Book Review: Nutshell

I like Ian McEwan’s books. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s ever written, and I’ve never disliked anything that he wrote. I’m sure that some of my love comes from the fact that one of the main characters of Atonement is named Cecilia; I really love that there’s a strong literary character in a great work of fiction who shares my name. I also love the way in which McEwan looks at the major issues of life and morality in his books. He’s engaging, insightful, and thought-provoking. (I said much of this when I reviewed The Children Act in January of last year.)

I bought McEwan’s latest book, Nutshell, about a week after it came out. I’d been wanting to read the book from the moment that I heard that McEwan, one of my favorite authors, was writing a modernization of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which Hamlet is an unborn baby whose mother is having an affair with his father’s brother. Oh, and Hamlet is the narrator of the story.

Well, color me intrigued. I bought the book. I was immediately captured by McEwan’s narrative style and the characters he brought to life on the page. I read it every time I had two seconds to rub together. The book deepened my love of McEwan. He is intelligent, and he has to know that. But he never seems to rub it in your face. His modernization of Hamlet isn’t absurdly highbrow or elitist.

Rather, it deals with the mundanities of real life adultery. How does one comfortably have sex with one’s brother’s pregnant wife? How does a woman handle being pregnant with one brother’s child but involved with the other brother? What is it like to be the unborn child in the middle of all of this?

It is the characterization and development of the unborn baby that most intriguing. McEwan creates a child who is weeks from birth, who understands what is happening around him. The baby is sentient. He cannot yet see color, but he knows what it is. He has opinions on what his mother eats, drinks, and hears. He has opinions on politics and philosophy. The idea of writing a novel from the perspective an unborn child is complex and difficult. Many writers could have tried it and come off as pretentious or trying too hard. McEwan makes it work. The child is a well-developed character and a believable (if not entirely reliable) narrator.

The book is a smooth read. It does, as all McEwan novels do, present challenging ideas. It is a worthwhile read. I enjoyed it, and I can’t wait until I have another new McEwan novel to read.

Someday May Never Come

Early this morning, three men died in the water near Miami, Florida. I don’t know much about two of them, but I know that one of them was an amazingly talented pitcher named Jose Fernandez. In twenty-four years, Jose had fled Cuba for the United States, played professional baseball, and been a friend, a son, a boyfriend, and an expectant father. Everything that I’ve read about him describes a man who loved life, who loved other people, and who lived with great joy. He did what he loved, and he made sure to share that joy with others.

I was particularly struck by a quote I read from the managed of the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Emphasis mine.) “If you use your eyes and ears, there’s reminders throughout your week that life’s short and you don’t call all the shots. A sense of gratitude and a sense of joy needs to be more prevalent. … It’s just sad. It’s so horribly sad on so many different levels that there’ll be no more of that, there’ll be no more of him, there’ll be no more of that emotion on the mound, that skill set, that human being, that young man with such a gift, such a great smile. … Be where your feet are. Enjoy the moment. There’ll be a day where there won’t be another day.

Let me repeat that. Be where your feet are. Enjoy the moment. There’ll be a day where there won’t be another day. 

Our days are numbered, but none of us know the numbering of our days. Arnold Palmer died today at the age of 87. Jose Fernandez was 24. There was a numbering to each of their days. Arnold was allowed the long path; Jose was given a shorter path. But for each of them, there came a day when there was not another day. That day will come for each of us, and the same question that is being asked of them today will be asked: How did we use our days?

It’s easy to say “Someday I will…” but lately I’ve been thinking that someday doesn’t always come. It’s easy to say that you’ll do something when you’re older or richer or healthier or thinner, but the reality is that we don’t always get a someday. We eventually run out somedays, and we don’t always find that day when we’re prettier, richer, or more successful. We have to make the most of what we have. Our lives are judged by what we have done, not by what we might have done.

For me, the lesson of Jose Fernandez’s death is to make the most of the time that we’ve been given. Don’t wait for someday. Don’t procrastinate on life. We don’t know how many days we have. We can’t assume that there will be a day when we’re richer or smarter or thinner. We need to act now. We need to live now. Choose joy. Choose passion. And live. For God’s sake, live. We don’t know how many days we have, so we have to use those that we have as best we can.

So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.

-Psalm 90:12

Can a mother forget her child?

I need to come clean about something.

Guys, I really LOVE hummus. You know that tahini/garbanzo beans/garlic mash that you put on pita bread or toast or chips or eat out of the container? I love it. I love it more than reason.

Got it?

Good.

Now I need to tell you something else.

Are you ready for this?

I also really LOVE guacamole. You know that avocado/tomato/garlic/onion mash that you put on chips or burritos or tacos or salad or eat out of the container? I love it. I love it as much as I love hummus.

So, I really like these two condiments. That’s okay. I’d never put guac on my falafel, and I’d never put hummus on my burritos. So far, so good, right?

Right, we’re all good. We’re all fine. I can eat one sometimes and the other at other times. It’s all good.

Until a BuzzFeed article asked me to pick between the two.

Seriously, I had to pick my preference.

I DON’T HAVE A PREFERENCE. I WANT THEM BOTH. ALL THE TIME.

Just not together.

Don’t make me choose. I love them both.

They are both smooth and delicious and garlicky and beautiful. Parents shouldn’t have favorite children. And I can’t have favorite condiments.

Book Review: The Paris Wife

Ernest “Papa” Hemingway is one of the best known writers in the American literary canon. We know a good deal about him-four marriages, three sons, some remarkable but volatile friendships, some serious struggles in both mental and physical health. But as a woman, I’m interested in those four wives. We know a good amount about Zelda Sayers Fitzgerald, the only wife of Hemingway’s contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald. But who were those four women who married Papa?

In her 2011 novelThe Paris Wife, Paula McClain attempts to answer that question with regard to Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Hadley married Papa when she was 29, and he was 22. The pair were married for about five years and had one son together. The book covers the span of time from their meeting in Chicago in 1920 until their divorce in 1927.

The novel is primarily told from Hadley’s point of view. We see Ernest as she sees him. Now, I had background knowledge about Ernest and the fate of their marriage, so I couldn’t look at him as optimistically as Hadley did. From the beginning, I knew where their relationship was headed, and a part of me definitely wanted to protest against their marriage. I wanted to warn Hadley not to marry Ernest.

One clever device used by McClain is giving us an occasional glimpse into Ernest’s mind. This allows us to see events that Hadley might unaware of as well as showing us some of the darkness with which Hemingway struggled for much of his life. We often see and understand more that darkness than Hadley did. Perhaps this is because we’re looking back on this with more knowledge than she had, but perhaps it is also because we have a window into Ernest’s mind.

The book was an enjoyable read. I loved seeing the Lost Generation from the perspective of a wife who sat next to them and spent time with them but felt that she didn’t completely fit in with them. It was interesting to see how Hadley felt about sitting with Alice Toklas (Gertrude Stein’s partner) and others like them while the “husbands” sat around talking about their art.

On the other hand, it was difficult to see Hadley’s behavior at times. I know that various Hemingway biographers have described her as somewhat childish at the time of her marriage to Papa. She seems naive about the world and about Papa. From my perspective, she seems to need someone to look after her-although she would probably resent that. She had little or no real independence prior to her marriage, and while she claims to want independence, she seems perfectly content to let her husband govern her life. She moves to Paris because that is what he wants. She follows him around Europe. Her only real act of rebellion is getting pregnant with their son, Bumby, and she often shrugs off her maternal responsibilities on nannies and such in favor of getting tight with the Lost Generation.

If the above paragraph implies that I found Hadley to be weak, that would be accurate. The only act of strength that I ever saw from her was the decision to leave her husband in light of his affair with Pauline Pfieffer. I found Hadley to be a guide of how not to act as a woman. Do not marry based on passion as she did; wait for a man who is capable of being unselfish. Papa was always a selfish being; that can be seen in his friendships, his affairs, his marriages, his relationships with family. While Hadley needed him, he did not need her, and that was one of the downfalls of their marriage. Hadley needed Papa, but she also wanted him to need her.

From my perspective, when she got married, Hadley seemed to believe that it was better to be unhappy and partnered than happy and alone. As someone who disagrees with that premise, it was interesting to see how that perspective impacted her life. I don’t think that she ever regretted marrying Hemingway, nor do I think that she should have. However, I think that she came to see that negatives of their relationship outweighed the positives. For her sake, I wish that she had seen that when she was twenty-eight rather than when she was thirty-four. However, she did find love again, and I have to believe that her second husband (Paul Mowrer) made her happier than Papa did.

Do I recommend the book? Yes, I found it to be an interesting adventure in history, art, and life.

Should you read it? Yeah, probably, if you like reading historical fiction.

Why did I only give it only four stars on GoodReads? The book was really well-written, but I spent too much of it wanting to hit Hadley upside the head. Now, that’s way more Hadley’s fault than McClain’s fault, and it’s a sign of a well-written character.

Book Review: For the Life of the World

The man above died five years before I was born, and until recently his primary influence on my life came in the form of books that my dad owned but I never touched and in the voice of his son-in-law, the soundtrack to any long car ride with my dad.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann was an Orthodox priest, a writer, and a professor. He is probably best known for serving as Dean of St. Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary-best known as St. Vlad’s. Additionally, he is known for his 1963 work, For the Life of the World. (SVS Link) It is that book that brings me to write this post.

This post isn’t a true book review. Rather, this is me telling commanding you to read this book. For the Life of the World discusses approaching living in the world through the Liturgy of the Eastern Church. He draws out the flaws that the Eastern viewpoint finds in both the Western Christian approach and the secular approach to the world. He then answers these flaws and offers the Eastern response to these flaws. The East views the world through the Sacraments. He explains in detail how the Eastern Churches approach life, living, and dying.

Reading this was an incredibly moving experience for me. As I read, I took extensive notes in my prayer journal and began attempting to better incorporate the philosophy presented into my daily life, into my prayer life, and especially into my liturgical experience. Time and again, I was struck by the relevance of a 53-year-old book to my life in 2016.

In an odd way, I find that the “Ancient Faith” speaks well to the 21st century. The Ancient Faith has not changed much in the past 2,000 years, but in that it has a great deal to offer to the 21st century. Fr. Schmemann may not be able to give me point-by-point directions for how to live in the modern epoch, but he does offer me a change in viewpoint. The Eastern viewpoint may be ancient. It may not have changed much in 2,000 years. But then, human nature hasn’t really changed much in that time either. Fr. Schmemann looks at that idea and reminds us that the Sacraments are given to us to transform us, to bring us into heaven, into the Presence of and the life of the Life of the World.

If I had to summarize the themes of this book in two words they would be transformation and joy.

As I said, it is completely worthwhile. So read it. Now.

“A Christian is the one who, wherever s/he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his/her human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his/her mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the Life of the world.”

Amazon

St. Vlad’s Press

FO: Birkin

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At some point early in 2014, I discovered the Plucky Knitter. I was intrigued by her colors and the collection of bases. (And she’s from Michigan!) Somewhere in there, I bought four skeins of her Traveler Sport yarn, which is a wool/silk/yak blend, in vignette, a beautifully deep purple. I’m not sure what I originally intended for it, but it sat in my stash unused for months. Last December, I found it and began looking for the perfect sweater for it. I settled quickly on Amy Miller’s Birkin. In February, I wound the yarn. In March, I cast on, and for about two months, I worked on the body ribbing here and there when I had time. I was working on other projects during that time, and while I liked the yarn, I wasn’t committed yet. When I finally finished my Sazerac in late May, I buckled down on Birkin. It took me a while to finish the sweater, but during the Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Olympics, I finished it. IMG_2465

The pattern is well-written. I like Amy Miller’s patterns because they pull me out of my knitting comfort zone and help me to grow as a knitter. Despite having some new to me to things in the design, the directions were easy for me to follow. I figured out how to do these new things, and now I have new knitting skills.

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I adore the lace pattern. I screwed up a little at one point, but that’s the result of trying to knit a sweater while trying to watch the Tigers play the Yankees AND trying to buy yarn in Comerica Park. (Yes, I have now used the CoPa wi-fi to buy yarn. It was during a Plucky update, and I really wanted a sweater quantity of Primo Fingering in Plucky’s new Cecilia colorway.) Anyway, my screw-up fits with the rest of the design. The lace pattern was easy to memorize, and I love the way that it looks. I’m planning on using it for a cowl later this year. IMG_2472

The yarn was a dream to work with. Traveler sport is a wool/yak/silk blend, and it’s like holding a dream in your hands. I loved it. While it is a little pricier than I prefer, I definitely want to use it again. I loved the way the lace looks. IMG_2479

Aside from my baseball game mistake, the only other modification that I made was an applied i-cord edging on the neckline in place of the recommended ribbing. I was afraid of running out of yarn, and I did this to make sure that I had enough yarn to finish the sweater. I really like the way it came out; I think it adds a little class or elegance to the sweater. IMG_2482

I don’t know how well you can see her, but this picture is your first introduction to my new kitten, Madeline. I’ll blog later about who she is and why she’s in my life. But for now, that’s Miss Madeline. IMG_2494

I’m in love with this sweater. I enjoyed making it, and I love wearing it. And I might need to make myself another one someday soon.IMG_2509

Pattern: Birkin by Amy Miller

Raveled here.

 

In Defense of Nonfiction

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a few of my friends about what we’d be reading lately. As we talked, I realized that while my friends were reading mostly fiction I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction. I’m currently working my way through two works of nonfiction, and those are on top of other books that I’ve already completed this year such as Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Paul Kalanthi’s When Breath Becomes Air.

My friends were encouraging me to read more fiction. And I do read fiction. I like fiction. For example, in the past few weeks, I’ve read three Dorothy Sayers books, and I have a few works of fiction sitting on my bookshelves awaiting my attention. Fiction is and always will be my first love.

For many years, I didn’t enjoy much nonfiction. I found most of it to be dry and boring. As a high schooler, I bemoaned any nonfiction reading that crossed my path. I could rouse up interest for a biography or spiritual work at times, but for the most part, I just was not interested. There were even time when I couldn’t engage with spiritual works of nonfiction because I found them too dry. Even in college, I was more interested in fiction because I found it to be more interesting.

In college, I developed an interest in the writings of certain Christian authors such as Peter Kreeft, C.S. Lewis, and St. Teresa of Avila. I found these works to be engaging and compelling because I could directly apply them to my own life. I had found a subset of nonfiction that was relatable to me, but I wasn’t willing to step out of that zone. All other nonfiction was boring to me…especially all of those articles that my professors were assigning to me. In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that I don’t often enjoy literature that is imposed on me.

Then a few years passed-mostly without me reading nonreligious nonfiction-and I had to teach nonfiction. I taught speeches, and I enjoyed those. I really liked having the students read those while we watched videos of the speeches; I found it to be easier to relate to the speeches then. I also had the opportunity to teach an excerpt from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and that really captured my interest. It wasn’t dry or boring; it was compelling. This wasn’t my usual experience of nonfiction. I didn’t go out and read Team of Rivals, but I put it on my list of things to read. (It’s still there. I need to work on that.) I also went and saw the movie Lincoln, which used the book as its principal source of information.

The movie also challenged my impressions of nonfiction. I realized that I enjoy many films that are at least inspired by real events (Miracle, Remember the Titans, Saving Private Ryan, and The King’s Speech), so why wouldn’t I enjoy reading about the stories behind those movies? Then, in the fall of 2014, I heard that Chris Hemsworth was going to be in a movie about whaling called In the Heart of the Sea. I’m not entirely sure why, but I really wanted to see this movie. (Okay, I wanted to see it because I think he’s attractive. Moving right along…) But I didn’t want to see the movie until I had read the book behind it. That’s my rule for fiction books, so I decided to apply it to nonfiction as well.

I’ve never looked back. I never did end up seeing the movie, but I adored the book. In reading that book, I had a lightning bolt moment. It was a story. I was reading a story. Yes, it was different than the stories that I usually read, but it was a story with a plot and setting and characters. It wasn’t just interesting; it was spellbinding. I loved it.  Nathaniel Philbrick’s prose was remarkable. I loved the book, and I wanted to read more. I wanted to read more nonfiction like this book.

I began seeking out good nonfiction. I talked to people I knew who knew things about the subjects in which I was interested. One of my friends recommended Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy to answer some of my questions about the history of Russia. I learned so much from it! That was the thing that I began to learn about reading well-written nonfiction: I was learning things and having fun at the same time. This was what I wished my high school history classes had been.

I have found nonfiction to be a good way for me to fill the gaps left in my education. I haven’t taken a history class since I was 16, and my history education was a bit lacking in certain areas. (I watched The Patriot more than once in an American history class. We also watched Top Gun once.) Nonfiction helps me to learn the things that high school didn’t teach me. While reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the Founding Fathers. I compiled a list of biographies of Founding Fathers and asked a coworker who studied politics which of the books I should read first. And that’s how David McCullough’s John Adams ended atop my To Read List.

Nonfiction allows us to learn about the world in a unique way. While fiction can introduce us to ideas or emotions, nonfiction can introduce us to events and people. Each of these things has its proper place. I love learning about ideas or being challenged by the premise of a novel or short story. But I also love learning the lessons of the Russian Revolution or of a failed whaling expedition from 1820. I can learn about events, meet new people, and see the world through a different lens.

My problem with nonfiction was that I was reading the wrong things or coming at it from the wrong approach. I didn’t know how to choose good nonfiction, and the only exposure that I had to it came from school. I didn’t like most of what was in my school textbooks, and my teachers didn’t necessarily mitigate that well. They may not have known how to do this, or they may not have liked nonfiction either. Whatever the reason, nonfiction didn’t capture my interest until I was able to seek out my own nonfiction.

Much of my current nonfiction reading is inspired by what interests me. I read about Alexander Hamilton because I was curious about him. I read about the Russian Revolution because again I was curious. I read a biography of the Inklings because they’re writers whom I admire. I have plans to read a book by Julia Child because I want to know more about her. I’m now able to choose things that pique my curiosity. Anything we read should pique our curiosity or satisfy some sort of internal itch. After all, William Nicholson once said that we read to know that we’re not alone, and shouldn’t reading about real people and places help us with that?