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)