Monday, March 27, 2006

More on Story Shaping

I used the phrase "story shaping" the other day, and have been thinking about it a bit since. I really mean at least two things by the expression: how we shape stories (as writers and storytellers) and how stories shape us.

I've recently reaffirmed how much I prefer old-fashioned story shapes. That is, stories with some discernable linear progression (even if not completely straightforward), with transitions, connections and inner weavings that make sense, with solid beginnings and ends. By solid ends, I don't necessarily mean happy or tidy endings, but I don't like complete ambiguity either. And what completely drives me crazy is stories that really don't end...they just...stop.

So I'm an antiquated fish, completely at sea as I try to swim in and out of postmodern stories. I honestly appreciate some aspects of postmodern approaches to art: in particular, the way postmoderns don't mind "borrowing" from other places and times and finding new ways to "blend." Stories that can blend vintage sensibility with contemporary characterization and setting, for instance, I like very much.

But I'm getting a little tired of the postmodern celebration of "voices" in fiction. That is, creative and interesting voices that either have nothing truthtful or beautiful to say, or that don't say anything in a way that one can easily discern meaning.

Example: the other day I came upon a creative but frustrating short story titled "Notes to my Biographer" by Adam Haslett. Haslett was a bright star in the literary firmament a handful of years ago when he first got published (not sure what's he's been doing lately; I just happened to pick up his first short story collection) and had one of those writing pedigrees that it would be so easy to envy (studied at Yale, at Breadloaf, won major grants, stories picked up by NPR). "Notes to my Biographer" was apparently the story that garnered him first major attention, and I found it a fascinating read. Well-paced, distinct "voice," interesting characters, kept me turning pages. I think it was hailed as 'fresh' but it felt a bit trite to me, embodying familiar stuff of contemporary fiction -- including an unreliable narrator (strugging with mental illness...or was he?) with a gay son. A few pages from the end, I had to put the book back on the library shelf and didn't get back to it for a couple of days. I was curious enough about the ending to go back and finish it. And argh! It had one of those endings that drives me crazy. It didn't really end; it just stopped. And I can't help but feel that this was a well written vignette, an interesting sketch or slice of life, but not really a story -- at least not a story that feels shaped for any purpose beyond impressing me with its literary tricks. Somehow that doesn't feel like enough. Maybe I'm not being fair, since I often love poetry that seems to exist just to play with language, or to celebrate sound. But stories, though they can have those poetic elements, feel like a different category for me...

When I was not long out of college, I attended (by invitation) a two-week series of workshops at an intensive/low-residency MFA program that was considering inviting me to join the program. I took a lot of things away from the experience, not least the realization that as a relatively young woman (twenty-three) trying to find a way to articulate stories that connected with my faith, I was already an antiquated fish -- or at least an odd duck. :-) One clear memory I have from the two weeks was a one on one coversation I had with a very kind but clearly somewhat weary writing mentor, who kept trotting out good but tired advice about what I should be reading. She kept telling me I needed to "develop my own voice," and that until I did, my writing really wouldn't get anywhere.

It's not bad advice, though I have to admit in the past fifteen years, as I've grown and developed, my writing voice has changed and deepened right along with me. It's not a stagnant thing; its not as though I can reach a point where I think I've "arrived" in the development of my writing voice. I've also come to a place of some creative humility about the relative unimportance of my own distinct "voice" -- in part because I've come to recognize that my voice is simply responding to other voices in an ages-old conversation to which I am a pretty recent arrival. And in art but also on the larger levels of life and prayer, I am always in a position of response: responding to the one who first called me into being, and later called me out of darkness into his wonderful light. The Word spoke first, speaks first, always takes the initiative. He's the real Story-teller; I'm invited into the story (thanks be to God) and even invited to imitate his activity as Maker. Maybe I will always be hungering then to shape stories (with a small "s") that in some way reflect the ultimate (large "S") Story.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Pause for Praise

This morning in church we sang this song. I hadn't heard it for a while, but it seemed needful for my heart, so I'm posting it here so I can come back to it from time to time. And maybe it will bless someone else as well...

(It's by the "Newsboys." Not sure of copyright info. )

What I like about it is the affirmation -- the *choosing* to bless God's name, no matter what our circumstances. I'm still learning this. I need to keep practicing. It seemed to weave together with the sermon preached by Bishop Duncan, who made his pastoral visitation this morning, and who reminded us that God has a plan: for the world, for us as a community, for you, for me (as individuals) and that it's our task to learn to "walk in" that path he's prepared beforehand for us (Ephesians 2).

Part of our cooperation with what God's doing seems intimately connected to praise...

Blessed be Your name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name

And blessed be Your name
When I'm found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed be your name

Every blessing You pour out I'll
Turn back to praise
And when the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name

Blessed be Your name
When the sun's shining down on me
When the world's "all as it should be"
Blessed be You name
And blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there's pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name
I will bless Your name


I turned 38 today. It was kind of a lonely and tired birthday. But it was a birthday, and I'm thankful to be alive and well.

Blessed be your name, Lord!

Saturday, March 25, 2006

One more for the "story bag..."

I've recently revived my old practice of plumbing newspapers and magazines for story ideas. I often have an eye out for interesting items: odd events, fascinating names and the like. But lately I feel as though story ideas are jumping out all over the place. From time to time, I think I will drop them here into a virtual "story bag" (a kind of grab-bag of creative goodies).

Here's a fun one:

It's a recent Washington Post article on the death of a tortoise in an Indian zoo. He was, believe it or not, around 250 years old. A tortoise who was alive before the American Revolution! Now that's a character worth writing about.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Katherine Paterson wins Astrid Lindgren Award

I just found out yesterday that Katherine Paterson, one of my favorite children's authors, has won the Astrid Lindgren award. Heartfelt congratulations to her! What a joy to hear someone of her caliber has won such a prestigious award.

Paterson has written numerous wonderful stories. Her best known are probably Bridge to Terebithia, Jacob Have I Loved, and The Great Gilly Hopkins, but she's written many others as well. Award recipients are chosen from many nominations by a committee in Sweden. The award is an international honor, named for the author of the Pippi Longstocking books. It's also the largest award given to children's authors -- the prize money totals (get this!) $640,000! Even a long-established mutliple Newbery winner like Paterson must be reeling over the total. Children's book authors just do not make that kind of money in our least not usually.

Actually, that was one of the nicest things about this, I think -- although the money seems like an huge amount, we know that that kind of cash (and more) is regularly doled out to people for accomplishments of a much less profound and much more ephemeral kind. Six figures are usually reserved for people who can throw a ball in a hoop, or make people laugh on a thirty-minute sitcom fourteen times a year, or who run companies with questionable practices. OK, I'm being slightly cycnical. But only slightly! Not everyone who makes large amounts of money has questionable ethics, but a lot do. And although it takes skill to tell a joke or play sports with grace and speed, I think our culture needs to ask itself some hard questions about why we award those skills with so much money while so many people working dilligently and hard at professions that make huge difference in people's lives (like teachers, for instance) often struggle to earn a living wage. Where is our treasure? That's where our heart is, as Jesus tells us.

OK, enough of my soapbox. :-) Let me revel for a moment that an author like Paterson, a simple, grounded, Christian woman who has spent years creating stories that are beautifully crafted and that provide helpful formation for young imaginations, hearts and minds, has been rewarded so tangibly. I'm sure she'll spend the money wisely (she's already gone on record as saying so...adding that she was taught that trait was important from childhood on) and I'm sure she would be quick to admit that she's been as richly rewarded in less tangible ways all through her careeer. All of which makes this news very nice news indeed.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Today Marks...

It's March 20th, which means several things (some wonderful, others sad...)

  • It's the first day of spring, over which there is great rejoicing in my heart. Despite the fact that it's still quite cold here, and I'm not seeing many buds on the trees yet...I know warmth and green are coming!
  • On a very personal note, it's my parents' wedding anniversary, their 52nd. What a wonderful day for them and for our family. I am giving thanks for their love for all of us and for one another, and how that love has persevered and grown through the years.
  • It's the birthday of Fred Rogers. Our beloved "television neighbor" died in February 2003; today would have been his 78th birthday. I'm always very aware of this anniversary since I live near Pittsburgh (his actual neighborhood!). Once again, I posted a tribute on epinions in honor of this loving, gentle man (this time a review of the book The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember).
  • It's the third anniversary of the US led invasion of Iraq. There have been over 2,500 coalition deaths (over 2,300 U.S. deaths) and by conservative reckoning, over 33,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. A time to remember, a day to pray for peace. May we keep longing for, working toward, and especially praying for a day when war shall be no more. May we become peacemakers in our own small sphere of life, wherever that may be.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Story Shaping

About fifteen years ago when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree, I had a literature professor who somewhat mischievously set her graduating seniors the task of writing an essay on the question "What is Literature?" I say mischievously because we were probably a month or less from graduating, most of us with degrees in Literature and/or Writing (I was a double major) and presumably most of us were feeling rather good about the fact that we'd survived three or four or five years of study and could pat ourselves on the back for having become at least somewhat proficient in our field of endeavour.

Heh. I think Betsy (my professor) knew that attempting to answer the question would provide us with some moments of humour and humility. Perhaps she even knew that for some of us, instead of providing "closure" to the college experience, contemplating such a question could help invite us into the realization that the field we'd chosen to study would continue to be a rich terrain to explore for the rest of our lives. At least that was my experience. As I struggled to answer the simple question, I think I began a conscious awareness that my studies in school had merely opened the door. I've always been a reader, a writer, a lover of language and especially of stories. I've always needed those things in my life to help make sense of my life, and to help me think through (with mind, imagination and heart) all that I'm learning.

I don't remember much of what I said in that essay. I do know that I fumbled for words, that I moved quickly from prose into the language of fairy-tale in an attempt to answer it. And I do recall that the metaphor I tried rather clumsily to employ was literature as a "cup" -- something that helps provide a shaped container for our experiences, be they sweet, sour, or something mixed.

I thought of that essay when I read these wise words this week from Rebecca West:

Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted. If one's own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book. We can all of us judge the truth of this, for hardly any of us manage to avoid some periods when the main theme of our lives is obscured by details.

I resonated with this quote on so many levels, both aesthetic and personal. And I felt tremendously pleased to finally find a well-written description of what I tried (fumblingly) to say when I was 23.

What kind of book is your life right now? What's happening in the story, and what or who is shaping its plot twists, its deepening characterization? What is the main theme of your life? Questions worth asking. We need stories that help us think through the answers, stories that help us to order and shape all the "raw data" and ordinary details of our lives. Stories that challenge, heal and startle us. Stories in which we see ourselves...both as we are, and as we wish to be.

More on this soon...

Friday, March 17, 2006

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

This morning I read the story of St. Patrick from Bob Hartman's Early Saints of God. It's a very well written book for children. A bit old for Sarah still (who got antsy during the introduction and tuned out) but I enjoyed it a lot. In fact, it reminded me of one of the most obvious but amazing facts about St. Patrick, one we tend to forget: Patrick wasn't Irish.

He was, in fact, a Briton, born in what we now know as Wales. He was abducted by Irish raiders and became a slave in Ireland. It was while a slave that he found new freedom in Christ, who answered his anguished prayers and helped him find his way home again. Years later, having become a priest and then a bishop, Patrick returned to the land of his captivity as an evangelist.

My good friend Gail sent me a timely note last night, along with a copy of the wonderful St. Patrick's Breastplate, a beautiful hymn/prayer for protection and and help. I've loved it for a long time, but it never ceases to move me, especially that last stanza:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye of every one that sees me
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today [I bind unto my self this day]
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I also spent part of the day remembering with great fondness how much fun St. Patrick's Day always was when I worked with the Cabrini sisters. Many of the Cabrini sisters are Italian, but some of them are Irish, and at any rate, they always know how to celebrate...not just St. Patrick's, but almost every other occasion, small or large! I can almost taste those yummy pastries the sisters in the Radnor community would bring into the office on March 17 -- I think they were called Irish Potatoes. I actually looked up some recipes online, but apparently there are lots of ways to make them...most of them featuring cream, coconut and cinnamon. Perhaps I wil have to try to make some of these, if not this year, then next. (If anyone out there has a favorite recipe, let me know) Yum!!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Flourishing Oak Trees, Deep Roots

Several years ago, when I was a seminarian, I remember journaling about a pattern I noted in my life...the way the Lord often gets my attention by nudging me over and over with similar images or words. I usually know He is trying to get my attention and help me into new growth in a certain area when I suddenly find myself almost tripping over certain specific images or verses of Scripture wherever I turn, from books to conversations.

It's been happening lately, especially with the image of a tree. Not just any tree, but a green and flourishing tree with deep roots.

The odd thing (or perhaps not so odd, really) is that I truly don't feel like such a tree right now. Many circumstances in my life are combining to make me feel rather weary and parched, and I fret (and oh, I can fret with the best of them) over what can feel like a lack of fruitfulness. I have days when I'm not only not flourishing; I feel like a tiny little sapling about to get torn up by a heavy wind.

But I think during this Lenten season God is working in me a desire to become a flourishing tree, a Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 tree. Why was I surprised when a woman in our small group this evening read out the exact verses from Jeremiah 17 that God had just snagged my attention with yesterday as I was reading...verses I went back to this afternoon? A threefold reminder:

"Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is in the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit." (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

I'm feeling especially meditative right now about oak trees. Last fall when the leaves were turning, I would take Sarah on walks and we'd pick up different leaves and bring them home, talk about them, make crayon rubbings of them, note their different shapes. In our neighborhood, the most plenteous kinds of trees are sycamores, maples and oaks. So Sarah's gotten very good at identifying those three kinds of trees and leaves. I found myself especially in awe of oaks, and how they grow from tiny acorns. I've written a couple of acorn and oak poems in recent months.

A few weeks ago, while reading in Esther DeWaal's The Celtic Way of Prayer, I came across a writing by St. Columba. He wrote this as he was leaving his home in Ireland for exile in Scotland. In Derry, he dwelt in an grove of oaks: It is for this I love Derry,/For its smoothness, for its purity; All full of angels/Is every leaf on the oaks of Derry he wrote, and I can't get that wonderful image of oak leaf angels out of my mind.

Then yesterday, reading further in Called by a New Name: Becoming What God Has Promised (a rich book by Gerrit Scott Dawson) I dwelt for a while both on the Jeremiah 17 verse, and on Isaiah 61:3 They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to the display of his glory. And my heart cries out, make it so, Lord Jesus!

Finally, Sarah was rummaging through a drawer in her room today (she's got a newfound fascination with drawers, which means I'm needing to do some throwing away and reorganizing!) and found a small cardboard "Jesse Tree" we'd put together a couple of advent seasons ago. I have no idea how it got in that drawer instead of with the advent things in the closet, but there it was. She trotted it out to the kitchen where I was and we fit the two slotted halves together to make it stand up. I asked her if she remembered it and we started talking about what it was. At which point she smiled her lovely Sarah smile and said "It looka like an oak tree."

Okay, I get it. :-) I'm supposed to be dwelling on what it means to be a tree, and not just any tree, but one planted by the Lord, strong and flourishing, with my roots deep in the soil of his love.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Harry Potter Book Seven

I've been so busy lately that I haven't been keeping up with the latest Harry Potter news. When I finally did "check in" in HP land the other day, I discovered what most serious fans of the books (at least those who check in at Rowling's website or the Leaky Cauldron regularly) probably already know...Rowling is still hard at work on book 7, and it's getting LONG.

Is anyone surprised by this?! :-)

JKR posted an update to her website journal on the last day of February, in effect worrying out loud a bit that the book-in-progress might be turning into an Order of the Phoenix size finale. She made a comment that what she thought would be two chapters had already become four, and then joked about it being as long as Phoenix, while trying to assure herself and her faithful readers that she didn't think it would be. Not that most of her readers would mind.

Frankly, I'm not surprised that she's discovering it's a lengthy story. She's left herself a huge amount of ground to cover, and lots of important questions to answer. She's such a good writer that I think she will deliver on everything major that she needs to deliver on. If it turns out to take 700 or 800 pages, so be it. (I for one will enjoy the ride!)

I do think Phoenix could have been slimmed...I said then and I think I stand by it now, that it could have used a good final edit. Still, I like it a lot, and I admire it far more now than I did in my first read-through. I think it will go down in HP history as the most difficult book in the series -- for JKR to write, and for readers to read. Books 1-4 each have their own sort of "character" and each provide an important part of the overall epic; she's already said books 6-7 are more or less all of one piece, providing the end of the saga. Book 5 was the transition book, moving us from the return of Voldemort to the "begnning of the end" in book 6. It was also the "nigredo" book, if you follow the ideas about alchemical literary symbolism as put forth by John Granger (which I do, with much delight). Meaning, it was in book 5 that Harry had to go through the process of being completely "broken down" by his experiences and trials, prior to the final stages of the purification process in the last books. What it meant was a darker tone and a more depressed Harry than we'd ever seen before (or since). The plot also advanced the least in book 5, despite its length.

At any rate, I don't think she will have the same problems with book 7. It's a completely different place in the Potter epic, and if she's struggling to keep words to a minimum, it's because she's created such a rich world, and set such rich questions, obstacles and quests in motion that she's got a lot to deal with in order to give us a satisfying ending. I'll post more soon on some of what I think she's got to address in the final well as why some readers are bound to be dissatisfied no matter how long it ends up being!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Chesterton on Misplaced Humility

I've begun reading Alan Jacobs' book of "Essays in Truthtelling," entitled Shaming the Devil. In his introduction he quotes the amazing G.K. Chesterton on the the subject of humility:

What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert -- himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt -- the Divine Reason.

It still rings true all these years later.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Isn't it Romantic? Isn't it Fun!

I finally posted a review on Ron Hansen's book Atticus, which I wrote about here a few weeks ago. It took me a while, both because life has been busy, but also because I had rather mixed feelings about the book. Writing the review made me realize that the story had more "staying power" than I realized -- it had stuck with me in the interim. Through the writing of the review, I think I clarified my feelings about it and realized how much I actually liked it.

Our local library had a copy of what I think is Hansen's latest, so I picked it up last week. It's called Isn't It Romantic? and he subtitled it an entertainment. Entertaining it is! In fact, I had a hard time putting it down...I don't think I'd read a funnier novel in a long time. It's completely and utterly different from Atticus -- I'm incredibly impressed that one novelist can tread such different fictional terrain so well. While Atticus dealt with some profound themes (and heavy ones) and was pretty ambitious in the way it mixed genres, Isn't It Romantic is a straightforward, lighthearted comedy. Almost a comedy of manners. It's also very much what Orson Scott Card would term a "milleu" story, with characters from one place/culture being plopped down in the middle of another culture. That's where much of the humour lies.

The best I can come up with to describe the "feel" of the story is: Garrison Keillor meets Robert Altman. (I thought I was very clever to come up with that combination, until I realized that Keillor and Altman have met already, in the recent feature film of *Prairie Home Companion* which I've not yet seen.) Sophisticated urbanites from Paris find themselves stranded in the small town of Seldom, Nebraska (where I'm sure strangers seldom visit), population 395. Natalie and Pierre, the French couple, are already struggling with plenty of stress in their own rocky relationship. In fact, Natalie has been considering breaking off their engagement. She has always been fascinated with American culture, so she takes off on a kind of pilgrimage to see the American heartland by bus -- but Pierre chases her down. They agree to be the "king and queen" of the town's summer revel -- a kind of carnival. The town always tries to get a visiting couple to be king and queen, but they're especially excited to have a French couple because the town's founder, many years ago, was French.

What follows are three really zany days of cultural clashes and romantic entanglements. If it sounds fluffy, it is, but it's wonderfully written fluff. I kept finding myself chuckling aloud, and some scenes were so funny I had to read them to Dana. (They read great out loud too.) Probably my very favorite scene is when one of the townies, a Cornhusker fanatic named Owen who owns the gas station/garage, traps Pierre (whose family is in the wine business back in France) into tasting his own wine vintage. Turns out he's been making his own wine for years, and contrary to appearances, is rather expert in viticulture. What a wonderful job Hansen does, building up Owen's scruffy, earthy, football fanatic redneck sort of personality, and then giving him this secret sophisticated passion. When he starts spouting wine knowledge, your mouth drops along with Pierre's. And it's howlingly funny when Pierre finally takes a sip of the wine, expecting to have to spit it out, only to discover it's pretty amazing stuff.

I loved this book! I wonder if Hansen first envisioned it (or even wrote it as) a screenplay. I've almost never read a novel that seemed to play out before my eyes so much like a film. In fact, ever since I finished it, I've been trying to cast the main roles. I've decided George Clooney should play Dick Tupper, the rancher in town who finds himself enamored of Natalie. I've cast Kirsten Dunst as Iona, the young waitress at the diner with an eye on Pierre, and Carlo the cook should probably be played by Lyle Lovett. Pierre and Natalie are harder to cast, though I've just about decided on Johnny Depp for Pierre. Maybe (maybe?) Natalie Portman for Natalie...I wish I could think of a young enough French actress for the part (she's about 26). Julia Ormond would have been perfect 20 years ago. Still can't place who should play Owen, though I've considered Matt Damon.

At any rate, in the midst of a long and busy week, this slim novel provided some lovely, lighthearted fun. I may have to read some of Hansen's other work now, just because I'm really curious about what else he's done. Not an author one can pigeon-hole easily.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Reading Round-up for February

As Dar Williams sings “February was so long, that it lasted into March…”

Yes, it’s March 7th, and I’ve yet to jot any more about my reading in February…I’m tempted to give it up as a lost cause, especially because my memory is fading fast! But I do want to try to maintain the discipline of keeping at least a brief record here of most (if not quite all) of what I’m reading, although I’ve clearly expanded the purpose of this journal quite a bit in recent weeks.

So let me just dive in and try to list a few things I read in February and didn’t have time to post about.

Poetry: Some old favorites by Jessica Powers, plus dipping into a collection of Amy Carmichael’s poems (entitled Mountain Breezes). The spring issue of The Penwood Review hit my mailbox sometime last week…so I guess that’s technically been March reading. I’ve also been using some exercises from the terrific book Creating Poetry again, a Writer’s Digest book by John Drury, and one of the best reference books/handbooks of poetry I know. It almost always inspires me to write, or at least gives me new ways to play with words or practice certain forms/meters.

A short story from an old Image magazine given to me by a friend – I wanted to look at a sample, and no longer have any idea where any of my old issues are. I used to buy this wonderful journal from time to time at Gene’s Books, my favorite independent bookseller in King of Prussia. Alas, Gene’s is no longer in existence and I haven’t been able to afford a copy of Image in a long time. Very happy to have this one.

Children’s literature: I read a lovely little book called Ruthie's Gift by an author named Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. This was her debut novel from 1998; I hadn’t heard of her but picked it up, intrigued, once I realized it was based on what I think of as “my era” – that is the pre-WWI era of American history. I’m working on an epinions review.

Finally found the first book of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events in at our little, local library – they’re certainly popular! I found it a light, fast read, weird and quite funny. Enjoyed it, but don’t know how hard I will go looking for the rest of the series (I think there are 13 in all?). They strike me as the kind of books it would be wonderful to have on hand while in bed with the flu.

I was very lax this month with scholarly reading or even any serious journalism -- just no energy for it. Though I did very much enjoy reading Bono’s speech to the national prayer breakfast – who would have guessed that he could preach like that?! (although perhaps we should have guessed, based on the song “40” all those years ago…)

Final day of February was the release date for the DVD of the new version of “Pride and Prejudice” (the Keira Knightly one) and I confess I rented it right away. Although I warned myself not to be too bothered by edits and by the liberties it was bound to take (after all, it was only a bit over 2 hours long) I still found myself somewhat disappointed. Still trying to pinpoint exactly why. Parts of it were lovely – in fact, I think the most charitable and authentic compliment I can give it is that, in places, it feels like an inspired visual poem in honor of Pride and Prejudice. So that alone makes it worth seeing. I’ve held off reviewing it until I can give it a more fair assessment on a second viewing. In the meantime, it made me want to see the wonderful A&E miniseries again, so I’ve been letting myself watch it in installments this week, late at night after the Boop’s in bed and I’ve done some paper grading. Viewing that masterpiece always sends me back to the delight of the real thing, the book. A real treat to a week when I’m struggling with a cold and worsening cough, and with sadness over the upcoming move of a dear friend.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Which Jane Austen Herione Are You?

I couldn't resist posting this fun little internet quiz. I ran across it while looking for some old-fashioned/victorian clipart. Of course, I had to take it immediately!

Turns out I'm Elizabeth Bennet. She's one of my very favorite Austen heriones, so I can't say I'm not pleased...though I was a bit surprised. Apparently my love of walks in the fresh air and my understanding of love as something that comes over one gradually weighed in more heavily than the fact that I can't really describe myself as witty or vivacious!

I enjoy taking these silly kinds of quizzes from time to time, and Austenophile that I am, this one was especially fun. You only rarely see literary quizzes, since most of them seem centered on movies and television shows. This makes me want to look for more bookish quizzes. If I find any other good ones, I'll post them here.

Still hoping to have time to do my "reading round-up" for February later today.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Happy Birthday, Patricia MacLachlan!

Today is author Patricia MacLachlan's 68th birthday. She was born March 3, 1938. I don't think I've ever read a Patricia MacLachlan book I didn't like, but there are three in particular that have meant a lot to me over the years: Sarah, Plain and Tall (for which she won the Newbery Medal in 1986), Baby, and All the Places to Love.

From time to time, I plan to do "Happy Birthday" posts here for some of my favorite authors. Several months ago I began compiling a birthday list of authors, with an emphasis on children's authors, in the hopes that I can one day do a sort of "literary calendar" for children, with ideas for ways to celebrate a particular author's books, themes and life. It's a longterm project, but fun to plug away at from time to time.

At any rate, I love MacLachlan's work so much I couldn't resist posting here today. If you've never read her work, it's worth checking out. She writes musical prose about characters who are easy to love. Stories filled with small graces.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Lent Begins

Last night we went to the Ash Wednesday service at our church. It was the first year we’d taken Sarah (who is now old enough to stay up a little later and to be quiet during the hour-long service). I hadn’t really thought through how she might respond to the service itself, especially the imposition of ashes.

When it was time to go forward to receive the ashes, Dana was carrying her (she was getting pretty tired by then) and I was right behind them. I hadn’t stopped to consider how I would feel when Dennett, our priest, smudged Sarah’s forehead with the sign of the cross. For a tiny heartbeat, I felt my own heart catch in my throat. This little person I carried inside me, this wonderful little girl I’ve nourished and nurtured for three and a half years since her birth, is mortal. I know…an obvious statement. Nonetheless it’s not a thought I have every day. She will, I hope and pray, have many long and lovely years of life still ahead of her, but one day her days, just like mine, just like her Daddy’s, will cease to be.

And in the next heartbeat of time, that was all right. I think it was all right as soon as I stepped forward to receive the ashes for myself, because it’s such an amazing and blessed gift to feel that grainy cross pressed into one skin. What is sown perishable will be raised imperishable, the Scriptures tell us, and it’s all on account of the cross.

When we got back to our seats, I took Sarah onto my lap. She was looking mighty perplexed as she stared first at the dark smudge on my forehead, then at the smudge on her Daddy’s forehead. Sarah doesn’t like it when anyone gets too “dirty” so I had a worried moment that she was going to throw a loud fit and insist we all wash our faces, but she seemed to understand somehow that this was different. Perhaps because we were at church at night time (and we’d told her it was a “special” service) perhaps because of the beautiful and solemn hymns we’d sung and prayers we’d prayed, perhaps because other people, herself included, had that strange smudge on their foreheads. She didn’t fuss, just continued to stare quizzically at the mark. I leaned in and whispered “do you see the shape? It’s the shape of a cross. It’s to remind us of Jesus and how much he loves us.” As soon as I said it, Sarah (who had put her two fingers in her mouth the way she often still does when she’s sleepy) wrapped a tiny little smile around her fingers, as though she understood. As though she was blessed.

And you know, I had an immediate sense of peace, because what I said was true. I didn’t need to say anymore, or try to unpack a full “lenten theology” for my preschooler. Ash Wednesday is about so many things, including the acknowledgement that we are indeed fragile and mortal. But it’s also about Jesus, about the way he took on and shared our mortal flesh and forever redeemed it through his suffering, death and resurrection. That sign on my forehead, and on the forehead of my little girl, is at once a sign of death and a sign of life, not unlike the sign of the cross with which she was marked in her baptism just three years ago.

I couldn’t help but go to the Book of Common Prayer and to another service (besides the traditional Ash Wednesday service) where we hear the phrase “dust to dust.” It’s a beautiful prayer that comes in the commendation part of the burial service, reminding me of who we are and who God is:

“Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and unto earth shall we return. For so thou didst ordain when thou createdst me, saying ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.’”