Friday, August 17, 2018

What I've been Reading and Watching in August

I live in a country where most churches have been influenced by prosperity theology (the idea that God wants you to be rich and happy) so I was pleased to read the excellent Health, Wealth, and Happiness by David Jones. It carefully teaches the Bible's view  of suffering, wealth, poverty, and giving. The discussion on economics in the Old Testament was brilliant.

Favorite quotes: The Prosperity Gospel promises much and requires little. It stresses the benefits of the cross while ignoring its claims. 

Christians view success in terms of status, wealth and position rather than holiness, faithfulness, and obedience to God.

Next I read a vintage mystery called At One Thirty that came in a Kindle book bundle of 350 British Mysteries (99 cents!) I enjoyed it until the end when the detective makes a very bad decision. It was intriguing to have a blind detective who could "see" more clues than others. This was also a main idea in a book I read last month called The Four Feathers. BTW, a fun vintage movie about a blind detective is Eyes in the Night. (The main actors are good, but, unfortunately, it has the stereotypical view of African Americans from that time period.)

Finally, I read The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. This was my third time through and it was probably the most enjoyable book I've read this year. Afterwards my husband and I watched the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie version, which is very different from the book, but loads of fun.

Since I began subbing at the American school last week, I've had no more time for personal reading. But I am reading classic stories to the class including The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming. I'm listening to House at Pooh Corner as I prepare evening meals.

So, although I'm not reading as much as I'd like to, I'm enjoying my literary snacking.

Blessings,

Saturday, August 11, 2018

D.E. Stevenson quote on Simple Pleasures

She saw beauty in ordinary little things and took pleasure in it . She took pleasure in a well-made cake, a smoothly-ironed napkin, a pretty blouse, laundered and pressed; she liked to see the garden well dug, the rich soil brown and gravid; she loved her flowers. When you are young you are too busy with yourself - so Caroline thought - you haven't time for ordinary little things, but, when you leave youth behind, your eyes open and you see magic and mystery all around you; magic in the flight of a bird, the shape of a leaf, the bold arch of a bridge against the sky, . . . the wind in the trees, an apple-branch clothed with pure white snow, and icicles hanging from a stone and sparkling with rainbow colors . (From Vittoria Cottage by D. E. Stevenson)

May you have a restful weekend with time to enjoy some of these sweet and simple pleasures.

Blessings,

Friday, August 3, 2018

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

She was left alone, lying on the sofa—
books near her, wood crackling and blazing,
wafts of wind bringing the beating rain against the window,
and so enhancing the sense of indoor comfort by the outdoor contrast.

This is just one example of the many lovely turns of phrase in Wives and Daughters, which is the story of a widowed doctor, Robert Gibson, and his seventeen year old daughter Molly. It tells of her struggles when her father remarries and her determination to think about her father's needs and not just her own. Though she is not always successful in subjugating her hurt feelings, Molly soldiers on, doing her best to love others unselfishly. Her selfless love is in sharp contrast to the shallow emotions of some of the more beautiful and sophisticated women in the book. 

This book is somewhat like a Trollope novel in that you have to wade through a lot of pages (almost 600 on my Kindle version) to get to the happy ending, but I enjoyed how well each character was fleshed out and I liked the occasional literary references such as this one from page 234: "She had confessed with her English tongue that she loved him soundly with her French heart," which Gaskell's readers would have recognized as a quote from Shakespeare's Henry V.


Because I'm a fast reader, I stuck to my Kindle version for the most part, but whenever I was working in the kitchen, I switched to the lovely Librivox version. (25 Hours!) Elizabeth Klett does a terrific job with all the accents, but I especially enjoyed her soft Scottish burr for Mr.Gibson.

Two important caveats: The book contains a few unfortunate references to the lack of intelligence of "black folks" (Ethiopians). And Elizabeth Gaskell passed away before completing the book so although it's very clear how the story will end, it is lacking the final chapters.  But please don't let that keep you from reading this gentle domestic drama, a true gem of the Victorian era.

The BBC DVD version is lovely too.

Blessings,

Friday, July 27, 2018

When the Holy Ghost is Come by Samuel Logan Brengle

Don't let the quaint language in When the Holy Ghost is Come fool you into thinking it's fluffy reading. Samuel Logan Brengle (1860-1936) was a famous teacher and preacher in the Salvation Army and this is just one of several classics he wrote on the Spirit-filled life.

Some denominations focus on the gifts of the Spirit. Others emphasize signs and wonders. Others highlight sanctification and heart-cleansing. I often pray for more of the Spirit's power for sharing my faith. (Acts 1:8) Which is the right emphasis? Brengle begins by reminding us that the Holy Spirit is not a mere influence or impersonal force, but a divine Person and member of the Trinity. He is the indwelling presence of Christ.

Many have looked at the promise of power when the Holy Ghost is come and they hastily and erroneously jump to the conclusion that the baptism with the Holy Ghost is for work and service only. . . . [but] the primary work of the baptism is of cleansing. In a water mill, the flood first washes out the obstructions and then you have power. The great hindrance in the hearts of God's children to the power of the Holy Ghost is inbred sin. When the Holy Spirit comes, His first work is to sweep away the carnal and make free and clean all the channels of the soul. (Chapter V) There must be purity before there can be any power. In fact, When we seek the Holy Spirit's infilling for His power, it can easily lead to pride, but when we seek His cleansing, it naturally leads to self-emptying and humility.

In Chapter VI, Brengle writes of spiritual power unlike our normal definitions of it (power to do impressive supernatural acts). Instead he says the Spirit gives us power to overcome this world's temptations. Next there is power to overcome "the flesh;" bodily appetites no longer control us, because it is only the soul cut off from God that seeks satisfaction in sensual excesses. Third, is power over the Devil. We are no longer blind to his machinations and are given the ability to resist him. Finally, it does not make us powerful in the worldly sense because it is power to do the will of God patiently and effectively, with naturalness and ease, to suffer the will of God with patience and good cheer. It is power for service or sacrifice, according to God's will.

No earth-shattering revelations in this booklet, just good solid teaching. My sister says his Helps to Holiness is life-changing, so I may try that one next.

Blessings,

Friday, July 20, 2018

Collected Poems by Mervyn Peake

I stumbled upon this book by accident and what a fortuitous fall! I had only recently heard of Mervyn Peake because C.S. Lewis mentioned him in On Stories. Out of curiosity I checked out his Collected Poems and was rewarded with surprising riches.

Peake (1911-1968) was born to missionary parents in China but when he was eleven, the family returned to England. Christian imagery is occasionally woven into his poems. He wrote about love, nature and the horrors of war. He is much better known as an artist and novelist than as a poet. This book has 230 of his poems (80 of them never before published).

One of his repeated themes is the lavish wealth of creation. He describes the colors of spring as minted coins in this excerpt from “Colored Money” -

How can I spend this coinage when it floods
So ceaselessly between the lids,
And gluts my vaults with bright
Shillings of sharp delight
Whose every penny
Is colored money?
Storm, harvest, flood or snow,
Over the generous country I go
And gather helplessly
New wealth from all I see

In another poem he describes a budding tree in springtime: The green hesitation of the leaf was prophecy for richness. He succeeds in writing poems that are hauntingly beautiful and deeply meaningful yet accessible without a PhD in literature. That doesn’t mean I understood every one of them (some were only fragments that he never finished), but I reveled in the lush imagery and sumptuous language of each one. Even the war poems weren’t nearly as full of bitterness as the poetry of some other poets such as A.E. Houseman and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

I’ll close with the first half of his poem called “Autumn”

The lit mosaic of the wood
Stayed me at the turn of the road
To stare
At autumn standing there
In Joseph’s coat; a tree
Golden, and bright, and free
For head; his feet In the rich earth were set.
The wind
Was tugging blind
At the fierce rainbow rags, the tattered turban,
Under a fitful sun.

A feast for poetry lovers!

Blessings,

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

Sometimes reading C.S. Lewis' non-fiction is like taking your medicine. You know it will be good for you, but you're not enthusiastic about taking the first dose. BUT once you begin reading, the effect is so bracing and health-giving that you wonder why you put it off so long. Knowing that The Abolition of Man would not be easy reading, I set a goal of 10 to 15 pages a day. Every morning I'd sit in the armchair for my daily Lewis "vitamin," and after each reading I would sit in stunned silence at his brilliance and clarity. It's no wonder he never goes out of print.

Subtitled "Reflections on Education", The Abolition of Man is a response to a school textbook (which Lewis calls the "Green Book") that implied that value judgments are based on feelings instead of reality. He defends moral absolutes (what he calls "the Tao") and shows what will happen if they are removed from society. Written 70 years ago, parts of Abolition are so prophetic it is scary.

Lewis contends that virtues cannot exist within a vacuum. Without moral absolutes, a persevering devotion to truth, [and] a sense of intellectual honor cannot be long maintained. Scientific knowledge and reason cannot replace  them. What you get in the long run is men with "big heads" and no hearts. He famously quipped, We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (p. 35)

There are many other big ideas in this book such as how the Tao is essential to human flourishing. Without it the powerful will always rule over the weak. They will decide what's good and bad for others based on their own preferences. Those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse. . . . I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. (p. 78)

It would take multiple readings to make me feel like I understood half of this book, but it was worth every minute of effort. My brain and heart were stretched.

Blessings,

Friday, July 13, 2018

Benefits of Slow Reading

Earlier this year I had an "aha" moment and decided to slow down my reading pace. Here are a few quotes (with links to the full articles) that I've collected that might encourage you to do the same:

From the Desiring God website, David Mathis writes how he came to peace with his inability to speed read in "Do You Wish You Could Read Faster?"

I have found that I typically get out of reading what I put into it. When I read quick and thin, I access more information, but I suspect it makes me a thin thinker.

Veery Huleatt at First Things writes about how Dorothy Sayers helped her to slow down in "Where Her Whimsy Took Me."

I had graduated with, not only a reading list, but also some terrible reading habits. I had trained myself to gallop through books and journals, armed with multicolored hi-liter pens and a stack of Post-its. Technology had only accelerated my slide. Thanks to Google Books, I could ditch the hi-liters and give the impression of having painstakingly combed through a book with only a few minutes of scrolling. I had perfected the skill of tweaking, recasting, challenging, interpreting—a skill that had saved my life more than once in the over-caffeinated hours of early morning. But I had sold the soul of the literature for it.

Blessings,

Friday, July 6, 2018

The One Year Book of Poetry by Philip Comfort

I've raved about this book on and off through the years, but have never actually reviewed it here. I'll share a few thoughts now that I've read it through for the third time.

The One Year Book of Poetry contains some of the best devotional poetry written in the last 500 years. Although I read a lot of poetry, this book introduced me to many new authors who are now favorites. Along with the better known John Donne, George Herbert and Christina Rossetti, there are poems by Francis Quarles, Edward Taylor and Robert Herrick (metaphysical poets from the 1600's).

There's very little fluff here. In fact, some of the poems are too theologically dense for the average reader (even with Daniel Comfort's explanations on the opposite page of each entry.) Although I love rich, gorgeous language, and depth of meaning, I'm a poetry pragmatist at heart. If I can't understand it without significant outside help, I am not inclined to love it. Even if only half of these poems got a thumbs up from me, those 180 deepened my love for beautifully written poetry that expresses life's joys and sorrows in the midst of earnest hope in a faithful God.

Henry Vaughan's (1621-1695) "Easter Hymn" has this marvelous beginning:


Another overwhelmingly beautiful poem is Edward Taylor's "Stupendous love! All Saints' Astonishment!" which is about the power of Christ's blood to cleanse us. He compares the blood to wine and writes,

My soul had caught an ague, and like hell
Her thirst did burn: she to each spring did fly,
But this bright blazing love did spring a well
Of aqua vitae in the Deity,
Which on the top of heaven's high hill outburst
And down came running thence t'allay my thirst.

How shall I praise thee then? My blottings jar
And wrack my rhymes to pieces in thy praise.
Thou breath'st thy vein still in my porringer ,
To lay my thirst, and fainting spirits raise.
Thou makes glory's chiefest grape to bleed
Into my cup: And this is drink indeed.

(ague = fever fit, porringer = small bowl, aqua vitae = liquor)

This is a book to be read and savored slowly and prayerfully.

Blessings,

Friday, June 29, 2018

Innocent Blood by P.D. James

How do you rate a book that is highly disturbing and sinister, yet deals honestly with the harsh reality of human depravity? In Innocent Blood, James forces you to think about evil and its horrific consequences, which makes it a very painful read. While listening to the audiobook I had to fast forward several parts that were too gruesome and sordid to bear.

Virtually every character is a product of extreme brokenness. They hopelessly and selfishly navigate through life, unable to give or receive love. The crime doesn't just happen. The underlying hate, fear, and lust had been embedded in each character a long time, working its way into every corner of their hearts. I was nearly knocked over at how expertly James introduced the only true picture of love into her story. Maurice, a staunch atheist, tells how a heavenly Father sent his Son to die for a world lost in the muck and mire of sin. Maurice is incredulous and unbelieving, which only magnifies the effect.

I am in a conundrum. I can't recommend this book because of the yuck factor, but at the same time it treats fallenness truthfully and well. In a world where atheism is a fast growing religion among our young, this book shows where it leads. And it clearly shows that there is no possible redemption for damaged lives just by trying to do better. The only deep change is through faith and belief in God. That this message is imbedded in the story (from such an unlikely source) left me in awe.

Families are becoming more and more broken as we drift away from absolutes in our culture. As I read, I kept wondering what needs to happen to prevent events like those in the book from happening. If this book is any indication of the outcomes we will see in our lifetime, oh, how we need to break the cycle! The message of the cross is the only answer. From the mocking lips of the unbeliever comes the only remedy. Innocent blood was shed for all of us.

(This is a guest post by fellow missionary and book lover - who also happens to be my sister - Grace Ensz.)

Blessings,

Friday, June 22, 2018

Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge

I usually like a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain, but in the case of Hans Brinker it just didn't work. Mary Mapes Dodge not only wanted to tell the story of the poor, but hardworking protagonist, but she also wanted to weave in many heroes and legends of Dutch history. That would have been okay if this additional information had been skillfully woven into the narrative, but most of it was tacked on, interrupting the story's flow.

So why has this novel, with its burden of extraneous facts, survived for over 150 years? Because it's a wonderful story of family love, honest labor, and hard-won victories. It's much more than a novel about a Dutch boy's desire to win the coveted silver skates.

When the story begins Hans and his sister Gretel are skating on wooden blocks and are the subject of ridicule by some of the more well-to-do young people. Their father has been sick for ten years and they are living in extreme poverty. But that doesn't keep them from dreaming about the big race and the possibility of entering it. As the story moves along many mysteries are uncovered. What happened to make their father lose his memory? Where is the family savings hidden? Will Raff Brinker get well again? Can Hans and Gretel participate in the ice skating competition? But the heart of the story is not found in the answers to these questions. The heart of the story is found in the relationships that are built and strengthened between friends and family members, many of whom give sacrificially so that others might benefit. The family's faith  is an integral and natural part of the novel.

I ended up enjoying it very much in spite of the distracting digressions. An abridged version would be lovely as long as it did not leave out all the Christian bits. (Many abridged versions of Heidi and Robinson Crusoe leave that out, which robs the stories of their richness.)

I listened to a free version of this book at Librivox. The narrator is better than most, but was just okay for this particular book.

 Blessings,

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Don't be put off by the fact that Screwtape Letters appears to be a conversation between two demons. It is not so much a dialogue between devils as it is a treatise on human frailties and how easily they can become sins. Every letter left me gob-smacked with its insight into how Satan takes legitimate pleasures and twists them ever so slightly to make them ungodly.

Repeatedly Screwtape warns his apprentice not to let his human experience true pleasures because they are real and we want him to be in touch with all that is false. Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are on the Enemy's ground... All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. (p. 41)

Rather than feeling overwhelmed by Satan's schemes (as I expected to be), I was reminded over and over by Lewis of God's relentless pursuit of fallen man and His love for him in the midst of that fallenness. In this passage Screwtape warns Wormwood that while afflictions might seem like a good thing from a devil's point of view, they can also, unhappily, be used to make men holy.

Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. The reason is this. To us a human is primarily food; our aim is absorption of it will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome replicas of Himself - not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. (p. 37)

I could go on quoting indefinitely, but will spare you my over-enthusiastic rambling. I loved Chapter on 14 on false humility. And Chapter 18 on how gluttony can be exemplified not just in an excessive desire for food, but also in an excessive desire to control one's food intake. I loved Chapter 18 on marriage and the idolatry of romantic feelings. What didn't I love? Not much. The only reason I was happy for the book to end was because my brain was on big-idea-overload.

I am glad my C.S. Lewis reading group decided to read just 5 letters per week. One or two letters is the perfect daily dose in order to assimilate these important concepts. I did not expect to love this book so much, but know it will definitely be in my top 5 titles for 2018. If you haven't read this title, I strongly encourage you to get your hands on it. It's one of Lewis' most accessible apologetic works.

A few more quotes:

It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one. (p. 56)

He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. (p. 38)

All extremes except extreme devotion to the Enemy are to be encouraged. (p. 33)

Blessings,

Friday, June 8, 2018

Friends at Thrush Green

Now that I'm in the tenth book in the Thrush Green series, the townspeople are old friends and I often enjoy sipping a cup of tea while sitting down to "chat" with them. In fact, tea time is so much a part of each book that in this one it is referred to as a "never failing help in times of trouble," a reference to Psalm 46:1 that I didn't find sacrilegious in the least. The ladies of Thrush Green frequently render comfort to one another over a hot drink and a slice of sponge cake.

Although Friends at Thrush Green purports to be about the two retired school teachers (from book nine) returning for a visit, many other townspeople have moments when they take center stage. Violet's struggles with her increasingly senile sister and the new headmaster's ill wife are just two examples.

This was not your run-of-the-mill, nothing-much-happens Thrush Green novel. I enjoyed the many mysteries. Will the persistent Percy Hodges finally find a new wife? Who is the mysterious Teddy and will he win the heart of one of the spinsters? What is Mrs. Lester's baffling illness? Is Bertha just eccentric or is she a certified lunatic?

I loved finding the answers to these questions. And, as always, I loved the gracious way that the folks at Thrush Green dealt with them, especially when the answers were difficult. This is cozy fiction by modern standards even though there are occasional lapses in morality (Nelly Pigott left her husband for another man in an earlier book and there have been a few babies born out of wedlock).

As always, there's the lovely writing: There was something about running water which healed the spirit as surely as sleep did... He sat by its side on a grassy bank, watching the secret life of the water creatures. Flies studded the glistening mud at the edge of the bank and a trio of butterflies played among a patch of nettles. An ancient willow tree stretched a gnarled arm over the water. Purple loosestrife and wild mint stirred in a light breeze, setting free the river smell unforgettable, unforgotten, which brought back to the watcher on the bank a hundred memories of other loved rivers. Charles sat there for almost half an hour, letting the magic work its spell and then he rose to return home. (p. 186)

P.S. These e-books are expensive so see if you can download them from your public library like I do.

Blessings,

Friday, June 1, 2018

Quote on Divine Humility by C.S. Lewis

I've seen the theme of divine humility mentioned in several of C.S. Lewis' works, but never spelled out so clearly as in The Problem of Pain:

It is a poor thing to strike our colors to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up "our own" when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is "nothing better" now to be had. The same humility is shown by all those divine appeals to our fears which trouble high-minded readers of scripture. It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts. (p. 97)

Astonishing, to say the least!

Friday, May 25, 2018

Ten Year Blogiversary

My tenth year of blogging came and went, and I finally have time to make note of it. I rarely read my stats because they are not what motivate me to blog, but on my fifth blogiversary I enjoyed a look at my most viewed posts. Five years later I see that the same titles (Code Name NimrodThe Horse and His Boy Aesop's Fables, Two Towers and Wednesday Wars) still lead the way.

But a few other posts have attracted attention. My Recommended Librivox Recordings has had several thousand views. My dabbling in Georgette Heyer's novels and my comments on Profanity in Books and Culture have evoked quite a few views and comments. And one of my next most popular posts was a review of a YouTube video: Why Beauty Matters.

I love how these titles show the spectrum of my tastes from children's lit, to literary classics, to WWII memoirs, to books about why faith should make a difference to culture. I am grateful to all who read my blog and who occasionally leave comments. Here's to another ten years of great reading and sharing!

Blessings,

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

When my blogging friend Carol formed the C.S. Lewis Reading Project, I jumped at the chance to finally re-read some of Lewis' apologetic works. Last month we read The Problem of Pain and I've struggled for weeks to try to write an overview. The book is too complex to capture in a few paragraphs since Lewis does much more than try to explain human suffering. In fact, my most important takeaways had to do with what it means to be human and how human flourishing is impossible without a right relationship to our Creator.

Just as the members of the Trinity live in perfect, mutual, self-giving love, so mankind can only find real joy when living in selfless unity with God. Rejection of God's sovereign authority over His creatures brought sin and suffering into the world - and ultimately, according to Lewis, results in Hell.

Some suffering comes as a result of rebellion: From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever. . . . What is outside the system of self-giving is not earth, nor nature, nor "ordinary life," but simply and solely Hell. . . . That fierce imprisonment in the self is but the obverse of the self-giving which is absolute reality. (152)

Some suffering comes as a way of refining us into holier people: To ask that God's love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God; because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labor to make us loveable. . . . What we would here call "happiness" is not the end God chiefly has in view: but when we are such as He can love without impediment, we shall in fact be happy. (48)

Creatures are not separate from their Creator. The place for which He designs them in His scheme of things is the place they are made for. When they reach it their nature is fulfilled and their happiness is attained: a broken bone in the universe has been set, the anguish is over. God wills our good, and our good is to love Him; and to love Him we must know Him, and become more like Him. We are bidden to "put on Christ," to become like God. That is , whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. (52-53)

I loaned this to a friend who was struggling after several miscarriages, but it was too academic and she got lost in the introductory chapter discussion of the "Numinous." My pastor preached a wonderful (less technical) sermon on suffering in April; he quotes C.S. Lewis frequently. I would encourage you to read the book AND listen to his message.

Blessings,

Friday, May 11, 2018

Black Coffee by Agatha Christie

After reading a heavy C.S. Lewis title, I needed something light, yet not too fluffy. Listening to Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee was just the ticket. My husband and I have watched all of the David Suchet Poirot series so this story was not unfamiliar to me (but I can never remember the killer). In Christie's novels, however, knowing “whodunit” is only part of the fun. The rest of the pleasure comes from Poirot’s quirkiness, the gentle jabs at British snobbery, and the interesting chemistry between characters.

In this novel, a wealthy scientist is murdered and everyone in the house is a suspect. The ditzy Miss Avery, the ultra-modern Barbara, and the Italian houseguest are just a few of the possible culprits. I listened to John Moffatt’s narration and he was absolutely marvelous with all the voices; he captured the relationship between Poirot and Hastings especially well.

Because of my familiarity with the BBC series, it felt as if an old friend walked in when Inspector Japp finally makes his appearance near the end of the book. Several characters make reference to earlier cases concerning Lord Edgeware and the Affair at Styles, which are like inside jokes to Christie fans.

There is an interesting interchange between Barbara and Colonel Hastings (Poirot's sidekick) when she calls him a darling, old-fashioned thing for believing in decency and truth-telling. Hastings, clueless as always, can’t understand why she thinks that is worth commenting on. I enjoyed this sly way of showing that modern is not always better. Truth does matter. Particularly when it comes to finding the killer.

I listened to this for free on YouTube.  A pleasant, cozy mystery!

P.S. This novel was not written by Christie, but by Charles Osborne. Yet it was based on a play she had written, which frankly, made it an excellent audio book.

Blessings,

Friday, May 4, 2018

At Home in Thrush Green by Miss Read

The gardens of Thrush Green were bright with irises and peonies, and the air
was murmurous with the sound of lawnmowers. But not all was idyllic.
 
 
This 8th installment in the series takes the reader on another delightful visit to Thrush Green. Not only are the regular residents "at home," but the book recounts the arrival of several new couples who move in to the newly completed senior-living apartment complex.  Jane and her husband Bill are managers and caregivers of the facility and are discussing their concerns about how the residents will get along. Bill wisely replies, I expect they'll turn out like any other family, a good deal of affection spiced with bouts of in-fighting. Interestingly, they have a rough go of it until each of the residents finds a place in the community to use their gifts (i.e. to serve others).
 
The regular members of the neighborhood make an appearance in the novel too. I particularly enjoyed this reference to the three stingy Lovelock sisters: One Lovelock was intimidating enough, but in triplicate they were formidable. Nelly Piggot is a middle-aged woman, married to the town grouch. Most of the town folks hold her at arm's length because she left her husband for another man and then came back again. In this novel she finds a friend, finds her calling and comes into her own. So when the old boyfriend comes into town, she reacts in a way that the old Nelly could never have done. 

These small episodes of British country life may not be great literature. But I find the repeated acts of grace (especially to the undeserving) to be soul-nourishing. And the good writing kicks it up to another level as well:

The whole world was white. The moonlight reflected from the snowy fields was intensified. In the garden of the pub next door, the small cherry tree cast a circular tracery of shadows on the white lawn. It was a tree which gave Nelly joy all through the year, from its first tiny leaves, its dangling white flowers, its scarlet fruit so quickly ravished by the birds, and then its final blaze of gold in autumn which it dropped, like a bright skirt, to the ground in November.

Blessings,

Friday, April 27, 2018

On Poetry in General by William Hazlitt

Happy Poetry Month! Many Writers have tried to define that elusive something that we call poetry and writer and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was no exception. To Hazlitt poems cannot merely describe an object or a feeling; their words have to heighten the imagination.

He laments the "advances" in civilization (scientific knowledge, modernization, etc.) that are unfavorable to poetry because they cause more indifference and less awe. Society, by degrees, is constructed into a machine that carries us safely and insipidly from one end of life to the other, in a very prose style. . . It is to overcome the flats and sharps of prose that poetry was invented.

Hazlitt says that poetry lifts the spirit above the earth and draws the soul out of itself with indescribable longings. Because of that definition he cites Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe as great poetic works. The great poetry in the world, according to him, is found in Homer, the Bible, and Dante. (Beautiful language that elevates the mind is essential, but obviously to him, rhyming is not.)

 "On Poetry" was one of several essays gathered together by Jacob Zeitlin in 1913 and is fifteen pages long. I found a free online copy here. If you don't already love poetry, this article is probably too dry to change your mind, but I appreciated Hazlitt's insights.

Blessings,

Friday, April 20, 2018

British Author Birthday Week

Two of my favorite authors celebrated birthdays this week. Miss Read, author of light novels, was born on April 17, 1913. Her books about country villagers ("Fairacre" and "Thrush Green" series) are cozy reads. Her daughter answers questions about her legacy on her own website here.

Born almost 100 years before Miss Read, Charlotte Brontë celebrates a birthday on April 21st. Her book, Jane Eyre, has brought me deep pleasure at various times in the last four decades. This year I even began memorizing favorite passages from it, especially this one between Rochester and Jane:

I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you, especially when you are near me as now. It is as if I had a string somewhere under my left rib tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped. And then I have a nervous notion that I'd take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, - you'd forget me.

Blessings,

Friday, April 13, 2018

Miracle on the River Kwai by Ernest Gordon

Of the twenty P.O.W. memoirs that I've read, Ernest Gordon's Miracle on the River Kwai is my favorite. Published in 1963 it recounts Gordon's three years in a Japanese concentration camp in Thailand.

I was drawn into the story by the splendid writing. Phrases like Age, sun and sea had made his face a thing of wrinkled splendor and Apathy and listlessness settled over Bapong Camp like a miasmic fog, made my heart sing. But I kept reading because of the mesmerizing stories of faith  being lived out in the harshest of circumstances. 

Gordon was a young Scotsman whose pre-war life included college studies and yacht racing. When WWII broke out, he became an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Captured after the fall of Singapore, he is taken to work on the Thailand/Burma Railroad. Japanese engineers calculated that the railroad would take 5 to 6 years to complete because of difficult terrain. But when they received permission to use "disposable" workers, they pushed the timeline to 18 months. The Allied prisoners were worked so hard that they lost all consciousness of time. Was it Tuesday the fourth or Friday the seventeenth? Who could say? And who would care? One gray day succeeded another - with no color, no variety, no humanity. Misery, despair and death were our constant companions. As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-increasing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived became poisoned by selfishness, hate and fear.

It was every man for himself until a miracle of grace occurred. Gordon had suffered from a number of diseases (diphtheria, beriberi, etc.) and had lost the use of his legs. A friend built him a little shack and arranged for him to leave the Death House (the hospital hut where men went to die). Another man, a quiet young Methodist named Dusty Miller, came daily to bathe and feed him. Dusty also massaged his legs and squeezed out the pus-filled ulcers. As Gordon "came back to life," a general regeneration was going on in the camp. Several men gave their lives to save others. Stories of their self-sacrifice began to outweigh tales of Japanese cruelty.

Gordon's view of Christianity had been that it extracted the bubbles from the champagne of life, leaving it insipid, flat and tasteless. While still recovering from his illnesses, he was asked to lead a religion class. Is there meaning in life? Does faith in Christ make any difference? He did not have the answers but he had a New Testament, which he read and discussed with the men.

He goes on to describe how the atmosphere in the camp changed as the men began to serve one another. The filthiest job in the camp was to collect the used ulcer rags, scrape them clean of pus, boil them and return them for future use. After a man named Dodger came to faith, he took on the job with joy. The last portion of the novel shows the transforming power of God's love in mens' hearts. A very inspiring read. 

P.S. Gordon does not describe the torture and hardship in as much detail as other P.O.W. memoirs so this might be a good book for the squeamish. Also, because I loved the book so much I sat through the profanity-laden two hour movie version. (The book title was changed to To End All Wars to accommodate the 2001 film.)  It added lots of people and horrific situations that were not in the book, and isn't nearly as eloquent or satisfying.

Blessings,

Friday, April 6, 2018

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The opening pages of Little Women clearly delineate the personalities of each of the four March daughters. One has dainty, frugal habits; one loves art and luxury; one loves her kittens and dolls, and another loves writing her stories. All of them are on the cusp of womanhood. And as the story progresses each of them learns to give up her (or modify) her dreams for the greater good of all.

I first read this book as a teenager who saw "happily ever after" as the requirement for every story. I was appalled at the defects in some of the novel's characters and considered them defects to the book. Now many years and many books later, I know that these character flaws were essential for keeping the book from becoming sickeningly sweet. They made the characters human and their progress more believable. 

Mr. March, the girls' father, was known to say, "Trifles show character," and friends and family members definitely reveal their hearts through both small quarrels and small kindness. At one point in the story when Amy is snubbed by aristocratic friends, she learns that true politeness comes not from wealth, but from the rule she learned at home: Love your neighbor as yourself. She repays meanness with goodness and reaps a reward. 

When Meg's father comes home from the war, he takes her hand and says, I remember when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now, for in it I read a little history. This hardened palm has earned something better than blisters. I'm sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time because so much good will went into the stitches. I'm proud to shake this good, industrious hand.

Although one of the principle messages of the book is presently an unpopular one (that "a woman's happiest kingdom is her home,") I hope that young people will still read the book for it's even more central idea: the value of living for others. Interwoven into the tales of heartaches and victories, Alcott succeeds in painting a picture of the joys of family life (even in the midst of poverty) and the long-term pleasures of loving sacrificially and well. The writing is not as eloquent as some of the British novels I've read recently, but it's solid enough.

I enjoyed this humorous description of Jo who thinks she has lost her chance at love: A drop of rain on her cheek recalled her thoughts from baffled hopes to ruined ribbons. For the drops continued to fall, and being a woman as well as a lover, she felt that, though it was too late to save her heart, she might save her bonnet. (p. 267)

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that the girls choose to model their journey to adulthood on the book Pilgrim's Progress. Quiet Beth looks forward to reaching the Celestial City, but tom-boy Jo hopes they can fight a few lions first. This time through I noticed many other literary references:  Aesop's Fables, The Vicar of Wakefield, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Rasselas, Evalina, Ivanhoe, Francis Bacon, Milton, Shakespeare, Plato, Homer and Milton, and a host of Dickens' characters.

Most movie adaptions get the story all wrong because they make the girls much older than they are. Amy is 12 in the book's beginning and Meg is 16. I was interested to see that Masterpiece Theatre is coming out with a new version in May. I hope my friends in the U.S. will watch it and let me know what they think about it.

Blessings,
 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Affairs at Thrush Green by Miss Read

I'm partial to well-written novels about men of the cloth (Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge and The Warden by Trollope are my favorites) so I was delighted that this seventh installment in the Thrush Green series focused more on Charles Henstock, the vicar.

He is assigned to a new church at Lulling and is grieved by the fact that he is often compared to the former minister. This is not because he is jealous or vain, but because he really wants what is best for the church and is not sure he fits the bill. He humbly responds to one particularly critical busybody and reaps the fruit of his kindness later in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the occasional glimpses into his heart (his humility, his faithfulness and his gratefulness, to name just a few qualities) At a discouraging moment, he remembered suddenly a phrase someone had shared with him - "Fear nothing, thank God!" The first two words covered the unknown future. The last two covered past mercies received. The rector turned over the four words in his mind, and was strengthened and comforted. (p. 70)

These books are not saccharine sweet. There are happy marriages and troubled ones. Some characters smoke, drink, or swear. But for the most part, the people of the village of Thrush Green look out for one another. And Miss Read does a bang up job of describing their daily trials and victories.

Blessings,