Review of sorts: A Month in the Country

I’m currently staying with my friend the Mead, in the final few weeks before her family raises their tentpoles to head south and east.  This time lends itself to a bit of reflection on the times one’s had, the times one might have had, and what all might be lying ahead – both generally speaking, and where one’s bookshelf is concerned.

Our conversation, amid two years’ worth of catching-up, jumped from what we’ve read and enjoyed, to what waits on the TBR list, to books that were pretentious or unnecessarily depressing, to promising new possibilities.  My friend recommended a few titles to me, including this one by JL Carr.

I didn’t read the blurb on the back and had to unfold for myself that the narrator, Tom Birkin, back in England after fighting in World War I, has been hired by a church in Yorkshire to painstakingly uncover a medieval mural that had been whitewashed over some five centuries back.  His benefactress had also, by way of putting it in her will, hired a fellow to come make a diligent effort to search for her ancestor’s remains; according to records, said ancestor had been excommunicated and thus buried outside the churchyard.  

So Birkin spends the summer at work, on a scaffold amid limestone ashlar, hassocks, balusters, and an inscribed catafalque.

Telling you anything further about the plot feels like a sort of betrayal – not because I am afraid of spoiling the story for you, per se, but because the story is so much more than the sum of those discrete events.

There’s a few lines running throughout which could be pulled taut, to become lines of tension or of humor: a Londoner amid northern folk, Anglican Church versus nonconformist Chapel (and their different approaches to purchasing organs), Birkin’s financial straits, and changing relationships (friendship or romantic alike).

Birkin understands the significance and meaning of this sacred mural, even if the battles of Ypres and ensuing shell-shock have driven out his own belief in God, and looks on the painted figures doomed to hell with a bit more sympathy than the less-compelling righteous heading for heaven.

The period of clearing centuries of grime off a painting (and what a painting, what costly materials were used, what a master composed it!) provides some rest as he is engaged in his work, smooths out the twitch and stammer he was left by the war, and reminds him of the possibility of love in this northern community.

And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart—knowing a precious moment had gone and we not there. We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

It’s a quiet little book, threaded with the melancholy of autumn’s backward glance.

The first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.

More Religious Characters, Please

I concur with most everything said here, especially Katie’s note about 21st century literature. As I read, I strained my memory for “books [with religious/Christian characters] other than just The Shack and weird Amish-romances.”

The books or authors that most immediately come to mind when I think of good Christian fiction (whether they feature practicing Christians or not) are either Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien), Catholic literary revivalists (Waugh, Percy, Greene, O’Connor), or somewhat-adjacent folk (Sayers), all publishing ca. 1920-1980. And, you know, I’ll go on recommending the Lord Peter books, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited, or the Cosmic Trilogy until my mind dissolves. I’ll commend anything by L’Engle even if it’s technically 20th century writing and I still have yet to read most of it.

But as Katie says, it’s harder to find representation in contemporary books. The field seems ripe for some solid idea-wrestling – what does it look like to be Orthodox in 2019?  What tension exists between you, the culture at large, and individuals around you when you’re a Calvinist?  How does your Catholicism manifest, and how do you reconcile confessing “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” with the abuses wrought by some priests and hidden by others? – all of which is to say, maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Perhaps, as with stories about contentedly single women, I’d have to write it myself.

Some possibilities that occur:

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. 1996, set in 2019/2060. Features Jesuits, Judaism, and agnosticism, in the context of interstellar travel.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson. 2004, set 1956. A Congregationalist minister’s theological and philosophical struggles as he looks back on his life and his family history.

Flavia de Luce series, Alan Bradley. 2009-2019, set in 1950. Not about faith so much as it’s about crime-solving via chemistry, but it at least depicts Catholics and Anglicans going about their lives.

The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera. 2013, set…well, sometime after 1970. Depicts a woman entering a community in the style of the Benedict Option.

I’d also like to mention Luci Shaw again. She’s a poet, not a novelist, so insofar as her work discusses faith, it does so directly rather than mediated through a character. She’s been publishing since the 1970s.

Edited to add:  Krysta of Pages Unbound has talked about this on multiple occasions, and one of the Pages Unbound readers has assembled this list of titles which feature POF, ie, People of Faith.

What books do you know of that represent Christianity in any depth?

What books do you know that represent Judaism, Islam, or other religions with nuance?

Never Not Reading

Today I’m going to talk about something that a lot of people are going to disagree with me about. This is something that has been quietly bothering me for some time, but came to a head in recent months, and I hope you’ll give me a chance to have my say.

There’s a lot of talk about representation in literature. Most often in 2019 we talk about diversity in terms of race/ethnicity and sexuality, however there is a growing movement calling for positive representation of mental health and people with disabilities. You don’t hear much about diversity in terms of religion. And if you do, you expect to hear about Muslim characters.

However, I am here to tell you, friends, that in 21st century literature, religious characters are highly underrepresented.


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The Summer Game: a love story

If you have spent any amount of time with me this summer, I’ve probably told you about how much I love the Ann Arbor District Library’s Summer Game.

If you haven’t seen me…well, fortunately the internet furnishes the means to tell you all about it from a distance!
AADL Summer Game

The Summer Game is the brainchild of some genius, and since 2011 has been giving library members a more novel way to spend the summer than solely reading novels.  Instead of the traditional dictate to read a certain 5 or 10 books in summertime, it makes the library and all its resources a treasure hunt.  As Minesweeper taught Windows users how to click and right-click, the Summer Game teaches users – children, teens, adults – to use both the online catalog, and the library in general, more effectively.

AADL Badges

Gamemakers have prepared a series of colorful badges, with questions and clues to find the pun-tastic codes needed to earn them.  You learn facts about fallen empires, fashion trends, bears, NASA missions, and comic book heroes, to name a few, as you follow the clues to find which items in the catalog have a game code attached.  You get points for entering codes, and more points when you’ve entered all the codes for a particular badge.  You get points when you check items out, log your enjoyment of them each day, rate, and review them.   

You get points for exploring the library branches.  I live closest to Malletts Creek, but the Summer Game gives me a reason to look at what Traverwood and Westgate have to offer (including reservable rooms and Sweetwaters coffee).  There are codes at various library spots (the director’s office, the Friends of the Library shop, the Goblin game-within-the-game) and events (the Board of Trustees meeting, the Summer Bag sale, the classes in the secret lab, concerts, lectures, the A2 Comic Arts Festival).  Going to the Board meeting is how I learned that across the 5 branches, AADL hosted over 2000 events last year (a number that climbs every year)!

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One of the Goblin Game code boxes

You get codes by exploring Ann Arbor.  Each year features different free spaces, including some of Ann Arbor’s 150+ parks and nature areas.  Specific bits of signage include the words chosen for game codes.

You get points for visiting businesses the library has partnered with: Zingerman’s, Literati, The Ride, The Lunch Room, Food Gatherers.  The code’s in the window, if you prefer not to go in (or visit after they’re closed), but Zingerman’s Deli also took the step of preparing Flavor Passports this year, where you get codes for sampling some of their wares.  Twist my rubber arm, y’all.

You get badges for milestones – a bonus if you read, watch, or download something for 50 days of the summer, a bonus if you rate a certain number of items and write a review.

And once you’ve accrued all your points, you can redeem them for prizes: a fine forgiveness card, coasters, umbrellas, chocolate.  There’s something new each summer, thanks to the Friends of the Library.

When you don’t have the traditional summer vacation, or children who do, the Summer Game is a reminder of earlier leisurely days, a callback to childlike wonder and curiosity.  It’s a reminder to play (very literally the reason I was putting Legos together last night, for the first time in a decade).  It’s a nudge to try new books or movies or tools (like a sewing machine, mini theremin, or guitar), a nudge to make things, to learn, to break out of the bubble and go somewhere new – even if somewhere new isn’t very far away.

If played to the fullest extent possible, the AADL Summer Game makes for eager readers, Ann Arbor experts, contributing users, curious explorers, local consumers, and engaged citizens.

Let’s play!

AADL pennant

My favorite team 😀

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

This book has been on my to-read list for ages, and got bumped up a few spots by the creation of the Hulu miniseries – not that I necessarily want to watch the show, you understand, but because I want to be familiar with the story should it come up indiscussion.

I ripped through nearly 400 pages in a day, which indicates handmaids talethat my brain is getting up to former speeds, or it’s a very compelling book, or both.  Atwood’s prose is verbal titanium: light, swift, easy to comprehend; but strong, sturdy, full of ideas to unpack.

I’d seen it called dystopian, science fiction, or speculative fiction, and wondered about that; the book cover I’d seen most often seemed to depict a white mouse in a red dress in a castle, which didn’t seem to fit any such categories.  But, in fact, it is a woman required to wear red clothing and a vision-obscuring white hat, passing the wall where the day’s political dead are hung on hooks as an example (though these, thankfully, are not shown on the cover as well).

The book’s premise: the American birthrate had fallen below replacement level, due to both the usual suspects (birth control, abortion, infertility, disease) and some unusual ones (genetic deformities, stillbirths, and miscarriages brought on by the combined effects of nuclear waste, biochemical weapons, toxic dumping, pesticide, etc.).  Against such a backdrop, a cultish cabal of right-wing theonomists (or something like) assassinates the President and Congress, wresting control amid the resulting martial law; they quickly illegalize women holding either jobs or property; and women young and healthy enough to bear children are captured and herded into “re-education centers,” before being assigned to families of sufficiently high rank but sufficiently few offspring.

The protagonist – known by the patronymic “Offred” as she cannot use her real name in Fred, “the Commander’s” household – reveals her earlier life in snatches: her mother had raised her alone, Moira was her best friend, she’d been a man’s mistress and later his wife, they had a daughter; one day she lost her job and access to her bank account; she and Luke attempted to flee (from Boston or thereabouts) to Canada, at which point she was captured and brought to the Red Center; and throughout her time as a handmaid, she wonders where Luke might be, simultaneously believing that he’s escaped and that he’s dead.

Day-to-day existence involves guarding her tongue around everyone, as other handmaids might be spying for the Guardians or Eyes; buying household supplies using pictograms, since women aren’t allowed to read; checking the wall to see if Luke’s body has been hooked on it; periodically reading the words Nolite te bastardes carborundorum where they are carved into the bottom of her wardrobe; and literally lying in the lap of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, while the Commander copulates with her – thus acting as Serena Joy’s ‘handmaid.’   Kind of like the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s maid Bilhah, except several degrees creepier.  Handmaids who successfully conceive, come to term, and bear a healthy child (a rarity) are given more respect and privileges, if not the freedom that existed before Gilead: the (municipality? region? country? I don’t believe this is made clear) that has been created in the wake of the United States.

I expected the book to be nothing but an attack: an attack on Christians; an attack on traditional values; a story that, above all, insisted that women not be subject to the original nature of their own bodies; a defense of ‘reproductive freedom’ that condemned anyone who wanted to get pregnant and bear children.

Some might still read it that way.  The Biblical quotations used (and how they are twisted) have surely misled many people who know nothing else about Christianity or the Bible to believe that the whole faith hates women and seeks only to cast and keep them down.  There are surely people who think the Sons of Jacob enact what Christians believe, and sadly there are enough different denominations out there that for a handful of people, it might be true.  But I expect that most Christians find The Handmaid’s Tale as outrageous and terrifying a world as any secular reader.

To my eyes, as written, this story is not an attack on pregnancy or motherhood per se; some of the most moving parts of the novel are those moments where Offred remembers her husband and her child.  She wants her former freedoms, yes, but she also wants to be held, to be known, to be loved.  She wants to see how big her 8-year-old has gotten, wants to mother her instead of whatever stranger has claimed that privilege.  Meanwhile, there comes a point where Offred plays the Commander’s mistress rather than a mere vessel for his seed.  What does he want with her?  A kiss (like she means it); to look over now-forbidden magazines; to see her in now-forbidden clothing; and most hilariously, to play games of Scrabble.  He wants company, and has to creep about after midnight to get it: a sad state for the men, too, if not anywhere as horrifying as mandated rape.

The story Offred shares is what she and the other handmaids undergo.  What she is not in a position to share is how exactly it got that way.  Who started this unChristlike initiative?  If the birthrate is what actually matters, why entrust the begetting solely to the higher-ranking but less fertile men?  Who demanded this amount of power, backing it up with a private military force with lots and lots of guns?  How extensive is Gilead, and how long could it possibly last before the biggest revolution in history occurs?

As in any dystopia, the power behind the curtain is shadowy at best.  Presumably the TV series will provide answers, carefully chosen to resemble current political figures more closely.  All we can know from reading the book is that Gilead cannot last, except in the studies of later scholars who themselves study the handmaid’s tale.

Reactions: Macbeth

Y’all know me.  There’s still so much that I haven’t read, despite the passing years and my unending reading list.  I’d never read Macbeth before this week, and still haven’t seen it performed.

There are probably others in this same boat, and yet I figure that it’s a familiar enough play that what follows is a casual assemblage of thoughts rather than a proper summary or review.

To start with: I don’t feel guilty for having missed MacScottishplay until now, but I do feel mildly regretful.  How many allusions to this have I missed?  How many did I catch, but not understand as fully as I might have?  I recall a story that quoted “Is this a dagger which I see before me…” verbatim, and based a horrible, torturous curse on a blade which is invisible to all but the victim.  If I could find that story again, I might find that scene to be richer than before.  I’ve also let references to Banquo’s ghost slip by, because who’s Banquo, and what’s his ghost up to?

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But there are certain references that get explained somewhere or other – English classes,playgoers’ conversation, Startled By His Furry Shorts, etc.: witches tell Macbeth he’ll be king; prophecies get fulfilled one way or another; Lady Macbeth becomes a compulsive hand-washer; someone named Macduff gets addressed; and, if you read enough about Tolkien, apparently some copouts happen concerning the movement of Birnam Wood and the nature of vaginal childbirth vs. c-sections.  The former inspires the Ents, the latter Eowyn’s greatest moment.

Here are some things I missed until I’d read the text for myself:

– There was a moment where Macbeth thought “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me Without my stir.”  ‘If fate wants me to be king, maybe it’ll happen without me having to, you know, kill anyone.’  It’d make for a quieter play, presumably, but also a less direct plot.  I’m checking Ao3 to see if that fanfic’s been written yet.

– Despite the one moment of “Hmm, murder might not be necessary,” Macbeth really gets down to his bloody business quite swiftly.  I didn’t expect him to be Hamlet, but I also didn’t expect him to stab three people before the second act ends, hire a couple murderers to stab two more people in the third act, somehow get a third murderer involved (possibly to ensure the silence of the first two murderers, which means it’s turning into one of Doze Plans Vere You Lose You Hat) thereafter, and have all of Scotland at war by the end.  

– I read a few pages of lit crit, analyzing whether Macbeth is guiltless (or…less culpable, anyway) because his wife egged him on; these conclude that she didn’t take up the knife herself because her nerve failed her, and the fact that Macbeth did, in fact, stab a bunch of people indicates that it is not solely his wife’s ambition, but also his own, that drives him.  

– On account of this, it is the witches who say “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes,” of Macbeth.  I had never realized that the witches say this line, for some reason, nor had I realized that in so doing, they are referring to Macbeth: a man so full of evil that he is no longer a man, and is above all else a wicked Unman.

– Macbeth’s ambition and how it plays out strikes me as somehow naive.  Okay, you’ve been hailed as king-to-be…but…is that throne what you really want, if you can’t have it without killing your kinsman and your friends in a complete inversion of every rule of hospitality?  Do you really want this power if everyone hates both how you acquired it and how you wield it?  One commentary on “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word” submits that Macbeth recognizes how much shorter and unhappier his wife’s life became because of their actions.  Idjit.

– Relatedly, “To be thus is nothing, But to be safely thus” is a pretty ridiculous thing to say when you’ve killed so many people to BE thus.  There is nowhere to fly from death even when you aren’t a murderous villain, but, you know.  Being a murderous villain doesn’t really protect you from the people who frown on that sort of thing.  Killing a castle full of civilians just gives your enemies more motivation for revenge!

– Also seemingly foolish: to rely on “Laugh to scorn The power of man, for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth” and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him” without turning the verbiage inside and out.  I suppose we 21st-century readers have the benefit of centuries of hindsight/textual analysis here, but…I dunno, it’s not like they defined their terms for you.  “None of woman born Shall harm Macbeth,” but no one said you couldn’t get attacked by an animal, or a virus, or a natural disaster – leaving aside the verb “born” and how thin those hairs can be split.  Or, where the Wood is concerned…the 2015 film apparently involves Macduff burning the wood, and the ash thereof floats on the wind to the castle and retains its role as screening the soldiers’ numbers.  Or perhaps it could be made into paper.  If you’re going to be guilt-wracked and paranoid, then by golly be thorough about it.

In sum: Macbeth is a short but crazy ride, chock full of memorable lines and well worth the read.  May it take you less time to get around to it than it took me, and may you share all your own thoughts and reactions to it below!

Review: This Close to Happy

Daphne Merkin, formerly of The New Yorker, spent at least a decade assembling this memoir, subtitled A Reckoning with Depression.  She labors to exorcise her own demons while shedding light on this murky condition:

If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence.  There is little you can point to: no obscene rantings, no sudden flips into unrecognizable, hyper-energize behavior, no magical belief systems involving lottery numbers or fortune cookies.  It seems to me that we are suspicious of depression’s claim to legitimacy in part because it doesn’t look crazy.  

After 2.5 months without finishing a book, I tore through this one in less than a week.  This Close to HappyMy own mild depression has contributed to how few books I’ve read of late, so it was a relief to complete this one promptly (not least because I am one in a long list of folks requesting it from the library, and I’d feel guilty making those after me wait).

Merkin’s stated goal was to give “a report from the battlefield,” “to describe what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside” – without making depression out to be some rare, elegant condition that only proves incapacitating on occasion for dramatic effect, but rather “as the all-too-common, unexotically normal psychological albatross it often is, against which one tries to construct a flourishing self.”  

Overall, she succeeds.  There is no glamour surrounding her battles.  The three chief facets of her particular struggle with depression are how it arose chiefly as a consequence of her childhood; how it has resulted in at least three stays in psychiatric hospitals; and how, despite a plethora of drugs and hundreds or thousands of hours of therapy, the thought of suicide (whether idle or longing) is never too far away.

“I can’t tell anymore whether it’s my chemistry acting up or the ancient griefs I carry with me rearing up in response to a present provocation…I only know it hurts to have to go on,” she writes, after pondering whether she is doomed to depression by her genetics or by her upbringing.  The latter sets the stage for a life of grieving and anxiety: well-to-do parents who hand their six children off to a grim nanny (chosen so that she would not usurp the mother’s place in her children’s affections); scarcity of food and paucity of clothing despite a household with a cook, chauffeur, nanny, et al; a general lack of attention or comfort or encouragement.  “With all that bothers me about myself,” Merkin says, “it is too large a stretch to imagine myself as someone else, sent into the world on a current of love.”  Phillip Larkin’s most famous line has never been truer than in her case.

The shadow of Daphne’s mother hangs over the entire book, as over her whole life.  Her desire for closeness, affection, comfort, and love – never satisfied in childhood – manifested in a clinging adolescence and adulthood: always and everywhere sharing her thoughts, her doings, her sex life, and the best of her writing with her mother (who, as described, reminds me of nothing so much as the Other Mother from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).  I do not often regard a piece of media with the thought “Daddy issues,” but it is impossible to read This Close to Happy without summing up at least a portion of it with “Mommy issues.”

Accounts of depression must be as many and varied as those suffering from it, which means that Merkin’s mother, her Jewish background, her home of New York City, her reading and writing, and her work in publishing are as much a part of the story as anything else.  So though it is an account from the trenches, bravely and openly assembled, it is not the report I look for – though I would be unsurprised to learn that what I seek is my own account: milder, less suicidal, but still given to the occasional numbness, the apathetic listlessness, the oxymoronic nature of a joyless Joy.

I came away with a sense of relief that I have not had to live Daphne’s life, but also questions: is my own dysthymia strictly a product of genetics, or is my own family somehow more dysfunctional than I’d thought?  My Christian faith, if not as vibrantly faithful as it ought to be, is not Merkin’s etiolated fragments of her Orthodox Jewish childhood; should I in fact have “a dazzling sense of purpose” because I still believe in God?  If my faith were stronger, would the cross of my own neurotransmitters be easier to bear?

I’ll report back when I know.  In the meantime, it’s safe to say that I’m even closer to happy than Merkin.

On the Reading of Books in the Bath

Back when I did that series of Why I Haven’t Read that Book YetThalia submitted that she might leave a book unfinished because she had dropped it in the bath.

I noted that my fear of getting a book wet had dissuaded me from ever trying to read a book in the bath, and for the most part, this remains the case.

However.  It would be remiss of me not to share this image with those of you who would love nothing more than to take a book and read it amid the delight and bubbles of outrageous bathtime:

Bath book trick

a conversation with an imaginary bookmonger

“One of our staff recommendations!  I loved it.  Are you looking forward to reading this?”

“Oh, it’s not for me.  It’s for my roommate.”

“Oh!  I see.  Well, is there anything we can tempt you with?  I see you have Backman and Bradley in your bag…”

“Eh, they’re both library books.  I tend to prefer the library, actually.”

“Any particular reason why?  It’s not just about the price, I hope.”

“No, well – okay, the price IS right at a library.  It’s more that – I’m a bit of a hoarder.  I – I know there are some people who say It’s not hoarding if it’s books, and they aren’t wrong.  But.  I do hoard other things.  I hang on to notes from the college I graduated from 7 years ago.  Hang onto stuff for scrapbooks and materials for art projects.  I hoard all my good intentions and very rarely actually get around to making my dreams realities.”

“So you don’t want books to be part of your stuff.”

“No – well, books are part of my stuff.  A few hundred of them.  I just – look, it’s not just about money, and it’s not just about space.  It’s about deadlines.  Someone else eventually wants the library book back, and so I can live there for a while and capture those phrases and ideas.  And maybe they’ll escape from my head eventually, but maybe in that amount of time, they’ll transform me.  If they’re mine to read, they’re also mine to ignore.  If absolutely nothing else – if I check out a book and ignore it completely until someone else wants it – I have to look at it when I hand it back in.”

“You need the interruption.”

“The interruption and the deadline, yes.”