A surprising source for things you never thought to ask about

Harris’ Farmer’s Almanac for the year of our Lord 2013 (Harris Publications, Inc., 2013)

When I was a pre-schooler, I got farmed out (literally) to my aunt and uncle’s farm in Alexander, Illinois quite a bit since mom–a single mother in an age when they were looked down upon–frequently had to find other work to support us. There are so many good memories about that place I wouldn’t know where to start, but one of them was seeing The Farmer’s Almanac on the table next to Uncle Mike’s chair. He would sit of an evening after supper reading through it while the rest of us watched television. I didn’t read that copy, but older copies were always available in the restroom.

The “restroom” at my uncle Mike’s was a small, wooden structure that you got to by walking through the chicken yard. The old Almanacs were there for your reading pleasure. There were other publications there as well, mostly old catalogues, but they were there for … well, I am sure I needn’t go into that here.

Once, I helped my uncle and a neighbor man “move” the restroom (I “helped” by staying out of their way). It was done by simply digging another hole nearby, picking up the outhouse, setting it over the new hole, then filling up the old hole with the dirt from the new one. The old plot became an extension of my aunt’s garden. I don’t mean to brag, but Aunt Theresa was known to have the biggest tomatoes in Morgan County!

But, I digress. The point is, I became familiar with The Farmer’s Almanac at a very early age, and enjoyed flipping through it and looking at the pictures and reading whatever parts of it I was able to make out at my tender age.

Well, The Farmer’s Almanac has not only survived, but continues to sell some four milliion copies a year. I picked up a copy of the 2013 Almanac the other day at a Walgreen’s, and have found myself flipping through it whenever I have a few extra minutes.

What’s neat about The Farmer’s Alamanac is that it allows you to think about and learn about things you would not otherwise think to go looking for.

For example, in the new edition of the Harris Farmer’s Almanac, there is a brief article about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address which taught me things I had never known about the writing of that ten-sentence masterpiece. Did you know that Lincoln kept it short because he wasn’t feeling well? Or that  borrowed an expression from a sermon by an abolitionist preacher named Theodore Parker, which read, in part,

“Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.”

I sure didn’t. But it was right there in the 2013 Farmer’s Almanac, in an article titled “Ten Sentences that Made History,” by Gregory McNamee.

Here’s something else I’ll bet you didn’t know. The first ever crossword puzzle appeared in the New York World in the Sunday Fun section December 21, 2013, composed by journalist Arthur Wynne.

But the real claim to fame, and the thing that farmers always want to know, is what the Almanac says about the weather.

Weather information for the entire year is presented by regions of the country, and even though naysayers claim that you can’t predict the weather much beyond a few days or weeks, the Almanac bravely does just that, as it has for hundreds of years.

Just for fun, I took the Almanac’s outlook for November 2012 for Region 9, in the northeast united states, and compared it with actual results. (You can do this yourself, if you ever find yourself in the restroom with an Almanac and an iPad (how times have changed!) by going to Current Events dot Com / Weather.

The Almanac predicted “slightly above normal temperatures” from 44 in the west to 52 along the coast” for the month. Vague, you say. Perhaps, but when I compared it with actual temperatures for Pennsylvania, sure enough, average temperatures in Eastern Pennsylvania was 50 degrees. Western Pennsylvania went off the charts at 62 degrees average … but that is definitely “above normal”– even if more than slightly!

I don’t think I would bet money on the Almanac’s weather predictions, since many claim that the predictions are little more than “guesses,” and its methods not only unscientific but “unpublished.” Check out a website called Research Penn State, which carries an interesting article about the “unscientific” system used by the Farmer’s Almanac.

So, if you ever find yourself longing for simpler times, and want to be surprised by things you didn’t know and wouldn’t even have thought to ask about, pick up a copy of The Farmer’s Almanac and keep it … on your nightstand. You might just learn a few things.

But, if you are planning an outside event, check the Almanac — but check the forecast on Accuweather a few days in advance just to make sure!

Note: This article is based on a reading of Harris’ Farmer’s Almanac. Other Farmer’s Almanacs might also be of interest, such as The Old Farmer’s Almanac (OFA, 2013), or Farmer’s Almanac 2013, ed. Peter Geiger and Sondra Duncan (Famer’s Almanac, 2013)

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

The labyrinthine heart

“RURAL ENGLAND, a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, a summer’s day at the start of the nineteen sixties.”

THUS BEGINS The Secret Keeper, a new novel by Kate Morton (Atria Books, 2012, 496 pages), a book whose Edenesque beginning finds fourteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson in her hideawy tree house, while her sisters romp playfully beneath her. The spell cast by the English countryside is soon rent, however, when Laurel witnesses the shocking death of a stranger — at her mother’s hand.

The nature of the threat posed by the stranger is unclear, but the threat was real enough to allow the death to be ruled justifiable; Laurel witnessed it, and spoke to the police about it. Everything settled down after that, but for Laurel the questions never went away.

Why? It was something that was said before the blow was struck. Something that led her to believe that the man who lay dead in their yard was not a stranger.

Author Morton, bringing back the blitz. Source: Kate Morton Author on Facebook

This is a novel with many threads that are woven expertly by Morton, an Aussie who has graced the New York Times bestsellers lists with books like The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours.  The reader is led down labyrinthine ways, from the present to the past, as the nagging sense of a horrible wrong leads Laurel to seek out the secret that her mother has held since before she was born. At her mother’s deathbed, Laurel, now a successful actress, is determined to find answers to the mystery that has clouded her existence since the day her mother took a life

The story takes us back to the Blitz, that hideous scar in a nation’s memory that has never completely healed over. In the early 70s, I spent a January near London. I can still remember walking to the West Kensington tube stop, passing rows of Victorian houses–and after every so many of them, a small park. I later learned that the “parks” were on lots that once held houses, houses that had been hit by bombs thirty years before. The bomb blasts and the craters left in their wake have haunted literature ever since, from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951) to Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001). Greene’s novel is, in my estimation, brilliant; McEwan’s, compelling. Morton’s Secret Keeper I would place nearer to Greene on this ad hoc spectrum of great books.

London, 1941, is the war-torn city where Laurel finds the first traces of her mother, Dorothy. She also learns of another woman, Vivien, whose dark secrets are slowly uncovered; and a young photographer named Jimmy, who is the beloved of Dorothy. Through interviews, journals, news clippings, and conversations Laurel slowly, painfully, and artfully pieces together the story of her mother, her father, and the reason for the stranger’s death on her farm which changed her life forever. There is suspense at every turn–we frequently know enough to feel concern, but we don’t always know what we think we do.

This is one of the most beautifully plotted and engaging novels I have read in years. Morton is a terribly erudite and gifted writer, one with insights into the cavernous hearts of human beings whose obsessions are not always rational and whose responses to slights real or imagined can have unanticipated and cruel consequences.

Brilliant. That’s the only word I can think of for The Secret Keeper.

It’s Turkey Time!

Source: Wikipedia Commons

TO THOSE OF YOU who have been following me now for almost a year, thank you so much! I appreciate it. I hope my American friends have a terrific Thanksgiving; but for all of you–regardless of your country–I leave you with a gift: a list of the turkeys I have either reviewed or passed on this year.

Biggest Gobbler of the Year

The Family Corleone: A Prequel to the Godfather, by Ed Falco (Grand Central Publishing, 2012)

Gobble, gobble, gobble. See my review.

Two different blondes, two different endings

I DON’T REVIEW BOOKS  that don’t interest me; but sometimes I get galleys for books that I am intrigued by but which lose me along the way (usually up front or after about fifty pages). This doesn’t really make them turkeys, because some of you might find them fascinating. So I leave it to you whether you might want to give these books a try.

Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life of Elizabeth Montgomery, by Herbie J. Pilato (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, November 5, 2012).

The subject was an amazing woman, but Pilato’s style (which seems more academic than journalistic) and his penchant for details that I found uninteresting lost me after about 75 pages (I normally just stop at 50 — so there’s that!). But, for those who don’t find his style off-putting, the story of this daughter of Hollywood royalty who bewitched us all as Samantha might be well worth the effort.

The Empty Glass, by J. I. Baker (Penguin Group USA Incorporated, 2012)

No doubt a clever approach to the much ballyhooed story of the mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe, The Empty Glass tells it from the point of view of a young coroner for whom something just doesn’t seem … right. I stopped after a while. Probably because I am tired of all things Marilyn, and the conspiracies that supposedly surrounded the entire era of all-things-Kennedy. I am fairly well certain that Oswald killed Kennedy, and Marilyn took too many pills.The simplest explanation is often the most likely. But that’s just my take. You might really enjoy this book!

Have a great weekend! And thank you again for stopping by to read my postings!


Quick Looks at Books

Here are a few quick descriptions of books I have read recently. Some of these were read before I began the Morris Chair, but they are books which I have revisited and books worth a look!

TIme Out of Mind, by Jane Lapotaire Original Sin - A Cultural History
Abraham's Curse The Brontes

Time Out of Mind

by Jane Lapotaire

I first became acquainted with Jane Lapotaire when I watched the 1983 BBC production of “Macbeth,” wherein she starred as Lady Macbeth alongside Nicol Williamson. Her performance was sensual, visceral, and seductive; her madness and final decompensation as believable as any descent into hell I have witnessed on stage or on film.

I actually picked up and read this book some time ago, but the brain hemorrhage Ms. Lapotaire endured–and survived–is probably her greatest achievement to date. She writes about the awful feelings of incomprehension, the new awareness of her mind’s terrible trauma, and her reawakening to life in a way that makes any paltry issues I am dealing with pale by comparison. Think you have problems? Read Ms. Lapotaire’s story and you will look at life with a whole new appreciation.

Original Sin: A Cultural History

by Alan Jacobs

I purchased this after checking it out of the library because it is truly a book that needs to be reviewed and reread. Having grown up with the notion of original sin–a mainstay of Catholicism–I have frequently harbored concerns about the view of humanity that this presents. Are we all, in fact, tainted by a primal weakness inherited from our first parents and thus in need of redemption? This book is a work of scholarship that addresses the evil that men do and examines the possible explanations: are we, in fact, inclined to sin because of the sin of our parents? Or are we, as some teach, basically good and made evil by circumstances? Does the fault lie in the stars, or in ourselves? This book examines the responses that derive from the various answers to these questions, and makes a convincing case for our essential inclination to evil–whether it’s due to some parental flaw that passes on like a case of pre-natal HIV, or whether it’s “in our genes.” Thought provoking and well worth discussing.

Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

by Bruce Chilton

The story of how Abraham could, without question, pack up his son, firewood and a knife and march out to sacrifice Isaac has always bothered me. A test? This book examines the story from Genesis, and an analogous story from the Koran; and the fact that it prefigures the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (who, like Isaac, carried the wood himself). The impact of this story in our history, in which we continue to sacrifice our young on the altar of Democracy, is a work of scholarship that is well-written and easily understood even by non-scholars. This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the primal urge to sacrifice, and how much of what we have taken from the story may have been a mis-interpretation: one that has cost millions their lives. Highly recommended.

The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of Three Sisters, by Juliet Barker (Pegasus, 2012, 1184 pages).

If you loved Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, you may have sought information about the young women who wrote them. Search no more. Juliet Barker, an Oxford Ph.D. and former curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, England has written what is probably a definitive, 1100 page book about the dysfunctional Bronte family. The parson, the alcoholic brother Branwell, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne lived out their lives in a setting almost as bleak as the heath that Cathy and Heathcliff wandered. Most biographical writings have heretofore focused on one of the sisters; this book examines the whole tragic family dynamic, from which would spring two very gifted and avant garde writers. This scholarly book is only for the ardent, however. Also, it is not new. It is a rehash of Barker’s The Brontes, a 1000 plus page book that first appeared in 1994. A reviewer on Amazon referred to the earlier book as “Long, somewhat ponderous, but informative.” Pretty well sums it up. But if you want one book in your collection that will suffice for just about anything you or anyone would want to know about the reclusive Bronte sisters, this is the one.

Note: Another movie version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights has just come out. See my posting of July 26 concerning this latest adaptation.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

November 18, 1978: The Horror of Jonestown

Image Source: Photobucket

Thirty-four years ago, November 18, 1978, America learned that a California congressman–Leo Ryan–and four others were murdered as they tried to board a plane on a remote airstrip in a South American country called Guyana. The news filtered down that the killers were members of an organization known as The Peoples Temple, located in Guyana. Soon, the country was horrified to learn that, after the airstrip murders, more than 900 men, women, and children allegedly committed mass suicide, along with their leader–a man by the innocuous name of Jim Jones.

Americans watched in disbelief as the story developed. Jim Jones had developed a large following of people, largely African Americans, in Indianapolis, and later in Redwood, California. The Temple followers constituted a “gathering,” many surrendering their government paychecks to the church in a communistic sharing, and following the orders of their leader, the dark, handsome, charismatic Jones. Jones was praised for his charitable and social endeavors, and courted by liberal politicians who were dying to be photographed with him. Rosalynn Carter was among those whose smiling face can be seen in an archival photo next to the man in sunglasses. (Rosalynn apparently had a poor sixth-sense about what constituted a good photo-op; she was once photographed with Democratic supporter John Wayne Gacy. Both are smiling.)

What happened? We now know that the horror that transpired in the jungle following the murder of Ryan and members of his entourage was not a mass suicide. Some may have lined up to “drink the Kool Aid” (yes, Jonestown was the source of that now-familiar expression); but among those who died were 200 children, and these were injected with the cyanide. Many adults who did not willingly submit were injected as well, their escape blocked by men with rifles. Jones wanted his “revolutionary statement” to be something of a consensus, even if he had to force it on his followers. Jones died of a single gunshot wound to the head, probably self-inflicted.

The more important questions are, why did it happen, and how could it happen? This has been the subject of many articles, documentaries, and almost seventy books ever since the tragedy. How could decent, caring, God-fearing human beings allow themselves to surrender their lives into the hands of another human being? What altruistic or religious instincts made it possible for them to walk willingly into arms of a megalomaniac?

Could something like this happen again?

Among the many  books written about Jonestown, some of the best that I have read include Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, by Tim Reiterman (Tarcher; First Edition edition, 2008; 688 pages). This is no ivory tower treatment. Reiterman, who was an AP correspondent traveling with Ryan’s entourage, was wounded during the Port Kaituma attack that killed Ryan and four others.

An affidavit of Deborah Layton’s came to the attention of Rep. Leo Ryan (D-CA)  and helped put him on the path to Guyana.  Image: AP

There are several books written by survivors, or people who managed to escape from Jonestown before the tragedy unfolded. My favorite by far is Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple, by Deborah Layton (Anchor, 1999; 368 pages). Deborah’s brother, Larry Layton, left Jonestown with Ryan posing as a defector. He boarded the plane, and once the tractor arrived hauling the assassins, he opened fire. He was subdued, and later was the only Jonestown shooter to be convicted.

Deborah, unlike her brother, knew things were totally screwed up in Jonestown and managed to escape several months before the murders. She had been a trusted insider who managed the Temple’s money. She had been raped by Jones, and came to understand that the man was slowly devouring every soul that came under his spell.

Deborah’s story is made more tragic because just about her whole family fell under the the spell cast by James Warran Jones. The story of the Layton family’s involvement with Peoples Temple was beautifully told by Min S. Yee in In My Father’s House: The Story of the Layton Family and the Reverend Jim Jones (New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1981). This book isn’t widely available (I found it at the local library); but it is the best I have read because it conveys the high price a madman can exact from good and decent people. Her mother died in Jonestown shortly before the massacre, and Deborah lost two sisters-in-law and her two-year old nephew in the jungle.  Her brother Larry was released from prison in 2002 (to this day he protests his innocence). Deborah doesn’t have many of her once-large family left. Today, she lives in the Bay area along with her daughter.

I came to know Layton somewhat, through phone conversations and e-mail correspondence, after reading this book (read my 2002 review on Amazon.com). A gifted writer, she writes of her escape in such a way as to create suspense–even though you know that she got out you are praying that she will make it!

The fascination with Jonestown hasn’t abated, and the recent declassification of government files has added much to the story for writers like Julia Scheeres, whose book  A Thousand Lives appeared just last year (Free Press, 2011; 320 pages). This I haven’t read, but it is on my short list.

There are documentaries about Jonestown available as well. The best that I have seen is Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple, which was done for PBS and American Experience in recent years. Deborah Layton is among those interviewed. Warning: This is intense. I showed it to my World Religions class a few semesters ago; one or two students had to leave the room.

When the 900 plus human beings were discovered in the jungles of Guyana shortly after they were murdered, the body of Jones was found on the stage of the pavilion under a sign that read: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

On November 28, we remember 900 human beings, most of them decent people in search of a better life, one filled with meaning, who fell victim to a man who knew how to manipulate those needs. This is something we must remember, so as never to allow it to happen again.

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

Time and time again

The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom (Hyperion, 2012, 240 pages)

The author of Tuesdays With Morrie has given us an allegory about time past, time present, and time future. It’s A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life combined, minus the holiday theme. Ala Dickens we encounter a man whose life is lived solely to feed his success. Ala Life, we encounter a person mired in the slough of despond who is looking to leave it all behind : it is becoming too painful to endure.

But there is a third character here, Father Time himself, a man who lived six thousand years. He was once a young man in love, the father of three children. Then the unthinkable happened. His wife died and it was a loss he could not endure. Seeking to flee,  he instead finds himself imprisoned in a dark cave by a “servant” of God. In that cave the man is forced to hear the pleas of millions of humans, pleas for “more time” — or, sadly, pleas for less.

I referred to this book as an “allegory,” and I think that is a fair assessment. The characters in The Time Keeper–and this is particularly true of Dor, the bereaved six thousand year old man–represent a spiritual truth about loss and redemption. Concrete exemplification of such truths is the hallmark of allegory; but the concreteness of the two contemporary characters–Sarah, the teenager; and Victor, the 82 year old captain of industry fighting a losing battle with cancer–is very hard-hitting.

Sarah is a teenager with a good mind but with low self-esteem and–like most teenagers (or adults, for that matter)–a desire to be noticed and loved. It’s almost an a priori truth  that teenagers can be cruel, narcissistic creatures; and in place of love Sarah finds only a boy who wants to use her. And worse: one who then broadcasts her affection for him on Facebook. She literally wants to die.

Victor wants to live so badly that he is willing to submit to cryogenics and hopefully return in some distant future so that he can continue to run his empire. He plans it all so carefully, down to the last business detail. Victor isn’t a man to be told “No.” Even in the face of death.

These are the two humans, of all humanity, that Dor is meant to help. He is released from the cave and finds them. If he can save them from their deaths-in-life, he might free himself from his own cruel fate.

There  is a significant message here. Most of us live our lives watching the clock, knowing that our day is dictated by the meetings we have to attend, the games we have to go to, the dinner engagement that is so important. In the process we lose the day and the opportunity to relish the very fact of our existence, which can cease at any time. Death doesn’t heed our day planners. We may be passing an opportunity to be with, hug–and yes, spend time with–a special someone who might not be there when our important affairs allow us the time.

The Time Keeper is one of those books that may end up with a cult following. I hope not. Books that do are pigeonholed. Everyone should read this, because all of us can benefit from understanding that this very second of our present will soon be in the past.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris