Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
By this author
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.
We’re featuring three new items on the website right now, starting with Robert Mickens’s latest Letter from Rome, in which he discusses the “opposition” to Francis that began to coalesce after publication of
There’s a lot of interesting data in a new Pew report detailing the drop of self-identified Catholics across Latin America, beginning with how precipitous the decline has been. While 84 percent of adults interviewed report they were raised Catholic, only 69 percent currently identify as Catholic, meaning, as the New York Times Upshot summarizes, “there has been a 15-percentage-point drop-off in one generation.”
Why interesting, and not, say, startling, is that no one who’s been paying attention can really be surprised by the findings, yet they also shed new light on the shift in a region where up to the 1970s more than 90 percent of the population identified as Catholic.
Today the New York Times is featuring on its homepage a video “retro report” on the murder of American churchwomen Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan in El Salvador in December 1980. The report is titled “A Search for Justice,” and the tagline reads: “Nearly 35 years later, the case continues to take surprising turns.”
A philosopher of otherwise modest stature once made the useful point that in life it's important to make a little effort once in a while: go out for a movie, walk instead of drive. Trying not to come to Mass with a cup of coffee may or may not meet the standard, but now and then someone really does show up in the third pew straight from the ubiquitous Starbucks. Could this person have made time to finish earlier, or simply held out until later?
While the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, the short line of the material world aims hard at convenience—the minimizing of the effort required to get something. From a month’s journey to a day’s drive to within an arm’s reach, from the touch of a finger to the click of the mouse and soon maybe the blink of an eye, the distance, in space and time, between “wish” and “fulfillment” has shrunk to nearly nothing. That’s news to no one but whether everyone should see it as good news is another question. Do we lose something when getting something is so easy? And might it be bad news if effort were reduced so much (and the definition of “convenience” stretched so far) that we got things we probably wouldn't wish for in the first place?
Sue Halpern in her current New York Review of Books piece provides an answer, and it's implicit in the title: “The Creepy New Wave of the Internet.” She details the emergence of what the tech industry and its missionaries in consulting and venture capital are calling the Internet of Things (IoT) or, more all-encompassing by some, the Internet of Everything. If you’re thinking Facebook or satellite navigation or personalized recommendations on Amazon, you’re not being nearly “visionary” enough.