A Gathering of Old Men

A Gathering of Old Men
© 1983 Ernest Gaines
213 pages

There’s a white man dead in the quarter, and by sundown there may be another body swinging from the trees. Most of the people in the quarter don’t know why Beau Bauton is lying shot on the ground, but they know there will be reprisal — rage-filled and wrathful violence, blood shed for blood. In a scurry of shouting and running, a plan forms….and when Sheriff Mapes arrives to investigate the murder, he finds a crowd of old men, each carrying a 12 gauge shotgun with an empty #5 shell. The unique standoff draws on decades of warped relationships between white and black, rich and poor, law and community, to turn a day-long staring contest into a short novel riven in tension.

I’ve read three of Gaines’ works before, and each has been a unique experience. A Gathering of Old Men hops from character to character with each chapter, building a full experience of the day through different perspectives: the confusion and terror of a child who doesn’t know what’s going on, but knows it’s bad, and the steady resolve of old men who have been frightened, but who aren’t any more. Every man who gathers there has his own motives for standing: two men fishing are there because they’re ashamed to have never resisted before; another has burned in quiet indignation ever since he came home from the war and was abused for wearing the uniform, as if he was bragging that he’d once killed white men. Others are there because they’d be thought less of if they weren’t. Regardless of their motives, this simple act of solidarity and resistance changes the old script, and a sheriff who wants to be done with this nonsense and go fishing is put into a difficult place. If he brings in the man he ‘knows’ shot Beau, the rest will follow, and there will be a race riot in Bayonne. If he doesn’t do anything, though, the man’s family will come and exercise vengeance. Either way, it’s not a good look for law and order.

For all its brevity, the world of Gathering of Old Men is a complex one. There’s history in the relationships, more than the reader has time to untangle, connections that the story doesn’t dwell but which are important for how the characters respond to one another. Mapes and his suspect Mathu, for instance, have a history together: they’re both looked down on by the Cajuns, and while Mapes may throw his weight around and abuse the other blacks, he knows Mathu to be a man who stand up for himself, and even admires him and enjoys his company. This history, and learning it through witnessing individual interactions, makes it hard for the reader to write off characters: even the dreaded Fix, the churlish master of the Bauton clan who could turn Marshall into a nighmare with a word, proves to be more complicated when we meet him in turn. Having come to Gaines through Wendell Berry, I saw in this novel a lot of resonance with Berry’s own work, with a common theme of the collapse of traditional communities: one of the grievances the black community at the Marshall plantation has with the Bautons (who are new to the area) is that they’ve been steadily buying up parts of the plantation holdings, modernizing them, and pushing out the tenants who worked that land for centuries. The march of the tractor is plowing over them, and removing their history from the land: even their graves are not safe.

With each novel, Gaines surprises me. A Gathering of Old Men is easily my favorite of the three I’ve yet experienced, because he packs such tension and complex background goings-on into a shorter story. His characters, black and white, are moving in their moral quandaries, and unforgettable in the stands they take. Superb.

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May the Fourth be with You: Star Wars Lit

Today’s TT coincides with May the Fourth, so I’m highlighting some Star Wars books!

The Darth Bane trilogy, Drew Karpyshyn

“Always two there are. No more, no less.” This trilogy is set in the Old Republic — really old Republic, before the Sith order we know is even a thing — and follows a young miner’s growth in the force, embracing the Sith and then brutally transforming the order to make it better obtain its purpose. Although Bane is a villain character, the creator of Star War’s bad-guy-brigade, Karpyshyn nevertheless succeeds in making him sympathetic and his rise to malicious greatness worth reading.

Yoda: Dark Rendezvous

This book features a meeting between Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus and Yoda, during the Clone Wars. I don’t remember much abou the plot, other than the general interest Dooku inherently adds, but one quote from it has lodged in my head for twelve years: “It’s always so easy to avoid other people’s vices, isn’t it?” To me, it’s remained an important reminder to stay mindful of one’s own limits, and not to be self-satisfied because we’re all flawed in different ways.

The Thrawn Trilogy, Timothy Zahn

The original Thrawn books, I hasten to add, the ones that spurred the entire Star Wars extended universe that Disney has thrown out like yesterday’s trash despite the fact that there’s more craft in a chapter of one of Zahn’s books than in Disney’s entire maligiant deposit of ersatz Star Wars. Zahn introduced us to Grand Admiral Thrawn, leading a remnant of Imperial forces after the destruction of the Emperor. Not only is he one of the most interesting villains ever — someone who can interpret the psychology of a people through their art, for instance — but he’s not ‘evil’ despite being on the ‘bad guy side’, and his leadership of the Imperial remnant borders on admirable. Compare that to the odiously superficial ‘first order’, who just exist to sneer and twitch their mustaches. (I have…issues with DisneyWars and stopped watching it in disgust.)

Revenge of the Sith, Matt Stover

A novelization of the third movie doesn’t sound all that promising, but Stover delivered, adding and expanding scenes and characterization which made up for the film’s weaknesses and made it far more sensible.


Darth Plagueis, James Luceno

Did you ever hear the tale of Darth Plagueis the Wise? ….well, then read it. The novel is more about the rise of Palpatine, but that’s an argument in its favor rather than against it.

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Hiking grandmas, irreligious hombres, and unjacking from the Matrix

As an avid hiker I couldn’t help but be hooked by the story of Emma Gatewood, who in 1955 became the first woman to through-hike the Appalachian Trail. She did so with a minimum of preparation, without much of the gear we’d regard as essential today. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk mixes a history of her exploration of the AT with personal biography, showing how a this tough-minded woman rose from being a victim of domestic abuse into an an inspiration for millions. Although she faced obstacle after obstacle — broken glasses, weary knees, multiple hurricanes, etc — through her own resources, the kindness of strangers, and dogged determination, she made it through.

On a more serious note was The Church Impotent, which seeks to address the question: why is there such a huge gender disparity between religious participation in western Christianity and other Abrahamic religions, like Judaism and Islam? The problem is much older than most recognize, though it’s easy enough to point to a quick falling-away of men in the church since the 1960s. Podle argues that the problem first appeared in Catholicism in the 1400s, where it continued and grew more pronounced, especially in Catholicism’s protestant offspring. The problem is distinctly western, moreover, since Eastern Orthodoxy enjoys heavy participation from its men. Podle attributes this to two events of the middle ages; a newfound heavy emphasis on individual church members as brides of Christ (rather than the Church itself, congregationally, as The Bride), and the divisive role of Scholasticism, which split piety from theology: men’s focus shifted to increasingly skeptical theology, leaving women to make a much larger mark on faith-practices. Although I was disappointed by the book as a whole, in part because there was no exploration of Islam, Judaism, and Eastern Orthodoxy’s masculine attractions, Podle’s work proved absolutely fascinating merely for his initial treatment of masculinity. As it turned out, I’d encountered him before, being quoted in Leaving Boyhood Behind. Podle takes the view that because men begin from a female biological template, the entire masculine raison d’être is to further define and maintain that separation from femininity — necessitating often painful rites of passage in traditional societies, and the contempt boys and men throw at anything which is ‘girly’. Podles suggests that men, not being nourished by an approach to religion that emphasizes passivity and ‘bridehood’, have instead religionized masculinity itself, leading down dark roads like fascism and nihilistic self-destruction.

Switching back to something a little less dire, The Tech-Wise Family is one couple’s sharing of how they attempt to raise their children and themselves to have a healthy relationship with technology, rather than allowing it to dominate their lives. They begin with priorities: emphasizing that the role of the family is to nurture its members into greater characters, and then actively shaping their environment, physically and its schedules, to contribute to that goal rather than detract from it. Our tools frequently ‘nudge’ us in the direction of greater use and consumption: those who wish to live more mindfully must be active about creating our own ‘nudges’ in other directions. Taking a cue from the Amish, they scrutinize what effects habits & tools have on their family culture.I have attended so many family & friend gatherings that consisted of nothing but a group of people staring at their phones in unision that these days it’s hardly worth commenting on. Against that comes the Crouches’ vision of familial flourishing: they create numerous periods throughout the day to practice presence, from dinner to car rides, and focus on creativity and production instead of consumption. Their living room is not dominated by a television, but musical instruments and crafts tables: they sing together, rather than letting everyone slip into private spotify trances. This is important, they write, because human presence nurtures us in ways digital presence never can: those who see us every day, in moments of weakness and strength alike, can through their input and encouragement force us to grow — unlike the internet companion, who only ever sees the curated self, and who can be avoided and ignored with the click of a button. As a Kindle Unlimited title, I wasn’t expecting too much of this, but was happily surprised. It’s artfully written and draws on serious work, like Sherry Turkle’s own bibliography.

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April 2021

April was an unusual month, as I hit ‘pause’ on a few of my themes to focus on English history & literature. Several holds came in this month, though, prompting me to stray a bit from the theme. In the works presently is Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and there will be at least one more English history title coming up in May that I didn’t get to this month.

Challenge Progress:

Science Survey:

Nothing this month because of Read of England. 5/12 categories filled.

Classics Club Strikes Back:

3 new, bringing us to 8/50 in total.

Captains Courageous, Rudyard Kipling
Black Beauty, Anna Seward
Traveller, Richard Adams

Climbing Mount Doom:

Sword and Serpent, Taylor Marshall

Southern History/Literature:

Traveller, Richard Adams. (Sort of?)

The Unreviewed

We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State, Kai Strittmatter.
The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch.
The Church Impotent : The Feminization of Christianity, Leon Podles. More interesting than I’d anticipated.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, Ben Montgomery. The story of the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in ’56.

I’ll be posting reviews or comments for these within the next few days: I’ve been holding off because of RoE.

The Newly Bought:

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe. Thrift store buy.
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Thrift store buy, and considerably cheaper than everything else. Paradise Lost will be a CCSB entry.
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham. Thrift store buy. I’m thinking of doing a SF sweep in October.
Star Trek: How Much for Just the Planet? Thrift store buy.
Elizabeth’s London, Liza Picard. Amazon, on sale for $4.
Dr. Johnson’s London, Liza Picard. Amazon, on sale for $4.

May Goals

To read nothing but books I already own. Fingers crossed!

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Re-tooling tech: a reading

From The Tech-Wise Family:

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.

Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another. Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding (our family spent some joyful and awefilled hours when our children were in middle school watching the beautifully produced BBC series Planet Earth). It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.

Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered about technology, it’s that it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; much like my children’s toys and stuffed creatures and minor treasures, it finds its way underfoot all over the house and all over our lives. If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess.

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From the horses’ mouth: Black Beauty and Traveller

This past week I’ve read two novels which feature a horse as the narrator, and I thought it might be fun to consider them together.

The first, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, is something of a re-read for me: I read a Great Illustrated Classics edition of this several times as a child, finding the historical details I had to puzzle over just as interesting as imagining what it was like to be a horse. Beauty is a horse’s autobiography, from his foaling years to a happy retirement, with years of hardship and comfort in between. Growing up I didn’t know a blessed thing about horses or the care thereof, so this was an extremely educational story for me. Beauty passes from master to master, and some are ignorant to the point of cruelty. In every chapter the reader learns about the proper care and treatment of horses, but as this is a book written to edify youths, there are also more general moral lessons. When one character tries to excuse the damage done to two horses disabled by a reckless groom on the account of ignorance, another harrumphs that ignorance is just as good as wickedness.

Next was a new-to-me title in Richard Adams’ Traveller. I recognized the name of General Lee’s horse, of course – -what self-respecting Civil War buff wouldn’t? — and was so amused by the premise that I had to read it. Traveller is a memoir of the Civil War through the viewpoint of a horse, who Lee adopts early during the conflict. Traveller speaks in an obvious southern dialect, and provides a unique if limited perspective on the war; the memoir is delivered in musing memories to the barn cat that keeps Traveller company while Marse Robert is attending to his duties as a college president after the war. He doesn’t understand what the War thing is, or why men were so excited to attend it, and as a rule he prefers being well away from the bangs and booms. He endures them, though, because he loves General Lee, a man who he regards as being part horse: Marse Robert must be, to understand them so well. Traveller’s thoughts on the war are informed by what he overhears from men and horses talking; the book is peopled with an abundance of other equines, many reflecting their masters’ own personality. Speaking of, Traveller has his own dramatis personae, referring to Lee’s generals not by their names, but by the horse’s private name for them: Ol’ Pete, Cap-in-the-eyes, Jine-the-Cavalry. Although Adams occasionally inserts narrative at large milestones, the reader had better have some general idea as to the main battles of the Army of Northern Virginia, or he will be a bit confused. Traveller is only a horse and can’t tell you he’s just witnessed the Battle of Fredericksburg, but the moderately informed reader can figure out the when-and-where, and anticipate what is about to happen — as we do when “Cap-in-the-eyes” rides off into the dark, never to be seen alive again, at least not by Traveller. For the Civil War reader, this is a unique story, one especially of interest to those who cherish the memory of Lee and enjoy seeing his human side — the quiet man struggling with heart issues, faced with fighting an industrial army several times his size with enthusiastic but ragged country peasants, with little support from his own government, run as it is by feckless, self-absorbed patricians.

Taken together, I have to confess to liking Traveller a bit more, given its novelty and gregarious subject.

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Life is Suffering

“God, there’s reasons to be resentful about your existence. Everyone you know is going to die — you, too, and there’s going to be a fair bit of pain along the way. Lots of it’s going to be unfair. No wonder you’re resentful — but you act it out and make everything you’re complaining about infinitely worse.There’s this idea that Hell is a bottomless pit. That’s because no matter how bad it is, some stupid SOB like you can find a way to make it worse. Life is suffering. What do you do in the face of that suffering? Try to reduce it. Start with yourself. What good are you? Get yourself together. You know how to do that. You know what’s wrong with you. Don’t be a damn ‘victim’.”

A few months back I discovered a channel on youtube that does various remixes, including bits from Jordan Peterson‘s lectures and speeches. The more I listen and read Peterson the more invigorating I find him — he’s a welcome repast from the a culture that encourages us to be perpetual toddlers. There’s obvious links between some of his thinking and the ideas of both Stoicism and Buddhism.

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The Sword and the Serpent

Sword and Serpent
© 2014 Taylor R. Marshall
411 pages

A phoenix from the fire will rise
Unchain her and free the world
In Britannia will rise the eagle whose sign is the Cross
In Britannia will rise the chief dragon whose sign is the Sword
Take [Excalibur] to Britannia so from stone to be freed

Years ago I learned of a retelling of the St. George and the dragon myth, which attracted me because while I knew St. George is the patron saint of England (happy Feast of St. George, btw — it’s April 23rd, and the reason Read of England happens this particular month), I had no idea what the story really was or why it was connected to England. The Sword and the Serpent is a quasi-historical story stretching from Roman Libya to Anatolia, as the disparate lives of two young people, full of pain and suffering, drive them to Rome and to their destiny. Although the principal legend is that of St. George and the dragon, savvy readers may recognize St. Christopher and others. An engaging semi-fantastic adventure in its own right, the subtle mix of real-world legends and real-world historical detail is the first in a promising trilogy.

The Sword and the Serpent follows a young lad named Jurian, or Georgios, who with his sister has fled their home in Anatolia after an anti-Christian mob burned their house and murdered their mother. Jurian is taking his sister to Rome, hoping to join the Legion and work for his future. Across the Roman lake, in Libya, a tortured young priestess is summoning the will to sacrifice yet another of her village’s children to the Old God who lives in a mountainous cave, hating herself for what she does, but believing she must if the Old God’s rage is not to be kindled against them. Fate brings both to Rome, where Jurian — having been literally guided and guarded by saints along way — learns of his destiny. His path will take him to Libya, there to confront the dragon.

As an adventure story mixing historical detail and legend, this is a fun premise, especially when the Arthur myth is presaged. The problem with some Christian fiction, though, the likes of Lewis and Tolkien excepting, is that there’s a heavy use of semi-miraculous or outright miraculous events that drains away some of the challenge and makes the resolution a foregone conclusion. Marshall does not do this nearly to the same novel-sapping degree of Rosenberg’s Twelfth Imam or the Left Behind series, but it’s done enough to be noticeable. Jurian’s road to Rome is practically paved by coincidence, and his fight against the dragon is…er, anticlimactic, let’s say. Arguably, that’s scripturally appropriate, and the book even ends with an allusion to Revelation, but it’s not a particularly compelling end to a novel.

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Victorian London

Victorian London: The Life of a City, 1840 – 1870
© 2013 Liza Picard
504 pages

As far as immersive English social histories go, I would heretofore have called Ian Mortimer the champion standing, but if Victorian London is any example, Liza Picard is serious competition. Her study of Victorian London delivers a full broadside of information about everyday life, presented in a very readable narrative that takes one back to a city that was on the verge of being the ‘capital of the world’. For those who want to learn more about London, or England in general during this age of transformation, Picard’s work is first rate.

Although Picard does not employ the literal time-tourist scheme favored by Mortimer and others, she does begin the book with what we’d notice first were we suddenly to find ourselves standing in the relatively new Trafalgar Square: the smells of a city brimming with millions of people, their animals, and their activities of life, served by a sewage-clogged river and cesspits that were often overflowing. We then begin to consider the physical lay of the land: the importance of the river itself to London’s fortunes and its people’s quality of life; the streets, buildings, and railways that gave the city its physical form, the utilities that made it work for its millions of residents, and then — the people themselves.

Picard’s work is comprehensive, addressing all levels of British society, from the penniless debtor in workhouses and prison hulks to the peers of the realm. Picard does not shy away from the underbelly of London, making the reader well aware that despite the stupendous technological progress of the age, many lived lives that even a medieval peasant would not envy. Picard offers details of life at every level, tastes of the Victorian age for any appetite: you may well on Dickens’ or Austens’ subjects at your leisure. The two often combine, as they do in the chapter on the abounding aid societies. We learn of how people dressed and ate at differing levels of society; how one did their banking (if they weren’t spending all of their cash on food, rent, and bawdy shows), where they went to be amused and how they got there, considering seemingly every facet of life (with a lingering pause at the Great Exhibition) until finally we arrive at the last chapter, death. Even within a given chapter there’s considerable variety, because the Victorian age was one of increasingly rapid change: London was being remade, with new utilities being integrated into its existing form, from plumbing to the Underground.

Picard directly quotes from her sources most of the time, revealing to the reader the staggering variety of books, letters, and official statistics she drew on to compose this narrative. I’m surprised some sources have even survived, like 1830s housewives’ guides to cleaning and the like. To canvass such an array of information and whip it into an immersive, fun narrative was no small challenge, but Picard succeeds with flying colors. I definitely be considering her work in the future.

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Of Captains Courageous, dog-training, and walking amid mountain laurel

Late last week I finished Captains Courageous, a coming-of-age adventure story in which a spoiled brat named Harvey Cheyne falls overboard at sea and is rescued by a fishing boat, whereupon he must work for his living and matures rather nicely. Anthony Esolen mentioned it in his Defense of Boyhood (review on that eventually, I’m going to do either a Esolen week or a Of Boys and Men week), and it sounded so much like one of my favorite Jack London novels, The Sea Wolf, that I had to give it a go. As a boy’s adventure novel, it’s certainly fun enough; Harvey is an absolute git at the beginning, so part of the pleasure is seeing him get his comeuppance. There’s also the satisfaction of watching him grow, though, learning the ropes and skills of the men at sea, and earning their respect and his own — becoming, in the end, a young man his father can be proud of and even like, instead of irresponsibly tolerate and avoid. The Sea Wolf did better with the premise for adult readers, though, in part because of the psychological content, the debates between London’s effete intellectual Humpfrey and the Nietzsche-inspired uberman, Wolf Larsen, and how the reader witnesses Humfrey inner growth. With Harvey, we can witness this change from the outside, by how others treat him, but we don’t get much of a look into his head.

In other news, I am moving along through Victorian London, a large but very readable social history of the titular subject, but have been somewhat distracted by dog-training and hiking, sometimes at the same time. On February 14th I adopted a mixed-lab pup who I named Idgie, and she’s kept me busy, and will soon be teaching me new skills: she’s more or less housebroken now, but will soon be too big to live indoors, so I’m building her a nice big pen under one of my shade trees. I went to the trouble of housebreaking her so she can come inside on occasion, though, especially during the worst bits of summer and winter. We’ve been exploring different places on the weekends, making repeated excursions to Old Cahawba because of the lack of traffic. (It’s a grid of dirt roads in the woods, with meadows where buildings used to be, and the odd crumbling ruin. Very pleasant except in summer!) Pictures to come if she ever sits still for one.

I didn’t take her to the Deadening Alpine Trail Sunday though, because I’ve hiked at Lake Martin before and knew some of the trails could be technical. The Deadening Alpine Trail, which I was scouting to see if it would be good for a group hike, proved much more challenging than expected: according to the signage, it’s one of the most challenging at the lake! The first mile or was pleasant woodland hills, weaving among mountain laurel and the like, but then we hit 3 miles of climbs, crawls, and colorful oaths lobbed at strangers we’d never met, but who designed this trail to torture us. My coworker and I arrived around 3 and escaped the woods only after 7, as the sun was starting its evening slumber. After steak and coffee we managed to make the long drive home without slumbering off ourselves!

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