New Release Review: Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man

Anne-Sophie Constant: Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man (2019)

When I was living in a community with adults with developmental disabilities, one of my colleagues told me he had been inspired to take up this work by the writings of Jean Vanier, founder of the international L’Arche movement. I was intrigued, because I had never heard of the man or the movement, and I wanted to learn more.

So I read Becoming Human, as an introduction to Vanier’s philosophy. In this brief book, he presents ideas about the human condition, our experience of loneliness and belonging, captivity and freedom, and the difficult but necessary path to forgiveness. Behind every word is woven his experience of living together with the so-called “disabled,” who have been his most radiant teachers of what it means to be human.

This experience is not often explicitly described, and given my interest in this realm specifically, I found that somewhat disappointing. When Vanier talked about how one or another of the residents of L’Arche had been transformed by love, I wanted more details. What were the day-to-day practices, what were the steps of the journey?

But that is not really what the book is about. More a description of general principles than of particular examples (though some powerful ones are given), it’s full of gentle, timeless wisdom that deserves to be slowly pondered in relation to one’s own life. Thus is the fruit of the spirit developed, in patient dedication to the way of self-knowledge, and Vanier was clearly a humble but very dedicated servant of this impulse.

I still wanted to know more about L’Arche and its founder, so I was delighted when the opportunity came to review a new publication, Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, fresh off the press from Plough Publishing House. This biographical work by a longtime friend of Vanier’s has been translated from the 2014 French edition and updated for the English version. It’s about as up-to-the minute as such as book can be, as it concludes with an epilogue written in January, 2019, and Vanier died just a few months later.

The beginning of the story goes back a full century, though, with Vanier’s father Georges and his baptism-by-fire in the First World War. His heroism and ensuing life as a diplomat — as the Canadian ambassador to France, among other things — indelibly shaped the life of his young family, including the third child, Jean. A childhood spent in the public eye, moving around with no settled home, with parents strongly committed to moral and civic causes, was an unusual and in many ways not easy upbringing.

There are more surprising twists and turns to the story, which you may discover if you read the book for yourself — finding out how this boy from a privileged background chose to share his life with the poorest of the poor, the ones most excluded and shunned by society: the intellectually disabled. In the process he found wealth unknown to those who pursue merely worldly success; and even more remarkably, was able to share it with many others who joined or merely heard about his community.

His strong Catholic faith, which he shared with his parents, had much to do with it. Vanier was committed to following Christ, and he found that his way led into this form of poverty. But it was not a way of penitence and sorrow, nor of narrow sectarian religion, but a gateway into joy, happiness, and the abundance of love that embraces all faiths. This is what he found when he spontaneously decided to move into a dilapidated house with two disabled men, to create a home together with them rather than to found an institution. This impulse of joy is what continues to mark the L’Arche movement, which has spread so amazingly worldwide from that one small household, to this day.

It’s a beautiful story, and I found it moving and inspiring. My only quibble, once more, is that I wanted more specific details. I know from personal experience that it is not easy to create such a community, and to keep it going through the tempests caused by our human failings, however much one may believe that we are all rooted in the spirit of love. How did they manage? What are the practices, not only the principles, that support such a movement? What were Jean’s personal trials, suggested but never thoroughly explored?

But again, that’s not really what this book is about. As the subtitle tells us, it’s a portrait — really just a sketch, as that is all that can be given in less than 150 pages. It’s not enough to convey all that I would like to know, but sufficient to give an impression of a remarkable man and his amazing journey through life.

The wisdom I most appreciate as I grow older is not found in the evolving of great thoughts and mind-expanding innovation; it’s found in the expression of kindness, of the compassionate heart that brings new life into a deadened world by offering a space where the other person can become him- or herself. This wisdom is in its essence so simple, so basic, that we can easily overlook and dismiss it, as we do the “simple” folk who walk unseen in our midst. But at times there appears a person who becomes its representative in such a way that we can clearly perceive its healing power.

Such a man, as this book convincingly portrays him, was Jean Vanier. Even if we are not among the thousands who were directly affected by his work, who experienced him face-to-face, we can be glad to know that such a person existed, and try to learn from his example.


New Release Review: The Heart’s Necessities

Jane Tyson Clement with Becca Stevens, The Heart’s Necessities (Plough, 2018)

The Heart’s Necessities is a book with at least four layers. The foundation layer is a selection of poems by Jane Tyson Clement, written over a period of more than fifty years and mostly unpublished during the poet’s life. Each section of poems, arranged in roughly chronological order, is introduced by a brief biographical sketch — the second layer — giving insight into the quiet but strong spirit behind this lifetime of work.

This would all be interesting enough, but there’s a third layer of commentary by Becca Stevens, a rising young singer-songwriter who discovered Jane’s poetry when looking for lyrics for a song to honor a friend who had died. Becca eventually set five of Jane’s songs to music and developed a deep sense of connection and admiration for her as a person and an artist, which shines through her personal notes on some of the poems that have been most meaningful to her. And finally, going beyond the printed page, you can watch and listen to Becca playing her songs here.

One can obviously approach this book in a number of ways. Some music-lovers will be interested in getting to the source of the lyrics they have enjoyed. Others with a connection to the Bruderhof, the Christian community that Jane joined as an adult, will appreciate following her spiritual path as revealed through her life and work. (Plough is the publishing house of the Bruderhof, which produces a wide range of titles on spiritual life, social issues, education, and more.)

I was simply intrigued to delve into the work of an unknown poet who seemed to have such appeal in a variety of directions. I found her simple, unpretentious style very appealing, and free of the strenuous word-wrestling that I often find off-putting in contemporary poetry. These are the poems of someone who is trying to think with the heart, with honesty and compassion.

Though Jane’s  faith was the center of her life, her poems seldom speak explicitly of God or Jesus. When they do, it is not in a narrow sectarian way, but as a universal creative presence, a spirit of love. Mostly, she writes from her personal perspective about nature, the people she cares for, her evolving ideals of peace and justice, and the paradoxical mix of sorrow and joy that makes up our life.

I’m so glad to have met these poems, and the songs that inspired them, and will find these words enriching my life for a long time to come. I am grateful for the permission to share a few samples with you below; to learn more or purchase the book, please check out this page.



I feel the stirring of the unprofitable years,
the weight of prophecy and ancient grief.
We talk, the words flash golden and then die;
the thin smoke curls, beyond the window’s dark
a bat cheeps, faint, repeating, in the night.

Words are the symbols of a mind’s defeat,
they shape the hollow air with resonant life,
and trick and twist and make the spirit reel,
vanish like ember’s fire, devour and leave
brave husks and echoes of lost majesties.


Jane Tyson Clement, from The Heart’s Necessities ©Plough Publishing House, 2019, used with permission.

Jane noted next to this poem: “after an intellectual discussion on the peace question.” I love how it brings out the insufficiency of words, the frustration of mere talk — and yet the act of writing such a poem is a struggle toward meaning as a creative deed.



Am I deceived, if I have given love
the voice to spell the essence of my days,
authority to rule in all its ways
and with its urgency my spirit move?
Am I betrayed, in yielding love this power,
in giving it the scepter and the crown,
the brightest banner and the sole renown,
unchallenged victor over every hour?

It is not I but love who is deceived,
and love who risks disaster, trusting me,
and puts its energy in jeopardy
and will by my defaulting be bereaved.

I have not strength nor majesty to bring
sufficient zeal to such a lord and king.

from the chapbook The Heavenly Garden (1952)

Jane Tyson Clement, from The Heart’s Necessities ©Plough Publishing House, 2019, used with permission.

Jane’s poems are often formal in rhythm and rhyme scheme, and she wrote a number of sonnets. Here’s one on a favorite philosophical theme.



I carry life or death within me,
this little stirring, blind and pushing creature
is the sweet paradox
weighing me down with either joy
or sorrow.

Teach me, my little one, the slow acceptance,
whether death or life is borne within me.

I am in God’s hands, and you
in God’s hands
through me —
all of it God’s: the light, the dark,
the winter,

and this wild, petal-drifting,
sun-dazed May.


Jane Tyson Clement, from The Heart’s Necessities ©Plough Publishing House, 2019, used with permission.

The paradox of death within life is one that Jane often ponders in her poetry. The essence of her spiritual path is a journey toward the acceptance she describes here, of the winter that we must live through in order to come to a truer experience of spring.



New Release Review: Looking for Betty MacDonald

Betty MacDonald Bio

Paula Becker, Looking for Betty MacDonald (2016)

LookingBettyShortly after I included Betty MacDonald in a post about funny female authors, this book landed in my mailbox. I was delighted to explore MacDonald’s life and work through Paula Becker’s thoughtful, painstakingly researched biography, and even more thrilled to see that University of Washington Press is going to be reprinting three hard-to-find later works by the bestselling author of The Egg and I: Anybody Can Do Anything, The Plague and I, and Onions in the Stew. I’m so excited to share them with you, and hope that if you’re not a MacDonald enthusiast, you will be soon.

But back to the matter at hand: if you’ve ever read one of MacDonald’s memoirs, or the classic children’s series Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, you may share historian Paula Becker’s curiosity about the woman behind the words. Where did the comedic craft she executed so brilliantly come from? What was the real life that gave rise to her autobiographical works? What was the effect on her of the smashing success of Egg, and how did her story continue past that point?

Becker explores all these questions, shedding light not only on MacDonald’s life but on early Pacific Northwest history, the vagaries of the publishing world, the media circus, the trials of being a woman author in postwar America, and more. Like many comic artists, MacDonald had a good measure of tragedy and suffering in her life, and it is fascinating to learn about what didn’t make it into the books. Money troubles were a constant theme, but she also went through spousal abuse, divorce, illness, lawsuits, and in the end died far too soon of cancer. But what comes through in the biography is a portrait of a brave, determined, not necessarily easy-to-live-with woman, who was nevertheless able to make readers feel they had found a trusted friend.

Though Egg was a phenomenal success on publication, the first book to sell a million copies in under a year, it is the one that is perhaps the most difficult to read today due to MacDonald’s one-sided, unflattering portrayal of Native Americans and of her unsophisticated neighbors (the ones who sued her for libel). Yet at the time it was what the public wanted; her later books, with more broad-minded views, met with less success, leading to an unfortunate cycle of financial and artistic pressure that ended with her heirs owing the advance for unwritten books on her death. Still, she managed to inspire a whole generation of women writers to mine the vein of domestic comedy, and was also a pioneer in her writing about women in the workplace. Her achievements and her frustrations were both important, and Becker brings both aspects to light.

Becker was inspired by the real-life places where Betty MacDonald and her family lived, and if you know Seattle, you’ll especially appreciate her journeys through places like Laurelhurst, Ravenna, and Vashon. How I wish I had known about the house on NE 15th Street — like Becker, I must have driven past it many times, but I never realized its connection with the author. Though the house is now demolished, we can be grateful that Becker has preserved it for us in words, and has given us valuable insights into her world, her books, her family, and the writer herself.


New Release Review: CS Lewis and His Circle

Roger White, Judith Wolfe, and Brendan Wolfe, eds., CS Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford CS Lewis Society (2015)

CSLewisCircleClosely following The Fellowship, a splendid group biography of the Inklings, comes this new collection, a fine companion volume for those looking for more on CS Lewis and company. A student society founded in 1982 with the aim of grappling with “the rich relationship between Christianity, culture, and the imagination, including literature,” the Oxford CS Lewis Society has had hundreds of talks given under its aegis throughout the years. What a delight it must have been for an Oxford student sympathetic to these themes to be able to belong to this club and participate in its activities.

Much of the material produced for the club has never been published, but in this volume we are privileged to read a pithy but very rich and deep selection, encompassing essays on philosophy, theology, and literature in the first half, and memoirs of the Inklings in general and CS Lewis in particular in the second. Some highlights for me included Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, giving an appreciative reassessment of one of Lewis’s less popular novels, That Hideous Strength; Peter Bide’s memory of how he married Lewis and Joy Davidman, setting straight the record which has been rather sentimentalized and distorted by fictional treatments; and Owen Barfield himself, who outlived almost all his fellow Inklings, brilliantly analyzing his relationship with Lewis and teasing apart their intertwined opinions.

Each reader, however, will find his or her particular points of interest, whether in studies of the esoteric fiction of Charles Williams, considerations of the relationship of WH Auden to the Inklings, or personal reminiscences of Lewis and his family and friends. Framed by a Foreword and Afterword that put them into the context of the origin and history of the Society, these diverse contributions give a welcome taste of the many ways there are of encountering and understanding Lewis and the Inklings.



New Release Review: The Fellowship

Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015)


Love them or hate them — and there are large camps on both sides — it’s undeniable that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien have had a huge impact on the imaginative landscape of the last century. Where did their tales of planetary travel, magical wardrobes, sinister rings, and elves, dwarves and hobbits come from? What were the sources of their Christian faith, and how was it expressed in their fiction and nonfiction? What do they still have to say to us in today’s post-modern, highly secular world?

To understand the Tolkien/Lewis phenomenon, it’s vital to see them in their context of friends, fellow academics, and colleagues, particularly the circle known as The Inklings, a semi-informal writers’ group that saw the genesis of many of their most important works. Two lesser-known members of the group, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, played crucial roles in its development, and particularly influenced Lewis as intellectual foils and sparring partners. In The Fellowship, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski explore the extraordinary creative ferment of the Inklings with zest, lucidity, and intelligence.

The Zaleskis are clearly in the friendly camp, but avoid idolizing their subjects excessively, bringing in some of their less savory sides while ultimately refraining from passing judgment. (Lewis lived for many years with a married older woman; the angelic Williams had a taste for sadism.) They adroitly juggle the stories of the four men and their overlapping paths toward Oxford, painting a fascinating picture of the flowering of a literary circle within the turbulent years of a world at war. Even in a book whose main section exceeds 500 pages, it’s not possible to exhaustively cover each life; some personal details are glossed over, the emphasis being on their “literary lives” as the subtitle states. But in general a fine balance is struck between the private and public sides of the Inklings, and much light is shed on the sources and reverberations of their work.

For any avid reader of any of these four writers, this is an essential and highly enjoyable book. Even those who disdain Lewis’s popular Christian apologetics or Tolkien’s Hobbit epic may, the Zaleskis hope, “come to see that Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, Williams, and their associates, by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relation to faith, transcendence, and hope, have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature.” That’s my hope, too, and my reason for continuing to hold these four writers as touchstones for my literary life.


Empty Mansions (Nonfiction November Review)

Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Empty Mansions (2013)


Dedman Newell Huguette Clark

This is a story about money: about the winning of a great American fortune, its spending on acts of  generosity and selfishness, and its end in the hands of eager lawyers and rapacious relatives. It’s also the story of an enigmatic woman, Huguette Clark, who was worth $300 million yet chose to live the last twenty years of her long life in a simple hospital room, even though she owned several uninhabited, impeccably maintained properties. Who was this woman of unbelievable wealth and unusually reclusive habits? Why did she hide from her relatives? Was she, as they claimed, under the influence of unscrupulous employees who benefited from her lavish gifts — and perhaps mentally imbalanced?

Huguette is gone and cannot speak for herself, but her cousin Paul Clark Newell, Jr. and reporter Bill Dedman give us insight into her world in this absorbing account of a life lived strangely, but with an odd kind of integrity. Huguette’s father, copper magnate W.A. Clark, was a contemporary of Rockefeller and Carnegie and his self-made fortune was equal to or greater than theirs. But as well as tarnishing his own reputation during his lifetime with desperate maneuvering for political office, and adopting a flamboyantly ostentatious style that did not admit him to the higher echelons of society, he didn’t endow any institutions that would perpetuate his name. Instead, he left his substantial monetary legacy to his children by two marriages, including his youngest daughter, Huguette.

The telling of this very American story gives us the double pleasure of shaking our heads at the excesses of the very rich, even as we vicariously enjoy them through detailed descriptions. W.A. Clark took 13 years to build a Fifth Avenue mansion that was then inhabited for only 14 years — after his death it was too expensive for anyone else to maintain. Huguette spent unbelievable sums on elaborate doll scenery and figures, many of which she never saw in person. While we may scoff at such “pointless” enterprises, who among us does not dream of the hobbies and interests we would indulge if we had unlimited funds? Although some of the staff who tended Huguette at the end of her life sneered at her preoccupation with dolls and Flintstone cartoons, Dedman and Newell portray her with sympathy and respect. The licensed robbery of estate planning lawyers and hospital development professionals, on the other hand, does not come off quite so well.

Empty Mansions painting
A painting by Huguette

Such professionals, who specialize in separating the rich from their money, meet a frustratingly intransigent subject in Huguette. She puts off making a will for years. She gives freely, but only where she chooses: notably to her private-duty nurse, who “gives her life to Madame” and reaps rewards in excess of $30 million. Meanwhile, Huguette fends off schemes such as the hospital’s telling her that she has to donate to ensure the preservation of her current building or move to a much less desirable location. (She moves.) Is this generosity, self-serving — due to her reluctance to change staff, she keeps them with her with these enormous sums — eccentricity, or mental illness?

Her relatives know what they think, but readers of Empty Mansions are left with a more nuanced and complex portrait, one that reminds us of the mystery at the heart of each human life, and that we are more than our material possessions. How do we judge such a person? What did her money mean to her, and what did she truly value? The intensely private Huguette is a difficult subject, but Dedman and Newell have done a fine job of sifting through the available evidence and presenting it in an even-handed way, while still leaving us in no doubt of whose side they are on.

A French fable that Huguette recited to her doctor a few years before her death ends: “To live happily, live hidden.” I highly recommend this sometimes disturbing, always fascinating account of a life that has not yet disclosed all its secrets.


Looking for Jane: The Real Jane Austen

Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (2013)

Austen biography Paula ByrneWhen we enter a preserved old house, objects are what we see. These paintings, cushions, scribbled notes, and scraps of lace are what are left to us as our link to the past. It can be a challenge to make the imaginative leap that brings the dead artifact to life, drawing out something of the living meaning it once had for the people who formerly handled and viewed it.

In The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things Paula Byrne takes up this challenge, with admirable results. She does not seek to write yet another conventional biography of the elusive author, weaving together the available evidence (not very abundant) with biographical speculation to create a coherent cradle-to-grave narrative. Rather, she takes eighteen “small things” that formed part of Austen’s world, and uses them as the starting point for thematic essays that illuminate aspects of that world.

Though the essays take us on a very roughly chronological path, there are so many diversions along the way that it would be advisable to read a more traditional biography first, for orientation. With some dates under your belt, you are then free to range among the objects on display — an east Indian shawl, a vellum notebook — and explore how their history and significance connects with Austen’s life and work.

Byrne is concerned to dispel some of the myths that have grown up around the author, starting with the family-sanctioned biography by her nephew. In the place of the Victorian picture of a prudish, home-bound spinster scribbling away in a corner she gives us a theater-loving, relatively well-traveled woman who knew the facts of life and was aware of the political issues of the day. Byrne frequently departs from her main subject to discuss the people, places, and events that surrounded her. The result is a wide-ranging, eclectic, and always engaging picture not just of Jane Austen but of her whole social milieu at the turn of the nineteenth century.

While obviously it’s not the purpose of such a book to eschew anachronisms entirely, it is more pleasant if the language harmonizes with that of its subject. In general Byrne does fairly well, but there are some modern missteps, as when Jane’s naval brothers “didn’t make it” to their father’s funeral. Also jarring are the moments when Byrne leaps to conclusions for which there is really no concrete evidence: that Austen was afraid of childbirth, for example. She makes some confident pronouncements that evaporate on closer examination, as when she states of one of Austen’s favorite authors, Fanny Burney: “Without her, it would not have been possible for Jane Austen to reject the convention that a heroine must be beautiful.” Why on earth not? An attentive editor could have smoothed out some of these rough spots, so it’s a pity they remain.

If you can cope with these drawbacks, there is still much fascinating information here, presented in an entertaining and largely intellectually respectable way. Laying claim to “the real Jane Austen” is pretty ambitious, but by anchoring her book in real, tangible things, Byrne at least gives us a new angle on the author, her creative process, and the world she inhabited.


A Reader’s Journey: My Life in Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (2014)


criticism biography literature

Why aren’t there more books like this? Rebecca Mead takes us on a deeply personal, yet wide-ranging tour of one of her life’s touchstones, Middlemarch by George Eliot. In the process we learn about Eliot’s own life and times, gaining insights into the origins of the book’s characters and themes, and into how a great book can transform and teach us.

Mead does not erase herself from the book, unlike literary critics or biographers who try to achieve “objectivity” (impossible, yet expected) in their works. She tells us what aspects of the book had significance for her and how those changed through her life; she takes us along with her as she visits Eliot-related sites and people, giving us not only facts but her emotional response to the experience of trying to connect with the past. Yet she does not turn the book into a narcissistic exercise, a “this book is really all about me” kind of narrative. The focus remains firmly on Middlemarch, throwing more light upon this great novel so that in turn it can illuminate our own lives even more.

An experienced journalist, Mead is skilled at linking her thoughts and observations and creating connections between ideas. She organizes the book by naming her eight chapters after the eight parts of Eliot’s original novel, which bear titles like “Old and Young,” “Waiting for Death,” “Two Temptations.” She expertly crafts each piece to touch on relevant themes — how the unmarriageable Eliot found love and fulfillment with George Lewes; her relationship with her three stepsons; a somewhat creepy epistolary pursuit by a persistent fan — interspersed with Mead’s own experiences with love, family, and literary endeavor. It all flows easily and readably, concealing the craft that went into making a book that plays so many roles into a seamless whole.

If you’ve read and loved Middlemarch, or even if you haven’t, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book, which celebrates and brings greater understanding to our love of reading. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.