Friday, October 12, 2018

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

In spite of the recent hoopla on Wilder's legacy, I still think her books should be required reading for American children. Not only are they living history books, they are rich stories of sacrifical love and perseverance in hardship.

On the Banks of the Plum Creek is 4th in the series and chronicles the family's move from Kansas to Minnesota. Upon arrival, Charles Ingalls trades his wagon and mustang horses with a man who wants to head out West. In exchange he receives a plot of land, two oxen and a dugout house. Charles has big plans to harvest wheat and build a fine house for his wife Caroline, not knowing the many discouraging challenges that will delay these dreams. From the very beginning of the book, when little Laura expresses disappointment at the loss of their horses, Pa responds with the sentiment that runs throughout the narrative: We must do the best we can, Laura, and not grumble. What must be done is best done cheerfully.

I appreciated the simple, non-preachy lessons about the Christian life. When the family is able to go to church for the first time the girls knew from Ma's voice that going to church must be better than going to a party. We find out about the cost of disobedience when we read, Laura had been bad and she knew it. She had broken her promise to Pa. But no one had seen her. No one knew that she had started to go to the swimming-hole. If she did not tell, no one would ever know. But she felt worse and worse inside. The fact that Laura repents of some sins and nourishes others shows the struggles of real human being, (as opposed to an Elsie Dinsmore-type.) There are many instances in the book where family members give up their wants for the good of another. These lessons on unselfishness are one of the main reasons parents need to keep reading these books to their children.

Sometimes the very simple language left my heart longing for more eloquence, but there were enough pretty phrases to keep me going: Grey-green lichens with ruffled edges grew flat on the rock. Wandering ants crossed it. Often a butterfly stopped to rest there. Then Laura watched the velvety wings slowly opening and closing, as if the butterfly breathed with them.

Here's A U.S.A. Today article on why we should not ban Wilder's "racist" books.

Blessings,

Friday, October 5, 2018

The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

If there is any children's classic that teaches (true) tolerance better than The House at Pooh Corner, I don't know what it could be. All the animals in The Hundred Acre Wood have their idiosyncrasies, but each one is accepted and loved. There is the overprotective, but kind, Kanga, timid yet noble piglet, pompous Rabbit, pessimistic Eeyore, and obnoxious Tigger. Most important of all is Pooh, that "bear of very little brain" who has a big heart, which may make him the wisest of all.

As I listened to the audio version, I could easily imagine A.A. Milne telling these stories to his little son. Perhaps each animal personality-type was a copy of a child or grown-up they both knew. In any case, the stories of Christopher Robin's toy menagerie are told quite simply. Christopher isn't central to all of them, but when he appears, he radiates a joy and affection that I found quite contagious. Sprinkled throughout each story are acts of kindness, math jokes (which made me laugh out loud), and little bits of wisdom that are never preachy.

Chapter 9 had this little insight into poetry: Poetry and hums aren't things you get. They are things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you. Chapter 10 has this delightful description of leisure: Christopher Robin says, What I like doing best is nothing. How do you do nothing? asked Pooh. Well it's when people call out to you just as you are going off to do it, "What are you going to do Christopher Robin?" And you say, "Oh, nothing," And then you go and do it. . . It means just going along and listening to all the things you can't hear and not bothering.

In the last chapter the animals hear that Christopher Robin is going away. Maybe it was referring to boarding school. Or maybe it was a reference to growing up. But it's a lovely, poignant moment as Christopher Robin and Pooh bid each other goodbye.

Peter Dennis does a wonderful job narrating this book (although it took me a while to get used to the snorting sound he uses for Piglet.) He handles the voices well and his British accent makes the understated jokes all the funnier. During the same week that I listened to this audio book I was reading Miss Read's Celebrations at Thrush Green. I was amazed at similarities in the two stories. Mrs. Gibbons IS Rabbit and Albert Piggot IS Eeyore. ha!

This children's classic offers as much for adults as it does for children. Maybe more!

Blessings,

Friday, September 28, 2018

What I Read and Watched in September

Life wasn't quite as crazy this month so I was able to read quite a bit and watch several better-than-average movies. After reading Barbed-Wire University, I watched the 1953 movie Albert R.N., which accurately portrays life in a European POW camp.

Christian movies are often sappy and theologically thin, so I was pleasantly surprised by Paul, The Apostle of Christ. The writing and acting were good and the ending was magnificent. (Quite a nice change from modern drivel that teaches if you come to Christ all your problems will go away.) One more movie I watched was The Trip to Bountiful. I'm a sucker for any movie based on a play because it usually has good dialogue. This 1985 film is about an elderly woman who dreams of returning to the town where she grew up. It is slow-moving, heartbreaking, and garnered the Oscar for best actress for Geraldine Page.

As far as reading goes, I slowly worked my way through C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity (3 to 4 pages a day) and loved every bit of it. I listened to The Scarlet Pimpernel (for the umpteenth time) whenever I was working in the kitchen. But that was only after I'd listened to House at Pooh Corner TWICE. Lovely!

Three books that were okay, but that didn't wow me, were Miss Read's Celebrations at Thrush Green, Anthony Trollope's Dr. Wortle's School, and 101 Great American Poems.

Anyone else familiar with Kate Howe's Victober Book Challenge? Every year in October she encourages her listeners to read more Victorian literature. I'm already a big fan, but I appreciate the nudge to add more of it to my literary diet. I hope to read one Charles Dickens title and one Thomas Hardy. Here's her video introducing the challenge.

Blessings,

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason

A good name is more desirable than great riches; 
to be esteemed is better than silver or gold. 
Proverbs 22:1

What is honor? Once lost, can it be regained? At what cost? Is Pacifism equal to
cowardice? A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel The Four Feathers seeks to answer these questions.

It took me a while to become invested in this novel, but I'm glad I stuck with it. The story
begins in 1870 with veterans of the Crimean war seated around a table together. As they discuss their past battles, a young, sensitive boy listens to their stories and wonders if he can successfully join in the tradition of his military ancestors.

Although Harry Feversham follows in their footsteps, he has no taste for military life. When he leaves the army, he is branded as a coward and must regain his honor in the eyes of those he loves. Since it takes him six years to do that, you won't find a lot of fast-moving action in this book. But if you enjoy better-than-average writing and some good ideas to chew on, you'll appreciate this book, which has been the source of at least four movie adaptations. 

My one quibble with the book is that in order to exonerate Harry Feversham, Mason depicts career military men as less than human. Early in the book a group of them is described as men of one stamp; no distinction of uniform could obscure their relationship—lean-faced men, hard as iron, rugged in feature, thin-lipped, with firm chins and straight, level mouths, narrow foreheads, and the steel-blue inexpressive eyes; men of courage and resolution, no doubt, but without subtleties, or nerves, or that burdensome gift of imagination;

Still, I enjoyed the book a great deal, especially because of the excellent narration done by Ralph Cosham. 


Blessings,

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Is There Anybody Out There?

Hi, blogging friends! I haven't had any comments for a couple of months and wondered if something somehow changed in my settings. Can someone please try to leave a comment to show me that it is working? If there's a problem, can you let me know at worthwhilebooks-at-gmail-com? Thanks!


Friday, September 14, 2018

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillie - Part Two

In last week's post I described G.I. ingenuity in prisoner of war camps. This week I want to focus on just one aspect of The Barbed-Wire University, the importance of the printed word.

Whereas European POWs could order books from home, it was not until March 1945 (after the war in Europe had ended!) that the British Red Cross even began planning to send books to the Far East. Book lovers had had to fend for themselves throughout the war. In some camps libraries were formed. The only requirement for membership was to contribute a book toward the stash. But prisoners were often forced to hand over their books to the censor shortly after capture.

The assortment of available books was eclectic to say the least. Fiction by A.J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier and Richard Llewellyn were in demand, but bored men would read whatever they could get their hands on. Stephen Alexander remembers reading Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, The Musical Companion, Life of Samuel Johnson, some Dante, and The Oxford Book of English Verse. Childhood favorites such as Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie the Pooh were in high demand as read-alouds: As they lay exhausted and starving in their makeshift huts, Alice's transportation to a world of shrinking bodies, summary executions and exotic creatures from which there appeared to be no escape, must have seemed less of a flight of fancy than their own transformation from guardians of one empire to slaves of another. (544)

Artist Ronald Searle held onto his precious books as long as possible, but when forced to march in temperatures of 105 degrees, he lightened his load by discarding his least favorites and by removing the covers of his most treasured volumes. In some Thai camps books were in such short supply that they were cut into pieces so that 12 men could be reading the book at the same time.

Those who loved books had to protect them from smokers who used every piece of available paper to make home-made cigarettes. Paper was so scarce that the chaplain had to give permission for them to use pages of the Bible for this purpose, "after they read it, of course." I found it fascinating that pages of the Bible went up in smoke before any pages containing recipes since food fantasies were everyone's favorite mental escape.

Also of interest is this article on How WWII Turned Soldiers into Bookworms.

Blessings,

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies - Part One

Many books about WII prisoner of war camps emphasize the tortures, deprivations, and hair-raising escape attempts; Midge Gillies offers a different aspect of POW life by highlighting the daily activities of the captured allies. What did they do when they weren't obsessed with surviving? Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

One Far East POW described their work as "soul-destroying, heart-breaking labor" for which they were paid ten cents a day. Survival was as much about finding mental release as physical endurance. In many detention camps the men turned towards books and classes to relieve their minds of their suffering. By learning new skills and uncovering talents, they stole back some of the months and years that the war had robbed them of. Study kept boredom and depression at bay and it offered a hope that the years in captivity would not be entirely wasted.

Author James Cavell wrote of his POW experience in WWII: "Changi became my university instead of my prison. Among the inmates there were experts in all walks of life -- the high and the low roads. I studied and absorbed everything I could from physics to counterfeiting." Amid the hundreds of skills that soldiers imparted to one another were sewing, Roman history, Arabic (and a dozen other languages), pig-farming, accounting, painting, chess, shorthand, and acting. (Denholm Elliot and Clive Dunn pursued acting careers after the war.)  POWs from many different backgrounds enriched each others' lives with their treasure troves of knowledge. 

Painting done in captivity by Terry Frost
Terry Frost had enjoyed art as a hobby before becoming a European POW. In camp he was invited to join a group of artists. Frost later described the camp as a 'university' where he found a pleasure in reading and listening to music and poetry. Painting portraits introduced him to men he might not otherwise have spent time with and who assumed that, because he could paint, he would enjoy other art forms. One man invited him to listen to Beethoven on a Red Cross gramophone. He went to poetry readings and all kinds of plays, and listened to different kinds of musical instruments. He heard (read out loud) books sent by the Red Cross, anything from the classics to an autobiography of Henry Ford. Frost absorbed geography through a map on the wall. All around him men were studying and it was impossible not to be sucked into the process. As he lay on his bunk he listened to someone reading Paradise Lost, while he tested a man in the bed behind him on his German verbs. In the background there was a constant sound of men gambling. (pp. 244-245)

It is important to remember the huge difference between the prisoners held by the Germans and those held by the Japanese. European POWs had access to books, letters from home and Red Cross parcels - and a one percent death rate. Some of them studied law, took exams in the mail and became lawyers after the war. Most POWs in the Far East had few books, letters and packages and twenty-five percent died from malnutrition and tropical diseases. It was a good thing that Gillies wrote of the European prisoners in the first section of the book because once she described the deprivations of the FEPOWs, the others' hardships appeared trivial in comparison.

A fascinating book!

Blessings, 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming

I have a soft spot in my heart for British children's books that include a mix of silliness and wisdom (Think Toad in Wind in the Willows and Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh books.) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a personal favorite and I recently read it to a group of rambunctious second graders. It was the only quiet half hour our class enjoyed each day.

Although I'm a big fan of the movie, it bears no resemblance to the book. So I love the movie for its songs and its joy (not for the Child Catcher or Baron Bomburst), and I love the book for it's sly humor (which the film captures wonderfully via Dick Van Dyke as Commander Potts).

In the book Caractacus Potts not only transforms a junkyard car into a gleaming driving machine, he also discovers the hideout of a famous gangster, Joe the Monster, and has various run-ins with him and his gang of ruffians.  I especially like Fleming's attitude toward his young readers. For the skeptics he offers semi-believable solutions to Chitty's antics, but to the ready-to-believe-anything crowd, he offers up fantastic possibilities.

One example: Fortunately Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang had smelt trouble. Heaven knows how, but there it is. There was much about this magical car that even Commander Pott couldn't understand. All I can say is that , as the gangster's low black roadster stole away down the moonlit streets, perhaps its movement jolted something or made some electrical connection in the mysterious insides of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, but anyway there was the tiny soft whirr of machinery, hardly louder than the buzz of a mosquito, and behind the ornament on the hood, a small antenna, like a wireless aerial, rose softly, and began to swivel after the gangster's car, which was now hurtling up the great main road towards Paris.

A lovely read-aloud!

Blessings,

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,