Friday, December 31, 2010

Jesus Calling by Sarah Young

In the spring of 2008 our world spun out of control. In retrospect I see how the Lord held us together, but at the time, NOTHING was going as planned and the future was scarily blank. Health issues caused us to leave Brazil rather suddenly and subsequently my husband and I found ourselves adrift in the U.S. without a home, a job, or even the prospect of returning to the mission field. It's been quite a journey and one of my most faithful companions along the way has been Sarah Young's book, Jesus Calling. Young is a missionary and licensed counselor, but most of all she's someone who has learned to look to God in difficult times and to "take advantage of her crosses." The book was written as she sat quietly in God's presence and took down notes as to what she thought He was saying to her. Reading a book written in first person from God's perspective was off-putting at first, but I quickly got over it because of the rich truths.

I have never underlined any book as profusely as I did this one so it is almost impossible to narrow down the quotes I want to share with you, but I'll give it a try.

You need Me every moment. Your awareness of your constant need for Me is your greatest strength.... Your inadequacy presents you with a continual choice: deep dependence on Me, or despair. (Feb 22)

Difficulties are gifts from Me, reminding you to rely on Me alone. (Mar 7)

Some fears surface over and over again, especially fear of the future. You tend to project yourself mentally into the next day, week, month, year, decade; and you visualize yourself coping badly in those times. What you are seeing is a false image, because it doesn't include Me. (Nov 9)

When you are plagued by a persistent problem - one that goes on and on - view it as a rich opportunity. An ongoing problem is like a tutor who is always by your side. The learning possibilities are limited only by your willingness to be teachable. (Dec 18)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Beowulf for Dummies (like me!)

I normally eschew abridged versions of famous books. Shortened versions of Heidi, Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson tend to leave out the strong faith of the protagonists. On the other hand, some classics are so heavily-laden with difficult language that an abridged version is helpful in making them accessible to the average reader. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time you know I’m not averse to reading difficult books, but there are a few books that I haven’t read because the language is daunting; Beowulf is one of them. So I was delighted when I read that British novelist, Ian Serraillier had rewritten it for children.

Although told in simple language, Beowulf the Warrior captures the poetry and power of the original. I thoroughly enjoyed it! In fact, the language and imagery were so rich that I knew this was a book I could read and re-read with delight, which is the reason it made it to my "If I could only own a hundred books" list.

In case you are wondering about the difference between versions, I’ve cut and pasted a passage from Episode 6 below so that you can compare for yourself.

From the original: [My warriors have] seen me from slaughter come blood-flecked from foes, where five I bound, and that wild brood worsted. I' the waves I slew nicors by night, in need and peril avenging the Weders, whose woe they sought, -- crushing the grim ones. Grendel now, monster cruel, be mine to quell in single battle!

From Serraillier’s version: Because we grieve deep for your desolation, over the long paths of the oceans we have labored, I and my warriors to rid you of the brute that nightly robs you of rest. I am no weakling. With my trusty blade I have slain a monster brood and blindly at night many a foul sea-beast that writhed and twisted in the bounding wave. I beg you to grant my wish. I shall not fail.
(Well, what do you think? Maybe now I understand the story well enough to read the real thing... By the way, Serraillier has also written The Road to Canterbury, a re-telling of another book I have avoided.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reading Year in Review 2010

 I did not meet all of my goals for the year, but I’m happy with the variety and quality of the books I read – sixty-five in all.

Over half of my favorite books this year were written for young audiences. The Wednesday Wars, The Mouse and His Child, Magic by the Lake and the Narnia Chronicles were all lovely. Beowulf, retold for children by Serraillier, was an unexpected delight.

Biggest surprise: Canticle for Leibowitz. I certainly didn’t expect to find so much theology in a sci-fi novel.

Loveliest writing: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Most influential: Jesus Calling by Sarah Young – Next to the Bible, this was the most comforting and convicting book of the year. It’s a daily devotional book for people who are going through especially hard times.

Best non-fiction: London, 1945 by Maureen Waller

Most interesting new author: D. E. Stevenson

I want to say “Thank you!” and “Merry Christmas” to my blog friends. I love it when you share your thoughts on books I’m reading. It adds a whole new dimension to an already wonderful experience!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

This week I read the disappointing Case for Christmas by Lee Strobel. As a fan of both literature and theology, I grieve when I read Christian books that are flat and boring. Dorothy Sayers wrote that the truths of Christianity describe the greatest drama ever staged. That’s why I’m frustrated with writers who manage to wring all the life out of them. And that is why it was balm for my soul to pick up a book by C.S. Lewis.

The Last Battle is the story of King Tirian, the last king of Narnia and his battle against the Calormenes. I hesitate to describe it in anymore detail because I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers. The final chapters express complicated theological ideas in a gentle, simple, beautiful way. Have you ever wondered if people who don’t hear about Jesus get to heaven? Have you ever wondered what Heaven will be like? These passages will open your understanding (and blow your mind!).

Lewis tied up the series in a satisfying way with references to many of the main characters from the other books. Another pleasurable aspect of the book was that it met my need for meatier fare to prepare my heart for the season. A stable is a major backdrop to the story and Lucy makes a passing comment that “In our world, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.” It was a perfect Christmas comment and clinched the book as my favorite in the series. (Even as I write that I’m not sure that’s true. There was something to love in every single one of the books.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

I’ve been in awe of Ray Bradbury ever since I read Fahrenheit 451, but I was a little afraid to read another of his books. After all, could lightening possibly strike twice? I took a chance and discovered that although Dandelion Wine wasn’t as powerful as Fahrenheit, it was a tremendous pleasure to read. For one thing, the writing is gorgeous. It was often so thick with adjectives and invented verbs that I could feel the heaviness of that long ago summer which was weighted down by heat as well as by life’s challenges.

The book is a loose collection of stories from the summer of 1928. The protagonist is twelve year old Douglas Spaulding whose fictionalized adventures are based on memories from Bradbury’s own youth. Bradbury masterfully juxtaposes the joy of living with the pain of aging and of time passing. (He reminded me of Wendell Berry in that respect.)

In one of the stories, a young boy is coming to grips with his mortality: Douglas watched [the fireflies] go. They departed like the pale fragments of a final twilight in the history of a dying world. They went like the few remaining shreds of warm hope from his hand. They left his face and his body and the space inside his body to darkness. They left him empty as the Mason jar… (p. 187)

I was taken aback by how dark a couple of the stories were. If you look at some older covers of the book you can see that they played up the few macabre aspects of the book (probably due to Bradbury’s fame as a science fiction writer.) Anyway, the stories are good, but they are not this book’s main attraction. I would gladly re-read it to wallow once again in its beautiful language.

Monday, November 22, 2010

BBC Meme on the Classics

I hadn't heard about this meme until I read it on Brittanie's site. When I did a search to find the orginal meme I discovered dozens of bloggers had already posted it. John Wilkins posted the BBC meme, but with different books at the end. Who changed the list I wonder? His (original?) list had a lot more non-classics, in my opinion.

The BBC claims that most people haven't read more than six on the list. I've only read about 40 on Britannie's list (see below), but there are at least 20 on the list that are not worthy of classic status, so I'll never be reading them. And, as usual, there are a few gems that were left out. Everyone's list is different and I enjoy seeing the variety.

How many of these have you read? (I've put mine in bold.)

Oops! I just found the original list (from 2003!) and it is for most loved novel, not classics after all. Still fun.

1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6. The Bible
7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare
15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18. The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34. Emma – Jane Austen
35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis (repetitive see 33)

37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41. Animal Farm – George Orwell

42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52. Dune – Frank Herbert
53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72. Dracula – Bram Stoker
73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75. Ulysses – James Joyce
76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78. Germinal – Emile Zola
79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80. Possession – AS Byatt
81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94. Watership Down – Richard Adams
95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Saturday, November 20, 2010

More Wisdom from The Count of Monte Cristo

When I read The Count of Monte Cristo a few years ago I was captivated by a something Abbé Faria said to Edmond Dantés while in dungeon at the Chateu d’If:

In Rome I had nearly five thousand volumes in my library. By reading and re-reading them, I discovered that one hundred and fifty books, carefully chosen, give you, if not a complete summary of human knowledge, at least everything that it is useful for a man to know. I devoted three years of my life to reading and re-reading them more or less by heart. In prison, with a slight effort of memory, I recalled them entirely. So I can recite to you Thucydides, Xenophon, Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus, Strada, Jornadès, Dante, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Machiavelli and Bossuet.

Within a short time of his prison sentence nineteen year old Dantés was about to go mad because he had an unfurnished brain. Abbé Faria , on the other hand, had read widely which helped him to maintain his wits. He was never without something to think about.

This passage set me to thinking about the possibility of owning less books, but making the ones I have really count. Recently as I've read some blogs on minimalism I've been even more encouraged to let go of excess books. During our 20 years (and many moves) in Brazil, I've carried my library around with me because it gave me security to know that I would always have something to read or re-read. And, of course, I kept adding books for future "needs". I decluttered everything else before each move, but my books were sacrosanct.

Now, I'm rethinking all of that. I've started a list of "If I Could Only Have a Hundred Books" and I'm very careful about what goes on it. I'm making progress! 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Quote from Count of Monte Cristo

Food for thought from Count of Monte Cristo

"God has diluted our reason with a madness called hope." (p. 1070)

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

I wasn't sure how I'd like this book because it began a little more roughly than the others, but I was soon engrossed in the story. Eustace Scrubb from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader makes a reappearance here and because of his chastening experience in the previous book, he’s a much more likeable character.

He and his friend Jill Pole are thrust into a Narnian adventure when they receive orders from Aslan to search for King Caspian’s missing son, Prince Rilian. Along the way they meet marsh wiggles, giants and evil queens. Their guide to the ruins of the giant city is the frog-like marsh wiggle, Puddleglum. (If you are familiar with gloomy Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh books, you’ll have a small idea of how pessimistic and funny he is.) I laughed out loud at most of his depressing predictions for their future. And I loved him for his faithfulness and courage in the face of his doubts.

As in all the books, the author’s wisdom and insight shine through especially in the characters’ interaction with Aslan. Lewis’ wit is lurking on practically every page and it’s a delight when it manifests itself. One example is in the final chapter when the children are receiving a lesson on the eating habits of a centaur:

“Son of Adam, don’t you understand? A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omelette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer. And after that he attends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the week-end. A very serious thing indeed.” (p. 205)

The Silver Chair has many gentle jabs at modern education which are shrewd and witty. I'm glad I made it my goal to read the Narnia Chronicles this year.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tributes to Autumn

This is my favorite season of the year and I've tried rather unsuccessfully to capture it in photos. Two of my favorite bloggers have paid tribute to the season with beautiful words. And Emily Dickinson has written one of my favorite fall poems:

The morns are meeker than they were-
The nuts are getting brown-
The berry's cheek is plumper-
The Rose is out of town.

The Maple wears a gayer scarf-
The field a scarlet gown-
Lest I should be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on.

Carol has a a lovely poem and pictures here.

Lanier's Books had this to say: It's one of my very favorite times, this mad second youth of the year, more beautiful in its maturity than even the careless loveliness of April and May. And definitely more poignant in all its brave show. Already the golden leaves of ginkgoes and hickories have made a yellow carpet upon the lawns of my town, and tonight's rain will assuredly rob the great silken-trunked crepe myrtle outside my window of its last clinging jewels. But what a lovely autumn it's been. And what a stirring of anticipation as we lean closer and closer toward the brightest and best days that the calendar affords!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Books as Art 2

I was browsing through one of my favorite websites today and was horrified to see this version of "books as art." In this case books are decorations alone and obviously not loved and handled on a regular basis. The spines are hidden. How in tarnation are you supposed to find your favorite titles?! Makes me feel sad and chilly all over.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What Literary Villains are Reading

I read several books this week, but since none were worthy of a post of their own, I thought I'd share some thoughts I wrote down last year about several "bad guys" in classic literature who liked the classics.

First, Chapter 15 in Frankenstein shows the "monster" reading to educate himself. The books listed were Plutarch's Lives  and Paradise Lost.

Second, was the reference to several titles being read by the bandit in The Count of Monte Cristo. Luigi Vampa had these literary gems stashed away in his underground hideout: Caesar's Commentaries and Plutarch's Lives. A later villain in CMC has read Don Quixote
I'm ashamed to say that these villains are more well-read than I am!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris came highly recommended by fellow bibliophiles because of its witty and incisive essays about books. And there was a lot to love about this book. Fadiman grew up in a bookish family (She used her father’s set of Trollope novels as building blocks) and both of her parents were writers.

In her preface she writes, “Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise? Later she adds, “Between them, our parents had about seven thousand books. Whenever we moved to a new house, a carpenter would build a quarter of a mile of shelves… Other people’s walls looked naked to me.” (p. 125)

Bibliophiles can be a quirky lot and I chuckled with understanding over her confession of being a compulsive proofreader. If you are a compulsive proofreader, you know it, since for the afflicted it is a reflex no more avoidable than a sneeze…” (p.82) She differentiates between readers who keep their books in pristine condition as “courtly” lovers from those who devour (i.e., dog ear, underline, love to pieces) their books in “carnal” fashion.

For years I collected lists of “must read” classics, but after a few decades I realized I could never read them all and had to choose those which really interested me. Fadiman assuaged my guilt with her essay on her parents’ diverse home library. She compares it to the library of another writer’s parents by telling of Diana Trilling “who had to wash her hands before she extracted a book from her parents’ glass-fronted bookcase. Trilling’s parents are chided for this cold, calculating treatment of books. But “by buying his set of leather-bound classics en bloc from a door-to-door salesman, Trilling’s father committed the additional heresy, unimaginable to us, of believing that a library could be one-size-fits-all.” (p. 124) Hooray, I can finally justify my eclectic library!

I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand Fadiman is an eloquent writer. And funny too. I loved it when she wrote, “I’d rather have a book, but in a pinch I’ll settle for set of Water Pik instructions.” (p. 113) On the other hand she’s indiscreet about her personal life which interfered with my enjoyment of the book. I know it’s hard to believe, but I managed to be inspired by her father’s books without one single reference to his paramours.

If you love books about books, don’t miss this one.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Books as Art

I spent last week in the home of my brother and his wife. They are both artists and book lovers so it was fun to see how they combine those two interests.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Shoulder the Sky by D. E. Stevenson

Wikipedia describes Stevenson as “a Scottish novelist of light romances”. Since I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, I felt the description failed to give a complete picture of the author’s work. Yes, it is lighter reading than Shakespeare. But the characters and storyline are more complex than those found in your average Harlequin. Not only do the characters grow and develop, but the writing is beautiful.

Shoulder the Sky is the third book in a trilogy (but stood alone quite well) and takes place in the years just after the Second World War. During the war many children were evacuated from London and sent to other parts of Britain. Lizzie and her two children, Duggie and Greta, arrive in Scotland and make a new life for themselves. Stevenson describes them as “flotsam cast up by the storm of war.” (p.61)

Later Stevenson refers to Duggie’s insatiable appetite for books. “Duggie was eleven years old when he discovered the joys of reading. Before then he imagined that reading was an exercise performed at school – you did as little of it as you could, it was dull and troublesome – but when he started reading for pleasure it became a positive mania… Needless to say Duggie did not understand one half of what he read. He took his reading like a drug; he absorbed it as a drunkard absorbs whisky, and the everyday world became dream-like and unreal.” (p. 63)

Stevenson’s reference to my favorite book on page 184 sealed her as a new author friend. She must have liked Jane Eyre a lot because she wrote a book called Rochester’s Wife. My only regret is that for everyone to “live happily ever after” one of the book’s couples had to get a divorce. I don’t mind books whose characters make tough decisions, but somehow this left me feeling unsettled. My online search for more of Stevenson’s books shows that they are pricey – probably because they are out of print. So it was fun to find one at a library book sale for 20 cents last week. Thank you to Sarah for introducing me to this author.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

Chronologically The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the fifth installment in the Narnia Chronicles and, to me, it is the funniest one so far. Lewis never openly criticizes modern books, modern parents or modern education, but his disapproval comes through loud and clear in his subtle and humorous comments. Because I’m a lover of beautiful and imaginative literature, I found his jabs at modern books to be the most hilarious.

In one of the book’s most famous scenes bratty Eustace encounters a dead dragon and goes into its cave:

Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons. That is why he was so puzzled at the surface on which he was lying. Parts of it were too prickly to be stones and too hard to be thorns, and there seemed to be a great many round, flat things, and it all clinked when he moved. There was light enough at the cave’s mouth to examine it by. And of course Eustace found it to be what any of us could have told him in advance – treasure. (p. 71)

Caspian and Reepicheep (from the book Prince Caspian) make a reappearance in Voyage and this book brings closure to their story. I liked Reepicheep in the previous book, but loved him in this one. All in all, Voyage of the Dawn Treader was a pleasant read. Now to get my hands on The Silver Chair!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Quote of the Week: Reading as Freedom

In many ways [our] new visual culture is pleasurable, but it is a tyrant. Literature, on the other hand, is democratic. One can pause and put a book down and debate with the author. One can take it up later, after there has been time to think or do some research. The reader's imagination can select what it wishes to focus on, whereas in electronic visual media the mind is pummeled with powerful stimuli that bypass conscious and subconscious defenses.

(Quote from A Landscape With Dragons by Michael O'Brien)

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne

I read The Lively Art of Writing in preparation for a class I teach and liked it so much that I rewrote my syllabus around it. Its emphasis is on writing good essays, but the advice could apply to many kinds of writing. Although the book has not been updated since its 1969 publication (making some of the examples outdated), its information is still fresh and relevant. The Lively Art of Writing is a wonderful book for struggling writers. It clearly explains how to write a thesis, what makes a good thesis, how to write a paragraph, how to connect paragraphs and how to conclude well. Each chapter contains clear instructions as well as assignments for practicing each new writing skill.

Payne’s gentle witticisms reminded me of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. An example from page 104:

Sally saw the cat. It was a big cat. It was a black cat. It was a big, black cat.
You learned, obediently, what you had to learn: that sentences started with a capital letter and ended with a period, that Sally was a noun, saw was a verb, and big was an adjective. You probably learned, in addition, a few things that weren’t strictly a part of the lesson. You learned to hate Sally. You learned to hate Sally’s cat. And you learned to hate sentences. If sentences were this kind of stuff, who wanted them? You had the uneasy feeling that it was dangerous, even faintly immoral, to put a sentence in writing until you had starched and stiffened and sterilized it beyond any resemblance to natural speech.

While I’ll always be partial to the genius of Strunk and White, I thought that Payne did a more thorough job of explaining the mechanics of writing. This is a great book for those who would like to improve their writing.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther

As a fan of classic movies I was only familiar with the film version of Mrs. Miniver. I didn’t know there was a book by this title until I read about it here. So I was glad to get a copy through PBS.

From the opening pages you know you are reading a book from a different era. After all, a woman who unabashedly loves her children, husband and home is considered “outdated”. But those are the qualities that make Caroline Miniver irresistibly charming.

This is not a novel, but a string of vignettes. They describe simple activities in the life of an English woman in the days leading up to WWII. The writing is lovely. (“It was a Wedgewood day, with white clouds delicately modeled in relief against a sky of pale pure blue”.) And the book is chock full of gentle philosophizing:

About once a year Clem rather ruefully suggested, and Mrs. Miniver reluctantly agreed, that it was about time they asked the Lane-Pontifexes to dinner. There was nothing really the matter with them. They were quite nice, intelligent, decent people; she was personable, and he was well-informed: yet for some mysterious reason one’s heart sank…

(Later as Mrs. Miniver is interviewing a woman to help with the dinner party, she immediately feels a kinship to her. ) Mrs. Miniver liked her more and more, recognizing in her that most endearing of qualities, an abundant zest for life. It was rare, that zest, and it bore no relation to age, class, creed, moral worth, or intellectual ability. It was an accidental gift, like blue eyes or a double-jointed thumb; impossible to acquire, and almost impossible, thank heaven, to lose. To be completely without it was the worst lack of all – and it dawned on her in a flash that that was what was the matter with the Lane-Pontifexes. (p. 49 & 50)

The book is full of pleasant insights into life and relationships and, frankly, I was sorry to see it end.

(By the way, the movie bears little resemblance to the book, but I think they were spot on when they chose Greer Garson for the role. She definitely exudes the charm of Mrs. M.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Word to Ponder - Intolerance

Perhaps it would not hurt to be reminded that the Incarnation was, in fact, an act of colossal intolerance on the part of God, by which I mean to say that it was an act of immeasurable love. He loved us so much that he would not let us die in our sins. He was intolerant of our slavery and was born among us for the express purpose of doing something rather drastic about it... It may well be asked if such a tainted word can be properly used to describe a characteristic of God. He is, after all, rich in mercy and slow to anger. But it must be remembered that both the Old and New Testaments speak of times when the justice of God must act - for he will not permit evil to devour everything.

... This is the intolerance of the physician who is prejudiced against viruses because he has seen an epidemic ravage a people. This is the intolerance of a mother who fiercely protects her little ones from predators. She suffers from a bias against rattlesnakes and wolves. This apparent narrowness is the wisdom of those who have known many roads and have found only one sure route out of the regions of desolation.

(From A Landscape With Dragons by Michael D. O'Brien, p. 161-163)

Friday, August 13, 2010

London 1945 by Maureen Waller

My interest in World War II history centers on the home front rather than on the battlefield so it was only natural that I’d be drawn to Maureen Waller’s book about life in London during that time. Although London 1945 emphasizes the final year of the war, Waller includes many facts about the harsh realities before and after the war as well.

I enjoy watching films that were made during the 1940’s. To boost morale and encourage patriotism these films often glamorized the war. Modern day critics call this “propaganda”, but I find that label too simplistic. To me, the movies are an amazing thread in the fabric of WWII history and how people coped with the war.

The first half of the book reminded me of those films in that it highlighted the determination and courage of the English people to protect their homeland. But the second half of the book points out the devastating results of the war without a bit of sugar coating. The upheaval of community life due to bombed out neighborhoods, absent fathers, working-for-the-war-effort mothers and closed schools led to a huge increase in juvenile delinquency and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Single motherhood and abortion were frowned upon, which led to 50,000 babies being put up for adoption by war’s end.

We’ve all heard of the Blitz that ravaged London from September 1940 to May 1941, but I’d never heard of the V-2 rockets that devastated the city (what was left of it) near the end of the war. Neither did I know that England was bankrupted by its participation in the war and that food rationing continued on until the 1950’s. Many other hardships are detailed by Waller, making this book a treat for history buffs.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Quote from A Lantern In Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

When I first heard about Bess Streeter Aldrich through Lanier's Books, I quickly went over to PaperBackSwap and ordered a copy of A Lantern in Her Hand. It is the story of Abbie Deal who moved with her husband Will to the Nebraska territory in the 1860's. In this passage her daughter is chiding her mother for the smallness of her life.

"Your life has been so narrow, mother. You ought to get out and see things."

Unwittingly, as she often did, Grace had hurt her mother's feelings. For a moment Abbie nursed her little hurt, and then said quietly, "You know, Grace, it's queer, but I don't feel narrow. I feel broad. How can I explain it to you, so you would understand? I've seen everything and I've hardly been away from the yard. I've seen the snow on the Lombardy poplars. I've seen the clouds piled upon the edge of the prairie. I've seen the ocean billows in the rise and fall of the prairie grass. I've seen history in the making... three ugly wars flare up and die down. I've sent a lover and two brothers to one, a son and son-in-laws to another, and two grandsons to the other. I've seen the feeble beginning of a raw state and the civilization that has developed there, and I've been part of the beginning of the growth.

I've married... and borne children and looked into the face of death. Is childbirth narrow, Grace? Or marriage? Or death? When you've experienced all those things, Grace, the spirit has traveled although the body has been confined. I think travel is a rare privilege and I'm glad you can have it. But not everyone who stays home is narrow and not everyone who travels is broad." (p. 198)

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild

Fans of children’s literature may be familiar with Noel Streatfeild’s “shoe” books. I first heard about them in the movie, You've Got Mail when Meg Ryan spells Streatfeild’s name while sitting in the children’s department of Fox Books. As a result of the film, I obtained and enjoyed Ballet Shoes. Since then I’ve been on the lookout for more of her books, especially the one about growing up as the daughter of an English vicar.

Through interlibrary loan, I was finally able to obtain A Vicarage Family. Though written in the same form as her other children’s novels, the book is clearly autobiographical. In the introduction Streatfeild informs the reader that she is Vicky in the story. The book honestly tells of her struggles to fit into a family where the other siblings are more studious and compliant. She is even frank about the friction between herself and her mother. Although her father is loving, he, too, has a way of making her feel that she’ll never measure up. The adults in the book clearly look forward to the day when she will finally grow up.

The ending of the book has her doing just that, which is probably the book’s only down side. Something very sad happens in her life to bring her to maturity and although it probably really happened, I wished for more of a storybook ending.

I will continue to keep my eyes open for Streatfeild’s books.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Evelyn Waugh on the Classics

From Scott-King's Modern Europe (a story of the declining career of a classics teacher):

"You know," the headmaster said, "we are starting this year with fifteen fewer classical specialists than we had last term?"
"I thought that would be about the number."
"As you know I'm an old Greats man myself. I deplore it as much as you do. But what are we to do? Parents are not interested in producing the 'complete man' any more. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?"
"Oh yes," said Scott-King. "I can and I do."
"I always say you are much more important man here than I am. One couldn't conceive of Granchester without Scott-King. But has it ever occurred to you that a time may come when there will be no more classical boys at all?"
"Oh yes. Often"
"What I was going to suggest was - I wonder if you will consider taking some other subject as well as the classics? History, for example, preferably economic history?"
"No, headmaster."
"But, you know, there may be something of a crisis ahead."
"Yes, headmaster."
"Then what to you intend to do?"
"If you approve, headmaster, I will stay as I am here as long as any boy wants to read the classics. I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world."
"It's a very short-sighted view, Scott-King."
"There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager

If you are a fan of fine children’s literature, Edward Eager is an author you should add to your list. Eager was a British playwright who began to write his own children’s stories when he couldn’t find anything suitable to read to his son. Just as author C. S. Lewis credits George McDonald for influencing every one of his stories, Eager gives author Edith Nesbit the credit for igniting his own story-telling imagination. His books are a lovely combination of realistic children and magical adventures.

I enjoyed reading Half Magic a few years ago, but its sequel, Magic by the Lake, is easily twice as funny. Jane, Mark, Katherine and Martha are siblings who are staying in a lakeside cottage for the summer. They meet a magic turtle, discover that the lake is enchanted, and have a wonderful summer of adventures.

The excellent writing, wry humor and constant nod to other children’s books make this story a booklover’s delight.

Water babies gamboled in the shallows. A sea serpent rose from the depths. Some rather insipid-looking fairies flew over. A rat and a mole and toad paddled along near the willowy shore, simply messing about in a boat. On the other side of the same island, a solitary man stared at a footprint in the sand. A hand appeared in the middle of the lake holding a sword. Davy Jones came out of his locker.
The two younger children shut their eyes.
“Make it stop,” said Martha.
“Now I know what too much of a good thing means,” said Katharine.
“Maybe it could be sort of simplified,” said Mark. And he turned to appeal to the turtle.
They all looked at the lake again. A walrus and a carpenter danced with some oysters on a nearby shore.
“It’s too much,” said Katharine. “I think it needs alterations.” (p. 18)

Altering the magic gets them into all sorts of trouble and makes this an excellent read-aloud for younger children (or plain guilty pleasure for Mom or Dad).

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

I’m working my way through The Chronicles of Narnia. Although I’m familiar with several of the books in the series, the storyline of The Horse and His Boy was completely unknown to me. Of the four books I’ve read so far this story has had the least appeal. Ironically, it has been one of my favorite books in terms of hard-hitting truths.

Shasta is a poor fisherman’s son from the southern kingdom of Calormen. In order to avoid being sold to a cruel master, he flees “to the North and to Narnia”. He is aided in his escape by Bree, a talking horse, and Aravis, a princess escaping an arranged marriage. Their adventures (including several encounters with Aslan) make up the bulk of the story.

I like a book where the characters are flawed yet willing to learn and grow. This is certainly the case with both Shasta and his companions. I loved the scene where the great warhorse, Bree, realizes that he hadn’t been as brave in danger as the young boy who had been riding him. He lies down in despair, declaring he has lost everything. “My good horse,” said the hermit, “you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit….If you are really so humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great horse you had come to think… But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole.” (p. 146)

The theme of theodicy is introduced in chapter 11. Shasta, tired and lost, complains out loud that he’s “the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world.” Suddenly a voice behind him asks him to share his troubles. “ And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the Tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis.”

“I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice.
“Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?”said Shasta.
“There was only one lion,” said the Voice.
“What on earth do you mean?”I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and –“
“There was only one: but he was swift of foot.”
“How do you know?”

“I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
“Then it was you who wounded Aravis?”
“It was I.”
“But what for?”
“Child,”said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no-one any story but his own.”
“Who are you?” asked Shasta.
“Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all around you as if the leaves rustled with it. (p. 157-159)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Things that Fascinate Me

Inspired by Carol's literary fascination list and Brenda's bliss list I've written up a quick list of my own:
Textures, patterns, and shadows in black and white movies
People who serve others selflessly and never know they are heroes
British authors
That the Bible never gets “old” no matter how often I read it
The taste of dark chocolate
Outstanding children’s books
That God can take a horrible thing and use it for good
Music that is so beautiful that it is actually painful
My obsession with Jane Eyre (I don’t even understand it myself)
That God could love me NO MATTER what I do
People who love me no matter what I do
The Brazil nut
My children becoming adults

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Joy of Snow by Elizabeth Goudge

Please do not read The Joy of the Snow unless you are already a huge fan of Elizabeth Goudge. If you do, you may be tempted to dismiss her as "strange" and never open one of her marvelous books. There isn't much I can say about this book that hasn't already been said by Janet at Across the Page. I, too, struggled to like this book because Goudge is honest about her beliefs and eccentricities to a fault. When fans wrote her and asked if she put herself in her books, she replied that quite the opposite was true. "After writing for years I noticed the regular appearance of a tall, graceful woman, well-balanced, intelligent, calm, capable and tactful. She is never flustered, forgetful, frightened, irritable or nervous... She is all I long to be and never will be. She is in complete reverse a portrait of myself."(p. 34) Goudge is this self-deprecating throughout her entire autobiography.

My least favorite Goudge book is Middle Window. But after reading Joy of Snow, I at least understand what compelled her to write it: her strong belief that love is stronger than death. This theme is too sentimental for a common sense girl like me, but time and life experience may change my opinion.

Though I had to come to grips with the fact that Goudge and I don’t share the same theological views, I still believe she’s one of the best fiction writers out there. Her characters grapple with real issues and don’t always come up with neat and tidy solutions. YET, they often recognize their need to make tough decisions based on their growing understanding of who God is. Interestingly, Goudge insists that she always set out to write a good story rather than a religious one and that faith-related themes came into the books quite unconsciously.

A sampling of some of the lovely quotes:

God draws us to Himself with tenderness and then says the most uncomfortable things to us. (p. 245)

I believe that death interrupts nothing of importance if the goal is Christ. (p. 247)

Truly great men and women are never terrifying. Their humility puts you at your ease. If a very important person frightens you he is not great; he only thinks he is. (p. 212)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Miniatures and Morals by Peter Liethart

Austen’s books have sadly been relegated to the modern abyss of “chick lit”. In his book, Miniatures and Morals, Peter Liethart contends that Austen’s novels function on many other levels. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by his subtitle, “The Christian novels of Jane Austen.” Obviously her books are “moral” in the sense that the heroes and heroines are rewarded for gallantry and the scoundrels punished for their misdeeds. But are the novels “Christian” in the sense that they present truths derived from New Testament teachings? Leithart makes a strong case for his premise.

In his chapter titled “Real Men Read Austen”, he writes, “All of Austen’s great heroes – Darcy, Wentworth, Edmund Bertram, Knightley – are men who hold positions of authority and use those positions for good. Each of them is a Christlike lover who sacrifices, often at some cost to his reputation, to win his bride. They are servant-heroes, not macho-heroes. (p.19) Later he calls Austen’s novels “allegories of redemption”. (p. 32)

In addition to his expert analysis of each novel, Leithart offers insights into Austen as "craftsman". Over and over he points out specific scenes in each book that are perfect counterbalances to other scenes. One example comes from the book Persuasion. In the final pages Anne Elliot and Captain Harville are discussing whether men or more constant in love than women. Harville says all great literature is on his side and Anne counters that all the great literature has been written by men. Just at that moment the eavesdropping Wentworth drops his pen. I always thought he did that out of embarrassment, but Leithart contends that Austen purposely “takes the pen out of male hands” and puts the final word in the mouth of a woman. Those kinds of insights are sprinkled throughout the book and caused me to holler with sheer glee.

I majored in English Lit and did my post graduate work in theology so this book was a perfect combination of subjects. It may be a bit didactic for the average reader and it presupposes familiarity with all six novels, BUT if you like literature because it gives you a deeper understanding into what it means to be human, you will appreciate this fine book. I wish I had enough room to give Leithart’s explanation of the complex meanings of the words, sense and sensibility. Or of his declaration that Emma is the “most Christian” novel of them all. Or to reiterate why “boring” Fanny Price is one the best heroines ever. But this post is already way too long.

(An explanation of the title, Miniatures and Morals: “Instead of a thin description of large events, [Austen] gives us a thick description of small events.” - p. 30)

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Lost Art of True Beauty by Leslie Ludy

The subtitle of The Lost Art of True Beauty is The Set-Apart Girl’s Guide to Feminine Grace, which implies the spiritual aspect of beauty. Ludy strongly urges her readers to find true beauty as they separate themselves from the values of the world and draw closer to Christ. The thoughts I’ve woven together below are taken from the author’s own words.

She rightly points out that we live in a culture that lifts up a standard of beauty impossible to achieve in real life. “We are constantly assaulted by a world that insists we aren’t alluring enough – we need to change our bodies, our clothes, and our personality in order to be more appealing.”(p. 26)

“Love yourself, take care of yourself, transform yourself” are our mantras. But as Ludy points out, these are totally contrary to scripture. Christ said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”(Mark 8:34) The word “deny” here literally translates: to forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests… The secret to becoming radiant and beautiful is to forget about self and become completely consumed with only one thing – Jesus Christ…. (p.30)

The first step to discovering true feminine beauty is exchanging all that we are for all the He is. If we rely on something that we possess to make us beautiful, we cannot receive the supernatural, transforming beauty of Christ. True beauty is impossible outside of Him. (p.22)

God’s pattern is the very opposite of the “bad girl” image so applauded in our modern times… Somewhere along the way, as the culture became more cavalier toward sin and selfishness, the idea of being dignified, refined, ladylike, gracious, and socially selfless faded into the background. Now young women seem to get far more respect if they are loud, boisterous, rebellious, obnoxious, and sexually aggressive than if they are sweet, polite, graceful, refined, modest and thoughtful… (p.44)

[But] true beauty, in a nutshell, is found in a soul completely surrendered to Jesus Christ, a heart consumed by Him alone, and a life eagerly poured out for His sake. (p.168)

(I wish someone had given me this book as a teenager.)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Silence by Shusaku Endo

If I have to pick between a Protestant novelist or a Catholic one, I almost always choose the latter. That probably sounds funny coming from a Methodist, but experience has shown that fiction written by Catholic authors manages to deal with theological issues while at the same time avoiding simplistic, pat answers. Shusako Endo’s Silence is no exception.

The story takes place in Japan in the 1600’s. Though all missionaries have been expelled, several priests enter the country secretly to give pastoral care to the Catholic converts. Father Sebastian Rodrigues has an additional motive for making the trip: One of his favorite seminary teachers had been in Japan as a missionary and was rumored to have denied the faith while under torture. Rodrigues' quest to discover the truth makes up the bulk of the novel's second half.

The book deals with the issues of suffering, persecution, forgiveness, and the efficacy of prayer. (The title refers to God’s seeming indifference to the suffering Christians’ prayers.) Powerful stuff! This is not a light read, nor does it have a nice, neat ending. But if you like to grapple with real-life questions in a well-written book, you’ll appreciate Silence.