Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

114475I read Richard Yates’s short story collection for the first  time back in the late eighties, and I’ve reread it at least once since then. It came to mind again recently as an example of keen — mercilessly keen — writerly observation, and I have spent the last two weeks revisiting it.

The experience has been as much a revelation of personal change as of esthetic pleasure. No one can deny that Eleven Kinds of Loneliness captures a real world in fiction. Yates trains a magnifying glass on eleven characters, one by one, in 1950’s New York. We meet World War II veterans, patients in tubercular wards, newly married young men (several of them writers) working at entry level jobs and searching for meaning, women whose domestic dreams are at various points of colliding with reality.

Yates has an extraordinary eye, and I felt again a kind of wonder at his ability to depict character with such fullness and economy. How did he do it? No Harriet the Spy-style notebook could ever hold the observations he must have made riding the subway, dining at restaurants, talking with friends, going to work. He has a flawless eye for detail, for all the little mannerisms and moments that make someone who they are. And he has compassion. Why else tell their stories?

But the familiar pleasure in these artistic qualities failed to outweigh the sorrow this time. I wondered why I didn’t remember that these stories are excruciating! Failed connections, left and right — imprisonment in self — insight coming too late — longing for friendship, unfulfilled. One reviewer, speaking of the whole body of Yates’ work, writes, “It is as if Yates were under some enchantment that compelled him to keep circling the same half-acre of pain.”

I’ve certainly enjoyed these stories before, but my experience was different this time. Maybe I’ve witnessed or experienced loneliness enough to feel it’s not an artistic subject to be examined in this relentless fashion without tossing the reader a bone more satisfying than technical excellence. I realize that all of life can’t be made into a Reader’s Digest feel-good story. But I wished that Yates had balanced his superior literacy in the many varieties of loneliness with at least a glimmer of hope here and there.

Perhaps the one thing that can be said for these stories is that they compel the reader to notice the “lives of quiet desolation” all around, and to supply the missing element. We have to read questioningly. What would have redeemed the story? What was the character listening for? Yates doesn’t supply the answers; we have to. In that sense, the book situates us exactly where we are in “real life.” It’s like a flight simulator, giving us the opportunity to practice responding to the kinds of emergencies we may face in the air. For the moment, I’m glad to have finished this “lesson,” but Eleven Kinds of Loneliness will hang like smoke in the atmosphere of my imagination for a good while this time.

Pioneer Girl

pgSo you feel like you’ve lived an interesting life, maybe a life that illustrates one of the archetypal American themes — Manifest Destiny, for example. How do you go about writing your life story for public consumption?

For Laura Ingalls Wilder, the process involved writing a long, seamless, sequential narrative to her writer daughter, Rose Wilder Lane — complete with personal notes (“You remember the dress…”) and directions indicating an awareness of a public audience that might one day read her story. Some passages are boxed with strict instructions to keep them secret. Others seem to dwell excessively on mundane details while racing right over more intriguing fare that’s left undeveloped.

The contrast in content between this heavily annotated draft and the famed Little House books for young readers didn’t catch me altogether by surprise. Some of the details of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life outside the books were familiar to me from Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. I knew about the little Ingalls brother who died, the rather depressed chapter of the family’s life spent in Iowa, the fact that the Ingallses were in Indian territory illegally. And some of the rougher experiences of pioneer life were apparent already from the books, even though they aren’t dwelt on: tornadoes and blizzards that take lives, a wife who threatens her husband with a butcher knife, alcoholism, and racism.

But more of these details are provided in Pioneer Girl, written matter-of-factly, with only occasional passages of the description Laura’s character develops in the novels as Mary’s “eyes.” Pioneer Girl gives us glimpses of domestic violence, drunkenness, even one episode where a very young Laura is nearly molested.

Even the Ingalls family comes out looking a little less saintly. Pa skips town with the family without paying rent; they show little concern for laws or treaties in their attitude toward the west (despite Pa’s stint as justice of the peace on Silver Lake); even their care of Laura seems somewhat lax in the way they send her to stay with others as a companion, even as a child. Mary comes across more realistically, less perfect than in the novels (though even in them we see her bossiness and, at times, narcissism). Laura herself is every bit as feisty and determined as in the stories — and then some. Sometimes she comes across as manipulative and overbearing. But in the essentials of resourcefulness, faithfulness to one another, neighborliness, and civic duty, the family remains consistent with their fictional counterparts.

There are plenty of surprises in details — the sequencing of the family’s travels westward, for instance. Characters are sometimes compilations of real people. In some matters, Wilder’s memory is simply unreliable, as the annotations point out by reporting on the degree of correspondence between Wilder’s memory and historical fact. All of this raises interesting questions about the process by which life is converted into fiction — or even into autobiography. When I mentioned to my daughters that Jack the brindle bulldog was actually traded away with Pet and Patty, they felt betrayed — as though Laura Ingalls Wilder had deliberately lied to them! But the Little House books are fiction. We know this — yet we develop such an attachment to the cast of characters that it’s difficult to accept the ways the books differ from reality.

The books, Wilder said, were not pure history — but they were true. Truth vs. accuracy. Certainly one dimension of the stories’ truth that came through to me as I read Pioneer Girl was Laura’s feeling as she sits with Almanzo on the doorstep of their home on the night of her marriage and feels grateful that she will never have to live among strangers again. She has a place of her own. There is a sense of danger and insecurity emanating from Pioneer Girl that I never felt in the Little House books. Its release to a public audience after all these years supplies a fascinating and necessary context to the series.

Other posts on Laura Ingalls Wilder:

Our Only World


When readers of Wendell Berry see that he has a new book coming out, we tend to read it on reflex. The themes are seldom new; that’s part of the appeal. We read because it means immersing ourselves once again in a particular mind and set of values, expressed with clarity and conviction.

In that sense, this book met expectations. It travels familiar ground: farming well, ecological responsibility, neighborliness, love for one’s place and community, and everywhere a desire to think through even complicated issues systematically, with hope.

Yet I felt a sadness too. There is a pervasive sense of loss in this book — of a culture impoverished of important knowledge, of ties to locality, of vital connections with one another, of basic virtues that once informed our care of “our only world.”

The dominant perspective of the book is that of a farmer who sees the whole complex of American life through the lens of our treatment of land. He refers often to “the middle of the last century” as a time of more intelligent, more coherent agriculture. Farming then was characterized by an attentiveness to scale, contour plowing as an effective way to counter erosion, and diversity. These represent a contrast to the now common techniques of “no till” planting, toxic chemicals, and the vast monocropping of soybeans and corn. Industrialized agriculture, Berry warns, operates according to industrial values of quantity and profit rather than preservation and care. The result is a culture dangerously unaware of the sources of our own life, and one increasingly dependent on large, impersonal entities.

I suppose that’s why Berry felt it necessary to include an essay on the politics of both abortion and homosexual marriage. He paints with a broad brush and misses whole dimensions of the issues in this essay. Though I agree with his basic sense that these are not issues a government has the authority or practical efficacy to resolve, the essay didn’t resolve much either. I found his treatment of the Boston bombing, “The Commerce of Violence,” a more compelling examination of a recent event because it underlines violence as one of the norms of American life, in ways we don’t think about.

Still, he is at his best in these pages writing about the land, whether he’s describing smart forestry, or the 50-year farm bill, or the loss of the willows along the Kentucky River, or the sudden appearance of corn and soybean crops on the rolling hills of his native state. It took me awhile to get through these essays because I often set the book aside with a heavy heart. But as always, Berry does make an effort to hope. He points to examples of people who are getting it right; makes a case (more than once) for the 50-year farm bill published in 2009 by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas; and lists an inventory of resources at hand to help us improve our lot.

Overall the message of the book is that positive change is within reach, but it comes through personal choices and households, not government programs. Berry has a large enough body of work, and a large enough audience after devoting himself to these subjects for over 50 years, to reasonably hope that he is making a change himself when he sits down and takes up a pen to share his take on the world.

I’ll give him the last word here:

Though a clean slate is impossible, as it has always been, we are not destitute of instructions and examples. Though our present anxieties incline us toward theories and illustrations of the natural rapaciousness of humans, not all humans and not all human communities have been so. I don’t think the present bunch of living humans can be allowed to make the (very restful) claim that there is nothing they can do, pleading the incorrigibility of their nature or their circumstances…. My obligation here is only to show that we do have resources, probably enough, if we would pay attention to them.  (From “Our Deserted Country”)

Harriet the Spy

Harriet_the_Spy_(book)_coverHarriet the Spy has been in print for just over 50 years. I read it long ago, and when I saw it on the library shelf I wanted to revisit it.

Harriet M. Welsch is a gifted and curmudgeonly 11-year-old who wants to be both a writer and a spy. She practices both skills by writing down her observations about everyone and everything in a notebook. The notebook is her constant companion, and it’s filled with unsparingly honest details and reactions. Without it, she finds it hard to think. The central plot twist comes when her classmates find the notebook and read it.

There were several things I loved, starting with Harriet’s notebook. I have drawers full of notebooks, most of them only about half full of observations. Harriet is committed, and she’s accumulating quite the mass of starter material for her writerly aspirations, some of which she gets to realize before the novel ends. Ole Golly, Harriet’s nurse, tells her always to be honest in her notebook, but to temper her knowledge with kindness when dealing with real people, a crucial bit of insight for Harriet.

I loved Ole Golly. She’s the only one in the story who really “gets” Harriet, and when she leaves to get married Harriet sorely misses her. Ole Golly is honest and compassionate, and her words of wisdom are a lifeline in Harriet’s world of adults who don’t know what to do with her. She loves Harriet in a no-nonsense, non-mushy, decisive way.

Harriet leads a pretty nice life, complete with a nurse and a cook and cake with milk every day at 3:40. She’s also rather spoiled and behaves rudely to her parents and teachers. She has a spy route that involves sneaking into other people’s property and writing down what they do and say. Her impressions are usually negative, but she has a lot of questions and a genuine desire to learn. There is something very likable and real about her, and the difficult learning she experiences over the course of the story is very convincing.

I loved the variety of characters in the book. Really there are no “normal” people in Harriet’s neighborhood. The people she spies on run the gamut of quirks, and so do her friends. Janie has a chemistry set and wants to blow up the world. Sport cooks and cleans and generally takes care of his writer father. Ole Golly’s mother is handicapped.

The story first came out in 1964, and Harriet’s freedom in her Manhattan neighborhood calls forth a more innocent time. She’s definitely a free-range kid, left to her own devices much of the time, and she makes her share of poor decisions and gets into her share of trouble. Her use of her time is always active and interactive with others, never in isolation with a device. It reminds me of my own childhood, and how much more time I spent away from adult supervision than my own children do. A lot of my sense of who I am grew in those times. It’s a whole dimension of life that’s lost for them… or at least, that doesn’t begin as early in life as it did back then.

Mostly I liked Harriet’s realism as a feisty pre-teen hungry to learn, full of bravado but unsure of herself, piecing together her interpretation of the world. I wonder what she’d write about me:

Janet has a crease between her eyebrows. She must scowl a lot. She tells me it’s a thinking wrinkle, but I don’t see much difference.

Janet takes forever to make up her mind. She’s shopping for a coat, and it’s taking all day. If she asks me one more time which one I like best I’m going to scream and knock over a clothes rack.

Today Janet baked a cake, just because she read several times in the book about me that I have cake every day. I wonder if the book is really great, or if Janet’s really a pushover…

Steve Jobs

jobs-cover-250Though I’m neither an especially tech savvy person nor an Apple devotee, lately I’ve been hearing about Steve Jobs everywhere. He seems to be the one people like to quote, especially his comments about designing not the products people want, but the ones people would want if they knew they existed. When my husband watched a documentary about Jobs a few weeks ago and told me about it, that settled it. I had to read this bio by Walter Isaacson.

The book offers a readable portrayal of a very complicated personality. Jobs is in some ways the quintessential American hero. He’s an orphan, not a child of royalty. His adoptive family was middle class, not a place of privilege. He dropped out of college. He made it big using his brains and ingenuity, without any help from an Ivy League transcript or a famous benefactor. Though he died of cancer a few years ago, the company he co-founded (with Steve Wozniak) is still tremendously successful. When it comes to fitting the pattern of the self-made man, Jobs pretty much nails it.

But there is a dark side to this mythology, too. Jobs was equally famous for his brutal honesty and explosive temper. Even those closest to him wondered at times if he simply lacked the filters that bear witness to shared humanity, but his use of meanness was so strategic that it seems to have been intentional. He was legendary for his intensity and drive for excellence, and he forged a company the goal of which was to create great products. His success at building an “A Team” despite his often boorish behavior testifies to what many have called his “reality distortion field” — his insistence on what seemed an impossible standard of performance that, through the sheer force of his personality, he enabled others to believe in and achieve.

I admired Jobs’s simple, elegant design aesthetic, but he came across as the ultimate control freak with his belief in end-to-end design — creating every element of a product from the design of a device to its operating system and software to its user interface. Though he started out as a hacker himself, he scorned “open system” philosophy that promoted licensing products to multiple users. Though being able to “mix and match” elements of a product encourages competition and gives consumers more choices, the idea of contaminating any Apple product with “outside” elements was heresy to Jobs. He viewed the world in binary terms; people were either villains or heroes (his terms are more profane than I want to quote here), and products were either amazing or total garbage. It’s hard not to hear a contempt for consumers: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he declares. He was so protective of his creations that eventually even the screws were hidden and the batteries were inaccessible in his devices. No one could even look inside and see how they worked.

I found myself disturbed and angry at how much this controlling tendency translated into megalomania. It’s sobering to consider how much our lives are affected by people we don’t know at all, whose beliefs and values don’t represent us. Jobs transformed six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. This affects how countless Americans experience their lives every day. But more troubling is the glimpse we get of his influence into politics, news, and education. Isaacson provides us with an extended experience of the world of an industry giant operating in a sphere most of us don’t get to see.

I was struck again by how the power base in our country seems no longer to be elected political office, but big business. A college drop-out, Jobs was not well educated himself, and he was filled with intellectual eccentricities. What business does he have advising the president on what American education should look like? (Not surprisingly, Jobs’s view involved eliminating the human element as much as possible: “All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.”) What business does any single individual have advising Rupert Murdoch on what news venues should exist or not? (Jobs advised him to give Fox News the axe.) What business does a CEO with personal interests have offering to create the ads for the president in his 2012 campaign? (He grew annoyed and didn’t do it when the president’s chief of staff was not totally deferential.) We didn’t elect Steve Jobs — or for that matter, any of the other tech giants who met with Obama in February 2011 to strategize about what was best for the country.

That session appears to have had an effect. The suggestion the president liked best was Jobs’s idea of producing more “engineers”:

These factory engineers did not have to be PhD’s or geniuses; they simply needed to have basic engineering skills for manufacturing. Tech schools, community colleges, or trade schools could train them… If you educate these engineers, we could move more manufacturing plants here.

“Engineers”? Or worker bees? In any case, I read this against the backdrop of the president’s recent proposal of taxpayer subsidized community college for everyone, and it’s not hard to connect the dots.

We didn’t elect these business leaders to run the country — or did we? It strikes me that we vote more with our consumer choices than with our ballots. What we buy — and perhaps become dependent on — is more powerful than who we vote into office when it comes to shaping the future. We know crony capitalism exists, but in these pages we get a closer look, and I found it deeply offensive.

“Like many great men whose gifts are extraordinary, he’s not extraordinary in every realm,” Jobs’s wife explains. “He doesn’t have social graces, such as putting himself in other people’s shoes, but he cares deeply about empowering humankind, the advancement of humankind, and putting the right tools in their hands.” One admires the evangelistic zeal of a person who seems not to be in it for the money. But ego isn’t much better as a motivation, and it makes me uneasy to think about what “advancement of humankind” means to a man who seemed unable to recognize the fundamental value of individual human beings or the richness of a diverse, free world.

The sad thing is that Jobs originally saw himself as a revolutionary. This 1984 ad for the Macintosh depicts his company as the sole independent spirit in a world dominated by influential, established businesses that turn out mediocre products. His company was the hope of the world, the only one empowering the average person to own an elegant and effective pc. But by the end, one wonders if the face on the screen is a better fit.

Rereading Narnia

the-magicians-nephewWe’ve been listening once again to Kenneth Branagh’s impeccable reading of Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew. I have always loved this book; it was the first of the Narnia series that I read as a child, and I know it well. Still, hearing this reading brings out elements of the story that I never registered reading it myself — the humor in particular. Some of these scenes are hilarious! You can tell that Branagh is having a ball when he reads Uncle Andrew’s parts, or the scenes featuring Jadis loose in London. I remember being deeply touched when I read the story as a child, but I don’t remember laughing out loud, as I do now, at the comedy.

In any case, it’s a favorite around here, and conversations have been springing up between my daughters. How did old Mrs. LeFay get hold of Atlantean dust, anyway? Why doesn’t Digory get in trouble late in life when he digs up the rings (in The Last Battle), even though Aslan told him never to use them? Is the Wood Between the Worlds related to the mountains of Aslan, and would the witch have died if they’d left her there? Why doesn’t Aslan warn them that she may try to tempt them? (A question I pick up now and then about the Garden of Eden, too.)

It strikes me that I’m witnessing a literary expertise forming, at least of sorts. Lewis himself favored rereadings, and I think he’d be pleased to know how many of us return again and again to his own works — even though he very well might have no answers on the finer points of plotting. But is there any value in getting to know an imaginative world this well? I wonder what others would say about this.

I’d say yes. (Surprised?) The willingness to revisit a book, the ability to stay alert and keep noticing things even after we’ve “been there before,” the effort to connect and harmonize the parts into a whole — all of these seem like useful life skills that can be generalized from reading into other aspects of life. To be able to enjoy and appreciate what’s already familiar is to maintain a level of independence from the need for novelty.

Convenience? Convince me.

This story about the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was on NPR while I was making supper last night. I laughed a cynical laugh.

The story is a giddy pep rally for using “biometric data” — retinal scans, fingerprints, face recognition — to increase tech security by making passwords obsolete. (The Borg, anyone?) It comes on the heels of a week when I’m increasingly aware that technology really does not deliver on its promises because it malfunctions much of the time. Just in the last week, I have:

  • tried to create a connection between my Yamaha keyboard and my laptop; I followed the directions perfectly, everything installed correctly, and then… it failed to work. Files I wanted to save to the computer didn’t get saved.
  • set up a new website on which the software does not work correctly. In the process of trying to figure out the bugs, an update appeared on the dashboard that turned out to be an empty file. So there it is, a place where you can push buttons that are supposed to perform certain tasks… but they don’t.
  • sat down to watch a movie using Chromecast, given to us for Christmas by a relative. 45 minutes later we gave up and watched the movie on the laptop. Chromecast had worked perfectly the day before, but not this day.
  • paid some library fines because two emails sent me by the library to notify me of upcoming due dates did not make it to my mailbox. They’re not in my spam folder either, and other emails from the library have arrived safe and sound before and since. 30 minutes at the mail help site was altogether useless. I’ve discovered that several other emails from other parties also never made it to me.

In each case, hours were lost — hours of my life that could have been spent doing something productive rather than futile, something involving my whole body and mind rather than sitting couchbound staring at a screen. I thought computers were supposed to be MORE rational than people. But this is irrational, altogether capricious activity on the part of machines. “There’s a reason why they do these things,” my husband laughs. “The machines aren’t conspiring against you.”

Said reasons escape me, and the machines aren’t talking. (Yet.) When some merely mechanical device in our home breaks — car, washer, furnace — you can call someone and get them fixed. (This doesn’t happen very often, because they usually work. I don’t have to troubleshoot daily or weekly to get clean clothes.) To do that every time a computer malfunctions would break the bank, but in the abstract world of software, self-diagnosis if often a losing proposition. Which only serves to highlight the basic reality that my life has become involved, sometimes dependent, on technologies I don’t understand at all. And the folks who do understand them are getting more and more of my personal data, and more and more of my money, more and more often — thanks to planned obsolescence.

The two reporters discussing the joys of biometric security conclude with a reference to how “incredibly irritating” it is to remember passwords. But passwords are the easy part. I’d like to keep my fingerprints and retinas to myself, thank you very much. What happens if when I turn that all over to the tech companies and then get hacked? Various sci fi movies come to mind in which sinister characters steal body parts to gain access to biometric security systems.

More to the point, though, is the feeling of selling one’s soul. These security measures are billed as privacy protectors. But they are taking our private data to achieve it. And you can bet they won’t work flawlessly, as promised.

How long will it take before the projected scenarios are based on anything close to reality — rather on the assumption that everything will work as planned, with no unforeseen glitches, and no vulnerabilities? It’s easy enough for the techie to point out that I obviously enjoy some technologies. I’m writing this on a computer; I love my car, my oven, my washer and dryer, etc. But that doesn’t mean I have to love every new development that comes along, or that I shouldn’t do a little personal cost-benefit analysis before signing on to the latest and greatest. A little wise skepticism seems to be in order regarding the  sunny biometric future projected by the Consumer Electronics Show.

More work…?

If we have such an effective attentional filter, why can’t we filter out distractions better than we can? Why is information overload such a serious problem now?

For one thing, we’re doing more than ever before. The promise of a computerized society, we were told, was that it would relegate to machines all of the repetitive drudgery of work, allowing us humans to pursue loftier purposes and have more leisure time. It didn’t work out this way. Instead of more time, most of us have less. Companies large and small have off-loaded work onto the backs of consumers. Things that used to be done for us, as part of the value-added service of working with a company, we are now expected to do ourselves. With air travel, we’re now expected to complete our own reservations and check-ins, jobs that used to be done by airline employees or travel agents. At the grocery store, we’re expected to bag our own groceries and, in some supermarkets, to scan our own purchases. We pump our own gas at filling stations. Telephone operators used to look up numbers for us. Some companies no longer send out bills for their services — we’re expected to log in to their website, access our account, retrieve our bill, and initiate an electronic payment; in effect, do the job of the company for them. Collectively, this is known as shadow work — it represents a kind of parallel, shadow economy in which a lot of the service we expect from companies has been transferred to the consumer. Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it. It is responsible for taking a great deal of the leisure time we thought we would all have in the twenty-first century. (Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind)

OrganizedMindI initially excerpted this passage here to agree with it, but by the time I’ve finished typing it out, I find more areas of disagreement than agreement.

For one thing, the whole passage is overstated. “More [work] than ever before.” Seriously? More than settlers who had to hunt and dress game, clear fields, tend livestock and gardens, wash clothes by hand, deliver their babies and remedy their own illnesses, and build their homes? Does accessing my account online — a process that takes well under five minutes — even compare?

And for each of these fairly trivial tasks we may now need to do ourselves, others are released: balancing the checkbook, calling or driving to the travel agent’s office, writing out checks and envelopes and buying stamps to pay the bills vs. paying online or via automatic deduction. I suspect the net result is that we’re doing less than ever before — certainly not more.

Are we really “expected to” bag our own groceries and pump our own gas? We have these options but are not forced to choose them.

There is an implicit snobbery in the passage as well. “Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it.” Who defines which kinds of drudgery we’re entitled to think of as “the work of others”?

The “shadow work” the author complains that we should expect from companies is transferred to us because the companies themselves, in many cases, are leaner in their use of human labor, thanks to the increasing automation of the workplace. This is something that Nicholas Carr writes about in The Glass Cage, and he’s rightly troubled. The possibilities for job creation are shrinking dramatically because machines are, even considering the initial expenditure of implementing them, cheaper than people. But in any case, automation explains the increase of “shadow work.”

I find this passage less compelling than I did at first reading. But nevertheless, the reason I perked up my ears was the sense that we are increasingly “busy,” and seem to have less to show for it. I’m interested in exploring why this is, and I think this book may have something worth hearing on the subject before I’m finished with it. It’s certainly gotten my attention in its summary of the increase of information, and the stress our daily decision-making load puts on our attentional faculties. It could help to explain the fatigue I’ve become aware of in myself — part of the reason my reading has dwindled so much, and this blog has been so silent for so long.

A Love Observed

991883Now 14 years old, this book doesn’t represent cutting edge scholarship on the marriage between Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. I saw it on the shelf at the library, and as a perpetual student of Lewis I was immediately interested.

A Love Observed: Joy Davidman’s Life & Marriage to C.S. Lewis was apparently written to fill in gaps, and correct misimpressions, in the movie Shadowlands. As a former director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, author Lyle Dorsett brings considerable knowledge to bear on his topic.

It makes for interesting reading. I finished the book quickly, gaining a much fuller perspective on Joy Davidman’s life. She appears in other biographies I’ve read of Lewis, yet now that I’ve read this book I realize that she has always been presented as a peripheral figure, and a somewhat stereotyped one at that. Yes, her New York style and assertive manner were part of who she was. But she was many other things as well over the course of her life, and there is much here about the forces and experiences that shaped her from her childhood health issues and parental relationships, through her brilliant scholarly achievements, to her literary development and troubled marriage, her period of committed communism, her conversion, and her eventual relationship with C.S. Lewis.

If I take anything away from a consideration of Joy Davidman’s life, it’s her unapologetic individualism. She was who she was, difficult for some people to deal with, sometimes explosive, but always faithful to her sense of what was true and good. She did not lapse into habit, or into prescribed roles, and she certainly endured her share of hardship and pain.

While there is a sense of great fulfillment for both her and Lewis in their marriage, there is also a curious mutedness to her life’s impact beyond her significance to him. She was an author in her own right, a fiercely intelligent thinker, a force to be reckoned with. Yet if not for her marriage to Lewis, few would know of her. I puzzle over this, and remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers with its argument that more than mere talent is required for success; one must have certain other personal qualities and interpersonal connections before raw giftedness can achieve its full outcome.

Like any Christian life story, this leaves me with a vivid impression of God’s endless creativity in loving his children and revealing himself to those who truly seek him.

Over Sea, Under Stone

11312I started reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone aloud to my daughters. But as often happens, our pace was so slow that I grew impatient, carried the book off like a lion dragging prey to its den, and tore through it myself. I plan to finish reading it aloud, but at least I know the big picture now, and have experienced the story at the proper pace.

Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the Dark Is Rising sequence, a 4-book series that I missed as a child. Somehow or other I stumbled upon it recently and thought I’d try it as a read-aloud. One daughter in particular is partial to fantasy, and I’m not always sure how she’s processing what she reads. I thought it would be a good idea to work through some fantasy together.

This book is actually more mystery than fantasy. It takes place in a fictional village said to be based on Mevagissey, in Cornwall, and the tale is filled with Arthurian associations, evocations of the ancient past, seaside ambience and in general a sense that we are on the edge of mysteries we only partly understand. The central mystery involves an ancient map (or “manuscript”) three children find in a hidden attic of the old house in which they stay with their enigmatic Uncle Merry. In the process of deciphering its clues, Simon, Jane and Barney discover it will lead them to the grail, engage Uncle Merry as an important ally, and lead them into the path of dark and dangerous enemies. I liked the story’s atmosphere, which balances us at all times between the present and the past, the mundane and the mythic, the material and the fantastic.

OverSeaUnlike Eustace of Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who had read “none of the right books” and did not recognize a dragon till he turned into one, the children of Over Sea, Under Stone bring the right kind of knowledge to the task of interpreting the map and grasping its significance. They know about King Arthur. They quickly intuit how the map — which operates through a sequence of clues — works. They understand natural phenomena, like the behavior of the moon and the tides, and they’ve read enough about Cornwall to know a thing or two about its history. They grasp geography and have excellent situational awareness. (I couldn’t help but think of the book I read immediately prior to this one, The Glass Cage, which discusses how the kind of spatial orientation developed through study of paper maps rather than electronic GPS devices actually strengthens the brain. And in thinking of the breadth of these childrens’ general knowledge, I wondered how a modern-day child’s intellectual toolbox, shaped by a very different concept of education, would compare.)

All in all they warrant the trust Uncle Merry places in them when they confide in him about the finding of the manuscript. He has a role to play, but he considers deciphering the map to be their quest and leaves the responsibility in their hands. The stakes are high, but Simon, Jane and Barney are equal to the task — even though they do commit some of the usual mistakes and make some of the usual naive judgments over the course of their adventure. They face real danger, and I can understand why so many readers have found this to be a page turner.

51NCM9DNnEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The characterizations of good and evil are vivid and powerful. I wonder if, as a child reader, I would have felt the creepiness of the bad characters’ stalking and spying on the children of the story. I think I would have; I certainly did as a parent. Uncle Merry has a mythic grandeur, all clarity and depth and mystery. And like the best stories, his respect for his young compatriots gives him even more heroic force.

I’d like to read the other books in the sequence, of which several reviewers have said that this first book is the weakest installment. I liked it very much. That bodes well for any future forays into Susan Cooper’s fictional world.

*Edited to add (January 2015): I ended up not liking The Dark Is Rising, and never ventured farther into the series.