Friday, March 28, 2008

The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt

Frankly, I set myself up for disappointment with this book. Natalie Babbitt’s other book, Tuck Everlasting, was one of the most powerful and beautifully-written books that I’ve ever read. Therefore my expectations were pretty high for The Search for Delicious and it couldn’t quite live up to them. It seemed a little too contrived and silly (a whole kingdom going to war over favorite foods? A mermaid saves the day?) And don’t think that I found it hard to swallow because I disdain fairy tales. I was raised on them and have read them to my kids with zeal. But my tastes run more to Edith Nesbit (The Book of Dragons) and George MacDonald (The Light Princess and the The Princess and Curdie stories) because of the British wit, good writing and layers of meaning.

By the way, if you’ve only seen the movie version of Tuck, you have no idea of the richness of Babbitt’s story. I was furious with Disney for turning such a profound book into a teen romance. While I’m on the subject of insightful books, here are some other fiction books that have knocked the wind out of me with their depth of perception:

1) Fahrenheit 451 (You’ve got to read this if you love words/books/ideas.)
2) Gentian Hill by Elizabeth Goudge (Goudge is an extraordinary writer who deals with moral themes yet never preaches at you. The main love story in this book didn’t interest me much, but one of the lesser characters was a man who loved nothing more than to sit in his cozy library of books. He gave it up to reach out to needy people and I’ve been challenged to follow his example ever since. And he wasn’t even a “real” person!)
3) A Higher Call by Harold Bell Wright (The heroine of this book would not marry her pastor boyfriend because she wanted to actively serve God and not just “play church”). Very significant for me since I have been a part of the church all my life.
4) The Giver by Lowry is another one that I’ve mentioned before about the importance of pain. Who would have thought you could write a book like that in our comfort-obsessed culture and get away with it?!

Happy reading!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Good Friday Poetry

I am reading three books at the moment which I cannot recommend. But one book I am reading (for the third time) is a real winner. Meaty poetry that is not too erudite is hard to find, but this book succeeds in stretching my understanding without turning me off. It contains some of the greatest poetry in all Christendom. In honor of Good Griday I include this poem by Christina Rosetti (1830-1894):

Am I a stone and not a sheep
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy Cross,
To number drop by drop Thy Blood's slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon -
I, only I.

Yet give not o'er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

(Although I typed this single-spaced, my preview page shows huge gaps between lines. Sorry about that. Not sure how to fix it.)

Another excellent Easter poem I discovered this year was Sonnet 15 by John Donne. His Sonnet 14 is by far his most famous ("Batter my heart three-personed God"), but this one was wonderful too. I listened to it through Librivox. Have a blessed Easter.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness put me off in the beginning because it plunged right into the story without giving any background. I was even more deterred as I soon happened upon the negative remarks about African blacks as mindless savages. Honestly, if I’d been reading a hardcopy of the book I might have stopped. But I was listening to an audio version that I downloaded from The narrator was superb and absolutely believable as Marlow’s voice. I kept going… Unlike last week’s book this one was clearly a classic for a reason!

Joseph Conrad paints a picture of an incredibly gifted man, Kurtz, who goes into the heart of Africa to be a part of the ivory trade. But somehow as he lives in the jungle he self-destructs. Marlow said of him, “The wilderness had found him out early and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself that he did not know, things of which he had no conception until he took counsel with his great solitude. The whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.”

By the end of the book Kurtz is shown to be the most savage of all for selling his soul to his darkest impulses. The closing scene with Marlow and Kurtz’ intended bride was remarkable for its word plays on light and darkness. This is an amazing piece of writing and I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

I picked up “tiny” Vicar just after finishing “mammoth” Middlemarch thinking it would be an easy read. Vaguely I seemed to recollect that Goldsmith’s book was on my list of “classics I want to read some day”. But as I read I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why it would be considered a classic. It certainly wasn’t in the sense that Leland Ryken describes them: “a work whose excellence as literature and whose importance to western culture are indisputable.”

The language was not singularly beautiful nor were the characters richly developed. In fact, the calamities and coincidences in the book were so unbelievable that I had to force myself to finish it. The only “true moment” in the book is when the vicar is put in prison for debt and is jeered at by the prisoners for trying to preach to them. Now THAT I could believe! Even his eventual winning of their affection was credible. The rest was just too bad (or too good depending on the story’s timeline) to be true.

On a more positive note, I’m including some great quotes from another reader of worthwhile books, Mandi at (now defunct). Highlighted sections are my emphasis. On “Day 52” she wrote:

Reading Dante reminds me of the thoughts that I’ve had over time about really great classic literature. C.S. Lewis once said about The Wind in the Willows that it wasn’t a book you judged; it judges you. And that is how I feel about the greats like Dante, Augustine, and Homer. We modern Americans are eager to judge but not so eager to be judged. We dismiss everything from Shakespeare to Virgil as “not all it’s cracked up to” or we claim that things like truffles or escargot don’t taste as good as others claim. The one thing we never seem to consider is that the fault may lie with us…It is high time we started to acknowledge our betters and a good place to begin is with the classics.

On “Day 63” she wrote: I’m enjoying these satirical novels [by Evelyn Waugh] but nagging at the back of my mind are two things. One: they’re not as funny as Wodehouse and two: they’re not beautiful. This is all fairly amorphous in my mind but bear with me as I sort these thoughts out. My taste in novels is generally for pleasant or rich ones. I enjoy a tragic story but not a bleak one. Wuthering Heights good. 1984 bad. I don’t mind happy endings no matter how unfashionable they may be in literary circles, although a happy ending alone is not enough to content me. I can bear with deus ex machina without complaining but poorly composed prose and shallowness drive me nuts. Wholesomeness pleases me but Goody-Two-Shoes will send me up the wall. I can handle the preachy-ness of Little Woman but Elsie Dinsmore makes me gag!

Mandi, I couldn’t agree with you more!