Hufflepuff Leadership: a blog idea

I’m thinking of rebranding my blog. Before I explain why, I’ll briefly explain the blog’s history for those of you who haven’t been with me from the beginning.

I started in December 2011 so that I could get two free books. A friend had told me about an opportunity to receive the books for free in exchange for reviewing them on my blog. I didn’t have a blog, but there’s a lot that I’d be willing to do for free books, so I started one. (I posted the book review in January 2012.) As you will see if you read my inaugural post, I had fairly high aspirations for the blog (I wanted it to be “a place where thoughtful inquiry and the magic of words can thrive”), but I never had a specific theme in mind. For the past 6+ years, I’ve kept that tradition alive, posting about whatever I felt like posting about. In that inaugural post, I also explained the reasoning behind the blog’s name–and its subtitle, which is the motto of Ravenclaw House–and while my original ideas about the title still apply, I’ve come to identify with Hufflepuff more than Ravenclaw (a journey I’ve documented well here on the blog, in a number of existential-crisis posts). In the beginning, I sometimes used “Penelope Clearwater” as a narrative persona; I rarely do so now.

Recently, some observations and conversations have gotten me rethinking the goal of the blog and how I want to represent that goal. Let me first make clear that I have no intention of quitting my day job in order to become a professional blogger. This is a hobby. Nevertheless, hobbies can be approached with purpose just like jobs can. One way I’ve been approaching my blog with greater purpose over the past year and a half is to post weekly, with few exceptions, generally on Mondays. I’ve also linked the blog to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, garnering a larger readership, even if it consists mostly of people I know personally.

I’ve also noticed that most other people’s blogs–at least the popular ones–have a specific theme. I’ve observed that when I categorize my posts with certain keywords–especially “travel”–I get more likes and follows from the WordPress community than when I use other keywords (and certainly more than before I started using categories and tags). This phenomenon was confirmed by a successful blogger I know. Another friend helped me to nuance this idea by noting that while the blogs she follows do tend to have a specific theme (cooking, design, books, etc.), some of her favorite posts are the ones in which the bloggers depart from their ostensible topics and show a slice of their lives and/or make observations outside their chosen fields. This reassured me that committing to a narrower focus may not be as restrictive as I had feared.

Also, when my dad’s guest post from this past Friday sparked immediate attention and elicited articulate comments from some of my Facebook friends, I again got the message that people are looking for ideas to engage with and not just the kooky ramblings of my mind.

All of this led me to the conclusion that it might be time to refocus and rebrand my blog.  But I didn’t know what to focus it on until one recent morning when I was thinking about some recent conversations I’d had with a work colleague. The idea came to me that someone should write a book (or a blog–or both) about how to lead like a Hufflepuff–a person who is probably not a natural or comfortable leader. I thought it would be fun to write in the persona of a Hufflepuff prefect and offer advice, from my own and others’ experience, about leading with the qualities valued by our house. And I realized that a number of my existing posts would fit into this theme with very little tweaking.

Next week, I’ll expand on this idea, but for now, what do you think? Would you read a blog about Hufflepuff leadership, keeping in mind that not every post would be explicitly on that theme?

I want your sympathy.

I’m reading The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling’s 2012 debut “adult” novel, with the intention of having read all of her published works before I really get started writing my dissertation.  (I’m going to wait another week or two to see if inter-library loan can get me The Cuckoo’s Calling before I give up and order it from Amazon.)  I had heard multiple versions of two different, but compatible, assessments of The Casual Vacancy: that it was “racy” (invariably that was the word used) and that it was depressing because the characters were hard to like.

I’ve just finished Part One and found both of these evaluations to be true.  But I’ve also found something I didn’t expect: The Casual Vacancy reminds me strongly of a George Eliot novel.  What tipped me off to the resemblance was the name “Fairbrother”–it’s the last name of the man who dies at the beginning of Rowling’s novel, setting the story in motion, and it’s awfully close to “Farebrother,” the surname of a character in Middlemarch.  But this is just one of many resemblances between The Casual Vacancy and the Eliot canon, especially Middlemarch; others include themes of small-town life (and the pettiness that often accompanies it), sharply accurate depictions of mismatched marriages, long descriptions of characters’ interior thoughts, discussions of the problems of urbanization, and a particular focus on characters moving up or down the English social class scale, which appears in Vacancy to be fascinatingly (and depressingly) little changed since the nineteenth century.

What I don’t see in The Casual Vacancy, at least not yet, is any attempt on the author’s part to help us identify with the characters, especially the ones we don’t like.  Eliot did this a lot, and she did it masterfully, though not very subtly, often using direct second-person commands (“Ask yourself whether you would. . .”), all in an effort to develop the quality of “sympathy” (a key term for Eliot) in her readers.  Sympathy here is not feeling sorry for someone, and it’s not a naive ignorance of anyone’s faults.  It’s the ability to put ourselves imaginatively into another character’s situation and come to the conclusion that we would probably be inclined to act in a very similar way.  The point here is not to make a moral judgment about what would be the right thing to do in the situation, although that would be a logical next step.  The point is to be honest about ourselves.  I think all good realist novelists want their readers to develop sympathy; they just aren’t all as deliberate about it as George Eliot.  I think J. K. Rowling wants that for her readers too; she just isn’t making it very easy in The Casual Vacancy.  But a hard-won sympathy is probably more lasting than the knee-jerk kind anyway.  I’ll reserve my final judgment until I finish the book.

Let me make two more quick points about sympathy in a shameless effort to drag Charles Dickens and Harry Potter into this post:

1. It often takes multiple readings of a book to develop sympathy for a particular character.  When I first read David Copperfield, I thought David’s “child-wife” Dora was an annoying little twit, but now that I’ve read it several times I can see that she is remarkably self-aware in her own way and that she has a better grasp of the flaw in their marriage than David, apparently the more analytic one, does.  You gotta watch out for those first-person narrators.  They think they know everything.  (KATNISS EVERDEEN)

2. One valid reason for writing fan fiction is to try to develop sympathy with an unlikable, “minor,” or even villainous character.  Possibly this may be why there’s a lot of Draco Malfoy fanfic.  Certainly, some of it is of the shallow sort (“He looked extremely sexy and vulnerable as he knelt there weeping onto his elegantly cut black suit”), but I would also imagine–I haven’t actually read any Draco fanfic–that there’s some good stuff that explores, for example, what growing up in Malfoy Manor as an only child with those parents would do to a kid psychologically.

I promise I didn’t intend to write a literary criticism post this week; my original intention was to post pictures of my cute decorations for the afternoon party I hosted yesterday.  But I forgot to take pictures, so this is what you get.  I hope you’ll give me some sympathy.

Goat cheese biscuits

This post doesn’t have a clever title, partly because I couldn’t think of one, and partly because I figured the phrase “goat cheese biscuits” would sell itself.  This is a follow-up to my review of Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life around the Table by Shauna Niequist.  Last Saturday morning, a small contingent of our book club (only four of us could make it) gathered at the lovely home of one of our members, the same one who got us the free copies of the book, to share brunch and our thoughts on the book.  Maybe because what we were doing (eating) was for once related to the book topic, and maybe because we’d all read the book, we actually managed to carry on a sustained discussion about the book for, like, at least ten minutes.  (What normally happens in our book club is that somebody introduces a discussion, it peters out quickly, and we talk about other things until somebody awkwardly revives the topic of the book.  All this is fine with me; it’s a club, not a literature class.)

Each of us chose a recipe from the book and brought the result to share.  Although we didn’t know ahead of time what the others were bringing (well, I did; I got to cheat because I was the person who sent out all the emails about this particular meeting), the four dishes turned out to constitute a perfect, (mostly) healthy yet comforting meal for a quiet, overcast Saturday morning in the summer.  We ate Bacon-Wrapped Dates, Robin’s Super-Healthy Lentil Soup (I forget who Robin is, but she’s probably one of Shauna Niequist’s many friends), Goat Cheese Biscuits, and Gaia Cookies (named for a cafe, though you are perfectly free to imagine yourself as an earth goddess when you eat them).  The consensus was that all of these recipes were delicious, relatively simple to make, and versatile–for example, the dates would perform equally well as an appetizer at a fancy dinner, and the cookies could function as either a dessert or a breakfast.  You can see pictures of the food in this post by another book club member, whose blog is a lot more fun than mine.

I made the biscuits.  I think it would be ungracious of me to post the recipe here after receiving the book for free from the publisher, but you may be able to recreate it, or something like it, on your own, especially when I tell you that you’re basically taking biscuits and putting goat cheese in them.  I mean, it’s a little more complicated than that, but those are the essentials.  I thoroughly enjoyed preparing, eating, and sharing these biscuits.  My whole apartment smelled like butter while I was baking them (that’s another hint), which usually means something good is underway.  I do want to give you one modification and one piece of advice in order to enhance your goat cheese biscuit experience.

The modification: Niequist says that if you make golf-ball sized balls of dough, you’ll get about 12 biscuits.  I’m thinking Niequist isn’t a golfer (which surprises me; see my review), because I got 17.  Maybe she meant to say “baseballs.”  My point here is that you don’t need to skimp; make your biscuits a size that you would actually want to eat, and you won’t run out of dough.

The advice: Please reheat your biscuits before enjoying them.  They are okay at room temperature, but they are best when the cheeses (hint!) are melting.

Review: the three Fs (food, fun, and fellowship!) in a new light

I started this blog in order to review two new-release books provided to me by a friend who had connections with a publisher.  My reviews were positive overall, but not purely laudatory or harmlessly unopinionated, which may be why I haven’t been asked to review another book on my blog until now, a year and a half later.

My book club (which is a wonderful thing; you should join one for the fellowship and to be forced to read outside your literary comfort zone) is currently reading Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life around the Table, with Recipes by Shauna Niequist (Zondervan, 2013).  This book can best be described as a collection of short pieces of “life writing” (as they’re calling it these days), most of which are followed by a recipe.  One book club member hooked us up with free copies from the publisher with the understanding that we would each review the book (either on Amazon or on a personal blog) and cook a recipe from it.  I haven’t picked out a recipe yet; they nearly all look delightful, and only a few seem to be outside my cooking skill capacity.  But I can go ahead and tell you what I think of the book and just add a brief appendix later about the food.

Since I mentioned cooking skill capacity, I’ll begin by identifying one of the main messages of this book: You can and should cook, even if you don’t think you can.  As Niequist puts it, “start where you are” (40).  Generally, Niequist does a good job of conveying the persona of somebody who’s right there with you, still learning and expanding her repertoire.  Occasionally, however, this persona will show cracks, as in the chapter in which she whips up a “last-minute lunch party” that includes a perfectly-paired salad, appetizer, and dessert (213-217).  She’s the kind of person who just happens to have feta cheese and kalamata olives in her refrigerator on a normal day, but that probably has less to do with her cooking expertise than with the part of the country she’s from, just outside Chicago.  We find out toward the end of the book that she’s in a yacht club, and it isn’t surprising.  I also thought Niequist talked an awful lot about alcohol consumption for a pastor’s daughter, but again, that’s a cultural thing; I grew up in rural Pennsylvania’s mini-Bible belt, not outside a major American city.

Overall, however, I found Niequist’s stories remarkably relatable, because she writes about things nearly all American women can understand, regardless of regional or socioeconomic differences.  I particularly identified with the chapters on the intersections between appetite, femininity, and body image (there are several of these) and on the shame we experience when we feel our homes aren’t presentable (105-111); other women may find her struggles with infertility and miscarriage more compelling emotionally.  (The stories of these struggles comprise the closest thing this book has to a continuous narrative.)  The book’s thesis is that cooking, eating, and especially sharing food are ways by which we connect with and show love to others, and God shows love to us.  Niequist’s Christian faith is made explicit at several points and subtly informs the whole book, but readers of other faiths or no particular faith won’t feel alienated–thought they might be drawn by Niequist’s winsome testimony to read more books by Christians.

Niequist has a few annoying writing habits, most of which can probably be attributed to an effort to sound lyrical.  She overuses the word lovely, but that’s not such a bad word to overuse.  Instead of using a serial comma, she tends to pile up ands.  She also will occasionally take a simple declaration and turn it into a Pronouncement by adding an introductory clause such as “So this is what I’m going to do” (230) or “This is what I knew” (69) and then a colon.  I probably shouldn’t even tell you about these quirks because now you’ll be looking for them instead of enjoying Niequist’s literate yet friendly prose style.  But I work at a writing center, and I can’t stop myself.

I read this book in five days, but I could have finished it much faster.  A couple times I wanted to cry, and many times I wanted to cook, but alas, I didn’t have quinoa or goat cheese just sitting around my kitchen.  Trying out the recipes comes next.  Assuming the food is good (or that if it’s bad, the fault is all mine), I’m pleased to recommend Bread and Wine to you and your book club.

Next post: LeakyCon Portland 2013–the recap!

Dinner Party, 1885

I borrowed the title of this post from a short story I wrote several years ago.  In my story, I attempted to convey the awkwardness, tension, and even suppressed heartbreak of a gathering where the participants are trying very hard to act as expected of them according to their positions in society.  (In the original version of the story, the characters didn’t have names; they were called “the banker,” “the student,” “the epicure,” etc.)  I’m proud of that story–maybe I’ll share it here sometime–but if you really want to get a sense of the pressure of playing to type, you can either go back to high school, or you can read a novel from the 19th century.  I recommend the latter.

Before this past weekend, I would have recommended reading a Victorian novel, specifically.  I probably would have made some generalization about how the English have always been so much more hung up on class than the Americans.  While this may be broadly true, William Dean Howells’s 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, which I haven’t quite finished yet, provides a poignant and funny (and poignantly funny) illustration of a particular type of social conflict that is uniquely American: the brash yet self-conscious invasion of Boston’s artistic and intellectual aristocracy by a self-made industry hero and his well-meaning but culturally backward family.  The eponymous mineral paint millionaire finds himself in a disorienting position: The popular newspapers valorize him for exemplifying the American spirit of independence and bootstrap-pulling-up (huh?), but the cultural elite smirk at him even as they find themselves obligated to pay homage to his money by socializing wih his family.  It’s a very 19th-century story, but then again, it’s also depressingly familiar to 21st-century readers.  Heads of corporations are still alternately fawned over, sneered at, praised and blamed for events they probably didn’t bring about.  And America certainly still has an intellectual aristocracy–read The New Yorker.

The narrative voice of Howells’ novel reminds me of George Eliot’s, but without a lot of the philosophical interruptions that can make it hard to slog through parts of Middlemarch.  The main similarity is that both narrators demand our sympathy for all of the characters, no matter how distasteful they’re acting.  At first I was undecided as to whether I was supposed to sympathize with the Laphams, who sometimes come across as vulgar but have an endearing family relationship, or the Coreys, who are often snobbish but take a refreshingly clear and witty view of what’s going on.  Then I came to the conclusion (which I realize could be altered by the ending) that I’m supposed to sympathize with everyone.  This is all the more striking considering the fact that Howells, from what I gather from the editorial notes, hung out with people like the Coreys.  He could have written a completely satirical portrayal of Silas Lapham, even a farce, but instead he wrote a novel of great sensitivity.

Lapham’s oldest daughter is named Penelope, so of course I have a special bond with her.  She’s a particularly interesting character because she is, in a sense, caught between the two worlds.  She reads more than anyone else in her family, and she has a sharp wit that almost, but not quite, would enable her to hold her own in the Coreys’ drawing rooms.  Also, I think Tom Corey is in love with her, even though he’s supposed to be in love with the pretty younger sister, Irene.  I fear no good can come of this, but I can’t wait to find out.

Review: Devotional books for classic fiction lovers

A Jane Austen Devotional and A Charles Dickens Devotional (Thomas Nelson, 2012) are beautiful books.  When I received my copies in the mail, I was delighted by the lovely, understated cover art—a pastoral scene on the Austen volume and some calligraphic quotations on the Dickens—as well as by the size, perfect for holding comfortably in one or two hands.  As a bonus, there’s a ribbon marker in each book, which is always fun.

When I opened the books, I continued to be pleased.  The layout is attractive, with a passage from one of the novels on the left-hand page and the devotional reading on the right.  I was happy to see that both books represent all of the major novels of both authors, a point on which I was particularly skeptical when I first heard about these books.  I was worried that all of the quotations would be from Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist and that they would be very short and taken egregiously out of context.  So far, however, during the week or so that I’ve been using these books in my personal devotions, I’ve read and enjoyed substantial quotations from less hyped works such as Northanger Abbey and Dombey and Son.

And yes, you read that right; I’m breaking a cardinal rule of book reviewing by writing and posting this review before finishing the books.  But in the case of a devotional book, which is meant to be read in small pieces and has no narrative flow, I think that rule can justifiably be broken.  Still, I’m hoping that some of the less positive observations I’m about to make may be proven wrong as I continue through the books.  If that happens, I will be sure to revisit this post and make changes in the spirit of fairness and charity, which both Jane and Charles would no doubt approve.

I said that the quotations from the novels are well-chosen, and this is true.  I am less satisfied, however, with the quality of the devotional readings.  I’m finding them a little shallow, especially in the Dickens volume.  I haven’t encountered any heretical doctrine, of course, and I’ve only run across one clearly misinterpreted Bible verse (it was removed from its context).  But when I read the devotions, I get the impression that I’m listening to a very short sermon into which the preacher is determined to incorporate as many individual scripture verses as possible.  I tend to prefer an expository style as opposed to a topical one, and these books are very, very topical.  And it’s virtually impossible to do justice to any topic in just one page, which has very wide margins.

The reasons why the Dickens volume might be a bit weaker than the Austen volume are twofold.  One is the coverage issue: Dickens wrote a lot of books, and some of them lend themselves more aptly than others to a life-lessons style of interpretation (A Christmas Carol is a gold mine; Pickwick Papers, perhaps not so much).  I’m happy that the person selecting the excerpts was determined to represent a large sampling of the Dickens canon, but sometimes that determination leads the reader into odd places.  The other reason is that unlike Austen, who was a clergyman’s daughter, Dickens wasn’t exactly an orthodox Christian.  He was often critical of the church, and his doctrines skewed a bit toward the Unitarian.  (Note: That statement is based solely upon my own observations, and I’m not a theologian.)  Dickens’s novels contain many biblical motifs and symbols, which would make a fascinating book, but it wouldn’t be a devotional book.

Conclusion: If you are a lover of Austen and/or Dickens, buy the book(s).  At the very least, they will look nice on your shelves.  You will also enjoy revisiting some of your favorite characters and locations in all of literature (if you’re like me, that is).  If you want to incorporate the books into your personal devotions, plan to use them as a jumping-off point for excursions deeper into Scripture.  For example, I’ve been looking up the verses cited in the text and reading them in their surrounding context.  I’m finding it to be a rewarding venture.  Oh, and make sure you read the introduction(s).  So far, my favorite part of either book has been a sentence toward the end of the Jane Austen introduction.