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.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Perfect Library?

Most book lovers love book lists. I thought this list of the best 110 books to have in your library took a pretty good stab at trying to get folks started in collecting "worthwhile books". Some suggestions were duds, but no list is ever perfect. What was amazing was the amount of angry mail The Telegraph received from book lovers. I enjoyed reading the comments even more than the list itself. Very entertaining. We all know what it is like to be passionate about certain books!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Readers Matter!

The National Endowment for the Arts has published another report decrying the decline of reading in the United States. It took a while for me to download the 98 page document, but I discovered that it was mostly statistics and appropriate commentary on things we already know. What was fascinating was the intro by Dana Goia, chairman of the NEA. Apparently readers make a difference in their world!

All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals— whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. These cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact— books change lives for the better.
To Read or Not to Read confirms—without any serious qualification—the central importance of reading for a prosperous, free society. These data here demonstrate that reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities. Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading. (from page 6)

Now I’m wondering if WHAT we read matters. Would the readers of harlequin romances contribute as significantly to the culture as those who read the classics? I think you know my answer.