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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The subject of Africa and Africans and the relationship of Africans to Americans is one of my fascinations. I read Ms. Adichie’s novel, Americanah, with that fascination firmly in place. But the book was just ironic, sarcastic, and insightful enough to make me a little uncomfortable. I don’t think I’d enjoy meeting the author, and I don’t think she would like me very much. (According to one character in the novel who may or may not speak for the author, “American conservatives come from an entirely different planet,” obviously not a good one.) I feel as if Ms. Adichie, assuming her characters speak for her in some respects, would have something sardonic and probably also uncomfortably perceptive to say about me and my interest in Africa and my WASP background and my conservative Christian worldview.

Through her main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, especially Ifemelu, the novelist has a lot to say about Nigerians and “Non-American Blacks” (NAB’s) and American Blacks (AB’s) and American Non-Blacks and Brits and other Europeans and poor people and rich people and bourgeois middle class people and everyone else whose weaknesses and foibles Ifemelu manages to expose and ridicule and deflate. Thought provoking, yes. But Ifemelu is also self-absorbed, sometimes pitiable, and irresponsible and unreliable. In short, she’s a real person with a sin problem, although she wouldn’t use that term.

Ifemelu is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States. She leaves Nigeria partly to escape from the lack of choices there and from her dysfunctional family and partly to study in the U.S., the land of opportunity. She finds that when she comes to America, she suddenly becomes “black”, a category she never considered one way or another back in Nigeria. She is subject to the racism, overt and subtle, that American Blacks encounter and deal with all of the time in this country. And she also becomes “African” in the eyes of many Americans, black and white, who tell her about their charitable contributions to an orphanage in Zimbabwe or their trip to Kenya or their love for Mother Africa, as if Africa were one big country, and of course, she would identify with people and entities half a continent away from her own nation and culture.

Ifemelu, however, is an honest and incisive thinker, and she forges her own identity in the U.S. She eventually becomes a blogger with a widely read and profitable blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. She writes about race in America, about black women and hair, about subtle and not-so subtle racism, about Michelle and Barack Obama, about her own experiences as an immigrant to the U.S., and about the people and interactions she observes. Her blog posts about race in particular prick the consciences and destroy the pretensions of many of her readers. (The unrealistic part, of course, is that she makes quite a bit of money as a result of the popularity of her blog. How many rich bloggers are there?)

Americanah is a smart, penetrating, rather dramatic look at the immigrant experience and at the emigrant experience and at the experience of returning home. But it made me feel the way I feel when I’m in the company of intellectual people who spend their time mocking and pointing out the defects of those who are “beneath” them, outside their little clique. Americanah is an opinionated book, and it’s not a kind book. The characters in the book are honest, possibly right about many of their opinions and insights, but not very compassionate or forgiving.

“What are you reading?” Kelsey turned to Ifemelu.
Ifemelu showed her the cover of the novel. She did not want to start a conversation. Especially not with Kelsey. She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.
“Is it good?”
“Yes.”
“It’s a novel, right? What’s it about?”
Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing. Ifemelu disliked the question; She would have disliked it even if she did not feel, in addition to her depressed uncertainty, the beginning of a headache.

At the risk of being relegated to the realm of all the Kelseys of this country, despite my lack of “liberal” credentials, I will say that Americanah is about the Nigerian immigrant experience, both in the U.S. and Britain. It’s also about the issues and stresses of being a black woman in America, specifically in the Northeastern part of the U.S. And it’s a novel about romantic love, and lost love and recovered love. The ending, like the detail of the money-making blog, struck me as unrealistic and unlikely. But I did learn a lot along the way.

Warning: Self-absorption and sexual license abound in the novel, just as they do in the real lives of many, both Africans and Americans. That part of the novel is almost too realistic.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior

My mom, my sister and I read Ms. Prior’s literary memoir for our GED Family Book Club in November. Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University in Virginia. Her bio at the Liberty website says:

“She was raised in a strong Christian home and received Christ at a very early age. But it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that Dr. Prior was introduced to the concept of the Christian worldview. This was when her faith became real and she embraced the challenge of not only living biblically, but thinking biblically, too. Her life has never been the same.”

41nFjdCDnbL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The memoir deals mostly with Ms. Prior’s growing up years, the years before “her faith became real.” She writes in each chapter about a particular author or work of literature and about how that literary work informed her thoughts and gave her food, real food, for spiritual and emotional growth. I liked how the author wove her own story through the stories she read and demonstrated the power of words and stories to change our lives, for better or for worse.

Ms. Prior starts with the premise that she takes from John Milton’s Areopagitica: “God uses the things of this earth to teach us and shape us, and to help us find truth.” (p.10) She paraphrases Milton, saying that “truth is stronger than falsehood; falsehood prevails through the suppression of countering ideas, but truth triumphs in a free and open exchange that allows truth to shine.” As Milton put it, “Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.” I tend to agree and have generally allowed myself and my children (within reason) to read whatever we thought might be of benefit to our minds and our education. I believe in this habit of “reading promiscuously” and believe it has been of more benefit than harm to me and to my children.

That’s not to say that reading with very few boundaries is not sometimes perilous, and scary for the parent in particular. Some ideas are dangerous and even evil. But I believe that Truth will prevail, as long as we are open to the truth. And it has been my experience that denying myself or my children access to certain books only makes us more curious and at the same time less prepared to encounter, apprehend, and interpret that idea that has been hidden and forbidden and made to seem alluring by its very proscription. Whereas discussion and reading and more discussion and reading and placing the ideas we read about in juxtaposition to God’s Word and then reading and talking some more—these are the best ways to learn and grow and become fully equipped for the battle of worldview and philosophy in which we are engaged.

So, that’s just the first chapter. This memoir is really a book full of ideas and things to think about (or write about). In the second chapter (Charlotte’s Web) Ms. Prior discusses the power of words:

“All words are names, for all words signify something.
The power of naming is a subset of the power of all language. God spoke the universe into existence and, in giving us the gift of language He gave us a lesser, but still magnificent, creative power in the ability to name: the power to communicate, to make order out of chaos, to tell stories, and to shape our own lives and the lives of others.
The Book of Proverbs says that death and life are in the power of words. To choose a good word, to assign the right name, to arrange proper words in the best order: these are no easy tasks.”

So true, and so reminiscent of not only Charlotte, the spider with a talent for choosing the right word, but also of Madeleine L’Engle and her emphasis on the power of naming. We are shaped by the names we give and are given. If I call myself (because God first called me) a child of God, I become a new creation indeed.

I could write a paragraph or a page or even, in some cases perhaps, a book of my own about each of the following quotes from Ms. Prior’s book, but I will simply leave them with you to ponder and perhaps one or all of these excerpts will tantalize and impel you to read the book yourself. (WARNING: Some of Ms. Prior’s life experiences, having to do with growing up during the sexual revolution of the seventies, before “her faith became real” are more appropriate for mature readers.)

“To respond emotionally to God directly is more than I can bear. So God in his goodness has bestowed the gift of literature.”

“Indeed, the only thing that stands between me–or anyone–and tragedy is grace.”

“Well, I believe in a God who not only intervenes in human affairs—again and again–but one who also makes banquets out of stale bread.”

“Life is grounded in the mundane. But the mundane has a bad rap. The word simply means ‘world'; its origins are shared with the same root word for ‘mountain.'”

“God is nothing if not a poet. And nothing if not elaborate in both his imagination and composition. Elaborate, as the root of the word suggests, means brought about by labor and care, planned with painstaking attention to details or intricate and rich in detail. Just like a metaphysical conceit. To join the unlike–a man and a woman, reason and passion, physical and spiritual—is the work of the poet and of God.”

The books and literary works that Karen Swallow Prior discusses in the book are:
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.
The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, especial the poem “Pied Beauty”.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.
The metaphysical poetry of John Donne.
The poetry of Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy.

If you are a fan of any of the above, Ms. Prior’s very personal take on the meaning and application of these literary works to her own spiritual journey would be illuminating and engaging.

The 16th Gift of Christmas in Surrey, England, 1815

From Emma by Jane Austen, chapter 16:

“To youth and natural cheerfulness like Emma’s, though under temporary gloom at night, the return of day will hardly fail to bring return of spirits. The youth and cheerfulness of morning are in happy analogy, and of powerful operation; and if the distress be not poignant enough to keep the eyes unclosed, they will be sure to open to sensations of softened pain and brighter hope.

Emma got up on the morrow more disposed for comfort than she had gone to bed, more ready to see alleviations of the evil before her, and to depend on getting tolerably out of it.

It was a great consolation that Mr. Elton should not be really in love with her, or so particularly amiable as to make it shocking to disappoint him—that Harriet’s nature should not be of that superior sort in which the feelings are most acute and retentive—and that there could be no necessity for any body’s knowing what had passed except the three principals, and especially for her father’s being given a moment’s uneasiness about it.

These were very cheering thoughts; and the sight of a great deal of snow on the ground did her further service, for any thing was welcome that might justify their all three being quite asunder at present.

The weather was most favourable for her; though Christmas-day, she could not go to church. Mr. Woodhouse would have been miserable had his daughter attempted it, and she was therefore safe from either exciting or receiving unpleasant and most unsuitable ideas. The ground covered with snow, and the atmosphere in that unsettled state between frost and thaw, which is of all others the most unfriendly for exercise, every morning beginning in rain or snow, and every evening setting in to freeze, she was for many days a most honourable prisoner. No intercourse with Harriet possible but by note; no church for her on Sunday any more than on Christmas-day; and no need to find excuses for Mr. Elton’s absenting himself.”

Today’s Gifts from Semicolon:
A song:

A birthday:
Ludwig von Beethoven, b.1770.
Jane Austen, b.1775.
Marie Hall Ets b.1895, author of many children’s picture books including Gilberto and the Wind and Nine Days to Christmas
Playwright Noel Coward, b.1896
Arthur C. Clarke, b.1917, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and other science fiction classics.

Who knew that Jane Austen and Beethoven were near in age and shared a birthdate?

The 7th Gift of Christmas in Lincolnshire, England, 1820’s

Today is “a day that will live in infamy.” And still Christmas came in 1941 as it always does every year, as it came back in the early part of the nineteenth century:51hiUMUSraL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

“The red berries were just as abundant on the holly, and he and Maggie had dressed all the windows and mantlepieces and picture-frames on Christmas eve with as much taste as ever, wedding the thick-set scarlet clusters with branches of the black-berried ivy. There had been singing under the windows after midnight,—supernatural singing, Maggie always felt, in spite of Tom’s contemptuous insistence that the singers were old Patch, the parish clerk, and the rest of the church choir; she trembled with awe when their carolling broke in upon her dreams, and the image of men in fustian clothes was always thrust away by the vision of angels resting on the parted cloud. The midnight chant had helped as usual to lift the morning above the level of common days; and then there were the smell of hot toast and ale from the kitchen, at the breakfast hour; the favorite anthem, the green boughs, and the short sermon gave the appropriate festal character to the church-going; and aunt and uncle Moss, with all their seven children, were looking like so many reflectors of the bright parlor-fire, when the church-goers came back, stamping the snow from their feet. The plum-pudding was of the same handsome roundness as ever, and came in with the symbolic blue flames around it, as if it had been heroically snatched from the nether fires, into which it had been thrown by dyspeptic Puritans; the dessert was as splendid as ever, with its golden oranges, brown nuts, and the crystalline light and dark of apple-jelly and damson cheese; in all these things Christmas was as it had always been since Tom could remember; it was only distinguished, if by anything, by superior sliding and snowballs.” ~The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

Today’s Gifts from Semicolon:
A song: Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus at Mocha with Linda.

A booklist: Read aloud Christmas titles from the library at Hope Is the Word.

A birthday: Willa Cather, American novelist, b.1873.

A poem: The Oxen by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Lost in a Walker Percy Cosmos, Part 5

The conference, “Still Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy & the 21st Century,” that I attended in New Orleans along with Eldest Daughter was a very Catholic conference. I would guess that most, not all, of the speakers at the conference were Catholic. The conference was held on the campus of Loyola University, a Catholic Jesuit university. I told one man at the reception on Friday evening that I had eight children. He immediately assumed that I was Catholic. I should have said, “No, I’m just a fertile Baptist.” I did tell him that I was Baptist whereupon he asked me what I was doing at a Walker Percy conference in the middle of all of the Catholics. Didn’t we (Baptists) think they (Catholics) were all a bunch of heathens?

I reassured him that I was OK with Catholics if he was OK with Baptists. Everyone else at the reception drank alcohol. I didn’t, but I enjoyed the food. We all enjoyed the keynote address, and then Eldest Daughter and I went back to our bed and breakfast and enjoyed a good night’s rest.

On Saturday morning Eldest Daughter and I decided to mirror the theme of the conference by getting lost in New Orleans. New Orleans, at least the part of New Orleans where we were lost, has lots of narrow, one-way streets, with potholes, and people park alongside the streets, making them even narrower. It’s picturesque, but confusing. We wandered the byways of NOLA for over an hour before we happened upon the Loyola campus and were returned to the bosom of the Walker Percy conference. It all felt predestined.

We did miss the first seminar sessions of the morning, but we were able to make the 10:15 session on Technology and Media in Lost in the Cosmos. The first panelist used the word “semiotics” more than once, but I did not walk out or make any rude noises. If one attends a conference about an author who is interested in something called “semiotics” one must put up with a certain amount of semiotics. Anyway, apparently the alphabet is to blame for modern man’s alienation. The post-alphabetic self gains the whole world (on paper) but loses itself? Actually this analysis of the plight of modern man bears thought. What were the negative results of the invention of the printing press? What did we lose when we put everything into print? The art of story-telling? Community? And what are we losing now as we put everything into pixels on a computer screen?

The next presenter spoke about “the liquid society”, a phrase coined by a sociologist named Baumann. The idea is that we live in a society of individuals and individualists with fragmented lives, no long-term career, no family ties, no sense of place or community, our identities in constant flux. This lack of fixed identity is a major theme of Lost in the Cosmos.

May 9, 2011. Venice. European society, said the Holy Father, is submerged in a liquid culture; in this regard, he pointed out “its ‘fluidity,’ its low level of stability or perhaps absence of stability, its mutability, the inconsistency that at times seems to characterize it.”
He noted that Bauman attributes the birth of the “liquid” society to the consumerist model. The philosopher stated that its most profound impact has been felt in social relations, and, more in particular, in relations between man and woman, which have become increasingly flexible and impalpable, as manifested by the present concept of love reduced to a mere passing sentiment.
Speaking to an audience in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, Benedict XVI opposed this model of a liquid society with a model of the society “of life and of beauty.”
“It is certainly an option, but in history it’s necessary to choose: man is free to interpret, to give meaning to reality, and it is precisely in this liberty that his great dignity lies,” said the Pope.

Again, the loss of community, and the resultant loss of self, is a theme. Belief in technology and progress alone is inadequate and dangerous. We need a community to “in”form our sense of self. Lost in the Cosmos involves the reader in the message through a repeated use of the second person: “You grow thoughtful” or “you feel like a castaway on an island”. Also, the reader is asked questions and enticed to participate in thought experiments and multiple choice quizzes.

Percy said that “words have a tendency to wear out.” Because of this loss of meaning, authors in particular keep trying to find new ways and new words to express old truths. Percy was always trying to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Tell All The Truth by Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

I’m not sure how successful Mr. Percy is in communicating with me, but I’m also not sure I am his target audience. Percy was born in 1916, so he’s a twentieth century author to be sure. However, I’m something of an anachronism. I’ve never felt the twentieth century alienation and loss of faith in God that most twentieth century authors exhibit. I settled the God question when I was a teen with C.S. Lewis, a little Josh McDowell, G.K. Chesterton and two verses from the Bible:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. Job 13:15

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68

Not saying I have all the answers or never feel depressed or never doubt God’s intentions or nearness. But who or what else is there to assuage the ache? (Listen to Ben Shive’s song, Nothing for the Ache, which I would embed here if I could.)

Lost in a Walker Percy Cosmos, Part 2

I forgot to mention, in Part 1 of this series of posts on the Walker Percy conference at Loyola University in New Orleans, that Eldest Daughter was presenting a paper at the conference. I will not tell you which paper she presented, but it was good and it had nothing to do with French medieval poetry, the ostensible subject of her dissertation that she is supposed to be writing. Walker Percy is simply more compelling right now than French medieval poetry, a truth universally acknowledged, is it not?

For those of you who, like me, have never attended an academic conference, the format is quite simple. The presenters, mostly professors of something or another at some university or another, get up in groups of three or four and they read their papers. That’s right, they read to the audience, just as librarians read picture books to first graders in story time, except mostly there are no pictures, and then they take questions. Some of these academics are better storytellers and readers than others, but I will say that I learned something from almost every paper I heard read, except when I got lost in the cosmos of academia and erudition. (I heard and made lots of “lost” jokes at this conference.)

Here are some really, truly, actual sample titles of papers from Still Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy & the 21st Century:

Alienation, Dislocation and Restoration: Percy’s Semiotic Psychology
The Semiotics of Shame and the Christian Meta-narrative in Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos
(I can’t tell you about these first two because I refused to attend session or panel in which one of the papers to be presented used the word “semiotics” or meta-narrative”. I have my limits. See Part 1 of this series.)
Falling into Transcendence: Walker Percy’s Demoniac Self, the Erotic and the Lust for God
Walker Percy’s Semiotics of Self: A Case Study: C.S. Peirce and the Problem of Reentry
(Two colons! But pardon my ignorance, who is C.S. Peirce, and does he really place the “e” before the “i” in his last name?)
Deceit, Desire, and the Self-Help Book: Rereading Lost in the Cosmos as a novel in light of Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory (Ditto Rene Girard?)
The Mishmash Theory of Man
Where are the Hittites? Tracing Walker Percy’s Theology of the Jews
A Moveable Piece: Stefan Zweig and Walker Percy’s Problem of Artist-Writer Reentry
(And who is Stefan Zweig? I’m starting to feel like a low-information conference attendee.)
Revealing the Transcendent Third: Walker’s Percy’s Trinitarian Imagination
Starting Over: Amnesia, Escape, and Redemption in Lost in the Cosmos and in Percy’s Novels
Lost in the Cosmos and Gulliver’s Travels: Christian Satire in the Anglo-American Tradition
Walker Percy, Herman Melville, and Moby Dick, the (Second-to) Last Self-Help Book: An Intertextual Study of the Self
(Ah, at last, Melville, Moby Dick, and Gulliver I know. I went to these two presentations, wanting to feel as if I had at least something in my brain besides mush, the mishmash theory of me.)
The Dialectic of Belief: Participation and Uncertainty in Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos

'St Ignatius T Shirt Beads' photo (c) 2009, Infrogmation of New Orleans - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/To begin with, I learned from just reading these titles that an academic conference requires colons. Without colons, the professors would find it impossible to give titles to their papers. However, my favorite title of a paper presented at the conference had no colons at all. It was a joke. Really, the paper was titled: “I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.” It may have been my favorite, or at least second favorite, part of the entire conference.

So, the presenting of papers began on Friday afternoon in various conference rooms in the library at Loyola. I like libraries, and it was a very nice library. As we entered, to our left, was a statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He was wearing a purple T-shirt.

“Outside the front steps of the Monroe Library stands a life-size bronze statute of St. Ignatius de Loyola, a diminutive ex-soldier, courtier, and our patron saint.
Our students have named the statue Iggy, and occasionally loan him hats and T-shirts to promote various campus events and or decorate him with Mardi Gras beads during carnival season.”

I don’t think the purple shirt had anything to do with Walker Percy, but he might have appreciated the local color. The first panel I attended was transcendence, amnesia, and the paper with the joke title. I took notes. However, my notes may or may not have been recognizable as related to the topics being discussed. In my mind, My Self, the notes I took make perfect sense and are semiotically and integrally related to the papers that I heard. However, an impartial judge, if such a judge were to exist, might beg to differ. Perhaps St. Ignatius in his purple t-shirt will deign to judge in Part 3 of this series, Digression, Catastrophe, and Narcotic Refuge: Are the Existentialists Really Epicurians?

Lost in a Walker Percy Cosmos, Part 1

A couple of months ago Eldest Daughter asked if I would like to accompany her to an academic conference in New Orleans in October. New Orleans in October with Eldest Daughter who is one of my favorite persons? Of course, I would love to go. Then, she told me the subject of the conference, “Still Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy & the 21st Century.”

Now I am not a fan, really, of Mr. Percy’s fiction. I say that, having read one, maybe two, books by Percy, The Moviegoer and another book long ago that I think was The Thanatos Syndrome. I remember people in trees(?) or sitting on flagpoles and something about poisoning the water supply and a priest and a doctor. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, and unfortunately that’s all I remember of the novel. The Moviegoer I read more recently, and according to Eldest Daughter herself, who is a fan, I just didn’t get it. I concur: I didn’t get it. The main character, Binx Bolling, was the kind of person who, if I were to meet him, I would feel strongly impelled to shake until he spits, as my mother would say. Existentialists (Percy had a thing for Kierkegaard) affect me that way, oddly enough.

Still I am a fan of Eldest Daughter and of a trip to New Orleans, and I like to feel as if I know what people are talking about when I listen to them speak. So in preparation for the conference I began reading Mr. Percy’s book, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. Lost in the Cosmos is not a novel, but rather a parody of the myriad of self-help books that tell us that we can categorize our angst and work it out in six easy steps or by repeating one mantra or by listening to the author who will tell us who we really are. The first part of the book is really quite clever as Percy gets the reader first to admit that “it [is] possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life.” Then, through a series of “thought experiments”, Percy leads his readers to recognize the existential lostness that afflicts each of us: we are indeed lost in the cosmos.

So far, so clever. In the middle of the book, however, Percy stops for an extended tour of the science of semiotics, a word I had to look up in my handy, dandy dictionary. Semiotics is “the study of signs and symbols, and their use or interpretation.” (Clear as mud? No? You obviously need to undertake a serious study of semiotics.) This part of the book is called “A Semiotic Primer on the Self.” The print becomes much smaller, and the text much, much more dense. Diagrams are inserted, and footnotes abound. Percy himself writes, “The following section, an intermezzo of some forty pages, can be skipped without fatal consequences.” I skipped. Not only did I skip, I also skipped out and never managed to finish Lost in the Cosmos before the conference in New Orleans. The consequences were not fatal, but perhaps were an inhibition to my understanding of the presenters at the conference.

So, there you have a synopsis of my preparation for the Walker Percy conference at Loyola University in New Orleans. My preliminary studies were inadequate at best. However, I went with the expectation that I would be enriched and challenged by the conference speakers and satiated and enlivened by the food and sights of New Orleans. And Eldest Daughter is still one of my favorite people, even if she does understand Walker Percy when I do not.

Tomorrow, read part 2, Amnesia, Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, and the Shadow of Catastrophe, or How to Title an Academic Paper on Walker Percy.

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

I have read very few authors with as much insight into the feelings and thought processes of men, women, and children as Elizabeth Goudge. The Rosemary Tree is remarkable in its treatment of characters who are all somewhat broken (as are we all), but who fall on a continuum from repentant to ineffectual to struggling to wise to completely evil. And the character who is represented as utterly irredeemable, because she doesn’t want to be forgiven or changed, might be the character you least suspect.

It all seems very true to life. (By the way that’s an awful cover, but the others I saw at Amazon weren’t any better. I don’t know why the people are wearing what looks like Elizabethan or Edwardian costumes. The story takes place in the twentieth century, after World War II.) The main characters in this little vignette of village life are:

John Wentworth, a bumbling and diffident country parson who sees himself as a weak man and a failure who can never get anything quite right.

“He took off his coat, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, lifted up to Almighty God the magnitude of his failure and the triviality of his task, and applied himself to the latter. The hot water warmed his cold hands and the pile of cleansed china grew satisfactorily on the draining-board. There was a pleasure in getting things clean. Small beauties slid one by one into his consciousness, quietly and unobtrusively, like growing light. The sinuous curves of Orlando the marmalade cat, washing himself on the window-sill, the comfortable sound of ash settling in the stove, a thrush singing somewhere, the scent of Daphne’s geraniums, the gold of the crocuses that were growing round the trunk of the apple tree outside the kitchen window.”

Others see him as Don Quixote, the Man of la Mancha.

Daphne Wentworth, John’s wife, is much more competent than her husband, but also full of pride and thwarted ambitions from her youth.

The couple have three children: Pat, who is like her mother, competent and intelligent and sharp, Margary, who is more like John, dreamy and vulnerable, and Winkle, who is the baby of the family, but wise with the innocence of childhood.

Harriet lives upstairs in the Wentworth parsonage, and she is wise with the wisdom of many years of experience, first as John’s nanny, then as the parsonage housekeeper, and now as a retired pray-er and watcher over the entire household.

“They all said they could not do without her. In the paradoxical nature of things if she could have believed them she would have been a much happier woman, but not the same woman whom they could not do without.”

Maria Wentworth, John’s great-aunt, lives in Belmaray Manor and keeps pigs.

Young Mary O’Hara, Irish and full of vitality, and Miss Giles, middle-aged, bitter, and full of frustrations, both teach school at the small private school that the Wentworth girls attend. Mary’s aunt, Mrs. Belling, “was a very sweet woman and had been a very beautiful one.” She is headmistress of the little school, where all three girls are quite unhappy, each in her own way.

Into this mix comes a stranger, Michael Stone, who is weighed down by many, many real failures and sins and who comes to Devonshire where the story takes place not so much for redemption as simply for a place to go, perhaps to hide from the world. Michael will find more than he’s looking for, and the other characters in this novel will change and grow as a result of Michael’s presence and the truth he brings into their lives.

Elizabeth Goudge really has written a lovely novel. Apparently, The Times criticized its “slight plot” and “sentimentally ecstatic” approach when the book was first published in 1956. I’ll admit the story is a bit short on action, but the descriptions of how and what people think and feel more than makes up for any deficiency in fictional exploits.

Sidenote/detour: While looking for more information about Elizabeth Goudge, I found this article about an Indian author, Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, who plagiarized from The Rosemary Tree in her 1993 Cranes’ Morning. In fact, aside from changing the setting to India, the names of the characters to Indian ones, and the religion to Hinduism, Ms. Aikath-Gyaltsen copied much of Goudge’s novel word-for-word. It took about a year for the plagiarism to be noticed and confirmed, and in the meantime Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen died, probably committing suicide. Sad story.

I wonder what Elizabeth Goudge, who died in 1984, would have thought about it all?

Not to end this review of and homage to Ms. Goudge’s agreeable novel on such a sad note, I’ll leave you with one more quote:

“The way God squandered Himself had always hurt her; and annoyed her, too. The sky full of wings and only the shepherds awake. That golden voice speaking and only a few fishermen there to hear; and perhaps some of the words He spoke carried away on the wind or lost in the sound of the waves lapping against the side of the boat. A thousand blossoms shimmering over the orchard, each a world of wonder all to itself, and then the whole thing blown away on a south-west gale as though the delicate little worlds were of no value at all. Well, of all the spendthrifts, she would think, and then pull herself up. It was not for her to criticize the ways of Almighty God; if He liked to go to all that trouble over the snowflakes, millions and millions of them, their intricate patterns too small to be seen by human eyes, and melting as soon as made, that was His affair and not hers.”

I like the idea of God as a spendthrift, creating beauty for the sheer joy of it all whether there’s anyone there to perceive it or not. Isn’t there a poem based on that idea? Maybe Emily Dickinson?

The Resurrection and the Life

I thought I’d post a few times today and tomorrow about the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and what it means to me and to some of the authors and fictional and actual characters that I have on my bookshelves. I’m going to take turns blogging and house-cleaning and see how that goes.

I first read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities when I was in ninth grade. Three of us—Christina, Teresa, and I— wrote a chapter-by-chapter summary of the entire book, making our own little study guide to the novel as a school project. We did this before the age of personal computers and before any of us knew how to type. I can’t remember exactly what the finished product looked like, but it was a lot of work.

The themes of death, burial, imprisonment, rescue and resurrection are woven throughout Dickens’ tale set during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Doctor Manette is rescued from a living death inside the Bastille. Jerry Cruncher is a “resurrection man” who digs up dead bodies to sell them. Charles Darnay is rescued and recalled to life twice during the novel, once when he is on trial in England and again when he is headed for guillotine in France.

But the most vivid representation of death and resurrection comes at the end of the novel when the reprobate Sydney Carton gives up his life to save Charles and Lucy Darnay and to ensure their future together. Carton is walking down the street when he remembers these words from Scripture read at his father’s funeral long ago:

“I am the resurrection, and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

Now, that the streets were quiet, and the night wore on, the words were in the echoes of his feet, and were in the air. Perfectly calm and steady, he sometimes repeated them to himself as he walked; but, he heard them always.

The night wore out, and, as he stood upon the bridge listening to the water as it splashed the river-walls of the Island of Paris, where the picturesque confusion of houses and cathedral shone bright in the light of the moon, the day came coldly, looking like a dead face out of the sky. Then, the night, with the moon and the stars, turned pale and died, and for a little while it seemed as if Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.

But, the glorious sun, rising, seemed to strike those words, that burden of the night, straight and warm to his heart in its long bright rays. And looking along them, with reverently shaded eyes, a bridge of light appeared to span the air between him and the sun, while the river sparkled under it.

The strong tide, so swift, so deep, and certain, was like a congenial friend, in the morning stillness He walked by the stream, far from the houses, and in the light and warmth of the sun fell asleep on the bank. When he awoke and was afoot again, he lingered there yet a little longer, watching an eddy that turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it on to the sea.- “Like me!”

A trading-boat, with a sail of the softened colour of a dead leaf, then glided into his view, floated by him, and died away. As its silent track in the water disappeared, the prayer that had broken up out of his heart for a merciful consideration of all his poor blindnesses and errors, ended in the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

On Good Friday, when we are in the midst of death and sin and darkness, it does sometimes seem a if “Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.” A blogging friend sent out a tweet earlier today saying that he had “difficulty ‘pretending’ on Good Friday that Jesus is dead.” Of course, Jesus isn’t dead, but as far as imagining the feeling of despair and “being delivered over to death”, I have no trouble whatsoever. Sometimes things in this world are very dark, and the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our eventual resurrection with Him is all that keeps from utter despair.

Thank God for Resurrection Sunday!

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This novel from a Nigerian/American author is classified as young adult fiction in my library, probably because the narrator is fifteen years old, but I think it will resonate with adults of all ages, and with readers around the world because the themes–abusive relationships, religious legalism, freedom, and the source of joy–are all universal themes.

Fifteen year old Kambili and her older brother Jaja live with their mother and father in a wealthy or at least upper middle class Catholic home in Enugu, Nigeria. Their father’s strict, legalistic Catholicism pervades the family’s life, from twenty minute prayers before meals to reciting the rosary on car trips to fasting before mass every Sunday. Not only is the family required to be strictly Catholic by Kambili’s papa but they are also held to a stringent schedule made up of course by the father. Kambili has conflicting feelings about Papa: she is pleased, even thrilled, when he approves of her words or actions, but of course when harsh punishment comes her way, Kambili is crushed.

Then, the catalyst for change enters the life of this silent, repressed family: Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma invites the children to visit her home in Nsukka. Aunty Ifeoma is a widow, a teacher, much poorer than her brother, but the joy in Aunty’s home is overflowing and overwhelming for her love-starved niece and nephew. Kambili and Jaja learn another way of life, without rigid schedules and authoritarian rule-keeping, and most of all without fear. Kambili, who comes across as much younger than fifteen throughout most of the story probably because of her repressed childhood, doesn’t know what to think or do with all the freedom that she is given in Aunty Ifeoma’s home, so she mostly does nothing and remains very, very quiet, even silent. Jaja sees the possibilities of freedom and becomes rebellious. However, it is the children’s meek, long-suffering mother, who has also suffered abuse at the hands of her husband, who takes the most surprising action of all.

The story is terribly sad. The depth of the dysfunction and abuse in the family is revealed slowly, a little at a time, until it becomes overpowering. Papa is not a wholly evil man; he publishes the truth about the government in his newspaper and he is generous to the poor, to family, and to many others. But of course, this generosity and honesty displayed to outside world makes the secret, petty evil that Papa perpetrates inside his home even worse.

I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative arc of this novel by telling what it is generally about. I don’t think so. Ms. Adichie is quite skilled in the way she spins her story, and she enlists our sympathy as readers for all the characters in the novel, even Papa to some extent. One senses that he is caught in a web of legalism himself, and he cannot see a way out. That emotional captivity certainly doesn’t justify the abuse, but it explains to some extent why the children and their mother take so long to escape and why their feelings about Papa are so contradictory and confused.

Recommended.