Friday, September 30, 2011

Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden

In India a woman alone does not go and live alone – not, at any rate, far from her own kind, not unless she is a saint or a great sinner.  Sophie was not a saint, or a sinner, but she was undeniably a woman.

So begins the novel, Kingfishers Catch Fire, by British author Rummer Godden (1907-1998).  Godden grew up in India and used her experiences as a background for this novel. Kingfishers is the story of Sophie Barrington Ward who takes her two children to live in Kashmir.  Her husband, a British officer stationed in India, has passed away and she refuses to return to England to live a conventional life. 

Instead she moves to a remote Indian village and rents a small house, hoping to live simply on her husband’s pension.  But what passes for simplicity to an English woman is luxurious extravagance to the villagers.  From the beginning the people question the strangeness of her ways and her motives for coming.  There are two rival clans in the town, but Sophie is completely oblivious to their quarrels.   She seems strangely unaware of cultural differences between the villagers and herself, assuming that common sense will win out in every disagreement. She wants to help them, but her western ideas of justice and fairness fall on bewildered ears.  Eventually her disregard for the villagers’ beliefs leads to tragedy for herself and her children.  

Two men are put in prison, but although they have caused trouble for Sophie, she knows that they are not guilty of the accusations leveled against them.  She expresses her concern to Dr. Glenister, the missionary doctor who says, “But, dearie, they hurt you terribly.” Sophie asked herself, Have you a duty to those who hurt you?  Surprisingly the answer seemed to be that you had.  If Sophie shrank from that answer, that could not take the duty away… (p. 232) 

In the end, Sophie does what she can to make amends.  Some issues are resolved and others are not. When I finished the book I was left scratching my head over what exactly she had accomplished with her self-imposed exile in Kashmir.  Reading Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem from which the book takes its title, cleared up the mystery to some degree.  In the poem Hopkins writes that just as kingfishers and dragonflies reflect glorious color as the sun hits their wings, so mortal men reflect God’s glory when they are expressing grace and justice to their fellow men.  When they do that, they are “being Christ in a thousand places”.   

A very interesting book!

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

I have long looked at lovers of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an exclusive fan club with their inside knowledge of the books and their disdain for the rest of us illiterates.  I was half afraid to read the books just in case I didn’t “get it” and was forever barred from this privileged group. I’m even a little embarrassed about reviewing them now since there are others who have read the books multiple times and who understand them more than I do.

Fellowship is an epic adventure in the truest sense of the word: “an extended narrative poem in elevated or dignified language, celebrating the feats of a legendary hero.”  Simple, home-loving Frodo becomes involved in a larger-than-life battle between good and evil and he willingly sacrifices his own wishes and comforts to “do the right thing” as far as the powerful Ring is concerned. 

I don’t regret having seen the films first (something I rarely do) because a certain amount of foreknowledge kept me from getting bogged down in the many confusing names.   Not only do several people have more than one name (Aragorn/Strider, Gollum/Smeagol), but the mountains and even the swords have names.  Being familiar with the main characters from the movie was helpful as I worked my way through the book.  “Work” is the key word because The Fellowship of the Ring is no easy read.  This first book in the trilogy is 400 pages long, but by page 200 hundred, Frodo has barely left the Shire to head out for his adventures.  Still, the book is worth the effort.

Tolkien’s tale is compelling in its portrayal of friendship and bravery among Frodo and his companions, but it is made even richer by its use of beautiful language (at times reminiscent of the English in the King James Bible). 

An example from page 244: Sauran was diminished, but not destroyed.  His Ring was lost but not unmade.  The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed; for they were made with the power of the Ring, and while it remains they will endure.

I’m very glad I took the plunge and began the LOTR trilogy.  Now I’m hoping I’ll find time to read the sequels.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Would You Want to Read While Marooned on a Deserted Island?

Abe books ask this age old question this week. (This link will take you to a short youtube video, but if you scroll to the top of the page you'll see the article and various book suggestions.) I'm glad they throw in The Bible and Shakespeare as givens, because you could definitely spend years reading those.  As for my other choice, it would have to be Jane Eyre since it's been my favorite comfort "food" for decades now.

What about you?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Article about Banned Books Week

As I surf the book blogging world, I often come across references to book banning.  I haven't paid much attention except to wonder why anyone would read a book just because it was banned rather than because they really liked it.

Tuesday's edition of USA Today had an article about Banned Books Week that I found enlightening. Jonah Goldberg contends that there is no such thing as a banned book in America.  When a parent or a library removes a book from their shelves because it might be inappropriate for a certain age group, that is called  "banning".  But, says Goldberg, even if the book in question is removed, it is widely available for sale everywhere else.

Goldberg points out that schools recognize the importance of parental involvement in their children's education, but then decry the parents' "interference" when they question the choice of a particular book.  Statistics show that one in every 100,000 parents complains about an age-inappropriate book.  Hardly an epidemic. These parents are not saying the book should be banned for all ages and for all time, but just for the slice of time in their kids' lives when some of life's realities may be too harsh for their sensibilities.

What do you think? Is it good parenting or book banning?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Books about Travel to England

I wrote in my last post that I hope to go to England next summer.  Since this plan was hatched three weeks ago, I’ve been devouring books on the subject.  The first was Susan Allen Toth’s My Love Affair with England.  Unfortunately the book dealt too much with her difficult marriage, problem students and her daughter’s very bad foreign exchange experience.  Happily, her second book, England as You Like It, had more information about how to actually plan a trip to England.

I appreciate Toth’s habit of heading off the beaten track, as well as her practice of balancing comfort with frugality.   Her suggestions are, “always seasoned by experience and caution, with a substantial dash of adventure and a huge dollop of curiosity.” (p. 4)

Her best traveling tip is to spend a week in one area (no bigger than a thumbprint on the map) while exploring its museums, beaches, gardens, churches, shops, etc.  This relaxed type of trip has more appeal to me than one where you try to hit as many cities as possible within a short stay.

The final book I read was Philip Crowl’s The Intelligent Traveller's Guide to Historic Britain.  All entries in this book are very brief.  It will be useful once we decide on a location since it covers the main places to see in each county.

“From  private gardens to quirky museums, woodland walks to seaside resorts, all of Great Britain is a treasure-house for the thoughtful and observant tourist.” (Toth, p. 51) 

I’d love any suggestions for other books to read or places to visit.