Book Stories

15Jan

Book Stories: The Original

On the recommendation of about half my social media feed, I finally checked out the novel Lila a few weeks ago. (A digital library account is an expat girl’s best friend.) In case you haven’t heard of it, the book centers on a woman who grew up as a family-less migrant worker during the Dust Bowl years, and at first, I was sure the story was going to end as gritty and bleak as its historical setting. In fact, I put it down about a third of the way through and had to talk myself into picking it back up a week later. I was so wary of letting myself be dragged into a fictional despair.

By the end of the book though, I understood how Marilynne Robinson had won a Pulitzer for Lila’s prequel. Her writing transported me simultaneously out of my life and into a deeper plane of it. The final chapters were so stunning, so honest and tender and hope-spun, that I just sat with the finished book for a while keeping company with my own experience of it.

And these were my first two thoughts, in order of appearance:

  1. That book was so inspiring. I can’t wait to crack open my laptop tomorrow morning and work on fleshing out some storylines of my own.
  2. That book was so intimidating. How can I possibly write another word of my own knowing that artists like Marilynne Robinson exist?

This is the black hole into which creative types have been tripping since that first cave man thought to contrast his stick-mastodon with that of his neighbor. Comparison is a void from which not even light can escape. I know that. We all know that. And yet…

It’s so easy to let someone else’s work mean something about my own, especially when that work induces some kind of emotional reaction in me. “I love that book” turns almost automatically into “I could never hope to write something like that;” “I hate that book” blurs immediately into “I could do so much better.” And all the while, my creative, original soul shrinks further into the background, forgotten. You know exactly what I’m talking about, yes? If it’s not about art, it’s about fashion sense or professional accomplishment or interior design choices or parenting styles. We compare as if those artificial pedestals were the ground holding us up.

I’ve been in the process of figuring out where to allot my time and energy this year, and there’s a phrase I keep returning to. It’s from the Bible, actually, though you wouldn’t think it. (That’s why I love the Message version; it always surprises me.) At some point, I’m going to frame these six words in some clever Pinteresty way and paste them above my desk so that I can’t help seeing them each time I glance up:

“Each of us is an original.”

This is the bedrock under the pedestals, the antidote to the endless game of measurements. And it’s what I’ve been returning to each time I’ve lingered on the genius of Lila. It allows the book to be beautiful without it reflecting a single blessed thing on me. The relief of that cannot be overstated. It’s like unstrapping a pair of ten-pound ankle weights, or like plucking a capacity for inspiration out of thin air. The freedom to be original is Lila’s gift to me at the outset of this year. Or more accurately, it’s the gift I’m giving myself through her.

Book Stories - Lila

In this series, I’m foregoing traditional book reviews and instead sharing Book Stories—why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story?

(If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind you’d like to share here, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com.) 

10Sep

Book Stories: The Meme

No doubt you’ve seen it making the rounds through Facebook:

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t think too hard or try to give ‘right’ answers, just write down 10 that have affected you/moved you/caused you to neglect your family, job, and basic hygiene for 36 hours straight/invaded your dreams/ prompted you to abandon dignity in favor of cosplay* or fan fiction/necessitated the author’s taking out a restraining order against you.”

*Not a sex act, sorry. “Cosplay” is short for costume play, which is short for dressing up like something else, which is admittedly delightful and fun but almost certainly not dignified.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve bounced up and down in your computer chair willing someone to tag you so you too can compile your list. Such is the power of the meme that one is not psychologically able to start thinking about her 10 books until she has been granted permission to do so by social media. (Please tell me I’m not the only one with a compulsive respect for pointless or nonexistent boundaries.) To the relief of my list-loving heart, I have now been tagged (thanks, Rachael!), and rather than listing my ten books as a Facebook status, I wanted to introduce them here, Book Stories style.


(Eggplant nails at Erika’s request)

1. Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery

When I first read the Anne of Green Gables series as a girl, I only really liked the first book about Anne’s childhood and then the three final books about her children’s escapades. The middle books about Anne’s career hopes, love interests, and coming-of-age heartaches bored me… until one day, they didn’t. I was in between college semesters and boyfriends of my own when I picked Anne of Avonlea off my dusty bookshelf and cried right through the final page. L.M. Montgomery is magic, folks. (But you already knew that.) 

2. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I was still a newlywed, pre-babies and only about two inches into my recovery from fundamentalism when a friend recommended Blue Like Jazz. I read it aloud to Dan, a chapter each night before bed, and it was like discovering my right to breathe. It very well may have been the first time that I’d heard God spoken about conversationally, without religious jargon, as if he actually had a place in everyday life. This book is spiritual stress relief.

3. On Writing by Stephen King

I can’t remember exactly when I snagged this off the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but I do know that it’s scarcely left my writing desk since. I only pick it up to read when I’m working on fiction because a page or two is all it takes for story inspiration to rush at me like a telepathic kid out of a haunted hotel. I should point out that my preferred genre is not that of the good Mr. King, but damned if he doesn’t make my mind itch to create something new.

4. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

I know, I know, everything about this book screams GIMMICKY! It was a crash course in entrepreneurship for Dan and I though. We got it a couple of years ago during our transition into self-employment, and while it did not catapult us into the ranks of “the new rich” or reduce our workweek to four hours, it did give us the gift of perspective. We now use terms like “batching” and “80/20” in everyday life (most often when trying to get out of housework, but still), and whenever I’m feeling discouraged about our rolling job situation, I let the FHWW remind me that we’re normal… ish. Not alone, at any rate.

5. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

I’m not sure what it says about me that the book I read most frequently for the pure joy if it was a high school reading assignment. To be fair to myself, though, it’s not like I go around toting Oedipus Rex on beach vacations or cracking open The Complete Works of Shakespeare on flights. Have you ever watched the darling film Il Postino where Pablo Neruda teaches an uneducated Italian postman about metaphor? This book is what taught me.

6. Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin

Over the year and a half following our move to Italy and Sophie’s birth, depression effectively broke down all my internal religious etiquette. I called up a friend from the States who I knew wouldn’t disown me when she heard that I could no longer believe in a God who made eternal torture the default destiny for humankind. She knew exactly what I was talking about and suggested that I read Hope Beyond Hell. I don’t think I’m putting it too dramatically when I say that this book saved my faith.

7. Field Guide to Now by Christina Rosalie

Christina’s blog is largely responsible for getting me writing again back in 2007. Her way of noticing the undercurrents of art in daily life and making poetry of their prose stirs up answering instincts in me. Hers is a creativity founded on intention and delight, and this book is one of my favorite things to read in the pre-dawn hours with a notepad and pen in hand. It makes me want to live and create and then live some more.

8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

1130. That’s how many pages of small text my unabridged copy contains. And I loved every one of them. Often after work, the summer I was 18, I’d drive to an uptown Starbucks where I’d order a venti coconut frappuccino and sit in the sunshine to read… and read… and read. Dantès’s revenge is so complicated and satisfying to read that I didn’t know whether to celebrate or to cry when I reached the end. I’ll be reading this one again… next time I have an entire summer of afternoons at my disposal (ha!).

9. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

I almost don’t even want to talk about this book because it’s meant so much to me. Hope Beyond Hell is what saved my faith, but The Shack is what saved my heart. I first read it on a Sunday morning while Dan and the girls were at church. It was a day when all the weight of my fundamentalist upbringing was suffocating me, and I felt so wounded by Christianity that all I could do was lie on the sofa and reach for this book that a friend had lent me. And I met a God of love in it.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) by J.K. Rowling

Roughly estimating, I’d say… oh, 99.81273% of the 10 Books lists that I’ve seen circulating on Facebook have included the Harry Potter series. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how deeply the story of The Boy Who Lived gets to us? The final book of the series came out right as we were moving to Italy, and I saved it to read in the hospital before and after Sophie’s birth. That was a frightening and larger-than-life time for me—having a baby three months after moving to another country whose language I did not yet speak—and Harry Potter & Gang’s story helped give me both an escape and the courage to stay.

All right, then. I tag YOU to share 10 books that have stayed with you in some way (even just here in the comments if you don’t want to go all Facebook-official on it). No right or wrong answers, remember, and if you have forsaken hygiene or dignity for the sake of those books, then know you’re in good company.

22Aug

Book Stories: The Escape Artist

If you’ve been following my blog for any time, then you know 1) that I identify as Christian, and 2) that “Christian” means something very different to me today than it did when I was growing up fundamentalist. The Christianity I experienced as a kid was a members-only club with lifestyle requirements and political loyalties, whereas the kind that I’m discovering and embracing in adulthood is more of an open-air party in which the only common denominator is Jesus. I am more grateful than I can say for the freedom to see God differently. Disengaging myself from the mindsets that formed me, though, has been about as easy as performing a total skeletal transplant on myself.

Take gender roles. The Christian subculture in which I grew up basically assigned one of two identities to everyone at birth. The first identity was “Leader” and came with secondary characteristics such as strength, outspokenness, superior reasoning skills, and money-making prowess. The second identity was “Follower” and brought with it expectations of docility, fertility, weakmindedness, and a knack for the domestic arts. The one and only basis for choosing which identity to bestow on a baby was which set of body parts he or she had.

I can’t speak much to the experience of growing up male in that system, but I do know what it was like to grow up under the “Follower” heading. Because I had been born female, my calling in life was to act as support staff to the males put in authority over me. Our family wasn’t nearly as rigid in this as many other patriarchal families; I was encouraged to get summer jobs and to go to university, experiences that many girls, seen only as homemakers-in-training, are denied. (In fact, one of my favorite posts to write this year was What Our Parents Did Right.)

Still though, I grew up under a list of gender-specific shoulds, some of them directly taught and some of them just implied:

A woman should defer to her father’s or husband’s judgment in all things as her own way of thinking is flawed.

A woman should always seek to diminish herself; her body, her voice, and her actions should never draw attention.

A woman should work tirelessly and selflessly in her home sphere, managing household tasks and child-raising so expertly that her husband never needs to be burdened with them.

A woman should understand that her purpose in life is to help her man fulfill his.

…for the Bible tells me so.

Actually, the Bible’s part in these gender prescriptions was always a little confusing to me. We didn’t follow Bible verses saying women needed to avoid jewelry or wear head coverings to pray, but we agreed most adamantly with verses saying women shouldn’t teach men (at least not from a pulpit), that they should obey their husbands, and that they should busy themselves at home. Despite the pick-and-choose nature of our theology, the message was the same: Men were God’s white-collar workers, and women were his field hands. And this message stuck with me, deeply.

Even after I had moved halfway across the world with a husband who considers me equal and the beginnings of a fulfilling profession, I felt my fundamentalist identity like a choke chain. In my mind, being a woman was so linked to inadequacy that I couldn’t look at a single aspect of my life without guilt. I wasn’t organized enough, diligent enough, submissive enough, successful enough, conventional enough, reproductive enough, energetic enough, religious enough. Plus, I could only manage something like .003% of what that damn Proverbs 31 woman did on any given day.

And then I read this:

Book Stories - A Year of Biblical Womanhood

“As I saw how powerful and affirming this ancient blessing could be, I decided it was time for Christian women to take back Proverbs 31. Somewhere along the way… we abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on the specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failures. We turned an anthem into an assignment, a poem into a job description.” – Rachel Held Evans

I had at least one friend (hi, A!) think that A Year of Biblical Womanhood was about how to be more fundamentalist based on its title and, you know, the whole woman-in-a-head-covering-banished-to-her-roof thing. What isn’t quite so obvious from the cover is the author’s tongue firmly in cheek and heart firmly for women like me caught in the chokehold of “Biblical Womanhood.” Really, those two words should always be in ironic quotes because, as Rachel shows in alternately hilarious and touching experiments, there is no such thing.

I read the book about a year and a half ago, and it was like an escape artist had personally come to spring me from the cramped confines of “Follower.” I do still struggle with feelings of guilt and not-enoughness; if Dan and I are in such a busy work period that we’re having trouble keeping up with household tasks, my first instinct is to berate myself for neglecting my responsibilities, for prioritizing my work over righteously clean floors. Or if I say something at a dinner party and everyone turns to listen, my inclination is to shrink back and turn the conversation over to someone with more a more valid viewpoint. The difference is that I can now recognize these wilting instincts as byproducts of an identity that was never meant to be mine. I can see cultural preference where once I only saw divine prejudice, and I can choose not to be ruled by it.

Rachel even got me to like Proverbs 31, which I consider a feat of staggering proportions. Or should I say… biblical?

“Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman?” she asks in her introduction. “Do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold? Must I?” And in her answer, I found a way to keep both the Bible and myself. Pure gift.

In this series, I’m foregoing traditional book reviews and instead sharing Book Stories—why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story?

(If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind you’d like to share here, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com.) 

6Aug

Book Stories: The Jumper Cable

Let’s have a moment of undignified honesty here: This week has been hard. In the perspective-maintaining, keeping-emotional-shit-together department, I mean. I have blogger friends who duck away from the internet the moment one of their pieces goes live, and I understand why. There are few things more unnerving than to realize your heart and soul are being taken in by thousands of pairs of eyes, filtered through thousands of sets of experiences, and setting off thousands of personal reactions. Even though that’s exactly what we writers want—for an audience to engage with our words—the reality of it can knock us off balance.

Brené Brown calls it a “vulnerability hangover.” In this foggy and fatigued state, we can’t quite pull anything into clear focus… least of all WHY we’d thought it was a good idea to share our tender-skinned selves with the world. Noise is too noisy, cheer is too cheery, and our own self-protective instincts lock us out of ourselves. I woke up yesterday without two words to rub together, and I concluded in true Bethany fashion that this meant I was done. All of my writer-ness had been used up. I no longer had anything worth saying, and the internet police would be along shortly to repossess my blog under the Imposter Act.

If one could buy tomato juice in this country, I would have been chugging the stuff.

Yesterday afternoon, I finally gave up trying to write anything for the day; I was getting nowhere at the speed of a runaway train. My backup plan, going to the park for a mind-clearing run, was then precluded by the crackle of incoming thunderclouds. Ah, screw productivity, I thought and reached for the brand new book on my nightstand. (Reading in the afternoon is up there on the luxury scale with chocolate in the morning and shaved legs just before bed. Partyin’ hard, mom-style.)

About two chapters in, I had my computer back out. I wanted to keep reading, but the things I was reading were giving me the rare gift of compulsion to write. The next couple of hours yo-yoed happily between book and Word document, other people’s stories charging up the storyteller in me. Turns out, when you crack open a book called Speak, you’d better get ready to do just that.

“When you’re the one on the fringes, one of the most powerful things someone can say to you is, ‘Me too.’ And really, it’s one of the most powerful things someone can say to anyone, regardless of status or social placement. The intrinsic value of mutual understanding and experience is immeasurable and priceless.” – Nish Weiseth

This isn’t a book review. Rather, it’s the story of how engaging with my friend Nish’s words gave me back my own. The more I read yesterday about how storytelling matters, deeply, to the world (and especially for those of us trying to model our ways of life on Jesus), the easier it was for me to remember why I’m here, why I write, why I subject myself to the odd vulnerability hangover. Because stories matter. Mine. Nish’s. Yours. The controversial stories. The painful ones. The ones we think no one will understand (which, in my experience, are the stories that lead to the deepest connections). The ones we are afraid to tell and the ones we can’t help telling. The ones that open us up to potential judgment and criticism… and to the almost-certain bond of “Me too.”

I wouldn’t say that I’m completely recovered from this week’s sense of displacement, but I’m not stuck in the fog anymore either. Besides, if I find myself at a loss for words tomorrow or the day after or the day after that, I have this handy paperback jumper cable right here on my nightstand.

This is the first in a series I’m excited to be starting here. Instead of writing traditional book reviews, I’d like to share why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my daily life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story? I’d like to open Book Stories up for guest posts as well. If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind to share, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes!

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