Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reading Year In Review 2009

I read 56 books this year, but I have to admit that when my schedule got heavy, I read lighter fare to enable my “book-a-week” goal. I hope to get back to more literature in the new year. As I look over my list I see that the books that demanded more of me (Need I say they were mostly classics?) were the most rewarding. I apologize to my readers for reading fluff to make my weekly deadlines when one good book read over two or three weeks would have served us both better. I learned my lesson.

Best audio book: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, read by Elizabeth Klett

Favorite revisits: The Warden (reviewed here), Persuasion (reviewed here), and Peter Pan (reviewed here)

Classics that I enjoyed for the first time: Return of the Native, Frankenstein and Count of Monte Cristo

Best non-fiction: Elements of Style by Strunk and White, An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

The WWII challenge was great, but only one of those books made my favorites list: We Band of Angels (reviewed here and here.)

Hands-down favorite book of 2009:That Distant Land (reviewed here.) Thank you, Carol, for the recommendation!

Worthwhile Movies (My Favorites in 2009)

I don’t watch much T.V. but enjoy old movies and Monk re-runs. Sadly, I watched an inordinate amount of silly movies this year – tripe that passes as “family friendly”. Ugh! I usually stick to older movies because they are less offensive, but I surprised myself by enjoying several movies made within the last year or two. Here is my alphabetical list of faves:

Fireproof (2008)
The Tale of Despereaux (2008) - Finally, a true family film. Lovely!
Three Godfathers (1948) I’m not a big fan of John Wayne, nor of Westerns, but director John Ford‘s cinematography was amazing and Wayne was appealing as the compassionate outlaw. Call it hokey, but I loved the redemption-through-a-baby theme that ran throughout the film. Christmas played a part of the movie, but I watched it in May and was still able to appreciate it.
To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) – both with Bogart and Bacall. Unquestionable classics with their dazzling cinematography, snappy dialogue and good acting.
With Six You Get Eggroll (1968) Doris Day’s last film. If you can overlook the 60’s flavor of this film, you’ll like this sweet love story of two families trying to blend together.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Killer Sudoku Puzzle Book

This book can’t count as literature, but I sure enjoyed every minute of it. About a year ago I stumbled across “irregular Sudoku” books in Brazilian newsstands. Of the many variations on the game, I enjoyed “Killer Sudoku” the most. In addition to the regular Sudoku rules (filling a 3x3 square with the numbers 1 to 9), this game contains few if any number clues and involves much more arithmetic. It’s HARD and a good alternative if you’ve become bored with regular Sudoku.

The book pictured is the only one I have found in the U.S. so far. It’s more difficult than the ones I am used to (I almost always have to look in the answer pages to make sure I’m on the right track), but it’s still a blast. When I finished it, I turned right around and ordered a second copy!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Words Matter

Recently my husband and I heard a WWII veteran talk about his experiences in a Japanese POW camp where he was allowed to write home once a month. Since his parents had moved while he was being shipped overseas, he sent his letters marked "general delivery." 

His captors, with their limited grasp of English, assumed he was writing to a military general and tossed all of his letters in the wastebasket. It was years before his family knew he was still alive. One little word led to one major misunderstanding.

The Bible tells us that Jesus was the “Word made flesh”. He must have seemed like a harmless little word when he arrived as a baby, but as he grew and began to fulfill his Father’s purposes, He became downright dangerous to the Jewish leadership. They couldn’t understand God’s definition of a humbling, suffering Messiah. Even today we have trouble wrapping our minds around the mystery of God “veiled in flesh”. One of the joys of the Christmas season is singing hymns that grapple with this truth.
In 1639 Thomas Pestel wrote:

Hark, hark, the wise eternal Word,
Like a weak infant cries!
In form of servant is the Lord
And God in cradle lies.

(Amazing words! Amazing gift! See the whole hymn here.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

As I started to read this WWII escape story, it seemed too vivid to be “made up”. A little research revealed that The Wooden Horse was, indeed, a novelized version of true events. Eric Williams was an Englishman in the Royal Air Force when he was shot down over Germany at the beginning of the war. The wooden horse in the title refers to a contraption the prisoners used to cover up an escape tunnel they were digging. As men dug in the tunnel, other men vaulted over the “horse," pretending to be doing daily exercises.

All the POW stories I’ve read this past year took place in Japanese concentration camps where prisoners were treated quite harshly. It took a bit of mental adjustment to picture the German camps where the prisoners had a very different lifestyle. Sometimes I felt I was experiencing a PG 13 version of “Hogan’s Heroes” (for language and tense situations).

This is a book that keeps you on the edge of your seat.  At times Wooden Horse got my heart to racing so much that I had to put it down and take a break. At other times I skipped over the thrilling details entirely.  Because I never knew what was going to happen next and because I was expending so much emotional energy on the book, I made a rash decision and peeked at the ending. Call me a coward, but it was the only way I could finish it.

A must for fans of WWII literature.  The movie is quite good too.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas Audio Books

Yesterday I watched a movie version of A Christmas Carol and bemoaned the fact that the movies cannot convey the charm and humor of the book. In fact, I didn't really know what I was missing until I listened to an audio version of A Christmas Carol last year. From the very first paragraph I knew I was in for a treat of understated witticisms and vivid descriptions. I fell in love with Mrs. Cratchitt in an instant when I heard her described as wearing "a twice-turned gown, brave with ribbons." How can you convey that sentence in a film?!

I also heartily recommend, "Conscience Pudding" by E. Nesbit which is one of several Christmas short stories put out by Librivox. As always, you get a mixed bag when you have volunteer readers, but "Conscience Pudding" was excellent. (It's the eighth story as you scroll down the page.)

Honestly, half of the enjoyment of these stories comes from the British voices reading them. If you're too busy to read this season, put a few of these on your iPod and listen while baking or wrapping gifts. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

We Band of Angels - Part Two

Earlier this year I read Return from the River Kwai and was troubled by its definition of heroism as “survival”. We Band of Angels reflects a truer definition of the word since it depicts people working under horrendous circumstances and yet giving selflessly of their time and energies.  Gleaning from government documents, diaries, letters and first hand interviews, Norman tells the amazing tale of military nurses who were serving in the Pacific to get away from their hum-drum lives in the U.S and how they got much more than they bargained for.

Before their actual capture the nurses were running a hospital under jungle trees. “The allies faced two enemies on Bataan: the Japanese with their bombs, bullets, and long bayonets, and a second adversary, more powerful and unforgiving than any army that has ever taken the field…. The effects of malaria, dysentery, dengue fever and half a dozen other conditions were aggravated by the growing problem of malnutrition.” (p. 50, 51)

General MacArthur had left Bataan for Australia in March of 1942. At the end of April and beginning of May he managed to get two small planes and a sub close enough to Bataan to evacuate a handful of the nurses.Fifty-four remained to face the Japanese on May 6 when surrender became inevitable.  The next three years were spent in a concentration camp in Manila. Here again, the nurses showed unbelievable courage as they cared for the sick and dying. Malnutrition, not bullets, was the chief cause of death now. The nurses themselves suffered terribly from beriberi and various tropical diseases.

And the work was hard. It took all the women’s energy just to change a simple dressing or administer a standard treatment. Any exertion exhausted them, and before moving on to the next patient they would have to sit and rest their painfully swollen legs. But every day they reported for work. They worked because they were nurses, and the sick called them to duty. It was good work, honorable work, especially among the dying, where they were needed most. In a way the work sustained them, for it gave them something most of the others in the camp did not have – a mission, a reason to get up in the morning…” (p. 200)

The nurses interviewed for this book did not want to be called heroes. They claim they were “just doing their job”. But, I, for one, salute them for unusual courage and faithful service to their country throughout the war.  In addition to being a well-told story, this book contains photos, a helpful timeline and a thorough bibliography.

(Part One of this review is here.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman

I love it when a non-fiction book is so fascinating that you can’t put it down. Such is the case with Elizabeth Norman’s We Band of Angels (subtitled: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese)

C.S. Lewis wrote of two elements in writing. The first is the words (Logos); the second is the craft of putting them together in a compelling way (Poema). I have found that World War Two books often have the words and facts straight, but lack compelling writing, That can hardly be said for this book because Norman has expertly woven her research and survivor interviews into a mesmerizing account of courage in the face of war-time atrocities.

On the same day that Pearl Harbor was bombed the Japanese navy also launched attacks on American naval and army bases on the Philippine Islands. Tens of thousands of soldiers were trapped on the peninsula of Baatan and the island of Corregidor. For months they obeyed Macarthur’s orders to “never surrender”. But by May of 1942, tropical diseases and lack of food had weakened the troops to such an extent that they were no longer able to resist enemy advances.

Knowing a little about the Bataan Death March and the thousands who were killed on that perilous trek, I was surprised to read that all 77 nurses who were captured survived their internment in POW camps. Because the Japanese had never seen women in army fatigues they couldn’t believe that they were on the bases for any other reason than to be “comfort girls” to the soldiers. Hence they were placed in civilian internment camps and not the deadly P.O.W. camps portrayed in films such as “Bridge Over The River Kwai”.

Several movies have tried to capture the saga of this book. My favorite is "So Proudly We Hail", but the nurses who survived Corregidor hated it for the way it romanticized and trivialized their loyal service to their country. Now that I’ve read the book I’ll have to re-watch the film and see what I think.

Part Two of this review is here.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

I may gripe about “Book Recommendation Fatigue”, but I continue to read books that other bloggers are raving about. This is largely due to the fact that I’m in the U.S. this year and actually have access to them. When in Brazil, my book choices are limited to what’s on my own shelves or what’s available through the library at the American school.

This week I read the novel, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. The title is completely misleading since it is not a bird guide at all. The story takes place in Nairobi, Kenya. The men in the story are not native Kenyans, but descendents of immigrants from West India. The female protagonist is from Scotland so the books provides a fascinating mixture of characters while weaving bits of Kenyan and Indian culture into the story.

Mr. Malik is a widower who spends his time writing anonymous political articles for the newspaper, watching birds, and visiting AIDS patients. He is smitten with the woman, Rose Mbikwa, who leads the Tuesday bird watcher’s group. Although the book is about his efforts to win her affections, it is not, strictly speaking, a romance because Rose plays a rather small part in the narrative. In fact, most of the dialogue and action takes place among the members of the male Asadi Club.

I enjoyed the good writing and the simple bird sketches that preceded each chapter. I also appreciated the sensitivity and sense of honor exemplified by the main character, Mr. Malik. Yet I was often jolted out of my literary reverie by references to flatulence, Bill Clinton, and several other modern day topics. For some reason I didn’t mind the references to political corruption in Kenya since they seemed to support the story, rather than detract from it. Overall, it was a pleasant, easy read.

A sample of the prose:
He had loved his wife. Not at first, not when introduced to the shy girl that their families had chosen to be his wife. She was rather on the tall side, he thought, and only a little bit pretty. But soon he came to know this deep and quiet girl, and as she grew into a woman he was impressed by her strengths, which were many, and endeared by her weaknesses, which were few. And beauty seemed to grow within her. It sometimes shone so bright he could hardly look at her. (p. 11)

Short, balding, tender-hearted Mr. Malik is a lovely man who I’m sure you’ll enjoy meeting on the pages of this book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Books I Didn't Finish

I think long and hard before picking up a book to read. My free time is precious and I want to make sure I’m using it wisely. Since I choose my books carefully, I rarely pick up one that I don’t finish. But this year I’ve made a few miscalculations.

The Book of God by Walter Wangerin came highly recommended. Wangerin is a gifted writer whose books have blessed me in the past, but I only made it to page 300 of this bible-as-a-novel before I gave it up. I love any book that gives fresh understanding of the Bible and I am not opposed to paraphrases. The problem with this one was that I found it uninspiring. Instead of focusing on God, I found myself reading each story with an eye to how I would have re-written it for better flow. My attention was directed toward word choices more often than toward eternal truths. Because I was giving it too much time with too little nourishment in return, I put it aside.

Sometimes when a classic doesn’t interest me much, I’ll get the audio version, a painless way to become familiar with it. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne was just such a book. Yet in spite of the excellent narrator (3rd version at Librivox) and the intriguing opening chapters, the middle of the book dragged so much that I felt I couldn’t sacrifice any more time to it.

I have read only positive reviews of Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield so I was very surprised at my dislike for it. Yes, it’s British and witty, but those qualities weren’t enough to salvage it for me. I love beautiful prose and the truncated sentences almost sent me into a panic.

I often say that really good writers have ruined me for the average ones. Once exposed to banquet tables of sumptuous words and unforgettable characters, it’s very difficult to be satisfied with fast food. I blame it on Trollope!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Families Where Grace Is In Place by Jeff VanVonderen

This is not another how-to-have-a-perfect-family book. In Van-Vonderen’s own words, “this book is more about learning the right job, and less about learning new techniques. The first step is easy – if we will do it: We must learn the simple difference between God’s job and ours. God’s job is to fix and change. Our job is to depend, serve, and equip.” (p. 15)

The book recounts the differences between grace-filled families and families that shame their loved ones into good behavior. The author uses the labels “grace-full” and “curse-full”. By curse he doesn’t mean that family members curse each other, but that they live by behavior patterns that are a result of the fall. After Adam and Eve rejected God’s plan for them to live in perfect relationship with Him (and each other), human relationships became power-oriented. Curse-full families try to control the behavior of spouses and children. Grace-full families slowly release parental control by training their kids to make good choices.

While there are no earth shattering truths in Families Where Grace Is in Place, the book offers much food for thought. For instance, VanVonderen points out that children have three basic needs: to know they are loved with no strings attached, to know that they are valuable and capable, and to know that they are not alone to face life. Within the context of meeting these needs parents give their children the skills they need to live healthy lives that are pleasing to God. (It’s tempting to think that “perfect behavior” is pleasing to God, but you won’t get that message if you read this book. Grace by definition cannot be based on performance.) VanVonderen constantly reminds the reader that God extended grace to us before we were worthy (Rom 5:8). For that reason we can extend love to our children even when they mess up.

It’s not about “controlling”, but empowering to make good decisions. (Hmm… sounds a lot like another book I read this past summer.) We shouldn’t try to fix everything for our children. Instead we teach them to take responsibility for their own actions. “In curse-full relationships, rules and performance take the place of people and needs. In a family that seeks to be a place of grace, relationships are there to make sense of the rules. A grace-full family is the place where people can do the job of learning to live without the fear of losing love and acceptance if the job gets too messy.” (p.129)

I was challenged by this book to be more honest about my feelings when family conflicts occur. The author points out that avoiding friction by squashing emotions is unhealthy and DISHONEST. Does that mean I’m going lambast everybody in my family now? Hardly. My goal is to be a grace-filled parent who knows the difference between God’s job and mine. And I trust He’ll give me the grace to speak up when I need to.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Whew! Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is my third book in a row that came highly recommended by other book bloggers. Maybe I’m getting "recommendation fatigue” because I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the other two.

Many things about the book appealed to me. Since I was born in Asia, I appreciated the references to Chinese words and customs. The facts about Japanese American internment camps appealed to me because I like WWII history. I enjoyed the excellent writing about the complexities of relationships, particularly at a specific time in world history. Jamie Ford does a superb job of describing the clash between 1st and 2nd generation Chinese Americans, the conflicts between Japanese Americans and Caucasians, and even the animosity between the Japanese and the Chinese during that era.

Hotel is the story of a Chinese man, Henry Lee, who is trying to put his life back together after his wife’s death from cancer. It’s told in the present (1986) with flashbacks to forty years earlier. The flashbacks recount his painful relationship to his father and his budding friendship with a young Japanese girl named Keiko. To his son, Marty, Henry is a “man with no surprises in him”, but as the book progresses the reader discovers that there is much from Henry’s past that he has never shared. These slowly revealed secrets are what carry the book along.

My chief complaint against the book is its melancholy tone. I frequently put it down to recover from a sense of overwhelming gloom. One of its main themes is that all happiness ends up broken or marred. Yes, life is filled with the bitter and the sweet, but in Henry’s case the sweet moments are few. I made myself finish it (because it was overdue) and was glad it ended on a hopeful note.

Now I’m ready to move on to a book of my own choosing – preferably something lighthearted!

A sample of the good writing: Henry did his best to communicate without words. To give his son that smile, that knowing look of approval. He was certain Marty picked up every phrase of their wordless communication. After a lifetime of nods, frowns, and stoic smiles, they were both fluent in emotional shorthand. (p.84)

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Pototo Peel Pie Society

Because I had just finished reading a fabulous book I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to do this one justice. (The first few books after a really good one can seem a little bland.) Well, I needn’t have worried. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel was as charming and delightful as fellow book bloggers said it would be.

The chatty correspondence between writer Juliet Ashton and the members of the literary society on Guernsey Island draws the reader effortlessly into their lives. The story takes place during the years after WWII and though it recalls a few events that took place during the war, it centers on how half a dozen inhabitants of the island are putting their lives back together. Sounds somber, but it isn’t!

Lovers of literature and WWII history get a double whammy with Guernsey. They will discover little known stories of German occupation of the Channel Islands and they will love reading about how reading the classics transformed the lives of the society members. John Booker (former butler) loved to quote Seneca as saying, “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.” Truly, some in the book have experienced inexpressible sorrows, but these are handled very well by the author. For the most part this is a very light-hearted book about the resilience of men and women who keep living AND GIVING in spite of the pain in their lives.

The charm wears thin when it should (when some of the horrors of WWII are described), but sometimes wears thin where it shouldn’t (when it describes the sexual preferences of one of the main characters). That didn’t fit the tone of a 1940’s era book, but it’s one of my few quibbles. Even the occasional swearing didn’t bother me because it was not gratuitous and seemed to fit the context of the book’s tragic moments.

One of the amazing features of the book is how it shows simple people with no training in the classics grappling to understand them AND SUCCEEDING. Eben Ramsey, a tombstone cutter and wood carver, tackled Shakespeare and sent his impressions to Miss Ashton:

[The book I chose] was called Selections from Shakespeare. Later, I came to see that Mr. Dickens and Mr. Wordsworth were thinking of men like me when they wrote their words. But most of all, I believe that William Shakespeare was. Mind you, I cannot always make sense of what he says, but it will come.

It seems to me the less he said, the more beauty he made. Do you know what sentence of his I admire the most? It is “The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.”

I wish I’d known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, plane-load after plane-load of them – and come off ships down in the harbor! All I could think of was "damn them, damn them", over and over. If I could have thought the words “the bright day is done and we are for the dark,” I’d have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstance – instead of my heart sinking to my shoes. (p. 63)

What lovely proof of the power of words to console us! If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t read this (all two of you!), head to your library and get a copy.

Friday, September 18, 2009

That Distant Land by Wendell Berry

I go through about fifty books a year and rarely do I find more than one that touches me in the deepest part of my soul. Surprisingly, I’ve read two like that this year. Seven months ago it was Cry the Beloved Country and now it’s Wendell Berry’s That Distant Land.
In Berry’s case, I’m still reeling from the emotional impact of the book and am not sure I can put my experience into words. From the very first paragraphs of the book I felt as though I’d been given a rare privilege. Not only did his narrative style draw me quickly into the story, but the people he described were so believable in their weaknesses and strengths, that I soon forgot they were fictional characters and felt a secret pleasure at eavesdropping into their lives.

How could I not love gangly Tol Proudfoot who married late in life and never ceased to adore his bride? Or faithful Jack who kept a vigilant watch over his nephew until he was sure he would not take revenge on his father’s murderer? Or Elton Penn who found healing from his brokenness in the farming community?

The stories, set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, begin in 1888 and end about a hundred years later. The theme of many of them is the necessity (and responsibility) of our interrelatedness as human beings. In “The Wild Birds” Burley Coulter says, “We are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t." (p.356)

Be prepared to read this book with a little ache around your heart. You’ll be touched by its tender friendships, its descriptions of the fragility and beauty of life, and its relentless pictures of suffering infused with grace. No matter how bad things get, Berry convinces you that life is good; it’s a gift worth opening because it is made rich by the love of good friends and neighbors.

There are too many beautiful passages to quote them all, but here’s a short sample:
It was a long walk because we had to go around the inlets of the backwater that lay in every swag and hollow. Way off, now and again, we could hear the owls. Once we startled a deer and stood still while it plunged away into the shadows. And always we were walking among the flowers. I wanted to keep thinking that they were like stars, but after a while I could not think so. They were not like stars. They did not have that hard, distant glitter. And yet in their pale, peaceful way, they shone. They collected their little share of light and gave it back. (p.369)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More C.S. Lewis on Literature

I've missed keeping up with my blog, but class prep and Wendell Berry (and keeping up with my family!) continue to consume my time. To hold me over till next week I'm posting another great quote from An Experiment in Criticism  by Lewis.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. (p. 141)

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Golden Book on Writing by David Lambuth

I recently found The Golden Book on Writing  in my father-in-law's book case and wondered how it would measure up to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Both books were authored by college professors as guide books for their students. Elements was published by William Strunk in 1919 at Cornell while Golden Book was published in 1923 at Dartmouth. The booklets (neither is more than 80 pages long) were intended for use within their respective college campuses. What sets them apart is that E.B. White revised Elements for the general public in 1959. And he did it with such precision and wit that it quickly came to be considered an essential guide to good writing.

Frankly, I expected Golden Book to be inferior, but it really can't be compared to Elements. Although both books emphasize economy of language - i.e., the removal of all unnecessary words, Lambuth's main point is to use common sense when writing, even when it occasionally breaks the rules.

Here are some gems from the book:

Good writing - as I have remarked - comes only from clear thinking, set down in simple and natural speech, and afterwards revised in accordance with good usage... After all, good writing is like good social skills. It is learned by constant association with those who practice it, and it must be instinctive and un-selfconscious before it is of the slightest value. That is why you can learn how to write only be reading well. The man who writes with one eye on the textbook of rhetoric, or one half of his brain trying to remember the rules, is like the man who can't tell whether to take off his hat or to use his fork or his spoon until he has remembered what was said on page 74 or 135 of some so-called "Book of Etiquette." Gentleman do not act by rules nor learn how to conduct themselves out of textbooks. Neither do good writers. Therefore: still read. (p. 4)

Ill-chosen words, words that are vague or misleading, give away the fact that you have been too lazy to think clearly what you are trying to say or else that you don't know what words mean. The only satisfactory way to enlarge a poverty-stricken vocabulary is to read widely. (p. 27)

Friday, August 21, 2009

An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis

A favorite topic of mine is the difference between popular books and classic literature. Obviously, I was prepared to love An Experiment in Criticism, especially since it was written in Lewis' unique and witty style.

I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that certain passages were out of my depth of understanding, but the parts I understood were so rich in meaning that I know I'll be returning to this book again and again. How could I resist re-reading Lewis' rock-hard arguments against those who disdain fantasy for its "untruthfullness"? (p. 67) Or his explanation for why an unliterary reader prefers bad writing? (p. 32)

As the unmusical listener wants only the Tune, so the unliterary reader wants only the Event. The one ignores all the sounds the orchestra is actually making; the other ignores nearly all that the words before him are doing; he wants to know what happened next... He is deaf to the aural side of what he reads because rhythm and melody do not help him discover who married (rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered) whom. He likes [comic] strip narratives and almost wordless films because in them nothing stands between him and the Event. And he likes speed because a very swift story is all events. (p. 30)

I was intrigued by the idea that we should come to a book in an attitude of surrender, i.e., without preconceived notions. Ignore the critcis, says Lewis, until after you've read the book. Don't let them tell you a book is bad. In fact, you should expect it to be good and if it isn't, then you've given the author an undeserved compliment. "We must attend even to discover that something is not worth attention," wrote Lewis (p. 132) After you read an original work, then, by all means, read the critics, he says. But you'll have the advantage of being able to "dialogue" with them rather than listen to a one-sided lecture.

Diehard lit fans and C.S. Lewis lovers will heartily enjoy this book.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

As a budding reader I was surprised to learn that Jane Austen had written only six novels. Surely I could read them and quickly become an "expert" on all things Austen. Happily, my first novel, Mansfield Park, came with an excellent introduction that prepared me to enjoy the story immensely. Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were also richly satisfying, but my attempts to read about Austen's more immature female protagonists proved futile. Emma seemed too obtuse for her own good. And Catherine (from Northanger Abbey) was too naive for my tastes. I wanted a heroine who knew her heart and mind.

Enter Elizabeth Klett, the answer to all Jane Austen dilemmas. I recently discovered her excellent version of Northanger Abbey at Librivox. Finally someone who reads beautifully and flawlessly! Her reading was so delightful that I found myself smiling, chuckling and even laughing out loud. Who would have thought that this was a VERY FUNNY book? Northanger Abbey was Austen's first published novel and though it lacks the rich characters of some of her other works, the wording is exquisite and the story charming. I'm so glad I gave it another try. Catherine Moreland, the story's heroine, is a young woman who has fed her mind on gothic novels. Because of this she is prone to read more excitment and intrigue into situations than they merit. While I scorned her naiveté in my first attempt at the book, I was won over by her goodheartedness this second time around.

Klett is my new "Librivox hero" and I look forward to listening to her other readings. She's even done a version of Emma, which means I may finally get through it!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The American Flaggs by Kathleen Norris

Reading The American Flaggs was like reading three authors at once. The beginning was similar to the Grace Livingston Hill books I read as a teenager. (Poverty stricken but gorgeous female meets fabulously rich and handsome bachelor, they overcome all obstacles, and live happily ever after.) But the writing was more on the level of a Gene Stratton-Porter novel. By the time I finished, an Elizabeth Goudge-like twist had been thrown in which upped the book in my estimation quite a bit.

Basic plot: Penelope Fitzpercy (“Pen” for short) is tired of her family’s Bohemian lifestyle. Unmade beds, unwashed dishes, unpaid bills and a father who drops in and out of their lives are just a few of her concerns. When wealthy Jeff Flagg offers to take her away from it all she has a hard time saying no even though she’s not in love with him.

I thought I was reading a typically fluffy romance novel until I reached page 300 and the characters began making really bad choices. I was dismayed that Norris, writing in the 1930’s, seemed to be promoting a favorite modern-day theme: Be happy with the one you love and don’t let the person to whom you are married get in the way.

Happily, the book took a turn for the better. Instead of a fairy tale gone awry it morphed into a story about real people making tough moral decisions. Frankly, I was amazed and pleased at its un-Hollywood-like ending.

Any Kathleen Norris fans out there?

Friday, July 24, 2009

C.S. Lewis on Literature

What makes an ordinary book different from a classic? Here is one reason given by C.S. Lewis:

In the first place, the majority [of readers] never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers "I've already read it" to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it. But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday's paper; they had already used it. Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life. (p. 2 from An Experiment in Criticism)

The only books I have read multiple times (more than three) are Jane Eyre, the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress, Persuasion and The Warden. What about you? What are you favorite re-reads?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

I'm glad I was forewarned by other book bloggers that Hardy's books could be dark. As I began reading The Return of the Native there was an immediate sense of impending doom that made me want to put the book down. But I've been wanting to read Hardy for years so I forged ahead.

Eustacia Vye is a beautiful, city-bred Englishwoman who is forced by circumstances to move to the remote country village of Egdon Heath. As she withers away there she imagines her only salvation to be a passionate love affair. She is well aware that the state of being in love is more important to her than the actual object of her affection. Practically any man will do!

"Fidelity in love for fidelity's sake had less attraction for her than for most women: fidelity because of love's grip had much. A blaze of love, and extinction, was better than a lantern glimmer of the same which should last long years... To her love was but a doleful joy. Yet she desired it, as one in a desert would be thankful for brackish water." (p. 62)

Her decisions, based on passionate impulses rather than purity of heart, wreak havoc for all the other characters in the book. The "native" of the title is Clem Yeobright, a young man who returns home after several years in Paris. Eustacia sees him as the solution to her miserable existence and "falls in love" even before meeting him.

Hardy shines in describing people and places, but his prose become dense when he is philosophizing. Certain paragraphs have to be read and re-read before the light of their meaning begins to dawn. Nevertheless, he's worth the effort. Although the predominant mood in Native is gloomy, I am very, very glad I read it. There is a vitality in Hardy's writing that is deeply satisfying. I was also pleased with the mildly happy ending in which several long-suffering characters are rewarded for their constancy and faithfulness.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Is Reading Uncool?

The last place I expected to find great writing was on an airline flight magazine. But I recently spent a couple of pleasant hours browsing through the June issue of United’s “Hemisphere”. Adam Sachs wrote an article called “The Page Turner” in which he tries to explain the benefits of owning a Kindle to a fellow passenger.

“It’s for reading,” I say… It’s got books on it,” I add brightly, now tapping the tablet stupidly. Thousands of books inside.” Then I sort of wave the device in the air, as if to prove how light and portable it is and say hey, look at me, I’m reading.

“Oh…books,” she says, straightening her back. She’s got an iPhone in her hand, and I imagine she’s ready to Google map her way to a better conversation…. Because here’s the thing: Reading is not sexy… The electronic reader might be the first truly ingenious, paradigm-shifting piece of
technology that actually makes you feel less cool than you were without it.

The Kindle is sort of homely and straitlaced, and that’s what I like about it. It’s uncool in a cool way. Just like reading.

- written by travel and food writer, Adam Sachs, used with permission -

(Of course, when I wrote this back in 2009 Kindle's were sort of simple with their black cases and gray screens and ability to archive hundreds of books. Now, as I add this footnote in 2014, the Kindle Fire is anything but homely and straitlaced.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Losing Control and Liking It: How to Set Your Teen (and Yourself) Free

Tim Sanford’s book, Losing Control and Liking It,  is written for a very small audience: parents of older teens who are having a hard time letting them go. I did not need this book when our first son left home because he was confident and happy and had the life skills to “make it”. But my second son is his polar opposite. The thought of letting him go out into the real world was giving me the heebie jeebies UNTIL I read this little book.

When we home schooled years ago I read many books that implied that with the right tools I could turn out children who were “practically perfect in every way”. Well, guess what? We did everything the books said and our kids still disappoint us at times (and we still love them when they do.) But what a relief to read Sanford’s book which states that my job as a parent is not to turn out perfect kids who make perfect choices. In fact, Sanford writes that a parent’s main job is to (1) validate and (2) nurture his children. By giving the child a firm foundation of knowing he is noticed, loved and enjoyed, the parent can teach (by words or modeling) how to make wise choices. As a child grows into an adult the parent should be making less and less decisions for him. If he’s done his job of nurturing, validating and teaching, he is able to release the reins of parental control. “Your teen is moving away from your hands-on guidance to your hands-off availability.” (p.38) Sanford says that although we can no longer control the actions of our young adults, we can continue to influence them.

When you influence, all your persuading and inspiring still allows the other person to make the final choice. That person keeps control and is responsible for his or her actions, thoughts and feelings”. (p. 91)

This book came at a crucial time in my life. I didn’t realize I was having control issues. I thought I just wanted what was best for my son and that he was unable to decide that for himself. Now I see that I really have done my best in the nurturing and validating and teaching areas, and it’s up to him to make his own life decisions. I can honestly say I have let go of the controls. But I’m still adjusting! This is not a profound book in the sense that it will nourish you with multiple readings, BUT it’s intensely practical and comforting. If you’ve got teens, give it a try.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael

Amy Carmichael was an Irish missionary in southern India for the first half of the 20th Century. Through the years her books and poems have been quoted to me as examples of a life totally surrendered to Christ. Although attracted to the themes of her writings, I considered myself too practical to want to become acquainted with a Christian of such mystical leanings. Then I hurt my foot badly on a trip and was stuck in a strange apartment with only one remotely interesting book on the shelf, the biography of Carmichael written by Elisabeth Elliot.

A Chance to Die  is a fascinating look at a complex woman. Amy had to have incredible faith and character to go against the cultural norms for missionaries and Indian nationals as she began her ministry of rescuing little girls from becoming temple prostitutes. She was often misunderstood and called “dictatorial” by her critics. But those who knew and loved her used much kinder words. Certainly she was strong-willed, but the overpowering emotion that her “family” felt from her was love. Her standards of holiness and purity were so high that many a missionary recruit was dismissed without much ado, yet her thousands of letters to friends and supporters are filled with absolute kindness and tenderness. She refused to go on missionary furloughs “because the work was too important”, yet she had a rustic cabin built in the hills where she and her workers and orphans could get away to rest. She loved poetry and nature yet eschewed the “untruthfulness” of fairy tales. Her love for truth caused her to write prayer letters which emphasized the hardships of India much more than the victories.

As I read I couldn’t help but think that just as Amy Carmichael took pains to be “nobody”, never allowing anyone to glorify her, only Elliot could have succeeded in writing a book that neither deified nor vilified her. Elliot, in her own book Through Gates of Splendor, shocked me with her adamance that she'd made no difference among the Auca Indians with whom she had worked. She seemed to share Amy's philosophy of life: "Let’s serve the Lord no matter what it costs while never letting anyone know how we’ve suffered. All the victory and the glory belong to Him.”

Quite a motto!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

As a young adult I read almost everything written by Elisabeth Elliot. In several of her books she highly recommends the writings of Danish author, Isak Dinesen. Recently I got my hands on Dineson's Out of Africa  and was quickly plunged into life in Kenya in the early decades of the 20th century.

Dinesen and her husband moved to British East Africa in 1914 where they established a coffee plantation. Even after her divorce seven years later, she continued to run the farm. By then Africa had gotten so deep into her blood that she thought she could never leave. The book recounts her struggles, but more than that it describes her deep love for Kenya and its people. When she finally has to leave the continent she writes it was like being in a stupor of unreality: "It was not I who was going away, I did not have it in my power to leave Africa, but it was [as if] the country was slowly and gravely withdrawing from me, like the sea in ebb-tide."

Dinesen's descriptions of animals can take your breath away: In the Reserve I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizards, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a river-bed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful than their coloring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the color seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet's luminous tail. Once I shot an iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all color died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was gray and dull like a lump of concrete. (p.257)

I love beautiful writing and there is no doubt that Dineson is a gifted story-teller. Nevertheless I felt bogged down in the wordy prose at times. Now that I've read the book I'd like to see the 1985 movie again. The love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton was hollywoodized, but it is true that they had an unusual and deep friendship. And I'd like to hear Dineson's lovely words superimposed on scenes of Africa.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Virginian by Owen Wister

Many years ago I read a delightful book called The Amenities of Book-Collecting . It was written in 1918 by A. Edward Newton, a renowned collector of rare books (and owner of 10,000). In it he lists "One Hundred Good Novels" that every library should contain. Some on the list were already classics at the time and others were "modern" books with potential for fame. I've been intrigued by this list for years, especially by the lesser known books that never lived up to the hoopla. Number 96 was The Virginian by Owen Wister.

Recently I came across a Librivox recording of this book and decided to give it a try. It was narrated by only one reader which is always a plus at Librivox and she did a reasonably good job (though it irritated me when she pronounced the french word "toilette" as "toilet".) There were parts of this book I loved and parts I endured. For one thing this may be the first book I've ever read that was written by a man just for men. The love story was peripheral to the main plot and the worst dialogue in the book came out of the mouth of the female protagonist, Miss Molly Wood. Obviously Owen Wister didn't have the slightest idea how women think! Some of the chapters seemed pasted in like the hilarious stories about Emily the chicken, but apparently this book was formed out of a collection of previously printed stories.

I have mentioned profanity in another post so you might think it odd that I loved the swearing in this book. I loved it because it was there, but scarce. Obviously these were tough-as-nails cow punchers, but most of the expletives were left to the imagination in phrases such as, "He let off a stream of unprintable epithets".

According to Wikipedia the main story line of the book is a "highly mythologized version of the Johnson County War in 1890s Wyoming", a conflict between cattle ranchers and rustlers. Because it was written in 1902 there are several politically incorrect references to African Americans, but interestingly enough a condemnation of the lawless lynchings of Blacks by the KKK. There were moments of brilliance in Wister's writing, but sometimes the story seemed to drag and I wished it to be over.

The Virginian is a powerful story about justice - with a few ideas about equality and religion thrown in. While I did not agree with all of the author's opinions, he did make me think. This book has been made into a movie SIX times and I have enjoyed the recent version with Bill Pullman and Diane Lane. It is fairly true to the book, highlights the romance a little more, and doesn't make Miss Wood look quite as foolish as the book does.

Friday, May 29, 2009

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

This book came highly recommended by a friend and several book bloggers. It’s the story of Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen year old who lives with her family in a crumbling castle. Written as six months of journal entries I Capture the Castle is hard to put down. Who wouldn’t want to read someone else’s diary, especially when it’s well-written and chock full of engaging ideas and understated wit? At first I was put off by the conversational tone of the book which didn’t seem very literary. But by page 24 when Cassandra and her sister are trying to decide if they are more “Austen” than “Brontë”, I was hooked. It was the first time in ages that I’ve read a novel that eclipsed all other distractions.

BUT I must add that I was disappointed with almost every character in the book. It seemed that everyone who was unable to win the affection of the one they loved settled too easily for second best. They hated themselves for doing it, but nevertheless they did it. I am a big fan of people who are faithful to their principles even when no visible reward is in sight (Jane in Jane Eyre, Mr. Harding in The Warden, Anne Elliot in Persuasion, to name a few) so it's hard to root for heroes with no moral fiber. The only character in this book that comes even close to loving faithfully and over the long-term is Stephen, but in the end he, too, disappoints. Although I enjoyed the book I cannot highly recommend it.

A few quotes:

It was late autumn, very gentle and golden. I loved the quiet-colored fields of stubble and the hazy water meadows. Rose doesn’t like the flat country, but I always did – flat country seems to give the sky such a chance. (p. 27)

On religion:
“You lose yourself to something beyond yourself and it’s a lovely rest.” (p. 245)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

When a Man's a Man by Harold Bell Wright

Things have been a bit stressful around here lately, which is why I’ve been reading books that are lighter than my usual fare. A few years ago I was deeply moved by a book called A Higher Call, an updated version of The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright. I slowly accumulated a few other books by Wright, but never took the time to read them. This week I finished When A Man's A Man and I am still trying to decide whether I liked it or not. A few things bothered me about the book.

First, it was too message-driven. From the beginning the reader knows the premise: A man can only be a true man when he struggles against nature and wins. And I don’t mean human nature. In this story a wimpy, wealthy young man is rejected by the woman he loves because he has no character traits she can admire. So he goes out west to Arizona and becomes a cowboy. The great outdoors, the big-hearted ranch owner and harsh experiences transform him into a “real” man. I wouldn’t have minded this message if it had been more subtle, but Wright reminded the reader constantly that the cultured intellectuals of the big city were bloodless and soulless and only those in touch with their “earthy” side are in touch with their real selves. It got kind of old after awhile.

Its second flaw was its verbosity. Now that I think of it, the version of Dan Matthews that I read was edited for modern readers and had some of the superfluous passages cut out. In this unedited version Patches (the developing hero) was described more than two dozen times as wearing a “mirthless, self-mocking smile”. I began to grit my teeth every time that worn-out phrase came up.

Lastly, although I don’t often read romances, I do like happy endings. This story leaves the hero alone and brooding at the end and was unsatisfying.

A strange coincidence is that at the same time that I was reading this, I was listening to the story, Wanted: A Chaperone, which I believe was written about the same time as Wright’s book. In this story a young woman raised in simple farm-like surroundings is transplanted to the city. A wealthy young bachelor, who has given up hope of ever meeting a “real” woman, can’t believe his good luck in discovering her and marries her.

Rather ironic, don’t you think? Apparently a man can only be a man in country, but a woman can be a woman anywhere.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Although I’ve read a dozen Trollope novels, The Warden  is the one I always come back to. This time through I enjoyed it as much as ever. Probably more - since I’ve grown to love the protagonist so well.

Mr. Septimus Harding never ceases to amaze me with his self-effacing personality and kindliness. Early in the book accusations are hurled against him and instead of loudly proclaiming his innocence, he looks deep within himself to see if, in fact, they might be true. (“He was not so anxious to prove himself right as to be so.”) The decisions he makes as a result of his introspection could only be made by a man of utmost integrity and the way he treats those who have wronged him is nothing short of amazing. Somehow Trollope created a character with a startling ability to forgive others without making him disgustingly sweet. I. LOVE. MR. HARDING.

Because Trollope took pains to go against the grain of the sensationalist literature of his day, many modern readers find his books slow going. But if you like rich character descriptions, British witticisms and a relationship-driven (rather than action-driven) story line, you might want to give him a try. The friendships described in the book, especially those between Mr. Harding and the Bishop and between Mr. Harding and the elderly Mr. Bunce, are tender and touching. The not-so-gentle jabs at the power of the press in chapters 14 and 15 are insightful and comical. But let me warn you. There are five other books in the Barchester series. You may not be able to stop after just one.

(I listened to this via Librivox and although there were multiple readers, Andy Minter was far and away the best, capturing all the pathos of the novel with his lovely voice.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

For Classic Film Fans - Jean Arthur

I first saw Jean Arthur in a WWII era film called “The More the Merrier”. I was charmed by her comedic talents, her beauty, and her on-screen vulnerability and wondered how such an appealing star could be virtually unknown. (Was she outshone by her fabulous male co-stars?) Since my first exposure to Arthur I’ve hunted down about a dozen of her other films. Most are so engaging that I’ve watched them several times. Recently I enjoyed viewing her opposite Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman in “The Talk of the Town" (1942). When a charming fugitive, a beautiful teacher, and a stuffy lawyer are forced to become roommates, their unconventional relationship is suddenly The Talk of the Town in this madcap romantic comedy… The zaniness never stops as the three of them dodge the cops, try to snag the real crooks and discover along the way that both men have fallen for Nora. (from the VHS cover)

Imagine my surprise when I looked up a photo for this post and saw Miss Arthur portrayed as a pin-up girl. This was not the Jean Arthur I knew and loved – the beautiful, wacky young woman you’d be proud to take home to your mother. On the other hand, the eleven Arthur movies I’ve seen were some of the last she ever made. Maybe she was a femme fatale in the other eighty-one. I’ll probably never know since many were silent films.

If you like good, clean fun in a movie, you may enjoy these romantic comedies. A list of my five favorites:
1) A Lady Takes a Chance – with John Wayne
2) A Foreign Affair – with John Lund and Marlene Dietrich
3) The More the Merrier – with Joel McCrea
4) The Talk of the Town – with Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman
5) Only Angels Have Wings – with Cary Grant

Friday, May 1, 2009

Code Name Nimrod by James Leasor

I hate to admit it, but I first heard about this spy on an episode of Hogan's Heroes. A quick internet search showed me that he had indeed existed, and I immediately purchased a 99 cent copy of James Leasor’s biography of Stephen Rigby, alias Nimrod.

Code Name Nimrod is the story of one man’s involvement in one of World War II’s greatest deceptions. He was a member of a secret organization formed by Earl Mountbatten called “X-troop”. Mountbatten needed men who could speak colloquial German, read German documents and interrogate German prisoners. They must also understand German psychology, so he suggested to Mr. Churchill that he should form a Troop of anti-Nazi German, Hungarian and Austrian volunteers. They were all technically enemy aliens and understandably, were almost all Jewish. (p.3)

Thus the scene is set. Through a thousand deceptive actions and messages Hitler is made to believe that the Allied assault will happen at the Pas de Calais and not at Normandy. As a confirmation of these messages Nimrod is dropped into France masquerading as a German spy with vital information about the upcoming invasion. If the Germans take the bait, Panzer and infantry divisions will be posted elsewhere, leaving Normandy virtually undefended and greatly reducing casualties on both sides. This book details the success of the mission.

I have noticed that books about the Second World War don’t often fit the “beautifully written” category. For one thing, the subject is too gritty. Secondly, many books are written from eye witness accounts or painstaking research, neither of which assumes that the author is an engaging writer. (One exception was war correspondent, Ernie Pyle.) What keep the reader going are the fascinating facts. How Nimrod escapes from the Germans after the invasion is hair-raising enough, but did you know that most of the world knew about D-Day before Hitler? (He normally slept till noon and his staff was too terrified of him to disturb his routine.) I was intrigued by Leasor’s sympathetic portrayal of Field Marshal Rommel as a man who inspired (rather than forced) faithfulness from his men and as someone who disagreed with Hitler on many points. I plan to do further reading on that.

If you are not a WWII buff, this book may seem a bit dry, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’d like to know more about a fascinating piece of war history.