Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dear James by Jon Hassler

Have you ever read a book whose characters were so real that after you finished it you kept wondering for days how they were doing? Jon Hassler’s Agatha McGee is one of those characters. I enjoyed getting to know her in Green Journey and was anxious to become reacquainted in Dear James, a sequel that takes place three years later.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book so voraciously. Sunday afternoon I sat down in an easy chair, opened it up, and hardly moved till I’d finished at 1:30 in the morning. I didn’t like it as well as the first one because of some of the side stories, but I was heartened to find Agatha unchanged and as stalwart as ever.

In the first book she and her friend James are separated by a huge secret. In this book they work at rebuilding their friendship. There are several unexpected twists, some hilarious conversations and a satisfying ending to this lovely story. The letters Agatha and James write to each other are delightful.

Dear Agatha,
I cannot tell you how overjoyed I am to have your letter, so generously full of the life you’re leading and the thoughts you’re thinking, I will try my best to respond in kind, but at the moment I’m off to Dublin for an appointment and my bus is about to pull out. This is simply to say that you’ll be hearing from me at greater length, and that by answering my letter you have answered my prayers.
Fondly and gratefully,

Friday, March 25, 2011

Worthwhile Movie #4 - Jane Eyre (2011)

I found out today that the new Jane Eyre had been released on March 11th. A quick look at the movie listings confirmed it was not being shown in our area so I turned my mind to other things. But my persistent husband kept looking until he found it showing in a city 80 miles from here. Forgetting all of our afternoon plans, we jumped into the car and headed out.

I have read the book so many times that every movie version disappoints, but I was pleased with this particular rendering of the story. The cinematography and costumes were fabulous. "Jane" was extremely well done by Mia Wasikowska. I understand that movies have to cut out a lot of scenes and dialogue because of time restraints, so I missed some of my favorites. On the other hand, this film had a few quotes from the book that are often left out of other versions and I was delighted to hear those.

Cary Fukunaga, the director, took a minimalist approach to the movie. Jane's horrible childhood is seen, but only briefly. St. John River's weirdness is underplayed. The soft, melodic soundtrack never overpowers any of the scenes. The dialogue is good, but almost sparse at times.

The biggest letdown was Mr. Rochester. I could never quite warm up to him, but then again the perfect Mr. R. is only in my head. Overall this film will be a treat for Jane Eyre fans.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Quote on True Reading by C.S. Lewis

On August 7, 1921, C. S. Lewis wrote to his brother about staying in the King Arthur Hotel in Cornwall. With nothing else to do there, he roamed into the lounge, where had found quite a few uniformly bound books including a Persian epic poem and Aristotle’s Ethics. This uniformity of binding somewhat perplexed Lewis until he realized that the books were part of a series of "The Hundred Best Books". Lewis went on: “How I abominate such culture for the many, such tastes, ready-made, such standardization of the brain. To substitute for the infinite wanderings of the true reader through the bye-ways of the country he discovers... (from Letters of C. S. Lewis, quoted by James Schall in Another Sort of Learning, p. 242)

As I've commented before, I used to be a slave to lists of "classics to read before you die." Now I've come to peace with my general love for the classics (which allows disdain for a handful of them) and my eclectic interest in other types of books. Hallelujah for the "infinite wanderings of a true reader!"

Monday, March 21, 2011

Most Important Book to Read Before You Die

I'm a few days late posting the literary question of the week from The Blue Bookcase: What one literary work must you read before you die?

Quite a few bloggers mentioned Shakespeare: The Complete Works, but if I knew I were going to die, I think I'd want to read something more edifying to the soul. The Bible is the obvious answer, but I'd also read Pilgrim's Progress because it has always been a comfort to me and ends so triumphantly in heaven.

Taking the question lightly (as though death were decades away), I would read all of Anthony Trollope's books. And if I could only read one of them, it would be The Warden.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Green Journey by Jon Hassler

If it had not been for Gladys Hunt’s mention of Green Journey in Honey for a Woman's Heart, I would never have heard of it. Although the blurbs called it “charming,” “heartwarming,” and “lovely,” I approached the book with my usual skepticism toward anything written in the 20th Century. The beginning was awkward – a stilted conversation between an unwed mother, her father and a stodgy old maid. But as the character of Agatha McGee takes shape, you really begin to care about her and words like “stodgy” and “old maid” don’t fit anymore.

Agatha is in a crisis. She’s looking for meaning in her life after decades of teaching in a parochial school. Her staunch catholic faith seems threatened by the many modern changes occurring in her local church. Her correspondence with another disgruntled Catholic is her only comfort. The book is about her journey to Ireland to meet him and about all the people she touches with her sweet, faithful life. A few off-color moments were not enough to distract me from this compelling story. As one reviewer noted, these characters don’t always do what you want them to do, but they always act according to their beliefs, which is satisfying in its own way.

I loved this book. Hassler has a gift for writing a tender narrative that never crosses over into sentimentality. Fortunately Hassler’s books are readily available through PaperBackSwap and I look forward to reading the two other books with Agatha as their protagonist: Dear James and A New Woman.

A sample of Hassler's wonderful prose:
Lillian was powerfully boring. It had long ago become clear to Agatha that she and Lillian were friends not because they held interests or experiences in common but because for nearly seven decades their back doors had been facing one another across the alley. At least once a week, usually on Saturday mornings, Lillian and Agatha met to share a pot of coffee and whatever they knew of their neighbors, and that was exactly as much of Lillian as Agatha could stand. She knew, of course, that a mind as frivolous as Lillian’s was not without its virtues. The woman was honest, simplehearted and enviably placid. Nevertheless, it was a mind spongy with sentiment and empty of logic, and the light it gave off was so dim that it sometimes made Agatha shudder the way she used to when she was six and afraid of the dark. (p. 13)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Battle of the Books by Jonathon Swift

Swift's satire, The Battle of the Books, has been on my TBR list for years. Written in 1697, it describes the battle between ancient and modern books. At that time, "ancient" referred to the Greek classics and “modern” referred to books written in the 17th century. It was a rebuttal to authors who were writing that modern knowledge had surpassed the knowledge that had been available in earlier books. Swift argued that the essential ideas taught by Aristotle and others were just as valid and important as ever.

As for any obligations they owed to the Ancients, [Modern books] renounced them all: For our horses are of our own breeding, our arms of our own forging, and our clothes of our own cutting out and sewing. Plato was by chance upon the next shelf, and observing those that spoke to be in ragged plight, their horses lean and foundered, their weapons of rotten wood, their armor rusty, and nothing but rags underneath; he laughed aloud, and in his pleasant way, swore, by God, he believed them. (p. 107-108)

Later in the book “Moderns” are compared to spiders: For, pray Gentlemen, was ever anything so Modern as the Spider in his Air, his Turns, and his Paradoxes? He argues on behalf of You his Brethren, and Himself, with many Boastings of his native Stock, and great Genius; that he Spins and Spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any Obligation or Assistance from without. Then he displays to you his great Skill in Architecture and Improvement in Mathematics… Erect your Schemes with as much Method and Skill as you please; yet, if the Materials be nothing but Dirt, spun out of your own Entrails (the guts of Modern Brains) the Edifice will conclude at last in a Cobweb: The Duration of which, like that of other Spiders Webs, may be imputed to their being forgotten, or neglected, or hid in a Corner. (p. 111)

I’m a fan of 19th century classics (not Swift’s definition of the word) and tend to disdain lack of depth in modern “usurpers” (You can see why I liked the cobweb analogy!) so I thoroughly enjoyed Swift’s criticism’s. It’s a pity that his razor sharp wit is cloaked in archaic language and spellings. Take heart, though. It’s only twenty pages long and worth the effort. It also helps to read an article about the essay beforehand so you can recognize the authors whose names are being mentioned.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Quote On Building Literary Muscles

The novel she had once found slow now seemed refreshingly brisk, dry still, but astringently so, with Dame Ivy’s no-nonsense tone reassuringly close to her own. And it occurred to her that reading was among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed. She could read the novel with ease and great pleasure, laughing at remarks, they were hardly jokes, that she had not even noticed before. And through it all she could hear the voice of Ivy Compton-Burnett, unsentimental, severe and wise.

From The Uncommon Reader (p. 99) by Alan Bennett

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Can Literature be Funny?

The Blue Bookcase presents a weekly question related to literature and this week's entry is: Can literature be funny? What is your favorite humorous literary book?

My answer would have to be resounding "Yes!" Apart from the books that are commonly seen as hilarious (like those by P.G. Wodehouse), there are others that are surprisingly funny. As I posted earlier, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey was laugh-out-loud funny when I listened to the audio version. My favorite, Anthony Trollope, is probably not considered Britain's greatest comedian, but there is a humorous undercurrent to many of his books that keeps me chuckling all the way through. Heavens, I don't force myself to read good books because "they are good for me." I read them because I ENJOY them!

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Rose for Mrs. Miniver by Michael Troyan

Regular readers of this blog know that I sometimes digress from books to talk about classic films. This week I read the bio of one of my favorite actresses from the 40's, Greer Garson. She was a class act and her biography, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver, accentuated that. I have nothing profound to say about the book, but the paragraphs below show some of the reasons why I admire her:

But there were fewer opportunities in the 1970’s for her. Filmmakers rarely made the sophisticated, romantic comedies or dramas that she preferred, and she refused to join her Hollywood peers like Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, and Bette Davis who were making horror films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Lady in a Cage, and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. “I’ve been offered nymphomaniacs, kleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, homicidal maniacs and just plain maniacs,” she reported. “I think producers felt that after playing a long series of noble and admirable characters there would be quite a lot of shock value in seeing me play something altogether different. But I prefer upbeat stories that send people out of the theater feeling better than they did coming in.”

During interviews, she frequently and sharply criticized current films and filmmakers. “I’m no a keyhole peeper in real life, so why should I go to the cinema to be a keyhole peeper?” she said. “Producers should have more courage. People will respond to stories with love and courage and happy endings instead of shockers. I think the mirror should be tilted slightly upward when it’s reflecting life - toward the cheerful, the tender, the compassionate, the brave, the funny, the encouraging..."
(p. 327)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Chesterton on "The Dignity of Man"

Frankly, I had to read this passage a few times before I "got" it, but it certainly has some good food for thought.

Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stops in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of the snow coming down. The fall of thunderbolts is treated with some gravity. The fall of roofs and high buildings is taken seriously. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.