Friday, January 29, 2010

The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin

I'm pleased to have a guest post this week from my extremely intelligent sister-in-law, Diane. It was her idea that I start this blog and for that I shall always be grateful. These are her insights on The Book of the Dun Cow:

Although it took me ages to finally pick up this story, the impressions it left upon my heart make me want to read it again as soon as possible. For years it sat on my shelf because of the cover: a profile of a rooster with a tan, one-horned cow standing in the background. Why would I want to read a book about farm animals? But this title repeatedly showed up on lists of “must reads”, so I decided to commit myself to reading and finishing it. By the middle of the story I couldn’t put it down.

In my opinion, no author is able to paint word pictures as powerfully as Wangerin does. His are not of the simplistic, primary color sort. Instead he “paints” with the depths and wonder of a Dutch master. As I read this book I was constantly amazed at his ability to create a tale of cosmic implication and universal experience through the lives of barnyard animals. This epic novel about the battle between good and evil would have no integrity if it did not incorporate honest, simple relationships. That is the battlefield where our propensity for evil and our fight for good occur. Thus, this story unfolds on three spheres universally experienced by living souls – the cosmic dilemma, the trenches of one’s own family and community, and most frighteningly real of all, the depths of one’s own being.

In this adventure heroism is demanded and realized of unexpected characters. But unlike many novels, this one, in spite of the initial appearance of child-like characters (one would at least expect noble jungle or forest creatures), is never simple or predictable. The horror and pain are shocking. Readers can tell they are being confronted with Truth because they will find their souls exposed to Light that stuns and challenges. Nevertheless the power of hope is clear and promising for any and every person. (See Isaiah 59.) You won’t be sorry for choosing to spend time within this story.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

A lot of people don’t “get” this book. That’s okay. I’ve seen Citizen Kane and don’t get why it’s supposed to be one of the greatest movies ever made. I’ve read Alice in Wonderland several times and almost “get” it, but not quite.

Peter Pan, on the other hand, I understand from page one. As soon as you read of the hidden kiss on Mrs. Darling’s mouth and of Mr. Darling’s worries that they won’t be able to afford the children (Tight finances require that they employ a dog rather than a human to care for the children), you know that nothing in the book should be taken too seriously. The people who hate the book point to chapter eleven where Peter is under the impression that his mother had locked the windows when he tried to go home. Since Peter’s faulty memory is highlighted throughout the first chapters, no reader should be horrified at Peter’s imaginary heartless mother. The OPEN window at the Darling house is the one that matters in this book.

Apart from the sly tongue-in-cheek humor which makes the book a pleasure to read, there is second reason why the book is one of my favorites: It’s a fabulous tribute to motherhood. The opening and closing scenes are of the children’s sweet mother (Is her last name just a coincidence?). Our narrator chides her for being so soft on her unfeeling children that she keeps waiting for them after they’ve deserted her. But Barrie’s true feelings come out when he writes, “Some people like Wendy best and others like Peter, but I like their mother best.” Mrs. Darling is the hero.

Throughout the book we have ample evidences of “mother hunger”. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys want someone to care for them and to tell them bedtime stories. Even the PIRATES want that! Just before Wendy walks the plank, Smee offers to set her free if she’ll only be his mother. More than once in Peter Pan, Barrie describes children as “gay, innocent, and heartless”. The mother figures in the book counter balance that image.

Thirdly, I like the book for what it teaches about self-sacrifice. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, motherhood is a principle theme and there’s no refuting the self-denying nature of that profession. Then there is Wendy whose whole purpose for being in Never Land is to look after the boys’ needs (and not her own). Even bratty Tinkerbell drinks Peter’s poisoned medicine to prevent him from swallowing it. And self-centered Peter relents and allows the children to return home when he sees Mrs. Darling’s tears.

This was my fourth time through the book and I enjoyed as much as ever.

Friday, January 15, 2010

If You Can Talk, You Can Write by Joel Saltzman

I picked up If You Can Talk You Can Write as a resource for my College Writing Class after reading rave reviews at Amazon. Saltszman contends that anyone who can put two sentences together in conversation can do the same in writing and encourages his readers to get over any writer’s block they may be experiencing. “Unleashing the writer within you” is the book’s basic theme and since I have very little trouble scribbling out my thoughts, I didn’t find it particularly inspiring.

Usually I write off lightweight books such as this one, but, frankly, it was on target for a college freshman audience. Slightly quirky and profane, (and, at times, aggravatingly simple) these short chapters were just right for getting class discussions started. Saltzman’s mantra to shoot for “progress rather than perfection” was something I repeated often to my would-be writers.

If you’re looking for brilliance, try C.S. Lewis, but if you want pithy, uncomplicated instructions on how to start writing, this book may be for you.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Best Old Movies for Families - Part Two

Last week I told you what I didn’t like about The Best Old Movies for Families. This time I’m taking a different view because I strongly agreed with two of Burr’s main points. On page seven he writes,
Entertainment for children is mostly awful. Where’s the antidote to the Disneyfied pap and computer generated overstimulation that passes for children’s entertainment these days? Wouldn’t it be pleasant to sit down and watch a movie with your kids that wasn’t presold on sequels and Happy Meals? Or take them to an action movie that didn’t either freak them out or weigh down their little bones with premature irony? I guess you could lock them in the attic. A better solution might be to vary their media diet, and one way to do that is with old movies.

Secondly, Classic films give children a broader understanding of what it means to be an adult:
Consider the ways that various types of human beings are portrayed in kiddie media. I’m talking about their staple diet, as purveyed by such keepers of the corporate castle as Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, etc. How are people presented? Parents are either yammering, well-intentioned fools or thin-lipped martinets who come around in the last act. And other grown-ups? They barely exist as two-dimensional objects of fear, ridicule, or blank incomprehension. A cranky next-door neighbor, a dithery old lady, a suspicious shop owner, a sexless teacher, a cretinous middle school janitor – that’s about it.

Why such paltry options? Why are kids’ movies and TV shows uninterested in adults who are interesting? Because they need to flatter the children who are watching the ads and buying the tie-in toys… The upshot is that your kids get a super-empowering media reality that revolves around them the way the ancients used to think the universe spun around the earth. (p. 30)

He then goes on to suggest a viewing of The African Queen where two adult caricatures (town drunk and prudish missionary) evolve into living, breathing human beings full of emotions, dignity and courage.

Burr may be somewhat out of touch with Christian values when it comes to film choices (as I mentioned last week). But he’s right on target when he encourages parents (1) to dig around for family-friendly films that portray men and women as thinking, feeling adults, and (2) to consider classic films as great alternatives to the overly scary, or overly child-centered present-day options.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Reading Goals for 2010

I have never set specific goals for the year (other than one book per week). But last year's World War II challenge encouraged me to be more intentional about book choices. Still, I don’t have actual titles on my list as much as I have a general idea of what I’d like to accomplish in 2010.

1) The Chronicles of Narnia

2) Two non-fiction WWII books

3) Four classics; one must be by Dostoyevsky (since I have 3 of his on my TBR pile). I'd also like to tackle Anna Karenina, but we'll see. The Classics Book Club may help me stick to my goals.

4) More Wendell Berry

5) Jane Eyre (re-read) and something new by Trollope (probably Rachel Ray since it came highly recommended by my blogging friend, Carol.)

6) Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card because it's been on my TBR list for years.

End of year summary: I read Ender's Game and did not find it as amazing as everyone said it would be.  The Narnia Chronicles, on the other hand, were outstanding.  Rachel Ray was okay and I didn't meet the other goals except for one WWII book, London 1945 by Waller.  Russian literature, when will I ever find time/interest for you?

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Best Old Movies for Families by Ty Burr - Part One

I was raised on old movies. Well, almost. We didn’t watch much TV until I was fifteen. Then we moved to Louisville where the local station showed an old movie every day after school. It didn’t take me long to get hooked.

When I had kids of my own I wanted to introduce them to the classics, not necessarily for their artistic value, but because most were less offensive than modern-day films. Not all old movies are created equal, though, and I sifted through many less savory stories to find the ones that our whole family could enjoy. I discovered that my former favorite actresses, Bette Davis, no longer had any appeal for me. Her generally mean-spirited persona was not something I wanted my kids watching.

I was happy to find a copy of The Best Old Movies for Families in my local library. As a Christian and a mother I disagree, however, with many of Burr’s “family” movie choices. He writes that “Some Like It Hot” is one of the funniest movies ever made (and it may be), but I found the effeminate, lustful males and sensuous, brainless females to be highly inappropriate entertainment in a household where we are trying to train our boys to be honorable men. The Thin Man movies (another recommendation) were hilarious to me until I grew up. Now the endless drinking really bothers me.

If I needed any proof that Burr and I are not on the same page I had only to read page 351 where he states that Billy Wilder’s 1963 film, Kiss Me Stupid, us “amazingly lewd and, as such, highly recommended to thirteen year old boys.” Really?

By all means, get this book if you want to catch up on the classics you may have missed. (He has a great list in the back of the book.) But don’t accept all of his suggestions for family viewing without doing your homework.

(Stay posted for next week's entry when I do an about face and tell you what I loved about the book.)