Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Messenger by Lois Lowry

In Messenger  Lowry has succeeded in writing another haunting tale (in the sense that the story sticks with you long afterwards). Matty is a boy who lives in the Village and delivers messages for Leader. The book is about his discovery of his unique gift and how it ends up saving the community from certain destruction.

While not as good as The Giver I appreciated its many insights into human nature, especially man’s willingness to sell his soul for worthless trinkets. I found the ending a bit disturbing, but realized that it was a “happy” ending in the sense that many more were saved than were lost. In an unreal world everyone is happy without pain. In Lowry’s books pain is a necessary ingredient for growth and beauty.

 I really liked the contrast between the pain inflicted by the forest (with the intent to hurt or kill) and the pain experienced by the people who came to the Village. They were blind, crippled, or birthmarked, but their inner characters were formed by these blemishes. Interestingly, as they sought to free themselves from these flaws they became more and more inhumane.

Having been deeply touched by the ideas and characters in Lowry’s The Giver, I was anxious to read this “sequel”. The main character in Giver is a secondary character in this book (but at least you find out what happens to him). Apparently a secondary character in this book is the main character in the “prequel” called Gathering Blue. I use the words sequel and prequel loosely because all these books can stand alone.  Now I just have to order the third one!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Artwork Based on Brontë Book

Though I am not a big fan of Wuthering Heights, I thought these drawings were fantastic. Abbott and Holder, an art gallery in London has some watercolors and drawings by Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979) for sale. These works were largely based on Emily Brontë's book, but some of the drawings are of the artist's family. I thought they were a perfect accompaniment to the book because of their stark simplicity and beauty. Lovely!

Footnote: the pictures are no longer on display at the auction site, but can be found on Google images.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Renew My Heart by John Wesley

Years ago when I substituted romantic novels with meatier fare I put myself out of the circle of the majority of readers. My love for the sermons of John Wesley has put me in an even more remote category of reader! This week I’ve had the joy of editing ten of his sermons (from English to Portuguese) and it’s been an exhilarating, exhausting experience. I had two reasons for doing this: I teach about Wesley at our seminary and all of his works are out of print. And I’ve been getting such a kick out of my daily readings in Renew My Heart (a compilation of miscellaneous paragraphs from Wesley’s most famous writings) that I thought it was a shame no one else in Brazil had access to them. John Wesley's Sermons are available in very archaic Portuguese on the internet. Little did I know that when I downloaded them to do a bit of “tweaking” that I would be spending two months making painstaking corrections on each one. Even my husband who grew up in Brazil did not know many of the old words that were used.

It has required reading the Portuguese versions, the English versions (to compare and confirm word choices), my English and Brazilian dictionaries (to figure out what these guys were really trying to say!), my Portuguese Bible and our giant concordance (to update the phrasing of Bible verses). All that cross-checking has taken weeks out of my life! My goal was to make a more readable version of the texts that I could share with anyone who might be interested. But it met another goal of mine which is to read one book in Portuguese for every four I read in English. After 20 years in Brazil I figure it’s about time! I guess it was a good sign that I was just as inspired reading the Portuguese as I am when I’m reading the English. John Wesley’s sermons still preach.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Who ever heard of an audio book that you couldn’t put down?! I’ve had my iPod stuck in my ears non-stop for the last two days so I could finish the last thirty chapters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters . It was a thoroughly enjoyable book and I kept wondering why Gaskell didn’t survive like other writers of classic literature. Could it be that her writing is creative and pleasant without being “spectacular”? None of her phrases took my breath away (as in the book I read last week), but it was a very well-written book. She paints some fascinating characters, one of whom is Molly’s stepmother, the most odious “nice” person that I’ve ever encountered in a book! Mrs. Gibson was completely self-absorbed all the while actually believing that she cared about other people.

Her daughter, Cynthia, was more complex. Having been brought up without a loving, affirming mother or a father (he died when she was young), she lived for male approval. Unlike her mother, she was aware of other people’s feelings and even of her own heartlessness. Gaskell succeeds in making you like her in spite of yourself. She and the main female character of the book, Molly Gibson, are polar opposites since Molly is one of those old-fashioned heroines who is “without guile”. Her frank and affectionate nature shines through in every chapter.

I agonized for Molly as she struggled with the loss of her father after his remarriage (emotionally speaking), with Cynthia’s careless treatment of Roger, and with the hateful gossip that was falsely circulated about her. She suffered with a patience and dignity that transform her from the mousy (albeit sweet) character she was in the book’s first chapters to the lovely, dignified young woman she was in the final pages. I must admit I was shocked to learn that Gaskell died before just before finishing this book. But the intended outcome was so obvious anyone could have guessed it without the final chapter. Still, I would have liked to have read it in Gaskell’s own gentle, charming language.

(All 61 chapters available for free download at

Friday, February 8, 2008

Middlemarch by George Eliot

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?

This quote from Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch, gives a glimpse into her heart. It also gives a little twist to the more famous Austen quote, “For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?”

Middlemarch is 700 pages of uphill climbing. But having been trained by Trollope to keep digging till I find treasure, I kept on plowing through. I was rewarded over and over not by any amazing change of events, but by wonderfully pithy turns of phrases by George Eliot. Dorothea is first introduced to us as someone whose intensity and interest in helping those around her is regarded as “methodistical” (a non-complimentary reference to the zealous Methodists in England at that time).

“And why should Dorothea not marry? A girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes… A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles – who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such a fellowship...”

Developments in the book happened very slowly and the two main story lines seemed to be awkwardly woven together at first. I had very little sympathy for the second main character (Dr. Lydgate) and his unfortunate marriage. But any time that Mary Garth or Dorthea Brooke came on the scene things brightened up considerably. As the story went along I couldn’t help becoming very fond of Mary Garth’s parents, particularly her father, Caleb. Theirs was a marriage that had been through many tests, but genuine love and respect for each other had brought them through. This was in sharp contrast to all the other marriages in the book.

I must admit I kept reading this book more for the meaty quotes than for the story line. But, LO AND BEHOLD, after I’d reached the five hundredth page, the Bulstrode/Raffles conflict occurred and I could hardly put the book down. The action never let up after that and there were many satisfying conclusions to the story before the final chapter.

The characters in the book have varying levels of integrity. The ones who are the most virtuous suffer the most which doesn’t seem fair, but you can’t help seeing how their suffering makes them even better people than they were before. The main thrust of the book is that a life well-lived is one of honesty and selflessness (even at the risk of losing fortune and fame). I couldn’t agree more with Eliot’s conclusion that “the growing 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, and rest in unvisited tombs.”