L: Madeleine L’Engle (Blogging from A-Z)

Today is day 12 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout theL
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.

Today’s word: L’Engle

 Most readers come to Madeleine L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time books. (At least that’s what I call them–L’Engle’s website lists the series as the Time Quintet). When my own children were of an age to read the books twenty years ago, they proved madeleine l'engle's booksa great entry into the world of science fiction and fantasy. (Here’s a great segment about Wrinkle on NPR’s All Things Considered about its appeal.) And believe it or not, Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962, was even popular when I was in grade school. But I didn’t read it.

I first came to Madeleine L’Engle through a series she wrote: The Crosswicks Journals. Part memoir, part spirituality, the books explore the writer’s life as a mother, wife, and writer. They are introspective and not at all preachy, dealing with caring for an aging relative, our need for solitude, marriage, and the role of the sacred in modern life. (In fact, writing this, I think I’ll return to the books this summer.)

After falling in love with the Crosswick Journals, I backtracked and read a few of the Wrinkle books, as well as Meet the Austins and Troubling a Star, titles I’d consider Young Adult. Even as an adult (a crossover!) I wasn’t disappointed with the ideas in books that were written ostensibly for younger readers.

In fact, I have a Wrinkle in Time and Swiftly Tilting Planet in my classroom library–and just yesterday, I had a young man check one out. He’s sixteen, mind you. A true testament to the endurance of a writer who cares about Ideas.

Short ‘n Sweet: Dear Committee Members (review)

Dear Committee Members
Julie Schumacher
Anchor Books

Jason Fitger has been an English professor for twenty-something years at a small university in the Midwest. He’s under pressure, overworked, and hardly appreciated. Writer Julie Schumacher tells the prof’s story through the letters he writes: a department head and dean here, fellowship and job recommendations there.

The tone of each letter varies according to Fitger’s feelings about the situation and the recipient. He might dear committee membermock a student’s request for a job recommendation to Avengers Paintball, for instance (“Mr. Trent received a C- in my expository writing class [which] is quite an accomplishment”); implore his editor to take a second look at a promising student’s work (“Accountant in a Bordello is a shattering reinterpretation of “Bartleby”); or rail against university bureaucrats for threatening to defund the creative writing program.

It’s the reader, really, who must unravel the plot (if there even is one in Dear) because our only perspective is Fitger’s–and truth be told, he’s not a very likable guy most of the time. “Irascible” and “curmudgeon” are two adjectives that come to mind.

I liked Dear Committee Members for it’s inventiveness–even the salutations and signatures mirrored the letters’ content–and I begrudgingly came to like  tolerate Jason Fitger. But the story sometimes seemed too much like an inside joke. It came highly recommended by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan (you can see her review here), although this is one (very rare!) time her plug failed me. However, nerdy high school English teacher that I am, I will be using a few of Fitger’s letters next year to teach my AP kids about tone.

So a mixed review from me*, but if you know someone emeshed in the politics of university life, this might be a winner.

*and in reading the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, it’s clear my reservations are just me–although more than a few of those reviewers admitted to being college instructors.

Namaste, Ms. Elliott: Zen Under Fire (review)

Zen Under Fire 
by Marianne Elliott
Sourcebooks 2013

 Marianne Elliott documented human rights violations in Afghan prisons and police stations and trained local law enforcement officers and prosecutors about human rights and Afghan law. Her life, first in Kabul, and then in Herat, was one of contrasts. Rules and procedures narrowed her freedom: she needs a driver or security officer with her whenever she travels outside her UN guest house, she can’t walk alone on the streets, her dress and demeanor must at all times show respect for Afghan culture. But in countless other ways, Elliott’s circumstances open her to rich experiences: the camaraderie of UN and NGO workers from around the world, the priceless friendship of her Afghan co-workers, and the indelible mark the Afghans she served left on her heart. Sometimes frightened, often edgy, occasionally endangered, and always driven, Elliott struggles to maintain balance in her life–she knows that a shell-shocked, stressed out aid worker would be less than effective.

Before arriving in Kabul, Elliott practiced yoga and meditation in her native New Zealand, and she continues during her time in Afghanistan. At first, her practice is almost mechanical. Unnerved by a phone call or a meeting, she’d head to her mat, do some simple breathing exercises and several sun salutes. While the stressful situation was often the same, it was Elliott who was different. Yoga becomes both her refuge and strength: “Yoga is helping me little by little to trust my breath and my body, and to loosen my tight grip on control. I am starting to get glimpses of what yoga might be able to teach me …”

What I like so much about Zen Under Fire was the author’s transparency. As an American who only hears about aid workers on the news and has no experience with life in a war zone, it can be easy to elevate those who serve to sainthood. But Elliott struggles with jealousy and anger and helplessness
and self-doubt. Through fits and starts, she gives herself permission to sit with those feelings, acknowledging them instead of repressing them, and realizes “it is a kind of yoga, this approach. It is transforming my ability to be in the presence of profound suffering without closing my heart or leaping too quickly into action.” Maybe most important of all, she learns that sometimes it is more important to be a heartstrong woman than a headstrong one.

Yoga and meditation can sometimes seem like an “add-on” to our modern lives–something that might be nice to have, but certainly isn’t a necessity. But Marianne Elliott teaches us that living the mindful life allows us to experience the true depth and breadth this life has to offer. Even in a war zone.

Love wins: Small Blessings (review)

Small Blessings (NetGalley DRC)
Martha Woodruff
release date: August 2014

The worst thing you can do in this life is turn away from it, my dear. 

Professor Tom Putnam has patiently cared for his wife Marjory for twenty years; suffering from
disabling anxiety and depression, Marjorie rarely leaves their home except to visit her psychiatrist. When Tom must teach class, his mother-in-law Agnes watches over Marjory at home. The idyllic setting–a small Virginia college with its elementary school, book shop, cottages for staff, and homes for faculty–contrasts the chaos that is the Putnam’s home life. To this sad little scenario, add the college’s new Book Shop manager whose tender spirit draws people (including Marjory) to her like moths to a flame, a displaced orphan arriving on a train unexpectedly, then toss in a tragedy that brings them all together and you’ve got a lesson in appreciating the small things in life.

Martha Woodroof’s panoply of minor characters was distracting at times: warring faculty members, a peevish probate lawyer, stand-offish college president, bumbling village constable. I found their stories distracting at times and unnecessary. I mean, do we really need the backstory of two alcoholics? The plot took unexpected twists and turns, if you like a meandering sort of tale. But in the end, Woodroof’s first novel with its message of hope and redemption was itself a small blessing.

Martha Woodroof has been an arts and culture contributor at NPR. You can read more about the writer at her website (link).

Who but thou?

Under the Wide and Starry Sky (NetGalley)
Nancy Horan

Take thou the writing. Thine it is. For who/Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal/Held still the target higher … who but thou? 

I loved Nancy Horan’s first novel, Loving Frank–I got a glimpse into the life and loves of a woman I

knew nothing about, Frank Lloyd Wright’s murdered lover Mameh Borthwick. It was an engaging novel that kept me turning the page. Horan’s latest novel about Fanny Stevenson was not nearly as captivating.

Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson was author Robert Louis Stevenson’s American wife. Ten years his junior, Fanny was separated from her husband when the two met in Europe where Fanny and her children were in exile of sorts–Fanny had spirited the children away, finally leaving her philandering husband so that Fanny and daughter Belle could attend a school of drawing and painting in Paris. Louis and Fanny meet after she suffers a personal tragedy and Louis is smitten, despite the fact that she was ten years his senior and married with children. In fact, when Fanny returned home to take up again with (or put off for good) her husband, Louis followed her to San Francisco, traveling at great cost to his delicate health.

We travel with the Stevensons to Scotland and London and Samoa–and I waited for the magic to begin. I had listened to Nancy Horan’s interview on the Diane Rehm show in January and was intrigued with their life. But for some reason, the book didn’t measure up to the interview or Loving Frank. The characters were well-researched, the plot didn’t stray from the facts of Stevenson’s life, but it just fell flat. I am somewhat ashamed to admit (avid reader that I am!) I skimmed the second half of the book after diligently sticking with the first. I skipped to the last few chapters of their life in Samoa and was there when Louis died; the last chapter which covered Fanny’s life after Louis’ death interested me more than many of the earlier chapters.

That said, do I want to re-read some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s work? Yes. Will I think of his life and loves while I read him? Yes. So maybe Horan’s work was successful after all.