Thursday, January 29, 2015

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

WARNING: Listening to Mil Nicholson narrating Our Mutual Friend can be extremely habit forming. Do not begin unless you are prepared to pay the price to see it through. (It's 36 hours long.)

Not since I read Wives and Daughters in 2008 have I been so hooked on an audiobook!

Early in the novel a young heir to a fortune is found drowned. Dickens shows what happens to those who get his money and to those who don't get it (but want it.) Two of the people affected by the results of the will are John and Bella. I enjoyed seeing how they grew through their hardships and formed an enduring relationship.

How can I begin to explain how magnificent this book is? Is it because of Dicken's amazing writing - with his gift for description, his insights into human nature and his wry British humor? Or is it just that the story has so many substories that it takes your breath away to see how they all come together. (I knew NOTHING about the story before going in, which was a big plus.) Or is it because Mil Nicholson has the ability to make all 500 hundred characters' (slight exaggeration) voices sound different and recognizable? Or is it because the characters are so complex and varied?

Our Mutual Friend has it all: drunkards, swindlers, murderers. star-crossed lovers, cripples, and death bed scenes. Yet because of Dicken's skill with the English language and his little humorous asides, it manages to be charming.

It's only January and I feel like I've already found my favorite book of the year. Highly recommended. (The Librivox links above are free. It's free for Kindle too.)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Some Survived by Manny Lawton

What is true heroism? On the battlefield it is when men put their lives on the line for the good of others. But what about off the battlefield? In Return From the River Kwai surviving the horrors of a Japanese internment camp during WWII constituted heroism. I don't want to undermine the courage and resilience of those men, but, as I said in my review, I am uneasy with heroism being equated with survival. (I wrote another book review on heroism off the battlefield here.)

Manny Lawton's Some Survived recounts many of the same events as Return From the River Kwai: the fall of the Philippines (spring of 1942), the Bataan Death March, the POW camps and the perilous journey to Japan on the "hell ships" (Dec 1944).

Lawton joined the army fresh out of college in 1940 and was stationed in the Philippines when the U.S. declared war on Japan. (The Philippines was attacked immediately after Pearl Harbor.) He and thousands of others marched the 91 miles to Camp O'Donnell. Of the 12,000 men who fought at Bataan, half would die "lonely, cruel, inglorious deaths"over the next six months (p. 37) Four thousand more would die on the death ships. The numbers are staggering. The conditions under which they lived and died are staggering. The fact that anyone could rise above the cruelty and show kindness is even more staggering.

Lawton tells of how it was "every man for himself" in the camps because they were all sick, starving, and dehydrated. Who had time or energy to think of anyone else? He remembers when he was so sick he could barely move. Tom was a barber who cut hair in trade for money or cigarettes, but this same man came over every evening and gave him a shave for nothing. That small act of decency helped restore Lawton's dignity. Another time when he and many others were severely ill with beriberi and couldn't sleep because of the pain, another POW, Warren Garwick, came in after a day of slave labor in the rice fields to massage the mens' legs and feet until they could fall asleep for a few hours.

Another time two men surrendered themselves to be tortured (confessing to a crime they didn't commit) so that the rest of the men would not have to suffer.

As John Toland wrote in the introduction: Captivity brought out the best and the worst. Some men remained indifferent to the fate of others; some gave their lives for their friends; some stole; some gave up food and fought for the rights of others. Many of those who survived did so because of their selfishness. Others, like Manny Lawton, survived because of faith in God, country and their fellow men...It's time we honored these unsung heroes who got no promotions or medals and who endured without losing their humanity.

That is the key. Remaining human enough to show compassion (rather than capitulating to mere animal instincts) made these men heroes to their fellow prisoners.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. It's a story of human depravity, barbarous cruelty, and desperate measures to stay alive. But because of its excellent writing, riveting stories and astonishing acts of kindness, Some Survived is one of my favorite WWII books.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Worthwhile Movie #10 - The Scarlet and the Black

It's been a year since I have mentioned any movies. Mostly because we never have time for them, but also because when we do, my husband and I watch something we already love like Babette's Feast or Henry V.

Recently we watched The Scarlet and the Black, a 1983 made-for-TV movie about a Vatican priest who hides allied fliers (and others) from the Nazis. It's based on the true story of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty from the book which was originally titled The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.

Gregory Peck plays O'Flaherty and Christopher Plummer (of Sound of Music fame) plays Col. Kappler, the S.S. official who is out to stop him. The film does a wonderful job of showing how these two try to outwit each other.

This is a long movie (2 1/2 hours) and the music is a little wonky, but it's well worth it for the powerful story of heroism and undeserved grace. I would suggest renting rather than buying it since the ending can only be astounding once.

Be forewarned. This is a heavy movie. Although mild by today's standards, there is some shooting, one brief torture scene and mild profanities (taking the Virgin Mary's name in vain, which I actually thought was quite funny coming from a priest).
Part of my fascination with this film was seeing how the Catholic church played a part in Nazi resistance. The book A Higher Call mentions that the Catholic Church took a strong stand against Nazism at the beginning of the war. The film Amen claims that the official Catholic Church did nothing. This film shows that some Catholic individuals were actively involved in saving fugitives from the Germans, but that the Pope did not want to take a controversial stand.

Which of these is the true picture? Anyone know any books that deal with this subject?

P.S. Following Erin's suggestion in the comments, I read the article which led me down a rabbit trail of various books. Three books that turned up are The Pope's Jews ($8 on Kindle) and POPE PIUS XII AND WORLD WAR II: THE DOCUMENTED TRUTH: A Compilation of International Evidence Revealing the Wartime Acts of the Vatican. ($3 on Kindle). Three Popes and the Jews sounds like a comprehensive work, but it's only available in expensive hardcover.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Season of the Heart by Elizabeth Chater

Don't faint.

No one is more surprised than I am that I’m reviewing a romance novel.

But I can’t help mentioning this writer if you like a clean, fun read that doesn’t sound like it was written by a high schooler.

Author Elizabeth Chater was born in 1910. She started teaching English at San Diego State College in 1961 and began her novel-writing career in 1978.The crowning feature of Chater’s books is her rib-tickling conversation. I know that Georgette Heyer is famous for this, but Chater is much less historically self-conscious than Heyer. Where Heyer excels in historical details that can make her dialogue heavy and obtuse, Chater’s repartee is brisk and light, but still full of regency flavor. And the vocabulary is rich (a plus for me in any book.)

In A Season for the Heart, Melpomene (“Pommy” for short) is an orphan who has been hoisted off on an unfriendly aunt. She had previously lived in a small town with her vicar grandfather who taught her the classics. So she is naive in many things, but quite an intellectual. I enjoyed how these two aspects of her personality played off each other. She unexpectedly gets a position as companion to a wealthy elderly woman and moves to London where her fortunes change. As you can imagine, after a series of usual roadblocks, love conquers all.   

My biggest quibble with the book is that almost everyone falls in love at first sight, which would be okay for just one couple, but EVERYONE? Really?

Still, it is a very pleasant read if laughter is called for. Only 99 cents on Kindle.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Preparing for Jesus by Walter Wangerin

After the disappointing Watch for the Light by Orbis publishers, I was gun-shy of finding a deep yet meaningful advent book. Preparing for Jesus was a wonderful antidote. Not only is Wangerin a gifted writer, he is a deep thinker. Many of the insights in this book left me agape with wonder.

The book is divided into sections named after the central characters of the Christmas story: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, etc. Each reading focuses on their response as participants in God’s great drama of the incarnation.

Some sample quotes:

On Zechariah being struck dumb: God, when we encounter him, seems first to do us violence, but the violence is in fact benevolence to us, for God is destroying false gods in order to prepare us to receive him as God alone, and his mercy as the very core of our existence. (p. 35)

On Elizabeth’s pregnancy: And this is how mercy always comes to us, isn’t it? - like a baby delivered in old age; the miracle we thought we had outlived, the gift we thought impossible to receive. It always astonishes us. (p. 89)

On Joseph planning to quietly put Mary aside: If Joseph suffers a blow to his ego, we don’t see it. He never says, “She’ll pay for this! . . . Evidently one’s rights do not define one’s righteousness! (p. 108)

I did not like the section about Simeon and Anna because it added too much that is not in Scripture, but I’ll just skip over that bit next year. This is a superbly done devotional book that I look forward to revisiting each Christmas season.