A Public Faith

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to do an internship in Amman, Jordan. It was an incredible experience, though I’ll admit I was definitely ready to come home by the end of it. I remember thinking in the final weeks of my internship about what I would miss the most – what I would regret leaving. The answer was easy for me:

More than anything else, I would miss the call to prayer (the adhan).

Yes, it’s beautiful (if you’ve never listened to an adhan, you’re missing out), but it was more than the auditory aesthetic I would miss.

Even though I’m not Muslim, there was something incredibly touching (and quite moving) about the way that it broke up the day. The public reminder to take a moment and think about God. The shared understanding that there was something more important than whatever it was you were doing at the moment. The outward manifestation of an inner belief.

Fast forward several years.

I have fallen utterly and completely in love with Washington, DC. Why? Well, many reasons, but one of my favorite things about living here is something you may least expect and is, in fact, not unique to DC at all.*

One of my favorite things about living in DC is Ash Wednesday.

DC is, shall we say, not famous for its religiosity, but every Ash Wednesday, I see people walking around with the cross of ashes on their forehead. And every Ash Wednesday, I see priests waiting hopefully outside busy metro stations, ready for whoever will take a minute out of their busy day to receive the cross of ashes. This is not something I saw in Utah (Mormons are Christian, but we, like some other branches of Christianity, do not usually observe liturgical holidays like Lent, Pentecost, etc.), and it’s something I have loved ever since my first Ash Wednesday in DC when I did a double take coming out of the metro after nearly running into a smiling priest.

In thinking about these two things I love (the adhan and Ash Wednesday in DC), I realize there are two reasons for my random attachment to them. First, I love old things, and things steeped in tradition. And second, they are rare** public demonstrations of faith, and I find that both beautiful and touching.***

Faith is something that is usually quite private (even attending church does feel like such a public display of faith), so it’s nice to sometimes see it represented so boldly and publicly. There’s a boldness and confidence in it that is not only admirable, but timeless.

I thought a lot about this over the past few days. So much of DC is shut down on Good Friday, and that’s yet another example of a beautiful public express of faith. Yes, that’s not how a lot of people think about it. And yes, there are problems in thinking about religion as a shared experience. (After all, it’s shared only within a particular community, whether large or small.) But here’s what I love:

In a world where religion is reserved for the private corners of the mind, unabashedly and publicly (yet respectfully) showing faith in any number of ways is beautiful, thought-provoking, and inspiring; and in a world with so much vitriol, it’s a lovely reminder that there are so many ways in which we’re not so different after all.

*I assume so, anyway, although I have never been anywhere else on Ash Wednesday besides Utah or DC.
**Rare in my experience. Obviously, if I lived in, say, the Vatican, or in a Muslim majority city, it would feel different.
***I fully recognize the problems with religiosity or piety being too exhibitionist (as well as too public) and such, but I still love and appreciate the beauty I find in it.

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The Problem with Classics

I love a lot about classics. For the most part, there’s a reason they’ve stuck around.

As wonderful experiences I have had reading classic literature, there are some definite challenges that come along with it.

One of the challenges of reading classics is reconciling “old-fashioned” ways of thinking with modern expectations. This stood out to me as I’ve been reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I have been really annoyed with her presentation of gender and class. I’m only about a third of the way through, but I have found the book so far to feel like the worst of upper-class snobbery.

In addition to that, I find the female characters in particular to be really obnoxious and have felt extremely disappointed that a woman was apparently so incapable of writing a competent, complex female character.

I’ve read plenty of books where I noticed problems with gender dynamics before. It’s, unfortunately, hard to avoid – especially when you consider that the history of publishing was so entirely dominated by men for such a long time (and still is, although to a lesser extent). But it is really grating for me in North and South (again – so far; I may change my mind). Does that mean I’m simply not doing a good enough job of getting my head into a 19th century mentality and stop trying to view it through a 21st century lens? Is it my fault for expecting or wanting my values to be reflected? I mean, I really feel like I’m not asking for anything unreasonable here. (Can we have one woman in an 19th century novel that doesn’t faint or burst into hysterics? One woman?)

On the flip side, if I roll my eyes and keep reading, muttering something along the lines of “it’s of its time,” am I letting myself down and minimizing/ignoring the issues I see?

It’s clear that there is some kind of balance that can exist. After all, it is entirely possible to recognize something as deeply problematic while still enjoying and even holding it close to your heart. Perhaps I just haven’t read enough classics to find that balance.

I’ll finish with this: It is disheartening to see yourself (in my case, my gender) in great literature only through stereotypes and paper-cutout-characters. To see yourself only in shadows while everything else is in brilliant color. To see writers time and time again lazily resort to trope after trope after trope. And of course there are many, many other groups who experience this to an even greater degree.

As fantastic as much of classic literature is, I think we have to admit that visibility matters. Being able to see yourself in the stories that you read really matters. It’s why we really do need diverse books.

Classics are worthwhile, by all means. But so is a conversation about where literature has failed.

The Classics Book Tag

For something slightly different today, let’s do a book tag! It’s simply a series of questions to answer and then you would tag somebody that you also want to answer those questions. Except I haven’t actually been tagged to do this one, and I’m not going to tag anybody, so I guess this is more of the Classics Book _____? Also I’m changing one or two of the questions, so…really it’s nothing like it at all. (If you are interested, I believe the original tag is here.)

Anyway, I’ve seen this tag around for a long time (it’s a really old one) and it’s always looked really fun, so here goes!

  1. An overhyped classic you didn’t like.
    • Lord of the Flies and Crime and Punishment. (Although to be fair, I think I would actually find a lot to admire and appreciate about Crime and Punishment if I read it now.)
  2. Favorite time period to read about.
    • If this question is supposed to be about setting, than really anything before 1800 (although I still enjoy a lot of things set in the 1800s, too). If I had to choose something more specific, it would probably be the American Revolution.
    • If this question is supposed to be about classic literature written in a particular time period, I would have to say 19th century. So many of The Greats are from that century that it’s kind of hard to pick anything else, although I’m really interested to give more 18th century literature a try.
  3. Favorite fairy tale.
    • I don’t actually really read fairy tales much at all, but in general, it would be Beauty and the Beast.
  4. What classic are you most embarrassed you haven’t read yet.
    • For the longest time, it was To Kill a Mockingbird, but I finally read that last year (or the year before?). Right now I would have to say it’s probably A Tale of Two Cities.
  5. Top five classics you would like to read soon.
    • A Tale of Two Cities, The Odyssey, Three Musketeers, North and South, and something by Virginia Woolf.
  6. Favorite movie or tv series adaptation of a classic.
    • BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice, the version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, and Kate Winslet (adore that movie!), and BBC’s recent-ish miniseries of Emma. If we’re counting Lord of the Rings as classics, then definitely those movies, too.
  7. Underhyped classic you’d recommend to everyone.
    • I have not read many classics that I consider underhyped, BUT the one that instantly came to mind is The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor. This is fairly recent to be considered a classic (I believe it was published in the late 1950s), but I still think it counts. It was soooooo good. I had picked it up from a library book sale on a total whim for two reasons a) it was $.25, and b) there was a quote on the front from Arthur Schlesinger saying that it was the best novel about American urban politics. That immediately sold me. I’m not sure if I would love it quite as much if I read it again now (I may just have happened to read it at the absolute perfect time), but I absolutely adored it. It had me snorting from laughter on the train multiple times (not kidding), and was utterly engrossing.
  8. Favorite editions of classic books.
    • I’m fairly utilitarian when it comes to books. I’m less concerned about how pretty a cover is than how it feels in my hand and how easy it is to read. Some books/editions are far too stiff and make it difficult to read one-handed. They don’t flop open nicely and you have to beat the book up a little bit so that it is bendable enough to read. I don’t like books like that. The ones that feel the best in my hand and are easy to read are the regular Barnes and Noble Classics. Their covers are not great, but they’re really comfortable to read, so I really enjoy those.
  9. Recommendations for starter classics
    • Classic literature can be daunting, so here are some suggestions on where to start.
      • Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
      • A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
      • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
      • Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

Do you have a favorite classic? What about a classic that most surprised you?

 

The Right Time

When I was eight, I tried to read my first adult book. I seem to remember it being at least 800 pages long, although Goodreads claims it is just over 400 pages, so…there’s that. It had been given to me by my grandmother and was part of an enormous series called The Work and the Glory (consisting of 9 books, the longest of which actually is nearly 800 pages). I was sitting in the car with it on my lap as we were driving home from my grandmother’s. My mom was filling the car with gas. I was waiting. I hadn’t brought a book with me, and with a shiny new book sitting on my lap, what is a true bibliophile to do?

I started reading it. I didn’t get very far. It remained on my bookshelf, unread.

I came back to it a few years later, successfully reading it and the rest of the series. They were even some of my favorite books for a while.

When I was twelve, I checked out Treasure Island and another children’s classic (I think it was A Secret Garden, but I’m not sure) from the library. I was not ready for them and could not bring myself to read more than a few pages before giving it up as a bad job.

The funny thing is that Treasure Island must technically be at a lower reading level than the adult series I read a younger age, but that didn’t matter. It seemed utterly foreign to me and I felt I had no hope of ever being able to understand it.* I had some sort of idea that the ability to understand and appreciate certain kinds of literature was a kind of innate talent-like a gene that I just simply hadn’t been born with. This, of course, is not true. It was simply not the right time for me to read it-just like it wasn’t the right time for me to read The Work and the Glory when I first tried. I somehow implicitly understood that better at age eight than I did several years later.

I’ve thought a lot about coming to pieces of literature at the right time. Having a favorite when perhaps it’s only a favorite because of something small that spoke to you in that particular moment. The difference it can make to read a book at just the right moment for you.

It’s the same thing in the “real world.” There’s a right and a wrong time for everything. The trick is waiting for the right time to roll around.

And that can be aggravating as all get-out.

More often than I would care to admit, I am guilty of peeking ahead to the end of a book to see what happens, or to see if my guess is correct, spoiling the ending.**

Surely I can’t be the only one who wishes I could sometimes do that with my life? To be able to peek ahead, just a few months, or a year? After all, if there’s a Hagrid waiting to tell me on page 273 of my life that actually Hogwarts made a mistake and I should have received my letter years ago, wouldn’t that be nice to know now?

But then I have to slow down and remind myself:

Right now is the right time for something.

And I need to enjoy that something now before it becomes the right time for something else.

The alternative is waiting for a golden ticket that is never guaranteed to arrive. Or putting off the moment you will finally allow yourself to smile at what’s in front of you, the way you put off that book you know you’ll love.

It takes some degree of trust to allow yourself that moment to smile. Maybe that’s part of why it’s so difficult.

Trust and, I suppose, a little bit of patience.

*For the record, I did come back to Treasure Island…but not until my mid-twenties.

**Also for the record, I do this much less often than I used to.

Reading wrap-up: part 2

If you missed part 1 of my reading wrap-up, click here.

It’s time for more books! We’ll jump right into it.

I remember hearing oodles of rave reviews for We Were Liars by E. Lockhart when it came out a few years ago. I’m not sure why I waited so long, but I was in the mood for a really quick 16143347and easy read, so I finally dusted off my copy, settled myself on my bed, and read it in one sitting. No spoilers here, but I have to say I was kind of disappointed and that I have conflicting feelings about it. There were a few things that I thought were problematic and that bothered me enough to interfere with my experience reading the book. Minor adjustments could have been made that I think would have fixed those problems. And I’m not talking about plot holes or anything like that; I’m talking about the way certain characteristics or experiences were romanticized, as well as poor character development. That’s what I found problematic. Despite that, the writing was excellent. This is the second book I’ve read by E. Lockhart and this is how I feel about her: she has incredible potential but it’s like her swings keep missing. (Either that or we just don’t get on very well.) I still want to keep track of her work, though, because I feel like when she lands one, it will be phenomenal.

Next up, I read Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance. I saw this book crop up on so many lists at the end of last year, particularly in light of the results of the ahem election ahem and I was extremely curious. After visiting southern Virginia and noticing some…interesting things, it felt like an appropriate time to read it. I listened to the audiobook quite quickly, as it’s a pretty short book. I’m really glad I read it. I struggle to articulate exactly what I learned and how it made me feel, but it is definitely eye-opening, and I think that is its main value. It made me feel like I took a huge step in understanding what life is like for so many Americans whose experience is vastly different from my own – experiences that are so often ignored or silenced in “mainstream” American media. It is without a doubt an important piece of nonfiction. (If you’re interested in giving it a try, please note that its language is most definitely not G-rated.)

61i4k7dwnfl-_sx376_bo1204203200_Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari was another one I’d heard great things about, so I decided to give it a go. It was a fascinating read, although I definitely took issue with a number of things Harari says. He quite clearly views religion the way most of would view, say, monsters under the bed: an eyeroll-worthy fiction. At the same time, he will describe an occurrence or development and admit there is no scientific or biological explanation for it. One primary example of this is what he calls the cognitive revolution, where human brains evolved dramatically and became capable of more complex ideas and speech, and capable of creating shared stories. It was a great read, but I felt Harari was more than a little condescending. Perhaps most problematic of all, he completely fails to take into account this important lesson that millions of children (and adults) learned from Harry Potter: “Of course it is all happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” He completely fails to recognize truth and reality in what we may call “fictions.” He uses money as an example, calling it the most successful and widespread “fiction” we have invented. And he is right to a large extent. Money in and of itself has no value. It holds value only because we say it does and we believe it does, and our neighbors believe it, too. And he’s right. But that doesn’t change the fact that you can take your $10 bill, or your piece of plastic down to a store and come back with food for the day. You can call money “imagined” until you’re blue in the face, but you’ll still need it just as much as your neighbor. I found his condescending bias more than a little grating.

I never had a mythology unit in school. I’ve picked up some information over the years, but always felt my knowledge was quite lacking in this particular area. After reading Phillis Wheatley’s poetry collection, this gap became even more clear and I decided to at least attempt to rectify that. I decided to start with Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Now, this isn’t the kind of book I think most people would want to sit down and read through, but it was still fairly enjoyable. It definitely held my attention more at the beginning and kind of dwindled towards the end. I suppose it’s a fairly good place to start if you’re looking to build up your Greek/Roman mythology base. The main problem with it, however, was its organization, which made little sense. There were stories that were referenced that were not actually shared until later in the book, and some important myths were placed behind less important myths, etc. Overall, though, it was fairly successful. I definitely could not rattle off a bunch of names and stories, but it gave me a better understand of the feel of Greek/Roman mythology and helped me become more familiar with the stories, even if I don’t have them memorized.

Reading wrap-up: part 1

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I have read a lot over the last few weeks, so I thought I would share what I’ve read and what I thought about it. I was planning to put it all in one post, but it got a little wieldy. (Yes, I’ve read that much.) So I’ve split it up in to two parts. (Part 2 will be coming soon!)

First off, I listened to the entire Harry Potter series on audiobook within the course of 10 7b679beca8-301a-4389-be19-3e773907f1597dimg400days. Whoops. Obviously, no review is necessary for Harry Potter, but I did want to mention a couple of things that really stood out to me this time around. 1) I totally underrated Half-Blood Prince in my memory. I typically listed it as my third or fourth favorite of the series, but listening to it this time around, I feel like it deserves to be much higher. 2) It really is a master class in weaving a complex and intricate plot. Totally mind-blowing. And 3) I definitely prefer the later books in the series, but am stunned by how everything connects together. It’s not for nothing that these are among my favorite books of all time. Harry Potter will always and forever be close to my heart, and it will always feel like coming home.

smallNext up is a poetry collection. Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. I’ll be quite candid: Phillis, as much as I admire her, is not my favorite poet, BUT that doesn’t mean that I didn’t get quite a bit out of reading this. It went a long way in helping me understand her, although I still feel like I have a ways to go. One of the things that really stood out to me was how intelligent she clearly was. She referenced mythology and the Bible like nobody’s business, and in a way that shows a deep understanding – not just a cursory awareness of it. And some ideas expressed were truly remarkable and thought-provoking. It was definitely a worthwhile read for me. Even if I wasn’t, you know, writing a novel about her.

Then I finished reading Presence by Amy Cuddy. Remember I mentioned that waaaaay back last year? Yeah, well I finally finished reading the book. I kind of put it to the side when I was distracted by other things, but finally came back to it a couple weeks ago and quickly finished it. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk remains one of the most impactful things I have ever watched or listened to, as it is a subject that hits really close to home for me. I have seen Presence criticized as nothing more than an expansion of her TED talk. I don’t entirely agree with that view of it, but even if it was true, I would still find it valuable. To me, this book offered very real, tangible actions that I can take to increase my confidence and also offered some extremely helpful ways of thinking about confidence. I have no real reservation in recommending this book to anyone who feels they sometimes lack the confidence that they would like to have.

I’d been hearing a lot about Arianna Huffington’s Sleep Revolution and I was pretty curious, so I listened to the audiobook. This was definitely my least favorite recent read. It felt like nothing so much as a regurgitation and compilation of sleep research, with no real additional value. It didn’t add much of anything. I didn’t even feel like I learned that much, even though I’ve only read a handful of articles of sleep. When you read a full-length book, I think you would generally expect to learn more than you had a from a few articles, so…yeah. I wanted to enjoy it, but I was not impressed.

I wrote about Lionheart at the beginning of the year, which I absolutely adored, so it was only a matter of time before I picked up its companion novel, A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman, from the library. It took me much longer to work my way through this book than I expected, but that was due to external factors, not the book itself. I do prefer Lionheart, but I still really enjoyed A King’s Ransom. It follows Richard once he leaves the Holy Land, making his way back to England to take care of some problems (which in this case take the form of his brother and the French King) before returning to the Holy Land again to finish his business there. However, things don’t go according to plan. I knew nothing about the historical events that Penman depicts in this novel, so it was quite a gripping read. One of the things I mentioned in my Lionheart post was how wonderful her characters were, and that was the case here, as well. Perhaps not quite as much, but far superior still to what I see in a lot of other historical fiction. Overall, it was a wonderful read. (Although, again as with Lionheart, not one that I would generally recommend to most except hard core historical fiction fans.)

 

What have you read recently?

Yo ho, yo ho, a writer’s life for me

Back in January, I shared some writing goals that I hoped would help me get “unstuck” in February. I suspected that my “writer’s block” (which I don’t really believe in) was due mostly to the fact that I did not quite know what to do next, and I thought that making a plan would help me get through feeling stuck. I said I would report back after the month was over to see if it had worked or not.

By nearly any measure, I had a great deal of success with the goals I set in that post. I did not complete them 100% (one of them I did not do at all, and the others I either completed or mostly completed), but my main goal with all of this was to push myself forward and to make progress. And I did. I spent more time on research than I had before, I even went on a little research expedition which was not only fun but productive (research wise). Perhaps most importantly, I reworked the first chapter of my manuscript to the point that it was ready for a beta reader. It helped that I set myself a deadline and told her it would be in her inbox no later than today. I even completed it early enough to have my mom read it first, to make some edits, and get it over to my beta reader a whole day before my self-imposed deadline. Score! (It’s the little victories, right?)

The thing that shocked me most about this sudden burst of creative productivity is that it spilled over into my reading – which is absolutely crucial to my writing. In the last two weeks, I have completed 11 books. (I’ll probably post a reading wrap-up soon.) Many of these were audiobooks, and one (A King’s Ransom) I had started earlier than that, but the point is that I read more in the last two weeks than I have in a very long time. In fact, I’m not sure I have ever read that much in a two-week period ever before. The vast majority of them were quite long books, too.

I’ve always viewed reading and writing more as mutually exclusive. Time spent reading is time taken away from writing; time spent writing is time taken away from reading. It always seemed like a zero-sum game before. But this experiment of laying out a plan has made me realize that when I read more, I naturally get more writing done, and vice versa. They feed each other, as strange as that sounds.

I should admit that I have had some time off of work that I don’t usually have, and that definitely made my research time more possible, but when I sit down and think about it, every way I look at it, I’m pretty sure it still would have been a more creatively productive two weeks than I have had in a very long time. (And that was in the middle of a very stressful few weeks at work.)

Now, I know that the magic of making a plan for my writing may lose its effectiveness and that it may not continue to work very well for me, but for now, I am going to continue taking a few moments every two months to plan out what I am going to accomplish. It’s not so much goal setting as it is taking the time to sit down and look at a map to figure out a sensible route instead of driving around aimlessly hoping I kind of stumble into what I’m vaguely trying to find.

All that said, my goals for the months of March and April are as follows:

  • Complete three of the books from my enormous research pile. (They are long and difficult reads, so I’m not going to set my expectations too high.)
  • Rework chapter two of my manuscript so that it is ready to send to my beta reader. I know this will be much more difficult than chapter one was, so I am giving myself oodles of time to complete this.
  • Revise chapter one. (Again.) Just this week, I discovered a number of things from my research that I would really like to add and that I think will really add a lot to the chapter.

Here’s to the next two months…