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review 2018-09-10 19:52
My Life In Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
My Life in Middlemarch - Rebecca Mead

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not. In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece--the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure--and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Journalist Rebecca Mead uses My Life in Middlemarch not only as a platform to revisit George Eliot's classic novel, one that proved to be one of the pivotal reading experiences of Mead's teens and twenties, but also as a way to get better acquainted with the famous author herself. Because Mead provides a respectable amount of thoroughly researched material, though this work initially presents itself as a memoir inspired by a great writer, the biographical portions on Eliot are nothing to scoff at. 

 

A book may not tell us exactly how to live our lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in the light of Eliot's life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel  -- not as part of the book's obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength..."The secret of our emotions never lies in the bare object, but in its subtle relation to our own past," Eliot wrote in Adam Bede. The bare object of a book -- of a story -- might also have a subtle relation to our own past. Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader's engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure, and the urgency, of reading lies. It is one of the ways that a novel speaks to a reader, and becomes integrated into the reader's own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience, and in such recognition, sympathy may begin.

 

 

Born Mary Ann Evans (though she preferred going by "Marian" in her youth), George Eliot grew up in the rural region of southwest England. A whip-smart girl, she was already working her way through the works of Sir Walter Scott by the age of seven! Letters she penned during her teen years show a kind of forced maturity. Her opinions are markedly prudish, pious and judgmental. Surprisingly, she claimed to find dancing and novel reading silly frivolities. But Mead has a theory: she points out that at about the same age Eliot was when she wrote these bold opinions, Mead herself would also strongly preach on topics she actually knew little about -- sex, feminism, politics. Mead suspects that at this point in her life, Eliot was likely just a teen working through the standard growing up period of trying to figure out who you are exactly. Part of that means maybe sometimes making claims you might not necessarily whole-heartedly believe in, simply for the sake of trying the idea on for size. 

 

 

Mead might be onto something, as she goes to show that later on in life Eliot swapped out her religious fervor for an equally intense passion for pseudosciences such as phrenology. Around this point in the book Mead also throws in an interesting bit of relevant trivia: turns out the very term "agnostic" was coined in 1869 by a friend of Eliot's! Eliot goes on to settle into what we'd now likely view as a common law marriage with George Henry Lewes. They weren't officially married (by church standards) but cohabited and behaved as an established married couple would, and many a neighbor gave the two a heavy dose of side-eye for it. Eliot & Lewes were both described as being quite ugly by the times' standards (even Eliot's friend, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev claimed she "made him understand that it was possible to fall in love with a woman who was not pretty"), but haters be damned, they had the ultimate swoon-worthy bookish beginning to their romance when they met in a bookshop!

 

Henry James on Eliot (in a letter to his father): "She is magnificently ugly -- deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw bone qui n'en finissent pas (never-ending)...Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few very minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you may end as I ended, falling in love with her. Yes, behold me literally falling in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking."

 

Mead's words on Lewes: Lewes, who was two years Eliot's senior, was "the ugliest man in London" according to one member of his literary circle. He was slight in stature, with a receding jaw, protruding teeth that were concealed by a bushy mustache, and dark, intense, intelligent eyes. Jane Carlyle unkindly called him "The Ape," though her husband gave testimony that Lewes was "ingenious, brilliant, entertaining, highly gifted and accomplished." He was quick and clever. The novelist Eliza Lynn Linton, who was not fond of Lewes and thought him coarse and vulgar, nonetheless said that wherever he went there was "a patch of intellectual sunshine in the room." Lewes' bohemian manners and radical precepts were partly inspired by (Percy Bysse) Shelley, of whom as a young man he had described himself as a worshipper, and whose biography he had tried to write when he was just twenty, a project that foundered because he could not get the approval of Mary Shelley, the poet's widow.

 

 

Image result for George Henry Lewes

Lewes & Eliot

 

 

Eliot hoped to find friendly support in her older, married half-sister Fanny Houghton, but Fanny -- having been displaced from her home as a child by their father when he took up with Eliot's mother -- ended up severing communication with Eliot altogether. 

 

Also incorporated in this work are some extra booknerdish gems where  Mead shares details on Eliot's literary friendships or at least run-ins with other greats of the era. Not only is there a discussion on Eliot's friendship (mostly through correspondence) with Harriet Beecher Stowe, but Mead also ties in connections to the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. here and there throughout the whole book. 

 

She (Eliot) was sometimes satirical, as in her secondhand report of Dickens' house on Tavistock Square: "Splendid library, of course, with soft carpet, couches, etc. such as become a sympathizer of the suffering classes," she wrote. "How can we sufficiently pity the needy unless we know fully the blessings of plenty?"

 

So yeah, not quite a full biography of Eliot, not entirely a traditional memoir for Mead, but somewhere in between. I will say it seemed to be closer to an Eliot bio than memoir, thought the title and synopsis would suggest something different. Mead DOES have her own personal connections in here, just maybe not as much as you might expect. Some reviews suggest this was a disappointment to a percentage of readers, but I myself wasn't hung up on that so much. Mead at least keeps things consistently interesting, which, for this book at least, was good enough for me.

 

 

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-08 18:21
When Mountains Move (Free #2) by Julie Cantrell
When Mountains Move - Julie Cantrell

In a few hours, Millie will say “I do” to Bump Anderson, a man who loves her through and through. But would he love her if he knew the secret she keeps? Millie’s mind is racing and there seems to be no clear line between right and wrong. Either path leads to pain, and she’ll do anything to protect the ones she loves. So she decides to bury the truth and begin again, helping Bump launch a ranch in the wilds of Colorado. But just when she thinks she’s left her old Mississippi life behind, the facts surface in the most challenging way. That’s when Millie’s grandmother, Oka, arrives to help. Relying on her age-old Choctaw traditions, Oka teaches Millie the power of second chances. Millie resists, believing redemption is about as likely as moving mountains. But Oka stands strong, modeling forgiveness as the only true path to freedom. Together, Bump, Millie, and Oka fight against all odds to create a sustainable ranch, all while learning that the important lessons of their pasts can be used to build a beautiful future.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

* WARNING: If you haven't read the first book in this duology, INTO THE FREE, there are spoilers below. 

 

 

So here we are in the second book and Millie has made a choice regarding a direction for her life. She remains unsure if it's the right choice, but it is a choice nonetheless. She knows she loves Bump, but does she love him enough to make it last forever? She's at least willing to give things a try. 

 

Moving forward as newlyweds, they relocate from Mississippi to Colorado, where Bump's Mississippi boss owns a ranch. Bump is hired as the ranch manager, his boss hoping that Bump's skills with  horses will turn the property into a thriving livestock business. In return, Bump hopes to set aside start up money for his own veterinary practice. The Andersons are getting the property to live on rent free, but the house on site is, to put it mildly, ROUGH.

 

While Millie is elbows deep in Suzy Homemaker mode, she struggles with a secret from her old life in Mississippi that she hesitates to reveal to Bump. Almost as if on cue, who makes a surprise arrival at the new homestead by Millie's Choctaw grandmother, Oka. Oka knows a thing or two about secrets and facing hardships head-on. Her presence becomes a much needed ballast for Millie while she gathers strength to face her fears and have that all-important but tough conversation with her husband.

 

To complicate things though, Bump seems to be a little too friendly (in Millie's opinion) with their new redheaded neighbor, Kat. Millie begins to wonder if Bump regrets his decision to start this new life with Millie, which once again leads her down the path of thoughts of whether she herself was too hasty in her own choices. 

 

Though this story is supposed to take place during the years of World War 2, it didn't have much of that feel for me. Minus the occasional mention of food rations, dreaded telegrams from the War Dept. or use of pickup trucks, this could easily be set a hundred years earlier. I was a little disappointed by this, as I'm a huge historical fiction junkie who looks forward to being immersed in the time period I'm promised as the reader, but in this case I could overlook it because of the good story and the important themes behind it.

 

Once again (as she did with Into The Free), Cantrell illustrates the power of having a good support system around you as you move through life, people who honestly believe in you and truly want to encourage you to pursue your dreams. With Bump and Millie, it's also a pretty honest look at the rougher edges of marriage. How do you hang in there when the rosy glow fades a bit and real life sets in? It's tough because Bump was pretty likeable in the first book, but here he gets progressively less so. When Kat comes on scene, Bump's actions get slyly more and more disrespectful toward Millie, the way he dismisses her hard work or knocks her cooking in front of others, just as an example. Meanwhile, Millie is silently showing / battling symptoms of PTSD... but when your husband gets to where he seems annoyed by your very presence, how do you talk about such things?

 

Millie hangs in there though and eventually finds the means to craft a moderately happy life for herself. Personally, I don't really buy what Bump has to say near the end of the book. I'd even go so far as to say she settled. And it irked me that Bump makes himself out to be so innocent and Millie ends up being the apologetic one... Sure, Millie has moments where she catches herself wondering about River, but looking at Bump... there are some scenes in this story that looked seriously shady from a wife's perspective. I do kind of get Millie's line of thought when she explains why she's made these choices, but I couldn't help but close the book feeling that there had to be something so much more fulfilling out there for her than what she ended up with.

 

* For book groups: the most recent edition of the paperback includes discussion guide and writing prompts. 

 

Something else to note -- while another of Cantrell's books, The Feathered Bone, has been packaged to match the new covers of Into The Free and its sequel When Mountains Move, I believe The Feathered Bone is actually not tied to Millie's story, but in fact its own separate story. 

 

 

 

FTC DisclaimerTNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

----------------

 

My reviews for Julie Cantrell's other books:

 

Into the Free (Free #1)

The Feathered Bone 

Perennials

 

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-08 15:54
Into The Free (Free #1) by Julie Cantrell
Into the Free - Julie Cantrell

In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a “nothing mama,” she struggles to find a place where she really belongs. For answers, Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan through town each spring. The travelers lead Millie to a key that unlocks generations of shocking family secrets. When tragedy strikes, the mysterious contents of the box give Millie the tools she needs to break her family’s longstanding cycle of madness and abuse. Through it all, Millie experiences the thrill of first love while fighting to trust the God she believes has abandoned her. With the power of forgiveness, can Millie finally make her way into the free?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel includes scenes of domestic abuse, rape, suicide and violence towards animals. 

 

 

In Depression Era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds is a young girl dreaming of the day when she can escape her oppressive life with an abusive, alcoholic father and and a mother who refuses to stand up to him. Millie is of mixed race, her father being Choctaw, her white mother disowned by her well-off family for marrying him. 

 

For six years straight, Millie watches a band of Travelers roll through town each spring, but one year she plucks up the courage to actually speak with them. She ends up befriending River, a young man within the group. Millie grows increasingly drawn to him, especially his deep love for nature and literature. One day, River suggests Millie go with the Traveler group (most referred to as gypsies in this story, but see the note at the bottom of this review) when they get ready to leave again. Just as she's about to take him up on the offer, tragedy strikes and within just a few short months, Millie (still under age, btw) finds herself orphaned. 

 

"She's not crazy. She's just sad. You would be too. How would you feel? If they hauled you off. In a straight jacket. Just because -- you needed -- to cry -- for a little while?"

 

Though tempted to stay, River makes the choice to carry on with his group. Millie can't bring herself to go but hopes opportunity will arise soon to bring River back her way. In the meantime, Millie agrees to move in with Diana Miller, the nurse who looked after Millie's mother in the hospital prior to her death. Shortly after moving in, Millie is stunned to find that this one small choice proves pivotal in her finally finding answers to long buried secrets within her own family. Here, of all places! As one of the characters in this duology likes to say, no such thing as coincidence (or so it would seem)!

 

I'm  certain I have never seen such a perfect house in all my life. Everything in its place. No dust on the floor. No broken hinges, hole-punched walls, or mildewed windowpanes. I am intimidated by the sudden lack of chaos. Knowing that life could be like this. That home could mean something secure and safe. 

 

As Millie works through these discoveries and mourns the absence of River, she meets another young man, Kenneth "Bump" Anderson, a skilled veterinarian and horse breaker who worked the same rodeo circuit as Millie's father. Almost immediately, Bump seems enamored with Millie, but of course wants to play it cool. Bump places himself in Millie's path as an honest, reliable, caring friend who gets her a job at the same rodeo. Not only does she get a chance to work with the horses she loves and gain some free therapy out of it, but Bump has an excuse to be around her that much more! While his feelings for her intensify, she's just a big ol' emotional mess inside, unsure of what she really wants out of life anymore. Millie sees and appreciates Bump's steadiness and kind heart, but is that enough when compared to the fire River used to bring out in her?

 

If only we didn't have to go to church. It's the only time Diana lets me leave the house, and she insists I join their family every Sunday morning. At nine o'clock sharp, we all pile into the third pew to the right... It's the longest hour of my week. Sitting on the cold, hard bench, all dressed up in a fancy new dress, acting a certain way to impress the churchgoers. I do as expected and play the part of a "fine young Christian girl".

 

But everything about the sermons, the customs, the tithing -- it all seems so hypocritical. Especially when the preacher talks about Indians and how they worship false gods. Says they will burn in hell for eternity, as their ancestors have done before them. Same goes for Mormons, Jews, Catholics. Of course, he also counts unwed mothers and those who have divorced. Negroes, even if they do go to a Christian church. From what I can tell, anyone not white-skinned, baptized, married and putting money into this very offering plate every Sunday is destined to infinite torture. "Heaven must not be a very big place," I whisper to Camille. She laughs and Diana gives us a look. 

 

Of course, suicide results in eternal damnation. And consuming alcohol too. Dancing. Swearing. Even thinking of sin is as bad as committing sin, according to this guy. So, the way I figure it, with Choctaw blood, an alcoholic father, and a mother who used a secret stash of morphine to take her own life, I have no choice but to burn in hell too. Pretty dresses and shiny shoes won't help me.

 

Despite all that, some folks still hold out hope to save my soul. My name is on the prayer list every week, which means families like Diana's are talking about me over supper, lifting me up to the heavens. The rodeo-trash half-breed. 

 

Though the plot is tinged in sadness and deals with some heavy topics, there is still a pervasive warmth and sense of comfort to the overall tone of the story. Maybe it's Millie's hopefulness that one day all this craziness will make sense. Maybe it's the idea that family doesn't necessarily have to be blood-related. One just finds themselves matching Millie's emotions as they read: you feel for her, struggle with her, yet you can't help but feel optimism for her because it's undeniable that she's got a good support crew around her, even if she doesn't always notice them in the darker moments.

 

I don't want to end up like Mama, weak and submissive. I also don't want to turn out like Diana, with a lack of trust due to secrets untold. I sure don't want to follow Jack's course, abusive and aggressive, fighting against love and loss even after the chance for a fresh new start. And I don't want to spin out of control like Bill Miller, bitter and vicious because I didn't get my way. Maybe there is another choice... I am here. I am here for a reason. For something more than to just breathe, blink, swallow. I am worthy of happiness and love. Worthy of a good life filled with good people who love me in return. And no one, no one has the right to rob me of that peace.

 

 

Our main girl is an admirably, honestly flawed character. Her emotions run hot, she second-guesses herself pretty regularly, she has struggles with faith and gets frustrated with God. But through it all her heart is in the right place. She honestly cares for everyone in her life, even those who wrong her. Millie's story is an illustration of learning to never let anyone tamp out your inner light, steal your smile, etc. Through Millie's experiences, author Julie Cantrell also lightly plays with the topic of afterlife and the thin veil between those we've lost and how they continue to help us on this plane. An additional reminder to readers that you're never quite as alone as you might sometimes feel. 

 

* Note on the term "gypsy": At the end of this book, author Julie Cantrell includes a note which explains that while the term "gypsy" is actually considered derogatory throughout most of Traveler or Romany culture, for historical accuracy she decided to keep it in the text. 

 

* For Book Groups: the most recently published paperback edition includes pages of in-depth discussion questions, an author interview, and a "Just For Book Groups" section where Cantrell encourages groups to reach out to her (via social media) with requests for video chats / interviews.

 

Something else to note -- while another of Cantrell's books, The Feathered Bone, has been packaged to match the new covers of Into The Free and its sequel When Mountains Move, I believe The Feathered Bone is actually not tied to Millie's story, but in fact its own separate story. 

 

 

 

FTC DisclaimerTNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

_____________

 

My reviews for Julie Cantrell's other books:

 

When Mountains Move (Free #2)

The Feathered Bone 

Perennials

 

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review 2018-09-07 13:35
Perennials by Julie Cantrell
Perennials - Julie Cantrell

Eva Sutherland—known to all as Lovey—grew up safe and secure in Oxford, Mississippi, surrounded by a rich literary history and her mother’s stunning flower gardens. But a shed fire, and the injuries it caused, changed everything. Her older sister, Bitsy, blamed Lovey for the irreparable damage. Bitsy became the homecoming queen and the perfect Southern belle who could do no wrong. All the while, Lovey served as the family scapegoat, always bearing the brunt when Bitsy threw blame her way. At eighteen, suffocating in her sister’s shadow, Lovey turned down a marriage proposal and fled to Arizona. Free from Bitsy’s vicious lies, she became a successful advertising executive and a weekend yoga instructor, carving a satisfying life for herself. But at forty-five, Lovey is feeling more alone than ever and questioning the choices that led her here. When her father calls insisting she come home three weeks early for her parents’ 50th anniversary, Lovey is at her wits’ end. She’s about to close the biggest contract of her career, and there’s a lot on the line. But despite the risks, her father’s words, “Family First,” draw her back to the red-dirt roads of Mississippi. Lovey is drawn in to a secret project—a memory garden her father has planned as an anniversary surprise. As she helps create this sacred space, Lovey begins to rediscover her roots, learning how to live perennially in spite of life’s many trials and tragedies.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Eva "Lovey" Sutherland and her estranged older sister Bitsy are asked by their parents to put differences aside and come together for the parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

 

As small children, Lovey and Bitsy were actually quite close, playing in the woods around their Mississippi home, catching fireflies, etc... you know, all the classic markers of a Southern childhood. That changed the year a new girl moved into the neighborhood and made one comment that forever after had Bitsy feeling self-conscious about possibly being perceived as "trash". From then on, it was all about appearances for her -- no more playing in the dirt, nails / hair / outfits kept obsessively pristine, even a run in the beauty pageant scene. But Lovey never wanted any of that for herself, so Bitsy grows to resent this embarrassment of a sister. Tensions come to a head one night when their mother's gardening shed catches fire. Lovey's friend, Finn, is pulled from the blaze, surviving, but physically scarred for the rest of his life. Bitsy immediately calls out Lovey as the suspected arsonist and from that point on Lovey is made to feel the redheaded stepchild of the family. 

 

By the age of 18, tired of being the scapegoat for all of Bitsy's bad behavior (as well as the target of her most severe bullying), Lovey hightails it out of the South, finding a new home in the arid lands of Arizona. Now in her 40s and a successful ad exec / part-time yoga instructor, Lovey gets a call from her father right in the middle of perhaps the most important advertising contract of her career, pressing her to rush back home and visit with her mother for a few weeks. Lovey hears urgency in his voice, but he's notably evasive about his reasons for asking for a rushed arrival, only claiming that Lovey's mother needs "emotional support" during the stress of the party planning. Lovey rightly assumes there's plenty not being said here but figures she can get the full story once everyone meets up face to face. After some juggling around with the staff, she manages to make time for the trip, though the decision puts her career on the line. 

 

"When it all comes down to it, it's the only real job we've been given," Mother continues. "Get this one spirit through to the end. And still be willing to love and be loved in spite of all the hurts we endure along the way."

 

Once home, Lovey finds that not much has changed, at least on the surface. Her mother is still ever the classic Southern Belle type, perfect posture, fine clothes, pristinely coiffed and draped in Chanel No. 5 and just crazy about her flower beds.  Lovey's parents still speak glowingly of golden child Bitsy, much to Lovey's annoyance. Adult Lovey is still struggling with barely processed, long-buried hurts from her childhood, hurts that seem to be resurfacing now that she's at the scene of the crime, so to speak. How can one family be so blind to the pain of a loved one directly in front of them, she wonders. They're either blind to it or blatantly dismissive! Lovey struggles with the realization of the truth of all these years, the core of the emotional lacerations: Her parents failed to defend / protect her from the evil of the world. They failed to protect their child. The bad people of the world who made her life hell were never held accountable. In fact, the blame was often placed on Lovey's shoulders, in some form or another. There are some pretty serious topics touched upon in this novel, but let me say, IMO they were addressed in a VERY mild manner. Still, I could feel for Lovey on this front, having gone through similar struggles myself with my own family. 

 

 

"She's been jealous her whole life, Lovey. You're bound to know that much." (Lovey's friend, Fisher / Finn's brother talking about Bitsy)

 

"Jealous of me? Oh, come on. That's ridiculous. She's the golden girl. Homecoming queen. You name it."

 

"She may wear the crown, but she's never had half the heart you have. That's why she tries to break yours."

 

 

Cantrell could've taken this story so much deeper, I think. So many of us are struggling with the familial strains she only lightly skims the surface of in this book. But because she only mildly skirted around these tensions, this novel didn't have quite as much punch as I was expecting. Some of the places where it fell short for me:

 

* I sometimes got a little bored with Cantrell's interpretation of New Age themes, though I will admit Marian, the Sedona yogi, does give the readers some gems of dialogue from time to time:

 

 -- "Just remember, Eva. The harsher the winter, the more vibrant the bloom come spring."

 

-- "It doesn't matter what people call me. Fact of the matter is, I'm all that encompasses this human journey, and change is constant. That can't possibly be summed up in one little word."

 

* I felt Bitsy's bitterness was carried out a bit over-long in the story. 

 

* The plot overall is a little predictable. That phone call between Lovey and her father at the beginning of the book -- the 1st time he hesitates when she asks him what the rush is about, I knew where Cantrell was likely taking the story (because it's where SO many authors in this genre tend to want to take family dramas nowadays).

 

Where this book DOES shine though:

 

* Cantrell's story illustrating the danger in thinking that there'll always be time later on to tell loved ones how special they are to you, time to resolve differences etc. We're all guilty of it, but this story reminds readers that there's no time like the present to say your peace and share the love among family & friends.

 

* Cantrell NAILS the "life is like a garden" type analogies. Seriously, some of the imagery she thinks up for her characters to speak had me like "Oh wow, that's good!"

 

 

"Think of it this way." Mother leans to pull one of her bright pink zinnia to hand. "When a flower blooms, its seeds will scatter. Right? Well, let's say some of those seeds land in a parking lot. Others land in a fertile field. Is that fair? No. Some will have real disadvantages, greater challenges."

 

"But they can all grow," Finn says. "As long as they find a healthy place to root."

 

"Bingo!" Mother points Finn's way, giving him the win. "Some may have to settle for a crack in the pavement. But once a seed takes root, it can find its way to the light. Become all it was born to be."

 

Bitsy looks at us with frustration, as if we still don't understand. "Don't you see? Even if the flower manages to bloom, some people will stomp it to bits just because they can."

 

"But others will go out of their way to water it," Fisher counters. Finn nods.

 

 

* I kept thinking this story could make a pretty good Southern drama movie, or at the very least an idea for a country music video LOL. There's even one scene in the book that illustrates how music can bring people together when nothing else will. 

 

* Cantrell shows some love for classic Southern literature: plenty of Faulkner references; as you can imagine, but I especially loved the Eudora Welty bits. Reminded me I need to get into some of her stuff again sometime soon! 

 

For book clubs --- or maybe garden clubs who also like to do reading on the side? -- there are discussion questions included in the back of the book, as well as an "Activity Sparks" page with prompts for creative projects inspired by scenes / characters from this novel.  

 

 

FTC DisclaimerTNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2018-08-27 12:43
A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeline L'Engle by Sarah Arthur
A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeline L'Engle - Sarah Arthur

Bestselling and beloved author Madeleine L'Engle, Newbery winner for A Wrinkle in Time, was known the world round for her imaginative spirit and stories. She was also known to spark controversy - too Christian for some, too unorthodox for others. Somewhere in the middle was a complex woman whose embrace of paradox has much to say to a new generation of readers today. A Light So Lovely paints a vivid portrait of this enigmatic icon's spiritual legacy, starting with her inner world and expanding into fresh reflections of her writing for readers today. Listen in on intimate interviews with L'Engle's literary contemporaries such as Philip Yancey and Luci Shaw, L'Engle's granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis, and influential fans such as Makoto Fujimura, Nikki Grimes, and Sarah Bessey, as they reveal new layers to the woman behind the stories we know and love. A vibrant, imaginative read, this book pulls back the curtain to illuminate L'Engle's creative journey, her persevering faith, and the inspiring, often unexpected ways these two forces converged.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Wow, this little spiritual bio on L'Engle covers so much about her life in general it is hard to know where to start with a review, but I'll give it a go. 

 

Author Sarah Arthur became deeply invested in L'Engle's works thanks to the recommendation of a college roommate. Arthur even got a chance to get to know L'Engle in person after the author gave speeches at Arthur's alma mater, Wheaton College. Years later, we readers now have this exploration of L'Engle's spiritual legacy, aided by personal commentary from various notable authors, scientists, theologians and friends and family who share their memorable interactions with the famed author of A Wrinkle In Time, one of dozens of books she authored over her lifetime. 

 

The cluster of messages that all of Madeleine's books transmit include: you are loved, you matter, your questions are important, your joy fulfills a promise, fear not.

 

Though not the only topic covered, the bulk of this book focuses on L'Engle's lifelong spiritual journey: how it evolved, how it was worked into her writings, and how she was, at times, vilified by some of her audience for being, as they saw it, a hypocritical Christian. They questioned how she could consider herself a person of honest faith, a true follower, if she continued to publish books that incorporated elements of magic and science fiction. L'Engle was never apologetic for her beliefs or her methods of practicing them and this book illustrates how she would hold her stance against critics. 

 

In its essence, L'Engle's belief system can be boiled down to "sacred can be found in the secular". She insists that faith is a personal experience, so it should be a given that there's no one way to do it. Yet the world is full of so-called believers who will, in fact, happily line up to point at others and say yes, they ARE definitely doing it (religion) wrong. A Light So Lovely rolls out testimonial after testimonial, all these generations of readers who have had their own faith journey strengthened/ renewed / restored by L'Engle's influence, often without her knowledge... usually simply through the readings of her wonderfully whimsical and inspiring stories... that yes, at times, do incorporate subtle Christian imagery, much like C.S. Lewis (who is compared to her quite a bit in this book). Many interviewed for this book explain that her stories helped them feel it was okay to have questions about doctrines or experience feelings of skepticism or confusion. All she ever asked of her readers was to strive to never lose their childhood sense of wonder about the world. 

 

Truth sneaks in through the back door of the imagination, while our defenses are down, when it has a greater chance of changing us from the inside out... Madeline asserted, "...stories are preparation for living in the real world with courage and expectancy.... possibly as a defense against the troubled, everyday world of my childhood, for nourishment I learned to rely more and more on the private world that I discovered in books."

 

The story regarding the development of A Wrinkle In Time I found pretty interesting. L'Engle and her husband had been living in Connecticut with their family up until 1959, when they chose to move the homestead to New York. But before starting the move, they decided to take the family on a cross-country roadtrip, camping and visiting major US landmarks from coast to coast. On this trip, L'Engle toted around a box full of books by scientists and philosophers which she delved into each night after the rest of the crew went to bed. The reading of these books got her thinking which led to the germination of a loose outline of what would become A Wrinkle In Time. When she got settled back into a home, she had a first rough draft knocked out in three months!  When the first book came out, her focus wasn't so much on the accuracy of the science presented in the novel but scientists then (and even to this day) sure weighed in. Once she had a plot idea for the sequel, she realized it would involve cellular biology and so dived into an in-depth study of the actual science behind her ideas months before any writing of the novel even began. 

 

Arthur also gets into a discussion of the writing process itself as well as a look into the dynamics of the creative life in general, comparing L'Engle's process to her own. Much of this portion is to be found in the chapter "Fact and Fiction", the chapter I struggled the most with... mainly because it proved the most thought-provoking for me, being a writer myself. Arthur points out the perhaps controversial choice L'Engle made to partially fictionalize her memoir series, The Crosswick Journals. Investigating this story, Arthur poses the question of how in the right L'Engle was to do this and still publish these books as nonfiction. L'Engle excuses herself by saying its not so much lying, but more like embellishing (part of me argues that her reasoning tiptoes into semantics) but Arthur asks then how far does the writer's duty extend? One should be accountable for their thoughts, beliefs, word choice, etc.. but where does the duty end? Or does it? How far is an author responsible for the potentially damaging reaction a reader might have if their personal truth or belief does not echo the author's?

 

Arthur uses L'Engle's own family as an example: though L'Engle stood by the validity of her journals, her own children repeatedly came forward and said things just did not go down as she said. Likewise, L'Engle would dispute their versions, the children would argue that the journals presented a too idyllic version of their home life, back and forth, back and forth. Surprisingly, a couple of her kids actually pointed to the novels in her Austin Family Chronicles series as more true to their reality, even saying it hit TOO close to home at times. In fact, adopted daughter Maria flat out said she HATED the Austin Family books! It makes one wonder, after reading that L'Engle's youngest child, Bion, died of liver failure induced by alcoholism at the age of 47.

 

With a foreword by Charlotte Jones Voiklis, L'Engle's granddaughter, A Light So Lovely sums up L'Engle's life full of complicated, confusing, sometimes even saddening ideas, thought processes or choices with one basic idea: when it comes to life, just show up and be present no matter what. Don't expect to always have the answers or to even be happy every day. Life is a collection of highs and lows, so ride out the lows so you can be here for the highs.

 

I was really enjoying the first half of this book, even maybe thinking it might make it on my favorite reads of the year list, but there were some slow bits that changed my mind. There's a portion in the middle where the focus goes off the life of L'Engle and just turns more into a sermon on theology itself, to the point where I was starting to tune out a bit, if I may be honest. This trend continues on and off (though less so) for the rest of the book, so consider yourself warned if heavy-handed theology is not your thing. Even so, there's still plenty of fascinating L'Engle focused material here that has inspired me to getting digging into her bibliography again, revisiting old favorites as well as finally getting to those I've not yet tried. 

 

*Something to note: since this book covers the span of L'Engle's life, keep in mind that there will be some spoilers for her books in here, primarily the Time Quartet and the Austin Family Chronicles. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Handlebar Marketing and Zondervan Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

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