Reclaiming our lives from screens

Camden and Regent's Park area
Near our London neighborhood (May 2016).

Spring is coming slowly to Virginia. I feel fairly desperate for it, on the eve of snowfall.

I have been thinking about the season and its association with new beginnings. Recently, I was in Austin for SXSW with my team, and a subtle theme emerged from many of the presentations: Maybe technology isn’t all that good for our well-being. Maybe so much “innovation” is just making us sad and insane and lonely.

We were pondering the ways that people in 2018 are trying to become more human again. Increasingly, we’re feeling this urge to sever our ties to social media and detach from our soul-crushing dependence on digital devices.

In the midst of these conversations in Austin, I was plowing through Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. This passage kept coming to mind as a tangential example of life, the freedom of the mind and body, the particular independence that we have as liberated creatures.

“To the person out walking that first evening of spring, nothing appears inanimate, nothing not sentient: darkening chimneys, viaducts, villas, glass-and-steel factories, chain stores seem to strike as deep as natural rocks, seem not only to exist but to dream. Atoms of light quiver between the branches of stretching-up black trees. It is in this unearthly first hour of spring twilight that earth’s almost agonised livingness is most felt. This hour is so dreadful to some people that they hurry indoors and turn on the lights—they are pursued by the scent of violets sold on the kerb.” — Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

What a pleasure to be alive in such a season! And all of these details, so finely observed, could only come from someone who has never gotten a crick in her neck from staring at her Instagram feed for an hour.

You can tell from my recent posts, but 2018 is my year of fighting against being hijacked by technology. I want to be alive and in the world the way that Bowen was. Following are some of the small ways I’m reclaiming my life.

Focus on print.

I’m reading all the time, all day long, but I want to read for depth and comprehension. If this is my aim, the best way to read is in print. It’s far better for our brains and eyes and memories.

I am still a print-only reader of books, but in further pursuit of this effort, I’ve greatly reduced my online news diet. I try to read a bit in the New Yorker when it comes and receive a few newsy email digests, but that’s it now. I don’t keep up with the news in this feverish way that I once did. And it’s wonderful. I’m so happy about it. (For more inspiration in this area, see Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times about how he only read print newspapers for two months.)

Treat my phone like a landline.

Guion and I have been trying this one out: When we’re home, our phones live in one place. We don’t take them around the house with us, from room to room. We deposit them on a particular counter when we come home, and that’s where they live.

This small domestic habit has surprisingly profound effects on our ability to resist distraction and read and write and talk to each other. It is both depressing and heartening, to discover that such a small behavioral shift can have such a significant impact on our evenings.

Check Twitter only once or twice a week.

Twitter is so unfortunate! These days, I avoid it as much as I can and post primarily to complain about my dogs or share a quote. I sense my anxiety, my babbling technostress, and my cynicism increasing the longer I scroll through my feed. Now, I log on mostly to see what beautiful paintings Rabih Alameddine has posted or if Lulu has any new quips. That’s it.

Wait without looking at my phone.

I’ve been working on resisting the allure of my phone whenever I’m waiting. It’s a small choice, and one that seems to reek of sanctimony, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed this new habit.

Whenever we’re alone, our necks are tilted down at our phones. I do it too. And it’s incredible how blank the mind goes when we’re looking at a screen. We just turn off to the world. We barely exist in a given environment when we’re deep in our phones.

The smartphone is a pacifier. The device is burning with heat in our pockets, and we can’t resist it: We don’t want to feel or look lonely. It’s frightening to be too intimate with our thoughts and fears and desires. The phone distracts us from our inner life, makes us feel busy, envious, mildly piqued—anything but alone.

This insignificant choice, waiting without relying on my phone to comfort me, has had such a powerful effect on my mental state. I did not expect it. It’s as if I was remembering how to see again, how to observe the world around me. I’m particularly floored by this one. It made me realize how reliant I have been on my phone to placate me when I’m alone.

Consider the body.

It’s well documented that our devices are bad for our minds (pick a modern plague, any plague: anxiety, addiction, stress, self-esteem, fake news, porn, etc.). But our phones and laptops are also bad for our flesh-and-blood bodies.

This practice of waiting without looking at my phone has also made me incredibly conscious of my body: how it works for me, how it feels, how I carry myself. My posture has been wrecked by years of peering at screens. I still need to work on this one. If anyone has any good posture tips for maintenance throughout the day, please share; I’m all ears.

Hold things in the mind.

I rely on my phone to remember everything for me. I used to have a strong memory; I used to memorize full speeches and poems, and once, in my fervent youth, entire (albeit short) books of the Bible. But now? I have to make a list even if it just contains three items. Our memories have grown despairingly weak. Because we don’t need to remember anything anymore: This is what our devices are for. Convenient props for the mind.

I’ve been thinking about memory for years, since being so fascinated by Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, and I have realized how much my brain power improves when my device isn’t a mental crutch. For me, an act as small as taking notes by hand, with a pen on paper, is a tiny step in the right direction.

Cherish everything that has no digital life.

Your stupid German shepherds who dig trenches in your backyard because they’re bored. Your shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks. Your weak-limbed daffodils crushed by March snow. Your friend’s baby, who has no idea who the president is and doesn’t care about the moronic thing he said today. Your church’s community dinner that follows the service. Your grandfather. These are some of the things that can bring us back to ourselves.

Here’s the concluding hope:

People are getting smarter about tech usage. We’re all a little less naïve about the consequences of our digital dependence. In the wake of the latest Facebook scandal and just overall, more and more people are getting off social media. Surely some new, terrible platform will replace Facebook and Twitter, but I believe we could be witnessing the twilight of their popularity. Maybe we can collectively turn the tide before it’s too late for our hearts and minds.

Amid the Russian bots and fake news and conspiracy theories and data breaches, I feel buoyed by a little hope. Every sign-off, every step away from the machine is optimism. Humans are taking back small measures of their humanity.

An emptiness about the heart of life

I will share a few photos from our weekend in London with Grace and Jack, but I feel like I can’t post anything without saying a few words about Sunday’s massacre in Orlando.

I am so heartbroken and grieved for our country. We are such a disaster right now. I grieve for the LGBTQ community in Orlando and in the United States at large. I have ignorantly and naively believed that homophobia is passé, that we have progressed beyond such hatred and bigotry, and that gay people can finally exist, on the whole, in freedom and safety. Sunday was a horrific reminder that they cannot and do not.

And our country cannot and does not dwell in safety — but rather wallows in paranoia — because we are ignorant. Because the NRA lines the pockets of our legislators. Because we have chosen to believe that more assault rifles, legally, in the hands of civilians is a virtue. Because our elected officials would rather give people on terrorist watch lists access to guns than curtail the expression of the sacred (and I declare, fraudulently interpreted) Second Amendment. Because we would rather prop up a military state controlled by a reality TV star-cum-tyrant than live in freedom. We seem prefer this world of terror to the humanist and democratic ideals that the United States of America was supposedly inspired by.

Racism, fear, and ignorance will never make America great again. Trump and the Republican party seem to believe that they will.

But I can only hope — with no small degree of desperation these days — that the majority of Americans will look to Orlando, will look to the monthly mass shootings, will look to the faces of refugees and imprisoned black men and transgender people in North Carolina, and say: We reject fear. We choose freedom.

HoodGrace in a windowYoung loversGrace and AmirahRainy Sunday"Ecce Ancilla Domini," Dante Gabriel RossettiOver the ThamesRainy SundayDirty BurgerRainy Sunday

Free and content

Front yard in July 2015
In the summer, we take our time. We talk about the plants, the chickens, the dogs. We eat slowly. We read poems on the back deck if we want to. We sweep the kitchen again. We slide over the clouds of dog fur. We pick little theoretical fights with each other about politics, religion, or art, each of us playing devil’s advocate to the other’s position, just to make it more interesting. We dream up far-fetched home renovation plans. We fail to keep the mosquitoes away, and we never remember to put on enough sunscreen.

And I can’t help but think, every evening, Ah, we can do all of these things because we are childless.

One day, perhaps, our freedom will be interrupted. And one day, perhaps, we will welcome that interruption. But for now, we are free and content and we recognize and appreciate that.

Front yard in July 2015

The freedom of the body

(For Kandyce, who asked.)

Visiting baby Auden
Meeting baby A., April 2013.

If you can control a woman’s body, you can control the entire trajectory of her life.

You can keep her at home, endlessly pregnant, and caring for numerous children. You can prevent her from getting an education and a fulfilling career and achieving even the basest level of respect in society. Don’t give her unfettered access to contraception or abortion. Don’t let her make any choices about her body and thus her life until you have given her explicit permission. Don’t let her assume for a second that she is a free agent. Keep her in her place, preferably with violence or harassment, both in public and in private. Constantly remind her that even her body is not her own. And finally, preferably, express all of these limitations with the backing power of your religion.

I have been thinking about physical autonomy lately — specifically, a woman’s body from the perspective of religion.

Far and away, religious institutions are the groups most concerned with controlling and restricting women’s rights, specifically, her body and her ability to make decisions about it.

This troubles me, as a person, and specifically, as a person who identifies as a Christian.

A hallmark of the most conservative branch of every major religion — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — is the urgent need to control women’s bodies. This is a natural belief, because women have traditionally been seen simply as the property of men. From the beginning of recorded history, women have not been human; women are objects, to be used, bought, sold, and controlled. Drawing from its patriarchal roots, fundamentalist religion is therefore obsessed with sex and ownership of a woman’s body. When she is young, her virginity is her most important quality. Centuries ago, brides were subjected to bloody-sheet tests; today, an American girl is bedecked with “True Love Waits” rings or publicly shamed for being a “slut,” both practices reminding her that a preserved mythical hymen and a virginal reputation is her highest calling. Keeping her veiled, literally, from male attention is crucial. She ought not be trusted to take care of herself; the male authority figures in her life will take care of that. Mutilate her genitals so that she cannot experience sexual pleasure. Keep her perpetually cognizant that her body’s sole purpose is for man’s use and for the production of offspring. When she gets a bit older, get her and keep her pregnant. Don’t let her make any choices about when to get pregnant and if to stay pregnant. Marry her to an eligible man, who will then assume responsibility for her body. She will still not be trusted to take care of herself. A man will do that for her until she dies.

I am a Christian, but I confess that it is sometimes hard to be one when I think about these historical remnants. I am even more troubled by the still-prevalent Christian attitude toward women’s bodies and autonomy. Today, Catholics and most conservative Protestants are very concerned about controlling a woman’s body and decreeing its proper uses, all with the purported backing of God Almighty.

Because I am only qualified to write about Christianity, as it is the religion I know well, I am thus limiting this discussion to Christian women. (But I’d still love to hear from you on this topic if you are familiar with other religions. Please chime in.)

As I have written before, Jesus valued women as human beings, which is really saying something, considering the time in which he lived. The early church also valued women as human beings, and we know that women were called apostles and priests and served as deacons and as leaders in the church.

But not too long after its founding, Christianity fell back to its strongly patriarchal roots. The revered church fathers — Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, among others — and later early reformers — Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley — have all said appallingly hateful things about women, along with hundreds of their fellow male theologians.

Church leaders today are a bit quieter about their hatred of women, but misogyny is still palpable in many of the conservative church’s teachings. For me, denominations obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and sexuality are the most vivid signifier of this entrenched Christian belief that women are evil, untrustworthy, and lesser creatures.

In the United States, there is a frightening trend of anti-reproductive rights, inspired by conservative religion. As the gay rights movement in the United States is increasingly achieving success with marriage equality, the women’s reproductive rights movement seems to be losing ground.* (*A point that Jill Lepore made in her recent New Yorker piece on the legal history surrounding reproductive rights and the choice justices made between privacy and equality.) Because we, as a culture often politically motivated by Christian thought, don’t care about women’s equality, corporations get to decide whether women can have access to affordable contraception and the right to a safe, legal abortion is being curtailed wherever possible. If you can control a woman’s body, you can control her entire life.

So, why is conservative Christianity fixated on women’s bodies and how can I still call myself a Christian and a feminist?

The first question merits a simple answer. There is power in tradition, and power begets the desire for more power. Conservative Christian denominations (Catholics, evangelicals, many of the so-called reformed church movements) care about controlling women’s bodies because (a) they always have done so and (b) they don’t want to be usurped. Subjugating women is an excellent way to maintain the power of the patriarchy in the church. Keep women “in their place” by denying them the power to regulate their own bodies. Don’t ordain them. Don’t let them hold any positions of leadership in any sphere, whether at home or in the church — and in this way, keep sinking your denomination further into oblivion and cultural irrelevance.

This, therefore, is my sincere hope: that denominations that refuse to accept women as people will die out. Hold to your precious patriarchal ideals for as long as you can, but I believe (and I think I have to believe, for my sanity) that such a misogynistic theology (and, indeed, many of the men who hold fast to it) are slowly and actually dying.

This hope is how I can still be a Christian and a feminist. I belong to a famously progressive denomination that ordains women and gay people, and this branch of the church gives me hope. I am blessed to know women priests who are changing the way that the church interprets gender. I am inspired by their faith and their hope for transformation. I believe that I belong to a religion that was intended to be FOR half of its most faithful adherents — women. We certainly got off to a rocky start, and we are still stumbling, but I don’t think we’ve seen the endgame of Christianity in relation to women.

Home and garden, May 2015
Forbidden fruit. (Baby apples in our backyard). May 2015.

In the meantime, what can be done for the majority of American Christian women suffocating under the weight of patriarchal tradition?

Campaign for churches to ordain women. Until women can be accepted at the highest levels of church leadership, major Christian denominations will never truly respect women as human beings and equal children of God. Elect women as leaders in a public, congregation-facing way. Start conversations about women in church history. Educate the clergy and laypeople; help men see women — and women see themselves — as equally valid partners in the kingdom of God. Preach equality. Don’t stop talking about this. And in this way, perhaps, women’s bodies — and hearts and minds — can be freed from the shackles of conservative religion.

Mercy and misogyny

Cherry tree in April

The other day, I glimpsed the profile of a young man who was the spitting image of a freckled fundamentalist boy from my childhood. I blanched and suddenly felt a spasm of terror. It wasn’t this boy, grown up (ostensibly because this boy still lives in the basement of his parents’ house), but I was still shaken. On the whole, I had a very happy childhood, and my parents are these lovely, fun human beings, but I dislike being reminded of the community I was raised in: the fundamentalist homeschooling enclave.

Primarily, when I remember that time, I recall the crushing sensation of misogyny. Of existing in a network of people in which you have no agency on account of your gender.

To list all of the overt and subtle misogyny I faced as a homeschooled girl would be exhausting. The anecdotes and comments still rise to the surface, however, in my daily life, even though I now feel so personally and ideologically removed from that community. Being told, by an adult man, that I was projecting sexual promiscuity because I wore lipstick to church once. When a young man, just two years older than me, told me that I ought to take his plate after he finished eating, because that was my job, as a docile, submissive woman. Reading comments from two fathers of my friends, on my teenaged blog, that I was a handmaiden of the devil and an agent of whoredom for writing that my friend should not be imprisoned at home by her father for 40 days for hugging her boyfriend. Countless remarks about how I should dress, how I should act, how I should submit to and serve men and boys.

My parents, thankfully, did not force this attitude on us. I wore power suits and heels so that I could tower over the scrawny boys in debate league. My sister was a champion in hockey (arguably one of the least traditionally feminine sports). But there were still vestiges of this pressure at home, to be the good, quiet Christian woman — even though my mother modeled leadership and authority, divorced from male control, on a daily basis. My sisters and I all turned out to be independent, confident feminists, because that is what my mother is, even if she would never call herself that.

Gender discrimination is the only discrimination I’ve experienced, and so I cling to it, like a bitter badge of honor. I swap horror stories with other women. I delight in making eyes widen at parties with tales of indignities from my strongly patriarchal past.

I have become appallingly sensitive to misogynistic attitudes in other people, in art, in culture. Like my fearful German shepherd, my hackles go up at the first hint of danger and disapprobation.

If no one’s ever despised you for your sex, it is difficult to care about sexism because it is necessarily foreign to you.

Remembering this helps me have mercy on men who don’t think feminism is needed or that women have enough rights already. Most likely, these men have never had anyone oppress them because they were male; the very notion is unfathomable to them. No one has ever told them that, merely because they were born male, they are less intelligent, incapable of leadership, intended to be subservient, or a sex object open to public derision and comment. It is therefore difficult for many men to be empathetic with women on this front.

Lately, however, I have been wondering, what is the point? What is the spiritual fruit of this feeling of having escaped? What heart-based good can experiencing and enduring discrimination yield?

I think I am finally sensing the beginning of such fruit in my life. It is the first time I have been able to say the word mercy in conjunction with the men, both known and unknown, who have belittled me. I probably won’t ever forget the comments and attitudes espoused by the homeschool patriarchs in my past life, but with this added understanding, I can forgive. And that is surely a place to start.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Life improvements

Captive swallowtail. #butterfly
Swallowtail, mistakenly trapped in our sunroom. Looks like he wounded his wing, too.

It’s the little things, you know?

  • A dark & stormy with Guion before dinner.
  • Buying a big cup with a straw to force myself to drink more water at work. Goofy, right? But apparently it has these deep psychological powers.
  • A pre-dinner or post-dinner walk around the neighborhood.
  • Saying no to things I just don’t want to do.
  • Reading again.
  • A new lamp in the living room.
  • Taking a few minutes every day to train the dog or to reinforce old behaviors.
  • Eating dinner at the kitchen table, face to face, to talk about life, to read and discuss Mark (with good ol’ William Barclay).
  • Opening the curtains in our room every day, for the sake of the schefflera.
  • Keeping a training log for the dog.
  • Hair, do what you will.
  • Actually using the expensive pens I was hoarding. Hoarding for what purpose?
  • A cup of tea in the morning, even if it’s hot outside.
  • NOT looking at my new iPhone.
  • Actively unfollowing people on Facebook. Guys, this is the best. It has made Facebook so much more bearable.

What little things have improved your life lately?

All dresses, all the time

I just received a spam comment on this blog that said, “STOP! What are you doing blogging will never make you any serious money.” Too true, too true, spambot. (That is, unless you are a trendy Mormon lady blogger…)

Why I only ever want to wear dresses

Abby and Kelsey (Childhood)

I would like to only wear dresses, ever.

My mom told me that when I was a tiny child, if she tried to dress me in pants or shorts, I would tear them off and INSIST on being put back in a dress. (My child-mind reasoning went as follows: Girls wear dresses. I am a girl. Ergo, I must wear dresses.) I still feel this way (that I must wear dresses, not that all women should or must).

While I must give homage to my feminist forebears for the freedom to don jeans, I have never looked good in pants. My legs are too bony and shapeless to fill out pants, and so I labor under the delusion that my bird legs look better under a breezy skirt. They might. I wear pants, obviously, particularly in the fall and winter, but you should know that I’m always doing it against my will.

I counted them the other day. I currently own 37 dresses. And yet I still feel like I need more.

I hope maxi dresses stay stylish for a million more years. I want to live and die in a maxi dress. I want to buy all the maxi dresses. I want to be in one right now.

Men, you don’t know what you are missing. There is tremendous physical freedom* in dresses. (*At least, in modern dresses. Lord knows I wouldn’t want to be a woman living in any time period prior to 1920, caged in and weighed down by yards of stilting fabric.) I encourage you to try a dress, or at least a skirt. It really is a shame, for your sakes, that you are not culturally permitted to wear dresses. Because dresses rule. Your lives would change if you could wear them.

In college, I started a little challenge among my friend circle, No Pants April. We had to wear dresses or skirts every day for the month of April. (The only exception was exercise clothes; no one except good, pure homeschoolers should suffer the indignity of having to work out in a skirt.) It caught on quickly and soon I had a dozen women joining me in the challenge. Word has it that Grace has even tried to keep up the tradition there.

You see, I am a fundamentally lazy dresser. This is why dresses are flawless to me. Dresses can do no wrong. You jump into one and you’re DONE. No need to pair tops and bottoms and belts. It is the Complete Outfit, the perfect uniform. A complete godsend for sartorially anxious, lazy people like me. I will wear dresses until my last breath, until it is no longer even mildly appropriate or attractive for me to wear them. I pledge to further eradicate pants from my wardrobe, for the good of my soul.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Freedom (#4)

Freedom.

#4: FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I’m perpetually astonished when people say they don’t like Jonathan Franzen. Or say that he’s overrated. Or that they find his books boring. It floors me every time. Because I am so in love with Jonathan Franzen. I think he is doing for the modern American novel what Tolstoy did for the modern Western novel. Freedom is a good example of why I think that.

This much-anticipated and much-hyped book came out in summer of 2010, but I wasn’t able to get it at the library until early 2011. Everyone was reading it. And for good reason. As the New York Times called it in a judicious review, it’s simply “a masterpiece of American fiction.” That’s a fair assessment. Not many American novels published since Freedom can match its scope, insight, and ambition.

Franzen writes primarily about families and about the terrible, domestic things they can do to each other, often in subtle and unintentional ways. Freedom tells the story of the failing marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund. The arrival of Walter’s long-time best friend, jaded, old rockstar Richard Katz, and the introduction of Walter’s pretty, idealistic assistant, Lalitha, further complicate the Berglund’s already complicated relationship. In their estrangement from one another, Patty seeks therapy and a deeper relationship with Richard Katz, while Walter becomes even more extreme about his environmental activism and edges closer to an affair with Lalitha. But, amid all of this unraveling, Franzen permits us to care deeply about Patty and Walter and hope for some form of reconciliation.

As part of Patty’s therapy, her counselor asks her to write her autobiography. We are privileged to read chapters of Patty’s autobiography in the novel, and I would claim that her parts are some of the best in the entire book. Patty Berglund is an incredible character and she is the main reason why anyone should read Freedom. I don’t think I’ve met a character this past year who was so living and tangible. Her voice is sympathetic, honest, and believable, and in the hands of a gifted, precise Franzen, she becomes the simultaneously compassionate and pitiful protagonist. We are cheering for Patty throughout the novel; we desperately want her to get her happy ending, a slice of the American Dream.

On the whole, I think The Corrections (which was ranked my no. 1 novel I read last year) may be his better work. But this is wholeheartedly worth every second of your time. It was the Great Novel of 2010 and it stands to be reckoned with for many years after that.

Jonathan Franzen has his finger solidly on the pulse of American life and Freedom is proof of his accuracy and attention to our modernized and isolated existences. The grace and mercy he extends his characters is breathtaking. His novels, in a strange and perhaps unintentional way, make us ache for Someone to extend the same kind of grace and mercy over our own isolated lives.

(P.S. The only thing I didn’t like about Freedom was its cover. What is that dumb blue bird doing there? Why is he way out of proportion? What does he want??)

End of 2011 Reading Survey

Click for source.

Best book I read in 2011: Can’t tell you yet. Will be revealed when I do my Top 10 Books I Read in 2011 countdown in a few weeks…

Most disappointing book I read in 2011? The worst book I read was easily Night Fall, but “disappointing” implies that I was expecting it to be good, which doesn’t apply to De Mille (I knew it was going to be garbage). The most disappointing book I read in 2011 was either The Surrendered, by Chang-rae Lee, or The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht. I had such high expectations for both of them. The Surrendered ended up being strangely dull, with a string of totally useless deaths, and The Tiger’s Wife was neither compelling nor whole. Both had bright moments, but neither were excellent.

Most surprising book of 2011? What the Living Do, poems by Marie Howe. Outrageously beautiful and heartbreaking. Also The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, which was upsetting and shocking and mind-bending. But great.

Book I recommended to people most in 2011? Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s narrative of the history of memory and how he went on to become the U.S. Memory Champion after a year of training. Our minds are more powerful than we think.

Best series I discovered in 2011? Dog training books by Patricia McConnell? Probably? Does that count?

Favorite new authors I discovered in 2011? Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Marie Howe.

Most thrilling, un-put-down-able book in 2011? Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.

Book I most anticipated in 2011? Maybe The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides? But I still haven’t read it yet. I’m in position no. 1 out of 113 holds at the library, so I’m getting there! Finally.

Favorite cover of a book you read in 2011?

Here’s a few I liked:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht.
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Most memorable character in 2011? Ruth from Housekeeping or Patty Berglund from Freedom.

Book that had the greatest impact on me in 2011? Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Book I can’t believe I waited until 2011 to finally read? The Divine Comedy (Dante) or Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh).

Book I read in 2011 that I’d be most likely to re-read in 2012? Housekeeping, or the poems of Marie Howe and Maxine Kumin.

Survey courtesy of Literary Musings.

How about you? Any memorable books that fit into your year of reading survey?

My favorite morally bankrupt characters

I don’t like overly sunny novels. I can’t stand to read about ridiculously virtuous characters. As a child, I hated Nancy Drew (“Nancy tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and called, ‘Ned! Wait for me,’ as she jumped into his shiny red convertible…”) and flatly rejected those utterly dreadful books for Christian girls, like Elsie Dinsmore and The Basket of Flowers. Barf. Even when I was little, I formed the strong opinion that saints and angels make for really tedious and boring literature.

I like reading books with complex characters, with fictional people who have both virtue AND vice, people whose stories don’t always get that shiny, happy ending. I like to read about real life. This is why I shun most of Dickens, most of the Victorians, and most fantasy literature. I don’t think it’s wrong or terrible; it’s just not my thing.

That being said, I tend to enjoy a lot of books with unhappy endings and messy characters. Here are some of my favorite morally bankrupt characters.

SCARLETT O’HARA
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is the pretty poster child for morally bankrupt characters. I had seen the movie many years before I got around to reading Mitchell’s novel, and when I did, the full force of Scarlett’s personality hit me even stronger than it did on film. Mitchell managed to make someone wicked and admirable at the same time. Scarlett is selfish, manipulative, and conniving — and yet we are pulling for her the whole time. Regardless of the unpleasant racial controversies of this book, I think it is hard to deny the genius of a writer who can create a character as complex and multifaceted as this one.

BAZAROV
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Bazarov is a snob. He’s like those kids who go off to grad school and become unbearably pretentious about… everything. Turgenev uses Bazarov as a standard for the young Nihilists of his Russia, the men of reason and science, rejecting all tradition and forms of authority. Bazarov fits his archetype neatly — he’s absurdly arrogant and vain — and yet, we feel for him. He gets his heart broken, even though he won’t admit it. He has a magnetic effect on people, even though no one wants to admit to actually liking him. Bazarov reminds me that people that I am quick to write off with a certain label are never that simple — and always deserving of more time and mercy.

PATTY BERGLUND
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund isn’t exactly “morally bankrupt;” rather, she doesn’t seem to know where her morals stand exactly. This might be the hallmark of Franzen’s characters (from what I can glean from the cast of people in The Corrections and Freedom, both of which I unashamedly love). Patty represents, to me, the best of what Franzen can do. She is made so real in the pages of this novel that you finish it feeling that she is your best friend, that well-loved person  In my opinion, she makes the entire novel. She is downcast and confused, but she is painfully honest and reflective about her life and its variegated failures. If we could all be as truthful with ourselves as Patty Berglund, we could learn a tremendous amount about life.

MR. HENRY WILCOX
Howards End, E.M. Forster

Mr. Wilcox is a crueler version of Jack Donaghy: He’s rich, controlling silver fox who lives by conservative business morals and generally gets whatever he wants. Including the novel’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is not so easily bought, however, and her goodness eventually softens Mr. Wilcox — but not before he has been brutal, demanding, and insensitive toward practically every character. Still. You like him. He doesn’t back down. And even this crusty old miser has a soft spot.

RASKOLNIKOV
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

He murdered his old landlady with an axe for no good reason! Pinnacle of morally bankrupt. But the novel is about his SOUL. And it’s a great one. So, this book is always worth reading. (My father, by the way, still has not fulfilled his end of our challenge. He sent me a text that said: “I used to love naps. Now I hate them. Because I have to read Crime and Punishment.”)

MRS. RAMSAY
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

OK, so “morally bankrupt” is also far too strong a description for Mrs. Ramsay, but she’s no angel. The central character of my all-time favorite novel, Mrs. Ramsay is usually an overbearing, controlling matriarch. She sets up people who don’t necessarily want to be set up. She insists on domestic tranquility, even when emotions may need to be forcibly expressed. But I will always love Mrs. Ramsay, mainly because she is one of the deepest and most intricately drawn characters I have ever met. She chooses to live by the way of grace–and she lives well, in spite of herself.

How about you? Any quasi-villains or just ignoble characters you love reading about?