Literary nerdiness

Another cross-post from Facebook.

Note: It’s really annoying to have to choose just one work/writer, so I’ve cheated on some of these questions. So there.

1) What author do you own the most books by?

C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James. (Note that I haven’t read all my Eliot or James books.)

2) What book do you own the most copies of?

A Separate Peace, various C.S. Lewis works (I have an anthology that includes a lot of my stand-alone books).

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

Not at all. I’m actually quite bothered at the question. The false belief that English sentences cannot end with prepositions is a (but not the) bane of my existence. English is a Germanic language and thus does NOT have to follow Latin rules!

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?


5) What book have you read the most times in your life?

A Room with a View, Mere Christianity, or The Screwtape Letters.

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?

The Clan of the Cave Bear.

7) What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

Who Moved My Cheese?

8) What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

Memoirs of a Geisha.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?

My weblog (

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for literature?

I honestly don’t know. I’m not very familiar with most contemporary authors.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

Reading Lolita in Tehran.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

The Devil Wears Prada or The Nanny Diaries – oh, wait…

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.

When I was 9 I often fantasized about going back in time to hang out with the kids in John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain series, but I can’t remember any other dreams I’ve had about literature.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?

The Da Vinci Code (shudder).

15) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

The Bonfire of the Vanities – I hated it so much I couldn’t finish it.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?

I’ve seen the London production of “The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)” twice – does that count?

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

Depends on whether I feel like poisoning myself or throwing myself in front of a train.

18) Roth or Updike?

Haven’t read enough to form an opinion, unfortunately.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?


20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

Do I have to decide? Chaucer, I suppose. But just barely.

21) Austen or Eliot?

If I were forced to choose I’d say Eliot just because I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s works already.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

Contemporary authors.

23) What is your favorite novel?

A Room with a View changed my life; I also love The Remains of the Day and Villette.

24) Play?

Steel Magnolias.

25) Poem?

“To Have Without Holding” by Marge Piercy.

26) Essay?

“See You Again Yesterday” or any of the French language essays in Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

27) Short story?

My latest favorite is “The Toys of Peace” by Saki (I recently heard it on Selected Shorts).

28) Work of non-fiction?

Mere Christianity.

29) Who is your favorite writer?

Kristine Haglund.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

Dan Brown.

31) What is your desert island book?

How to Get Off a Desert Island Before You Eat Your Own Arm (not yet written).

32) And … what are you reading right now?

I just finished Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar last night; I’m also currently reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond and The Wings of the Dove by Henry James (this last is going rather excruciatingly slowly – some of his other books are so much easier!).


So I read Memoirs of a Geisha this week – I started it Wednesday afternoon and finished it Thursday night, because it was utterly riveting. It’s astonishing and humbling to realize how few options women had in Depression- and World War II-era Japan; it’s disturbing to read about human cruelty, both from master to servant and between rivals; it’s fascinating (albeit in a sometimes horrific way) to learn about what being a geisha really entails, mentally, emotionally, and physically. The book is beautifully written; my only problems are the sudden vault over several years after the first few are described in great detail and the too-quick-and-tidy fairy-tale dénoument. I definitely recommend it.

And last night I saw Star Trek, which was just fun. I enjoyed the inside jokes (the ones I caught, anyway) and I loved the freaking awesome introduction to James T. Kirk accompanied by the wild shrieks of “Sabotage.” I liked the actors a lot and thought most of them did a great job. The one who played Dr. McCoy was especially good – he’s quite the doppelganger for the older Dr. McCoy. However, I didn’t like Nero’s explanation to Captain Pike; it felt really contrived, and it bugs me when villains inexplicably share their evil master plans with their hostages.  I also wonder why Captain Kirk so frequently found himself dangling from precipices – surely there are other ways of indicating mortal danger – and why the foot-stompin’ Romulan was so slow and had such terrible aim.


Today one of my favorite places in the world burned down. I was out of town when most of the fire was consuming the Longfellow Park LDS Church building, so I didn’t see the roof cave in and the windows blow out. I didn’t watch the giant flames shooting out of the roof and the column of thick black smoke blotting out the sky. I found out about the fire about three hours after it started, and immediately drove as close to the building as I could (all the nearby streets were closed) and ran to the site. The first glimpse I got as I came around a bend in the road was of the walls – and the sky where the roof used to be. My chest felt tight and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. When I got to the church, flames and smoke were still coming out of the building and water was pouring out the doors and running in rivers down the steps.

I spent the rest of the day helping salvage whatever we could. Fortunately the fire and subsequent water deluge didn’t destroy most of the hundreds of books in the Institute library, some of which are rare and worth tens of thousands of dollars. The Quaker church across the way offered us room for the books and we set up drying stations in the basement for the ones that had become wet. We trucked quite a few loads of stuff to another building across town (a former factory where the Cambridge wards have been meeting for several years). I helped carry chairs and shelves and refrigerators and filing cabinets and dishes and office supplies and half-ruined artwork. I watched as a couple of guys began taking apart a piano that was partially soaked and that will probably have to be discarded. Every once in a while, as I set down yet another box of plates or stack of file folders, it would hit me that the reason I was right there, right then, was that my chapel was gone. Is gone.

Many other people have written beautiful posts about the Longfellow Park building – see Natalie‘s or Laura‘s or Kate‘s or Kelly‘s. I don’t know that I can wax as eloquent as they do, but I can say that I loved this building. It wasn’t a typical Mormon church; in fact, I’ve never seen another Mormon church that looked anything like it. I loved the tidy and charming red-brick-and-white-trim exterior; I loved the rose window (very unusual in a Mormon church) that invited contemplation; I loved the ultra-devoted über-Americana decor in the basement. I loved the bay window room and the jerry-rigged couches that fell apart at the slightest provocation and I loved the large upstairs windows overlooking the gym, from where many a near-future interviewee enjoyed an aerial view of the day’s Munch and Mingle successes and failures. I loved the random secret passageway between the gym and the Relief Society room, where I once sat on the stairs in the dark and cried and cried over someone who didn’t like me back. I loved the Steinway baby grand piano and the choir seat without an armrest in the now-destroyed chapel. I loved and still love the wonderful friends I made through church meetings and activities – in many cases the best friends of my life. The Longfellow Park chapel was a unique building that served as a house of worship for many, many brilliant and talented people.

It’s hard to believe it’s gone. What can be saved will be; the steeple survived the fire, and current rumor is that some of the walls may form part of the next building as well. As long as the character of the former building and the congregations who used it remains, all will be well.

For those who want to read or see more, there’s an arm-in-arm stroll down memory lane with dozens of people here. The Boston Globe has pictures here, and there’s some dramatic footage of the fire here. (It was quite thrilling to watch a couple friends of mine carry the painting of Christ and the Rich Young Man – one of my very favorites – to safety. We all clapped as K and N carried it across the lawn.)

I choose faith… I choose faith…

Repeating it over and over because I’m kind of under siege am Moment. Usually when I’m in these moods I write something amusing – some of my favorite weblog posts have been written to distract myself in moments of frustration or ill temper or anxiety. I don’t like bothering or worrying people and I generally feel like my moods are my responsibility; if there’s something I don’t like in my life, I should try to fix it instead of griping about it. I also feel like I have enough coping mechanisms and healthy strategies that I shouldn’t succumb to these really minor cloudbursts. Plus there are lots of people whose problems are way worse than mine! … But maybe, as I reach for yet another spoonful of late-night comfort Nutella, I can raise a white flag and say it: I’m struggling. Prayers are appreciated. As are general positive thoughts sent in an East Coast direction.


Mood: Contemplative*; resolute.

(Warning: Some of you may have heard this before; I’ve been talking about it to sundry friends of late.)

Lately I’ve been feeling that certain anchors of stability in my life have been gradually slipping away from me. Close friends are moving away; my job is slowly fading; my change to the Spanish branch means I’m becoming disconnected from the singles ward. All this transition has made me (rationally or not) begin to feel that certain doors are closing – doors to dreams I’ve treasured for a long time and that I feel are a part of me. I feel like the doors are being closed gently rather than slammed shut, but the closing is inexorable nonetheless. I’ve thus been feeling somewhat sad and anxious, wondering what’s going to happen next and if I really can do what I want to do.

Wrapped in these mists of melancholy, I was recently reading Mormon 8 and Moroni 9. In Moroni 9, Mormon writes of the hopeless circumstances he finds himself in – his army has just lost a battle in which most of his most important men have been killed; the powerful Lamanite army is between his weak army and the people of Sherrizah, who have been taken captive and/or tortured and murdered; the people have utterly rejected everything spiritual he has tried to teach them; he has no idea if he’ll see his son again, and he’s worried that he won’t be able to give Moroni the records he’s made an exhausting effort to compile and which later become the Book of Mormon. Then, in Mormon 8, which is chronologically after the end of the war described in Moroni 9, Moroni finds himself utterly alone:

1 Behold I, Moroni, do finish the record of my father, Mormon. Behold, I have but few things to write, which things I have been commanded by my father.

2 And now it came to pass that after the great and tremendous battle at Cumorah, behold, the Nephites who had escaped into the country southward were hunted by the Lamanites, until they were all destroyed.

3 And my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people. But behold, they are gone, and I fulfil the commandment of my father. And whether they will slay me, I know not.

4 Therefore I will write and hide up the records in the earth; and whither I go it mattereth not.

5 Behold, my father hath made this record, and he hath written the intent thereof. And behold, I would write it also if I had room upon the plates, but I have not; and ore I have none, for I am alone. My father hath been slain in battle, and all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go; and how long the Lord will suffer that I may live I know not.

In addition, Moroni worries in Ether 12 that the people he and his father have risked their lives to bring the records to will not just reject everything he holds sacred, but also laugh at him:

23 And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them;

24 And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.

25 Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.

So, really, both Mormon and Moroni have experienced all my worst nightmares. They have no physical, financial, or emotional security; no friends or family are left alive; in Moroni’s case, if anyone finds him they’ll kill him. Moroni ends up living for at least 20 more years, all on his own, and is worried (legitimately, as it turns out) that future readers will ridicule the things that are most sacred to him. It kind of makes my fear of failing utterly and having to move back in with my parents at age 33 and therefore being branded an Ultimate Loser and never getting married pale in comparison.

But what makes Mormon and Moroni truly special is also what sustains them. Both men write of their life-giving and -saving faith in God and Jesus Christ. To his son, Mormon writes in Moroni 8:

25 My son, be faithful in Christ; and may not the things which I have written grieve thee, to weigh thee down unto death; but may Christ lift thee up, and may his sufferings and death, and the showing his body unto our fathers, and his mercy and long-suffering, and the hope of his glory and of eternal life, rest in your mind forever.

26 And may the grace of God the Father, whose throne is high in the heavens, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who sitteth on the right hand of his power, until all things shall become subject unto him, be, and abide with you forever. Amen.

And to us, who won’t even be reading his work until over 1500 years after his death, Moroni expresses his most heartfelt wishes:

38 And now I, Moroni, bid farewell unto the Gentiles, yea, and also unto my brethren whom I love, until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood.

39 And then shall ye know that I have seen Jesus, and that he hath talked with me face to face, and that he told me in plain humility, even as a man telleth another in mine own language, concerning these things;

40 And only a few have I written, because of my weakness in writing.

41 And now, I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever. Amen.

Along with these powerful and heart-rending scriptures, I felt impressed to read the talk given by Elder Neil L. Andersen in the October 2008 General Conference. In talking about a tragedy that once befell a friend of his and a subsequent blessing that he was giving, Elder Andersen says, “As I laid my hands upon his head, I felt to tell him something that I had not thought about in exactly the same way before. The impression that came to me was: Faith is not only a feeling; it is a decision. He would need to choose faith.

It’s so easy in times of trial and uncertainty to succumb to feelings of doubt, anxiety, and inadequacy. The anxiety in my mind sometimes increases until I feel paralyzed with uncertainty, unable even to think about what small task to perform next. However, as I’ve thought about the situation that Mormon and Moroni faced, and considered just some of the ways that my life has been blessed so far and is being blessed still, I’ve realized that my circumstances aren’t at all bleak. I’ve even been able to recognize that there’s absolutely no logical way to make the leap from “I’m attending the Spanish branch” to “I’ll never get to live abroad and learn other languages,” thus realizing that doors to lifelong dreams aren’t being inexorably closed. But most importantly, I’ve felt inspired by the thought that faith is a choice. Once I can lay hold upon that thought, I realize that I can either choose to remain paralyzed and anxious, or I can choose to trust in God and the Savior to remove the fears and obstacles that have beset me so that I can move forward.

I choose faith.

*Pronounced “con-TEMP-la-tive.” Emphasis on second syllable.

Overdue (again)

I realize that my last posts seem to indicate that I’m still in Russia – the trip was only five days long, so we actually returned two weeks ago today. I (of course) want to write more about it but I (also of course) haven’t managed to do that yet. So, here are some highlights:

The Moscow Metro. Homicidal doors notwithstanding, it’s pretty much perfect. Trains come literally every 30 seconds in rush hour (we timed them) and every two minutes at other times – including late at night. This is why the doors are so adamant about closing on time; one slight delay could potentially mess up the system. So we never saw anyone making a mad dash for the metro, which was perhaps fortunate, because we saw…

Stilettos. Stilettos everywhere. In boot form or in regular shoe form, on uneven stone- or brick-paved plazas and walkways or on smooth sidewalks. None of the wearers seemed to have any trouble walking a-tall,  for which I deeply respect them in a horrified kind of way (the way I respect William Wallace for not begging for mercy when he was being disemboweled).

More to come soon (no, really!)…

Advertising genius

These guys really need to open a store in Boston.

Oh skinny dark-haired tenor on the right, how I dream of your passionate furniture-pushing soul. Bring me a plastic lawn chair or a vinyl-topped bar stool and we’ll sing joyfully together forevermore…

At the Red House. Where black people and white people buy furniture.