Friday, May 17, 2013

No Name by Wilkie Collins

Reading to Know - Book ClubCarrie hosts the Reading to Know Book Club each month, and there is a great line-up of children's and adult classics this year! Since I've read and enjoyed both The Woman in White (linked to my review) and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, when No Name was chosen for the April selection, I decided to join the fun. I did actually finish it at least a week before the end of April, but I'm late, as usual, to the party when it comes to writing my summary post. Such is life.

No Name is quite different from the other two Collins titles that I have read. Where the other novels were full of plot twists and surprises, this novel seemed overly predictable to me, at least in the overarching plot. But in spite of the fact that it wasn't too difficult to guess the characters' purposes or designs, it was very interesting to see the details of the story unfold. I still think that Collins is a masterful storyteller, and I would choose him over Dickens any day!

This story begins as a seemingly benign tale of domestic life, focusing on the Vanstone family: a benevolent and cheerful father, a weak (sickly) but loving mother, a reserved and proper older daughter Norah, and a frivolous, carefree younger daughter Magdalen. When the fortunes of the family suddenly change and leave the two daughters penniless orphans, it is not difficult to predict how the two young women will react to their reduced circumstances. Norah accepts her lot with quiet dignity and strives to make the best use of the opportunities at hand, while Magdalen starts plotting revenge on the estranged relative who took advantage of the letter of the law for his own gain.

In her quest for revenge and vindication, Magdalen unflinchingly weaves a complex web of deception, though she is always just one small circumstance away from detection. She obtains the ends she desires, but at great cost to her principles and character.* As one would expect, she does not find happiness or satisfaction. Eventually, all her tangled web unravels, leaving her in even more dire straits than before: friendless, poor, and ill. At this point, Collins reintroduces a minor character, who, predictably arrives at the opportune moment to save Magdalen from the poorhouse and from herself.

Yes, the details all fall into place a little too perfectly in both her demise and her restoration, but in spite of the predictability and idealism of a happy ending, I was struck by an overwhelming picture of grace as it drew to a close. This novel is a prime example of the point made in my previous post regarding how the wretchedness of sin is sometimes necessary for the brilliance of grace to shine forth. I don't know if this was what Collins intended, but I can't help but think that it would have been obvious to his readers in the more culturally Christian mindset of the Victorian era. Even more pointedly, I realized in retrospect, that all that predictability really served to reveal my own propensity to sin. If I could so easily predict Magdalen's thirst for revenge and the downward path she would so doggedly pursue, it clearly shows that I could be capable of the same thing. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

So, while I enjoyed Collins' well-crafted story and unique characters, this novel proved to be more than just an entertaining period piece. Once again, classic literature reveals a depth and wisdom that is rooted in a Christian worldview (whether that was Collins' personal faith or simply a product of a largely Christian culture, I don't know), that is so often lacking in more modern novels. So if you're looking for an intriguing novel, I would recommend No Name - it's easy enough for summer (or anytime) reading, but will give you plenty to ponder if you choose! (It's even available free for Kindle, which is the format in which I read it.)

*Note: This is not a typical "fallen woman" story in the sense that Magdalen loses her purity, but she certainly compromises her moral character with the lies she must propagate to work her revenge. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Lit! A Christian Book Worth Reading!

When it comes to Christian books, I usually prefer titles that are 100+ years old to something published recently, but after Carrie highly recommended Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books, not once, but twice (click the links to read her reviews), I thought it might be worth looking into. Add to that a book club discussion about how to choose, read, discuss, and interpret books for ourselves and with our children, and it seemed like the opportune time to give this subject some further thought.

Tony Reinke devotes roughly the first half of the book to establishing a theological basis for reading, which I appreciated both for its succinctness and accuracy. His review of the main tenets of our Christian faith, though brief, reminded me of why I chose to study theology - it's just amazing to contemplate God and His work in mankind and the world! The fact that God chose to reveal Himself in the written Word not only establishes the preeminence of Scripture in the Christian's life, but also suggests the importance of words and books on a more general sphere. They are a powerful means of communicating truth (or error), and Reinke deftly answers most objections and excuses that Christians might make about reading (not that I have that problem), making a strong case for the reading of Scripture, first and foremost, but also a wide variety of other books that can contribute to our spiritual growth and enjoyment.

Reinke's chapters are well-organized, often providing several points at the outset upon which he elaborates throughout the chapter. One example of this is his chapter on "Reading with Resolve" in which he identifies and explains six priorities by which he determines what to read. I appreciated that he included fiction under the heading of "Reading to Kindle Spiritual Reflection," recognizing that great literature, including many classics (such as Dostoyevsky and the Chronicles of Narnia) and poetry (such as John Donne or Chaucer), can illustrate the biblical truths of sin, grace, and redemption and truly contribute to our Christian understanding and spiritual growth (98-99).

For a decade or more while I pursued higher education, I read non-fiction almost exclusively, specifically works by dead theologians, for whom I have the utmost affection and respect. But upon finishing my studies and succumbing to the ready excuse of Mommy-brain, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and my reading has for several years consisted mainly of fiction, tending towards the classics, but including some good fantasy, mysteries, historical fiction, and an occasional biography, too. At times, I've felt that this was rather a guilty pleasure, even if I was reading "good" books (mostly - there have been a few duds, but I won't dwell on those). Reinke's exposition of theology and priorities in reading, however, helped me to see how much my theological studies have informed my reading of fiction. Though I can get caught up in a good story, at times, I realized that I am almost always looking for and evaluating stories in terms of creation, fall (sin), redemption, and restoration. I guess that education wasn't for nothing! Though I still think I should return to the dead theologians more frequently, it was also encouraging to realize that I have been reading and evaluating my fictional choices through a biblical framework. Praise God for His mercies!

I also found Reinke's discussion of sin in literature to be particularly insightful, as our book club had recently discussed why we would reject a modern thriller full of vice and deception but might find value in Anna Karenina. Reinke was able to explain what I had failed to articulate clearly:
"[T]he appearance of sin in a book does not mean the author is approving of sin. . . God's 'amazing grace' is especially displayed when it 'saves a wretch.' To some degree, the author must paint a picture of the wretchedness of sin in order for grace to emerge in its brilliance. Thus, grace-filled literature is often not 'clean' literature. . .On the one side of the road, we cannot merely shut our eyes to depictions of sin and evil in literature. We find depictions of evil in the Bible. On the other side of the road, we cannot affirm fiction that glorifies sin or applauds unbelief." (124) 
Exactly! This is one reason that I am happy to be reading the classics at this point in my life when I missed many of them in high school. I really don't think I would have had the maturity, life experience, or spiritual discernment to appreciate them at a younger age, which gives me pause as I consider how we will incorporate some of these classics in my children's education as they get older. It is my hope that my children would enjoy reading great books enough to revisit them at various stages of life, but I will need to be especially careful to present them with enthusiasm and make sure they are more than just an academic exercise.

I also really enjoyed the multitude of rich quotations from other authors. It is apparent that Reinke has himself read widely and well and thoroughly researched his subject matter. Here are a few of my favorite quotations.

Cornelius Plantinga on Calvin's use of non-Christian literature (from Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living):
Calvin understood that God created human beings to hunt and gather truth, and that, as a matter of fact, the capacity for doing so amounts to one feature of the image of God in them (Col. 3:10). So Calvin fed on knowledge as gladly as a deer on sweet corn. He absorbed not only the teaching of Scripture and of its great interpreters, such as St. Augustine, but also whatever knowledge he could gather from such famous pagans as the Roman philosopher Seneca. And why not? The Holy Spirit authors all truth, as Calvin wrote, and we should therefore embrace it no matter where it shows up. But we will need solid instruction in Scripture and Christian wisdom in order to recognize truth and in order to disentangle it from error and fraud. Well-instructed Christians try not to offend the Holy Spirit by scorning truth in non-Christian authors over whom the Spirit has been brooding, but this does not mean that Christians can afford to read these authors uncritically. After all, a person's faith, even in idols, shapes most of what a person thinks and writes, and the Christian faith is in competition with other faiths for human hearts and minds. (77)
 C. S. Lewis on the imagination as
a God-given ability to receive truth and meaning. . ."For me reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning." Using fantasy in literature does not make a story fictitious; it's often a more forceful way to communicate truth. (87)
Harold Bloom on why people read classic literature (from How to Read and Why):
We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough, that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading. . .is the search for a difficult pleasure. (104)
I could continue to illustrate the insights and practical wisdom of Lit!, but I think I should simply encourage you to buy this book and read it for yourself. Yes, you will want to buy it. I borrowed it from the library, but quickly found myself frustrated that I could not mark significant passages. Not to worry, though - I already plan to reread it (perhaps yearly or biannually), and by that time I hope to have my own copy to highlight as I would like!