7QT: The Joy of Reading

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The house I grew up in

My father is a college librarian, my mother’s a writer, and we ran an internet bookstore out of our house. We also lived right down the street from the library, so I was a book-a-day kid until I hit about 12. At that point I was reading so fast that I realized I was skimming, so I slowed down to make sure I was getting everything. In fact, I was so worried about skipping things that I got neurotic about it. I started reading and re-reading so slowly that pretty soon I would get burnt out, give up, and skim ahead to the end. I started to worry that I would only be able to read a very small amount of books in my lifetime, so I better pick them carefully. What a depressing thought!

The good news is that my mental health is so good these days that even my reading is healing! Not only can I focus and stay calm long enough to read at a normal pace, but I’m enjoying it like I haven’t since I was a kid. I’m re-discovering the joys of diving into a good book, getting lost in it, not being able to put it down. I’m so happy.

What are you reading these days? Here’s a fun little list to get you started. Let me know in the comments, or link to your post!

1. What book are you reading now?

With God in Russia by Father Walter Ciszek. What an astonishing read. I’m surprised that he doesn’t talk more about the spiritual battles he went through, trying to discern God’s will and providence in all his sufferings in prison and Siberia, but it’s thrilling and inspiring anyway. (I guess the sequel,He Leadeth Me, is more of a spiritual testament–that’s on my to-read list!) This is just a basic account of what his years in Russia were like, and you can get a good picture of his character and his faith by reading between the lines. He seems like a very observant person–the entertaining and infinitely varied descriptions of the priests, prisoners, interrogators, and guards keep the simple narrative interesting. I’m especially intrigued by his description of the difference between the political prisoners and the actual criminals, and the various ways the Russians dealt with the discrepancy between the ideal of the communist state and the reality.

I’m also working my way through A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, a really fantastic book which my husband got me for Christmas. Very simple and unpretentious, lavishly illustrated with quilts and other fiber arts, and covers everything from basic color and design theory to skills specific to quilting. There are several specific “assignments” at the end to put what you’ve learned into practice. I love designing quilts, but I don’t have a great eye for color, and this book has been wonderful so far.

2. What book did you just finish?

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown. This book was extremely helpful for me. It’s about how to stop being driven by fear and shame: how to live up to your potential and your ideals without worrying about what others think of you, or what you think you’re supposed to be like. There’s a really good section on the pressures that men and women face to live up to cultural stereotypes, but she also addresses parenting, teaching, and leadership styles that depend on fear and shame. There’s a certain amount of self help-y buzzwords and repetition, but for the most part Brown’s style is refreshing, direct, and practical. I especially appreciate her use of swear words. You can watch a quick TedTalk here to get an idea of Brown’s style and thesis.

I also just devoured Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. This is a light romantic comedy, based on The Taming of the Shrew, full of Tyler’s wit and incisive understanding of how people work. I loved Kate’s absentminded scientist father, who runs the household in a nice efficient, clueless way: they eat “meat mash” every day for supper, and he can’t understand why everyone doesn’t eat that way–a perfect balance of nutrition, and it takes all the decision-making out of cooking! Kate herself is lovingly drawn as an awkward, practical woman who doesn’t know what to do with her half-realized longings for more purpose and normality. Just a fun, quick read, but Tyler’s characters are so real and her writing is so unobtrusively effective, she’s a pleasure to read. She always make me feel like writing. (I wrote about another of her novels, A Patchwork Planet, in this post.)

3. What do you plan to read next?

Mindfulness for Dummies, which has been languishing on my Kindle for a while, and A Stitch in Time, by the actor who played Garak in Deep Space Nine–another present from my awesome husband. (I wrote a bit about the fascinating character of Garak here.) I also want to get my hands on He Leadeth Me, and I’ve heard great things about The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, which my brother gave me for Christmas.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy. I read a big chunk of it in college and loved it, and I think I finally feel emotionally healthy enough to pick up politics and history again.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. I loved Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles so much.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Mental health and politics. I keep meaning to try various science fiction and fantasy novels, but I guess I’m just not into them any more.

7. What book did you recently give up on? [I added this question.]

C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. This was helpful to me in the past, but gosh, it sure wasn’t this time around. I found all his arguments easy to answer, and I didn’t get any comfort from it. Sorry, C.S. Lewis! I still love you!

Hop over to Kelly’s to see the rest of the Seven Quick Takes!

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Virtue, Luck, Mental Health, and Pedophilia

Marble, Feet, Legs, Hands, Limbs, Art, Sculpture, Stone

In All the King’s Men, there is a tender scene where teenage Jack Burden and Anne Stanton find themselves alone in the house after a rainstorm and almost, but not quite, make love for the first time.  For some reason he can’t explain, Jack can’t go through with it, because it doesn’t seem right somehow.  Then his mother comes home unexpectedly, and he doesn’t get a chance to change his mind.  In retrospect, though, Jack decides that it was his great virtue that prevented them from sleeping together:

I suddenly had the feeling of great wisdom: I had acted rightly and wisely….And so my luck became my wisdom…and then later my wisdom became my nobility, for in the end, a long time after, I got the notion that I had acted out of nobility….and frequently, late at night or after a few drinks, thought better of myself for remembering my behavior on that occasion.  (p. 447)

This really hit home for me; how many actions or decisions do I pride myself on, thinking they were a result of virtue, when actually they were just a result of luck, or my natural inclination, or my particular psychology?

It is only at the end of the book, when Jack has come to forgive his father for betraying the trust everyone had in his spotless virtue, that he realizes the corollary to this principle: not only can virtue really just be luck or disinclination, but vice can actually be the result of an excess or perversion of virtuous intentions.  “A man’s virtue may be but the defect of his desire, as his crime may be but a function of his virtue.” (p. 660)

I’ve always loved this quote, and recently I realized that it’s very similar to something C.S. Lewis says in the preface of Mere Christianity:

No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin.  It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion.

He goes on to point out that God judges us, not by our outward nature–our inclination either to “niceness” or “nastiness” of character–but by what we freely choose to do with the personality we’ve been given:

If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are quite likely to be satisfied with your character as it is….You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper….You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing….it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom….But if you are a poor creature–poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels–saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion–nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex  that makes you snap at your best friends–do not despair.  [God] knows all about it.  You are one of the poor whom He blessed.  He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can.” (Book 4, Ch. 10)

Let’s talk about “those wretched creatures” who have to deal with something much more seriously consuming than an inclination to anger or vanity: sexual disorders.  It’s really upsetting to see how many Christians don’t realize that same-sex attraction is an inclination, not a sin in itself; that God (and the Church) does not judge anyone for bad inclinations, but only for acting on those inclinations.  Same-sex attraction is like any other inclination or temptation; something you did not choose for yourself, but which you have the responsibility to conquer.  And here is something I’ve only realized recently: the same is true of pedophilia.  I recently came across a heartbreaking website called Virtuous Pedophiles, which functions as a support group for people with pedophiliac inclinations who find themselves alone in their struggle to stay chaste.  The intention of the website is not only to function as a support group, but to spread awareness of this horrible struggle; to teach non-pedophiles that pedophiliac urges themselves are not sins or crimes, because, like other temptations, they are beyond our control.  Understanding this is the key to helping pedophiles resist temptation and keep children safe; because only if we understand that there is such a thing as a “virtuous pedophile” will we be motivated to give him the help he needs.  As it stands now, most people would recoil if someone confessed pedophiliac urges to them, and many therapists would feel obligated to report them to the police as potential molesters.  How can pedophiles get the moral support and psychological help they need, if we act as if temptations and urges that appear unwanted in their minds are just as bad as actual molestation?

God help those of us who were blessed with healthy psyches, to not attribute our luck to virtue; and God help those who, as my husband pointed out, were saddled with bad self-esteem and attribute their bad luck to moral shortcomings.  Most of all, God help those of us with really “wretched machines” to work with, who need help and prayer more than anyone.

P.S. As I was writing this, I discovered a wonderful post about “Virtue Privilege,” where the author discusses the ways in which virtue without empathy can lead to a lack of mercy.  Here is my favorite part:

Only when we learn to differentiate between the accidents of our birth and upbringing and the truly universal will we find grounds for communion with one another. While I may not be tempted to the things that tempt you, I know what it is to be tempted. While my suffering has different causes and effects than yours, I do know what it is to suffer. Whatever our advantages, we know, or should know, all too well how easily we fall prey to our own pet vices. We need not be able to imagine how a woman could believe herself to be doing good while working in an abortion clinic—we need only be able to remember how often we ourselves have been tempted to ignore or deny a “lesser evil” out of disordered but sincere love for something or someone.

Books, Books, Books!

Book, Read, Relax, Lilac, Bank, Old, Book Pages, Rest

Sorry for my long absence!  It’s birthday season here–3 in the last 2 weeks and one more coming up.  Here’s a fun questionnaire, found on The Anchoress, to help me get back into the groove.

1. Most treasured childhood books

      • anything by Edward Eager, especially the hilarious Half Magic, which explores what would happen if four very realistic children found a magic talisman that answered only half their wishes, in unexpected ways–what’s half of wishing to be a medieval knight?  what’s half of a desert island? what’s half of wishing you belonged to a different family?
      • almost anything by John R. Tunis, especially The Kid from Tomkinsville and its sequels.  I loved the baseball action, the larger-than-life characters, and the 50’s slang.  This is great Americana and great character-building literature for kids, while still being a fun read.  A few of my favorites–Keystone Kids, about anti-semitism on the baseball diamond, and Highpockets, about a self-centered star who learns humility, are pretty heavy-handed, but they’re such enjoyable reads that I didn’t mind at all.
      • The All-of-a-Kind Family series is a funny and realistic portrait of a Jewish family in WWI-era New York City that manages to handle things like the family’s friendship with their Irish Catholic neighbors, the oldest daughter’s boyfriend going off to war, and the parents’ struggles to shield their children from the disappointments of poverty, without being preachy or heavy-handed.  A delicate, loving, and tear-jerking portrayal of a close family.

2. Classics you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read

  • Anything by Dostoevsky except Crime and Punishment.  Blah.  I hate Raskolnikov.  Who needs the grief.
  • Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and all those depressing high school books.  Again, who needs it?

3. Classics you read, but hated

  • The Scarlet Letter.  I hated every single character, especially Dimmesdale.
  • Anything by Faulkner.  Depressing, gross, barely intelligible sometimes.  But hey, it’s Southern Lit, so it’s cool.
  • Walker Percy.  I hate him.  He reads like a preachy, bombastic, second-rate Michael Crichton.  No offense to Michael Crichton.

4. Favorite light reading

  • P.G. Wodehouse–the Jeeves and Wooster novels, of course, but also a fantastic little short novel that’s lesser know, which I’ve read a dozen times: Quick Service.
  • Dave Barry, natch.
  • Hester Browne’s The Little Lady Agency and sequels.  (Thanks to Laura’s recommendation, I let my kids totally trash the house with paint one day because I couldn’t put this book down.)  This is a romantic comedy with a pretty original premise–a woman who’s smart, organized, and efficient, but who can’t seem to find the confidence to stop being a doormat, puts on a wig and adopts the identity of Honey, the “little lady” that every bachelor needs in his life to give him a wardrobe makeover, a crash course in small talk, an escort to an awkward party, or a gift-shopping expert.  I enjoyed the concept and the humor, but also Browne’s writing, which is a head above your normal chick lit; she’s obviously very well-read and capable of writing something more serious.  I also enjoyed her take on Americans (she’s British).

5. Favorite heavy reading

  • Father Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.  So wonderful, and much more accessible than I was expecting, but still a slow read.  I can’t believe that he actually wrote two more while I was still slogging through the first one.

6. Last book you finished

7. Last book you bailed on

8. Three books on your nightstand

  • Eifelheim by Michael Flynn.  I got bogged down in the middle, but I’m really hoping to finish and review this marvel.
  • yikes, that’s about it.  I’m in a re-reading, skimming, light reading mood these days.

9. Book(s) you’ve read over and over again

  • Jurassic Park.  I just enjoy the characters, the writing, and the ridiculous philosophical rants so much.

10. Book(s) that changed the way you look at life.

  • The whole Space Trilogy, but Perelandra in particular, taught me so much about temptation, about sin and holiness, and about an ordinary sinful person’s role in God’s plan.
  • Tolstoy’s Fables taught me things about love that I constantly need to remind myself of when things get unnecessarily complicated inside my head.
  • Madame Bovary taught me a lot about being honest and realistic with yourself.

11. Books you plan to read this year

  • Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  I love Norse mythology, and I’ve heard so much about this book.  I’ve been waiting until I feel emotionally stable enough.
  • A history of India, and hopefully a few books that will remedy my shocking ignorance of Native American and Inuit culture, without making me cry.

12. Desert island book

  • All the King’s Men.  It’s not perfect, but I’m thinking you can find about 50% of everything you need to know about life in this book.  Gut-punching, lyrical writing, over-the-top but too-close-to-home characters, soaring themes made flesh.

I’ve skipped some of the categories that didn’t mean much to me, and left out things like the Bible, because that goes without saying.  I’d love to hear your answers!

 

 

The Nephilim Effect

the-nephilim-effect

I never thought I would read a book that reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.  But I just finished J. B. Toner’s The Nephilim Effect, and it has it all–a blending of Greek, Judaic, and Tolkein-esque mythologies, a startling portrayal of physical battle against spiritual attack, and a sense that magic, science, and grace may have different boundaries and spheres of action than the modern world understands–plus more, including a sort of theology of martial arts.  This is a fun and terrifying book.

Toner does an impressive job switching voices between the three main characters: romantic, motherly Faith, goofy and innocent Tommy, and skeptical, cocky, chivalrous Roy, who has this this hilarious reaction on his first visit to the land of Faerie:

…a tower cut from a single hundred-foot-tall diamond.  What did they cut it with?  Who cut it?  Was there a working class here, supporting the monarchy?  Or maybe slaves?  If they had diamonds and wine just lying around in the open, then what was the basis of their economy?

The book is probably best categorized as Young Adult, because Toner’s depiction of the three teenage heroes–especially their dialogue–is accurate, and consequently a bit annoying to the adult reader.  But although this book should easily attract teenage readers of popular fantasy novels, there’s a lot more going on under the surface.  Without being preachy or explicitly religious, Toner manages to incorporate a chilling portrayal of demonic possession and temptation, as well as a heroic Christian response.  In the words of Faith, the characters are discovering that “whatever else [the discovery of supernatural forces at work] might mean, it meant the world was a different sort of place than I had thought.”

These spiritual themes will not slow the teenage reader down.  Toner does an excellent job of pacing the novel, alternating between different points of view, action, thought, speculation, and description.  His action scenes are fluid, his chase scenes are breathless, and his dialogue is realistic.  (The only exception was the world of the Elves, which I found a bit stiff; but Tolkein is a hard act to follow!)

A few quotes which made me really sit up and take notice:

My eye twitched.  There was something lice about him, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  He was extremely average-looking, with thinning gray beetles and dismal brown eyes.  Conservatively dressed, in oozing leprosy and a grey tie, with brown loafers and flies breeding in sores.

‘I represent an organization called, ha, called The Eye,’ Wingrove said dully.  ‘We’re interested in speaking with Mr. Connor if that’s, hee, if that’s all right.’

Brr.  Shades of Wither from That Hideous Strength.

One last thing worth mentioning: Toner’s lovely portrayal of family life.  While most of the male characters are better developed than the female ones, the character of Roy’s mother is lovingly and fully realized.  Good job, Mrs. Toner.

Go buy yourself or your kids a copy!  It’s only $2.99, and you’ll be helping a deserving new author get off to a good start.

First Aid for an Existential Crisis: Part 1

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” by Paul Gauguin, 1897-98

One of Evelyn Waugh’s novels gives a moving description of a clergyman who’s lost his faith: he can’t figure out why there is something rather than nothing.  If he could only get a sure answer to that question, everything else would fall into place naturally: creation, the Fall, the redemption, the Church of England, and so on–but none of that matters if he can’t figure out why everything began in the first place.

There are times when I am overwhelmed enough by the suffering of the world that the usual apologetics don’t work for me.  Like the clergyman, what I need is a very basic reassurance that a good God exists.  Once that is resolved, everything else eventually follows.

When I was younger, the traditional proof from creation was enough: there must be an ultimate principle of Goodness from which our consciences, and all that is beautiful in the world, draw their goodness.  But, as C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity,

If we used [the created world] as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that [God]was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place).                                   (Book I, Chapter 5, p.37)

If we rely solely on the goodness of the world for our proof of God, then atheists can counter with their proof from the evil of the world.  And besides, there is a certain point of darkness or depression in which the beauty of the world seems like more of a mockery or a great deceit than a reassurance.  I remember one time, during a study abroad semester in Rome, when I was literally surrounded with every kind of beauty–weather, nature, art, architecture–but I still had trouble thinking of a reason to take the next step up the stairs.  When your interior world is plunged into darkness, the outside world has nothing to say to you.

Here is my first aid prayer for this situation: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)  These are the words the apostles used to explain their faithfulness to Jesus, even when the “hard saying” of the Eucharist caused others to turn away.  My wise mother once pointed out that this is sometimes the only response we can manage when God’s will seems completely incomprehensible.  We can’t understand it, but what’s the alternative?  Would you rather believe in a world where every bit of goodness and beauty was actually meaningless?  I wouldn’t.

This doesn’t leave us with a lot of comfort; but it does provide the first step out of desperation.  The world and God’s plan for it may still seem bewildering, but now that we know there is “nowhere else to go,” we have the first principle we were looking for and we can start working on everything else.

In part 2, I want to talk about the next step: how Jesus’ love unto death is the key to interpreting all God’s promises of protection, happiness, and peace, even when everything in the world–or in your life–is consumed by suffering.