Friday, October 26, 2012

John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Craik

John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) is a classic of the Victorian era.  It is the story of a David and Jonathon-like friendship.  It is also about a long and happy marriage.  But mostly it recounts the life of a man who never backs down from his principles.  The book proposed the “revolutionary”  idea that a man is not a gentleman primarily because of wealth and title, but because of integrity, honor and hard work.

Halifax is a poor orphan who works his way up from poverty; his story is narrated by Phineas Fletcher, a sickly boy whom he befriends:  

From my birth I had been puny and diseased; my life had been a succession of sicknesses and I could hope for little else until the end…  But I was very content; I had a quiet home, a good father, and now I believe I had found the one thing I wanted – a good friend.

Later when Phineas asks how he will get on in the world, Halifax replies that he has “NIL” to which Fletcher replies, “Except youth, health, courage, honor, honesty and a few other such trifles.”  These trifles made Halifax one of the most beloved characters in Victorian literature.

This is a slow-moving but satisfying book.  It uses old fashioned words like “discomfited” and “sententious”.  But it is no more sentimental than, say, Little Women
, and much less moralistic than Elsie Dinsmore. I have read novels in which the hero or heroine are too good to be true (Little Lord Fauntleroy comes to mind), but I did not find this to be the case with John Halifax.  

There is one teeny-tiny episode of bad theology, but for the most part this book celebrates true manliness and womanliness, the joys of family life, and the virtues of walking in God’s ways.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Because of my disregard for modern day bestsellers, I never dreamed I’d be reviewing The Hunger Games on my web log.  But I was intrigued by a number of theological blogs that dismissed it as anti-Christian while an equal number of bloggers praised it for its Christian themes. I had to find out for myself.

Whether you like this book or hate it, it’s hard to put down once you start reading.  Collins has written a compelling story of a young girl who is battling for her life in her country’s yearly “Hunger Games.”  Every year teenagers are selected from each district in Panem to fight to the death.  When Katniss Everdeen’s 12 year old sister, Prim, is chosen, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

Is there any idea more biblical than self-sacrifice?  And that isn’t the only time that grace is extended.  Peetah gives bread to Katniss when she is starving. The baker promises to look after Prim while Katniss is gone.  Her friend, Gale, promises to feed her mother and sister.  Rue warns Katniss of danger.  Thresh refuses to kill her when he has a chance.  Katniss risks her chances of winning the games by helping Peetah when he is wounded.  And the list goes on.

Forgiveness is another theme in the novel.  While in training for the games, Katniss meets a girl who she had once seen fleeing from the Capitol.  Katniss feels guilty for not having helped her escape and wishes she could ask forgiveness.   After Katniss’ father dies, her mother abandons the family (in an emotional sense).  Katniss holds a grudge against her and later wishes she could have more clearly expressed forgiveness. 

As far as Book One is concerned, the positive themes far outweigh the negative ones of violence, revenge, etc.  Since I’m not a big fan of romance novels, I didn’t love the final chapters where Katniss and Peetah are trying to sort out their feelings for one another.  However, I am withholding my final judgment on the series until read the other two books. 

Sidenote:  I dread seeing the movie.  Katniss and Peetah pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend to gain audience sympathy (because the games are televised to the entire nation).  At one point she removes his clothing to clean his wounds.  Later they slip into the same sleeping bag to keep warm.  I can see how the movie version could be more sexualized.  Also, the killings are not graphically described in the book, but would be much more vivid and shocking on screen.  If you’ve seen the movie, let me know if my hunch is correct.

Friday, October 12, 2012

So-So Classics

I’m a huge fan of classic literature.  So I’m always a little surprised when I pick up a book that turns out to be bland.  In the last few weeks, three well-known titles have left me cold.

I remember reading the Classics Illustrated comic book of Two Years Before The Mast
when I was growing up in Taiwan.   I have since discovered that I prefer the comic book since it highlighted the adventurous moments in the book and left out the gazillions of sailing details.  I can see why the book was a huge success in its time (1830’s) since it gave a vivid picture of life at sea to those who could never experience it.  Richard Henry Dana, a Harvard grad, was an above average writer, but his prose is nothing to write home about.

Then there is
Gulliver's Travels, a very long book that begins to wear on you about half way through. I thought the recent movie version was slightly vulgar thanks to Jack Black, but now I find that the book is bawdy enough without any help from Hollywood.  It’s interesting, but, again, not beautifully written.

My foray into The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
was a disappointment as well.  I liked this book a lot when I first read it 20 years ago, so maybe I’m just getting too old for this stuff. (That doesn’t really make sense considering how much I enjoyed Wind in the Willows recently.)  Anyway, the book had its moments of charm.  The Tin Woodman is endearing:  He knew very well he had no heart and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything.  “You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful.  When Oz gives me a heart of course I needn’t mind so much.” (p. 37)

I was amazed at the book’s introduction that said, The story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”  was written solely to please children of today.  It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and all the heartaches and nightmares are left out.  The book has several scary and gruesome scenes which negate that final statement.

The Wizard of Oz will always be considered a classic because of the movie.  Film critic, John Howard Reid, wrote, The magical qualities of Wizard of Oz are so imaginative that the movie appeals even more to adults than children.  In many respects, it is an American Alice in Wonderland with wonderfully way-out characters engaged in a Through the Looking Glass quest for various holy grails.  These characters and their desires are more than just faithfully transcribed from Baum’s book.  They are actually improved.  (p. 255 in 140 All-Time, Must-See Movies for Film Lovers)

Well, it’s no use whining over semi-interesting books when there are still hundreds of worthwhile books to be discovered.  Onward and upward!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Babette's Feast - Worthwhile Movie #7

My husband and I just watched Babette's Feast for the tenth time.  It’s been an almost biennial event since it came out in 1987.  The film is in Danish with English subtitles and won the Oscar for best foreign film the year of its release.  It is based on the story by Isak Dinesen (of Out of Africa fame.)  Dinesen first landed on my radar because author Elisabeth Elliot quoted her so often.

Babette’s Feast tells the story of two maiden ladies living in an isolated Danish village.  Their father had started a religious sect, but after his death the members met more out of obligation than out of mutual love.   A poor French woman shows up at their door seeking refuge and though they have no money to pay her, the sisters take her in as their servant in exchange for room and board.

Many years pass and Babette finally has an opportunity to repay the sisters for their kindness.  It’s a remarkable story of grace and lavish love told through the metaphor of food.  A slow moving and sumptuous film. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

It’s been a very long time since I’ve enjoyed a book this much.  I’m not sure why The Wind in the Willows evoked such emotion in me.  I laughed out loud at Toad’s antics.  And I shed tears over the heroism and sacrificial love demonstrated by the four animals:  Stalwart Badger, Faithful Mole, Gentle and Wise “Ratty”, and Arrogant (but Repentant) Toad.

I savored the gorgeous prose about the pleasures of home, the delights of good food, the wonders of nature and the treasures of friendship.    Graham succeeds in telling a sweet and tender story without making it saccharine.

Don’t be put off by the controversial seventh chapter where the animals worship Pan. (Some children’s editions leave it out since it’s not essential to the story.)  This book is a must-read for every lover of great literature and of beautiful writing.  I underlined more passages than I can count.  Some choice quotes:

Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.  All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.  The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated.  By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. (p.3)

Mole’s view of winter:  He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery.  He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.  (p. 36)

The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew.  At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces – meadows wide-spread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous.  Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognized again under it.  Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in the silent, silver kingdom. (p. 102)

Absolutely the most satisfying book I’ve read in ages.