Friday, September 20, 2019

Village Diary by Miss Read

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single school teacher of a certain age, must be in want of a husband. And the folks of Fairacre are certain that the newest bachelor in town must be heaven-sent for their favorite spinster, Miss Read. She isn't interested in him in the least, but when he chooses another, the townspeople kindly express their regrets to her. Happily, she sees the bright side of their meddling:

Sitting alone, in that quiet classroom, with only the tick of the wall clock and the faint shouts of my approaching pupils to be heard, I felt perhaps more keenly than ever before, just what it means to be a villager - someone whose welfare is of interest (sometimes of unwelcome interest) to one's neighbors - but always to matter. It was a warming thought - to be part of a small, living community, members one of another, so closely linked by ties of kinship, work and the parish boundaries, that the supposed unhappiness of one elderly woman affected all.

Village Diary is book two in the series and includes all the same characters (over 30 of them) as book one, and adds Amy, Miss Read's well-heeled friend from London. Her busy, plush life is in stark contrast with the village school teacher's, but Miss Read would much rather live quietly. She writes:  I, finding myself remarkably uninteresting, am only too pleased to observe others and the natural objects around me. Thus I am spared the pangs of self-reproach, and, as my lot is cast in pleasant places, find endless cause for happiness and amusement.

These books are not Christian fiction (thank goodness!) but they frequently contain biblical references (like the highlighted phrase above) and contain Christian themes (community, grace, forgiveness, etc. ) Plus the writing is delightful: Outside the post office grow three fine lime trees, murmurous with bees on summer afternoons.

I'm still not sure I'll love Fairacre as much as Thrush Green, but I've enjoyed the first two novels.


Friday, September 13, 2019

Miracles by C. S. Lewis

I understood so little of  the first chapters of Miracles that I was tempted to give up. But when I saw that Chapter 14 was on the Grand Miracle (the incarnation), I knew I had to hang on. Everyone knows the famous quote, We believe the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun, but because we can see everything else. But its context is the incarnation. To Lewis, God's act of becoming man is the light that clarifies all other Christian doctrines.

In the first half of the book Lewis argues for the naturalness of miracles. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not go against natural laws, but confirm them. If the laws of Nature are necessary truths, no miracle can break them: but no miracle need break them. It is with them as with the laws of arithmetic. If I put six pennies in a drawer on Monday and six more on Tuesday, the laws decree that - other things being equal - I shall find twelve pennies on Wednesday. But if the drawer has been robbed, I may in fact only find two. Something will have been broken (the lock of the drawer or the laws of England) but the laws of arithmetic will not have been broken.... 

We are in the habit of talking as if the laws of Nature caused events to happen; but they never caused any event at all. The laws of motion do not set billiard balls moving: they analyze the motion after something else has provided it. They produce no events; they state the pattern to which every event must conform. Thus in one sense the laws of Nature cover the whole field of space and time; in another, what they leave out is precisely the whole, real universe - the incessant torrent of actual events which make up true history.... A miracle is emphatically not an event without cause or without results, Its cause is the activity of God; its results follow according to Natural law.

On the necessity of the incarnation: In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.

On Christ's death: On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, ambivalent. It is Satan's greatest weapon and also God's great weapon; it is holy and unholy, our supreme disgrace and our only hope, the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.

Lewis also addresses the important topics of prayer, free will vs. God's sovereignty (always a mind bender), death/rebirth and the spiritual vs. the material. I loved his quirky phrase for the idea that all reality is found in Christ: He is ultimate Fact-hood. This was a difficult but extremely worthwhile book for building mental and spiritual muscle.


Friday, September 6, 2019

Letters to An American Lady by C.S. Lewis

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Letters to an American Lady by C.S. Lewis. The intro warned me not to search for deep theological insights in these rapidly written missives so I was expecting it to be rather dry. Instead it was delightfully replete with simple details of Lewis' life that gave glimpses into his marriage, daily habits, likes and dislikes, fears, and his walk with God. A constant theme was the necessity of faith without feelings.

On August 21, 1958 he writes, Dear Mary, Remember what St. John says, If our heart condemns us, God is stronger than our heart. The feeling of being, or not being forgiven and loved, is not what matters. One must come down to brass tacks. If there is a particular sin on your conscience, repent and confess it. If there isn't tell the despondent devil not to be so silly. You can't help hearing his voice (the odious inner radio) but you must treat it merely like a buzzing in your ears or any other irrational nuisance.... You must always go back to the practical and definite. What the devil loves is that vague cloud of unspecified guilt feeling or unspecified virtue by which he lures us into despair or presumption.

On his morning routine: I'm a barbarously early riser and have usually got my breakfast and dealt with my letters before the rest of the house is astir. One result is that I often enjoy the only fine hours of the day - lovely, still, cool sunshine from 7 till 10, followed by rain from then on, is common. I love the empty, silent dewy, cobwebby hours.... (Sept 30, 1958)

I especially appreciated these thoughts on busyness: Don't be too easily convinced that God really wants you to do all sorts of work you needn't do. Each must do his duty in that state of life to which God has called him. Remember that a belief in the virtues of doing for doing's sake is characteristically feminine, characteristically American, and characteristically modern; so that three veils may divide you from the correct view! There can be intemperance in work just as in drink. What feels like zeal may be only fidgets or even the flattering of one's self-importance. And by doing what ones duties do not demand, may make one less fit for the duties that are demanded. Just you give Mary a little chance as well as Martha!

I found it fascinating that he hated letter writing but felt compelled to answer all letters. He even wrote little notes to Mary when he was in the throes of his wife's illness and death. Remarkable!

A fairly quick read, but a wonderful way to while away a few hours.


Friday, August 30, 2019

My Summer Reading - Four Short Reviews

My summer was too busy for blogging (plus I read very little that merited a thoughtfully written blog post.) So here is a quick overview of the fiction I read.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie: So engrossing, that for two straight days, I kept wishing that whatever activity I was involved in would finish so that I could get back to it. 

Village School by Miss Read: The first of the Fairacre series. I took careful notes of all the village residents (over 30!) so that I could keep everybody straight as I progress through the other 19 novels. So happy to have found 10 of them quite cheaply. (They are already tucked into my "take-back-to-Brazil" stash.) The rest I'll read through digital library loan.

Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein: I nabbed this title at the thrift store because the movie was coming out and the previews looked promising. This is the YA version of The Art of Racing in the Rain. I was surprised at how depressing it was from start to finish - except for the impossible to believe "happy" ending. I regret every hour I spent in this book.

Island of the World by Michael D. O'Brien: An achingly sad and beautiful book. Sometimes Josip’s hardships were overwhelming and I had to put the book down for a few hours, but there was a redemptive thread throughout that kept them from being unbearable. I appreciate the ability of Catholic authors to include suffering in their fiction without facile answers. But I struggled at times to identify with the more mystical elements of Obrien’s book. Still, this is some of the best storytelling you will ever read. Worth every minute I spent in it.


Friday, August 23, 2019

What I Read and Watched this Summer

Since our return to the U.S. 3 months ago, we have been constantly on the move. Occasionally we stopped to watch an episode of Andy Griffith or Jeopardy. The only movies we watched were Toy Story 4 and Ant Man and the Wasp (not as good as the prequel). Toy Story was loads of fun in spite of the creepy puppets and the underlying message (ubiquitous to most films) that men are dolts who need powerful women to tell them what to do with their lives.

I've done mostly light reading since my brain couldn't handle much else: 4 Vintage novels (Bel Lamington and Fletcher's End by D.E. Stevenson, Village School by Miss Read and He Fell in Love with His Wife by E.P. Roe.) The latter was over the top in melodrama.

6 Non-fiction: Biography of missionary to China Geneva Sayre, Letters to an American Lady by C.S. Lewis,  a book on housecleaning called Sink Reflections, 3 Bible study books - Opening the Windows of Blessing (Zechariah) by Kay Arthur, Be Rich (Ephesians) and Be Joyful (Philippians) by Warren Wiersbe

Least favorite book: Racing in the Rain (YA version of The Art of Racing in the Rain) I wanted to read it because the movie was rated (gasp!) PG and I thought it might be worth watching. After reading the children's version, I can only imagine how depressing the adult version must be.

I'm halfway through Miracles by C.S. Lewis and 80% through Michael O Brien's Island of the World.

I'm looking forward to having more of a regular routine in the fall for reading and blogging.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Nicholas Carr on "Printed books vs. E-Books"

I know I said I wasn't going to address this subject anymore (post here), but this quote is too good not to share:

A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine. Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It's tactile as well as visual. "All reading," writes Anne Mangen, a Norwegian literary studies professor, "is multi-sensory. There's a crucial link between the sensory-motor experience of materiality, of a written work and the cognitive processing of the text content." The shift from paper to screen doesn't just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it. (p. 90 of The Shallows)

I have loved the ease of acquiring books through my Kindle (saving space, time and money), but have noticed a downturn in my ability to read deeply. I'm not yet ready to give up my e-reader, but am trying to make better choices about how often to use it.


Friday, August 2, 2019

Village School by Miss Read

I thoroughly enjoyed Miss Read's Thrush Green series and have long looked forward to beginning her Fairacre series. As in the first Thrush Green book, I was introduced to a dizzying amount of characters, but I know that as the series develops, all of them will become as familiar to me as old friends.

The main character in Village School is the school mistress, Miss Read and the stories are based on the author's (her real name is Dora Jessie Saint) many years of teaching. If you are looking for a thrilling page-turner, please look elsewhere. These books describe commonplace activities with charm and gentle wit. The descriptions are lovely:

Behind the tractor wheeled and fluttered a flock of hungry rooks, scrutinizing the fresh-turned ribs of earth for food; their black shapes rose and scattered like flakes of burnt paper from a bonfire.

No English village story would be complete without a vicar and a chapel. While decorating the church for the Harvest Festival, Miss Read writes:

The troubles and vexations of the last twenty-four hours suddenly seemed less oppressive. It is difficult, I reflected, to take an exaggerated view of any personal upheaval when standing in a building that has witnessed the joys, the hopes, the griefs, and all the spiritual tremors of mortal man for centuries.... In the presence of this ancient, silent witness, it was right that personal cares should assume their own insignificant proportions. They were, after all, as ephemeral as the butterflies that hovered over the Michaelmas daisies on the graves outside.

As I said earlier, there isn't much of a storyline, but I very much look forward to getting to know Miss Read, her students, and neighbors in the coming months. Friends who have read both sets of novels say they prefer the Fairacre folks. I have a hard time imagining that I could love any group more than my Thrush Green family, so I'm interested in what my final verdict will be.