A Midrash on Genesis


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And God said: No longer shall your name be Ya’akov, “Heel,”
But Yisrael, “Godwrestler,” for with Me and with humanity have you battled, and You have won!”

And thus, night after night, God, You come to me.
Not with favors do You come, but to try my strength.

And when, by morning, I prevail against You once again, again I find myself alone:
A poor and hapless traveler, limping on a twisted thigh.

“With God and with humanity have you battled, and You have won!”
Is this Your blessing for me, Great Mystery?

Then heaven help me! For though against all I may prevail,
Against one there is no victory. Against me!

Your blessings rest heavy, God. I cannot bear them.
I limp, and I’m alone on every road, wherever I go.

Defeat me, just this once, that I might find some rest by morning,
The rest that all the vanquished know.

Again it’s night. Again alone. And once again God comes seeking.
Yisrael! Where are you?

Here, God, over here — somehow I moan.
But why? Why, night after night, do You battle with me;

And, with the rising of the dawn, forsake me once again,
And leave me limping, limping and alone?

Bloggy Book Club: Sister Queens, Part 1


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In a clause of the treaty which mentions the dispensation of the Pope, it is stated that the princess Katherine consummated her marriage with Prince Arthur. The fact, however, is, that although they were wedded, Prince Arthur and Princess Katherine never consummated the marriage. It is well known in England that the Princess is still a virgin. But as the English are much disposed to cavil, it has seemed to be more prudent to provide for the case as though the marriage had been consummated…

What an impact a single word can make.

Thanks to the popular fictional representations of Tudor history presented by the Showtime series The Tudors and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, many people have at least a vague idea of the story of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to his longtime love Anne Boleyn. There are many ways in which the situation has been oversimplified and exaggerated in popular imagination – rumors of Henry having syphilis, cynical assumptions that his split from the church of Rome was simply for sexual gratification, that Katherine was a dour old religious fanatic – I could write extensive arguments on each of these subjects.

I am quite pleased, though not surprised, that Julia Fox looks in detail at the wording of the Papal dispensation allowing the widowed Katherine to marry her brother-in-law Henry.  Her previous work examining the marriage contract of Jane Parker to George Boleyn showed her skill in dissecting the details and ramifications of sixteenth-century legal documents. In spite of what critics may think of the work as a whole – Fox’s style tends towards excessive speculation about motives and emotions that cannot be proven at this distance of time – the examination of documents is impressive.

In a nutshell, the situation of Katherine of Aragon, a widow at sixteen: The youngest child of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Katherine was brought up to consider herself destined to be Queen of England. She was betrothed to Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII of England and his wife, Elizabeth of York, when both were still toddlers. At fifteen, they married and went to Arthur’s princely seat at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches. After five months, Arthur became ill and died. When it became clear that Katherine would not give birth to a posthumous child, her parents and her parents-in-law set about arguing over her person and her dowry – the Spanish monarchs wanted Katherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry. The English monarchs thought that they could perhaps do better, especially once Katherine’s formidable mother Isabella died and the unification of Aragon and Castile fell apart. However, Katherine and Henry were betrothed with the blessing of a Papal dispensation allowing for siblings-in-law to wed.

The issue that plagued Katherine again when the matter of the legality of her marriage to Henry came up in the 1520s, when Henry’s distress over not having a male heir led him to doubt his marriage and wish to form a new alliance with the woman who was seemingly the love of his life, was the question of whether her brief marriage to Arthur had ever been consummated. If it had, as Henry argued, their subsequent marriage was not legal. Katherine held to the line that though she and Arthur had on several occasions slept in the same bed, she came to Henry a virgin.  This was the argument when the dispensation was originally sought, too.

Ferdinand, a notoriously wily political operator, was willing to shrug his shoulders and allow a dispensation that assumed consummation had taken place, in spite of Katherine’s (and some of her most trusted household staff’s) vigorous assertions that it had not. Eventually the document included the word “forsitan” – perhaps. The marriage had perhaps been consummated. The passage I quoted at the start of this post is Ferdinand’s own words on the subject, in a message to his ambassador in Rome.

We still don’t know. The only people who knew were Arthur and Katherine – Katherine always asserted it had not been consummated, and Arthur’s teenage boastings about being “this night in the midst of Spain” may simply be the result of a teenage boy’s pride. Or perhaps Katherine was her parents’ daughter, wise to the ways of politics and determined to fulfill the role God called her to – Queen of England, wife to the King of England, no matter what dissembling was required of her in order to achieve her destiny.

Many point to the many historical instances when a single vote has determined the course of events. Less attention is given to the impact of a single word inserted into a document or mis-heard.

In Sarah Vowell’s essay collection The Partly Cloudy Patriot, she writes about a visit then-Presidential-Candidate Al Gore made to a middle school. A student got up and asked how citizens of their age could get more involved, and he told a story about a girl who wrote a letter from western Tennessee about how the water tasted funny and people were getting sick at an alarming rate. He said investigations found the water was contaminated, and that they then remembered similar occurrences in a place called Love Canal. But the letter from the girl, he said – that was the one that started it all.

Reporters present at the event misquoted Vice President Gore by one word. Soon the story went viral, showing Gore’s habit of taking far too much credit had struck once again. “I was the one that started it all,” the reporters quoted him as saying.

Vowell argues that reporters and citizens alike are too prone to projecting the character and story we expect from each given candidate onto them, at the expense of paying properly close attention. Gore had a habit of taking credit for things – he said he invented the Internet, that he was the inspiration for the movie Love Story – so the exhausted reporters following the candidate on his campaign trail automatically assumed he was once again taking credit, this time for exposing the environmental contamination at Love Canal, New York and Toone, Tennessee.

One word.

Just one word misquoted in a story that is actually inspirational – a candidate spoke to an audience, answered a good question with a relevant anecdote, and the audience really listened. The misquotation turned it into a joke.

One word was inserted into the dispensation allowing Katherine and Henry to marry. Five hundred years later and we’re still debating what that “perhaps” means.

Bloggy Book Club: The Brewer of Preston


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Ah, yes, I was talking about Luigi Ricci. Well, he studied music and started composing. The first crap he wrote – oh, I’m sorry, that just slipped out – anyway, his first compositions, for whatever reason, were very successful. Theatres all over Italy wanted him, from Rome to Naples to Parma to Turin to Milan. And, since he couldn’t manage to keep up with all the music they were asking him to write, he started copying stuff wherever he could find it, the way some of my pupils do. There’s one, in fact, who seems to take his lessons from the devil himself. You know wheat he does, when I give them Latin dictation? He goes… Where does he go? But what’s this got to do with anything? Ah, yes, Luigi Ricci.

Once again, I’m behind the schedule I’ve arbitrarily set for myself. But luckily for me, I’m the only one who notices.

So, The Brewer of Preston, by Andrea Camilleri, who also wrote the Inspector Montalbano series. This book is actually set in the same town of Vigata in Sicily, set in the 1870s. The unification of Italy and the difficulties in merging such disparate regions and cultures are overarching plot points in the story.

If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson film like The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, you’ve got a sense of what The Brewer of Preston is like. It is eccentric. It is determinedly, insistently eccentric. It is full of colors that are just slightly too bright, characters that are fiercely peculiar, and situations that are so odd that they’ve moved beyond implausible into a range that’s so unlikely that you find yourself taking each new revelation in stride.

There are two difficulties with this book. First, it’s a translation from the original Italian, and a lot of the humor is based on what I can only imagine is a detailed cultural knowledge of Italian regional differences. It’s not hard to see that a lot is lost in translation.

The second challenge is the presentation of the story. It’s as if each of chapters was put into a hat and then drawn out at random to create a chapter order.  To say it is not in chronological order is an understatement, and it’s not until a postscript at the end of the author’s note at the very end of the book – a postscript which is on its own page, I might add – that you find out it’s intentionally disjointed, and that Camilleri encourages you to read in whatever order you want. If you ask me, that should have been put as a disclaimer at the start.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel a need to read this again, but it’s an amusing and short diversion, so if aggressively quirky stories are something you enjoy, look it up when it’s released this winter.

Next up is Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile but I’m taking a short break from book-blogging to read Randall Munroe‘s What If? book. Because science can be funny, but I don’t want to ruin it for you all.

By the way, that poll in my last post proved useless. It doesn’t help me if you choose “other” without offering a suggestion, people.

Soliciting Opinions!


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The Brewer of Preston is pretty short, and it looks like it’ll be an easy read, a week at most. I’m having trouble choosing one off my list to follow it, so here are some of the options. Help me pick, or suggest one to add to my list! Multiple voting is allowed:)

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 4


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To part with money is a sacrifice beyond almost all men endowed with a sense of order. There is scarcely any man alive who does not think himself meritorious for giving his neighbour five pounds. Thriftless gives, not from a beneficent pleasure in giving, but from a lazy delight in spending. He would not deny himself one enjoyment; not his opera-stall, not his horse, not his dinner, not even the pleasure of giving Lazarus the five pounds. Thrifty, who is good, wise, just, and owes no man a penny, turns from a beggar, haggles with a hackney-coachman, or denies a poor relation, and I doubt which is the most selfish of the two. Money has a different value in the eyes of each.

I HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. Huzzah! So yeah, I generally prefer to post at least once a week, and it’s been a week and a half, but I FINISHED THE BOOK so I waited. Because, frankly, I’m glad to be done. And it’s not like any of you tend to comment anyway, so I’m really the only one who cares how often I post!

Anyway. My dad suggested I start this post by saying that I’m having trouble coming up with something to say because Thackeray used up all the words… In a book that clocks in at 825 pages, that’s not so far off, but his vocabulary is not as extensive as Dickens’. His writing, though still distinctively 19th-century English, reads as far more simplistic in style. One of the fun things about Thackeray’s style, which heightens the satirical tendencies, is his habit of using obvious names that demonstrate a person’s character, like those in the quote above – but only for minor characters. He gives these one-or-two-scene characters names like Thriftless, Toady, Bareacres, Spoony, and Mr. Woolsey, the tailor. They are not subtle, but they inform a scene or a reference that may last no longer than a paragraph, and they are often an indicator that this section is satirical but we need not pay too much attention to remembering these characters for the whole course of the story.

In film versions and analyses of Vanity Fair, I understand the chapters at the conclusion of the first volume, dealing with the final days of the Napoleonic Wars near Brussels, including Waterloo, get a good deal of attention. And these chapters are indeed the most engrossing and exciting of the first half of the story. But in my opinion the book gets much more interesting in its second half.

Seeing the characters without the distorting lenses of early courtship or the outbreak of actual military battles helps to grab the interest, I think. Amelia’s still a vapid ninny and Becky’s still a manipulative social climber, but putting them each into the role of motherhood adds dimensions to their personalities. Amelia clearly has an obsessive, clingy nature with an absurd tolerance for handsome, selfish, bossy males. She’s indulgent with her boy, who has all his father’s qualities – those that are charming in the short term and incredibly unappealing in the long term. He is, in a word, spoiled.

Becky’s son, almost exactly the same age, is George Jr.’s opposite. Rawdon Jr. is neglected. His mother dislikes him, and he would be entirely forgotten if not for the pity of a housemaid and his own father, who is an idiot, but a genial idiot who is genuinely fond of his son. Moreover, Rawdons Sr. and Jr. are both bullied by Becky, who is fake at best, scornful on average, and downright hostile and insulting at worst. The best thing that happens to Rawdon Jr. is being sent to live with his uncle and aunt after the scandal about Becky erupts and his parents separate.

Vanity Fair lives up to its name. It references a section of John Bunyan’s decidedly un-subtle allegorical work, Pilgrim’s Progress. The town of Vanity hosts a never-ending fair, known appropriately as Vanity Fair. The whole section represents man’s sinful attachment to worldly things – luxuries and so on. Thackeray repeatedly points to the opportunism, cynicism, and hypocrisy of Vanity Fair, in which people create fictions about themselves to seem more pedigreed or more wealthy or more connected, and in which people choose selfish indulgence over moral righteousness. The difference between Bunyan and Thackeray, though, is Thackeray isn’t preaching a course of righteousness. Thackeray’s just pointing out the hypocrisy so we can all laugh in our sleeves at other people’s pretensions.

Nobody in the book is wholly good or wholly evil. Many are selfish, vain, melancholic, gullible, or just plain amoral. It’s all grey area. It is, as Thackeray intended, a novel without a hero.

Next Up: The Brewer of Preston, by Andrea Camilleri. Due to be released Dec. 30, 2014.

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 3


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If some parts of his conduct made Captain Dobbin exceedingly grave and cool, of what use was it to tell George that though his whiskers were large, and his own opinion of his knowingness great, he was as green as a schoolboy? that Rawdon was making a victim of him as he had done of many before, and as soon as he had used him would fling him off with scorn? He would not listen: and so, as Dobbin, upon those days when he visited the Osborne house, seldom had the advantage of meeting his old friend, much painful and unavailing talk between them was spared. Our friend George was in the full career of the pleasures of Vanity Fair.

I keep intending to post once a week, but I also want to have made it through a certain amount of the book of the moment between my posts. 

I’m not liking Vanity Fair as much as I’d hoped to. Generally speaking, there are two reasons for continuing to read a book that wasn’t assigned in a class. You either like the characters and feel invested in their eventual successes, or you hate the characters and feel invested in witnessing their deserved downfall.

It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost as though we, the audience, aren’t spending enough time with the primary characters to know if we like them or hate them. Except we do spend a lot of time – it’s just through the narration, which has a very removed-from-the-scene feel to it. The narration reads like someone reporting second- or third-hand, rather than in the moment, which is weird, of course, given the text is delivered in the third person past tense. It naturally SHOULD feel removed from the moment, except it’s somehow more so than usual. It’s like he’s describing some other book he read, perhaps.

I suppose it suffices to say that I’m finding it difficult to stay engaged in the story for more than very short bursts. The chapters about Brussels and the Battle of Waterloo were gripping, but then he dropped it suddenly, shifted forward by a year within the course of a paragraph, and started talking about the elderly Miss Crawley’s will. AGAIN.

I’m accustomed to the fact that nineteenth-century novels take a while to build their momentum, but even the notoriously verbose Dickens hooks you in by halfway through the book. I’m going to stick with it, because I’ve read that Vanity Fair is infamous for starting slowly, but I’m halfway through the book. It’s been 400 pages. Surely that’s a little too slow!

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 2


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And who on earth, after the daily experience we have, can question the probability of a gentleman marrying anybody? How many of the wise and learned have married their cooks? Did not Lord Eldon himself, the most prudent of men, make a runaway match? Were not Achilles and Ajax both in love with their servant-maids? And are we to expect a heavy dragoon with strong desires and small brains, who had never controlled a passion in his life, to become prudent all of a sudden, and to refuse to pay any price for an indulgence to which he had a mind? If people only made prudent marriages, what a stop to population there would be!

OMG, you guys. Becky Sharp? Penniless, manipulative governess Becky Sharp?

MARRIED. Secretly married. And not just married, married to the son of her employer!

The chapters dealing with this revelation and its aftermath, which I’m still reading, are full of interesting witticisms and observations on social climbing, manipulation, and wounded pride in many different forms.

It’s a social structure problem, this marriage. First, she’s not just a governess. She’s the possibly illegitimate daughter of an eternally-poor painter and a woman who worked as an opera dancer, no matter what claims to impoverished French nobility her daughter may make. Second, she and Rawdon Crawley married without the permission of his family, who are her employers and social superiors.  Third, Rawdon’s a moron. Which isn’t really a social structure problem, but it probably made him much easier to manipulate and seduce. And I felt it was important to mention.

The other thing is how the secret comes out. Sir Pitt Crawley and Lady Crawley hired Becky as the governess for their daughters. Eventually Becky ends up back in London as unofficial companion to the elderly and very rich Miss Crawley, an aunt of her actual employer. Lady Crawley then dies, and Sir Pitt comes to see Becky to a) demand her return to Queen’s Crawley and her governessing duties and b) suggest she marry him and be Lady Crawley.

Which of course she can’t do, because she’s already married. And legally his daughter-in-law.

So yeah. The two of them are being ostracized by his family at the moment, and indeed, Miss Crawley took to her bed for some time, since Rawdon was her favorite and intended heir.

Meanwhile, the rather tediously sweet Amelia Sedley is going through challenges of her own. Her family has been financially ruined by the vagaries of the stock market during Napoleon’s brief return from Elba, and George Osborn, to whom she has been all-but-engaged since infancy, practically, has been ordered by his father to avoid her entirely and consider their engagement at an end.

Of course they end up married, but it’s a worrying marriage. Amelia adores George, but it’s clear that he is a weak-willed individual. He is overcome by the persuasiveness of his friend Captain Dobbins and the romance and sweetness of the situation, as well as the excitement of rebelling against his father’s direct orders. So they are married and he asserts himself with his family, but how will it end? They are happy during the honeymoon, but how long until George’s irresponsibility and fickleness poison the relationship?

Two risky marriages. Three individuals driven by romance, and the fourth, our anti-heroine Becky, taking a calculated risk. She’s gambling on Rawdon not being cut off by his family, and on her newly-elevated position allowing her greater opportunities for further social climbing.

And I’m still only up to page 250! How far will she manage to rise?

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 1


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And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth. A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry WHOM SHE LIKES. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.

I like to post at least once a week, but to be honest, I’m only 100 pages into Vanity Fair.  Which means I’m only about 1/8 of the way through – the length of many 19th century novels is part of the fun and part of the challenge!

For one reason or another, I’ve found myself discussing 19th-century English literature a lot recently. Dickens, Austen, Gaskell, Trollope, Thackeray…

I enjoy them all for different reasons, and I think a lot of the difference has to do with the distinctive tones of the authors.

Dickens is the impassioned social activist, bluntly depicting the miseries of poverty and the inadequacies of bureaucracy in the middle of the 19th century. That said, his characters tend to be stock character types, as if taken from the traveling theatricals depicted in Nicholas Nickleby. To some extent, these stock types are the source of his humor and pathos, but it also explains the remarkable two-dimensionality of many of his female characters.

Austen, who’s chronologically the earliest of the group I’ve named, is quintessential romantic comedy. Her writing style is still heavily influenced by the 18th century, which is most evident in some of the stilted phrasing in my favorite of her works, Sense and Sensibility.

Gaskell, a contemporary of Dickens, is somewhere in between him and Austen in her style. Many of her novels deal with the impact of the new industrial world upon rural England, such as the introduction of railroads in Cranford and the reaction of country-bred Margaret to the cotton mills of northern England in North and South. Her tone is less impassioned than Dickens’, and takes the role of observer and recorder more than that of activist.

If Dickens is the impassioned social activist, Trollope is the inside-the-Beltway gossip columnist. His novels about politics and the political world of London in the second half of the 19th century are funny, wryly observant of human nature, and can be easily imagined as read in that posh London drawl that sometimes borders on speech impediment.  His characters, especially the women, are startlingly realistic. Laura Kennedy’s ambitious marriage and self-destructive love for Phineas Finn, Glencora Palliser’s struggle to choose duty and honor over love, Alice Vavasor’s difficulties in knowing her own mind and heart, and Marie Goesler’s self-sacrifice and deep-seated desire to love and be loved, are all situations that crop up all the time in the 19th century as well as the 21st. They are real women, prone to faults and mistakes as well as well-intentioned efforts, deep love, and extraordinary generosity of spirit.

Thackeray is an author I’m still getting to know. At 100 pages into Vanity Fair, he already comes across as far more cynical than any I’ve encountered up until now. Trollope may seem cynical at first glance, but he’s more prone to straight-faced explanations than true cynicism. In Becky Sharp, Thackeray has created an unabashedly self-serving and consciously manipulative anti-heroine. She digs her nails into every rung of every ladder she can find and hauls herself up, inch by inch. She flatters and simpers and pretends to whatever emotion is needed in order to do so. She performs demeaning tasks, gossips, flirts, and aims for advancement through marriage and connections. Anything to get ahead.

I’ve still got a long way to travel with Miss Sharp. I look forward to seeing where she’ll take me.

Bloggy Book Club: The Scenic Route


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She wanted Austin to feel better and come back to school. She missed seeing him on the bus. She missed Mandy too. But she missed Austin more. The first time she ever saw him was at the bus stop, and she thought he was the cutest boy she had ever seen. She thought he was even cuter than Ricky Schroder. Mandy said she needed new glasses.

But Mandy had still given her one of Austin’s school pictures. Naomi had taped it on the face of her Ken doll, and she put on a poolside wedding for Barbie and Austin/Ken. But the photo kept falling off, and Naomi was worried it was going to fall into the pool. So Naomi had taped the photo above the fireplace in her Barbie Dreamhouse.

I picked an uncorrected proof of The Scenic Route at ALA a few weeks ago. I should start by saying that this is not a deep book. It is fluffy fun. It has “rom-com film” written all over it.

That said, it has more depth, more sorrow, than I had anticipated.

The basic premise is this: Naomi Bloom had a crush on her friend Mandy Gittleman’s elder brother Austin in elementary school. When Austin and Mandy’s father died suddenly in a surfing accident and their family moved away, Naomi lost touch with them both.  Naomi and Austin reconnect years later at the wedding of mutual friends. At first they bicker. In an argument clearly staged by author Devan Sipher to Set Things Up, the two characters argue over philosophical differences about whether or not wrong turns exist. Naomi and Austin end up hooking up that night.

Then there follow years of missed connections and missed opportunities. I haven’t done the math on how much time the book actually covers, but it has to be at least four years, if not more.

The secondary story follows Austin’s sister Mandy, who starts the book as a doctoral candidate in anthropology studying sexual coercion in primates. She struggles academically and wanders in and out of what I think could be described as dysfunctional codependent romantic relationships, and ends in a crisis that spreads to her brother and many other characters. I can’t say more without giving away crucial plot points.

Author Devan Sipher is apparently also the author of the New York Times “Vows” wedding column, so the world of romance and marriage is clearly not strange to him.

So it’s like I said earlier. This is not Great Literature, but rather a fun and easy read that still provokes some thought about wrong turns, the road not travelled, and the consquences of choices we make. Impulse control – the danger of having too much or not having enough – is also a recurring theme.

Sipher has a gift for clear, visual writing. His descriptions are easy to imagine, such as a funny scene in which Austin, impulsively deciding he ought to follow Naomi back to Miami instead of flying back home to Detroit after their one night together, cannot do so because the door of the airport men’s room stall jams. He tries climbing over, and he tries crawling under, only to get stuck halfway through.

Sipher writes romance without being sappy, speckled with appealing glints of humor like a quick wink across a banquet table. I appreciate any story I can’t predict – I knew that the genre meant a certain end for Austin and Naomi, but the twists and turns along the way took me by surprise.

The Scenic Route is a new release, and for a fun read, I thoroughly recommend it.

Next up: Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, by William Makepeace Thackeray


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