Monday, May 25, 2009

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas

I don't recall where I read about Prayers for Sale (maybe Amazon recommendations?), but I was certainly intrigued by a story of the relationship between an old woman and a young wife in Depression-era Colorado tied together by a common love for quilting. I love the Rocky Mountains, like the example of Titus 2-type relationships, and have even made a couple of quilts, though I wouldn't say it's a passion or a therapy.

While this novel is not overtly Christian, there is a simple faith (certainly not any systematic theology here) that permeates the stories Hennie Comfort tells her young friend Nit, stories drawn from personal tragedies, joys - large and small, the love of family, and a love for the rugged mountains and the gold they contain. At the age of eighty-seven, Hennie is happy to share her stories and glad to be a friend to Nit, a newcomer to Middle Swan, Colorado. The unusual title of the novel comes from a sign posted on Hennie's fence, which is something of a joke that her late husband made for her at a time when the blessings in their lives were such that Hennie said she had prayers to spare.

Most of Hennie's stories are humble, homey, and humorous, but some indeed are heartbreaking. Interestingly, some of her life experiences mirror those of young Nit, and Hennie quickly realizes that she might be a part of the answer to the prayers Nit requested. Hennie teaches Nit where to find the best raspberries and how to adjust her cooking to the altitude of the Rockies. She introduces her to other quilters and the women of the town and, over the course of a year, helps her become a true mountain woman. At the same time, Hennie wrestles with her own difficulties: the dread of "going below" to live with her daughter, the limitations of growing old (which are rather slight, considering that she's eighty-seven!), and an unresolved bitterness from her past that must be forgiven.

I wouldn't say this is great literature. There are certainly other novels that are more descriptive, present history more fully, or have greater insights into human character and relationships. But Prayers for Sale is a sweet story, offering a positive perspective on life with all its trials and struggles and a good example of intergenerational friendship between two women.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

My second venture with reading an eBook was George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie, the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin. The Princess and Curdie primarily follows the adventures of Curdie when he is sent on a mission by the Princess's great-great grandmother, eventually foiling a plan of treason that endangered the life of the king and Princess Irene.

This is a darker tale than The Princess and the Goblin, and the symbolism seems more complex, probably much deeper than I have grasped in my quick, late-night reading. There are certainly images of redemption, but I'm not sure if any particular character could be considered a Christ-figure. Most intriguing to me is the way concepts of faith, reason, and experience are presented and implied. Every person who encounters the great-great grandmother is required to suspend reason to greater or lesser extents, and those who hear of these encounters must choose either to trust and believe those who describe their wondrous, confusing tales or doubt the speaker at the risk of losing what relationship they had. Faith in what the great-great grandmother says is the key thing - one might doubt or marvel at the experience in which those words were heard, but one should never doubt the existence of the great-great grandmother or the truth of her words, even when it seems they contradict good sense and sound reason. Theologians have wrestled with the relationship of faith and reason for centuries, so it is not to be expected that a fairy tale will sort out the issues and make things plain. Yet I think MacDonald does glory in the tension and the paradoxes of faith, recognizing that some things are beyond reason, but at the same time faith and reason are both grounded in truth, in word, in the Word.

Where The Princess and the Goblin seemed like a typical fairy tale with good moral lessons and a fairly predictable, almost formulaic ending, The Princess and Curdie had several passages that reminded me more of Lillith in all its oddities, particularly Curdie's journey across the heath, the many strange and hideous creatures that accompany him, and the descriptions of the city and its inhabitants. Perhaps we are more used to the images and creatures of Narnia and Middle Earth, so even orcs don't seem so terrible and strange, or maybe Lewis and Tolkien crafted myths more to the liking of modern minds. At any rate, I much prefer MacDonald's novels to his fantasy.

Even though I much prefer to hold a book in my hands, one advantage of reading a book online is that it makes it very easy to cut and paste my favorite lines from the page. I apologize for the length of these quotes, but I hope readers will find them to be gems as I did.

"He was a real king - that is, one who ruled for the good of his people and not to please himself, and he wanted the silver not to buy rich things for himself, but to help him to govern the country, and pay the ones that defended it from certain troublesome neighbours, and the judges whom he set to portion out righteousness among the people, that so they might learn it themselves, and come to do without judges at all." (Chapter 1)

"The good, kind people did not reflect that the road to the next duty is the only straight one, or that, for their fancied good, we should never wish our children or friends to do what we would not do ourselves if we were in their position. We must accept righteous sacrifices as well as make them." (Chapter 1)

"There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. One of the latter sort comes at length to know at once whether a thing is true the moment it comes before him; one of the former class grows more and more afraid of being taken in, so afraid of it that he takes himself in altogether, and comes at length to believe in nothing but his dinner: to be sure of a thing with him is to have it between his teeth." (Chapter 2)

"The boy should enclose and keep, as his life, the old child at the heart of him, and never let it go. He must still, to be a right man, be his mother's darling, and more, his father's pride, and more. The child is not meant to die, but to be forever fresh born." (Chapter 2)

"'I see now that I have been doing wrong the whole day, and such a many days besides! Indeed, I don't know when I ever did right, and yet it seems as if I had done right some time and had forgotten how. When I killed your bird I did not know I was doing wrong, just because I was always doing wrong, and the wrong had soaked all through me. . .I was doing the wrong of never wanting or trying to be better. And now I see that I have been letting things go as they would for a long time. Whatever came into my head I did, and whatever didn't come into my head I didn't do. I never sent anything away, and never looked out for anything to come.'" (Chapter 3)

"There was a change upon Curdie, and father and mother felt there must be something to account for it, and therefore were pretty sure he had something to tell them. For when a child's heart is all right, it is not likely he will want to keep anything from his parents." (Chapter 4)

"They were the happiest couple in that country, because they always understood each other, and that was because they always meant the same thing, and that was because they always loved what was fair and true and right better, not than anything else, but than everything else put together." (Chapter 4)

"But they did not lose courage, for there is a kind of capillary attraction in the facing of two souls, that lifts faith quite beyond the level to which either could raise it alone: they knew that they had seen the lady of emeralds, and it was to give them their own desire that she had gone from them, and neither would yield for a moment to the half doubts and half dreads that awoke in his heart." (Chapter 7)

"'Yes,' she went on, 'you have got to thank me that you are so poor, Peter. I have seen to that, and it has done well for both you and me, my friend. Things come to the poor that can't get in at the door of the rich. Their money somehow blocks it up. It is a great privilege to be poor, Peter - one that no man ever coveted, and but a very few have sought to retain, but one that yet many have learned to prize. You must not mistake, however, and imagine it a virtue; it is but a privilege, and one also that, like other privileges, may be terribly misused. Had you been rich, my Peter, you would not have been so good as some rich men I know. And now I am going to tell you what no one knows but myself: you, Peter, and your wife both have the blood of the royal family in your veins. I have been trying to cultivate your family tree, every branch of which is known to me, and I expect Curdie to turn out a blossom on it. Therefore I have been training him for a work that must soon be done. I was near losing him, and had to send my pigeon. Had he not shot it, that would have been better; but he repented, and that shall be as good in the end.'" (Chapter 7)

"'I could give you twenty names more to call me, Curdie, and not one of them would be a false one. What does it matter how many names if the person is one?'
'Ah! But it is not names only, ma'am. Look at what you were like last night, and what I see you now!'
'Shapes are only dresses, Curdie, and dresses are only names. That which is inside is the same all the time.'
'But then how can all the shapes speak the truth?'
'it would want thousands more to speak the truth, Curdie; and then they could not. But there is a point I must not let you mistake about. It is one thing the shape I choose to put on, and quite another the shape that foolish talk and nursery tale may please to put upon me. Also, it is one thing what you or your father may think about me, and quite another what a foolish or bad man may see in me. For instance, if a thief were to come in here just now, he would think he saw the demon of the mine, all in green flames, come to protect her treasure, and would run like a hunted wild goat. I should be all the same, but his evil eyes would see me as I was not.'" (Chapter 7)

"But the fortifications had long been neglected, for the whole country was now under one king, and all men said there was no more need for weapons or walls. No man pretended to love his neighbour, but every one said he knew that peace and quiet behaviour was the best thing for himself, and that, he said, was quite as useful, and a great deal more reasonable. The city was prosperous and rich, and if everybody was not comfortable, everybody else said he ought to be." (Chapter 13)

"He felt sure this must be the king's chamber, and it was here he was wanted; or, if it was not the place he was bound for, something would meet him and turn him aside; for he had come to think that so long as a man wants to do right he may go where he can: when he can go no farther, then it is not the way." (Chapter 18)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

I have long been a fan of George MacDonald, and The Princess and the Goblin, a simple little fairy tale for children and adults alike, reminded me why. He has such an ability to weave good moral lessons and sound theology (usually) into engaging narratives with beautiful descriptions. Here are a few samples:

"She turned and started at full speed, her little footsteps echoing through the sounds of the rain - back for the stairs and her safe nursery. So she thought, but she had lost herself long ago. It doesn't follow that she was lost, because she had lost herself, though." (Chapter 2)

"'Oh, dear! I can't understand that,' said the princess. 'I dare say not. I didn't expect you would. But that's no reason why I shouldn't say it.'" (Chapter 3)

"Not to be believed does not at all agree with princesses: for a real princess cannot tell a lie. . .Only when the nurse spoke to her, she answered her, for a real princess is never rude - even when she does well to be offended." (Chapter 4)

"A long dark beard, streaked with silvery lines, flowed from his mouth almost to his waist, and as Irene sat on the saddle and hid her glad face upon his bosom it mingled with the golden hair which her mother had given her, and the two together were like a cloud with streaks of the sun woven through it. " (Chapter 10)

"True, her hands were hard and chapped and large, but it was with work for them; and therefore, in the sight of the angels, her hands were so much the more beautiful. And if Curdie worked hard to get her a petticoat, she worked hard every day to get him comforts which he would have missed much more than she would a new petticoat even in winter. Not that she and Curdie ever thought of how much they worked for each other: that would have spoiled everything." (Chapter 12)

"If all the long-legged cats in the world had come rushing at her then she would not have been afraid of them for a moment. How this was she could not tell - she only knew there was no fear in her, and everything was so right and safe that it could not get in." (Chapter 15)

"But you must understand that no one ever gives anything to another properly and really without keeping it. That ball is yours...Of one thing you may be sure, that while you hold it, I hold it too." (Chapter 15)

". . .it is so silly of people to fancy that old age means crookedness and witheredness and feebleness and sticks and spectacles and rheumatism and forgetfulness! It is so silly! Old age has nothing whatever to do with all that. The right old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes and strong painless limbs." (Chapter 15)

"'But in the meantime you must be content, I say, to be misunderstood for a while. We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.' 'What is that, grandmother?' 'To understand other people.' 'Yes, grandmother. I must be fair - for if I'm not fair to other people, I'm not worth being understood myself. I see. So as Curdie can't help it, I will not be vexed with him, but just wait.'" (Chapter 22)

This was the first book I have read entirely online (available here), which was a convenient option since my copy from childhood is in a box in a truck in another state! If it weren't for the extenuating circumstances, however, I'd much prefer turning pages to scrolling and clicking.

It was a joy to reread this tale after many years (we won't go into details on how many years), and I look forward to reading The Princess and Curdie in the next few days and discussing both stories at the new book club I've found in Indiana.

I also intend to read this aloud to my daughter in the near future. Princess Irene is such a better role model than Disney Princesses, whose glamour seems to overshadow their goodness too often. And what little girl doesn't love a princess story?!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I'm sure there is nothing new to be said about this novel that has not already been written on another blog, but I thought The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was just delightful. I won't summarize the story as I often do, for you can find that anywhere. Instead, I'd like to comment on what I liked best about this novel.

Telling the story through letters was a stroke of genius, I believe. It gave it a very intimate quality that immediately helped me to connect with the characters. And the characters, most of them at least, were diverse, charming, witty, endearing, and lovable. The pompous fools and deceptive interlopers added some comic relief and were charming in their own way, too. In a subtle way, it reminded me of Anne of Green Gables, but maybe that's just because Guernsey and Prince Edward Island evoke idyllic images of island life. The WWII history was told by the characters as it had impacted their own lives, which gave it such a personal and natural quality, making it very realistic. I wonder how much of it might have been factual. It would have been nice to know of the authors' sources for describing the Nazi occupation of the island, as I would be interested in reading other histories or memoirs from that place and period.

I loved the literary references to such a wide variety of books. This novel certainly caters to book lovers. For that reason alone it would be fun to discuss at a book club since the novel itself could be discussed, as well as the comments made about many other books. The publisher has provided discussion questions, and is even offering a sweepstakes for a book club (6 members) to win a trip to Guernsey in October 2009.

Here are a few of the literary references to whet your appetite (or remind you of the charm if you've already read this):

"Lamb helped Hunt paint the ceiling of his cell sky blue with white clouds. Next they painted a rose trellis up one wall. Then, I further discovered, Lamb offered money to help Hunt's family outside the prison - though he himself was as poor as a man could be. Lamb also taught Hunt's youngest daughter to say the Lord's Prayer backward. You naturally want to learn everything you can about a man like that." (11)

"At the start, we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away, and the purpose of the speakers was to goad the listeners into wanting to read the book themselves. Once two members had read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight. We read books, talked books, argued over books, and become dearer and dearer to one another. . .we could almost forget, now and then, the darkness outside." (51)

"Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." (53)

"It seems to me the less [Shakespeare] said, the more beauty he made. Do you know what sentence of his I admire the most? It is 'The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.' I wish I'd known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, plane-load after plane-load of them. . .If I could have thought the words 'the bright day is done and we are for the dark,' I'd have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstances - instead of my heart sinking to my shoes." (63)

"But you want to know about the influence of books on my life, and as I've said, there was only one. Seneca. . .Maybe that sounds dull, but the letters aren't - they're witty. I think you learn more if you're laughing at the same time." (89)

"I'm sure many Islanders grew to be friends with some of the soldiers. But sometimes I think of Charles Lamb and marvel that a man born in 1775 enabled me to make two such friends as you and Christian." (97)

"Thompson saw his chance: he beat his spoon upon his glass and shouted from the floor to be heard. 'Did any of you ever think that along about the time the notion of a SOUL gave out, Freud popped up with the EGO to take its place? The timing of the man! Did he not pause to reflect? Irresponsible old coot! It is my belief that men must spout this twaddle about egos, because they fear they have no soul! Think upon it!'" (102)

The only flaw, in my opinion, was a bit of political correctness that seemed gratuitous. On one level it fit because it answered a fairly obvious question, but I'm sure that question could have been satisfactorily answered apart from a reference to sexual orientation.

Whereas it took me three weeks to finish Vanity Fair, I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in only two days (so fast I didn't even get to do Teaser Tuesdays!). Perhaps that is an indication that my tastes in books is rather superficial (I hope not, and maybe some of the quotes above show more depth than superficiality), but it certainly is easier to like a book with a solid plot and a hero/heroine. I highly recommend this novel for a quick read with great characters, a good amount of history, and a love for books on every page!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Vanity Fair by W. M. Thackery

It took me a while (three weeks!) to get through all 680 pages of this one. When all is said and done, I'm rather ambivalent about the whole thing, but that may have been the very reaction Thackery would have wanted from his readers.

Set in the early to mid-19th century, Vanity Fair traces the adult lives of two very different school chums, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky is the worldly-wise orphan who makes her way in society by her charm and wit. Amelia is a sweet, guileless, and naive girl who spends most of her life wishing for and then mourning her idealized vision of love. A full cast of supporting characters round out the novel's depiction of various levels of British society, but in spite of its breadth and scope, the story seems vastly empty and rather tedious. I suppose it might have been most effective in its original serial publication, as I expect I might have found it more interesting to read the next installment every few weeks or so. As a self-contained novel, however, I thought that it lacked a compelling plot aside from Becky's scheming and Amelia's tragedy.

The subtitle, "A novel without a hero," is very telling, for it is difficult to relate to and even to like most of the characters. I don't think this is simply a matter of distance from the time period. The few characters with whom one can sympathize eventually reveal themselves to be just as shallow and foolish as the rest. Thackery occasionally reveals his intent through the voice of his narrator. Even if it is ironic or tongue in cheek, there is surely an element of truth when he states, "This, dear friends and companions, is my amiable object - to walk with you through the Fair, to examine the shops and the shows there ; and that we should all come home after the flare, and the noise, and the gaiety, and be perfectly miserable in private." (182) If that's his aim, then it's not surprising that I found the book pointless and empty!

If Thackery intended this as a social commentary or an ironic satire, he very well could have drawn his contemporaries into the intrigues of the characters only to show them all - characters and readers alike - to be fools. In fact, he concludes, "Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" (680) If nothing else, this novel reveals the emptiness of pursuing one's own desires and interests. Unfortunately, it doesn't offer any alternative. There is no redemption and no solution to the never-ending cycle of desire and disappointment. I do not regret having read this classic, for it is a telling commentary on its time. But I didn't find it as interesting or enjoyable as other classics, and for moral instruction, the book of Ecclesiastes comes to the point much more quickly.

Don't let my criticisms overshadow the fact that there is a lot of truth in this novel. The truth, at times, is hard to swallow, and in this case Thackery didn't gloss over the selfishness of human nature to make that truth more palatable to his readers, as you'll see in some of the quotations below:

"She was quite a different person from the haughty, shy, dissatisfied little girl whom we have known previously, and this change of temper proved great prudence, a sincere desire of amendment, or at any rate great moral courage on her part. Whether it was the heart which dictated this new system of complaisance and humility adopted by our Rebecca, is to be proved by her after-history. A system of hypocrisy, which lasts through whole years, is one seldom satisfactorily practised by a person of one-and-twenty..." (90)

"Picture to yourself, O fair young reader, a worldly selfish, graceless, thankless religionless old woman, writhing in pain and fear, and without her wig. Picture her to yourself, and ere you be old, learn to love and pray!" (132)

"Amelia had. . .pledged her love irretrievably; confessed her heart away, and got back nothing - only a brittle promise which was snapped and worthless in a moment. A long engagement is a partnership which one party is free to keep or to break, but which involves all the capital of the other." (174)

"She. . .fell to thinking over the past week, and the life beyond it. Already to be looking sadly and vaguely back: always to be pining for something which, when obtained, brought doubt and sadness rather than pleasure: here was the lot of our poor little creature. . ." (251)

"She went and knelt down by the bedside; and there this wounded and timorous, but gentle and loving soul, sought for consolation, where as yet, it must be owned, our little girl had but seldom looked for it. Love had been her faith hitherto; and the sad, bleeding, disappointed heart began to feel the want of another consoler. . . our young lady came downstairs a great deal more cheerful; that she did not despond, or deplore her fate. . .as she had been wont to do of late." (252)

"As long as we have a man's body, we play our Vanities upon it, surrounding it with humbug and ceremonies, laying it in state, and packing it up in gilt nails and velvet; and we finish our duty by placing over it a stone, written all over with lies." (412)

"'It isn't difficult to be a country gentleman's wife,' Rebecca thought. 'I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year. . .And who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations - an that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman? . . .Becky consoled herself by so balancing the chances and equalizing the distribution of good and evil in the world." (414)

"And let us, my brethren. . .console ourselves by thinking comfortably how miserable our betters may be, and that Damocles, who sits on satin cushions, and is served on gold plate, has an awful sword hanging over his head in the shape of a bailiff, or an hereditary disease, or a family secret, which peep out every now and then. . ." (459)

"And in the midst of all these solitary resignations and unseen sacrifices, she did not respect herself any more than the world respected her; but I believe thought in her heart that she was a poor-spirited, despicable little creature, whose luck in life was only too good for her merits. O you poor women! O you poor secret martyrs and victims. . ." (562)

"A new world of love and beauty broke upon her when she was introduced to those divine compositions: this lady had the keenest and finest sensibility, and how could she be indifferent when she heard Mozart?" (613)

"'The child, my child? Oh, yes, my agonies were frightful,' Becky owned, not perhaps without a twinge of conscience. It jarred upon her, to be obliged to commence instantly to tell lies in reply to so much confidence and simplicity. But that is the misfortune of beginning with this kind of forgery. When one fib becomes due as it were, you must forge another to take up the old acceptance; and so the stock of lies in circulation inevitably multiplies, and the danger of detection increases every day." (652)

Worth reading? Yes. Will I reread it someday? Probably not.