Saturday, February 21, 2015

Hewers of wood, drawers of water, and inspectors of prisons

I have a long relationship with the cover of this book (Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey).

Gosh, I love that cover art. The red ink, the handwritten title! Every time I went into a Waterstones I would end up picking it up and considering it, but it's a chunky book to have to fit in your suitcase, not to mention the price of hardcovers; and then the description just didn't seem all that interesting. "An irrepressibly funny portrait of the impossible friendship between a master and a servant." The heart wants what it wants, and the heart likes the cover art way better than that description. But sometimes fate intervenes: I found a copy of the UK hardcover at the Newberry book sale over the summer priced at only $2 ("...that must be a mistake!" said the checkout volunteer as I mentally willed her to just finish the transaction) and obviously.

This was a very enjoyable book in the end, although it gets off to a slow start. The story is told from the perspective of Olivier, the French aristocrat, and Parrot, his multi-talented servant/secretary, in alternating chapters. Parrot is pretty clearly the "main" character here in terms of development/mystery/conflict/interest, although, fittingly for the society they're living in, Olivier's chapters provide the real start-to-finish timeline for the novel as well as the engine for the plot in the novel's present. The book starts out with each character narrating his childhood; you then get Olivier narrating up to the "present"; then Parrot comes into the story, and we find out about his intervening years as we go along.

Parrot's life in particular is shaped by a whole slew of historical forces, and I recognized a lot of the things Carey was playing with in terms of the movement of people and ideas. I feel like there's a more sophisticated reference to make here than Forrest Gump, but let's don't stand on ceremony; Parrot's life story at times feels a bit Gumpian, not because he crosses paths with famous people and events but just because of the sheer number of settings he goes through. He's also blessed by his author with intelligence and skills that make him an equal with Olivier. It's not just "a master and his servant" in other words, but rather more a story of how this guy ends up as a servant as one odd episode in a life full of odd episodes; odd episodes that are nevertheless all firmly within the experience of the working class at this time. I felt aware of all this as I read, but I was still moved by the pathos of his situation.

The inside flap of my copy describes the book as "an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville" and although that description made me skeptical at first, in the end I was totally on board. Somehow Carey manages to strike the right tone of being historically inspired but not quite claiming to be historical fiction, if you follow. Describing it as an "improvisation" is actually perfect: it's pulling out the really fascinating aspects of Tocqueville's life and world and blowing them up so you can get inside and really look at them. As you know(?), I often approach historical fiction with a heavy dose of skepticism, but this book seems like a good example of how fiction can be a means of interpreting and commenting on a particular time and place. Plus it's just plain fun to read (once you get past the childhood chapters, those are slightly rough going although key to the character development).

Now: a final note; an extremely mild observation. This book seems like an example of something else, the diversity problem in publishing, as it was apparently shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Now, I don't know how those awards work and I have even less clue what else was eligible in 2010, but while I enjoyed this book and thought it was really masterfully written I have a hard time seeing it as major-award-worthy. This isn't to take anything away from the book or its author whatsoever, and I've already noted that it succeeds at something I don't often see books succeeding at; but just, when I think about the whole world of UK publishing and English-language writing... it just strikes me as a data point that would, on its own, support the notion that the publishing industry favors established white guys writing about white guys. I will leave the strong criticism to people who actually have a clue about the real world. If I'd read this in 2010 it might have made it onto my shortlist of best books published in that year, but as we all know I only ever read two books a year that were actually published in that year so that's not a particularly high honor.

If there are awards for cover art though, I'm behind it all the way.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Getting real about Lent (sorry, not a book post)

I have not one, not two, but three books to write up for you (Parrot and Olivier in America, Youth Without God, and a Don Camillo collection) -- but I wanted to write up something about Lent so I'm going to go ahead and do that first. Sorry. I do fully intend to write those three up soon, before I totally forget what I had to say about them, so please excuse this digression and we'll be back to our contractual obligations soon.

Right, so. Lent.

I have an abysmal track record when it comes to Lent. As a kid, my family always attended (and not infrequently was in charge of) Friday Stations & Soup nights during Lent, but I had little notion of "giving something up" until I got to high school. Then, it seemed to be mostly a matter of making a big fuss anytime someone (probably me) dared to eat something chocolate during Lent. UGGGGGGH, DON'T EAT THAT IN FRONT OF ME, I CAN'T EAT CHOCOLATE CUZ IT'S LENT, UGGGGH!!!! Between religion class and school Masses I was pretty much aware of the degree to which these various girls did not actually believe in Christianity/Catholicism (Ed. according to them! this is not just me being judgey!), so the whole "giving something up" practice just seemed illogical, hypocritical, and/or superstitious. My Lenten problem was only heightened in college, where the Catholic center seemed to agree with my view on "giving something up" but didn't seem to have much to offer in terms of making sense of Lent. The approved view was something along the lines of "doing something nice extra" but it was nothing on the scale of or with the same tone as those childhood Stations & Soup nights and so it wasn't at all clear what we were doing differently from any other forty days of the year. Really, it's only been in the last five years or so that I've not only gained an intellectual understanding of Lent but also begun to spiritually understand it (that is, understanding it from a more organic place).

Still, even in these last five years, I've struggled to effectively do anything for Lent, because as it turns out I have very little will-power when it comes to small day-to-day choices. A priest once described sacrifices as "practicing saying no to yourself" which really turned a light on for me... which then made it clear how infrequently I really succeed in saying no to myself. Those girls who mechanically gave up chocolate for Lent were actually doing something I would find at least as difficult to do for any reason. It's one of the major recurring spiritual lessons of my life, really, that being perhaps a more intellectually inclined person doesn't let you shortcut around the basic training you get from practices like saying rosaries or novenas or "giving something up". I definitely grew up in an environment that valued, say, meditation over vocal prayer, and being in the top ten of my class academically made me think I was on some kind of spiritual AP track too and shouldn't have to "bother" with the "basics"; but what I've found is that I make more progress in the former when I pay humble attention to the latter. Anyway.

With that lengthy bit of background, I have hopes for this year. I want to try, and to succeed or fail as it may be, with as little fudging of the goal posts as possible. This blog post is part of that, as I tend to sort of throw together a Lent plan on Fat Tuesday and then retrospectively tweak it. So here I am, putting it all in complete sentences on the public internet.

As our friend Count Fosco would say: "Behold -- the programme!"


As I mentioned above, this is a hard one for me, and I am aiming high this year. No snacking. I am a big-time stress eater, and I know it's a spiritual problem for me and not just a diet or budget problem. It's stress, but it's also boredom and escapism. I know from long experience at this point that when I let myself get into a habit of lots of extra treats and snacks during the day and in the evening, it's a sign that I'm not dealing with what I need to be dealing with. This has certainly occurred to me as a possible Lenten sacrifice before, but I've avoided it out of either pride ("giving up snacks? boring") or cowardice ("too hard, I'll never be able to do it"). This year, though, I'm taking aim. I'll probably want to complain about it like those girls in high school, and if it's super hard, it's super hard. As a corollary: I will be focusing on eating three proper meals in the day (except the big fasting days obvs) in order to counteract the drifting.


This devotional site sort of came out of the blue for me; I had never heard of it, and I think it's new, except I haven't seen anything announcing its newness. I just saw a retweet and when I clicked through liked what I found. Anyway, I ordered their Lenten journal (you can get it as a digital download) and I'm going to give the prayer journaling a try. I already have a few "extra" prayers and novenas going on for various intentions so there's that too; but praying with scripture is something I'm a bit lazy about so I want to make an effort to stay on track with it this Lent.


The funny thing about the three parts of Lenten sacrifices is how very bad I am at all three of them. I guess that's, like, the human condition but there you go. Anyway, I think what I need this Lent is to be more hands-on. Some years I feel like what I need is to put a crowbar in my wallet and give some money away, but this year I think I need to actually perform some service. One of the young adult groups I attend does a monthly Saturday mission helping with a parish food bank, and so I am tentatively planning to participate in one of those Saturdays (I haven't seen the dates yet, so assuming that works out). Otherwise, I am "challenging" myself to participate in some other service day (there's always a few during Lent). Again with the pride: I tend to think that I, in my specialness, don't need some kind of National Honor Society-style pre-packaged service day, but that's ridiculous.

So there you go: an actual three-point plan for Lent, formulated nearly a week in advance of Ash Wednesday. *makes pumping iron gesture*