Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Worthwhile Movie #13 Lark Rise to Candleford

Lark Rise to Candleford is one of BBC's best kept secrets. I only found out about it on Black Friday when Amazon had it for 75% off. I bought it based on the rave reviews and I'm so glad I did. Every tea-sipping, book-loving anglophile should see this series.

Postmistress Dorcas Lane is the central figure in the town of Candleford. Not the "big city" by any standard, it is still considered "uppity" by the villagers of nearby Lark Rise. The series highlights the conflicts between the townspeople from both places.

If you are used to fast paced dramas, this will seem, oh, so slow, but if you are patient, you will gradually learn to love each and every character in the show: the slow-witted Twister, bee-keeping Queenie, impressionable Laura, surly Mr. Timmins, the feckless Mrs. Arless and many more.

Although the scenery is idyllic and the costumes and filming provide a visual feast, this is no sugar-coated fairy tale. Yes, the villains are "light" by today's standards, but the conflicts in the stories don't come from outside influences as much as they come from people's inward struggles with pride, insecurity, fear, etc. In short, the characters are delightful, but full of very human flaws.

The themes and dialogue are superior in every way to the drivel on television. Family, marriage, children, honesty, hard work, and forgiveness are just a few of the themes covered in seasons One and Two. (We have all four, but are only half way through.)

If you enjoy BBC productions, you'll recognize Brendan Coyle as Mr. Timmins (Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey), Julia Sawalha as Dorcas Lane (the silly sister in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice) and Claudie Blakely as Mrs. Timmins (Elizabeth Bennet's plain friend in the 2005 version of P & P). Blakely is amazing in this role and has become my favorite female television character of all time because of it. The Timmin's marriage is a highlight of the series because it provides a wonderful look at two very different, imperfect people who are committed to love each other "till death us do part."

I could quibble about some of the imperfections of this production (mainly that the one professing Christian is a dolt), but, honestly, my husband and I have never laughed and cheered our way through any series, as much as this one. Highly, highly recommended.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller

Counterfeit Gods by Pastor Timothy Keller is a bracing and articulate look at how easily the human heart worships the wrong things. In fact, he calls the heart a mass producing "idol factory." According to Keller, anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life (job, family, etc.) His definition of an idol is when a "good thing becomes a supreme thing."

One of his best examples is human love. Since God has been removed from our culture, the highest good is now "apocalyptic romance." We look to sex and romance to give us the transcendence and sense of meaning we used to get from our faith in God. (p. 28)

He gives a powerful example from the Old Testament story of Jacob and his wives. Jacob wanted Rachel more than anything and recklessly entered into an agreement with her father. He was tricked into marrying the wrong sister and doesn't know it till the next morning. Keller quotes Genesis 29:25:  "And in the morning, behold, it was Leah!" He contends that all our idols are always imitations of the real thing, God himself. No matter what we put our hope in, in the morning it's always Leah, never Rachel. (p. 37)

After defining idolatry and explaining man's propensity to worship other gods, he gives guidelines for eradicating the false gods in our lives. Our primary action has to be to replace these idols with the only one who can satisfy our deepest needs and longings. Keller repeatedly emphasizes that idols cannot just be knocked down. They must be replaced. He argues that when we experience God's love in a profound way (i.e., when we know that God loves, cherishes and delights in us), we can rest our hearts in Him for significance and security. (p. 17)

The way to maintain an idol free life is to practice the spiritual disciplines as acts of worship. It is worship that is the final way to replace the idols of the heart. (p. 175)

For someone who has been steeped in biblical teaching, this might seem pretty basic, but for the unchurched (its target audience), Keller gives a solid explanation of why and how the human heart creates substitutes for God. These counterfeit gods cannot be simply removed. They must be replaced by the Lord himself.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Quote on Deep Reading

A [difficult] passage prevents us from indulging our vulgar appetites for action, information and explanation - the fast food of fiction. It prevents us from leaping to conclusions, though it invites us to consider possibilities. It schools us in the very patience it demands. - from Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by McEntyre

(C.S. Lewis states the same idea which I quote in this post from 2009.)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn McEntyre

Caring For Words in Culture of Lies has been on my radar for a couple of years and I was thrilled when a friend gave me her copy. It pushed all the right buttons for me since it's about the necessity of preserving beautiful language - not just flowery words, but words that say precisely what they mean.

I underlined page after page in this book, which reinforced all the reasons why I blog about literature. Reading and writing generate an interior, where an active and sometimes contemplative life goes on, carried out through those essential elements that constitute the modern human being: a memory, a conscience, and a self.(p. 80) Basically, we are what we read. And a steady diet of drivel weakens us.

In an age of information overload, McEntyre says her students have a constant barrage of sound bites thrown at them. They hear so many words so constantly, their capacities to savor words - to pause over them, ponder them, reflect upon them, hear the echoes of ancient cadences, and attune themselves to allusiveness and alliteration - are eroding. (p. 19)

Just as we should be good stewards of natural resources, McEntyre writes that we should also be guardians of another precious resource: words. Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants. Like any other resource, it needs the protection of those who recognize its value and commit themselves to good stewardship. (p. 1)

Like food, language has been "industrialized." Words come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed. And just as it takes a little extra effort and attention to find, buy, eat, and support the production of healthy foods, it is strenuous business to insist on usable, flexible, precise, enlivening language. (p. 16)

She goes on to say that as usable words are lost, experience becomes cruder and less communicable. And with the loss of the subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language, we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power. (p. 6) This is one of the chilling themes of Orwell's 1984.

Among her many suggestions and strategies for preserving rich language are 1) deepening and sharpening reading skills, 2) cultivating habits of speaking and listening that foster precision and clarity, 3) sharing stories, 4) indulging in word play and 5) refusing clich├ęs and sound bites that substitute for authentic analysis.

This book is not for everybody, but it's a definite must-read for stewards and lovers of fine language. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Book Loot

When I travelled to the U.S. last May, I had 500 books on my "items to investigate" list. All summer long I accumulated books at yard sales, thrift stores and library sales. This was in addition to checking out 10 books a week from the two local libraries. It was embarrassing how many books I acquired. (So much for the pipe dream of having less books due to e-readers now that I know the importance of physical books for retention and understanding.)

After eight months I whittled the list down to 200. I read one to two books per week, but only loved a few of them enough to buy them. I didn't read them all. I skimmed some to see if they were worth reading. Many of those I discarded immediately.

A few of the titles I bought: Mission at NurembergA Fugue in Time by Godden (because it's similar to China Court, which I loved.), Soul Keeping by Ortberg, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Butterfield, One Corpse too Many by Ellis Peters and Singing Sands by Tey

I was blessed by two friends who gave me The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Surprised by Oxford  (only 99 cents for Kindle today.)

Now that I'm back in Brazil, I enjoy alternating between my e-reader and my "real" books. The first boxes I unpacked in our new apartment were the book bins. They made it feel like home right away.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Time and Again by Jack Finney

After three disappointing novels (sadly, all of them Christian fiction), what a treasure to find Finney's Time and Again.

It's 1970. "It was an ordinary day, a Friday, twenty minutes till lunchtime, five hours till quitting time and the weekend, tine months till vacation, thirty-seven years till retirement. Then the phone rang."

Si Morley, an artist for an advertising agency, receives a visit from a man who enlists his help with an experiment in time travel. Si's girlfriend has a mysterious family letter that was mailed in 1882 and Si asks permission to be sent back to that time to discover what the letter could mean.

It's not really clear how he succeeds, but when he reaches the late 19th century, he meets a vicious blackmailer, a corrupt detective and a beautiful woman. He has been carefully trained not to do anything that would jeopardize future events, but throws caution to the winds when someone he cares about is put in danger. It's a roller coaster ride from then on and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Finney's painstaking attention to historical detail is delightful. Instead of idealizing the past he shows both the good and the bad. Morley is struck by how carefree and "alive" people seem to be in the 1880's compared to present day New Yorkers. Yet he also is appalled by the number of people who are lame and pock-marked since vaccines for small pox and polio had not been discovered yet.

One of the important themes of the book is the ease with which scientists and world leaders play God, without much thought to consequences. In spite of the repeated use of God's name as a swear word, this novel was terrific. A rollicking good story!