Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert

I’m sorry I don’t have a new book to review for you, but today is our first wedding anniversary, and we’ve been out-of-town celebrating, so I’m a little behind. Given the occasion though, I’m going to point you toward a book that gave me a great perspective on marriage as a cultural institution.

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) was given to me by a good friend who was also planning her wedding last year. She and I both fall into the “women who aren’t into wedding planning” end of things; in the depth of our frustrations, when we were trying to sort through the sparkle of the wedding day in order to find some marital bedrock on which to build all the days after the wedding, we found this book.

I’m fortunate to have many role models for great marriages. My parents were even kind enough to clue me in when I was a teenager to the fact that marriage is wonderful but hard (really, really hard). I remember them telling me, each in their own way, how there could be months, or even years, that were incredibly difficult to get through as a couple or for each individual. They were also invaluable resources for me when it came to things like learning to compromise, or being empathetic, or sometimes just biting your tongue. They modeled healthy disagreement and compassionate support. And of course, they loved, loved, loved…even (no, especially) the craziest parts of the other.

There was one idea though – something I didn’t realize I didn’t know much about until I read a book written by a woman burned by a horrible divorce who was struggling to reconcile herself to the idea of marriage. It was from her that I learned that while marriage is important, it’s not everything. In the United States, we put so much pressure on the couple as a unit – your partner is supposed to be all and do all and listen to all – when what Gilbert discovered is that in many other parts of the world, the idea she’d grown up with here (that couples should rely on each other for all of their emotional, spiritual, and physical support) wasn’t even on the radar.

Instead, in many of the places she visited, she realized that the primary support system was a community of other people, typically of the same gender. That’s right! Women were talking to other women, and men were talking to other men, and everyone was getting a much wider range of needs met this way. It didn’t mean that marriage wasn’t a special relationship – it just meant it wasn’t the only one.

I thought I knew this, but until I read her book, it hadn’t really solidified for me. It’s okay, and in fact healthy, for me to call up my best friends and talk to them for two hours about a situation that my husband and I might discuss for only a few minutes; it’s good for him to go out with friends and dissect an issue from work that I might not be particularly invested in. It’s wonderful that every night we feel happier having spent time talking together, but it’s also crucial to our marriage that we have friends and family we can turn to when we need to. I cannot be everything to him, nor he to me. Expecting that either of us should would invariably lead to disappointment – we’re only human after all.

When we were getting ready for bed last night, I told my husband I couldn’t believe how much more I loved him this year than last, and it’s true; I find it incredible that my heart still has room to keep expanding. The thing is, I also can’t believe how much more I love and appreciate my family and friends now, how I value their support and advice, and how I know that being part of such an amazing community has made us stronger separately and together.

To find out more about Elizabeth Gilbert, go here.

My Son Visits to Wash the Dog, Maren Tirabassi

So, full disclosure, Maren Tirabassi is my mother. I am completely biased in her favor, and I won’t even pretend to be any other way. To make me even less impartial (as if that were possible) not only is she my mother, she’s also my writing partner; we’ve written five…or maybe six books together now (I probably should know that…), and we’re working on another due in December. She has published eighteen books all together, mostly through Pilgrim Press, but she also has a wonderful children’s book called Footlights and Fairy Dust, loosely based on my brother and I and our experiences growing up in the Colonial Theatre in Boston (which my father ran when I was young). This book, a collection of poems called My Son Visits to Wash the Dog, is one of her only self-published books, and my copy just arrived in the mail yesterday.

Biology lesson at the mammoth site

We look down at the bones
left twenty-six thousand years ago
by mammoths,
tempted by the green grass
around the sink hole
in the hot springs
that bubbled up through glacier.

Layer after layer of bones are here —
generation after generation,
of the unwary who ventured on
this crescent of delicious,
then fell into the pit
with its slippery sides.

“They weren’t,” said the guide,
(after pointing out that the tallest
modern-day elephants
could walk under the curl of their trunks)
“adapted for climbing.”

Then she went on to ask —
how many males and how many females
do we think had fallen in…

I joke, assume the sink hole victims
didn’t stop to ask directions
and suggest – “male?”

“Every single bone is from an
adolescent male.”

Then I imagine – all the beautiful boys,
tusks new and bright,
trumpeting each other on
to risky behaviors,
going to the very edge of things.

And even after he is trapped, each one sure –
“it will never happen to me.”
(pg 2)

I’d like to talk about why I feel justified discussing this book when a stack of others by unrelated authors gathers dust in my living room. It’s not just because she’s my mother, my biggest fan, and practically a saint (although all of those things are true). The real reason I want to highlight this tiny, beautiful chapbook is because I’ve noticed that many of the people who have started following me here in the last month are writers, and a surprising percentage are young writers.

Here’s the thing: being a writer, or hoping to be a writer, is a tough gig. It doesn’t pay well for the vast majority of us. It comes with a boat ton of rejection. It gets its kicks from whipping us around by the creative hair and it doesn’t care one bit when we end up bruised and bloody. Writing might make some of us a living, but mostly we’ll hold other jobs to get by. My mother is a minister, and she’s also a sought after speaker and workshop leader who always has gigs set up around the country to supplement the work she publishes. For the last ten years, she’s also been taking care of both her parents and her in-laws in compassionate but emotionally draining circumstances. On top of that, she enters writing contests every month (usually in poetry, short fiction, or fantasy), and she always tries to participate in National Novel Writing Month with me. She even writes a poem every week (and has been for over thirty years). She works her butt off, and even so, it’s a small percentage of her work that gains recognition.

I grew up in a home where this kind of effort was the norm, and I learned early that rejection is the price you sometimes have to pay in order to get to where you want to be as writer. This is not to say either of us like it. We don’t. We complain to each other about the contests we don’t win and the frustrating contracts that fall through. Sometimes the rejections come so fast and hard we just want to hunker down under a rock for a while until the storm has had a chance to die down. Of course, the flip side is that when a new book comes out, or we get that cherished email saying something we wrote months before has won a long sought-after prize, the jubilation lasts for weeks. It’s a fair trade-off. Or, well, not “fair” per se, but realistic.

My mother has spent years teaching, believing it’s possible for each of us to be a poet. She’s gone into classrooms and prisons (the jury is still out on which of those gigs was tougher). She spent a year as poet laureate, and both before and after that honor, she was an ardent supporter of the program. She goes to poetry beats to hear teenagers get up for the first time, and she holds writing workshops in her living room.

This is what it means to be a working writer. It’s what I aspire to and also fear. Being a writer means supporting others and listening to new voices and constantly searching out new opportunities to get your work out there. This is why I chose to spotlight my mother – she works ridiculously hard and produces so much beautiful work, but most importantly, she’s willing to get out there and be involved with other writers and with projects that might not ever have her name on them. My mother is a warrior for words, and I only wish I knew more writers like her.

Self-portrait in green

I can taste it.
I want to be standing there,
introducing one of my poems this way –
“this is for my home-boy,
Bram Stoker.”

You know how it is —
you hear some other poet’s words
that are so deft and so true,
that kiss the meaning
and describe the curbside of hell
or the full TSA body scan
to get into heaven
that is your life right now,

and you don’t just think –
wow, that’s it – that just hangs garlic
on what’s happening to me,

but you want to be the one.
You want, like the vampire all poets are,
to sink your teeth into it,
suck it dry.
You want them to find you in the dawn
the stake of that story
through your heart.
(pg 16)


Maren Tirabassi doesn’t have a website (although I keep telling her she should), but she’s Google-able and most of her books are available on Amazon. The chapbook reviewed above is only available at her readings or through me.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), Jenny Lawson

I have to heartily thank whatever publishing gods saw fit to release Let’s Pretend This Never Happened last Tuesday, because after all of that sexy Spanish melodrama (not to mention all the teen girls in The Shadow of the Wind who get pregnant from doing it just one time without protection…Public Service Announcement kids – it just takes the once, and then there’s a ninety percent chance you’ll end up not just pregnant, but dead!)

Seriously, although it was a wonderful book, it was also kind of a downer, and I knew that Jenny Lawson (or as she’s better known on the interwebs, The Bloggess) would be the perfect antidote…well, her book and a trip to the coast to avoid the 90 degree temperatures that don’t belong in our non-air conditioned house in April…

If you aren’t familiar with Jenny, you should go check out her site, (but, you know, only if you have a well-developed sense of humor). I write about a lot of serious books here, and when I’m not talking about serious books, I’m covering zombie apocalypse romance type stories, and this is not either of those. Jenny Lawson is amazing, but not for the weak of heart or the humor deficient.

Because I’ve been following her blog for several years, reading her memoir was more like having a conversation with an old friend than it was a typical literary experience. I already knew about her husband Victor (although not the whole story behind their very sweet courtship) and her daughter Hailey (a deeply cherished child who was born after several emotionally destructive miscarriages). I knew about Lawson’s giant metal chicken Beyonce, and her collection of ethically taxidermied animals, but I hadn’t heard the story about her visit to Napa where she learned that not all women are as awful as the girls she grew up with.

The Bloggess is an (unfairly) funny woman. She even has a quote from Neil Gaiman on the back of her book saying so, and you know I would rather walk over hot coals than disrespect anything that man says, but the thing I love most about her is not how much she makes me laugh. It’s how she’s willing to talk about her crippling panic attacks. Her depression. Her rheumatoid arthritis. She uses her blog as a platform – a hilarious and often outrageous one – to talk about issues that are terrifying, that make people feel as though they are completely alone, and worse, that make them feel that they don’t deserve to be a part of a larger community of kindred spirits.

For those of us who are oddly at ease allowing parts of our personal lives to spill out into the ether, we feel fortunate that people like Jenny have ripped open the box of shame and said, “No. I refuse to give in. I refuse to let this be my whole life. I refuse to feel humiliated by a part of me that is beyond my control.” That, to me, is hope in its most exhilarating form. It’s not easy to laugh in the face of crippling physical and emotional pain. It’s harder still to expose your stickiest secrets to the internet, a forum where too many people take special pains to use anonymity as an excuse to be cruel. If anything takes more guts than that, it would be writing a no holds barred book about those experiences and then going on a book tour for it even when social anxiety and panic attacks top the list of challenges faced in daily life.

I realize this may not be the book for everybody, but it’s a fantastic read – funny and heartbreaking and occasionally disgusting beyond belief. Lawson continually impresses me with the depth of her bravery, and I’m grateful that I get almost daily “sequels” by following her blog. Her memoir toes the line where life and literature meet; of course, they’re mostly meeting to drink wine slushies and play dress-up with small dead animals, but I, for one, think that’s a pretty excellent place to be.

Again, you can have the pleasure of learning more about the Bloggess here.

The Shadow of the Wind (a follow up), Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I couldn’t decide on Monday whether or not I would have more to say about this book when I finished it. Part of me felt certain I would just toss it aside, ready to check another book off of my ever-growing “To Read” list, but essentially unmoved by the strangeness  of the story.

I was wrong. Don’t worry, I’m used to it. I often joke with my husband that I was lucky to have met him because he is always graciously right while I’m often enthusiastically mistaken, and together, we quite happily wind our way to the truth of things over time. I find I am most happy to be proven wrong when it comes to books, and with this book, I was definitely most joyfully mistaken.

This was a novel I took on out of a sense of obligation to the unread collection on my shelf (I know I’m not the only one to have a shelf like this, heavy with the best of intentions, but mostly abandoned for more familiar, comfortable pages), and in the beginning, although I found it fascinating, and the writer unbelievably talented, I wasn’t moved by it as I sometimes can be.

I crave those books that shift something in my soul though, that lay limply in my lap for long minutes after I’ve finished them. They’re usually not the books that make me laugh, or even those that I reread a dozen times; they may not even be my favorites, but they have this power to change a part of me forever. Most often the books that have the most profound effect on me are the most melancholy. They lay bare the parts of life that I don’t like to dwell on. Those stories produce characters that chill me while impressing upon me the importance of the choices I make every day. They remind me of the very worst parts of myself, and of the experiences I’ve had, but they also, crucially, remind me of the two things required to survive such circumstances – grit and compassion.

The grit, I believe, is what comes easiest for most people. The desire to survive is so strongly embedded in us that we can endure a great deal before we collapse or surrender. We are able to withstand devastation far beyond what we might think we’re capable of; in fact, we often find that our strength has been hiding in the darkness all along, and what we needed was for something beyond our control to allow us to venture out and find it. Once found, that strength is, not undefeatable, of course, but always within our reach. Having found the source, it becomes easier over time to draw from the well and fight the battles we must.

It’s much harder to maintain a sense of compassion when faced with those same tests. We might find ourselves able to survive, but parts of ourselves start to get broken off, destroyed by the choices we make in the process. One of the things I find so wonderful about this book is that even in the depths of tragedy (and by the end, they surely have plumbed those depths thoroughly) most of the characters, broken though they may be by the circumstances they find themselves in, have salvaged much of the kindness Fate has tried to rob from them.

I admit, I don’t like hard stories where the only survivors live in worlds constructed of their own guilt or malice or loneliness. Reality is eager enough to push those awful words into me every day on the news or in history books, and I’m just too much of a sponge to take it; if I spend a lot of time immersed in sadness or horror, it seeps through me and I start to feel helpless against the tide of all the things I can’t change. I don’t like feeling that way. I would rather believe that even small good things I do might influence the wider community. I like imagine other people doing the same, carrying on the fight against the darkness one kind word or gesture at a time.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón gets it. His book is filled with ordinary people trying to stem the tide of degradation and hatred through small, compassionate acts. Yes, the overarching story is a sad one, but it’s buoyed by a lightness that just cannot be denied.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I think spring has finally sprung here. I’ve taken my whole operation out to the balcony to enjoy the sunny weather. This is a desperate attempt on my part to get some work done because, and you’ll have to forgive me for this, my brain is not on books today. It’s on the epic marathon taking place in my hometown 3000 miles away. It’s on the run I had today, a run where I went two miles further than usual because running felt like the absolute best thing to be doing. It’s on the tree outside our bedroom that has decided it’s time to bloom the bright green shield that provides us our summer privacy from the neighbors across the way. It’s on the fact that somehow, even though it’s Monday and Mondays can be the worst (the worst of the worst), today is different. It makes me happy.

It’s funny too, because this book, The Shadow of the Wind, is sort of like that. It’s completely different from any book I can remember reading, and it’s strange, like having a good Monday is strange, but it makes me happy.

I don’t really know what I expected when I bought this book. It has a quote on the front by Stephen King. I’ve never read any Stephen King in my life. It’s described on the back  as a gothic read and a thrilling, erotic  tragedy. Maybe those words make you rush right out to the nearest book store, but I usually like my literature as far from the erotically tragic as possible.

The cover of the book reminds me a little of some of the scenes in The NeverEnding Story (or at least my twisted childhood perception of the movie), and consequently, I expected it would be an adventure story, something along the lines of Inkheart, maybe, but with more…erotic tragedy. I expected alternate realities, at the very least. Of course, it’s a New York Times Bestseller, so chances were good that science fiction would be kept to a minimum.

This book  reminds me of the Winchester Mystery House. My favorite line from all of their promotional material is “What was Mrs. Winchester thinking when she had a staircase built that descends seven steps and then rises eleven?” That just about sums up the novel for me thus far (no, I haven’t finished. Did you know this was the last weekend to do your taxes?!).  The plot winds through the life of a young man in Barcelona; he’s a bibliophile desperate to save the works of his favorite author, a man shrouded in miserable mystery and heartbreak, from a terrifying stranger who wants to burn every last copy. (Okay, it’s actually really difficult to describe this book without sounding like fainting women and villains twirling marvelous mustaches appear on every page, but I promise, it’s much better than that…although as far as I can tell, most of the erotic tragedy encountered seems to be of the variety experienced by the vast majority of sixteen year old boys.)

“So what is it you’re going to show me?”
  “A number of things. In fact, what I’m going to show you is part of a story. Didn’t you tell me the other day that what you like to do is read?”
  Bea nodded, arching her eyebrows.
  “Well, this is a story about books.”
  “About books?”
  “About accursed books, about the man who wrote them, about a character who broke out of the pages of a novel so that he could burn it, about a betrayal and a lost friendship. It’s a story of love, of hatred, and of all the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind.”
  “You talk like the jacket blurb of a Victorian novel, Daniel.”
  “That’s probably because I work in a bookshop and I’ve seen too many. But this is a true story. As real as the fact that this bread they served us is three days old. And like all true stories, it begins and ends in a cemetery, although not the sort of cemetery  you imagine.”
  She smiled the way children smile when they’ve been promised a riddle or a conjuror’s trick. “I’m all ears.” (pg 178)

I admit I also initially put off reading this book because of the style in which its written – it’s an unusual blend of modern and old-fashioned sensibilities that takes some getting to used to – but now that I’ve gotten into it, the choice is integral to the magic of the story. It lends an air of richness – of falling into Barcelona in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War – as he pulls the story together one strand at a time. I keep thinking I must be coming to the big reveal, then the author braids in another piece, and I can see how I still have 200 pages to go.

  “I told Bea how, until that moment, I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger.” (p 183)


For more information on Carlos Ruiz Zafón, check out his site (although be forewarned: The Shadow of the Wind is apparently the first in a trilogy and there appear to be some spoilers on his homepage).

Sunshine, Robin McKinley

Another Thursday, another book I haven’t quite finished in time. Sure, it’s only noon here, and I could put aside the other work I have for the day to finish Sunshine before writing my review, but I won’t. See how I defy you, deadline gods?! See how I spit in the face of completion!?! Or, well, not so much spit, as gently bat away…anxiously…with the baleful eyes of expectant English teachers upon me…

I am trying to care a little less about deadlines though, and a little more about the quality of my reading experience, so if that means battling a little OCD anxiety, I can handle it. Also, this is both a fun book and one I keep putting down to think about; it refuses to be rushed.

Now, I’m going to throw something out here that might cause a few of you to stop reading this post as quickly as your eyes and internet connection will allow, but I implore you – stay with me – if only for a minute. Don’t make me send you over to The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy article “Beware Literary Snobbery,” because I will. Just take a deep breath and refrain from judgement – Sunshine  is like the thinking-reader’s Twilight.

If I had to guess, I would say about a third of readers just bristled on Bella’s behalf, about half threw up in their mouths, and the remaining few are scratching their heads because they live in a cave (or like to pretend they do). I get it (even the cave thing – I’m not aware of about half the pop culture happenings at any given moment). The Twilight books have this curiously divisive effect on readers; as soon as they’re mentioned, heads shake, self-satisfied smirks appear, and furious arguments break out.

Personally, I don’t understand what the big deal is. I read them. Sure, the heroine of those stories is a pretty unexceptional teenager whose life revolves around her boyfriend, but do you stop loving your children just because they act like that? Or do you remember, in a sort of nostalgic, “thank goodness my hormones have the edge taken off” sort of way what it was like to be young and stubborn and in love? Do you give Juliet as hard a time as you do Bella? Because believe me, when I first read Romeo and Juliet, all I could think was, really? Poison? Was he worth it? You knew him, what, three days?! Give me a break. And I was boy crazy. I have a diary from the first grade talking about crushes and kissing boys on the playground to prove it!

But I digress. One of the reasons people give Twilight such a hard time is that they don’t consider Bella to be a strong role model for young women. She’s too ordinary. She’s weak. She needs a man to make her life worthwhile. When I started reading Sunshine, I couldn’t help but compare her to McKinley’s protagonist, Rae Seddon (aka Sunshine). Rae is older (around 25). She has a job she loves baking in her family’s diner. She has a boyfriend she seems at least content with. She has, by all accounts, a good life, and yet she’s restless. Unhappy. And whether she means to or not, she seeks out adventure – ugly, life-changing, unromantic adventure  – that in just two days separates her from the life she’s had.

And that separation makes her weak. She’s afraid all the time. She can’t heal from the psychic or physical stress of her experience. It’s alienating, even when what she wants most is to go back to a safer, more ignorant existence.

Now, I’m only a little over halfway through the book, so maybe it takes a more traditionally romantic turn. If so, I don’t expect it’s the focus of the story in the same way Bella’s love triangle is the focus of the Twilight books. Sunshine is more of a dystopian novel that happens to have vampires than a vampire novel that happens to have romance.

That being said, I still find these two protagonists to be more similar than I expected. They’re incredibly vulnerable. They’re loners, more by choice than by necessity, and yet, when faced with strangeness and horror that would stretch the imaginations of many people, they both do their best to stand against the worst parts and accept that vampires might be more than the sum of the stories told about them. They allow a bridge to form between themselves and a supernatural community where none could have been erected to connect them with their own.

McKinley just manages to do this in a way that appeals to a wider audience. She also doesn’t make the mistake that often (sadly) damns YA books from greater acceptance – she doesn’t choose a teenager to tell her story. I love YA as a genre, and I remember my own teens as being an insane(ly interesting) time, so I enjoy reading from that perspective. Other people don’t relate well to those characters and feel more comfortable in other genres. Fortunately, books exist that bridge the gap for both types of readers, and Sunshine is one of those books.

It’s part suspense, part character study, part family drama with a little comedy to humanize it. I still find McKinley’s pacing to be on the slower side, but it works well in this book, better than it did in Beauty. Rae is a thoughtful woman – the book reflects that. I believe that, like most of us, she doesn’t want to go rushing headlong into unknown danger, and this makes me like her even more. Also, while she and Bella are both flawed women, Rae has an edge in the wisdom department – sure, twenty-five is no fifty when it comes to making good choices – but it beats sixteen almost every time.

Honestly, I like Bella; she does the best she can with the story provided her, but Rae has untapped depth, and I look forward to curling up with this book tonight and following her back into the unpredictable underbelly of her world.

You can follow Robin McKinley here.

Ender in Exile, Orson Scott Card

I found Ender in Exile a few months ago when I was with my husband on one of our bookstore dates. Those dates always involve me spending way too much on books I mostly read a few pages of and then decide to take a chance on. I didn’t need to read a few pages of this one to know I wanted it.

You see, Ender is an old, dear friend of mine. Reading Ender in Exile is, for me, what I imagine Facebook must be for people who like Facebook. In reading it, I’m picking up again with old acquaintances, characters I’ve known since I was 13 years old. Sure, they’re fictional, but how real are those people from high school who “friend” us – people we never ate lunch with or called on the phone but who recognize our names from the bowels of memory and seek a connection because of what? Nostalgia, maybe. A desire for shared history, more likely. Ender is as real to me as any of those people whose names I have literally erased from memory, just as their lives are as much fiction to me as any of the books in Ender’s universe.

If you’ve never read Ender’s Game, the first of the books in this collection, you should. (Even if you think you don’t like science fiction, you should still check it out.) Maybe it won’t mean as much to you as it did to me as a teenager, but I have since read all the books in the series, and to varying degrees, I have loved them. Orson Scott Card has a talent for writing characters who are easily taken into the heart to love and despise in equal degree, and his gift for storytelling is worthy of the many awards he’s won.

The books in this series are so much more than genre fiction. They remind me in some ways of opera (I know – I’m making them even more appealing to you now, aren’t I?) in that the emotions are soaring yet intimate, the scenarios both implausible and familiar. In one of my favorite moments in Ender in Exile, Ender’s parents, who we see little of in other books, are discussing the enormous difficulties they face in deciding what’s best for all three of their superlatively brilliant children:

   “Teresa, we have to decide: What’s best for Ender? What’s best for Peter and Valentine? What’s best for the future of the world?”
   “Sitting here on our bed, in the middle of the night, the two of us are deciding the fate of the world?” (pg 5)

Maybe I’m alone in having nights that feel like this, but I don’t think so. I don’t even have to have my own children to know that parents feel the pressure of the world bearing down, worrying at them, even when their children aren’t military geniuses. The fact of the matter is, living in a community puts an impetus on each of us to care about something more than ourselves. It puts us in the way of all sorts of decisions, and that’s what these books are about. What happens when you place people – people too young or smart or ordinary or evil – in the path of decisions that affect, not only the world, but the entire unknown universe?

In light of that, there is one other thing I feel I need to add to this discussion, and while it’s not always a conscious consideration when choosing books to read, this discovery has influenced my perception of Orson Scott Card (and burdened my heart in no small part). He has been, for many years, an outspoken advocate against gay rights. People have attributed this to his Mormon faith – and he does identify that his plots around care for children stem from these beliefs – but I personally know many Mormons who are tolerant and open-minded about issues of orientation, so I prefer not to make the assumption that this is where his opinion stems from. I admit I didn’t know this about him when I first started reading his books; I didn’t learn of it until about two years ago, and since then, I have been trying to put together the novelist who has written characters seeking justice and tolerance, his stories, which embrace hugely different cultures and upbringings, and the man, who has such a conservative social view-point.

I’m not sure whether I would have read his books had I known then that he uses his position as a well-loved author to forward ideas I find abhorrent. This is what my favorite English teacher would have called an existential crisis. On the one hand, I love his books. The characters are so dear to me that I can’t imagine my literary life without them. On the other, I was raised to act with compassion toward all people, even those others denigrate, and especially, most difficultly, those who hold ideas I find repugnant.

The benediction at our wedding was from our favorite passage in Micah: “What does God require of you but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” To me, this is the end all and be all of my entire faith. I am not asked to judge others, or despise them for their hatred, or force my opinions on them. Certainly people rarely let go of intolerance because others have hated them into it. Even in Card’s books, the worst villains were never truly beaten by violence or superior strength but by others meeting them with love and patience.

Existential crises are hard. If I knew the answer for sure, I would be much happier. If all the people whose writing I liked could be as liberal as I am, it would be so much easier. But I don’t, and they aren’t. Life is sort of like the best book ever written that way. Nothing is as plainly good or evil as you hope it will be. Villains may redeem themselves or not. Conflict that rips you open from gut to gills can end up changing the world into a much better place than it was when you were nice and put together. There are sacrifices worth the heartache and things done for the greater good that are worthless. It’s a story filled with unfair plot twists and too much death with little enough adventure and romance to balance out the cosmic scales.

So we do little things. We complicate other people’s beliefs by giving them as much information as possible then allowing them the freedom to choose. We bite our lashing-out tongues one moment, then stand up and take the punches meant for another in the next. We fail one day and live to fight another.

I love Card’s books. I can’t help it. I hate that buying his books might in some way support propagating hatred though, so in the future, I’ll check them out of the library instead of purchasing them myself. This is the best answer I have right now, and it’s nowhere near satisfying. In five or ten or fifty years I might come up with a more perfect solution, but for now, this is where I stand. These books may hold undercurrents of his ideals, but they are in no way stories of intolerance or prejudice, and I can’t bring myself to throw them on the pyre because I disagree with the author. Down that road, tempted though we may sometimes be, lies chaos, unearned self-righteousness, and the death of free speech.

If you’d care to read more about Orson Scott Card’s work, he has a comprehensive site here.

The Sunshine Award (a non book-review Friday post)

I have won very few things in my life. There was a story contest in the first grade and a poetry contest in the third (they must have had very few entries for that one because I’ve seen the submitted poem and it was nine ways to awful). My only award as an adult has been winning second place in the Women on Writing’s flash fiction contest this past summer (which was really exciting – I might have cried a little, then promptly gone out and spent the award money on new running shoes and chocolate).

This morning, however, I woke up to a comment from antitheftpotseat saying I was nominated for the Sunshine Award…which I assumed was either an award for friendly bloggers or vampire hunting ones…either way, I’m in!

Seriously though, thanks so much for this – I love writing this blog and I look forward to discussing more books and ideas together.

(There’s seems to be some debate among recipients as to whether we should answer the questions below and add ten of our own, or answer the questions below and expect the other bloggers nominated to answer the same ones. antipotseat answered ten and added ten, so that’s what I’ll be doing as well.)

The Questions for me:

– Who shot first: Han (I don’t care what you say, George Lucas – you lost any right to speak after making those new Star Wars monstrosities.)

– Favorite historical figure: I don’t know. Who’s the guy who invented Pixar? Does he count? If not, I’m going with President Obama. I believe we need more well-spoken, thoughtful people in the history books. 

– My passion: Just one? Books, then.

– My favorite alcoholic beverage: Santa Barbara syrah (to be enjoyed with friends and a giant plate of summer tomato bruschetta)

– The weirdest bit of trivia I know: I’m sorry, but I have no idea. I’ve been trying to think of something for the last three hours, and I’m stuck. I don’t have a trivia-oriented brain (which is especially unfortunate since I love to go to Pub Trivia Night. I am the official dead weight of any team).

– Aisle or window: Window – I’m a plane-napping champion (and certainly don’t suffer crippling anxiety when asking people to get up for me when I have to go to the bathroom four times on one flight…)

– My perception of Twilight: Team Charlie! Yes, I’ve read them. Judge away, but just know you’re jealous as hell that you haven’t written a book that teenage girls will cease texting for (unless you have, in which case, rock on).

– My favorite sport I wish I played: Roller derby. Obviously.

– My favorite place to visit: I don’t have a single favorite. Kyoto is high on the list. And Boulder. I loved living in the Netherlands. This is hard. How could I just have one? 

– My regret: Not being a kinder person. I can be very blunt, especially with my family, and I wish I remembered to bite my tongue more often.


My nominees are as follows (and yes, I realize there are only four blogs listed, but I’m a terrible citizen of the world-wide web. Most of the blogs I read are personal, written by friends about their families, and although they’re amazing, I wouldn’t want to link to them here without permission.):

These are the rules that come with the award:

– Include the award’s logo in a post or on your blog
– Answer 10 questions about yourself
– Nominate 10 other fabulous bloggers
– Link your nominees to the post and comment on their blogs, letting them know they have been nominated
– Share the love and link the person who nominated you

The Questions for my nominees, should they choose to accept:

– What’s your go-to book when you need to change your perspective?

– If you could have been born in any country other than your own, where would you choose?

– What do you do to pass the time on long car trips?

– If you were a baseball player and you had to pick a song for them to play when you go up to bat, what would it be?

– If you could erase the existence of one kind of technology, what would you choose?

– Do cats really have nine lives?

– What trait would you like to strive for most – truth, compassion, or justice?

– Who would you turn to in those dark hours before the dawn?

– What’s one thing on your mental bucket list you plan to do this year?

– In ten words or less, what’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (entry, the 2nd), Catherynne M Valente

My trainer and I were having a conversation today that gave me pause (this was in between wind sprints, which he claims have something to do with improving my VO2 max…I just call it Zombie Avoidance Tactics with Associated Panting…). He was asking me if I’d read The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter books, and I told him, yes, to both, and hadn’t I told him only last week that he would love The Hunger Games with all the killing and the running and the girl power (he’s writing his thesis on training young women athletes)?!

“Yes,” he said. “You did mention it, but you were disgusting and sweaty so I couldn’t take you seriously.” At least, I assume that’s what he was thinking, because to be honest, I would not trust a girl who sweats as much as I do either.

Just kidding. What he was actually saying, without saying it at all, is that he was a boy (well, a twenty-five year old male, but who are we kidding) and that boys and books have a rocky relationship, especially if said boy is also athletic and defines himself firmly in the physical realm. For all I’m scared of jumping hurdles and swinging a baseball bat in front of crowds of people who look much better in spandex than I do, my trainer is equally drawn to and afraid of books.

He wants to like them. He talks to me about them a lot, although always with a sheepish expression. He really loves to learn, but he’s most comfortable at seminars and in lectures. He seemed so hopeful today, while I was trying to hold myself in plank, inquiring whether there were lots of good books out there for guys.

“Maria,” he said, “are there lots of good books out there for guys?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I can think plenty of books you’d like.”

“Really?” I could tell from his voice that he didn’t believe me one bit.



We left it at that, but I went home disappointed that I hadn’t convinced him that books exist on every topic under, over, and through the sun. I thought of how much he would love The Hunger Games, or Into Thin Air, or Born to Run, or Ender’s Game, or Why I Fight…I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll come to the point that connects this conversation with my thoughts on The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

The paragraph from this book that I shared on Monday, it spoke to how heavy a heart grows from reading. The whole book weaves in and out of its own narrative to prove just that point. And even September, its twelve-year-old protagonist, understands this on a fundamental level – reading about experiences outside of our own make our lives and thoughts and dreams that much richer and more expansive. Reading allows us a landscape to play out our wildest desires and most hidden fears without relinquishing power. It’s liberating even while it bears down our hearts with the cares of the world.

Awhile back, I had the pleasure of reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I didn’t know anything about living on a reservation before I read it (aside from the very little we’re taught in school), but he allowed me inside his story so that a part of me could be opened to the hardships and humor of a world far removed from the one I live in. And when Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco) was found dead this past weekend, a man who I only knew from the pages of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, I felt an intensity of loss I never expected – because McDougall wrote of his friend with such frank tenderness and esteem, I too experienced a deep stillness at the news his unexpected passing.

It really doesn’t matter whether we like fiction or biographies or poetry or stories written for children – it’s a trusting of books that opens us to the rawness of loving other people, different people, hard to imagine or even like people. I love that Valente’s book uses one girl’s adventure to explore this idea in a way that most adults would instantly grasp and savor, and that children will wonder at and explore with every passing year.

In her words:

I shall tell you what Calpurnia Farthing said. “The riddle of the Ravished,” she whispered, “is that they must always go down into the black naked and lonesome. But they cannot come back up into the light alone.” (pg 132)

or, as Lev Grossman wrote, in his crushingly true fashion, at the end of The Magician King:

He was alone. The stone square was silent. He felt dizzy, and not just because he’d hit his head. It was all crashing in on him now. He’d thought he’d known what his future looked like, but he’d been mistaken. His life would be something else now. He was starting over, only he didn’t think he had the strength to start over. He didn’t know if he could stand up. (p 399)

I have heard it said many times that we come into this world alone, and that we will leave it the same way. And, you see, alone, we are all tired, broken, ignorant. We are solitary heroes in search of a story. Thank goodness, then, for friends and enemies,  for misunderstandings, adventure, and raw, heavy hearts in the process of growing up.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (entry, the 1st), Catherynne M Valente

I’m the kind of person who does quite well with a schedule. I like structure, and I’ve never asked for an extension on a deadline in my life. I cherish the feeling of completing my work early so that I can carry on with activities I enjoy more at my leisure. When I was a child, this meant I came home and finished my homework as efficiently as I could so that I would have the better part of the afternoon and evening free of obligation.

Now that I work from home and set my own schedule and have deadlines that won’t come along for months, I need this reading project to keep me focused. It’s easy to run errands and clean the house instead of working on a manuscript that isn’t due for eight months. For the blog though, I post on Mondays and Thursdays, and I like to read two books a week for it; this builds in a natural rhythm of working hours vs “I work from home so doing laundry totally counts as working” hours. It’s a practical system, and it keeps my productivity level in check.

Today though, after an unexpectedly busy weekend (and what did I even do on Friday? I have a hazy recollection of watching “Sherlock” and skyping with my best friend in New Zealand, but surely that didn’t take the whole day…), I’ve been trying to rush through The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in order to stay on schedule, and I realized how incredibly dissatisfied I was that this deadline was more important than my pleasure in the process.

(And after all, on a day like today, when I went out on a run I had expected to be perfect (the morning was glorious – blue skies and hazy mountains, with just enough of a breeze – and my legs were well-rested) and ended up torturous to the nth degree…then I made the best peanut butter banana smoothie I’ve had in ages and ended up spilling three-quarters of it all over the floor and a computer keyboard…and then I thought I could breeze through this book in time to send emails to contributing authors and make cookies for a dinner tonight and maybe even sneak in the newest episode of “In Plain Sight” while I had lunch…)

All of a sudden I just stopped. I put the book aside and forced myself to stop barreling through my check list for one mental minute. This story is all about the heartless, adventurousness of childhood. It’s about taking time to meet new people and then really listening to what they say because, well, it’s fascinating to talk with witches and wyverns and women carved out of soap. It’s about missing your mother just a little bit more than you expected when you crawled out the kitchen window and onto the back of a flying leopard. Have you ever read The Phantom Tollbooth? This story reminds me very much of it, especially in that as much as I loved reading The Phantom Tollbooth as a kid, I appreciated Norton Juster’s message much more as an adult.

So why am I treating this lovely little book like a chore to be checked off and forgotten? Why am I so obsessed with meeting deadlines I set for myself? Where do I get off treating books as anything other than the luxury they are?! Isn’t that exactly what I hated to see when I was in school? Yes!

Yes – that’s what sucked the joy of reading out so many of my classmates – there was no time to absorb the material, or to understand what an author was really hoping to do before we had to write a paper or lead a discussion. I happen to like writing papers and leading discussions about books; that’s why I do what I do. But I don’t like seeing myself take a book that was well-reviewed by three of my favorite authors and treat it with as little respect as I have.  I don’t like encouraging other readers to take books at a breakneck pace when they might be better enjoyed laying on a picnic blanket out in the sun or under the covers with a flashlight at midnight.

I promise to have so much more to say about this book on Thursday, but for now, I’ll just leave you with an image I particularly loved in the very first chapter:

The Leopard of Little Breezes yawned up and farther off from the rooftops of Omaha, Nebraska, to which September did not even wave goodbye. One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well-known that reading quickens the growth of the heart like nothing else.) Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless at all. September stood very generally in the middle on the day the Green Wind  took her, Somewhat Heartless, and Somewhat Grown. (pg 4)

I have determined I would like to be Somewhat Heartless more often than I have been because it seems adventure comes more readily to those with less concern for things like terror, the unknown, and of course, unfinished checklists…


While you are waiting patiently for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (entry, the 2nd), you may want to check out Catherynne Valente’s beautiful blog at: