Are Artists Selfish?

“How good life is when one does something right and just!” The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

I read somewhere that Dostoevsky originally intended for The Brothers Karamazov to be three times as long as it actually turned out to be. If it had been, I definitely would have followed his characters along. Despite being a huge book with questions worth pondering for a lifetime, I was left aching to know, when I finished, how each of the brothers fared after the decisive events following the murder of their dissipated and malicious father .

IMG_1569As a novelist I have to force myself to be alone to write. It’s not that I hate the idea of being alone. I love it. But … as artists we have to say no a lot. No to the people who love us and wish we’d call more. No to the husbands who wish we’d acknowledge them first thing in the morning instead of rushing past them to get in some writing before the kids and dogs wake.

If we are not making a handsome living at our artistic vocation it can appear to be a fool’s errand we are on. Isn’t it more saintly to serve others with our presence and maybe some fresh cooked pancakes? I used to hate the idea of serving God above all else — as if God was a selfish and egotistical slave master. I realized the reason I hated this was because I wanted people to elevate me in God’s place. It was not because I felt such loyalty to humanity that I wanted to serve them above God —  though that’s what I told myself.

Making art is a strange thing. It can feel  self-indulgent at times. It seems to serve only the artist, especially when the calling takes the artist into a private world for hours and days. Years go by and the artist may be preoccupied with the call, the words, the ideas, the images that God is pressing into his soul.

But making art and saying yes to the call is like entering a sort of priesthood of beauty and truth.  All vocations are like this.

“The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that ‘beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.'” Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II

Alyosha Karamazov takes his calling literally and seriously. It is not enough for him to “give two roubles instead of ‘all,’ and only go to mass instead of ‘following Him.'”

In Alyosha, Dostoevsky gives us the beautiful and ideal. He tells us that Alyosha is for him the hero of the story. He is the fulfillment of everything good that his mentor Father Zossima talks about and all of the other more troubled characters are drawn to him.

I wonder if the artist’s most important job is to document beauty, not only the easy beauty of a sunrise, but also the beauty that so often arises after great suffering. Alyosha is the sunrise and sunset. His brothers are all of those in-between moments of recklessness and inner spiritual turmoil we experience in life.

Some people simply accept the gentle nudges of the Savior, some resist all the way to the end, but those in-between people are the ones it’s so interesting to read and write about. Dimitri Karamazov lets his sensuous desires run amok in search of love and happiness, while Ivan, the intellectual middle brother avoids intimacy and despairs at the suffering of innocent children under a “just” God. Both men suffer, but their suffering offers enlightenment and beauty if they will accept it (as Alyosha does). Smerdyakov, the illegitimate half-brother, refuses God’s grace evidenced by his suicide.

The beauty of the story is not that we are given the answers to all mysteries, but that we are given the ‘beauty to enthuse us for work, and work to raise us up.’

There are some people who say being a Christian is as simple as doing what Jesus says. The What Would Jesus Do? crowd. As artists we are given the task of peeling the onion, of suffering dark nights and loneliness of the soul. Sure, we are also given sunrises and sunsets and these need to be captured enthusiastically as salves for humanity’s suffering. Jesus is all-knowing, all-loving goodness, truth and beauty — we mortals struggle.

I like to think that most people love children and puppies and sunsets. But some people go afar off track following an idea — a lesser idea that puts God in the passenger seat (or the trunk). I understand the impulse. Human theories are applauded and celebrated for being progressive paths to happiness and enlightenment, yet they so often fall flat — many lead to great evil — like communism. I struggle to think of a single human achievement that has not come with an entire host of unintended consequences.

The celebration of something beyond us, bigger than us, more beautiful than us has brought us cathedrals. The celebration of us has brought us Walmart box stores. The Brothers Karamazov brings us before God with big human questions while so many other books talk about self-help and the sensual pleasures of this life and this life only.

True artists are not selfish for locking themselves away for hours (there is a time and place for family gatherings and playing with puppies of course) but we need art like we need God to help us remember our mission as humans to seek out truth, beauty and goodness in the midst of suffering.

This week on the farm there has been a lot of miraculous, “simple” beauty. I hope your week had its share of beauty too. Let me know if you are a “selfish” artist in the comments! 🙂 How do you manage your time?




Top 5 Favorite Romantic Partners in Classic Literature

Hi everyone! After spending quite some time pondering the suffering of soldiers wounded at Gettysburg I thought I needed a quick pick-me-up. 🙂 Maybe you do too.

I feel we need some love right now so I’m calling all readers to share the ladies and gentlemen they adore. I mean, who doesn’t like romance done right? Even tragic romance has it’s place.

So here are my romantic favorites:

1.Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova in War and Peace

When your husband avoids coming into the bedroom because he hears you sobbing (and he knows he hasn’t done anything wrong), the book must be good. And War and Peace is THAT good. As some of you know I’m weirdly obsessed with military matters and men in uniform (even though I hate war). I’ll admit that a few times I was so caught up in the romances that I took little peeks ahead while the men talked strategy — but for the most part this book had the perfect mix. Prince Andrei and Natasha live on in my life through my two favorite pet sheep. Honestly I could have picked a few of the other couples — even the bad ones because they were great characters, but they didn’t make me cry — for days.

 2. Dorothea and Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch

I was just reading about this doomed couple. It seems some men feel that George Eliot was too hard on Casaubon, the sour, old intellectual  Dorothea foolishly marries.

“What did the world lose, when Dorothea destroyed Casaubon? The novel gives only slanted, derisive glimpses. But we know that the provisional title of his book was The Key to All Mythologies. He intended to show ‘that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed’.” A Great Intellect Destroyed

I’m going to have to disagree. Casaubon was awful. I loved seeing how the two crippled each other in the mismatch but was obviously glad when Casaubon died (that sounds horrible, doesn’t it?). Don’t get me wrong. I felt sympathy for Casaubon because he lived so long in his head that he became worthless in relationships, but … maybe I just wouldn’t want to be in relationship with a genius. Super-driven, self-involved men may do great things, but they’re not  much fun to be around and frankly Casaubon’s ego and insecurity were more unattractive than Eliot’s description of his looks. Part of me may have disliked him because I see tendencies in myself of obsession and crankiness but I won’t tell my husband that!


3. Susan Burling Ward and Oliver Ward in Angle of Repose

I’m sensing a pattern here. Not the happy list I was hoping for. Wallace Stegner wrote such great stories about marriage and this one is particularly bittersweet. What happens when a bright and hardworking engineer marries a cultured Eastern girl and they move West to further his career in the late nineteenth century? There are so many poignant scenes of these two people who truly want what’s best for the other yet are unable to bridge their differences.

I personally felt more sympathy for Oliver who worries throughout about making enough money and a name for himself so that his lonely wife will be able to have the cultured life she misses. When I read it I was younger and didn’t see that so often I expected men to think like women. I also tended to think men who weren’t into reading Jane Austen were primitive apes. Yep. I was dumb.

This book opened my mind to the ways men express love and concern. Susan realized a tad too late. Sigh.

The White Cockade by Edward Martin
The White Cockade by Edward Martin


4. Fred and Mary in Middlemarch

Okay, so two romantic couples from the same book. Oh, well. It’s my list and finally I have a happy couple to talk about. This romance was adorable. Am I right? Fred is just your average, silly, young guy. He gets into horse and gambling troubles and makes a hash of most things but he’s sweet and in love with Mary, a girl who’s plain and poor. She’s also a moral giant but strangely likeable (even though I tend to dislike giant moral people).

Middlemarch is a pretty big book so we get plenty of time to see how this little story progresses and how Mary holds her ground against Fred’s flirtations only to be rewarded in the end. If only all romances could end this way.

5. Laura and Almanzo Wilder in The Little House Series

Please don’t roll your eyes if you think the little house books are only for children. You need to read the last few books of the series again so you can feel the wistful memories Laura is sharing about her family seep into your soul. What I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE about Almanzo  is that he only appears for moments in a few of the books but we know his appearances foreshadow a real-life marriage that lasted for years and years. In one of the books Laura is lost and spots Almanzo and his brother Royal. Laura notes the sparkle in Almanzo’s eyes as he looks at her. In another place Almanzo and Royal feed Pa when he’s starving during a winter of shortage and blizzard.

Whenever Almanzo is written about he is brave and good and quiet and pretty much perfect. Through these fictionalized accounts of Laura’s life we get to feel her deep love for her husband. Knowing that she couldn’t actually finish her final book after Almanzo died gives the written and published portion such power. Laura’s writing is deceptively simple and pulls on every heart-string for me — so much so that in writing my own novels I tucked in little bits of Laura here and there — like adding Morgan horses (Almanzo’s favorite breed) and marrying off an ill-fated character to a man named Royal Wilder). 🙂

So now it’s your turn. Who do you love and why? Tells us in the comments below.


Adrienne Morris is the author of

The Tenafly Road Series
“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”

***Do you love reading the classics? Join the club! THE CLASSICS CLUB

Classics Club: Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind

As much as I enjoyed Gone With the Wind for its insight into Southern society before and after the war, I had so little love for Scarlett by the end that the last hundred pages felt a bit of a chore. Despite this there are scenes in the book so full of pathos:

Civil War Casualties

As the casualty lists from Gettysburg come in, the residents of Atlanta crowd the streets for word of their loved ones. So many of the lovely boys interested in Scarlett before the war are dead. The most moving parts of Gone with the Wind deal with the loss of Southern boys and men.

In A Strange and Blighted Land by Gregory A Coco countless eyewitnesses tell us of the unthinkable suffering after the battle at Gettysburg:

“Oh how they must have struggled along that wall, where coats, hats, canteens and guns are so thickly strewn; beyond it two immense trenches filled with rebel dead, and surrounded with gray caps, attest the cost to them. The earth is scarcely thrown over them, and the skulls with ghastly grinning teeth appear, now that the few spadefuls of earth are washed away. In these trenches one may plainly see the rise and swell of human bodies; and oh how awful to feel that these are brethren – deluded and erring, yet brethren. Surely no punishment can be too great for those, whose mad ambition has filled these graves!”

Close to 4000 Confederate boys and men were killed at Gettysburg. Close to 19,000 men were wounded (some mortally) and nearly 6000 were reported missing ( all in a town with a population of about 2000). We all know that even now most young men who go off to war do so for many different reasons. All of my family fought for the Union but at least one fought for the small pay that he sent home  in hopes of helping his impoverished parents buy a house. Oh! How naïve to die for such a thing, but he did. [see WALDO POTTER]

Since we also know that only a tiny percentage of Southerners had slaves we must give these young dead space enough to say they probably had many mixed motives. Even still their cause, so aligned with an institution the civilized world was trying to rid itself of (however slow and stumbling), makes it hard for some people to feel in the least sorry for the men buried in shallow graves.

I suggest we fly above our national history which is no more savage than any other and at least momentarily feel sorry for the families left behind. Imagine not knowing – never knowing — where your 18-year-old, farmer-boy son with freckles over the bridge of his nose and a lovely sense of humor lies buried! Imagine not knowing if he had been left out in the rain and sun for days until his sun-bleached hair slipped from his skull and the buttons from his jacket you had sewn were clipped off as souvenirs by tourist “ghouls.”

Imagine the weeks after when bodies still awaited burial in some spots and the stench of rotting horses forced people to carry peppermint oil on their persons and keep their windows shut on hot summer nights. And there your son waits and never stops waiting to be discovered. Imagine hoping that your boy was only missing, only recovering, only something other than what Matthew Brady’s pictures showed.

Imagine seeing your son decomposed in a photograph.

Devils Den sharp shooter
Devil’s Den Sharpshooter by Alexander Gardner

Melanie’s long wait for the return of Ashley is so poignant. She insists on nursing straggling men as they travel by foot for miles through the burnt out South on their way home. She hopes that there are other women nursing her husband and the men of the county elsewhere. The reader knows that despite good intentions thousands of men suffer and die utterly alone. After Gettysburg men and their body parts are thrown into wells. Bones are collected for the new medical museum being organized in Washington, D.C. Photographers and curiosity seekers are dragging and poking and posing corpses for better shots.


I’ve seen people online worry about enjoying Gone with the Wind because of its depiction of slaves. It is a self-imposed book banning of the mind when one feels frightened to speak about books with uncomfortable subjects. I find this terribly sad because it suggests that it is impossible to imagine a different world from our own. It suggests that a certain segment of modern society presently holds the moral high ground in all things and the rest of us are too weak-minded to be exposed to ideas that are not our own. It’s why I strongly oppose banning people with “outrageous” views from social media.

I will confess that I found Margaret Mitchell’s slave voices written in dialect difficult to follow as I read  and sometimes just passed them right over. But I do think that it would be far worse if she had made all  the slaves (who were purposely left under-educated back in the day) speak as if they’d attended Harvard. In no way does this mean that I endorse keeping people uneducated slaves and feel a bit depressed that I have to make that clear.

A_Visit_from_the_Old_MistressKnowing that even the slaves had a strict sense of hierarchy within the black community is sort of comforting in the sense that humans, no matter the color, tend to pride themselves in being better than others. I’m comforted every time I see that the human heart so full of pride and arrogance is just that — a human problem.

Whether Margaret Mitchell was racist or not I do not know but some of characters certainly are. Yet, often the black characters have more compassion and decency than Scarlett and if I were back in my Irish militancy days I suppose I would make a strong case for an anti-Irish sentiment in the book but I won’t because I’m so past race politics and the baiting that goes with it.

What Makes A Real Man?

How you answer this question says a lot about the way you see the world.

  • Courage
  • Justice
  • Mercy
  • Generosity
  • Faith
  • Nobility
  • Hope

This is a basic list of values dear to the planter class of the South in the 1860’s.

Early in Gone with the Wind, Scarlett’s father Gerald O’Hara warns her that Ashley Wilkes (who embodies the list) comes from a “queer breed” and won’t make her happy.

Ashley Wilkes:  Manhood (looking back)

IMG_8520If your image of Ashley comes from Leslie Howard’s weak portrayal, please read the book. Ashley is an Adonis, an ideal. He is the South’s dream of perfection and Scarlett’s too (though she utterly fails to know him for who he really is – an imperfect man struggling to live under the burden of a strenuous moral code). Ashley is the Christian ideal. Yet he is also the Christian walk in all of its unfaithfulness, stumbling, and hypocrisy. He is the man people point to derisively and say, “Ha! But look he keeps slaves! — and lusts after Scarlett!”

Yes, I know this already but am able to transport myself in time and understand that his world is not my own. His loyalty to family overrides his desire for Scarlett’s body, but it’s not an easy struggle. If I say that Ashley is a “good” slave owner who plans to free his slaves when he can figure out how to without leaving his family and the slaves penniless – some will accuse me of defending slavery.

I need to keep in mind that slavery has always existed and still exists and is an evil that each one of us must wrestle with as we silently allow slaves the world over to clothe and entertain us with cheap goods. Yet I also know that if we were to suddenly stop buying cheap goods we would (at least temporarily make life much harder for some slaves).

Very early on we see that Ashley realizes his way of life has been a dream – one where books and good horses are enjoyed and valued. Where slaves are treated well and love their masters (and I don’t doubt that some slaves did love their masters). The institution of slavery has left scars all over the world throughout history. Yet sadly it’s also been commonplace – as are all forms of tyranny and misuse of power. (I think back to the cruelty considered fairly normal within my own family tree)

The demon of war takes the decisions out of Ashley’s hands anyway.  He goes with Georgia not as an evil slave owner but as a man who believes there is no greater sacrifice than to die for a friend.

After the war when Scarlett hires prison laborers who are beaten and starved Ashley is appalled and refuses to use them despite losing money at the mill he (unsuccessfully) manages to please his wife. Some here shout: “Stop being such a wimp!” Yet Ashley sees that without Scarlett’s help during the war his wife and child would not have survived  and feels indebted to her. It’s not glamorous to humble oneself. It’s not dashing or exciting. Only Melanie sees the value in it. Certainly Scarlett does not.

Rhett Butler:  Manhood (looking forward)

When a swarthy but handsome new man arrives, old society whispers of his dark past and contempt for Southern manners. He’s really the new America birthed during the war. A new America full of self-centered, irreligious striving for personal gain played out in so many success stories of the coming Gilded Age. Rhett is “honest” in his appraisal of himself and Scarlett. He delights in Scarlett’s selfishness and survival instinct for a good while. Yet even Rhett has a heart beneath his bluster that leads to a bloated and bitter end.


What Makes a Real Woman?


Scarlett O’Hara: The Jezebel who leads men to their ruin …

I read somewhere that Margaret Mitchell was interested in what made people survivors. Friends of mind delight in Scarlett’s pluck and innate savvy, but for me she is all ruin. In every sense she is a man killer and worthy of the contempt Rhett finally throws at her. Survival at any cost comes at a human cost. Scarlett just doesn’t give a damn.

Melanie Wilkes: the Madonna

“Melly” has more power than any other character in the story but the power is spiritual. She is more formidable in her weakness than everyone else combined. Rhett senses it immediately. She is the epitome of that famous passage from Saint Paul:

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is any praise, exercise yourselves in these things. Philippians 4:8

 Her sacrificial nature and her ability to see the best in people dog Scarlett’s conscience throughout but not enough to really bring about self-knowledge.

Scarlett reminds me of the many eyewitnesses who are shocked and disgusted by the fields so thick with human death and misery that finding footing becomes difficult. Scarlett walks over the dead but only cares because her slippers get stained in blood.








“Rich and colorful page turners. Morris has a fine sense of time and place and brings her memorable characters to life. She also tells a captivating story. You won’t find it easy to put her book down, and her characters will stay with you when you do. We can only hope she keeps writing and gives us more episodes in this fascinating chronicle.”




Classics Club Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Vengeance is sweet. Is it really?

Personal admission: I’m too lazy to be vengeful. I get angry, feel slighted, plot revenge and then forget about the whole thing. Well, not quite forget …

Granted I’ve never been wrongly accused of plotting against the government. I’ve never been sent to prison for years. And I’ve never lost a great love to a  friend/enemy.

Sometimes a classic book opens a new world to its readers. I’m usually easily led into these worlds. The count’s world left me cold.

Maybe my standards for leading man have been made too high: #Prince Andrei. #War and Peace

Over tea at my favorite coffee shop my sister and I debated the merits of Edmond Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo). She adores him and can not understand my lukewarm opinion.  She doesn’t mind that Edmond’s great love is named Mercedes (I don’t like the name) and has zero personality.

Edmond is wrongly imprisoned. A chance friendship while incarcerated transforms him. Upon escape he becomes not only wealthy but highly educated. He also becomes a master of disguise. This is where the book truly loses me.  In a series of coincidences and unbelievable turns of events Edmond (now the Count) appears to every last character left behind at the time of his imprisonment.  He disguises himself with British accents and capes. I’m over thirty years out of high school but when I visit my home town I see the guys I had crushes on. They look  a little heavier, but I still recognize them.

There’s poisonings and secret potions to revive the dead, there’s tons of perspiring for some reason (every character wipes their forehead of sweat at least once in the book), and  there are perfectly executed acts of revenge. In the hands of Shakespeare these sorts of things don’t bother me a bit.

In the end Edmond engineers  his revenge but realizes it’s not always so sweet. He doesn’t even get his Mercedes back (not that she deserves him).  As a final slap in the face to the reader, Edmond travels away with his pathetic little Greek slave girl. Is this his reward? He treats her as his angelic, exotic child. The line between sensual love and childish affection blurs and off they go into the sunset.  Can I just say I hated Haydee the slave girl? Also hated the relationship between Haydee and Edmond.

I can usually relate to something in a novel, but I just couldn’t here. Because I’m obsessed with readers liking the characters in MY NOVELS, reading books about characters I don’t connect with is, in a way, comforting. My sister and a few friends have been recommending THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO for years. Dumas obviously strikes a chord with many people but not me. Books are like friends. It’s impossible to like everyone or to be liked by everyone.

How about you? Anyone love this book and think I’m crazy? What’s the one book you were expected to like but didn’t? I’d love to know!

Featured Image: Józef Mehoffer, The Strange Garden


Scarlet and Black: Classics Club Review


“Every one of our hero’s first steps, for all he thought himself so cautious, were, like his choice of a confessor, careless blunders. Led astray by all the overweening confidence natural to a man with imagination, he took the will for the deed, and thought himself past master in hypocrisy.”

And so it is with pride. A confession of my own before delving into the missteps and frailties of Julien Sorel, the hero of Scarlet and Black by Stendhal: I feel a very strong kinship to Julien. It’s hard to really know if everyone is led by the rules of hypocrisy and pride in romance. Am I worse than most? Certainly I am not as foolish as young Julien. But then I remember my reasons for marriage long ago to a man I never loved. I had convinced myself that friendship was the same as love. A feminist professor (a new form of cleric) told us that romantic love was a social construct.  This learned theory about human relations gave me the excuse I needed to blunder (cautiously) into a bondage that briefly looked like safety.

Wasn’t it cunning of me to accept the adoration of a man I was ambivalent about in order to avoid work outside the home? The bitterness of producing children with a man I little respected seemed a natural price to pay for that elusive thing called safety. In a cynical world of transactions it felt like a noble and practical thing to brush off the feelings of passion I hid in my heart for my husband’s brother. Once this brother asked me how it felt to be married to someone not as intelligent as I was. This brother was always very competitive with the man I married. Hypocritically I denied this truth. I lied. I knew I had betrayed my heart.

“After several months of incessant application, Julien still continued to look as if he thought.”

Julien Sorel, a handsome, young Frenchman, is beaten at home by his father and brothers for having intellectual pretensions. Julien’s family sees his ambitious memorization of Scripture in Latin as a useless endeavor until a local priest obtains for him work as a tutor at the de Renal family estate.

Julien dreams of glory. He wishes he’d lived to be a soldier in Napoleon’s day, but understands that in this present era of hypocrisy his only chance at material success is through the church. He little believes in the actual faith of clerics and common folk and sees the practice of religion only as a vehicle for his successful escape from poverty and the derision of those lucky enough to be born into nobility.

I wonder if we imagine the university of our present age in the same way—as a sort of necessary conscription into the cult of societal norms.  So many students (and some with far less ambition than our hero) trudge off to college because it’s what’s done. Even dim-witted students obsessed with video games and make-up routines travel to faraway locales to experience college life. Hypocritical and sometimes delusional professors are the cult leaders. They teach students to despise truth, to focus on ancestral sin and to expect monetary gain as a right.

Julien, like many college students, sees the hypocrisy of the cult but, instead of rebelling completely, he seeks to understand and use the hypocrisy of the age for his own gain. Julien’s superior intelligence is a curse. Mediocrity hates minds like his. Even in the best houses Julien is treated as a plebian necessity, a curiosity—certainly not equal to the men with illustrious genealogies and sprawling estates. Julien is too cunning to wear his beliefs on his sleeve. His grasping is done in secret. His misery is in knowing his true position in life despite his superior mind.

Students at college who are blind to the learning gaps of their youth sometimes seek courses in victimhood after they find they are unsuccessful on their first term papers. Their hearts, if not their minds, find an outlet in childish studies of blame. Julien succumbs to self-pity at times, but his real flaw is one so common to children of abuse: a destructive desire to be loved at any cost.

Passion has its place but so often it leads to derailment of a student’s worldly ambitions. Julien falls in love with the pretty wife of a powerful man. He uses his mind to consider the many ways he will rise above his station to be with her, but it’s an illusion. He is sent to seminary to avoid scandal and finds that his very mannerisms and his ability to think original thoughts make him hated among the other students. Julien briefly dumbs himself down in a vain attempt at fitting in but finds only more misery.

I remember deciding to become popular with the cheerleaders at the private school I attended. It was easy enough with the smallest amounts of cunning and hypocrisy to be invited to sit at the popular table, but after a week, I felt my soul dying. Vapid girls gossiped all the day long with smiles on their faces. How often that week did I nod with false enthusiasm as they discussed Snoopy merchandise? These girls, considered the most cultured and desirable in eighth grade, survived on unremarkable mediocrity and seemed happy!  After a week I longed for the awkward silences of the nerd table.

In high school I determined to be popular again but only in order to get the best boys. I smiled and giggled, told outrageously stupid stories and pretended at compassionate friendship with the most popular girl in my grade. Whenever her boyfriend cheated on her, her popular friends froze her out of the group until she forgave the boy. During those times this girl sought me out for my listening skills. Little did she know I used her as much as she used me. There were many moments of hollow victory in high school. Every move I made was false. Each false move was rewarded.

Julien Sorel, after years of studying the society he despises yet yearns to be a part of, betrays himself. Early in the book we witness his father’s hatred and brutality against his bookish son. Yet the father knew better than the son that the tragedy of being too smart for his station would lead to misery. Julien rightly distrusts the hearts of others yet fatally falls in love when cunning and hypocrisy would have served him better. And that is the way of the human heart, isn’t it? Some of us think we have the skills to protect this vital organ, but it’s impossible to become a complete brute if you are not one.

Julien longs for heroic times and actions. He plays his heroism out, not on a battlefield but in the house of a proud girl who sees in Julien a vision of France’s heroic past. Do we do the same when we fall in love with followers and likes on our social media accounts? Do we convince ourselves that there is something more meaningful in re-blogs than there is? Or do we pretend not to care what people think at all? Do we all secretly wish we were Napoleon? How cunning are you in life? How self-seeking? How courageous are you in love?

Julien Sorel will not be mourned by me in the same way I still mourn Prince Andrei in War and Peace. Andrei met God on the battlefield only to realize the glory of God and the emptiness of his own glory seeking. Poor Julien, so abused and misled by his own mind, finds only himself. As he waits to die in prison Madame de Renal reassures him of her love but given the social constructs of class and reputation her love is less than satisfactory.

Brutish allegiance to mediocrity and hypocrisy is only easy for people who hate thought. Their passions play out with little self-reflection. Life is just a series of days preserved in mass produced scrapbooks. Misery comes with intelligence and ambition. David Foster Wallace worried about what his signature bandana said to the world even as he pretended not to care what the world thought of him.

David Foster Wallace killed himself and in a way, Julien Sorel does the same.

***Featured image  The Passion of Creation by Leonid Pasternak


Classics Club Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I had many suitors. In the 1980’s we called admirers something else, but I forget what. Many a suitor wrote me letters. An Irish poet from Limerick with liquid, sensitive blue eyes I met one night on my travels sent letters across the Atlantic for months. I liked his poetry, but he wanted love and his eager, sweet missives hinted at it until he realized the friendship was only friendship.

I almost married another man from Ireland who lived briefly in Hoboken, New Jersey. He thought I was a feminist at first (he assumed all American women were) and dismissed my overtures at first. Somehow we started a correspondence when he moved back to embark on the life of an intellectual farmer. His letters started optimistic enough, but grew sad and bitter as he fought what he imagined to be the many gossips and naysayers of the tiny town he lived in. His father was a dead but well-known drunk who beat him mercilessly as a child. Though 6’ 4” this sad farmer was haunted by the shadow of a dead man. By the time I came to visit him, his depression was so profound that it scared me and I left him never to know what happened in the end.

My sisters and friends wrote to me when I went away to be a camp counselor and my father wrote to me before he died. This letter I kept hidden so it avoided destruction. When I read it even now I linger on the handwriting that somehow brings back my father’s voice, his hands as he wrote checks and his love for me.

I married a jealous man. Our ill-fated romance seemed like destiny at the time. I felt certain that my destiny was unchangeable. One night before our wedding my future husband finally convinced me that my precious box of letters was standing in the way of our happiness. He badgered me night after night about the letters.

I’d never met a person so relentless. I hardly defended myself against it. I shredded the letters.

The letters from the boy in my high school who died of cancer on the same day as my college graduation. We used to ride our bikes to the reservoir and dream of our lives as writers. He was a poet who had already traveled to Alaska and Egypt by senior year. We had sat next to each other in kindergarten.

The letters from an extremely handsome boy related to the famous Tiffany family who dreamt of being a journalist one day. I’d met him at a frat party in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was sure I’d marry him until he said something ridiculous at a gathering that summer and it embarrassed me.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s book Cranford got me thinking about these letters. A sweet, old spinster living on little means decides one night to burn her family letters.

“I never knew what sad work the reading of old letters was before that evening, though I could hardly tell why. The letters were as happy as the letters could be—at least those early letters were. There was in them a vivid and intense sense of the present time, which seemed so strong and full, as if it could never pass away, and as if the warm, living hearts that so expressed themselves could never die, and be as nothing to the sunny earth. I should have felt less melancholy had the letters been more so.”

Written as a series of vignettes about a group of older women living, for the most part, without men, I found the book lacking in that very thing. Despite my checkered history with men, I miss them when they’re not around. I wondered as I read about these decent old women if literature (and life) needed the conflict and thrust of men to keep my interest.

Feminists would probably not like me to admit that the letters I miss most are the ones with the scribbled marks of masculine hands and hearts. Cranford women often concerned themselves with the romances of their servant girls. They feared the farm boys who lived on the outskirts of town marrying away their help. Like some feminists who despise women who want children and husbands, the Cranford ladies prefer women to be kept as they see fit.

Miss Matty is briefly reunited (if only by lingering glances) with a male suitor from her youth. He dies soon after. The deaths and absence of men define these women. When one finally escapes through a late and poor marriage to the town doctor who makes her very happy the comfortable circle of lonely women is upset. Slightly.

Regrets, lust and even the shredding of letters from better men will never convince me that men are expendable. Uncomfortable to be around sometimes, yes. But Cranford offers up a world without them and I think I’ll pass.

What about you? have you read Cranford? Do you have a favorite classic book? Please share. I’d love to hear from you!


9 Signs You May Have Mistakenly Joined a Dystopian/Utopian Community

“I had staked no valuable amount of hope or fear; it had enabled me to pass the summer in a novel and agreeable way, [and] afforded me some grotesque specimens of artificial simplicity.” Nathaniel Hawthorne from The Blithedale Romance

MY CLASSICS CLUB Response to The Blithedale Romance

Having sent one of my main characters, BUCK CRENSHAW, to a 19th century perfectionist community based on THE ONEIDA COLONY and having lived on a modern-day farm with utopian pretensions, and having worked on yet another farm with similar pretensions, I was excited to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance—to compare his opinions with my own.

The book is a strange one; seeming to first be about the utopian society and then about the mysterious history of two female characters. Many of the people I’ve met in my utopian circles, who often disdained “conventional society,”  tended to be running from some real or imagined life of mystery and horror.

Unlike my character Buck who arrives at my fictional “Middlemay Farm” as a somewhat prudish and naïve babe in the woods, Hawthorne’s narrator, Miles Coverdale is a poet who manages to keep just enough of his individualism to begin to question the motives of the charismatic leader of the Blithedale community. This leads to the first thing one can expect when joining a society of people who think they know just how to fix the world, and by world I mean other people.

A reform movement usually has a charismatic leader who, while possessing a dynamic sexual energy (felt by one and all), is actually kind of gross, mean-spirited and selfish in his desire to change the world as he sees fit. This man may be, as at Blithedale, a man who is obsessed with prison reform. Miles Coverdale is shunned when he expresses honest concerns about Hollingsworth’s grand schemes of reform:

“They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience … They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.”


At Middlemay, Richard Rhinedale is obsessed with sexual reform. Buck becomes a useful pawn until he is no longer useful. The socialist farmer I worked for was obsessed with Cuba, wind energy and shocking Hasidic Jews (who paid for farm tours) with his hatred of their religion. He did this in the name of women’s rights but it seemed to me that he was bitter at losing his own faith while attending Yale Divinity School. I was also shunned for questioning a socialist idea.

These strangely charismatic men often attract women who are willing to fund the leaders’ pipe-dream endeavors while also accepting the men’s only slightly veiled contempt for said women. Miles Coverdale is shocked by the mad infatuation and devotion the two lead female characters have for the brooding, self-absorbed Hollingsworth.

Utopian women often subject themselves to “free love” once they are convinced that it will improve their relations in the long run. At Blithedale, the woman perceived to have money is thrown aside when it becomes clear that she has nothing.

In MY NOVEL, Richard’s wife is given the job of training young men to control themselves sexually. This is Richard’s inside joke since he finds his wife so repulsive and assumes the young trainees will control themselves with little coaching. As I mentioned in a post long ago, a friend raised in a Utopian society bitterly remembers his mother’s neglect due to her devotion to “the cause” of socialism in the 1960’s.

Many (if not most) people who dive into this lifestyle really don’t like people they consider “common.” For instance, I’ve heard many an erudite farmer blame regular farmers’ stupidity for the loss of their family farms. The fact that many of these perfectionists often rely on unpaid labor in the form of eco-apprentices or converts to their cause and often aren’t more successful than the regular guys who don’t read Mother Earth and Foreign Affairs, their disdain seems pretty hypocritical.

One farmer I knew insisted on only using horse-power-unless he was in a hurry. His contempt of modern machinery was thrown aside when he butchered a lame old goat with a dull knife in front of a family of Hassidic Jews in the rain and unceremoniously shoveled up the animal with his tractor. Hawthorne brilliantly captures the uncouth but far more able true farmer who trains the city folk at country life.

Manual labor is often “spiritualized,” says Hawthorne, with the actual sweat on someone else’s brow at these colonies. There is something quite lovely about raising your own food, living by the seasons and going to sleep tired, but the work is mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. From a distance golden hay bales look beautiful at sunset, but hay up close means work, sweat and worry.  It doesn’t take long for those of us with big ideas to realize that picking and hauling potatoes isn’t the glamorous thing it looked like in the old peasant paintings. Hawthorne quips,

 “I seldom saw the new enthusiasm that did not grow flimsy and flaccid as the proselyte’s moistened shirt-collar, with a quarter-of-an-hour’s active labor, under a July sun.”

Usually when living in utopia people start dressing funny. Many of these reformers think they are quite unconventional yet in most cases they only trade one uniform for another.  Whether it be at the Oneida Colony where dress reform was explored or on your basic farm as at Blithedale. When city folk come for a visit you’re usually pretty shocked at how far off the path you’ve gone in terms of fashion. Zenobia, the beauty at Blithedale, wears a hothouse flower in her hair. In the city it’s a flower of jewels. I suppose it’s true that in real life we buy more fake things. Certain high-end farm gear is always in style on the “better” farms these days (on others the badge of honor is wearing 100% thrift store items—I do both ;)).

Utopians hate the present. Some romanticize the past. Some, at the very beginning of their endeavors, worship the future. In the present, many feel misunderstood, angry at humanity and depressed. I’ve seen this myself far too many times. It’s sad because if these reformers actually stepped out of their dream/nightmare they might possibly see some of the pleasant things in life that make humanity and the world worth saving.

A very odd thing I’ve noted and Hawthorne mentions is that there’s usually a utopian who insists on being called by a name that isn’t their own. I’m still not sure what to make of a young lady I once met who called herself “Fiddlin.” She didn’t play an instrument as far as I know. Zenobia at Blithedale sported a fake name as well (for mysterious reasons).

Utopians are bound by their hatreds:

“Our bond, it seems to me, was not affirmative, but negative. We had individually found one thing or another to quarrel with, in our past life, and were pretty well agreed as to the inexpediency of lumbering along with the old system any farther. As to what should be substituted, there was much less unanimity.”

Hawthorne, like many other people who end up deserting these attempts to change the world one elevated summer at a time, sees the characters he once called friends as tragic and deluded.

Related: UTOPIA & SEX

***Peasant Girl by Jules Breton

Classics Club Review: War and Peace

The day after taking doxicyclene for Lyme disease and anaplasmosis this is the text conversation between my daughter and me:

Me: I was feverish with a bizarre and pounding headache. Not normal. Felt really weird. Sweating profusely. And UNABLE TO STOP GOING OVER SCENES FROM WAR AND PEACE in my head.

Daughter: Okay. That’s terrible but the War and Peace thing you obviously know is hilarious. “unable to stop” 🙂 🙂

Me: Even as I was almost dying I was like: this is ridiculous.

Daughter: LOLOL. It’s so you though. Are you okay now?

Me: Called the doctor. My reaction was rare but serious so she prescribed a new drug.

Daughter: Oh, God. Did you tell her about the War and Peace hallucinations? Is that part a common reaction?


For most of August my daughter received texts like this:

Me: Prince Andrei may forgive Natasha but I never will. NEVER.

I’m in such a state of despair. Prince Andrei is finally dead. So terrible I’m sobbing.

Daughter: Oh my God, but didn’t we know it was coming?

Me: Yes but when it finally came it was terrible. There’s little reason to live now. My life is a desert.

Daughter: I wish we lived closer 😦

Me: Tolstoy has ruined my life. Okay. I need to calm down.

Daughter: Yes. You do. But it’s cute. . . . Mom…

Me: Yes?

Daughter: Ugh. Life has been cruel (here’s where my daughter talks about her real-life break up with a cad. I’ll keep it private).


But what is real life? Great fiction certainly blurs the lines (it doesn’t help that my nervous system has been under attack from the dreaded Lyme disease). For some there is the summer of rage, for others the summer of love, but for me this was the summer of War and Peace. My heightened sense of awareness as I feverishly followed the lives of Pierre, Natasha, Marya and Andrei made each new revelation more glorious and painful (or the book is just that glorious and painful?).

I’ll start at the end because new life begins at the end of something and that end in this case is the slow, heartbreaking death of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Andrei, in fact, dies many deaths before the final one which I’ll get to, but here at the end we glimpse Andrei’s son, with the same nervous and thoughtful temperament as his father, living a rather neglected life with his aunt and uncle. He is the echo of Andrei. In his brief appearance as he sits listening in rapt awe to Pierre (Andrei’s best friend), we get a picture of Andrei. Tolstoy doesn’t say much about Andrei’s absent mother but we see the lonely, shy eagerness in his son’s eyes in the presence of the only real connection he has to his deceased father. Poor Nikolenka unexpressed neediness comes out in his accidental destruction of a pen set. We hope that Pierre and Natasha will see past themselves to give the orphan boy what Prince Andrei only allowed himself to experience briefly—love.

At the start of the story we meet Andrei in a loveless, dull marriage to an annoyingly good, decidedly silly girl. Andrei’s father suffers his pregnant daughter-in-law’s silliness with barely hidden contempt. Andrei himself has trouble hiding his own contempt and confesses to Pierre on the eve of going off to war that he considers marriage a mistake.

Andrei’s father, the count, hides his great love for his children behind a self-protective wall of hostility. Andrei’s sister Marya takes the brunt of her father’s abuse but is armed with her great devotion to God. Marya begs Andrei to take a religious icon to war. Andrei is dismissive at first but we see his heart for his sister when he accepts her gift even as he doubts her faith.

“Andre, I am going to bless you with an icon, and you promise me never to take it off . . . Do you promise?”

“Of course, if it doesn’t weigh a hundred pounds and pull my neck down . . .To give you pleasure . . .” said Prince Andrei, but that same second, noticing the distressed look that came to his sister’s face at this joke, he instantly repented. “I’m very glad, truly, very glad, my friend,” he added.

“Against your will He will save you and have mercy on you and turn you to Him, because in Him alone there is truth and peace,” she said in a voice trembling with emotion, with a solemn gesture holding up in both hands before her brother an old oval icon of the Savior with a blackened face, in a silver setting, on a finely wrought silver chain.

She crossed herself, kissed the icon, and gave it to Andrei.

“Please, Andre, for me . . .”

From her big eyes shone rays of a kindly and timid light. These eyes lit up her whole, thin, sickly face and made it beautiful. Her brother wanted to take the icon, but she stopped him. Andrei understood, made the sign of the cross, and kissed the icon. His face was at the same time tender (he was touched) and mocking.

Marya’s words are prophetic. God does save Andrei but not in the way we mortals like. Andrei, without a mother and only a father unable to show love, seeks glory (not love which he doesn’t understand) as the highest good. He thinks to himself as the Russian army retreats that for glory he would give up family, friends and life. As the throng of frightened men all around race to the rear Andrei takes up the standard and moves forward.

Andrei falls and is captured but not before noting the expanse of sky above him—the emotionless, unperturbed sky which is neither impressed nor ashamed of the tiny glory a young man seeks. Andrei meets his hero Napoleon briefly at the hospital but no longer worships him and sees him for the small, mean man he is. He sees glory as small and mean as well.

What is the epitome of manhood? Andrei’s best friend, Pierre, a hulking, fumbling decent sort of fellow and bastard son to a man with a large fortune lives a life of debauchery. While Andrei is tightly wound and spiritually deep, Pierre is led by his feelings and appetite which he has trouble controlling.  Andrei sees Pierre’s integrity hidden deep within his hefty frame and frivolous living. Pierre sees Andrei’s soft and pained heart beneath his creeping cynicism, hostility and irritation so similar to his father’s.

Both men search for goodness but as Christ said no one is good but God and here lies the tragedy and hope. Even in this friendship they fail each other. Pierre visits his recovered friend just returned from the war eager to tell him all about the truths he’s discovered about social justice. Andrei covers his love with contempt, belittling Pierre’s naïve ideas even as he himself is at the forefront of the movement to improve the lives of his serfs. He refuses to let Pierre have his victories. He refuses to show his weakness in agreeing with anything his friend says. How sad. How distancing. How lonely.

Yet God has other plans. Andrei travels through a forest of dead trees that mirror his mood. He meets a girl in the bloom of life and falls in love. He tries to do right to please his father and this young girl, Natasha Rostov fails the test he gives her when he asks her to wait for him as he travels to warmer climates to recuperate from his still unhealed war wounds.

Natasha and her mother fear something in Andrei. Is it the integrity and depth they are so unaccustomed to in the Rostov men? The Rostovs are foolish spendthrifts and emotionally volatile. Always at the brink of ruin, they are saved in the end by Andrei and Marya Bolkonsky.

War and Peace is large and sweeping but it’s the little moments that are so poignant and true. Andrei, with broken heart after Natasha’s affair with an awful man, goes back to war ready to die until the moment he’s injured by shrapnel.  He sees the man who tricked Natasha into loving him at the hospital suffering an amputation and forgives him–forgives humanity and feels the depths of his ability to love—a love bigger than self and a love only possible as a gift from God.

Andrei dies a slow death but not before reuniting with Natasha. Yet again, humans fall so short. After Andrei dies Natasha remembers with great regret a conversation between herself and Prince Andrei. A conversation that exposes his true soul, his search and need for unconditional love:

“One thing is terrible,” he had said, “it is to bind yourself to a suffering man. That is eternal torment.” And he had looked at her—Natasha could see it now—with a searching gaze. Natasha, as always, had answered then before she had time to think of what answer she would give: “It cannot go on like this, it won’t be, you’ll get well—completely.”

She now saw him anew and lived through all she had felt then. She remembered his prolonged, sad, stern gaze at those words, and understood the meaning of the reproach and despair in that prolonged gaze.

“I agreed,” Natasha now said to herself, “that it would be terrible if he was left suffering always. I said it then only because it would be terrible for him, but he understood it differently. He thought it would be terrible for me. He still wanted to live then—he was afraid of death. And I said it to him so crudely, so stupidly then. I didn’t think that. I thought quite differently. If I had said what I thought, I would have said: let him be dying, dying all the time before my eyes, I would still be happy compared to what I am now. Now . . .There’s nothing, nobody. Did he know that? No. he didn’t know, and he’ll never know. And now it will never, never be possible to put it right.”

And again he was saying the same words to her, but now, in her imagination, Natasha answered differently. She stopped him and said: “Terrible for you, but not for me. You know that for me there is nothing in life without you, and to suffer with you is the best happiness for me.” . . . and in her imagination she said other tender, loving things to him, which she might have said then, and which she was saying now: “I love you, I love . . .”


And this love is all there really is. It’s all we seek. Tolstoy’s view of history leaves little room for free will (especially in leadership). Events happen. Deaths happen with no escape for any of us. The war is within each of us. The battle moves forward to its final conclusion, and we are carried along with great throngs of fearful masses. The sky, God, is not devoid of feeling as Prince Andrei once thought.

I quote the apostle Paul: I pray that he would give you, according to his glorious riches, strength in your inner being and power through his Spirit, and that the Messiah would make his home in your hearts through faith. Then, having been rooted and grounded in love, you will be able to understand, along with all the saints, what is wide, long, high, and deep—that is, you will know the love of the Messiah — which transcends knowledge, and will be filled with all the fullness of God.

Our world today is full of people hiding behind irritability, anxiety and fear. Every last person feels the pain of separation from others—and from God. But love is right here. We do it badly but it is here.

Tolstoy does not tell us what becomes of Andrei’s son but I hope Pierre and Natasha recognize the need he has—that echo of his father’s need. Let them love him.

***As one might imagine in a book so rich there are many themes and ideas I couldn’t possibly cover such as:

The nature of beauty

Sibling love

Military strategy and military life

Fate and free will (in general)

The nature of God

Love and forgiveness

The slavery of great men thought of as leaders to their fate

I’ve included links but have not read them since my desire with this endeavor is to come at these works using my own heart and brain. 🙂




50 Books Before I Die (or in the next 5 years)

classic book club

I’ve gone against type and joined a club! The Classic Book Club!

I’m so excited to begin my FIVE YEAR JOURNEY reading through and blogging about 50 classic books! My goal is to read and post about a book each month.

The list below is in no particular order (though while compiling the list I’ve nearly finished War and Peace and can’t wait to write my first response post).

I’ve set my starting date as August 1, 2017 and my end date as September 1, 2022 (I think I actually have 51 books on the list and may want to sneak in a few extras).

Any last minute suggestions? I’d love to hear them!

Classics Club Book List

War and Peace Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy

Tom Jones Henry Fielding

Clarissa Samuel Richardson

The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas

Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë

Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray

The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame

A Passage to India EM Forster

A Light in August (or The Hamlet) William Faulkner

The Pursuit of Love Nancy Mitford

The Woman in White Wilkie Collins

Three Men in a Boat Jerome Jerome

Candide Voltaire

Cecilia Fanny Burney

The Life and Opinions Tristam Shandy, Laurence Sterne

The Vicar of Wakefield Oliver Goldsmith

The Nun Diderot

The Prairie James Fennimore cooper

Blithedale Romance Nathaniel Hawthorne

Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy

Black Beauty Anna Sewall

The Perpetual Curate Margaret Oliphant

Lilith George Macdonald

Washington Square Henry James

Silas Marner George Eliot

The Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Ambrose Beirce

Love Stendhal

The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Moll Flanders Daniel Defoe

Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro

The Prince Niccolo Machiavelli

The Sailor who fell from Grace with the Sea  Yukio Mishima

 The Misanthrope Moliere

 Writings on Nature John Muir

Animal Farm George Orwell

Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak

The Story of an African Farm Olive Schreiner

The Red and the Black Stendhal

The General CS Forester

The Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri

Lord of the Flies William Golding

Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon

Kim Rudyard Kipling

Flowers of Evil Charles Baudelaire

Night Elie Wiesel

Moonstone Wilkie Collins

Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty John W. De Forest

My reading companion Elizabeth