Review: Meander through Middlemarch

My friend told me this was a book about people who want to do great things…and not everybody gets to. She and I struggle with that. We are housewives who ache for some expression in the world. We follow politics, read classic literature, KonMari our homes and look systems to improve our budgeting, housekeeping or cooking. Still, we are not satisfied. As an adult, my favorite children’s book is the Little Red Tugboat: “I was meant for greater things!” There is nothing greater than parenting, and yet, I get to feeling unused in some strange capacity. I feel pulled into the world, but in an unhealthy way.

My friend’s synopsis intrigued me. I ordered it from the library and soon it came, all 841 pages of it. I began…slowly.

For the first 100 pages, I think I disliked every character. Then we heard more about Dr. Lydgate. I liked him. I appreciate a medical mind wanting to make discoveries. As soon as the fictional Rosamond and I had developed our crush on him, author George Elliot began to reveal his faults. She did not hide Dorothea’s faults. Dorothea was irritating from the get-go, probably much like I was as a youngster.

This book is largely about young people finding their way in the world. Dorothea and Lydgate ache to do great things. Fred, Mary and Rosamond do not. Will has all the energy to do great things but lacks motivation. They all find their way, some more roundabout than others.

Every character evolves. Every character is good and bad. Every character is capable of feeling and is capable of experience a want of feeling.

I had to stay friendly with the footnotes. Elliot manages to make references as quickly as the Gilmore Girls, only it is not my pop culture. She makes brilliant feminist commentary on what few advantages there are for women but speaks so satirically about their weakness and inability to think, their need to be governed. The author acknowledges in the end that some endings may be dissatisfying, perhaps the woman should have achieved more, but we all exist in our context. “A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life…” Not just passion but circumstances make a way for public heroes.

That is wisdom.

This is the way that great literature can teach us. With real characters who are not flat but can be felt, who take shape with flesh and blood in our imagination. In learning their lessons, it is like learning from people we know, who share life with us. Those lessons sink deeper than something stated to us with little depth or feeling. We need the lives of the saints to teach us about perseverance in spiritual dryness. We need Therese and her parents to teach us about the little way. We need Dorothea to teach us about making great sacrifices. We need to learn a lesson from fallen characters.

In the end, I loved it. I simply loved it.

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Review of And Then There Were None

I did not succeed as an English major because another course of study called me away. It was a course of study with a purpose, with a goal. I was an English major because I liked it, not because I had any goals. This is no judgment on English majors. I would not mind going back now to study literature because I see those books introduced to you by teachers who love them become beloved by you, or me, as the case may be.

So I never read Agatha Christie. I loved Hamlet, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hurston, and Dickens. I know many women who love Anne of Green Gables, I met her once but did not love her. I wish I could have.

I think you need to read a variety of styles to become a good writer. And I do mean styles, not content. Content is important, but I do not think 50 Shades of Gray or LGBT lit will add to my skill. Read deep and read light, but always read well. The Handmaid’s Tale can stay on the library shelf. Give me Lord of the Flies. Give me Christie.

Sometimes we need Tolstoy and characters like Levin who represent the author’s ideas and characters like Madame Bovary who represent mine— my weaknesses, that is…not adultery, but vanity. I should clarify.

I last read White Fang, which made me more sympathetic to my cousin’s Doberman Pincher licking her paw to the bone when she saw her love masters’ suitcase. Before that, I revisited The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I like a strong woman in a story and men of substance. On a roll, it was time to finally read Agatha Christie.

I watched And Then There were None (1945) on TCM late at night when I still lived at my parents’ house. It was too late for me to realize how boring the movie was though I understood halfway through a bootleg streamed copy that this was not something I could sit through. Still, I revered the original story having a morbid fascination for such clever darkness.

My daughter asked what my book was about. There was no good answer I could give her.

I did not know this was considered Christie’s best by some circles. Not knowing if my nerves can take another novel by her (though I will be drawn to it like a Netflix binge) I am glad to have read the best.

The novel is perfect. Is that right? Yes, I think it is perfect. It is not deep. It is not difficult. It is fitfully entertaining and grips you as you enter into the suspense the characters’ experience.

10 people on an island. Everyone is guilty of something. The murders begin. One of them is the killer.

You pass through the thoughts of ten characters, you hate only a small handful of them. Even having seen the movie, anticipating the twist, the movie is different enough from the book that I doubted who the murderer was.

Yet it was there. She dropped some clues: too calm, and that smile…

I wanted them to live as in the movie but you feel the supreme literary justice that movies do not often give.

The book was perfect. I do not know what other people read on the beach. I would read Agatha Christie. I would absolutely read And Then There Were None. If I dare, before I read that again, I will read Witness for the Prosecution. Because I love Marlene Dietrich.

Review of Simply Tuesday

In A Million Little Ways, Emily P. Freeman encourages the reader not to fear if someone has the same message because you have a different way to say it. That way of saying it might be just the right way from some recipient, who would not otherwise be heard or been penetrated by the core message. Freeman’s book, Simply Tuesday, does just this with St. Therese of Lisieux doctrine of the Little Way. Does Freeman know about St. Therese or the little way? I do not know, and it does not matter. The message is beautifully put in her lovely writing style which takes a scene or a moment or an object from her personal life and holding that image in mind, she reflects on its meaning and its application to our life.

Not only is Freeman’s prose impeccable, it is filled with a gentle rhythm that makes her work a proper meditation on maintaining peace in a chaotic life, and quieting ambition in our typically hectic work. She allows her words and images to build organically. Her tactic of returning to images from previous chapters as she includes new ones connects each of the concepts of the book, going ever deeper in reflection.

Rev. Francois Jamart, O.C.D., summarizes the little way as this:

  1. We must fully recognize our spiritual poverty, our incapacity, and accept this condition.
  2. We must have recourse to God with blind and filial confidence, in order that He may accomplish in us what we cannot do by our own powers; for God is our Father; he is Love infinitely merciful.
  3. We must believe in Love and apply ourselves to the practice of love.

Spiritual poverty, described as smallness by Freeman is considered at length between the smallness of humiliation and the smallness of wonder. She invites the reader to embrace the smallness of wonder and the ordinary moments of our lives, which she encapsulated in the concept of Tuesday.

There is a bit of the lady bug philosophy, that when we learn to sit still is when ladybugs will come to us, that grace will come to us. God has called us to these moments, so let us sit and reflect and calm the rush of daily life.

In the third point of the little way, the practice of love, Therese emphasizes the importance of practicing love in the mundane tasks (because in our spiritual poverty or smallness, this is all we can do). You will find the same message throughout in Freeman’s work.

Does this cheapen Freeman’s reflections as something copied? Most definitely not. The message may be the same but the telling is wholly original. Therese wrote her little way as pieces of her autobiography and as a response to the direct request to write out this belief and practice. In that, it is not more ornate or poetically written than came natural to Therese to explain her ideas.

Freeman’s book is a verbal painting of the little way. This little way is at the heart of scriptures, wholly original and wholly tradition, and Freeman, by engaging the scriptures, with the help of others in her life, describes herself as being on this path.

This is the second book by this author that I have made my daily companion, an event of each day when I stop what I am doing and meditate on the chapter where a business card marks.

Reading her work, I have become more reflective and more appreciative of the small moments. It has helps me to act more intentionally and to move a little but further on the path of regaining peace and balance in my life. I heartily recommend Simply Tuesday by Emily P. Freeman.

Review of The Artisan Soul

The Artisan Soul.jpg

After perusing The Home Design Doodle Book, I picked up The Artisan Soul: Crafting your Life into a Work of Art by Erwin Raphael McManus (2014). How odd to wax poetic over a doodle book and then have very few good things to say here. I will not finish the book. My reading reduced to a skim. The reviews on Amazon on overall quite positive. My experience was not.

The moment I read the author thought he should not have hidden his naked body but danced joyfully in the front yard, I thought perhaps something was off about this book.

The first chapter was wonderful.

“The great divide is not between those who are artists and those are not, but between those who understand that they are creative and those who have become convinced that they are not.”

I wrote about this recently in my article, “What is Art?”

“There is an order to the creative process: we dream, we risk, we create.”

That is beautiful and deep, though I cannot say he expands on it more. Once could write an entire reflection series on that quote.

There are other reflections on the way that as art comes from us and we are made in the image of God, so beautiful art will, essentially, reflect God. The best art is authentic to who we are. This is why it is so jarring to see ugly “art” in the fine arts because it reflects our brute nature rather than our angelic nature.

Soon, his theology gets a little wonky; his philosophy a little sloppy. I think he actually says we are all drawn to the good, without referencing Aristotle.

It contains a reflection on craft distinguishing it from product. A craft is handmade. A product uses people. I could think of tidier definitions.

This highlights how things that are not part of the fine arts can still be done as an art, along with how those who are creating in the field of fine arts, can create garbage or art that is not moving. It is an important distinction.

Artists love without reservation. They give their hearts completely and leave nothing on the table. They are naked and unashamed…but not without struggle. This path is not an escape from life’s wounds and disappointment. To live from our souls is to pursue our greatest passions and expose ourselves to our greatest pain. We cannot live to create and be surprised that we have traveled through failure. We cannot live a life of passion and not know sorrow… All creativity emerges from struggle. All art is born out of the pain of labor. The artisan soul must be both tender and tough.

Wonderful insights and great explanations as to why it seems the great artists all suffered so much. Not because art makes us suffer, but that suffering finds expression and hopefully, healing, in art.

All well and good. The subsequent chapters I take issue with.

In Chapter 2, McManus discusses the role of our internal voice/narrative. He writes that some think a narrative of pessimism (despair) means only darkness can be authentic. He proposes a narrative of hope (optimism – but it’s not really) can show authentic art to be happy and about love.

The fault here lies in conflating pessimism/optimism with despair/hope. In psychology, these are particular terms. I think is one is making an effort tot write a book, it is important to have one’s terms clear. A better interpretation of his point would be an interior narrative of hope can make our art transcendent, lifting it out of darkness (negative emotions, brokenness) into light (love, self-gift).

In Chapter 3, McManus writes interpretation is more important than truth, and truth exists because God is trustworthy. It hurts to even repeat that. The fault here lies in a belief that truth can and cannot exist. It gets us into the realm of “your truth” and “my truth.”

A better interpretation would be truth exists regardless. By trustworthy, I think the author means reliable. Reliability is proven by experience. If someone earns our trust, in that we seek answers from him, it is because of how well they conform their lives to the truth. Others we can trust will answer in a particular way (honest or dishonest). That implies reliability. Interpretations of life are unique, but if they do not conform to reality they are insane. If they do not conform to a transcendent truth, they are limited, often depressing or vapid. Truth matters a great deal because it grounds interpretation to something anyone can access, even if one might interpret it differently. It is the thread that unites us.

In Chapter 4, McManus discusses the concept of vision or imagination. He writes, “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge.” Quoting Picasso, a point is made that Picasso’s gift came not with technical genius but imagination. The child imagination is praised. Yes, children have imagination. They do not yet possess not knowledge or skill. The fault here lies in believing imagination and knowledge are opposed to each other.

A better interpretation would be imagination without knowledge belongs to the child while imagination maintained in the adult is refined and focused by knowledge. Learning the art can be seen as having the imagination (creativity) to apply the skill in new and interesting ways. The author also touches on concepts of wonder and awe, which are different. This chapter wanders more than previous chapters. By now his writing feels tangential as well as repetitive.

I could read no more. If one will write about God like this and one is Christian, then let him reference Christian theological tradition. I know this may not be promoted in some Christian denominations, so I do not blame the author, but this book is not for me. Too many insights we have come because we are nested in a culture with a knowledge that has been passed down. What we think we access all on our own has been seeded by our culture and academic tradition. Let us give it some credit. And let’s define our terms.

Review of The Home Design Doodle Book

As an avid reader of the blog, Miss Mustard Seed was excited to explore her latest creation, The Home Design Doodle Book. I was not disappointed. The artist in me delighted in the look and design of it. The friend in me delighted in the gift potential, already thinking of several friends who would enjoy this book. The fan of me happily supported a woman who inspires me.

First, this is a book by a creative, crafty artist…and this book is beautiful. It is filled with heart, joy, and inspiration.

Second, this book contains the most sensible, five steps for discovering your style.

  1. Observe and collect items//swatches/images that speak to you
  2. Filter what you love vs. what you love for your home
  3. Recognize patterns in the images/items you love for your home
  4. Unearth your style based on the patterns observed
  5. Transition your style: after noting what fits and does not fit your style in your home, gradually transition your home to fit the style you identified.

After this, she encourages a room reset, the creation of mood boards, organized and planned shopping with a budget in mind, and offers her tips. Pages are frequently inserted for your expression/reflections like, “I think that is stupid!” or “seriously need a new stove.”

Third, a warning: this is not a reading book. This is a workbook. As Mrs. Parsons says, it is a conversation. But as any great designer, she offers only prompts and expects you to do the talking and discovering. She can give tips, but it is up to you to seek the information.

I can see how this book could be an excellent guide for those who are a) to intimated to make design choices, b) cannot focus their many projects or desires, or c) feel their home is too far from what they would like it to be. The format is open enough to allow you your own mode of operation, style, and pace, but tight enough to maintain concrete steps in your creation. When a home feelings overwhelming, the latter can be invaluable.

I would highly recommend this book. I plan on keeping a copy in my home to give as a gift whenever the opportunity arises.

Caveat

If you seeking information and guides on how to do in more detail, you will not find it here. It is what it says, a doodle book. This is the tactile version of creating a Pinterest board. It is an advanced form of a bulletin board (well, many bulletin boards). If you want to learn how to do these things, I recommend Mrs. Parson’s video tutorials and her many other digital offerings through missmustardseed.com.

Happy decorating!