Monday, December 29, 2008

You Know You Are a Book Blogger When...

I was amused by Chain Reader's "Ten Signs That You Are a Book Blogger" and am borrowing her idea. As I celebrate my first “blogiversary” I have created my own list:

You Know You Are a Book Blogger When…
1) You can’t sleep in on the weekend because you want to link to your most recent post as soon as possible at Semicolon’sSaturday Review of Books”.

2) You are thankful your husband likes to do all the driving so that you can get in a few extra chapters on the way to anywhere.

3) You use an index card instead of a book marker so that you can jot down page numbers, quotes and thoughts on the books.

4) You are in a bit of a panic if you haven’t started a new book by Monday in order to have a post written about it by Friday.

5) You read responses to your book posts before you open any other mail and the feedback makes your day.

It’s been a great first year and I’ve appreciated meeting many likeminded readers!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Reading Year in Review 2008

I don’t like book challenges because my reading tastes are too eclectic to stick to one genre, but I had hoped that by joining the 100 Books Challenge (no specific requirements outside of the number of books) I would increase my reading in 2008. It didn’t happen. I actually read 54 books this year which fits the goal I set for myself 20 years ago of one-book-per-week.

I had hoped to increase my book intake this year, especially with audiobooks. (I raved about them in my “Best of 2007” blog), but several things happened to change that goal. First, I found that audiobooks are good, but never quite as satisfying as reading an actual book. Second, we moved and all the transitions to the new city TOOK TIME and made fitting in extra reading time a real challenge. And third, I discovered that I don’t like speeding through books to meet a goal or deadline. I want my “reading life” to be challenging, but not a chore. And rushing through a book is like watching scenery race by through a car window. I prefer to savor the view. Here are my thoughts on the books I read this year:

Book that required the most effort but gave the most pleasure: Middemarch by George Eliot.

Book that gave the most pleasure with the least amount of effort: Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris

Best audiobooks: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (through Librivox) and China Court read by Julie at Forgotten Classics

Most inspirational: Renew my Heart by John Wesley and Imitation of Christ by á Kempis

Biggest surprises (books I did not expect to like so much) Much Ado about Nothing by Shakespeare, Hard Times by Dickens, and Elijah of Buxton

Most comforting (excluding the Bible): Jane Eyre

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Elijah of Buxton by C.P. Curtis

Many months ago I was intrigued by Becky’s comment at DCR that “Elijah is about as perfect as a book can get”. Later when I saw the book featured at our school library I decided to find out what she meant. And I’m glad I did.

Elijah of Buxton is the story of an eleven year old boy living in community of freed slaves in Buxton, Canada. It’s told from his perspective in words that were appropriate for his age and time and place. I have to admit that reading a whole book written in slang was a stretch for me (I was an English major after all!), but it was well worth it. Rarely have I read a book with such laugh-out-loud-funny scenes that was at the same time so tender and poignant. (I cried like a baby over the final chapter and I NEVER do that.)

The author, Christopher Paul Curtis, does a masterful job of writing about a thriving community of freed slaves, all the while weaving in facts and stories about the horrors of what they went through before they were free. Chapter 11 has a powerful description of a family of runaway slaves that has just arrived:

Pa walked back over to the family and said the same thing we say to all the new-free folks when they first get to Buxton. It’s the way we greet ‘em into being free.

Pa pointed up and said, “Looky there! Look at that sky!” … “Ain’t that the grandest sky y’all ever seen?” Pa smiled and pointed out ‘cross the field. “Look at that land! Look at them trees! Has y’all seen anything that precious? It’s the land of the free!”… “Now look at you’selves! Look at ‘em babies! Has y’all ever looked this beautiful! Today be the first day don’t no one own y’all but y’all…. Today’ y’all’s truly set you’selves free!” Then he opened both his arms and said to the people, “And y’all chooosed the most beautifullest, most perfectest day for doing it!”

It was peculiar ‘cause it didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing or even if the sky was being ripped by lightning and thunder, we always tell the new folks that it was the most beautifullest, most perfectest day to get free. Far as I can tell, the weather didn’t have a whole lot to do with it. (p. 165)

Although its Newbery award (for excellence in children’s literature) was well deserved, don’t let that fool you into thinking this book is just for children. Adults have more to gain from it because their life experiences will enable them to empathize with the characters in a way that children cannot. I was deeply impressed by this book. The people are believable, the writing is exceptional, the setting is fascinating and the outcome is deeply satisfying. Thanks, Becky, for bringing it to my attention.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Charles Wesley's Birthday

John Wesley is credited as the father of Methodism, but his brother Charles played a major part in the movement as well. What John taught in his sermons Charles put into musical form. He wrote over 5,000 hymns before his death in 1788. Since the Wesley brothers initially reached out to the poor and illiterate, doctrinal teaching was facilitated by the singing of songs that were rich in theological truths.

Charles Wesley’s hymns have fallen out of fashion. You will hear his most famous ones at Easter (Christ the Lord is Risen Today) and at Christmas (Hark the Herald Angels Sing). Even I, who grew up Methodist, was only familiar with half a dozen others until a few years ago. While in seminary I was given a biography of the Wesley brothers and in the back were the words to over 100 of Charles’ hymns. I read them devotionally – one a day – for several years and was greatly enriched. Today in honor of his birthday I’m quoting a few favorite lines and stanzas. (Almost three hundred of his hymns can be heard at cyber hymnal.)

From Hymn 22
Talk with us Lord, thyself reveal,
While here o’er earth we rove;
Speak to our hearts, and let us feel
The kindling of thy love.

With thee conversing we forget
All time and toil, and care:
Labor is rest, and pain is sweet
If thou, my God, art here.

Hymn 75 starts by highlighting our “God of unexampled grace”. Later he writes “Thrice happy am I” because of the three blessings of salvation: pardon, grace and heaven. Hymn 108 reminds us that the “Sun of righteousness” appeared “to gild our gloomy hemisphere”.

Poetry is compact language and as a Christian and theology teacher I love it when a lot of meaning is packed into a minimal amount of words. Next to John Donne, Charles Wesley is my favorite Christian poet.

For Christmas it seems appropriate to conclude with the first stanza of Hymn 107:

Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

One of my best friends from college was a Willa Cather fan and I’ve heard Cather’s name bandied about through the years as a “great American writer”. Naturally, I was prepared to be impressed as I dove into my first Cather book, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The book is about two Catholic priests who go out west in 1851 to revive the Catholic communities that have been unsupervised for decades. It takes place in real time with actual people and events in American history (Kit Carson, Gadsen purchase, etc.) and is apparently based on a true story Cather read of a cathedral that had been built in Santa Fé.

Throughout the narrative Bishop Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant come in contact with priests of every stripe, but most are corrupt and self-seeking. The contrast between these two devout men and the others is purposely striking. Their deep faith and friendship is the glue that holds the story together.

The book doesn’t have the normal story elements of conflict and resolution. Instead it is a string of anecdotes of life in early New Mexico. There are unforgettable incidents like the rescue of Magdalena, the feuding friendship between Father Martinez and Father Lucero, and the vanity of Doña Isabella, but no major problem surfaces that needs resolution. I am not accustomed to this type of realism in writing and I’m not sure I like it. Although I don’t like fluff, I do like themes of redemption, growth and, above all, hope.

Confused by the seeming lack of theme in the book, I did some research and found this quote in an article by Janis Johnson. “In totality, Cather’s fiction reflects the life cycle of hopeful youth, middle-aged despair and late-in-life reflection.” That pretty much sums up the book.

The writing was very good. Cather did a marvelous job of describing New Mexico in the mid 1800’s. And her descriptions were vivid enough for me to picture each person and place in the story. But as I read, I kept waiting for lightning to strike and it never came. This book failed to move me. Will somebody please tell me what I missed?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

I had the best of intentions when I went to the library to check out Bleak House. But as I saw it sitting there, clearly the thickest book on the shelf, my heart quaked a little. Almost unintentionally I reached over to the right and picked up its much slimmer neighbor, Hard Times . I had been looking for anything written about/during the Industrial Revolution so I figured Hard Times would fit the bill just as well. I was hooked from the beginning with the humorous school room scene and Mr. Gradgrind’s no-nonsense approach to learning. He was described as a “kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.”(p. 13)

I have expressed my dissatisfaction with Dickens on other occasions, but I am learning to like him. This book had some fine writing, a good variety of characters, plenty of British understated witticisms, and an intriguing story. But, frankly, I found it too depressing. Since Dickens wrote many of his novels as serials with weekly chapters in the newspaper he had to leave his readers hanging in suspense until the next chapter. I personally don’t enjoy having my emotions toyed with in that way. My favorite character from the beginning of the book had so much suffering heaped upon in him in chapter after chapter that I thought it was a mercy when he finally died. Emotionally I just couldn’t take any more.

The back of the book says it’s a diatribe against the havoc wreaked during the Industrial Revolution. That may be true, but it’s much more than that. The main conflict in the story is not worker against capitalist factory owner. The main contention is between head knowledge and heart knowledge. The contrast is drawn early in the story between the “facts only” Gradgrind school and the “uneducated, but full-of-heart” circus people.

Two of the major victims of the head vs. heart dilemma are Gradgrind’s own children. Tom’s feelings have been denied all his life and almost as soon as he leaves home he gives himself over to sensual appetites. His sister, Louisa, marries a man she doesn’t love because her father tells her it’s the sensible thing to do. His “proposal” to Louisa is heartbreaking in its coolness. So is her acceptance. Later she discovers that she does have a heart and that all her father’s educational principles had failed to prepare her for real life. Chapter 8 is the final showdown between the circus’ folks’ view of the world and Gradgrind’s. The shocking revelation is that without heart there can be no grace: It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for. Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase. Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be. Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain [agreement] across the counter. (p.283) Gradgrind discovers too late that his man-made, sensible world is a living hell that offers him no mercy when he most needs it.

A very intriguing book!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Quotes

Hunger is said to be “good sauce” for the appetite; but a still better sauce is cheerful thankfulness, and the food so seasoned is the most agreeable kind. (John Wesley from his sermon “The More Excellent Way”)

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (The Bible - I Tim 6:6-8)

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Have you ever seen a TV mystery where the murder is clearly shown in the first scene and you watch the detective solve the case as the show goes on? That is how this amazing non-fiction book begins. From the very first pages of The Ghost Map we know what caused the 1854 outbreak of cholera in London, England. The next two hundred pages are dedicated to the sleuthing efforts of a young doctor and an Anglican curate who follow clues that not only solve the mystery, but help to change science forever.

Don’t read this book if you have a weak stomach. It starts with graphic descriptions of the human excrement that was piling up in 19th Century London (before sewage plants were even thought of there) which is followed by a description of Fanny Burney’s mastectomy with only a glass of wine for anesthesia (!) If you can get past that you’ll love reading about how John Snow stubbornly bucked the scientific standards of his day by going against the popular theory called “Miasma”, the idea that putrid smells were the chief cause of illness.

Johnson writes of Snow’s courage: It was, on the face of it, a staggering display of investigative work, given the manic condition of the neighborhood itself. In the twenty-four hours since he’d received Farr’s [statistics], Snow had tracked down intimate details of behavior from the surviving family and neighbors of more than seventy people. The fearlessness of the act still astonishes: as the neighborhood emptied in terror from the most savage outbreak in the city’s history, Snow spent hour after hour visiting the houses that had suffered the worst – houses that were, in fact, still under assault… Wherever cholera was present, there he was in the midst.

Although Snow was responsible for curbing the spread of disease and for ushering in a new scientific discovery, it wasn’t until many years later that he was given credit for his efforts. Johnson concludes: History has its epic thresholds where the world is transformed in a matter of minutes – a leader is assassinated, a volcano erupts, a constitution is ratified. But there are other, smaller, turning points that are no less important. A hundred disparate historical trends converge in a single, modest act. It’s not that the world is changed instantly; the change itself takes many years to become visible. But the change is no less momentous for its quiet evolution. (p. 162)

Overall this is an excellent book that presents a slice of life in 1850’s London. It is much more than a history book because it is loaded with human interest stories and accounts of scientific misconceptions and breakthroughs. (The author’s belief in the theory of Evolution comes through strongly and continuously – almost to the point of being annoying, but I would not let that keep you from reading a book that will introduce you to an amazing era in British history.) Now I plan to read some fiction based on that time period. Bleak House by Dickens was a book Johnson quoted a lot so I may try it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis

It took two months to get through The Imitation of Christ not because it was difficult reading, but because it was so meaty that I had to spend lots of time “chewing”. Two or three pages a day was my goal, which was enough of a nibble to keep me satisfied till the next reading. There is no question as to why this book has endured for six hundred years as a Christian classic.

Some might be tempted to think of the book as just for “Catholics” since á Kempis was a monk, but to assume that would be to miss the point of the book: Everyone who calls himself a follower of Christ must be willing to do and endure whatever God has called him to do. With joy.

An example from book four, chapter 10: What shall I give thee [Lord] for all these thousands of benefits? I would I could serve thee all the days of my life…Truly thou art worthy of all service, of all honor and everlasting praise. Truly thou art my Lord and I thy poor servant who am bound to serve thee with all of my might; neither ought I ever to be weary of praising thee…They who for thy love have renounced all carnal delights shall find the sweetest consolations of the Holy Ghost…Oh sweet and delightful service of God by which a man is made truly free and holy!

The introduction to my 1937 copy of Imitation said that book three (about Holy Communion) is left out of some versions of the book, possibly because of its “catholic” emphasis on the doctrine of transubstantiation. While I disagree with this particular doctrine I feel that we Protestants often go to the other extreme, removing all mystery from the act of coming to the Lord’s Table. For that reason I would encourage you to find a book that includes the communion chapters. You will envy á Kempis as you read of his deep love for this sacrament as a means of grace.

Finally, I want to add a note about a strong thread in the book regarding mortification of the flesh. I wholeheartedly agree that no price is too high to pay for following the Lord and that the Bible promotes a selfless way of living. But to imply that everything material is bad and that everything spiritual is good is gnosticism. While it is true that Christians must learn to love God more than earthly pleasures, the irony is that because we know and love Him we are able to enjoy life’s pleasures at a deeper level. The gifts have greater value because we love the Giver. But don’t let that caveat keep you from reading an extremely worthwhile book. Just as Adler’s book (reviewed here) sets out to build reading muscles, this one sets out to whip flabby believers into shape. I loved it!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

From page one of The Flame Trees of Thika I knew I’d stumbled across an incredibly observant and eloquent writer. Huxley succeeds in helping the reader taste, smell and see Kenya at the beginning of the 20th century. The following passage is just one example:

[On the shooting of a python:] Robin’s second shot was true. The head collapsed, the huge body writhed and lashed and threshed on the rocks, like some dark cauldron boiling over, like a monstrous worm of corruption spewed up from the caverns of the earth. The Kikuyu flung off their blankets and rushed naked into the stream to save it from falling into the river, but they did not touch it until the slithering coils lay still. Then they dragged it up the bank and stretched it out; and there in the middle, sure enough, was an enormous bulge, like a great bead strung on a cord. (p. 196)

It was a stroke of brilliance to write this book from the point of view of a small child. Obviously the book’s descriptions and insights into human nature are far beyond the powers of a child to communicate, but the child-as-narrator was a powerful tool because the author was able to report the conversation and actions of the adults without judgment. The same was true for her descriptions of the different tribal peoples who worked on or near her father’s coffee plantation.

So why didn’t I love this book? My heart yearned for character development and found none. Although the book was clean, there were implications of several extramarital affairs. I was reminded of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (reviewed here) who became less and less civilized as he moved toward the heart of the jungle. Here again were people who seemed less restrained by societal mores the farther they moved from their home cultures.

Still, I will always remember Huxley’s description of a sunset as “rose, lemon and the color of flamingo’s wings”. I turned that phrase over in my mind for three whole days! Would-be writers should read this book as a lesson in writing fresh metaphors. With all the distractions we fight against today I’m wondering if ANYONE still pays attention to details like this author.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico

One of the reasons I do not join book challenges is because I don’t like anyone to tell me who/what to read. I admit it. I am prejudiced against certain authors because my first and only contact with them has been negative. Like Mr. Darcy, “my good opinion, once lost is lost forever”. Occasionally, though, I find an author who redeems himself in a second novel. And I’m glad to admit I was wrong.

After the dismal ending of Gallico’s acclaimed Snow Goose, I had sworn him off forever. But when I saw his Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris at our school library I just couldn’t resist. It’s the story of Ada Harris, a London charwoman, making the best of her widowhood by cleaning other people’s apartments. One day she opens the closet of one of her wealthy clients and sees a Dior dress hanging there. Suddenly, beyond all reason, she knows she must have one of her very own.

Her efforts to make her dream come true are only the beginning of this charming story. It could almost be categorized as a “grown-up” fairy tale because wherever she goes Mrs. Harris seems to sprinkle fairy dust over those she meets. YET she’s very realistically drawn (missing teeth and all!) and the book is fraught with painful setbacks.

As I read the book I wondered if it would have been ignored by today’s publishers. After all its emphasis on feminine longings (to own a Dior creation) or to be married instead of have a career (a dilemma of one of the book’s characters) just doesn’t fit into a culture dominated by feminism. But I appreciated Gallico’s handling of these themes. He had a gift for making me care very much about the people in the book. I inwardly shouted “Bravo!” as they each took steps forward to help others and became better for it themselves.

In the end Mrs. Harris’ yearning for the dress is secondary. The friendships that are made because of her quest are what change her life forever. This book was a delight from start to finish.

Friday, October 24, 2008

How to Read A Book by Mortimer Adler

The first sentence of How to Read a Book says, “I have tried to write a light book about heavy reading. Those who take no pleasure in knowing and understanding should not bother to read it.” He was, in fact, saying, “Read this if you dare. Wimps not welcome!” How could I turn down a challenge like that?!

It soon became clear that this was not a “light” book in the common sense of the word. Adler humbly concedes that his book is easier to read than the heavier books he is promoting, but he also points out that understanding takes effort and he definitely wants the reader to make some effort. He contends that “All books become light in the proportion that you find light in them.”

Part One was sprinkled with juicy quotes on the importance of reading and required little exertion on my part. In Part Two Adler gives three steps for getting the most out of what you read. Keep in mind that his emphasis is on classic non-fiction, called the “Great Books” because they contain the important ideas that have been a part of the human conversation since the beginning of written language. Plato, the Bible, Aquinas, Darwin and Newton are a few examples of “must-read” works. A limited amount of fiction works are included such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Melville and Dickens.

The second and third parts of the book are heavy and didactic, but I kept reading out of sheer stubbornness. If you’ve read my profile you know I consider myself somewhat of a book snob, but to Adler I’m a total amateur. According to him any baby can read for pleasure, but someone who reads to learn and be changed will have to pay a much higher price. Of the 131 important books listed in the 1939 edition I’ve read only six! Adler wrote that he put the list in the book reluctantly because too often students read through it and consider themselves “educated”. He emphasizes that it would be better to read a few of these books well rather than all of them poorly. Although I wasn’t completely converted from classic fiction to the “Great Books” list I have decided to occasionally branch out from my usual fare. I’ve even marked six titles to add to my reading list over the next two years. Hopefully Adler would approve.

Two notes of interest: First, Adler’s emphasis on paying attention to repeated words and phrases seems elementary to the experienced reader, but I can tell you that that particular method of “deeper” reading (sometimes called inductive study) became life-changing to me as I learned to read the Bible that way. Second, I found a slightly updated version of the "Great Books" and was thrilled to see my two favorite authors (Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Brontë) included this time around. One list is here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Worthwhile Movie #1 - Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

I like clean movies that entertain without offending. I like good dialogue. If the actors have British accents so much the better. Obviously there isn’t much out there that I will watch. But this past weekend I saw an unusually good film that I think thoughtful viewers will enjoy.

I am already a fan of Joan Plowright and the reviews of Mrs Palfrey  implied the movie was driven by dialogue and not by action. I did not realize when I ordered the film that the male protagonist was Rupert Friend (the dastardly Mr. Wickham from the 2003 version of Pride & Prejudice). I very much enjoyed seeing him in a sympathetic role and think he was “just right” for the part of Ludo, the struggling writer.

The film is about the friendship of two lonely and very different people who are brought together unexpectedly. Ludo is the age of Mrs. Palfrey’s negligent and uncaring grandson and soon takes his place in her heart as a surrogate. She even leads the fellow guests at her hotel to believe he is her real grandson. The gentle conversations and small acts of kindness between these two make the movie a real gem.

My major complaint with the movie has to do with the movie tie-in (Brief Encounter  1946) and the obligatory lovers-in-bed scene (thankfully only 30 seconds long, but absolutely unnecessary to the story). Since one of the major themes of the movie was Mrs. Palfrey’s deep and enduring love for her deceased husband, these glorifications of love outside of marriage just didn’t ring true.

Still, this is one of the most charming and poignant friendship movies you’ll ever see. Keep some tissues handy!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Lately I’ve read a string of books that have taken me out of my comfort zone. First it was science fiction (Out of the Silent Planet), then it was a play on the hopelessness of self-seeking relationships (Death Of A Salesman), and now it’s a horror novel, The Turn of the Screw

This is a book I knew I should read, but kept avoiding because stories about ghosts and demons don’t interest me. The movie based on this book gave me the creeps as a kid. Certainly the book was destined to do the same thing. So I finally "read" it through Librivox because it was highly recommended by the blogger at Free Listen (now defunct). I don’t know if it was the superb writing or the amazing narration done by Nikolle Doolin (or both) but I could not stop listening once I started. Nikolle Doolin read so well that she convinced me she was the book’s narrator and that this was indeed her story. Kudos to her for a fantastic job.

Turn of the Screw is about two parentless children and the governess hired by their uncle to take care of them. As the story unfolds we, along with the narrator, begin to wonder if these angelic siblings might just be too good to be true. Their visits with ghostly figures and the governess’ designs to protect them make up the bulk of the story. Creepy? Yes! Well done? Absolutely!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

I heard this Pulitzer Prize winning play quoted at length two different times this past year and decided it was time to actually read it. “Willy Loman” is apparently a name that every “cultured” American should know, but I had no idea who he was as I opened the book. Although Death Of A Salesman is a short book, just over 100 pages, it took me a whopping three days to read it because it was a bit grim for my tastes and I had to keep putting it down to take a breather. What struck me from the beginning was the profuse profanity – interesting for something written in 1949. While I dislike gratuitous swearing, its repeated use here seemed somehow appropriate – to show how lost these people were. Written today it would have been much worse.

Willy is a 63 year old traveling salesman who wants to quit, but can’t afford to. He is tired and disoriented. Clues to how he reached this condition are given through subsequent dialogue and occasional flashbacks. Obviously something is very wrong with his relationship to Biff, his oldest son. Their struggles to relate to each other are evident from the first scene. As the story unfolds we discover that Biff and his father had adored each other earlier on in their lives. In fact, Willy had pinned all of his hopes on Biff. He had been convinced that his son was going to be “somebody” and had pumped him up with false ideas of his own greatness. Only when Biff recognizes he’s “nobody” does he have a chance to start over without all the lies and pretensions, but this happens near the conclusion of the play.

There were several twists in the play (which will go unmentioned here). The reason that Biff never finished high school comes out near the end. At that point the reader is not sure whether to blame Willy or Biff. Both of them made wrong choices that destroyed their futures. I don’t know what Arthur Miller’s intentions were when he wrote this play. Nothing redemptive seems to come out of all the suffering. When Linda talks about being “free” in the last scene she is referring to their money problems. I think the freedom could also be applied to Biff’s decision to finally give up a life of pursuing false hopes. The truest freedom would have come if the people in this story had been able to experience forgiveness for their past foolishness. Miller effectively showed the oppressive heaviness of their sins and how the whole family was still trapped by them.

Because of the heavy subject matter this play was not pleasant reading material, but I’m glad I finally got to see what all the fuss was about.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

The closest I ever get to science fiction is listening to Tony Bennett sing, “Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars…” Recently my husband read me a fabulous quote from C.S. Lewis’ first novel, Out of the Silent Planet. Later when I asked him to find it again, he couldn’t and I decided to read the book myself. I won’t say I loved this book because Sci-Fi just isn’t “me”. But it fit my criteria for a worthwhile book: good writing, important ideas to mull over, and great words (bellicose, philologist, empyrean, vermiculate, coprologies, to name a few.)

The book begins with the protagonist, Ransom, being kidnapped and taken to the planet Malacandra. He describes his varying emotions as he speeds through space, the main one being that it is not as “empty” as he’d thought. Instead it seems to be pulsating and vibrating with life. “He could not feel that they were an island of life journeying through an abyss of death. He felt almost the opposite – that life was waiting outside the little iron egg-shell in which they rode, ready at any moment to break in, and that, if it killed them, it would kill them by excess of its vitality.” (p. 146)

One of the book’s themes is the misuse of science. Weston and Devine (the two villains) are planning to use Ransom as a human offering (to placate the “gods” of Malacandra) so that they can take over the planet for their own “scientific” purposes. They tell Ransom he should be inspired by the role he is being asked to play, “that even a worm, if it could understand, would rise to the sacrifice” of prolonging humanity. (p. 27) Ransom questions their autonomy by saying, “You think your are justified in doing anything – absolutely anything – here and now, on the off chance that man may crawl around a few centuries longer in some part of the universe.”

“Yes, anything whatever,” responds Weston. “And all educated opinion – for I do not call classics and history and such trash education – is entirely on my side.” (Don’t you love that jab at scientific snobbery?!)

There is much more I could tell you, but I don’t want to give the whole story away. Lewis is a genius at subtly weaving in spiritual themes and chapter 18 on the origin of evil on Thulcandra (earth) was mind blowing. The references to evil (called “bentness”) and to spiritual beings (called “eldila”) will make you think about these subjects in new ways.

You may be familiar with C.S. Lewis apologetic works or his Narnia series, but not with his space trilogy. If you like science fiction you’ll appreciate his incredibly imaginative descriptions of life on another planet. (By the way, I never did find that initial quote, but I’m glad I let my tastes in reading branch out a little.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen

I recently read Sense and Sensibility  for the very first time. (If I have read it, it was over 20 years ago before I started keeping a book log). I have enjoyed the Emma Thompson movie version on several occasions and thought I knew the story pretty well. The book, however, added new dimension to the characters. (Obviously movies are limited in that area.) Marianne’s imprudence was much more understandable when we discover in the opening chapters that she is only 15 years old! I also found Willoughby's lengthy apology to Elinor (not in the movie) quite interesting.

The loving (and sometime anguished) thoughts expressed by Elinor in the book make her a much more admirable and loveable character than the film version is able to do. What struck me the most from the book was the sacrificial love of both Elinor and Colonel Brandon. Although thwarted (initially) in becoming attached to their love interests, they continued to genuinely wish the best for the other parties. Instead of wallowing in vindictiveness or self-pity, they did all in their power to ease the burdens of others.

It reminded me of a movie I saw several years ago called Pot O' Gold with Jimmy Stewart and Paulette Goddard. (If you can ignore the movie’s negative depiction of African Americans it is a sweet love story.) Even when the two lovers quarrel they are extremely civil (not in the sense of coldly polite, but in the sense of never lashing out to hurt the other.) What a huge contrast to the film Hitch  that I saw shortly afterwards! I hated the evil things that those two angry lovers did to each other out of their hurt. How they ever got back together again, I’ll never know. When the going got rough their true characters came through and there was nothing admirable in them. Elinor and Colonel Brandon, on the other hand, were tested and “came forth as gold”. I highly recommend Sense and Sensibility as a case study on true love – both the romantic and friendship kinds.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I must confess I’ve watched quite a few movies based on Sherlock Holmes’ stories, but have not read any of Doyle’s books. I was pleased with my first foray into his mystery novels. The writing in The Hound of the Baskervilles  was good enough to keep me interested and was suspenseful without being horrific. The opening of chapter fourteen (told from Watson’s point of view) gives just one example of the book’s charm:

One of Sherlock Holme’s defects – if indeed, one may call it a defect – was that he was exceedingly loath to communicate his full plans to any other person until the instant of their fulfillment. Partly it came no doubt from his own masterful nature, which loved to dominate and surprise those who were around him. Partly also from his professional caution, which urged him never to take any chances. The result, however, was very trying for those who were acting as his agents and assistants. I had often suffered under it, but never more so than during that long drive in the darkness. The great ordeal was in front of us; at last we were about to make the final effort, and yet Holmes had said nothing, and I could only surmise what his course of action would be. My nerves thrilled with anticipation when at last the cold wind upon our faces and the dark, void spaces on either side of the narrow road told me that we were back upon the moor once again. Every stride of the horses and every turn of the wheels was taking us nearer to our supreme adventure…

(Before I lost my internet connections I listened to the first half of this book via the Classic Tales Podcast. B.J. Harris does a great job. Check out his site to see if it’s still available. If not, check out the book!)

Monday, September 1, 2008

King Lear by Shakespeare

After my success with Much Ado About Nothing, I dug out my CDs of King Lear  (purchased years ago) and decided to give them a try. In spite of the stellar cast (Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Brannagh, etc.) I was floundering to understand the story. It was confusing to try to discern each speaker just by their voice. So I checked out the book from the library and gave it another try. After all, WORLD magazine in its 2003 summer issue named it one of the top 5 masterpieces of Western literature. A quote from their review:

This play is probably the bard´s most moving and most profound. What is left when your country comes apart, when your family comes apart through your own fault, when you lose your very mind? Only self-sacrificial love.

I liked the play much better the second time through, but I still found it unusually difficult trying to remember which sister was which and which man was her husband. Who was really insane and who was just pretending? The illegitimate son and the legal son had similar names (Edgar and Edmund) and I had to keep reminding myself who was the good guy and who was the bad one. The only thing that kept me going was the World review AND the juicy quotes that I kept scribbling onto my bookmark. Truthfully, I was a little overwhelmed with the tragic ending.

Some favorite quotes: When Albany tells Goneril to stop being so cruel and conniving he tells her to "be-monster not thy features". (!) Cordelia kisses her crazed father and asks "Restoration to hang its medicine on her lips." Albany´s quote in Act 5, scene 4 has been my theme for the week: Our present business is general woe! Of course, my friends and relatives aren´t dying all over the place so I should be grateful. The best line of all comes in Act 4, scene 1. "The worst is not, so long as we can say, This is the worst!"

The word lover in me came away from the play somewhat confused, yet at the same time deeply satisfied. Now I think I´ll give the CDs another listen. Of course, the very best thing to do would be to SEE the play!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Thomas A Kempis Quotes

I loved these quotes I read in The Imitation of Christ  yesterday:

He that is not prepared to suffer all things, and to stand resigned to the will of his Beloved, is not worthy to be called a lover [of God]. A lover ought to embrace willingly all that is hard and distasteful for the sake of his Beloved, and not to turn away from Him on account of any contradictions.

Those words paralleled my reading in Sense and Sensibility  this week. I was amazed at the differences between Elinor and Marianne´s responses to heartache. Marianne was blatantly heartbroken and didn´t care who knew it or who it affected. Elinor hid her hurts so as to not cause more suffering to those whom she loved. In our modern-day "let it all hang out" world we are all much more prone to be "Mariannes" than "Elinors". But Elinor gets my vote for best "lover".

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley

Behind the Scenes is a story told by the dressmaker and confidante of Abraham Lincoln´s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. I´ve always heard that Mary was a little "tetched in the head", but this book shows her in a very different light. She was high strung maybe, but not crazy.

Before reading this book I had no idea how hugely unpopular Mary Todd Lincoln was as a first lady. She fought tooth and nail to protect her husband from those who took advantage of his child-like faith in them which brought her many political enemies. Her faithfulness to the Union was doubted because she had brothers fighting in the South. She was criticized for her expensive (and low-cut) gowns.

The book was written to counteract the rumors and lies in the press, but it is much more than the story of Mrs. Lincoln´s troubles. It´s the story of a courageous and talented African American woman who earned the respect and love of all who knew her. Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave yet through hard work and ingenuity she was able to buy her freedom and work her way up to working in the White House. There she befriended a very lonely and misunderstood president´s wife and wrote a book to set the record straight. Fascinating reading!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare

I read classics not because I "have to", but because I actually LIKE them. But when it comes to Shakespeare I have to admit intellectual laziness. I read some of his plays in high school and college. I´ve watched the movie versions and have seen at least 5 of his plays acted out on stage. But his works are NEVER on my list of books to read.

I can´t make the excuse that it is too complicated in reading plays to remember who´s who. One of my favorite books of all time is Cyrano de Bergerac  which is an extremely poignant and well-written play. And it´s not because Shakespeare does not appeal to me. For my 30th birthday my husband and I saw Kenneth Branagh´s Henry V at the theater and fell in love with it. My husband has watched it so many times that quotes from it are part of his daily vocabulary!

Laziness is my only excuse. Before my recent move I grabbed the thinnest book on my shelf and stuffed it into my purse for the trip. (Does anyone else feel underpacked unless they have at least 3 books to take along on a trip?) It happened to be Shakespeare´s Much Ado About Nothing . As I began reading I was captivated from page one by the rich language (Yes, I know Shakespeare and "rich language" have been synonymous for centuries!)

Leonoto describes his return from a battle with very few casualties with these words: "A victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers". Young, handsome Claudio is praised for his military prowess with these words: "He has borne himself beyond the promise of his age by doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion."

The main love story of Claudio and Hero is overshadowed by the love story of minor characters Benedick and Beatrice. Their puns and verbal jabs are superb! My favorite line in the play is in Act 5, scene 2 when Beatrice is upset over her cousin´s problems and tells Benedick she feels ill. His response is, "Serve God, love me, and mend." What a prescription for what ails us!

I highly recommend this short play. My Wordsworth Classic edition came with a helpful glossary of archaic words.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Would Jane Eyre Be Your Best Friend?

I´m typing from a library computer because we haven´t got internet hooked up at our new house yet. I miss blogging, but haven´t had much time for reading so I guess I´ll have much more to say by next week. I was pleased by this article mentioned at the Bronte Blog. I have often thought of Jane Eyre as a "friend", but would never have had the nerve to say it. When I was very young I even considered her my mentor. I liked the things Lesley had to say and if you´re a Jane Eyre fan, I think you´ll enjoy them too.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

I liked Lady Audley's Secret in spite of myself! When I began listening to it via Librivox, I had very little idea of the storyline. I only knew it was a Victorian novel and that I’d heard the title bandied around somewhere before. But I was captivated from the very first chapter with the descriptive writing: [The house] was very old and irregular and rambling. The windows were uneven, some small, some large… great piles of chimneys rose up here and there behind the pointed gables and seemed as if they were so broken down by age and long service that they must have fallen but for the straggling ivy which crawling up the walls and trailing over the roof wound itself about them and supported them.

It was only when I’d reached chapter 7 that I learned (from another source) that this was a classic example of the “sensation” novel that was so popular during the Victorian period (1860-1880). According to the Wikipedia definition “The sensation novel typically focused on shocking subject matter such as adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder”. Not my idea of a “good read” by a long shot! You may remember from an earlier post that I’m a huge fan of Anthony Trollope who purposely wrote against the sensational grain of popular fiction of his time. But I have to take my hat off to the Victorians for writing about such subjects without making them tawdry. This particular book (as well as another example of the genre, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White) manages to touch on these taboo subjects without dragging the reader through the mud.

The first half of the book is very calm and well-written with not a cliff-hanger chapter in sight. I began to think that “sensational” in 19th Century England must have had a very different definition from the word today. But the book starts to live up to its reputation at around chapter 30 with its many surprising turns of events. Nothing prepared me for the biggest surprise of all in the penultimate chapter. I was delighted with the final outcome of the book and with all due respect to Trollope I have to give a humble nod of approval to Braddon for an intriguing and well-crafted story. Apparently this was her first of EIGHTY novels. If you like excellent, old-fashioned writing you’ll enjoy this book.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Profanity in Books and Culture

One of my reasons for avoiding books written in the last 50 years is because I don’t enjoy the onslaught of profanity that is often offered up in popular fiction. Just as expletives in spoken language are proof of laziness so in the written word they show lack of thoughtfulness and “word precision”. Isn’t finding “just the right word” one of the secrets of great writing?

I tried to read The Eyre Affair a year ago, but got tired of all the gratuitous swearing. I wondered if "normal" people really talk to each other like that (i.e. every other word a profane one.) It’s bewildering to me that the word touted as “dirtiest” when I was growing up has now become a part of popular slang. If you like someone or something you may use that ugly expletive to describe them!

I enjoy reading books on WWII history. Often there is less-than-pleasant language in them, but you would expect ugly words about an ugly subject. But in most fiction profanity is not only inessential to good story-telling, it is just plain distracting.

Comedian George Carlin died this week. I have never heard any of his comedy routines, but I know that in the 70’s he was arrested for his “Seven Things You Can Never Say on Television.” Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling (yes, it went all the way there) the act was ruled as “indecent, but not obscene”. It is my guess that you can probably say all seven words on television now, at least on cable. Carlin helped usher in a new level of indecency in our culture for which he was proud. What a sad legacy.

I receive Daily Writing Tips in my inbox every day and was intrigued by Monday’s article. The author was honest enough to express his dismay at having seen someone use the noun “pimp” in a positive sense. He wrote, “Pimps exploit, abuse, and degrade women. What kind of cultural perspective enables pimp to evolve into an inoffensive word?”


(I addressed this issue again in 2014 here.)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

The back cover describes Brideshead Revisited as “Evelyn Waugh’s best-loved, most passionate and most poignant novel” and I honestly tried very hard to like it.

Another book blogger wrote recently about not enjoying a book because it had redemption through suffering themes and as a non-Christian she just didn’t “get it”. In my case (as a believer) after reading almost 300 pages about drinking, adultery, and homosexuality I just didn’t “get” why anyone would enjoy reading a book about people who are so clueless! By the time some of the characters came around to seeing their need for faith they were on their death beds. I couldn’t help wondering, “Why couldn’t they find God in life and not just in death?” What a waste!

The “faith” in the novel is connected to Catholicism. Lady Marchmain, the matriarch of the story, is a devout Catholic and is rejected by her wayward son and husband because of it. In a conversation on page 254 we read:

“I sometimes think when people wanted to hate God, they hated mummy.”
“What do you mean by that, Cordelia?”
“Well, you see, she was saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can’t really hate God either. When they want to hate him and his saints they have to find something like themselves and pretends it’s God and hate that…

It was interesting to me that the two people in the book who had a chance at happiness realized they could never achieve it because of the “Great Divide” brought about by religion (or lack thereof). Although Julia was a nominal believer she couldn’t accept the fact that her lover was an agnostic. At their breakup she says, “I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy… It may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won’t quite despair of me in the end. (386)

Sadly, this is not how to experience God’s mercy – by giving up things to prove we are somehow worthy of it. I applaud Waugh for writing about the pull of grace on even the worst reprobate, but I felt dissatisfied with the lukewarm reactions of the characters to this same grace. If only they could have loved God as fervently as they had once hated Him!

Maybe to Waugh any reaction to grace is paltry in comparison to the extravagant love of the Giver. If you have a different take on this book I’d be happy to hear it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Fat" Classics

I read an interesting article in the Guardian by Rob Woodward who promotes classic literature for summertime reading. He writes:

Not only do I like to subvert my summers with lengthy books, but my preferences in this area run hard towards what I like to call "fat classics" - great doorstops of supposedly unassailable brilliance such as War and Peace, Les Misérables and The Brothers Karamazov.
I like folks who craft words well and this young journalist seems to fall into that category. (My husband and I often wonder why the British are so much better at writing than we Americans…) Read the article for the sheer enjoyment of good writing, but then look at the reader responses for some summer reading ideas you may have overlooked. Happy reading!

Friday, June 13, 2008

For the Family's Sake by Susan S. Macaulay

In For the Family's Sake Susan Schaeffer Macaulay makes the case for creating a home environment that will nurture children. She offers loads of practical advice on how to slow down and concentrate on things that really matter. Much of her inspiration comes from the writings of British educator Charlotte Mason. And I would venture to say that the common sense Christianity in her book was gleaned largely from her famous mother, Edith Schaeffer.

From page 94: Today the prevalent attitude is that the care of the family and home is “menial”, unimportant, a waste of expensive education and potential. Homemaking is seen as a mere detail that can be amply covered as secondary to a job or career, which is “real life”. This gives the truth away – today’s values are totally upside down from God’s point of view. People and their everyday lives matter more than things or status. Serving others is the highest calling of all (apart from prayer) – serving them in ordinary ways, giving people what they need.

From 208: We live in an age where everyone is trying to sell something. People will try to sell you expensive gadgets for your little ones and tell you to make “educational” purchases. Videos at one? Computers at two? Classrooms at three? And the answer is, “No, the child needs the old-fashioned basics.” Parents, home, land. Love, boundaries, routines. Family friends, community. Seasons, earth, sky. Activity, sleep. All stirred with warmth, fun, and lots and lots and lots of enjoyment. The main ingredient of this “stew” will be talking together, communication – and then reading books together.
This statement on 162 was startling: One of the ways a torturer destroys a person is to deprive him of adequate sleep, leisure, solitude, or friendship, and of course food…. Sadly it is fairly normal now for people to fail even to begin to provide themselves or their children with these basics. People expect to live in constant stress. (!)

I first read this book in 1999 when my children were small. Almost every page has an underlined passage or a comment scribbled in the margin. I sensed I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic (maybe I mean “naïve”) as I read it the second time through. Although I have put into practice many of Susan’s suggestions, I’ve discovered that laboring to create a perfect home environment doesn’t necessarily guarantee perfect children. Then again, if there was an easy formula for raising kids we wouldn’t have to trust the Lord so hard.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

The language in Prince Caspian is deceivingly simple. Though it is aimed at children, it somehow succeeds in not talking down to them, which is one of the reasons why C.S. Lewis was such a memorable writer. He had the ability to couch great truths in clear language. Repeatedly I found myself rejoicing in those conversations in the book that revealed insights into human nature or into the nature of God Himself (via Aslan).

I liked the book very much, but didn’t LOVE it. For that reason I could watch the movie version and not HATE it. I was advised by Ken Brown not to read the book before seeing the film because the movie would be a disappointment. Mormon fiction writer, Orson Scott Card, wrote a blog saying the movie was better than the book. My sister, a true Narnia fan, hated the movie so I went into the theatre wondering what in the world to expect. There isn’t really much I can say about the movie that hasn’t been said already. Plugged-In (a family friendly review site) had pretty much laid out all the “pros” and “cons” for me (or so I imagined!) I was still unprepared emotionally for the opening scenes of a woman in the agony of childbirth quickly followed by the attempted murder of Prince Caspian. My first thought was, “This movie is NOT for children!”

As for the advice that I shouldn’t have read the book first, I was glad that I didn't take it. Knowledge of the book helped me to recognize several characters who appeared in the movie (the Bulgy bears and the giant) but who were never called by name. And, no, the movie is not better than the book. I felt deeply satisfied when I closed the final pages of the book, but didn’t have the same feeling when I came out of the movie theater. Maybe it was just too frenetic.

By the way, am I the only one who was bothered by the broken English in this movie? When Miraz repeatedly used the word “respite” and pronounced it with a long e and a long i, it just about drove me crazy. I’ve always heard that word pronounced with short vowels. Oh, well. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Prince Caspian Book Excerpt

I thought it was a great coincidence that Prince Caspian (Chapter 4) had these opening paragraphs about the power of stories. They go well with last week's post.

Prince Caspian lived in a great castle in the center of Narnia with his uncle, Miraz, the king of Narnia, and his aunt, who had red hair and was called Queen Prunaprismia. His father and mother were dead and the person whom Caspian loved best was his nurse, and though (being a prince) he had wonderful toys which would do almost anything but talk, he liked best the last hour of the day when the toys had all been put back in their cupboards and Nurse would tell him stories [of old Narnia].

...“What do you wish?” asked the King.
“I wish – I wish—I wish I could have lived in the Old Days,” said Caspian.
“Eh? What’s that?” he said. “What old days do you mean?”
“Oh, don’t you know, Uncle?” said Caspian? “When everything was quite different. When all the animals could talk, and there were nice people who lived in the streams and the trees. Naiads and Dryads they were called. And there were Dwarfs. And there were lovely little Fauns in all the woods. They had feet like goats. And…”
“That’s all nonsense, for babies, do you hear? You’re getting too old for that sort of stuff. At your age you ought to be thinking of battles and adventures, not fairy tales.
“Oh, but there were battles and adventures in those days,” said Caspian…

“Who has been telling you this nonsense?” said the King in a voice of thunder… “Who has been telling you this pack of lies?”
“Nurse,” faltered Caspian, and burst into tears.
“Stop that noise,” said his uncle, taking Caspian by the shoulders and giving him a shake. “Stop it. And never let me catch you talking – or thinking either – about all those silly stories again. There never were those Kings and Queens… And there’s no such person as Aslan. And there are no such things as lions. And there never was a time when animals could talk. Do you hear?”
“Yes, Uncle,” sobbed Caspian.
“Then let’s have no more of it,” said the King…

Next day Caspian found what a terrible thing he had done, for Nurse had been sent away… Caspian missed his nurse very much and shed many tears; and because he was so miserable, he thought about the old stories of Narnia far more than before.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

John Wesley Quotes

My husband just reminded me that on this day 270 years ago John Wesley had his famous "heartwarming experience". Since he's one of my favorite writers I'm going to post a few favorite quotes here.

Here is a short, a plain, an infallible rule, before you enter into particulars. In whatever profession you are engaged, you must be singular - out of the ordinary - or be damned! The way to hell has nothing singular in it. The way to heaven is singularity all over. If you move but one step towards God you are no longer as others. But do not regard this. It is far better to stand alone than to fall into the pit of hell. (From a sermon on Matthew 7:13)

From one of my favorite sermons, "The Cure of Evil Speaking":

Are you determined to speak evil of no man? Then learn one lesson well: "Hear evil of no man." If there were no hearers, there would be no speakers, of evil. And is not the receiver (of stolen goods) as bad as the thief? If, then, any begin to speak evil in your hearing, check them immediately. Refuse to hear. Let him or her use ever so soft a manner, so mild an accent, ever so many professions of goodwill for the one he is stabbing in the dark.(Whew! If that won't keep you from gossiping, what will?!)

And finally, The desire of anything that does not lead to happiness in God tends to barrenness of soul.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Tending the Heart of Virtue by Guroian

I just finished Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination by Vigen Guroian in which he makes the case for awakening a child’s moral imagination through fairy tales. I know there are two schools of thought on this among Christian parents. One group discards fantasy and fairy tales as dangerous and untruthful; any mention of witches, goblins, wizards, etc. is considered evil. The other group contends that the presence of fantasy and “unreal worlds” in stories reinforces the “mysterious” and opens the child’s heart to truths regarding the supernatural (i.e. realities beyond our visible universe). Guroian says that “Fairy tales lead us toward a belief in something that if it were not also veiled in a mystery, common sense alone would affirm: if there is a story, there must also surely be a storyteller”. (p. 39)

The book was worth the purchase price alone because I finally saw in print a phrase from C.S. Lewis that I’ve heard quoted (and misquoted!) for many years. The idea presented to me has been, “If it’s not good enough for an adult to read it’s certainly not good enough for a child to read. But the actual quote is: “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” (From Of Other Worlds by C.S. Lewis, p. 24)

Guroian decries the sterilized teaching of “values”. It is one thing to tell children it’s bad to lie, but quite another to show them the awful consequences of it in a story. Guroian also makes an interesting distinction between values (basically subjective in today’s culture) and virtues (unchangeable).

While I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure it would have converted me to “fantasy literature” if I had belonged to the aforementioned “anti-fairy tale” group. Guroian leads the reader through several of his favorite books, pointing out the virtues (or lack thereof) of the lead characters. I resonated with his favorites that were also mine (The Princess and Curdie , The Wind in the Willows , and Charlotte's Web ) and remained skeptical about some of his other favorites that I’ve considered too dark. (Once when I tried to read the original Pinocchio  story to my boys they begged me to stop!) The only book he influenced me to get out and read was Prince Caspian , but my sudden enthusiasm for the book may also be because the film arrives in Brazil next week and I can’t bear to see a movie without reading the book first.

Here are some great resources for book lists that build the heart:

Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong by William Kirkpatrick
Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson
Books That Build Character by William Kirkpatrick
Children of a Greater God by Terry W. Glaspey
Honey for a Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt

Friday, May 9, 2008

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

After reading several book blogs referring to Wodehouse is laugh-out-loud funny, I was happy to see that our tiny school library had a copy of one of his books. I must say I enjoyed Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, but I couldn’t take Wodehouse on a regular basis. After almost 20 years of deliberately choosing literary “health food”, this seemed too much like candy. I could enjoy this kind of thing in small doses: while waiting in an airport, let’s say, or while lying in a hammock on my vacation.

One thing that I did quite accidentally, but which I think enhanced my enjoyment of the book was that I had previously listened to B.J. Harrison at Classic Tales reading a Wooster/Jeeves story (episode #50 of his podcasts). That podcast made it much easier to imagine the harried Wooster depending on the ever-tranquil Jeeves. The monotone voice Harris used for Jeeves was priceless. Clearly the butler was unflappable! My two friends who are Wodehouse fans recommended the BBC production of Jeeves & Wooster (which stars Hugh Laurie of House fame), but I didn't enjoy it. In the book Wooster has at least half a mind (enough to write of his escapades anyway). In the TV show he’s an absolute idiot and I find it hard to watch movies or read books in which the hero is unlikable. (But book lovers already know that the books are usually better than their cinematic counterparts!)

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

“His poems were on the decline of Islam and the brevity of love.”

This statement was used to describe Aziz, one of the key characters in A Passage to India. It could be reworded to describe the two main themes of the book - loss of faith and the aborted attempts at friendship to fill the void. E. M. Forster does a powerful job of describing the uneasy co-existence of two very different cultures: the Indian people of Chandapore and the English officials who live on the other side of the city. Both groups have wrong ideas about each other, but do very little to overcome them. Those who attempt to break down racial/social barriers are considered renegades and often have to choose between belonging to one group or the other.

Although I enjoyed Forster’s fine writing, I was disturbed that everyone’s faith (be it Christian, Moslem, or Hindu) was shown to be ineffectual. The two western missionaries who lived among the Indians were portrayed as weak and incompetent. Mrs. Moore loses her faith after her strange experience in the caves of Marabar. If any religion was given preferential treatment it was Hinduism in the final section called “The Temple”. Even then, the description of the midnight “birth” of the god Shri Krishna left the reader feeling more skeptical than hopeful.

Another sad aspect of the book was the attempts at friendship that miscarry. When Aziz tries to be friendly to the only two English ladies who are not prejudiced against him he is charged with a crime against one of them. When Cyril Fielding reaches out to Aziz he is rejected by the British community and is even misunderstood by Azis himself. When he leaves India to visit England, Aziz mistakenly assumes he is going to marry an English woman he considers his enemy. Forster writes, “Subsequent letters he destroyed unopened. It was the end of a foolish experiment.”

I must admit it pained me to read of cross-cultural friendships as “foolish experiments”. But having grown up in a Chinese culture and having spent the last 19 years in Brazil I know that the easiest thing to do is fall into an “us-them” mentality. Attempting to break down barriers is a tedious process and is often fraught with misunderstandings. Although I have not always been successful, one thing has made a huge difference. It is the same thing that Forster disdains… a faith-filled life. Only as God enables us to love those who are totally different from us are we able to come out of our protective shells and make the attempt. Only God can help us to forgive (and be forgiven) when a cultural faux pas has been made. I have been greatly enriched by such “foolishness”.

E.M. Forster forced me to think through some of my failures and successes in relationships and I always like a book that stretches me. Still, I would not be quick to put this on my “favorites” list because of the prevalent theme of hopelessness.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

China Court by Rumer Godden

It’s been many years since I’ve read anything by Rumer Godden so I was happy to be re-introduced to her through Julie’s podcast at Forgotten Classics. China Court is proof that dysfunctional families are nothing new. It chronicles the lives of several generations of a family that lived in England at the family home called China Court. The title has nothing to do with royalty and is connected to the nearby china clay works that were the source of the family’s fortune. (Please be aware that I may have misspelled or misquoted in a few places because I was listening to this book and could not read the correct spellings.)

Godden is a writer who succeeds in weaving faith into her stories without writing moralistic hogwash. An important element in the narrative is The Book of Hours, a Catholic prayer book that is read by Mrs. Quinn, the matriarch of the story. Not only does it fortify her spirit as her life draws to a close, but it brings about an amazing turn of events (as you will discover if you read the book! I don’t want to spoil it for you.)

The story opens with the death of Mrs. Quinn. This is followed, of course, by the gathering of the family to hear the reading of the will. But the rest of the book is totally unpredictable. It is not told in a sequential timeline. Instead there is a hopping back and forth between generations, usually through the reflections of Mrs. Quinn. Once in a while it is difficult to remember who is who (apparently the hard copy of the book has a family tree page in the back to clear up confusion). There are satisfying twists. There are scandals. There is much sadness, but as Mrs. Quinn says, “All our happiness is shot through with unhappiness and all of our unhappiness is shot through with happiness.” There are no unalloyed experiences in this life.
Tracy and Peter are key characters in the book. They are the only ones “old-fashioned” enough to want to preserve the decaying family home and its connected run-down farm. The rest of the family just wants the will read, the buildings sold, and the money divided. When the relatives reprimand Tracy for wanting to keep the home they tell her it will take too much time, money and work. “You won’t have a moment to yourself,” the say. “A moment to do what?” responds Tracy. To her keeping the home would not be a negation of herself but exactly the opposite. Godden wrote: “To keep” had become for Tracy the most important word in the English language. And it isn’t only “possessive” she had defended to herself... It means to “watch over, take care of, maintain”.
This is a lovely book about investing your life in things that matter rather than jumping from experience to new experience. Some take the risk of being out-of-date by giving of themselves to the land, their homes, or their families. The others are “free” but empty.