Bucket Lists and Anna Karenina

The concept of making sure to have certain experiences before you die has been on my mind lately. When I was little, I used to panic at the decisions that faced me when I grew up–how would I have time to focus on all the things I wanted to do with my life? As I got older, I began to worry about all the books I would never read, and occasionally I worry about all the places I won’t ever get to. But then I remember: it doesn’t really matter, because when I get to heaven, everything good in those places and those books and those experiences will be there. I won’t have missed out. I do believe that everything good on earth will be there in heaven, only more so. But does this mean that I shouldn’t worry about living life to the fullest?

If you don’t believe in heaven, of course, there’s no question; this life is all you have, so better make the most of it. I don’t know how people who don’t believe in life after death go on living. It’s so bitterly unfair. Some people get to travel the world; some people stay in the same town their whole lives. Some people live a long and happy life; some people die in the womb. Some people enjoy life with all five senses; some people are blind. I don’t want to believe in a world where that’s all there is to it.

But I also don’t want to believe in a world where, just because there’s life after death, life before death doesn’t matter. After all, God made the world beautiful for a reason. Everything that’s beautiful about the mountains will be in heaven, I’m sure of it; but God made mountains on Earth too, just for us.

I’m halfway through Anna Karenina and my beloved Levin, after encountering his dying brother, has just been consumed with thoughts of his own inevitable death. Suddenly he realizes that all his grand plans, his brilliant ideas for revolutionizing agriculture and society, crumble into dust compared to the vastness of the universe. And because he’s an all-or-nothing kind of guy, every time he thinks about it he decides that he’s completely done with life, and there’s no point in striving for anything. At the same time, though, he’s on the brink of consummating his deep love for Kitty, and he gets very flustered when he tries to reconcile these two parts of himself. Nothing in life is worthwhile, because it all ends in death; but at the same time, everything is beautiful, everything is precious, simply because it exists in the same world as Kitty Shcherbatsky.

Because of our faith, we can reconcile Levin’s dilemma. We can see the good in the world, without denying the fact that the world is fading away. We can enjoy a trip to Rome, without weeping over the fact that we’ll probably never get to India and Mexico. But there’s still an elusive balance to be found here. How much effort should we put into enjoying life? We all know it’s risky to love creation more than the creator; but isn’t there also a risk to ignore the beauty that God created just for us? I don’t fully understand God’s reasons for putting us here with the time and the capacity to enjoy so much. But there must be a good reason that God created the Earth as well as heaven! Next time I’m feeling fatalistic I’ll try to remember that God wants me to enjoy this old Earth right now, instead of just waiting for the new one.


A Patchwork Planet

Jigsaw World

I just finished my first Anne Tyler book, A Patchwork Planet. Where to start! This is a beautiful, piercing book. Tyler manages to use first-person narration to deliver an convincing, emotionally honest book that never descends into sentimentality or cliche. The narrator, Barnaby, is the black sheep of his family, a former juvenile delinquent working a dead-end job. So many people in his life want him not only to improve, but to live up to their particular standard of worthiness, that he’s constantly tempted to act up and justify their bad opinion of him out of spite.

Back when Natalie and I were still married…I happened to be knocked down by a car after an evening class. Ended up spending several hours in the emergency room while they checked me out, but all I had was a few scrapes and bruises.

When I finally got home, about midnight, there was Natalie in her bathrobe, walking the baby….”It’s nothing to me anymore if you choose to stay out carousing. But how about your daughter, wondering all this time where you are? Didn’t you at least give any thought to your daughter?”…I said, “No, I didn’t, since you ask. I was having too good a time….”

… “If you think I’m such a villain, just watch: I’ll act worse than you ever dreamed of,” I said. I said it during my teens. I said it toward the end of my marriage.

None of the characters in this book are stereotypes–not even the snobby mother, the hostile ex-wife, or the comical old ladies. Barnaby has a piercing ability to penetrate the outer appearance of many of the characters; yet he remains a mystery to himself. He often laments that “[s]o many things, it seemed, my body went ahead and did without me;” but he doesn’t use that to excuse his actions. He doesn’t descend into self-flagellation either, most of the time; instead, he just observes his thoughts and actions with the honesty and puzzlement of an outsider. He’s truly mystified about why he does the things he does, and why his life has turned out the way it has:

Oh, what makes some people more virtuous than others? Is it something they know from birth? Don’t they ever feel that zingy, thrilling urge to smash the world to bits?

Isn’t it possible, maybe, that good people are just luckier people?

Because Barnaby is so ignorant about his own character, Tyler deftly uses his thoughts and actions to show us that he’s a much more honorable and kind person than he thinks he is. He’ll often spit out a one-word response that makes him sound callous or tuned out, but his thoughts will show the reader the depth of his emotions and perceptions, even when he doesn’t see them himself. It’s telling that he never even physically describes himself, so that when, towards the end, a woman tells him how handsome he is, it comes as a total surprise.

So many other things make this book worthwhile: the spare but evocative description, the unique cadence of Barnaby’s speech and narration, and most of all, the tender and realistic portrayal of the old people Barnaby does odd jobs for at “Rent-a-Back.” Each of these characters is fully formed, not just a type, and the way Barnaby understands and relates to them brings out an unexpected side of his character. The descriptions of old age are among the best but saddest parts of the book. But don’t worry, it has a happy ending! I don’t like books with sad endings. Here’s a link where you can read the first chapter, which is what got me hooked.

image: http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/spekulator-53353

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


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.

7QT: Seven Mystery Writers Worth Reading

When I’m tired I enjoy a good pulpy mystery or a predictable Agatha Christie, but here are a few writers worth checking out for their literary merits as well as their ability to write page-turners.

1. Tarquin Hall

Hall has the impressive ability to portray India in all its complexity, its tragedy, and its squalor, without burdening the reader.  Instead of reading like a travelogue or a caricature, the novels plunge you into the contradictions of modern Indian life, immersing you in enjoyable details of food and drink, endearing dialect and nicknames, and detective Vish Puri’s own family life.  Hall manages to touch on subjects like the corrupting influence of Western technology and culture without being preachy, and without making the story too heavy.  Instead of using uncanny hunches or dazzling armchair detection, Puri gets his man by sheer willpower and determination.  He gets his answers any way he can, including bribery and worming his way into people’s confidences, because that’s the way the system works.  His second novel, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, is probably his best–it’s a hilarious, slightly dark send-up of fake gurus who take advantage of the superstitious.  The third novel, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, delicately handles the subject of the partition of Pakistan and India by focusing on the heartbreaking story of the women caught in the middle.  I’m looking forward to reading Hall’s nonfiction next–my husband bought me his memoir, Salaam Brick Lane, for Christmas.

2. Georges Simenon

File:Georges Simenon (1963) without hat by Erling Mandelmann.jpg

Simenon’s Inspector Maigret is so fatherly, so human, so tired, so doggedly persistent.  It’s a pleasure to follow him around, from home to bar to police station, patiently asking every question he can think of until he finds the truth–not just a solution to the crime, but an answer that makes sense to him based on the psychology of the criminals.  Simenon touches very delicately on Maigret’s tender relationship with his wife, their happy but routine life at home, and their regret at their childlessness.  The Maigret novels and short stories are a great cozy read when you’re in the mood for a slow, thoughtful story with a lot of atmosphere.  “Maigret Pursues” is a wonderful short story about the relationship between Maigret and the suspect he is trailing, and “Maigret’s Christmas” is sweet and gentle.

3. Ross Macdonald

I wrote a bit about Macdonald’s writing style here.  His stories are dark, but so human.  The detective, Lew Archer, is streetwise but not corrupted, flawed but not dissolute, wise-cracking but not overly cynical.  His hope for the young people who get tangled up in the Los Angeles underworld, and his understanding of how the villains, even the most purely evil ones, became who they are, makes the darkness bearable.

4. Josephine Tey

I’ve written a little about Tey as well.  I enjoy the way her characters’ observations are filtered through their scruples and their conscientiousness; the reader travels along with the protagonist, suspecting the innocent, feeling sympathy for the obnoxious, suffering with the guilty.  I really enjoyed the novels A Shilling for Candles and The Franchise Affair .  I had high hopes for The Daughter of Time, in which a bed-ridden Inspector tries to solve a historical mystery about British royalty, but my knowledge of English history wasn’t up to it.

5.  Julie Hyzy

I first picked up Hyzy’s White House Chef series for throw-away light reading, but I enjoyed them enough to hunt down every single one in the series.  They’re not high literature, but they’re a head above the rest of the pulp fiction mysteries you’ll find at the library, and the setting is fascinating.  There are a lot of well-researched details about the inner functioning of the White House and the struggles to provide world-class cuisine while catering to the first family’s tastes, the security requirements, and the delicate protocols required for visiting foreign diplomats.  It’s also interesting to see the relationship between the White House staff and the first family, whose mutual loyalty and respect  sometimes clashes with their political beliefs.  The politics and diplomacy are interesting, but so are the kitchen details!  Well, to me, anyway.  Hail to the Chef is not the first one in the series, but it’s a good one to start with. Her Manor House Mysteries are not as good, but they’re enjoyable.

6. Oh boy, I’m running out!  I guess I’ll have to put some fun ones here.  I wouldn’t call Ellery Queen high literature either, but he’s a lot of fun.  I’d recommend the novel Calamity Town, which happens to be based on my hometown, Claremont, NH!  Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers series of short stories are delightful.  Each one presents a little thought puzzle, not cerebral enough to be heavy going, but enough to give you satisfaction or a pleasant bit of surprise at the end.

7. If you’re in the mood for something cold and chilling, look for the short stories of Stanley Ellin or Patrick Quentin in The Penguin Classic Crime Omnibus, which is an outstanding collection.  If I remember, every single story in this anthology is strikingly good.  Enjoy!  Visit the rest of the Seven Quick Takes crowd at This Ain’t the Lyceum.

Simenon photo:  Erling Mandelmann / photo©ErlingMandelmann.chCC-BY-SA-3.0

MacDonald, Tey, Waugh, and Warren for your Pleasure

The book I’m reading on fiction-writing (Writing Fiction, from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which is wonderful so far) cautions against getting too enamored of your own writing: “Be particularly careful of language that’s so beautiful you notice it just for that.  Always ask yourself: Does the description interrupt the flow of the story?”  The point about flow is a good one–I always get bogged down in long descriptions, and my suspension of disbelief is broken.  But I personally don’t mind stopping to notice a gorgeous metaphor or description.  If it’s done well, it can serve its purpose in developing a character or plot while still giving you a little gift of good writing to enjoy.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Robert Penn Warren’s descriptions are a joy to read, but he definitely doesn’t reign it in as often as he should. Here’s a nice succinct one that I always remember after eating a huge home-cooked meal:

I had just managed to get down the last spoonful of chocolate ice cream, which I had had to tamp down into my gullet like concrete in a posthole…  (All the King’s Men, p. 52)


  • Here’s one from an author I’ve recently discovered: Josephine Tey.  She’s a mystery writer with a talent for creating devastatingly accurate and sympathetic characters.  Here’s a description of Miss Pym’s inner dialogue from Miss Pym Disposes:

Sitting there so calm and beautiful and all wrong inside.  What does she remind you of?  One of those brilliant things that grow in the woods, isn’t it?  One of those apparently perfect things that collapse into dust at a touch because they are hollow inside. (p.169)



  • It’s been a long time since I’ve read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and I need to read it again; but this image of Julia has always stuck in my mind:

The diamonds flashed in her hair and on her fingers, but her hands were nervously rolling little balls of crumb, and her starry head drooped in despair. (p. 230)


File:Humphrey Bogart 1940.jpg

  • Finally, the heartbreaking work of Ross Macdonald.  He writes mysteries, the kind that get made into film noirs starring people like Humphrey Bogart.  He reminds me of Raymond Chandler, but to my mind his characters are more real and sympathetic, and he takes the gritty cheesiness of the “hard-boiled” mystery and turns it into real literature.  A few quick examples, which he seems to pepper his work with effortlessly:

“Her face was granite in whose crevices her eyes were like live things caught.”  (from the short story “Guilt Edged Blonde”)

“She woke and struggled up on her arms like Lazarus, looking at me out of underground eyes.”  (The Wycherly Woman, p. 94)

His blonde good looks were spoiled by a small goatee which wagged on his chin like an unfinished piece of face. (The Wycherly Woman, p. 63)

Outside, the offshore wind was rising.  The choppy sea at the foot of the street reflected crumpled light. (The Wycherly Woman, p. 36)

And my favorite, one which really gave me pause:

Deep feeling sounded in her voice.  I had no doubt that the feeling was partly sincere.  Still, there was something unreal about it.  I suspected that she’d  been playing tricks with her emotions for a long time, until none of them was quite valid.  (The Galton Case, p. 14)


If you can take it, I’d recommend starting with Macdonald’s collection of short stories, The Name Is Archer, and then moving on to the novels, especially The Chill and The Wycherly Woman.  For Josephine Tey, I’d recommend A Shilling for Candles, starring the endearing Inspector Alan Grant.  I haven’t read any Robert Penn Warren except for All the King’s Men, and very little Waugh, though I would recommend the hilarious satire Scoop.  What images from your reading have stuck in your mind?  What would you recommend for me to read next?


Humphrey Bogart

Hollow tree


Anne Stanton

Speaking of sheltered people, my mind keeps returning to the character of Anne Stanton in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.  (Spoilers ahead, for anyone who hasn’t read it!)  I had never really understood why Anne got involved with Willie Stark toward the end of the book.  She tells Jack that after she fell in love with Stark, she found out about the ignoble crime her father was involved in, and “[t]here wasn’t any reason why not then.” (p. 489) This used to seem ridiculous to me–just because her father wasn’t the perfect man she had imagined, she felt like she had the right to do anything?

I think I understand it better now.  Anne had set up a world of black and white for herself–her father, and Judge Irwin, stood for justice, and Willie Stark stood for corruption.  Her picture of the world was so absolute and unbending that when those distinctions got a little muddied–when she discovered Stark’s good side, and her father’s imperfect past–her entire moral world collapsed.  Or actually, it fell apart because it wasn’t about morality in the first place–it was built around something more artificial.  She hadn’t really resisted friendship with Stark because it was wrong, but because if she’d broken any of her rules she would have been completely banished from the supposed perfection of her family.  She didn’t have a category in her mind for a basically good person who fails sometimes; so with her father’s fall from grace, all her careful distinctions fell apart.  Although Willie was still a corrupt man–and a married man!–when she finds out that perfection doesn’t exist, there’s no reason left to keep her from succumbing to her attraction for him.

Something similar happens to her brother Adam–but for him the paragon of virtue is not only his father, but his sister.  He can’t handle her affair with Willie because his world is also black and white.  There is no category in his mind for a good woman who commits a sexual mistake; instead he is convinced that she has been completely corrupted into a “whore.”  And when he finds out that his father committed a single dishonesty, there’s no category in his mind for that, either; instead, his father has become an irretrievably evil man: “[d]amn his soul to Hell.” (p. 381) Now that I revisit the first scene, where he confronts Anne about her affair, I notice that he’s maybe even more disturbed with what’s happened to his reputation and righteousness: “he said if everything else was filthy a man didn’t have to be….he wouldn’t be pimp to his sister’s whore and nobody would ever say that about him.” (p.588) I still think Adam’s a sympathetic character but this casts a bit of a disturbing light on him.  He’s a good man, but he can’t untangle his morality from his pride.

Willie Stark’s view of the world makes an interesting contrast to Adam and Anne’s, because it’s not simply a flat opposite.  Willie is seeking justice too–in addition to glory and power–but he’s starting from the somewhat more realistic idea that everything is corrupted:

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.  There is always something. (p. 286)

He’s right, in a way–nothing is untouched by original sin.  But he fails to see the goodness that survived the Fall.  Where Adam and Anne think the original goodness remained pure in their family, Willie thinks it was never there from the beginning; you have to “make it up as you go along.”

….plain, simple goodness.  Well you can’t inherit that from anybody.   You got to make it, Doc.  If you want it.  And you got to make it out of badness.  Badness.  And you know why, Doc?…Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of. (p. 386)

Once again, this is not entirely wrong.  Anyone who’s ever studied politics (or history, like Jack Burden) knows that you can’t get anything good done if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty.

The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind….You can’t make bricks without straw, and most of the time all the straw you got is secondhand straw from the cowpen. (p. 205)

No one can deny that Willie made a lot of good out of badness.  Even Anne can see that the free hospital he’s planning is going to be wonderful.  But could he have done it without falling into corruption?  I’m not sure if the book answers that question.  Warren doesn’t condone Willie Stark’s actions, but he doesn’t have much praise for the opposite extreme, either.

I can see now why the blurbs always say that this is a book about politics.  But oh, it’s so much more than that!  This post was awfully hard to write, because every time I dipped into the book for a quote, I started reading again and couldn’t stop.  Gosh what a book.  Tune in for some more thoughts on All the King’s Men soon!