Friday, May 27, 2016

Winter Birds by Jamie Langston Turner

Normally I hate Christian fiction. The writing is sloppy, the theology shallow, and the characters unlikeable. Earlier this year I subscribed to Spirit-Filled E-books (I know, quite a name!) and have downloaded a dozen free novels for light reading. But I have been universally disappointed. I realize that these titles may  have been free simply because they are awful. (Really good writers don't have to give away their books.)

Enter Jamie Langston Turner. From the first pages of Winter Birds, I reveled in well-crafted sentences and multi-dimensional characters. The title of each chapter is a line from Shakespeare, which is a clue that Ms. Turner might not be your average mediocre Christian author.   Allusions to scripture and literature are sprinkled throughout the text:

I have been young, but now I am old. That is the usual course, though I have often dreamed of how it would be to say I have been old and now I am young, to implant my old mind into my youthful body of fifty or sixty years ago.... In matters of money I have been poor, and now I am rich. (a reference to Psalm 37)

Eighty-year-old Aunt Sophie has come to spend her last days with her nephew Patrick and his wife Rachel. She barely knows them but promises to pay them well to care for her. Since she has experienced only disappointment and betrayal in her relationships, she assumes that Patrick and Rachel care only about her money. She mocks them in her heart for their Christian faith, but slowly learns to appreciate them.

Turner does a masterful job of describing the foolishness of Christianity to an onlooker. In truth, Patrick and Rachel could easily be caricatures, but as the reader becomes acquainted with their faults and griefs, they become more complex and less easy to pigeonhole. In fact, it is their "foolishness" that changes Sophie's attitude toward them over time.

The book addresses several depressing themes (aging, teen/parent struggles, death, bad marriages), which made it hard to keep reading at times. But as the wounded people in the story reach out to each other, they find healing. Fortunately, the ending is hopeful but not preachy.

Thank you, Sherry at Semicolon, for suggesting this way-above-average author.

Friday, May 20, 2016

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Maybe it was because I just finished one more insipid "Christian" novel, but the fine language in this book was like a stream in the desert and I gulped it down like a parched Bedouin.

North and South was written about the industrial revolution, but it is not a black and white treatise on the evils of the industrial age. Gaskell does a marvelous job of showing the attitudes and  beliefs of both the factory owner and the factory worker.

Margaret Hale's father steps down from his role as vicar of Helstone (in southern England) and moves his family to the manufacturing town of Milton (in the north), resulting in an immediate clash of cultures. The refined Margaret is disdainful toward "factory people" and dislikes the noise and clatter and busyness of the town. Her father, on the other hand, revels in the activity. After a quiet life in a country parsonage for more than twenty years, there was something dazzling to Mr. Hale in the energy which conquered immense difficulties with ease; the power of the machinery of Milton, the power of the men of Milton, impressed him with a sense of grandeur. (p. 54)

 As Margaret befriends some of the families in the village, she becomes more sympathetic and understanding toward them. Though she learns to admire and respect Mr. Thornton, the owner of Marlborough Mills, she believes she is too far above him for any romantic relationship to be possible. Gaskell writes beautifully of how these two head-strong adults change their perceptions of one another.

In addition to the fine writing, the book has some of the classic themes found in Jane Austen's novels (the prejudice of Darcy in P&P, the faithful/hopeless love of Anne in Persuasion, the selfless love of Colonel Brandon from S&S, and the character development of the heroine in Emma).

It's a very literary read since each chapter opens with a few lines of famous poetry and Gaskell sprinkles famous poetry and prose throughout. (My Penguin e-version had helpful footnotes explaining their origin.)

I chortled through the repartee between Margaret and her godfather as they walked in the woods together. She asks if he is tired. . . .

He replies: You would think it romantic to be walking with a person 'fat and scant o' breath' if I were Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Have compassion on my infirmities for his sake.
She: I will walk slower for your own sake. I like you twenty times better than Hamlet.
He: I am content to take your liking me, without examining too curiously your motives. Only we need not walk at a snail's pace.
She: Very well. Walk at your own pace, and I will follow. Or stop still and meditate, like the Hamlet you compare yourself to, if I go too fast.
He: Thank you. But as my mother has not murdered my father, and afterwards married my uncle, I should not know what to think about, unless it were the chances of having a well-cooked dinner or not. (p. 314)

Maybe it's only delightful in context, but it's just one example of why the book is far superior to the BBC movie, which was unable to show the subtleties of each personality.

If you love sparkling language, well-developed characters, subtle wit, and faith dialogue that isn't completely ridiculous, you'll enjoy this title.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I saw that another book blogger read this novel once a year I decided to dust off my copy and give it a second look. (I hadn't read it since college 30 years ago.) While I loved the terrific writing, I couldn't help but be depressed by all the clueless people in this story.

It's 1922 and the mysteriously wealthy Jay Gatsby buys a house on Long Island, New York to be near his former girlfriend (now married), Daisy Buchanan. His neighbor, Nick Carraway, is a cousin to Daisy and becomes the link between the two. Carraway narrates the story as he goes from one wild party to another. I can easily see why it makes successful required reading for college-age students. As you read, you are breathlessly waiting for the proverbial train wreck and can't take your eyes from the scene.

Without one word of preachiness or finger-pointing, Fitzgerald does a fantastic job of showing the emptiness of wealth and worldly pleasures. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. (p. 179)

I'm glad I re-read it, but don't plan to make it a yearly habit! Would I recommend this book? Yes, for all lovers of fine language, the tight, clean, prose is a delight.

He was a photographer and had made the dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson's mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall. (p. 30)

Describing Gatsby's decision to leave St. Olaf's College: He was dismayed at its ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny. (99)

When dreams are destroyed: He looked up at the an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is... 161

This quote from Wikipedia sums things up pretty well: In many ways, The Great Gatsby represents Fitzgerald's attempt to confront his conflicting feelings about the Jazz Age. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald was driven by his love for a woman who symbolized everything he wanted, even as she led him toward everything he despised.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

I have always been an Elizabeth Goudge fan, but even more so now that I've read The Rosemary Tree. Her books have biblical themes (sacrificial love and growth through suffering), but, thank goodness, she's never preachy.

The beginning of the story is dismal. John Wentworth, the bumbling but good-hearted vicar, thinks he is a miserable failure. His wife (who married him on the rebound of a hurtful relationship) has never been happy. His children are in an awful school. But when an ex-convict wanders into their village, people start to take a hard look at themselves and begin to extend grace to one another.

Knighthood is a constant theme in this novel. John even has a car named after Don Quixote's horse, Rozinante. In the eyes of his unhappy wife, John is anything but knightly, but as she comes to a clearer understanding of her own hollowness, she finds that he is (and always has been ) chivalrous. Goudge constantly contrasts valiant knights with humble men of faith:

[Harriet] liked these gray days. They had their own beauty. When the sun was out the world was a young knight riding out with armor flashing and pennon flying, but on a day like this it was an old beadsman turned to his prayers, wrapped in a dun cloak of stillness and silence. (p. 10)

Other memorable quotes:

Michael had never been in the presence of a man who possessed such a depth of innocence. One could almost bathe oneself in it, as one bathed oneself in the soft air of the west country. And why not? The worth of one man was surely as much at the service of another as the warmth of the sun, if that other had a sufficient realization of his need for it. (p. 236)

When one of the children is reprimanded for having filthy feet, she replies, Living is dirty work, but I like it, which pretty much sums up the theme of the book. Loving your neighbor is messy business, but worth the effort. Even the weak. . . . in kindness is made strong. (p. 313)

A very worthwhile read.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Quote on Bookselling as a Life's Calling

          A bookseller, said Grandfather, is the link between mind and mind, the feeder of the hungry, very often the binder up of wounds. There he sits, your bookseller, surrounded by a thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts and conditions. And there come into him other minds, hungry for beauty, for knowledge, for truth, for love, and to the best of his ability he satisfies them all.... Yes.... It's a great vocation.

(from A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge, p. 92)