Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Choirs of Angels

Yesterday was a red letter day in my personal history. It was the day, will forever be known as the day, on which I discovered the nun aisle in the Boston Public Library.

A moment of silence, please.

I picked up Unveiled, The Habit, and (this is SO exciting, you think I'm exaggerating but I'm totally sincere here) The Rule of St. Benedict. The latter is the handbook by which Benedictine monks and nuns live. It's about both how to be a religious, and establishes a lot of rules and ideas about how to live in a community, how to turn a group of people into a community.

In honor of this red letter day, here's a rundown of my top five nun books.

1) The Nun's Story, Kathryn Hulme. I've probably gone on about this before. It was a movie with Audrey Hepburn, which I saw on A&E many years ago, which led me to nun books in general. It's a perfect explanation of why and how a person would choose this life--not as a default or an escape, but as an ambition.

2) In This House of Brede, Rumer Godden. This is one of those books that observes the seasons turning and the small dramas of life--will Sister Agnes ever finish her book? How will we pay for the new sculpture Mother Superior ordered before she died? Will the Japanese novices learn our ways? It's just such a warm and comforting story.

3) Lying Awake, Mark Saltzman. A sister in a small convent in California is having visions, which have revived her faith and her passion for her calling. But when she finds out that they're caused by a medical condition, the book examines the question of how science and faith fit together and conflict with each other. But it does this with a practical simplicity, not a philisophical tirade.

4) Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris. I still count this as a nun book, even though it's really not. It's the journal of a woman who spends time as an oblate in a monestary. It's a mixed-gender community, many of whose members are oblates (sort of like an extended retreat--temporary vows). The book talks about the things that a "typical" person who has a full life (and husband) in the World might find for herself in a place like that.

5) Confessions of a Pagan Nun, Kate Horsley. This is a strange but intriguing novel, set up as the diary of an Irish pagan who joins the church. Mostly it's about how strange and foreign the Christianity of the 4th or 5th century is to us. I don't love it, actually, but I learned a great deal from it that I'm glad to know.

Bonus: Nun TV. Brides of Christ, an Australian series (or miniseries) about the lives of one convent in the 60s. With special appearances by a very young Naomi Watts and Russell Crowe!

Now, what's this I've heard about nun blogs?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Too Much Of Nothing

Have you heard my rant yet about books in which nothing happens? It's a classic problem with literary fiction. Sometimes it's so bad that even when things are happening it feels like nothing happens. A lot of these books are about young people coming of age or marriages slowly falling to pieces. It's a lot of carefully observed everday moments strung in a row for me to find "meaning" in.

Now, I'm the first to admit that I'm kind of an idiot. I watched the movie The Hours and didn't realize it was about depression until someone pointed it out to me. (In my defense, I blame Meryl Streep for blinding me with her forced cheerfulness.) I'm not the first one to catch onto subtle themes. I need things pointed out to me--it doesn't have to be heavy-handed, but it has to be there.

This book, though, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, is the absolute worst of both worlds. The setup, the idea, is so promising in terms of things happening. A doctor delivers his own children on a stormy night. The girl has Down's Syndrome. It's the 60s, people are ignorant, chances are she'll have health problems. He asks the nurse to take her to an institution, then tells his wife (when she wakes from the anasthesia) that they have a son but their daughter dies. The nurse, instead of sending the kid away, leaves town with her and rears the girl as her own.

Wow! Ripe with possibility! First of all, there's the single mother bringing up a disabled child in the sixties. That's got to be tough--lots of interesting things to learn there. There's the idea of being someone on the run, that there might be someone looking for you. There's the doctor keeping a secret from his family. Maybe searching for them. Conflict and high passion.

What a dull, flat book. The whole book is about the doctor keeping the secret from his wife, and how it makes him emotionally unavailable. Really, the whole movie is about a couple in a marriage where the husband is emotionally unavailable. That's all I'll grant the damned thing credit for even TRYING to do. Phoebe, the daughter, appears so far in about three scenes (though her mother has lots of scenes, mostly about being haunted by the memory and idea of this doctor). This is a book about a marriage falling apart. It's a book about people who don't talk to each other. It's a book full of painful silences.

Unfortunately, it is exactly what it's trying to be: a successful "literary" novel.

Monday, November 20, 2006

More of the Same

I say things like this so often that I'm starting to wonder if this just happens to everyone all the time, or maybe it's just a factor of how many books I read. But it happened again! Twice in the same hour, I learned the same esoteric factoid from two different books.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, during a short discussion on the history of magnifying lenses, I was informed that Vermeer is reputed to have used a camera obscura to capture the quality of light and detail that he did. Apparently he had a good friend who produced some of the most amazing detailed drawing of highly magnified specimens know at the time. This friend, whose name I don't remember, was very secretive about his methods, and it is suspected that he introduced Vermeer to the camera obscura.

When I got on the T, I turned off my mp3 player and opened my book, The Memory Keeper's Daughter. The book is only okay--slow, standard examination of a marriage falling apart. Kind of boring, kind of overblown. But on this day, on the first page I read (178, maybe), one of the main characters, an amateur photographer, explains to a guest how Vermeer used a camera obscura to create some of the best effects in his paintings.

The mind reels.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Night of the Hunter

By Davis Grubb. I can't say enough about this book. I think I can pretty much recommend it to you, whoever you are, sight unseen.

The movie was amazing--I'm not usually one to go on about artistry in a film, but this one was both stylized and natural. It does thing with shadows that are startling and create such an atmosphere. It has an amazing performance by a nine-year-old boy, and another by Robert Mitchum. (We won't go into the little girl who plays Pearl--you can't blame a kid that young for being stiff.)

But the truly amazing part is that all of these things--even some of the visual devices--are directly from the book. It's such a faithful adaptation, I'm truly amazed that both pieces--book and movie--are so great.

If you can't stand Kids In Danger movies (my father is like that), then this is definitely not the story for you. But anyone else--what a fine experience. I'm so glad I read that. It's one of those moments when I don't regret the fact that every book I ever so much as hear about makes it onto my list. Because otherwise, when would I ever have read this?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Things I'm Learning

What did Bill Bryson teach me today, you ask? Maybe I'm fascinated by unlikely things, but I have to say, this thrilled me. Do you know what a lichen is? And why they can grow on rock outcroppings in places like the Arctic where there is no other life? Well, I know now and I'll tell you.

It turns out that a lichen is actually a symbiotic arrangment of an algae and a fungus. The fungus dissolves the rock into a substance that the algae can then digest into nutrition for both of them to consume. How symmetrical is that? How neato? Of course, it's not much of a life--the only living thing for thousands of miles around, sitting on a rock for a long, long time (it can take 50 to 100 years to reach the size of a quarter). But how clever of them to team up like that!

I'm feeling pretty proud of myself for surrendering. In the past week, I've decided not to read three books that had been on my list and that I even had out of the library already. It was in my hands, I opened it up and started reading, I didn't find it interesting, so I put it down. Apparently I wasn't as interested in the life of St. Theresa of Lisieux as I thought I was. Or I Am the Messanger, by Markus Zusak. Just didn't catch me, after ten pages or so. Couldn't do it. I'm not even going to book club this month--the book doesn't interest me.

Just doesn't interest me! So proud! I feel liberated.

Oh, and Night of the Hunter? Awesome, amazing book. It helps that it's an amazing movie, and it's almost exactly the same. But it's just so sweet and scary and stylish, and yet still old-fashioned and charming. Oh, and in case you never noticed that a switchblade is phallic--well, it is.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Big shout-out to Mike for finishing The Sound and the Fury, which I'm sure I couldn't have done. Just looking at a page of that book was a challenge beyond me. I have never felt an urge toward Faulkner, and everyone who tells me about it solidifies that non-urge.

So kudos to Mike for climbing that particular mountain!

Personal update: Night of the Hunter on the train, Groucho and Me next to the bed, and dabbling in something called Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? in the living room. The latter is a collection of essays exploring "inconsistencies" or unanswered questions in classical literature. Pretty entertaining, in spite of a tendencyto go way out of its way to find a convoluted answer after dismissing an intuitive one as "unlikely." (Example: In Mansfield Park, Fanny's aunt has a pug when Fanny is little and still has it 11 years later. This book dismisses the idea that the first one died and she got another one as "unlikely" and proceeds to calculate the dog's age and breedability. It's like reading Young Earth science--nonsense, but the level of mental gymnastics these folks went to is astonishing!)

Anyway, that's my brief update.