Top Ten Tuesday: Great Book Club Picks

The short answer to this question: It depends entirely on the nature of your book club.

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

The long answer:

For four or five years now, I've been part of a book club composed of Catholic girls with immense variety of taste among them. We've read everything from environmentalist treatises to Willa Cather to Chesterton to devotional works about Christ and faith and being a woman and Mary. It's hard to please everyone in the group, but over time we've learned each other well enough to pick works that reasonably fulfill the following qualifications:
  • Under 200 pages or a very fast read
  • Contains enough depth of thought to inspire some discussion
  • Appeals to a fairly broad audience
If you asked every woman in the group, they'd probably all differ on which books succeeded best at this, but here are a few of the most memorable. I've tried to pick ones that would appeal to groups not necessarily made up of Catholics. :)

1. The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. A quick, dreamlike read, with lots to consider and discuss. Bonus points for giving me the chance to talk about alchemy.

2. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. One of the few books that nearly everyone in the group actually finished.

3. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. While the tale reads very episodic, with little plot, it's a beautifully written, interesting and nuanced picture of Catholic missionary life among the peoples of the American southwest.

4. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. This book proved harder for some of the girls to finish, but contained plenty to discuss, which meant that we actually talked about the book for over an hour rather than drifting quickly into catching up on life.

5. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver. I admit to only reading the first chapter—I think my head was too busy with my own book at the time—but the rest of the group loved it.

6. Dimiter by William Peter Blatty. Despite some of our getting creeped out by the torture scene, this relatively new release by the author of The Exorcist was moving, interesting, and most of us finished it.

7. The Lord Peter Wimsy mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. We've read the first two, which have always been good for a laugh and some conversation.

8. From Union Square to Rome by Dorothy Day. The testimonial of the former Communist who began the Catholic Worker Movement. Fascinating story, and a short, easy read.

9. The Shack by William P. Young. We tore it apart theologically, but it did have some good insights and was a very moving tale.

10. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. Another one I didn't finish, this time because the pagan menarche ritual cost me my suspension of disbelief (Dinah talked as if it were glorious, but frankly, I think it would scar most young girls for life. Also, I think it highly unlikely that Jacob would have allowed his wives to remove his daughter's proof of virginity.) But I wish I had finished it, because the rest of the girls loved the bond between the women.

We're reading Utopia (Thomas More) this month, and though I've not yet finished it, I expect it to spark some great discussion.

What books would you recommend? After all, we've reached the time of year when I need to bring a list of suggestions. :)


Surely the Darkness Shall Cover Me: Dealing with Creative Block

“Some must "stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you" (Ray Bradbury), others insist that "One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one's own flesh in the inkpot" (Lev Tolstoy).”

"...to be an artist meant: not to reckon and count, to ripen like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without fear lest no summer might come after." ~Rainier Maria Rilke

"Moonlight is dangerous, but beautiful, essential for artistic dreamings, which is why, this week, in the darkness of the moon, I'm bringing the discussion over to the lack of dreams. What happens when the artist loses sight of the moon and flounders for awhile?" ~Masha

The moonless, starless darkening of the creative power terrorizes most artists from time to time. Sometimes it's simply indecision in the midst of a work. Sometimes it happens because of distracting circumstances, and sometimes the soul shuts down its own productivity in an all-hands-on-deck attempt to heal some wound. Whatever the cause, we who create all eventually face Masha's question, wondering not only what to do when the moon disappears, but whether we dare hope it will ever return.

Says Masha, speaking for herself:
In the dark nights, I wait, words ripening within, for the moon to light a new path. Not forcing words or faking inspiration. But I'm a part-time writer at best, with no deadlines to follow, and I have the luxury of time.
Says Mr. Pond, responding to Rilke's words:
This creative desperation seems in itself a fertile ground [where] an artist can take root. The challenge [to] any artist is not to be too afraid in the dark, moonless nights, to learn to welcome winters, and doubts and questioning. To find and love the hidden lights of winter, the darkest nights of stillness and starlight. To learn to whistle in the teeth of despair.
No two artists will handle the absence of the dreamer's moon in quite the same way. Perhaps we may not handle it the same way twice within our own lives. But we may take encouragement from those who have tried to walk in that darkness before us.

Bradbury’s suggestion of staying ginned up on writing holds a surprising amount of meaning for me, perhaps because I’ve used creativity as a tool to stave off destructive sorrow. Now, alcohol makes me first dizzy and then sleepy; it doesn't seem to affect reality for me very much—perhaps because I've never drunk enough at one time to, as Mr. Pond put it, use the karaoke machine. Intoxication may not be the best analogy for me. All my life, though, I've dealt with the troubles of reality by turning to the pen. On account of which, total writer's block has rarely come over me.

Tolstoy’s quote, however, baffles me a little. Perhaps that is because for better or for worse, my inkpot adamantly refuses to give forth its contents unless a bit of my own flesh goes in. It’s hard and confusing and often even embarrassing, but it’s the only way I can make the pen leave any kind of mark on the paper.

On second thought, perhaps I understand Tolstoy after all.

Rilke is a little more obtuse—the prerogative of modern poets—but if I stare long enough, I think I get what he means. It’s a slow and steady gain, not forcing what cannot be forced, but holding firm despite the powers moving against you. A wise path, that.

Because every artist and every time of creative darkness is unique, it's hard to prescribe any one remedy. A word, an idea, a change of place, a song, some contemplation of unexpected loveliness—any of these may inspire. Better yet may be an experience of art that holds the sort of beauty and truth the artist most hopes to capture in his own work. But sometimes the artist simply needs rest and refreshment, and nothing else will do.

One never quite knows what winds will blow the clouds away from the moon. But some wind generally does.

“This place of which you say ‘It is a waste’… 
There shall be heard again the voice
Of mirth and the voice of gladness.”
  ~Jeremiah 33:10-11


Songs of Praise and other stories

Both the brothers Pazdziora linked this beautiful paean to Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton yesterday, and I looked at the title and thought: wait, those are Neil Gaiman's favorite childhood authors? I am so reading this.

I read it breathless, sometimes on the verge of the best sort of tears. True, Gaiman seems to subscribe to the standard misinterpretation of Susan's fall from grace, and the various parallels between Narnia and Christianity have always seemed more to me like a love for the Biblical story of redemption rather than cold proselytic agenda, but otherwise, nearly everything he says about the authors and their works will delight anyone else who loved them. For instance, this:
I would read other books, of course, but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn’t an infinite number of Narnia books to read.
And this:
I wanted to write The Lord of the Rings. The problem was that it had already been written.
And this:
Behind every Chesterton sentence there was someone painting with words, and it seemed to me that at the end of any particularly good sentence or any perfectly-put paradox, you could hear the author, somewhere behind the scenes, giggling with delight.
And there are others, but I'll leave some of the great lines for your discovery.

Read it, if you will. This is the sort of thing that reminds me why I want to be an author. Also, it made me want to read more Gaiman.

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Further, it makes me want to write my own paean, which might or might not include Tolkien (whom I took awhile to discover and longer to love), but would definitely include Lewis and Chesterton (mostly for Orthodoxy) as well as L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen, and despite my discovering them much later, Rowling and Card and Hale. It would be far too long for just one piece, I suppose. But when Gaiman talks about what each of the three authors meant to him, what they did for him, I know exactly what he means.

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This week in the life of Maia:
Maia: I want to play in the toy room.

Me: That’s the laundry room, and like I’ve told you a thousand times, kitties aren’t allowed.

Maia: But there are toys in there.

Me: Those are potatoes.

Maia: They roll around when I bat at them.

Me: I don’t like finding them half-chewed and moldy under the couch.

Maia: OOH. And there’s water in there.

Me: Yes, in the watering can. Which I’ve seen you dump over by trying to climb on it. You’re not helping your case.

Maia: You’ll have to open the door sometime, and I’ll get in then.

Me: How many times do I have to trip over you before you realize that bolting in front of my moving feet is a bad idea?

Maia: I’m going to dig up your aloe plant while you sleep tonight.

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Runner-up writers' link of the week: Nick Mamatas shares ten bits of advice writers should stop giving aspiring writers. Includes some bad language. Also, much brilliance. Via Mike Duran.

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Music of the week: Eric suggested Morten Lauridsen the other week when I'd gone off on a rant against much of Christian music, so here's the O Nata Lux from Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna. It is quite beautiful.

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Random amusement of the week: Condescending Literary Pun Dog.

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Now, I'm off to work on rewrites of my novella, clean the house, finish reading Card's Xenocide because it's absorbing my mind and I need my concentration back, continue plotting a couple of important fixes to my second novel, and try to make some progress on dealing with my first novel. And get ready for tonight, because my beloved gentleman of a husband is taking me on a nice little date, because... because... because I'm thirty-four now.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson, book 4)

The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #4)The last thing I wanted to do on my summer break was blow up another school. But there I was Monday morning, the first week of June, sitting in my mom’s care in front of Goode High School on East 81st.

Goode was this big brownstone building overlooking the East River. A bunch of BMWs and Lincoln Town Cars were parked out front. Staring up at the fancy stone archway, I wondered how long it would take me to get kicked out of this place.

“Just relax.” My mom didn’t sound relaxed. “It’s only an orientation tour. And remember, dear, this is Paul’s school. So try not to... you know.”

“Destroy it?”


Author: Rick Riordan

Synopsis: All Percy needs to do is live to age sixteen so he can fulfill the big prophecy, but that isn’t as easy as it looks.

With Camp Half-Blood under threat from Kronos’ army, Percy accompanies Annabeth on her first quest, a trip into Daedalus’ Labyrinth. But Annabeth refuses to tell anyone, even Percy, the last line of the prophecy the Oracle gave for the mission. Besides having to fight for his life every few turns in the maze, Percy has to deal with Annabeth’s confusing behavior, another unexpected half-brother, a reckless son of Hades, a mortal girl who sees through the Mist and annoys Annabeth, Grover and Tyson’s troubled search for Pan, and a hard-to-control power that he didn’t know he possessed. If all that weren’t enough, his archenemy, Luke, is getting weirder and stronger, and unfortunately no less vicious.

Notes: Percy’s fourth book is darker than the second and third, partly owing to its passing almost entirely underground. Though Riordan maintains the humorous junior high boy voice, life in the Labyrinth cannot stay light. Particularly not when our hero stands opposed to an evil Titan rising from Tartarus, and spends a fair amount of time dealing with a son of Hades.

Now fifteen years old, Percy has begun to think and act just a little more seriously. Annabeth mystifies him; he cannot understand either her dislike of Rachel Elizabeth Dare or her continued bond to Luke, let alone her various charged responses toward Percy himself. Determined to take on the burden of the prophecy, Percy soldiers onward, but to his surprise, he seems unexpectedly capable of destroying not just schools, but parts of America. Influence over Nico, however, seems beyond him.

Nico's character progression is excellent. Hating Percy and desperate to revive his sister, he starts off under the influence of a vengeful minor god. His summoning of the dead will make some readers uncomfortable, though in the context of the story he has some right to communicate with the Underworld and even exercise limited authority over it. But the direction of his story is toward wisdom. It should be interesting to see where he goes in the next book.

Darker by far than Nico is Luke, who, having sold his soul to evil, begins to suffer its demands upon his body as well—though perhaps not in the way one might expect. It’s not a gory or visual horror, but it’s horror nonetheless. Though Percy has no good feelings toward his archenemy, Riordan maintains a limited, if suspect, sympathy for Luke. Or maybe it’s just this reader sympathizing with Annabeth.

Despite the darkness, the tale seemed slightly less Vegas-y and rather more beautiful than its predecessors. Calypso’s island and the cave of Pan are both intensely lovely, and Daedalus’ workshop has a beauty of its own. Percy’s dreamlike narration of the former two gave off a stronger sense of beauty than I recall finding in either of his trips to Olympus.

The environmental sermon from a certain character was interesting, and amusing and poignant enough to keep the rhetoric from being quite so tiresome as environmentalist moralizing sometimes is. It was also one-sided and therefore short on subtlety, but meritorious nonetheless.

The Greek words and concepts got a little overwhelming compared to the other books in the series. On the other hand, I read so quickly that this may have been more my fault than Riordan’s. A second read would probably clear up all that.

Recommendation: Highly readable, with much to like. I’m looking forward to book five.


Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Book Characters

It's a Top Ten Freebie this week, so I'm picking the seventh topic The Broke and The Bookish ever posted, which I missed by several months.

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

All right. Limiting this to ten was a challenge; I had ten in a matter of minutes, and certainly could have kept going. Also, this sort of thing tends to change from time to time. But here are ten I absolutely love.

1. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. I have never known a more brilliantly drawn, fascinating character of the larger-than-life variety. (The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling)

2. Andrew "Ender" Wiggin. About whom I could say just what I said of Dumbledore, only "larger-than-life" would mean something less humorous and more introspective. (The Ender books, Orson Scott Card)

3. Lucy Pevensie. While we don't know Narnia's visitors as intimately as others on this list, Lucy's name means light, and she is just that—light incarnate. (The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis)

4. Anidori Kiladra Talianna Isilee. Crown princess turned goose girl, Ani has a natural goodheartedness that becomes grace through strength and wisdom. (The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale)

5. Jane Eyre. Brave and passionate and firmly principled and intelligent, Jane is nearly everything a woman could ever hope to be. (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë)

6. Hermione Granger. Brilliant and brave, loyal and capable. Hermione is also nearly everything a woman could ever hope to be. (The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling)

7. Annie Anderson. Gentle, patient Annie, sensitive and sweet. I love her so much. (Alec Forbes of Howglen, George MacDonald)

8. Anne Elliot. Austen's mature heroine, who has learned greatness through sorrow. Anne is exquisite. (Persuasion, Jane Austen)

9. Anne Shirley. All "spirit and fire and dew", one of "the souls by nature pitched too high/ by suffering plunged too low." Anne is poetry personified, and we all love her for it. (The Anne books, L.M. Montgomery)

10. Mortimer Folchart. Young adult books are full of young male leads for girls to fall in love with... and not one of them holds a candle to Meggie's father. Now that's a man. :) (Inkheart and sequels, Cornelia Funke)

Why are half of them named Anne? This I don't know.

Honorable mentions to Ian O'Shea and Wanderer, Heidi, Rand al'Thor, Konstantin Levin, Benny Hogan, Peeta Mellark, Harry Potter, Lily Evans, Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Aravis, Old Parson, Miri Larendaughter, Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, Henry Tilney, Elinor Dashwood, Sofya Semyonovna, Bambi, Alec Forbes, Agnes Wickfield, Mr. Knightley, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, Cosmo Warlock, and many, many others whom I simply haven't managed to think of at this moment....

Who would you choose?


Music of the Night: Dreaming in Fictional Worlds

A masterpiece of fiction is an original world and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader. 
~Vladimir Nabokov

I probably tend to read with less charity and more criticism. When the worlds painted aren't as alive and richly colored as mine I grow dissatisfied. There are flaws I can't forgive, and generally they are flaws of attitude. I can revel in darkness with only the smallest flicker of light, but if an author gives the indication he doesn't recognize a character's personhood I'm gone. Stock characters are all well and good, so long as I can feel their humanity. I can embrace a world unlike my own, so long as it doesn't offend it.

Jenna, Mr. Pond, your charity impresses me, but do you draw a line where quality is concerned?

The accolade of charity delights me, deserved or otherwise, but the format of blogging can introduce one critical confusion that I'd like to clear up right away. Blogging often mingles personal response with quasi-professional opinion a little too closely. I've actually (and very recently) begun trying to move away from that, to write objective reviews of the books I read rather than journaling about my own response to them—though I would argue that even the best and most professional reviews are somewhat subjective. Which contention is part of what got this blogalectic started in the first place.

Quality, however, matters to me as a reader, not just as critic and artist. I look for smooth sentences and prefer beautiful prose; I look for worlds drawn in imaginative clarity and strong detail, and for characters who show humanity in their joys and sufferings.

Most especially, though—and here is probably why I get along well with Meyer and Alcott and Rowling and Grisham despite their not-very-artistic prose—I look for a vision of light and life that resonates with our existence beyond the mundane. As Mr. Pond says:
A masterpiece is a world of night and shadows and moonlight, of wonder and anticipation and tears and laughter, that fits, and feels more homelike because it’s more true—even if it be more terrible and sad, or best of all more prone to laughter—than the capricious, flattening factual world.
What Masha calls charity is probably just that I find at least hints of this in almost everything I read. That fact is partly due to my optimistic tendencies and partly to my general refusal to read novels that will likely make me angry. Again like Mr. Pond, however, who calls Nabokov "one of the great literary charlatans" who "utterly wasted a talent for beautiful prose", I read with the understanding that just because I found nothing of value in a book doesn't mean that everyone will have the same experience. Mr. Pond continues:
I do not like Nabokov... But I like and respect Masha, who likes Nabokov. That tells me there is something about this man’s writings worth considering, something about his thoughts worth pondering. It tells me to remain open to the possibility that there may be something in these words that I cannot see.
Only a few problems ever thoroughly destroy a story for me. In Nabokov's case, it was a certain contemplation of the grotesque that I found particularly hard to put my mind through. But Masha hit close to my usual difficulty when she said this:
I can embrace a world unlike my own, so long as it doesn't offend it.
And with that, we move into the other two quotes she put up for discussion.
"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."  ~Oscar Wilde

"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day."  ~Vincent Van Gogh
The Wilde quote occasioned rather different interpretations by Masha and Mr. Pond, so I looked it up. It comes from a dialogue titled The Critic as Artist, which I got caught up in reading—and in laughing out loud over, because Wilde is hilarious. After some acquaintance with the personality of Gilbert, who I believe stands in for Wilde himself, I had to smile at Gilbert's claim to be the moonlight dreamer whose punishment is the first sight of dawn. "His punishment?" says Ernest in response, in concert with my thoughts. "And his reward," Gilbert finishes.

Van Gogh speaks as an artist, and indeed as artists we spend much of our time in the night. The conflict is there, the struggle, the passion, the story. For us novelists, the goal—usually—is the dawn, but once we've reached it, the story proper has ended.

Of course, now I'm confusing the symbolism. Wilde's comment and Van Gogh's do not necessarily make the same allegory of night and day. They did, however, give me the same thought at first look, and that is that night as a better place than day doesn't really work as a metaphor. Not to my sensibilities, at least. If you will, it creates a world unlike my own, which offends the latter.

Such a response is a completely unfair interpretation of both quotes. I understand that, but I also have a strong inner resistance to the call to "Turn your face away from the garish light of day/ Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light." It is true, as the earlier part of Hart's lyric goes, that:
Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
...and more importantly to the artist, who seeks to disarm and soften the disbelief of the recipient, that "Silently the senses abandon their defenses." But to love the night too much, as the Phantom does, is usually to become its true child: a monster. Raoul may be cocksure and Christine over-credulous, but both of them still have a firm hold on their humanity, and must come out of the night to live in the day.

The story ends there, of course, but only—I suspect—because we are mostly too much children of night ourselves to fully appreciate the inside of happily ever after. Most of us are also human enough to hope for it, though.

For some of us artists, writing dark imaginative tales is a way of holding on very hard to that hope. So hard that though we dream by moonlight, our visions are ever of the day.


The Side Effects of Snow Days and other stories

Today, I am grateful for this:

Meaning the snow, though I like the yard, too.
...as it cancelled nearly all of my normal errands and meetings and events this week. Which allowed me to sit down on the couch with blanket and computer and sometimes cat on my lap, and push out the last thirteen thousand words of my second full-length novel.

This story has been blood and tears, mental exhaustion, uncertainty, the setting aside of over fifty thousand lifeless words and starting over, and the general writerly idea—nascent to the efforts of the long hard middle pages—that I Suck At This. But it has a beginning, a middle and an end now, and though I'm still scrubbing up bits of the final chapter before I dare show it to alpha readers, I'm relieved at having my red-faced, wrinkled, but whole little baby in my arms.

* * *

According to Maia, we built the bookshelves for this purpose:

Everything belongs to the cat.
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Writers' link of the week: I loved this post by Sean Ferrell on the Writer who never shows up.

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Music of the week: This band may be as famous as all get-out, but I never heard of them till I saw this video and OH MY WORD.

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Random amusement of the week: Not only am I rather delighted to discover a site called Geeks are Sexy, I thoroughly enjoyed this comparison chart for Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.

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I think it may be sleeting.

And though I've written the first word and the last and everything in between, I can't help longing to get back to making little polishes on that last chapter. Of course, I also have a house to clean, and it's getting dark, which means it will be hard to sweep the floor... the days are never long enough when I'm in full writing mode. But then, I never get bored, either.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Anna Karenina

Anna KareninaVronsky heard with pleasure this light-hearted prattle of a pretty woman, agreed with her, gave her half-joking counsel, and altogether dropped at once into the tone habitual to him in talking to such women. In his Petersburg world all people were divided into utterly opposed classes. One, the lower class, vulgar, stupid, and above all, ridiculous people, who believe that one husband ought to live with the one wife whom he has lawfully married; that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, and a man manly, self-controlled, and strong; that one ought to bring up one’s children, earn one’s bread, and pay one’s debts; and various similar absurdities. This was the class of old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another class of people, the real people. To this class they all belonged, and in it the great thing was to be elegant, generous, plucky, gay, to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion, and to laugh at everything else.

Author: Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy

Synopsis: When beautiful, charismatic Anna Karenina finally succumbs to Count Alexey Vronsky’s illicit attentions, she must sacrifice either everything she lives for—including her son and society—or the only romance she’s ever known. Meanwhile, shy nobleman Konstantin Levin searches desperately for happiness and meaning in life, pursuing pretty Kitty Shcherbatskaya, peace with the peasant laborers who work his land, and spiritual honesty. As Anna and Konstantin seek joy, separately but with similar passion, both must face matters of morality and the consequences of choice.

Notes: With a book of this magnitude, you don’t review it—it reviews you. But I’ll see if I can’t find something intelligent to say about it.

As someone with an armchair interest in all things Russian, this story interested me from the names on down. I wondered, and have not resolved, why Ekaterina was called by the English 'Kitty', and Darya 'Dolly', instead of Katya and Dasha. Likewise, why Alexey Alexandrovich Karenin was called by his Christian name and patronymic, whereas Alexey Kirillovich Vronsky (really, Tolstoy, were you trying to kill my favorite Russian male name? I’ve always liked Alexey) was generally referred to as Vronsky except for the one part where he was out on his estate.

More fascinating, from the etymological perspective, is that the surname Levin is closely related to the author’s own Christian name; the first of many similarities between author and protagonist, both of whom ultimately prioritized the spiritual search above all else in life.

Nineteenth-century Russia, as contrasted with twenty-first century America, also provided an excellent illustration of the fact that not all cultures think alike. While some of the conversations grew dull after a few pages, the different perspectives on class, poverty, society, religion and marriage were intriguing. Tolstoy covered early communism and hints of democracy among the nobility, and the ideas and consequences of Orthodoxy, Pietism and atheism. More specifically to the story, he discussed treatment of marital infidelity in three perspectives: as natural, as evil, and as acceptable if kept from the public eye. All of these offered themes and thoughts startlingly removed from quotidian Western ideologies.

And into all that mix were thrown the characters, the loved and the hated.

Anna could not but sometimes prove sympathetic, despite her adultery. The strong, sensitive longings of a woman for love and stability can save or destroy; in Anna's case, they tore her down the middle. Also, she suffered the injustice of a community that judges woman but not man. Vronsky’s pursuit of her was shameless and determined; her brother Stiva carried on one affair after another, deceiving his wife, equally without shame; both of them were in some sense worse than she, yet neither suffered from societal consequence as she did. It is nothing short of horrific to watch her treated as a 'lost woman' by those who welcomed Vronsky and Stiva at every turn.

Vronsky came off as something of an idiot, without much of weight to be said for or against him except that he had feeling but no principle. He had physical boldness, but not courage; generosity to those he liked, but not respect for anyone; passion, but little idea of how to give love. He was likable on rare occasions, but never admirable.

Alexey Alexandrovich, Anna’s husband, evoked respect and disgust and compassion by turn. Lidia Ivanovna's influence gradually ate away at his general respectability, but he retained strands of it by his compassion to little Annie. The tale of Annie's and Seryozha's growth to maturity in such a house would probably make stuff for another tragedy-laced great novel, however.

Levin, who apparently took strongly after Tolstoy himself, annoys and fascinates and sometimes delights. His character contained the myriad depths of the shy, serious, conscientious type: the way his concentration locked onto one project after another, his frustration over things not getting done right, his attempts to empathize with the peasantry, his bafflement over his own feelings, his inability to live life without first understanding it, and his constant devotion to the search for truth and goodness. The best part of the tale is his eventual thinking through ideas C.S. Lewis would later work through in the first chapters of Mere Christianity.

But then, that’s the focal point of the book. The central theme, the idea, is in the contrast between Anna’s choices and Levin’s, between her journey into despair and his into joy. Both of them wrestled with right and wrong, with passion; both of them were even suicidal in their desperation. The question and the resolution were alike centered in the spiritual.

If you haven’t read this book and don’t want spoilers, skip ahead.

In some cases, I prefer getting spoiled. I’m glad that I knew to expect tragedy. The foreshadowing of Anna’s death gave me chills, and I felt somewhat prepared to walk with her along the platform and face what, being only the reader, I couldn’t stop her from doing. It still hurt to watch. Her wandering mind was confusing to read, and her jealousy bewildering, but the moment on her hands and knees on the tracks made clear sense. She died praying, and it is not hard to believe that God hears such a cry.

Tolstoy, with authorial cruelty, took us immediately away from that climactic moment and dropped us into some drollery about Sergei Ivanovich and his publishing woes, which resulted—for this reader at least—in a couple of chapters of furious angst. Sergei Ivanovich led eventually to a glimpse of Vronsky, however, who did call forth some compassion. At last, the book returned to Levin, whose spiritual awakening made sense of the rest of the tale.

Spoilers ended.

It’s been years since I read Dostoevsky, but though I loved Crime and Punishment, I think I actually preferred Anna Karenina. Or at least, I loved them equally. Both novels deal with themes of sin and guilt, and both resolve toward hope and faith. The difference is that Sofya Semyonovna struggles in the darkness, eyes fixed faithfully on the glimmer far beyond the heavy shadow; Konstantin Levin trudges in the light, finally discovering that all he has to do is open his eyes.

It’s too bad Tolstoy himself couldn’t stay there; it’s a good place to be.

Recommendation: You may wish for a little vodka to get through a couple of parts, but the tale is absolutely worth the read.


Top Ten Tuesday: Science Fiction and Fantasy for Those Who Prefer the Familiar

The topic for today: Top Ten Books I'd Recommend To Someone Who Doesn't Read X, where x equals a genre of the blogger's choice. Fantasy is my first love, but I'm including science fiction, mostly for my own convenience and the indulgence of a little hero-worship.

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

Here are my top recommendations for people who have a hard time getting into magic, myth, futurism and life among the stars. Most of these are for young readers, but I've seen them all go over fantastically with adults:

1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, if you haven't already read it. It's mystery, schoolboy adventure, humor and heroism packed into a splendid tale with just a hint of romance. Magic is merely the backdrop, and it's mostly comic.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. Every English-speaking reader should at least get through The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at some point in his or her life. Adventure, beautiful prose, fun and a little poignancy, and besides, it's short.

3. Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. They're psychological, intellectual, and powerful, as Card takes an intense and deeply empathetic look at humanity through the eyes of a child genius. Not to be missed.

4. The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. A short and beautifully told adventure, magical but ecumenical. My book club doesn't do much fantasy, but everyone in our group loved it.

5. The Goose Girl or Princess Academy by Shannon Hale. Girls, you want a little pure-hearted young romance? No one does it better than Shannon, who also pulls off humor, artistic prose, self-discovery and magic so clearly described that it feels real. Also, you'll never have to sit through long expositions on ancient weaponry.

6. Beauty by Robin McKinley. It's a short and exquisitely written read, a lovely introduction to the world of fairy tale retellings.

7. That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. The entire Space Trilogy is good, but this third installment stands well enough alone and features two basically normal protagonists. Science fiction and fantasy elements blend in a character-driven, relational drama. More character-driven and relational than Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra, by the way, which is the short explanation of why I've always loved it more.

8. The Host by Stephenie Meyer. Didn't like Twilight? It doesn't matter. Don't like science fiction? That probably won't matter either. What you have in this story is two women with strong, differing feelings sharing the same body, dealing with both adventure and romance in that awkward state. The fact that Wanda is an alien doesn't particularly detract from her relatability. Highly recommended.

9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Classic Gothic romance all the way, but that entire story balances right on the verge of the supernatural—and at one point, it steps all the way in. If you bought all that, you're ready for a true foray into faerie.

10. The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Everyone believes in otherworldly things a little bit around Christmas, right? This tale is so moving and expressive that it would take a reader quite hardened against the supernatural to get entirely hung up on the ghosts.

What books would you recommend to friends who don't usually go for science fiction or fantasy?


Once Upon a Midnight Dreary: Darkness in Fantasy Fiction

In blogalectic with Masha and Mr. Pond.

When you go to bed, don't leave bread or milk
on the table: it attracts the dead."
   ~Rainer Maria Rilke

"I've heard again and again on the radio, in conversations over coffee after Liturgy, and at parties [that] the problem with myth and magic in fiction is the darkness, the spirits, and the sense of evil lurking that they feel in the background.... We've touched a bit on darkness before, is there a line that shouldn't be crossed? When does myth and magic become occult? When do fairies become demons?" ~Masha

Near the end of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil reach the tenth circle of hell at last, after witnessing the doom of Greek and Roman mythical characters, Florentine politicians, and popes who put self before God and avarice before the duties of the Church. There at the bottom of the pit, trapped in ice created by the constant fanning of his wings, Satan chews up Judas, Cassius and Brutus—betrayers locked in torment with the greatest betrayer of all. Virgil leads Dante on a careful climb around the fallen Lucifer, and they come out of the pit to the land before Purgatory, where at last they can see the stars.

Darkness and relics of old paganisms have long held their place in Christian supernatural literature; medievals like Dante had no fear of either. Today, we shudder at the pictures of the damned; Dante painted them vivid and garish. Today, we challenge pagan references surrounding Christmas and Easter; Dante drew images of classical myths on the terraces of Mount Purgatory.

Today, we argue over both what constitutes darkness and whether it belongs in our fiction. The conflict often centers upon fantasy, though not always—a Wall Street Journal piece about the darker side of teenage life in young adult novels started an enormous flame war in the blogosphere last year. Frankly, I find dementors and vampires far less troubling or frightening to read about than self-harming and suicidal and bullying teens; there's one step of removal between me and a dementor, and that is fictitiousness. But the question before us now primarily regards the fantasy.

Says Masha, in defense of the presence of darkness:
I don't know that I've ever found a story so dark that I didn't see the flickering light, a well-written book will always give a glimpse of redemption, because it is the nature of man to reach for the light. Even the ugly and terrifying will give way into beauty, given a chance by writer and reader. 
Says Mr. Pond, in defense of compassion for the darkened ones:
The answer, as everyone knows what read a proper story, is that fairies become devilish when they’re angry, or threatened, or lonely, or afraid. Anyone can live comfortably with the Good Neighbours nearby, if you mind your own business and don’t go digging where you’re not invited. Or if invited, take nothing away with you unless bidden, bring nothing with you that isn’t asked, do not tell what you saw unless you are told to speak. In other words, be polite.
For those of us who would understand life or literature, we must look honestly and justly upon dark things. Dracula, for instance, scuttling down the outer walls of his castle like a lizard in a black coat. The beldam's disembodied hand chasing Coraline back through the trap door. Janner Wingfeather's coffin in the Fork! Factory! Gollum whispering to the magic ring in the caves, forever destroying the word precioussss. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair slick-talking Stephen into endless nighttime ballroom dancing.

Who will say where myth becomes occult, magic evil or fairies demonic? Was it evil when Bacchus and the Maenads turned up in Narnia, or when Ransom accepted the aid of Merlin? When Aragorn called forth an army of the dead? When Egwene put on her ouroboros ring? When Puck cast his love-spells on Demetrius and Lysander? When Hagrid broke down the door of the hut, gave Dudley a pig's tail, and said "Harry, yer a wizard"?

Was it evil when I swiped a minor Greek myth and a lot of astrological symbolism to tell a story that never mentions Christ or any God, but which—if I did my job right, and if you know what you're looking for—should give you not a justification for basing decisions on the newspaper's horoscope section, but various glimpses of the central truths and themes of Christianity?

I suggest that myth and magic and faerie become occult or anti-Christian when authors use them as occult propaganda, or for anti-religious or anti-God agendas. Which they are free of course to do—but this is not the default position of Western fantasists, and most Western fantasists would have to work a lot harder than they do to escape utilizing basic Christian concepts in a story that pits evil against good, darkness against light. Good fantasy is hard enough to write without attempting to subvert its very nature.

By that nature, darkness in English mythic fiction symbolizes a host of less-than-tangible realities. It reminds us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against mental and spiritual evils, including the darkness of our own natures.

The heroes and heroines of fantasy counter darkness with courage: so Harry battles Voldemort in the graveyard, wands locked in fierce contest, the shades of Voldemort's most recent murders climbing from the point of the yew wand to comfort and strengthen Harry.

They counter darkness with love: so vampire Edward clings to his conscience, to every remaining scrap of his humanity, refusing either to kill or to use the girl whose body and blood tempt him more than any other.

They counter darkness with humor: so Sophie Hatter bosses around the fire-demon, Calcifer, making something more human of both him and Wizard Howl.

I have never liked darkness, nor been comfortable with it. Yet I value it, in its place and fairly done. As a Christian or as a lover of light or both, I cannot write some things as good nor praise them if portrayed so in the work of others, but such temptations are extremely rare. Each author and each reader must decide what they can accept, what their consciences and their beliefs allow them to write of or to appreciate.

But we artists must be allowed to paint dark, else we cannot fully show the light.

“Let everything happen to you 
Beauty and terror 
Just keep going 
No feeling is final” 
  ~Rainer Maria Rilke

* Rilke quotes are courtesy of Masha's post. Masha, sorry I didn't get them all in. :)


The Cleverness of Other People and other stories

After two weeks, it seems that alarm-setting does help me get more accomplished. Unfortunately, it has not yet consistently helped me to get off my computer by eleven or go to sleep before midnight. Ah, the force of bad habits. I suspect it's about to start me on a coffee dependency, too, despite the fact that caffeine in any quantity puts me through a weird cycle of energy—productivity—jitters—ache till I think I'm dying—go brain dead.

But I'm not giving up yet. Especially not while I'm two and a half chapters from the long-awaited end of my 2010 NaNoWriMo novel draft.

* * *

I love epigraphs. They connect the book you're about to read with its literary heritage, through shared theme or mood or idea. More than that, they often highlight some ultimate truth that comes forward in the story told, something recognized and cleverly expressed by someone else. Should I prove capable of convincing editors, I'd like to have one in every book I ever publish.

Which meant I thoroughly enjoyed Flavorwire's list of the 25 greatest epigraphs in literature (via George posting at The Hog's Head). Favorites included Gaiman's quote of Chesterton, Dostoevsky's and Tolstoy's of Scripture, and Lee's of Lamb. They weren't mentioned, but I also love Meyer's use of Genesis in Twilight and Robert Frost in Eclipse.

Hmm. Novel and novella have happily-matched quotes assigned, but I haven't picked anything for this nearly-drafted sequel. This could be fun. And distracting...

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Juliette Wade on managing the time-suck and distraction of the Internet. And yes, I recognize the irony of posting this on a personal blog wherein I ramble about alarm clocks and epigraphs.

* * *

Music of the week: This link sent me a long while back by Mr. Pond includes several videos by Brother and Bones, a UK band with dynamic membership. I loved this simple song most of the ones I saw.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: In case anyone wants to look pessimistically—and humorously—back over last year, there's always Dave Barry's Year in Review. I love these every year. Advisory: they're always a little dirty, and 2011 contained the Congressman Weiner story, which the straightest-faced journalist on the planet couldn't keep from sounding like a bad joke. But it's not all dirty, and the year isn't short on laughs.

* * *

And now my sister's coming to visit, which means I need to post this and begin straightening up. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Bella at Midnight

Bella at MidnightBut I ought not to judge my betters. They are highborn folk and educated, so if they think it wise to send their little ones away and leave them in the care of strangers, then I suppose it must be the right thing to do. And indeed, now that I think upon it, if those two precious babes had been kept at home, then Prince Julian and Isabel would never have met, and all the great and miraculous things that happened thereafter would not have taken place.

Author: Diane Stanley

Synopsis: When her mother dies upon giving birth, Isabel—now hated by her father—is sent to be nursed by the woman who was also nurse to one of the king’s younger sons, Prince Julian. Bella and the prince grow up as friends, until Julian is sent to live in a formerly enemy country and Bella’s father reclaims her to spite his new wife and daughters. Through a gossiping stepsister, Bella learns of a planned war that could cost Julian’s life among many others, and by her early knowledge, only Bella stands a chance of preventing it.

Notes: It took me a little ways into this book to realize that I was reading a Cinderella retelling. It’s hardly a typical one. It contains neither white bird and tree, nor singing mice; the godmother isn’t magical, and only one of the stepsisters is wicked.

Few stories have been more often retold in modern English-speaking countries than Cinderella, however, and this variant was downright intriguing. Diane Stanley builds her story around the myth of a long-awaited hero known as the Worthy Knight. As the prince's father and elder brothers war with a neighboring kingdom, the prince and the cinder-girl share a childhood love, hoping together for the Knight's coming and the end of the wars.

Cheers to Stanley for writing the characters as religious (Catholic, as it’s set in medieval times) without either making the story message-driven or treating the religion and its practitioners as inherently wicked. The Worthy Knight is thought of as a miraculous figure, and both that myth and the tale itself focus toward peace. The two lead characters are both heroic and lovable; likewise, the younger stepsister, who is silent due to tragedy but warm of heart.

The narrative mode inspired my one bit of grumpy-stepsisterly dislike. The author chose to use first person voice with a change of perspective at every chapter, which gained her the ability to show the emotions of important characters like stepsister Alice, but cost her in character development and reader investment. Perspective shifts easily become wearing or maddening, especially in first person, where it gives the impression that twelve people are trying to tell the story at once. None of the narrators could garner enough time to become very memorable, though Bella, Julian, Alice and the godmother came off strongest.

While the ending had a moment or two of sounding a shade too obviously like an attempt at subverting gender-role paradigms, Stanley managed the final twist beautifully overall, giving the young lady fair glory without demeaning the young man for the sake of girl power. I appreciated that.

The ending itself is shamelessly happy, a pleasant resolution to a good, clean, lighthearted fairy tale for the young.

Recommendation: Read it for cheer, relaxation and ease of mind.


Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I'd Like Another Book From

This topic shames me a little, because when it comes to even my favorite authors—Lewis, Chesterton, Card, Hale, Montgomery—I haven't necessarily read all of their works. Heck, I haven't read Rowling's Quidditch book or her bestiary, and you know how I feel about Harry Potter.

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

I have, however, read all the published work of one particular author, including a lesser-known novella and a fragment she never finished. And since the rules of this list allow us to include deceased authors, I'll begin with:

1. Jane Austen. Lady Susan is an interesting book, by the way, if it doesn't hold a dripping wax taper to Northanger Abbey, let alone the great Pride and Prejudice/Emma/Persuasion/Sense and Sensibility/Mansfield Park quintet.

2. C.S. Lewis. I've read all of his fiction, so I'll feel no shame in asking for more of that.

3. J.K. Rowling. More stories, preferably outside the Potterverse. I'm curious.

4. Shannon Hale. I haven't read her graphic novel, but I have read everything else of hers, I think. And am looking forward to the sequel to Princess Academy and to Midnight in Austenland.

5. Brandon Sanderson. I want a very specific book from him: the Wheel of Time finale. :)

Off the top of my head, I haven't any right to beg more from anyone else. I have too many of their existing works left to read.

Which authors would you like another book from?


Sleepy Post

Masha's taking over kickoff posts for a while, blogalectically speaking, which means I have today off. I intended to come up with something to post anyway, but spent the whole day down at my family's catching up with them and talking over potential novella revisions and the direction of the current novel and things like that, and now it's nine o'clock and I have a book to write and I'm so sleepy that said book will be lucky to get any real attention.

Sleepy, yes. Does anyone besides me wake regularly half an hour before their alarm, then lie there tense, dozing fitfully, braced against the discomfort of being shocked awake by loud awful beeps? The only way I ever get properly back to sleep is by muffling the clock under the covers, so it doesn't give me such a jolt when it goes off.

Maybe I'll start keeping it under a pillow. Anyway, good night.


The Use of Pictures and other stories

Ah, New Year's Resolutions. For the first time in my life, I've actually looked back at my goals folder over this week, worked on things, and added more. Successes include: dragging myself out of bed in the dark every morning half an hour before Lou's alarm, adding 5500 words to the draft I'd like to finish by the end of January, and using the curling iron on my hair every day.

I think it helps that in making my lists, I included pictures:

Not that I've worked on the garden yet. It's just one of my favorite pages.
And no, those aren't pictures of my actual garden.

Now I just need to go add pictures to the page that talks about getting on the rowing machine.

* * *

Lou and I discovered, after having to work very hard to get Christmas books onto shelves—his new commentary got stuck sideways on top of a packed row—that, once again, we were out of bookshelf space. So we built more:

Room to grow!

Just one more step toward my goal of living in a library.

* * *

Maia: Ooh, I like the little rocks in this dirt. My favorite!



Me: $%^*#^*&

Which of us is winning? You decide:

The cat who can't dig, or the crazy woman with masking tape on her flowerpot?

* * *

Writers' link of the week: quirks, with room to comment, over at Rachelle Gardner's. I enjoyed both video and comments, and wish I could claim coffee and Oreos—or more likely, chocolate chip cookies—as part of my must-have writing process so I could justify having them every day.

* * *

Music of the week: after Monday's post, all I can do is put up some good modern Christian music, right? Here's some Messiaen, whom I can never decide if I like or not. I've never understood purely atonal, cacophonous music—which is yet another glass of Haterade—but at least he wasn't just throwing paint at canvas. Sometimes I almost feel as if he's making sense, as below.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: while we're still barely inside the Christmas season, Do-It-Yourself Star Wars Snowflakes.

For something less random and more amusing in the sense of getting the mind involved, check out Masha's blog for 50 Days of Self-Reflection. If the next 47 questions are anything like the first three, we'll all learn a lot of unique and fascinating stuff about ourselves and each other.

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And now, having dumped the cat off my lap to fetch the camera and thereby guaranteed myself some ankle attacks later in the day, I'm off to clean house and write more story.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Emily Climbs and Emily's Quest

Of course Teddy was in love with Ilse. He had gone to see her first—had been with her while Emily waited for him in the garden. Well, it made no real difference. Why should it? She would be just as friendly as ever. And was. Friendly with a vengeance. But when Teddy and Ilse had gone—together—laughing and teasing each other through the old To-morrow Road Emily went up to her room and locked the door. Nobody saw her again until the next morning.

Author: L.M. Montgomery

Emily Climbs (Emily, #2)Emily Climbs
Synopsis: Emily Byrd Starr goes to high school, where she experiences the odd mix of acceptance and rejection and mistakes that belong to a writer’s career. While pursuing her old dream, she turns down at least two suitors—even getting caught alone with one at night, albeit innocently; all the while yearning for her old friend Teddy Kent, who sometimes seems to love her.

Notes: I thought I’d read this book before; now, I’m less sure. If I ever did read it, I’d forgotten most of it.

Emily Climbs is darker than Emily of New Moon, but not unbearably. The Murray pride catches up with our post-adolescent heroine; the Starr independence makes her dislike the bonds of convention. In this tenuous and somewhat unsympathetic state, she endures having to board with strict, merciless Aunt Ruth. Worse even then her aunt are the sharp tongues and ill wills of a jealous classmate and Shrewsbury gossips in general.

As a writer, watching Emily progress in her career is interesting. It all seems somewhat different than the way things reportedly work now, but not entirely, and her emotional responses to acceptance and rejection are accurately drawn.

As both writer and romantic, I thought the scene in the old John house was perhaps the most beautiful in the series. Short, but sweet, and oh-so-lovely. Montgomery's portrayal of the passion between Emily and Teddy, expressed almost entirely in looks rather than words, is so hushed and splendid that I can't wholly forgive her for the torment she puts them through—and us with them—in this book and the next.

The book had a few humorous moments as well; Emily’s flippant comments regarding the suitors she did not love generally made me laugh. All in all, I enjoyed the book, and the moment I put it down I picked up its sequel.

Emily's Quest (Emily, #3)Emily’s Quest 
Synopsis: Teddy goes off to art school and Ilse into acting, leaving Emily lonely at New Moon. Misunderstanding develops over the distance between Emily and Teddy, and old friend Dean Priest proves his own love by caring for her during a dangerous illness, leaving her with a series of difficult choices. Meanwhile, her writing career takes off, and at last there is hope for the Disappointed House—only not like she imagined it.

Notes: This book actually evoked an angry response.

First, the previously likable Ilse lost both depth and friendliness. Her numerous insensitivities toward Emily were generally unintentional, but cruel nonetheless. Likewise, after years of being in love with Perry Miller, she could not find it in herself to soften to him, to leave off hounding him for a moment, until—well, for the sake of being unspoilerish, I won’t say what happens; I’ll just recommend, for enjoyment's sake, the scene where she finally goes to Perry. Even though her deed is positively awful.

The second cause of annoyance was the series of misunderstandings between Emily and Teddy, resulting in years upon years of agonized separation and depression. The only truly serious issue was Mrs. Kent’s interference; the young pair had no other good reason for being apart for what appeared to be something like a decade. It upset this reader so much that I was almost ready to root for Dean Priest, whom I liked despite his obvious unsuitability and his jealousy.

Emily’s trouble was pride; Teddy’s, an inability to man up and speak, and the two had me in a state of mad half-despair for over two hundred pages. And then the finale was so brief, so inexplicable, that it left me furious even though it was, in theory, a satisfactory resolution.

From Laura, commenting on my review of Emily of New Moon:
“The last book is a steaming heap of misery and self-doubt, topped off by a dubious maraschino cherry of last-minute romance.”
I can't improve on that summary. I can think of ways Montgomery might have saved her story without much effort. But, again following Laura’s lead, I make some excuses to myself for the book. Emily is a particularly fascinating heroine, owing in part to her skill with words, in part to the Murray-Starr conflict within her, and in part to her supernatural gift. The scene where she connects with Teddy across an ocean was breathtakingly believable despite its unlikelihood; it was also another sublime Teddy-and-Emily scene. The comparison between Emily and the Disappointed House comes as near as anything else to making something decent of the tale, and—well, Emily becomes a successful novelist. Which makes her, in some sense, a hero of mine.

Joint Recommendation: Not nearly as pleasant as the Anne books or Emily of New Moon, but containing some gems nonetheless.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'm Excited to Read in 2012

If 2012 matches 2011 for great reading, I'll be happy.

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

Between Christmas gifts, Kindle specials, interlibrary loan and series to finish, I've already got a good stack to start with:

1) Xenocide and 2) Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card. Thanks, Lou. It's long past time I finish Ender's story. And then I need to look into the last two Shadow books.

3) The Giver by Lois Lowry, thanks to a Kindle deal which I learned about thanks to George. No, I've never read it. Yes, I plan to remedy that as soon as possible.

4) The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, thanks to the library.

5) The Last Olympians by Rick Riordan. Just one book in left the Percy Jackson series! I might be sad when I've finished them, though perhaps I'll continue on to the Heroes of Olympus series.

6) A Creed for the Third Millenium by Colleen McCullough, thanks to Agnes and Elizabeth. Also thanks to those ladies: 7) Echoes and 8) Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy.

9) Crossed by Ally Condie, which I'm still in line for at the library and probably will be for a while.

10) A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson—the final book of The Wheel of Time, supposed to be released sometime this year.

Perhaps The Silmarillion counts too, since I haven't finished it yet.

What are you most excited to read this year?


Mediocrity, Haters, and Christian Music

It's blogalectic day, and Masha and Mr. Pond and I have not yet had time to regroup after the holidays. So I'm going to throw a wrench in the works: Rod Dreher's piece on haters, aesthetics and mediocrity.
And yet, thank goodness for aesthetic snobs. The alternative is mediocrity, is ugliness. You want Palestrina, or you want Marty Haugen?
Pause right there, sir. That's one point made in full.

No offense to Mr. Haugen, whose Mass of Creation isn't all that bad (it's "Gather Us In" that I find unbearable.) But in my opinion, nobody since Palestrina has created music more innovative and beautiful all at once. Certainly nobody in the last hundred years, and abso-freaking-definitely nobody in recent Christian music history.

I sparked this blogalectic by complaining about the artistic elitism that fails to recognize literary value in a book like Little Women. When it comes to literature, I tend to see the glory in the simple and innocent as well as in the complex and masterful, and I defend those works correspondingly.

But make the switch to music, particularly church music, and out comes a different perspective.

Now, I half-promised Laura a post about this subject, so forgive me if I wax tangential. I'll make it back around to the main point, I promise.

I have three very big problems with the bulk of modern church music: #1 is the "sheen" that Michael Gungor mentioned. Which seems due in part to an undefined and mistaken notion that being a Christian makes your life easier. Also, it owes to problem #2, likewise noted by Mr. Gungor: the failure of many Christian recording artists to realize that music itself actually means something, not just the lyrics. Most rock music means sex, anger or rebellious exodus, none of which translate well to attempts at worship.

My third problem with the generality of works written under almost any definition of Christian music in the past century is this: at its best it shows the immanence and love and nearness of God very well, but it fails with reverence. It shows the Great Love of God, and that's as close as it dares get. This owes as much to intimate, soulful vocals and instrumentation as to lyrics, if not more, which takes us back to problem #2. I don't think I've ever heard a song from the Christian record labels that expressed the fear of God convincingly.

No, I'm not talking about an "oh, God'll send me to hell 'cause I thought something mean about my sister last week" fear of God; I'm thinking more along the lines of "'Course He isn't safe. But He's good."

I've felt that good fear, that joyful solemnity, in my bones listening to Gregorian chant—or Palestrina (particularly, since we're talking art, in the acoustic spaces such works were designed for). And lest anyone think I'm praising the Catholics at the expense of the Protestants (a touchy subject for a Catholic who used to be an evangelical), the current Catholic state is worse than the Protestant one by far. Lucky Catholics with popular sensibilities get Protestant praise anthems. Anyone with traditional tastes goes begging for hymns by Luther and Wesley; chant is unloved and polyphony forgotten. Instead, our hymnals contain some of the worst schlock I've ever caught posing as music: lyrics that would make a cheap Hallmark card blush, syncopation that no one but Vince Guaraldi could pull off, and sentimental attempts at poetic expression that basically mean nothing or are bad theology.

There—look at me hating. I try not to do that. Most of the time.

So I'll give Masha and Mr. Pond this much: there is, in fact, a place in my heart that despises mediocrity. Most of it happens to be aimed at myself and my own work (at least, when I'm not taking potshots at Christian music). I'm not usually much of what Dreher calls a hater, and I hope I never will be. But despite my defense of the literary status of a handful of books written in unimposing prose, my ultimate convictions are in favor of refined art. When it comes to my own writing, however often I fail, I can't imagine striving for anything less.

EDIT: Thanks to a mild oh-really from Mr. Pond, I've corrected my haphazard claim that no one has since made "music as innovative and beautiful" as Palestrina's to say "music more innovative and beautiful." This sort of mistake always happens when I write sleepy. But perhaps I may be forgiven for being hyperbolic about Palestrina when I say that the song in the above video may be my favorite single work of art in existence.