Book Review: UNDER THE MERCY, by Sheldon Vanauken

In the beginning of the book, Vanauken assures the reader that there's something in UNDER THE MERCY to offend everybody. Having read UNDER's predecessor, A Severe Mercy, I found this hard to believe, but even with my guard up, Vanauken did manage to offend me, but in the best sort of way. He made me think, very hard, about lots of important things.

I was definately skeptical of the merit of "A sequel to A Severe Mercy", but Vanauken did well--aside from having plenty of interesting and challenging things to say, he provided a fascinating glimpse of himself post-Mercy, and of the (most wonderful) writing of A Severe Mercy.

A Severe Mercy tells of Vanauken's singular marriage--UNDER THE MERCY tells of the thirty or so years following his wife's death, years that are touched on, however briefly, toward the end of A Severe Mercy, but which are fleshed out here as Vanauken ruminates on his involvement in the Civil Rights, Antiwar and Women's Lib Movements, his departure and return to the faith, and his conversion to Catholicism. He includes several essays and poems and articles written at different periods throughout his life, and is fond of quoting himself (sometimes to the extent of striking me as a bit pompous), but he provides a rather unique perspective, given his experiences, on the state of the Church and Christianity. Some of his writings on feminisim and the Spirit of the Age were particularly good (and offensive), and gave me plenty to ponder.

Despite my skepticism, I was impressed, and while I enjoyed the extra little glimpses he offered of himself and of Davy, after another ten years of reflection (from writing A Severe Mercy), I also found myself enjoying his theological articles much more than I'd anticipated. I somehow didn't pick up on how fiercely opinionated Vanauken is, while reading A Severe Mercy, but perhaps the subject in that book didn't allow for quite so much of his stubbornness to show through. All in all, it was a wonderful follow-up, and I'll be reading it again--probably on alternate years with A Severe Mercy.



Show off

Mitch took this picture. It's pretty amazing:


Book Review: UNTIL I FIND YOU, by John Irving

Could it be true? A John Irving novel that actually didn't make me cry like a little baby? I guess it is: I made my way through all 820 pages without shedding a single tear, and I'm not sure I could be more surprised. Normally, his novels come with at least one scene that just gets me--he sets it up from page 1, and I see it coming, approaching steadily, growing larger and larger on the horizon, until suddenly it's upon me and I cannot fend it off. Emotionally, John Irving's books tend to just wipe me out.

So how did he make it through 820 pages (that, my friends, is a large book to be lugging around an airport) without breaking my heart even once? Well, this is just a different sort of book, I suspect. It's very vulnerable, and fairly heart-warming, and while I hate to point fingers this way, I'd hazard a guess that the subject (the search for an absent father) is a bit close to our dear author's heart. The way he writes UNTIL I FIND YOU is almost tender.

In my review of The World According to Garp, though, I made mention of Irving's repeated themes. What the heck, I'll quote myself:
Having now, officially, read six Irving novels, I have to admit that I'm growing weary of the repeated themes. In my review of The Hotel New Hampshire, I cited this as an asset, but I think I'm beginning to feel a bit like Irving is dipping from the same pots again and again. The books are still great, but I just feel a little let down when I see pieces of my favorite plots tossed around from book to book, and especially now that themes from my favorite, A Widow for One Year, have made some rather breathtaking appearances in The World According to Garp.
And, though I had high hopes at the start of UNTIL I FIND YOU that Irving would not head down those familiar roads, I was a bit disappointed to find the characters in Amsterdam's Red Light district, yet again--or to find yet another character grow up to become a writer (or musician, or celebrity of some sort).

That criticism aside, I will admit to enjoying UNTIL I FIND YOU, even if I reluctantly won't list it alongside my favorite Irving novels (A Widow for One Year, The Cider House Rules). I loved reading all the stuff about tattoos, and I loved a certain character that I'll leave unnamed who is at last revealed toward the end of the book.

It is a good book, read by a harsh audience. I caught on too late in the story that this wasn't the sort of book that set out to make me cry.



Book Review: A SEVERE MERCY, by Sheldon Vanauken

A SEVERE MERCY is the sort of book that tends to be given as a gift. Example: one of Mitch's best friends gave him a copy less than a month before Mitch and I "met", feel in love, etc. We read the book aloud together during our engagement, and the influence Van and Davy's Shining Barrier has had in our relationship is incalculable--I recently reread A SEVERE MERCY and was struck anew by how many aspects of our marriage have been influenced by Vanauken's book. I was also quite grateful that A SEVERE MERCY found us when it did.

A second example: This led me to give a copy to a Mitch's cousin's fiancee (whew!) at her bridal shower. A few months later, I received the most heartfelt thank-you letter I've ever read--it's just that sort of book.

What's the big deal? Well, it's a memoir of sorts. In it, Vanauken chronicles his romance and marriage to the marvellous Davy, and while it is a love story, it is the most honest and thorough love story you will ever read--complete with journal entries, poems they wrote separately and together, and the many little vows that they made to one another, Vanauken tells how he and Davy eventually wove "one thousand sharings" to bind them together in a way you rarely (if ever) see in common love stories.

Also, it's a story of conversion. The one big breach in Van and Davy's protected love comes in the form of Christ ("invading", as Vanauken says). Probably the only reason this book, with it's small but fiercely devoted following, is still in print is because it includes a handful of otherwise unpublished letters to Van from C.S. Lewis--in fact, if you're having trouble finding a copy at the bookstore, check under "C.S. Lewis," where it's most likely been shelved. (And if you're in Bellingham, I can tell you right now that Henderson Books has a whopping three copies in stock! Amazing!)

I have to warn you, though--while it's beautiful, inspiring, honest and humbling, A SEVERE MERCY is also probably the saddest book you'll ever read. You'll cry. I guarantee it. No matter how tough you think you are, you'll get good and choked up. But don't let that stop you--please finish the whole thing. When Mitch and I read it together, we were so bitterly broken-hearted at a certain point that we found it difficult to keep going--so we didn't. It wasn't until two years later, when I reread the whole book, that I realized that the rest of the book was absolutely worth a few tears shed over lunch (in an embarrassingly public place--I did, in fact, have to leave the co-op to go sit in my car and weep).

Another small warning: I've given copies of this book to single friends who shrugged and weren't moved to finish the book, so I'd venture to say that this is possibly a two-person book--read it with your beloved, and it'll be that much more meaningful.



Oh no, not another addiction...

That's right, I found out about podcasts. Here are some of my favorites so far:

  • Democracy Now! To help myself in my conquest to feel semi-informed. The cast is about an hour long--about the time it takes me to (walk/stop for coffee/ride the bus/walk some more) get to work.

  • Oikos Fellowship. That's right, our church has it's very own podcast. I'm getting caught up on some of the back-sermons from before we started attending (about a month ago).

  • The Writer's Almanac. We can thank Rogue for this one. Nerdy factoids about the literary world and a poem of the day, read by the magnificent Garrison Keillor.

  • Donald Miller. A few twenty-minute segments of him reading from his books. What more could I need?

  • IndieFeed. I'm hooked on the "Blues" and "Electronica" segments--each cast is one song that you've never heard of.

  • These are just the ones I'm still subcribed to after listening to a few episodes--I've downloaded several others (including a few Harry Potter casts--but how many hours can you really devote to Book 7 theories? Plenty, I guess), but most of them weren't up to snuff. These are just the current favorites.


    Ode to Casa Que Pasa

    I can't believe it.

    They shut down Case Que Pasa.

    Now, I've heard the rumors (unpaid taxes, drugs, gambling, reckless defiance of the smoking ban), and I've read the article in the Whatcom Independent, but still: like a table with one missing leg, this town feels terribly off-balance without Casa.

    See, on those nights when we'd be at a loss for someplace to go, my friends (through high school, college and these odd post-college years) had a saying. It went like this: after several failed suggestions, we'd look at each other, smile and say, "Well, there's always Casa."

    But there's not. Not anymore.

    O Casa! What memories I have of you! Napping in the booths after midnight, as I waited for Mitch to finish his closing shift as a disreputable Casa cashier; ordering potato burritos, my fifteenth summer, after a swim at the lake; afternoons spent in the sticky green booths of the cantina, sipping margueritas and studying those strange Brandi Fairbanks paintings...Alas! On my twenty-first birthday, I came to you, dear Casa, for my first marguerita. But those days are gone, now.

    Yes, your food was notoriously inconsistent, and I did notice that the margueritas grew weaker and more watered down as the evenings wore on (and yes, Casa, I knew about the mice in the dining room), but still: perhaps a good carnitas burrito was that much better for all the mediocre ones that proceeded it.

    In all your seediness, sweet Casa, you were a place of comfort for me.

    I stood outside your darkened (broken and duct-taped) windows last night and shook my fist at your CLOSED sign. They cannot close you! I cried, not as long as you live on in my heart! Then I sought out an inferior marguerita at Chiribin's and drank it, with head bowed.

    Book Review: THE BEACH, by Alex Garland

    Like Fight Club or The Stepford Wives, THE BEACH is yet another book that has been eclipsed by the movie it inspired--the sort of book that, when you tell people what you're reading, tends to elicit the response, "You mean, like the movie?" Yes, this is THE BEACH, like the movie, but judging from the trailer alone, I'd be willing to say "like the movie, but better" (I can already tell what facets of the plot they blasphemously altered).

    And no, I haven't seen the movie. After reading the book, I'm pretty sure I don't want to see the movie, as the book was disturbing enough--brilliant, but disturbing. THE BEACH is the first book I've read in a long time, probably since House of Leaves, that has kept me up at night, thoroughly creeped out (but only at the very end--it's the last ten pages that does it). It is also the first book in a little while to completely suck me in. I read the first half in a single sitting (alright, it was on a airplane, so it's not like I had choices, but still), and after that I was stuck sneaking peeks between family reunion activities, trying to inch my way forward, one page at a time.

    I loved Garland's The Coma, but I'd be willing to pronounce THE BEACH an even better novel--slightly less advanced (which is to say, Garland seems to have grown as a writer between THE BEACH and The Coma, and that's obviously not a criticism), but a more engrossing read, with a more noticable point. An excellent book for a long flight.

    RATING: 4


    Book Review: THE SILMARILLION, by J.R.R. Tolkien

    In short, THE SILMARILLION is the Bible of Middle-Earth. Epic battles, the struggles of certain chosen individuals, the creation of the world and more, all told in a beautiful "and so it was" sort of tone. True to form, even the names are difficult to remember (thank goodness for the "Index of Names": I read almost half the book before I discovered this handy tool tucked away in the back of the book)--think Finwe, Fingon, Finrod, Fingolfin, Finduilin and, my personal favorite, Finarfin.

    But if I sound flippant, forgive me, because I mean absolutely no disservice to THE SILMARILLION. It's a doozie of a summer read, sure, and if you haven't read The Lord of the Rings AND The Hobbit several times, you probably won't care enough to make it past the first hundred pages--but if you loved Lord of the Rings enough to read it twice then please, read THE SILMARILLION, because it is an absolute work of art and it fills in all the gaps that The Lord of the Rings doesn't have time to touch.

    Beginning with the very beginning of Middle-Earth, and ending approximately one second before The Lord of the Rings picks up, THE SILMARILLION covers a lot of ground and an awful lot of history. I was surprised by how vast the book is, and I loved reading the stories of Earendil and of Numenor and the Grey Havens, just as I loved learning more about Galadriel, Elrond and Sauron (who are, surprisingly, just about the only characters you'd recognize for LOTR who are old enough to appear in THE SILMARILLION). The book is all the backstory you could possibly want, and I tip my hat to Mr. Tolkien and his amazing imagination.

    And about his imagination: one of the things I loved best about THE SILMARILLION was the way the history of Middle-earth ties in with the lore of our own, by way of stories that connect loosely with the myths we tell ("Atalante" seems a bit reminscent of "Atlantis", especially given the context). This connection shows up in the way that The Lord of the Rings leaves off (welcome to the Age of Men, and all that), but is even more apparent in THE SILMARILLION--I don't dare give anything away, but you'll see.

    So, any of you who love The Lord of the Rings enough to read the whole series multiple times, who own all three extended versions of the movie and have considered naming your first born child either Pippin or Galadriel (depending, of course, on the gender of the kid), get out there and read THE SILMARILLION right now. If you haven't read the book, liked the first movie, but was too sad about Gandalf to watch the second one, don't bother. You'll be bored out of your mind.

    RATING: 4


    Book Review: OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS, by Truman Capote

    OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS is Capote's first novel. He wrote it when he was something like 21, which is very impressive. Set in spooky rural Kansas (right?), the novel follows Joel Knox as he sets off, after the death of his mother, to live with the father he's never met. Full of ominous, inconclusive scenes and characters that made me vaguely uneasy OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS is told in the gorgeous sort of prose that is meant to be read aloud.

    I think I ultimately prefer both Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood to Capote's first work, but OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS is not a bit disappointing.

    RATING: 4

    I've been interviewed!

    How it works:
    1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."
    2. I will respond by asking you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
    3. You will update your LJ with the answers to the questions.
    4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
    5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

    Here it goes (my answers for Bugorama):

    1. if you could force everyone you know to read one book, what would it be and why?
    A People's History of the United States. It's huge, but everybody should know this stuff.

    2. tell me about the book you’re writing (in your head or otherwise).
    Actually, on the plane ride home from Missouri, yesterday, I hatched a scheme for a story about a big Missouran family that right now resembles Mitch's family in a dangerous way--I will tweak it, little by little, into its own family. I'm hoping to have tons of notes and outlines and characters by November 1, so that I can write something coherent for this year's NaNoWriMo.

    3. what’s one thing you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t. what’s holding you back?
    Hmmm. I suppose live someplace else, and as for what holds me back, it changes all the time. Used to be school, then it was my job. Now it's just the fact that I love it here--there is so much happening, and I'm thoroughly enjoying playing music in such a musical place.

    4. if you and mitch were to move away from b’ham, where would you want to go? why? what would you want to do there?
    Idaho. I've sort of fallen in love with northern Idaho since we drove through it last summer--but I'd miss the ocean. Colorado is also nice, so long as you're in the mountains. But I've liked almost every place I've ever been...almost. For a while I was quite enamoured with Snoqualmie. I think I still am.

    5. what’s your favorite memory?
    I have many. But for a most significant favorite memory I'll choose: sitting in a side storage room at the church just before my wedding. It's raining outside and there are windows on three sides of the small room, so I can see the water hit the glass. I'm in my wedding dress, and I'm holding the box with our wedding rings in it in my hands. I keep taking both rings off and fitting them onto my fingers. Mitch's fits on my right thumb. The box is bright red. We still have it.

    6. where do you picture yourself being in 10 years (career, personal life, geographic location, etc.)? this doesn’t need to be a prophecy or anything, just a sense of your current goals.
    With kids, writing. Somehow it'll work. Mitch would have a job that he loves, and that would allow me to work very little. Maybe one day a week, maybe two. I don't know where we'll live--where he can find a job, I suppose. Someplace with a good used bookstore, or at least a big library. Our house will be tiny, but with a guest bedroom, so that people can always stay over. Maybe with a small shed/studio in the backyard, and a garden. Probably we'll live in town, since we tried the county and couldn't bear all the driving.

    Down home cookin'

    The weather report for Rolla, Missouri? Hot. Stinkin' hot. I know this because I just got back from spending five days there with my husband and his eNORmous extended family--163 people turned out for the family reunion, which was in his great-aunt's backyard. And we had a great time, better than I think either of us dared hope. Here are some fun things we did:

  • Ate our body weight in fried chicken, baked beans, butter cake, brownies, casseroles, ham, sweet tea, chocolate cream pie and more that I have forgotten, but that my belly has not.

  • Went cruising down a river at 30 miles an hour on a river boat. It was gorgeous--we saw turtles, turkey vultures, bald eagles, dragonflies, butterflies and a spider the size of my hand.

  • Jumped on a trampoline with Mitch and his cousin--we are not so small anymore, and we nearly launched one another off onto the lawn several times. In 100-degree, high-humidity weather, this made me sweat like crazy.

  • Swam a lot, both in the river and in an aunt's swimming pool.

  • Read up on Rosenburg family history. Got a chance to read Mitch's great-grandmother's Bible, which is roughly 100 years old.

  • Went horseback riding. I've riden maybe twice, and Mitch never, so it was colorful. Especially as I ended up on a momma horse who would not leave her colt behind--she was constantly trying to turn back and nip at him, while he attempted several times to kick at her, playfully, narrowly missing my shins.

  • Ate at McDonald's for the first time in...four years? I had the fruit & yogurt cup.

  • Spent more time in SeaTac airport than I care to repeat (flight delayed, and then changed), eating frozen yogurt with rainbow sprinkles with Mitch, staring at people, and riding the underground trains unnecessarily.

  • We had more fun than there is time to tell.