Friday, December 28, 2012

Reading Year in Review 2012

Sixty-seven books. (12 audiobooks, 20 Kindle)

Best non-fiction: Unbroken by Hillenbrand tied with Helmet for My Pillow by Leckie (both about WWII)

Most enjoyable new authors: Connie Willis in her WWII time travel series and Scottish novelist, O. Douglas

Most powerful classics: Paradise Lost and Moby Dick (These don't really count because I'm still reading them, but I wanted to counterbalance the depressing list of books that follows.)

Least exciting classics: Don Quixote, and three others

My two favorite books of the year were re-reads:  Wind in the Willows and The Dean's Watch

Thanks to the Classics Club Challenge (and to the fact that most of the books were free on my Kindle), I read 14 of the 50 books on my list.  In spite of the challenge to read meatier stuff, I succumbed to reading some fluffy vintage fiction that was also free on Kindle so it was an up-and-down (but good) year.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Wish List

I loved this idea from Risa at BreadCrumb Reads who listed books she would like to receive for Christmas.

My wish list at Amazon is a mile long, but it includes many items of interest that are not necessarily books I'd like to own.  In recent years my library has been drastically reduced and I've written a little about why in two posts here and here.  All this to say, physical books have a much looser hold on me than they used to.  

BUT if I had to choose a handful of books that I really wanted, these would be on the list:


1) Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge - because you can never have enough Goudge.
2) Handbook on the Pentateuch (2005 edition) by Victor P. Hamilton - because I love teaching the Old Testament and this was one of the men who helped to ignite my interest in it.
3) On the Shoulders of Hobbits by Markos - because I read Return of the King and The Hobbit in 2012 and fell in love with Hobbit courage.

Books that I've read (and loved) and would like to add to my library (in gorgeous hardcovers, of course!):


4) Trollope's Barsetshire series
5) Middlemarch by George Eliot

Merry Christmas to all my fellow book lovers!  What titles are on your wish list?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Paradise Lost on Kindle

Dear Literary Purists,

Please do not hate me for posting this link.  Today (12/17/12) is offering a free copy of John Milton's Paradise Lost in Plain English.  I have wanted to read Paradise Lost for years, but have been extremely intimidated by it.  This version finally gave me the courage to get started AND I HAVE FALLEN IN LOVE WITH THIS GREAT WORK OF LITERATURE.

The original text is included in short paragraphs, followed by a brief summary "in plain English".  Milton is bowling me over with the beauty and power of his prose, but I would only be understanding half of it if I couldn't occasionally look over at the paraphrase.  Highly recommended.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.   Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort. . .   This is the story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.  He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained - well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

So begins the delightful story of Bilbo Baggins and his escapades. Even though Bilbo asserts that he has no use for adventures (“Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!  Make you late for dinner!”), he embarks on a journey with Gandalf and thirteen dwarves that will change him forever.  Since I had just finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy I couldn’t help but recognize their similar themes: greed, villainous foes, a hopeless quest, a returning king, a definitive battle, an adventure that lasts a year, and unimpressive hobbits who astound everyone with their faithfulness and courage.

However, it probably wasn’t a good thing that I read this after The Lord of the Rings because it seemed so light in comparison.  Still, because of it’s lightness, this would make a great family read aloud.  In fact, with dwarves named Ori, Gori,  Balin, Dwalin, Fili and Kili, the book BEGS to be read aloud.  

On second thought, the "lightness" of The Hobbit makes the ending of the LOTR trilogy all the more amazing. Because the hobbits have matured through suffering, they are able to save the shire from evil influences, something the untried hobbits are unable to do.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Quotes - G. K. Chesterton on Doctrine

On early Christianity:  It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. . . . The idea of birth through the Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. . . .  This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. . . . It is the equilibrium of a a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. (from Orthodoxy)

When the journalist says for the thousandth time, "Living religion is not in dull and dusty dogmas, etc.," we must say, "There you go, wrong at the very start." If he would condescend to ask what the dogmas are, he would find out that it is precisely the dogmas that are living, that are inspiring, that are intellectually interesting.  Zeal and charity and unction are admirable as flowers and fruit; but if you are really interested in the living principle you must be interested in the root or the seed. . . . . The dogmas are not dull.  Even what are called the fine doctrinal distinctions are not dull.  They are like the finest operations of surgery; separating nerve from nerve, but giving life.  It is easy enough to flatten out everything around for miles with dynamite, if our object is to give death.  But just as the physiologist is dealing with living tissues so the theologian is dealing with living ideas; (from The Thing)

(Culled from The Truest Fairy Tale)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien

I didn’t think I liked Return of the King as much as The Fellowship and Two Towers, but later decided it was the most heartwarming of the the three - even with all the battles.

What can equal the tenderness of Sam carrying Frodo when neither of them had any strength left?   Or Sam’s courage when all seemed lost?

But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength.  Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue. (p. 259)

Some of the most touching scenes from the book were not in the movie: Aragorn’s actions in the Houses of Healing, Faramir falling love with Eowyn, Merry and Pippin becoming the heroes of the Shire after feeling so small and inadequate in the battles for Middle Earth.  

There are powerful scenes too:  When Frodo extends grace to Saruman (and receives Saruman’s  curses in return), when Gandalf arrives to save the day, and when Aragorn is crowned.  His coronation is described in almost biblical language:
But when Aragorn arose all who beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time.  Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was upon him.  And then Faramir cried: Behold the King!” (p. 304)

Gandalf has the best quotes in the book, especially when encouraging the men (elves and hobbits too) to fight against impossible odds:  “It is not our part to master the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.  What weather they have is not ours to rule.” (p. 190)

You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy The Lord of the Rings, but the themes of faithfulness and hope in the midst of tribulation enriched my faith.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Recommendations for Light Reading (and one Chunkster!)

In the past two weeks I've enjoyed some light reads. All were free at the time, except for The Hobbit.

The Mystery of 31 New Inn (1912) by R. Austin Freeman.  It was interesting to discover that Freeman dominated the field of detective fiction for the first 25 years of his career.  His key character, Dr. Thorndyke, was overshadowed, however,  by more memorable men such as Sherlock Holmes, Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot.  Several of Freeman’s titles are available for 99 cents on Kindle if you are interested in a quick, pleasant read (especially if you love quaint old-fashioned language.)

The Harvester by Gene Stratton Porter - I have enjoyed several of Porter’s books, but this was too sentimental for my tastes.  David Langston harvests herbs for medicinal purposes and seeks to win the love of his “dream girl”.(Librivox recording)

The Confessions of Arsène Lupin - (Librivox recording)  Another intriguing installment in the life of the "gentleman burglar”.  The reader, Kathy Barrett read without much emotion, but that seemed to fit the genre.  Beside that, she pronounced the foreign words beautifully, something quite rare for Librivox readers.

The Hobbit - review here.  Fun!

I am also listening to Moby Dick
on the Moby Dick Big Read.  Yes, all the other bloggers were right. This is a classic worthy of the name.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Quote on Foreknowledge by Tolkien

Sometimes we wish we could see into the future because the “unknown” is so nerve-wracking.  Yet it is a mercy that we can’t.  How could we bear it if we saw all the troubles that were ahead?  According to Tolkien, it is a mercy in another sense:

And Gandalf said, "Many folk like to know beforehand what is to be set on the table; but those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for the wonder makes the words of praise louder. (Return of the King, p. 307)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Life Together by Bonhoeffer (Part Two)

While the overt theme of Life Together is community, the underlying theme is servant leadership.  According to Bonhoeffer, a community can only be healthy if every thought and action is bathed in a spirit of gratitude and humility.  Last week I wrote about how Bonhoeffer redefines the basis for Christian community: nothing less than the blood of Jesus.  In this post I want to focus on his advice to pastors, in which he redefines ministry as we normally think of it.

In Chapter Four he writes of various ministries:  1) The ministry of holding one’s tongue, 2) The ministry of meekness, 3) The ministry of listening, 4) The ministry of helpfulness, 5) The ministry of bearing each other’s burdens - after which one has the liberty to do the ministry of proclaiming the gospel.

He concludes with the ministry of authority, turning it’s accepted definition on its ear (just as Jesus did in Matthew 20:25-28).  Authority is not displayed via power, but through servanthood.  A pastor who humbly believes that God has put him in authority over his people does not need to coerce or control them.

Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service. . . .  Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities , virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community.  The desire we so often hear expressed for “authoritative personalities” springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive. . . . The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren. (108, 109)

This little book had enough “revolutionary” ideas to keep my head spinning for a month.   Highly recommended for those of who have been Christians a long time and may be in a rut.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

E-Books vs. Physical Books - Part One

Tim Challies had a link to a New York Times article on how e-readers have yet to match up to regular books.  It's a bit lengthy, but quite insightful.

I admit it.  I have become emotionally dependent on my e-reader because of my book addiction and the fact that I have very little access to books in English in our new location.  But sometimes I desperately miss the maneuverability of physical books, the ability to flip back to favorite passages without laborious clicking.  And as someone else has said, "You never look at an e-book with quite the same emotion and love as you do a dog-eared novel that you've read a dozen times."

In my post on Moonwalking with Einstein, I cited Joshua Foer's argument that moving from scrolls to books  took away the necessity of being completely familiar with the text.  It made us lazier readers.  Yet Lev Grossman (in the NY Times article) contends that moving from scroll to book (codex) was an amazing advancement.

The codex also came with a fringe benefit: It created a very different reading experience. With a scroll you could only trudge through texts the long way, linearly. With a codex, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, nonlinearly. You could flip back and forth between two pages and even study them both at once. You could cross-check passages and compare them and bookmark them. You could skim, if you were bored, and jump back ro reread your favorite parts. It was the paper equivalent of random-access memory, and it must have been almost supernaturally empowering.

Yes, yes, yes, that's what I miss about reading "real" books!  That's why I'll never be able to do indepth Bible study on my Kindle.  It just doesn't allow for it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Part One)

I thought I could sail through this 100 page book in a couple of days, but I was overestimating my powers of assimilation and underestimating Bonhoeffer’s profundity.  Like some books by Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, I understood only half of Life Together.The little I “got”, however, was well worth the effort.

Bonhoeffer wrote the book in 1938 after having lived in an underground seminary with twenty-five pastors.  It addressed the issues of Christian brothers living in close proximity.  

It is clear why I was so enamored with this book during my seminary days. After all, I was living in community with hundreds of other men and women whose sole purpose was preparation for the ministry.  We ate together, prayed together, studied together.  Now, almost 30 years later, I’m reading it in a completely different context.  My husband and I are working with church planters whom we hardly know.  We meet briefly during the week and then scatter back to the privacy of our own homes.  Life Together helped me see how loosely we use the word “community” and made me more determined to put up with the necessary “inconvenience” of spending more time together.

The book opens with Psalm 133:1 and then goes on to explain the steps that make possible a unity that is “good and pleasant.”   Right from the start Bonhoeffer nixes the idea that we have fellowship because of common interests or backgrounds or because we like each other.  Comfortable feelings toward one another have nothing to do with it.  True fellowship is based solely on the fact that we are sinners saved by grace.  

The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.  Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves. . . . Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight. . . . 

A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community.  Sooner or later it will collapse. . . . He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. . . . The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.  (pp. 26, 27 30) 

I have many other thoughts, but will save them for my next post. A worthwhile and thought-provoking read.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Have you ever watched  a movie in which the wife is married to a jerk?  When the man of her dreams comes along, you wish with all your heart that she could leave her slob of a husband and find happiness with the new man?  I. Hate. Those. Movies. Because they manipulate me into elevating my flimsy feelings above what I know to be right.

I had similar feelings as I read Catching Fire,
the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy.  Yes, there is the same heart-thumping action as book one.  Yes, the themes of self-sacrifice are very real and powerful.  But the love triangle is starting to wear on me. Katniss has strong feelings for Peetah because they’ve been through hell together in the arena, but she reserves her romantic feelings for Gale, her lifelong best friend.  When she has bad dreams, however, she allows Peetah to hold her through the night.   Blech.  She hates herself for using him, but she can’t help it...  You feel so sorry for her.  She’s got so much to worry about - keeping her friends and family alive, etc.  But I don’t like being manipulated into thinking that what she’s doing is justifiable.  

And do you really want me to believe that this handsome hulk of a guy holds her through the night with nary a sexual impulse? Is this some feminist theme - that men are there for our needs, but we don’t need to be there for theirs?  Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want sex in these books.  I just think it’s weird that this guy loves her so much that he can pretend that he doesn’t have hormones.

Off my soap box now.  There are things to really like about Katniss.  She eschews the empty-headed people from the Capitol who care only about clothes, tattoos and outlandish hairdos.  She scorns “playboy”  Finnik, comparing him to the lascivious Cray.  She feels pity for the morphling addicts who need the drug to escape from reality.  (She, herself, gets drunk once, but this is shown in a negative light.)  In addition, she is constantly reaching out to the kind of people whom the world rejects.  The main theme of book two is Katniss’ determination to give her life in exchange for Peetah’s.  So aside from her ambivalence toward the men in her life, she is a very moral character.  

Catching Fire has more gore than Hunger Games (book one) and more mentions of people in various forms of nakedness (no details though).   I’d think twice before giving this to a young girl to read. Although the book ended with a great twist, I'm going to resist checking out the third book until I read a few others with less adrenaline-based plots.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Steven Leacock

This Canadian classic (which just celebrated its 100th anniversary) has been on my TBR list for years. But I never got around to “reading” Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town until I downloaded it from LibriVox.  Each of the twelve chapters describes a person or event in the mythical town of Mariposa in the early 1900’s. Leacock pokes fun at small town ways, but he seems to do it without any malice.  Much of the humor is understated and since the majority of the narrators read with deadpan voices, I almost missed some of it.  I kept thinking that if a man like Garrison Keillor got hold of this material, it could be laugh out loud funny.

Many of the characters in the stories have an exaggerated sense of importance. Others, like Reverend Drone and Peter Pupkin have an overwrought sense of worthlessness. Pupkin, the bank teller, is afraid he is unworthy of Zena Pepperleigh, the judge’s daughter.  Except for the fact that suicide is no joking matter, the chapter on Pupkin’s attempts to do away with himself so that Zena will notice him is quite funny.

This is an easy, yet slow read (Lately, all books seem slow after the Hunger Games), but it might be worth a listen if you’re cooking or sewing and want a good story in the background.

Sample from Chapter One: 

Of course if you come to the place fresh from New York, you are deceived. Your standard of vision is all astray; you think the place is quiet. You do imagine that Mr. Smith is asleep merely because he closes his eyes as he stands. But live in Mariposa for six months or a year and then you will begin to understand it better; the buildings get higher and higher; the Mariposa House grows more and more luxurious; McCarthy's block towers to the sky; the buses roar and hum to the station; the trains shriek; the traffic multiplies; the people move faster and faster; a dense crowd swirls to and fro in the post office and the five and ten cent store -- and amusements! well, now! lacrosse, baseball, excursions, dances, the Fireman's Ball every winter and the Catholic picnic every summer; and music -- the town band in the park every Wednesday evening, and the Oddfellows' brass band on the street every other Friday; the Mariposa Quartette, the Salvation Army -- why, after a few months' residence you begin to realize that the place is a mere mad round of gaiety.

Also available free for Kindle.

Friday, October 26, 2012

John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Craik

John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) is a classic of the Victorian era.  It is the story of a David and Jonathon-like friendship.  It is also about a long and happy marriage.  But mostly it recounts the life of a man who never backs down from his principles.  The book proposed the “revolutionary”  idea that a man is not a gentleman primarily because of wealth and title, but because of integrity, honor and hard work.

Halifax is a poor orphan who works his way up from poverty; his story is narrated by Phineas Fletcher, a sickly boy whom he befriends:  

From my birth I had been puny and diseased; my life had been a succession of sicknesses and I could hope for little else until the end…  But I was very content; I had a quiet home, a good father, and now I believe I had found the one thing I wanted – a good friend.

Later when Phineas asks how he will get on in the world, Halifax replies that he has “NIL” to which Fletcher replies, “Except youth, health, courage, honor, honesty and a few other such trifles.”  These trifles made Halifax one of the most beloved characters in Victorian literature.

This is a slow-moving but satisfying book.  It uses old fashioned words like “discomfited” and “sententious”.  But it is no more sentimental than, say, Little Women
, and much less moralistic than Elsie Dinsmore. I have read novels in which the hero or heroine are too good to be true (Little Lord Fauntleroy comes to mind), but I did not find this to be the case with John Halifax.  

There is one teeny-tiny episode of bad theology, but for the most part this book celebrates true manliness and womanliness, the joys of family life, and the virtues of walking in God’s ways.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Because of my disregard for modern day bestsellers, I never dreamed I’d be reviewing The Hunger Games on my web log.  But I was intrigued by a number of theological blogs that dismissed it as anti-Christian while an equal number of bloggers praised it for its Christian themes. I had to find out for myself.

Whether you like this book or hate it, it’s hard to put down once you start reading.  Collins has written a compelling story of a young girl who is battling for her life in her country’s yearly “Hunger Games.”  Every year teenagers are selected from each district in Panem to fight to the death.  When Katniss Everdeen’s 12 year old sister, Prim, is chosen, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

Is there any idea more biblical than self-sacrifice?  And that isn’t the only time that grace is extended.  Peetah gives bread to Katniss when she is starving. The baker promises to look after Prim while Katniss is gone.  Her friend, Gale, promises to feed her mother and sister.  Rue warns Katniss of danger.  Thresh refuses to kill her when he has a chance.  Katniss risks her chances of winning the games by helping Peetah when he is wounded.  And the list goes on.

Forgiveness is another theme in the novel.  While in training for the games, Katniss meets a girl who she had once seen fleeing from the Capitol.  Katniss feels guilty for not having helped her escape and wishes she could ask forgiveness.   After Katniss’ father dies, her mother abandons the family (in an emotional sense).  Katniss holds a grudge against her and later wishes she could have more clearly expressed forgiveness. 

As far as Book One is concerned, the positive themes far outweigh the negative ones of violence, revenge, etc.  Since I’m not a big fan of romance novels, I didn’t love the final chapters where Katniss and Peetah are trying to sort out their feelings for one another.  However, I am withholding my final judgment on the series until read the other two books. 

Sidenote:  I dread seeing the movie.  Katniss and Peetah pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend to gain audience sympathy (because the games are televised to the entire nation).  At one point she removes his clothing to clean his wounds.  Later they slip into the same sleeping bag to keep warm.  I can see how the movie version could be more sexualized.  Also, the killings are not graphically described in the book, but would be much more vivid and shocking on screen.  If you’ve seen the movie, let me know if my hunch is correct.

Friday, October 12, 2012

So-So Classics

I’m a huge fan of classic literature.  So I’m always a little surprised when I pick up a book that turns out to be bland.  In the last few weeks, three well-known titles have left me cold.

I remember reading the Classics Illustrated comic book of Two Years Before The Mast
when I was growing up in Taiwan.   I have since discovered that I prefer the comic book since it highlighted the adventurous moments in the book and left out the gazillions of sailing details.  I can see why the book was a huge success in its time (1830’s) since it gave a vivid picture of life at sea to those who could never experience it.  Richard Henry Dana, a Harvard grad, was an above average writer, but his prose is nothing to write home about.

Then there is
Gulliver's Travels, a very long book that begins to wear on you about half way through. I thought the recent movie version was slightly vulgar thanks to Jack Black, but now I find that the book is bawdy enough without any help from Hollywood.  It’s interesting, but, again, not beautifully written.

My foray into The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
was a disappointment as well.  I liked this book a lot when I first read it 20 years ago, so maybe I’m just getting too old for this stuff. (That doesn’t really make sense considering how much I enjoyed Wind in the Willows recently.)  Anyway, the book had its moments of charm.  The Tin Woodman is endearing:  He knew very well he had no heart and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything.  “You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful.  When Oz gives me a heart of course I needn’t mind so much.” (p. 37)

I was amazed at the book’s introduction that said, The story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”  was written solely to please children of today.  It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and all the heartaches and nightmares are left out.  The book has several scary and gruesome scenes which negate that final statement.

The Wizard of Oz will always be considered a classic because of the movie.  Film critic, John Howard Reid, wrote, The magical qualities of Wizard of Oz are so imaginative that the movie appeals even more to adults than children.  In many respects, it is an American Alice in Wonderland with wonderfully way-out characters engaged in a Through the Looking Glass quest for various holy grails.  These characters and their desires are more than just faithfully transcribed from Baum’s book.  They are actually improved.  (p. 255 in 140 All-Time, Must-See Movies for Film Lovers)

Well, it’s no use whining over semi-interesting books when there are still hundreds of worthwhile books to be discovered.  Onward and upward!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Babette's Feast - Worthwhile Movie #7

My husband and I just watched Babette's Feast for the tenth time.  It’s been an almost biennial event since it came out in 1987.  The film is in Danish with English subtitles and won the Oscar for best foreign film the year of its release.  It is based on the story by Isak Dinesen (of Out of Africa fame.)  Dinesen first landed on my radar because author Elisabeth Elliot quoted her so often.

Babette’s Feast tells the story of two maiden ladies living in an isolated Danish village.  Their father had started a religious sect, but after his death the members met more out of obligation than out of mutual love.   A poor French woman shows up at their door seeking refuge and though they have no money to pay her, the sisters take her in as their servant in exchange for room and board.

Many years pass and Babette finally has an opportunity to repay the sisters for their kindness.  It’s a remarkable story of grace and lavish love told through the metaphor of food.  A slow moving and sumptuous film. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

It’s been a very long time since I’ve enjoyed a book this much.  I’m not sure why The Wind in the Willows evoked such emotion in me.  I laughed out loud at Toad’s antics.  And I shed tears over the heroism and sacrificial love demonstrated by the four animals:  Stalwart Badger, Faithful Mole, Gentle and Wise “Ratty”, and Arrogant (but Repentant) Toad.

I savored the gorgeous prose about the pleasures of home, the delights of good food, the wonders of nature and the treasures of friendship.    Graham succeeds in telling a sweet and tender story without making it saccharine.

Don’t be put off by the controversial seventh chapter where the animals worship Pan. (Some children’s editions leave it out since it’s not essential to the story.)  This book is a must-read for every lover of great literature and of beautiful writing.  I underlined more passages than I can count.  Some choice quotes:

Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.  All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.  The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated.  By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. (p.3)

Mole’s view of winter:  He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery.  He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.  (p. 36)

The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew.  At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces – meadows wide-spread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous.  Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognized again under it.  Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in the silent, silver kingdom. (p. 102)

Absolutely the most satisfying book I’ve read in ages.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Blackout & All Clear by Connie Willis

I had seen rave reviews of Connie Willis’ book To Say Nothing of the Dog on the blogosphere, but knew nothing about her Oxford Time Travel series until Sherry recommended it to me. 

Blackout and All Clear deal with British historians from the year 2060 who travel back in time to observe England during World War Two.  Willis is a good story teller and the reader soon becomes engaged in the lives of the characters.  And because Willis has done her research, these books are a painless way to learn many historical facts about the war.

Polly, Eileen and Mike have varying assignments.  Polly is a shop clerk during the Blitz. Eileen works with child evacuees in the British countryside and Mike is sent to observe “true heroism” at Dunkirk.    It is fascinating to watch the historians switch from observers to participants as they become deeply concerned about the people with whom they are sharing bomb shelters, living spaces, and war duties.  In fact, Eileen keeps missing her “drop” (time transport slot) because of the needs of the many children for whom she is caring. 

Interspersed with bombings and missed drops are lighter moments with the incorrigible Hodbins (brother and sister), the Shakespeare-quoting Sir Godfrey Kingsman, and the crotchety landlady, Mrs. Ricketts. Anyone familiar with WWII history will know the importance of St. Paul’s Cathedral as a symbol of English endurance.  Willis weaves this theme into her book and includes the added dimension of a particular painting within the cathedral.  The painting theme and the strongly Christian theme of self-sacrifice counterbalanced the sparse yet difficult-for-me-to-swallow profanity.  

At the end of the first book the historians are having trouble finding any drops that are working.  They wonder if they have inadvertently altered history and thus destroyed their chances of ever returning to their own time.  It takes book two to explain what went wrong and how they “fix” it. The denouement is surprisingly touching.  Kudos to Willis for wrapping up her story so wonderfully.

A very worthwhile read.  I’m glad I could get it on my Kindle via my U.S. public library.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Invisible Child by Katherine Paterson

The Invisible Child (subtitled "On Reading and Writing Books For Children") is a collection of speeches and essays written by Katherine Patterson over the course of her career.  I have mixed feelings about some of her books, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one; I was particularly impressed with how integral her faith is to her writing.  All her books are ultimately about characters who are homesick for Eden.

Some choice quotes:

On good writing: I suppose it would be possible to write a book whose plot jumped all around like a frog on pep pills, but that's not what books are about.  If that's the kind of writing you want to do, I think you should be in a more hectic medium.  Books are meant to be read slowly and digested.  These days people don't pray much or go to services of worship, they don't commune with nature - why, they hardly go to a national park without a TV set, a laptop, and a cell phone.  The book is almost the last refuge of reflection - the final outpost of wisdom.  I want children to have the gifts that books can give, and I don't believe they can get them from a book that attempts to imitate the frantic fragmentation of contemporary life. (p. 55)

On dark themes in children's books: There was no way my parents could have protected me from the world as it is.  I had already seen too much.  What I needed was not an outer guard but an inner strength.  I needed to know that one could endure the loss of Paradise.  "That's what we were put on earth to do," says Margaret Drabble, "to endeavor to face the impossible." This is what reading The Yearling helped me to do - to endeavor to face the impossible. (p. 177)

On classics:  I was always told that I should read the Odyssey.  It popped up in small doses in English and Latin textbooks as I was growing up.  But somehow I never got around to the whole thing until I was forty-six years old. . . . Do you know why the Odyssey has lasted for nearly three thousand years?  Because it is simply a marvelous story.  Why did people keep telling me that I ought to read it so I could be an educated person?  Was it because they had never read it themselves, but had always meant to?  I can't imagine anyone who had ever read it, certainly not Rouse's translation, anyone who had ever really read it, telling someone else to read it because it was good for him.  Read it because it's one of the best stories you'll ever read. . . . (from a 1979 lecture on "Words")

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

A Room with a View has been in my Librivox queue for quite some time.  If I’d remembered that Elizabeth Klett was its narrator, I wouldn’t have waited so long since she is one of their best readers, expertly imbuing her characters with distinctive personalities via voice changes.  In this particular reading she was spot on with each one, but especially with the ingénue, Miss Lucy Honeychurch.

Forster’s book has a lot of messages.  Among them is his clear disdain for class distinctions and prim, correct manners.  The book begins with a group of English tourists in Italy where they are shaken out of their ideas of proper behavior.  The country of Italy and the Emersons (father and son) are metaphors for freedom from repression.  When one of the women expresses horror at loose behavior, Miss Lavish states, “One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness, but for life.”

Another theme – expressed through Mr. Emerson Sr. – is of the futility of religion (also a theme in Forster's Passage to India).   His alternative to faith in God is faith in romantic love: He gave [Lucy] a sense of deities reconciled, a feeling that, in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world. . . ; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire. (Chapter 19)

When I saw the movie a few years ago I surmised that the skinny dipping scene was added to spice up a rather bland story.  So I was surprised to see that not only was it in the book, it was an important element.  Men without clothes represent men without the distinct differences based on their occupations.  It was also a scene that emphasized unrestrained joy.  At chapter's end the incident is described in religious tones:  On the morrow the pool had shrunk to its old size and lost its glory.  It had been a call to the blood and to the relaxed will, a passing benediction whose influence did not pass, a holiness, a spell, a momentary chalice for youth. (Chapter 12)

In spite of Forster's skewed view of Christianity, this is an enjoyable romantic comedy.  Lucy's would-be suitor, Cecil Vyse, is laugh-out-loud funny as the proverbial wet blanket in whose presence "one did not play Bumble Puppy." Interestingly, he is described at one point in the story as "a room without a view" because of his lack of emotion and imagination.

Lots to think about and laugh over in this novel.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Ten Most Read Books in the World

Gospel Coalition has an interesting post on the "Ten Most Read Books in the World."  The books have been printed in the last 50 years so this is not a list of the "Ten Most Read Books of All Time."  GC will be posting separate articles about each book, but begins with a brief summary of their world views.  I try to ignore modern books, but may look over some of these - epecially Paulo Coelho since he is a much revered Brazilian author.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

We all know that Carol at Magistramater has impeccable taste, so when she mentions a book more than once, it behooves you to run right out and get it.  (Thank heavens for kindle library books so that I could download it even here in Brazil.)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is an absorbing murder mystery that takes place in England in the 1950’s. Its 11 year old protagonist has an obsession for chemistry, particularly poisonous concoctions.  Flavia de Luce finds a body in the garden and for the whole novel is always one step ahead of the police in discovering “whodunit.”

The book is chock-full of intriguing characters from the gardener with memory lapses, the stamp collecting father, the deceased mother, to the two obnoxious sisters.  Normally I eschew meanness, but Flavia’s vicious jibes at her two siblings are laugh out loud funny.

Although this is Alan Bradley’s first novel, he’s been writing short stories for many years and it shows.  He is a master of description and understated wit:  

 She gasped.  Her face went red, then gray, as if it had caught fire before my eyes and collapsed in an avalanche of ashes.  She pulled a lace handkerchief from her sleeve, knotted it, and jammed it into her mouth, and for a few moments, she sat there, rocking in her chair, gripping the lace between her teeth like an eighteenth-century seaman having his leg amputated below the knee. (p. 68)

A long hallway, hung profusely with dark, water-stained sporting prints, served as a lobby, in which centuries of sacrificed kippers had left the smell of their smoky souls clinging to the wallpaper. (p. 98)

Blessings on you, Carol, and on you, Mr. Bradley.  I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Inferno by Max Hastings - Part Two (Russia)

In the TV series, Hogan’s Heroes, General Burkhalter frequently warns the incompetent Colonel Klink that he’ll send him to the Russian Front.  Max Hasting’s Inferno makes it very clear why this was such a terrible threat.  It was on the Eastern Front that 90 percent of all Germans killed in combat met their fate (p. 316)

Hastings contends that Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was the defining event of the war because it diverted his attention away from the destruction of England and completely exhausted the resources he needed to win on other battle fronts.  I appreciated his analysis of Stalin, who although maniacal in much of his behavior, was very clear on the goals he wanted to accomplish and how he wanted to accomplish them.  Hastings also does a good job of expressing America’s ambivalence toward Russia’s involvement in the war.   Some relevant quotes:

Whatever the merits of the Russian people’s struggle to expel the invaders from their country, Stalin’s war aims were as selfish and inimical to human liberty as those of Hitler.  Soviet conduct could be deemed less barbaric than that of the Nazis only because it embraced no single enormity to match the Holocaust.  Nonetheless, the Western Allies were obliged to declare their gratitude, because Russia’s suffering and sacrifice saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of young British and American soldiers. (p. 178)

The British people, awed by Russian resistance, embraced the Soviet Union as an ally with an enthusiasm that dismayed and even frightened their own ruling caste. (177)

Russia’s vast blood sacrifice spared the lives of hundreds of thousands of British and American soldiers, but in consequence the Red Army secured physical possession of an eastern European empire.  The Americans and British had no choice save to acquiesce in this, since they lacked both military means and domestic support for a new war to expel the Soviet Union from its conquests. (638)

The Americans and British had delivered half of Europe from one totalitarian tyranny, but lacked the political will and military means to save 90 million people of the easterly nations from falling victim to new Soviet bondage that lasted almost half a century.  The price of having joined with Stalin to destroy Hitler was high indeed. (631)

As I’ve said before, Max Hastings overview of the war is fascinating, informative and eloquent.  A very worthwhile read for history buffs. (Part One of this book review is here.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Inferno by Max Hastings - Part One

For those who want a month-by-month detailed overview of World War II, Hasting's Inferno is amazingly comprehensive.  Since he’s written other tomes on various events in the war, he dreaded being redundant here; thus, some sections are frustratingly brief.  The information he gives, however, is more than enough to overload your brain cells.  Because there is so much material, I want to cover a couple of key subjects in this review and finish up with further thoughts in next week’s post.

STATISTICS - The number of lives that were lost is staggering.  Hastings writes, Many people met death far from any battlefield.  The Jews of Europe suffered the most dramatic fate, but millions of other civilians – Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Chinese, Malays, Vietnamese, Indians – were extinguished by willful murder, chance explosion, disease or starvation. (p. 485) Around three quarters of all those who perished were unarmed victims rather than active participants in the struggle. (646)

An average of 27,000 people perished each day between September 1939 and August 1945.  Thirteen million died under bombardment or in German-occupied regions. (329)  There is no commonly agreed total of war-related deaths around the world, but a minimum figure of 60 million is accepted… Russia lost 27 million and China at least 15. (645)
FIGHTING METHODS - Since I had recently finished James Bradley’s Flyboys, I was particularly interested in Hastings’ comparison between the Axis and the Allied fighting methods. (Bradley saw them as equally brutal.)  Hastings builds a strong case for the different viewpoints of the enemies.   

The Japanese army in its new conquests sustained the tradition of savagery it had established in China, a perversion of virility and warrior spirit which was the more shocking for being institutionalized.  Soldiers of all nations, in all wars, are sometimes guilty of atrocities.  An important distinction can be made, however, between armies in which acts of barbarism represent a break with regulations and the norm, and those in which they are indulged or even incited by commanders.  The Japanese were prominent among the latter. (212)

To the Japanese and Russians, the lives of their soldiers and civilians were completely expendable.  Hitler assumed he could easily take over Russia, but it did not occur to Hitler, after his victories in the west, that it might be more difficult to overcome a brutalized society, inured to suffering, than democracies such as France and Britain, in which moderation and respect for human life were deemed virtues. (139)

With the exception of a few such enthusiasts as Patton, Allied commanders understood that they were mandated to win the war at the lowest possible human cost, and thus caution was a virtue, even in victory. (643)

Japanese willingness to fight to the death rather than surrender, even in tactically and indeed strategically hopeless circumstances, disgusted Allied troops.  American and British soldiers were imbued with the European historical tradition, whereby the honorable and civilized response to impending defeat was to abandon the struggle, averting gratuitous bloodshed.  Americans in the Pacific, like British soldiers in Burma, felt rage towards an enemy who rejected such civilized logic. (424)

Hastings is scholarly, eloquent, and clear-eyed. This fascinating and hefty book is one of the most articulate and even-handed overviews of the war that you’ll ever read.