Lessons from Cinderella and Jake Barnes

I’ve watched a lot of movies since the beginning of college–most of them alone, on a computer screen. I like watching things this way. I feel free to criticize or adore whenever and however I want. I get to watch on my terms. Funnily enough though, when I give myself that choice I almost always choose criticism. I’ve gotten in the habit of quietly dissecting and improving and making-over most everything I watch. But last weekend I went and saw the new, live-action Cinderella with my family. I put my feet up on the empty theater seat in front of me, and let the whole thing carry me away.

It’s a beautiful movie shot in all the color you could wish for and told with complete openness. It looks at grief and joy and meanness and hope and tells each bit as straight as it can. I loved the end: when Cinderella is found because the sound of her voice carries out the open window and her unasked-for forgiveness makes her stepmother sink down and lean against the banister of the stairs with the weight of it. But I think the moment I loved the most was when Cinderella walks into the ball. She has arrived a bit too late for comfort, and she comes down the stairs by herself, with no one to announce her. Strangely, what was most evident to me was not that she is beautiful or hoping to find Kit, but that she is walking into a room alone. I have walked into a room alone, you have walked into a room alone–some days it is the bravest thing that we do. She descends with all eyes on her: nameless to all of them and probably already loathed by every woman in the room. Step by step she approaches the bottom of the stairs, and she has no idea what will happen when she gets there.

Then, late this past Monday night, I found myself on a little mental jag, when I should have been going to sleep. I lay in bed and thought about Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises: where he begins, and where he goes, and, most of all, where he ends up. He pines over Brett, letting his own physical inability to have her smash the side of his face down in the dirt and pummel him with punches again and again. He lets his wounds, real and imaginary, take him over and he throws away his self-respect and his aficion for bullfighting by letting Brett have, and ruin, the hopeful young Romero. But that’s not the way he ends: after everything that happens in Pamplona he literally goes into the sea alone, washes, and comes out clean.

And that’s when I thought of it: Jake’s like Cinderella. Perhaps this is silly and those of you who love Hemingway or fairy tales more fully than I do are looking askance, but let me try to explain.

When Brett sends for Jake, he signs the wire with love and loyally goes, but somehow he has unhooked her from his soul: he eats more than he drinks as they have lunch together, and the last image of the book–the raising of the policeman’s baton–means that Jake is willing to seek manhood and courage and meaning wherever he may have them, and lay the wounds of war and love to rest. This is him walking into the room alone, perilously free of the self-pity and self-sabotage he has had to protect him for so long.

All the good stories tell the same truths (this is why I love literature) and the principles which motivate Jake and Cinderella at their best are very near to one another. Though community and closeness and hands that hold onto yours are very important, there are things that can really only be learned alone. To walk into the room, to “have courage,” to “be kind,” to “get to know the values”: these are ultimately acts chosen by, and affecting, the individual soul.

As I have been thinking about this I keep remembering that this sort of independent bravery is  what I want for my students. The ones of whom I’m the most proud are the ones who are able to love their classmates without being swayed by them, who have found their own feet and are learning to stand on them: to walk down the steps, to raise whatever baton they’ve got.

But then I laugh, because really, who am I kidding? If I am telling the whole truth, I must admit that this freedom is what I want for myself–not to follow the scents and sights around me but instead, to be prepared to be separate, to be new and be different, to transform instead of conform. I want to be willing to find goodness and meaning outside of where the world has told me it must lie, and, though strange eyes may look on, to allow myself to be cut from a different cloth.

Martha, Mary, and Food

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Mary and Martha. A couples weeks ago I had some discussions with my juniors about a woman’s place in society, and there are so many things I wish I had said. I wish I had reminded them that the woman’s primary calling (like the man’s) is to sit at Christ’s feet, and hear his words, and that any structure that hinders her from “choosing the good part” is wrong. I wish I had reminded them that regardless of what I tell them, this “nearness-to-Jesus,” this is the litmus test.

And then this week I left school and my students to go up to Grove City for a C.S. Lewis and Inklings Conference, with Martha and Mary still whispering in my head. Martha, the teacher, the keeper of the full agenda and the red and blue pens. Mary, the student, jubilant to let down her inky guard for a long weekend, jubilant to listen.

I drove up for the conference in my grandma’s Buick, which only plays cassette tapes, and listened to the same Mark Heard album over and over and over. It’s called Ashes to Light, and you should hear it: “He looks at their faces and loves them in spite of his grief.”

I had a lot of conversations this weekend, personal conversations with close friends, and heard some good talks, very good talks. Papers on catechisms and incarnation and pedagogy, and keynote addresses on images and humility and honesty. On Friday night at the banquet Diana Glyer spoke on artistic collaboration and creating alongside one another for balance, for accountability, for prayer. Afterwards I walked up to her to tell her how encouraging it had been, and to thank her, and immediately burst into tears. Oops. She took me by the hand, and said “Tell me about yourself.” “This is my first year of teaching,” I said, “And I haven’t gotten a chance to think about these things for a long time and–thank you.”

All weekend I tried to balance Mary and Martha and failed. I made the mistake of checking my email on Saturday and immediately spiraled into a foul mood, though it only contained run-of-the-mill announcements and student requests. Then I drove home today and listened to Mark Heard over and over and over again. I have come to the point in teaching where I have stopped worrying so much about what my students think of me and have started worrying about them–so the songs reminded me of my teenagers. “Feet of clay and an inner light, they were given everything.” I thought again about how I wanted them to “choose the good part,” to accept the good gifts. I thought about Mary and Martha, and then I thought about food.

The paper I gave on Friday morning was about food in Narnia, the way its goodness depends on the giver. And the difference between Martha and Mary is the difference between feeding and being fed. The hostess cannot go hungry. If we have not first eaten the bread which means his body, the we cannot possibly be his hands and feet. If I try to teach my students what tastes sweet and what will make them strong, without first sitting at my Lord’s table, I will fail.

There is even more to it than that, though. I am now able to hesitantly believe that I am meant to be a teacher, but before that I was, am, and will be his. I am his, and there is only “one thing needed”: I must sit and hear his word.

If you’re interested, below is said paper, devoid of parenthetical citations because they look weird on a blog. I promise they were there.

The Mysterious Workings of Food in Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles

George Sayer, with whom C.S. Lewis often stayed while on holiday, describes his taste in food as “plain, solid, and traditional…roast meat of any sort.” He had no appreciation for “subtle French recipes” or even “for puddings or for fruit.” Yet the food which Lewis did love he treated with whole-hearted devotion, and since children were the original audience the Narnia books, within the Chronicles he regularly approaches the subject of food and drink with the appropriate seriousness and urgency of a child of seven. In imagining Narnia, Alan Jacobs writes, “What [Lewis] has to do…is trust the images that come into his mind–or, more accurately, trust that he is being formed as a Christian in such a way that the images that come to his mind are authentic ones, ones that lie at, or at least near, the center of his soul.” So Lewis uses the food which his characters naturally eat: Puddleglum’s eels and the feasts at Cair Paravel, to tell the goodness and mystery of gifts. The food in Lewis’s Chronicles, whether of deep magical importance or a simple symbol of good fellowship, is nearly always given and ultimately reflects the character of its giver.

Jacobs tells a story about an American named Firor who sent Lewis multiple hams in the late 1940’s, while food was still scarce in Britain. “Lewis and friends started calling him ‘Firor-of-the-Hams,’ and on one occasion a dozen or so of the Inklings signed a collective letter of gratitude to him.” It turned out that this same Firor was a doctor and a great hero who had rescued a colleague’s wife from behind the Iron Curtain, so a real generosity and solidity was reflected in his gift. Lewis implicitly trusted those who relished food as much as he did. Around the same time Nathan Starr sent Lewis bacon, along with a passage of his own Chaucerian-style verse to recommend the meat, and almost immediately received an invitation to visit Lewis’s rooms at the college. Lewis considered the right sort of food an indication of good character

So, when an outsider first enters Narnia, if he is able to fall into the right company, he is immediately fed well, signifying the virtues of Narnian culture and fellowship as a whole. When a bewildered and delighted Prince Caspian enters into the heart of Old Narnia for the first time and is led around to meet all the creatures who live in hiding, Pattertwig the squirrel offers him a nut and the bears are eager to feed him their messy honey. Lewis tells the entire episode like a travel story, with scores of new introductions, and these gifts of food are each beast’s way of making his mark on both Caspian and the reader’s imaginations throughout the ongoing procession. Even before that, when Lucy herself first enters Narnia, she understands Tumnus’s core good-heartedness not merely by his welcoming words (which turn out to be false) but by his hospitality: “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.” Moreover, the Pevensie children know they have found good friends in the Beavers when they see cozy smoke rising from Mr. Beaver’s dam and realize they are being brought home as dinner guests. In fact, though the Beavers are virtuous in many ways, to Lewis their most important quality may be their abundant and generous hospitality, considering Mrs. Beaver’s response when the company realizes they must run for their lives: “Now, Mr. Beaver, just reach down that ham. And here’s a packet of tea, and there’s sugar…And if someone will get two or three loaves out of that crock…You didn’t think we’d set out on a journey with nothing to eat, did you?”

In fact, one of the ways in which Lewis expresses celebration, especially after his characters have passed through great trials, is in jubilant descriptions of good (and often very British) food. When Jill and company escape from the Underworld, they are treated to the most comfortable and fulsome fare by the good dwarves, just to prove that they are home: “Not wretched sausages half-full of bread and soya bean either, but real, meaty spicy ones, fat and piping hot and burst and just the tiniest bit burnt.  And great mugs of frothy chocolate, and roast potatoes and roast chestnuts, and baked apples with raisins stuck in where the cores had been.” Jill and the reader are both starved for warmth after all the grey time underground, and here at long last it comes to them by way of the dwarves’ cast iron breakfast skillets.

Narnian tradition itself centers around not just these individual exchanges of food, but a great and full tradition of feeding the multitudes. Eustace and Jill enter Narnia and within hours of being recognized as friends of the king are settled at his table for the “serious eating and drinking.”

…though Eustace had been in that world before, he had spent his whole visit at sea and knew nothing of the glory and courtesy of Narnians at home in their own land …each course came in with trumpeters and kettledrums. There were soups that would make your mouth water to think of, and the lovely fishes called pavenders, and venison and peacock and pies, and ices and jellies and fruit and nuts, and all manner of wines and fruit drinks.

Lewis’s lavish description of the banquet demonstrates not only his love for a full plate but his glowing vision for complex and purposeful fellowship between countrymen. The fanfares of the trumpets call forth the food of hard-won (rather medieval) merriment.

But beyond the solidity of Narnian fare itself, the souls of many individual characters are reflected in that which they offer their guests. As Christ himself says, “ye shall know them by their fruits.” The Scrubbs can be immediately discounted as people of worth in Lewis’s world because of their vegetarian diet, while vain, air-headed Lasaraleen serves Aravis a meal “chiefly of the whipped cream and jelly and fruit and ice sort.” However, something more unpleasant than mere empty-headedness is hinted at when Puddleglum and the children are taken captive by pale, still little Earthmen, and are given only “flat, flabby cakes of some sort which had hardly any taste.” Though Puddleglum and company do not know it, these creature are captives as well, empty and stale and sad. They are incapable of offering good sustenance in their current mind-numbed state.

On the other hand, Puddleglum himself serves Jill and Eustace eel stew, of which he himself is very disparaging, but which is ultimately “delicious…the children [have] two large helpings each. This uncomely but ultimately excellent first meal with their new friend establishes the marshwiggle and his golden, despondent soul immediately and irrevocably in the affections of children and readers alike. Likewise, when Father Christmas returns to Narnia after his long, involuntary absence, the tea he presents to the Pevensies and the Beavers wonderfully “sizzling and piping hot” imparts all the warmth and goodwill of the promise of his season. Of course, Father Christmas’s power is not really his own, but instead his good gifts of food are born from the same source which brings spring back to Narnia at long last.

This land of Narnia itself has its own mysterious reserves of good food to offer. Late in the first day of the new world’s existence, after Aslan has sent Polly and Diggory and Fledge halfway across Narnia on an important errand, and the children find the have nothing to eat, Polly finds an old bag of toffees in her pocket and Diggory cleverly buries the last one in the new Narnian earth by the side of the lake. The next morning when they wake, a toffee tree has grown up. “Loaded with little brown fruits that looked rather like dates…The fruit was delicious: not exactly like toffee–softer for one thing, and juicy–but like fruit which reminded one of toffee.” This reminding of something just out of the mind’s reach is a constant of Narnia’s character. For every true disciple, Narnia always carries the distinct flavor of home, and, ultimately, Aslan’s Country. The best and most truly homely places in Lewis’s world produce the most wonderful and mystical food for their people. The Earthmen, once free from the witch’s enchantments, are ecstatic to return to Bism, their homeland deep beneath the earth’s crust, because of the fresh precious stones it provides for them to eat like ripe fruit: “bunches of rubies…cupful[s] of diamond juice.” These worlds contain an unavoidably inherent magic.

Yet, as is clear from the reader’s first introduction to Narnia, not all the magic there is good magic, just as not all food which fills a belly fills it with good things. At first the turkish delight the witch feeds Edmund seems very good: “each piece was sweet and light to the very center…[he] had never tasted anything more delicious.” Yet  Wayne Martindale writes that “An authentic pleasure is one we love to recall and rejoice to share,” so though Edmund thinks he has relished the White Witch’s food, there is nothing he wants less than for his siblings to have a taste of it. His greed for it only grows until he will do nearly anything to have more of it, until he desires nothing else. As Lewis points out sharply, “there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magical food.” The false queen has literally but subtly let Edmund pick his own poison, demonstrating the sharp, fast-acting venom of her own evil motives. When the boy later obeys her summons and asks for more sweets, she gives him only bread and water, cruelly understanding that he now hungers only for turkish delight.

And food in Narnia can contain not just bad and deceitful magic but ultimate betrayal. Perhaps the most horrifying episode in all of Lewis’s Chronicles centers around preparations for the giants’ Autumn feast at Harfang. The children and Puddleglum are betrayed by the Green Lady’s sweet words and her promises of soft beds. From the beginning of their visit the refreshments and edibles given to the guests seem false and evil. The giants give Puddleglum a liquor so strong that it immediately intoxicates him and makes him unable to help and protect Jill and Eustace. Later the three discover with revulsion that they have been tricked into eating talking stag, and are consuming the flesh of a Narnian. Thus the stage is set for the final terrifying revelation as Jill comes upon the giants’ cookery book. The Green Lady has described to the hungry travellers the wonders of a place where “the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong will be on the table four times a day.” As Jill reads the recipes for “Man: [an] elegant little biped” and “Marshwiggle:[of] stringy consistency and muddy flavor” she understands that they are to be the “roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong.” The witch has committed an act of deep treachery in giving them over into the hands of those who will devour them. At Harfang food signifies not a gift of grace and fullness but a taking of innocence and of life.

Yet the meaning of a meal depends upon the character of the host, the provider of the feast. Aslan often invites his people in with same welcoming words the Green Lady used to lure Puddleglum and the children to Harfang, yet he means them truly. Martindale states, “Feasting is a common motif in Narnia when Aslan has finished some great work…Feasting is associated both with life, as a necessity, and with joyful celebration in peace and plenty.” Therefore Aslan’s full table not only represents good fellowship as opposed to ill, but a kind of solemn mercy. Lewis well understands the sanctity of the Eucharist and is eager and willing to write some of that same significance into the bread and wine Aslan serves to his Narnians. As the Dawn Treader’s travelers near the end of the world they come upon an extravagant feast of just this import:

There were turkeys and geese and peacocks, there were boars’ heads and sides of venison, there were pies shaped like ships under full sail or like dragons and elephants, there were ice puddings and bright lobsters and gleaming salmon, there were nuts and grapes, pineapples and peaches, pomegranates and melons and tomatoes…the smell of the fruit and the wine blew toward them like a promise of all happiness.

The feast is gorgeous and hearty and good and yet the sailors claim there is “too much magic about here.” If they imbibe Aslan’s food, they will imbibe his great and terrible grace. At last, following the example of Reepicheep, (always the most courageous in his trust of Aslan,) they eat. Ramandu’s daughter tells them that the banquet is renewed each day, and they watch as what they have not consumed nourishes great flocks of birds. The great lion feeds even the “birds of the air.”

But of course, when faced with a mysterious banquet, not all are Reepicheep, willing and able to believe that good givers give good gifts. Aslan gives Diggory the simple instruction to “Pluck an apple from the tree, and bring it back to me.” Diggory obeys, but once there he encounters Jadis who, in sharp rebellion against the command on the gate, has taken the fruit for herself and stained her mouth nastily with it. She has made herself her own giver, her own god. She then tries to  convince Diggory to do likewise, to take for his own ends, to be savior to his dying mother: “We are here by ourselves and the Lion is far away. Use your magic and go back to your own world. A minute later, you can be at your Mother’s bedside, giving her the fruit.” The witch tempts Diggory to be the giver himself, not to trust and obey the ultimate and good giver of the food. Yet a refusal to trust the giver of a good meal will ultimately lead only to bondage. The stubborn dwarves in The Last Battle refuse to believe there is a world beyond the stable door though they sit in the midst of it. Aslan lays a great feast in front of them but they will not accept that they are eating anything but hay and refuse, and end by brawling over the imagined scraps. They do not trust the food because they do not trust Aslan. “Their only prison is in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” Jadis is destined for the same fate: ultimately the good and healing fruit becomes a “horror” to her, because she would not trust and ate it “at the wrong time and in the wrong way.”

However, Diggory does not follow the witch’s example, but instead brings the apple back to Aslan, trusting the giver for the way through to life. The Lion then makes good on that trust, in glorious fashion. He offers the boy an apple off of the new tree, grown to protect Narnia. “What I give you now will bring joy. It will not, in your world, give endless life, but it will heal. Go. Pluck her an apple.” So Diggory brings the apple of healing and youth home to his mother, not as the giver, but as merely the agent of her recovery. As his mother at last falls into a “real, natural and gentle” sleep it is the peace and rest of Aslan, the giver of the fruit, reflected in her eyes, which Diggory dares to hope will bring her new life.

Years before Narnia really came to be, Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.” Lewis has crafted characters who, in consuming the food laid before them, the bread or the wine or the meat, accept also the inherent virtues and evils of the hands that have provided it, and are often changed by them. Edmund and Lucy and Eustace perhaps see this best, as they approach the end of the world, hand-in-hand, and come upon the clearest and brightest giver of all: a white Lamb, who has prepared a meal before them. “They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.”

Christian Bookstores and the Joy That Keeps Me Awake

Last week one of my students asked me to lead a Bible study. There was one particular book which she wanted to go through, written by a local youth pastor’s wife. With play rehearsals on top of senior thesis grading on top of the rest of my job, it wasn’t until today that I got around to finding a copy to read. First I went to Barnes and Nobles, but they didn’t have it in stock, so I called my dad. I asked him what other big bookstores there were in town. He told me none. So then I asked him where that Christian bookstore was, and let him tell me, although I already knew. And then I went.

From the moment I pulled up, I was, as my pastor during college would have said, profoundly uncomfortable. I am a follower of Christ and I have spent my whole life in Christian community. I love walking into churches. I love books. Quite obviously, I think it is a good thing to read and write about Jesus, and I know full well that if the contents of this blog were ever to be really published, that is the sort of store that would sell them. And yet.

There were posters of smiling women all inside the display windows, and when I walked in it smelled like potpourri and both cashiers shouted hello.  But potpourri doesn’t bother me, and I am definitively in favor of smiles and people who give them to me.

I was probably inside for a total of three or four minutes. I can find books very fast when I want to, and they had the one I needed. It was just past the Christian board books section, in the women’s section, where most of the covers were pink or had pictures of rushing water on them.

When the lady rung me up she asked for my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. I wanted to say, Please don’t send me things. I don’t want your things. You have an entire wall devoted to Beth Moore, Karen Kingsbury is displayed with your “Best New Reads,” and your open sign is shaped like an ichthys. Why can’t it just be shaped like an open sign?!? But instead I told her my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. Then I walked out with a bag which said “Biblical Solutions to Life” on the side. I drove away and tried to figure out why that had been such an unpleasant experience.

Sometimes I lie awake at night because I have too many thoughts. They don’t  have time to be thought of during the day, so once I turn out my light they tumble around and around in my head, delighted to have my attention at long last. Sometimes they are angry and bitter thoughts. More than once this year I have decided with great certainty that whoever dreamed up the idea of teaching as an actual career is a sadist, on level with Rasputin or Iago, and ought to be taken out and shot.

But other nights are different. Other nights joy keeps me awake. Joy that I bought stickers at Target to put on a rough batch of tests, joy that high schoolers like to laugh and like to laugh at themselves, joy that I have people I love enough to miss, joy, to be honest, that students want me to lead a Bible study. This is the sort of joy that makes me feel very small. Small and loved and promised and clean. The greatest lesson I have learned in teaching is the hugeness of my own inadequacy and and the irrelevance of that inadequacy in the face of God’s abundant grace.

I think that there are fair and wise criticisms to be made of the idea of a Christian bookstore or of a Christian culture in general. But I don’t think I am the person to make them. I walked into that place this evening as a female teacher at a Christian school with plans to lead a Bible study for teenage girls. I knew I was their ideal demographic and I resented it. I did not want to think they might have anything to teach me. I wanted Jesus to reassure me that no, of course, he would never have come to a place like this. I was prepared to remind myself that he was my God and not theirs.

But the God of small joys, who pries open my fingers and teaches me to hold my palms out empty before him, is far wiser than I. If he can change me through cheap princess stickers and flubbed blocking in a high school drama rehearsal, it is faithless of me to claim he cannot be present in books that cry out his name on every page. Perhaps I will lie awake tonight thinking about that.

You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy.

Cricket Neighbors and a Spread of Books

I’m at my grandparents’ in Missouri for a couple weeks, and there’s a cricket in my room. At first he was in the corner by the chair, chirping cheerily and loudly all night long. He kept me awake, but when I searched for him, I couldn’t find him, and the internet informed me that he would probably live for weeks on end. I was a little lonely after my sister left so I resigned myself and thought, “Oh, well, I guess it’s nice to have a friend.” One night he seemed to be in the closet and one night in the shower (though I was grateful to find it empty when I got in a few minutes later.) Eventually I thought there might be two of them, calling back and forth to one another about secret cricket things. I would lay awake listening, and wondering what they were saying, and generally wishing that if I was to have roommates we could maybe all be on the same sleep schedule at least one night a week.

Then on Saturday evening I was sitting in my chair reading, when my elusive friend emerged from under my bed. He was larger, uglier, and altogether looked much more like a cockroach than I thought he would. He stopped in the middle of the carpet and stared, so he may well have been thinking the same thing about me (though I know I don’t look like a cockroach.) In any case, I immediately realized that I had been deluding myself to think of him as a friend and that we would in fact always be mortal enemies while he insisted on keeping me awake at night. I lunged for him with a shoe and he retaliated by taking one great leap back under my bed.  So I turned out the light and took a less impressive leap onto the bed and under my covers. He continues just as awful every night, and I’m seriously considering moving down to the end room just to escape, even if it means having to wash an extra set of sheets.

I’ve been doing other, more valuable things than running away from crickets, though. Last night after Sally had had her fill of the game between “the Spurs and the Heats,” I watched the first bit of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War to help me out with teaching next year. At first I nearly cried because it was so good, and then I settled down and took notes.

I’ve also been reading. Or, rather, spreading books all over my bed, face down, and switching between them at a hectic pace.

The Wingfeather Saga (by Andrew Peterson, yes, the one whose music you love): As I said so many times this year, I’m not normally into fantasy, but these were lovely, the footnotes in the first book particularly. If you like very large puppies, people who can fly, and noble twelve-year-olds, you will like this. (I would guess it also has a niche market with people who hate cows and forks.) The fourth and last installment comes out later this summer and I’m pretty excited.

Between, Georgia (by Joshilyn Jackson, worth it for her first name alone): I found this in the massive Ed McKay’s in Chattanooga. I enjoyed it. It was worth the time I spent reading it. Now go find your own summer novels at McKay’s.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (by Milan Kundera, that Czech man): I’m part way through this. I like the bits about the one character’s crass mother, but every time he goes back to talking about all these love affairs that all these neurotic people are having with each other and obsessing over, I get bored. Probably won’t finish it.

Radical Femininity (by Carolyn McCulley, whom I know nothing else about): I’m not a huge fan of the title. (As my dad says “I only like the word radical in math. It actually means something there.”) But I like the history in it very much and wish there was more of it. Also only halfway through, so the verdict is still out.

Home (by Marilynne Robinson, she of Gilead fame): I’m enjoying this. I like Glory. I like her father. I like John Ames. I like their little town. But here’s the thing: they’re all preoccupied with and fascinated by Jack Boughton and his sudden reappearance, and I’m not. I’d like to move along and hear about Glory’s divorce and other things that are not Jack. But then again, I’m halfway though. We’ll see what happens.

Mere Christianity (by C.S. Lewis, of course): I don’t think I’ve read this since high school and I’m very pleased to be coming back to it again. It’s my grandparents’ copy, but I’ve been sneakily marking the bottoms of pages for bits I want to copy down. Hooray for truth.

After I’ve finished wading through all of these to my satisfaction, I plan on rereading all the Little House books for the first time in a very long time, and then moving onto Robinson’s Housekeeping (not about Jack Boughton! Hurrah!) and the “spiritual biography” of Flannery O’Conner that Mary got for me. Please write me a letter and tell me what you’re reading, in great detail. I will add it to my list and perhaps get to it in five or ten years.

Summer Readings

Since it seems less and less likely that I will find much in the way of summer work (though I’m still certainly open to the option,) my main occupation for the summer has become that of reading and writing.

Since I’ve been home I’ve been forging my way through Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. I do mean forging— my mom finally started to say encouragingly, “Alice, why don’t you read something for fun?” I finished it last night, but, man, Eugene Gant drags his feet getting from ages zero to eighteen—I swear he grows up slow and sticking as molasses. His father, Old Gant, spends a large part of the book wasting away from cancer and alcoholism, then right near the end, Ben, the only character Tom Wolfe has deigned to paint sympathetically, comes down with pneumonia and up and dies, bringing the whole dysfunctional family together and causing me to cry at a book I didn’t even like. On top of all that, Old Gant is still alive at the end, and Eugene has never had a love affair with a woman who isn’t at least five years older than himself or even achieved a decent haircut.

It’s all part of my summer reading, see, which is intended to spur on the writing of a story about a teenage boy and his little sister. Several of the other entries on the list are re-reads, including The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye, which I’m very nervous about now that I’m no longer sixteen. I also want to re-read all of The Mennyms books, which are a British children’s series about a family of life-sized rag dolls. I’m sure they’ll help me incalculably. Right now, though, I’ve begun a collection of sweet and simple essays by E.B. White. Following on his heels will be some Henry James and Eudora Welty.

I want to love books again this summer. I want to love them the way I used to. My book-habits now involve stacking them in pretty towers and smelling their pages and touching their spines reflectively and taking pride in how quickly I can find my favorite bits with having to fumble through any unnecessary pages. I’d like to read them again.

When I was a kid I sometimes read three books in one summer day. I would block out my little brother’s kicking feet and my mother’s requests to set the table and my sister’s demands to not hog the bathroom for hours at a time, and I’d simply fall into pages which pulled me along at a pace I never questioned, to the homes of lifelong friends I’d made the hour before.

If, on occasion, I did have to leave a book, to eat dinner with my family, or go to bed, or some such, I would, an hour or so later, get a funny hunger in the pit of my stomach. The uneasiness would grow more and more acute until I realized: I missed my book. I’d been holding my breath since I put it aside and I needed back in so I could breathe again.

I remember being in awe that some light little packet of paper which I could hold in my hand could captivate me for hours. Even at the time, I think I was aware that in actuality there were much smaller pieces of technology with much larger memories, but they did not impress me in the same way. I could see and account for everything that made the book what it was: the paper, the ink, the words, the little punctuation marks, and yet I couldn’t understand it. I sat down to consume the story and it ended in consuming me. A good book was something beyond.

So in the next couple months, I will remember how to love in a book, not what I pretentiously claim are its finest features: its paper and stains and ink and splendor on my shelf, but its expansive pilgrim soul which, in this world, always remains just out of reach.