The Harry Potter Book Club

It's official!

Ladies and gentlemen, wizards and Muggles alike, my co-hostesses and I gladly welcome you to a thoughtful, playful, highly interactive read-through of all seven Harry Potter books, start to finish. We welcome you as fellow bloggers who want to write your own posts; we welcome you as fellow readers who are interested in following along and maybe commenting from time to time; we welcome you no matter what  your experience with the Wizarding World has been, or whether it has been any experience at all.

This is not just any thoughtful, playful, highly interactive read-through, either. It's an extensive conversation between three disparately-experienced readers: one longtime Potter fan, one longtime not-a-Potter-fan, and one new reader of the stories. Ideally, it will be intense—and magical—and legendary—and fun.

Details follow, but first, allow me to introduce your hostesses:


Blog: Cyganeria
Favorite authors: Lev Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Rainer Maria Rilke, J.R.R. Tolkien
Magical imagination: Superstitious, elemental
Relationship to Harry Potter: Read all the books and didn't like them


Blog: Spinning Straw into Gold
Favorite authors: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O'Connor
Magical imagination: Traditional, unpredictable/mysterious, fairy-taleish
Relationship to Harry Potter: Has only read the first book


Blog: A Light Inside (you're reading it right now, in case that wasn't clear)
Favorite authors: Jane Austen, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, Shannon Hale
Magical imagination: Bright, paradoxical, transcendent
Relationship to Harry Potter: Wizard-rocking, Blogengamot-hat-wearing, trivia-spouting Potterhead

That's us! I should note that we are all Catholic, so faith will come up from time to time. Religion is not a requirement for the festivities, however, and we certainly hope you'll be able to enjoy yourself no matter where you're coming from thought-wise. I should also note that I made up all the dossiers myself, so, Masha and Christie, hopefully I didn't get your factoids wrong. xD

Now, for some basic details on the schedule and events:
  • Pacing will be informal. We begin with Chapter 1 of Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, and from thence will work thematically. I will post upcoming reading in sections by week or bi-week, though we may linger over sections that merit extended discussion. No, we have no idea when this will end.
  • Participation is encouraged in a variety of forms. I will include linkups for bloggers who would like to post responses on their own blogs; the first will be at the bottom of this post. Comments are more than welcome, always, provided they are not left by trolls. (We stick wands up trolls' noses and hit them over the head with clubs—beware!) And, of course, we hope you'll read along.
  • Friends of friends are welcome, too, and friends of friends of friends, and curious onlookers, and gate-crashers, though again, trolls will naturally be moderated out of the conversation. ;)
And we don't intend to just talk. There will be recipes. There will be music. There will be pictures. There will be nitwits and oddments and blubber and tweaks! Stick around. And now...


How does one go about introducing famous Harry Potter, whom so many of you already know? And about whom so much has been said, written, presumed, cogitated, formulated, debated, and analyzed? Harry has inspired thousands of essays, songs, fan sites, a large number of books, at least one activist organization, and conversations beyond number. Little kids in third-world countries read Harry in his day. Prisoners on Death Row read Harry in his day. And apparently the British Royals have read their Harry, too:

William and Kate practicing for the D.A.
I bet they've actually met Kingsley Shacklebolt. Jealous.
This despite the fact that it at least begins as a children's story—which is very obvious in book one, and Rowling grew the story up in later books without significantly raising her style. But C.S. Lewis said, "I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last," and Rowling apparently agrees. She gave adults plenty to play with: puzzles, games, alchemical symbolism, wordplay, mythology, humor, irony, politics, a detailed world to explore, and a tale that is all but overtly Christian and sacramental, if you know what you're looking for, though it's not so overt that it reads as exclusive to non-Christians or to those whose faith more or less rejects sacramentalism.

And now, since we're Catholic and this comes up: To the very best of my knowledge, the Catholic Church's position on the Potter books is open. You can freely read them or not read them. There have been no official warnings that I am aware of, with official meaning "coming from someone with the authority to make such a call for the Church at large," e.g., a council of bishops. Fr. Amorth's opinions are just opinions. Diplomatic letters from then-Cardinal Ratzinger to the author of an anti-Potter monograph are just diplomatic letters. L'Osservatore Romano is presumably impartial as it has, I believe, run articles on both sides of the debate. Michael O'Brien is a naughty dragon-hating Muggle who ought to go work for Charlie Weasley for a while. Harry Potter numbers plenty of Catholic priests among his fans—try the Secrets of Harry Potter podcast, created and originally hosted by Fr. Roderick Vonhögen, if you're curious—and plenty of popular Catholic bloggers, too; here, since my own name isn't big enough to drop and make any noise, I'll name-drop Mark Shea. You can be a good Catholic and a good Harry Potter fan. It's legit.

Dealing with the Bible directly is waaaayyyy too complicated for this segment, but if I believed that the Bible and Harry Potter were in any real conflict, I wouldn't be championing the latter all over the planet. The books are carefully distanced from common modern superstitions and are absolutely free from invocational sorcery and spiritism. The wizardry in Harry Potter is sort of a parody of a fictive exaggeration of a reality. Like Tim Allen's movie Galaxy Quest, which spoofs not space travel itself but science fiction, Harry's wands and cauldrons and spells are playful takes on the (Disneyfied) fairy tale depiction of magic, which itself is artistically removed from actual paganism. The studies, charms, potions, etc. are often downright funny.

'Would anyone like me to help them interpret the shadowy portents within their Orb?' she murmured over the clinking of her bangles. 
'I don't need help,' Ron whispered. 'It's obvious what this means. There's going to be loads of fog tonight.'
And that's all I've got on that subject for today. Those of other denominations and religions should of course look to their own authorities. :)

Back to the books themselves: I think my best chance at introducing the beloved story any further is to say a few words about the first chapter—that grand little first chapter, which still gives me a nostalgic thrill.

(Unprofessional fangirl aside, made while listening to Ministry of Magic: You guys. I haven't read these books through in years! I'm practically in tears, I'm so excited. :))

Prelude to Sorcerer's Stone, Chapter One

First-time readers aren't told this yet, but the date Mr. Dursley faces off with map-reading cats and men in violet cloaks, running afoul of his destiny with the strange and mysterious, is November 1, 1981. This story, themed upon the fact of death and the question of how to face it, begins on All Saints' Day. This first chapter focuses backward a few hours to Halloween night, on which an evil wizard attempted to murder a baby and vanished when the curse rebounded. Little is yet revealed of how, or why—the cruciform Lily, the twisted snake, and the finer points of that clash between a self-destructed soul and an innocent, whole one are all secrets held by the next few thousand pages.

Mr. Dursley is a good introduction to the fact that most Potter characters at least begin as caricatures. He lives a safe, outwardly respectable suburban life, making a tyrant of his child, married to a woman who offers little more than skinny, horsey, cheap-magazine beauty and a knack for spying on the neighbors to make sure no one is more respectable than the Dursleys. It's telling that he's so completely wrapped up in this superficial life, so shielded from imagination, that despite all the cloaks and owls and shooting stars and cats, neither Halloween nor saints ever seem to come to his mind. It's just another day to the Dursleys.

Art by Linnpuzzle.
And then, his opposite appears on the corner of Privet Drive: someone who makes friendly room in his life for the strange and mysterious. Albus Dumbledore shows up in a colorful cloak with buckled boots, long hair and beard, and his gentle, empathetic sense of humor at hand despite obvious grief at the loss of a couple he had been trying very hard to protect. He made himself a hero of mine from his earliest dialogues. Say what you like about Rowling's prose, mock her work as derivative (I'll growl, but I won't necessarily attack), complain about her punning names (but why, when it was so obviously intentional?) or her minor inconsistencies (they happen), but I can't imagine anyone getting away with calling Dumbledore anything less than a brilliant, complex character who is absolutely unique and thoughtfully developed throughout the series.

Rubeus Hagrid is worth noting here because his alchemical significance makes him one of the most important secondary characters in the series. Thus far, he's just a little like Giant Rumblebuffin—big and clumsy and slightly baffled by life, but innocent and loving.

Lastly, there's our Harry: fifteen months old, asleep in a basket, and unaware of the new name he's been given—the name he'll be called again and again, right through the climax of the last book. The Boy Who Lived.

Lived. Not "survived", though that would admittedly have had less ring to it. The sixteen years between Harry's first encounter with Voldemort and his last are under too much shadow to be much of a life as we selfish Westerners imagine it—being happy, doing what we want to do, being free. Harry is never really free. But despite the destiny, the bonds, the duties, the weight on him, Harry's entire journey will be accomplished in the learning of courage and love—and with those two virtues, his life is more a life, more lived, than many a one that is completely independent and free.

As for what happens after that, I won't yet say. You'll have to read the books. If you haven't, of course.

Again, welcome!!!

UPDATE: Keeping in mind that some of the readers, including our Christie, have not read all the books, please use spoiler warnings when discussing future plot developments in comments and linked discussion posts.

* Look at me, making up Potter spells! From exordium, meaning the beginning or introductory part, especially of an essay or thesis. :)


Chasing Splendor and other stories

So many things I need to be doing right now... checking my newly-transplanted sweet peas, wrestling plastic over the garden hoops so I can plant the tomatoes, getting the snap peas and leeks in the ground, making a lasagna, cleaning house, writing books. But, you guys. I just cannot contain my excitement. Something happy this way comes... starting right here on Monday, if all goes well:

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Of course, when I tried to make that sketch and photograph it, Maia thought the sketchbook looked like something to lie down on and play with.

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Behold, both the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses have stood at my door and knocked. This week.

Said the Jehovah's Witnesses, peering over my shoulder: "Wow, you have a lot of Bibles." Yes. Yes, we do.

Said one of the Mormons, after fifteen minutes of cheery back and forth... that was a fun conversation, if neither of us managed to convince the other...: "You said you like a lot of Mormon authors. Which ones?" I bet I could've talked to that girl for a long time. When I got to Shannon Hale's name, she said "Ooh, she's awesome!!" And when I named Stephenie Meyer and claimed to love The Host, she said "There's a movie being made of that, right?" And I was like, NEW FRIEND. I'm so tempted to internet-stalk her just to talk more about books. But I'm not sure if that's polite.

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The tulips keep stopping me in the middle of work, just to look and look again. I took the camera out in the sunshine and the breeze yesterday and tried to catch a little of that splendor:

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Music of the week: My piano and I have been learning Chopin's Raindrop prelude (Op. 28, No. 15). Here's Valentina Igoshina's rendition on a beautiful Steinway grand.

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Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Blue Sword

The Blue Sword (Damar, #1)She thought again of the mounting strangenesses of her recent life; and she wished, if she was to be given to Damar, as apparently she was, that she would be given no more long pauses of inaction in which to brood about it all.

One of the young women who had assisted her at her bath brought her food, in the blue front room with the fountain, or outside in the sunshine where the other fountain played; and she managed to convince her and the other women sent to wait upon her that, at least as long as there were no more banquets requiring special preparations, she might bathe herself. For three more days she slept and watched the shimmering of the air and rode Tsornin and played with Narknon. There was a friendship between the horse and the hunting-cat now, and they would chase one another around the obstacles of the practice field, Narknon's tail lashing and Sungold with his ears back in mock fury. Once the big cat had hidden behind one of the grassy banks, where Harry and Sungold could not see her; and as they rode by she leaped out at them, sailing clean over Sungold and Harry on his back. Harry ducked and Sungold swerved; and Narknon circled and came back to them with her ears back and her whiskers trembling in what was obviously a cat laugh.

And Harry polished Gonturan and tried not to brood, and looked often at the small white scar in the palm of her hand. But with all her inevitable musings she found that a certain peace had come to her and made its way into her heart. It was not like anything she had known before, and it was only on that third day that she found a name for it: fate.

Author: Robin McKinley

From Goodreads: Harry Crewe is an orphan girl who comes to live in Damar, the desert country shared by the Homelanders and the secretive, magical Hillfolk. Her life is quiet and ordinary—until the night she is kidnapped by Corlath, the Hillfolk King, who takes her deep into the desert. She does not know the Hillfolk language; she does not know why she has been chosen. But Corlath does. Harry is to be trained in the arts of war until she is a match for any of his men. Does she have the courage to accept her true fate?

Notes: The Blue Sword is a common favorite among McKinley's broad range of work, and it's easy to guess—however accurately or inaccurately—why. Though stylistically it's more of a traditional fantasy story than many of her other works, it's a shorter, clearer, more romantic read than the Discworldish Spindle's End, the thickly fairy-tale-voiced Beauty, or the intimate and detailed The Hero and the Crown, the latter of which is a companion novel to this one.

Harry Crewe is a solid, likable protagonist in a solidly developed, likable world, and she's lucky enough to have two of the more lovable animal friends ever to be granted to a fictional character: the war-horse Tsornin/Sungold and the leopard Narknon are as fleshed out and interesting as any of the human characters. Corlath, while flawed, is also lovable and does a credible job in the role of romantic hero. And Harry herself gets all kind of exciting adventures; she does everything from crossing swords with Corlath himself to leading a ragtag army against a band of demoniac Northerners.

I'm a big Spindle's End fan myself, and it took me about seventy-five pages to really get Harry, who seemed at first to be halfway between Rosie of the spindles (tall, strong, plain) and Aerin of The Hero and the Crown (introspective), without any strongly defining personality features of her own. To be fair, this was partly due to situation; her story began with her having lost much of what she'd once defined herself by. As soon as she began adjusting to life with the Damarians, her confidence took shape, and her character trajectory is well-drawn and satisfying.

While her narrative feels complete, the story itself contains some side plots and characters that could have taken more air time. The tree people appeared from nowhere and faded right back into the same place—I'd have resented them as filanon ex machina if they hadn't been so interesting. Harry's magic show was rather startling in its abruptness and thoroughness. And Jack Dedham didn't get shorted, exactly, but he made so much of his few scenes that I'd definitely have taken more of him.

The Blue Sword reads more quickly and easily than its later-written prequel—The Hero and the Crown—and resolves more cleanly. Perhaps a little too cleanly. But it's a grand adventure story, and it's hard to imagine a horse-loving pre-teen girl who wouldn't develop an ardent passion for it on first read.

P.S. I do have to load McKinley down with brownie points, not only for using semicolons in nearly every paragraph, but for using them with much more devotion to clarity than to technical accuracy (at least, by the usage I'm familiar with.) As far as I'm concerned, the modern antagonism toward the semicolon in fiction is one of the greater absurdities commonly supposed to be a rule. Have I made it clear that I love semicolons? I love them. I should use more of them myself. All right, I'll stop now.


To Believe in Fairies: Chesterton, Tolkien, Kindred Spirits, Disparate Tastes, and Me

Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies.
~G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Running dialogue between Christie and Masha and I on the topic of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, author, b. May 29, 1874, d. June 14, 1936, m. Frances Blogg—on account of her surname I presume he'd approve what we're doing here—running dialogue on this giant among Englishmen, anyway, has resulted in all three of us blogging to explain why we love or can't bear him. Christie knows his work intimately and loves him. Masha has read a few of his books and can't bear him.

I count his Orthodoxy as one of my favorite books, cried tears the size of gumdrops over his biography of St. Francis, have read a few of his other books to interest if less effect, and still occasionally laugh or well up over one of his poems. And I love him. For a lot of reasons: I like happy-go-lucky people, and I like paradox. I like long sentences. I love his enthusiasm for words and his shameless glory in the magical and traditional and childlike and beautiful. I needed his straw-spun-to-gold thoughts as key to unlock the final gate to a splendid, open realm—this bright kingdom in which sacraments work on body and soul, in which fairy tales are taken to heart. I needed him very much for that. I love him very much for that.

And I, like Christie, am often struck by the truth in his statements—some of which, ripped from context and examined at face value, are obviously false. There's no one like Chesterton for gleeful, goofball hyperbole: for instance, the quote at the top of this page. Which of us—including G.K.C. himself—literally believes in fairies? And yet, that statement encapsulates the problem I have with purely rationalistic thinking. Encapsulates it with greater breadth and strength then when he later says, flatly, that "Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials."

Christie and Masha have exemplified two very different responses to the same author and the same texts. Masha's response to him was startling and a little overwhelming—it was like hearing one of your friends, in whose goodness you have never had the slightest doubt, suddenly described by another friend as dark-spirited and destructive:
"He is the mocker, the one who seems to write against individuals and for the masses. They are the mocked, the lonely ones whom God nestles close—and I feel Chesterton’s judgment of them; he who calls on the ‘awful authority of the mob’ against my friends who remember that the mob “is nonsense—a sum of negative ones” of people who have given up themselves."
The mocker? All that rambling, high-spirited playfulness came off as mockery? Has my inner Jane Bennet failed to see the evil in a good man, or did his high spirits lead him into speaking hurtfully to a friend of mine, or is all this just some big misunderstanding? Is it just that reading works this way, that a phrase that pulls its weight in good work for one reader will leap from the shadows, teeth and claws bared, at another? I liked "the awful authority of a mob", not because I like mobs in general—quite the opposite, actually; I tend to think mobs are unstable creatures, liable to insanity and brutality—but because the words came as part of the point about "the democracy of the dead", and as something of a traditionalist, I desperately want the people of the past to have a voice in the present.

But Masha's response was real and emotional, not something to be brazenly argued with; in that situation, the best I can think of to say is, Well, I'm confident that he's a well-meaning person, but I am truly sorry he came off that way. I like the guy, but I suppose he can seem brash.

From here I can trust Christie's praise and defense of Chesterton to speak for me. She spoke with exceptional warmth:
"Here was a man who unlocked all the tightly raveled God-knowledge of my nascent soul and presented it to me: not as a bride, like Tolkien, in beauty and mystery; not as a mother, like Lewis had, in comforting familiarity and profound love and awe and devotion; but as my own child, an impish joyful thing, astoundingly complete in itself, innocent yet immortal, infinitely familiar to me, utterly surprising and unpredictable."
I think Chesterton would have loved that. "Impish joyful thing" is a compliment for the ages. I am not likely to top it, so I'll move on to the matter at the core of this dialectic, which is this: how can kindred spirits like Masha, Christie and I have such disparate reactions to the same author, the same words?

How is it that Tolkien's work is all wonder and glory to Masha and Christie, a wide-open path to all things faerie, when for me, it's... okay, he's quotable, and what he did is undeniably impressive, and I do wish I spoke Quenya, and Galadriel is cool and I like Legolas and Aragorn and Sam and all... but The Hobbit bores me silly and I can't read The Lord of the Rings without sadly missing the intimacy of my favorite stories, and I wish with all my heart there were more girl characters...?? It's like I'm missing a gene of comprehension somewhere, which is probably how Masha feels when Christie and I talk about Chesterton. (We haven't yet discovered which author Masha and I love but Christie can't bear.)

How is it that I seem to have to look so far and wide to find people who are, like me, enchanted by the vivid contrasts and thoughtfulness at the heart of the Twilight story? Why do people instead get excited over the Hunger Games trilogy, a set of books so overbearingly dark and violent that I cannot to this day think of them without a visceral shudder, the three-o'clock-in-the-morning horror of waking from the kind of nightmare in which your loved ones die in terrible ways before your eyes? Half of you will think I'm nuts for writing this paragraph, but I feel it.

How is it that G.K.'s style reads as banter to Christie and I, but as mockery to Masha?

It's funny and terrifying and sad and beautiful when like-souled readers respond so divergently to the same work. It's hard to say how much of a reaction is due to the reader and how much to the writer—a fact I feel rather powerfully as both novelist and reviewer. Every reader brings a custom set of sensitivities to whatever they read, and no writer can wholly predict that. But writers are subject to the Book of Proverbs' warning that, "When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable." Chesterton wrote with at least the appearance of blithe effusion, as if no qualms over the possibility of his words' permanence could staunch the exuberance. As someone who has probably spent five or six hours on this post already, I fear and admire that freedom. It is impossible that he wrote all those words without error, but he also wrote so much good.

In the end, of course, disagreements over mere strong tastes matter little. It's just another curious question among friends—friends who can raise a glass together and toast even the great authors that only some of them love. At least, I think so. I'll happily put one up for The Professor. Or even Suzanne Collins. But I'll also tilt up my pint and name G.K. Chesterton, because when I read the cheerful scrawls that make up Orthodoxy, there was a grandfatherly wink in the pages, and the wink came with magic, and the magic was faith.

Though giant rains put out the sun,
Here stand I for a sign.
Though earth be filled with waters dark,
My cup is filled with wine.
Tell to the trembling priests that here
Under the deluge rod,
One nameless, tattered, broken man
Stood up, and drank to God.
~G.K. Chesterton, The Deluge


Garden in Waiting and other stories

This being spring in Bellingham, it's still raining, which means I haven't gotten out in the garden much in the last few days. Which, in turn, means that my laundry room looks like this:

Fig tree and Easter lily, tomatoes and pumpkins and Hubbard squash, red currant cuttings and trailing sweet peas are all chilling out of Maia's reach, counting the days till the sun comes out so I can de-buttercup the garden and get protective hoops and trellises up. There are more seedlings on the back deck; the sugar peas are trying to climb the columbine, the flax and parsnips are demanding room to spread, and my experienced neighbor helped me dig the dahlias one partly cloudy afternoon, so the tubers are all under a bench awaiting their return to the ground.

I didn't know that rotted dahlia tubers would turn a disgusting caramel consistency and shoot rot-juice at you if you stuck your thumb into one by accident, but it turns out they do. Fortunately for our splendid purple dahlia, however, exhuming the tubers and cutting the rotted ones away is the best way to protect the healthy ones from the spread of decay and death.

Meanwhile, Maia has discovered that houseplants are good for something besides digging up and chewing. I've been running the baseboard heater beneath my seedling shelf whenever I've been home, giving the fragile little things some extra heat, and she's spent most of this chilly, wet week luxuriating underneath the black cherry tomatoes. As long as she stays out of them, I'm all right with this, although it means she's scorned me for an electronic device as a source of cuddling and warmth.

It looks like the plants are in danger, but the shelves are
laced closed so she can't jump into them.

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Three-year-old niece: "Can I give my Aunty Jen a radish from my garden?"

Sister: "Yes, of course."

Niece: "I want to give my Aunty Jen a radish because I love her."

Me: *heart melting all over the place*

It was a good radish.

Spring salads are the best—fresh dandelions, chives, salad burnet,
and the end of last year's kale.
And early radishes, of course.
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Music of the week: A little Mendelssohn.

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Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy

Mariette in EcstasyMass of St. Hyacinth, Confessor

Work. Mariette kneels on ginger-brown earth as she plants winter seeds in a hot-weather garden that Sister Saint-Luc has harrowed and Sister Saint-Pierre has grooved with a stick. Brussels sprouts, kale, and savory cabbage. Sister Hermance is just behind her with a tin watering can. Sister Saint-Luc sings the hymn "Immaculate Mary" and the sisters join her.

Hot breezes slide through the bluejoint grass. Sister Sabine is walking behind a horse-pulled thresher in the barley field. When Sister Hermance pours, she sees the water puddle like hot cocoa, but soon it just a faint stain in the earth. Killdeer kite down and dally above Mariette, as if suddenly interested. Turtledoves watch from the telephone wire. And Sister Hermance thinks, We will have a bounty. Everything she touches will grow. Dirt puts itself in her hands.

Author: Ron Hansen

Mini-synopsis: A cloistered convent is thrown into social and spiritual disarray when a beautiful, charismatic young postulant begins having ecstatic visions and develops the stigmata.

Notes: It is sometimes said that good novels should make the reader uncomfortable. For various reasons I've never quite bought into that statement, particularly because there are a lot of less-than-profitable means of making people uncomfortable—some of them silly and vain, and some of them outright dangerous. This short, easy read is not silly or vain, but it is potentially dangerous. Whether that comment is praise or censure may be left to the reader to determine.

I would not recommend the book to Protestants unless they're familiar and very comfortable with the weirder tales of the saints. This story is much more likely to exacerbate confusion than clear it up.

The primary danger of the story—the subjective and, to my thought, inaccurate twist on the experience—is the author's startling sexualization of Mariette and, to some extent, the nuns around her. There's nothing modern high literature loves more than a little Freudian eroticism, but I've got practical womanhood enough to look at all of that and think, like sixty-year-old maiden Marilla Cuthbert, "Stuff and nonsense." (Quote taken entirely out of context, but still.) There's certainly some tradition of romantic imagery in Judeo-Christian symbolism; many an interpretation of the Song of Solomon goes that direction, but when it contains flat references to breasts and thighs and mussy hair, when the girl on the receiving end of the ecstasies is forcibly depicted as fresh and nubile, it all gets very awkward very quickly. Though Hansen obviously made a deliberate artistic choice, it was hard for at least this practical woman not to huff, throw the book aside, and say, "Only men and the really extreme feminists would write about a woman this way."

Mariette herself is secretive and preternaturally humble, which allows her to remain a mystery to the reader—and remain so right through the ending, as the central facts of her case are never laid open. For myself, I leaned toward the belief that her story worked as a portrayal of acute innocence surrounded by misinterpretation and folly, inspiring intense love and hatred. It could also work, however, as the tale of a fraud so consistent and so powerful that she convinces herself. Hansen succeeds at the mystery and even succeeds at spinning hope out of the odd and uncomfortable ending.

As for the writing itself, I do very well with stylized prose right up to the point where it starts messing with sentence structure. Hansen's work is just over that line. Those who like their literary prose with a strong poetic flair will probably enjoy the artistry. I found it a touch distracting, especially since the sentences that did contain subject and verb and object often combined verbs and nouns with a lot of originality at the expense of natural feel.

I shouldn't make it sound like I disliked the book, though. Outside of the hypersexualization, which is one of my pet peeves, the story called up some sincere love. It carried a meditative quietness that I thoroughly appreciated, and I liked the paragraph-length scenes of different sisters doing different tasks, emphasizing the rhythmic work and prayer of the monastery. Much of Mariette's thought—whether sincere or not—was beautiful, believable, and striking in its reverent humility.

In the end, it's a thoughtful and fascinating tale, recommended for those with a taste for literary exploration of an idea and an interest in prayer, but not recommended for those already predisposed to think of the Church as driven by sex and/or the devil. Those predispositions are both made of balderdash, and as long as they're this rampant in American society, I stand firmly against feeding them.

Just because art reveals truth does not mean that every narrative underscoring any story is true. With that in mind, however, some of you may yet find Mariette's tale worth the read.


Top Ten Tuesday: The End

A little bit of searching, and I've discovered that my first Top Ten Tuesday post was over two years ago, in January of 2011. And after a hundred or so lists, I've done about all I can do with the concept. The Broke and the Bookish can afford to recycle old topics, having a whole group of contributors, but me... not so much. With many thanks to the B. & the B. for two years of spectacularly awesome meme, then, I'm bowing out.

From henceforth, for now, I'm going to step back to being a Monday-Wednesday-Friday blogger. Despite all the things I'd like to try on Tuesdays, I have a bigger need to finish revising some novels. But today you get one more list, though I'm not going to mess with numbers.

For my last Top Ten Tuesday, then, it seemed appropriate to pick my favorite story endings.

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

It's hard to say why they're my favorites without giving spoilers, so pardon the vagueness. They range from the tender to the sublime, from bittersweet at best to shamelessly happy, and from the simply written to high poetry and prose. But all of them did for me what Tolkien famously believed to be a key function of the fairy tale—and I believe the same just as ardently, though not as famously—they gave me "a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." I will forgive a book a multitude of wrongs if it pulls that off.

The list, then:

Dante's Paradiso

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Emma and Persuasion

Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse

Stephenie Meyer's The Host

L.M. Montgomery's Anne of the Island, Rilla of Ingleside, The Blue Castle, and Mistress Pat

Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead and Ender's Shadow

George MacDonald's Lilith

Shannon Hale's Princess Academy

C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy and That Hideous Strength and Till We Have Faces

John Green's Looking for Alaska

Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess

Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus

John Grisham's The Testament

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost

Catherine Marshall's Christy

Kate Dicamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie

So many beautiful last pages. The memories keep putting massive lumps in my throat.

What are your favorite story endings?


Spontaneous Introvert Holidays

The ambient light ever-present in town prevents us from getting as much as I'd like from the night sky, but sometimes the stars outdo themselves. Lou and I stood on the front steps for several minutes last night, just watching one of the loveliest panoramas I've ever seen. Sirius. Orion. The narrow crescent moon and Jupiter close to Aldebaran. The Pleiades.

That quiet little interlude came after cocktails and barbecued pork by candlelight, after an afternoon divided between finishing book club book and re-potting baby tomatoes and cucumbers, after Mass and some good bonding time with our little choir.

Which came after Saturday, but Saturday I'll explain shortly. Saturday came after a week in which even coffee and mellow piano music on headphones couldn't give me the gift of concentration. In which attempting to write was so difficult that it was a relief to pretend my computer didn't exist and hand-copy a stack of recipes for a friend; any other week, I'd have printed them. In which I was sometimes too unsettled even to read.

Saturday, Lou went to Seattle with a group of guys to watch the Mariners lose to the Rangers, and I had the house to myself. And honestly, as I fumbled through some computer work in the early afternoon, before he left, and realized that I'd spent a perfectly good, homey morning feeling stressed and sad, it struck me that my problem might have been nothing more than the absurd length of time since I'd willingly given myself a day off from writing.

I have written about rest before, but I always seem to forget my own words.

So yeah, Saturday got to be a holiday. Spontaneous introvert holidays are probably as individual as the person; for mine, I spent an hour rooting massive buttercups out of the chives and oregano and wandering about the yard snapping pictures. Then I gave myself a luxurious two hours with the piano and guitar—and Rich Mullins' "If I Stand" came together for me, hands and voice, like it never has before, and my fingertips survived a half hour of guitar chords instead of three songs (and my voice survived everything, which is practically miraculous). And after leftovers for dinner, I made myself a mug of microwave chocolate cake and watched my first-ever episode of Doctor Who.

It was all so much fun that I let Sunday go ahead and be a day of rest, too.

All of which means that I'm writing this blog-post last minute, with book club tonight and dinner yet to be made beforehand. It's sloppy. I'm sorry. But a packed Monday with the probability of a sloppy blog post seemed acceptable as a side effect to the restoration of sanity.

It didn't fix all the emotional exhaustion, but it helped. I can think again.

Rest is good. I recommend it. It probably won't take me long to forget that again. In the meantime, I recommend sunshine and gardens and music and chocolate cake and Doctor Who. Also, the stars.


Lonely Guitars and other stories

* * *

It's raining, and I haven't got a lot of words today. Just a number of random thoughts.

1. After three years without faithful playing, I was so lonely for my guitar this week that I finally prioritized setting it up on a stand in a closet, where Maia can't get her naughty little claws and teeth into it. Turns out, it seems to have missed me, too. We had a good time with my Nynaeve song and a little Sophie B. Hawkins and Garth Brooks before my no-longer-callused fingers started screeching at me.

2. Nothing has gone particularly wrong this week, yet somehow I've been disproportionately anxious about everything. And distracted, and nervous, and unfocused. I'm drinking chamomile tea instead of coffee today, hoping that helps.

3. I discovered this week that all three of my supposed red currant bushes are actually jostaberries. I tried a jostaberry last year and was most definitely not impressed, but maybe there'll be something I can do with the fruit. It would hurt to pull out such happy, flourishing bushes. But Mom plans to give me some red currants, which I am glad about, because they have loads of pectin and make lovely jelly and jam.

4. Meanwhile, Mom and I went start shopping the other day, and I came home with leeks, artichokes, chamomile, snap peas, and a columbine. On top of the fern and flax and parsnips and tomatoes she gave me. It is unfortunately too wet to take pictures outdoors, but ahh, baby plants. I love them so much.

* * *

Music of the week: in honor of Madeleine L'Engle's The Young Unicorns, which I reviewed this week and which contained a scene where the protagonist played this piece, here's the English horn solo from the prelude to the third act of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. It's beautifully played here by Jose Antonio Masmano.

* * *

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Young Unicorns

The Young Unicorns"Mr. Theo," Dave said, holding himself in control, "there is a difference between mollycoddling her and—"

"Sit down!" Mr. Theo bellowed. "You are talking about a twelve-year-old girl, and I am talking about an artist. I will not let her do anything that will hurt her music. Now sit still and listen—if you have ears to hear."

Shrugging, Dave stalked over to his favorite black leather chair by the marble fireplace.

Out in the hall by the coatrack, Emily managed to get her coat to stay on its hook; then, walking carefully but with the assurance of familiarity, she came back and sat down at one of the pianos. "Then why don't you let me give a concert if you think I'm a musician?"

Mr. Theotocopoulos took her hands in his. "Why could you not come straight home from school? Cannot that so-called orchestra get along without you? And your hands are too cold to be of any use for music at all." He began to massage her fingers. "You are too young for a concert. You would be not only a prodigy, you would be a blind child prodigy, and people would say, 'Isn't she marvelous, poor little thing?' and nobody would have heard you play at all. Is that what you want?"

Author: Madeleine L'Engle

Synopsis: Josiah "Dave" Davidson's ex-gang wants him back, but he's not interested in anything that will endanger his beloved young friend Emily. Nor is he interested in opening himself up to the Austins, the domestic, innocent family that cares for Emily and trusts Dave himself with their children. When the Alphabats' persistence proves to be part of a complex plot to take over New York, however, Dave finds that in order to protect Emily and the Austins, he must face and fight a number of shadowed, secretive enemies—including his own inability to trust.

Notes: The key to a good epigraph is finding something that sparks interest in the reader at the beginning but knocks him flat with its emotional voltage if he happens to re-read it afterward. L'Engle proved her epigraph-choosing mettle with the use of a sentence and a half referencing the untameability of the unicorn. It's a perfect fit for the story.

At least, it is to the reader like me who fires up with love for the young protagonist. Josiah—no, boy, I'm not just calling you Dave, not when there's so much beauty and dignity in your real name—is the sort to stir motherly impulses as well as sympathetic ones: a surly young introvert, too bitter to ask for help escaping the long-reaching tentacles of a dangerous past, but possessing a gentle heart and a nascent trustworthiness under the resentment and off-putting coldness. The story is of the crux moment of his life, the balance point where he either surrenders backward into the quicksand or accepts the outstretched hand above him and pulls free.

The third person omniscient narrative doesn't separate him from the reader, and I spent the book wanting to plead with him and fight for him and hug him by turns. None of which he'd have been likely to appreciate, but it's the reader's prerogative to feel.

L'Engle's naming choices often carry some symbolic value, and the connection of Josiah Davidson to the Davidic king of Israel is openly remarked on in the book and reinforced by his father's name. Nor is it the only name of interest, as exemplified by Canon Tallis—the surname references the Jewish prayer shawl—and Mr. Theotocopoulos, the latter of which suggests the Theotokos (the ancient Marian name 'God-bearer', usually brought into English as "mother of God"). Whether the common names are hand-picked for meaning is less clear, but there are some curious parallels—notably Emily Gregory, whose name loosely means "watchful rival"; she's the blinded but perceptive angel against the darkness in Josiah/Dave's past. And even the nickname Dave comes from the Hebrew for beloved.

As with most of L'Engle's work, the characters carry the book—which is really why I love her. There's so much back story to the main few that I felt like I'd missed a previous installment. Which, in the Austins' case, I suppose I had, but that feeling came more from Emily and Dave than the others. It's an interesting example of kicking off narrative in the middle of a story, anyway.

The novel attempts to work on several fronts and succeeds better on some than on others. As futuristic tale, it feels rather outdated; lasers were new technology in the sixties when the book was written, but now they're commonly used in surgeries without having gained any notable popularity as an alternative means of getting high. As mystery, the book is startlingly successful; all the clues were present, yet the plot twist still came as a stunner. As character study of an innocent family's brush with deadly evil, it's light but beautiful. As old-school young adult novel, it's saved from being annoyingly preachy only by its moments of unique wisdom. And as a story of redemption, it's sweet and, in its own simple way, astounding.

L'Engle's novels, while nearly always likable, are often a little uneven, especially when submitted to the test of time. This book isn't perfect, but the story caught me very personally and got into my affections. Where that wasn't owing to Josiah Davidson or Emily or the bright-eyed, bright-hearted little Rob, whom I also loved, it was owing to music.

Music got to play its own role in the book, and L'Engle knows her stuff. She makes numerous thoughtful references to great composers and works, such as the moment where Dave picks up his English horn and plays the solo from the prelude to the third act of Tristan and Isolde. And her scenes of Mr. Theo playing the cathedral organ are almost enough to make the reader feel the blast of sound coming from the pipes. The skill behind the art is also treated attentively; Emily's blindness combines with her musical prowess to give her an exceptional ability to listen as well as a powerful kinesthetic sense and memory. For such a short book, it's all spectacularly done.

The ending, if I'm being honest, is a little too much in the lessons-learned order. The groundwork is present, so the resolution itself is believable, but some of the dialogue toward the end is not, really. The final scene or two could certainly have been better handled.

That little flaw bothered me a bit, but love covers over a multitude of wrongs. I loved the story and the characters far too much to fail to forgive.


Top Ten Tuesday: Fictional Pets

Technically, today's topic is "Favorite books I read before I was a blogger." For that, however, all I have to do is refer you to this list. I'd not read all fifty of those books before ever becoming a blogger, but you can find the top ten in the top thirteen or so.

On account of which, I'm choosing my own topic today. This one is dedicated to my sister Beth, who has been asking for it for probably a year.

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

There are two difficulties with this topic: first, that some of the best animals in fiction are not pets. The horses Bree and Hwin would be so offended at being called pets that I almost feel like I should include Shasta and Aravis on the list. There's a reason that book is called The Horse and His Boy.

Second, that I'm almost guaranteed to forget some and later have to smack my forehead in the comments box.

1. Dog Monday from L.M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside. For waiting out World War I at the station, watching every incoming train for his beloved soldier. Less honorable but still enjoyable mention goes to the cat Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde.

2. Crookshanks from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories. With honorable mentions to Hedwig and Pigwidgeon, both of whom I loved—but the part-cat part-kneazle Crookshanks was exceptionally smart and helpful, especially when it came to figuring out whether dogs and rats were really what they seemed to be.

3. Rowdy from Wilson Rawls' Summer of the Monkeys. The quintessential good dog—a patient floppy-eared hound, prone to hiding under the porch when frightened but always up for an adventure with Jay Berry Lee.

4. Rusty and Joseph and the Sarah-cat from L.M. Montgomery's Anne of the Island. Two scrappy misfits and a queenly creature, all feline, all learning to keep house together.

5. The dog Wrolf from Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse... though I suspect Wrolf would not appreciate being called a pet, either, and I probably ought to stick with Zachariah the cat or Serena the hare.

6. McGinty from L.M. Montgomery's Pat books. Montgomery apparently had a soft spot for loyal-hearted little dogs. As do I.

7. The merrel from Robin McKinley's Spindle's End. For being a good conversationalist and ultimately protecting Rosie in a crucial way. There are a lot of good pets in that book, too—horses and dogs and cats and mice and even, weirdly enough, a spider.

8. Old Dan and Little Ann from Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows. I barely remember this book, which is surprising when I consider how many times I read it in sixth grade, but I do remember there being a great deal of eternal love and loyalty between these two hound-dogs.

9. Jack the bulldog from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. Another quintessential good dog, and possibly not entirely fictional.

10. Pongo and Missis from Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmatians. Technically, they wouldn't want to be called pets either, but they can argue that with the Dearlys on their own time. Also worthy of mention are Perdita, several of the animal helpers who aided Pongo and Missis on the search for the puppies, and some of the puppies themselves.

Honorable mentions to Pilot from Jane Eyre, Jok the gander from The Goose Girl, the milk carton from China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, annoying little Gwin the marten from Inkheart and sequels, and the three-legged horse from The Hero and the Crown.

Maia insists upon being mentioned as well, having refused to listen to my explanation about this being a matter of reality versus fiction. I don't think she believes there's a difference.

Back to the post... apparently Montgomery writes more about pets than most authors, though McKinley does well, too. Lewis gave major story roles to a lot of animals who were not pets, including making one of them Narnia's God. For myself, well—no spoilers allowed for not-yet-published works, so I'll just say this: I guarantee that if I had written the Divine Comedy, there would have been some goodly birds and beasts in Paradise.

All right, what pets have I overlooked?


Organic Knowledge and the Fantasy Novelist

Me wearing a blanket roll and a couple of packs.
I ought to try it with a wool blanket, but the choir
books certainly made an effective burden.
I do not, however, know why I didn't think to try
hanging the packs from the opposite shoulder.
Duh. Guess I'll try that next.
Blanket roll instructions courtesy of David.
Thanks, David!
As I write this, I've had a government document open on military dermatology for a week. Also this week, I've spilled hot wax all over my thumb while figuring out how much light is cast by a small flame, gotten lost in a blog-hop on the subject of codes and ciphers, and tried my first blanket roll on for size.

Technically, I ought to be wearing a sarong dress in this picture.

I mention this because Lars Walker's article on the problems with fantasy, especially Christian fantasy, is... well, fantastic:
Look at the masters. Tolkien and Lewis weren’t only fanboys (though they certainly were that by the standards of their time). They were scholars, and scholars at the top level. Tolkien’s work was the fruit of decades, not only of storytelling, but of mastering his source material. All those rich passages in The Lord of the Rings, and in the collateral works, spring from his profound knowledge of European languages, a subject he may have known better than anyone who ever lived.... Trying to write “like Tolkien” without some degree of his scholarship is a project doomed to fail.
(Link courtesy of George. Thanks, George!) And later, more immediately germane to the thoughts I started this piece with:
The second thing missing in most fantasy today is . . . what will I call it? Organic knowledge. My field is mostly historical fantasy, concentrating on the Viking Age. I’ve been researching that period for more than fifty years. More recently I’ve become a reenactor, which gives me the opportunity to get more hands-on experience. I’ve drunk mead in a Viking hall, slept in a Viking tent, and helped row a Viking boat. I know how the clothes feel and what Vikings smelled like (smoke—the houses were full of it).
So yeah, when I say I think it would be fun to join the Society for Creative Anachronism, no, I'm not joking. Though my fantasy tends not to be historically based, which makes the SCA's character studies less obviously relevant.

Walker's emphasis on the importance of knowledge is both frightening and exciting. Frightening, because I don't have a doctorate in anything, and I'm not going to get one. Exciting, because organic knowledge has never been easier to lay hands on. What you can't come up with in life experience—and I consider myself lucky to have some homesteading background, outdoor adventure training, and horse care and management experience, all of which have proven helpful in fantasy-writing—you can often find described by a blogger with a knack for sensory detail, or aptly depicted in a few jpegs or a YouTube video.

I agree wholeheartedly with Walker's point that making crap up does not amount to art, even in fantasy—that there's a standard out there, raised like the Great Wall of China between the individual writer and successful artistry. My own interaction with that standard is one of mingled awe and reckoning. Lips pursed, arms crossed, eyes focused on potential footholds, the lot. Resting on the easy side of the wall is not an option.

Walker didn't mention it, but there's one point of organic knowledge that I consider imperative above all others. More than anything else, frequent failures in this regard are the reason I almost never read Christian fiction and am picky about fantasy despite its being my favorite genre. The one knowledge an author cannot do without is thorough understanding of differing human minds and hearts, or empathy.

I'm not relying on my own ideas for estimation of its importance. Here's movie critic Steve Greydanus talking about the late Roger Ebert's value for this virtue:
There is a generosity and empathy to many of [Ebert's] reviews, and in many of the films he appreciated. One of the qualities he most celebrated in a film was its ability to “take us outside our personal box of time and space and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” (If his celebration of empathy sounds over the top, consider that St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) arguably goes further: Empathy, she maintained in On the Problem of Empathy and other writings, is foundational to personhood and community, to knowledge even of the self, as well as others.)—Steven D. Greydanus, "How I Believe in Roger Ebert"
This is what makes Orson Scott Card a great writer (though he's a pretty impressive linguist and tactician, too, as best as I can tell) and my literary hero, and it's a more serious aspiration to me even than achieving authenticity in my worldbuilding details. Artistic portrayal of character can be done in myriad styles, from Rowling's caricatures to Waugh's methodical detailing, but the choices made by fictional people must be soundly human and believable, and authors should show generosity toward their characters' motivations. Without that generosity, they risk making their tales into bad sermons. (Good sermons are an art form. Bad novels are disqualified from the outset, on charges of submitting to the wrong category.)

Knowledge of universal human dignity and complexity is harder to come by than knowledge of the unmistakable scent of a tack shed or the feel of a raft's ferrying motion across the laminar currents in a river. Not because it's less available, but because the study of it works against our self-interest. To write with true empathy, we have to be able to see the merit in feelings antagonistic to the ideals we hold dear, even to those we hold sacred.

There's no shortcut to this. Read rants by someone you disagree with politically or religiously, and look for underlying truth beneath faulty logic. There nearly always is some; there are keen truths carrying both sides of even moral debates presented as black-and-white, like those over abortion and gay marriage. Forgive someone who hurt you in ways that can never be mended or repaid—understand their brokenness, search out their goodness, and forgive. Read Thérèse of Lisieux and try to live her Little Way. If it's not one of the hardest things you've ever done, you're either a more fundamentally decent soul than I am, or you're doing it wrong.

This is the standard I hold myself to, and I make no claims about how much I've achieved or will achieve. In the end, that's probably for others to say anyway, not me. I can only—I was going to say try, but trying's not good enough for Yoda. I can only fight my own human imperfections and self-blindness and, as best I can by the light I possess, do.


Active Dreaming and other stories

The rain has returned, and with it some sense of rhythm and routine and to-do lists and other everyday things. I feel like I've awakened, still a little groggy, out of a night of very active dreaming.

But before I get into that—let it be written that Bellingham, Washington had a week of sunshine in March and over Easter. I do not think that combination has ever occurred in the history of mankind, and I doubt it ever will again, so may the memory of its glory be preserved.

* * *

Easter was like a giant wall on my calendar—I hadn't looked beyond it during Lent. Here in the afterwards, I'm thus far still recovering from Holy Week. The celebrations included late nights, extra practice, expected stress, some very unexpected stress, and a bigger than usual mixed bag of distractions and emotions. But then, the Triduum is centered around joy and suffering blended together in the death and resurrection of Christ, and my own experiences of it have often echoed that, especially in the year of my confirmation. This year was certainly that way.

There was often joy in the music. The quintet I sing with got asked to handle Good Friday, and that little group has something that feels—to me—quietly momentous. Journal excerpt:
The intimate way we all crowded around the area microphone—RD just behind me, C close at my side, Lou and RL flanking them, everyone distanced for balance's sake with my unassuming voice just inches from the mic, all of us pressed together so that we could hardly help but breathe together and sing as "though many, seeming one". Polyphony—Palestrina's "O Bone Jesu" and Lotti's "Miserere"—all of us listening closely to each other, breathing carefully, tuning carefully, blending carefully. Hymnals all below and behind and around mine. Four parts on "O Sacred Head Surrounded" and "Were You There". D supporting us, coaching us and playing organ and piano. 
Someone said afterward that that was the best music we'd ever had.
The night of Easter vigil was clear and warm and only just dark as we stood round the bonfire, and for once I managed to process inside without my candle ever blowing out. And indoors at the ambo, above the forest of candlelit faces, Lou stood and sang the Exsultet—it's something like ten minutes of chanting, unaccompanied, amid a reverential hush—and for a few moments I forgot about distracting dramas and just listened to that strong, warm baritone sing the words:
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph! 
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness. 
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples...
This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.... 
This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day...
* * *

Music of the week: The Exsultet sung in Latin, at St. Peter's.

* * *

The house needs cleaning now, and my books need writing, so off I go. But first, your cat picture. As you see, Maia insists upon sitting on my lap when I'm playing the piano—which is fine, when she doesn't also insist on chasing her tail.

Happy remainder of the Easter octave!


Currently Reading: Shadow Puppets

Shadow Puppets (Shadow, #3)"But I'm not mocking you!" cried Anton. "I celebrate you! Because you are, in a way, a small way, my son. Or at least my nephew. And look at you! Living a life entirely for others!"

"I'm completely selfish!" cried Bean in protest.

"Then sleep with this girl, you know she'll let you! Or marry her and then sleep with anyone else, father children or not, why should you care? Nothing that happens outside your body matters. Your children don't matter to you! You're completely selfish!"

Bean was left with nothing to say.

"Self-delusion dies hard," said Petra softly, slipping her hand into his.

"I don't love anybody," said Bean.

"You keep breaking your heart with the people you love," said Petra. "You just can't ever admit it until they're dead."

Author: Orson Scott Card

Synopsis: While Peter risks bringing serial killer Achilles into the Hegemony, Petra attempts to convince Bean to marry her and let her have children with him. Both Peter's decision and Bean's wind up having global consequences, as Peter and his parents are forced to flee the Hegemon's complex just when the world erupts into war, and Achilles and the underground take an interest in Bean's progeny. Meanwhile, others from Ender's jeesh get actively involved in the war, and both Hegemon and Battle School graduates have all they can do to restore peace and liberty to Earth—especially with Achilles planning to kill Peter and work his final vengeance against Bean and Petra.

Notes: One of Card's strengths as a writer is the ability to portray people with consistent philosophies that take in both thought and emotion. I've never spotted anyone better at this; he does a spectacular job, even when the characters' philosophies don't necessarily line up with his own.

Perhaps especially then. In Speaker for the Dead, the humanist Ender and the Catholics of Lusitania come to some beautiful understandings—not understandings that contradict the LDS faith, but that support a mostly symbolic expression of it. In Shadow Puppets, the ideals of marriage and family emphatically put forward by Theresa Wiggin in Shadow of the Hegemon reappear, this time championed by the gay scientist Anton. And while Card is too deft at character thought process for me to be sure that the professor's thoughts are a direct echo of the author's, Theresa Wiggin's Mormonism suggests some parity. Either way, the end result comes off a shade more heavy-handed than I'm used to reading from Card.

If Anton's panegyric on marriage and the making of children contributes to the general conviction that Card is a homophobe, however, then the general conviction could stand to take a great big deep breath. Which needs to happen anyway. Card, by all accounts, is an honorable man, not to mention a superior artist whose work would be worth reading regardless, and he certainly does not hate or fear homosexuals. The force of Anton's argument is simply that even the homosexual person does not escape the hardwired-in longing "to be an inextricable part of the human race"—a profoundly humanizing theme.

Ideals formed the basis for some of the major internal struggles in this novel, and, obviousness aside, were responsible for some truly beautiful moments. I part company with Anton on the concept of marriage and children as the meaning of life—I see the human family as ultimately symbolic of higher unions and integrations, and therefore his ideal seems oddly earthbound to me—but his words about the aforementioned human longing, despite our differences in definition, struck me as solid truth. And Bean had moments of realized emotion toward the idea of his own children that were just lovely.

The external struggles of the novel focused on Peter Wiggin's attempt to achieve hegemony, Achilles' plotting, and the movements of future China, India, and the Muslim world in battle. Peter, described in Ender's Game as having "the soul of a jackal", is softened but still recognizable through his arrogance, genius, and depression; there's also something very moving about watching John Paul and Theresa throw themselves into the work and protection of their one remaining child. As for Achilles, the cracks in the icy-blooded villain begin to show through in this novel. And while we're talking characters, Virlomi, Alai, Suriyawong, and to some extent Hot Soup all have intriguing and fitting roles to play in the story.

With its sometimes ordinary phrasing, emphatic ideals, and what struck me as a possibly cliched image of Chinese expansionist communism—maybe just because I'm so tired of politics—Shadow Puppets lacks some of the breathtaking subtlety and strength of Card's best novels. It certainly can't match the first two Ender books or Ender's Shadow. But a second-tier Card novel is still good work. I'm glad to have the sequel, Shadow of the Giant, at hand.

Fangirl postscript: Bean and Petra forever. That is all.


Top Ten Tuesday: Fictional Ice Cream Boys

Not long before Lou and I had our first chat over coffee, one of my girlfriends spoke of having a mental list of what she called "ice cream boys"—that is, the boys to whom she'd say yes if any of them asked her out to ice cream. I later journaled something like, "Lou is on my list of ice cream boys—Lou just about is my list of ice cream boys." Luckily for me, he asked me out.

That explains the post title. Technically, the topic is "characters I would crush on if I were also a fictional character," which made me feel rather silly since I'm much too married to be admitting to bursts of romantic feeling toward other boys. I know these are imaginary boys, but still.

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

But when it comes to the imaginary boys an imaginary single Jenna would go on an ice cream date with, all of them have some great qualities, and some resemble my own dear man in important ways... so, very well. We'll pretend I'm an unattached fictional character for the purposes of one blog post. I suppose we'll have to pretend all these men are unattached, too.

Here's my self-imposed rule: one ice cream boy per author, else this might be an Austenfest. And I'm ruling out Rand al'Thor. I loved him, but I would not share him.

#10: Hilary 'Jingle' Gordon (Pat of Silver Bush, L.M. Montgomery)
Why: Sensitive, lightly built, sweet, hardworking dreamer
He loves me/he loves me not: Quite possibly. He likes domestic girls, especially brunette ones who like dogs.
Choice of ice cream: Old-fashioned homemade vanilla with wild strawberries.

#9: Ian O'Shea (The Host, Stephenie Meyer)
Why: Protective, thoughtful, good, able to see beyond appearances
He loves me/he loves me not: He likes the sweet ones, so I might have a chance.
Choice of ice cream: Big bowl of chocolate, please.

#8: Prince Char (Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine)
Why: Softhearted, has a good sense of humor, does the right thing
He loves me/he loves me not: Doesn't know I exist. He likes eye-catching and playful.
Choice of ice cream: Mint chocolate chip. It's fun.

#7: Charles Bingley (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen)
Why: Generous, good-natured, unassuming and disarming
He loves me/he loves me not: I'm one of the girls he likes enough to dance with a few times.
Choice of ice cream: Goo goo cluster. The name is so funny that he's got to know what it tastes like.

#6: Alexei Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky)
Why: Gentle, thoughtful, loyal, pure of heart
He loves me/he loves me not: Yes, but he still thinks he might need to be a monk.
Choice of ice cream: He's not picky—he'll have whatever I'm having.

#5: Harry Potter (The Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling)
Why: Steady, introspective, emotional, brave, self-sacrificial, honestly just plain likable
He loves me/he loves me not: "The really tall, shy girl with the yellow buck teeth? I thought she liked Ron."
Choice of ice cream: Do they have treacle tarts? He'll have one of those.

#4: Calvin O'Keefe (The Time quintet, Madeleine L'Engle)
Why: Tall, outwardly casual but inwardly noble, exceptionally smart, perceptive and sincere
He loves me/he loves me not: He might be one of the few guys who could've liked me in my awkward teenage phase.
Choice of ice cream: Whatever's in the freezer. If you've got multiple kinds, he'll try some of everything.

#3: Edmund Pevensie (The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis)
Why: Knows himself and his own weakness, humble, wise, quietly brave and noble
He loves me/he loves me not: If we made it as far as ice cream, there's a very good chance we'd hit it off.
Choice of ice cream: Chocolate swirl. He used to like super-sweet, fruity stuff, but some sort of past experience soured him on that kind of thing.

#2: Mortimer Folchart (The Inkworld trilogy, Cornelia Funke)
Why: Bookish, quiet, steady, protective, good dad material, has gentle working hands
He loves me/he loves me not: I might have a chance at a date if I bumped into him in the library carrying a dozen books.
Choice of ice cream: Great big hot fudge sundae with lots of toppings.

#1: Ender Wiggin (The Ender books, Orson Scott Card)
Why: Empathetic, strong, humble, does what needs doing, perceptive, pure of heart
He loves me/he loves me not: He's kind and attentive, but no, he wouldn't fall for me.
Choice of ice cream: Not important. He'll order the first thing off the menu.

All right, don't make me embarrass myself by myself. What fictional characters would be on your list of ice cream boys or girls?


The Picture-Perfect Blogger... and Me

Easter nail polish!
It's a sunny Holy Saturday as I write, shaping up to be the warmest and prettiest Easter I've experienced in the Pacific Northwest, and I spent most of the day away from my computer. It felt like a good day to pot some of my little seedlings and a pair of avocado trees, paint my fingernails—which happens just twice a year for this gardener/guitarist: on Christmas and Easter—and pound out a Chopin prelude on the piano with intense expression and, unfortunately, coffee jitters.

Lou and I plan to spend the evening at his parents', eat the traditional oyster stew, and then head over to church for Easter Vigil—the most beautiful night of the liturgical year. By the time this post goes live, the Triduum will be over and Easter will have begun. I love the whole Easter season. But there's nothing else in all of life for me like Holy Saturday.

This week, Masha and Christie and I have a three-way blogalectic topic: whether we three artsy Catholic bloggers ought to try in any way to resemble the suddenly popular Mormon mommy bloggers, who were recently examined and praised by a self-described feminist atheist over at Salon.

And as I've sat down to write, I've realized that it's an almost irrelevant question for me. I have all kinds of respect and affection for the LDS church and its members, thanks to my being an Orson Scott Card/Shannon Hale/Stephenie Meyer fangirl and having had a few lovely Mormon friends and acquaintances. But I'm not a Mormon. I'm also not a mommy.

Holy Saturday sunshine and transplanting.
What I am, what I do have in common with these young women, is that I'm a personal blogger with an artistic bent—though I'm bookish and not at all craftsy—and that I belong to a faith tradition that affects every area of my life. The question for me, then, is simply: how open should I be about faith and/or life hardships on my blog? Since both can turn away readers?

The twenty-something LDS mommies are mostly pretty subtle about their religion; it shows up in a link to mormon.org in the sidebar, in references to Utah and the temple. If they talk about faith, it tends to be unspecific but generically Christian in mood and wording. Some of them—again, not all—keep the blogs pretty positive and clean-scrubbed as far as life goes, so that after paging down through a few of them, my own first reaction was sort of like what happens when you watch a commercial and half-believe that drinking Coke will make you sexy. If I were Mormon, says that little niggle, would I be be a pretty 26-year-old wife with a couple of cute toddlers instead of a 35-year-old who had to wait till 30 to get married and still hasn't managed to have a kid, but does have gray hairs coming in? Nope. But I envy those girls their youth, their fashion sense, and their children.

Masha talked about over-share on Catholic mom blogs (gory clinical details of childbirth, anyone?) and finding a balance between posting all happy thoughts and spending too much time working out deep dark issues in public. Christie spoke of feeling never good enough in the presence of the picture-perfect young moms, and of treating a blog as a way to encourage others.

I... could go a million directions, but it seems best to just answer the question.

When the subject of faith wants to come up on my blog—in a book review, in a Friday post's interaction with the liturgical calendar, etc.—I don't hide it, but I do try to keep my readers in mind to some extent. Most of you that I know by name are not Catholic, and some of you aren't Christian at all. The golden rule seems appropriate here; for myself, I'm not generally troubled by people talking about their beliefs as long as there's no apparent attack on my own, so I do my best to make the references organic and honest but non-confrontational.

If this weren't a personal blog—if I were out to meet some public niche interest—I'd just keep faith offscreen, as I nowadays do for politics. But it is a personal blog.

All dressed up for Easter Vigil.
And because it's personal, the matter of how open to be about my imperfect life is a personal decision. For myself, I've learned that on an ordinary day, I'm happier just not thinking about what I don't have or can't do. So I don't talk about childlessness or chronic depression or adrenal exhaustion much. I focus on what I do have and what I can do, and that's what comes out on the blog. And blogging optimistically, in its turn, helps me live a more cheerful daily life.

As for what I have to offer: I try and do for guests at my blog just what I do for guests at my home. If you come here, I hope you find friendly conversation and a place to rest surrounded by books and beauty.

Easter Monday postscript: I feel more like a mommy blogger than usual today, having spent most of the day with my two- and five-year-old nieces. It was a heck of a lot of fun, but I don't know when I'd blog if I had kids that age. Since they went home, I have got the furniture mostly put to rights and the egg off the kitchen floor—the five-year-old helped me make her favorite "doubled eggs" for lunch—but I haven't gotten around to scrubbing the apple juice off the table yet. I'm exhausted. :P

Happy Easter!