Last Post before Rome

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks, as our plane to Rome takes off before my next standard posting time.

As a human, as a Christian, as a writer, as the daughter of an artist, as an American, as a woman who thinks cheese is second only to chocolate in the list of greatest foods--Italy holds all sorts of interest for me. When I come back, I plan to have pictures and stories to share.

NaNoWriMo begins just days into our trip. The thought of 1667 words per day makes me nervous--but less so since yesterday. Not convinced of my capability, I pulled out my non-NaNo story, picked out a plot point, and in less than an hour wrote 1683 words. I can do this! Provided, of course, that I do not give in to the frequent temptation to stop.

I admit, shamefacedly, that one of the things I'm looking forward to in Rome is a short break from the internet. At the bottom of Jennifer F.'s scorpion story (linked yesterday), I found the link to her post about 20 things learned in a week without her computer. I empathized with much of it. Full-time connectivity makes procrastination simple. I can find almost any information I want immediately. I get caught up in link-hopping. I agonize over how to respond to a perfectly normal email or whether I should comment on a blog or post a status update on Facebook ... and then I think I don't have enough time to do everything that needs doing. My internet time needs some rules. I hope to come back with some.

In case you don't want to take a break from the internet while I do, here are some things to keep you busy:

Baptist pastor Michael Spencer talks over the new possibility of reunification between some Anglican churches and Catholics. That news brought tears to my eyes. "One of the most bold steps in reuniting the church any of us will ever see", Mr. Spencer calls it. I agree.

I love wordplay. I've also discussed a lot of theology in my time. If you don't mind a little light-hearted theological word-gaming, enjoy.

Are you in the mood for spooky things over Halloween? Best go check out The Hog's Head. They're watching scary movies this week. I say "they're" instead of "we're" because I don't watch scary movies, but I might pop up in the comments if I have time and ideas.

Tyler Stanton doesn't really have a million peeves yet, but he's working on it. Hilarious.

In plain English, my response to this idea reads as follows: Yes, please! (Hat tip to CMR.)

If you need a laugh and don't mind not-so-plain English, there's always Engrish.com.

Likewise, icanhazcheezburger. I like this one.

In Rome I hope to see excellent Catholic art, some of the best there is. Here is some of the worst there is.

Still bored? There's always David Bowie. I'm going to try not to picture that next time Lou puts on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.


The Glad Game: Cold and Rain

Borrowing a little life-philosophy from Pollyanna today, I am glad. I am glad that I live in the land of cold and rain.

I am glad because we have no tarantulas. In discussion with friends the other night, I learned that tarantulas jump--high and far--and that they migrate across the highways in such large groups that signs have to be placed warning drivers to watch for them. If you don't watch for the tarantula migration, and actually drive into it, you can spin out on spider guts. That's bad enough, but then you're stuck in a spun-out car and the tarantulas are still walking. When do tarantulas migrate? I am never going to Flagstaff at that time of year.

I am also glad because we have no scorpions.

Hat tip to CMR for the above link, which is one of the funniest stories I've seen in a long time. It's sympathetic laughter--the same basic experience could happen to me any day. It wouldn't take a poisonous stinging insect. A wolf spider would do just fine.

At first I planned to give this post a picture of a tarantula or scorpion, but after several minutes of gagging and shuddering over the images I found, I decided not to subject all of you to them.


Pre-Trip Stress

Eleven days till the starting gun is fired for NaNoWriMo. Much less than eleven days until our major plane ride to a foreign country. Last week was busy, this week is busy, and everything is going well ... I just wish I could tell my adrenaline levels to cut back for awhile.

Waking up at six-thirty from troubling dreams the past three mornings, and having sleep paralysis episodes when I try to go back to sleep: Not helping.

Email people who might be affected by my being gone ten days--go to the store for anything we need to take--fret over whether to make copies or take the whole chant book for the schola I just joined--flutter unproductively in and out of plans for NaNoWriMo--somehow manage to schedule my busiest weeks of the fall for right before departure--wonder if I'm actually accomplishing anything or just imagining myself busy ...


If I weren't overthinking every last thing I do, it wouldn't be so stressful. Nor would everything take so long. I wonder what the remedy is for overthinking?

Ah well. In just days, all I'll have to think about is how beautiful St. Peter's is, and whether I can work any of the glories of the city into my interstellar novel.


Today's NaNoWriMo Goal: Character Outlines

With innumerable writing resources available on the Internet, I could put off actually working on my novel preparation forever.

Down with distraction! Having only a week and a half to plan, much of which is going to be busy, I broke down and actually used one of those character sheets that various writers recommend. This one appealed to me because it asks me to write in the character's voice, but there are others:

Tricia Goyer's
A shorter one found on Associated Content

Or, if you prefer, there are exercises (I wouldn't be much on the New Age undertones, but the exercises themselves look interesting.)

I have copied the character sheet into a document. My protagonist had already written all of her answers, but I have other characters to get to know. Her brother is a little more apathetic, and I haven't gotten around to speaking with her best friend yet.


NaNoWriMo Last-Minute Preparations

After coming up with several potential story concepts and thinking far too hard about which one I should choose for my first year's NaNo novel, I picked one plot--the one I thought I could get fifty thousand words out of. I wrote a synopsis, came up with the structure of the first scene and several others, and thought myself set.

Last week my interest in the story snapped. The problem with that plot was that it dealt with issues, and I remembered that I really hate it when novels try to deal with issues. Beyond that, I'm just sick of talking about issues. Living in a college-town like Bellingham means living surrounded by very strong and often very immature opinions about issues of all sorts, and those opinions accost you everywhere--picketers' signs, boulevard campaigns, shop-window posters, bumper stickers on every third car. That's without reading the newspaper or having any particular relations with the school. I hate that. I'm tired of having everyone's opinions forced on me all the time. I want to be left alone.

Pardon the rant.

At any rate, it's possible that I'll switch back to that story when November 1 hits and I'm faced with writing fifty thousand words from a half-envisioned fantasy universe and a very loosely outlined plot. My goal, however, is to fill in the blanks as much as I can, hopefully accruing a little more confidence by then. This idea is more cheerful. I like cheerful. I do not like stories about How Life Sucks. If I wanted those, I'd read the news.

NaNo has me so excited that I'm doing little things like double-checking my notebook to make sure it has enough pages to last me a week, arranging and rearranging my Author Information on the site, and flicking into my notes regularly to keep them turning in the back of my head. I should go work on those right now.


St. Hedwig, Tomatoes, and Peppers

I'm at The Hog's Head again today with a post about St. Hedwig of Silesia, namesake to Harry Potter's owl:

"In the Roman Catholic Church, today is the feast day of St. Hedwig of Silesia, after whom Harry’s owl is named. Jo Rowling’s character names are well-known to be aptly chosen, and Hedwig is no exception. Here are a handful of [what I thought were] interesting and potentially relevant points about St. Hedwig:"

(read more)

* * *
After a spring and summer of tomato, eggplant and pepper plants growing in our south window, I finally moved them outside today. Recent frosts had destroyed most of the leaves close to the window, and the harvest had mostly ended. Here are a few pictures from their prime:

The eggplant never made any eggplants (argh), but it made several nice flowers.


Statues and Schemes at The Hog's Head

I'm over at The Hog's Head today with a post on Chapter 12 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (we're doing a read-through):
It’s the first day of September, and the Hogwarts Express has left the station. Ginny, Neville, and Luna boarded the train, but Harry and Ron and Hermione are still ensconced in Grimmauld Place. Death Eaters watch the square.

Dealing with Moody’s anti-Snape jinxes has become routine, the horror diminished. Harry, having made it past both spells and Death Eaters, is greeted by an unrecognizable Kreacher--clean, happy, hard at work making a home out of the grisly old place. The locket of Regulus Black hangs over the old elf’s heart, catalyst to its change.

(read more)
Good discussion has already started. Feel free to come and join in!


Countdown to Rome

In about two weeks, God willing, Lou and I will be in Italy. This means that I need to put more thought into preparations than I have in awhile. I'm hanging on little decisions like 'Should I bring along a pair of jeans, even though they're bulkier and heavier than slacks?' and 'Am I going to be too warm if I take mostly long-sleeved shirts?' Not to mention 'If I pack a little laundry detergent in a zip-lock bag, will airport security think it is drugs?'

I am making a concession to style by wearing my office boots, which are slightly less comfortable than my old walking shoes but far more attractive. Briana tells me that Italian women wear stiletto heels while pushing baby carriages on cobbled streets. Brave souls, in whose veins the blood of martyrs flows! There is not a chance that I will walk all over Italy in stilettos--not one. Sadistic, painful shoes.

Jet lag worries me a bit; it only takes two time zones to throw me off and we're going nine. The only thing I've seen that looks like it might help is Donna's Sure-Fire Jet Lag Remedy:

"Force yourself to stay up the entire flight. Then, at your destination and before you hit the sack, down two sleeping pills and two Melatonin with a double scotch chaser. You'll be out like a light in no time and pretty chipper in the morning. Do this three nights in a row eliminating the sleeping pills on the third night. Works for me!

Note: SlowTrav.com does not endorse this jetlag cure but thinks it sounds fun."

Unfortunately, I think that as Martin Short once put it, that would be like "bye-bye, George, see you next Thursday!"

All the talk on travel sites of how to avoid pickpockets makes me a little paranoid. I plan on taking a day bag, and my NaNoWriMo notebook will be in there. I'll be guarding that with my life ... and the karate chop I used to use on my sisters when they'd walk past me and poke a finger into my ribs.

Preparatory concerns aside, the thought of Rome thrills me straight through. I want to worship at the altars in St. Peter's and pray in the church St. Francis built and walk among the tombs of the martyrs and throw a penny in the Trevi fountain and write my novel with a statue reading over my shoulder.


Currently Reading: The Resurrection of Rome

"I have come to the conclusion that no tourist will be happy and successful in Rome if he is merely shown gilded wreaths and twisted trumpets. They will generally repel him unless he understands what sort of triumph of truth, truly or falsely, the Popes imagined they were adorning when they modelled it so boldly upon the triumphs of the Caesars. Nobody can understand the triumphs and the trophies when he has never heard of the battles; and the battles were nearly all intellectual and won by the Sword of the Spirit."

Author: G.K. Chesterton

Lou brought home this book of Chesterton's a week or so ago, knowing that I'd be especially excited to read it with our trip to the great city coming up so shortly. He was right. I dropped Dante, Tolkien, and Meyer and dove headfirst into the talk of fountains and statues and buildings and Popes. Admittedly, I drifted a bit during the section on Fascism and wound up in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, but eventually I made it back and persevered.

Normally I do not take notes while reading--note-taking interrupts the flow of thought and therefore the feel of the book itself--but Chesterton is king of the oh-yipes-that-statement-is-so-good-I-have-to-write-it-down. Consider this piece (page 64 in the Dodd, Mead and Company edition from 1930):

The subtle distinctions have made the simple Christians; all the men who think drink right and drunkenness wrong; all the men who think marriage normal and polygamy abnormal; all the men who think it wrong to hit first and right to hit back; and, as in the present case, all the men who think it right to carve statues and wrong to worship them.

Chesterton's goal in writing the book was to make sense of Rome to the observer who might feel distaste at its overwhelming clutter of angels and gargoyles, architectural marvels and pageantry--a person whom I find difficult to imagine, but who probably exists somewhere. He hoped to give that tourist an understanding of the reasons behind such exuberant décor, offering appreciation even if said tourist does not think the reasons worthy.

The theme of the book, as noted in the title, is based on an image that caught at Chesterton's mind as he stood overlooking the city: that, like its innumerable fountains, Rome is a city which bubbles up from below ground, ever bringing back to life that which was thought buried.

As the child of an artist, and as a person only too likely to indulge in my own forms of art for little reason other than the joy of creation, I hardly need a reason to appreciate art. Having some idea of the meaning just makes it better. For that, I am more than glad to have read The Resurrection of Rome.


Grammar Lessons from Joey Tribbiani

Our insurance agent sent Lou a birthday card last month. It said the following, and I quote:

Happy Birthday
"Thanks for your business"

I think we threw it out already. Should've sent a photo of it to these people.


Of Nobel Shame

Book Examiner Michelle Kerns says just about everything I need to say.

Though I've read none of Ms. Muller's books, I have no reason to doubt her deserving the literature prize. But as for Mr. Engdahl ... excuse me, sir, but did you just openly admit to ruling out worthy authors based on nationality alone? I thought discrimination was the number-one no-no of our time.

Europe's anti-Americanism has got to cool off. At any rate, when I go there in a few weeks, I will not pretend to be from Canada.

Of course, they gave President Obama the Peace prize, for ... oh, whatever. That's politics.


Currently Reading: Lord of the Rings

Currently Reading is a new feature I plan on including regularly. Of course, nine times out of ten "Currently Re-reading" would be a more accurate title, but I don't think I'll bother with the distinction.

* * *

"Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?"1

Actually, I finished my second full-length read of Lord of the Rings last Friday night, down on the couch with a bad cold. Technically, however, I can still claim to be in the middle of it since I'd like to read the appendices.

I've decided that full appreciation of Lord of the Rings absolutely depends on reading it more than once. It made far more sense on a second trip through; I found myself rooting for minor characters like Beregond this time around, people (and other sentient creatures) whom I barely noticed in the first read because there was so much to keep track of.

It still didn't appeal much to my girly side. I had less sympathy for Eowyn than I did at first, and her shift from Aragorn to Faramir was still too sudden for believability. Galadriel, however, intrigued me more than before, and the Lothlórien scenes--utterly destroyed in the movies--were among my favorites.

Without a lot of female characters and the requisite emotions to empathize with, I had to lean on Sam for that interest. Which leads to the thing I noticed most clearly during this read: that Tolkien flavored his story with much love of the sort shared by, say, David king of Israel and Saul's son Jonathan--as David eulogized his friend,

"I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan ...
Your love to me was more wonderful
Than the love of women."

The passion of Sam for Frodo is a beautiful thing, and I can understand why some interpret it as a sexual relationship: that's the only reference point our culture has for such an emotion. Post-Freud, we tend to think of passionate love as erotic at root. But Sam's love for Frodo, that of Legolas for Gimli, and, for that matter, that of Gimli for Galadriel, is something we could stand to admire without our Freudian blinders. It is also something we could use more of nowadays.

I think I'll make another go of reading The Silmarillion. Last time I tried, I got about two pages in; if I can survive Dante's Inferno, however, I should be able to get through Tolkien's history book.

1 Tolkien, J.R.R., Return of the King (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group), 246


Fifty Favorite Books and What's Next

The list is complete. That is, as complete as such a thing can be. I have a lot of books on my to-read list, any of which could knock things out of order; if I were redoing it now, I would already move the Lord of the Rings books higher in the list.

Looking back over it, I find some of my choices awfully shameless. After all, I've read and enjoyed Les Miserables and think it a highly worthwhile book. Why didn't that make the list? Primarily because the massive Les Mis contained so many novella-length essays on things in which I had next to no interest, like the French sewer system. Therefore, it got beat out by a lot of innocent, non-depressing, non-boring tales for the (forever) young.

I have left out great books that I have read. Sometimes I included a book that I loved and wanted to talk about, but wondered later if it really belonged. My numbering system is flawed and vague, based on personal enjoyment without much reference to intrinsic merit; it is also downright arbitrary at times. Hopefully that helps explain most of the inclusions, exclusions, and relative placements that seem unreasonable.

Fifty is a large number, and drawing from the reservoir of books I have read, re-read, and loved, which have made some sort of impact upon my thought processes, I did what I could. I have written this list in the spirit of a pleasant exercise, a joyous fit of listing instinct. Enjoy! You can read through the whole thing here.

* * *

Anyway, this blog is no longer slave to the Fifty Favorite Books feature, and I have plans: most of which involve conversation about reading and writing and other random life commentary. Stay tuned for the introduction of other regular features, interspersed as usual with whatever happens along.


#1. Orthodoxy

[For the Rules, click here.]

"This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.... It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom--that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect."

Author: G.K. Chesterton

Synopsis: Chesterton describes his adventure searching the world over for the truth and finding it in Christianity as contained in the Apostles' Creed, something he might have learned just as well "in the nearest parish church". Witty and sly, magical and brilliant, he points out the droll nature of error, the circular logic of running mad with only one idea, and portrays what the understanding of truth looks like from the inside.

* * *

I do not think any writer has a better grasp of the English language than G.K. Chesterton did. Though his long paragraphs may come off as daunting, and the prose at first going may feel rather thick, the sentences are one after another loaded with the punch of aphorism and the whimsy of poetry.

Chesterton is my hero, as writers go, and in many ways also as Christian thinkers go. The man had an incredibly alive way of looking at the world. He saw the contradictory judgments made upon the church and pointed out the light and life and beauty behind the apparently forbidding gray walls. He had an equal gift for pointing out the deadness inside many a seemingly rational philosophy.

Reading his work helps my imagination, as well as my reason, keep me Christian. And in that blessed paradoxical vision the fairy under the hollyhock, the image in the mirror, and the rough unruly fishermen of the Gospels all alike point to Christ on the cross, the intersection of all existence.


#2. The Harry Potter Series

[For the Rules, click here.]

"And his knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped."

Author: J.K. Rowling

Synopsis: Harry Potter was raised by his dreadful aunt and uncle, terrorized by his cousin and sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs. Strange things have always happened around him, but he does not know what it all means until a half-giant breaks down the door on his eleventh birthday, with explanations of how his parents really died and of who he really is.

Moving from the Dursleys' spidery cupboard to a tower room at a school of magic, Harry finds himself in a world where photographs move and portraits talk, where owls carry messages and the best game in the world is played on brooms--and where he is famous for something he hardly remembers. Throughout the seven books, Harry puts together the truth about what happened that Halloween night in Godric's Hollow, of why he was chosen to die and why he survived, and of what must be done to save his friends and people everywhere from the most powerful Dark wizard the world has ever known.

* * *

You knew Harry Potter had to be in the list somewhere, right?

It's hard to know just what to say about these books. I've written quite a bit about them before, but there's so much to them that many a forum and website is devoted almost exclusively to the stories (and many of these are still going strong, more than two years after the release of the last book.)

From the hermetic subtext to the repeated Christ-figure symbolism to the emphasis on self-sacrificial love and humility and fair treatment for all living beings, the messages of the Potter books are as powerful as the tales themselves--but if all you want is a great story, you'll find that too. Rowling's work is practically its own mythology. She has created a world that becomes lifelike in the minds of her readers, real enough that you can almost sense for yourself what it would be like to make friends with a hippogriff or face off with a boggart or look at a many-handed clock to locate the members of your family.

For me, the books came at a time of terrible confusion and doubt. I read and re-read, awed, as Harry's world made sense of mine and concepts like good and evil took on real meaning again. And as I wrote shortly after Deathly Hallows came out, "I am an adult. I am well acquainted with the feeling of despair pulsing through my heart, poisoning my mind and emotions. Because of this, I hold ever-so-tightly to the childish notion that good will always triumph in the end. It is my link to sanity."

RRR: Any of John Granger's and Travis Prinzi's books on the subject--they're all tip-top scholarship. Granger's Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader and Deathly Hallows Lectures and Prinzi's Harry Potter & Imagination: The Way Between Two Worlds are particularly helpful, and I'm about to read Harry Potter's Bookshelf (by Granger) from which I expect something of a college-level literature class. Prinzi and Granger also have the two best Potter-related sites, in my opinion, and I even get to blog at the former. :)


#3. Little White Horse

[For the Rules, click here.]

Old Parson, a twinkle in his eyes, took the books, bowed to Miss Heliotrope, and offered her his arm. "Madam, may I have the honour?" he said to her. And to Maria he said, "Your Royal Highness, the deep-laid schemes of managing women have never until now commended themselves to me. But in yours I willingly entangle myself. For the witchery of the moon is in them, and so brave is the moon, confronting so great a darkness with so small a face, that a man who does not count himself her willing slave is a born fool."

Author: Elizabeth Goudge

Synopsis: Newly-orphaned Maria Merryweather travels into the country to live at Moonacre Manor, which is the Merryweather family castle and home to her cousin Sir Benjamin. Maria and her governess settle comfortably into their new home, but Maria is curious, and there is mystery and intrigue enough in Moonacre Manor and the village of Silverydew to keep any inquisitive young lady busy.

With the help of several magical animals including a mysterious little white horse, and with friends like Robin and Loveday and Old Parson and Marmaduke Scarlet and others, Maria sets out to right the wrongs of her ancestor, win over the Men from the Dark Woods, and reconcile the Sun and Moon Merryweathers once and for all.

* * *

Lou and I, walking to St. Andrew's on our honeymoon in Victoria, B.C. last year, came across a bookstore: Munro's, on Government Street. In lieu of other souvenirs, we decided to each buy a book. I went searching in the children's/young adult section, as usual, and came upon this. The title would have been enough to make me pick it up, but the cover also contained a warm recommendation by J.K. Rowling--"I absolutely adored The Little White Horse"--and of course I pulled it from the shelf and flipped through it. The very first page, with its intricate descriptions and sense of fantasia, sealed the bargain. Lou bought Manssoni's The Betrothed, and I bought The Little White Horse.

I have now read it several times and usually find myself re-reading parts after I get through the whole. Sometimes I've barely put it down when I want to pick it up and read it again.

Having read John Granger's Unlocking Harry Potter, I had a basic acquaintance with the concept of alchemical story scaffolding, and was absolutely thrilled to be able to pick out point after point in Goudge's story. Even without that, though, I would have enjoyed it. The faerie-tinged world, the joyous narrative, the truly good characters, and the ending--which always makes me smile and cry--all combine for one of the best and most satisfying stories I've ever read.


Little Flower

"Jesus does not demand great deeds. All He wants is self-surrender and gratitude. 'I will not take he-goats out of thy flocks, for all the beasts of the forest are Mine, the cattle on the hills and the oxen. I know all the fowls of the air. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee, for the world is Mine, and the fulness thereof. Shall I eat the flesh of bullocks, or shall I drink the blood of goats? OFFER TO GOD THE SACRIFICE OF PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING.

"That is all Jesus asks from us. He needs nothing from us except our love. God, who declares He has no need to tell us He is hungry, does not hesitate to
beg a drop of water from the woman of Samaria.... He was thirsty!!! But when He said: 'Give me to drink,' the Creator of the universe was asking for the love of the poor thing He had created."

--St. Thérèse de Lisieux, Story of a Soul (tr. John Beevers) p. 156-157