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.