Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Another take on Wuthering Heights

Last night was my second meeting with a new book club started by my friend, Lori. An excellent meeting it was, as we had two new faces there. We discussed this month's book, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Somehow I made it all the way through high school English and two English degrees without ever reading this one in class. At some point I picked up a copy at a used bookstore and read it, so this was a reread for me.

It feels rather sacrilegious to say that WH really isn't a favorite of mine, a decision I came to the first time I read it and that didn't change upon reading it this time. I just don't find myself loving the characters, and both time I've been disappointed that the book doesn't end on a more positive note. Maybe it's because I've recently reread Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and I love how everyone gets paired off at the end. In that case, perhaps WH just isn't for me, huh?

Back in late spring, I ordered Jack Murnighan's Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits from Better World Books (if you haven't ordered anything from them yet, what are you waiting for?). I haven't yet had a chance to delve into this one, but flipped through to see if WH was one of the 50 and what Murnighan had to say about it. I'm picking and choosing here, but here's a sampling of what he said about the novel:

" the perfect embodiment of vindication."
"WH has the dubious distinction of having...not only the biggest wuss but literally the most annoying character in the entire history of literature." (In reference to Linton, Heathcliff's son)

And, Murnighan calls Heathcliff "one of literature's great bad-boys."

What do you think?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Happy 50th anniversary, To Kill a Mockingbird!

Last week, To Kill a Mockingbird officially turned 50. I celebrated by wearing the T-shirt below for the first time that I purchased this spring in Monroeville. And I've bought a book (something I almost never do) to commemorate the occasion: Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by Mary McDonagh Murphy, a book that calls TKM "our national novel."

I'm looking forward to reading it and when I do, I'll be sure to post my thoughts about it. That will have to wait for a bit because I've just started The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, which both of my new book clubs have chosen to discuss in August (convenient, huh?). Stay tuned.

Tomato Gardening

On Friday I finished a book that I'd been waiting to read once our tomato plants started producing called Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark. This book reminded me a bit of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France by Richard Goodman, which is one of my favorite memoirs. Both of these writers are insistent and keep trying different things until their crops come out just right.

My husband and I are doing that ourselves in a spot on the side of our house that gets sun practically all day, though our agricultural experiment is on a much smaller scale. Last summer our two tomato plants performed poorly. At the very end of the summer we finally picked our harvest of only two tomatoes. They tasted good, but they were hardly the bumper crop we'd hoped for. This summer, we've planted three plants: , and . Though we aren't experiencing the success of our neighbors across the street who have their plants in containers, we're doing well enough. The grape tomatoes are doing particularly well in our yard, so next summer I think we'll need to plant more of those.

Our tomatoes taste great and we've put them in a corn dish, made bruschetta and added them to sauces. Here are some of my favorite things to do with a tomato:

Spread a layer of goat cheese on Melba toast crackers. Top with pesto and half a grape tomato (this is my own invention).

Slice up a ball of fresh mozzarella and half a pint of grape tomatoes. Mix with fresh basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar (this is my friend, Natalie's invention).

Cherry Tomato-Caper Salad
Combine two Tbsp of balsamic vinegar, one Tbsp of drained small capers, four Tsp of olive oil and 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper. Drizzle over tomato halves and toss to coat. Let stand for at least 15 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh basil. Serve over Bibb lettuce (from Southern Living's Ultimate Quick and Easy Cookbook, 2004).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

More about Father Abram Ryan

Donald Beagle has worked as a library and archival manager for 30 years and during that time has also published three books and some 30 articles, mostly for academic and professional journals. He became Director of Library Services at Belmont Abbey College in 2000.

TFAB: How did you decide to write a book about Father Abram Ryan?

DB: One day I was exploring the College library’s Rare Book Rooms when I discovered a carton of files called the “Father Ryan Archive.” I discovered several original letters written by Ryan to his mother and sister during the Civil War. There were also numerous scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, notebooks of handwritten transcriptions of his essays and lectures, magazine articles, and many pages of handwritten notes by the priest-researcher who had first compiled the archive between 1911 and 1933, Father Joseph McKey. He felt the archive should remain at some Catholic college in the South, so he offered them to Belmont Abbey. The more I studied Ryan’s letters and the hundreds of articles about him, the more I realized that his life story needed to be told. That led to the book for the University of Tennessee Press published in 2008: Poet of the Lost Cause: A Life of Father Ryan. My co-author for the book was Dr. Bryan Giemza of Randolph-Macon College.

TFAB: Why is Ryan important? What should we remember about him?

DB: Father Ryan was a unique figure in American history. He was a folk-poet who attracted an enormous popular audience during his life and for some 30 years after his death in 1886. His verses started appearing in newspapers almost immediately after the end of the war: some anonymously, some under his early pen-name “Moina,” and then by 1868, when he was editing his own newspaper, many were reprinted there under his own name. In 1879 his book of collected poems was published and immediately became a national sensation. His verses were recited in the White House by President William McKinley, and Joseph Pulitzer made a bequest to help fund the Father Ryan memorial statue that still stands in Mobile, Alabama. By the 1930s, his book had gone through 47 editions and reprintings.

But Ryan was more than a folk-poet; he was a charismatic evangelical Catholic lecturer in the late 1870s and early 1880s who was constantly on the move, packing lecture halls and churches wherever he appeared in the North and the South. He was a legendary orator, with dozens of newspaper accounts describing his extemporaneous speeches that held audiences mesmerized for two hours or more.

TFAB: Is being known as "the poet of the lost cause" a good thing?

DB: In Ryan’s case, it was (and is) both good and bad. Ryan’s work as a Civil War chaplain became the stuff of legend and myth. You can still find websites and articles that mistakenly place him at battles like Gettysburg or Chancellorsville. A fair amount of what scholars now call “Lost Cause” literature included legends about the wartime exploits of famous soldiers and generals. Some were based on fact, some were exaggerations or embellishments, and some were simply false.

Ryan was definitely at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, in late November 1864, and at the climactic Battle of Nashville the following month. We think he was probably at the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge in November 1863, but the evidence here is less certain. But we also found multiple independent accounts that Ryan had popped up for brief stints as a freelance chaplain for regiments from Louisiana earlier in the war, perhaps as early as late summer of 1861. Some remain skeptical of this, but if you look carefully at his records where he was posted in those years, at St. Mary’s Seminary in Missouri in 1861, for example, you will find that his handwriting simply disappears from the seminary house diary for more than a month after the battle of First Manassas. This is significant because the Archbishop of New Orleans had put out a call for freelance Catholic chaplains in the weeks before that battle, and all of the independent accounts we found put Ryan with Louisiana Catholic troops who would have been under the purview of the Archbishop of New Orleans. So this constitutes a very interesting combination of evidence, but not proof.

But we can certainly prove that Ryan kept getting transferred without explanation from one Northern post to another during the first two years of the war, so it is reasonable to speculate that the cause of his transfers was related to those absences from his Northern posts, either authorized or unauthorized.

Ryan was a fervent secessionist, but was critical of slavery. His pro-Southern stance was deeply related to his Irish ancestry. His parents had emigrated from a small rural community called Clogheen where British oppression had been especially brutal. The oppression continued into the 19th century and was probably why Ryan’s parents immigrated to America in the late 1830s. The family moved south, from Maryland to Virginia, and Ryan seems to have been raised with the view that the industrial North was dominating the rural South in ways similar to the British domination of Ireland.

But the “bad” side of Ryan’s lost cause legacy emerged for about 10 years after the war, when he was very embittered by defeat. His newspaper editorials from the 1870s convey this bitterness, along with racial prejudice and a strain of political radicalism. But by the early 1880s, about the time he turned 40, we found clear evidence that he was becoming more moderate, and even began reaching out to the black community. In December 1880, Ryan made a very public attempt to preach at St. Xavier Church in Baltimore, which still describes itself on its website as the “first African-American Catholic Church.” And since our book was published in 2008, we discovered an interview he did with the Augusta Chronicle in 1883 that supported increased education for African Americans and even called President Abraham Lincoln “the best man the world ever saw.”

TFAB: Is Ryan's work is accessible today? What do you recommend and why?

DB: If you go to and see “Poems: Patriotic, Religious, Miscellaneous” you can buy a modern reprint of the 1902 edition of his book from Cornell University, or you can also read it online at places like Project Gutenburg and Google Books. The title reflects the fact that he wrote both patriotic and religious poems. His patriotic poems are still worth reading to better understand the sentiment and sorrow of the post-war South, and because they properly honor the memory and enormous sacrifices of Confederate soldiers. A few of his important poems, unfortunately, were never included in this collection, such as “Cleburne,” which memorializes the Irish American Confederate General Pat Cleburne, who fell at the Battle of Franklin, and “Requiem-Chant for the Federal Dead,” which honored the memory and sacrifices of Union soldiers. But modern readers should also look at some of his religious and lyrical poems, such as “Sea Dreamings,” which was published during Ryan’s life by the Saturday Evening Post, and “The Seen and the Unseen.” There is no question that the majority of Ryan’s verses are overly sentimental by today’s standards and sometimes downright sappy. But there are a few poems worth remembering as mentioned above, and I personally feel “Sea Dreamings” ranks among the better American religious poems produced in the 1880s.

You can order Poet of the Lost Cause: A Life of Father Ryan through Barnes & Noble,, or directly from UTPress at

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More recommended reading about Chicago

"Chicago, a gaudy circus beginning with the two-bit whore in the alley crib." -- Theodore Dreiser
"They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys." -- Carl Sandburg, "Chicago"
"She outgrows her prophecies faster than she can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time." -- Mark Twain
By now I know y'all have figured out that I love to read about places I've been or am going to. Recently, I went to Chicago one more time to visit a friend who will live there for just a few more weeks before moving away.
I'd heard good things about Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, and requested it from my library. My name came up for it just in time, and I checked it out to take with me. I finished Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet on the way there, and was ready to start Loving Frank as soon as I got a moment. That moment didn't come until I had about four hours to myself before returning to the airport to come back home. However, I realized on the way to Michigan Avenue and the beach at Lake Michigan that that book was locked away with my luggage at our hotel and not in my handbag. Undeterred, I stopped in a bookstore on my way to the beach and asked for a recommendation based on my enjoyment of Middlesex and Devil in the White City. Here's what two associates came up with for me:
And here's what I was looking at as I read it. Pure perfection, I tell you.

Sin in the Second City is by Karen Abbott and is a fascinatingly juicy account of one of the most well-known brothels in U.S. history, the Everleigh Club. Though the book is nonfiction, it read like a novel and the style reminded me very much of Devil in the White City (that's what I was reading during my Chicago trip last summer. You can read about my take on that one here). The book combines all sorts of things, mixing them up in an interesting way: politics, bribery, sex, business, marketing, white slavery, and much more. The Everleigh sisters were savvy, successful business women who made quite a name for themselves.

I was back in Atlanta before I could start Loving Frank, but I've been enjoying it in the evenings on my patio, as thankfully, the temperatures have cooled down a bit lately. It's historical fiction and the story of a love affair between Chicago-area architect Frank Lloyd Wright and one of his clients, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. As I read the book, I felt its peaceful, easy flow, which explains why I felt so jarred as a dramatic event unfolded near the end of the book (I don't want to give it away for those who haven't read the book and plan to). I had to tell myself that its disruptive feel was the whole point. It was certainly an event and an end to the book that was very unexpected.

Wright made a name for himself in a Chicago suburb, Oak Park, and many of the homes in that area that he designed are still standing. The home he shared with his wife, Catherine, and their children is open to the public. If I can make it back to Chicago sometime, I'm going to be sure to check it out. I've also just learned that another home he designed in the Chicago area recently opened to the public. You can learn more about that house here.

Both of these books are quite good reads and present two interesting views of women around the turn of the 20th century in the Chicago area who are striving to break through societal restraints and create their own rules.

Note to Readers

As most of you probably know from either knowing me personally or reading my description in the top right corner of the screen, I'm a freelance writer and editor. Since I started this blog, writing it has been fun for me, and only very loosely associated with the work I'm doing professionally. I've decided to switch that up a bit. I'll still be blogging about reading, literary traveling and other things I've already talked about, but I'm going to throw in a few professional entries here and there as well. I've got some good ideas and a few things in the works on this. I'm excited to readjust my focus just a bit and hope you'll like it too.