“We know so little about even those who are closest to us. We know so litle of what really goes on in other people’s lives.” – Ginerva in Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch


I went on the other day about Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series of novels, but should also mention that she wrote many books prior to Starbridge.

Until recently, I had never read any of those books, for fear they wouldn’t be as substantive and enthralling, and I didn’t want to be disillusioned. I finally manned up and started reading Wheel of Fortune last week, as many Howatch fans consider this to be her best pre-Starbridge novel.

Her earliest works are “gothic” novels, followed by the family sagas such as Wheel of Fortune. There’s a clear demarcation between these works and the Starbridge series because, according to her Wikipedia page:

Howatch found herself “rich, successful, and living exactly where I wanted to live,” but feeling a spiritual emptiness which she ascribed to “trying to hold my divided self together” and questioning her life and what she should do with it…

She experienced a spiritual epiphany, and concluded that she should continue to write novels, but to “set forth my discoveries in the light of faith, no matter how feeble and inadequate my beginner’s faith was.”

The Starbridge novels sprang from that and this is why they feature clerical figures, but, make no mistake, they don’t at all fit into the Christian fiction category in the Family Bookstore sense of the term and most readers of that sort of fiction would be put off by these novels.

Anyway, back to Wheel of Fortune, which could just as easily be called Wheel of Misfortune, as it details the trials of a rich family during the span of a few generations. It’s a 1000 page novel and I didn’t notice until I was about 20 pages in that the copy I was reading was volume 2 of that novel and began on page 474. Oops. That says something about Howatch’s storytelling, that I was able to begin reading halfway through and immediately be swept away by the story.

A Facebook friend posted this Flannery O’Connor quote yesterday and I thought it tied in well with Howatch:

There is something in us as story-tellers that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance of restoration. The reader looks for this motion, and rightly so, but he has forgotten the cost of it. His sense of evil is deluded or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. He has forgotten the cost of truth, even in fiction.

Howatch tells the Wheel of Fortune story from the perspective of several characters. You’ll be reading along and then suddenly it will be another character’s turn to pick up the story where the previous character left off and you’ll be all, “No! I was having fun reading from this character’s perspective!” Inevitably the next character is someone who was portrayed negatively by the previous character and, inevitably, when you start seeing the story from their own perspective, you’ll start liking them and be surprised at how insightful, charming and empathetic that character can be, even though the previous character may have portrayed them negatively.

The quote I put at the top of this post from the Wheel of Fortune reflects this and is what I consider to be the main theme of the novel: “We know so little about even those who are closest to us. We know so little of what really goes on in other people’s lives.”

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The best books are the ones that read you more than you read them.

That is how I feel about the English novelist Susan Howatch’s novels, particularly her Starbridge series (here’s a chronological list of her Starbridge series that I posted on Amazon several years ago).

It is also why I’ve read through the series three times and will re-read it again this summer. There aren’t any other works of fiction that I revisit in this way.

The last time I re-read the series I finished the last novel in a tiny cabin on Lake Michigan, shivering under the covers because it’s always freaking cold on Lake Michigan, even in the summer, and I was in the throes of the worst allergy attack of my life, as the buildup of dust and mold in the cabin from the winter was too much. The Claritins and Benadryls I popped like candy didn’t bring even the merest edge of relief, but even in that state Howatch’s storytelling kept me riveted.

The Starbridge series is a fictionalized account of some of the main players in the Church of England in the mid 20th century. That probably sounds like it would be a snooze, but it’s not.

For example, if I were to write a six word story of the first book in the series, Glittering Images, it would be: Bishop or whore? Hard to tell.

Scandals involving bishops are one of life’s constants, so it gives  Howatch plenty of material to work from. The other day I read a comment thread on a blog in which someone said it’s better to be a whore than a bishop, because being a bishop has a corrosive affect on one’s personality and at least a whore is honest about what she does. There’s some wisdom in that. Power is corrupting.

Another six word story for the book could be: Image was everything. Until it wasn’t.

She uses psychology and theology to strip down the characters and get past their glittering images. As one Amazon reviewer said, reading the book was like being in her own counseling session. Another reviewer said, “With elements that would appeal to those with an interest in mystery, romance, Jungian psychology, or the spiritual life, this volume will fit well on many and diverse readers’ shelves.”

This article by Charles Howard goes into more detail about Glittering Images and how it deserves a place of prominence on his university office book shelf over his academic tomes.  I also like how he ties it in to helping students find their true identity and vocation, which is timely for me as my oldest daughter graduates high school in a week.

Throughout the series you meet a variety of characters, not just clergy. There’s an atheist lawyer, a gay prostitute, a lonely single female cook who attaches herself to the leader of a healing center, which is operated by social workers, psychologists and a priest. And many more characters.

The occult, ghosts and poltergeist activity are featured in one book. A main theme throughout seems to be that healing is a process and the reader can usually identify with at least one of the struggles a character is going through.

Much to my dismay I had heard rumors over the past few years that Howatch isn’t going to write again. This post, including the comments section, confirms that. Alas. It also gives a nice summary of each of the Starbridge books. So if you’re looking for some books to read you, there you go.

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This Mrs. Peel outfit is needed

Tonight I watched the video montage of the Emma Peel “You’re Needed” scenes and this purple and yellow outfit jumped out at me, given all the dandelions and creeping charlie I’ve been looking at in the yard lately:

Awesome outfit. If only I could pull it off. Actually, I’d have to pull it off, and change into something else, before going out into public, as an outfit like that would make people say, “Anita, you’re not needed.” On the other hand, that might not be so bad. :-)

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Your Vocation

As individuals we are not meant to be well-balanced, sober servants of collective values. We are not meant to be sane, safe or similar. We are, each of us, meant to be different…

The shape and character of our vocation may change at different developmental stages. We have not just one life, but many lives to live, and in the course of however long we are privileged to live, many tasks, many vocations.

Personality, or personhood as Jung might define it, is not found in adjustment to external expectations, but in serving one’s calling in the context of our environment. This may bring one to an individual experience of being ‘misjudged, derided, tortured, and crucified.’

No wonder vocation is seldom served. And yet, and yet, something in us always knows better. Something in us, no matter how much we flee it, summons us. We may avoid it all our lives, but deep down, something knows. It knows us whether we wish to know it or not. There is no escape from this knowing though much of contemporary Western culture is a flight from knowing what, inescapably, we already know.

We will be most nearly real when we serve our vocation. We will not be spared suffering, but we will be granted a deeply felt sense that our life is right, even when suffering isolation and rejection.

That deeply felt sense of what is right for us… is how we can find it is we are to do with this precious and fragile gift of life and transcendent reality we are summoned to serve. This sacrifice of the ego will constitute our greatest gift to the world.

The sacrifice of collective acceptance, which individuation demands, is redeemed by our bringing a larger person back to the world, to our relationships and to our dialogue with mystery.

–James Hollis in Creating a Life (p. 109-111)

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Alone Miles

Rose Is Rose

Alone miles. Good idea. I have a few more weeks to get some in. Where’s a Harley when you need one (here is the #1 bestselling Harley among women. A mere $7K).

Alone miles behind an electric Earthwise mower don’t quite cut it, although the Earthwise does cut the grass, er, dandelions, creeping charlie and wild violets just fine, at speeds averaging 2 m.p.h. (according to the MapMyRun application on my phone). It also leaves behind a delightful smell of fresh cut violets rather than gas and oil and ruminations of how the yellow and purple color scheme in nature looks pretty cool, so why do people spend hundreds of dollars per year poisoning their yard to get rid of it, not to mention these weeds don’t grow as tall as grass and require less frequent mowing. Also, the electric nature of the mower means I’m not burning any gas and get to feel all virtuous about that. Plus I no longer have to contort my body in weird ways to avoid turning off the mower while simultaneously bending over to remove a stick or other debris in the mower’s path, as the mower is so easy to flick on and off, no laborious pulling of a cord required, which probably means I should take up yoga again now that I no longer have to do these contortions while mowing.

Yeah, I know. Forget get trying to justify that sissy 2 mph-electric-purple-yellow mowing nonsense and just get on a Harley already. Vrooom.

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100,000 photos

A Chicago nanny who took 100,000 street photographs in the mid 1900s started receiving national attention a few years ago, shortly after her death. She zealously hid these photos from others during her lifetime and many of them remained undeveloped.

Behold three of those photos:

A young man purchased a box of negatives at an auction in Chicago in 2007. One thing led to another and he eventually figured out Vivian Maier was the photographer and he went on to acquire 600 rolls of her undeveloped film and thousands of prints and negatives.  Here’s a video that tells more of the story.

Scroll down this blog to view more photos. It’ll be well worth your time.

(H/T Lady Elaine)

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Don’t have a seat, part 2

Here’s a poster (via Andrew Sullivan) that gives yet more reasons why sitting is hazardous to your health:

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“No more questions!”

Below is a delightful video of an 87-year-old Chinese-American woman as she’s being interviewed by her children. I love her impatience with the questions (“No more questions!”) and her frankness.

As she recalled some of her sassy behavior as a child, it occurred to me that the most interesting stories older generations tell are the ones where they did something unexpected, misbehaved, took a risk, made a huge mistake, or anything at all that isn’t from the Goody Two-Shoes playbook.

Whereas with our children, we aren’t so enthralled when they do things not from the Goody Two-Shoes playbook, and it won’t be until they have children and grandchildren that tales of these exploits will have a more receptive audience.

Here’s the video:

No More Questions! from StoryCorps on Vimeo.

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Share photos on twitter with TwitpicCheck out that 11 foot tall gluten-free cake. It’s the tallest gluten-free cake ever.

This was on display yesterday in Washington, DC as part of the Gluten-Free Food Labelling Summit. Also, May is Celiac Disease Awareness Month.

Their goal was to try to get the attention of the FDA. Congress ordered the FDA to implement proper labeling standards by 2008 but it hasn’t happened yet.

I have celiac disease and know all too well how it’s a disease that most people don’t know anything about. “It’s a public health crisis no one is talking about.”

Nothing exemplifies that more than the North Carolina man who was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for selling fake gluten-free bread and making many people ill, including sending one woman into premature labor.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, he posted this rant on Facebook: “”Gluten free is bull—-!! Flour and bread have been a staple of life for thousands, THOUSANDS of years. People who claim to be gluten intolerent dont realize that its all in there disturbed little heads.” Grrrrrrr. Proper labeling laws would help ensure crap like that doesn’t happen again.

This cake stunt worked. Due to all the people who contacted the FDA and all the online publicity for the summitt, a FDA rep showed up at the cake site. “We absolutely understand why you are here and why it is important,” he said. “We will get it done.” I hope so.

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Slow Resurrection

Her small Easter. Resurrection came slowly. – Six Word Story #37

The phrase “slow resurrection” has been much on my mind the past week or two, after reading the text of an Easter sermon Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein posted on Facebook.

Everyone loves a dramatic resurrection story, whether it’s a story of a spontaneous remission from cancer, a runner who falls flat on her face during the final lap of a college championship race yet somehow bounces back up and not only manages to catch up with the rest of the runners, but wins the race, or an actress who catches a big break early in her career and goes on to fame and fortune.

Most of our resurrections are of the slow variety, however. The fractured relationship with a family member that doesn’t show signs of healing for years or even decades. Living on the financial edge through a lengthy bout of unemployment. The quiet, daily tending to the maintenance of a disease that will never go away.

Of the tending of diseases I have much experience. For example, ten years ago at the age of five, my second daughter gave herself an insulin injection for the first time without the slightest hesitation.

A year previous, while in the hospital after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, she screamed in terror whenever the nurse would prick her finger to test her blood sugar and give her a shot.  It was heartbreaking for me to have to answer her “Why???” questions with “if you don’t take insulin, you will die.”

Helping her get over the certainty of having perfect health, and accepting that diabetes management would require discomfort several times a day for the rest of her life, were daunting tasks. This is why my memory of her bravely giving herself a shot a year later stands out in my mind, even though there was no audience to applaud, and no one to give her an A for effort. It was a slow resurrection moment. Her life force was triumphing over her fears.

To be sure, there would be other times down the road she would be incoherent while in the throes of a high blood sugar and I would again have to trot out the “if you don’t take insulin you will die” line in order to get her to see the gravity of the situation.  Or I’d have to stand over her in the aisle of a store or other public place while she was in the midst of a low blood sugar episode, order her to drink a sugary beverage, lean over her for quite some time to ensure she drank it all, all the while drawing “what the hell is that mom doing forcing her kid to drink a Mountain Dew?” type looks from passers by.

I guess all slow resurrections are like that. They either go unnoticed or look weird to outsiders.

Come to think of it, even the dramatic Easter resurrection story shows Jesus initially going unnoticed by his disciples. The first signs of his resurrection were emptiness…the emptiness of the tomb and the empty burial clothes. Then when they ran into the resurrected Jesus they didn’t recognize Him for a while and were more preoccupied with their fishing. Even in the midst of that epic first Easter, their own personal Easters were small, as are many of ours.

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