Currently Reading: The Host

When we thought of the new planet—Earth, so dry, so varied, and filled with such violent, destructive denizens we could barely imagine them—our horror was sometimes overshadowed by our excitement. Stories spun themselves quickly around the thrilling new subject. The wars—wars! our kind having to fight!—were first reported accurately and then embellished and fictionalized. When the stories conflicted with the official information I sought out, I naturally believed the first reports.

But there were whispers of this: of human hosts so strong that the souls were forced to abandon them. Hosts whose minds could not be completely suppressed. Souls who took on the personality of the body, rather than the other way around.

Author: Stephenie Meyer

Synopsis: After experiencing life on more than the usual number of planets, one ‘soul’—an alien creature who lives by finding a host body and possessing it—attempts life on Earth, where her kind have suddenly taken over. Given the name Wanderer, she is placed in the body of a young woman who attempted suicide rather than be caught and possessed. But Melanie, the host, is awake in the back of Wanderer’s mind—and faced with a common enemy, the two become allies and then friends as they run from the souls’ society and seek the man Melanie loves.

Notes: At the risk of sounding trite, I could not put this book down.

I powered through most of it in an afternoon, enthralled by Meyer’s beautiful ability to set two characters at opposite interests and give the reader total, wholehearted sympathy for the both of them. The only thing that troubled me was that I couldn’t see a way for it to end well.

So when I reached the blank page after Wanderer’s final decision, I was furious. That was how Meyer had chosen to end it? I was so angry that I went and packed two bookshelves. And then so sad that I cried. When I woke up two and a half hours early the next morning, still on the point of tears, I went to re-read the end and see if I’d missed a glimmer of hope. As it turns out, I’d missed two chapters.

Turn past the blank page, readers. There's more!

The Host was not Meyer’s first novel, and it shows. The tale reads more smoothly than Twilight or Breaking Dawn. It’s not perfect, either; Meyer doesn’t even track with the laws of genre prose, the little dictums of adverb use and dialogue tags and the like. There are also a few small inconsistencies tucked among the pages.

I sometimes wonder, though, if Meyer’s X factor would still work if she were a more nuanced or elegant prosist. Anyone who can read at all can blast through one of her books, unhindered by complex wording or cerebral meandering. And for those to whom the spirit appeals, the read is a passionate, irresistible high. You dream about the story; you lie awake thinking about it; you get up and return to it again and again to absorb its depths and find just what it is that pulls you. Then, along comes someone to whom the spirit did not speak, and they raise an eyebrow and say “You liked this? Are you mad? It’s terrible writing,” and you stare at them and suck in your lower lip and wonder how they missed all the light and the glory.

It’s even more awkward when you can stand on both sides of that conversation at once. Fortunately, I hardly noticed flaws until I’d read significant sections of the book multiple times. Suspense kept me turning pages far too quickly to bother with critique.

Suspense—and the characters. I loved gentle Wanderer, who is on the journey to becoming human, and fierce, strong Melanie, who is trying very hard to stay human. I loved the fact that I could sympathize with the protagonist, despite her alien nature. I loved Jared even when I wanted to hit him, and I loved Ian even when he frightened me. Doc’s conflict, Jamie’s earnest friendship, and crazy Uncle Jeb’s cheery sanity all roused my affection and empathy.

As a general rule I despise love triangles, and bodice-ripper kissing makes me laugh, but the dynamics of the uncomfortable quadrangle in this story were too fascinating to prove an annoyance. With the exception of one scene, anyway. The whole thing is tangled up in Wanderer’s process of becoming human mentally and physically, and I appreciated the different progressions.

The story is more than the characters and romance, however, as Meyer explores the concept of what it means to be human. The insights come from a subtle but strong LDS perspective, focusing on the fall and redemption and hope of humanity. It's under the surface—you have to know what you're looking for—but the storyline grows organically from it. And while my Catholic eyes look rather differently upon many a point of doctrine and practice, I often find sympathy with Meyer's spirit.

The name Wanderer is a fascinating choice, especially set alongside Melanie Stryder. Symbolically speaking, the Wanderer is a seeker, someone lost and searching for true life. Melanie’s surname conjures up the famous line from Bilbo’s poem about Aragorn, “Not all those who wander are lost.” The names fit.

Some of my favorite considerations involved what it means to be physically human—the blurred lines between the soul’s reactions and the body’s. Others involved the almost perfect connection I felt with Wanderer. Wanda, as she was later nicknamed, got too comfortable with deception for my comfort; other than that, reading her became like holding a mirror to the inside of my own soul. Who I want to be, if not who I am.

Despite a handful of rough lines and one or two rough scenes, I thought the book was fantastic. Orson Scott Card’s comment on the back cover is well spoken; I now trust Meyer, more than almost any other living author, to take the dark and the impossible and find a way toward light and hope.

Special thanks to Briana, who told me that if I wanted to read the book I could take her copy. I loved it.

Recommendation: Read it and enjoy being human.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Autumn To-Read List

The shift from summer to fall always makes me feel like re-reading my favorite books. The mood of the season also draws me more strongly than ever toward the tales of yesteryear.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

This list is a mix of re-reads and first reads:

1. The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. Re-read. I've been aching to go through this book again for months, but the Wheel of Time has taken up most of my reading time.

2. Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. First read--the only WoT book currently available that I haven't read, other than the prequel.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Re-read. I like to go through this one every year.

4. The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. Re-read. It's actually been a couple of years since I read the middle of the series. Time goes fast....

5. Something by P.G. Wodehouse. First read; I read Psmith in the City and it made me want to read more by the author. His work seems like good autumnal comfort reading.

6. The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. First read. As I packed up my workspace, I discovered my copy of this book with a bookmark in about Chapter 2. Whoops.

7. Lilith by George MacDonald. First read. This one was on my shelf, waiting for me to finish The Princess and the Goblin.

8. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. First read, and actually I'm about 2/3 of the way through it. It was my pick for book club this fall.

9. World's First Love by Fulton Sheen. First read. October's book club choice.

10. Fatherless by Brian Gail. First read. November's book club choice.

As for what I'll read to review on my blog, well—we'll see. From the above, I'm only likely to review Towers of Midnight, the MacDonald books, and possibly anything I read by Wodehouse. My picks for blog read-and-reviews tend to be more spontaneous, involving whatever catches my eye at the library. :)

What do you plan to read this fall?


Glitter and Buttons

A blogalectic with Masha and Mr. Pond.

For last week's impressions, Masha wrote an illuminating post about her disappointment with the ideas she finds connoted by the word talent. And Mr. Pond wrote a magical little piece of flash fiction. Links enclosed for your reading pleasure.

This week's word: craft.

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Maybe it's having grown up in Sunday Schools and art fairs, but the word craft first brings to mind ribbons and Elmer's glue and the innumerable possibilities of pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks. Or, on a more adult level, frilly handmade refrigerator magnets and knick knacks. Kitsch. The kind of stuff that's fun to make, but mostly just clutter.

My mind's next turn upon the word is more positive. The woodworker, shaping by saw and plane and chisel and lathe. The potter, forming cups from spinning wet clay. The quilter, stitching in curves and lines across her patchwork.  The weaver, alternating treadles, passing the shuttle back and forth through the warp. The gardener, settling tiny green starts into the earth not for what they are, but for what they will grow to be. And so on.

The word is associated with writing in my mind, too, as published writers often tell aspiring ones to learn their craft. For me, that means endless hours of laying words into sentence forms and smoothing them over. It means reading, editing, re-reading, and re-editing everything I write until I can no longer see the words. And it means polishing a story or an essay until it reflects my gaze back at me, like a mirror.


The Pursuit of Sanity and other stories

PSA: I've got a Tuesday and Wednesday blog scheduled for next week, during our big move. I'm planning to write up a Monday post if at all possible. For Friday and the following week, however, the blog depends entirely upon circumstance—which isn't known for guaranteeing internet access or free time.

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Luckily for my sanity, we're about to camp out at my in-laws' for a few days, till we get possession of the new house. I am grateful. It's more than a little difficult to cook with all the cabinets emptied. I can't even find the peanut butter, and besides, I've scrubbed the oven.

Also, I've discovered that Maia doesn't mind chaos in the form of boxes, but she minds very much if we start packing all the normal house stuff into the boxes. She's alternating between hiding out and running madly about the place bouncing off of things. A restoration of sanity will be good for her, too.

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Writers' link of the week: Gregory Wolfe on Divine Art, through the new online magazine Rayzd. Intriguing thoughts.

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Music of the week: Since Wolfe mentioned several composers I'd never heard of, all of whom developed music from Gregorian chant, here's one of them. Arvo Pärt. Beautiful stuff.

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Funny of the week: An Open Letter to the Cats of This Household. Thanks to Mr. Pond for the link.

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And now I've got a shower to scrub, a Monday blog-post to write, a bit of packing to do, and so on and so forth. Happy weekend, everybody!


Currently Reading: The Gathering Storm (The Wheel of Time, Book 12)

Standing in the doorway was a very angry Tam al’Thor. He glared at Cadsuane. “What have you done to him?” he demanded.

Cadsuane lowered her book. “I have done nothing to the boy, other than encourage him toward civility. Something, it seems, other members of the family could learn as well.”

“Watch your tongue, Aes Sedai,” Tam snarled. “Have you seen him? The entire room seemed to grow darker when he entered. And that face—I’ve seen more emotion in the eyes of a corpse! What has happened to my son?”

Authors: Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Synopsis: In a battle with Semirhage, Rand loses nearly all of his remaining sanity, terrifying Min, Nynaeve, and everyone else who meets him. Meanwhile, Egwene remains in the White Tower, where she refuses to back down from her claim to the Amyrlin Seat and seeks to heal the ever-widening rifts between the Aes Sedai.

Notes: Brandon Sanderson’s moving prologue set the stage for this book, which he took over after Jordan’s death. Jordan’s widow, Harriet McDougal, chose the bequest well. While I had a few moments of recognizing that the text was a different author’s work, the voices blended exceptionally well. I’m looking forward to reading more of Sanderson’s work.

Whether by Jordan’s decree or Sanderson’s, the perspective jumps mostly took place at the chapter level in this book. This proved decidedly less exhausting to read. It was also nice to spend very little time in Darkfriends’ heads.

Perrin and Mat took a few turns of action, with Mat decidedly more dull at separation from his new wife, and Perrin finally understanding the wrongfulness of his exclusive focus on Faile. Good man. I have loads of respect for Perrin Aybara.

But the bulk of the book alternated between Rand and Egwene, which—as they’re my two favorite characters—is part of why I loved it so much.

Egwene’s scenes were wonderful, one after another, including direct confrontation with Elaida, a dramatic battle with the Seanchan, and the receipt of a near-complete—and shocking—list of Black Ajah. I'm still appalled at the latter, by the way. Sure, I knew about Alviarin and Katerine and Galina, but... well, I’ll avoid spoilers. But the sacrifice it took a certain Aes Sedai to create and pass on that list was terrible and incomprehensible and powerful.

Rand’s scenes were horrifying. It’s hard to blame him for what he did to get free of Semirhage, but it turned him to stone—a nearly-heartless, incredibly deadly, almost irredeemable creature. The reader shares Min’s heartbreak and Nynaeve’s horror again and again, till the painful exchange with Tam and the subsequent events.

The progression of Rand’s relationship with the voice and nature of Lews Therin Kinslayer is brilliantly done and very sympathetic, especially at the end. Their final scene moved me to tears.

The Wheel of Time books have mostly ended on brutal cliffhangers. This one left the reader more satisfied than ever, yet longing for the next. Which I will have to wait to read till after I move. And then I’ll have to wait for the esteemed Mr. Sanderson to finish the final book.

Recommendation: This is my favorite of the books since about book eight. I recommend it.



My living room:

The rest of the house is in more or less the same state. On account of which, I'm taking this week off Top Ten Tuesday.

I do have a Currently Reading written up, though, so you should still get a Wednesday post. :) In the meantime, enjoy your afternoon!


Every Star in the Sky

A blogalectic with Masha and Mr. Pond.

In last week's conversation about our impressions of Art, Masha spoke of different images—the intellectual artist with the props of a student, and the art of living well, the "rich art that comes from the happy soul."

Mr. Pond took a different tack, reminding us by his example that at the word Art, most of us think first of visual art. He described a day in the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, in which his experiences sound not entirely unlike my experience of St. Peter's. Then he, like Masha, contrasts different images—"Where Van Gogh had invited his viewers to laughter and delight, to friendship and the noisy business of life, Leonardo drew his viewers into the secret place of wonder, 'where all that is not music is silence.'"

Week three's Impression word: talent.

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Since we've mentioned Little Women, here's the quote that came immediately to my mind at the word talent. Laurie is questioning Amy:

"When do you begin your great work of art, Raphaella?" he asked. changing the subject abruptly after another pause, in which he had been wondering if Amy knew his secret and wanted to talk about it. 

"Never," she answered, with a despondent but decided air. "Rome took all the vanity out of me, for after seeing the wonders there, I felt too insignificant to live and gave up all my foolish hopes in despair."

"Why should you, with so much energy and talent?"

"That's just why, because talent isn't genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won't be a common-place dauber, so I don't intend to try any more."

"And what are you going to do with yourself now, if I may ask?"

"Polish up my other talents, and be an ornament to society, if I get the chance."
I won't deny it: I've had much the same thought myself. The trouble is that I can't imagine giving up writing, so my only option is to shoot as near genius as I can reach. Especially since being an ornament to society is not one of my talents. :)

Talent isn't genius—in some cases, it's a far cry from it. But regardless of my own go-big-or-go-home ideals, which I dream of but don't always practice, I hold a special respect for the responsible use of a perfectly good talent. Because after all, the world would be a poorer place if the only stars in the night sky were the brightest.

Right now I love to go stand outside and admire Vega, Deneb and Altair in their great triangle overhead. But the fun of stargazing is not just in the individual object, but in the patterns—the constellations; Lyra, Cygnus, Aquila, and others, all made up of stars of varying strengths. And there's joy even in the thick cluster spread across the sky. The faint and distant star is part of the glory, too.


The Feline Perspective and other stories

About half of the moves I've made in my life have involved bringing a dog along. Dogs do not like moving; they, like people, are quickly stressed out by chaos and change. For further information, see this.

As far as I can remember, I've never moved a cat. We have yet to see how Maia will take the change, but so far she seems to be enjoying the chaos. The world is full of new toys and hidey-holes.

At least someone likes the packing process.

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My book club met the other day to watch the new Jane Eyre movie. High-speed review:

The cinematography was so beautiful that I wished I'd seen it in the theater.

The use of flashbacks was intriguing but problematic; the shifts confused the only one of my friends who hadn't read the book.

The film suffered—as they all do—from the novel's persistent unadaptability, though I loved a lot of the scenes. Especially ones that stuck closer to the dialogue of the book. The first evening conversation between Jane and Rochester was excellent, which made me think that if the screenwriters had retained even part of the splendid dialogue in the last chapters of the story, the actors could have pulled it off.

The movie's time constraints were the primary culprit, though. Two hours just isn't enough to cover the story. The miniseries format perhaps works better; my friends strongly recommended both the Timothy Dalton/Zelah Clarke and the Toby Stephens/Ruth Wilson.

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Writers' link of the week: John Mayer talking music at Berkley. He has some interesting cautions about social media and the artist.

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Music of the week: Maria sent me this video a few days ago, and it's just so perfect. Now, how do I do my hair like Lisa Hannigan's? And is there any chance that in this life, I'll have time to learn the cello? Hmm.

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Funny of the week: Cat versus Human. It needs no more introduction than that.

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Now onto packing boxes and defending them from the cat, housecleaning, and writing books when I get a scrap of spare time. Happy weekend, everyone!


Currently Reading: Impossible

Impossible“What was she singing, Sindy?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh.” Lucy bit her lip, containing her impulse to sing a few bars of a particular song and ask if that was it. But she knew it was. Miranda had been singing one song, a version of an old folk ballad, every time she showed up in Lucy’s life. Lucy was sick of it.

But the ballad still haunted her. Twined itself unexpectedly in her mind and inner ear, which was where it was now.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She must be a true love of mine

Author: Nancy Werlin

Synopsis: Pregnant by rape while still in high school, Lucy Scarborough discovers that she is one of a long line of women who give birth to daughters at age eighteen and immediately go insane. Her own mother, Miranda, believed they were cursed by an Elfin Knight, and that they could only be saved by completing the three impossible tasks their version of the song Scarborough Fair asks for. Lucy is matter-of-fact and realistic by nature, but her sanity, and her baby’s future, depend on her ability to believe in—and do—the impossible.

Notes: This is a fascinating, albeit horrifying premise. I’ve wanted to read the book for a long time; the more so because I enjoyed Werlin’s Extraordinary.

The novel starts off very strong, giving an intriguing and dimensional picture of the protagonist and her pre-fairy-tale life. I was hooked right away—immediately fond of Lucy, of the musical Leo and motherly Soledad, of homeless Miranda, and of neighbor boy Zach. The music history and use of the old ballad also intrigued me.

When it came time to talk of rape, Werlin chose a well-phrased discretion, respecting the probable youth of her audience (I’d expect to see girls as young as eleven or twelve reading this book.) Faced with the consequences of that moment, Werlin’s characters stick to the Widely Acceptable Belief that abortion is entirely okay if pregnancy interferes with a woman’s life goals, which I cannot agree with. Their perspective suffers as well from the notion that college and career is the only right path for a smart young American.

Where Werlin herself stands, I couldn’t say, as the story itself is a step in a more generous direction. Lucy refuses to sacrifice her baby, even to save her own sanity. From a greater understanding of her family history, particularly of Miranda’s situation, she is grateful that her mother chose to give her life. She thinks of the baby as “my daughter” and loves her. I thoroughly respect that.

The story is ultimately a modern encounter with a harsh fairy tale—an evil elf-lord playing a cruel game with human women. The requisite three tasks must be accomplished, all of them designed to stump the realistic mind. But the brutal faerie curse is battled by the tough realism not only of Lucy, but of her foster parents and Zach.

Zach is a hero in the good old romantic tradition: courageous, chivalric and larger-than-life. I would have taken a little more filling out of his character, but then, the entire last half of the book covered so much time that character development, even Lucy’s, got a bit lost in the action. But still, he's a good-hearted and likable hero. I like the good boys best. Along those lines, I recommend Nancy Werlin's own thoughts on the writing of this book.

The ending is worth the read, not that anyone would be able to stop once they got started.

Special thanks to Arabella for getting me a copy of this book. I enjoyed it, and will probably re-read it to see if I get a better sense of the characters on the second time. Sometimes I blast through too quickly in the quest to find out what happens, and miss things. :)

Recommendation: Naturally, this book goes best with a good arrangement of Scarborough Fair. Simon & Garfunkel’s is popular and even mentioned in the story. My favorite is probably Sarah Brightman’s.


Top Ten Tuesday Freebie: Best Houses in Books

This week, The Broke and the Bookish have chosen to let us pick out our own themes. And I wished very much that they hadn't (albeit quite innocently) chosen to do that during my chaos of half-packed boxes and appallingly long lists of things to clean. Until the idea of new house—which I have to remind myself of every hour to bear the moving stress—gave me an idea.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

We've done favorite settings, but for that list, slots get too easily taken up by Hogwarts and Narnia and the like. I am thinking about mansions, apartments, shacks—anything that could be described as a house. There will, of course, be some overlap.

Here are the top ten off the top of my head:

1. Pemberley. With exquisite natural beauty "so little counteracted by an awkward taste," a park ten miles round, pianofortes and great halls galore, it's hard to blame Elizabeth Bennet for thinking that "to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!" Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

2. Moonacre Manor. Little round tower rooms, a tunnel entrance, a friendly lion, a splendid resident cook, magic and unicorns—what's not to love? The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge

3. Green Gables. Doesn't every girl dream of living at Green Gables, sleeping in Anne's attic room with the window open to let the cherry blossom fragrance blow over her face at night? With a lake nearby, and lanes to ramble in? Also, honorable mentions to Patty's Place, Windy Poplars, the House of Dreams and Ingleside. The author made characters of houses like few others. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery.

4. The Alm-hut. Who wouldn't want to sleep in a hayloft and wake to the fir-trees' roar, make goats'-milk cheeses (I've actually done that) and walk up to the wildflower meadows on the side of the Alp? It might be a bit cold in winter, but what a peaceful life. Heidi, Johanna Spyri

5. The Burrow. Admittedly, everything's a bit broken-down under the influence of poverty and seven active children, but the place is full of love and fun. Also, there's a clock that tells where every member of the family is, including whether or not they're in mortal peril. That's helpful. I could do without the ghoul, though. The Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling

6. Misselthwaite Manor. The primary interest of the house proper is in its 'corridors'—a word that filled me with the thrill of adventure when I read the novel as a child. But what I like best about the place is its Secret Garden, surrounded by ivy-covered walls, with robins and a world of roses therein. The Secret Garden, Francis Hodgson Burnett

7. Bag End. Unfortunately I'm too tall to live comfortably in a hobbit-hole, but it sounds like fun: food (with mushrooms, of course), books, ale, and peace and quiet. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

8. Rivendell. I am not too tall for Rivendell, and it sounds beautiful. Feasting, singing, Elves, and a lovely wooded setting. Honorable mention to the tree-houses of Lorien, too. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

9. Moor House. After wandering on the moors for days, exhausted and destitute, Jane Eyre finds a quiet country home filled with soft light, intelligent conversation, and the warmth of affection. Little is said about the place itself, but it feels homey. And it's not dark and haunted like Thornfield. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

10. Cair Paravel. Lewis doesn't describe it in great detail, but I thought I ought to get a castle on here somewhere. No doubt it's exceptionally beautiful. The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis

Now I feel all dreamy. There's something magical about the idea of house and home, be it humble or be it proud. Hopefully that magic can stick with me while I pack boxes and take soap and garden hose to dusty apartment window blinds.

What are your favorite houses in stories?


The Influence of Art

A blogalectic with Masha and Mr. Pond.

The three of us are currently going through a sort of poetic exercise where we discuss our impressions of the various words we've struggled to define. Last week, we covered beauty. Masha's impressions included this revealing and fascinating idea (explained more fully in her post):
For the most part, I try to live what many people consider a life of impractical priorities.

Whereas Mr. Pond ended his thoughts with a short piece of fiction, a hauntingly lovely scene between a young Edvard Grieg and the older, more experienced Franz Liszt.
Imagine, if you will, the tableau of the two musicians standing at the piano. They are in the salon, a high-ceilinged room redolent of the era, the curtains heavy, the carpet lush, the great piano forte in the centre of the room.  The scribbled bits of foolscap are spread across it....

You should really read the whole thing. It's not the first time I've thought my critique partner had a genius for the short story form.

This week's word: art.

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Red Scarf and Blue Jeans by Anne Olwin. Source.
At the word art, I think first of my mother. When my sisters and I were very small, Mom dragged Dad over to a watercolor on a friend's wall and said "If I could just do that!..." Shortly thereafter, Dad bought her paints and brushes and six weeks of lessons from the artist. Some of my earliest memories are of playing with the teacher's young sons in the Florida sunshine while Mom learned to paint.

I grew up tracing Mom's pieces and then drawing my own, learning from her about perspective and foreshortening and light and shadow. And I grew up with her aphorisms: "What's in your heart will come out in your art." "Half of learning how to draw is learning how to see." "You don't have to draw a cross to make Christian art."

Early on, of course, I had different ideas for pencil and paper. The art teacher's oldest son, whom I reverenced, was the first to let me know that it was not normal to narrate my existence out loud. "She walked down the hall and turned on the light," I'd say, as I did just that. And he said "All you ever say is she, she, she."

"No, it's not all I say."

"Yes it is! You just said it. She did this, she did that. She, she, she."

That's how much reading and writing was a part of my life, even at five or six. I went from Curious George to Billy and Blaze to Little House on the Prairie, and read a set of the latter books to pieces. My own first stories were made of sheets of paper stapled into manila folders. They were entirely plotless. But they started me toward a lifetime of learning to write prose—which, under the influence of my mom's self-taught piano and guitar playing, later branched into music and lyrics as well.

Dress by Mom, flowers by Beth, veil by Mom and I
Photo by Casey Karbowski

Other influences have helped form my understanding and working out of art. For instance, the move beyond Christian pop music to country, then rock and singer/songwriter sounds, then the Celtic Women and popera. Or the way John Granger and Travis Prinzi have taught me to look at story and literature, via Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and others. And the way the Catholic Church integrates art into worship.

But not one influence has done more to shape me as an artist than my first and best teacher. Art is a way of life in my mother's house. For us, it has been the planting of roses and Canterbury bells, the hanging of sheer curtains and the four-step painting of walls. Mom's work displayed around the house, and her classes in the living room. Dad building grape arbors and hammering roses out of metal. One sister's photography and another's skill with food presentation. Me with Mom's old guitar, in a chair in the corner. Mom and my sisters and friends and I designing and producing the family weddings—dresses, cakes, flowers, music, hair and makeup, favors.

Today, for every member of my family, it is the way we look at life and try to express it through our chosen media.

Antique Roses in Pink and White by Anne Olwin. Source.
Art never seems far from me now. It's in bookshelves and arias, dreams of gardening, and in wondering whether I can cut and hem my red and gold curtains to fit our new living room windows. And it's with me as I shape every phrase, every nuance of character in my beloved little books. I'll echo Masha here: I love my life.


These Happy Golden Years and other stories

Yes, I just shamelessly ripped off one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's book titles.

If I've seemed a little absent from comment boxes and other internet stuff this week, I have two reasons for that. First, three years ago as of Wednesday, this came to pass:

Still pretty much the best day of my life.
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Second, I've started packing up the apartment, because—God willing and all goes well—we're closing on a house in a few weeks!!! Can you sense the excitement? I'm going to be able to garden.

Forewarning: chances are, I'll be taking a couple of weeks off the blog around the core moving time. I'll try to keep it to that. :)

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The only downer news: I've had to back out of music for the time being, thanks to probable vocal cord nodes. I hate not being able to sing. Hate it. But it's cut back for awhile now, or possibly do permanent damage. If I haven't already—I've been dragging my heels on this for a good six months.

For now, at least I can still go in the kitchen, where the acoustics are good, and do a small amount of gentle practicing. If I sing very lightly and carefully, things seem to go okay.

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Back to cheerful thoughts: until 2012, there are only two more Wheel of Time books to review (unless I miss it desperately and decide to go for the prequel), and I've already read one of them! Which means I can start resting my eyes as well as my voice. It also means that if you're all bored of my going on and on about those books, there's other stuff coming. :)

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Writers' link of the week: Jay Kristoff guest posts at YA Highway, talking about how to write outside your gender (and really, how to write about anyone who is different from you):
"But whatever you do, never, ever fall into that baffling belief that you should only write in your own shoes. Unless you’re a part-time super-spy or possessed of mutant powers, chances are, a book about you is going to be a boring book."
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Music of the week: Line of Sky. No video to be had at this time, but you can listen to the songs over on Bandcamp. Line of Sky is otherwise known as Mike Grigoni, and I've got to say, we have very talented friends. :)

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Funny of the week: From The Onion, "Scientists Trace Heat Wave To Massive Star At Center Of Solar System." (Thanks to George for linking it on Facebook.) This just made me happy. Now if only the Pacific Northwest could catch sight of that star a little more often...

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Ah, moving. The kitchen holds a few empty boxes, and the whole house holds loads of unboxed stuff. I suppose I can pack my recording equipment. But I'll hold off on the main bookshelves for a week or two.

Happy weekend, everybody!


Currently Reading: Knife of Dreams (The Wheel of Time, Book 11)

“Do you intend to go back on your word?” A drawn blade that might be used soon. Worse, Tuon was watching, looking at Mat like that hanging magistrate in truth. Burn him, if she died, something would shrivel up inside him. And the only way to stop it, to be sure it was stopped, was to do what he hated worse than work. Once, he had thought that fighting battles, much as he hated it, was still better than work. Near enough nine hundred dead in the space of a few days had changed his mind.

Author: Robert Jordan

Synopsis: While Rand continues to search for a truce with the Seanchan and has an altercation with Semirhage, Perrin plans to infiltrate the Shaido camp to free Faile and Mat attempts to return Tuon safely to her people. Egwene refuses to submit to Elaida, Nynaeve prepares her uncrowned king of Malkier to ride with his people, and Elayne discovers a nest of Black Ajah in Caemlyn. Most of all, signs of the approach of Tarmon Gai’don appear everywhere—food spoiling, the dead walking, the Pattern loosening in ever more terrifying ways.

Notes: Halfway through this book, I was grinding my teeth. Nothing would progress, and I kept getting stuck in the heads of people I didn’t know, like, or care anything about. Besides, there were just too many Darkfriends.

Then things actually started to happen.

Jordan picked the last half of book eleven to resolve more than one long-held plot thread, while still holding us on edge for the book twelve. Relief made me so grateful that I decided to like this book after all. Though I possibly could have liked it just for Egwene’s unbelievable strength and for what Nynaeve did for her husband.

The time with Rand broke my heart—just shattered it. When Lews Therin held saidin away from him, I was nearly as worried as Min. And almost the last thing we heard through his ears was Semirhage’s lie.

Come on. It’s Semirhage. It has to be a lie.

Perrin did all right for himself in this book, again proving a good general in his own right. But—and I never thought I’d say this—Mat was more interesting to follow, both as a general and as a man in love with a woman. Mat made me laugh, and the back-and-forth between him and Tuon was just as much fun in this book as in the last. I wanted to cheer more than once.

Elayne’s story got to progress quite a bit in this novel, which was pleasant. I thoroughly enjoy the Warder bond between Elayne and Birgitte, which got some airplay when Elayne thought it a good idea to walk into a houseful of Aes Sedai Darkfriends. Jordan did a good job of differentiating it from the bond of Aes Sedai to Warders of opposite gender.

To my great surprise, I was completely wrong about who murdered Adeleas.

Also, Logain has me impressed. I can see that crown of glory coming.

Recommendation: Push through the first half. It'll satisfy some long-held suspense later.


Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated and Overly Obscure Books

This is a great topic. Don't all of us readers have a few cherished books that we champion regularly, only to meet with blank stares and courteous smiles?
Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...
Why am I always surprised when not everyone on Earth responds with equal passion to everything I love? It's one of the great mysteries of human nature. :P

1. The Little White Horse (Elizabeth Goudge). JK Rowling has spoke of her great love for this book, even blurbing a reprint, yet hardly anyone else talks about it. But it's so beautiful that I cry every time I read it.

2. Patricia St. John's books. I grew up with these, and can't understand how they've ever gone out of print. Star of Light and If You Love Me are my favorites.

3. Summer of the Monkeys (Wilson Rawls). Ever read Where the Red Fern Grows? I liked that book, but Summer of the Monkeys, by the same author, is hilarious and fantastic and apparently much less popular. I've no idea why it isn't talked of more.

4. The Wingfeather Saga (Andrew Peterson). Maybe it's more famous than I realize, but like I said when I reviewed North! Or Be Eaten, I think it deserves a place next to Terry Pratchett's work.

5. Franny and Zooey (J.D. Salinger). Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye gets both lauded and hated regularly, but I found Franny and Zooey more interesting, more pleasant, and no less worthy of acclaim.

6. In the Reign of Terror (and possibly others by G.A. Henty). An excellent book for boys, telling of an English lad who attempts to protect his French host family during the Revolution. Henty's books are occasionally reprinted nowadays.

Wow, this list is proving much more difficult to create than I expected. Help me out here. What books do you think the rest of the world should love as much as you do?


A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa

A blogalectic with Masha and Mr. Pond.

Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new.... —St. Augustine, X.xxvii

After some weeks of talking back and forth with Masha and Mr. Pond, it's become clear that a fair portion of our different ideas come from being different personalities and having different associations for different words. This was the focus of last week's conversation, and talking about our impressions of the word entertainment proved so profitable that Masha suggested we try and do the same thing with some of the other words we've discussed.

This week's focus is beauty, which we've already talked about a fair bit. We've talked definitions, the mystery of beauty, and the relation of beauty to art. Now, I'm supposed to talk connotation and impression, more what the word means to me than the plain statement of what it means.

I've spent a fair portion of the past twenty-four hours thinking about what to say. I've thought of it while listening to Beethoven's Piano Trio #2 with the sun streaming golden through the sheer drapes. I've thought about it at Mass, going through the reading of Scripture and the recitation of creed and the prayers of the Eucharist. I've thought about it while reading Dante's Paradiso aloud, with Lou, by candlelight.

And to be honest, I'm not sure what else I can say—not without breaking the sacred wall that keeps me from getting too free with what ought to be kept a mystery. Write a blog-post about what beauty means to me? Too blunt, and too difficult. I had to write a whole novel about that.

Perhaps Dante can express it for me. I don't always understand the Italian political references or the mythology, and the Inferno horrifies me at every turn, yet I love the Divina Commedia. The higher the ascent up the mountain of Purgatory and through the stars to the Empyrean, the closer I come to perfect Beauty. And its pinnacle is in the last canto—its goal fulfilled in the joy of these last lines, which make best sense when one has made the entire climb. The translation here is Anthony Esolen's.

...Already were all my will and my desires
turned, as a wheel in equal balance, by
the Love that moves the sun and other stars.


Nerds in Print and other stories

Over a year ago, Blogengamot chief Travis Prinzi asked me to write an essay for a book he was editing for publication. He used all the magic words—write, book, publication—so I couldn't say no.

So I wrote an essay, entitled Harry Potter and the Greatest Virtue. It quotes Dante and Aquinas and Lewis and Gregory of Nyssa. It discusses Dobby and Lily and Snape and Dumbledore and, of course, Harry—all in the context of Christian charity or Love. Travis did his editing work and put the essay into the book.

Ladies and gentlemen... Harry Potter for Nerds just went up on Amazon!!!

Are you a nerd? Do you like Harry Potter? This is the book for you!

Among the other essay authors are Travis himself, John Granger, and Mr. Pond. I am so excited! Thrilled! Cheering Charmed and Stupefied! And I can't wait to read everyone else's chapters.

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Speaking of Harry Potter:

By 'lucky few' they mean 'the first million'... it's kind of like being a Google Plus tester...
Thanks to Travis and George for saving me the trouble of getting up before 7 AM! I am now registered on Pottermore as NewtPixie133, a user ID which was randomly generated. The name totally delights me. I am nearly six feet tall. No one has ever called me anything Pixie before.

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Writers' link of the week: Well-known fantasy author and writing teacher Holly Lisle quits big publishing to publish herself. Not wholly surprising, but still... wow.

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Music of the week: Look at these Anacortes, WA boys playing on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Did I say that loudly enough? THE LONELY FOREST PLAYED ON JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! And now that they're famous, I suppose this is the time for reminiscing about playing street hockey with John and his family, and calling Eric on Sunday mornings to remind him to show up and play on the worship team. :P

Holy crow, guys! I am so excited for you!

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Funny of the week: I went to xkcd, hit the Random button, and got this. And it totally rocks.

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This little blog is just not big enough for all the big news this week! Everything is requiring exclamation points! Lots of them!!! Okay, I'll stop now.

Well, one more. Happy weekend, everyone!


Currently Reading: North! Or Be Eaten

North! Or Be Eaten (The Wingfeather Saga, #2)“You know what I want? I want a long string of days like yesterday, when we walked through the forest, listening to poems about Uncle Peet, laughing together. No swords or bows or Fangs. I want to rest. But I’m afraid that we won’t be able to for a long, long time—not until we make it to Anniera. Until we make it home. If we have to fight to make it there, I’m willing to do it. And if I have to pull you by the collar, you’re coming with me. Look.” Janner pulled Esben’s sketchbook from Tink’s pack, flipped it open, and held it in the light that crept through the tent flap. “See this picture? The lawn below the castle wall, where the people are sitting by the shade tree?”

“Yeah. I’ve looked at it a hundred times.”

“That’s a real place. And it’s ours. And I’m going to wallop you at zibzy on that lawn someday.”

Author: Andrew Peterson

Synopsis: Janner, Tink and Leeli aren’t just three children driven by Fangs from their small-town life—they’re the Throne Warden, High King and Song Maiden of Anniera. But they’ve got a long way to go to reach their rightful kingdom. They must face many monsters, including their own jealousies and fears, and learn what it means to be who they are in a world run by evil (a very specific evil named Gnag the Nameless.)

Notes: First, this book is the sequel to On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, book two of the Wingfeather Saga. Book three, Monster in the Hollows, is recently out and there should be a couple more.

Second: move over, Terry Pratchett and Lloyd Alexander. Make room on the bench for Andrew Peterson.

It takes me a little work to get into humor-based fiction—all of it, not just this series. My sister told me to plan on reading this entire book through in one sitting. My brother-in-law wants to see it made into a movie. But I reacted to it very much like I did The Colour of Magic or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Book of Three—fantastic books all, but more humor and action than emotional sympathy, especially at first. I laughed a lot, but my heart didn’t dive headfirst into the story till perhaps the Fork Factory. Though I teared up a number of times, once well before then.

Yes, there’s a Fork Factory. In the words of the venerable author, Woe!

Peterson’s footnotes, his Creaturepedia pages, and the quotes Oskar N. Reteep is always spouting were just brilliantly funny. As was the Florid Sword. I got a big kick out of the Florid Sword.

The amount of action should make this a good book for young boys. The characters are always on the move, running into danger after battle after murderous scoundrel. And the characters themselves are interesting: Peet the Sock Man, Podo the pirate, fierce little Maraly and gentle Sara, and of course the Wingfeather family. Then there are the non-humans. Creepy ridgerunners. Fearsome toothy cows and a gargan rockroach. Sea dragons and Snickbuzzards and bomnubbles...

But what I loved best about the book was Janner’s relationship to his younger brother. His understanding of his protective role over Tink went through a good deal of growth. I’m an eldest sister, and I could empathize strongly with that. That storyline made the ending worth crying over. And I did. Much more than I expected to.

Also, hopefully we'll see more of Sara Cobbler in the tale's future installments.

Recommendation: Read it by an open window with the breeze blowing through, and think of adventure. (A treehouse would be better, if you have one.) But watch out for gargan rockroaches.


Top Ten Tuesday: Trends We'd Like More or Less Of

Cheers to The Broke and the Bookish for a great topic this week! Now, if only I read more trendy stuff. I might have to get a little PRUBONic* for this.
Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...
For the sake of getting much list at all, I'll cover both more and less.

More, Please:
1. High fantasy. And as Robert Jordan is currently destroying my eyesight, I'd love to see some shorter, tighter stories that maintain strong worldbuilding and character development.

2. Fantasy/sci-fi combinations. The best examples I've read are L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and sequels and Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars.

3. Religious protagonists in any and every genre. I'm not sure this counts as a trend, but a fair number of people are actually religious; it only makes sense that some of the characters in novels would be.

Less, Thanks:
4. Vampires. I liked Twilight in large part because Edward Cullen didn't want to be a vampire and kept an impressive self-control over the monster within. The several feet of shelf space devoted to vampires nowadays looks a lot more sketchy. But again, PRUBON.*

5. Demons. Call me superstitious, but I do not read demon-protagonist or demon-love-interest books on purpose. I read one by accident once, and have never wanted a novel out of my house so badly.

I'd add Monster Mashups, but no amount of hype has ever convinced me, or will ever, to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

There's my short list! What trends do you want more or less of?
*PRUBON, acronym. Presumptive Reader Unworthiness Based On Non-reading, as in "Such-and-such novel is a bad book." "Oh, have you read it?" "No, of course not!"


By Any Other Name

In response to Masha, Art and Entertainment, and Mr. Pond, the way up is down

This blogalectic began with Masha and I disagreeing over terminology. And while my goal last week was toward clarification and synthesis, I suspect I only continued arguing about terms, and therefore proved more frustrating than helpful to my good blogalectic partners.

To be honest, I think a lot of society's problems and arguments are semantic. Everyone has their own set of words they're sensitized to, based on beliefs and experience and which bumper sticker slogans they've based their life philosophy upon, and therefore you have mystified conservatives who don't feel hatred even toward their worst enemies, and mystified sacramental Christians who don't consider their religion "works-based", and mystified secularists who don't consider their passions evil, and on and on and on. It's not that these words don't have meaning; they do. It's just that one side attaches a great deal of meaning to the words, which the other side finds irrelevant.

So, Masha and Mr. Pond and I are trying to come to terms over art and entertainment. Mr. Pond's post was wonderfully brainy, focusing on the reality of beauty. I encourage everyone to read it. Maybe a couple of times—I had to, to get some of the complex concepts. But Masha asked me questions, and to keep this from becoming a 2,000-word post, I'll focus on responding to her today.

Her thoughts and questions gave me some understanding of where she's coming from. Exempli gratia:
I like distinctions, they give clarity, and they give an opportunity for excellence that one large grouping cannot allow - a children's abridged production of the Tempest can be very entertaining, but it can't help but fail when compared artistically to a well-prepared, nuanced, professional production. That doesn't make it a bad production, in it's own sphere, it could be excellent, but only if we don't force it to compare itself to something its not."
You know what? I don't have a problem with any of that. In all my protestations, I have never once intended to suggest that Mrs. Hawk's fifth-grade class performance of Romeo and Juliet, in which the Nurse says forcefully "I'd bet fourteen of my teeth, even though I only have four..." ought to be compared with a professional company's subtle and polished rendition using the original language.

I'd honestly never considered such an idea to be a possible implication of my arguments. See, I don't divide created product into art and non-art. I classify it by level, according to what its goal was and how well it succeeded. Ergo, I don't generally compare Little Women with For Whom the Bell Tolls. The two books had different goals, and both succeeded remarkably well for what they aimed at. But as I'm not shy of calling both novels, I'm not shy of calling both art.

...which statement takes me right back to the beginning of the very circle I'm trying to escape. Masha generally uses the term Art to refer to what I would call classic works or canonical great art. She is more comfortable with the term entertainment for creative works outside that category, whereas I take that term almost as belittling, as if books that changed my life should be classified with cheap-joke sitcoms. We might not be able to do anything about that semantic variance, or the fact that the different terms are important to us. That might even be all right. But let me answer Masha's questions, and see if it helps us toward common understanding.
I would like to know why a distinction between art assumes passivity on the part of the audience...
It's the word entertainment, actually, as separate from art. The word conjures, for me, images of lying sprawled on the couch, too exhausted to do anything but watch The Wedding Story or Brady Bunch reruns. That's about as passive as I get. But I responded to Little Women with everything in me, despite its simple prose and wandering narrative. It taught me a lot about how to be a sister, a daughter, a wife, and (hopefully someday) a mother. There's nothing wrong with a little entertainment, but that's not what Little Women was to me.
why it seems to place importance on the outward instead of the substance (I would have thought the opposite).
I suspect here that we're defining outward and substance differently. When I say outward, I mean the prose, the surface beauty that makes Hemingway an objectively better writer than Alcott. When I say substance, I'm referring to the vision coming through the text, the outlook on life and death and what it means to be human. Substantially, I put Alcott higher than Hemingway. Alcott infuses faith and hope and charity into her work, letting them walk with the reader through every curve of life and up to the deathbed. Hemingway was a brilliant man who lived a tragic life; he brushes up against Alcott's virtues only by accident, if at all.
I would like to know what it is about acclaimed works that make you feel they are offering very little.
Just to clarify: the mere fact of acclamation isn't a deciding factor. It's when acclamation seems to lean on destructive ideas and popular politics that I get frustrated (which goes on just as much in young adult fiction as it does in the stuff taught in college classes, by the way.) Critical acclaim simply seems oddly irrelevant to what I find moving, encouraging, pleasant, or otherwise beneficial.
And I would like to encourage you to delve into the despairing works, which so often offer more than they seem to. I remember reading and rejecting some books that seemed to strip me down, only to realize that it is only by "dying down to the roots" that I can regrow again in strength and certainty.
This is an exceptionally kind recommendation, and I feel the truth of it. But it does bring up one key point that I think might help bring about understanding: I've experienced depression. The real thing, the soul-sucking, physically painful sadness that you can get put on pills for (I escaped that by a very fine hair); the kind that makes you seriously question whether life is worth living. And while I will pick up some very dark works on occasion, I'm cautious, because I don't encourage that monster in my mind. Not ever. This, more than anything, may be my answer to Masha's questions. The only art that speaks beauty into my darkness is the art that leads me toward light.

I respect Masha greatly, and a few terminological differences won't trouble me. After all, I already know we have solid and sure common ground beneath us as artists, believers and friends. I just have no other name for works like Alcott's but art.