Saturday, December 31, 2011

Watch for the Light - Readings for Advent and Christmas

As I’ve stated before, I prefer to write about books I can heartily recommend and rarely mention books that I dislike.  However, I feel that the cover of Watch for the Light is deceptive and might fool you (as it did me) into thinking that it contains thoughtful, well-written, and inspiring meditations for Advent.

With names like C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, Madeleine L’Engle and Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the cover, I expected, at the least, that the book would be orthodox.  It didn’t take long, though, to realize that most of the writers were extremely liberal in their theology.   

William Stringfellow wrote of the “political character of Advent” while John Howard Yoder wrote of Mary’s Magnificat as “a revolutionary battle cry.”  Furthermore, the people walking in darkness (Isaiah 9:2) are not walking in the darkness of sin, according to J├╝rgen Moltmann, but are crying out for their human rights.  Dorothee Soelle wrote that the sick people in the Gospel of Luke had been made sick by political oppression and economic plunder.  Sadly, the book manages to squeeze sin and salvation into the very narrow molds of poverty and justice.

While I enjoyed the entries by John Donne, Brennan Manning and C.S. Lewis, the other chapters were too militant to be encouraging or inspiring.

Goals for 2012

I avoid book challenges because I don't like to be hemmed in by other people's book choices for me.  On the other hand, after reading other book bloggers' lists of "Best of 2011", I'm tempted to add a few titles to my list for the year.

To Kill a Mockingbird  by Harper Lee (because my son says it's one of the best books he's ever read.)
The Return of the King by Tolkien (because I loved the first two books that I read in 2011)
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (because my sister liked it)
Jeff Shaara's trilogy of World War II novels (because I found one of them for a quarter at the Goodwill and because I love WWII history)
Unbroken by Hilenbrand  (because it's about WWII and because almost everybody who read it said it was their book-of-the-year)
Gold by Moonlight by Amy Carmichael (Xmas gift from a dear friend)
The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge (because it's about time I've revisited this favorite author)

Other than that, I plan to "shop" my own bookshelves and the local university library, following my whims, while saving my Kindle books for when we return to Brazil next summer (Lord willing).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reading Year in Review 2011

I managed to read 69 books this year, which is a bit over my “book-a-week” goal.  However, as I look over the list, I notice that I read fewer books in 2010, but many of last year’s books had more of a “Wow!” factor.  Each year is a reading adventure and I look forward to what’s ahead.   Summary of 2011:

Biggest disappointment: Watch For the Light - Readings for Advent

Best YA fiction: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

Favorite biography:  Hitler by Albert Marrin

Favorite new author:  Jon Hassler (I fell in love with protagonist, Agatha McGee, and quickly breezed through four books in which she played a central role - Green Journey, Dear James, Staggerford FloodThe New Woman.) 

Favorite “old-time” authors discovered through Kindle: Maurice Le Blanc and Joseph Crosby Lincoln

Favorite re-read: Jane Eyre (almost a yearly tradition)

Favorite WWII book:  South to Bataan, North to Mukden (P.O.W. diary)

Most demanding, yet most satisfying: Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers by Tolkien

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Morpurgo

A few years ago I bought J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.   The original version was written in a 14th Century English dialect that has not survived and Tolkien sought to make the story accessible to modern day readers.  However, he strove to retain the poem’s original cadence and it seems somewhat stilted at times. 

Since our family is reading War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, Morpurgo’s name has been on our radar and my son found his children’s version of Sir Gawain. It seemed less intimidating than Tolkien’s version, and I dug right in.  At first, I read one chapter from Morpurgo and followed it with the same chapter in Tolkien.  But by chapter three I was so caught up in the story that I discarded Tolkien’s version and read Morpurgo’s straight through to the end.

The story begins with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table:

It was Christmastime at Camelot, that time of year when all King Arthur’s Knights gathered to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  For fifteen joyous days, after holy Mass each morning, there was nothing but feasting and dancing and singing, and hunting and jousting too.  Jousting was the favorite sport, each Knight striving to unseat the mighty Sir Lancelot – but rarely succeeding, of course.  And all was done in fun, in a spirit of comradeship, for they were happy to be all together once more at this blessed time. (p. 12)

The festivities are interrupted by a huge green giant who enters the banqueting hall.  He dares any knight to take up his challenge.  Gawain accepts and his adventures begin.  I don’t want to share any details because going into the story without knowing the particulars is what makes it such a page turner.  As Sir Gawain faces trials and temptations, will he be true to his chivalric code?  Will he survive the wrath of the terrible green giant?  Will he return safely to Camelot?

While I enjoyed the story very much, I was puzzled at this paraphrase for children because one of the subplots involves a woman who is more than willing to be unfaithful to her husband.  Maybe that’s why Michael Dirda calls this “an adult Christmas story”.   Anyway, I enjoyed Morpurgo’s translation very much.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Trying to review the Lord of the Rings trilogy is like standing in front of “The Pieta” and calling it “a nice statue.”  There just aren’t words to describe the combination of whimsy, adventure and manly virtue.   As I noted in my review of Fellowship of the Rings, Tolkien’s novel requires a tremendous amount of perseverance, but the rewards are rich.  It’s no wonder that those who love these books have a mystique about them.  The beautiful language and compelling story seem to demand a heart response from the reader.

Near the end of The Two Towers, Sam talks to Frodo about what makes an enduring story.

 “The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them.  I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say.  But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind… I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?

“I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales.  We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards.  And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories.  Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits….”’ (p. 711-712)

Did Tolkien know when he wrote these words that he was writing a masterpiece that would be read and re-read for generations to come?

Again, nothing I write can do the book justice.  I loved the Ents, I loved Faramir, I loved the constant references to Galadriel, I loved Gimli’s guileless infatuation with her, I loved faithful Sam, I loved the gorgeous prose:

When Sam determines to go with Frodo till the bitter end: “Sam said nothing.  The look on Frodo’s face was enough for him; he knew that words of his were useless.  And after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.” (p. 638)

Or when Sam describes Galadriel as “Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight.  Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars.  Proud and far-off as a snow-mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime.” (p. 680)

The Two Towers is a literary feast that nourishes and delights.

P.S. I watched the movie a few days after completing the book and was disappointed with its portrayal of Gimli and Faramir.  Gimli brought comic relief in the film, but he was not a buffoon in the book.  Faramir is a much more honorable character in the print version, although he does redeem himself in the movie.  Oh well. We all know that films are rarely as satisfying as the books...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rumer Godden Quote

From Godden's China Court: "All our happiness is shot through with unhappiness and all our unhappiness is shot through with happiness." 

This quote came to mind as I mulled over various Christmas memories:

My grandmother passed away at Christmastime almost 30 years ago.  I remember the bitter cold of the graveyard, and the astonishing beauty of the ice-covered trees.

A few days ago, my father-in-law slipped into Heaven.  With one breath we were commiserating over our sense of loss, and with the other breath we were cooing over the newest addition to the family, one week old Benjamin.

Truly, life is a mixture of joy and pain.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Man for All Seasons - Worthwhile Movie #6

How can I convince you to watch a long, slow moving film with an unhappy ending?  I wasn’t enthusiastic about watching it myself, but planned to do it for my husband’s sake because he loves movies based on true stories.   We were surprised to be treated to some of the finest dialogue we’ve ever heard in a movie.  We laughed out loud over and over, not because it was funny, but because we were filled with delight at truth being proclaimed with such eloquence and beauty. 

Sir Thomas More was a contemporary of Henry VIII and was famous for opposing the king’s divorce to Katherine of Aragon (and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn).  A Man for All Seasons details his lonely stand against pressure to sanction the marriage.  Because More was a man of utmost integrity and honesty, false charges had to be trumped up against him and he was eventually tried for treason.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film when a man of faith was portrayed so well.  Paul Scofield does a superlative job in this 1966 Oscar winner.  By the way, Orson Welles plays a small part in the film as Cardinal Wolsey and he’s horrifically good. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Quote On Christmas by William Willimon

The Christmas story - the one according to Luke not Dickens - is not about how blessed it is to be givers but how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.  We prefer to think of ourselves as givers - powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people who are motivated to benefit the less fortunate.  This is in direct contradiction to the biblical account of the first Christmas.  There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are.  Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we - with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities - had little to do with God's work in Jesus.  God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky to get it done.  We didn't think of it, understand it or approve it.  All we could do at Bethlehem was receive it.

William Willimon in Watch for the Light (reviewed here)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda

Some time ago I read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure. Dirda is a Pulitzer prize winning book critic who writes for the Washington Post, and while I agree with him that many great books are overlooked, I disagreed with his definition of a classic.  Often the “pleasure” in his chosen titles was directly related to their bawdiness.   One reviewer at Amazon summed it up well: “Too many of Dirda’s picks seem to assume an inexhaustible taste for the macabre, decadence, vulgarity, sexual perversion, and/or cynicism, despair and psychosis”

However, since I’m ever eager to increase my knowledge of the Western Canon, I plowed through the book and obtained many mouth-watering tidbits of information. 

On Alexander Pope: “Thackery called him the greatest literary artist that England has seen”.

On Henry Rider Haggard’s book: “C.S. Lewis said, ‘What story in the world opens better than She?’”

On Georgette Heyer: “She’s as witty as any writer of the past century, as accomplished as P.G. Wodehouse in working out complex plots, as accurate as a professional historian in getting her background details right…. She composes superb historical novels, laced with comedy, intrigue, delightful characters, and yes, romance.  Clear-eyed realism lies behind all of Heyer’s work, no matter how giddy the goings-on beforehand.”

On James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: “glorious, lyrical excess”

And, finally, his thoughts on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: “It conveys a wonderful Mozartean lightness and wit, an air of make-believe and festivity, tinged with real darkness.  It’s a perfect adult Christmas story.”

And, so, I’ve added to my constantly expanding list of authors/books to explore.  Although I did not agree with all of Dirda’s choices, I enjoyed his fine writing and his obvious love of good books.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Simplify by Joshua Becker


If you’ve heard Joshua Becker’s story or have read his blog, you’ll be familiar with minimalism: the philosophy that people need a lot less than they have.  His mantra is, We were never meant to live life accumulating stuff.  We were meant to live life simply enjoying the experiences of life, the people of life, and the journey of life – not the things of life.

Simplify is not your average book about de-cluttering (although that plays a part).  It’s about changing your attitude toward your possessions.  It’s about purposeful living that isn’t influenced by TV commercials, peer pressure or “keeping up with the Joneses.”  Minimalism is the intentional promotion of things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it.

Obviously, this e-booklet has struck a chord with American consumers.  It has been a number one best seller since it debuted at Amazon in mid November.  In it Becker offers seven principles for enriching your life.  The first part entails letting go of stuff that consumes your time.  Whether we are cleaning them, organizing them, buying them, or selling them, the more things we own, the more time they rob from our lives.   The book’s second half describes the potential joys of being free from the burdens brought on my rampant consumerism: less piles of stuff around the house, less debt, less stress, etc. 

Becker calls himself a “rational minimalist” because he’s not as extreme as some others who espouse minimalist philosophy.  “Realistic” would be a better term.  He and his wife are realistic because they have not given up all their toys; they have two young children.  They are realistic because they have not given up all their extra dishes; they love to entertain.  They are realistic because they still buy clothes; but they buy much less and pay more so they’ll last longer.  They are realistic about television; they still have it, but only have a limited number of channels so they don’t spend too much time watching.

I don’t like clutter, but if I’m not vigilant, the house gives into it.  Once a year I need to read a book like Becker’s to remind me that I love clean closets, clear counters, and the peace that comes with being content with what I already have.  In Becker’s words, There is a life of simplicity that is calling out to you… It is inviting you to remove the distractions in your life that are keeping your from truly living

As we head into the Christmas season, a time when joy and peace are easily snuffed out with the pressures of consumerism, I was grateful for the reminder.

Friday, November 18, 2011

WWII Books from PaperBackSwap

I'm halfway through four different books so I don't have a post this week.  Still, I thought I'd mention how delighted I am with some recent acquisitions from PaperBackSwap.  I enjoy WWII history and was happy to receive these titles:

Escape from Warsaw - teen fiction
The Brass Ring by Mauldin - Mauldin was WWII's greatest cartoonist
The World War II Bookshelf- highlights 50 essential books about the war
Corregidor - written by Sergeant Ben Waldron about his experiences as a P.O.W.
The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust - about Gentiles who risked their lives to help Jews
When Hollywood Ruled the Skies - Aviation film classics of WWII

Nice variety, don't you think? Now, if I could only finish my other books so I can get to these!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Ordinarily I only review books that I like, but this author is so unusual that I can’t resist making a few comments.  Rebecca West is new to me and quite a change from the two other books I’ve been reading (Trollope and Tolkien). The Return of the Soldier (published  1918) begins with a husband gone to war, a deceased child, and a mysterious telegram; and the drama doesn’t let up till the very end.  Fortunately, it’s a short book and can sustain that kind of suspense.

Chris Baldry is a captain in the British army during World War One.  His wife Kitty and cousin Jenny are awaiting his return when they receive news that he’s been wounded and has no memory of the last 15 years of his life.  The book recounts his family’s efforts to bring him back to reality.

I disliked the conclusion of Return of the Soldier so much that I decided to give West another chance by reading her second novel, The Judge.  But it was so awful I could not finish it.  There are moments of brilliance in West’s writing yet often she flounders through her prose. (Where were her editors?) Frankly, I was surprised to read of her fame as an author because these two novels were both so uneven in quality.  In addition to the writing issues, I struggled to like her books for their underlying themes of feminism, socialism and the inefficacy of God.

So why am I even bothering to write this post?  Because some of her writing is very, very good.

From Return of the Soldier:

At his father’s death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with golf clubs.

Cumulus clouds floated very high, like lumps of white light.

Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draft that we must drink or not be fully human?  I knew that one must know the truth.  I knew quite well that when one is an adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf. 

He felt furtive and red-eared while he searched in the purse of his experience to find the coin that would admit him into her world (from The Judge)

In spite of my ambivalence toward the talented Miss West, I’m glad I gave her a try.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ayala's Angel by Anthony Trollope

Long-time readers of my blog know that I’m an Anthony Trollope fan.  It takes patience to plow through his (purposely unadventurous) novels, but it’s worth the effort.   Ayala's Angel begins with the plight of two orphaned sisters who are shuffled off to different relatives.  Ayala goes to the rich uncle and Lucy to the poor one.   Both experience culture shock because neither girl has known the stinginess of poverty or the arrogance of wealth.

Lucy tries hard to make the best of her new life, but Ayala does little to earn the affection of her new family.  At first the reader assumes that Lucy is Ayala’s angel because of her sacrificial love for her.  But it isn’t long before we learn that Ayala has a dream of an “Angel of Light” who will come and take her away from the tediousness of her life. 

This angel is so huge in her mind that no mortal man can come close.  She refuses the marriage proposal of her wealthy cousin because he is too plebeian for her taste.  Although he is an honorable man, he is unromantic and his pretentious way of dressing is repugnant to her. Later she meets a man who she likes very much, but refuses his proposal because he isn’t as handsome as her imagined angel.  When a third suitor comes on the scene (who is also refused), I shared Mrs. Dosset’s confusion as to “the multiplicity of Ayala’s suitors”.   There is no real explanation in the book as to why this penniless women has such amazing powers of attraction.

Ayala’s Angel is a study of romantic love.   Ayala’s idea of it is so overblown that she almost misses her chance at happiness. “Her dreams had been to her a barrier against love, rather than an encouragement.” (from Chapter 55)  The more practical men in the book are convinced that “Love never put a leg of mutton in the pot,” meaning that financial security is better than romance.  Yet, Frank Houston gives up his gold-digging ways to marry the woman he really loves.

I liked this book, but thought it was about ten chapters too long.  It took twenty hours to listen to all 66 chapters and I tired of hearing about Tom Tringle’s persistence in pursuing Ayala and Ayala’s blindness as to which of the suitors was the real Angel of Light.  (He proposes in Chapter 25 and she finally accepts in 52!)

I would recommend reading this book rather than listening to it.  The audio version drags at times, but when I downloaded the book to re-read some of my favorite chapters, the tedium disappeared.  I chuckled happily through the brilliant dialogue and skimmed over the boring bits.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Hurry Less, Worry Less by Judy Pace Christie

We live in a culture of hurry.  Our “to do” lists are unending and our days go by in a blur. No wonder this title caught my eye.  Frankly, I didn’t need another book on how to get more organized. I’ve read tons of them and I still manage to be overcommitted and stressed out.

The two most important questions in Hurry Less, Worry Less are, What would you like your life to look like? and What is keeping you from getting there?  

One of Christie’s strategies for bringing balance to overload is to plan an activity sabbatical.  “Consider this a time emergency, and you are simply trying to stop the bleeding by putting a tourniquet on your calendar. This may seem extreme, but it works well for those who are so tired that they feel sick (or wish they were sick so they could stay in bed) or for those who truly have no idea where to start.” (p. 42) She suggests that you stop doing everything that is not absolutely necessary (you’d be surprised at how much is not essential) and to prayerfully re-evaluate your priorities.  “The journey to living abundantly has to be done deliberately.  It is a time for realizing that you cannot, in fact, do everything, but you can do plenty and do it well and happily.” (p. 78)

Dieting fads say “Eat this,” and “Avoid that”, yet many of the newer dieting books teach that temporary food deprivation is not the answer; consistent, healthy life choices are the only way to get slim (and stay slim).  Christie’s book is similar in that she doesn’t provide a tidy list of “dos” and “don’ts.” “As with most important things in life, hurrying less and worrying less requires a commitment to an ongoing way of living.  Again, this is not a time-management course or a guide to becoming more efficient.  It is about transforming your life, tweaking here and there, taking inventory of the good and bad, and moving ahead.”  It’s about deciding how you really want to live and taking the necessary steps to make it happen. She adds, “Over the past few years, I have occasionally felt that my life was once more slipping out of control – usually because I said yes when I should have said no and when I momentarily disregarded how I truly wanted to live.” (p. 115)

Christie’s book has made a huge difference in my crazy life.  When I actually made a list of the things that were sabotaging my peace, I was able to see activities that had to be relinquished.  Several stressful activities could not be eliminated because they are part of the life phase I am in.  But seeing them as part of God’s plan for me at present, stripped them of their anxiety-producing hold.  I highly recommend this book to those who are experiencing a disconnect between how they want to live from how they are actually living. Hurry Less, Worry Less enables them to take steps toward bringing the two lives together.

Friday, October 21, 2011

So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger

I’ve heard bits and pieces about So Brave, Young, and Handsome, but was finally nudged into reading it by Amy’s review.

The book’s editor writes, “So Brave, Young, and Handsome is a lean, potent adventure story – a tale of romance and pursuit, friendship and a vanishing American West.  Set in 1915, it features two of the most appealing, aging cowboy rivals you’ll have come across and the modest, self-effacing writer who accompanies them on their trip across the country.…  Enger’s instinct for clean, entertaining storytelling feels rare in today’s world and transports us to a time when, in Leif’s words, outlaw stories could still lean a body forward in his chair.”
Enger is a gifted writer.  Some of the storyline stretches the imagination, but Enger’s writing voice is believable for that time and place.  It is a romance in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a tale of heroes and extraordinary events.
The themes of redemption and forgiveness run through the novel, but are not overdone.  To maintain the moral integrity of the book, the ending is not happy in the Hollywood sense.  Yet it manages to be satisfying because one of the main characters makes a very good decision after a lifetime of very bad ones.
Don’t let the title fool you into thinking this is “chick lit.”  The book has a lot more depth than that and could be equally enjoyed by male or female readers.  It’s a tribute to the dying west and to men who are trying to discover what it means to live honorably.  I’m glad I read it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Sabbath by Heschel

The fourth commandment is often unheeded by today’s Christians because of our understanding that we are free from Jewish laws.  Yet I wonder if we aren’t missing something vital to our well-being by ignoring it.  Why is it listed with the other “essential rules for living” if it has no purpose?  I have read many books through the years that have given me an appreciation for the gift of the Sabbath day, but probably none has been more influential than Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath.
Heschel does not set out to explain why one should keep the Sabbath as much as he seeks to write a love song to a day that he calls “the queen.”   It is a poetic tribute to her glory:

Time is like a wasteland.  It has grandeur but no beauty.  Its strange, frightful power is always feared but rarely cheered.  Then we arrive at the seventh day, and the Sabbath is endowed with a felicity which enraptures the soul, which glides into our thoughts with a healing sympathy.  It is a day on which hours do not oust one another.  It is a day that can soothe all sadness away. (p. 20)

The Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor.  The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.  Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of work…. The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude but the climax of living. (p. 14)

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity.  The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit. (p. 29)

I particularly liked Heschel’s idea that keeping the Sabbath gives one a taste of eternity. If you are even slightly interested in the subject of Sabbath keeping, this seminal book is for you.

Another man who deeply loved the Sabbath was George Herbert (1593-1633).  He wrote:  

Thou art a day of mirth: 
And where the week days trail on the ground, 
thy flight is higher, as thy birth.  
O let me take thee at a bound, 
leaping with thee from sev'n to sev'n, 
Till that we both, being tossed from earth
fly hand in hand to heaven! 

The entire poem can be found here.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden

In India a woman alone does not go and live alone – not, at any rate, far from her own kind, not unless she is a saint or a great sinner.  Sophie was not a saint, or a sinner, but she was undeniably a woman.

So begins the novel, Kingfishers Catch Fire, by British author Rummer Godden (1907-1998).  Godden grew up in India and used her experiences as a background for this novel. Kingfishers is the story of Sophie Barrington Ward who takes her two children to live in Kashmir.  Her husband, a British officer stationed in India, has passed away and she refuses to return to England to live a conventional life. 

Instead she moves to a remote Indian village and rents a small house, hoping to live simply on her husband’s pension.  But what passes for simplicity to an English woman is luxurious extravagance to the villagers.  From the beginning the people question the strangeness of her ways and her motives for coming.  There are two rival clans in the town, but Sophie is completely oblivious to their quarrels.   She seems strangely unaware of cultural differences between the villagers and herself, assuming that common sense will win out in every disagreement. She wants to help them, but her western ideas of justice and fairness fall on bewildered ears.  Eventually her disregard for the villagers’ beliefs leads to tragedy for herself and her children.  

Two men are put in prison, but although they have caused trouble for Sophie, she knows that they are not guilty of the accusations leveled against them.  She expresses her concern to Dr. Glenister, the missionary doctor who says, “But, dearie, they hurt you terribly.” Sophie asked herself, Have you a duty to those who hurt you?  Surprisingly the answer seemed to be that you had.  If Sophie shrank from that answer, that could not take the duty away… (p. 232) 

In the end, Sophie does what she can to make amends.  Some issues are resolved and others are not. When I finished the book I was left scratching my head over what exactly she had accomplished with her self-imposed exile in Kashmir.  Reading Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem from which the book takes its title, cleared up the mystery to some degree.  In the poem Hopkins writes that just as kingfishers and dragonflies reflect glorious color as the sun hits their wings, so mortal men reflect God’s glory when they are expressing grace and justice to their fellow men.  When they do that, they are “being Christ in a thousand places”.   

A very interesting book!

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

I have long looked at lovers of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an exclusive fan club with their inside knowledge of the books and their disdain for the rest of us illiterates.  I was half afraid to read the books just in case I didn’t “get it” and was forever barred from this privileged group. I’m even a little embarrassed about reviewing them now since there are others who have read the books multiple times and who understand them more than I do.

Fellowship is an epic adventure in the truest sense of the word: “an extended narrative poem in elevated or dignified language, celebrating the feats of a legendary hero.”  Simple, home-loving Frodo becomes involved in a larger-than-life battle between good and evil and he willingly sacrifices his own wishes and comforts to “do the right thing” as far as the powerful Ring is concerned. 

I don’t regret having seen the films first (something I rarely do) because a certain amount of foreknowledge kept me from getting bogged down in the many confusing names.   Not only do several people have more than one name (Aragorn/Strider, Gollum/Smeagol), but the mountains and even the swords have names.  Being familiar with the main characters from the movie was helpful as I worked my way through the book.  “Work” is the key word because The Fellowship of the Ring is no easy read.  This first book in the trilogy is 400 pages long, but by page 200 hundred, Frodo has barely left the Shire to head out for his adventures.  Still, the book is worth the effort.

Tolkien’s tale is compelling in its portrayal of friendship and bravery among Frodo and his companions, but it is made even richer by its use of beautiful language (at times reminiscent of the English in the King James Bible). 

An example from page 244: Sauran was diminished, but not destroyed.  His Ring was lost but not unmade.  The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed; for they were made with the power of the Ring, and while it remains they will endure.

I’m very glad I took the plunge and began the LOTR trilogy.  Now I’m hoping I’ll find time to read the sequels.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Would You Want to Read While Marooned on a Deserted Island?

Abe books ask this age old question this week. (This link will take you to a short youtube video, but if you scroll to the top of the page you'll see the article and various book suggestions.) I'm glad they throw in The Bible and Shakespeare as givens, because you could definitely spend years reading those.  As for my other choice, it would have to be Jane Eyre since it's been my favorite comfort "food" for decades now.

What about you?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Article about Banned Books Week

As I surf the book blogging world, I often come across references to book banning.  I haven't paid much attention except to wonder why anyone would read a book just because it was banned rather than because they really liked it.

Tuesday's edition of USA Today had an article about Banned Books Week that I found enlightening. Jonah Goldberg contends that there is no such thing as a banned book in America.  When a parent or a library removes a book from their shelves because it might be inappropriate for a certain age group, that is called  "banning".  But, says Goldberg, even if the book in question is removed, it is widely available for sale everywhere else.

Goldberg points out that schools recognize the importance of parental involvement in their children's education, but then decry the parents' "interference" when they question the choice of a particular book.  Statistics show that one in every 100,000 parents complains about an age-inappropriate book.  Hardly an epidemic. These parents are not saying the book should be banned for all ages and for all time, but just for the slice of time in their kids' lives when some of life's realities may be too harsh for their sensibilities.

What do you think? Is it good parenting or book banning?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Books about Travel to England

I wrote in my last post that I hope to go to England next summer.  Since this plan was hatched three weeks ago, I’ve been devouring books on the subject.  The first was Susan Allen Toth’s My Love Affair with England.  Unfortunately the book dealt too much with her difficult marriage, problem students and her daughter’s very bad foreign exchange experience.  Happily, her second book, England as You Like It, had more information about how to actually plan a trip to England.

I appreciate Toth’s habit of heading off the beaten track, as well as her practice of balancing comfort with frugality.   Her suggestions are, “always seasoned by experience and caution, with a substantial dash of adventure and a huge dollop of curiosity.” (p. 4)

Her best traveling tip is to spend a week in one area (no bigger than a thumbprint on the map) while exploring its museums, beaches, gardens, churches, shops, etc.  This relaxed type of trip has more appeal to me than one where you try to hit as many cities as possible within a short stay.

The final book I read was Philip Crowl’s The Intelligent Traveller's Guide to Historic Britain.  All entries in this book are very brief.  It will be useful once we decide on a location since it covers the main places to see in each county.

“From  private gardens to quirky museums, woodland walks to seaside resorts, all of Great Britain is a treasure-house for the thoughtful and observant tourist.” (Toth, p. 51) 

I’d love any suggestions for other books to read or places to visit.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Georgette Heyer on Kindle

I just saw a notice that in celebration of Heyer's birthday her books are being offered for Kindle users: Every single title for $1.99 for one week.  Since I'm a newbie to Heyer I can't recommend the best ones, but if you read the comments on my previous post, you'll find quite a few suggestions.  Enjoy!

Update: This deal is no longer available, but there is one free title for Kindle as of today (7/31/14) called The Black Moth. It is interesting to me that Heyer's books are so expensive. There must be quite a demand for them. I see that with Amazon Unlimited (which I don't have), you can read many Heyer titles for free. Here are a few I saw that are only $2.99: Bath Tangle and April LadyUnfortunately, the one I've heard the most rave reviews about Civil Contract is almost ten dollars.

(In case you are interested, The Black Moth has been put into audio form by Julie at Forgotten Classics.)


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Worthwhile Movie #5 - A Green Journey

Earlier this year I raved about the book, A Green Journey.   Months later I was startled to discover that the book had been made into a film.  (I watched it via instant streaming on Netflix.)

Anyway, I liked the book a lot and felt sure the movie couldn’t match up.  It did and it didn’t.  First of all the film was surprisingly faithful to the book.  The actors did an excellent job of capturing the personalities of the book’s characters.  And, miracle of miracles, the faith of the protagonists was not watered down.

But, the romantic elements in the book (which I would never have classified as a romance novel) were exaggerated in the film.  However, the acting was better than your average “Hallmark” film so all was not lost.  Angela Lansbury is convincing as Agatha McGee and her co-star, Denholm Elliott is quite good, as well.

Do I need to add that you should read the book before watching the movie?  Without the background the book gives, the movie seems sketchy.  Telescoped events take a minute on film that take a whole chapter in the book.  The element I missed most was Agatha’s friend, Lillian, who is a very funny part of the book, but only a small player in the movie.

This made-for-TV movie was originally called “The Love She Sought”.  Lansbury also brought two other books to film that you might enjoy: Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris and The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. (The first is available on VHS only, and the second one I watched on TV.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Acquisitions from PaperBackSwap

I can still hardly believe the lovely books I'm able to get through PaperBackSwap.

Sabbaths by Wendell Berry
The One Year Book of Poetry
New Living Translation of the Bible
Brave Men by Pyle
Ernie's America - by Pyle
Home Country by Pyle

Berry's titles take a long time to receive, but they are worth the wait.  I acquired the Ernie Pyle titles without being on any waiting list at all.   My favorite poetry book got lost in our last international move so I was thrilled to find it available at PBS in "like new" condition.  Almost all of these are hardbacks in great condition so I'm pleased to add them to my library.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

Most books you read about World War II are written in retrospect. The authors have sifted through documents, books and articles to come up with their conclusions about the war. They report on decisive military strategies, what went wrong at a particular battle, or who the real heroes were. London War Notes is completely different in that it was written during the war as events were taking place. Mollie Panter-Downes was already a newspaper columnist for The New Yorker magazine, but when the war began she was asked to write bi-weekly articles specifically about Londoners’ reactions to the war.

What I liked about this book was its candid expression of peoples’ hopes, fears, and disappointments. It’s astounding to read their expectations of total obliteration by the Germans. They knew “it” was coming, but were never sure when or how it would happen.

However upset they might be by current events, the British were devoted to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They loved him for not sugar-coating the hard news. They only waffled on their affections when he gave them vague platitudes or when he appointed wishy-washy cabinet members. For the most part, they felt they could go through anything if “Winnie” was behind them.

What I didn’t like about this book was that events and emotions were so understated that the book was almost boring. It took me weeks to get through it even though I love reading and love WWII history. Also, because War Notes was written during the war to people who were aware of current events, Panter-Downes doesn’t explain much. It is assumed you know what “Britain’s great disappointment” was on such and such a day. (Occasionally the editor of this book will add a footnote of the events leading up to a specific entry, but only rarely.) I kept wishing for a WWII timeline to connect the dots.

All in all, this was a worthwhile read because it gave an honest, raw view of the war from the people’s , rather than a historian’s perspective. I enjoyed Panter-Downes' excellent writing as well:

At St. Giles, a bomb had fallen slap on the sandbags protecting a stained-glass window, blowing a hole in the wall and toppling Milton off his plinth inside... To observers here, it sometimes seems that more than Milton has been toppled off his plinth. All that is best in the good life of civilized effort appears to be slowly and painfully keeling over in the chaos of man's inhumanity to man. (Aug 30, 1940)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Quote On Books by Charles Dickens

"My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in the house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time..."

(From p. 58 of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cape Cod Stories by Joseph Crosby Lincoln

Author Joseph Crosby Lincoln came across my radar about a year ago so I jumped at the chance to download a free copy of Cape Cod Stories on my new Kindle. What a lovely surprise.

Lincoln was born in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1870 to a family of seamen and his books reflect his heritage. The stories in this particular book are told from the point of view of elderly Barzilla Wingate and his old friend, Cap’n Jonadab Wixon. Most center around the old hotel they run and the tourists who stay there.
The chapters are written in informal, folksy language, much of it with allusions to ships and sailing. Their tone had me chuckling all the way through the book.

Maudina was like her name, pretty, but sort of soft and mushy. She had big blue eyes and a baby face, and her principal cargo was poetry. She had a deckload of it, and she’d heave it overboard every time the wind changed.

He run up to the piazza like a clipper coming into port.

We got there after a spell and set down on the big piazza with our souls full of gratitude and our boots full of sand.

[Referring to a dangerous boat trip in a cutting February wind] I expected every minute to land in the hereafter, and it got so that the prospect looked kind of inviting, if only to get somewhere where ‘twas warm.

Two of the stories in the middle of the book did not ring true. Instead of staying on sure New England soil, Lincoln placed these stories in the islands near Malaysia and Singapore. The themes of these stories were pretty far-fetched and made the islanders look like idiots. There were also some unfortunate, though rare, derogatory terms for African-Americans. I was glad when the stories returned to their original style and subjects for the second half of the book.

For humorous, light reading, Joseph C. Lincoln is my new favorite. Delightful!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What Do You Think of Georgette Heyer?

My blog friend Julie loves Georgette Heyer. And Michael Dirda in his Classics for Pleasure says she's a hidden gem in the literary world. I don't really like romance novels, but based on their raves I obtained one of her books, Talisman Ring. It is basically a romance with a mystery thrown in. The witty diaologue saved the book, because the rest of it was just "okay". I was interested to see that Ardent Reader is less than enthusiastic about Heyer too. Any other opinions? Did I pick the wrong book?

While we are on the subject of Miss Heyer, Abe Books just came out with an article saying she outsells even J.K. Rowling. Read it if you'd like to know more about this lesser known author.

I wrote another post about her that includes a few links to Kindle titles here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Minimizing My Library

What if you had to reduce your library from 600 to 100 books in one week? Recently I had to make just such a choice. When we left Brazil in 2009, we left all of our earthly possessions behind. Since our return to South America continues to be delayed I went back this spring to pack things up. I decided to keep only what would fit into five suitcases. My friends were horrified that I used so much of that space for books, but, honestly, I had more affection for those than for any knick-knacks.
Some of the decisions were easy. Ten percent of the books were missing or damaged beyond repair. At least a hundred books had never been read and were easy to give up because I had no emotional attachment to them. I had over 200 hundred children’s books, but since my youngest is now fourteen, I let most of them go. (That made me wince a little because I love children’s lit.) That left about 250 to agonize over.

I found several seminary students who wanted my theology books so I was glad to give them a good home (though I kept a handful of favorites). The non-fiction was easy to let go (again, for lack of emotional attachment). I cut my WWII library way down because I knew I could get most of those books through the library here in the U.S.

Surprisingly, most classics (including my beloved Trollope) did not make the cut because I knew I could replace them easily. However, anything by Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton or Elizabeth Goudge was sacrosanct. When it came down to it, why did the Clyde Robert Bulla’s books get left and Enid Blyton’s chosen? And why were Helen Roseveare’s biographies the only ones selected from all my Christian books? My choices may have been based on impulse rather than common sense, but all I know is that now that I’m surrounded by these old friends, I feel “at home” again.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Children's War by Ruth Inglis

During WWII heavy bombing in England caused three major migrations of children from the city to the country. Ruth Inglis writes compelllingly of each exodus in her book,The Children's War. The first migration began on September 1st, 1939 just days before Britain declared war on the Axis powers. The second was in August of 1940 with the onset of the Battle of Britain and the third was in September of 1944.

Half of the children in London were evacuated on E-Day (the first evacuation day).But since German bombers did not appear in earnest until the spring of 1940, two-thirds of the evacuees had returned home by January of 1940. Although the first evacuation seemed a farce, it was, in reality, a practice run for the two subsequent evacuations which were necessary when the Germans blitzed all major cities.

You can imagine the distress of having to decide between parting with one’s children for their physical safety or keeping them home for their emotional well-being. Some parents refused to send their children away even though the government strongly encouraged it. Interestingly, Churchill refused to make it mandatory.

Anna Freud (daughter to Sigmund) and her co-worker, Dorothy Burlingham, directed a war nursery from December 1940 to February 1942. The experience of caring for over a hundred children who had lost one or both parents in the war, led them to conclude that the separation of a child from his or her parent or parents was far more distressing to them than the bombs from which they were being protected. (p. 155) 

On the other hand, Bernard Kops, a child of twelve in 1940, recounts the horrors of staying in London: “We went underground to get away from the sirens and the bombs. Yet they followed me and I heard sirens until the world became a siren. One endless cry of torture. It penetrated right into the core of my being, night and day was one long night, one long nightmare, one long siren, one long wail of despair… It was the beginning of an era of utter terror, of fear, of horror. I stopped being a child and came face to face with the new reality of the world.” (p. 84)

The choice was not an easy one. Some who held out (by keeping their children at home) gave in during the 2nd and 3rd migrations, particularly the last one when the Germans unleashed a new weapon, the V1 bomb. This terror producing weapon was designed to crush the morale of the British and, truly, it caused many to reach their breaking point. Inglis writes, "It has been said that many housewives confused the sounds of their own vacuum cleaners with the spluttering and buzzing of the V-1s. Gurgling faucets and the sound of frying sausages could also mimic their noise. As a consequence, many women lived in a state of daily auditory hell. (p. 140)… Motorcycles were not popular in 1944 with their spluttering, back-firing machines. It was a war of acoustics and jangled nerves." (p. 142)

One of the most famous books that mentions evacuee children is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. D.E. Stevenson’s book, Shoulder the Sky, mentions a mother and her children who left London during the war never to return. Goodnight Mr. Tom tells the sad story of an evacuee from a miserable home who finds a true father in his foster home. Connie Willis touches on the subject in her time travel book Blackout. Does you know of other fictional works that deal with this subject?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More on General W. E. Brougher

In an earlier post I mentioned that I was intrigued by General W.E. Brougher who had written of his internment in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. He was described as someone whose “looks, personality, and ways made him one of the most attractive and interesting men at Fort McKinley. Handsome – indeed, dashing – in facial features, he was short but well-built. Since college days he had been interested in creative writing, and he published poems and stories in numerous periodicals during the years between world wars. He also possessed a wide knowledge of classical literature…. A polished orator and a conversationalist with a lively sense of humor, he became an active leader in civic and social affairs wherever he was stationed. He was accomplished in several sports and was also a devout Christian who displayed an unusual concern for his men’s welfare.”

In April of 1945 he wrote: Just think! Three years ago today [we were captured]! If we had known it was going to be three years, could we have faced it? Next to the ability to forget, perhaps the most beneficent provision of Providence for our protection is lack of foresight. If we could not forget it or if we could foresee too much, we would go crazy.

His poem, “A Rusting Sword”, is a prayer expressing his frustration at wasting away as a prisoner. Here is the last stanza:

How long, Oh Lord, how long? While ships delay
My precious years round out, my powers decay.
My birthright lost, by ruthless time’s decree,
To lads who learned their alphabet from me!
A rusting sword upon a garbage heap,
God give me grace to smile when I would weep.
Eternal Justice! Judge of right and wrong!
Does Thou still live? How long, Oh Lord, how long?

In addition to his courage and faith, I was fascinated by his persistence in reading and writing under dire circumstances. He read Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Hugh Walpole, Robert Louis Stevenson, Agatha Christie, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Aldous Huxley, among others. Books he enjoyed were Rob Roy, Horatio Hornblower, and Plutarch’s Lives, along with biographies and plays. His favorite novel was Hervey Allen’s The Forest and the Fort (New York Times Best Seller in 1943) which I've never heard of, but will look into. Brougher’s book of short stories, Baggy Pants, is next on my list of books to order.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Forgotten God by Francis Chan

I come from a denomination that emphasizes the power of the Holy Spirit to transform hearts. Yet I live in a South American country where many churches emphasize the Holy Spirit’s power to perform signs and wonders. It’s been a privilege to teach theology in this setting because it has forced me to take an honest look at both sides of the issue (inner or outer workings) and to come to a more balanced view. Frankly, I think most books underestimate the depth of the work God wants to do in a person’s life so I wasn’t sure what to expect with Francis Chan’s book. I was pleasantly surprised with some of his insights. His title, Forgotten God, refers to the third Person of the Trinity whose personhood is often ignored because His title makes Him seems vaporous and somehow “not-human”. Although I may not agree with Chan’s theology point for point I loved his emphasis on the absolute necessity of the Spirit-filled life.

In Chapter 7 he writes, I don’t believe God wants me or anyone to live in a way that makes sense from the world’s perspective, a way I know I can imagine. I believe He’s calling me and all of us to depend on Him for living in a way that cannot be mimicked or forged. He wants us to walk in step with His Spirit rather than depend solely on the raw talent and knowledge He’s given us.

He admits, I could pull off a fairly adequate church on my own…But who wants that? I don’t want my life to be explainable without the Holy Spirit. I want people to look at my life and know that I couldn’t be doing this by my own power. I want to live in such a way that I’m desperate for Him to come through, that if He doesn’t come through, I’m sunk.

From Chapter 6: You don’t need the Holy Spirit if you are merely asking to live a semi-normal life and attend church regularly. You only need the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help if you truly want to follow the way of Jesus Christ.

My favorite quote of all was from Chapter 4: - As a young man much of me craved God’s power in my life because I wanted the attention. Now I want God’s power because I DON’T want the attention.

Oh, to be so filled with God that only He gets noticed!

Friday, June 10, 2011

South to Bataan, North to Mukden by W. E. Brougher

In spite of its goofy title and lack of plotline, South to Bataan, North to Mukden will stand out as one of my favorites of the year. It is the story of General William Edward Brougher and his four years of captivity during WWII. Diaries were not allowed in the prison camps, but Brougher wrote on thin notebooks that he rolled up and hid inside bamboo poles. All but one notebook survived the war.

Brougher was stationed in the Philippines when it fell to the Japanese in April of 1942. He and hundreds of other officers were herded into camps in what he called, “the largest gathering of brass in the history of the war in the Pacific.” (p. 47) For years they suffered from harsh treatment, near starvation, and illness, but the diaries recount their will to endure. Brougher loved to read and to write and used his hobbies as a means of survival. I was touched by the poignancy of many of his diary entries.

July 11, 1943: Issue of one banana each! I was overcome with emotion at the magnanimity of our hosts. Bones in the soup for supper. Potato vines also. They get the potatoes we get the vines. They get the meat, we get the bones! I was “filled” with emotion, but “empty” otherwise.

July 15, 1943: Almost always I find myself under the urge to write – to express in verse or at least in some form to get down on paper some of the sensations and reactions to experiences here in prison camp. A year ago I was well in stride, keeping at it constantly and making some headway… But the time came when I was so reduced in strength and energy through want of nourishing food, our time was taken up with morning and afternoon work on the “farm”, and my feelings were adversely affected by constant abuse of the guards that my feeble sources of inspiration dried up….Also, as time went on, I found it more important to make a good patch on my meager clothing than to make a poem. My patches on my threadbare pants and my little garden patch from which I materially supplemented my pathetically inadequate food issue were my poems of this period.

Oct 15, 1943: Music outside this evening – very nice. Thought a lot of my sweet little wife and how we are going to enjoy life when this misery is over. It shall be one of my principal concerns to discover ways to enjoy the remainder of our lives to the maximum.

I loved how Brougher’s optimism shines through many a hardship: Arrived at this camp one year ago today. Well, I didn’t know that I would still be here on June 8, 1944 – but here I am. And I am better off in many ways than a year ago. In the first place, I have the year behind me instead of ahead of me. And I am in much better physical and mental condition. Have news and pictures of my family and very favorable war news…

I have more thoughts on General Brougher, but will reserve them for a future post. I highly recommend this to WWII history buffs and to those who love a good human interest story.