Category Archives: Books & Book Reviews

My 2021 Booklist is a Big Bust, But Don’t Blame Frederick Douglass

For several years I’ve been keeping track of the books I read. In 2020, I did pretty well, kicking it off with an enormous biography of Beethoven, byJan Swafford.

I don’t look for takedowns in biographies; but spare me the hagiography. I’m an American who lived through the second half of the twentieth century; I’m used to flawed real-life heroes.

Thus I didn’t mind learning more about what a flop Ludwig was with women and, as I suspected, that he couldn’t manage money. It was actually amusing to find that, amid penning all the masterpieces, Beethoven found time (& need) to do plenty of hack work, like arranging a hundred-plus Scottish folksongs, just to keep up with those Vienna rents.

My book reading has slowed a lot this year; not sure why overall.
But I know when. In early December,  I started David Blight’s excellent biography of Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom.

It won the Pulitzer for biography, and deserved it. Unfortunately, the book’s very excellence has worked against my finishing it. Continue reading My 2021 Booklist is a Big Bust, But Don’t Blame Frederick Douglass

A Non-Mystic Report on The Trip I Didn’t Take to Ghent

From The Guardian:

“One of the world’s greatest masterpieces, and surely the most stolen piece of art of all time, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, has a new €30m (£26m) glass-case home.

While remaining within St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, for which it was painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers, the 12-panelled polyptych will be located in the Sacrament chapel, the cathedral’s largest and most easterly chapel, within a bullet-proof display case that is 6-metres high with an interior of 100 cubic metres. . . .

The oft-stolen Altarpiece in its new ultra-secure display case, which cost somewhat north of $35 million dollars.

. . . somewhat understandably, a top priority for those involved in the project has been the masterpiece’s security. During its 588-year history, the Ghent Altarpiece has been nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon for the Louvre in Paris, cut in half after falling into the hands of the King of Prussia, coveted by Hermann Göring and taken by Adolf Hitler before being rescued by a team of commando double-agents from an Austrian salt mine where it was destined to be blown apart with dynamite.

It has not survived entirely unscathed. One of its 12 panels remains missing after a daring heist on the evening of 10 April 1934, which has since baffled police detectives, bemused amateur sleuths and driven to despair the Nazi agents ordered by Goebbels to find it as a gift for the German Führer .

[Yes, of course they made a movie about it: The Monuments Men (2014), directed by and starring George Clooney and a cast guaranteed to set middle-aged hearts aflutter. But it was a dud. One typical commenter in the Washington Post called it “a very bad version of Hogan’s Heroes meets The Sound of Music. I kept waiting for someone to break out into song. Pathetic and embarrassing would be a compliment. . . .” He walked out. Left just in time, too, because,  someone in the movie soon did break out into song . . . .]

My friend Douglas Gwyn, a distinguished Quaker theologian, included the Ghent Altarpiece in his new book, Into The Common.

For him, the Ghent altarpiece

. . . is both an astonishing work of art and a panoply for contemplation by the eye of faith. Its vast scope is balanced by its minute detail, down to identifiable species of vegetation: a mind-reeling combination of macrocosmic and microcosmic perspectives. The van Eycks were famed miniaturists and the altarpiece constitutes miniaturization on a grand scale. Contemplating it, one intuits the beauty of one’s own obscure place in the epic of divine providence.

The central panel of the Altarpiece, “The Lamb of God”

[The centerpiece features the Lamb of God; from the] wound in its side pours blood into a golden chalice. On the altar are the words of John the Baptist in John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Above the Lamb hovers a dove, the Holy Spirit. And above that, the central upper panel depicts God the Father enthroned.

In front of the altar is a fountain flowing with the water of life. Paradoxically, this water is the blood of the Lamb. All these elements form a central vertical axis. In the background of this park-like scene, a skyline of buildings suggests the new Jerusalem (Rev­elation 20) as the setting. The scene extends into two panels on either side of the central one, forming an earthly, horizontal axis.

. . . Fourteen angels kneel in worship closest to the altar. Behind them stand an array of Hebrew prophets, Christian apostles, and pagan philosophers, some with oriental faces. And from the four comers of the panel a multitude of peoples are advancing to­ward the Lamb, balancing the static sense of an eternal, heavenly ecstasy with a moment of historic, earthly fulfillment.

The composition of this panel derives from the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, in particular the seventh chapter. Revelation’s exotic flood of visions and voices from heaven has fascinated, tantalized, or alienated readers for two thousand years.

Well, put me down somewhere between tantalized and alienated. John’s Book of Revelation has continually left me puzzled and unenlightened; and I make apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.

But no question, the Ghent altar piece is best in class of its kind of art. (In its shadow our recent apocalyptic behemoth, the Left Behind series, is left utterly behind.) So in the abstract, I can appreciate Doug Gwyn’s swoon over it.

However, while it’s at the pinnacle, there are many other cathedrals in Europe with relics. How many such churches I don’t know, but it’s probably in the hundreds. And many —I’d guess most — of them have their own art pieces and relics; especially relics, including objects, preserved corpses and even detached body parts of saints and other churchly eminences.

In 2008 I spent several weeks in France. While there, I toured a few cathedrals, in Toulouse & Arles. In one of them, the interior was quite dimly lit, yet I walked along the nave, noting various niches & mini-chapels on either side.

One such niche had a black wrought iron gate across its entrance, with a chain and lock. I paused and peered between the bars. Behind them was thick glass, maybe doors, on which was a film of dust and smoke, indicating years of quietude (aka neglect).

I paused, leaned into the gate and squinted. Behind the glass were reliquaries, their shapes unmistakable and their intricate, dull gilt decoration just detectable.

Not one, or a few; dozens. And not on shelves or in alcoves, nooks or crannies.

In fact, a heap. A jumbled pile. Yes, I’ll go there—
— A  junk pile; sacred maybe, but junk. The cathedral’s essentially clandestine holy dustbin.

I stood for a few minutes, continuing to squint, sorry my pocket camera wouldn’t work in that half-light. There was no signage, not even in French, to advise about what mix of once-revered clerics, third-tier saints, obscure visionaries and supernumerary martyrs had been downsized into consecrated cathedral detritus.

Protect us?? Who protected him?

I came out blinking and musing into the afternoon light. I recalled that some prominent names from my Catholic boyhood (looking at you, St. Christopher) had been officially debunked and declared to be pious myths as part of the updating (repackaging?) by the 1960s Second Vatican Council.

But I hadn’t thought that others, evidently many more, had quietly been, to filch a more tasteful British phrase, made redundant. How many miracles had been consigned to the church’s version of internal dumpsters? There had to be truckloads.

Some weighty sociologists of religion have written of the “routinization of charisma” in religion. This notion could arguably be corroborated by the fact that, just in this one cathedral, Catholic masses had been performed, probably daily, for near a millennium.

At the center of each performance, doctrine says, a miracle is evoked and repeated. As this ritual goes on in Catholic churches worldwide, the miracle recurs at all hours seven days a week, century after century, more like clockwork than clocks.

Miracle it might be, the sociologists argue, but how could it not thereby become also routine? And how could the associated paraphernalia not fall prey to the changes of fortune and fashion?

One rebuttal to such questioning is to point to masterpieces like that in Ghent. The Van Eycks’ achievement leaps beyond superb technique, they say, to become a renewer of the divine mysteries that doctrine says underlie the ritual.

The defenders may have something there. Yet masterpieces are rare. There are so many churches to fill; hence much art, religious and secular alike, is imitative, and slides down a slope through kitsch, into self-parody and ends up deservedly as, well, trash.

The doctrinal mysteries, being invisible, may endure; but can the same decline overtake the remnants of obscure holiness? Arles gave a slight but unmistakable nod of reply. For my part, in years as a Quaker, I have absorbed much of the early Friends’ iconoclastic attitudes: I prefer my cathedral to be a plain meetinghouse, unadorned but by the Light Within. It is our own special brand of philistinism, and we are quite humbly proud of it.

Yet what will happen to that mound of old reliquaries?

The cathedral has stood for many centuries. It would be no big deal to let these gilded priestly discards lie in that niche for a few more generations, as the thickening dust becomes opaque and the last faithful who remember them die off.

Then — well, the honorable denouement would involve chanting processions and pointed mitres and incense and special crypts.

But one can also imagine an ever-increasingly anemic church, now bleeding for billions from the overdue costs of priestly pedophilia, being forced to send a nameless team to unlock the chain, likely under cover of darkness, pry open the squealing iron gates, brusquely check relic boxes for precious metals and jewels, and dump their other contents into some common container.

Then an unmarked truck heads for a compliant, close-mouthed funeral director’s crematory, which is fired up before dawn, with little more than a parting splash of holy water if they’re lucky.

Douglas Gwyn, author of “Into the Common.”

Presumably in Heaven the rewards of their honorees are secure. But here I saw, as a non-mystic visitor, that alongside the ancient motto of Sic Transit Gloria Mundi needs to stand another, Sic Transit Sanctus Mundi (Goodbye to yesterday’s holiness) as well. And maybe even a third, if only as a footnote, that not even an ornate gilded urn will do more than slow the eventual passing. Oh, wait: “Dust to dust” (Genesis 3); they already have it.

As you see, my cathedral stop was no masterpiece, but memorable all the same. I wonder how different It would have been had I been able to take a weekend side trip to Ghent. Much better if Doug Gwyn and I had gone together.

A Guest Post: Preserving the Work of a Photographer Who Documented Native Americans

This remarkable tribute is by Mark Schwartz, an attorney from Bryn Mawr PA. It is a remarkable tribute to the work and memory of a photographer friend, Christopher Cardozo, who in turn had made a career of preserving and paying tribute to the work of an earlier pioneering photographer-ethnographer. It was so striking i am posting it here, with Schwartz’s permission:

Christopher Cardozo: Foremost Authority on American Indian Ethnographer and Photographer Edward S. Curtis, died on February 21, 2021 in Minneapolis at age 72

Despite a family lineage in the law going back to Justice Benjamin Cardozo, Christopher Cardozo serendipitously took a very different path, candidly observing  that “I would probably be a walking malpractice suit”.

Born February 27, 1948, after graduating with a degree in photography and film from the University of Minnesota, a professor invited him to Oaxaca, Mexico to help make a film.  After taking five months to save up to buy a 10-year-old VW Beetle, camera lenses and film, Cardozo made the trek across the continent,  finally arriving only to be informed that his professor had  decided not to make the film. The curt apology was,  “I should have written.”

Notwithstanding, Cardozo stayed on in the remote Mexican village of  San Andres Chicahuzxla, Oaxaca, Mexico.

He spent six sometimes dangerous months in 1972 documenting a place and people who were losing their way. Chris’ sepia-toned images of the villagers prompted a friend to observe that his photos were remarkably similar to Edward Curtis’ work.

Christopher Cardozo with a portrait

His curiosity piqued, Cardozo furiously studied, acquired, exhibited and  replicated Curtis’ work. This became the making of a career spanning more than fifty years.

He thus became the foremost authority on Curtis. Cardozo came to realize,  “I was led to this. This was my soul’s purpose. Why I ended up on Earth at this particular time was to make this  work available to people.”

Edward Curtis’s exposure to Native American culture came some seventy years earlier than Cardozo’s parallel experience.   In the summer of 1900 , Curtis (1868-1952) witnessed one of the last performances of the  Blackfoot Indian Tribe’s “Sun Dance” ceremony. Ushered in to the lives of Native Americans , Edward Sheriff Curtis wrote “It’s such a big dream. I can’t see it all.” This became Cardozo’s catch phrase in sharing and perpetuating Curtis’ dream of preserving the history and legacy of these magnificent people.

Curtis had left a promising career as a society photographer to photograph Native Americans in their home lands. He spent three decades at this.

Smithsonian Magazine said:

At the beginning of the 20th century, Edward S. Curtis worked in the belief that he was in a desperate race against time to document, with film, sound and scholarship, the North American Indian before white expansion and the federal government destroyed what remained of their natives’ way of life.  For thirty years, with the backing of men like J. Pierpont Morgan and former president Theodore Roosevelt, but at great expense to his family life and his health, Curtis lived among dozens of native tribes, devoting his life to his calling.

Over the course of thirty years Curtis had compiled a photo-ethnographic study: The North American Indian. In 1911 the New York Herald characterized it as the most gigantic undertaking since the publication of the King James Edition of the Bible.

Consisting of  twenty leather-bound volumes,  twenty portfolios containing more than 2,200 original photogravures, and  4,000 pages of anthropological text. His attention to detail included transcriptions of tribal language and music,  and the work involved the active participation of  over 10,000 Native Americans.

Finalized in 1930, in the depth of the Great Depression, less than three hundred sets were actually produced with only two hundred actually sold. This published work was in addition to some  45,000 to 50,000 negatives (many on glass) , ten thousand wax cylinders of ceremonial music and language recordings, and motion picture footage, all taken by Curtis.

The magnum opus completed, having driven himself to the limit, Curtis lost everything,  suffering a physical and nervous breakdown in 1930. He died in 1952 essentially unknown and penniless.

“Northern Plains Brave 1905,” a portrait by Edward Curtis.

It was in the seventies, in large part owing to Cardozo’s activities, that Curtis’ work enjoyed a resurgence.

Summing up his own contribution, Cardozo told the Minneapolis Star & Tribune (12/18/18),

“I believe I was instrumental in changing the conversation about Curtis. He’d been thought of as an ethnographer….. But I got people to see his work as the artistic achievement that it was. The platinum prints, the gold tones, the cyanographs—they leave me speechless at times.”

Cardozo is the author of nine monographs on Edward Curtis, and has created and curated one-person Curtis exhibitions that have been seen in nearly one hundred venues in over forty countries, and on every continent, but Antarctica. Why? He summed up his vision in a Forbes interview:

Edward Curtis created the most valuable and sought-after set of rare books in US history and left the world a legacy of inestimable importance. It is a deeply human story which, at its essence, is imbued with beauty, heart, and spirit. I believe that in no small part, this is why these iconic images have endured for over a century. It also helps explain why Curtis is the most widely collected photographer in the 170 year history of the medium, and why his photographs have been exhibited to rave reviews all over the world, from Papua, New Guinea to Paris.

Having collected Curtis’s artwork for decades, Cardozo created the world’s largest and most broad-ranging Curtis collection. His personal collection has been exhibited in major museums internationally, and was the subject of his widely heralded monograph on Curtis: Sacred Legacy; Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian, and a new monograph on his personal collection titled Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, in which Cardozo said

“Curtis’ work changed the way our nation viewed Native Americans and generated a broad-ranging dialogue for greater compassion, understanding, and inclusion. For more than a century, his images have moved and inspired diverse audiences, transcending economic, cultural, social, educational , and national boundaries. He accomplished this at a time when Native Americans were commonly viewed with disdain or hatred and some individuals were still actively advocating for the extinction of all Native peoples on the North American continent. Contributing to that work was Minnesota writer Louise Erdrich who wrote that Curtis’ images of women were “ as disquieting as they are profoundly beautiful.”

With the few remaining 160 sets of Curtis “The North American Indian”  financially and physically out of reach  of new generations of  scholars and students, Cardozo undertook the three-year painstaking task of artisan republication of  the 20-volume work and accompanying portfolios, so as to coincide with the 2018 sesquicentennial of Curtis’ birth.

With the republication accomplished, Cardozo, long bothered by the fact that he was a white man owning so much of Native America’s legacy, launched the “10,000 Print Repatriation Project”  to connect the descendants of those photographed with their ancestors’ images.

As the founder of Cardozo Fine Art in Minneapolis, he has pioneered techniques for preserving and revitalizing  historic photographs, as well as developing cutting edge techniques for contemporary photography. He was also the founder and board chair of the Edward S. Curtis Foundation,  dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the work of Edward Curtis. No one has done more to increase the awareness, understanding, and appreciation for Curtis’ work than Cardozo. Friends and family are committed to continuing his work.

Author Mark Schwartz.

Upon reaching the age of 70, he wanted to return full circle to his own photography which launched this incredible journey.

Christopher Cardozo is survived by his beloved Mother Patricia, Sisters Julie and Claudia, Brother Jeffrey, his Niece Brittany Lease (Lewis) and their children Alden, Ben and Milo.  Chris also has ten Goddaughters and Godsons with whom he shared many years of companionship and mentoring.  His network of friends, scholars and artistic colleagues knew him as a man with a lovely zest for life lived with no estimated time of arrival . . . .

 

 

Frederick Douglass, on Lincoln as a White Man’s President & the Memory of Emancipation

February is not only Black History Month, it’s also Lincoln’s month: birthday (the 12th); holiday (the 15th, tho he currently shares it with some old  & about-to-be-canceled slaveholder named Washington).

Lincoln is an endlessly fascinating and enigmatic character. (And speaking of canceling, he just got tossed as namesake of  San Francisco high school by a “progressive” school board.) And I’ve been learning some more about him recently from historian David Blight.

Lincoln is a major figure in the middle section of Blight’s Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography last year, and deserved it.

The book is deeply researched, consistently insightful, splendidly written, and blessed with an endlessly quotable  subject.  Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to finish it.

Not yet, that is.

Author David Blight, and his Frederick Douglass biography

Continue reading Frederick Douglass, on Lincoln as a White Man’s President & the Memory of Emancipation

Jessamyn West, Her Friendly Un-Persuasion, Christmas & Thanks

Author and novelist Jessamyn West (1902-1984), best remembered for her classic The Friendly Persuasion (book and movie) was raised and shaped by a long line of Quakers. Rooted in Indiana, they wound up evangelical and Holiness-centered, as well as cousins to Richard Nixon, in southern California.

Jessamyn West, circa 1946

Her family left their southern Indiana Quaker homeland when Jessamyn was six. West left its Quakerism as a young woman; as her church moved in ever-more conservative directions, she wound up, not an activist, more a loyal ACLU liberal. But her Quakerism never really left her.

In West’s 1966 semi-autobiographical novel, A Matter of Time, this Holiness Quakerism is called the Pilgrim Church, and she is renamed Tasmania Murphy. Tasmania/Jessamyn describes how she resisted her growing heretical thoughts, and departure, by trying to get saved. Continue reading Jessamyn West, Her Friendly Un-Persuasion, Christmas & Thanks

Solving the Mystery of “Murder at Quaker Lake”

In mid-2014, a blast of church schism fever blew into the three-century old North Carolina Quaker community like a line of summer tornadoes.

At its annual conference, a purge was suddenly demanded to “purify” their ranks of meetings deemed theologically “liberal” or friendly to LGBTQ persons. The same wave had already shattered Quaker groups in Indiana, and would soon roll west into Oregon and Washington state.

But the targeted groups in Carolina stood up eloquently in their own defense. They issued cogent rebuttals to the doctrinal charges, and stood firmly for the integrity of recognized Quaker decision making. The purge attempts repeatedly stalled.

Yet they continued. For two years the question was, how far would the crusaders go? Were they, like U.S. troops in Vietnam, ready to destroy their Quaker “village” in order to “save” it?

”A house divided against itself cannot stand!” was the insurgents’ refrain, citing the gospels and Abraham Lincoln. Something would have to give.

And ultimately, it did.

Murder at Quaker Lake unpacks this dead-serious true story.  It is now available, in paperback & e-book form.  Since the turn of the 21st century, five U. S. Quaker Yearly Meetings have become battlefields, truly making the opening decades of the 21st Century as The Separation Generation.

Continue reading Solving the Mystery of “Murder at Quaker Lake”

John Calvi: Boon Companion for Spiritual Travel

English-speaking Quakers today are in dire need of some new “spiritual” books, and I have a top candidate to recommend here. It is John Calvi’s How far Have You Traveled?

Amid all the wonderful stuff that’s in it, some of what makes Calvi’s book so excellent is what’s not in it.

For example — and this fact alone made me an instant fan — in its 200 or so pages, the word “transformation” occurs only once.

Further, the bogus cliche “spice” shows up only thrice – and each time, thank goodness, it’s part of “hospice,” programs that bring comfort and peace to the often painful work of dying; in his career John has very often been a two-legged hospice. “Spiritual journey” likewise is limited to  three appearances.

John Calvi

For that matter, “theology” is mentioned only ten times, and then mostly not from John’s pen, but in quotes by one of his elders/mentors, the late Elizabeth Watson.

But be not deceived; How Far Have You Traveled? is indeed a Quaker theological work, a  substantial and serious (while often hilarious) one. For one thing, while Calvi is pretty loose on doctrine, Jesus pops up about twenty times. The book is not academic. John is an avid learner, but school academics have not been his forte.

Instead, he introduces us to what I would call “un-systematic theology,” and without argument he shows compellingly why it is so much needed. Instead of riffing on the trendy banalities of much “devotional” writing, or wandering into the  mazes of academic abstractions, John’s theology grows out of reflections on decades of hands-on work as a massage therapist. Continue reading John Calvi: Boon Companion for Spiritual Travel

Michael Cohen: A Reckoning, Perhaps a Renewal, and After

Near the climax of his book Disloyal, Michael Cohen writes:

In the summer before the [2016] election, I told a reporter for Vanity Fair, Emily Jane Fox, that I’d take a bullet for Trump, and I meant it.

But not if Donald Trump pulled the trigger. . . .

Which of course, Trump did, in 2018. In May 2019, the betrayal landed Cohen in the federal prison at Otisville, New York..

Cohen, like most cons, thought his prison sentence was grossly unfair. He only pled guilty to tax evasion, he says, to prevent his wife from being indicted as well.

The real Stormy Daniels mugs with a fake Trump (Alec Baldwin) on Saturday Night Live.

That showed personal love and nobility; but Cohen had also lied to his wife about the money he took from their joint account to pay off pornstar Stormy Daniels for Trump; and it was his wife’s name on the account that made her vulnerable to indictment once the feds traced the money.

Besides, Cohen had also spent ten years aiding and abetting Trump in frauds and crimes too numerous to mention. Ten times his three year sentence would have been amply justified by the record he himself discloses. Continue reading Michael Cohen: A Reckoning, Perhaps a Renewal, and After

Michael Cohen: From the White House to the Sewage Plant

I’ve finished Michael Cohen’s book, Disloyal, but I’m not through with it.

In part that’s because the book itself isn’t finished.

Not that Cohen has shortchanged readers. He simply ran out of time to get the book out in the market before the coming election, and I don’t fault him for that. Nor has he, as far as I can see, skimped on damning details, especially about himself and the unbelievable journey to the dark side he was on for so long.

No, Cohen’s book isn’t finished because the story it tells is not finished. It charts his rise, and the wild, destructive, ego-tripping ride with Trump into the White House, and his sudden fall, when the feds collared him and Trump coldly dumped him.

After the fall came a dramatic personal turn. But we don’t yet know where that turn will lead Cohen. Perhaps he doesn’t know yet either.

In any event, the fall happened abruptly: on April 9, 2018, Cohen  woke up in his luxurious Manhattan digs, had coffee and oatmeal, and saw his son off to school.

Then there was a knock at the door. Peeping into the hallway, he saw a crowd of men in suits, some holding up badges, and heard a line From so many mob movies:

“FBI, Mr. Cohen. Please open the door.” Continue reading Michael Cohen: From the White House to the Sewage Plant

Michael Cohen & Trump: Something a Bit Lighter

Michael Cohen accompanied Trump on a number of trips to Las Vegas.  A snippet from one such journey, from Cohen’s book,  Disloyal:

Checking into the Vegas Trump Tower, I was summoned up to his suite to discuss the day’s events. Trump was in his underwear, white Hanes briefs, and a white short-sleeve undershirt, watching cable news on television. He barely seemed to register that it was unusual for a grown man to be in a state of undress in front of an employee, but there it was.

On this occasion, Trump was fresh from the shower and he hadn’t done his hair yet, as it was still air-drying. When his hair wasn’t done, his strands of dyed-golden hair reached below his shoulders along the right side of his head and on his back, like a balding Allman Brother or strung out old ’60s hippie.

I called his plane Hair Force One, for good reason. Trump doesn’t have a simple combover.

Continue reading Michael Cohen & Trump: Something a Bit Lighter