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.