Monday, December 30, 2013

Reading Goals for 2014

I'm a free spirit when it comes to reading and don't like to be hampered by "must read" lists. I have learned, however, that some goals are good. (The Classics Club Challenge has kept me reading the classics even when "I didn't feel like it.") Apart from my book-a-week goal, I have only two new goals this year: To read the Bible from cover to cover and to read four Shakespeare plays.

First, It seems odd to admit it that I have never read the Bible through in a year. I have always thought disparagingly of this method, which seemed to emphasize quantity over quality. But I've heard too many friends rave over how this type of reading gives them an overview of all the major biblical themes so I want to give it a try.

Second, Carol, finally convinced me that there is a way to read Shakespeare that works. She suggests reading through the plays in one sitting (seems too obvious, but I never really thought of it.) She has two helpful posts on the subject: here and here.

I will continue to chip away at my Classics Club list and to read books that are already on my Kindle.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Reading Year in Review 2013

This was a fun year. I reached my book-a-week goal in spite of a crazy schedule (thanks to my daily subway ride.) For lack of a good library close by I read 41 books (of the 60 I read) on my Kindle. I also listened to 5 audiobooks.

Favorite new authors: Josephine Tey (The Franchise Affair) and Carroll W. Rankin (Dandelion Cottage)

Favorite "new" novel by a known and loved author: Island Magic by Elizabeth Goudge

Most Charming - The Linnet's Tale by D. C. Willard and Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson

Most  pleasant surprises (classics that I began with low expectations): Moby Dick, Emma, Master of Ballantrae

Most disappointing: Victorian author, Margaret Oliphant. (In fact, several of the authors I read for my personal Victorian challenge were a disappointment. This is probably why these obscure authors have fallen off everybody's radar.)

Hands down the most amazingbook of the year: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

It looks like I did mostly light reading, but I managed to read twelve books from my Classics Club Challenge list too.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas Carol by G. K. Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

(The poem set to music can be heard  here.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Miss Buncle Married by D. E. Stevenson

I already raved about Miss Buncle's Book in a previous post so I was happy when the sequel, Miss Buncle Married, went on sale for Kindle. In Book One Barbara Buncle is a successful author (much to everyone's surprise) who happens to end up marrying her publisher (much to her own surprise). In Book Two the Abbotts move to a new city to begin their new life together and Barbara is thrown in with a whole new set of odd and delightful neighbors.

Over and over again Arthur Abbott is amazed at the perspicacity of his seemingly droll wife:

Arthur Abbott gazed at his wife in amazement, which gradually gave place to amusement - she was a priceless person, his Barbara. Life was so simple to her; she was so matter-of-fact, so absolutely and peerlessly sane. (p. 9)

The strangest thing about Barbara, Arthur reflected, the strangest thing about this strange woman who was now his lawful wedded wife, was that although she understood practically nothing, she yet understood everything. . . .  Without being conscious of it herself she was able to sum up a person or a situation in a few minutes. People's very bones were bare to her - and she had no idea of it. (p. 75)

Miss Buncle Married is a book about "friendly love" versus passion. Barbara and Arthur are supremely happy sitting in comfortable chairs, reading in the garden, just being together. Arthur's nephew falls in love with Jerry, a young penniless woman who makes a living running a horse-riding school. Here is a wonderful description of when he discovers he loves her:

Jerry took a large slice of wheaten bread, spread with golden butter, and bit into it with her small white teeth. It was a natural gesture - she was very hungry indeed - but to Sam, there was something symbolic about it. Jerry was like bread, he thought. She was like good wholesome wheaten bread, spread thickly with honest farm butter; and the thought crossed his mind that a man might eat bread forever and ever, and not tire of it, and that it would never clog his palate like sweet cakes or pastries or chocolate éclairs. I do care for her, Sam thought. I do care for her - it's different. It's not so much that I'm in love with her as that I love her. I'll always care for her if she'll let me. (p. 126)

Another winner from D. E. Stevenson!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Recommendations for Lesser-Known Christmas Movies

We all know the classic Christmas films: It's a Wonderful Life (1946), A Christmas Story (1983), White Christmas (1954), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), etc. From quotes I've seen on facebook, Elf (2003) seems to be an up and coming contender too.

But I'm wondering about some of your favorites that might be less famous. . .

I enjoy the Christmas scenes in You've Got Mail and in While Your Were Sleeping. I also prefer the lesser-known Holiday Inn (1942) to it's successor, White Christmas. Another obscure film with a Christmas scene is Four Jills in a Jeep (1944) about WWII entertainers. Robert Mitchum is so romantic in Holiday Affair. (1949) Finally, The Nativity Story (2006) is a new favorite of ours.

What are some suggestions you have for films that put you in a holiday mood?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Baggy Pants by General W. E. Brougher

I was fascinated by Brougher’s WWII diary, South to Bataan, North to Mukden, when I read it in 2011.  This was a man who kept his sanity in a POW camp by reading books and writing poetry!  And the snippets of his poems were quite good.  So I was eager to get my hands on his other book, Baggy Pants and Other Stories, which was published in 1965. 

I have mixed feelings about the book.  Most of the stories are okay.  Where Brougher really shines is when he’s writing about his experiences in the war.  “Baggy Pants,” “I Was Liberated by the Russians,” and “Rook’s Nest” are exceptional.  “Gangway for the V.I.P” was a bit hokey, but still intriguing in its backhanded tribute to Skinny Wainwright.  Brougher described Wainwright’s defeat at Corregidor with poignancy:  Like Prometheus chained to the rock, the vultures pecking his vitals out, the Old Cavalryman found himself driven underground, Japanese bombers constantly overhead, pulverizing everything on the surface of the Island, and finally forcing his surrender. (p. 76)

While I didn’t love this book, I was very glad to add it to my repertoire of World War II books because of my great respect for General  Brougher’s talents and courage.  Now I’m on the lookout for his book of poetry, The Long Dark Road.

More on Brougher on this previous post.

(This post was originally published on my WWII blog 4/17/13.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lesser-Known WWII Films #3

1) Command Decision (1948) Normally, I like movies based on plays because the dialogue is superior.  This one had a bit of a slow start, but got better after the first half hour. Because it is based on a play, there are virtually no action scenes.  So tune into this one if you like to think about the war more than see it. 

Storyline:  Brigadier General Casey Dennis has lost too many pilots via bombing missions over Germany and there is a strong possibility that he will be replaced. Tension runs high between the men who oppose him and the men who support him.

Command Decision has an all star cast of veteran actors: Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon and Van Johnson.  Unlike the pretty boy stars of Air Force (mentioned below), these guys are more weather-worn, and, frankly, they fit the part better than any fresh-faced actors would have done.

2) Air Force (1943) For many years my favorite WWII movies showcased women on the homefront holding their families together while their men were off fighting.  This film shows how far I’ve come in my WWII film journey.  The only female lead in this picture is Mary Ann, a B-17 bomber.  And it’s the story of how she and her crew flew into Pearl Harbor shortly after it was bombed.  The crew heads to Wake Island and then to the Philippines, all the while deflecting enemy bullets.  
I really enjoyed this film for the camaraderie and heroism portrayed. (I could have done without the hokey deathbed scene.) The movie was filmed soon after the war began when anti-Japanese sentiment was at an all-time high so be aware that it contains racial slurs.  

3) Confirm Or Deny (1941) - It's 1940 and London is being bombed to smithereens.  The question is not whether or not the Germans will invade, but when.  "Mitch" Mitchell is an American news correspondent who will do just about anything to get the first scoop on a story. Don Ameche is perfect as the fast-talking "get a story at any cost" reporter.

The movie has a good mixture of light and tense moments. It's a "B" movie with better than average writing and acting. A nice way to spend an evening.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I’ve been reading books about books for the last 30 years, so I thought I knew the storyline of most classics. But the surprises in Brave New World took my breath away.

Over and over again, I was stunned by Huxley’s perceptivity and prophetic power. How did he know that in the future “motherhood” would be a dirty word? How did he predict Viagra? And that promiscuity would be the new normal? Or that consumerism would be the driving force of future generations? He wrote this in 1931, for Pete’s sake!

In this new world all civilized men and women are sexually free, content in their social classes, and undisturbed by pain. The demise of conflict and suffering has brought on the demise of art and poetry because overcoming life’s obstacles is a primary source for the creation of greatness and beauty.

It’s a world devoid of pain partly because there is a pill one can pop to make it all go away.

And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now you can swallow two or three half-gram tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears-that’s what soma is. (from Chapter 17)

Into this world comes John, the Savage, who was raised away from civilization (where barbaric practices like marriage and chastity still exist). The only book he had as a child was a moth-eaten copy of Shakespeare’s plays, which enables him to counteract each astounding new discovery of the civilized world with a contrasting quote from Shakespeare. (These wonderful quotes will whet your appetite for more.)

I don’t want to spoil your reading pleasure by giving any more details. Be forewarned that this is not a “curl-up-by-the-fire-with-a-cup-of-tea” sort of book. It’s a frank look at the “perfection” of society at a terrible price: the destruction of family and freedom. Easily the most powerful book I read in 2013.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What Kind of Hero is Katniss Everdeen?

The GospelCoalition blog has an interesting post on Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games books. I read the series because there was so much debate about whether the theme of self-sacrifice outweighed the more negative themes. Here’s a brief quote:

Though she isn’t a substitutionary Christ figure, I think there’s another type to consider when looking at her story (especially in the first two installments): the suffering servant. Consider the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a parallel: The Hunger Games doesn’t give us an Aragorn, a warrior-king who rallies the forces of good. Instead, it gives us someone more complex and difficult, a girl who unwittingly becomes a symbol of national hope and rebellion, whose road is marked not by victory but by suffering. She’s not Aragorn; she’s Frodo. . . . .

A thought-provoking article.

Click on the titles to see my reviews of the books: Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay

Lesser-Known WWII Films #2

1) Decision Before Dawn (1951) is based on true events that happened near the end of WWII.  Allied forces, needing information on German troops, trained POWs to go back into Germany to get it.  The Americans needed the help of the spies, but at the same time despised them for being traitors. Oskar Werner plays “Happy,” a German P.O.W., who agrees to spy for the Americans when he sees his country crumbling to pieces.    Richard Basehart (Lt. Dick Rennick) plays the American who trains him and who learns to respect him. It was not my kind of movie because of the non-stop tension, but the acting was very good and Oskar Werner was convincing as the conflicted corporal.

The movie (nominated for two academy awards: Best Picture and Best Film Editing) was filmed in post-war Germany, which enhances its authentic feel.   Although replete with German "bad guys" it was one of the first post-war films to also show Germans in a sympathetic way.    

2) A Guy Named Joe (1943) I admit it, I'm a sucker for Van Johnson movies. Because I actually believe in heaven and an afterlife, I thought this movie was hokey in places, but it had an intriguing storyline and the acting was pretty good for the most part.  Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne are a couple in the first part of the movie, but he dies in battle and comes back as an angel.  Apparently he has to earn his heavenly wings by helping new pilots get their earthly ones.

Tracy is assigned to give guidance to Johnson who is on the make for Tracy’s old girlfriend.  Will she be faithful to his memory or get on with her life?  Will Tracy help or hinder?  Above average fluff.

3) The Proud And Profane (1956) is less of a war movie and more of a straight romance.  (I don’t mind romance in a war movie as long as it’s not the only focus.)  It was hard to watch William Holden being a first class jerk, but I like Deborah Kerr and decided to give the story a chance.

Holden is a tough, scrupleless  marine who sets out to compromise newly widowed Red Cross nurse Kerr.  He ends up making a huge mess of things and the “meat” of the movie comes in the last 20 minutes when various people must make decisions about whether or not to forgive those who have wronged them.  I liked the movie more because of those final minutes. If you are in the mood for a good war picture, this may disappoint you.  But if you want an interesting story with the war as a backdrop, you’ll enjoy watching these Hollywood pros in action.

4) A Walk in the Sun (1945), unlike many Hollywood pictures of the time, is not an action-packed war film.  It reminded me more of a book by Ernie Pyle, detailing the thoughts and actions of a handful of everyday soldiers.  Their platoon arrives on an Italian beach in the middle of the night and they work their way inland to capture a fortified farmhouse. This low-key drama is about the battles that go on in men’s minds and hearts as they prepare to go to war. It’s slow moving, reflective and well worth the two hour investment.

Friday, November 29, 2013

From Pearl Harbor to Calvary by Mitsuo Fuchida

I read a lot of books about World War II, but rarely from a Japanese point of view.  This booklet, written in 1951, tells the story of Mitsuo Fuchida, the man who led the first wave of attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941.   It is a powerful testimony of how God turns enemies into brothers.  

From Pearl Harbor To Calvary relates not only Fuchida’s story, but also the stories of others who should have been embittered by the war: Peggy Covell, a young woman whose missionary parents were killed by the Japanese and Jacob DeShazer who had been a POW in a Japanese prison camp. 

When he retired from the military, Fuchida became a farmer, but he struggled with depression:    

Why was I still alive when men all around me had died like flies in the four years of conflict? Gradually I came to believe that I had been supported by some great unseen power.  My sullenness began to be diffused and dispelled by a sense of gratitude.  Moreover, as I continued to live in close relation to the earth through the plants and the cattle, and the other aspects of farm life, I was gradually led to think in terms of a Creator of all these things. . . .  Formerly the “War catechism” had been the sum total of my ideology. . . . I set my mind to the problem of what would be the proper way for Japan to exist as a nation.   Finally, I arrived at a conclusion.  I concluded that the only way for the Japanese to survive and prosper and find a place in the sun again would be through the doctrines of peace, irrespective of other nations’ conditions. . . . Impelled by a desire to warn my people, I determined to send out into the world a book entitled “No More Pearl Harbor” no matter how insignificant my work might be.  As my writing progressed, however, I came to realize that in my appeal for no more Pearl Harbor, there must be an assurance among men of the transforming of the power of hatred to the power of true brotherly love.  But how was that transformation to become a reality?. . .  The problem resolved around a person.  Who, I asked myself, could accomplish the task of banishing suspicion and war.  My mind turned toward God, the Creator of all things.

When he heard about Peggy Covell’s kindness to Japanese POWs in the U.S., he could hardly believe it:   

It was a beautiful story but I could not understand such enemy-forgiving love.  Where did man find such love?  I had never heard of people returning good for evil.  I desired all the more to discover this source of power that could remove hatred from the hearts of people and change them into friendly, loving individuals.  Only when I found that answer could I write a satisfactory conclusion to my book.  

He then writes of his encounters with various others who learned to forgive their enemies through faith in Jesus Christ and concludes the book with his own change of heart.   A quick and interesting read.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lesser-Known WWII Films #1

I love obscure British films about the war:

1) Millions Like Us (1943) was filmed in the middle of the war and focuses on the changes the war brought to the average family.  In particular it shows women joining the workforce and the breakdown of class distinctions. Millions Like Us is filmed with gritty realism, yet manages to be quite charming.  Worth a look if you are interested in life on the homefront.

2) Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) tells the story of Violette, a young widow, who is recruited to join the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II.  She teams up with fellow spy Tony Fraser to work with the French underground. This movie is more realistic than happy, but its grittiness was understated enough for someone as squeamish as I am.  The filming and acting are top notch. 

3) A Town Like Alice (1956) takes place in Kuala Lumpur in 1942. Jean Paget and her female colleagues have been captured by the Japanese. The women are marched from city to city but no prison camp will take them in. They eventually settle down in a Malay village until the end of the war. The film is based on the Nevil Shute novel and stars Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch. Their romance is an integral part of the story, but, thankfully, doesn’t take up too much screen time. This is an excellent film for the squeamish.  Plenty of tension and suspense without the gore.

4) Pimpernel Smith (1941) This lesser known World War II film is a treat for lovers of British literature as well as British movies.  It was written and produced by Leslie Howard who also had the leading role. He was the Scarlet Pimpernel in the 1934 film, but here, instead of saving French aristocrats from the guillotine, he saves men and women from the Nazis. Although a low-budget production (the Germans have British accents!), the script and acting are above average.  The references to Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare are fun and the dialogue is intelligent and witty.

Note: I watched some of these on Netflix and some on YouTube.

More obscure war movies are reviewed here and here.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson

I used to like D.E. Stevenson very much. Now, thanks to Miss Buncle, I LOVE her. I am obligated to Sarah for making me aware of the Miss Buncle books, but since they are pricey I didn't take the plunge until recently when Miss Buncle's Book went on sale for Kindle. (Sadly the sequels are $10 so check and see if your local library has them.)

Honestly, this book was just plain fun. Free of profanity and immorality, yet full of wonderful characters and good writing, it allows the reader to relax and enjoy the ride. Written 75 years before The Help, it tells a similar story of a woman who writes a novel about people in her hometown, infuriating those who are caricatured in the book. They set out to discover the anonymous author, never suspecting the dowdy, middle-aged Barbara Buncle.

As a result of the book, some of the more domineering characters have a heart change and some of the "door-matty" ones learn to stand up for themselves. One small fly in the ointment came near the end of the book when the husband of an overly bossy wife decides to date other women.

Overall, Miss Buncle's Book is a delightful (often laugh-outloud funny) story. The heroine is perfectly dear and I hope to read more of her adventures in the future.

I reviewed another Stevenson title here. And a list of all her novels is here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Flyboys by James Bradley

Flyboys focuses on a slice of World War II that took place on Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima.  It especially highlights the lives of eight American fliers who lost their lives in their effort to wrest these islands from the Japanese.  (The story is not to be confused with the 2006 movie of the same name which features fliers from the First World War.)

Cons: Bradley writes from a liberal perspective, comparing the brutality of the Japanese with the "white supremacist” treatment of Native Americans, which seemed more than a little out of place considering the immense difference in the way the Allied and Axis nations treated their prisoners of war.  His view of Chinese history was skewed, to say the least, when he described Mao Tse Dung as law-abiding and dismissed Chiang Kai Shek as ruthless. In addition, his prolonged and repetitious descriptions of cannibalism among the Japanese were unnecessary. 

Pros: That said, this book had the most comprehensive explanation I’ve ever read on why the Japanese behaved as they did.  In light of their training to despise any soldier “cowardly” enough to surrender, it is amazing that some of the Japanese befriended the pilots who were captured.  Bradley does a good job of piecing together the stories of each of the eight flyboys many years after they lost their lives.

Lauren Hildebrand’s Unbroken awakened my interest in military airpower so I was delighted with paragraphs such as this in Chapter Sixteen: The B-29 was to airplanes what rifles were to slingshots.  It was the biggest, longest, widest, heaviest, fastest, and longest-flying airplane in history.  Its four propellers were each sixteen feet long.  It could carry ten tons of bombs and still fly 357 miles per hour.  It could remain airborne more than sixteen hours while providing living room-like comfort to its eleven-man crew.  Other planes required bulky clothes and cumbersome oxygen masks in the minus 50-degree cold at thirty thousand feet.  But this “Cadillac of the skies” had pressurized crew quarters, so airmen could lounge comfortably in their regular clothes.  And once the kinks had been (mostly) worked out, it became the most devastating weapon of WWII.

Bradley also does a good job of emphasizing the sheer enormity of the Flyboys’ task: The Pacific war was fought over the largest theater in the history of warfare.  Islands - sometimes spits of sand or hard, unforgiving rocks like Iwo Jima – determined America’s strategy.  The Marianas – Guam, Tinian, and Saipan – provided the long airfields needed for the B-29s to bring the war to the island of Japan. . . . The biggest obstacle on a bombing run was presented by Iwo Jima… It would have to be eliminated as a threat for the Flyboys to effect the downfall of Japan. . . . Flyboys bombed Iwo Jima for seventy-two straight days before the February 19 invasion.  After the war, navy analysts declared the tiny island the single most intensely bombed spot of the Pacific war. . . .  All for this tiny speck of cooled lava in the middle of the vast Pacific.  Driving your car on the highway, it takes just five minutes to go five miles.  It took the slogging, dying Marines thirty-six days to conquer the same distance. (from Chapter Fourteen)

A fascinating and informative book.

(Orginally published on 9/7/12 on my WWII blog - now defunct)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Six Books on Christology

It's been several years since I have taught my Christology course so in addition to dusting off my lectures, I've also been reading several books to refresh my thinking. Since these books were written for average Christians (rather than seminarians or theologians), I thought I'd mention them here.

1) The Supremacy of Christ by Ajith Fernando - With his experience in reaching Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, Fernando deftly explains why Christianity is not just one among many religions. 288 pages

2) On the Incarnation: Saint Athanasius (Popular Patristics) by Athanasius (99 cents on Kindle) - Probably the least "user-friendly" of the books because of old-fashioned language, but not as difficult as I expected. 98 pages. (Unlike the book pictured above, mine did not have the introduction by C.S. Lewis. I'd LOVE to get my hands on that version someday.)

3) Blood Work by Carter and Anthony - 150 pages, most "user-friendly" of all the books I read, but instead of emphasizing the common beliefs of evangelical Christians, this one emphasizes election and limited atonement (the idea that Christ did not die for all mankind.)

4) Who Is Jesus? by R.C. Sproul - Just over 100 pages, this is an excellent and inspirational overview of the subject. It was free for Kindle the last time I checked.

5) The Cross of Christ by John Stott - I'm still working my way through this one, but it's considered a classic on the subject. 380 pages

6) Creeds in the Making: A Short Introduction to the History of Christian Doctrine
 by Alan Richardson - 128 pages, brief explanation of how the Early Church Fathers fought to preserve the basic tenents of Christianity and to protect the Church from heresy. Richardson is spot on when discussing history, but a little off center in his own views (universalism).

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Results of Poetry Naming Contest

A couple of weeks ago I sent out a plea for ideas for naming a new feature on my blog. I wanted to begin highlighting devotional poetry a couple of times per month, but couldn't think of anything interesting to call my posts. I was pleased with the many good responses that came in - some in the comments, some on facebook, and some via e-mail.  In fact, so many came in that I had difficulty choosing. Finally, though, I settled on Dorie's suggestion of "Rhyme and Reason" because it encapsulates exactly what I wanted to say. I will be focusing on poems that make us think about faith in fresh ways. Thank you, Dorie. And thank you to everyone else who participated.

                   RHYME & REASON

Friday, October 25, 2013

Dandelion Cottage by Carroll Watson Rankin

Dandelion Cottage is a delightful little book about four young girls who spend their summer playing in a rundown little house. It was published in 1904 and has some of the same flavor as the Betsy-Tacy books.

Each girl offers her unique contribution to the group. Bettie (12 years old) is the rector's daughter and the only girl in a family of ten. She's motherly and resourceful. Jean (14) is quiet and gentle. Parents consider her a good influence on their children but the author is quick to interject, It doesn't always follow that children like the persons it is considered best for them to like, but in Jean's case both parents and daughters agreed that Jean was not only safe but delightful. Marjory (13) is being raised by a maiden aunt and is polite and grown up for her age. Mabel (11), Dr. Bennett's daughter, is clumsy and loveable. Rankin describes her as, warm-hearted, generous, heedless, hot-tempered, and always blundering, she was something of a trial at home and abroad; yet no one could help loving her, for everybody realized that she would grow up some day into a really fine woman, and that all that was needed in the meantime was considerable patience. Rearing Mabel was not unlike the task of bringing up a St. Bernard puppy.

Within the first few pages you are drawn into the lives of this charming quartet. They have been brought up to be polite and kind, but they are not disgustingly sweet. They have been trained to value babies, hospitality, and homemaking, which may be a deterrent to modern readers (but that was what made the book such a winner for me.)

In addition to the good writing and interesting characters, the book is full of gentle humor: After Mabel makes up a taunt about an obnoxious neighbor she queries, Do you suppose the Milligans are going to get us arrested for just two apples and a little poetry? Later we read that, Mabel did her crying on the excellent principle that, if a thing were worth doing at all, it was worth doing well.

This would be a lovely read-aloud for young girls whose female role models are not from the Disney channel.

I look forward to reading more stories by this author. This title is free on Kindle, and there's an audioversion at

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

11 Lessons that Women Can Learn from Jane Eyre

I'm an unabashed fanatic for all things having do to with Jane Eyre, so I enjoyed this article in the Huffington Post about lessons we can learn from her. I would have left out a couple of the more self-centered ones and would have added the one that influenced me most the first time I read it.  Jane was willing to give up her chance at happiness because she wanted to be true to herself and to God. As a young girl I was astounded by her courage and her convictions and wanted to emulate them.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The intro to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall said that if it hadn’t been for the Brontë name attached to it, it would long ago have fallen into oblivion. I disagree with that assessment based on the fact that I’ve read many Victorian novels this year and this one is much better than most of them.

The year is 1827 and Gilbert Markham falls in love with Helen Graham, a beautiful, mysterious widow who moves to the neighborhood. But there exists a huge impediment to their happiness and the characters must decide if they will pursue their own desires or submit to God’s will.

I enjoyed this book very much. Unlike the annoying heroes and heroines in Margaret Oliphant’s novels, the main characters in this book learn and grow from their mistakes. The writing is good.( I loved savoring the words “diffidence, salubrious” and “termagant.”) The antagonist in the story is thoroughly despicable, making the book hard to put down. Brontë gives much food for thought on the subjects of love and marriage. And the outcome is satisfying.

BUT, I didn’t love this book. Although I admired Helen for her faith and her sense of duty, she is never as endearing as a Jane Eyre or a Lizzie Bennett.  Literarily speaking, she was “weighed and found wanting.”  Still, after so many duds, I was glad to read a Victorian novel that was a cut above. Tenant is often touted as a feminist novel because Helen is outspoken and unsubmissive, but I disagree based on her behavior toward Arthur Huntingdon later in the book. You’ll have to read it yourself to decide.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Katherine Paterson on the Importance of Literature

From the book of essays The Invisible Child:

And when you close Homer, there are the books of Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad, and great fat volumes of Tolstoy.  There is the Bible, perhaps the most overprescribed and least taken of any. There is Flannery O’Connor and Anne Tyler.  There is William Shakespeare and Jacob Bronowski. There is The Yearling and A Tale of Two Cities.  There is The Secret Garden and The Wind in the Willows.  There is Ramona the Brave and Where the Wild Things Are.  I have only begun to name what I especially love.  There are countless others - really good books.  Good or even great because they make the right connections. They pull together for us a world that is falling apart.  They are the words that integrate us, stretch us, comfort and heal us. They are the words that mirror the Word of creation, bringing order out of chaos. (238-9)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Free Children's Lit Titles on Kindle

Marcy at Ben and Me has a great list of free Kindle titles for children. There are traditional classics as well as titles by Thornton Burgess and G.A. Henty. Worth a look.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Island Magic by Elizabeth Goudge

Once in a while a book comes along that’s just too scrumptious to put down, one that makes you abandon your regular habit of taking notes while reading so you can get lost in the story. Island Magic is that kind of book.

Rachell and André are the proud parents of five high-spirited children. Their lives, though, are not peaches and cream. The year is 1888 and they live on a run-down farm in the town of St. Pierre, on one of the Channel Islands (between England and the coast of Normandy).  Their sixteen year marriage has been tried by fire as they’ve buried three babies and used up all of Rachell’s inheritance to keep the farm going.  

The name of the farm is “Bon Repos” and when André tells Rachell that they’ll have to abandon it and take their losses, she refuses to believe that the place that they’ve created as a refuge for themselves can be let go so easily.

When a shipwrecked man is brought to the island, Rachell immediately takes him in, sensing that somehow he’ll be the solution to their problems. The man, Ranulph, has spent his whole life refusing to be tied down to anyone or any place yet he finds the du Frocq family hard to resist.  As the story unfolds he finds healing for some of his past hurts and contributes to the welfare of the family in various ways. Goudge throws in a few twists and surprises for good measure.

As always, she succeeds in writing a beautiful story while weaving in themes of mortality, committed love, and the freedom of “tying oneself down” to duty and to family.

In the end, the island magic is not the superstitions of the people (which are highlighted throughout the book), but the way it forces people in such a small space to be a community. “You can’t be an individualist on our Island, she said. . . . With the sea flung round us and holding us so tightly we are thrown into each other’s arms - souls and seasons and birds and flowers, and running water. People understand unity who live on an island. And peace.” (p. 262)

This was Goudge's first novel, published in 1934. A lovely book!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Benefit of Fairy Tales by Juliana H. Ewing

Fairy tales have positive uses in education, which no cramming of facts, and no merely domestic fiction can serve. Like Proverbs and Parables, they deal with first principles under the simplest forms. They convey knowledge of the world, shrewd lessons of virtue and vice, of common sense and sense of humor, of the seemly and the absurd, of pleasure and pain, success and failure, in narratives where they plot moves briskly and dramatically from a beginning to an end. They treat, not of the corner of a nursery or a playground, but of the world at large, and life in perspective; of forces visible and invisible; of Life, Death, and Immortality.

They cultivate the Imagination, that great gift which time and experience lead one more and more to value - handmaid of Faith, of Hope, and, perhaps most of all, of Charity. (p. 6)

from intro to Old-Fashioned Fairy Tales by Juliana Horatio Ewing (Victorian children's author)

Friday, September 27, 2013

1984 and Newspeak

If we listen to the daily news we know that the world is "going to hell in a handbasket." Although I tremble at how these events will affect my children and grandchildren, I tremble even more at God's judgement on a people who have learned to call good evil and evil good. (Isaiah 5:20) What better example in literature is there than Orwell's 1984 in which the government teaches, "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength"?

Orwell's book gives glimpses of a world gone mad, where people are not allowed to think or believe anything outside the party line. It is a world of re-written history books, broken families, and moral poverty. Call me nuts, but what struck the most terror into my soul was Orwell's vision of a world without beautiful words.

In the appendix to the novel, Orwell explains the intricacies of "Newspeak", the language meant to abolish all possibility of thinking deep thoughts. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought (a thought diverging from the principles of the government) should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as though is dependend on words. (p. 299)

Vocabulary was divided into three groups. "Group A" consisted of words needed for every day life (hit, run, dog, tree, sugar).  But all ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged out of them. So far as it could be achieved, a Newspeak word of this class was simple a staccato sound expressing one clearly understood concept. (p. 300) The words "warm" and "bad" were replaced by "uncold" and "ungood."

 "Group B" consisted of compound words invented for political purposes. Expressions such as "orthodoxy" and "exchange of ideas" were replaced by words such as "goodthink, crimethink, and oldthink." The words honor, justice, morality, democracy, science and religion simply ceased to exist. (p. 304)

The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologicallly neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness... A Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets... Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. (p. 307)

"Group C" involved words having to do with science and technology and were known only to the men and women who used them in their field of study.

The overall purpose of truncated language was to inhibit any thinking that would go against the reigning powers. With powerless words the worst thing one could say against Big Brother was that he was "ungood". Furthermore, as "Oldspeak" became more and more a thing of the past, literature and history books written in previous centuries (with their richness of language and thought) would become unintelligible.

Even more than the rest of the book, the appendix to 1984 gave me much to ruminate over. It's been three months since I read it and yet whenever I come to a potent word in a book I'm reading, I think to myself, "This wouldn't exist in Orwell's world."

I even started a list on my Kindle notepad of words that would be lost forever: languid, luscious, copious, salient, piety, virtue, indefatigable, petulant, steadfast.

It's enough to break your heart.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Adam Bede by George Eliot

A friend once told me that Uncle Tom's Cabin was the most Christian novel he'd ever read. Since I haven't read it, I'll have to reserve that label for George Eliot's Adam Bede. This is the third novel I've read by Eliot and I'm again amazed that a woman of such ungodly principles could write so winsomely about men of women with sterling characters.

Apart from her excellent writing, Eliot has tremendous insights into human nature and into human suffering. And she's funny! Her little asides about the foibles and weaknesses of the characters in her story had me chuckling throughout the book. Another treat to me were the glimpses into early Methodism (Itinerant Methodist preacher, Dinah Morris, is one of the main characters in the book.)

Adam Bede is the story of young English carpenter at the turn of the 19th century. He's in love with Hetty Sorrel, a beautiful woman far beneath him in brains and heart. You'll spend the first half of the novel dreading the culmination of his dream to marry her.  But by the time his lady love topples from her pedestal, your judgments will not be so clearly marked against her since Eliot has the gift of making her characters seem flawed and loveable at the same time. I cannot tell anymore of the story without spoilers.  I can only say that it is a powerful story of redemption, manhood (both true and false), and love (both shallow and deep).

One of my favorite themes in Adam Bede was echoed in Eliot's Middlemarch, the idea that common, honest people contribute more to the good of mankind through their quiet acts of love and duty than do famous heroes.

Be warned that the first half of the book is slow-going and some of the dialect makes it difficult, but then things pick up quite a bit; it's worth the effort and it's free for Kindle.