Friday, January 30, 2009

Aesop's Fables - Not Just for Kids!

Most of us have been exposed to Aesop through children’s books where half a dozen of his most famous fables are retold. We are familiar with “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, “The Tortoise and the Hare”, and “The Fox and the Sour Grapes”. But have you ever heard the one about “The Bald Man and the Fly”? Or “The Frogs Who Wanted a King”?

Recently in a fit of insanity I went against all my resolves and joined a book challenge. One of the reasons I read is to become a better thinker so the Really Old Classics Challenge seemed like a pretty good place to find fodder for my little gray cells. While scrolling through the titles of books written before 1600 I immediately pounced on Aesop's Fables as the book I was most likely to understand without footnotes. A quick search for internet sources revealed, a site that sends daily installments of your chosen book straight to your inbox. Though not the ideal method for reading a full-length novel, I thought it splendid for reading a book of short stories, and signed up to receive Aesop.

The short, well-written stories were a delight. I glowed with appreciation over familiar tales, and laughed out loud at some that were new to me. Several of the newer fables were amazingly profound. It took me a week to get through all eighty-two and I enjoyed every one of them. Many reminded me of a Bible verse or biblical principle.

“The Town Mouse and Country Mouse” (story #7) has the moral: "Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear” which sounds a lot like Proverbs 15:17: “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred”. The moral of Story #12 was, “Destroy the seed of evil, or it will grow up to your ruin.” Story #44 stated you should “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart therefrom.” (which is almost word for word the same as the Bible verse – possibly due to the translator?) The moral of story #54 is that vices are their own punishment. And the story of the Fox and the Mask (#20) teaches “Outward show is a poor substitute for inner worth.” All in all it was a delightful, nourishing, easy read and it deserves its place in the “worthwhile books” category.

A sample from the book:

A Man had lost his way in a wood one bitter winter's night. As he was roaming about, a Satyr came up to him, and finding that he had lost his way, promised to give him a lodging for the night, and guide him out of the forest in the morning. As he went along to the Satyr's cell, the Man raised both his hands to his mouth and kept on blowing at them. "What do you do that for?" said the Satyr.
"My hands are numb with the cold," said the Man, "and my breath warms them."
After this they arrived at the Satyr's home, and soon the Satyr put a smoking dish of porridge before him. But when the Man raised his spoon to his mouth he began blowing upon it. "And what do you do that for?" said the Satyr.
"The porridge is too hot, and my breath will cool it."
"Out you go," said the Satyr. "I will have nought to do with a man who can blow hot and cold with the same breath."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Real Meaning of "Prodigal"

Occasionally I'll come across a word definition that leaves me gobsmacked. Imagine my astonishment when I learned the real meaning of the word "prodigal" in my recent meanderings through literature. (It comes up twice in Count of Monte Cristo.) I've been raised on Bible stories since babyhood and have a degree in theology so you'd think I would have known what it really means. In common (incorrect) usage a "prodigal" is someone who leaves and then returns. In actuality it means: someone who is wastefully extravagant. It makes perfect sense in the context of the story of the Prodigal Son. But it makes even more sense to say that his father was "prodigal" because he was wildly lavish with his forgiveness and grace. I'll say it again, I'm astonished!

Related words:

prodigious - impressively great in size, enormous
prodigy - a person with exceptional talent or powers
(painting by Rembrandt)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Amanda from (now defunct) had a list of 100 books that every well-educated woman should read. While I LOVE her list, I was puzzled by her inclusion of the horror novel, Frankenstein. Her description of it as “a reminder to examine the moral issues surrounding science” grabbed my interest. This week I read the book and decided she was right to include it on her list.

With the threat of cloning hanging over us, I am extremely interested in questions that scientists don’t seem to be asking. Are we more than a conglomeration of body parts? What does it mean to be human? What makes life worth living? The way this book grapples with these questions is one of the reasons it is considered a classic.

To tell the truth, I thought the first nine chapters were average writing (Mary Shelley wrote this when she was eighteen!) I was disgusted with Dr. Frankenstein’s drive to create “life” without weighing the consequences of his actions. When the created being took its first breath, Frankenstein (the scientist’s name, not the name of the monster) was so overcome with horror that he took to bed and was sick for months. He never faced the responsibility of what he had done; he acted as if ignoring the monster would somehow make it disappear. TWO YEARS later Frankenstein meets his creation and the story takes a turn that chilled my blood.

The monster tells the doctor the incidents of his life during the preceding years, including the many times he had been rejected for his hideous appearance. He makes a heart-wrenching plea for the doctor to create another being like himself so that he can finally love and be loved in return. Astonishingly, this “subhuman” creature echoes the cry of every human heart.

I don’t want to spoil the story by telling any more. My enjoyment of the book was greatly enhanced by listening to the audio version. Because of the narrator’s superb interpretation of the monster’s thoughts and feelings, I was drawn into the emotionally-charged dialogues between “master” and created being in a way that just reading them might not have affected me. This book was written in 1818 (before science had usurped God as “all-knowing”) and shows the horrific consequences of a scientist drunk with his own power who suffers the loss of everything dear to him because of it. It is a fascinating look at science done irresponsibly.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Audiobooks - Part Two

(This is a continuation of a previous post.) Are audioboooks really reading? I know this subject has been covered by others, but I’m still trying to work it out in my own mind. The blogger at Free Listens had a great post on this last year. I agree with the person who commented that if some works of literature were actually written to be read out loud, how can listening to them undermine their value? Though I admit that more may be gained from reading the written text than from just hearing it, I do not agree that listening to a book is comparable to seeing its movie version. At least in listening you come into contact with the author’s own unadulterated words.

What are your thoughts? Suggestions?

Some sites I’ve found with free downloadable books and stories:
Librivox (Some readers are great. Some are awful.)
Forgotten Classics (only some books are free; sadly, a lot of the free stuff is junk)
Classic Poetry Aloud
Free Listens (reviews the best free stuff out there – a great help, especially in pointing out the best readers and recordings at Librivox)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Worthwhile Movie #2 - Dear Heart

Dear Heart (1963) is one of my absolute favorite movies for its good writing, excellent acting and insights into human character. From the first minutes of the movie, you know the heroine is a busy-body. It’s only as the movie unfolds that you see her behavior not as nosiness, but as a frank interest in people’s lives. She really cares about them. Evie Jackson is quirky with a capital “Q."  Though not your typical love story, this is nevertheless a deeply satisfying movie. The hero and heroine are not drop-dead gorgeous (which increases their appeal to me). Even the hero’s name, Harry Mork, implies a totally non-Hollywood-ized character.

I think it is amazing that this film was made at the height of the sexual revolution and yet its main message is that sex and love are not the same thing. When a man propositions Evie at the Postmaster’s Convention, she tells him, "Sex is just one page in the book.” No one else in the film seems to agrees with her. Until she meets Harry. Though both of them have made their share of sinful mistakes, they have the decency to regret it and the guts to try over.

When Harry's fiancĂ©e (Angela Lansbury!) breezes into town and doesn’t even question the fact that he is spending time with Evie, he confronts her. She responds, “Harry, you’re a man and you’ll continue to be one. All I ask is that you don’t tell me about it. Happily, this laissez faire attitude is what brings Harry to his senses.

I have so many favorite quotes from this movie that I can’t list them all. At one point all the significant people in Harry’s life show their selfishness by going into their rooms and slamming the doors. He stands in the hall and yells, “You’ve got to come out and get mixed up with me. We’ve got to talk and we’ve got to fight and we’ve got to meddle in each other’s business until we forget about our own.” (Evie’s philosophy exactly!)

I wouldn’t call this a “family” movie because one of its central themes is sexuality, BUT it’s one of the best pro-marriage movies I’ve ever seen. I find it charming, funny and heart-breaking all at the same time.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Audiobooks - Part One

I received so many comments on my mention of audiobooks ( 12/26/08 blog) that I decided to clarify my view. Yes, listening to them is never quite as satisfying to me as reading the paper version because I cannot linger over beautiful words and phrases. BUT I really like audiobooks for several reasons.

First, I have limited access to books in English here in Brazil so downloading books from the internet is a great way to get my hands on them. (I only use free sites which means quality sometimes suffers.) Second, audiobooks are a painless way to “make myself” read a book that otherwise doesn’t interest me. Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness are just two examples of books I “read” that way last year.

Third, it’s a great way to fill up lost time (in the car, while housecleaning, etc.) and finally, it’s a great way to revisit a much-loved book. In this last example I’m already familiar with favorite phrases and I don’t feel anxious about not being able to read and re-read them. An especially soothing voice is an extra plus on some audiobooks. It harkens back to the times my mom tucked us in bed and read to us. Very comforting! (more thoughts next week)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Worthwhile Movies

Last year was the first year I kept track of the movies I watched. I was astounded to tally it up and see that I’d watched 49 movies in 2008. But when I considered that we don’t watch TV and that Friday is pizza and movie night at our house, it didn’t seem so bad.

I like my movies clean so I put up with a lot more “fluff” in films than I do in books. Yet I like a good story on screen as well as on paper. I don’t enjoy most modern films and sat through some of these just to please my teenaged boys. Here are the films I watched (in order of their release date). I've italicized the ones that I would consider "worthwhile".

The Whole Town’s Talking – Jean Arthur (1935)
Young and Innocent – early Hitchcock (1937)
Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)
Rhythm on the River – Bing Crosby (1940)
My Favorite Wife – Grant/Dunn (1940)
Lucky Partners – Ginger Rogers (1940) – dumb
The Saint Takes Over – George Sanders (1940)
British Intelligence – WWII (1940) - pretty good for a "B" movie
Flying Blind – “Spies in the Skies” (1941)
Dangerous Blondes (1943) – detective story
The Falcon and the Co-eds (1943) – AWFUL
This Happy Breed - very British WII flick (1944)
I Know Where I’m Going – Wendy Hiller (1945)
The Clock – Romance with Judy Garland (1945) – no singing!
Road to Rio – Crosby/Hope (1947) – a family favorite
Romance on the High Seas – Doris Day (1948) – watched twice
In the Good Old Summertime – Judy Garland (1949)
Dream Wife – Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (1953) – DUMB!
Teacher’s Pet – Doris Day/Clark Gable (1958)
Tunes of Glory – Alec Guinness (1960) – tense and disturbing
Charade – Grant/Hepburn (1963) – one of my favorites, probably too tense for younger kids
Dear Heart (1964) – This I watch yearly.
Best of Friends – Masterpiece Theatre (1982)
Moonlighting – Pilot movie (1985)
One Against the Wind – WWII (1991) – Hallmark Film (sadly, only available in VHS)
A Foreign Field – Alec Guinness (1993)
Mrs. Brown – Judi Dench (1997)
A Vow to Cherish - Billy Graham film (1999)
Road to Redemption (2001) – Most of my family walked out on this one.
Saints & Soldiers (2003) – a bit grueling, but a good story
Something the Lord Made (2004)
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (2005)
Pride & Prejudice (2005) – watched twice
Bella (2006)
The Nativity Story (2006) – annual favorite
Lake House (2006) – watched twice
Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Martian Child (2007) - a very unusual story, well done
National Treasure 2 (2007)
Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (2007) – gruesome and pointless
Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Monk, Seasons 1-4 (We thought Season Four was the best. Less swearing, more poignancy.)