Friday, June 24, 2016

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Some books make your heart race like a shot of caffeine. Others, like Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, are as soothing as a cup of hot chocolate. Do not read it unless you are perfectly relaxed or you won't be able to appreciate these simple, witty vignettes of small town life in 19th Century England.

The novel centers on the lives of half a dozen spinsters who live in genteel poverty. (The Cranford ladies have only an occasional little quarrel, spirted out in a few peppery words and angry jerks of the head; just enough to prevent the even tenor of their lives from becoming too flat. p. 2) It tells the story of their bravery and faithfulness to one another in the face of life's trials. The main characters are Miss Deborah Jenkyns, and her sister Matilda. "Miss Matty" has always lived under the shadow of her strong-willed sister and defers to her opinions in everything - even after her death.

Although na├»ve about finances, men, and the world in general, Miss Matty has a strong sense of right and wrong and is unshakable in her integrity. When she opens a small tea shop, she is determined not to take business away from Mr. Johnson's general store. Before she could quite reconcile herself to the adoption of her new business, she had trotted down to his shop, unknown to me, to tell him of the project that was entertained, and to inquire if it was likely to injure his business. My father called this idea of hers 'great nonsense' and perhaps it would not have done in Drumble, but in Cranford it answered very well; for not only did Mr. Johnson kindly put to rest all of Miss Matty's scruples, and fear of injuring his business, but, I have reason to know, he repeatedly sent customers to her, saying that the teas he kept were of a common kind, but that Miss Jenkyns had all the choice sorts. (p. 219)

Miss Matty, while considering herself completely inadequate, is at the same time a rock in the community because of her unwavering principles and her kindliness. Although I was frequently exasperated with her lack of gumption, I was finally won over by her quiet dignity and moral equanimity. She is proof of what George Eliot wrote in her closing lines of Middlemarch:

“the good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and [the fact] that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life....”

Miss Matty and her companions fail to live up to popular ideas of success and adventure, but they infuse their uneventful days with the joys of friendship and sacrificial love. I felt quite privileged to catch a glimpse of their richly mundane world.

This quiet little classic has been made into a lovely DVD series, which you will especially enjoy if you are familiar with the cream of the crop of the BBC's actors and actresses. Judi Dench plays Miss Matty, and the wonderful Jim Carter ("Mr. Carson" from Downtown Abbey) has a small role.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen is the pseudonym of Karen Blixen (1885-1962), a Danish writer best known for her biographical work, Out of Africa. Her writing reminds me of Flannery O'Connor because of cryptic themes and disturbing imagery, but she is not nearly as gritty as O'Connor.

Anecdotes of Destiny contains five short stories. The first, "The Diver," is about a man who achieves unusual success as a pearl diver because he makes a bargain with the fish. There are many other confusing themes and sub stories in this one.

The next story, "Babette's Feast" is the most well-known story in the book and the least enigmatic of the five. A mysterious woman appears at the cottage of two spinsters and asks them to take her in as their maid/cook. The themes and sub-themes are decidedly Christian. I've seen the movie half a dozen times and have loved its message of lavish grace. The film and the story vary in only a few small points. What is explicit in the book is implicit in the movie and it works better that way because the powerful images require less words.

"Tempests" is the third story and is about Herr Soerensen and his acting troop. Malli Ross is preparing to play the part of Ariel in Shakespeare's "The Tempest," but a real shipwreck turns her into a true life heroine. She even refers to herself as the "resurrection and the life." I was very bewildered by most of this story

I am a happily married woman who knows all about the birds and the bees, but my reading life is so chaste that I struggled through the fourth tale in which a man and a woman are paid to sleep together. "The Immortal Story" reveals no unsavory details, but it was an effort to keep reading.

Fifth, and last, is "The Ring." I actually liked this story more than most of the others because its message was more pointed. A young, radiant bride discovers that marriage is not all happiness when she loses her wedding ring under strange circumstances.

Dinesen has been on my radar for years because Elisabeth Elliot mentions her in some of her books. Although "Babette's Feast" is one of my all-time favorite stories, I have to be honest and say that I did not enjoy the rest of the book. I kept hoping some of the hinted-at themes would make themselves clear. But, alas, that was not to be.

Every serious reader should be familiar with Dinesen's "Babette's Feast," so feel free to skip the other stories and enjoy her magnum opus.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Book Giveaway Winner

Marjie Tuckerman, you won the drawing for the Green Money giveaway. I've tried to reach you via Facebook, but to no avail. Please contact me so that I can get your address to send you the D.E. Stevenson book.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Another Quote on Deep Reading

From the Middle Ages until sometime after 1750, men read intensively. They had only a few books - the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two - and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness. By 1809 men were reading extensively. They read all kinds of material, especially periodicals and newspapers, and read it only once, and then raced on to the next item. 

- from the Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts

Friday, June 3, 2016

Green Money by D. E. Stevenson

They say that Georgette Heyer is the queen of witty dialogue. If so, then D.E. Stevenson is the queen of friendly conversation. Even though Green Money is not my favorite Stevenson novel, I reveled in the affectionate, congenial, often blunt, banter of lifelong companions. It's my favorite kind of eavesdropping.

The time is 1939. George Ferrier is walking through the streets of London, imagining that all the life and beauty around him are in honor of his birthday.

He was twenty-five today, and it seemed to him that the sun was shining with peculiar brilliance on that account. The sun was shining for him, and the shops were displaying their most treasured wares for him, and the cars, crawling slowly down Bond Street, were winking at him with their glittering headlamps and wishing him many happy returns of the day. (p. 11)

Soon after this scene George falls headlong into an adventure which includes a crooked lawyer, a rich heiress, and the rescue of various damsels in distress. It is emphasized that George is not very brainy, but he more than makes up for with his great kindness and intuition into human character, (a little bit like John in the previously reviewed Rosemary Tree.)

This is not as cozy as the Miss Buncle or Mrs. Tim books because of light swearing and everybody smoking, but Stevenson's books are always beautifully written and chock-full of likeable, quirky characters. Take this passage about Mrs. Ferrier's car for example:

He turned into the main road and was off like a rocket. The old car seemed to respond to his urgency - it had never gone better - and for the first time in his life George felt there was something human and friendly about a car. It was not merely a mass of machinery and metal and wooden parts: it had a distinct personality and was actually responsive to his need. "Good old Granpa," whispered George. "You shall have the feed of our life if you get me there in time. I'll never laugh at you again. I'll polish your old brass nose till it shines like a beacon. I'll change your gear-box oil...." Encouraged by these promises, Granpa gave his best.... (p. 213)

This is a fun book that I would like to share. Just leave a comment about this giveaway on my Facebook page and a friend of mine who is heading to the States in a couple of weeks will mail it to you from there. Winner will be randomly chosen and will be announced in one week.

(Other Stevenson titles I've reviewed: Shoulder the Sky, Miss Buncle One, Two, and Three, Anna and Her Daughters.)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Winter Birds by Jamie Langston Turner

Normally I hate Christian fiction. The writing is sloppy, the theology shallow, and the characters unlikeable. Earlier this year I subscribed to Spirit-Filled E-books (I know, quite a name!) and have downloaded a dozen free novels for light reading. But I have been universally disappointed. I realize that these titles may  have been free simply because they are awful. (Really good writers don't have to give away their books.)

Enter Jamie Langston Turner. From the first pages of Winter Birds, I reveled in well-crafted sentences and multi-dimensional characters. The title of each chapter is a line from Shakespeare, which is a clue that Ms. Turner might not be your average mediocre Christian author.   Allusions to scripture and literature are sprinkled throughout the text:

I have been young, but now I am old. That is the usual course, though I have often dreamed of how it would be to say I have been old and now I am young, to implant my old mind into my youthful body of fifty or sixty years ago.... In matters of money I have been poor, and now I am rich. (a reference to Psalm 37)

Eighty-year-old Aunt Sophie has come to spend her last days with her nephew Patrick and his wife Rachel. She barely knows them but promises to pay them well to care for her. Since she has experienced only disappointment and betrayal in her relationships, she assumes that Patrick and Rachel care only about her money. She mocks them in her heart for their Christian faith, but slowly learns to appreciate them.

Turner does a masterful job of describing the foolishness of Christianity to an onlooker. In truth, Patrick and Rachel could easily be caricatures, but as the reader becomes acquainted with their faults and griefs, they become more complex and less easy to pigeonhole. In fact, it is their "foolishness" that changes Sophie's attitude toward them over time.

The book addresses several depressing themes (aging, teen/parent struggles, death, bad marriages), which made it hard to keep reading at times. But as the wounded people in the story reach out to each other, they find healing. Fortunately, the ending is hopeful but not preachy.

Thank you, Sherry at Semicolon, for suggesting this way-above-average author.

Friday, May 20, 2016

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Maybe it was because I just finished one more insipid "Christian" novel, but the fine language in this book was like a stream in the desert and I gulped it down like a parched Bedouin.

North and South was written about the industrial revolution, but it is not a black and white treatise on the evils of the industrial age. Gaskell does a marvelous job of showing the attitudes and  beliefs of both the factory owner and the factory worker.

Margaret Hale's father steps down from his role as vicar of Helstone (in southern England) and moves his family to the manufacturing town of Milton (in the north), resulting in an immediate clash of cultures. The refined Margaret is disdainful toward "factory people" and dislikes the noise and clatter and busyness of the town. Her father, on the other hand, revels in the activity. After a quiet life in a country parsonage for more than twenty years, there was something dazzling to Mr. Hale in the energy which conquered immense difficulties with ease; the power of the machinery of Milton, the power of the men of Milton, impressed him with a sense of grandeur. (p. 54)

 As Margaret befriends some of the families in the village, she becomes more sympathetic and understanding toward them. Though she learns to admire and respect Mr. Thornton, the owner of Marlborough Mills, she believes she is too far above him for any romantic relationship to be possible. Gaskell writes beautifully of how these two head-strong adults change their perceptions of one another.

In addition to the fine writing, the book has some of the classic themes found in Jane Austen's novels (the prejudice of Darcy in P&P, the faithful/hopeless love of Anne in Persuasion, the selfless love of Colonel Brandon from S&S, and the character development of the heroine in Emma).

It's a very literary read since each chapter opens with a few lines of famous poetry and Gaskell sprinkles famous poetry and prose throughout. (My Penguin e-version had helpful footnotes explaining their origin.)

I chortled through the repartee between Margaret and her godfather as they walked in the woods together. She asks if he is tired. . . .

He replies: You would think it romantic to be walking with a person 'fat and scant o' breath' if I were Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Have compassion on my infirmities for his sake.
She: I will walk slower for your own sake. I like you twenty times better than Hamlet.
He: I am content to take your liking me, without examining too curiously your motives. Only we need not walk at a snail's pace.
She: Very well. Walk at your own pace, and I will follow. Or stop still and meditate, like the Hamlet you compare yourself to, if I go too fast.
He: Thank you. But as my mother has not murdered my father, and afterwards married my uncle, I should not know what to think about, unless it were the chances of having a well-cooked dinner or not. (p. 314)

Maybe it's only delightful in context, but it's just one example of why the book is far superior to the BBC movie, which was unable to show the subtleties of each personality.

If you love sparkling language, well-developed characters, subtle wit, and faith dialogue that isn't completely ridiculous, you'll enjoy this title.