February 27, 2012

JFK and the cafeteria bishops

A half century ago, John F. Kennedy was elected the first Catholic President of the United States because he convinced American voters that he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope. Now, however, Catholic politicians across the U.S., particularly those running for national office, are increasingly facing criticism from some members of the hierarchy — because they won’t take orders from the church. Consider: — In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic, was the Democratic nominee for vice president and the first women on a major party’s national ticket. But Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Archbishop John O’Connor of New York publicly rebuked her for advocating legalized abortion. When she gave a speech in Scranton, one sign in the crowd read: “FERRARO — A CATHOLIC JUDAS.” — In 1990, O’Connor, now a cardinal, warned Catholic politicians that they were “at risk of excommunication” if they didn’t oppose abortion. — In 2003, Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston told Catholic lawmakers that they should stop receiving Communion if they voted to approve abortion legislation. — In 2004, John Kerry was named to head the Democratic ticket, becoming the first Catholic since Kennedy to be nominated for president. But, earlier in the year, […]
February 15, 2012

Book review: “Being Dead” by Jim Crace

When she and her husband Joseph were murdered on an isolated stretch of beach, Celice’s body fell onto the sand, upending a dune beetle and trapping him in the folds of her black wool jacket. As the beetle worked his way out from under the fabric, English novelist Jim Crace writes: He didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time, with its plunging snout, blindly to break the surface of the pool….It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets….He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality. Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche. Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life. He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions. On the opening page of “Being Dead,” Joseph and Celice are already dead, their bodies just starting to decompose. What happens to those […]
February 13, 2012

Book review: “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

Reading the last line of Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader,” I laughed out loud. I can’t guarantee you will, but I suspect you will find this short 2007 novel funny and surprisingly thoughtful. It’s about Queen Elizabeth II stumbling into a deep passion for books, particularly novels. And about how this new avocation brings into her life a sudden flood of other voices, experiences and perspectives that change her radically. After a long life of dutifully going through the motions — which, when you get down to it, in this age when royals wield no real power, is what the Queen and her family spend their lives doing — she begins thinking. Indeed, the Queen realizes, with regret, that, throughout her many years, she has met many literary figures but uniformly failed to take advantage of their acquaintance since she hadn’t read any of their works. “But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?” says Sir Kevin, her personal secretary, a supercilious New Zealander. “Of course, but briefing is not reading,” she responds. “In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, […]
February 6, 2012

Book review: “How to Train Your Dragon” by Cressida Cowell

Okay, so I’m a 10-year-old boy at heart. I found the 2010 movie “How to Train Your Dragon,” starring Jay Baruchel as the hapless Hiccup, endlessly droll, inventive, touching and visually inviting. So I got myself a copy of the book upon which the film is based. Sort of. Kind of. Cressida Cowell’s 2004 book has the same title as the movie. It also features a hapless Hiccup who, in the course of an adventure, discovers his inner hero. Hiccup has a pet dragon whom he names Toothless. (But this Toothless, unlike his cinematic counterpart, is tiny, selfish and irritating.) The names and personalities of many of the secondary figures are the same — Hiccup’s father (Stoick the Vast), mentor (Gobber the Belch) and a couple of classmates (Snotlout and Fishlegs). Oh, and there’s also a big test that Hiccup and his friends have to face. But, basically, the movie tells a much different story of Hiccup as an odd kid who, nonetheless, has this inventive bent which he puts to good use in helping Toothless regain his power of flight and, ultimately, saving Hiccup’s village. That said, the book, in telling its own adventure, is fun, droll and inventive. […]
February 5, 2012

Book review: “Food in History” by Reay Tannahill

When Reay Tannahill began working on the book that became “Food in History,” she was entering virgin territory. No one before her had attempted to chronicle the relationship of humans and their food from before the dawn of history down to modern times. The result, published in 1973, was a surprise bestseller. Tannahill came back with a revised and expanded edition in 1988, and, despite many later books on the subject, “Food in History” continues to sell well. There is much to praise in the book — its erudition, its wit, its common sense, its utter lack of snobbishness, its lively writing. Tannahill does a bang-up job of taking the reader along on an adventure as she, using the findings of historians, sociologists and archeologists, describes the food of people across the globe and down the centuries. It’s an adventure because she is writing not so much about food, but about people. Why do people choose to eat what they eat? What did food mean socially? Politically? How much is too much? Not enough? Food as ostentation. Food and religion. Food in the city. The railroads and food. Tanahill mines hundreds of texts for zesty quotes and anecdotes, but it’s […]
February 1, 2012

My funeral service

At 62, I know the creakiness of my body. My knees ache. My back tightens up. Still, I’m in pretty good health. But my baby brother John, who is 57, had a heart attack recently. Dave, a guy with whom I play basketball twice a week, suddenly learned he had leukemia. And an elderly friend, Marty, died. So saying that final good-bye has been on my mind. And, when I attended Marty’s well-planned requiem mass at our parish church, I got to wondering what sort of funeral I’d like to have. Later, at home, I sat down and typed up a draft of my own service. Although it may sound ghoulish, it was an interesting exercise. More than an exercise, it was something of a self-examination. Well, what is important to me? How would I like my life summed up? I used the mass booklet from Marty’s service as an outline, and quickly realized that I’m not all that interested in the music that’s part of my funeral. Sure, I’d like Pachelbel’s Canon in D and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to be played at some point. (Both are from the service Cathy and I put together for our wedding back […]