Monthly Archives: April 2012

Family Book Club #1: brotherreads


I have a lot of siblings.  I have a lot of nieces and nephews.  And I have a LOT of cousins. Put them all together and you have centuries worth of  reading. Hence, family book club, starting with Brother #3.

Andrew is number five out of the six of “kids” in my immediate family (I’m the baby. Like you couldn’t tell.).  He is married to a very lovely lady, and neither of them have time to read these days because they’re way too busy holding down full time jobs while chasing after their 3.5 and 0.5 year old boys.  Back in the day, however, he and his wife used to read all the time, especially to each other in romantic fashion under the trees/stars/sunset/etc. while the rest of us tried to figure out whether we were nauseated or jealous. Andrew introduced me to many, many good things, including graphic novels, Heroes, the Optina Elders, and perfectly buttered toast, to name a few.  Big brother rocks.

He also wins for being the first to respond to my request for favorite book titles. The two that most interested me were:

“Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always for those who love Neil Gaiman’s terrifying children’s books .”

“The Brothers Karamazov for those who love the church, complicated Russian downers, and so I can look smart.”

Hooooooboy do I love all of those things.  Even the books!

The Thief of Always is a fantastic book, and certainly merits its own post, but I think for today I’ll focus on Dostoevsky. In fact, the latter half of this post should probably be titled “Dostoevsky: A Love Letter”.  You’ve been warned.

Back in the day (2008), I was fresh out of college and working my very first job in Princeton, New Jersey as a General/House Management intern at a theater.  As ill-suited as I turned out to be for the work, I still count this as one of the happier periods of my life.  Princeton was the birthplace of our Orthodox women’s book club, meeting weekly at Small World Coffee (amazing!) for breakfast. We took great works of literature apart in chunks, analyzing them from an Orthodox perspective. (Then we would talk about boys/life for the last half hour.  It’s all about balance.) It was in this context that I encountered Dostoevsky. Our first book was Notes from the Underground, and when it was my turn to lead, I chose The Grand Inquisitor section from The Brothers Karamazov (Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, of course).

Andrew introduced me to The Brothers K. years ago through this same passage, citing it as the most important part of the book. His retelling of The Grand Inquisitor was one of his ways of introducing me to the concept of good and evil, and the bizarre fact that we often choose evil even with Good staring us straight in the face. Certainly, it’s a section that stands well on its own, and we can argue about how important the context of the larger book is another time. At any rate, Andrew has always been the storyteller in our family, and this particular story had me hooked.

The Russian playwright Elena Skorokhodova said in an interview that  “A true artist should transform the world, inspire it, uplift man above his animal nature, raise his thoughts to heaven, and reveal to him the image of God that is within himself.”  Dostoevsky fulfills this description, but he also performs another critical function of the artist: forcing man to face his animal nature before showing him the heights he can attain. Reading Notes from the Underground can be an incredibly painful experience as you recognize and even sympathize with the sins of “the underground man”.  The book is relentless in its portrayal of a man who deliberately turns from morality, from God, and towards self-destruction again and again and again.  If I hadn’t had the book club to read it with, I doubt I would have made it through.

The Brothers Karamazov is a more balanced experience.  The Grand Inquisitor section is offset by the Father Zosima passage, the three brothers demonstrate different human archetypes while retaining the soul that sets Dostoevsky’s characters apart.  I recommend reading it with a friend to sort out some of the thornier passages (especially in the Dmitry section, which is practically impossible to do on your own), but everyone should read it even if you don’t have a friend who’s into complicated Russian downers. Hey, I’ll read it again with you, if you really want.

I want my next Dostoevsky to be The Idiot, but I don’t have it in paperback yet, and I’m getting- well, a little bored with my kindle.  The sameness of the format is making it hard to stare at after a few hundred hours.  Anyone interested in a read along?

So, good choice, Andrew. Who’s next?

Currently reading: To the Lighthouse (finally moving away from those wretched and seductive YA novels- hopefully a good sign)


Elder Leonid of Optina


I’m still working on Elder Barsanuphius, but here’s a short quote for today:

“If you would be simple-hearted like the Apostles, would not conceal your human shortcomings, would not pretend to be especially pious, if you would walk free from hypocrisy, then that is the path. While it is easy, not everyone can find it or understand it. This path is the shortest way to salvation and attracts the grace of God. Unpretentiousness, guilelessness, frankness of soul – this is what is pleasing to the Lord, Who is lowly of heart. Except ye become like children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of God (Matt. 18:13).”

Elder Leonid of Optina

A small tribute


My auntie and father in the early '90s.

Nearly a year and a half after I picked it up, I finished A Grief Observed . I first tried reading it in an attempt to deal with my brother’s death in late 2009. Mid 2010, the wound was still too fresh to be able to dive into the book properly or usefully.

There are those who might argue that there’s no right or wrong time to read a book, watch a movie, see a piece of theater, respond to an artwork. On some level they may be right. Art is not just about what the piece is, in itself, but about who you are, and how you respond to it. After all, how can we explore or explain anything if not through the lens of our own experience? One might also argue that it’s our experience that makes an artwork beautiful. Am I talking myself into this?

Mm… not really. Personal experience can enhance an artwork’s power or devalue it, but just as there are certain objective truths about personalities, there qualities in a real piece of art (which is a projection of personality) that will make people respond. (If you really want to get into this but don’t feel like hauling out your Heidegger, read or see Yasmina Reza’s Art which is, like all good plays, really about relationships- but I’ve digressed enough).

All of this is a very roundabout way to justify the fact that I was not ready to face up to A Grief Observed before.  You should know that it’s a journal- never written for public consumption. Lewis makes powerful, uncomfortable statements about God that he later retracts as “a yell rather than a thought” (p.35).  He leads you through the stages of grief, not as defined by Kübler-Ross but lived and relived in his heart and mind.  If you’ve suffered a significant loss (which we all must at some point) it is very painful to see elements of your own dark days reflected on the page.

I begin writing many of my posts well before I put them up. This one was started several weeks ago, before Holy Week, before my aunt suddenly announced that she was dying and then got on with it last Monday. She was a very special lady, Cecilia Rose, the matriarch after our matriarch died in the early nineties. Her home became the gathering point for our clan (and with 40 grandchildren and innumerable great grands, it is a clan).  Cheech was there through every major illness, all our graduations, countless theatrical productions, bridal showers, new babies… She sat at my father’s, brother’s, aunt’s, uncles’ bedsides for hours, joking and soothing. She paid special attention to the fatherless kids in our family- helping to raise my cousin Eric and inviting my siblings over every chance she got. The summers we spend in Rockport together kept gave our unmanageably large family a much needed point of reference.

Beyond her actions, Cheech herself was a force to be reckoned with. She was full of joy and good humor quite literally till the end. Her appreciation of each of us as individuals was quite astonishing. I will think of her when my own siblings and I burst into spontaneous musical numbers, just like our aunties, when we visit the beach this summer where she cared for me the year my father died, when I celebrate Western Christmas with friends, when I see old family photos, when I wonder why our family seems a little bigger and less familiar.

I’d like to conclude, as I often do, with a few quotes.

The notes have been about myself, and about H., and about God. In that order. The order and proportions exactly what they ought not to have been. And I see that I have nowhere fallen into that mode of thinking about either which we call praising them. Yet that would have been best for me. Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift. Don’t we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise, however far we are from it?” – A Grief Observed, 71-72

For me at any rate the program is plain. I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness. I will even salute her with a laugh. The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her.-  A Grief Observed, 66

Oh, Cecilia, you will be missed.

Five Bookstores in Boston


Xpuctoc Bockpece! I’m back from a Holy Week/Pascha hiatus. Life is unbelievably good right now. I hope yours is the same.

Today we’re going to pretend that I only like indie bookshops and stay far, far away from the convenience of the Barnes and Noble Starbucks cafe at the Pru (chai tea what-te?). If we lived in a world where I didn’t frequently cave into corporate America, here’s where I would spend all my time.

1. Trident Booksellers and Cafe: I have always loved the Trident, from the time I discovered it in high school, through late nights waiting for the bus back to Wellesley, to now when I take all my best friends and dates there. Grab a cup of their fantastic hot chocolate while you plan a trip along the Trans-Siberian railway… (or is that just me and Kate?) I love that they have a mix of cheap books (on sale and Dover thrift) as well as nicer editions to peruse.  They also have a terrific drama section. It’s a fantastic place to while away an afternoon.

2. Raven Used Books: I’m kind of cheating on this one, since I actually prefer the Cambridge store. Raven has a small but delightfully eclectic selection. It’s well organized, bright, clean, and has a strangely large collection of Marxist literature (or at least it did last time I was there).  It’s all used books (obvi), so you can find some great deals- especially on their $3 book rack A refuge amidst the bustle of Newbury Street, but sadly lacking in comfy chairs.

3. Commonwealth Books: I get lost in this place every time I go. Commonwealth Books sells used and rare books and prints. There are two outposts, one by the State St. T stop, the other tucked around the corner across from (I think?) The Body Shop. I strongly recommend the latter. It’s a jumbled up treasure trove. My favorite “print” is the 13th (maybe 14th?) century page from the Psalter, but they have a large selection of maps, etc. The books are fairly well organized and moderately priced for used. What’s incredible is the selection. It’s not especially hard to find anything, and they have just about everything you want, but the store gives you the feeling of being lost in some old professor’s personal library. The cat wandering around is a nice plus.

4. Pazzo Books: A shout out to my local West Roxbury bookseller. Pazzo books is too small to get lost in, but otherwise reminds me a lot of Commonwealth Books. You’re greeted with a $1 book rack outside- always welcome- and wander into narrow lanes of tall shelves and a wide range of categories. They have a very decent selection and sell both in store and online. Prices are quite good, the stock has regular turn over, and the children’s section is better than any of our local toy stores. Recent finds here include a Salinger book of Arthurian legends- who knew?

5. Comicopia: Yes, I read graphic novels. Just try to tell me that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman isn’t a brilliant piece of literature. Comicopia is in sort of a weird spot as you wander up Comm Ave towards Kenmore Square. I love it because a) it is nerd heaven   b) they sell t-shirts and Pocky   c) they don’t force manga on you   d) the staff is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful and way way happy to make recommendations based on your tastes    and  e) they have a staff-recommended section where, if you buy the reduced priced book and don’t like it, you can return it with no questions asked.  I’ve acquired most of my graphic novel staples here, as well as a few weird manga that I’ve ended up enjoying (Monster, Dragon Head). Go! Visit!

That’s all for now, folks. Kali Anastasi!

A sober reminder from Elder Paisios on reading


Which clearly I have not lived up to this month (if ever).

The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read. Not to learn it by heart, but to take it to heart. Not to practice using our tongues, but to be able to receive the tongues of fire and to live the mysteries of God. If one studies a great deal in order to acquire knowledge and to teach others, without living the things he teaches, he does no more than fill his head with hot air. At most he will manage to ascend to the moon using machines. The goal of the Christian is to rise to God without machines.

-Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece
(highly recommended!)

Elder Barsanuphius II


Another excerpt from Elder Barsanuphius.

“Once,” recalled Fr. Barsanuphius, “when I was still a novice, I walked out of my silent cell on a warm July night. There was no moon, but a countless multitude of stars shone in the dark sky. I loved to walk through the secluded alley of the Skete garden at this late hour so that, left alone with God, I might tear myself away from everything mundane. I walked up to the big pond and suddenly saw our schema-monk, Fr. Gennadius, who had already spend sixty-two years in the Skete. In recent years he had not crossed through the Skete gates at all and had forgotten about the world.

“He stood motionless and gazed at the water. I called to him so as not to frighten him by my sudden appearance. I approached him: ‘What are you doing here father?’

“‘I’m just looking at the water,’ he replied.

“‘What do you see there?’

“‘Don’t you see anything in it?’ Fr. Gennadius asked in turn.


“‘But I,’ said the schema-monk, ‘am contemplating the wisdom of God. You know, I’m semiliterate; I only learned to read the Psalter, but the Lord makes known His will to me, the lowly one. And I’m amazed that learned people often don’t know the simplest things regarding the faith. You see this whole starry sky reflected in the water? That’s how the Lord settles in a pure heard – consequently, what blessedness a soul must feel which has acquired purity… Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8). Here, no matter how I try, I cannot acquire purity of soul, even though I know how important this is. And do you understand what purity of heart is?’ Fr. Gennadius asked.

“‘I don’t know by experience, since I don’t have it,’ I replied, ‘but I think that purity consists in complete passionlessness: he who possesses neither envy nor anger nor any other passion has a pure heart.’

“‘No, that’s not enough,’ objected the schema-monk, ‘it’s not enough only to rinse the vessel out – you still have to fill it with water, after uprooting the passions you hve to replace them with the opposing virtues. Without this the heart is not purified.’

“‘And do you hope to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Fr. Gennadius?’

“‘I have hope I’ll be there,’ he said confidently.

“‘Since you yourself say that you don’t have purity of soul, and only the pure in heart…shall see God?

“‘And what about God’s mercy? It makes up for all that’s lacking. It’s boundless, and I have the firm hope that the Lord will not reject even me,’ the schema-monk said; and in his words could be heard deep faith in God’s mercy.’”

Hearing such a conversation, you forget that a “semi-literate” man was speaking, who had only learned to read the Psalter. What profound lessons such people can give! There was no small number of them in Optina, in the Skete.

-Elder Barsanuphius, p. 211

Things I’m Currently Reading- April edition


March is such a strange month. Everything seems to hit the fan, with no school vacation or relief (weather!) in sight.  And there’s one tiny other factor, which came up on gchat the other day…

me: It’s Lent! Of course I’m going crazy!

So, thank God it’s April. Thank God it’s almost Pascha. Thank God for giving us His Pascha! 1.5 weeks, folks- we can do this.

Daily spiritual reading-

  1. Elder Barsanuphius of Optina, Victor Afanasiev
  2. The Bible. (Usually via

Pleasure reading-

  1. Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
  2. Watching the Roses, Adele Geras


  1. Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas

Books I that have been on hold, but want to finish-

  1. With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, Elder Paisios
  2. The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Dr. Li Zhisui
  3. Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Just finished-

  1. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (again)
  2. Sisterhood Everlasting, Ann Brashers
  3. Nineteen Minutes, Jodi Picoult
  4. Plain Truth, Jodi Picoult
  5. A Bend in the Road, Nicholas Sparks
  6. Let’s Get Lost, Sarra Manning
  7. The Choice, Nicholas Sparks
  8. This Lullaby, Sarah Dessen

Stopped because I couldn’t take it anymore-

  1. Black Mass, Dick Lehr (we know what happens, and half my kids are using it to write papers)

Next up- Revisiting some favorites!

  1. An eleventh hour attempt to read one book of the Gospel before Pascha.
  2. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
  3. A Shakespeare- I still have 6 plays left.
  4. A C.S. Lewis- A Grief Observed has been sitting on my shelf for two years
  5. An Orson Scott Card book, it’s been too long.

This month I’ve been downing chick lit like it’s chocolate.  Stress?  I also think I’ve been reading on my kindle too much. Even with 571 books on there, it feels limiting.  With unemployment looming it may be time to visit some of my favorite used book stores again…