Friday, March 27, 2009

Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a retelling of Greek myths (Part Two to his previous Wonder Book). I enjoy children’s lit and old-fashioned, poetic language, which could both be strikes against this book for the average adult reader. However, if you are looking for a pleasant way to improve your knowledge of Greek mythology, this is a good place to start. Hawthorne had a knack for turning the immoral escapades of the Greek gods and goddesses into moral tales for children. And he did it in beautiful language.

An example from “Theseus and the Minotaur”: Theseus could only guess what the creature intended to say, by his gestures rather than his words; for the Minotaur's horns were sharper than his wits, and of a great deal more service to him than his tongue.

An example of gallantry from “The Golden Fleece”: [Jason is delayed from his mission by an old woman’s appeal for help.]

"Good mother," replied Jason, "your business can hardly be so important as the pulling down a king from his throne. Besides, as you may see for yourself, the river is very boisterous; and if I should chance to stumble, it would sweep both of us away more easily than it has carried off yonder uprooted tree. I would gladly help you if I could; but I doubt whether I am strong enough to carry you across."

"Then," said she, very scornfully, "neither are you strong enough to pull King Pelias off his throne. And, Jason, unless you will help an old woman at her need, you ought not to be a king. What are kings made for, save to succor the feeble and distressed? … Jason, by this time, had grown ashamed of his reluctance to help her. He felt that he could never forgive himself if this poor feeble creature should come to any harm in attempting to wrestle against the headlong current. The good Chiron had taught him that the noblest use of his strength was to assist the weak; and also that he must treat every young woman as if she were his sister, and every old one like a mother. Remembering these maxims, the vigorous and beautiful young man knelt down, and requested the good dame to mount upon his back.

Too didactic? Possibly. But I wish they still taught these things to little boys and girls. This book was occasionally tedious, often witty, and very satisfying in its grandfatherly tone. All in all, it was worth the effort. I enjoyed revisiting familiar myths and learning a few new ones as well.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The Pulitzer Prize label doesn’t impress me much. Like the Academy Awards it often highlights artsy books that are out of touch with popular tastes. So it was IN SPITE OF the gold label that I picked up this book. Frankly, too many book bloggers had recommended it for me to ignore it. As I began reading I was amazed to find a man of faith being portrayed in a positive light. I kept waiting for the author to “zap” me with some horrible truth about this pastor that would prove he had feet of clay, but it never happened.

Gilead is the touching story of Reverend John Ames, an elderly pastor, who knows he hasn’t long to live. It is a collection of thoughts and memories he wants to pass on to his son. Although Ames seems to meander at times (making his words seem like the realistic ramblings of an old man), his reflections are anything but boring. You’ll laugh out loud at his thieving grandpa and you’ll grieve over his brother’s loss of faith. In the midst of the writing of his memoirs, Jack Boughton, a ne’er-do-well young man, comes to town and threatens Pastor Ames’ happiness. The struggle between Ames’ pastoral concern for Jack and his fear of Jack creates a fascinating story.

One of the only reasons the book did not make my “Wow!” list is because I had just read Cry, the Beloved Country - a pretty hard act for any book to follow. But while Cry is an intense story with an “avalanche of mercy”, Gilead is a gently told tale in which grace is dispersed in lovely, intermittent snowflakes. It’s a beautifully written book that celebrates the gifts and graces of life.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

World War II Movies You Might Have Missed

You won’t find many battle scenes in these films. The emphasis here is on relationships and human ingenuity in the face of deep trouble. A few of these are romantic comedies and others have unhappy endings. "Sappy” could be used to describe the older ones, but since the purpose of Hollywood in the 1940’s was to raise morale, the movies came loaded with images of home and family to remind folks what they were fighting for. Please note that even though these films are not as gritty as other WWII flicks, there are some disturbing images in a few of them. Some are not yet available on DVD.

Listed in order of release date the movies are:

Mrs. Miniver (1942) – Supposedly Churchill loved this movie which won 6 of 12 Oscar nominations.
The Human Comedy  (1943) was nominated for four Oscars and won one for best writing. It features a teen-aged Mickey Rooney coping with life on the home front.
Five Graves to Cairo (1943) – a great mystery
So Proudly We Hail (1943) – Claudette Colbert leads the cast in a story about nurses who served in the Pacific.
Up in Arms [VHS] (1944) – Danny Kaye sings and bungles his way through his first movie (and defeats the Japanese at the same time).
Four Jills in a Jeep (1944) – This comedy/musical about a female entertainment troupe is based on a true story, but romanticized by Hollywood.
The Last Chance (1945) – While not a particularly great movie, it is the first WWII movie I’ve ever seen that showed the realistic mixture of languages refugees would have spoken as they fled their various countries.
Three Came Home (1950) – Claudette Colbert is great in this POW movie.
- Bright Victory (1951) – Interesting look at racism at that time. I love Peggy Dow.
- The Scarlet and the Black (1983 TV movie) – Gregory Peck is a Catholic priest who helps Jews and Allied soldiers during the war. An amazing story with an amazing ending.
One Against the Wind [VHS] (1991) – A Hallmark film based on the true story of Countess Mary Lindell who helped allied soldiers escape through the French Underground.
Entertaining the Troops [VHS] (1994) – This documentary highlights Bob Hope’s travels during the war. Actual footage is shown of some battle scenes, but since Bing Crosby is singing in the background (!), it is not very heavy.
Paradise Road (1997) – If you missed this story of a women’s POW camp with Glenn Close and Cate Blanchett, rent it immediately. The story and acting are exceptional.

Well, there you have it. A baker’s dozen of World War II films to put on your Netflix queue. Let me know if you enjoy any of them.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

I expected The Time Machine to be a light, fun read. Frankly, I was surprised by the philosophical ramblings of the narrator and the above-average writing, which both gave the book more heft.

The story is about a time traveler who arrives in London in the 83rd Century. His first impression is positive. “I saw mankind housed in splendid shelters, gloriously clothed, and engaged in no toil. There were no signs of struggle, neither social nor economical struggle. The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce which constitutes the body of our world, was gone. It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise. The difficulty of increasing population had been met, I guessed, and population had ceased to increase.”

Well’s socialist leanings were obvious throughout the book, but later in the book, some honest ambivalence presents itself when he discovers this future society is not as perfect as he had imagined. “'I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword; it had attained its hopes--to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety. The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.” He concludes that a “perfect” society without challenges or problems inevitably leads to decay. I found his comments on the obliteration of gender especially fascinating in light of “progress” being made in that area in western culture. (I say that to our shame.)

Christian author, C. S. Lewis, strongly disagreed with Well’s socialist answers to world problems, especially the idea that government should abolish all religion. (Apparently, Jules in That Hideous Strength is Lewis’ caricature of Wells.) If you can sift through the socialist propaganda of the book - and take advantage of it to clarify your own thoughts, this book will bring an enjoyable evening of reading. I had a hard time putting it down.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Persuasion by Jane Austen

The first time I read Persuasion I didn’t like it. I thought Anne was too uninteresting, which is hilarious considering that I LOVED Fannie Price in Mansfield Park  who is thought to be one of the dullest heroines in all of literature. Anyway… the book redeemed itself (or should I say, I redeemed myself?) the second time around. Now I brush it off at least once a year to savor its lovely insights into male/female relationships. Even if I hadn’t learned to love Anne with all my heart, I’d say the book is worth its price for the conversation in the final chapter debating whether men are more faithful in love than women. The gentle, articulate and cordial manner with which Captain Harville and Anne express their very strong opinions to each other could be a lesson to us all.

One of the reasons I like the movie, The Lake House, is because it mentions Persuasion quite often. Yet I think the movie gets it wrong when it says that the book is about “waiting”. Anne Eliott, the heroine would say the story is about “true attachment and constancy”. She declares to Captain Harville, “I believe you [men] are equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance [in love], so long as – if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex… is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” (p. 237) The Bible calls this, “hoping against hope” and it encompasses so much more than “waiting”!

This book is not about fluffy, high school-like attachments, but about people who think deeply and love sincerely. I always feel “nourished” after I read it.