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 ingĂ©nue, 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.