We just finished reading one of the best table reading books in my career at Saint Anselm Abbey, Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast, about Napoleon’s theft from a Benedictine Monastery in Venice of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana. The author is Cynthia Saltzman.
It has three subject areas that I am interested in, woven into one narrative: Napoleon, renaissance art, and monks (though the Benedictines are only a small part of the story). I am both a francophone and francophile, so while I am especially keen on this book, one problem with it is the number of French and Italian proper names that come up, certainly more challenging for some table readers than others, even in this part of New England. Also, you can’t actually see a print of the Veronese during the narration, so you need to provide a copy outside of meals (e.g. coffee table book).
With that linguistic caveat, the book is highly recommended. Anyone who has seen the Mona Lisa in person at the Louvre will know this Veronese as it is the painting immediately opposite it there. It is the largest painting at the Louvre, and was never returned to Venice, even though other plundered art work was returned to Italy and other locales after Napoleon’s defeat.
In a subsequent post I will say more about the current book we are reading at table, Plunder. Today, I just wanted to highlight a humorous irony that took place during table reading. This occurred when the following passage was read aloud in light of Napoleon’s rationalization of the theft of the magnificent painting by Paolo Veronese, “The Wedding Feast at Cana.” That painting had hung in the refectory of the Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.
“The German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller had lamented that a work of so high a standard… should be allotted no wider sphere than a monkish refectory.” (p. 164)
I have noticed in the past that the word “monkish” always has a negative connotation. Alas. Also, this is irony in the conversational sense of a coincidence, not a play on a literal and some other meaning of a phrase.
We recently finished reading at table, Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions by Annik Lafarge.
One of the difficulties in reading a music-related book is the inability to hear the music that is being referenced while the reading is underway. In this case the listener himself must supply the melody to Chopin’s famous funeral march (Op. 35), dum dum da dum. The author provides a web site, Why Chopin, where one can go and listen to the music outside of the refectory.
In later life, Chopin dropped the adjective “funeral” from the title, so simply “march.” But given that the march was played at his own funeral, it has remained known by that funereal title.
On occasion we read a book at table a book that is part of the curriculum of the college, typically from its Humanities Program, Conversatio. We recently finished The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman. The book worked reasonably well for table reading. Some chapters, including about water use in Las Vegas (“Dolphins in the Desert”), were quite fascinating. Anything sewage-related of course should be edited out, for example, parts of a chapter entitled “The Yuck Factor.”
Even though the book is over a decade old, some issues remain current in the news, including dangerously low levels of Lake Mead and the legal dispute over access to the water from Lake Lanier.
Previously from the Conversatio program we had read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Most recently we finished Reggie Williams’s Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance. It was revealing to see the great Twentieth Century German Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a student of Karl Barth’s, shift his theological stance subsequent to his time in New York City and his exposure to Abyssinian Baptist Church and Adam Clayton Powell. One thread running through the book is Bonhoeffer’s differentiation of “costly grace” from “cheap grace.”
As we head towards the end of Lent, I wanted to add a couple of posts about Lenten reading. A few weeks back we recently completed Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance during the Blitz. We have read Larson before in the refectory and about this era as well. The book was well received and we enjoyed references to Chequers, papier mâché caskets, and to the family life of the Churchills.
Earlier this week, we finished reading Rowan Williams’s The Way of St. Benedict. Williams of course had been the Archbishop of Canterbury, and here he writes about St. Benedict and the Benedictines, as an outsider (at least of the religious order), but nonetheless still an impressively accomplished observer of the Rule and its influence. As a monk I must say it was heartening to read such a positive interpretation of the Benedictines and their founder. It makes for excellent monastic table reading, though near the end it becomes pitched at a more scholarly than general audience. This is especially true of the last chapter which focuses on Dom Cuthbert Butler’s attempt to demystify mysticism.
We recently read The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss. This also was a very timely book, given the centenary (1920) of the franchise for women being extended by constitutional amendment across the country. Until having read this book, I had not realized that Tennessee was the 36th, of a possible 48, state to ratify the 19th amendment, thereby making the franchise for women constitutional. Much of the book takes place in Nashville, but side-trips are also made to Memphis, Chattanooga, and out of state.
We recently read Mitch Landrieu’s In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. It was clearly a very timely book to be reading. While mayor of New Orleans Landrieu had to figure out how to remove Confederate statues from the city. This part of the book is quite interesting, but most of the book is standard political autobiography.
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.