Friday, April 20, 2018

British Author Birthday Week

Two of my favorite authors celebrated birthdays this week. Miss Read, author of light novels, was born on April 17, 1913. Her books about country villagers ("Fairacre" and "Thrush Green" series) are cozy reads. Her daughter answers questions about her legacy on her own website here.

Born almost 100 years before Miss Read, Charlotte Brontë celebrates a birthday on April 21st. Her book, Jane Eyre, has brought me deep pleasure at various times in the last four decades. This year I even began memorizing favorite passages from it, especially this one between Rochester and Jane:

I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you, especially when you are near me as now. It is as if I had a string somewhere under my left rib tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped. And then I have a nervous notion that I'd take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, - you'd forget me.

Blessings,

Friday, April 13, 2018

Miracle on the River Kwai by Ernest Gordon

Of the twenty P.O.W. memoirs that I've read, Ernest Gordon's Miracle on the River Kwai is my favorite. Published in 1963 it recounts Gordon's three years in a Japanese concentration camp in Thailand.

I was drawn into the story by the splendid writing. Phrases like Age, sun and sea had made his face a thing of wrinkled splendor and Apathy and listlessness settled over Bapong Camp like a miasmic fog, made my heart sing. But I kept reading because of the mesmerizing stories of faith  being lived out in the harshest of circumstances. 

Gordon was a young Scotsman whose pre-war life included college studies and yacht racing. When WWII broke out, he became an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Captured after the fall of Singapore, he is taken to work on the Thailand/Burma Railroad. Japanese engineers calculated that the railroad would take 5 to 6 years to complete because of difficult terrain. But when they received permission to use "disposable" workers, they pushed the timeline to 18 months. The Allied prisoners were worked so hard that they lost all consciousness of time. Was it Tuesday the fourth or Friday the seventeenth? Who could say? And who would care? One gray day succeeded another - with no color, no variety, no humanity. Misery, despair and death were our constant companions. As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-increasing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived became poisoned by selfishness, hate and fear.

It was every man for himself until a miracle of grace occurred. Gordon had suffered from a number of diseases (diphtheria, beriberi, etc.) and had lost the use of his legs. A friend built him a little shack and arranged for him to leave the Death House (the hospital hut where men went to die). Another man, a quiet young Methodist named Dusty Miller, came daily to bathe and feed him. Dusty also massaged his legs and squeezed out the pus-filled ulcers. As Gordon "came back to life," a general regeneration was going on in the camp. Several men gave their lives to save others. Stories of their self-sacrifice began to outweigh tales of Japanese cruelty.

Gordon's view of Christianity had been that it extracted the bubbles from the champagne of life, leaving it insipid, flat and tasteless. While still recovering from his illnesses, he was asked to lead a religion class. Is there meaning in life? Does faith in Christ make any difference? He did not have the answers but he had a New Testament, which he read and discussed with the men.

He goes on to describe how the atmosphere in the camp changed as the men began to serve one another. The filthiest job in the camp was to collect the used ulcer rags, scrape them clean of pus, boil them and return them for future use. After a man named Dodger came to faith, he took on the job with joy. The last portion of the novel shows the transforming power of God's love in mens' hearts. A very inspiring read. 

P.S. Gordon does not describe the torture and hardship in as much detail as other P.O.W. memoirs so this might be a good book for the squeamish. Also, because I loved the book so much I sat through the profanity-laden two hour movie version. (The book title was changed to To End All Wars to accommodate the 2001 film.)  It added lots of people and horrific situations that were not in the book, and isn't nearly as eloquent or satisfying.

Blessings,

Friday, April 6, 2018

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The opening pages of Little Women clearly delineate the personalities of each of the four March daughters. One has dainty, frugal habits; one loves art and luxury; one loves her kittens and dolls, and another loves writing her stories. All of them are on the cusp of womanhood. And as the story progresses each of them learns to give up her (or modify) her dreams for the greater good of all.

I first read this book as a teenager who saw "happily ever after" as the requirement for every story. I was appalled at the defects in some of the novel's characters and considered them defects to the book. Now many years and many books later, I know that these character flaws were essential for keeping the book from becoming sickeningly sweet. They made the characters human and their progress more believable. 

Mr. March, the girls' father, was known to say, "Trifles show character," and friends and family members definitely reveal their hearts through both small quarrels and small kindness. At one point in the story when Amy is snubbed by aristocratic friends, she learns that true politeness comes not from wealth, but from the rule she learned at home: Love your neighbor as yourself. She repays meanness with goodness and reaps a reward. 

When Meg's father comes home from the war, he takes her hand and says, I remember when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now, for in it I read a little history. This hardened palm has earned something better than blisters. I'm sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time because so much good will went into the stitches. I'm proud to shake this good, industrious hand.

Although one of the principle messages of the book is presently an unpopular one (that "a woman's happiest kingdom is her home," I hope that young people will still read the book for it's even more central idea: the value of living for others. Interwoven into the tales of heartaches and victories, Alcott succeeds in painting a picture of the joys of family life (even in the midst of poverty) and the long-term pleasures of loving sacrificially and well. The writing is not as eloquent as some of the British novels I've read recently, but it's solid enough.

I enjoyed this humorous description of Jo who thinks she has lost her chance at love: A drop of rain on her cheek recalled her thoughts from baffled hopes to ruined ribbons. For the drops continued to fall, and being a woman as well as a lover, she felt that, though it was too late to save her heart, she might save her bonnet. (p. 267)

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that the girls choose to model their journey to adulthood on the book Pilgrim's Progress. Quiet Beth looks forward to reaching the Celestial City, but tom-boy Jo hopes they can fight a few lions first. This time through I noticed many other literary references:  Aesop's Fables, The Vicar of Wakefield, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Rasselas, Evalina, Ivanhoe, Francis Bacon, Milton, Shakespeare, Plato, Homer and Milton, and a host of Dickens' characters.

Most movie adaptions get the story all wrong because they make the girls much older than they are. Amy is 12 in the book's beginning and Meg is 16. I was interested to see that Masterpiece Theatre is coming out with a new version in May. I hope my friends in the U.S. will watch it and let me know what they think about it.

Blessings,
 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Affairs at Thrush Green by Miss Read

I'm partial to well-written novels about men of the cloth (Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge and The Warden by Trollope are my favorites) so I was delighted that this seventh installment in the Thrush Green series focused more on Charles Henstock, the vicar.

He is assigned to a new church at Lulling and is grieved by the fact that he is often compared to the former minister. This is not because he is jealous or vain, but because he really wants what is best for the church and is not sure he fits the bill. He humbly responds to one particularly critical busybody and reaps the fruit of his kindness later in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the occasional glimpses into his heart (his humility, his faithfulness and his gratefulness, to name just a few qualities) At a discouraging moment, he remembered suddenly a phrase someone had shared with him - "Fear nothing, thank God!" The first two words covered the unknown future. The last two covered past mercies received. The rector turned over the four words in his mind, and was strengthened and comforted. (p. 70)

These books are not saccharine sweet. There are happy marriages and troubled ones. Some characters smoke, drink, or swear. But for the most part, the people of the village of Thrush Green look out for one another. And Miss Read does a bang up job of describing their daily trials and victories.

Blessings,

Friday, March 23, 2018

Gossip from Thrush Green by Miss Read

All of Miss Read's books pay homage to the humble afternoon ritual of tea and sponge cake, but Gossip from Thrush Green excels them all with its extended tribute to tea time on the first and last pages.

In far too many places in England today, the agreeable habit of taking afternoon tea has vanished. "Such a shocking waste of time," says one. "Much too fattening a meal with all that dreadful starch," says another. "Quite unnecessary, if one has had lunch or proposes to eat in the evening," says a third.

All very true, no doubt, but what a lot of innocent pleasure these strong-minded people are missing! The very ritual of tea-making, warming the pot, making sure that the water is just boiling, inhaling the fragrant steam, arranging the tea cosy to fit snugly around the precious container, all the preliminaries lead up to the exquisite pleasure of sipping the brew from thin porcelain, and helping oneself to hot buttered scones and strawberry jam, a slice of feather-light cake or home-made shortbread. Taking tea is a highly civilized pastime, and fortunately is still in favor at Thrush Green, where it has been brought to a fine art.

I'm working my way through the whole series and am enjoying it very much. I read Books One and Two last year and bought hard copies of the next five while in the U.S. in January. The books are about life in an English Village and don't have a lot of plot. Each one focuses on half a dozen of the many townspeople, with an occasional romance thrown in. I haven't reviewed all of them here because I haven't enjoyed all of them equally, but I highly recommend reading the series in order because each book builds on a previous one.

Now that I've read six books in the series the characters are beginning to feel like family. I was inordinately happy that Dotty got the help she needed and that the vicar found a better house in which to live. The sophisticated Harold Shoosmith, the timid, lonely school teacher, the gruff but loving Ella, and the crotchety old groundskeeper are only a few of the endearing characters you'll meet in these books.

Previous reviews can be read by clicking on each title: Thrush Green, Winter in TGBattles at TG, Return to TG. I'm happy to see that I can get the next five books in the series as digital downloads from my Michigan library.

Blessings,

Friday, March 16, 2018

2018 - A Year of Slower Reading

They say that chewing slowly is better for your digestion. I'm beginning to understand that it's better for my literary diet as well. Last week I reviewed Arnold Bennet's How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. His basic premise was that self-improvement will bring fulfillment to your life, but it was one of his side points about reading that really struck me.

I know people who take to reading as men take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how many books they have read in a year. [But] unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing reflection upon what you are reading, your ninety minutes of night are chiefly wasted. This means that your pace will be slow. Never mind. Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find yourself in a lovely town on a hill.

As I read this, I knew he was talking about me. But this is not who I was when I started blogging nine years ago. Then I was reading a book a week. Although I am a fast reader, I read substantial books that required a certain amount of pondering. Books available to me in Brazil were limited and I carefully chose the ones that I would carry with me in my suitcase. Conscientious choices resulted in pleasurable encounters with many of the western world's best authors.

A couple of years later the Kindle came out and suddenly I had a surplus of options. Then I started joining reading challenges to help chip away at my unending TBR lists. Last year my library began offering a gazillion digital options for book downloads. I no longer read one book a week. I read 3 to 4. This year I added 30 minutes a day of audio books every morning. And yet I've noticed the law of diminishing returns: more books, less pleasure. This frenzy has not brought the literary contentment that I used to sense on a regular basis.

As I was reading Bennett's book, I kept saying to myself, "Next year I'm going to read less books, read more slowly, and revisit old favorites." Then it suddenly occurred to me that I don't have to wait till next year. My tentative reading plans for the year (100 books at Goodreads) are a guideline, not a mandate. I can stop the frenetic reading NOW. Whew!

 But, I worried, what if that means I won't have as many books to blog about? So be it. On second thought, I don't think that will be an issue. I'll read less junk and have more time to devote to books that are worth my time (and hence, yours). So I'm off to a slower pace and looking forward to savoring rather than wolfing down my books. I'll let you know how it goes.

Blessings,

Friday, March 9, 2018

How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett

This small, unassuming little book hit me right between the eyes. Interestingly, it wasn't the main premise that affected me, but one of its secondary points. In How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, Bennett argues that most of us are just existing and should start using our time more wisely for self-development.  It was written in 1910 and aimed at men who worked 8 hour days and then wasted the rest of their time "recovering" by doing nothing strenuous. He challenged them to separate 90 minutes three nights a week for cultivating their minds. These 7 and half hours would be life-changing according to Bennett. They will quicken the whole life of the week, add zest to it, and increase the interest which you feel in even the most banal occupations. He goes on to emphasize the importance of developing your powers of concentration, the necessity of starting small so as to avoid failure, and the value of frequent self-examination.

Some of his assertions are reasonable: Begin small. I'm all for the petty success. A glorious failure leads to nothing; a petty success may lead to a success that is not petty. Some are laughable: Without the power to concentrate - that is to say, without the power to dictate to the brain its task and to ensure obedience - true life is impossible. Mind control is the first element of full existence.

I read quite a few books about self-development last year and each one had its "secret" for how to live a full life, but self-development for its own sake is a shallow goal. I agree with life coach, Edie Wadsworth, that we keep our hearts, minds and bodies in shape for the greater purpose of serving God and serving others. I have nothing against improving your mind, but I see improving the heart as a much bigger priority.

My take-aways from the book had more to do with Bennett's view of time as a miraculous gift, and his assertion that if we read to improve our characters, we must do it slowly. (That was my epiphany, which I'll describe in detail in my next post.)

While I don't fully agree with his basic premise - that self-development is the key to a fulfilled life, I loved his sly humor and pithy quotes: The most important preliminary to the task of arranging one's life so that one may live fully and comfortably within one's daily budget of 24 hours is the calm realization of the extreme difficulty of the task, of the sacrifices and the endless effort which it demands... If you will not be content with a small effort, then do not begin. Lie down again and resume the uneasy doze which you call existence. This bracing of the will before doing anything worth doing is the chief thing that differentiates me from the cat by the fire.

This short book is well read by Mark Smith at Librivox.

Blessings,