Posts Tagged ‘Non-Fiction’

Madeleine L’Engle, beloved author of such Newbery winners as A Wrinkle in Time and A Ring of Endless Light, begins her series of four memoirs with A Circle of Quiet.

About:

Wife-mother-writer. This is how Madeleine refers to herself, and it’s just one of many things that make this book feel so relevant. I can hardly believe A Circle of Quiet was published almost half a century ago, and I’m so glad Open Road Integrated Media is republishing it as an ebook.

L’Engle is an irresistible study in contradictions: episcopal and agnostic. An American born, European bred New Yorker who loved her country home in rural Connecticut. A writer, theoretical physicist and theologian (unofficially, those last two). An apolitical, but concerned environmentalist. A successful author married to a successful actor. It is she who first encouraged me (through her books; I wish I could have met her! She died in 2007) to seek harmony between modern science and my own faith (although my thoughts on the subject fall more in the realm of C.S. Lewis‘s conclusions, in The Abolition of Man, than in hers).

I wrote a paper on her poetry for one of my final BA projects—I studied literature and creative writing, which is why I generally stick to reviewing novels instead of nonfiction. But when A Circle of Quiet popped up on Netgalley, I turned in my chair to look at my book shelves and spotted the pristine, unread copy that I’d bought at a library sale a few years before…

I knew the time had come. I picked it up and drifted away, happily bemused, in the current L’Engle’s quietly explosive ruminations.

A Circle of Quiet breezes through the decade Madeleine spent at her rural “commune” of Crosswicks, raising her children and writing books that publishers refused to buy. I say the book “breezes” through this period because I felt light, reading much of it, as I already have wrestled with many of her concepts in her other works; but for readers new to her bewildering assortment of convictions, the experience of reading a L’Engle memoir may be less of a breeze and more of a gale.

A Circle of Quiet examines creativity, cosmology, science, God—all the big questions. But Madeleine is especially taken with the concept of ontology, in this volume. The study of existence and being.

When speaking with troubled teenagers, her thought was,

“They really don’t want me to answer their questions, nor should I. If I have not already answered them ontologically, nothing I say is going to make any sense.”

She sides with rebellious teenagers on most things, at least in her heart, which might be why her books have always been so appealing to young people. Her ideas about ontology did give me a calming peace, as a teenager. Take a look at the stars and breathe. It’s okay. That kind of thing.

She also talks a lot about how mythological truth is different from provable fact. Whenever she wrote (fiction, memoir and everything else), she drew directly from her own experience, perhaps more so than most writers I’ve read before; but she doesn’t stick close to the facts. She tells a story to make her point. While a long, important story in her memoir perfectly communicates her feelings about a certain city couple (the Brechsteins) who have moved into her rural community, she openly acknowledges that the exact facts—their names, the locations, the words spoken in their encounters—are not exact.

“Thinking about the Brechsteins, attempting the not-quite possible task of separating fact from fiction in this sketch, teaches me something about the nature of reality. On one level, one might say that the Brechsteins are not real. But they are. It is through the Brechsteins, through the world of the imagination which takes us beyond the restrictions of provable fact, that we touch the hem of truth.

The truth, not the facts, are what concern her. Creative writing is not journalism, she harps.

But even as she tackles heavy topics, she illustrates them with highly entertaining anecdotes, such as this one about entering church for the first time in a while, after moving into Crosswicks:

Madeleine to the minister:

“‘As long as I don’t need to say any more than that I try to live as though I believe in God, I would like very much to come to church—if you’ll let me.’

So I became choir director.”

Overall :

While the memoir can occasionally feel childish in its emotional coloring, it is more often delightfully childlike—a distinction she herself makes—in its wonder and joy for life itself. She’s a sharp observer, even if her observations may, at times, be suspect. I really enjoyed A Circle of Quiet  for the illumination of her life, convictions and writing habits. And I already have a copy of book II! Yay!

Recommendation :

If you enjoyed the theoretical and emotional tones to Madeleine L’Engle’s stories, or if you’re just curious about this career and family woman, you might very well enjoy any of her memoirs or other nonfiction works. (I personally adored Walking on Water.)

****4/5 STARS

I would like to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you the book lover’s 7 booktag! Do steal it and pass it around. You can do it on Facebook, too…
A Book or Author You Wish More People Had Read:
The Scorpio Races!!! Everyone seems to have read Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver series (which I don’t like) or her Raven Boys series (which is fine) but The Scorpio Races is by far her best. It won the Printz Award, a screenplay is being written and it is my most hearted book. Like, ever.
Scorpio
A BRILLIANT Book or Author You Just Discovered:
I adored Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth! The audiobook was absolutely lovely, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this memoir. A fascinating look into the social problems, healthcare and midwifery of the 1950s east end.
callthemidwife
A Book or Author That Has Been On Your TBR List For WAY TOO LONG:
I have been meaning to read Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler for WAY TOO LONG, people, way, way too long. Ever since I read about it in Donald Maass’s Writing The Breakout Novel. Which was long ago. So I just checked it out and I’ll let you know what I think of it.
wildseed
Your Last Guilty Pleasure Read:
Hehe. Vampire Academy. I was quite surprised by the character-building and the structure in Mead’s world. I particularly liked the social fabric between the guardians and the Moroi–the stigma of being a “blood whore,” the single-mother situation among the female guardians, etc. That was really well developed and added credibility to the world.
vampire
A Book You Are Proud to Have Recently Finished:
The Penguin Guide to the Constitution, I suppose. *BRAG*
const
An Author or Genre You Need to Read More of: 
I tend toward children’s and YA because they’re quicker and often happier, so I need to read more adult fiction, particularly sci-fi and epic fantasy. Asimov, Brent Weeks, Mercedes Lackey, Vonnegut, etc.
A Book or Author that Really Is Next TBR:
Well, I’m currently alternating among three: Brandon Sanderson’s lively Mistborn: The Final Empire, Flannery O’Connor’s terrifying Wise Blood & the fascinating The Nations Within by Deloria and Lytle. After that? Wild Seed and probably The Martian.
mistbornwise bloodthe martianTheNationsWithin
I would love to hear your answers to the 7 questions! Link me to your post, if you do the tag.

englishHistory

This is sort of unrelated to my normal speculative fiction reviews, but I had to post about Great Tales from English History because, well, a lot of fantasy involves early English history, and I think Fantasy readers would enjoy the book 🙂 Also, even though the collection is almost more like a fun, episodic version of early English history than a book of tales, the chapters often involve mythological elements.

About: Lacey lays out short, informative tales from c. 7150 BC all the way up to AD 1381 in this first of three volumes. Every story is packed with detail and carefully presented to be interesting and inspiring for the casual reader (like me!).

My Favorite Parts: (1) Lacey describes each ruler’s personality in such a way that I’ll be able to remember them when I run across their names again, in other readings. (2) It’s a great volume to read alongside a more expansive book of history. I hadn’t been planning on supplementing the book with another, when I started it; but it was so interesting, I couldn’t help looking up more on several topics! (3) Lacey encourages readers to seek out primary documents to truly understand the past. It’s good advice.

This isn’t a history book; but it covers a lot of history in its various tales, and a casual reader can’t come away from it without a greater grasp of early English history.

Recommendation: This short book of tales is fluid and engaging enough for young adults, and maybe even children. Not to mention, ahem, adults. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! Particularly for new writers wanting to write high fantasy in a European middle ages-like setting.

*****5/5 STARS

About: To virtue or not to virtue? That is the question. In this powerful little book, Lewis examines why human values come as a package deal or not at all—and the disastrous consequences if humanity chooses to forgo virtue entirely. Genre- Philosophy; Subject- Ethics; Published- 1944.

I will attempt to summarize the contents of this book, below; but as is always the case with summaries, much of the book’s potency (not to mention art and grace) is lost in translation. I only mean to give you an idea of what the book is about. Do please read the real thing, if you’re at all interested—it’s only a little over a hundred pages. If you’re not interested in the summary, skip down to the section of this review entitled “What I Liked.”

Before I summarize, however, I must explain an important concept in the book: the Tao. One of my favorite parts of the book is the appendix, which collects quotes from numerous religious writings dating backward from the Bible (“Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike” (28)). The point of this appendix is to highlight a common core of values among them (honoring your parents; witnessing truthfully in court; those sorts of things). He refers to this collection of spiritual wisdom as the Tao throughout the book. That term–the Tao–comes up a lot in the summary.

Content: Lewis’s thesis unfolds in three parts: Part I, “Men Without Chests”; Part II, “The Way”; & Part III, “The Abolition of Man.”

In Part I: Men Without Chests, Lewis spells out a growing problem he sees in the modern educational system: that modern man is attempting to create a species of “men without chests.” The “chest” here symbolizes what Lewis calls “sentiment” and what we can understand as “virtue.” Virtue is based on the values found in the Tao. Lewis wrote this book precisely because he was concerned that modern teachers/professors were churning out masses of students who lacked “just sentiments” or virtue. These teachers attempt to debunk virtue on rational grounds, and the students swallow this philosophy whole, becoming “men without chests.”

In Part II: The Way, Lewis argues that virtue can only be found, whole and intact, in the Tao.

“What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies,’ all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess” (44).

In doing so, he argues against the popular theory that virtue can be based on “’rational’ or ‘biological’ or ‘modern’ grounds” (23). (Adherents to this popular view often considered “traditional values” as “sentimental,” silly, outdated (such as sexual taboos overturned by the advent of birth control) or otherwise based on religious “taboo”(29)). Lewis further argues that the Tao is no buffet—if the modern seeker accepts some of the virtues of the Tao, he has no authority to pick and choose (41). He must accept the entire thing.

In Part III: The Abolition of Man, Lewis suggests that modern sciences will eventually destroy our values. While science has done much good, it has been tainted from an early age by a love of power—a love that overtook the earlier, purer love of truth that motivated the founders of modern science. (He writes of science as a battle to subdue nature: “‘Man’s conquest of Nature’ is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science” (53).) He agrees that science has successfully conquered much of nature, to the deserved pride of mankind and its scientists; however, he argues that the current course of modern science can only end in conquering mankind itself along with the values of the Tao.

“Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to man. The battle will then be won…But who, precisely, will have won it?…Man’s final conquest has proven to be the abolition of Man” (59, 64).

His reasoning and examples are far too complex to outline in this review; but he imagines a new “Natural Philosophy” (science) that would “conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life” (78-79).

What I Liked: This book reads like a thriller, and Lewis’s thesis is the source of its tension: that the future of humankind hangs on our acceptance or rejection of “traditional morality.” It’s short but complex, thrilling but thorough.

As usual, Lewis communicates the concepts smoothly to the non-philosophers among us (*ahem* such as I), assisted by his uncommon humor, wit, rationality, compassion and an abundance of illuminating examples.

To me, this book explains why humanity needs religion—or, at least, the virtues and values found only in religion—and why we can’t and won’t survive without it: because our “chests” make us human. I’m sure there are lots of other things you can take from this book, but that’s what meant the most to me.

Overall: I can’t really disguise how much I love this book. I read it as a teenager and it completely lost me, at the time. I’ve now read it twice more, and was only able to finally understand it by taking oral notes on my phone. (If you want to see the notes, which I’ve compiled and organized for further reference, leave me a comment or something and I’ll send them to you.) It was worth the time and effort–and in any case, I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I really dug in. I hope this review sparks your interest. If you read this book, you’ll be glad you did. It’s one of the most important I’ve ever reviewed. If you’re not sure, yet, check out the selected quotes below to get a feel for it.

5/5 STARS. Highly Recommended.

Characterizing Quotes:

“The head rules the belly through the chest…It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal” (24-25).

“And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful” (26).

“This is why Aristotle said that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics: to the corrupted man, the man who stands outside the Tao, the very starting point of this science is invisible” (47).

“I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason [the Tao] as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become sceptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis, is doomed” (49).

“Nothing I can say will prevent some people from describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao are cut. But I can go further than that. I even suggest that from Science herself the cure might come” (76).

How To Be A Woman

One’s opinion of How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran will depend, for the most part, on one’s opinion of today’s feminist movement. (Although I will say that even ardently feminist critics varied in their opinion of the book’s style. Some liked the casual tone, some hated it.) When I began reading this book, I was on the fence about feminism. I really wasn’t sure what the movement was all about. And reading this book certainly shed some light on the modern feminist agenda–but it didn’t offer any proof. It probably won’t convince many to the feminist ranks; it primarily aims to please those already there. Despite its lively humor, it utterly failed to convince me that I am a feminist. Basically, Moran and feminists like her want women to have all the same opportunities as men without any of the “socially engineered” burdens of being a woman. Whenever a questionable situations arises, from burquas to bikini waxes, she questions, “Are the boys doing it?” Are the boys worried about pregnancy after casual sex? Are the boys worried about commitment in a relationship? Are the boys getting “slut-shamed” for sleeping around the office?

Characterizing Quote: “So here is the quick way of working out if you are a feminist. Put your hands in your underpants. A. Do you have a vagina? B. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist” (Moran 75).

The problem I have with Moran’s statement, here, is that if you’ve read the book, you know that she is clearly not in control of her vagina; it is in control of her. *shudder* TMI, lady. If that’s what it means to be a modern feminist, then I’ll pass. For another example of why this book didn’t impress me, let’s consider Moran’s justification for porn and rejection of strip clubs:

“Pornography isn’t inherently wrong–it’s just some fucking” (165).

And, she goes on, f***ing is fun, right? So who cares!? There’s nothing wrong with it as long as everyone is having fun, right?Strip clubs, on the other hand, are bad because

“no one’s having any fun…The women hate the men,” and the men “don’t have kind feelings toward these [strippers]” (163).

Following so far? It’s justified as long as it’s fun. But wait. Does Moran actually think women enjoy being porn stars? Does she really think they’re having fun? ( “I’m in the Porn Industry and I Want Out” target=”_blank”>Article to the contrary.) Anymore fun than strippers have, anyway? Or how about the men and women watching the porn—does she think they enjoy being addicted and in debt to porn and strip clubs? If so, then she is uncommonly naïve. At the very least, her Hedonistic justification of porn makes no sense when viewed beside her rejection of strip clubs. This is just one example of several logical fallacies hiding out in Moran’s passionate manifesto/memoir. The author’s flip sophistication and foul-mouthed humor can’t overcome the many flaws in her book. I also was not impressed by her “proof” that

the world honors and is shaped around “the priorities, needs, whims and successes of men” (130).

There just wasn’t enough data in this book for me to believe that. I’ll be the first to say that women should have access to the same rights as men. But as far as I can tell, the law has already given us as much as it can (in the UK and the Us, at least; not so in other countries, which are notably absent from this book), and the rest is up to us. There may still be some issues with policy (such as a lack of paternity leave to facilitate alternative child-rearing options for couples). But that’s very different from Moran’s complaints that patriarchy is still oppressing us. When she says that, she victimizes our sex, making us feel powerless to succeed in two of the most privileged, egalitarian societies to ever exist on this earth. I mean, women do meet with some incivility in the workplace; but so do men. Women do have unique problems to overcome in the workplace; but, again, so do men. This is not socially engineered sexism. This is…the workplace. It’s not home, and it’s not perfect. We all just have to do our best. The quote below is one of the best passages in the book because it’s one of the most sensible:

Moran On Recognizing and Addressing Sexism in the Workplace: “simply apply this question to the issue: Is this polite?…Don’t call it sexism, call it ‘manners’ instead…‘I’m sorry, but that sounded a little…uncivil.’…It doesn’t need to be a man vs. woman thing. It’s just a tiff between ‘the guys.’ Seeing the whole world as ‘the guys’ is important…I’m neither pro-woman’ nor ‘anti-men.’ I’m just thumbs up for the six billion” (128-129).

There are all kinds of unfair office politics because jerks have to work, too. Moran’s suggestion is a fine way to handle uncivil comments- inform the offender that his/her comment was impolite, and move on. It seems to me that feminism of the kind espoused by Moran is practically synonymous with European and American liberal agendas—including, but not limited to, “women’s reproductive rights” (aka abortion to facilitate the casual sex opportunities available to men) and socialism. We should really call this book what it is: liberal propaganda. Moran’s book probably did more damage to my opinion of feminism than a more serious book might have. It sounded  more like the words of a whiny, rebellious teenager than of any leader I would willingly follow. As a result, I remain entirely unconvinced of the health or logic of today’s feminist movement. I may read some other “serious” feminist writings, just to make sure I really understand it. I’ve only read one other feminist book called “Where the Girls Are,” and it struck me as only slightly more serious than this one- it still featured the bantering, belligerent tone, but at least it had citations. I may read “A Room of One’s Own”; I would also really like a good American specimen and am open to suggestions by commenters.

1/5 STARS.