Thursday, December 31, 2009

Read Aloud Thursday - The Wind in the Willows


Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the Word


My mom gave me a nicely illustrated edition of The Wind in the Willows a few years ago, and after our success with My Father's Dragon, it seemed a good time to try this classic English adventure story. My kids did enjoy it, though they weren't as enthusiastic about it as they were with Charlotte's Web or Three Tales of My Father's Dragon. I think some of the older British vocabulary and humor were beyond them (at 5 1/2 and 2 1/2), though I did try to explain as much as possible. The pictures were beautiful, and after reading How the Heather Looks, I couldn't help wondering if they actually depicted the section of the Thames where Kenneth Grahame took his inspiration for the setting of The Wind in the Willows and Earnest H. Shepard did the illustrations for earlier editions. (Inga Moore illustrated the edition I have, and her lush full-color illustrations, some even two-page illustrations, made it much more engaging for my children than Shepard's ink drawings, as classic as they may be.) Maybe someday I will travel in England and see for myself!

I think we will revisit this classic again in a few years when we will be able to have more fruitful discussions on topics such as friendship, coveting, selfishness, stealing, and making wise/foolish choices. I did find it a little unsettling that everything ends well for Mr. Toad in spite of all the bad decisions he makes. But Curious George puts me in the same quandary, and I still read them to my kids because they are fun and imaginative. The Wind in the Willows is also fun and imaginative, and the varied characters of each animal are endearing, even Mr. Toad and his mischief. I suppose it can be an illustration that the Lord causes the sun to shine upon both the just and the unjust as well as an example of mercy and grace in the sense of not receiving the justice that is due for one's actions. Stories that don't necessarily support one's values need not necessarily be avoided, for they can provide many fruitful discussions.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines

Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment is a book about history, about culture, about those who thought they were great and those who really were. It begins by reconstructing a meeting between Johann Sebastian Bach at age sixty-two and Frederick the Great, who was basking in the expansion of his kingdom after just a few years on the throne. Each chapter thereafter, traces the family history and lives of these two men bringing it back to the crux of their meeting in 1747. In an attempt to mock Bach's command of counterpoint and improvisation, Frederick challenged him to compose a three-part fugue on a nearly impossible theme, that is, it was nearly impossible to use this theme in the structured forms of composition for which Bach was known. Bach delivered this request on the spot, causing Frederick to set the bar even higher with a request for a six-part fugue. Bach declined the second challenge, but played a six-part fugue on another theme. In the matter of only two weeks, however, Bach completed his Musical Offering, a sixteen-movement work for piano that is considered a work of genius by all who have studied it.

Around these historical details, Gaines demonstrates that this musical challenge was really a duel between two competing worldviews: the principles of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. They "met at the tipping point between ancient and modern culture, and what flowed from their meeting would be a more than musical expression of that historical moment" (8).

Bach's life and work were informed by his faith. He accumulated a significant theological library for his time and carefully read and marked the text and commentary of his 1681 Lutheran Bible and Luther's collected works (169). His music was founded upon the firm principles of faith and belief in a universe ordered and governed by a sovereign God, so whether the subject was sacred or secular it could be marked S.D.G., soli deo gloria, to the glory of God alone. In contrast, "the 'enlightened' composer wrote for one reason and one only: to please the audience" (220).

I do not know the beliefs or religious background of the author, James Gaines. His accounts of the Reformation and Bach's high esteem of Luther occasionally hint at skepticism, but there is a touch of sarcasm in his treatment of the Enlightenment's optimism and hope in human reason, too. At any rate, his detached journalism does not prevent him from posing the following thesis - "Bach's Musical Offering leaves us, among other things, a compelling case for the following proposition: that a world without a sense of the transcendent and mysterious, a universe ultimately discoverable through reason alone, can only be a barren place; and that the music sounding forth from such a world might be very pretty, but it can never be beautiful" (12) - or from concluding with the late 18th century irony that "those who continued to claim their trust in reason did so more in hope than confidence, almost as an article of faith (of all things)" (259).

I didn't need to be convinced that Bach was a great composer, but it was intriguing to learn more of his personal history and his music (though I must admit that the music theory behind counterpoint is a little beyond me). I'm ready to start building a music library of his complete works, beginning with Bach: The Art of Fugue; Musical Offering! Karl Barth might have had portraits of Calvin and Mozart at equal heights in his study*, but if I were one to hang portraits of theologians and composers, I would have to choose Bach over Mozart. Calvin, of course, could stay!

















*An interesting quote from an article by Theodore A. Gill in Theology Today from Princeton Theological Seminary:
"And with a now not so secret delight, I remember noting as I left Barth's study on a first visit those portraits of Calvin and of Mozart hanging over the adjacent doors. He has written of them: 'There are probably very few theological study rooms in which pictures of Calvin and Mozart are to be seen hanging next to each other and at the same height.' What he does not write is what he said when he noticed how taken I was with the juxtaposition. 'My special revelation,' he smiled, looking at Calvin. 'And my general revelation,' he said, as he beamed at Mozart. Was he smiling because it was a joke? Or because he knew something we didn't?"

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

I have been reading this month, but I haven't felt like writing about what I've read. I've considered giving up blogging, but for now I'm going to revert to my original plan when I started over a year ago, that is, to record my favorite quotations from the books that I've read with very little commentary. In order to avoid copyright infringement, I will limit myself to no more than five quotations and will provide full bibliographic information at the beginning of each post.

Chesterton, G. K. The Man Who Was Thursday. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1986 reprint of 1908.

“The rare strange things is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere...” (3)

“But indeed, this comic contrast between the yellow blossoms and the black hats was but a symbol of the tragic contrast between the yellow blossoms and the black business.” (72)

"'When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face but for an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good that we feel certain that evil could be explained...Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front – ?'” (110)

“'No,' said Syme, 'I do not feel fierce like that. I am grateful to you, not only for wine and hospitality here, but for many a fine scamper and free fight. But I should like to know. My soul and heart are as happy and quiet here as this old garden, but my reason is still crying out. I should like to know.'
'I am not happy,' said the Professor with his head in his hands, 'because I do not understand. You let me stray a little too near to hell.'
And then Gogol said, with the absolute simplicity of a child - 'I wish I knew why I was hurt so much.' (118)

I've heard some people comment on the incomprehensibility of this short novel, and I can't say that I've figured it all out either. I was able to guess how the plot would unfold fairly early in the book, but I haven't unraveled the meaning or determined if it was meant to be allegorical, satirical, or both. I'll leave such ponderings for another day. For now, I enjoyed it as a well-crafted story with beautiful descriptions interspersed with tidbits of wisdom. I look forward to reading more of Chesterton, both fiction and non-fiction, including The Complete Father Brown Stories, Orthodoxy, and Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox. What is your favorite Chesterton work?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

In a comparison of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen wins hands down. Austen may create characters who are just as petty as Heyer's Elinor, but they are secondary characters - so even if they are shallow and selfish, they at least contribute to the development of the protagonist's maturity.

Northanger Abbey is the first I've read of Jane Austen in many years, and I enjoyed her tongue-in-cheek humor as she parodies the gothic romances of her time. Though I must admit, I enjoy the suspense and drama of gothic fiction, I don't mind poking fun at a generally unrealistic genre. Austen's characters seem very realistic, though they might be somewhat stereotypical, and she paints a very plausible "slice of life" from the early 19th century middle and upper classes of England.

The protagonist, or unlikely heroine, as Austen calls her, Catherine Moreland is an ordinary girl in all ways: pretty, but not strikingly beautiful; a good girl, but not accomplished in much of anything and educated only so far as she was compelled to study. She comes from a large family, so can expect but a small dowry or inheritance. At seventeen, she really had no aims or ambitions nor the ability to pursue any if she had, so the opportunity to visit Bath with wealthy and childless neighbors offers an exciting diversion at the end of a long winter. In Bath she makes several friends near her own age, one brother and sister who only flatter her to advance their own interests and another brother and sister who prove to be genuine friends, even though their station in life is much higher than Catherine's.

I suppose this could be called a coming of age story, for through a series of events Catherine learns the value of true friendship and how to be more discerning of others' flattery and motives. She also realizes that life seldom mirrors the melodrama of novels, especially "in the midland counties of England" (188), and embarassingly finds her fears and suspicions to be completely groundless. Austen is not incapable of building drama and suspense, but the denouements of these potential threats are so commonplace as to be laughable. For instance, on her first night at Northanger Abbey, where she was invited to stay with her friends Eleanor and Henry Tilney, she is captivated with an old chest in her room because such chests often held dark secrets in the novels she read. She finds the chest hard to open, and her investigation is interrupted by the maid. Finally, "[h]er resolute effort threw back the lid, and gave to her astonished eyes the view of a white cotton counterpane, properly folded, reposing at one end of the chest in undisputed possession!" (154-155). After such a build-up, all she finds is a bedspread! One can just imagine the twinkle in Austen's eye as she wrote that!

In sum, this is a well-paced novel that gives a historical perspective on ordinary life in the 19th century, uses irony to show the foolishness of the gothic genre, and most importantly shows development of character in Catherine becoming a less naive and more well-grounded young woman through her experiences. Of course, there is a little romance, one unfortunate and one pleasantly resolved, but Austen's version of romance is platonic instead of erotic - a fact which I appreciate as I think it is often more appropriate to leave the intricacies of love mysterious. There is no gratuitous falling into the arms of the hero, and the term "odious" only appears two or three times! As I concluded previously, I think I will stick with the classics!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Spotlight on Church History: Origen

In the coming months, I intend to read more non-fiction, especially Church History and Historical Theology. As a first step towards those ends, I will periodically be posting summaries of biographies and other historical or theological texts that I read several years ago. These were originally written as an annotated bibliography. By posting them in this public forum, I hope to encourage others to delve into these important subjects for our faith in these days. These are not intended as "cliff notes" on academic texts, and I do not wish to encourage plagiarism or shoddy scholarship if other students happen upon them in the course of their research. Many of these books may be out of print but are likely available through university libraries or inter-library loan. I will provide a link to Amazon whenever possible, which will generate a small percentage to support my book fund if you make a purchase after following that link.


Origen (c. 185-254)
Crouzel, Henri. Origen - The Life and Thought of the First Great Theologian. Translated by A. S. Worrall. San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1989. (269 pages)

Crouzel writes a summary of Origen’s life and thought that is at once thorough, scholarly, objective, and sympathetic. His wide knowledge of all extant documents attributed to Origen allows him to evaluate the common conceptions of this early theologian with greater historical accuracy than is generally afforded him in other studies, and in so doing provides an excellent introduction for theological students and a springboard for further studies.

Origen was born in Alexandria, an intellectual center of the ancient world, in approximately 185 A.D. His life and theology were shaped by a classical and biblical education, his father’s martyrdom, and the unsettled times, both politically and theologically, in which he lived. Origen first earned his livelihood teaching grammar or rhetoric, but his biblical knowledge was recognized by Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, who made him head of the catechetical school when he was only eighteen years old (8). His teaching included both philosophy and theology, but his purpose was always to use philosophy to lead those who inquired about the Christian faith to baptism (27) and to provide Christians with Scriptural answers to intellectual problems to keep them from Gnostic sects (14, 153). In either 231 or 233, Origen traveled from Alexandria and eventually settled in Caesarea of Palestine where he continued to teach, occasionally enduring persecution, until his death in approximately 254-255.

After summarizing his life and cataloging his works, Crouzel divides the remainder of this study into three sections dealing with Origen’s exegesis, spirituality and theology. Origen is most often characterized as minimizing literal interpretation and seeking primarily an allegorical or spiritual meaning in Scripture. While Crouzel recognizes the limitations and weaknesses of Origen’s methods, he also demonstrates that Origen operated under a different definition of “literal” than the modern exegete. One today seeks the literal meaning in the intention of the author whatever the literary genre, but Origen understood “literal” to indicate strictly the words of the text (62). Thus, in many cases where the intention of the author is figurative or parabolic, Origen would find a spiritual meaning, while the modern exegete would claim it was a literal interpretation of the biblical author’s intention. Although one still might conclude that Origen took his quest for the spiritual meaning too far, understanding these differences in terms, does help the student to better appreciate Origen’s attempt in the context within which he worked.

Crouzel insists that much of Origen’s works, including the Treatise on First Principles which is the basis for much criticism, should be understood as “research theology,” or a theological exercise where many theological questions are pursued and various answers on both sides of the question are proposed and most often not resolved (167). Such a method is all the more understandable in the third century when many theological questions had not been worked out to their full extent by the Church. Origen has been misunderstood when fragments or sections of his writings are taken out of this pedagogical context and considered as dogmatic statements of his firm beliefs. These misunderstandings on the part of both his followers (Origenists of the fourth and sixth centuries) and critics (Jerome, Justinian, and the Constantinopolitan Council of 453) have overshadowed the significant portions of his theology in favor of ostracizing him over a few aberrant or inconclusive views, such as the pre-existence of souls or a universal restoration, for which Origen seems to have hoped while not insisting upon it. A more thorough study of primary sources, as Crouzel has undertaken, reveals that for his time Origen is orthodox on most points, including the Trinity, which had yet to be defined by the Arian controversy. In that controversy, in fact, Athanasius recognizes Origen as the source of the crucial phrase, “there was not when he was not,” in reference to the eternal generation of the Son (172, 268). Thus, a genuine history of doctrines must not disregard the value of Origen’s early expressions of theology simply because some of his ideas seem to contradict what was later more carefully defined and articulated.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer

I had reasonably high expectations for The Reluctant Widow since it was described as a mystery and (subtle) romance in the style of Jane Austen. But I was sadly disappointed. It's been a while since I've read any of Jane Austen's novels (though that is being remedied with Northanger Abbey next on my list), but I don't remember finding her characters so annoying or her use of adjectives so limited.

Elinor Rochdale has accepted her dull and tedious life as a governess, but when she gets in the wrong coach on the way to her next place of employment, she finds herself in the middle of a complicated web of family problems and secrets. Instead of a governess position, she is mistaken for a advertised bride, and after much persuasion agrees to marry Eustace, an unsavory character who only marries her on his deathbed to spite his cousin, Lord Carlyon, though he was actually playing into Lord Carlyon's plans to rid himself of an encumbering inheritance. So within a few hours of her marriage, Elinor is a widow, a very reluctant widow.

'But I do not want to be a widow!' declared Elinor.
'I am afraid it is now too late in the day to alter that,' said Carlyon.
'Besides, if you had known my cousin better you would have wanted
to be a widow,' Nicky [Carlyon's younger brother] assured her. (72)
At first I enjoyed the exchange of wit and touch of sarcasm that permeates the dialogue, but soon Elinor's whining got annoying. She rages against everything in her lot, seeming to forget that she had plenty of opportunity to refuse the marriage. She doesn't want to wear mourning clothes; she doesn't want to manage the estate she has inherited; she doesn't like the relatives who come to call. And she declares everything to be "odious" - that odious man, that odious dog, that odious boy, that odious old man. You would think a governess might have had a larger vocabulary! (I do realize that governesses were generally compelled to take up their occupation by lack of fortune rather than innate ability or education, but still, there are more ways to describe one's dislike than with the word "odious.")

In reading the introduction to Northanger Abbey, I was struck by the definition of a novel as a story in which the characters develop, maturing intellectually, psychologically, or spiritually over the course of the book. Unfortunately, Ms. Heyer seems not have been instructed in the fine art of novel writing, and I found it very unsatisfying that Elinor railed against most everything throughout the story, only to fall into the arms of one of those "odious" men at the end. I suppose some might argue that she was only angry and outspoken to cover her insecurities and true affections, but quite honestly, her character didn't have enough depth for me to make that conclusion.

I should note that I found two redeeming qualities. First, the mystery element at least made the plot interesting even if the solution was fairly obvious and easy to solve. Second, it was a quick read, making it easy to check another book off my TBR Challenge list.

If you love Georgette Heyer novels, I apologize for my lack of enthusiasm. Maybe you could recommend another one that I might like better, or maybe I'll just stick with Jane Austen and other classics.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Read-Aloud Thursday: My Father's Dragon and sequels

Granted, I haven't been reading chapter books to my kids (ages 5 1/2 and 2 1/2) for that long (this was only our third, fourth, and fifth selections), but My Father's Dragon, along with the subsequent stories Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland, were instant hits at our house. How do my children (and I) love them? Let me count the ways...

1. These are page turners for the preschool and early elementary set. Each chapter ends with enough suspense that it was immediately met with "Can we read another chapter? Just one more, please." What a way to foster an excitement for reading!

2. The chapters are short, but full of fantastic adventures. Thus, the story moves very quickly. Even I wanted to find out what would happen next, if the truth be told. Taking these first two points into account, it only took us a little over a week to read the three books (242 pages in the one volume edition).

3. There are lots of pictures in each short chapter; in fact, it is pretty rare to have a two-page spread of all text. Although they are fairly simple black and white drawings, the illustrations give enough visual representation to the story to make it come alive, while leaving plenty of room for the imagination, too. I also liked the maps on the end pieces, which were nicely illustrated and clearly labeled, so that we could follow along to see where the story was taking place (learning basic map skills, too).

4. Elmer is an ordinary boy, and many of his adventures involve animals that children would recognize. I think younger children appreciate an element of familiarity along with fantasy and mystical creatures. Although encountering tigers, lions, and alligators could be frightening, Elmer's ingenuity and resourcefulness quickly resolve potential dangers. Even the dragon is only a baby dragon, and one with blue and yellow stripes, red feet, and gold wings.

5. My 2 1/2 year-old boy was ENGAGED in these stories. He listened attentively and asked pertinent questions about the story line. This is a marked difference from our last read-aloud The Trumpet of the Swan, which was probably a little above his comprehension level.

6. These stories were memorable, so much so that any mention of a dragon, and my son cries, "I want to read about Elmer and the dragon!" I hope all other dragon stories are not a disappointment to him in the future.

7. Not only is this a great read-aloud, but I think it will also be one of the first chapter books my daughter will want to read on her own. She's currently reading Little Bear aloud to me among other things, but I look forward to the day when I find her sprawled on her bed or curled up on the couch with a good book. The Three Tales of My Father's Dragon would be an ideal "big" book to start with for the reasons listed above, especially the short chapters, as it would help her to find independent reading fun instead of tedious.

So, if you have young readers, get thee to thy library or bookstore and find My Father's Dragon. Your kids will thank you!

(I couldn't get the "Read-Aloud Thursday" button to work, but if you'd like to read more reviews of great read-aloud books, please check out Hope is the Word.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger

"A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books" is a very accurate subtitle for this delightful book.

In the mid-1950's, Joan Bodger and her family - husband John, 8-year-old son Ian, and 2 1/2-year-old daughter Lucy - took an extended trip to England to find as many connections to the stories they loved while exploring the countryside. It was a trip that any Anglophile or bibliophile, especially one with children, would love to repeat. Realistically, that's not possible for most of the Anglophile and bibliophiles I know, especially those with children, so we can live vicariously through Joan Bodger's account of their travels and adventures.

From spending two weeks in a gypsy wagon and cooking in a converted chicken coop, to sculling the Thames along the same stretch of river that inspired The Wind in the Willows, How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books provides rich descriptions, unforgettable experiences, and unique comments on both well-known classics and forgotten treasures of children's literature.

The chapter headings are somewhat indicative of the regions they visited or books and authors that they tried to find, but they are by no means comprehensive. "A Peak in Narnia," for instance, dwells mostly on their sojourn in the gypsy caravan, mentioning books like The Wind in the Willows and The Boxcar Children, with only an fanciful reference to Narnia (which misses the point, in my opinion). But other chapters are more focused, as "In Quest of Arthur," which traces their disappointments and delights as they look for places of Arthurian legend.

One of my favorite incidents is in this chapter on Arthur. At the ruins of Tintagel's castle, they found a sign posted near the cliff edge by the Ministry of Works that stated, "Parents are requested to discipline their children." You can see why this would be necessary:
But I wonder if the British government still makes such a pointed request for child-discipline more than 50 years later!

If ruined castles don't interest you, how about finding the little crooked house where the little crooked man lived with his crooked cat and crooked mouse that inspired the illustrations of Leslie Brooke (112)? Or maybe you would prefer the street in Gloucester where the tailor lived with Simpkin in Beatrix Potters' The Tailor of Gloucester (21)? They visited with Mrs. Milne, the widow of A. A. Milne, who directed them to the very bridge from which they could play Pooh Sticks just like that stuffed hero (152). And they even included some sites pertinent to adult classics, visiting the Bronte home, where a few of the minuscule stories the three sisters wrote with their brother Branwell are preserved (188). I could share many more fascinating tidbits, but, in short, you simply must read the book!

I have also added to the list of must-read books for myself and for my children. Some that weren't at all familiar to me include Puck of Pook's Hill by Kipling, Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt, and English Fairy Tales by Jacobs (which, according to the author, assists in the understanding of Shakespeare). When we study English history in a few years, I will definitely try to find Looking at History by R. J. Unstead, The Story of England by Brown and Arbuthnot, and 1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman (130).

The only thing that would improve the book would be a detailed map marking the path of their travels and the literary points they discovered. Aside from this omission, the book is well documented, with a good index and a section on Further Reading which includes more recent sources for background on authors, regions, history, etc. I'm very glad my library has this book, and I expect I will be referring to it many times in the course of our educational and reading journey. . . even if we do stay on this side of the pond.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

This is the second chapter book that I have read aloud to my children, ages 2 & 5, but I must say that they were much more engaged with Charlotte's Web than with The Trumpet of the Swan. By about half way through, my 5-year-old was listening attentively and eager to know what happened next, but the 2-year-old didn't seem to follow the story very well. It seemed more difficult for them to grasp the settings of Canadian wilderness and cities like Boston and Philadelphia than a barnyard. So maybe we will try this one again in a few years.

Louis the swan was born without the ability to trumpet, a disadvantage not only in communicating with his family but also and more importantly in finding a mate. With the help of his friend Sam Beaver, the boy who earned the swan family's trust at their Canadian nesting pond, Louis goes to school and learns to read and write. He can now communicate with people, but not his fellow swans who cannot read. When Louis falls in love (swans mate for life) and can't trumpet his affections to his chosen female, his father, the "old cob," steals a trumpet from a music store. By the time Louis learns to play the trumpet, Serena, the desire of his heart, has flown away. Nevertheless, he has many adventures as he seeks employment to pay back the debt of the stolen trumpet and restore his father's honor.

Aside from my misjudgment on age-appropriateness (for their attention spans, not the content), this is truly a delightful story. It does have a slower pace than Charlotte's Web, and since many of the characters are of the quiet, observant type there is more description and reflection than dialogue. The old cob, Louis's father, is one humorous exception, for he waxes eloquent at any opportunity until his wife wryly reminds him, "We've heard that before..." (186). In many other aspects, however, it shares several common themes with Charlotte's Web. Like Charlotte, the main human character (Sam Beaver) is more at home with nature than people, but also like Charlotte, he is only a supporting character for the main cast of creatures. As with Charlotte, the setting is realistic, the animals are generally in their natural habitat doing animal things, but there is a small element of fantasy that is so seamlessly woven into the story as to make it almost believable (to adults; I'm sure it's completely believable to children).

Eventually, we'll return to E. B. White and read Stuart Little, but for now we are reading something a bit simpler with more fantasy and action: My Father's Dragon and subsequent tales as recommended by Amy at Hope is the Word. In short, we all love it, and it's such a page-turner that I'll be reviewing it soon!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D'Urbervilles has been on my to-be-read list for a long time, even on my mental list before I had a written one. So I was glad to finally have the motivation to read it for book club.

I came to this novel knowing only bits and pieces of the storyline or Thomas Hardy's style - I knew that it was a "fallen woman" story and that Hardy was a fatalist, and that's about it. I was immediately captured by the vividness of Hardy's prose, which made it easy to read and rendered both landscapes and people in enough detail that one could easily picture the setting and characters.

It is a story of a fallen woman, but Hardy makes every effort to show Tess as the victim, one who always had to bow to the will and whims of the men in her life. To this end, the male characters are shallow, proud, and selfish, while Tess is sweet, kind, hard-working - so good that even her female rivals can't disdain her. Hardy's subtitle "A Pure Woman" caused enough controversy in his day that he regretted adding it, but it does succinctly convey the social commentary that is implicit in the novel: that Tess is a victim of circumstances and remains pure in heart and spirit if not in body.

It is a tragic story, and though I didn't really find it depressing, I wish there had been just a bit of redemption. But Angel Clare, the one man who might have forgiven Tess and loved her unselfishly, had dismissed his faith, particularly the resurrection, as untenable. Having no understanding of redemption himself, he can only think of social principles, i.e. his personal disgrace, when he learns of Tess' unfortunate past. Hardy is at least consistent in presenting his agnostic, vaguely deistic views of a universe ruled by an unkind or maybe even an evil fate, but it leaves one wishing for more.

Tess was a key motif in A Prayer for Owen Meany, another book which dealt with determinism but in a more positive light and with a view towards redemption. Perhaps Tess functioned as a foil and foreshadowing in this modern novel. Usually, I wouldn't expect a modern novel to express more faith than a Victorian novel, but in the comparison of those two novels the loss of faith was more obvious in the book from 1891.

On another note, has anyone seen the newer Masterpiece Theater version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles? I think I will wait a few months to watch it until the book is not so fresh in my mind. I usually enjoy movie adaptations better that way.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers

Concluding the Lord Peter Wimsey novels with the marriage and honeymoon of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, Busman's Honeymoon is a delightful combination of romance and detective work. Sayers combines these two usually disparate genres seamlessly and quite successfully. She comments that "It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story." I enjoyed both aspects of the novel, for the love story lends a much more personal view of Lord Peter and Harriet, while the mystery is full of interesting characters, or suspects as the case may be.

Thus, it is inconvenient to the characters, but perhaps not surprising to the readers, that Lord Peter and Harriet find a corpse in the cellar of the house they have purchased in the country where they had hoped to spend a quiet honeymoon away from the press. Such quiet is not to be theirs, however, with a troop of villagers, hired help, detectives, and reporters who all seem to have an opinion to offer, their own sad story to tell, or simply a desire to be a part of the action. Under these circumstances, Peter and Harriet's strengths and weaknesses are both displayed in stark reality, and they learn more about themselves and each other in a few days than they had discovered over the five or six years of their previous acquaintance.

The characters in this novel are exceptional: there is the Superintendent of police who parries literary quotes with Peter and Harriet for several pages (an interchange which will probably leave most 21st century readers thinking they are shamefully uneducated, at least that was my feeling); there is Lord Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess, who is just delightful and the perfect mother-in-law to Harriet who lost her mother years before; and then there is Bunter, Lord Peter's faithful butler who always seems to know the right thing to do or say no matter the situation, even one as uncertain as having a wife added to the household.

And then the love-interest truly is the heart of the story - what poetry, what beauty, what raw emotion and brutal honesty, what insights into male/female psyches and relations, as these few quotations will show:

On the thought that their wedding night was tarnished by the fact that the corpse had been in the cellar unbeknownst to them, Peter says, "Nothing that you or I have done is any insult to death - unless you think so, Harriet. I should say, if anything could sweeten the atmosphere that wretched old man left behind him, it would be the feeling we - the feeling I have for you, at any rate, and yours for me if you feel like that. I do assure you, so far as I am concerned, there's nothing trivial about it." (122)

"He appeared satisfied, but Harriet cursed herself for a fool. This business of adjusting oneself was not so easy after all. Being preposterously fond of a person didn't prevent one from hurting him unintentionally. She had an uncomfortable feeling that his confidence had been shaken and that this was not the end of the misunderstanding...He wanted you to agree with him intelligently or not at all. And her intelligence did agree with him. It was her own feelings that didn't seem to be quite pulling in double harness with her intelligence." (131-132)

"Peter accepted the tea and drank it in silence. He was still dissatisfied with himself. It was as though he had invited the woman of his choice to sit down with him at the feast of life, only to discover that his table had not been reserved for him. Men, in these mortifying circumstances, commonly find fault with the waiter, grumble at the food and irritably reject every effort to restore pleasantness to the occasion. From the worst exhibitions of injured self-conceit, his good manners were sufficient to restrain him, but the mere fact that he knew himself to be in fault made it all the more difficult for him to recover spontaneity. Harriet watched his inner conflict sympathetically. If both of them had been ten years younger, the situation would have resolved itself in a row, tears and reconciling embraces; bur for them, that path was plainly marked, NO EXIT. There was no help for it; he must get out of his sulks as best he could. Having inflicted her own savage moods upon him for a good five years, she was in no position to feel aggrieved; compared with herself, indeed, he was making a pretty good showing." (190-191)

Other passages are too lengthy to quote here, but it is worth reading this novel if only to contemplate the views of marriage and men and women's roles that are implicit in the story and dialogue. I found the tension between the individual and the unity of marriage as played out by these two highly intelligent characters to be very interesting, see especially pp. 307-308 and 324-325.

Another unique aspect of this novel is that we see the aftermath and how Lord Peter is affected after figuring out whodunit. While most mystery novels close with the pieces falling into place and perhaps the arrest of the criminal, the reader is simply left to assume that justice will be done, and the detective walks away brushing off his hands and thinking of a job well done. Lord Peter, however, is struck with intense remorse over the fact that his skills of deduction will cost a man, even a guilty man, his life. In the short time (four weeks at most) between the arrest, trial, conviction, and execution of a murderer [The British system is far more efficient than the American one], Lord Peter repeatedly visits the prisoner and spends a sleepless night before his execution. Harriet loyally but quietly supports him through his inner agony, waiting for him to share this part of the detective's life with her - a wait that ends with the most beautiful and poignant phrase of the book:

[Peter says], "I hate behaving like this. I tried to stick it out by myself."
"But why should you?" [Harriet replied]...
"It's damnable for you too. I'm sorry, I'd forgotten. That sounds idiotic. But I've always been alone."
"Yes, of course. I'm like that, too. I like to crawl away and hide in a corner."
"Well," he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, "you're my corner and I've come to hide." (400)

Well, I started in the middle and have now finished half of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I suppose it's time to go back and start properly at the beginning with Whose Body?.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

In The Gift of Asher Lev, Potok brings the reader back to the intricacies and contradictions of Asher Lev's life 18 years after he left Brooklyn for a self-imposed exile in France at the close of My Name is Asher Lev. Asher is now a very successful and well-known artist with a wife and two children, who continues to live with the dichotomy of painting and drawing what is in him for the sake of art while at the same time living as an observant Jew, mindful of Torah and the Rebbe, the leader of the Ladover Hasidic movement.

This is perhaps the most psychological stream-of-consciousness novel that I have read, as the author uses Asher's thoughts, fears, dreams, and visions to convey his current struggles as well as the history of the intervening years and even his wife's memories of World War II. Alongside the nebulous images of Asher's psyche, the traditions and expectations of the Ladover Hasidic community continue to shape the course of his life, even if they feel he has betrayed them with his art. Asher knows he has the Rebbe's blessing to pursue his art, even though his artistic vision brings pain and confusion to the Ladover Jews, but he was not prepared for what the Rebbe asked of him in return. Indeed, the Rebbe's request is posed in riddles and never fully articulated - no one else seems to be aware of how the Rebbe is shaping the future of individual lives and the Ladover movement - but perhaps it is Asher's artistic vision that makes him able to understand the Rebbe's intent and forces him to wrestle with decisions that will forever change the life of his family and children.

This novel was more mystical and introspective than My Name is Asher Lev, but that is to be expected when the protagonist is no longer a child and has years of life experience to reflect upon. It continued the conflict introduced in the first novel and provides a very interesting study of tension between one's gifts or talents and one's beliefs. On the one hand, Asher's artistic talent is a gift from the Master of the Universe, but the Ladover think that he misuses this gift by painting images that do not further the work of God. Asher maintains that this ambiguity is in accord with the way the Master of Universe has ordered the world - it is the only way he can make sense of the senseless things that have shaped the lives of those he loves and the world at large. While Asher wrestled with these issues as an individual in My Name is Asher Lev, in The Gift of Asher Lev he is faced with the implications of his artistic gifts for his family and forced to make a difficult and undesirable choice to try to balance his family's interests with the desires of the Rebbe and with his needs as an artist. Ironically, the decision that seems to be made for the greater good of everyone - himself, his wife and children, his parents, and the Ladover community - leads to a separation that was not unlike what he experienced and resented as a child.

I do not know if the author wanted to convey the message that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children or to emphasize the paradoxes of life: that joy is mixed with pain, that fulfillment entails self-denial, that what is received must be given away. Perhaps both messages are inherent along with many more. Potok's writing is rich with layers of meaning and symbolism, which reflects the mystical life and vision of the Rebbe as well as the Jewish way of discussing many interpretations of a single text. At any rate, it is thought provoking, and I will be adding Chaim Potok's other novels to my to be read list.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

Since my local library did not have Busman's Honeymoon, the fourth and final Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mystery, I had to settle for another Lord Peter mystery that is set sometime during the years he is pursuing Miss Vane. There is only one rather veiled reference to Harriet Vane, however, and it seemed to me that Lord Peter was not quite as much the gentleman in this novel as in the ones where her presence is more pervasive. Nevertheless, the plot in Murder Must Advertise is captivating and witty as I've come to expect from Sayers.

Murder Must Advertise finds Lord Peter using his middle names Death Bredon to pose as a copy-editor in an advertising firm while investigating the strange death of a former employee. In unravelling the mystery he finds a complex web of drug dealing (in 1930's London, lest you think it is only an American problem of later years), blackmail, and murder. Lord Peter is a bit more rakish, a bit less genteel, a bit more unpredictable than I expected from the other three mysteries I have read recently, but it added to the fun of the novel to see these unexpected sides of his character, from dressing as a harlequin with a penny whistle to doing cartwheels down the office corridor. I must admit that I was rather lost during the detailed account of a cricket game, but apart from that the British humor is just delightful!

Sayers accurately and hilariously captures the undercurrents of a typical office with a host of colorful characters who love to chat and gossip in between doing their various jobs. Mixed in with the witty and sometime heated interchanges however, are remarkably astute observations about humanity and subtle (or not so subtle) comments on culture that are still quite accurate 75+ years later. On the morality of advertising, for instance...

"I think this is an awfully immoral job of ours. I do, really. Think how we spoil the digestions of the public."
"Ah, yes, but think how earnestly we strive to put them right again. We undermine 'em with one hand and build 'em up with the other. The vitamins we destroy in the canning, we restore in Revito, the roughage we remove from Peabody's Piper Parritch we make u into a package and market as Bunbury's Breakfast Bran; the stomachs we ruin with Pompayne, we re-line with Peplets to aid digestion. And by forcing the d--n-fool public to pay twice over - once to have its food emasculated and once to have the vitality put back again, we keep the wheels of commerce turning and give employment to thousands - including you and me." (54)

Or on the effectiveness of public education... "Wild 'orses,' declared Ginger [an office boy], finally and completely losing his grasp of the aitches with which a careful nation had endowed him at the expense of the tax-payer..." (106)

As in Gaudy Night, there is a not unfavorable reference to what, with a view of history, we would consider questionable politics when a character states: "What we want in this country is a Mussolini to organize trade conditions." (18) I find it fascinating to read novels from the '30's when history had not made it's judgment upon foreign dictators. It would be interesting to do a study of British or Continental fiction in the '30's and '40's to see how views changed over a decade or so.

As for the mystery itself, I found this puzzle to be easier to solve than the other Lord Peter/Harriet Vane novels I've reviewed recently. Perhaps that is because I'm more accustomed to Sayers' style, or perhaps it simply was more obvious in this book. At any rate, I'm looking forward to reading Busman's Honeymoon soon, since a friend has been so kind as to loan me her copy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

Having begun homeschooling in earnest this year, we are reading aloud chapter books after lunch every day. Our first selection, which took us 3 weeks to finish, was Charlotte's Web. Even the two-year-old sat quietly (most of the time), for what two-year-old doesn't like barns and animals? Thanks to Grandma, we have the large format "Signature Edition" that is pictured, and I think the larger, color pictures helped to keep the children's interest. Even though there wasn't an illustration on every page, there was at least one or two per chapter, which gave them something to look forward to. The favorite picture was of the "Big Pig," not Uncle, but Mr. Zuckerman's dream about a giant Wilbur the day before taking him to the fair.

E. B. White is an author that I admire. For one, he lived in and loved Maine, and he seems able to capture the wonder and beauty of nature in general as only one who lives close to the land can. This edition of Charlotte's Web contains an Afterward that explains how White came to write children's literature, how he patterned Zuckerman's barn after that on his own farm, and how carefully he crafted the story - which brings me to the second reason I admire E. B. White, namely that he is an expert wordsmith. In my opinion, he often attains an ideal balance between brevity (in narrative and plot) and description (with an abundance of colorful language and carefully chosen words). Of course, that is only to be expected from one of the co-authors of The Elements of Style (THE classic text on writing well).

If you ever go to Maine with children, you must make a trip to the Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor, a children's museum where there is almost a whole floor devoted to children's books by Maine authors, including E. B. White and Robert McCloskey, and books such as Goodnight Moon and Miss Rumphius. As you ascend the stairs to this floor, you are greeted with a larger than life Wilbur, Fern, and Charlotte, bearing the apropos quotation from the closing chapter: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer."


Now I must decide what chapter book to read aloud next. Should we continue with E. B. White and read Stuart Little or The Trumpet of the Swan? Or try something like The Wind in the Willows or the Little House on the Prairie Series? Any suggestions for a captive audience, ages two and five?

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

I don't have much time for reading anymore, and I'm debating about whether it is worth taking that precious little time to blog about the books I've read. (I'd rather be reading another Lord Peter Wimsey mystery right now instead of typing, for instance.) But for now, I'll keep blogging and try to keep it short(er) than usual, although brevity is always difficult...

So I didn't make it to the book club discussion for My Name Is Asher Lev, but at least I finally finished it two weeks later. This was my first introduction to Chaim Potok, and I hope to read more of his novels, though I've heard that some of them are very different in character.

My Name is Asher Lev is a coming of age story for a Jewish boy in a very observant Hasidic home. Asher has a rare gift for drawing and painting, and as a result is misunderstood, ridiculed, and shunned at times by his family and religious community in Brooklyn after WWII. Nevertheless, the Rebbe, the head of the Ladover Hasidic group recognizes Asher's talent and encourages him, allowing him to study with another Jewish artist and become a truly great artist himself.

I really liked the way Potok used the title as a structural element to set apart important events and characters in the story. At times, the stream of consciousness narrative seems a little advanced for the age Asher should be, but I suppose the fact that he is a prodigy with artistic vision could account for some of that, not to mention that his home life is rather atypical for a young boy. Asher's mother is certainly not your stereotypical Jewish mother, and her character is developed in a unique way, first as Asher perceives things as a child and then later as he reflects as an adult on the sacrifices and sorrows his mother has endured over the years. When he is compelled, by remaining true to his artistic vision, to express her sorrow in art, he makes a masterpiece for the artistic world, but drives a wedge between himself and his family and community.

The Jewish worldview is not overtly preached in this novel, but one can easily discern some of the more important elements: honor for family and community, refusal to be tainted by the "other side" or the Gentile world, the influence of the Rebbe and other interpretations over the Torah itself, the idea that spiritual work is far more noble than other vocations. I find it interesting to speculate how Asher Lev's artistic gift would have been perceived and fostered in other religious communities. At least in Reformed Protestant theology (though praxis may differ), there is value in all vocations, appreciation for creativity and beauty as reflective of the image of God, and not disparity between the spiritual and temporal.

I hope to read the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, in the near future. It sounds like it will also deal with perceived conflicts between faith and calling, which is a tricky topic to explore in any faith tradition.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

Amidst moving and traveling, I finished my third Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery about a week ago. I had about 50 pages to go when Captive Thoughts Book Club met to discuss it, so I got to play 20 questions to figure out whodunit (it only took me about 3 questions!).

I've been pleasantly surprised at the variety of plot and structure in the three Lord Peter mysteries that I have read so far. Gaudy Night seemed to have a slower start than either Strong Poison or Have His Carcase, and the cast of characters at Shrewsbury College of Oxford was long enough to rival the list of Dames in In This House of Brede. This complexity carried over into both the dilemma and the dialogue, as there were many facets to the mystery and much more serious and philosophical topics were discussed than in the other stories.

Most interesting, was the recurring debate over the role and place of women. Unlike today when it's taken for granted that most women will attempt to "have it all" - career, marriage, family - the female dons of Shrewsbury College were almost all single, having chosen the academic life over relationships (in some cases it might be argued that this was a detriment to their relationships with each other). Some even question whether their secretaries and servants should have families, since they were more distracted from their work. Harriet Vane ponders these attitudes and whether the heart and the mind can or should concurrently pursue separate interests as she considers her relationship to and with Lord Peter Wimsey. Needless to say, there is plenty of wit and humor interwoven between the incidents of the college poltergeist (the mystery to be solved) and the sociological and philosophical issues. The whole package simply demonstrates Sayers remarkable ability to craft a story with so many diverse elements.

It was interesting to reflect upon these early feminist ideas after recently reading G. K. Chesterton's chapter on "Feminism, or the Mistake about Woman" in What's Wrong With The World. Chesterton argues that a woman is designed to be jack-of-all-trades, balancing multiple responsibilities, and not necessarily perfecting any of them, i. e. specializing in none. Writing early in the 20th century, Chesterton seems to assume that the woman's place, or at least the place where she will flourish best and contribute most to the well-being of society, is in the home. Just a few decades later (mid-30's), the women dons of Shrewsbury express the exact opposite: "...if there's any subject in which you're content with the second-rate, then it isn't really your subject" (190). In other words, as women entered the academic world they became specialists and perfectionists and reveled in it.

I can certainly identify since I've been a perfectionist since elementary school and I would enjoy being a professional student if circumstances would allow (they most decidedly don't, and I'm content with that). At the same time, I can understand and identify with Chesterton's position as well. As a homemaker, I have very little time to perfect anything since my attention must necessarily be divided by so many things. In fact, I don't think I have the brain power to sort out these various arguments and inspect them by the light of Scripture right now (maybe someday). But my preliminary thoughts (based largely upon experience) are that perhaps the dons of Shrewsbury were more right, practically speaking, than Chesterton or today's cultural expectations: if a woman is intellectually or otherwise gifted, then it is probably best for her to remain single and develop those talents with a single focus without being pulled in many directions as necessarily comes with a husband and children. They accepted the fact that theirs was a generally lonely and isolated life, and that was the price they paid for pursuing academics. This seems to me a more well-reasoned and responsible choice to take the implications of an academic career upon oneself by denying oneself intimate relationships (assuming one lives morally) than to inflict the implications of one's career upon one's husband and children. This is not to say that only dumb women should marry and have children, but that all women should seriously consider that they cannot "have it all" and make a deliberate choice between two options. All right, I've opened a big can of worms here - any comments? ( :

I am very interested to read more of Dorothy Sayers' life and especially her theological works. She came to faith later in life, I believe, so she made many of the choices which directed the course of her life apart from the counsel of Scripture and a life of faith. I wonder how many of the views on women expressed in Gaudy Night are her own and if she held those same views throughout life. I hope to read a biography by David Coomes, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life, who describes her as "a champion of absolute standards, but ... no less a champion of those who fall short of the ideal...when she spoke out so vehemently on moral and doctrinal issues ... it was as someone who had fallen and suffered and was desperate to warn others of the self-inflicted punishment lying in wait for the unwary."

On a historical note, I found it very interesting that this book was written in 1936, and hence there was a favorable reference to Hitler by a minor character (p. 126). It's amazing what a little perspective on history can do!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Teaser Tuesday - Gaudy Night

is hosted by Should be Reading.


TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
  1. Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.
  2. Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  3. Also share the title of the book that the “teaser” comes from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given! Please avoid spoilers!
Miss Hillyard stated that she had received them on a Saturday morning and taken them to her own rooms (which were on Miss Lydgate's staircase and on the floor immediately above). She had subsequently taken them into the Library (that is to say, the Library in Tudor, now about to be superseded by the New Library), and had there worked upon them for some time with the aid of some reference books.

~ p. 86, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. (I have a weak spot for any author that uses subsequently and superseded so effectively in one sentence!)

Read my reviews of the preceding Lord Peter and Harriet Vane mysteries here: Strong Poison and Have His Carcase.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

Have His Carcase is the second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery that I have read, and I am hooked. I'll be happily reading all the Lord Peter books that I can acquire as I have time!

Have His Carcase is a bit slower paced than Strong Poison, but I loved the structure of revealing the evidence piece by piece. The descriptive chapter headings were very helpful when I needed to go back and look for some detail that I might have missed. Overall, the mystery element was fascinating and the characters and suspects unique. The details were intriguing, although at times I had to restrain myself from skipping ahead to find the latest development more quickly! It was a complex mystery, one where some things seemed obvious, but the pieces just didn't seem to fit, as Lord Peter observed: "What I like about your evidence...is that...it reduces it to the complete quintessence of incomprehensible nonsense. Therefore, by the second law of thermodynamics, which lays down that we are hourly and momently progressing to a state of more and more randomness, we receive positive assurance that we are moving happily and securely in the right direction" (292). Exactly - and I didn't guess the fact that tied all the disparate parts together until just before it was revealed in the last chapter. I guess I'm a little out of practice in figuring out who-dunnit.

The growing relationship between Harriet and Lord Peter is both sweet and funny in this novel. Lord Peter is dashingly gallant and persistent: "I could kiss you for it. You need not shrink and tremble. I am not going to do it. When I kiss you, it will be an important event - one of those things which stand out among their surroundings like the first time you tasted li-chee. It will not be an unimportant sideshow attached to a detective investigation" (203).

In spite of his charm, Harriet stubbornly tries to maintain an aloof distance, but she softens just a bit, eventually realizing (if only subconsciously) that Lord Peter's attentions and off-hand proposals aren't so offensive after all, as we see here:
"Time passes when one is pleasantly occupied," said Harriet, sententiously.
Wimsey put his hat and papers down on the table, opened his mouth to speak, changed his mind, took up his belongings again and marched to the door.
"Cheerio!" he said, amiably.
"Cheerio!" replied Harriet.
He went out. Harriet sat looking at the closed door.
"Well," she said, "thank goodness he's given up asking me to marry him. It's much better he should put it out of his mind."
She must have felt strongly about it, for she repeated the remark several times (377).

I'm sorry this is such a superficial review for such a complex and witty book. But I don't have time to write more - I'm already reading Gaudy Night and looking forward to another intriguing tale of evil intent and galant chivalry. So be forewarned: these novels are addicting.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teaser Tuesday - Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

is hosted by Should be Reading.


TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  1. Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.

  2. Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.

  3. Also share the title of the book that the “teaser” comes from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given! Please avoid spoilers!

Five years seems a longish time to premeditate a crime. You might, perhaps, keep an eye on that bank - only don't make a row about it, or you may frighten the bird away.

~ p. 119, Have His Carcase, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Read my review of the preceding novel Strong Poison, here.

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

As a child, I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on (too bad I didn't know about inter-library loan then!), but for various reasons, I haven't looked very far for good mysteries as an adult. I'm not interested in scary thrillers or gory tales of horror, much less in stories riddled with sexual innuendos or more. But now I have found Lord Peter Wimsey, and I am enthralled!

I usually like to start at the beginning of a series and read through to the end, but because of book club selections I met Lord Peter Wimsey in Strong Poison which is also where Sayers introduces Harriet Vane. I'm not too concerned about mixing up chronology, for in this case it simply means that I have many more novels to enjoy! I'm afraid they could be addicting.

Sayers is a remarkable writer, as these snippets will reveal:

"There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood." (p. 1 - first line of Chapter 1)

"Such a Victorian attitude, too, for a man with advanced ideas. He for God only, she for God in him, and so on. Well, I'm glad you feel like that about it."
"Are you? It's not going to be exactly helpful in the present crisis."
"No; I was looking beyond that. What I mean to say is, when all this is over, I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that." (44 - What a pick-up line!!!)

"What a clear mind you have," said Miss Climpson.
"When I die you will find 'Efficiency' written on my heart." (53)

"The next day dawned bright and fair, and Wimsey felt a certain exhilaration as he purred down to Tweedling Parva. 'Mrs. Merdle' the car...was sparking merrily on all twelve cylinders, and there was a touch of frost in the air. These things conduce to high spirits." (59)

"If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle," said Harriet, severely.
"A humiliating reason, but better than no reason at all." (128)

"Oh, come," said Wimsey, "you can't think that, Helen. Damn it, she writes detective stories and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They're the purest literature we have." (132 - don't just love Sayers self-implicating wit, there?)

And finally, such nice structure, the final chapter opens with, "There were golden chrysanthemums on the judge's bench; they looked like burning banners." (259)

Some books simply would not translate well to the screen. I don't think A Prayer for Owen Meany would (and the author John Irving agreed with that, though it was attempted in the film Simon Birch, which I haven't seen), but Strong Poison practically begs to be acted - the wit, the humor, the settings and descriptions, not mention Lord Wimsey's proposals to Harriet Vane - it would be perfect. So I was delighted to find that the BBC did do a adaptation in the late 80's that comes in a 3 volume DVD set:
Now I'll just have to finish the books that much faster so that I can watch the series!


If you've read Lord Wimsey (or even if you haven't) please comment and leave your suggestions for other good, clean mystery novels.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

The Goose Girl is a delightful fairy tale that has just the right balance of friendship, loyalty, adventure, intrigue, danger, and (of course) true love. It is a greatly expanded retelling of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale by the same name, but Shannon Hale has worked a wondrous improvement upon the classic tale, fleshing out the story with a cast of supporting characters, well-apportioned dialogue, and a touch of fantasy.

Though it doesn't have as strong moral overtones as George MacDonald's Princess fairy tales (reviewed here and here), it does show an admirable development in the character of Princess Ani/Isi, as she learns to stand for the truth no matter the cost, as well as the value of true friends no matter their class.

I look forward to reading the other novels in the Books of Bayern series - in fact, two of them are reserved at the library for me already! I also would not hesitate to recommend The Goose Girl to younger readers, for it is an engaging story of good triumphing over evil that is untarnished by inappropriate suggestions or descriptions. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the most well-crafted contemporary novels that I have read (but then, I haven't read that many contemporary novels). Everything fits - or as the title character comments about Thomas Hardy, "HE'S VERY EASY TO UNDERSTAND - HE'S OBVIOUS, HE TELLS YOU EVERYTHING YOU HAVE TO KNOW*" (281). By the end, all the major pieces have fallen into place, but it begs to be re-read to appreciate more subtle nuances that might be more obvious in hindsight.

A story of faith and friendship, of doubt and the miraculous, of small-town New England life and international politics. . . this novel made me think as well as laugh out loud and shed a few tears. Since it would be too complicated and reveal too many spoilers to summarize much of the story, I would like to focus on one aspect of the novel: how faith happens.

Our narrator, Johnny Wheelwright, asserts that he is a Christian, that he has faith because of Owen Meany, specifically because of what happened to his best friend Owen Meany. Faith factors variously in the lives of both major and minor characters, but Johnny doesn't really take it seriously as he's growing up. In high school, he comments that "[t]he class loved Sartre and Camus – the concept of 'the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation' was thrilling to us teenagers. The Rev. Mr. Merrill countered humbly with Kierkegaard: 'What no person has a right to is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance, or that it is an easy matter, whereas it is the greatest and most difficult of all things'" (277). But Johnny doesn't understand Kierkegaard or his friend Owen's insistence on "FAITH AND PRAYER," and he doesn't trouble himself to understand either.

Years later, Pastor Merrill, whose own faith had floundered, tells Johnny, "'But miracles don't c-c-c-cause belief – real miracles don't m-m-m-make faith out of thin air; you have to already have faith in order to believe in real miracles'" (463). Johnny, however, comes to the opposite conclusion. His faith is born out of the "miracle" of Owen Meany's unshakable sense of purpose and prescience, so miracles preceded faith. Even though he finds faith perplexing, Johnny concludes that it would be more difficult not to have faith: "For although I believe I know what the real miracles are, my belief in God disturbs and unsettles me much more than not believing ever did; unbelief seems vastly harder to me now than belief does – but belief poses so many unanswerable questions!” (504).

It seems that Johnny follows the more valid path to faith. Throughout Scripture miracles are used to demonstrate the validity of God's Word, to attest to the authenticity of the true prophets, His messengers, including the Prophet, Priest, and King - the Messiah. While faith is certainly the gift of God, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Insofar as miracles establish the word of God, they can be understood as a precursor to faith. Please understand, I'm not trying to establish a gospel according to Owen Meany (it is certainly not an allegorical tale), but merely demonstrating that this fictional story with supernatural elements explains faith with rudimentary biblical themes. The content of that faith is another matter, and one that is not developed sufficiently enough in the novel to critique it.

I wonder how much of this story is autobiographical. According to the dust jacket, the author John Irving grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, attended a private academy there, and now lives in Canada, just like the narrator Johnny. Was there really a boy with a strange voice, or is it just that John Irving is a master storyteller, one like Thomas Hardy, whom Owen quotes as saying, "A STORY MUST BE EXCEPTIONAL ENOUGH TO JUSTIFY ITS TELLING. WE STORYTELLERS ARE ALL ANCIENT MARINERS, AND NONE OF US IS JUSTIFIED. . .UNLESS HE HAS SOMETHING MORE UNUSUAL TO RELATE THAN THE ORDINARY EXPERIENCES OF EVERY AVERAGE MAN AND WOMAN." (459) A Prayer for Owen Meany is certainly a story that is out of the ordinary, one whose telling is justified, and one that is worth reading.

*All Owen Meany's dialogue is printed in caps to remind the reader of his distinctive voice.

Teaser Tuesday - A Prayer for Owen Meany

is hosted by Should be Reading.


TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  1. Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.
  2. Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  3. Also share the title of the book that the “teaser” comes from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given! Please avoid spoilers!

And Owen's particular brand of fatalism would have been challenging for a good psychiatrist; I'm sure Dr. Dolder was scared to death about it. And would Owen have gone so far as to tell Dr. Dolder about Scrooge's grave?

~ p. 341, A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.