No one wants to talk about shame, but it is universally experienced. This book surprised me. I have a tendency to hate self-help books. I went into it both curious and dreading what I would read. The women in my Bible study group read it during the summer break. For me, as for most of us, it took some semantic maneuvering. All in all, it gets at the heart of some really true things. I can’t get behind all of it, but what did resonate with me gave me a lot to think about. And God- with his sovereign humor- gave me some experiences to practically apply some of what I read, on the golf course no less, so thanks for that.
Now here is a book! This memoir shocked the hell out of me, despite hearing from several people years ago that it needed to be read. I finally did it so I can go see the movie- currently in theaters. Two things shocked me: it should have been heartbreaking, and I should have hated her parents. What could have been agonizing to read simply wasn’t. Let me give you an example- sandwiched in between talk of scorpions and Gila monsters and cats is this:
A month after we moved to Midland, Juju got bitten by a rattlesnake and died. We buried him near the Joshua tree. It was practically the only time I ever saw Brian cry. But we had plenty of cats to keep us company.
Lest you think Juju is one of the cats, it is her little brother. And here’s the surprise- despite the matter-of-fact way she presents horrific things in this book, the reader still feels the full effect of what has happened. I got to the end of that sentence above, and though it was in the middle of a paragraph, I stopped dead in my tracks and wept with Brian. And I wept all the more for the lack of tears in the story. Maybe she had to do it this way- I’m not sure I could have endured if she had not. Maybe she couldn’t have either.
The same was the case with her parents. She was gracious. She shared the awful, but she shared the beautiful too. She had come to a point of accepting all that they were, neither good nor terrible only, but a mixture of both. Despite my vigorous efforts, I enjoyed her dad. I went back and forth between anger and wonder with him….just as she did.
It is an incredible story incredibly shared.
I lost you as a game of chess
waged on a battlefield
square patches of dark and light.
In the end they blurred to gray mist.
Oh chess, my downfall!
Where any game safely played
is never won.
You, my Queen,
I surrounded with pawns
unwilling to test our limitations.
I didn’t want to know them.
You would not be risked,
not even for victory.
Never underestimate the comfort
of untried possibility.
But now, having lost so
I have come to think it would have been better
losing you in a sudden stab at glory!
Can I wonder with you?
You fashioned my mind,
pulse with curiosity,
question the answers,
when I wonder I ask
not looking to know
but just wanting to journey with
another curious mind who
doesn’t have the answer.
A mind as limited as mine.
And that’s not you
Can I wonder with you?
Your answer that unchanging Yes,
but mine is No
because I don’t know how.
I read this in two days- it is so good! There is a profusion of interesting and lovable characters, and I found it fascinating to hear the story only through letters and telegrams. My only complaint was that the author waited until the absolute end to resolve the building conflict. It made the conclusion seem too quick; I wanted to relish in it longer and to see how it played itself out. This is how one usually feels when a book ends that was a pure joy to read. C.S. Lewis says, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” I would have been happy for this book to go on forever.
I love the WWII era- they were such a chivalrous and scrappy people. To think of so many nations fighting the same fight. Yes, they all had their own reasons. Some entered the fray before others. Some did so reluctantly. But they sacrificed. They lived in wartime and felt the effects of it. Unlike now, when I had to explain to my little girl that actually our country is at war and has been for many years. No, we don’t see the fighting. No, we don’t feel the danger. No, we don’t have to give up anything for it. It felt absurd to say. It feels a bit absurd to live. Hear me, I love that my children don’t live in a war zone, but there is something beautiful and strong that emerges within a people who have suffered. Those who have been brought low have a greater capacity for seeing every little thing as a gift. And those who have been brought low together experience a deep connection with one another. Then think of the scale of the connectedness! These were the thoughts traveling through my mind as I read this book, where destruction from the war was everywhere. It was on the front porch, in the empty seat at the table, piled up against ruins of buildings, and in bones showing through the skin of meager bodies. But what beauty and valor came of it!
So that’s one love this book hit on for me. The other was letter writing. The book is told entirely from letters, with an occasional telegram thrown in. It occurred to me how much fluff was removed from the book because of this. Imagine if your only way to communicate was through writing! That back and forth conversation with your best friend written in the form of letters. That is the way to cut the fat of what we say! You don’t go to the trouble to beat around the bush. It’s trickier to hide behind small talk. Letter writing is intentional; nothing slips out. You speak as much by what you don’t say as by what you do. It revolutionized the conversation!
I found myself laughing out loud until my sides ached, holding back tears with a quivering lip and tight throat, and thinking upon the connections these characters made with the authors and books they read long, long after setting the book down. The poetry and stories lived on inside of them as this story will live on inside of me.
I think, had we grown up together, we would have been friends. And I wish we had been, because then you could have let me ride your horse and introduced me to some of the great books you read, thereby pulling me away from John Grisham and Nicholas Sparks sooner. As a teen, the best literature I read was for English class, but as everyone else complained, I relished in my homework for once.
No, I didn’t enjoy them all. Grapes of Wrath, for instance, kept me napping like a champion. But when it was finally finished, I could appreciate it. You introduced me to another of this sort, because this is how I felt about Madame Bovary, though I don’t even have words for its impact on me, nor the timing of its message. I have never appreciated a story more, nor enjoyed reading it less. I bonded with you over a love for Charlotte and Jane- good, sweet, gentle Jane- a favorite heroine of mine. I was challenged by the characters of Tess and Pip, ruminating over the perplexities of their situations. You introduced me to Milton’s Aeropagitica and John Donne’s metaphysical poetry and I took a bath in them- my two greatest treasures from you.
But you shared more than books as you weaved them through the memoir of your life. You shared your own story, and I was equally pleased with that. It made me feel ordinary, in a good way- in the way of camaraderie.
P.S. I’ll be reading your other book, Fierce Convictions, in October, and it can’t come fast enough.
I have been reading. Oh, I have been drinking deep in good literature. I have recently finished three books, all of them first-rate. This one is a historically important, thought provoking, and beautifully worded philosophical argument against the censorship of literature, written by John Milton in 1644.
The thought was that bad books would be saboteurs to the mind, the heart, even the very soul of a person. And for the protection of all people, it was proposed that any writings must be approved before being published. John Milton writes this speech in defense of the liberty of unlicensed printing against his own comrades- fellow believers.
As always, when you click on any images of books I discuss, you will be taken to amazon.com where you can purchase them. This one, for instance, is under a dollar on Kindle. I could post twenty of the best quotes on here- they are phenomenal- but I will stick to just three:
He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian…I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness.
And again, if it be true that a wise man, like a good refiner, can gather gold out of the drossiest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best book, yea or without book; there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool, that which being restrained will be no hindrance to his folly. For if there should be so much exactness always used to keep that from him which is unfit for his reading, we should in the judgment of Aristotle not only, but of Solomon and of our Saviour, not vouchsafe him good precepts, and by consequence not willingly admit him to good books; as being certain that a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet, than a fool will do of sacred Scripture.
And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.
You see? Read it….it’ll be the best spent dollar of your day.
There is a place for everyone
where you can breathe your fill,
sit in peaceful silence until
the demands of the world call you back again.
A place where you are utterly alone
but not lonely- an escape of only
minutes and seconds counting down.
Mine is found in the smallest of rooms:
the unaffected space of my closet.
For when I was young, my closet
had a treasure chest inside it,
holding my most valued things.
Then older, my closet
gave space to my solace.
I closed all the doors
on my way to just being.
But now, my closet
is where I undress.
Peel away the
hiding rags like
til I’m bare.
Just me, as I am.
No more, and no less.
There’s no hiding in a closet.
Eight feet by eight
the borders and corners
Silent and still
this truth-full reflection
only feels safe
as my sole companion.
The same book that introduced me to Tess of the D’Urbervilles has introduced me now to Madame Bovary. This is a book I am thankful for, not because of any enjoyment in the reading of it, but because it spoke so truly on things society would rather you ignore. Gustave Flaubert released his book to a shocked audience. For a woman of his time to seek enjoyment in lovers outside her marriage was unthinkable. But as Karen Swallow Prior says,
Books meet with disapproval because of their objectionable content. Wisdom, however, considers not only what a book says (its content), but how it says it (its form). Just as important- or perhaps more important than- whether a book contains questionable themes….is how those topics are portrayed. Are they presented truthfully in terms of their context and their consequences?…Discerning judgments of literature consider form as much as content, just as with any other art.
This book is not so much about adultery as it is about the difference between love and passion, the oppression that follows the consumer, and the isolation and futility of disenchantment with reality. Do not come to this book for entertainment. It will not deliver you that; but if you come to seek the reality of love, the repercussions of bottomless desire, come. This book has saved many from the errors of its heroine.
Emma Bovary, were she to enter upon 21st century music, would have been a fan of The Darkness:
Love is only a feeling
She would have sung it with gusto. She is a woman searching for love, finding it, losing it, searching again, finding, losing, ad infinitum. For her, love is a feeling; it is synonymous with passion.
As to Emma, she did not ask herself whether she loved. Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings—a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.
We see it all over: in music, in film, in literature, we even feed it by the spoonful to our children (enter Disney). Emma realizes in the weeks following her wedding the stark difference between her idea of love and the reality of it:
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.
But rather than question her idea of love, she assumes her mistake was in the finding of it as opposed to its definition.
As to me, I have found love to be a number of things in my life. It takes shape in a myriad of ways. It is a Person, an action, a choice, and sometimes a feeling. Feelings, even the feeling of love, is fleeting. It is susceptible to changes in circumstance, evolving personhood, or even things as fickle as the lighting of a room, the time of day, the latest story to influence imagination, or the mood one happens to be in- everyone knows this. I have walked into my daughter’s room to watch her sleep and felt so full of love for her I could burst. But when I was up in the middle of the night nursing a screaming baby, I was not feeling the love. I didn’t love her any less than eight hours before, but the feeling was gone. The love was still there, it was the very thing motivating me to hold her gently, nurse her, sing and rock her back to sleep- despite the hour, despite the cold, despite the exhaustion. Love was a choice; love was my act.
We cling to this romanticized version of love because the story sounds prettier. Because we want to believe that something or someone can fulfill every desire, even though deep down we know (don’t we?) that love reveals itself not in self satisfaction but in service to others. That is why this novel is truly novel. Gustave takes our culture’s mistaken understanding of love and pursuit of self and presents it truthfully in terms of its context and consequences. The result isn’t pretty at all. It doesn’t start pretty, and it certainly doesn’t end pretty. And in this way, Gustave becomes an artist.
She was not happy—she never had been. Whence came this insufficiency in life—this instantaneous turning to decay of everything on which she leant?… nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.
I always want to advise the characters I’m reading, not because I am a wealth of wisdom, but because in them I can see parts of myself, but without blindness. I wanted to give Emma Bovary this piece of a poem from Hans Ostrom’s “This is the Gazelle Ghazal”:
This is the love affair, so raging it convinced itself it would last forever but ended.
This is the friendship, which began before it knew it began and will not end.
Emma, said my soul, you cannot force the feeling of love to do what it cannot- remain. Pursue a love for others that exceeds your love of self. Rather than become a student of fantasy, become a student of friendship. Find in your husband a friend, rather than a lover, and you may find that he becomes both. Love is so much more than a feeling.
I am currently reading a phenomenal book by Karen Swallow Prior in which each chapter brings the reader through her life like a memoir, but each chapter also centers around a piece of literature that shaped that life, that contributed something to her evolving identity, as good literature does, most especially in our very formative years. There are a few chapters that center on books I have not read, so as I get to those, I have stopped to read the books. That is how I came to this novel, written by Thomas Hardy in 1891.
It took me a while to start enjoying this book. I realized in the reading of it how much point of view really affects my ability to engage with the story. In the beginning, it felt like eavesdropping on the life of Tess. I could see what she did or what would happen to her, but I couldn’t see who she was. She seemed stoic, her thoughts and feelings hidden by a stony exterior. This made it hard for me to connect, so I didn’t. And then I met Angel Clare. If Tess is a charcoal sketch, Clare is a life size statue. In getting only rough images of her, he is a character you can walk right up to, look in the eyes, view from behind, take in the creases on a hand or the thought behind the brow. I connected immediately to him and began to enjoy the book. Still, as more and more characters are brought into the story, Hardy gives us more glimpses inside them than of our main character, choosing to keep her veiled for a good portion of the book. I found this so interesting as a writer, but it frustrated me as a reader.
This story is a tragedy, and you can feel the foreboding of it early on. There were times I wanted to throw down my book and plead with the characters to stop, to rethink their plan, to be brave and admit they were wrong, to surrender to the difficult and scary, but better choice before them.
This book was significant in that it presented a new understanding of purity, and that what made Tess pure was not her actions, but her will. Hardy wanted to show a woman who, though not a virgin, was pure in the real sense of the word, because she desired what was pure. The problem with this is that her will is veiled to the reader, and her actions are equivocal. In different editions of the novel, Hardy portrays different accounts of the first tragedy, ranging from full on rape to seduction. The edition I read leaned toward the latter. Nonetheless, Tess appears blameless, which is Hardy’s point. I loved this quote by Karen Swallow Prior on Tess’ tragic flaw: passivity.
This is why the ambiguous circumstances surrounding that night in The Chase are not important to her status as rape victim: whether she was taken by Alec through force or through seduction, equipped by neither nature nor circumstances to do otherwise, she passively succumbs to this fate. This passivity is both literal and symbolic: literal within the story’s plot and symbolic of her role as the archetypal tragic heroine victimized by a combination of her own choices and forces beyond her control. This is how Hardy could deem Tess as “pure” despite her “ruined” physical state: she does not will such a thing even as she does not know how to exert her will against it.
This not knowing how to exert her will against something happens on repeat throughout the story, constantly lowering her to circumstances she never chooses. But everything is a choice. Not making a choice is a choice. What was clear was that Tess did not want Alec, but he very much wanted her and was willing to use any opportunity he had to have her. Tess had no good choices on the night mentioned above. It seemed inevitable that Alec would use her. But isn’t there a great difference in how that happens and isn’t that Tess’ choice? It happens all throughout the story, not just with Alec, but with Clare too- Tess chooses not to exert her will. I have to wonder if it is because indifference is hidden beneath the weakness of her will. For all of her non-choices, she chooses to accept the very thing she doesn’t want. Then you get to the end and Tess finally wakes up from her stupor to decisively act. And what she chooses condemns her. She proves that there cannot be such a separation of will and action. The will should determine the action, and the strength of the will determines the action’s ability to endure.
Hardy, I have to disagree with you: where the will is good, but the action evil, what remains is guilt, not purity. A tragedy indeed.