Friday, February 16, 2018

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

I rarely read modern fiction, so I'm not quite sure how this book landed on my radar. But I'm glad it did.

Seventy-one year old Captain Jefferson Kidd is travelling through Texas, carrying "the news of the world" to small towns where folks will pay a dime to hear him read the papers. It's just after the Civil War and, in many ways, Texas is the wild west. Kidd had hoped that sharing stories from all over the world would help bring unity to divided people: If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places and then the world would be a more peaceful place. He had been perfectly serious. That illusion had lasted from age forty-nine to age sixty-five.

In one city where he stops, his offered $50 to deliver an orphan to her people who are 400 miles away. The girl had been kidnapped four years earlier by a band of Kiowa Indians and had recently been rescued by the U.S. Army.  Kidd names the ten-year old Johanna and promises to take her safely home. As they travel together, warding off bandits and busybodies, they learn to communicate and to build a friendship that brings healing to both of them.

Kidd had become indifferent to humanity. Now it was different. He was drawn back into the stream of being because there was once again a life in his hands. Things mattered. The strange depression and spiritual chill he had felt were gone. . . . Joy and liveliness had come back to his readings now. His voice had its old vibrancy again and he smiled as he read; . . . . [he] recalled how dull his life had seemed before he had come upon her in Wichita Falls.

The exquisite writing was balm to my soul. Jiles helped me to see and hear the settings and the people when she wrote that someone was as "freckled as a guinea hen" or that "His pen nib scratched across the newsprint with a noise like avaricious mice." Some turns of phrase were so apt and lovely that I laughed out loud with sheer joy.

She also does a wonderful job establishing the historical context, adding details about post Civil War conflicts, the economy, the laws (or lack of them), Kiowa Indian customs, and more. But it was never an overwhelming amount of details. The clash between the Kiowa and the white man's cultures is handled with skill and without pat answers.

The denouement in the final chapter was spot on. The reader learns that it isn't the big "world" news that changes people, but the daily sacrificial offering of one's life to another.

In spite of the occasional profanity (none of it felt gratuitous), this is a beautiful story of grace in the midst of brokenness. The narrator at Audible, Grover Gardner, had the perfect gravelly voice for this book. I look forward to revisiting this novel in the future.


Friday, February 9, 2018

The Overcoming Life by D.L. Moody

Dwight L. Moody wrote The Overcoming Life in 1886 to encourage Christians in their spiritual warfare against sin, self and the world. He lays the groundwork for the book with several statements: It is folly for any man to attempt to fight in his own strength. The world, the flesh, and the devil are too much for any man. But if we are linked to Christ by faith, then we shall get the victory over every enemy. (p.5) And, My friend, you and I have got a terrible enemy to contend with. Don't let Satan deceive you. Unless you are spiritually dead, it means warfare.  (p. 9)

First he addresses internal foes (pride, uncontrolled appetites, envy, etc.) because an enemy inside the fort is far more dangerous than one outside. Then he talks about outer enemies such as persecution and worldly pleasures. Sprinkled throughout are homespun illustrations. I especially enjoyed this one: Perhaps you say, "I hope Mr. Moody is not going to preach on that old text." Yes, I am. When I take up an album, it does not interest me if all the photographs are new; but if I know any of the faces, I stop at once. So with these old, well-worn texts. They have quenched our thirst before, but the water is still bubbling up - we cannot drink it dry. (p. 62)

The last chapter was on the seven "I Wills" of Christ. I have heard of the "I Ams" of Christ, but these were new to me. The first was "He that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out." Another was, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Each of these, said Moody, are promises for all believers. It was a fitting ending to the 83-page booklet.

I am used to the eloquent writings of A.W. Tozer and Andrew Murray, but really enjoyed D.L. Moody's more down-to-earth prose and his solid biblical teaching.


Friday, February 2, 2018

Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens by G.K. Chesterton

Even though the title is a mouthful, this book isn't as hard to understand as many of Chesterton's other works. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens is simply a compilation of introductions that G.K. Chesterton wrote for each of Dickens' novels. He reviews the books in chronological order and shows how Dickens developed as a writer. He praises Dickens' genius while at the same time commenting on some of the weaknesses of his works.

There are occasional Chesteronian phrases like: It is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of Little Nell, that I object to. and You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. (p. 23) But for the most part, Dickens, and not G.K., is on center stage.

Some samples of his commentary:

Pickwick Papers will always be remembered as the best example of everything that made Dickens great; of the solemn conviviality of great friendships, of the erratic adventures of old English roads, of the hospitality of old English inns, of the great fundamental kindliness and honor of old English manners. First of all, however, it will always be remembered for its laughter. (p. 24)

Oliver Twist is by far the most depressing of all his books; it is in some ways the most irritating; yet its ugliness gives the last touch of honesty to all Dickens' spontaneous and splendid output. Without this one discordant note, all his merriment might have seemed like levity. (p. 39)

What I loved the most was this observation: All of Dickens' books are Christmas books. All of them have the element of drama, of waiting anxiously for something to happen, "a crisis of happiness" (advent). Secondly, they all take place in the "winter" of hardships where characters manage to celebrate in spite of the cold. And thirdly, is the element of the grotesque. Poets and painters have striven to express happiness by means of beautiful figures. Dickens understood that happiness is best expressed by ugly figures: the corpulence of Tony Weller and the red nose of Mr. Stiggins.

He goes on to describe The Christmas Carol as the best of the Christmas books because it has those three elements in spades: the sudden conversion of Scrooge, the winter scenes, and the undignified rejoicing of Scrooge's final happiness. The turkey that Scrooge bought was so fat, says Dickens, that it could never have stood upright. That top-heavy and monstrous bird is a good symbol of the top heavy happiness of the stories. (p. 112)

If you are not already a Dickens fan, you might find the book dry. But it made me want to read the whole canon. Also, each chapter contains spoilers so it's probably best to read the novels first and then see what Chesterton thought about them.


Friday, January 26, 2018

The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

I'm a huge fan of Stevenson's cozy, British fiction. Many of her books have no plot, but are enjoyed for their pleasant conversations, copious tea parties, and quiet wisdom. So The English Air caught me completely off guard.

It's spring of 1938 and the English are sure that Chamberlain can keep them from going to war. In Germany a Nazi official sends his adult son, Franz von Heiden, to England to learn how the English think. He is preparing him to be useful should war ensue, but he doesn't realize that his son's time in England might change his plans. The "air" of England has more to do with attitudes and beliefs than with actual climate, and Franz soon finds it a struggle to continue hating the people he's been taught to see as fools.

The novel has the usual tributes to country life, home life, and family love, but it also has much more adventure than a typical Stevenson novel. Franz is faced with the choice to be true to his German heritage or to leave it all for his new country. As war breaks out, he is caught in the middle and it makes for a rollicking adventure. I find it fascinating that the book was written in 1940 when no one knew what the outcome of the war would be. The questions in Franz's mind would have been the same as in everyone's: Can the German government and the German people be separated when it comes to guilt? Is there any such thing as a "true" German? What will Germany be like after the war? Will it be a Germany to be proud of?

As I said before, this was much more thrilling than Stevenson's usual fare, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Friday, January 19, 2018

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

'Tis a sad gift, that much applauded thing, a constant heart. - Ella Wheeler Wilcox

This was by far my biggest literary emotional ride in 2017. I agonized with Florence's unrequited love, chortled at Dickens' sly jabs at human nature, dreaded the villains, and rejoiced with the book's true-hearted characters.

The title is ironic since the book focuses on the lives of several women. Young Florence, the main character, is rejected by her father for not being a son. Beautiful Edith has been groomed by her mother to marry for wealth. Even Alice Marwood,  a beggar's daughter, has been wrongfully used by her mother for selfish gain. The powerful secondary male characters are the prideful Mr. Dombey, the odious Carker, the gallant Walter, the devoted Toots, and the well-meaning Captain Cuttle.

Chesterton wrote that Dickens could make inanimate objects come to life in his novels and never have I seen that more than I did in Dombey and Son. The statue of the midshipman plays a prominent part in the narrative. And the descriptions of Carker's teeth are fundamental to the reader's understanding of Carker's various moods.

Capt. Cuttle and the Midshipman

I tried to watch the movie version of this book and it was too depressing. Dickens is MUCH easier to enjoy through his novels because he injects joy and hope in places that the movies have difficulty replicating. Yes, Florence's plight is horrific, but her moments of despondency are interwoven with scenes of the loving Toodle family, the humorous Captain Cuttle, and the bumbling, but loveable Mr. Toots.

Dickens makes delightful jabs at Victorian scholastic methods: It was part of Mrs. Pipchin's system not to encourage a child's mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster; he refers to this type of education as the perpetual bruising of intellectual shins. Then there are all the private jokes between the author and the reader (impossible to convey on film) like frequent mentions of Mrs. Pipchin's husband and the Peruvian mines and Captain Cuttle's precious sugar tongs. I was also amused by an early example of the phrase, "If he doesn't like it, he can lump it."

Dombey and Son has its share of unhappy situations, but the ending is satisfying. I appreciated the fact that various characters experienced redemption, but the changes in them were true to the limits of their personalities. 

My listening pleasure was doubled by the fantastic (free) narration done by Mil Nicholson at Librivox. It was worth every minute of the 40 hours.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Poetry of Alexander Pope - Vol 1

Thackeray called Alexander Pope (1688-1744) the greatest literary artist that England had ever seen. When I heard Professor John Sutherland say  that, "Pope is the greatest poet of the 18th century from whom elegant language flowed as easily as conversation," I figured it was time for me to become better acquainted with him. 

I was familiar with a few of his famous lines such as Behold the child, by nature's kindly law, Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw, and A little learning is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring, but had not read any of his complete works.

I was pleased to discover a depth and richness of his poetry. Even if you don't agree with everything he writes, he's worth the effort. Many of his poems are quite long and are sometimes hard to follow, but the beauty of language kept me going.

I loved the extensive "Essay on Man," but several passages stood out to me as worthy of reading and re-reading. In epistle three, he writes uniquely about sexuality and procreation:

Each sex desires alike, 'till two are one.
Nor ends the pleasure with the fierce embrace,
They love themselves, a third time, in their race!

Who knew you could write about this topic so succinctly and beautifully (and chastely)?

If you'd like a lengthy introduction to Pope's work, Volume one is available free for Kindle. The Essay on Man is available by itself. And a smaller book of poetry is here. I liked him so much that I ordered a hard cover copy of his poems to dip into again this coming year.

(Though well-known for his satire, this volume of poetry seemed more religious and philosophical in nature. I checked out Volume One from my library (digitally) and it has a different amount of pages from the Volume One at Amazon. So I'm not even sure it's the same book.)


Friday, January 5, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018

When I finished the "50 Classics in 5 Years" challenge, I wondered if I would find any additional classics of interest. Silly me! There are more classics on my TBR list now than I could read in a lifetime. So I'm glad that Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting another Back to the Classics Challenge for 2018. All the details are here. These are my 12 (subject to change) choices:

1. 19th Century Classic - Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
2. 20th Century Classic (published before 1968) - Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
3. Classic by a Woman Author - O Pioneers by Willa Cather
4. A Classic Translated from Another Language - Illiad
5. Children's Classic - Little House in the Big Woods 1/12/18
6. Classic Crime Story - Brat Farrar or Daughter of Time by Tey
7. Classic Travel/Journey Story (fiction or non) - Journals of Lewis and Clark
8. Classic with Single Word Title - Lilith by George MacDonald
9. Classic with a Color in the Title - Red Badge of Courage
10. Classic by New-to-You Author - Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
11. Classic that Scares You - Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
12. Re-read a Favorite Classic - Secret Garden by F.H. Burnett

Looking forward to a great year of reading!