Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
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Autumn Jones’s current piece on Jesuit colleges at the Atlantic (“Teaching God in Jesuit Universities”) bears a hompage teaser that poses the perhaps inevitable question: “Can mainstream institutions of higher ed also follow the teachings of the Catholic church?” The inside headline: “The New Brand of Jesuit Universities.”
Francisco Goldman (the New Yorker) and Alma Guillermoprieto (the New York Review of Books) are among the journalists who in ongoing reports not only continue to monitor the latest developments in the case of forty-three missing (and all but confirmed dead) students from the Mexican state of Guerrero, but also work to frame the events within a particular political and economic context, which is characterized mainly by government corruption, poverty, and the rampant and indiscriminate violenc
The room my wife and I were led to on the first evening of our Sicilian honeymoon had a warped linoleum floor, a sway-backed bed, and a cracked plastic chair in the corner. The shower curtain was torn and mildewed; ants crawled on the melting lump of soap. Outside the single window, down in the alley, a kitchen worker poured another bucket of scraps onto the moldering heap of clam shells and cantaloupe rinds. We checked out before we could fully check in, explaining that this was not what the brochure had promised.
We’re featuring two new pieces on the homepage. First, the editors on the release of and reaction to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture:
Leave it to David Gibson to ferret out the facts on Pope Francis’s alleged comments about pets going to heaven. He maps out the origins, paths, and mutations along the way of the story many might have wanted to believe in spite of their doubts, and not just the doubt sparked by its appearance on the front page of the New York Times last week (and repeated in brief by Serge Schmemann in the paper’s Sunday Review section).
“Honey, listen to me,” one character urges another in Kent Haruf’s 1999 novel Plainsong. “You are here now. This is where you are.”
“Here” is Holt County on the high plains of Colorado, and it’s the setting not only of Plainsong, a National Book Award finalist the year it appeared, but also of its two predecessors and its follow-ups, Eventide (2005) and Benediction (2013). When I heard of Haruf’s death last week, at seventy-one from cancer, I couldn’t help but think of Benediction’s cold opener unveiling a potentially unpromising conceit—terminal illness:
When the test came back the nurse called them into the examining room and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.
Go on ahead, Dad Lewis said, say it.
I’m afraid I don’t have very good news for you, the doctor said.
When they went back downstairs to the parking lot it was late in the afternoon.
You drive, Dad said. I don’t want to.
But the economy of language, the dispensing of conventional punctuation in dialogue, and the immediate clarity of characterization work to bring it off. Haruf seemed always to know where he stood, and what he wanted to do.
Places like Holt were home to Haruf when he was a boy, and though his family moved around a lot (his father was a Methodist minister) he absorbed the essence of these places which in composite became the vivid setting of his fiction. Haruf composed drafts blindly—he literally pulled a wool cap over his eyes as he typed—the better “to concentrate on the storytelling,” and judging from how believably Holt emerges across his books, it worked. “The ring of the [typewriter’s] return oriented him, as did the world he saw in his mind’s eye,” William Yardley evocatively puts it in his obituary of Haruf, whose wife, Cathy, is quoted later in the same piece: “ ‘He only got off home row a couple of times and typed gobbledygook,’ ” Mrs. Haruf recalled. ‘That’s not bad for all those years.’”
Few contemporary American novelists seem as successful as Haruf in linking people so closely with place, maybe because from the outset he dedicated himself to getting place right.
Many of you have been reading Timothy P. Schilling's story on Holland's traditional Sinterklaas holiday festivities, which feature a character in blackface named "Zwarte Piet," or Black Pete. Since it was posted earlier this week, there have been new developments; these are detailed in the updated version of story on our website, which you can read here.
June of this year marked the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan's earthly departure, while October marked the fiftieth anniversary of the speech thought by many to have signaled his political arrival. That address, “A Time for Choosing,” was his endorsement in 1964 of Barry Goldwater for president, and has in the words of Jonathan Chait “become a cherished relic in the Reagan myth,” not just for the mythic impish charm with which he delivered such lines as: “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.” (This was some years before Republicans promulgated the coinage "compassionate conservatism.")
Between these bookends arrived Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, eight hundred and ten pages (not including index, but including a two-page note on sources--more on that later) detailing American life and politics between 1973 and 1976, spanning Watergate, the Ford presidency, and the Republican national convention in Kansas City. Or, as Perlstein contextualizes in the book’s subtitle: “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” a Robert-Caro-like framing that necessitates the marshaling of Caro-like amounts of fact, much of it predating the book’s ostensible period of examination.
The book is the third in Perlstein’s social history of the postwar rise of American conservatism, following Before the Storm and Nixonland, and the first to feature Ronald Reagan as a main player. I trace a personal fascination with Reagan to the fact that his presidency and personality dominated the period of my adolescence and early adulthood; I remember where I was when Reagan was first inaugurated, when he was shot, when he quipped that he’d signed new legislation outlawing Russia forever and bombing would begin in five minutes (August was the thirtieth anniversary of that), and when it became clear he would be absolved of knowledgeable participation in the Iran-Contra affair despite evidence of direct involvement.
But I was less familiar with the particulars of his rise and the interplay of political and cultural forces that, in retrospect, would seem to have made it foreordained.