almost two years, and was thus not the proximate cause of the American declaration of war against Germany (April 1917).
While that is the most significant learning from the book, the most entertaining nugget was that the week before the Lusitania sailed, the last week of April 1915, was a very hot week, hitting on the Tuesday, 91 degrees. However, May 1 was Straw Hat day, so men in the city continued wearing their winter hats. A New York Times reporter saw only two men among thousands of hat wearing New Yorkers wearing straw hats (p. 41).
The tradition here was for monks to wear panama hats in the summer.