Review: In This House of Brede

I finished this book on the flight from Seattle to Raleigh.  To my left was a dad watching a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie.  To my right, across the aisle, was an Unaccompanied Minor who was too cool for school, or for playing peekaboo with the adorable toddler who kept popping over the seat in front of him.  The toddler gave up eventually, turned to me, and waved with that jellyfish finger wiggle of small children.  I smiled and waved back, but he looked quizzically at the tears in my eyes.  I was, yet again, having A Moment, courtesy of a book, in a public place.

Bird had recommended Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede to me after she read it – part of her reading had, in fact, overlapped with us sharing a room at our nana’s house, and she kept me awake with her exclamations over the Benedictine monastery at Brede.  It’s a novel about nuns (Bird loves nuns) and a high-powered businesswoman, Philippa Talbot, who refuses a career-making promotion in order to go and follow the (unexpected) call to become a nun.  The book follows Philippa on her journey from preparing to enter the monastery to her Solemn Profession and beyond as she finds her place in the community in the years before Vatican II.

“What do you ask?”

“To try my vocation as a Benedictine in this house of Brede.”

At first, I found Godden’s narration a bit difficult to get used to.  It’s not quite like the third person omniscient one usually reads; there’s too much interjection from various characters, as though you’re dropping in on multiple overlapping conversations held in some sort of nondescript space, because it doesn’t matter where they said it, or even when (many of the side characters’ observations about events are followed by, “Dame So-and-so said afterwards“).  But, much like protagonist Philippa Talbot, once I grew accustomed to the rhythms of the story, I felt right at home.

The hop-around narration fit the community of the nuns, the self-effacement they were meant to seek, and the way each in turn affected all the others.  It is a book about relationships and communities of faith, and about relationships with people who understand neither community nor faith.  In one instance, Philippa’s former secretary is near death following complications from an abortion.  Her formerly shallow husband is shocked when Philippa says the sisters will pray for the secretary – “But they don’t even know her!” he says.  Nevertheless, all the sisters, even those with conflict between them, participate in a vigil praying fiercely for the life of this girl they do not know.

Another nun, Sister Cecily, struggles against her mother’s worldly expectations.  At her Clothing (when the postulant receives her novice’s habit to wear), Cecily’s mother calls the ceremony, which resembles a wedding, a mockery because there is no “real” bridegroom.  Cecily’s pain is palpable, for what could be more real to her than faith?  Godden gets vocation absolutely right – how some people are called to secular life, others to missionary work, and still others to contemplative lives, enclosed in a world of prayer that still touches and works for the world outside.

And meanwhile, the nuns are all too human.  Dame Veronica struggles with weakness of will and pride.  Abbess Hester leaves behind an enormous, secret debt from circumventing her advisers to achieve a pet project.  Philippa herself must unlearn all the things that made her so successful in the business world, realign her values, and learn to lean on the community.

Now, I don’t know how non-Catholics or non-Christians might like or dislike this novel, but I do think it could at least provide a genuine look at what religious communities strive to accomplish and how faith motivates everything they do.  Godden’s amazing portrayal of these characters as they navigate their personal relationships and their relationships with God struck me as so emotionally accurate that, yes, I found myself holding back tears on an airplane when I had to close the back cover and leave this house of Brede.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

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Review: Finishing School

I’ll admit it.  I haven’t touched my manuscript in months.  All my New Year’s resolutions quickly fell by the wayside as I kept telling myself that I would start working on it again when I got back to school.  Then when I got better after being sick.  Then when I was finally in one place again for a while.

All of these were lies.  And the longer I went without even opening the document on my laptop or putting pen to paper, the worse I felt about the project – and the more I wanted to avoid it.

This is why, on my trip to Boulder, I picked up Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.  A joint effort by Cary Tennis, creator of the Finishing School method, and Danelle Morton, one of his students, this book first tackles what Cary and Danelle call the Six Emotional Pitfalls.  (Spoiler: I was stuck in the shame pitfall.)  Then it describes Tennis’s method: basically, instead of reading each other’s writing and giving feedback, Finishing School focuses solely on the performance of work, any work, that moves the writer forward.  The group meets and discusses that week’s successes and failures, but the members are simply sharing whether or not they adhered to their (realistic, planned) schedule.

Tennis and Morton delve deeper into why Finishing School works, detailing the emotional responses people tend to have when they shift their focus from some huge project to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach.  As someone who tends to get caught up in the planning phases, I appreciate that Finishing School does emphasize the act of Doing the Work.  You’re allowed to come up with a schedule, you can even color code it if you want, but then you must Do the Work when the appointed time comes.  (There’s even a chapter dedicated to “My Fake Schedule,” a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.)

This is one of those writing guides that may not fit everyone, depending on where they’re at in the writing process, but for me, it was exactly what I needed at this point.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Review: Remarkable Creatures

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

It doesn’t take long into reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel to figure out that the title isn’t just referring to fossils.  Remarkable Creatures alternates between two narrators: Mary Anning, the lightning-struck fossil finder from a poor family, and Elizabeth Philpot, the higher class spinster from London who turns out to be rather good at finding fossils too.  Both use fossils as an escape from their disappointing life: Elizabeth for the intellectual stimulation of collecting and learning, Mary for the money she can earn selling her “curies.”

At first, their relationship is sweet and symbiotic.  Mary takes the older Elizabeth under her wing by teaching her about the creatures they find on the beach and showing her where to find the best ones.  Then Elizabeth reciprocates by advocating for Mary when she finds a “croc,” an apparent monster skeleton embedded in the cliff, making sure Mary retains ownership despite other cury-hunters on the beach and trying to help her get a good price for it.

But, like the two women suddenly finding themselves thrust into the scientific world, the novel quickly becomes more about Elizabeth and Mary against the people who misunderstand them, or worse, mistreat them, and how those struggles start to strain their own relationship.

Elizabeth acts as Mary’s advocate, whether Mary knows it or not, for much of the book.  Here is where we see the struggle for female contributors to be recognized in the 19th century scientific community.  Elizabeth is outraged, for instance, that the collectors who buy skeletons from Mary and then sell them on to museums are listed as the finders of those fossils when they have never personally set foot on the beach.  For her, intellectual property and the right of a person to be acknowledged for his or her work is paramount.

Mary herself tries to balance the ownership she feels for the “crocs “and “monsters” she finds with the knowledge that selling them will bring in much-needed money.  Her arc deals more with class and elitism, recognizing that the best way for her to rise in status and secure her family’s future is to appease the men who come wanting tours of the beach – and to possibly marry one of them.  Few people besides Elizabeth recognize Mary’s intellectual potential, seeing her as a tool or servant to be used and paid rather than someone who could ever write papers about the things she discovers.  Indeed, to many of the men in the book, Mary doesn’t discover anything at all.

Beyond this already interesting feminist layer is the question of the “croc” itself, which turns out to be an ichthyosaurus – an as-yet undiscovered species no longer extant anywhere on earth.  This is a much bigger deal in the 1800s than nowadays; as many characters uneasily point out, an extinct species would seem to imply that God had made a mistake, or didn’t care about keeping His creations alive, which shakes their faith-based worldview.  I appreciated Chevalier’s evenhanded treatment of this debate.  She was far more interested in portraying the significance of Mary’s find than in condemning or promoting either extreme.  Indeed, Elizabeth comes to a sort of middle ground on the matter, while Mary doesn’t prioritize the God-vs.-science debate at all.

I didn’t much care for the amorous jealousy that undermines the two women’s friendship.  It seemed a bit forced to have Elizabeth envy Mary a man’s attention, even as she pronounced him a fraud and a cad (he reminded me a bit of a more abashed Wickham). Given how aware both women are of the ways social expectations limit them, I would have preferred to focus on their efforts to live despite those expectations (i.e., marriage) rather than let a clearly shabby suitor damage their friendship so much.  Then again, I suppose flaws are what make characters interesting, and an inability to let go of romance as a Way Out is certainly understandable given their setting.

Overall, I enjoyed this fictional look at two real women in the fossil community, and could definitely see parallels to the way some of my female friends in STEM have been treated today.  A worthwhile historical fiction read for any feminist or fossilist!

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Review: People of the Book

This is a book-lover’s book.

The Commodore gave me this book for my birthday/Christmas (the pain of not seeing each other for months now that she lives in another state slightly assuaged by meeting up for a day of gift exchanging and talking and coffee) because she read it and thought I’d like it.  It’s a biography of a book, an illuminated haggadah found in Sarajevo, that the (initial) narrator, Hanna, is hired to examine and preserve.  The tiny clues she finds in the book’s binding and on its pages, like a wine stain (that also turns out to hold some blood) and a cat hair, send the reader into flashbacks showing the book’s history.

Anyone who enjoys that old book smell will love living vicariously through Hanna’s examination of the book, and anyone who enjoys picking up used books with mysterious inscriptions in the flyleaf and marginal notes from previous readers will certainly get a sense of delicious satisfaction from knowing the full story behind the haggadah.  Honestly, the worst part of the story was knowing that Hanna didn’t learn everything the reader did.  Knowing where the blood came from, where the silver clasps had disappeared to, I felt bad for Hanna’s frustration.

With the haggadah as the sort-of protagonist, the surrounding characters need only be developed enough to explain what they do or don’t do to the haggadah.  This meant it was easier to connect with some characters than others, and while sometimes I wondered why particular events were necessary to include, for the most part I enjoyed each piece of the haggadah’s history.

Overall, a well-written, enjoyable read.

4/5 stars on Goodreads.


What book do you wish had a biography? 

Review: Eligible

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I’m a sucker for anything involving Pride and Prejudice, particularly modern retellings.  So when I saw Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible on my library’s Lucky Day shelf (relatively new and popular books you can check out for only a week, no renewals), I snatched it up, anticipating a fun, if fluffy, addition to my P&P mental shelf.

I ended up feeling very divided about the book.  Sittenfeld’s modernization of Austenian issues was admirable and unexpected, which is difficult to achieve in an adaptation of such an iconic work.  The main characters’ relationships remained intact, with Lydia and Kitty as joined at the hip as ever and Liz and Darcy shooting barbs at one another.  The portrayal of Jane as a 40-year-old seeking to have a child on her own is one of the most independent adaptations I’ve seen of the eldest Bennet sister.  One of my favorite parts was the change in Liz’s relationship with Catherine de Bourgh, who appears here as a famous feminist speaker rather than a disapproving aunt; the switch from condemnation to commendation was a pleasant surprise!  The author even went so far as to split the scurrilous Wickham into two questionable love interests: Jasper Wick acts as Liz’s long-term (married) boyfriend, with the original Wickham’s jerkier aspects and scandalous back story; Ham is a decent guy who happens to be transgender, which sends the old-fashioned Bennet parents into conniptions when he elopes with Lydia.  So while the story is familiar (Liz is prideful, Darcy is prejudiced, they love each other anyway), it wasn’t exactly predictable.

But for a familiar yet engaging story, the book was slow.  Sittenfeld used Austen-esque sentences to describe her modern characters, with phrasing more suited to a Regency-era parlor game than binge-watching a reality dating show.  The chapters were ridiculously short, ranging from half a page to maybe seven pages; it was as if rather than adding a line break between scenes, she decided to just give every separate scene its own chapter.  Then Sittenfeld fleshed out the Bennet family’s financial instability and added Jane’s pregnancy and a reality show wedding (and all the behind-the-scenes experiences of filming such a thing) to a novel that already has plenty of connected story lines.  And she wrote all of those new aspects in the same short-chapter, long-sentence style.  It added up to constantly feeling like I must have made a lot of progress, then being surprised by how few pages I had actually read.

I also found myself truly disliking Elizabeth Bennet (called Liz here) for the first time in any version.  True, her pride and stubbornness are central character flaws, without which her eventual growth as a person and subsequent coupling with Darcy would fall flat.  But Sittenfeld brings out a new side of Liz that frankly felt untrue to the character.  In Austen’s original story, Lizzie asserts her independence by refusing to marry someone she does not love.  This is radical for the time she lives in, but understandable for the character.  In Eligible, Sittenfeld extends that desire for control over one’s own life into an almost manic desire to control her whole family.  Liz apparently needs to parent her own parents, going so far as to list their house for sale without telling them.  I understand wanting to help fix one’s family problems, but is it really possible that someone as smart as Lizzie Bennet would decide that being her family’s savior means steamrolling over everyone, kicking her family out of their home, and insisting on overseeing all the financial decisions from now on?

Ultimately, this felt like fluff that didn’t know it was fluff.  The three stars I gave it on Goodreads were largely due to the love I already bear for the characters and their original tale.


Have you read Eligible?  Have you ever read any adaptations of a favorite classic that disappointed you?

Purpose

the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal
determination; resoluteness
As the Engineer waits to hear back from grad schools and I wait to hear what part of the country I’ll be living in come September, I itch to start a job search.  But not just any job search.  At the risk of sounding like An Entitled Millennial, I admit that I want a job that gives me a sense of purpose.  I wouldn’t mind working as a waitress, a barista, a data entry person – at least, not at first.  There are many necessary jobs that make our society run smoothly in the ways that we are used to, and I respect the people who fulfill those needs.
But it turns out that I am the kind of person who, if she is unsatisfied in her job, is unsatisfied in general.
I blame some of this on my brain’s deeply entrenched habits.  I’m already much better at exaggerating negative emotions, consequences, and difficulties than celebrating and remembering victories and little happy things.  And if I spend a week writing down good things for my Gratitude Jar and journaling every night and Naming and Recognizing My Emotions, I do notice that life is not quite as Blah as it seemed the week before.  So I do try to do that.
The problem continues, however, when I try to make my job relate too closely to my passion.  I have already figured out that I don’t want writing to be my career in a traditional sense, at least not now, so I thought working at the Writing Center would be a good way to earn money while sticking close to the field that already provides me with a sense of purpose.  So I spend several hours a day showing students how to better put words into sentences, and then I come home and I open my laptop and I open my own Work In Progress…and the last thing I want to do is put words into sentences.
I read an article in a magazine a while back about the concept of “reservoirs of energy.”  The gist was that everyone has three reservoirs: Mental, Emotional, and Physical.  A full day at work might deplete your Mental reservoir, so coming home and being asked to figure out what the heck is wrong with the refrigerator because it’s making that high-pitched noise again is only going to demand Mental energy from an empty reservoir, making you feel more exhausted.  The trick is recognizing activities that might drain one reservoir and not pushing yourself past your limit in using that type of energy; for instance, you might exercise after work because your Physical energy is still nearly full, giving your Mental and Emotional energy a chance to refill in time for dinner with your family.
I think working too closely with writing on a daily basis does something similar.  I think it depletes my Writing Energy (more probably just Mental energy, but humor me).  This, of course, wouldn’t be a problem if my job were only focused on my own writing projects, where I could finish the day tired but satisfied at a job well done.  But right now, I’m so focused on helping other people with their writing that I still feel dissatisfied with my day’s work because I so rarely manage to make progress on my own projects.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “A vocation is a terrible thing.”  He was talking about the call to one day join God in Heaven, to go through the difficult work of preparing for that kind of relationship, but I think the quote applies equally to those of us who know what we are meant to do on this earth but don’t know how, exactly, to go about it.
Writing, it has long been clear to me, is my God-given purpose.  It is “the reason for which [this person, Grace] exists.”  But while this gives me a long term goal, a desired result for my life (fantasy books, and maybe a historical fiction or two), and though I have been determined and resolute in this goal for years (despite every unoriginal snarky comment in the book), that leaves a bit of a gap in my daily life.  Because I’m still trying to figure out how, exactly, I’m supposed to find a job that gives me a Daily Sense of Purpose without sapping energy from my Big Picture Purpose.

Review: Grimm’s Last Fairytale

I’ve always liked the darker versions of beloved fairytales.  There’s something fun about knowing the grisly details behind the glitter and glamour, perhaps because it makes sense to me that the malevolent beings in these stories should be harder to silence, harder to kill.

When I picked up Grimm’s Last Fairytale, I thought it was biographical, something about the Brothers Grimm and their fantastical collection of dark tales.  But when it turned out to be a historical novel, I was pleasantly surprised.  Middleton takes three storylines and braids them together like Rapunzel’s hair: the present, where Auguste accompanies her aging uncle Jacob Grimm around the German countryside of his youth, hoping to discuss family history he will not share; the past, where Jacob and Willi grow up together from happy boys to the family’s sole breadwinners to political activists; and some other realm, where a boy is sent by his mother to find a princess in the Rose King’s abandoned court.

Grimm himself is the common denominator throughout the book, slipping in and out of dreams that just might be the boy’s journey to the briar-bordered, sleeping palace – just might be, mind you, because here, reality is uncertain.  But the relationships between the major characters prevent the book from being too abstract.  Auguste’s hero-worship of her enigmatic uncle, the mutual devotion of the Grimm brothers, the boy’s unwavering loyalty to his mother, and even the manservant Kummel’s struggle to remain indifferent to his eccentric employers deepen the reader’s interest in the already engrossing plot.

There’s a lot of meat to this story: a man growing old, a lifetime of responsibilities piled up behind him; a woman whose life is on pause until she gathers the courage to ask the question burning a hole in her mind; the backstory of a well-known childhood tale.  And that’s not even counting the historical context that pokes through in parts of Grimm’s life, particularly as his deeply held belief in the unification of Germany’s many little kingdoms conflicts with the world events around him.  Then there’s Middleton’s gorgeous, expressive writing to carry it all.

While this type of dark, multiple-storyline book isn’t for everyone, I found it highly enjoyable and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.


What’s your favorite fairytale?  Would you want to know the dark version behind it?

Misfits

something that fits badly, as a garment that is too large or too small.
a person who is not suited or is unable to adjust to the circumstances of his or her particular situation

It’s bothered Bird and me for years.  Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological.  In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself.  Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person.  She’s hurt and depressed.

Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago.  This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.

I disagree.  For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter.  And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something.  Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function.  The train has square wheels.  The cowboy rides an ostrich.  The bird swims but cannot fly.  (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.)  These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.”  It’s not a one-step fix.

That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least).  She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress.  There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation.  The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.

And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.

 

NaNoWriMo Declaration

Today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

For the past few years, I have promised myself I will “win” NaNoWriMo by meeting the goal of finishing a 50,000+ word manuscript.  The idea is not to edit, not to get a book published, but simply to write down the whole damn thing and get that first draft to exist at all.  The new year is the time for revising and querying.  November is for writing furiously, frantically, every single day, in an effort to get that draft done.

But I haven’t won.  I’ve abandoned all my past stories after a few days.  This year, though, relatively soon after NerdCon: Stories and with my PNWA and feminism publishing connections behind me, not to mention a bunch of free time on my hands, I’m swearing to at least write something every day this November.  I might not finish my manuscript.  It would be nice if I could.  But I will put words on the page once a day for this whole month.

Or at least I’ll try!