Friday, January 30, 2009

The Book in Hand – A Thread of Grace

Once in a while, I find a book that is satisfying in every way: great story, compelling characters, a detailed and accurate historical backdrop, and exploration of deeply important questions important to people in any time or place.

I’ve just finished reading A Thread of Grace, a novel by Mary Doria Russell (New York, Ballantine, ©2005). The story is terrific, not only because it is well-told, but because it is based on the truth. Set in Northern Italy during 1943-1945, the book tells the story of Italian Catholics who sheltered Jewish refugees, at great cost and great risk; the German occupying army and their execution of a war strategy created in far-off Berlin; and the Italian partisans who sacrificed everything to defend their homes and freedom against the invading Germans.
The characters are compelling: A German doctor, deserted from the German SS, who must face his role in the murder of more than 91,000 innocent Jews. The Italian priest who cannot bring himself to absolve the doctor’s sin. A 15-year-old Belgian Jew who, in crossing the Alps on foot to escape the Nazis, walks away from her childhood and into womanhood. The charismatic Italian Jewish pilot, veteran of World War I, who must grapple with his own guilt that differs only in scale from the stain on the German doctor’s hands. The Italian rabbi who struggles to protect and preserve his community as it falls to Hitler’s grasp. The rabbi’s wife, who tries to support her husband’s work even though it puts their own family risk.
The trajectory of Russell’s narrative rises steadily from the opening pages, arching across four years and leading us to the inevitable conclusion. With a sure and brilliant lyricism, Russell spares no detail in depicting the brutalities and savagery of modern warfare, though there are moments of beauty, too, made all the more poignant interspersed as they are among the ugliness and sadness.
Underlying the narrative are questions of morality, forgiveness, and salvation. Is it permissible to kill one person, that hundreds or thousands of others may live? Will God forgive every sin, even a murder? Or the murder of 200? Or the murder of 91,000 innocents? Must a Catholic priest offer absolution to anyone who enters the confessional? And what must the priest do when the confession includes information that could save more thousands from certain death?
The centuries-old tension between Jews and gentiles pervades the novel, both in the overshadowing terror of the Holocaust, and in the sometimes-strained relationships between Jews and Catholics in the towns and villages in which the story is set. But there are also deep and loving relationships between the different groups, as well as significant acts of cooperation and collaboration against the common enemy, Hitler and Nazism. In the light of this collaborative spirit, the efforts of the Nazis to discover and deport all Jews from Italy seem all the more pathetic and small-minded.
For me, the mark of a really good book is this: That I don’t want it to end. That I am sad, even bereft, when I have read the last page and closed the book. That often, I immediately turn to the first page and start reading it all over again.
I finished this book last night, and I missed it so much that I started reading it again today.
Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bad Language

Our language is dynamic and ever-changing. We devise new words, we use familiar words in new ways, we borrow colorful words and phrases from other languages. I welcome and embrace the changes that enrich our language and our understanding of it. But I shudder when I hear (or read) misused words, and I feel a little sad when persistent misuse of a word leads to the eventual acceptance of the “mis-usage” as correct usage.

Here are two of my favorite — or rather, least favorite! — examples:

Enormity – An enormity is “an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act” (source) or “an act of extreme wickedness” (source) or “the quality of extreme wickedness” (source). However, many people confuse enormity with enormousness or immensity, mis-using the word enormity to denote large size or immense numbers. I suppose that the immensity of evil implied in enormity has, over time, “translated” to mean immensity of dimension, size, or number, and thus enormity has come to be used to mean “anything of large size.” This is how our language develops. Nevertheless, it was startling — even shocking — to hear a television news person comment on the "enormity of the crowd" at President Obama’s inauguration.

Decimate – This word means to reduce by ten percent. Specifically, it means “To kill one man chosen by lot out of every ten in a legion or other military group; to reduce anything by one in ten, or ten percent.” (source) It does not mean to annihilate, to ruin everything, to eliminate entirely. If an army is decimated, one in ten soldiers has been killed. If a crop is decimated by hail, one tenth of it has been damaged.

Here are a few other common linguistic perversions that drive me nuts.

No Problem! – I’m beginning to think that all young cashiers and retail clerks are trained to use this phrase when responding to customers.

CASHIER: Here’s your change.
CUSTOMER: Thanks.
CASHIER: No problem!

CUSTOMER: Thanks for bagging my groceries carefully.
STORE CLERK: No problem!

Though “No problem” can be offered with a smile, the very phrase implies that a problem may exist. When I hear this, I often wonder if the cashier or clerk is implying that he or she has interrupted some other activity in order to wait on me, even though his or her sole function is to be there to give me change and bag my groceries and help me to spend money in the store. Whatever happened to a more positive response such as “You’re welcome” or “Happy to help”?

Adjectives and Adverbs— Many people don’t know the difference between an adjective (a word used to modify nouns and pronouns) and an adverb (a word used to modify verbs or adjectives); consequently, they often confuse these parts of speech in written and spoken English. Poor grammar makes the speaker or writer sound ignorant.

One common example of this confusion is in the use (or mis-use) of the common words faster and quickly.

Fast, faster, and fastest are adjectives, words used to describe people, places, or things. In these examples, fast, faster, and fastest (or their synonyms, quick, quicker, and quickest) describe the people:

Barack is fast. (OR “Barack is quick.”)
Barack is faster than George. (OR “Barack is quicker than George.”)
Of the two, Barack is faster. (or quicker)
Barack is also faster than John. (or quicker)
Of the three, Barack is fastest. (or quickest)

Quickly is an adverb, a type of word used to modify a verb, that is, to describe action. (There is no adverb “fastly” to describe rate of speed. The archaic word “fastly,” which means securely or firmly, is rarely used.) In these examples, quickly describes the act of thinking, not the people:

Barack thinks quickly. (NOT “Barack thinks fast.”)
George does not think quickly. (NOT "George does not think fast.")
John does not think quickly, either. (NOT "John does not think fast, either.")

We can add adverbs such as more or most to modify an adverb:

Barack thinks more quickly than George. (NOT “Barack thinks faster than George.”) [This is the most common mis-usage.]
Barack also thinks more quickly than John. (NOT “Barack also thinks faster than John.”)
Barack thinks more quickly than John or George.*
Of the three, Barack thinks most quickly. He is the fastest. He is also the quickest.

Even the reporters and writers at National Public Radio seem not to understand how to use these common words correctly. I find myself editing out loud as I listen to the newscasts!


* Barack probably thinks more quickly than John and George put together, but that's material for another day.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Woodpecker Wars

One of the benefits of working in a home-based office is that I can watch the birds at our backyard feeders.

One of the disadvantages of working in a home-based office is that I can watch the birds at our backyard feeders. Why is this a disadvantage? Because too often, the goings-on out there are so interesting that I simply can’t tear myself away from the window to go to my office. Several days ago, I spent several hours watching the woodpecker wars outside my kitchen window. Here’s the story.

About ten days ago, a very lovely adult male Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker  started coming to our suet feeder. We’ve had juvenile Sapsuckers stop in for a day or two during fall migration, but this was the first time we’ve had an adult, and the first time that one has stayed this long. The bird showed up on a bitterly cold day, when, with temperatures in the single digits, birds need to eat pretty much continuously in order to survive. I’m sure that the prolonged cold snap drove this bird to the feeder, as Sapsuckers are generally rather shy birds.

A wealth of woodpeckers visits our suet each day during the winter —Downy Woodpeckers (up to 8 individuals), Hairy Woodpeckers (3-4), Red-Bellied Woodpeckers (3-4), and just this week, a boldly beautiful male Yellow-Shafted Northern Flicker. And other birds enjoy the suet's high-calorie nutrition, too: White-Breasted Nuthatches (2), Blue Jays (about a half-dozen), Tufted Titmice and Black-Capped Chickadees (several of each), and even the Dark-Eyed Juncos, seed eaters who every once in a while fly up to the suet and chip off little crumbs.

In the far-too-many hours that I’ve spent watching “our” woodpeckers, I’ve observed that they have sorted themselves into a pecking order, with the older male very assertive Red-Bellied Woodpecker at the top. Downies make way for Hairies, who make way for the Flicker, who makes way for the Red-Bellies. Twice, I’ve seen a Hairy approach the suet where a Downy was feeding, seize the Downy by the bill and shake him into a black-and-white blur, then throw him into the air! (The Downy flew away dizzy but unharmed.) But when the Red-Belly flies in, all the other woodpeckers scatter. They learn to wait on nearby branches for opportunities to feed, and they actually get along pretty well.

All this changed when the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker arrived.

When the Sapsucker found the suet, it immediately became very territorial, defending its newly-found bounty against all comers. The Sapsucker would sit quietly just under the suet, not always feeding, but refusing to let any other bird near. It would raise its wings, fly at the newcomer, and leave its post to chase them up and down the tree trunk before returning to post guard again. (With its smart red-and-black-and-gold uniform and upright posture, the Sapsucker does look rather military!) Even the Red-Bellies and Blue Jays were helpless against it. Only the chickadees were allowed to sneak in to grab a crumb or two.The Sapsucker's defense created havoc among the usually cooperative woodpecker flock. Now, they tussled with each other, jostling for position to sneak in to the suet whenever the Sapsucker took off after a rival. Everyone was ruffled!

I watched these battles off and on for an entire morning, feeling more and more distressed that the other birds could not get to the suet, their accustomed food source. And it was about 10°F outside! Finally, I put out two more suet feeders, locating them at some distance away from the Sapsucker, so that all the birds could get something to eat! This worked out well for all the birds, and I was finally able to get to my office.

Why would the Sapsucker engage in this behavior, when the other woodpeckers were willing to take turns? Here’s why: During the warmer months, Sapsuckers feed by drilling holes in living trees, both to drink the sweet sap that flows forth (hence the name “Sapsucker”), and to feed on the insects that are attracted to the sap. (Did you know that Sapsuckers have fringed tongues, the better to lap up the sap?) The Sapsuckers defend their sap-and-insect bars very vigorously, so it seems natural enough that they would also defend “their” suet bar once they find it.

The woodpeckers are among the most interesting of all our feeder visitors.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dashing Through the Snow

While preparing program notes for a concert with a New England Christmas theme, I had a chance to learn more about the genesis of the popular winter song “Jingle Bells.” Of course, it was not intended as a “Christmas song” at all, but rather a “sleighing song,” which was a popular genre at the time. “Jingle Bells” did not become wildly popular until the later 19th century, when it gained its exclusive association with the holiday season. (It’s certainly not a carol, and of course, it has nothing to do with Christmas per se.) With its imagery of the one-horse open sleigh “dashing through the snow,” the jingling harness bells, and the unspoken but likely promise of a roaring fire at home, perhaps some steaming chocolate or hot cider, and a comely companion, we continue to love “Jingle Bells” as a reminder of our “old-fashioned” New England Christmas and of the love and good cheer that come to us at this season.

Preparing this program note brought back a wonderful childhood memory of “dashing through the snow” in our own “one-horse open sleigh.” I grew up on a large farm (90 acres) in a rural town in northeastern Massachusetts. We always had several horses, and enjoyed taking them out in harness. In summer, we sometimes went out in an old doctor’s buggy; this felt so stylish, with its high wheels and folding leather top. In winter, when the roads were snowy, we sometimes went out in an old pung, a one-horse sleigh or sledge, essentially a long box on runners, with a bench for the driver and an open area behind. Pungs were used to carry wood, feed, and other loads, as well as people. Sometimes extra benches could be placed in the back, as in this picture of a pung that is very much like the one we had:
When we’d had a heavy snow, and if the weather stayed cold enough to keep the hard-packed snow crisp on our country road, we’d go out in our “one-horse open sleigh.” Our old horse Betty loved to go out in the pung or buggy. She was a piebald horse with an intelligent eye (yes, only one eye, but what look she could give if she were angry or disappointed in you!) We’d pile plenty of hay in the back of the pung, into which we could snuggle, harness Betty, hitch up the pung, and off we’d go.
What an exhilaration! If you’ve never had a sleigh ride on a quiet country road, on a sparkling blue and white winter day, you can only imagine the sights and sounds unique to this experience. I can still hear the sleigh runners squeaking over the snow, the steady breathing of the horse, our laughter, and of course, the sleigh bells, big brass bells nearly two inches in diameter, affixed at intervals to strips of old leather six feet long – oh, what a happy sound they made! I can recall the cold on my face, my red tingling cheeks, the scratchy wool mittens made by my grandmother, and the sway of the sleigh, in tempo with the horse’s strides. I can still see the gathering dusk, those clear, clear skies that one sees only in winter, and the sharply-edged traceries of trees, black against a Maxfield Parrish sky.
I remember wondering — Did Betty mind pulling us all along? But when I watched her, I saw her ears pricked forward, her tail arched (no bobbed tails for us!) and occasionally waved with what must have been joy, and her prancing steps as she trotted along. Clearly, she enjoyed the outing as much as we did.
When we returned home, Betty rejoined her stablemates, the pung was returned to its spot in the corner of the barn, and we tumbled into the kitchen, dazzled by the light and warmth. Boots, coats, hats, mittens, were heaped on the floor by the old cast iron kerosene stove in the back hall that led from kitchen to barn. My mother would have the hot chocolate ready! And oh, the crowning glory: marshmallows on the hot chocolate!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Book in Hand – The Man Who Invented Christmas

As I wrote in a recent posting, I’ve been reading a lot of books, particularly the works of Charles Dickens. Yes, A Christmas Carol draws me to the shelf each December, and I do re-read the novella each Christmastide. This year, a series of circumstances led me to explore Dickens’ other Christmas writings, and to consider their lingering effect on our lives.
I recently prepared program notes for a choral concert, Christmas in New England, a program of Christmas music by New England composers and authors. As I began sketching out the notes, I wondered about how our “New England Christmas” traditions got started, and I started reading and learning.
In an interesting coincidence, the very day after I drafted the notes, there appeared in our newspaper a review of a new book: The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, by Les Standiford (Crown, © 2008). I immediately wrote to Santa to request the book for Christmas, and it was under the tree on Christmas morning.
It was an interesting book, though insubstantial and ultimately unsatisfying. I was hoping for a big book, a scholarly exploration; what I got was a smallish book (240 pages, but in large-point type and printed on small paper, just 5.5 x 7 inches) that gave a pleasant overview of the topic but not much more. No illustrations? No index? It was like getting Wonder bread when I really wanted whole wheat.
Worst of all, I found several factual errors in the book which called into question the veracity of all the information in the book, and worse, which made me doubt the knowledge, skill, and reliability of the author. Most of these errors were in the author’s summary of the characters and actions of A Christmas Carol, including misattributions of dialog and mistakes about the locations in which specific actions took place. In my mind, it is inexcusable that a study about a book has errors about that book.
Inexplicable errors like these seem to occur in new books with increasing frequency. One of the books that I gave my husband for Christmas (How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein) contains errors in dates, place names, and maps. And these are in a book which is entirely about places, dates, and maps!
Where are the editors and fact checkers? Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that so many books are published each year. It's too bad that publishers and book sellers seem to strive for quantity rather than quality.
It seems that some books, like The Man Who Invented Christmas, are “manufactured” in order to generate profits rather than to communicate important ideas in new and interesting ways. The topic of Dickens' “inventing” Christmas has been covered in earlier publications, including Christmas and Charles Dickens, a 355-page study by David Parker (AMS Press, 2005); Dickens’ Christmas, by John Hudson (Sutton, 1997), and Dickens’ Christmas: A Victorian Celebration by Simon Callow (Abrams, 2003). And how about this intriguing title: A Midnight Carol, A Novel of How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas, by Patricia K. Davis (Macmillan, 2000) – this book is not even included in Standiford’s bibliography.
So, why do we need this new, light-weight (in more ways than one) book on Dickens and Christmas, which just happened to be released right before Chri$tma$? I wish that I had not purchased it so quickly: I assumed (wrongly) that it added to previous knowledge in some way, or summarized existing information with a new and important analysis or perspective. It didn't, and I wish now that I had just borrowed library copies of earlier works on the same topic.
Despite these criticisms, the book is interesting and worth a look. You can find it at your public library or purchase them.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reflecting on “The Blue Bird”

[originally posted January 7, 2009;  reposted for technical reasons]

Thoughts on The Blue Bird by Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1954).

The evocative, ethereal verse is by British poet Mary Coleridge (1861-1907):

The Blue Bird


The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue,
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

Stanford sets the text for five unaccompanied voices (SSATB); the lower four voices rise and fall gently, much like the surface of a lake, while the top soprano soars and floats over and around, catching and reflecting motivic fragments, much as Coleridge’s blue bird, and lake, and sky catch and reflect the “blue in blue.”

I saw some bluebirds last week and thought of this music, and about the fleeting nature of blueness. Did you know that blue birds (of any species) do not have blue pigment in their feathers? Their feathers are constructed in such a way as to reflect the blue portions of the light spectrum (as opposed to birds with other colors, where colored pigment is actually present). (You can read more about this at Cornell University’s wonderful web site, here.)

Truly, in the plumage of blue birds, we see a bit of the sky — and perhaps a bit of the Great Beyond. Coleridge's text gives us the image of the bird as reflected in the water, and contemplates (reflects) on what has been seen and is now gone. In Stanford's setting, the top soprano line captures and reflects fragments and colors from the music below, much as a blue bird's plumage captures and reflects the blue portion of the light spectrum. This poem — and this particular musical setting — are wonderful textual and aural images for a memorial service, where the gathered people will reflect on a life that has passed.


Here's a picture of a Mountain Bluebird, which I have seen in the U.S. Rocky Mountains. Coleridge was British, and I'm not sure what bird she might have seen that was blue. Perhaps she visited a distant clime and saw a blue bird over the water, in which the blue of the sky was reflected…