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,

Friday, March 23, 2018

Gossip from Thrush Green by Miss Read

All of Miss Read's books pay homage to the humble afternoon ritual of tea and sponge cake, but Gossip from Thrush Green excels them all with its extended tribute to tea time on the first and last pages.

In far too many places in England today, the agreeable habit of taking afternoon tea has vanished. "Such a shocking waste of time," says one. "Much too fattening a meal with all that dreadful starch," says another. "Quite unnecessary, if one has had lunch or proposes to eat in the evening," says a third.

All very true, no doubt, but what a lot of innocent pleasure these strong-minded people are missing! The very ritual of tea-making, warming the pot, making sure that the water is just boiling, inhaling the fragrant steam, arranging the tea cosy to fit snugly around the precious container, all the preliminaries lead up to the exquisite pleasure of sipping the brew from thin porcelain, and helping oneself to hot buttered scones and strawberry jam, a slice of feather-light cake or home-made shortbread. Taking tea is a highly civilized pastime, and fortunately is still in favor at Thrush Green, where it has been brought to a fine art.

I'm working my way through the whole series and am enjoying it very much. I read Books One and Two last year and bought hard copies of the next five while in the U.S. in January. The books are about life in an English Village and don't have a lot of plot. Each one focuses on half a dozen of the many townspeople, with an occasional romance thrown in. I haven't reviewed all of them here because I haven't enjoyed all of them equally, but I highly recommend reading the series in order because each book builds on a previous one.

Now that I've read six books in the series the characters are beginning to feel like family. I was inordinately happy that Dotty got the help she needed and that the vicar found a better house in which to live. The sophisticated Harold Shoosmith, the timid, lonely school teacher, the gruff but loving Ella, and the crotchety old groundskeeper are only a few of the endearing characters you'll meet in these books.

Previous reviews can be read by clicking on each title: Thrush Green, Winter in TGBattles at TG, Return to TG. I'm happy to see that I can get the next five books in the series as digital downloads from my Michigan library.

Blessings,

Friday, March 16, 2018

2018 - A Year of Slower Reading

They say that chewing slowly is better for your digestion. I'm beginning to understand that it's better for my literary diet as well. Last week I reviewed Arnold Bennet's How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. His basic premise was that self-improvement will bring fulfillment to your life, but it was one of his side points about reading that really struck me.

I know people who take to reading as men take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how many books they have read in a year. [But] unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing reflection upon what you are reading, your ninety minutes of night are chiefly wasted. This means that your pace will be slow. Never mind. Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find yourself in a lovely town on a hill.

As I read this, I knew he was talking about me. But this is not who I was when I started blogging nine years ago. Then I was reading a book a week. Although I am a fast reader, I read substantial books that required a certain amount of pondering. Books available to me in Brazil were limited and I carefully chose the ones that I would carry with me in my suitcase. Conscientious choices resulted in pleasurable encounters with many of the western world's best authors.

A couple of years later the Kindle came out and suddenly I had a surplus of options. Then I started joining reading challenges to help chip away at my unending TBR lists. Last year my library began offering a gazillion digital options for book downloads. I no longer read one book a week. I read 3 to 4. This year I added 30 minutes a day of audio books every morning. And yet I've noticed the law of diminishing returns: more books, less pleasure. This frenzy has not brought the literary contentment that I used to sense on a regular basis.

As I was reading Bennett's book, I kept saying to myself, "Next year I'm going to read less books, read more slowly, and revisit old favorites." Then it suddenly occurred to me that I don't have to wait till next year. My tentative reading plans for the year (100 books at Goodreads) are a guideline, not a mandate. I can stop the frenetic reading NOW. Whew!

 But, I worried, what if that means I won't have as many books to blog about? So be it. On second thought, I don't think that will be an issue. I'll read less junk and have more time to devote to books that are worth my time (and hence, yours). So I'm off to a slower pace and looking forward to savoring rather than wolfing down my books. I'll let you know how it goes.

Blessings,

Friday, March 9, 2018

How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett

This small, unassuming little book hit me right between the eyes. Interestingly, it wasn't the main premise that affected me, but one of its secondary points. In How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, Bennett argues that most of us are just existing and should start using our time more wisely for self-development.  It was written in 1910 and aimed at men who worked 8 hour days and then wasted the rest of their time "recovering" by doing nothing strenuous. He challenged them to separate 90 minutes three nights a week for cultivating their minds. These 7 and half hours would be life-changing according to Bennett. They will quicken the whole life of the week, add zest to it, and increase the interest which you feel in even the most banal occupations. He goes on to emphasize the importance of developing your powers of concentration, the necessity of starting small so as to avoid failure, and the value of frequent self-examination.

Some of his assertions are reasonable: Begin small. I'm all for the petty success. A glorious failure leads to nothing; a petty success may lead to a success that is not petty. Some are laughable: Without the power to concentrate - that is to say, without the power to dictate to the brain its task and to ensure obedience - true life is impossible. Mind control is the first element of full existence.

I read quite a few books about self-development last year and each one had its "secret" for how to live a full life, but self-development for its own sake is a shallow goal. I agree with life coach, Edie Wadsworth, that we keep our hearts, minds and bodies in shape for the greater purpose of serving God and serving others. I have nothing against improving your mind, but I see improving the heart as a much bigger priority.

My take-aways from the book had more to do with Bennett's view of time as a miraculous gift, and his assertion that if we read to improve our characters, we must do it slowly. (That was my epiphany, which I'll describe in detail in my next post.)

While I don't fully agree with his basic premise - that self-development is the key to a fulfilled life, I loved his sly humor and pithy quotes: The most important preliminary to the task of arranging one's life so that one may live fully and comfortably within one's daily budget of 24 hours is the calm realization of the extreme difficulty of the task, of the sacrifices and the endless effort which it demands... If you will not be content with a small effort, then do not begin. Lie down again and resume the uneasy doze which you call existence. This bracing of the will before doing anything worth doing is the chief thing that differentiates me from the cat by the fire.

This short book is well read by Mark Smith at Librivox.

Blessings,
 

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Not since Emma, have I read a story that begins with such an unlikable heroine. But I knew there was hope, and pressed on. Ten year old Mary Lennox has been orphaned by a cholera epidemic and sent to live with an unknown uncle. The truth is that she was an orphan long before the disease took her parents because her socialite mother had ignored her for most of her life. Neglected by her family and spoiled by her servants, she has become surly and selfish. At her uncle's house she meets a sickly, self-centered young boy and the novel describes their redemption. The discovery of a locked-up garden plays an integral part in their transformation; as the garden comes back to life, so do they.

The Secret Garden is a delightful story with lovely descriptions of nature. As a read-aloud, it would be a perfect way to introduce younger children to the glories of springtime with phrases such as this: They drew the chair under the plum tree, which was snow-white with blossoms and musical with bees. It also has a charming array of characters from the crotchety gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, to the no-nonsense servant Martha Sowersby to her wise and loving mother, Susan.

Magic is mentioned throughout the story. Mary believes in it because she's seen snake charmers in India. Dickon is considered magical because he knows all about nurturing plants and animals. Sometimes the magic is the lavish grace of spring. Sometimes it's a mother's love. Sometimes it's will power. Sometimes it's the power of positive thinking. This dizzying array of explanations for anything that appears to be supernatural was okay with me until Chapter 23 when Colin loudly declares that he can do anything because "the magic is in me," which seemed a little too New-Age-y. BUT the author redeemed herself by having the children respond to the "magic" in the only way they can think of - by singing the doxology. Again, as a read-aloud, this book would offer a great opportunity to talk with your children about how God is behind all of these miraculous events: springtime, love, healing, etc.

My enjoyment of this book was greatly enhanced by the version I downloaded from Audible.com because the author pronounced the Yorkshire accents beautifully.

(Barbara at Stray Thoughts discusses the magic theme more thoroughly in her post here.)

Blessings,

Friday, February 23, 2018

Poems of Faith by Bob Blaisdell

I am always in pursuit of good Christian poetry. Not the sing-song-y drivel that is often passed off as "inspirational," but the meatier stuff that is theologically sound and painfully honest. Here is an example of the fluffy kind:

The priceless gift of life is love,
For with the help of God above
Love can change the human race
And make this world a better place
For love dissolves all hate and fear
And makes our vision bright and clear
So we can see and rise above
Our pettiness on wings of love.


You'll find nothing of that kind in Poems of Faith, edited by Bob Blaisdell. He has deftly chosen solid poems about faith by the best authors of the last 400 years. Some were familiar to me (Robert Herrick, Francis Quarles, George Herbert) and others were discoveries (Christopher Harvey, John Day, etc.) Most of them reveal a deep longing for God in their writings.

Quarles (1592-1644) beautifully describes his heart as Like to An Arctic Needle, concluding that Christ is his true North.  Christina Rossetti affirms her helplessness apart from Christ in None Other Lamb. And John Newton reminds us of the irony of the cross when he writes:

Thus, while his death my sin displays
In all it's blackest hue
(Such is the mystery of grace),
It seals my pardon too.

A few poems go on for several pages and will be off-putting to our present (attention span-deficient) generation. The old-fashioned language may be a struggle unless, like me, you had the privilege of hearing King James English as a child. Nevertheless, Blaisdell's book is a good introduction to some of the best devotional poetry in the English language. If you enjoy it, you may want to go to the next level with these lengthier, even meatier tomes: The Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1940 version) and The One Year Book of Poetry. (The latter is surprisingly cheap for a used copy.)

Blessings,

Friday, February 16, 2018

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

I rarely read modern fiction, so I'm not quite sure how this book landed on my radar. But I'm glad it did.

Seventy-one year old Captain Jefferson Kidd is travelling through Texas, carrying "the news of the world" to small towns where folks will pay a dime to hear him read the papers. It's just after the Civil War and, in many ways, Texas is the wild west. Kidd had hoped that sharing stories from all over the world would help bring unity to divided people: If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and then the world would be a more peaceful place. He had been perfectly serious. That illusion had lasted from age forty-nine to age sixty-five.

In one city where he stops, his offered $50 to deliver an orphan to her people who are 400 miles away. The girl had been kidnapped four years earlier by a band of Kiowa Indians and had recently been rescued by the U.S. Army.  Kidd names the ten-year old Johanna and promises to take her safely home. As they travel together, warding off bandits and busybodies, they learn to communicate and to build a friendship that brings healing to both of them.

Kidd had become indifferent to humanity. Now it was different. He was drawn back into the stream of being because there was once again a life in his hands. Things mattered. The strange depression and spiritual chill he had felt were gone. . . . Joy and liveliness had come back to his readings now. His voice had its old vibrancy again and he smiled as he read; . . . . [he] recalled how dull his life had seemed before he had come upon her in Wichita Falls.

The exquisite writing was balm to my soul. Jiles helped me to see and hear the settings and the people when she wrote that someone was as "freckled as a guinea hen" or that "His pen nib scratched across the newsprint with a noise like avaricious mice." Some turns of phrase were so apt and lovely that I laughed out loud with sheer joy.

She also does a wonderful job establishing the historical context, adding details about post Civil War conflicts, the economy, the laws (or lack of them), Kiowa Indian customs, and more. But it was never an overwhelming amount of details. The clash between the Kiowa and the white man's cultures is handled with skill and without pat answers.

The denouement in the final chapter was spot on. The reader learns that it isn't the big "world" news that changes people, but the daily sacrificial offering of one's life to another.

In spite of the occasional profanity (none of it felt gratuitous), this is a beautiful story of grace in the midst of brokenness. The narrator at Audible, Grover Gardner, had the perfect gravelly voice for this book. I look forward to revisiting this novel in the future.

Blessings,

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Overcoming Life by D.L. Moody

Dwight L. Moody wrote The Overcoming Life in 1886 to encourage Christians in their spiritual warfare against sin, self and the world. He lays the groundwork for the book with several statements: It is folly for any man to attempt to fight in his own strength. The world, the flesh, and the devil are too much for any man. But if we are linked to Christ by faith, then we shall get the victory over every enemy. (p.5) And, My friend, you and I have got a terrible enemy to contend with. Don't let Satan deceive you. Unless you are spiritually dead, it means warfare.  (p. 9)

First he addresses internal foes (pride, uncontrolled appetites, envy, etc.) because an enemy inside the fort is far more dangerous than one outside. Then he talks about outer enemies such as persecution and worldly pleasures. Sprinkled throughout are homespun illustrations. I especially enjoyed this one: Perhaps you say, "I hope Mr. Moody is not going to preach on that old text." Yes, I am. When I take up an album, it does not interest me if all the photographs are new; but if I know any of the faces, I stop at once. So with these old, well-worn texts. They have quenched our thirst before, but the water is still bubbling up - we cannot drink it dry. (p. 62)

The last chapter was on the seven "I Wills" of Christ. I have heard of the "I Ams" of Christ, but these were new to me. The first was "He that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out." Another was, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Each of these, said Moody, are promises for all believers. It was a fitting ending to the 83-page booklet.

I am used to the eloquent writings of A.W. Tozer and Andrew Murray, but really enjoyed D.L. Moody's more down-to-earth prose and his solid biblical teaching.

Blessings,

Friday, February 2, 2018

Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens by G.K. Chesterton

Even though the title is a mouthful, this book isn't as hard to understand as many of Chesterton's other works. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens is simply a compilation of introductions that G.K. Chesterton wrote for each of Dickens' novels. He reviews the books in chronological order and shows how Dickens developed as a writer. He praises Dickens' genius while at the same time commenting on some of the weaknesses of his works.

There are occasional Chesteronian phrases like: It is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of Little Nell, that I object to. and You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. (p. 23) But for the most part, Dickens, and not G.K., is on center stage.

Some samples of his commentary:

Pickwick Papers will always be remembered as the best example of everything that made Dickens great; of the solemn conviviality of great friendships, of the erratic adventures of old English roads, of the hospitality of old English inns, of the great fundamental kindliness and honor of old English manners. First of all, however, it will always be remembered for its laughter. (p. 24)

Oliver Twist is by far the most depressing of all his books; it is in some ways the most irritating; yet its ugliness gives the last touch of honesty to all Dickens' spontaneous and splendid output. Without this one discordant note, all his merriment might have seemed like levity. (p. 39)

What I loved the most was this observation: All of Dickens' books are Christmas books. All of them have the element of drama, of waiting anxiously for something to happen, "a crisis of happiness" (advent). Secondly, they all take place in the "winter" of hardships where characters manage to celebrate in spite of the cold. And thirdly, is the element of the grotesque. Poets and painters have striven to express happiness by means of beautiful figures. Dickens understood that happiness is best expressed by ugly figures: the corpulence of Tony Weller and the red nose of Mr. Stiggins.

He goes on to describe The Christmas Carol as the best of the Christmas books because it has those three elements in spades: the sudden conversion of Scrooge, the winter scenes, and the undignified rejoicing of Scrooge's final happiness. The turkey that Scrooge bought was so fat, says Dickens, that it could never have stood upright. That top-heavy and monstrous bird is a good symbol of the top heavy happiness of the stories. (p. 112)

If you are not already a Dickens fan, you might find the book dry. But it made me want to read the whole canon. Also, each chapter contains spoilers so it's probably best to read the novels first and then see what Chesterton thought about them.

Blessings,

Friday, January 26, 2018

The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

I'm a huge fan of Stevenson's cozy, British fiction. Many of her books have no plot, but are enjoyed for their pleasant conversations, copious tea parties, and quiet wisdom. So The English Air caught me completely off guard.

It's spring of 1938 and the English are sure that Chamberlain can keep them from going to war. In Germany a Nazi official sends his adult son, Franz von Heiden, to England to learn how the English think. He is preparing him to be useful should war ensue, but he doesn't realize that his son's time in England might change his plans. The "air" of England has more to do with attitudes and beliefs than with actual climate, and Franz soon finds it a struggle to continue hating the people he's been taught to see as fools.

The novel has the usual tributes to country life, home life, and family love, but it also has much more adventure than a typical Stevenson novel. Franz is faced with the choice to be true to his German heritage or to leave it all for his new country. As war breaks out, he is caught in the middle and it makes for a rollicking adventure. I find it fascinating that the book was written in 1940 when no one knew what the outcome of the war would be. The questions in Franz's mind would have been the same as in everyone's: Can the German government and the German people be separated when it comes to guilt? Is there any such thing as a "true" German? What will Germany be like after the war? Will it be a Germany to be proud of?

As I said before, this was much more thrilling than Stevenson's usual fare, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Blessings,
 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens


'Tis a sad gift, that much applauded thing, a constant heart. - Ella Wheeler Wilcox

This was by far my biggest literary emotional ride in 2017. I agonized with Florence's unrequited love, chortled at Dickens' sly jabs at human nature, dreaded the villains, and rejoiced with the book's true-hearted characters.

The title is ironic since the book focuses on the lives of several women. Young Florence, the main character, is rejected by her father for not being a son. Beautiful Edith has been groomed by her mother to marry for wealth. Even Alice Marwood,  a beggar's daughter, has been wrongfully used by her mother for selfish gain. The powerful secondary male characters are the prideful Mr. Dombey, the odious Carker, the gallant Walter, the devoted Toots, and the well-meaning Captain Cuttle.

Chesterton wrote that Dickens could make inanimate objects come to life in his novels and never have I seen that more than I did in Dombey and Son. The statue of the midshipman plays a prominent part in the narrative. And the descriptions of Carker's teeth are fundamental to the reader's understanding of Carker's various moods.

Capt. Cuttle and the Midshipman

I tried to watch the movie version of this book and it was too depressing. Dickens is MUCH easier to enjoy through his novels because he injects joy and hope in places that the movies have difficulty replicating. Yes, Florence's plight is horrific, but her moments of despondency are interwoven with scenes of the loving Toodle family, the humorous Captain Cuttle, and the bumbling, but loveable Mr. Toots.

Dickens makes delightful jabs at Victorian scholastic methods: It was part of Mrs. Pipchin's system not to encourage a child's mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster; he refers to this type of education as the perpetual bruising of intellectual shins. Then there are all the private jokes between the author and the reader (impossible to convey on film) like frequent mentions of Mrs. Pipchin's husband and the Peruvian mines and Captain Cuttle's precious sugar tongs. I was also amused by an early example of the phrase, "If he doesn't like it, he can lump it."

Dombey and Son has its share of unhappy situations, but the ending is satisfying. I appreciated the fact that various characters experienced redemption, but the changes in them were true to the limits of their personalities. 

My listening pleasure was doubled by the fantastic (free) narration done by Mil Nicholson at Librivox. It was worth every minute of the 40 hours.

Blessings,

Friday, January 12, 2018

Poetry of Alexander Pope - Vol 1

Thackeray called Alexander Pope (1688-1744) the greatest literary artist that England had ever seen. When I heard Professor John Sutherland say  that, "Pope is the greatest poet of the 18th century from whom elegant language flowed as easily as conversation," I figured it was time for me to become better acquainted with him. 

I was familiar with a few of his famous lines such as Behold the child, by nature's kindly law, Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw, and A little learning is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring, but had not read any of his complete works.

I was pleased to discover a depth and richness of his poetry. Even if you don't agree with everything he writes, he's worth the effort. Many of his poems are quite long and are sometimes hard to follow, but the beauty of language kept me going.

I loved the extensive "Essay on Man," but several passages stood out to me as worthy of reading and re-reading. In epistle three, he writes uniquely about sexuality and procreation:

Each sex desires alike, 'till two are one.
Nor ends the pleasure with the fierce embrace,
They love themselves, a third time, in their race!

Who knew you could write about this topic so succinctly and beautifully (and chastely)?

If you'd like a lengthy introduction to Pope's work, Volume one is available free for Kindle. The Essay on Man is available by itself. And a smaller book of poetry is here. I liked him so much that I ordered a hard cover copy of his poems to dip into again this coming year.

(Though well-known for his satire, this volume of poetry seemed more religious and philosophical in nature. I checked out Volume One from my library (digitally) and it has a different amount of pages from the Volume One at Amazon. So I'm not even sure it's the same book.)

Blessings,