Monthly Archives: September 2011

11th Annual National Book Festival, Washington D.C. : Day One

Festival crowds wander by the Smithsonian Castle

In what’s become an annual tradition for me, I attended the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. This is the first year that the Festival was held over two days, instead of just one. I was joined by four friends from college: Kristin, accountant and fellow Festival faithful; Debbie, elementary school teacher; Elizabeth, special ed teacher; and Sara, drug rehab counselor. My roommate D., an ESL teacher, joined us late on Saturday. Co-workers Kim and Beth were around but I only made contact with them via texting.

The weekend was overcast and humid and the rain of the previous week had left large puddles on the dirt paths of the National Mall. Walking to and from tents required maneuvering around those puddles, as well as around strollers, adorable and dawdling toddlers, picture-takers, and your basic crowd traffic jams. Golf carts driven by Festival volunteers snuck up behind pedestrians, and on Sunday, I saw three mounted policeman guiding their horses in a mini-phalanx through the book fans.

We arrived after 10:30am on Saturday. We first saw young adult author Sarah Dessen. Although young adult novels are not my usual genre, I read her book Just Listen last year and enjoyed it. Dessen has been writing young adult books since the mid-1990’s and clearly loves her reader demographic: teens “are the most enthusiastic readers you can find”. My favorite anecdote that she shared involved the movie How to Deal starring Mandy Moore which was based on two of Dessen’s books. Dessen humorously described sitting at a convention where people were uninterested in her books until they put out the movie tie-in materials, which drew in people as into a vortex. The festival audience laughed to hear how the proceeds from the film adaptation are appreciated by the Dessen family, saying while in their home, “Thank you Mandy Moore for our refrigerator.” I’m curious to read This Lullaby, as it was the book that Dessen seemed most fond of.

I went with my friend Sara to see Gregory Maguire next. She had read Wicked and I am in the middle of reading it now. Neither of us have seen the musical. Maguire started the session by engagingly reading an excerpt from his forthcoming book, “Out of Oz” which will be the fourth and final book in the series. The book starts from the point of view of Dorothy who is on a trip to San Francisco with her aunt and uncle. Maguire later said we were the first audience to hear anything from “Out of Oz,” at which news the festival crowd audibly preened.

Maguire decided to write Wicked while living in London and seeing a newspaper compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler. This inspired a desire to write about evil. He wanted to write about Hitler but – he said – not knowing German, among other things – led him to settle on an iconic evil villain of his childhood: The Wicked Witch of the West. It was like he had a vision of Margaret Hamilton [the actress who played the Witch in the classic film] saying to him “You have blessings my child and you will write my story . . . or I’ll get you and your little dog too!”

While describing how his book turned into a musical by Stephen Schwartz, Maguire said something about the “moral need to take our time to decide who is good and who is bad.” This resonated with me, especially after my recent read of Dave Eggers’ book Zeitoun, which I’ll get more into when I review that book.

I also loved what Maguire said about how each one of us has at most “binocularity.” We need to tell each other what we see, to work toward multi-ocularity. In response to a question about interpreting parallels in his books, Maguire said, “I put in a lot of questions, but answer them seldom . . . You ‘pass the test’ by deciding for yourself.”

On the prevalence of strong female characters in his books, Maguire said, “Well we all know that women are more interesting.” Acknowledging that his following statement was horribly generalizing of course, he said he was intrigued by the way women think in contingencies and hold ambiguities in their mind.

On his predilection for twisting fairytales: Maguire found the old fairytales to be porous, open for consider what’s in the gaps of them. “What I do never besmirches the original.”

On the inspiring nature of the musical, Maguire admitted that he sometimes sang “Defying Gravity” in the shower, when feeling down. He also described a touching encounter he witnessed between a Palestinian woman and Idina Menzel [who played Elphaba] after a show, where the woman said, “I’ve been in this country for seven years and never seen myself until now.”

There were other insightful and amusing things that Maguire said, and his was definitely one of my favorite sessions of the Festival this year. My friend Sara went up to ask a question but was the only one who they didn’t have time for, so Maguire told her he would answer her question after the session ended, which was very nice of him. My coworker Kim texted me to say that she really liked his talk and thought she might buy his books (she’d read Wicked before but not the rest of the series.)

After lunch, I slipped into the tent where Sarah Vowell was speaking. I have one of her books out from the library, Assassination Vacation, but haven’t read it yet. In her distinctive voice, she read from her book Unfamiliar Fishes and then opened up the session for questions. A Smithsonian employee asked her for input on museums. Vowell praised the design of the Smithsonian’s American Indian museum, such as how the visitor isn’t led around by text panels, and can choose whether to read more about the displayed artifacts as curiosity leads.

Vowell said she likes writing about the “dimmer corners” of American history; Unfamiliar Fishes is about the annexation of Hawaii. At one point in the session, Vowell said the story of America’s expansion is one of “communication and communicable diseases.”

On her transition from reporter to author of books on history: “I was terrible at interviewing people . . . I don’t like to pry.” Writing about dead people, Vowell pointed out, what are they doing to do?

Vowell mentioned her part-Cherokee heritage several times in the session. An audience member asked about Vowell’s feelings on Andrew Jackson [the president responsible for the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and thus the Trail of Tears.] Vowell memorably responded: “What are my feelings? You mean, like, I hate his f#&%ing guts? . . . I’m not really objective.”

I learned that Vowell is obsessed with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I will have to share this with my co-worker Kim, as that is her favorite book too.

On her young nephew Owen, who comes along for some of her research trips: On the one hand, he sees things she doesn’t; on the other hand, he is not much for the hiking and long walk portions of their trips. “I’d say he is sort of 50/50 as an asset,” Vowell concluded.

The last question, “what is your favorite kind of ice cream?” elicited the response, “Vanilla. It’s obviously the best one and I don’t see why we have to pretend otherwise.”

I loved Vowell’s deadpan snarkiness and look forward to reading a book by her.

I stopped briefly in the Poetry tent, but was not pulled in by the author there. The next author I saw was Laura Lippman, who writes Baltimore-set mysteries, many of whom feature reporter-turned-private investigator Tess Monaghan. I read the first book of the series, Baltimore Blues, not long ago and I think it’s definitely a series I will continue to read.

Lippman was wonderfully matter-of-fact about being an author. A former reporter, she is grateful for that experience as it taught her to be professional about writing, although she always wanted to be a novelist. Lippman said, with corresponding gestures, that she doesn’t like anything that puts the author “up here” and the reader “down there.” For her, a “book has as many lives as it has readers.”

As far as writing mysteries, people who know Lippman ask her how come she writes such dark material when she is such a nice person? She said frankly “I am a nice person because I have a nice life. When I look beyond [my life], I see a lot people have to be unhappy about.”

In a statement that encouraged me even more to read her books, Lippman told the audience that she writes for the person who has everything figured out by page 50. “I’m writing for them so they will want to see how the characters react to what the reader has already figured out.” I’m actually not a reader who figures out the mysteries right away, but I do like mysteries where characterization is the focus.

On writing books with a strong sense of place, Lippman recalled reading a critical essay which said “all mature writers move beyond regional literature” and thinking in astonishment “what?!” I couldn’t agree more as some of my favorite books are “regional” literature.

The last author I saw on Saturday was Isabel Wilkerson who wrote the award-winning The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of blacks to the North in the era of Jim Crow. I haven’t read her book yet, but am on the library waiting list.

Wilkerson worked for fifteen years on the book. “If this book was a person, it would be in high school and dating . . . which is kind of scary to think about.”

Wilkerson sees the story of The Warmth of Other Suns as a universal one, saying that all of us in that tent in D.C. had an ancestor who made a ‘leap of faith’ to leave the place of their birth. This “renews one’s faith in the power of the individual’s decision.” In fact, this perspective is why no photos of the book’s featured people are included. Wilkerson and her editor wanted readers to picture themselves, or their parents or their grandparents – whoever had to make a similar decision to pick up and go.

More specifically, she saw that the Great Migration of blacks to the North accelerated the arrival of the Civil Rights movement. By leaving the South, where everyone knew someone who had been lynched, these people were making a statement and freed themselves.

Not that the North was a land of milk and honey, she pointed out. The North needed cheap labor during World War I which is what precipitated the migration. And as Wilkerson said, “I found that the places that they go to often want the labor but don’t want the people.” Life was still very hard in the Northern cities, and failure was not an option, as their families back in South were depending on them to make it.

Someone asked Wilkerson if there was anything that she came across in her research that made her cry. She said that she sublimated her emotions in her mission to make this story come alive, although she found the risky drive of one character to the West Coast to be heartbreaking. Wilkerson pointed out that she came by the facts and stories in pieces over fifteen years, so a reader is more likely to be overwhelmed because he or she experiences the cumulative effect of the story in a more compact time frame.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a very large book, but I’ll be happy when I get my hands on it.

Gathering with my friends at the end of the festival, I heard reports of their experiences with other authors. My education-minded friends rhapsodized about children’s author Tomie dePaola. Someone remarked that Katherine Paterson seemed so wise. Responses were mixed on Sylvia Nasar (best known for writing the book A Beautiful Mind) – one friend found her too dry and the other was still curious to read a book by her.

Considering the length of this post and the waning hours of this day, I will write up the second day in a separate post.

In case you’re interested, check out my National Book Festival Author Slideshow which has all the authors that I saw from both days.


Filed under Uncategorized

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea by Joel Achenbach

The Race to Kill The BP Oil Gusher

2011. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. 276 pages.

In a nutshell:

Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer who was assigned to cover the BP oil spill in 2010. In this book, armed with information provided by the Marine Board of Investigation, government emails, and interviews, Achenbach guides readers through the events of this massive environmental disaster. The book starts with the events of April 20, 2010 when the BP-leased Transocean rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded in flames, killing eleven people. Achenbach then covers both the technical and political response to the unrelenting oil gusher until it was finally stopped. (The oil plume was stopped on July 15th, but the permanent cementing of the Macondo well didn’t occur until mid-September 2010, after some intermediary and exploratory steps.)


Joel Achenbach is going to be one of the authors at the upcoming National Book Festival. I usually try to read a few books by Festival authors before going. I have enjoyed authors’ Festival sessions without having read their books, but it’s a nice bonus if I’m already familiar with at least one of their books.

While looking over this year’s line-up of authors and their bios, this book’s subject caught my eye. Like many Americans, I had followed the news stories on the BP oil spill with exasperation.  A year later, I remembered that the gusher was finally stopped, but was fuzzy on how exactly it had been stopped.

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea not only cleared up for me how the gusher had been killed, but also why I was fuzzy in the first place. Achenbach does a superb job of showing the disparity between what the American public understood from news reports and what was actually going on behind the scenes.

This seems like it would be a difficult story to parlay into layman’s terms. First of all, there is the complicated science and engineering aspect. Achenbach’s approach to this aspect was to include excerpts of technical documents and then afterwards explain the significance of them – the take-away knowledge. So for those readers who want some scientific detail, that information is there, but for those who don’t have the background for it (like me), shortcuts to basic understanding are provided.

The story is also complicated by the multitude of players from the corporate and government spheres. Occasionally, I needed to reference the index at the back to remind myself of when we had last encountered such-and-such person. Overall, though, Achenbach introduced and reintroduced people well enough that I remembered their role in the disaster response as I read.

Not only does Achenbach bring clarity to the BP oil gusher story, but he also writes colorfully and with a nice dollop of humor here and there. Take this following excerpt:

The well was spewing oil as fast as ever, and BP began to suspect that the flow had gotten worse; that the mudding of the well had scoured it out, opened it up, like nasal mist up a nostril. This would be a debatable point. What’s certain is that Macondo’s hydrocarbons continued to shoot out the well as if they’d been fantasizing about being in open water for ten million years.

p. 149-150

Isn’t that just so vivid? And pretty much the whole book is just that energetic and vivid.

As A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea was published in April 2011, and the events were so recent, I imagined Achenbach writing under a particularly tight schedule. Achenbach’s stylistic choices sometimes had the flavor of under-pressure inspiration. For instance, Achenbach will frequently use the phrase “what comes to mind is” as he makes a comparison. (He has a knack for offbeat but apt comparisons, as seen in the excerpt above). This phrase “what comes to mind is” conjured up for me the image of the writer’s mind busily casting out into his pool of images and analogies. In this way, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea had a certain raw and transparent quality about it.

This is not a criticism, but I had a mild disappointment that Achenbach never mentioned the oil-eating bacteria. I actually don’t know what role, if any, they had in the aftermath of the oil spill, but I remembered hearing a couple of news stories about these bacteria in 2010 and was hoping they would come up in the book. They just sounded so nifty.

I looked forward to reading this book every time I picked it up. I look forward to hearing Achenbach speak at the Festival next weekend. The epilogue is called “An Engineered Planet” and I’ll close with an excerpt of some of Achenbach’s big-picture conclusions:

The human race is gambling that an engineered planet can be made sustainable, nuclear weapons controlled and managed, crops and livestock genetically modified, machines deftly crafted on the nanometer scale, the electrical grid revamped to be more highly networked and “smart,” and perhaps the entire planet “geoengineered” to combat climate change. As we go down this technological path, we will count on complex systems to work correctly. We will assume that someone smart is in charge, looking over our world, protecting us. We will imagine a world full of blowout preventers that will actually prevent blowouts.

p. 251


**There weren’t any other reviews of this book when I did a search in the Book Blog Search Engine, so no excerpts from other book reviews this time.***


Filed under Non-Fiction

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

2007. Little, Brown and Co. Hardcover. 385 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In plural first-person, the office workers of a Chicago advertising firm describe the dramas that occur as they face impending layoffs.


I was intrigued by Then We Came to the End mostly because it was a novel about office work. It seems so many fictional characters that I read about have either a career in creative arts of some kind or are in the legal, law enforcement and medical fields. (Characters in education also make a strong showing.) Where are the characters in the kind of boring jobs?

Well, some of them are here in Then We Came to the End. Especially at the beginning of the book, the narration is wonderful at hilarious spot-on takes at office life:

How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and thought hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space.

p. 7

Of course, it would not be sustainable if the entire 385 pages of this book consisted of these generalizations about office life, as funny as they may be. So as the book progresses, it starts crystallizing into the story of its specific characters.

There is Benny Shassburger, the guy who seems to know what’s going on with everybody. Hank Neary likes to quote from literature, annoying everyone. Carl Garbedian suffers from depression. Janine Gorjanc’s young daughter was murdered and her co-workers are unsure of how to deal with it. Similarly, when they hear rumors that their boss, Lynn Mason, has been diagnosed with cancer, they are similarly at a loss. Tom Mota – one of the first to be laid off – is a little scary to his co-workers, philosophical and reactionary. Joe Pope, one of my favorite characters, seems to do everything with integrity which alienates him from the rest of his co-workers but also results in his promotion.

This is not a traditionally told story. Not only is it in plural first-person, but while the book is roughly chronological, there is a lot of jumping around. Near the beginning, it talks about Tom Mota’s layoff but then later includes a number of stories from before his layoff. A character will start telling a story about a co-worker and Ferris will interrupt the story for a side-story and then later return to the main story. I didn’t find it too confusing because I knew it wasn’t important to the reading experience to figure out what exactly happened when.

I enjoyed reading Then We Came to the End. It reminds me a bit of The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, which both have a cast of characters who are connected by work, and in both books, their employers are losing business.

Then We Came to the End made me laugh with its observations of office life. The antics and tribulations of its characters kept me interested throughout, even if their egregious pettiness and sometimes very bizarre actions made them forever characters, and not quite people. I’m not sure how much I’ll remember of Then We Came to the End as time passes, but I’m glad I picked it up.

Other reviews:

Asylum – “It strains toward significance in touching on issues like obsession and grief, and aims for something slightly epic with a long time break toward the end, but it never really tickles the heart or makes the reader jump or start.”

Buried in Print“Then We Came to the End is not always a comfortable read. Not only are some of the characters incredibly irritating,but there are moments of great sorrow alongside the moments of incredible hilarity. And of course the mere idea of a collective like this won’t work for all readers.”

Shelf Life – “While not laugh-out-loud funny, it is sly and smart and a spot-on look at human nature, and there is more here than first meets the eye.”


Filed under Book Review

Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt

2010. HarperCollins. Hardcover. 166 pages.

 From: the public library

 Recommendation from: Sophisticated Dorkiness

In a nutshell:

In a series of anecdotes, Rosenblatt tells about life after the unexpected death of his adult daughter, Amy. Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny move in with their son-in-law to help care for their three young grandchildren.


I really loved Making Toast in the beginning. I was already thinking ahead to the rave review I was going to give it. And then I started getting a little annoyed with it and by the end, I was decidedly lackluster about it.

Rosenblatt writes about life after loss as a proud husband, father and grandfather. Making Toast is basically a collection of anecdotes and family stories. In these stories, Rosenblatt captures the vibrancy of Amy’s life, the virtues of his other children and their families, the unexpected profundity from his grandchildren, and his wife’s capability in the unexpected responsibilities of caring for Amy’s children.

This was one of my favorite anecdotes from the book:

[Amy] could also poke you gently with her wit. When she was about to graduate from the NYU School of Medicine, her class had asked me to be the speaker. A tradition of the school allows a past graduate to place the hood of the gown on a current graduate. Harris, who had graduated the previous year, was set to “hood” Amy. At dinner the night before the ceremony, a friend remarked, “Amy, isn’t it great? Your dad is giving the graduation speech, and your fiance is doing the hood.” Amy said, “It is. And it’s also pretty great that I’m graduating.”

Rosenblatt also recounts the many gestures of sympathy and support from his friends and his daughter’s friends and acquaintances. The Rosenblatts and Amy’s family are fortunate to be firmly ensconced in a large network of kind, generous people. There is almost always an element of loneliness to grief, but in Making Toast, this is outweighed by the sense of community and family drawing together.

On the one hand, it is somewhat refreshing to see a memoir where the author rarely has anything bad to say about anyone. On the other hand, as I felt that Rosenblatt was only telling the best, and most clever and most funny stories about his family, Making Toast started to seem a little too tidy. I don’t mean tidy in organization, but tidy – and carefully selective – in its depiction of grief. Rosenblatt does include a few stories about his own grieving process, but they still seemed reserved and comprised the least compelling part of the book for me.

Another thing that soured my response to Making Toast was the name-dropping. At first, when Rosenblatt mentioned a famous colleague or friend, I told myself, ‘okay, so he has well-known friends, so what? that’s his life.’ But the more famous names were mentioned, the more I felt uneasy.

Additionally, I felt thrown by his references to certain private schools and other marks of a fairly privileged life. I wasn’t sure how to assess my reaction to these things. What did this say about me that this stuff bothered me? In the end, I settled on this explanation: I don’t begrudge the Rosenblatts any of their connections or privileges, but it did make them less relatable. I think I personally am more moved by stories of people who overcome with fewer resources at their disposal.

I don’t believe Rosenblatt was trying to flaunt his life to readers. One would hope not, anyway. I think in a way Making Toast was his written thank-you to all the people who reached out to him and his family during this time – from the considerate teachers at his grandchildrens’ school to famous journalists and authors. Unfortunately, for me, this approach resulted in an off-putting tinge of insularity.

I know that a number of readers and critics have loved this book. I feel curmudgeonly for criticizing a memoir about someone’s loss, but I’ve tried to unpack my reasons for not loving it, and hopefully they have made sense.

Other reviews:

Book Chatter – “Overall, it’s a touching story but I never really got to know anyone within it, so it sort of left me with an “unfinished” feeling.”

The House of the Seven Tails – “I thought this was a wonderful book as Rosenblatt’s writing makes getting to know his daughter Amy an enjoyable experience and something I didn’t expect in a memoir about death and grief.”

Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Rosenblatt’s writing is clean and purposeful and he writes with such love for every single one of the people in the story that you can’t help get pulled in.”


Filed under Book Review, Memoir and Personal Essays

On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

2006. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Hardcover. 367 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In post-Civil War North Carolina, young orphan Molly Petree grows up under the care of her Uncle Junius in the decaying home of Agate Hill. After his death, Molly’s future looks bleak until a wealthy friend of her father’s sends her off to a girls’ school. From there, Molly’s life takes a few turns she did not expect, including being accused of murder.

On Agate Hill is told through letters and diary entries (not all of them from Molly’s hand) and also from courtroom testimony transcripts.


I first discovered Lee Smith through her wonderful epistolary novel, Fair and Tender Ladies. On Agate Hill is quite similar to the earlier Fair and Tender Ladies. Both books feature letters as storytelling devices, and in both the main character writes to another character that does not write back for reasons unknown. Molly Petree and Fair and Tender Ladies‘ protagonist Ivy Rowe are similar in spirit – smart, willful, defiant of society’s mores and strongly connected to their home place. Their life events are quite different, however.

Part of me minded the close similarity, but on the other hand, I think Lee Smith is at her best in this kind of novel: a story that follows one protagonist from youth to old age, spanning historical eras in the rural South.

On Agate Hill is sometimes told by Molly’s point of view, but we also get to see her from the perspective of her adversarial, psychologically damaged headmistress, as well as that of a sympathetic and perceptive teacher. I didn’t always like Molly Petree or the decisions that she made, but she was always an interesting character.

Lee Smith always does a great job in creating a colorful cast of characters and On Agate Hill is no exception. My favorite characters were Molly’s childhood friend Mary White (the last letter included from Mary is wonderful) and Agnes Rutherford, Molly’s teacher. A number of characters have elements of folklore to them. Indeed, Molly Petree herself becomes a character in a folk song.

I was confused on a crucial plot point, namely the truth about the murder for which Molly Petree is accused. After I finished the book, I found a discussion of this plot point on Amazon and read what another reader said was Lee Smith’s explanation of it. It was hard to reconcile that explanation with what was provided in the text, but I can make an allowance considering that the story is never told from an omniscient viewpoint, but always from one or another character’s specific viewpoint. The truth is obscured by other characters’ motivations.

On Agate Hill was a fun historical fiction read, a genre I really don’t delve into that often. Smith’s research into the era is smoothly worked in. I learned historical tidbits such as the fact that there briefly existed the State of Franklin which consisted of Ashe County, N.C. and the bordering part of Tennessee. Also, I learned that there were groups of Confederates who fled to South America after they lost the Civil War.

Lee Smith has definitely established herself as a go-to author for me. I look forward to reading more of her books.

Others’ reviews:

alita.reads – “While Molly and I didn’t start out best of friends, I warmed towards her greatly during the course of the book. By the end I was sad to see her go and now remember her fondly.”

Jenny’s Books – ” . . . I became completely absorbed in this one, and I kept putting it down to do other things, and then picking it back up five minutes later because I wanted to know what would happen.  A lot of bad things, it turns out, but it’s okay, because the book is imbued with Molly’s indomitable nature, and whatever happens, you get the feeling Molly will manage it.”

The Magic Lasso – “I highly recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction, especially of Southern and women’s history. Molly Petree is a character I won’t soon forget.”


Filed under Book Review, Historical Fiction

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

The Crosswicks Journal – Book 1

1972. Harper SanFrancisco. Paperback. 246 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: a comment left on a post of Rachel Held Evans‘ blog, a comment which I can’t seem to find now.

In a nutshell:

This was the first of four Crosswicks Journals written by Madeleine L’Engle, an author best known for her book A Wrinkle in Time (though Arm of the Starfish is the book I remember her for.) Crosswicks was the name of the New England house where she and her husband lived, sometimes joined by their adult children, or grandchildren, or sundry other relatives and friends.

L’Engle freewheeling journal touches on writing, faith, self, and family.


A Circle of Quiet is a rambling sort of book, befitting its ‘journal’ status, but L’Engle does return to several themes over and over in the book. In the beginning, L’Engle states that she has recently discovered and become enamored with the word ‘ontology’ which she defines in the book as “the word about the essence of things; the word about being.” She calls it her “word-of-the-summer.”

Unfortunately, the word ‘ontology’ did not resonate with me at all. It’s almost a dead word for me in that it conjures no feeling, no revelation, no connotations or associations. So whenever L’Engle revisited this favored word throughout the book, I couldn’t follow along with her enthusiasm about it.

Actually, I didn’t connect well with L’Engle’s book overall. Part of it was the datedness of the book. I liked the time-capsule experience in some respects, to see the early 1970’s through the eyes of someone living it in the present. I loved the references to Flower Children, Hell’s Angels, and Jesus Freaks. However, sometimes L’Engle just seemed very far away, generationally. When she analyzed the ‘young people’ of her time, those ‘young people’ were my parents’ generation. She talks of them benevolently and with a desire to understand them, but I eventually got tired of her pontifications about their passions and rebellions.

Perhaps there was also a personality clash. L’Engle admits that she is very opinionated and stubborn. I have a very calm and diplomatic personality, to a fault sometimes. I found myself sometimes thinking that L’Engle was overreacting or being too serious. I think it’s good to read books by authors with different approaches to life than my own. However, I was hoping that A Circle of Quiet would be a book that spoke to me and it didn’t overall.

So I gleaned for meaning instead – a passage here, an anecdote there. I did find the story of her son’s pet turtle very funny. And then I was unexpectedly brought to tears by the following passage:

I remember quite clearly coming home in the afternoon, putting my school bag down, and thinking, calmly and bitterly, “I am the cripple, the unpopular girl,” leaving my book bag where it lay, and writing a story for myself where the heroine was the kind of girl I would have liked to be.

Warning, parents, teachers, friends: once a child starts to think of himself this way, it’s almost impossible for the “image” – I think that’s the right word here – to be changed . . . I still tend to think of myself in the mirror set up for me in that one school. I was given a self-image there, and not a self, and a self-image imposed on one in youth is impossible to get rid of entirely, no matter how much love and affirmation one is given later.

p. 145

At the time that I was reading A Circle of Quiet, I had been mulling over an ugly thing a classmate had told me when I was twelve. He was a bully and his words deserved no traction, and yet I had to admit they still had some residual power anyway. Thus when I read this passage by L’Engle, I recognized the truth in her words. So, I guess the book did speak to me after all, even if just for that one time.

I think other readers may find this book will be right up their alley. L’Engle talks quite a bit about writing children’s literature, so if you want to read behind-the-scenes observations from a classic children’s author, there is some good stuff to be found in A Circle of Quiet. Click the links to Rebecca Reads’ review or Regular Ruminations’ review below for some more excerpts and quotes.

Others’ reviews:

Lesley’s Book Nook – “Unfortunately, A Circle of Quiet failed to deliver the same emotional insights [as Two-Part Invention, another Crosswicks book] and I wound up skimming the majority of the book.”

Rebecca Reads – “I found this book to be a relaxing, slow read. I would read a few pages, pencil in hand to mark passages that stood out to me.”

Regular Rumination – “This book was like sitting down with Madeleine L’Engle and having a conversation . . . She has an opinion about everything, and I would be lying if I said I agreed with absolutely everything she wrote about.  I don’t, but I never doubt that if I’d had the chance, we could have had a lively debate with no hard feelings.”


Filed under Book Review, Memoir and Personal Essays