The Worst Hard Time

Yesterday, we finished Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Egan’s account is 353 pages on “the boom, the bust, the dust” associated with the Great Depression on the plains, with special attention paid to both the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles.

It is safe to say that the book prompted a variety of responses, ranging from being a “fascinating account” to “the most dreadful table reading.”

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Journey towards Easter

We always read a more spiritual book for the Lenten season. This year we read Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s retreat talks at the Vatican in the presence of the then pope, John Paul II. The book is currently published under Ratzinger’s papal name, Benedict XVI, and titled Journey towards Easter. The papal saint, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, had himself given retreat talks in the presence of a pope, Paul VI, also a saint. Those talks were collected as Sign of Contradiction.

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Future of Catholic Higher Education

Last week we finished Fr. James Heft, S.M.’s new book on The Future of Catholic Higher Education: The Open Circle.

Fr. Heft has interesting yet surprising opening chapters on Jesus and Mary, as well as considerable material on St. John Henry Cardinal Newman and Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Newman is no surprise but there is also a chapter-long consideration of the philosopher Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age and Sources of the Self. He also devotes a chapter to the mandatum, which caused quite a stir when first implemented by the American bishops, but gets a lot less press recently.

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Well, we’ve just finished earlier today the longest book we have ever read for table reading, Ron Chernow’s biography of U.S. Grant, simply titled Grant. Actually, “ever” is too strong, but certainly in the last 30 years. The book clocks in at 970 pages, and we began reading it in August.

I confess that the biography is certainly worthy of a long read at table, and the monks enjoyed it, despite the fact of returning to the same personage day after day for five months. The first part covers his unexceptional pre-Civil War career, where there were no glimmers of the general’s future greatness. The Civil War not surprisingly receives the most attention, and whether it be Vicksburg or Appomattox, remains fascinating. The greatest revelation is his post-war two terms as President of the United States, where he did his best to implement reconstruction and put down the Ku Klux Klan. Even his post presidency held considerable interest as he and his wife engaged in a round-the-world tour. And the book concludes with his funeral, the largest in New York City history.

Highly recommended, but does require some stamina.

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For the first time that I recall from 30 years of table reading at the abbey, we actually reread a book. The Cluny book was first read in 2007, as you may recall if you are a very assiduous reader of this blog!

We finished Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire by Edwin Mullins a few weeks back. Even though I remembered reading the book, most if not all the material seemed new to me. Mullins certainly sides with the Benedictines at Cluny over their reforming cousins at Citeaux, and remains sympathetic to Abbot Peter the Venerable over the great saint of the age, Bernard of Clairvaux.

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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.

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Irony in the Refectory

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.

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Chasing Chopin

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.

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The Big Thirst

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.

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Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

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.”

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