Friday, February 24, 2012

Cousin Henry by Anthony Trollope

Plot: Beautiful but impoverished Isabel Brodrick is like a daughter to her aging uncle, Indefer Jones. She has been living with him since her father’s remarriage and has endeared herself to all of his servants and tenants.  Although the squire loves Isabel, he firmly believes that his property should be entailed to a male heir and writes a will bequeathing his wealth to his unpopular nephew, Henry Jones.  In the will a sum of money is set aside for Isabel, but by the time her uncle dies no cash remains to fulfill that clause.

After Indefer’s death, two tenants come forward, saying that they were witnesses to a last minute will, which bequeathed Llanfeare Manor to Isabel.  But since no such will could be found, Henry is given the keys to the house and Isabel moves back in with her father and his new family.

Everyone has their doubts about Cousin Henry and the validity of the present will.

My thoughts:  Trollope prided himself in writing unadventurous stories.  But unlike every other Trollope book I’ve read, this one was a real page turner.  No, it doesn’t have any more action than usual.  But it was a precursor to psychological thrillers because the action largely takes place in the mind of Cousin Henry.  Early in the book he commits an error and spends the rest of the book deciding whether he is innocent or guilty.  Can you be considered as guilty for NOT doing something as you could be for doing it?  It’s exciting to see how it all turns out.

Although I liked this book very much, I find I’m getting tired of stubborn heroines.  Maybe it’s because of Gwendolyn in Daniel Deronda (the book I’m reading now).  She (like Isabel from this book and Ayala from a previous Trollope novel) is so set on doing what she wants that she rides roughshod over other people’s hearts.  Oh, well.  A minor quibble over a book that will delight Trollope fans.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Rich Mrs. Burgoyne by Kathleen Thompson Norris

When I want light reading with substance, I turn to Kathleen Norris.  Not the poet/essayist, but the one who wrote novels at the turn of the 20th century.

At first glance the book appears to be a formulaic romance.  Rich widow moves to town, reforms (and wins the heart of) a handsome but lazy newspaper editor and lives happily ever after.  However, in The Rich Mrs. Burgoyne, the love story is peripheral and the emphasis in the book is on what it means to live well.  In fact, there is a strong, old-fashioned thread in the book on the value of motherhood and on children as one of life’s greatest riches.  So the title is a pun.  Is Mrs. Burgoyne happy because she is wealthy? Or because she has embraced a higher calling?

At one point in the novel, Mrs. Burgoyne makes the point that if every mother in the world would reach out to an unloved child, the world couldn’t help but be a better place.  You may call that simplistic, but as I pondered the idea, I didn’t find it too far afield from the biblical mandate to “love one’s neighbor.” If every Christian woman made it her goal to invest in the life of one other needy person, certainly, the impact would be tremendous.

The book takes an amusing look at mothers of all stripes.  Some are rich. Some are poor.  Most are more concerned with appearances than with their children’s spiritual welfare.  Mrs. Carew is described as someone who was so entirely absorbed in the pursuit of the “correct thing,” so anxious to read what was “being read,” to own what was “right,” that she never stopped to seriously consider her own or her daughter’s place in the universe. (p. 47) Happily, Mrs. Burgoyne’s example begins a new trend among the ladies in Santa Paloma.

We live in a culture that belittles motherhood and the sacrifices it requires.  I’m a fan of books that remind us that it is a valid and worthy career.  This title is available free on Kindle.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Self-Portrait in Books

I took this random picture because I wanted a new screen saver.  Later, I realized it reveals a lot about who I am.

The Chinese teapot represents my childhood in Asia.  The book by Virgil reveals my desire to read the ancient classics someday.  (Someday never comes.) We Band of Angels shows my interest in WWII.  Song of Ascents is one of the many devotional books that clutter my shelves, reminding me that Truth must be the foundation of all I’m trying to learn through books.

The Intelligent Traveler’s Guide to Historic Britain proves I’m a hopeless anglophile.  George Eliot’s titles show my definite preference in reading: 19th Century British novels. And The Saint in Miami shows my odd partiality for movies from the 1940’s featuring wise-cracking detectives. 

There you have it.  Now it’s your turn.  What books on your shelf might “describe” you?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Hell's Guest by Col. Glenn D. Frazier

Glenn Frazier enlisted in the army at 16, lying about his age to get away from problems at home.  When he was shipped to the Philippines in early 1941, it was considered a tropical paradise.  But after it was attacked by the Japanese on the day after Pearl Harbor, it would become the hell of the book’s title and Frazier would endure three and a half years of suffering and deprivation as a prisoner of war. General MacArthur had ordered the military to defend the Philippines at all costs, but after many months of illness and near starvation, General King was forced to surrender to the Japanese in April of 1942.  The soldiers, already weakened, were forced to march 60 miles to their prison camp.  Any who fell (and any who tried to help the fallen) were brutally murdered.  It is estimated that 10 to 20 thousand of the 70,000 soldiers died on the Bataan Death March.

In Hell's Guest, Frazier writes, By the second day, the reality of defeat had finally sunk into my mind.  While I walked it was time to take stock and think about the reality of being a prisoner of war.  Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the events of the past few days.  I was in a group of men marching in columns of four down a road that I had traveled so many times with big red flags flying on the front of my truck, having priority over the use of the road.  Everything or everyone had to yield to us as we drove the big trucks to the front lines.  Then I realized there were no more front lines, no more fighting for our country.  Now I was fighting for my own life. (p. 77)

As I looked around at all the bodies along the road, the sight made me realize that this was going to be another kind of killing field, totally unlike that of battle.  This time we were like sitting ducks, stripped of our honor, our guns, and most of all, our ability to defend ourselves against such acts of horror. (78)

Things did not improve at Camp O’Donnell where Frazier recounts that they buried up to 200 Allied soldiers per day.  Not only did he face the cruelty of his guards, but he faced the challenge of fellow prisoners who betrayed each other in their desperation to survive. 

After the war Frazier went through thirty years of a different kind of hell, one of broken marriages, drunkenness, bitterness and rage.  He finally found peace when, with God’s help, he was able to forgive his Japanese captors.

Why does a tea-sipping, literature-lover like me read stuff like this?!  Because in the face of mouth-gaping cruelty, comes the equally astonishing will to live and survive.  Add to that the theme of redemption, and you’ve got a powerful story.

Footnote: If I had read this before reading Return From the River Kwai, I would have better understood the behavior of the POWs when they were finally free.